The Torn Curtain


Matthew 27:31-56

Text Comment

v.32     What Simon carried, Jesus being now too weak to manage, was the cross beam, not the upright, which remained in the ground. The fact that we know the man’s name has suggested to many minds that this man must have become a follower of Christ and so was known to the Christian community later.  This is all the more likely in that in Mark 15:21 we are also given the names of Simon’s two sons, a detail that makes sense only if the names were known and loved in the church.

In any case, “A soul’s great hour sometimes leaps upon it, and destiny stands waiting all unexpected at the corner of some common road; so it was with Simon of Cyrene.”  [J.S. Stewart, The Life and Teaching of Jesus Christ, 166]

v.33     Golgotha was a regular site for crucifixions, a public place so that the deterrent effect of executions would be felt by the people as they passed by.

v.34     This was a sedative, intended to dull consciousness and so pain.

v.37     The sign is high irony, of course: it delighted Pilate precisely because it infuriated the religious leadership, but, unbeknownst to any of them, it happened to be true in the deepest conceivable sense.

v.38     The word used to describe these men often meant in those days political insurgents – what Jesus was accused of being and was not.  More irony if that is in fact the case, that Jesus should be crucified among representatives of that movement Jesus took such pains to disassociate himself from during his ministry.

v.42     “It was a fact, it was indeed the central fact of the gospel that in his passion to save the world…Jesus would not and could not save himself.” [Ibid, 169]

v.44     Much of the previous description of the Lord’s treatment while he hung on the cross echoes Psalm 22 and its prophecy of the Messiah’s suffering.  In any case the Lord’s rejection is complete:  even Jewish criminals mock and insult him.

v.45     The Lord Jesus hung on the cross for some hours before he died. Mark says that he was crucified about the 3rd hour, approximately 9 a.m.  Or perhaps the time should be taken less strictly – after all no one wore a watch in those days – and be taken to mean simply mid-morning.  The synoptic Gospel writers all say that darkness came over the land at about the 6th hour, that is, about mid-day, and that the Savior died later in the afternoon.

v.46     Remarkably, this citation from Psalm 22 on the Lord’s lips, is the only instance in the synoptic Gospels when the Lord Jesus addresses God without calling him “Father.”  Here we find ourselves before the great mystery of the Lord’s sin-bearing on our behalf: his forsakenness by God; however that was experienced by him.

v.47     Elijah, of course, in the prophecy of Malachi, and in Jewish piety of the time, was the forerunner of the Messiah and was thought by some to come from heaven to help in time of need.

v.49     An act of kindness was rebuffed by others.

v.53     Only Matthew mentions this extraordinary event and he does not give us any details:  who rose to life, what happened to these people subsequently, and so on?  It was, of course, a dramatic enactment of the significance of the Lord’s death and resurrection as the conquest of death for his people.  It was a demonstration of the meaning of Christ’s death in the same way that the torn curtain in the temple was.

v.54     It was a Gentile, among all the mocking Jews, who confesses Jesus to be Lord, another portent of things to come.

v.56     The account of the crucifixion is rounded off by a record of witnesses, a powerful confirmation of its historicity because no invented account in that day and for that culture would make women prominent as witnesses.

Alexander Moody Stuart was for 44 years in the mid 19th century the pastor of Free St. Luke’s in Edinburgh, and was widely regarded as one of the most deeply spiritual of that galaxy of great Scottish preachers in that most remarkable age of preaching.  There were giants in the Scottish church of that time – John Paton, McCheyne, the Bonar brothers, Rabbi Duncan, and Alexander Whyte – and Moody Stuart was among them. In an address he delivered to the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland in 1873, when he was the moderator of the General Assembly, he recalled some advice about preaching that a wise old elder had given him long before, while he was still an apprentice preacher, still a divinity student under Thomas Chalmers.

“You ministers should have more of the infinite in your sermons.”  Showing me two family portraits by eminent painters, he said, “That is by an artist; this by a genius.  In the one you have the whole before you but nothing beyond; in the other the lines run off into infinity.  You will never reach the people by teaching us as if you knew it all, and giving us our lesson as if we were children.  If you wish to move us, you must make us feel that you see more than you are able to express, and that you think and know that there is an infinite height and depth beyond what you see.  But you go to the brim of the great ocean, you dip your tumbler into it, you set it down before us, and you tell us ‘that’s the Ocean.'”

Well if it is true in general that a minister must first himself go to the ocean and then seek to lead his congregation to the same great deep, how much more in particular must this be true when both minister and congregation are face to face with the crucifixion of the Son of God.

But I add to that thought this further thought about preaching and sermons.  It is often thought among Christians, what I thought myself when I first began to preach, that the primary purpose of a sermon was instruction.  I thought when I first entered this pulpit as this congregation’s preacher, back in 1978, that my chief responsibility was to inform you: to teach you what the Bible said and how that teaching applied to your daily life.

I no longer think that instruction and information, even concerning practical application of the truth, is the primary object of a sermon or the chief task of the preacher.  I do not deny, of course, that sermons should inform and instruct.  But they should do something of still greater importance, and something for which preaching is especially appointed by God.  The greatest object of preaching should be not to impart information, but to make an impression with that truth on the mind and the heart at the time of the sermon.  Or as Jonathan Edwards put it:

“The main benefit obtained by preaching is by an impression made upon the mind at the time, and not by an effect that arises afterwards by a remembrance of what was delivered.  And though a [later remembering] of what was heard in a sermon is [often] very profitable; yet, for the most part, that remembrance is from an impression the words made on the heart at the time; and the memory profits, as it renews and increases that impression….  The business of preaching is not only to give information…. The business of preaching is to make such knowledge live.”  [Works, i, 394]

Now, as we stand before the great deep, the great ocean that is the death of the Son of God for sinners, I want, the Lord helping us, to make you see how vast is the subject we have before us and to make you feel something of the amazement, the wonder, the stirring of the soul that surely ought to be felt in the heart of any Christian who looks carefully at this greatest conceivable event right in the heart of the history of the world, the event that means the difference between heaven and hell for everyone in this room and everyone in this world. I want us to dig deeper into this mother lode of truth and grace.

And we are invited to do this by the Gospel writers themselves.  Have you ever noticed that about the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion?  How artless, how chaste, how unembellished they are?  The most dramatic event, the most important few hours in the history of the world, the crisis around which the entire world and all of human life turns, and, in all four Gospels, just a few verses suffice to give us the salient facts.

The great preacher, James Stewart, said, “Feeling that here they were handling a theme too high and deep for human words, the evangelists have given us a narrative marked by a noble reticence and a perfect restraint.”  [J.S. Stewart, The Life and Teaching of Jesus Christ, p. 164.]  Take but one example.  Where in the literature of the world do you find a sentence so full of pathos and meaning as this [John 19:25]: “Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother.”  And that is all that is said, but what an ocean lies beneath those words.  She had been all her life “treasuring up things in her heart;” as, soon after Jesus’ birth Simeon had prophesied she would.  How artless the narrative, but how moving and thought provoking and faith and love stirring.

How much more they might have said!  Or, consider this from our text this morning.  The entire matter of the Lord’s manner of execution itself is reduced to a single participle in the first part of v. 35.  The NIV’s “When they had crucified him,” is, in Matthew’s Greek a single word. The narrative is so familiar that we skim over it with hardly a thought to what a world of humiliation and agony crucifixion was.  The world in all the ages since has not succeeded in inventing a crueler way to die.  No wonder that later on the Jews found the cross a scandal and could not believe that anyone who suffered that ignominy could possibly be the Son of God.  And if you had seen a crucifixion, you would be more understanding of the Jews!  The Gospel writers could have given us all manner of lurid detail and, instead, only this: “When they had crucified him…”

Now, consider then how amazing, how astonishing a thing it is that over the centuries Christ has cast such a halo around that instrument of torture.  Churches have been built in the shape of crosses; the cross has been emblazoned on the flag of many nations; poets and hymn writers sing of “the wondrous cross” and “the blessed or dear cross”;

Nothing in my hand I bring,

Simply to the cross I cling;

We wear the cross around our necks in gold and silver.  How is it that such a revolting instrument of human degradation can have become for us the perfect symbol of love?  Imagine wearing today a small gold electric chair or a hangman’s noose or an executioner’s ax, or a miniature Auschwitz crematorium from a chain around your neck!  Such is the grace of Jesus Christ and such was the meaning of his crucifixion that he should turn an instrument of torture into the most sacred symbol in the world.  There is an ocean here, depths that fall far below the surface of this plain and Spartan narrative.

And there is much more to suggest the existence of those depths, of that ocean, to the existence of deeps that lies below the surface and that Christians are to plumb.

Have you thought, for example, of the fact that even here, at the very end of his life, and under the worst conceivable circumstances, the Lord is hard at work fending off temptation so as to be to the very last the lamb without spot or blemish, a lamb of God worthy to take away the sin of the world.  That is here too!

You might have thought that after all the years of suffering every conceivable manner of temptation to sin, and having to last out every one of those temptations to the bitter end; you might have thought that having for so long been the paramount interest of the Tempter himself, having born the brunt of the full fury of Satan and the full force of his wiles every day and every night, having to steel himself constantly against Satan’s best efforts to unman him and destroy the work for which he came into the world; I say we might have thought that after a lifetime of this brutal, agonizing, wearying, spiritual warfare, the Lord might have at least been spared this fight while hanging in agony on the cross. We might have thought that at least here and now he could have relaxed and drifted off into the arms of his heavenly Father.  But it was not to be.

The temptations still came thick and fast.  We are alerted to that fact from v. 39 where Matthew begins to tell us of the insults and mockery that were hurled at him while hanging there in excruciating pain. And what insults: “If you are the Christ of God…”

Does that remind you of anything?  “If you are the Christ of God…; If you are the king of the Jews…”  That was the very challenge the Devil had hurled at the Lord during the forty days of his temptation in the wilderness at the very beginning of his public ministry three years before.  Here is the Devil once more, denying, in the most sneering and abusive tone, the very truth for which the Lord had lived his life, the truth for which he had so cruelly suffered; the truth that made meaningful his own existence and now his cruel death.  “Satan is an acute theologian” said Calvin.  He knows exactly where to apply the pressure. “If you really are the Christ of God…”  And he could do nothing; say nothing…  He had to let the challenge go unmet, unanswered, though all around would draw from his silence a conclusion that was not only utterly false, but the ultimate humiliation of one who was the Christ of God.  Why should they believe in him, pathetic and helpless figure that he seemed at that moment.

Now don’t make Christ a stone.  He is man and he was a man hanging on that cross and he had to resist every temptation taken him with nothing other than those spiritual weapons common to men.  His name and his Father’s name were being dragged through the mud, his whole life and work were being made a joke while he hung, naked and in agonizing pain on that Roman gibbet.  And he answered not a word.  He resisted the Devil these few more times and resisted him to the end.  He had an opportunity to retire from the fight.  It was offered to him directly and, no doubt, by someone with at least a modicum of kindness in his heart.  Early on, when he was hanging on the cross and just adjusting to the agonizing pain, the thirst, and the humiliation, he was offered a sedative. He could have lapsed into a drugged stupor and neither heard the insults nor felt so acutely the pain.  But he refused.  A priest was not to take strong drink while ministering in the sanctuary and this high priest would not, not when he was offering sacrifice for the sins of the world.  If he had taken that cup we would have lost the Lord’s seven utterances from the cross and those final acts of righteousness that added the last stitches to the robe of his righteousness that every Christian ever after would wear.

What concentration of mind and will, what unbelievable spiritual strength, what reservoirs of faith must be there below the surface that he could summon up obedience to his calling then and there with the wracking pain in his body distracting him as it must have distracted him, to meet still another temptation coming suddenly, unexpectedly, from out of the blue.  And not only to resist, but perfectly to resist.

“If thou’rt the Son of God,

(Oh, what an IF was there!

These stones here, speak them into food,

And make that sonship clear.”

And to the bitter end of that so long 30-some year life, the Lord had to say to the Devil, over and over again, “it is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone…'” “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord your God…” “Get behind me, Satan.”

For us who are tempted and fall every day, and who are reminded only from time to time, how much it takes out of us, and how much is required of us to resist a single one of Satan’s temptations to the bitter end – here are concealed depths to plumb.  The greatest conceivable temptations to the bitter end of the cross, and all met with perfect valor, wisdom, goodness, and purity.

But we are hardly done. We’ve hardly begun.  While the Lord hung on the cross, apparently near, if not immediately at the moment of his death, the great curtain in the temple was torn in two, Matthew tells us “from top to bottom.” This was the curtain, if you remember, that separated the Holy Place, where incense was burned and the candlesticks were placed, from the Most Holy Place, where the Ark of the Covenant had been placed first in the tabernacle and then in the original temple Solomon had built and where still in Jesus’ day the High Priest alone could go and only once a year, on the Day of Atonement.

That the curtain had been torn so dramatically and at the very hour the Lord was dying would soon have been known to the Christians.  The priests, of course, would know what had happened, and, according to Acts 6:7, soon after this many priests became believers in Jesus.

It is very interesting that there is mention in some Jewish sources that forty years before the destruction of Jerusalem (which would have been the time of the Lord’s crucifixion) several portents of doom occurred in the temple.  In the Talmud, for example, we read that the doors of the temple opened by themselves 40 years before the destruction of the city.

Now, what was the significance of the supernatural tearing of the curtain in the temple at the time of the Savior’s death?  Well that question is answered in the New Testament.  In Hebrews 10:19-22 we read:

“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, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience…”

It was a grand public and historical demonstration of the meaning, the significance, and the power of Christ’s death to overcome the separation between ourselves and a holy God because of our sin.  Christ has opened the way to God by taking away our guilt and he did that by bearing its punishment in our place.

Now, I want to say one thing about this torn curtain this morning. For here too is a depth, an ocean otherwise unseen in this chaste account of the Lord’s death.  What we need to say about that torn curtain is that it has too much disappeared from the consciousness of the Church and far too much from your consciousness and from mine. Christians far too much today think and feel about God and the Gospel as if there had never been a curtain, as if God’s terrible and magnificent holiness had never made our salvation utterly impossible apart from this astonishing and breathtaking and heart-breaking achievement of the Son of God on the cross.  We think and feel and speak far too much as if it were a commonplace that God should save his people from their sins.

We do not think and feel about Almighty God as we have been taught in God’s Word to think and feel. It is too often only words to us to read that Moses had to take off his shoes in order to stand near the burning bush, for God’s presence made the very ground holy; or that when he came out of the Tent of Meeting, after speaking with God, his face was radiant; or that the seraphim, who are always in the presence of God, nevertheless still use two of their six wings to cover their faces before God and two of their wings to cover their feet in his presence and cannot keep from crying “Holy”; or that whenever God’s people find themselves face to face with some manifestation of God they find themselves a moment later on their faces before him in fear.  So often the Scripture says such things as these:  “The thoughts of the wicked are an abomination to the Lord” or “The Lord will take vengeance on his adversaries and reserves wrath for his enemies,” but these words ring but faintly in our ears.

We have too often in our day only a weak understanding of what so many people have gone through when, by the Spirit of God, they have come under the conviction of their own sinfulness before a holy God and how nearly crushed they were by that conviction:  whether it were Peter’s great congregation on the Day of Pentecost, or Augustine alone in the garden of that Italian villa, or William Cowper’s in his bedroom.  Too frequently we have only a vague or distant sense of that euphoria that so often has overwhelmed the souls of God’s elect when first they realized that a God so high in majesty and so perfect in holiness nevertheless could love sinful wretches such as ourselves – such euphoria as Blaise Pascal experienced, Monday night, the 23rd of November, 1654 from half-past ten to half-past midnight.  And, forever after, Pascal – the man of the world, the brilliant mathematician, the man of letters, the philosopher – wore, sewn into his clothes, a piece of parchment on which was written the fragmentary speech by which he had sought to remember and express what he had felt that night:

Certainty!  Joy!  Peace!

I forget the world and everything but God!

Righteous Father, the world hath not known Thee, but I have known Thee!

Joy, Joy, Joy!  Tears of Joy!

Jesus!  Jesus!

I separated myself from him; renounced and crucified him!

They have forsaken ME, the fountain of living waters!

I separated myself from Him eternally!

I submit myself absolutely to

Jesus Christ my Redeemer.

All of that because Pascal had seen the curtain, the barrier between himself from a holy God and then, had seen that barrier breached by the death of Christ and could not take it all in for the joy and wonder of it.

There are hidden depths here.  There is an ocean under the surface of this artless, straightforward, simple narrative of our Savior’s death on the cross.  We are to plumb those depths; go deeper.  Look longer and harder at the cross and see how all of our salvation, both the Lord’s sin-bearing and his perfect life, come to a concentrated point here.  And do you sense now that you haven’t really begun to understand all that transpired there.  Do you now begin to see how uncharted are the deeps of the Lord’s own mental life those six hours or so.  Do you begin to see that in more ways than you imagine your own life, your own salvation, your own hope of eternal life hung in the balance while the Lord fought his last great fight to the death for you?

No wonder the Apostle Paul could summarize his entire message to the world as “the word of the cross.”  And no wonder he should say with such a heat of passion:  “God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Some of you are older, many of you are young.  But your last day in this world will come alike to everyone of you and sooner than anyone of you thinks.  And all that you have worked for in this world and so much that you have counted important and precious will fall away from your sight.  You will feel the whole world giving way under you.  And, if you are like many, as everything slips away, you will grasp at anything and for anyone: the bedclothes, your wife’s hand, your son’s arm, the very air sometimes.  On what then, on whom then will you seize? What will there be then to hold fast to?

Nothing in my hand I bring,

Simply to thy cross I cling.