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Christ Yields Up His Spirit

Series: Matthew

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Feb 27, 2000

Matthew 27:50-56

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If you have Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Matthew, chapter 27. The last time we were together in the gospel of Matthew we were looking specifically at verses 44 through 49 where Matthew recounts for us Jesus’ cry of abandonment, His cry of dereliction, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Matthew points us to two cries from the cross. That first cry in reference to David’s words in Psalm 22, and then this second cry. Matthew doesn’t even tell us what Jesus said. He focuses our attention on these cries, these two cries of Christ, from the cross and then the events surrounding them, the supernatural, natural events, and then the reactive events of the crowds, the mobs, the soldiers and such who were around Him. And in so doing Matthew is giving us a theology of the cross. He’s telling us what Jesus was doing on the cross. What does it mean? What’s its significance? What is Jesus accomplishing? That’s what Matthew wants us to see as we study together today. So, I’d invite you to look with me at Matthew, chapter 27, beginning in verse 50. This is God’s holy word.

Matthew 27:50-56

Father, this is Your word, and as we consider again for one last time as we look at the gospel of Matthew, the crucifixion of Your Son, we pray that by the spirit You would enable us to understand and apprehend the meaning, the significance of His death, and more than that to embrace Him as Lord and Savior. We pray, O God, for those who come here this day, perhaps skeptical of Him, doubting Him, not trusting in Him. We pray that this would be a divine appointment, and that in Your providence You would speak to their hearts by Your word. For those of us who come believing and yet struggling in the midst of our own circumstances, we pray oh God, that You would minister the sweet balm of Your Spirit by Your word to our spiritual growth and maturity. We ask these things through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

As we said, Matthew focuses us on two cries on the cross. And then having shown us the cries, he shows us the supernatural events around them, and He shows us the reactions of those to what was happening in order to give us an understanding of the nature and significance of Christ’s death. And I’d like you to see four or five things in this passage before us as Matthew teaches us under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and the first thing you’ll see in verse 50.

I. Jesus shows us His willingness to die for us, even in His manner of death.

In verse 50 we see Christ committing Himself into the hands of God, in yielding up His spirit. And even in that little verse we learn of Jesus’ willingness to die for us. Even in the manner of His death, Jesus is showing us His willingness to die for us. That’s the first thing we learn in this great passage. Though He was physically exhausted, Jesus screws up all of His energy, all of the strength that is left in Him, and He cries out. Now this is surprising because we know that most people that died the death of the cross, most of those who died by crucifixion, usually lapse into a coma because of the trauma, because of the loss of blood, and as they slip into that coma they begin to slump on the tree. And as they slump they suffocate. They die of a lack of oxygen. Jesus did not die in such a way. Jesus to the very end is conscious. Jesus to the very end is in control, and before He dies He pulls together all His strength, He lifts Himself up, and He cries out. And in so doing, He commits Himself back into the hands of His heavenly Father. Matthew is indicating to us by telling us this that even Jesus’ manner of death was voluntary. He decided when He would die. He gives Himself back into the hands of the heavenly Father. He chooses to die supernaturally. That is the scriptural emphasis.

If we were to go to Isaiah, chapter 53, verse 12 we’d see Isaiah speaking of the suffering servant doing what? Giving his life. If we were turn to John, chapter 10, verse 11 we’d see John recording Jesus’ word where Jesus speaks about pouring out His life. Or, in John 10:15 where Jesus speaks about laying down His life. Even Matthew, in Matthew 20, verse 28, do you remember Jesus saying to His disciples I came for the purpose of giving My life as a ransom for sin. And in yielding up His spirit as Matthew records for us here in verse 50, Jesus is basically saying I have done what I came to accomplish, Father. Now I am ready to die because all that was designed to be accomplished in my life and in my suffering has been completed. Now I commit my spirit into Your hands. Luke tells us that that’s exactly what Jesus said in Luke 23, verse 46. “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.” John tells us in John 19:30 that in connection with this last cry that Jesus had actually said, “It is finished,” indicating that everything that the Father had appointed Him to do had indeed been done.

Now once again, and finally in the gospel of Matthew, Matthew is telling you that Jesus has deliberately chosen to die for you. He has deliberately rendered Himself into the hands of the Father, and He has shown us His willingness to die for us even in the way in which He dies, as it was out of the ordinary, unusual, not the typical way for a person who was crucified.

That’s the first thing that Matthew wants you to contemplate just one more time that His death was willing, and He was in control. And I want to pause with you for a second just to think how encouraging that would have been to the disciples later on. The disciples, if anything, are not feeling in control at this moment. The disciples are feeling so out of control that they aren’t even present, Matthew will tell us later. They are afraid for their lives. As they look at their Lord dying on a tree, they don’t even think He’s in control, and they’ve got to be wondering in their hearts if God is in control. And here is their Lord Jesus even in control of the timing of His death. Think how encouraging that would have been to the disciples later on to look back and in their darkest hour, the time where all hope seemed to have fled they could look back and they could say you know, our Lord, our Master, was in control even then. Think of how important that is for us in our own circumstances, in our own trials and difficulties to know that even at the very darkest point of human experience, your Lord was in control. If He’s in control now, you’re not. Only one person can be in absolute control. You can’t have two people even in absolute control or it’s not absolute. He’s in control. You’re not. But that’s comforting. Even when you’re not in control the Lord Jesus is. And we see it even in the hour of His death.

II. God testifies to His delight in the Son and His acceptance of His work in signs of fulfillment and judgment.

Look at verse 51 and there you see a second thing that Matthew wants to bring to your attention. He’s beginning to show you more signs. You remember he’d already started talking about signs that accompanied the death of Jesus when he told you about that premature, that supernatural darkness that covered the earth during the ninth hour and following. And now he’s going to show you some more signs. The signs of this rendt veil, this rent inner-curtain in the holy of holies, and in this sign of the earthquake. And what’s happening here when we see these signs? The sign of the veil, the sign of the earthquake? What’s happening? Well, God is testifying to His delight in the Son. There’s nobody there at the cross to say He is who He says He is. Nobody’s there at the cross saying you’re all wrong. Jesus is the Christ. He’s the Son of God. He’s God’s Son. God delights in Him. They’re all mocking Him in that regard. And so God Himself testifies to His delight in His Son and to His acceptance of His Son’s work through these signs. These signs show Jesus fulfilling prophecy and these signs set forth the judgment of God against wickedness.

Upon the death of Christ, Matthew tells us here in verse 51 the veil of the temple was rent. That inner-curtain that separated the holy of holies where only the high priest could go once a year from the outer part of that court. It was rent, torn in two from top to bottom, and the meaning of that points in two directions. Hebrews - not only Hebrews, chapter 10, but elsewhere by the way, Hebrews 10, verses 19 and following. Hebrews says that what is happening there is God is signifying that the way into His presence has now been opened in the Lord Jesus Christ. No longer into His presence through the sacrificial system, and no longer is it closed off to all His people except for the high priest once a year; it’s now opened in Jesus Christ who has Himself gone within the veil.

But there’s another aspect to the tearing of that curtain as well. It is a symbol of God’s judgment. Many commentators indicate that the tearing of that curtain reminds us of the departure of the presence of God from the temple. And it also reminds us of the end of the sacrificial system. The real sacrifice has come and, therefore, not all the blood of bulls and goats on Jewish altars slain can give the conscience peace. Only the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. Trust on Him and in His work and give the conscience peace. And in the rending of the temple’s veil we’re reminded of that. So it simultaneously sets forth the blessings of God upon His people, and His judgment against unbelief because the Jewish leaders who so valued that temple and all its ritual had rejected the one to whom the temple pointed. And the rending of the veil is God’s verdict on that rejection, and God’s verdict on His Son.

The earthquake itself harkens back to the Old Testament. Over and over in the Old Testament, what are earthquakes? They are viewed by the prophets as a sign of God’s judgment. And here even at the death of Christ we see the earthquake as yet another divine approval of Christ. The world may have rejected it, but God, even in this supernatural event, of the earthquake is showing His approval for His Son. That was something, by the way, which would have been perfectly intelligible to every Jew and Gentile around the cross. The Jews themselves had legends that God often showed His approval of righteous people at their death by such supernatural natural activities, like earthquakes and storms and such. The Gentiles, superstitious Romans that they were, were also very, very interested in portents which attended the death of famous people. And so when this earthquake comes, it’s very interesting that the Gentiles in the passage definitely get the message. This is something that God is saying about His Son.

And so this whole complex of signs actually ends up pointing us to the absolute necessity of Christ for salvation. The rejection of Christ leads to the departure of God from the temple and His judgment upon religious but unbelieving Judaism. On the other hand, the death of Christ brings an end to the old sacrificial system and inaugurates a new, only way into the presence of God. So if you’re going to have fellowship with Him, you cannot reject Him and you must embrace Him because His sacrifice is the only sacrifice that gives the conscience peace and reconciles us to God. And so Matthew shows here God’s own delight in His Son and His acceptance of His works right in the very signs of verse 51.

III. God reveals the accomplishment of His prophesied designs and displays a portent of the resurrection to come.

And then he goes on to tell us a third thing in verses 52 and 53. Here Matthew tells us that Jesus’ death is a fulfillment of prophecy and not just prophecy in general, but specifically a prophecy of Ezekiel. One of Ezekiel’s prophecy that is well-known to us. God reveals to us here in verses 52 and 53 that Jesus’ death actually accomplished the design of His prophecy and these events which occurred in connection with Jesus’ death are a portent, a foreshadowing is of what is to come in the great resurrection. Look at verses 52 and 53 again. The tomb is open, many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many.

Now we had a question about this during the recent pastor’s forum. And someone said, what in the world is going on there? I’m not sure that that would be very comforting to me to see people raised from the tombs and appear in the city again. And my response was, well, that’s the point, isn’t it? It’s not supposed to be comforting. It’s a sign of God’s judgment on the one hand, and it’s also a sign of His indication of what Jesus’ has done. What Jesus had accomplished in His death, wasn’t necessarily simply to comfort. It was to point out a very important reality. In all the miraculous signs that accompanied Jesus’ death, the supernatural darkness, the rending of the veil, the earthquake, these resurrections, God was witnessing to Jesus’ person. He’s saying over and over again, ‘He is who He said He was. He is who He claimed to be.’ He’s vindicating Jesus’ integrity. He’s saying, ‘even though you men consider Him to be a blasphemer, I consider Him to be the Son of My love.’ He’s displaying His accomplishments. God is refusing for Jesus’ death to go unnoticed. It’s hard for an earthquake to go unnoticed. It’s hard for darkness which covers the whole land to go unnoticed. God is refusing for Jesus’ death to go unnoticed. He is refusing for it to go misunderstood. He’s interpreting it for you, and He is pressing it home to all of us. And this miracle of the resurrection in particular shows the fulfillment of an important Old Testament prophecy.

Now we know that in the Old Testament there were various prophecies about the future of God’s people and even about resurrection, even though the Old Testament doesn’t talk nearly so clearly about the afterlife as does the New Testament. If we were to turn, for instance, to Daniel, chapter 12, verse 2, we’d see Daniel, the prophet, talking about a resurrection to come. But this particular passage is a fulfillment of a specific prophecy. Would you turn with me to Ezekiel. Ezekiel, chapter 37. Ezekiel is a closed book to many of us, but this prophecy is one of the prophecies that we know well, especially those of us in the south because many of us grew up listening to, if not singing ourselves, the old Negro spiritual about the valley of the dry bones, referred to affectionately as “dem bones.” And here’s the story, Ezekiel 37, verse 1. “The hand of the Lord was upon me, and He brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley and it was full of bones. And He caused me to pass among them round about and behold there were very many on the surface of the valley and lo, they were very dry. And He said to me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ And I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’ And He said again to me, ‘Prophesy over these bones and say to them, “O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.”’ And thus says the Lord God to these bones, ‘Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you that you may come to life. And I will put sinews on you and make your flesh grow back on you, cover you with skin, and put your breath in you that you may come alive and you will know that I am the Lord.’ So I prophesied as I was commanded; and I prophesied, and there was a noise, and behold, a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And I looked and behold, sinews were on them, and flesh grew, and skin covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then He said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, “Thus says the Lord God, ‘Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they come to life.’”’ And so I prophesied as He commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they came to life, and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army. And then He said to me, ‘Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel; behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished. We are completely cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God, ‘Behold I will open your graves and cause you to come up out of your graves, My people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel. Then you will know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves and caused you to come up out of your graves, My people. And I will put My Spirit within you, and you will come to life, and I will place you on your own land. Then you will know that I, the Lord, have spoken and done it,’ declares the Lord.”

Now this is a tremendous passage. It tells us a lot about the divine work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration. Jesus goes to this passage in John, chapter 3 when He’s talking to Nicodemus to explain to him the principle of the new birth. Then he goes right back to verse 9 in Ezekiel chapter 37 to do it. But we can’t talk about that right now. What I want you to see is what’s said in verse 11. See, Ezekiel is prophesying to a people who said, “God, you’ve forgotten Your promises to us. You promised through Abraham that You would make us Your people and You would be our God, and we would be Your people. And we walk with You forever. And here we are, we’re in Babylon, we’ve been forgotten, we’re in exile, we’re going to die there, we’re out in the dessert, we’ve been left, we’ve dried up, our hope is gone. And God says to Ezekiel, you tell them that even if they are bones lying disassembled on the floor of the dessert, that by the proclamation of the word I will bring My promise to bear on them. I will fulfill every word of it to them. I will bring them to life, I will raise them from the dead. I will raise them from the graves, and I will bring them back into the land. And when I do it, you will know that I am the Lord.”

Now what’s happening in Matthew, chapter 27? In the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, Matthew under the Holy Spirit is saying the death of the Lord Jesus Christ is the event which brings about the reality which God had promised through the prophet Ezekiel. And the very resurrections of the saints that occurred in those days around the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ were a little foretaste of the great day of resurrection. And what is Matthew saying? He’s saying that by this resurrection you know that He is the Lord, and that God is fulfilling the things that He promised 600 years ago through Ezekiel to us. They are coming to pass. The new covenant is here. The realities about which Ezekiel and Isaiah and Jeremiah spoke are here. And by the way, Ezekiel has a beautiful passage that goes on in Ezekiel 37, verses 24 through 28 which speaks even more directly to this. He’s saying these things have come to pass in the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s why he tells you about that strange event of the resurrection surrounding the death of the Lord Jesus Christ. Why? Because he’s explaining to you the meaning and significance of Jesus’ death.

IV. Religious unbelief is rebuked by the profession, the affirmation of the Gentile soldiers.

And then there’s a fourth thing that Matthew shows you here. If you look at verse 54 you see it. Here you see the Roman centurion’s confession and you see at the same time, I might add, Matthew’s missionary interest. You know throughout this book we have seen that Matthew has an agenda to tell the people of God about their responsibility to be missionaries and to have a heart for the missionary cause. And we see it again in this passage. Religious unbelief, in verse 54, religious unbelief is rebuked by the profession, the affirmation of faith by this Roman centurion. This person of rank in the Roman guards sees what is happening. He sees the earthquake. He sees the Lord Jesus and the way He has acted, the way He has trusted God, the things that He has said. He sees these things, and he admits what the Jewish religious establishment was so desirous to suppress. They wanted no one to profess the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God. And here this pagan, this Gentile, this Roman soldier sees what’s happening, and he confesses. This is the Son of God. And apparently Matthew says the other soldiers did too, the ones who had been mocking Him, the ones who had been dividing His garments.

Matthew, you see, is rebuking religious unbelief. The religious establishment that had the law in the prophets, they should have been the ones professing Jesus to be the Son of God. Instead, they killed Him. While this Gentile, these Gentiles who didn’t have the law, didn’t have the prophets, didn’t have enough religious upbringing, didn’t have a Jewish upbringing where they would have been brought forth with all the riches of the truth of God as revealed by Moses and the prophets, the Psalms. These men right out of pagandom. They confess Him to be the Son of God.

You see, the profession itself is significant. While these religious leaders of Judea were celebrating the death of Jesus, a small group of Gentiles becomes the first group to acknowledge Jesus as Son of God after His death. You see what Matthew is showing you? He’s showing you the Gentiles responding to the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. And you don’t even have to wait 'til Pentecost to see the fulfillment of that. All you have to do is turn to the next chapter, Matthew 28. He’s going to talk about the gospel going where? To all nations, to all peoples, to every tongue, to every tribe. It’s already starting. Christ Himself, in His final cry, is already drawing the Gentiles to Himself.

V. The weakness of the disciples is highlighted and rebuked in the attendance of Jesus’ female disciples at the cross.

And then there’s one last thing, friends. And I think it’s exceedingly precious. It’s here in verses 55 and 56. We see the presence – it’s an almost incidental thing, isn’t it? You almost wonder, Matthew, why did you even bother saying it? Couldn’t you have just skipped from 54 right on to 57 or 56? But no, it’s recorded for you. The presence of these female followers. And we see Matthew, in mentioning this passing reality, this historical fact, pointing to the weakness of the disciples, highlighting the weakness of the disciples, rebuking them and the fact that only, in many cases, their mothers were in attendance at the death of their Lord. With the exception of John, none of the other disciples who belonged to the twelve, as far as we know, were near to Him at Calvary. But Matthew, and I might also add, Mark and Luke go out of their way to indicate that the women who had been faithful followers of the Lord Jesus Christ since the beginning of His ministry in Galilee had come to Him that day.

Now I know that it would have been easier for the women to be there. They wouldn’t have been objects of suspicion by the Roman guards. But my friends, shouldn’t the Lord’s disciples have been there to minister to Him in His hour of death? Shouldn’t those, for whom He was dying, shouldn’t they have made it a point to be there in the hour of death? And yet they are conspicuously absent and these female disciples of the Lord are conspicuously present. And Matthew is telling us about them in order to highlight their courage, and also to highlight the important role that they would have as witnesses of the primary events of our redemption. Think of it friends, much of what Peter and John would preach about the day of Jesus’ death and about the day of His resurrection they would not witness first hand. They would learn it from these faithful women who saw it with their own eyes first, and then told these disciples who would become the pillar of the church.

Now I just want to say two things about that. Maybe three things. I think first of all that it shows you the exceeding preciousness of these women to Jesus, and consequently their preciousness to God. Isn’t it interesting that Matthew goes out of his way to say that these women were ministering to Jesus. They had been with Jesus from Galilee, and they were ministering to Him. I think that’s exceedingly precious that Matthew would note that it was not just that these women were ministered to by Christ, but that they ministered to Him. And I think it’s a token of the fact that the Heavenly Father had not forgotten the needs of His Son even in those last hours. And to the last these women were doing their dead-level best to minister to their Lord.

The second thing that it brings to mind is this. Friends, if you were making this story up, you would never have written those two verses. If you were getting ready to set up eleven men to be the foundation of a new religion, you would never have told this story. You would never have said – and by the way, they were utter chickens in the last hour of His death and only women were there for Him when He really needed somebody. And everything they heard about, they actually learned from – you would never, ever make this up. This is yet another one of those things that testifies absolutely to the truthfulness of God’s Scripture. He puts in all the truth, the things that are nice and the things that are embarrassing. And this, my friends, is frankly embarrassing to the disciples, and that leads to my third point.

Isn’t it interesting that God, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, not only in Matthew, but also in Mark and Luke and in John indicates that these women were the ones who were faithful to the Lord Jesus Christ to the end. So that all the disciples had to acknowledge it. And so that the four followers of the Lord Jesus who were counseled by the Holy Spirit to write the gospels themselves had to write down with their own pen the fact that they were not there. And in Mark’s case the one for whom he was writing was not there. Because, my friends, those who are going to be messengers of grace must themselves have felt the need of grace. And every one of these men had to acknowledge to themselves that in the hour of His need, they were not there for Jesus. And yet He loved them, and yet He called them to be those who would proclaim His death until He comes.

Now, Matthew could not have thought on what he just wrote there. He could not have thought on those things without a pervading sense of gratitude for a grace which he had received which was utterly and holy undeserved, even as a disciple. I’m not talking about Matthew before his conversion; I’m talking about Matthew as a believer, as a disciple. He had to be pervasively aware of the fact that if God dealt with him as he deserved, he would be cast into hell. For he had abandoned the Son of His love in His hour of need, and yet, God chose him in His grace to be a disciple. And not only a disciple, but to be a writer of a gospel.

And my friends, as Christians, if we don’t have that same pervasive sense of our need of grace, we’re not ready to tell anybody about grace. Because if we think that grace is something that other people who are kind of nasty need, but that people who are nice and upright like us don’t, then we’ve never understood or received grace in the first place. And God in His wisdom humbles those who will then serve Him in the message of grace.

Have you been humbled so that you might serve Him in the message of grace? If you haven’t, come to Him. Come to Him as He is on His cross, and with the disciples behold Him and trust in Him, and you will find in His store of mercy a place for you just as there was a place for Matthew and for Mark and for Luke and for John and for those blessed women who attended Him to the end. Let us pray.

Our Lord and our God, we ask Your grace and favor even upon the preached word that all who hear might be drawn by the spirits effectual call to Him. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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