While Luke avoids sensationalism in his account of Jesus’ death, he also points to several markers that make His death distinctive from any other in human history. In this message, Alistair Begg recounts the singular events that took place during the crucifixion, then points to three different reactions from among the onlookers. Will we respond to the cross by watching from a safe distance and despairing at our sin, or will we confess that Jesus is the Son of God?
Can I invite you to take your Bibles? And we’ll turn again to the portion of Scripture that was read in Luke chapter 23.
I just met one of our younger attenders, a little boy of about six. We bumped into one another where little boys go. And I don’t think he knew who I was; in fact, I’m sure he didn’t. And he announced to me, he said, “I’m in church.” And I said, “Uh-huh.” And he said, “And I belong here.” And so I said, “Well, I’m glad you feel that way.” So I hope you do too.
Let’s pray together as we study the Bible:
God our Father, we thank you for the generous welcome that is extended to us as the arms of Christ reach out and establish, in this amazing scene that now we consider, the gravity of our predicament and the immensity of your love. We pray that you will help us as we study the Bible, that we might understand it, and in understanding it, we may live in the light of it. For we pray in Christ’s name. Amen.
Well, we’re at Luke 23:44. We’re within sight of the end of the passion story, keeping chapter 24 for a new year and a fresh beginning. But hopefully tonight we’ll be able to get to the end of chapter 23, but this morning only as far as verse 49.
Here, in a matter of just a few words, Luke describes for us the most famous and certainly the most significant death in all of human history. And he does so with a purposeful reticence and with a perfect restraint. We’ve already seen back in verse 33 that he took only three words in Greek to describe the crucifixion: and “there they crucified him.” That’s all that’s said. And once again, in the closing moments of the life of the Lord Jesus Christ, in the actual description of his death, there is absolutely no attempt to stir up emotion. There is no agenda, apparently, to make one’s skin crawl. There are scenes that would do that for us, and indeed, this would be one of them, but the absence of description is quite striking.
I’ve been involved in a number of dialogues concerning this issue because of the position that I have taken regarding the reticence of the Gospel writers to describe for us the physicality of suffering. And one of the lines of argument has been, “Well, of course, everybody knew that crucifixion went down a certain road, and we don’t, and that’s why we need the description now.” But if you think about it, since God knew that we would be in that predicament, it’s striking that he decided not to give us the description so that we would have it now at the beginning of the twenty-first century. But indeed, the restraint is purposeful, and the reticence is absolutely perfect.
There is a sense in which the very simplicity of these words, the uncluttered nature of the narrative, stirs up for us thoughts that lie too deep for tears. Remember, our writer is a doctor. He has an eye for detail; he expressed this in his introduction. It was, he said, the result of careful investigation, it was the provision of “an orderly account,” and it was in order that the readers “may know the certainty of the things [they] have been taught.” So this is very much to the mind, isn’t it? This is not to stir up an emotional reaction, to make people feel a particular way, but Luke is writing in order that his readers may understand the nature of biblical faith. And here in this little paragraph, in the forty-sixth verse—in the final sentence of the forty-sixth verse—he gives to us, in just a phrase, the description of the death of Jesus: “He breathed his last.”
Now, I want you to notice that first of all, and then we’ll go back and deal with what precedes it, and then we will return and deal with what follows it: “He breathed his last.” Interestingly, the verb that he uses is not the normal verb that would be used in describing the death of an individual. In fact, none of the Gospel writers use that particular word—not because the death of Jesus was not real, but presumably because the death of Jesus was unusual. His life was unusual, and his death was unusual too.
Think about this with me. We have observed the fact that there was, if you like, a coalition of hatred, that there was a combined sense of disparate individuals uniting in the cause of seeing Jesus put to death. But as we have watched that unfold, we have done so in light of all of the things that Jesus has said prior to that, and also in light of everything that we discover from the apostles after the resurrection of Jesus. And so the idea that the death of Jesus is simply that of a helpless victim being overwhelmed by cruel circumstances, we know, just doesn’t fit the facts. Because we recall that Jesus had told his disciples that he was going up to Jerusalem and that “the Son of Man must suffer many things.”
James Stewart, the Scottish professor, said in the past, “It was the necessity, not of violence and constraint, but of his own consuming love for men.” The reason that he must suffer is because of the purpose that he was fulfilling in giving his life. And so, when you read this phrase—and it is interesting, isn’t it, “he breathed his last”?—remember that Jesus went to the cross willingly; he did not go there helplessly. John records the fact that Jesus had said, “I freely lay down my life. No one takes it from me. I lay it down of my own free will.”
Now, that’s unusual. That is unusual. If you think of all of the people that you have seen in the extremity of life, as they have faced death, I don’t think you have ever met an individual who has spoken of it in those terms: “I have the power to lay it down, and I have the power to take it again.” Even those who think they’re doing so by way of suicide have nothing of this calm, peaceful restfulness in approaching it. And all of the painful suffering now gives way to what is essentially a peaceful passing.
He had told Mary and Joseph when they found him, way back in the early chapters, in the temple in Jerusalem that he had to be about his Father’s business, and here he is, at the end of his earthly pilgrimage, still about his Father’s business: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” And that’s really it: “They crucified him.” “He breathed his last.”
Now, how are we supposed to deal with that kind of information? What do you do? Well, you take the surrounding material, and you see what light the surrounding material sheds on, if you like, the bare facts. Will you notice with me, then, first of all, three significant events? Three significant events. They’re there in the text.
The first one is a total blackout. A total blackout. “It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour.” Right around midday, the land was swallowed up in darkness.
Now, right around the sixteenth of August, I think it was, maybe the fourteenth of August—probably the fourteenth of August—we had a blackout here in the Northeast, didn’t we? And it was unsettling. All of a sudden, people felt a little more vulnerable than usual. Suddenly, there was an eerie kind of darkness. And people remarked to one another, “I wonder what this is about. I wonder why this is taking place.”
Now, if we think, for example, that this was a routine in Jerusalem, then we’re wrong. And the same kind of vulnerability, the same kind of questioning, would have been going on. A lady would be doing her shopping, and her daughter would say, “Mommy, why has it got dark all of a sudden? Mom, why is it still dark? Mom, is it ever going to get light again?” And the mother being forced to say, “Honey, I don’t know. I really don’t know. I’m sure it will, but I don’t know what’s happening at all.”
Now, there may well have been some who remembered that at the arrest of Jesus, he had made this enigmatic statement: “This is your hour—when darkness reigns.” And a few astute individuals may have suddenly fastened on the fact that Jesus had said that, and now they were in the midst of this prevailing darkness. They probably simply wondered to themselves, “I think it may be possible that this statement and this circumstance are related.”
Doubtless there would have been some who were able to put two and two together in terms of darkness and the Passover. Here we have the celebration of the Passover in Jerusalem. The Jewish people had been celebrating this for hundreds of years. They recalled that the final plague before the arrival of the angel of death was that of darkness over all the land; that that had been God’s last word to Pharaoh before the angel came; that on that occasion, only those who were protected by the blood of the Passover lamb awakened in the morning to find their firstborn still with them. And now, here, in fulfillment of that exodus, darkness precedes the sacrifice of Christ, who is the Passover Lamb.
And it is as Sin-Bearer that Jesus enters into the presence of the sinless God, carrying with him no substitutionary sacrifice for people. How could a priest ever go before God without a sacrifice? We know that the priest had to make a sacrifice for his own sin, and then he made sacrifice for the sins of those whom he represented. But on this occasion, this priest goes into the presence of a sinless God carrying nothing. Why? Because in this case, the priest is the victim. He carried nothing because there was nothing he could carry, nothing he should carry, because he in himself was bearing our sins in his body on the tree.
And the darkness, the spiritual darkness that engulfs Christ, is symbolized in the physical darkness that engulfs Jerusalem. Hence his cry of dereliction: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” For God had turned his face away, even as he had turned, if you like, the light of the sun away. And in words that we rehearse to our children when they ask us about the immensity of all of this, we tell them that Jesus was forsaken in order that we might be forgiven, that there is nothing else in all of the world that is demonstrative of how real God’s love is for the sinful and how real the sin of the world is to God. And the love which comes to us through what Jesus is doing here—bearing sin in all of its reality—still loves us through this and beyond this, and this is the only love which simultaneously forgives sins and regenerates the soul.
Well might the sun in darkness hide
And shut his glories in,
When [God], the mighty Maker, die[s]
For man the creature’s sin.
The second event we might refer to as a divine vandalism. A total blackout and a divine vandalism. Because here we have God himself desecrating the temple. Well, there’s a lot in this that we won’t turn to. I’m sure there is a mysterious, almost humorous element in it, inasmuch as the great concern of the religious order was that this man was claiming he would destroy the temple and raise it again in three days, and then on the cross they’d shouted up at him, “You think you’re going to destroy the temple and raise it again in three days?” And then, in the midst of the darkness and the upheaval in the earth, all of a sudden, the temple is desecrated by God.
Now, whether it’s the outer curtain or the inner curtain—you can argue about that over coffee some afternoon; it’s a completely baseless argument. But whether it is the outer curtain or the inner curtain, the tearing of the curtain makes the same and obvious point—namely, that this gigantic mechanism barred the way of men and women to God, said that there was only certain ritualistic ways in which you could meet God, certain times in which you could find God, certain individuals who might introduce you to God. In much the same way that people this morning think about religion, and rightly so: “How am I going to get to God?” “Well, if you go here, if you go in that room, if you say this, if you meet this person, they can perhaps give you an introduction.” And these curtains were hanging there, symbolically barring the way into the presence of God. And suddenly, Mark tells us, from the top to the bottom the curtain was torn.
And in this way God was declaring the old established priestly ritual for entrance into his presence abolished. Abolished. You’re no longer going to have to go to a certain place. There’s no sense in which you need to go to a certain building. After the death of Jesus, following his resurrection, into the realm of Pentecost, you discover that the whole orientation changes. Everything has been pointing to Jerusalem, and now everything is leading from Jerusalem—from Jerusalem to Jerusalem, Judea, and to the uttermost parts of the earth. The orientation is now changed.
And in this moment Christ in his death is bearing the penalty of sin. He is removing the effects of sin. And while the priests go about their business of telling people how they can get where they need to be—they’re like when you visit a museum, with all of those blue velvet cords and stanchions everywhere lined up, like you’re on a elementary school trip for the rest of your life—all of a sudden, God breaks into the middle of that and establishes a completely new, one-way system. A completely new, one-way system. And yet despite that, religious people this morning—and you are some of them—continue to fiddle around with the velvet ropes and the shibboleths and the priests and the avenues. Don’t you realize that this is divine vandalism on your behalf?
The third element we might simply refer to as the grand finale, because that is surely what it is. A total blackout, a divine vandalism, and a grand finale. “Jesus,” verse 46, “called out with a loud voice.” Now, you will notice that each of the Gospel writers makes something of this, and, of course, they should, because crucifixion was routinely a long, gradual loss of strength and consciousness. Whatever strength the victim may have had in the initial moments of their pain, if they had breath in the early hours to hurl abuse at their captors, to shout down from the cross, to engage in conversation, that would very quickly go away. And as the various functions of their body began to close in on them and close down, then their ability to think properly, their ability to process information properly, and certainly their ability to have breath to convey properly and definitely loudly would be going from them.
But that’s the point the Gospel writer’s making. The soldiers were familiar with the normal processes, but they weren’t familiar with a three-hour blackout. And as routine as crucifixion was, they were not used to somebody ending with a loud cry. And what we have here is the fact that Jesus is not going out with a whimper, but he’s going out in full possession of his faculties. And in the same way that we engage in routine things that are part and parcel of our everyday lives and we are able to go through most of them without really paying a tremendous amount of attention because they’re so routine to us, so these soldiers would be going about their business. And in the back of their minds they would be saying, “Okay, things’ll be closing down now. Death will be beginning to take hold.” Or in this case, “It’ll be some time, perhaps, before this individual dies.” And then, in the midst of it all, this loud cry.
How unsettling it must have been for the centurion: “Whoa! What was that? That doesn’t happen.”
When he went home for his tea in the evening: “How was your day?”
“Well, staggering today. Of course, we had the blackout.”
“Yes,” says his wife, “I was out with our girl, and she was inquiring, and I had no answer.”
“Well,” he said, “I’m not sure I have an answer either, but I know I was at the very heart of it, and I think it has something to do with the man who was on the cross. Interestingly, his life was not ebbing away the way that it normally happens. Indeed, it appeared as though he just came to a point where he decided that it was time for him to leave. He came to a point where he decided that his work had been accomplished, that he was done, and he said, ‘I’m out of here.’”
And that is, in a kind of contemporary paraphrase, exactly what Jesus is saying: “Father, into your hands I [commend] my spirit.” After all of the darkness and all of the dereliction, all of the pain, all of the suffering, all of the forsakenness, here we find him in closest communion with his Father once again, entrusting himself into his care.
Can you remember back to your childhood, when you fell asleep on a trip from your grandmother’s house to your own home, let’s say? And you spent the final few miles of the journey in a state of semiconsciousness: coming to, recognizing traffic lights without opening your eyes, knowing because you know the road so well, and then finally that moment where you feel yourself being picked up out of the backseat, and you open your eyes just long enough to look up and see, “It’s my dad. He’s got me. I’m okay.” And you entrusted yourself completely into the care of your father, and he took you to where you needed to be, and when you wakened up, you were home.
That’s what’s happening here for Jesus: “Okay, Father, it’s over to you. Let me just entrust myself to you.” Incidentally, that is death for the Christian. What you fear most, you won’t experience. You’ll fall asleep in the arms of Jesus, and you’ll waken up, and you’re in your own room.
Well, this was very unsettling. Total blackout. Divine vandalism. And what a grand finale!
Now, come to the other side of the phrase “He breathed his last,” and let me point out to you three separate reactions. They’re here for us; we’ll take them in reverse. So we’ll start in verse 49 with those who knew him—notice—“But all those who knew him, including the women…” The women get a good press, and they deserve it. Brave women, scared men; story of life for most of us. “All those who knew him, including the women…” The women will be back in a moment or two, and the first thing in the morning they’re up and out and ready to go; the men, hiding away in a cupboard somewhere. But this is a description of “all those who knew him.”
If you’ve been wondering where these characters have been since they all deserted him and fled, apparently some of them are back now, standing over away from the events, and they’re simply “watching these things.” It’s an interesting fulfillment of a prophetic word in the Psalms, in Psalm 38, where the psalmist says, “My friends and companions avoid me because of my wounds; my neighbors stay far away.” That’s Psalm 38:11; you can read it at your leisure. And as we read this account, we’re left to wonder, “Well, I wonder what’ll happen with these people. What is going to happen now that Jesus has died? He’s breathed his last. There’s a little group of the people who knew him best. They’re standing over there on the corner of the street. They’re looking across at the scene. We remember that Peter also followed at a distance, and he made a royal mess of things. I wonder what’s going to happen with these characters.”
And in describing this little scene, Luke is reminding us that here he has, in this company, the very eyewitnesses, presumably, that gave him a significant amount of the information necessary in order to give us the orderly account so that we might know with certainty the things we believe. See how it all fits together? This is not a group of people sitting down in a room somewhere in a university library, saying, “Now, we gotta come up with a gospel. We’ve got something we need to do here. We’ve got a story that we want to tell.” No, this is careful investigative journalism.
“Were you there?”
“Yes, I was.”
“Where were you standing?”
“I was one of the group over in the corner.”
“Oh yes! Yes, of course. You’d been a follower of Jesus. You were standing at a distance.”
It’s quite humble of them as well, isn’t it? I think many of us would be tempted say, “Well, I was standing right underneath the cross.” And the friend would say, “No you weren’t, Alistair. You were actually hiding round the corner. So we’re not putting that in.”
The onlookers are described in verse 48, working our way back up the text: “all the people who had gathered to witness this sight.” The crowd, the folks who had wandered down the Via Dolorosa, the people who had maintained their interest in this event, are now beginning to drift away. The crowd realizes, “Well, there’s nothing much left now, just the taking down of the body, perhaps.” Although that was no foregone conclusion for a criminal. Many bodies were left to be eaten by the birds, they were swallowed by beasts, they decayed. Some people think that the reason the hill is called the Hill of the Skull is because it was full of the skulls of the victims of crucifixion that had never been taken down and given a formal and proper burial.
So they drift off, a mixture of emotions: grieved, thoughtful, distressed, disturbed, convicted. Interesting little note, isn’t it, that “they beat their breasts and went away”? In the same way that people would put ash on their head or prostrate themselves as an expression of sorrow or grief, the beating of the breast, the banging of the chest, was an expression of the fact… Some of us had schoolteachers in England who used to do this: “Oh boys, oh boys, oh boys,” and when they banged themselves like that, you knew that the results that they were about to read were not good at all. It was an expression of their grief. And they walked away, realizing that at some level they were responsible for the death of this innocent Nazarene preacher.
But that walk home—that walk home was doubtless, for some, the entry onto the path of personal faith and obedience. Surely there were some from that crowd who, on the day when Peter preached and said, “You know, God handed him over and delivered him up, and you wicked men crucified him, nailing him to a cross,” there were some who went from the beating of their chests to the faster beating of their hearts to the opening of their hearts and lives to this Christ and their own personal faith.
And finally, in verse 47, the reaction of the centurion. Probably not an officer of rank; someone who had worked himself up, been promoted through the ranks into a position—a small position, really—of authority, the routine responsibility of these death sentences being carried out under his watch. And “the centurion, seeing what had happened…”
Incidentally, will you just notice all the emphasis on seeing and watching in these few verses? You go back down to 49, they were “watching these things,” the final phrase. You go up to 48, “All the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place.” And then verse 47, and “the centurion, seeing what had happened…” You think that Luke, with his eye for detail in his orderly account, doesn’t at least in his mind hope and wonder that there will be some who will remember that when Jesus read from the scroll in Luke chapter 4 and he said, “The Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor and the liberation of the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,” that the whole picture that runs through the Gospel of Luke is in part the fact of darkness being invaded by light: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.” It is the picture of the density of the heart and mind of a man being invaded by the liberating power of God’s truth. It is the picture of blindness being replaced with sight.
And the thing that is most striking here is the fact that the one who makes the best declaration out of the threefold reaction is not someone with a background in Old Testament studies. Not even a Jew! Certainly not a disciple. But the one who makes the best of all reactions is a gentile army officer with no previous connection to Jesus.
I love this! It gets me very excited. It gets me excited in the same way that when the Pharisees put the religious party together, the focus of the event turned out to be a woman who was a woman of the street who had no right to be there and was welcomed by Jesus; that when the muttering Pharisees were concerned about whether things were going their way, Jesus told stories about individuals who came from the periphery of things right to the very heart of his gospel.
And here, once again, in the events of the drama that is unfolded in this amazing scene, what the Jewish leaders have denied and what the disciples have failed to grasp, an ordinary soldier at some measure understands, doesn’t he? I mean, he does better than any of the rest. The group that you would think would be standing there saying, “Well, here is the Savior of the world,” and giving out tracts, they’re over here at a distance, nothing to say. We don’t know what’s going to happen to them. The onlookers, who are now penetrated by the awesomeness of what has taken place, they’re off down the street beating on themselves, saying, “There’s something sadly wrong with this.” And the centurion, who awakened to a normal day to engage in his routine procedures, confronted by this darkness, this unraveling of creation, was confronted also by some kind of invasion in his mind.
And he declares, essentially, “He was a good man and quite right in calling God his Father.” Mark tells us that he says, “Surely this man was [a] Son of God!” He wouldn’t attach significance to “Son of God.” He wouldn’t theologize it, so it’s a moot point to argue about “Well, how much do you think he understood?” We don’t know how much he understood. But he had got enough to say, “This wasn’t right. This was a good man. This fellow did the righteous thing, and the righteous man is the God-man, and it is right enough for him to call himself the Son of God. I don’t mind him saying, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Indeed,” says the centurion, “it seems to make perfect sense to me.”
And I have a sneaking suspicion that I can’t verify, that this centurion proved to be for Luke, again, one of the key eyewitnesses when he put together his orderly account. “Who can I talk to about the events of the cross?” Someone said, “Talk to Levi the centurion. He was there.” It was a short step for this man from this declaration to personal faith and allegiance.
I guess if we were to summarize it, we’d have to admit that basically people were leaving the scene and all saying the same thing: “It’s over. It’s finished. It’s finished! How can we expect anything beyond this? He was a good man. We thought he had something about a kingdom, or…” His mother looking on the death of her son. His antagonists, it’s over for them. There’s nothing more you can do with a dead man. He can’t hear you. There’s no more curses or abuse you can hurl upon them. It’s over. His followers: “Well, I guess it’s finished.”
And of course, Jesus says, “Yes, it is finished, actually. But it’s not finished in the way you think.” It is finished in the sense of a work completed, of a sacrifice accepted, and of a communion between the Father and the Son restored. And it’s for this reason that the Christian’s declaration must ever be “We preach Christ crucified.”
And here is my final word to you, especially in this few days that lead up to Christmas: the focus of revelation in the Bible—the focus of God’s disclosure in the Bible, which comes finally and fully and savingly to us in the person of his Son—the focus is not Bethlehem but Calvary. And any attempt to articulate Christianity that begins and ends with the incarnation, that diminishes or denies the centrality of the cross, can never accurately refer to itself as a biblical Christianity. Examine the records, friends, and see whether it is not right for me to tell you that the emphasis is not on Jesus being here, but the emphasis is upon Jesus being here as the atoning sacrifice for sin. So in other words, Christmas is really dangerous. Because it is surrounded by sentimentality. It is surrounded by so much that smacks of well-wishing and hopefulness. “Well, I guess ‘man will live forevermore because of Christmas Day.’” No, he won’t. Man may live forevermore because of this day, the day when he “bore our sins in his body on the tree … that we might die to [sin] and live [to] righteousness.”
So what’s the kicker? The kicker is obvious. You and I return this week to a world that is completely confused religiously and spiritually, and not least of all in these fair shores, and not least of all about the Christmas story. And the challenge and the privilege and the opportunity is this: to seize the moment, in your own language and in your own way, when you come across somebody saying, “Well, I suppose that’s really what it’s about—you know, God came,” to say, “Well, no, that’s not really what it’s all about. The real question is why did he come? And how did he achieve what he set out to achieve?” And then you will be able to make the step from Bethlehem to Calvary, and you’ll be able to tell them in your own words the best news. Just the very best news. Just the very, very best news.
You are the witnesses. Go out into your field and let people know, won’t you?
Father, send us out from here with our hearts in tune with you, with our minds freshly furnished with the facts of the gospel, and with at least a willing spirit to go tell everyone the news that the kingdom of God has come, to go tell everyone the news that today salvation may come to your house, that today we may be in paradise, that today is the only day we have.
Bless us, then, and help us. May your grace and your mercy and peace descend upon us and fill us and frame our lives, now and forevermore. Amen.
 Luke 1:3–4 (NIV 1984).
 Luke 9:22 (NIV 1984).
 James S. Stewart, The Life and Teaching of Jesus Christ (New York: Abingdon, n.d.), 165.
 John 10:18 (paraphrased).
 See Luke 2:49.
 Luke 23:33 (NIV 1984).
 Luke 22:53 (NIV 1984).
 See Exodus 10:21–23.
 See 1 Peter 2:24.
 Matthew 27:46 (NIV 1984). See also Mark 15:34.
 Isaac Watts, “Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed” (1707).
 See Mark 15:38. See also Matthew 27:51.
 See Acts 1:8.
 See Luke 22:54–62.
 Acts 2:23 (paraphrased).
 Luke 4:18 (paraphrased).
 Isaiah 9:2 (NIV 1984).
 See Luke 7:36–50.
 Mark 15:39 (NIV 1984).
 John 19:30 (paraphrased).
 1 Corinthians 1:23 (NIV 1984).
 Jester Hairston, “Mary’s Little Boy Child” (1956).
 1 Peter 2:24 (NIV 1984).
 See Luke 19:9.
 See Luke 23:43.
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.