The Case For Christ: His Death

Luke 23:26-49

April 8, 2001 | Brian Bill

I was on the wrestling team in High School.  The wrestlers and the basketball players didn’t get along very well.  We practiced on the gym stage while the wimpy round-ball guys ran around in the gym.  There was a big stage curtain that we always pulled shut so we wouldn’t have to look at our rivals.  We used to really enjoy it when a basketball would slip under this thick curtain and bounce on one of our mats.  We had a routine whenever this would happen.  We’d give the ball to Guy Duffy, who wrestled heavyweight, and waited for one of the basketball guys to jump up on the stage to retrieve the ball.

When “Basketball Jones” would poke his head under the curtain and crawl up on the stage, one of us would tackle him and the rest of us would pile on.  When we were done tenderizing him we’d roll him off the stage and then throw the ball out after him.  As the season went on, I think they wished this curtain could have been a brick wall!

Do you ever feel like there’s a brick wall between you and God?  Does He seem far away and distant?  As you read through the Old Testament, you can’t help but recognize that God is holy, majestic, and separated from His people.  There’s a definite doctrine of divine distance.  Close contact with the Holy God of the universe was formal, and somewhat limited.  A clear line of separation was drawn between what was sacred and what was profane.  When God spoke to Moses, He told him in Exodus 19:21: “Go down and warn the people so they do not force their way through to see the Lord and many of them perish.”

Jesus came to bridge this gap by making God near and accessible.  This morning we’re going to focus on three short verses from the Gospel of Mark.  Please turn to Mark 15:37-39: “With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.  The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.  And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, ‘Surely this man was the Son of God.’”

In this brief passage, we see three truths:

  • The Victory Has Been Won
  • The Way is Now Open
  • The Offer Still Stands

The Victory Has Been Won

Verse 37 tells us that Jesus let out a shout right before He died: “With a loud cry, Jesus breathed His last.”  When Jesus died he didn’t whimper or whisper.  The phrase “loud cry” can be translated, “a big, or exceedingly great voice.”  His final words were a roar of victory.  He died knowing that His work was complete.  The price had been paid.  The sacrifice had been accepted.  

John 19:30 tells us that this shout contained the words, “It is finished.”  That means that all of our moral mess-ups and our total sin debt has been canceled.

When you think about it, it’s amazing that Jesus was able to give a loud cry right before He died because victims of crucifixion usually had no strength left, especially when they were close to death.  I came across a medical summary of what happens to the human body when it is crucified.  Let me read part of it to you:

The cross is placed on the ground and the exhausted man is quickly thrown backwards with his shoulders against the wood.  The soldier drives a heavy, square wrought-iron nail through the wrist and deep into the wood.  Quickly he moves to the other side and repeats the action, being careful not to pull the arms too tightly, but to allow some flex and movement.  The left foot is pressed backward against the right foot, and with both feet extended, toes down, a nail is driven through the arch of each, leaving the knees flexed.  The cross is then lifted into place.

As the man slowly sags down with more weight on the nails in the wrists, excruciating, fiery pain shoots along the fingers and up the arms and explodes in the brain.  As he pushes himself upward to avoid this stretching torment, he places the full weight on the nail through his feet.  Again he feels the searing agony of the nail tearing through the nerves between the bones of his feet.  

As the arms fatigue, cramps sweep through the muscles, knotting them in deep, relentless, throbbing pain.  With these cramps comes the inability to push himself upward to breathe.  Air can be drawn into the lungs but not exhaled.  Carbon dioxide builds up in his system.

Hours of this limitless pain, cycles of twisting, joint-rending cramps, intermittent partial asphyxiation, searing pain as tissue is torn from his lacerated back as he moves up and down against the rough timber.  Then another agony begins: a deep, crushing pain deep in the chest as the pericardium slowly fills with serum and begins to compress the heart. 

It is now almost over–the loss of tissue fluids has reached a critical level—the compressed heart is struggling to pump heavy, thick, sluggish blood into the tissues–the tortured lungs are making a frantic effort to gasp in small gulps of air.  (Adapted from C. Truman Davis, M.D. in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 8)

Jesus can feel the chill of death creeping through His tissues…and yet He still gives a victory chant.  It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming!

The Way is Now Open

The first truth we discover is that the Victory Has Been Won.  Let’s look now at verse 38 where we learn that the Way is Now Open.  This verse is packed with meaning!  Let’s read it: “The curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.”

Several items in Israel’s worship system spelled out the remoteness of God.  In particular, in the Jewish temple there were curtains to keep people separated from God’s presence.  And, there were scores of rules and regulations.  

In the New Testament, when you read of the Temple, the writers are most likely referring to the one that Herod built, or was in the process of building.  Nothing remains of this worship center that was destroyed in 70 A.D. except some broken pieces of rock and some other fragments.  This temple had replaced the one constructed under Zerubbabel in the book of Haggai, which had replaced the one built by Solomon in the book of 1 Kings.

The temple is where people used to go to pray and offer animal sacrifices to God.  People would head to the temple at different times of the year, especially during the big celebrations like Passover, which generally took place during the month of April.  This year, Passover begins today.

One curtain was located between the temple itself and the outer courtyard.  While non-believers were welcome to be out on the patio, Gentiles were forbidden to go into the temple building.  This area, which was paved with marble, was where the merchants and moneychangers had set up their tables.  As we learned last week, Jesus dispersed those who were standing in the way of prayer and worship.  Here’s a picture of what the Temple looked like:

As you make your way closer to the building itself, you would come face-to-face with another barrier.  Prominently displayed right next to a big curtain was a “Keep Out” sign that kept people from going where they weren’t supposed to go.  A fragment was discovered in 1871.  

Here’s the translation, “No outsider shall enter the protective enclosure around the sanctuary.  And whoever is caught will only have himself to blame for the ensuing death.”  This curtain was designed to keep certain people out – I wish we could have had one of these plaques for the basketball team when I was in high school!  The whole structure and religious system emphasized the remoteness of God and the difficulty of gaining access to Him.

As you make your way past this curtain (if you were allowed to), and into the Temple, you would see the Court of Women, the Court of Israel and a section called the “Holy Place” where sacrifices were made.

There was another part of the building called the “Most Holy Place.”  It’s the tallest part of the temple. 

The “Most Holy Place” was off-limits to everyone, except the High Priest.  There was another curtain here, which was also called the “shielding curtain” in Exodus 39:34 because it was designed to keep people away.  The High Priest could only enter once a year on the Day of Atonement to make sacrifice for the sins of the people.  This was a scary thing for the priest because this was where God dwelt.  It was a holy place.  A rope was tied around his ankle just in case he died while he was in there so someone could pull him out.

The New Testament book of Hebrews provides some important insight.  Please turn to Hebrews 9:1-3, 6-7: “ Now the first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary.  A tabernacle was set up.  In its first room were the lamp stand, the table and the consecrated bread; this was called the Holy Place.  Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place…the priests entered regularly into the outer room to carry on their ministry.  But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance.”

The curtain that separated all the people and the priests from going into the presence of God was blue, purple, and scarlet and was made out of yarn and fine linen.  It was 60 feet long, 30 feet high and was about two inches thick.  It took 300 priests just to install it.  This was a piece of lasting tapestry that was designed to withstand all strains, tears, and rips.  

When Jesus died, this indestructible curtain, that separated people from God, was torn in two — from top to bottom.  The word “top” can also mean “from above,” which helps us see that God did it.  Now, instead of just one person having access to the Almighty once a year, the way to God stands wide open to everyone, on every day of the year – 24/7.

The result is that we now have unlimited access to God.  Everything has been paid in full — we have been declared free and forgiven.  And, we now have an open avenue to God — we can contact Him at any time.  Friends, all this is possible through the death of Christ!  

Think with me about the timing of Jesus’ death.  While Jesus is on the Cross, a multitude of priests are in the Temple getting ready to make the normal evening sacrifice.  Since this was the Passover, there was a heightened awareness and a sense of awe as the Passover Lamb was about to be sacrificed.  The Bible tells us that Jesus died at precisely 3:00 p.m. on Friday.  Friends, this was the exact time that the priests would have been making the evening sacrifice!  

Isn’t that cool?  Jesus, who is the ultimate and final sacrifice, died at the precise time of the regular temple sacrifice.  And, when He died, the thick and heavy curtain was torn in two, beginning at the top and splitting all the way to the bottom.  Can you imagine what must have been going through the minds of the priests?  

They weren’t supposed to even look at the Holy of Holies and now it was right in front of them.  Did they run out?  Did they cover their eyes?  Did they drop to their knees and wait to be consumed by God’s righteous wrath?  Did the Passover Lamb jump off the altar and scamper to freedom that day because the true Lamb of God had taken his place – and ours?

Through the blood of Jesus, our sins have been paid and we can now experience forgiveness and eternal life

The symbolism is profound.  Let’s look again at the book of Hebrews to better understand what Jesus did for us.  First, let me read Hebrews 9:12: “He [ Jesus ] did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but He entered the Most Holy Place once for all by His own blood, having obtained eternal redemption.”  Through the blood of Jesus, our sins have been paid and we can now experience forgiveness and eternal life.

Because of what Jesus did for us, Hebrews 10:19-22 tells us that we can now come right into the very presence of the Holy God: “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith.”  

Friend, we can come boldly into His presence!  Once a year, the high priest solemnly lifted a corner of the curtain and entered in with fear and trepidation.  Now, because of what Jesus did, you and I can enter and draw near with confidence – if we come through Jesus.

The tearing of the curtain means at least three things.

  1. God is revealed.  Jesus came to let us know who God is.  John 1:18: “No one has ever seen God, but God the one and only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.”  The veil of secrecy is now lifted and God’s glory is manifested to everyone who puts faith in Jesus.
  2. The barrier has been broken.  The doctrine of divine distance has been replaced by the ordinance of open access!  Through Christ, everyone has a direct line to a gracious God, who sent His Son to die as our sin substitute.  Even Gentiles, who were barred admission to the temple, can now enter into the Holy of Holies.
  3. The old order has ended.  The curtain was not just opened, but ripped in two, indicating its total destruction.  The Temple and its sacrificial system is no longer needed.  Jesus was raised from the dead and the temple was razed a few decades later.  That reminds me of Mark 13:1-2: “As He was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher!  What massive stones!  What magnificent buildings!”  Jesus replied, “Do you see these great buildings?  Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

The Offer Still Stands

The Victory Has Been Won and the Way is Now Open.  That leads to the final point from this passage: The Offer Still Stands.  We see this in verse 39: “And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, ‘Surely this man was the Son of God.’”

A centurion normally had one hundred men under his command.  But they were also given special jobs to do.  On this day, he was in charge of a smaller detachment that had crucifixion duty.  He witnessed the scourging, the mocking, the spitting, the nailing, and he heard the last shout of Jesus.  When he watched how Jesus died, willingly and powerless, and yet filled with power, he confessed that Jesus was the Son of God.  He was deeply moved and drawn to the Savior.

Calvin Miller, in his book called, “Once Upon a Tree,” writes this: “God succeeded in validating Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God.  Standing near the cross was a soldier, whose daring whisper of truth was heard above the clamor of unbelieving slander.  He was impressed with Jesus’ meekness.  He marveled at the calm even on the timbers of death…Life—real life—always begins for us on the dark side of Calvary when we encounter the cross and affirm the centurion’s statement of faith.  Surely, Jesus was the Son of God…Jesus was not delusional when He claimed to be the Son of God, but we are deluded if we claim to believe anything else.” 

There were other people near the cross that dreadful day but this professional pagan soldier believed and confessed that Jesus was the Son of God.  Luke 23:48 tells us what happened when others saw how Jesus died: “When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and walked away.”  

When someone beat their breast in the first century, it was a sign of guilt and remorse.  Their indifference had been replaced with feelings of guilt.  As they watched what Jesus went through, maybe they began to realize their role in putting Him on the cross.  They came to witness a show, but they left with feelings of woe.  The centurion believed when he saw what Jesus went through.  The others said, “Let’s leave.”

What about you?  Are you going to believe or are you going to leave?  The offer still stands today.  The victory has been won and the way is now open.  But nothing is automatic.  You must respond to the offer if you want the results of His death applied to your account.

Life Lessons

I see at least two life lessons from this passage that we can apply to our lives today.  Application # 1 is for those of you who are already Christ-followers.  The second action step is for those of you who are still in process on your spiritual journey.

1. Go to God with your concerns. 

Because of what Jesus did, we don’t have to be timid when we approach Him.  We can come to Him anytime and anywhere for any reason!  Brothers and sisters, don’t hold back!  If you’re in need of grace or mercy, run into the awesome presence of God!  Hebrews 4:16 says, “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

2. Go to Jesus for salvation. 

The centurion had a significant role in putting Jesus to death and yet he made a confession of faith when he took a closer look at what he had done.  Likewise, you and I had a part in putting Jesus to death.  Our sins are what nailed Him to the cross.  And, just as this soldier was able to come to faith, even after doing something so reprehensible, so too, you can be saved as well.  It doesn’t matter what you’ve done or how you’ve been living.  

The entrance is wide enough for the worst of sinners

Perhaps you feel like there’s a brick wall between you and God this morning.  Can I give you some good news?  The barrier has been broken!  The curtain has been cut!  A bridge has been made.  The victory has been won.  The way is now open.  And the offer still stands.  You don’t have to find a way under the curtain or look for a hole in it somewhere.  It’s been torn completely in two.  The entrance is wide enough for the worst of sinners.

The Bible says that when you decide to put your faith in Christ, just like the centurion did, the wall of separation will come tumbling down.  Listen to 2 Corinthians 3:16: “But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.”

What are you going to do?  Will you turn to the Lord right now?  Will you move closer to the cross, or will you walk away? Are you going to believe, or are you going to leave?

I want to close this morning with something that was written by John Newton.  He’s the guy who wrote “Amazing Grace.”  He was known as the “Great Blasphemer.”  He had a reputation for profanity, coarseness, and wild living.  And then he discovered God’s amazing grace as he responded to God’s offer.  These words reflect what may have been going through the Centurion’s mind that dark Friday afternoon:

In evil long I took delight,

Unawed by shame or fear,

Till a new object struck my sight,

And stopp’d my wild career.

I saw One hanging on a Tree

In agonies and blood,

Who fix’d His languid eyes on me.

As near His Cross I stood.

Sure never till my latest breath,

Can I forget that look:

It seem’d to charge me with His death,

Though not a word He spoke:

My conscience felt and own’d the guilt,

And plunged me in despair:

I saw my sins His blood had spilt,

And help’d to nail Him there.

Alas!  I know not what I did!

But now my tears are vain:

Where shall my trembling soul be hid?

For I the Lord have slain!

A second look He gave, which said,

“I freely all forgive;

This blood is for thy ransom paid;

I die that thou may’st live.”

Thus, while His death my sin displays

In all its blackest hue,

Such is the mystery of grace,

It seals my pardon too.

With pleasing grief, and mournful joy,

My spirit now if fill’d

That I should such a life destroy,

Yet live by Him I kill’d!

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?