In Gospel according to John, after declaring, “It is finished,” Jesus “bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (Jn. 19:30). Interestingly, that line could be translated “gave the spirit” signifying Jesus’ death as the moment when Jesus is glorified and the Holy Spirit is given. While not certain, this translation is possible, because John’s Gospel is full of wordplays.
In Ezekiel 47, the prophet Ezekiel describes a vision of a river flowing from the temple in Jerusalem creating new life wherever it goes. This passage of Scripture was read on the last day of the Festival of Tabernacles. A ceremony was also performed on that day where priests would pour water over the altar at the temple, symbolizing the promise of Ezekiel 47. There is a theme in John’s Gospel of Jesus attending Jewish festivals and redefining them around Himself. In chapter seven Jesus attends the Festival of Tabernacles and we read,
“On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.’ By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.” (Jn. 7:37-39)
Earlier in the Gospel of John, Jesus redefined the temple as the temple of His body (Jn. 2:21). With that in mind, Jesus is now further declaring Himself as the temple by claiming to be the source of the living water that flows from the temple. But Jesus goes further and says that whoever believes in Him will also have rivers of living water flowing from within them. Later, the Apostle Paul tells us that, as Jesus’ Church, we are the body of Christ, and that together we are God’s temple (1Co. 12:12-31; 3:16-17). If we are the temple, then we should have living water flowing out of us, and everywhere we go we should spread life. It is no secret that the world we live in is full of death and darkness. As followers of Jesus, our lives should combat the darkness of the world with the light of Christ, and the death of the world with the rivers of living water that flow from us. Our lives should point towards the hope we have of God’s complete restoration of His good world when all of creation is once again His temple and the river of life flows from His throne bringing healing to the nations (Rev. 22:1-5).
But none of this can happen without the Spirit. And in John 7, the Spirit had not yet been given. But in chapter nineteen, after accomplishing everything He set out to accomplish on the cross, Jesus gives the Spirit. Then “one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water” (Jn. 19:34). Three days later, after His resurrection from the dead, Jesus, in His glorified state, appears to His disciples breaths on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (Jn. 20:22). Only by receiving the Spirit of Christ, freely given on the cross, can we be the temple of God and have rivers of living water flow from within us to bring healing and life to our broken world.
Why do we have four different Gospel accounts in our Bibles? Tim Mackie says,
“There are four apostolic accounts of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection in the New Testament. Each one offers a unique perspective that highlights different aspects of Jesus’ life and teaching. Think of it as a beam of light shining through a crystal prism. The story of Jesus is too rich and dense to be captured entirely by any one account. We need to see Jesus in ‘multi-vision,’ which is what we have in the four Gospels.”
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each have different audiences and different purposes for their Gospel accounts and each reveals a different piece of the complex portrait of Christ. The Gospel writers are selective of which material they record and where they place it in the literary structure of their Gospels in order to paint a specific portrait of Jesus and to make specific theological claims.
With this in mind, the differences in the four Gospel accounts of Jesus giving up His spirit can each reveal different aspects of Jesus’ sacrifice. As we discussed earlier this week, Matthew and Mark record Jesus crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” before giving up His spirit (Mt. 27:46; Mk. 15:34). This separation from God emphasizes the way Jesus became sin for us (2Co.. 5:21; Gal. 3:13). By bearing the weight of our sin he drank the cup of God’s wrath on our behalf (Mt. 26:42; Mk. 14:36; Lk. 22:42; Jn. 18:11; Ro. 5:9). In John’s account of the death of Jesus, we have Jesus triumphantly declaring “It is finished” before giving up His spirit (Jn. 19:30). This portrait of Jesus reveals to us the way Jesus was in control on the cross and how He used this instrument of humiliation, torture, and disgrace to make a public spectacle of the dark powers in our world (Col. 2:15).
Luke’s account of Jesus’ death reveals yet another aspect of Jesus’ character. Luke does not record Jesus’ agonizing cry of forsakenness, nor His triumphant cry of accomplishment. Instead, Luke paints a picture of the ultimate, humble, obedient servant who, before breathing His last breath, cries out in a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Lk. 23:46). This is the climax to a journey started in chapter nine. On a mountain top Jesus was transfigured into His glorious form in front of Peter, James, and John. Moses and Elijah appeared next to Him and “they spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem” (Lk. 9:31). From this point on the narrative of Luke’s Gospel becomes about Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, until chapter nineteen when He triumphantly arrives riding on a donkey. This long journey of obedience eventually led to the cross, as Jesus knew it would. And at the end of that journey, obedient even still, Jesus trusts in His Heavenly Father and commits to Him His last breath of life.
All of these portraits of Jesus are important, but Luke’s is the one I personally relate to the most. I cannot be the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, or the triumphant King who conquers His enemies through self-sacrificial love. But Paul says my mindset should be like that of Christ Jesus, who humbled himself and was obedient even unto death on a cross (Php. 2:5-11). With Jesus as my example, my guide, and my strength, I can strive to trust my Heavenly Father with my spirit and follow Him wherever that journey may lead.
Yesterday we discussed the veil of the temple being torn in response to Jesus giving up His spirit. But Matthew also records another significant event that happened after Jesus’ death on the cross. After Jesus gave up His spirit, “The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of their tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people” (Mt. 27:51-53).
Huh? What are we supposed to make of this story? Are there zombies in the Bible? If they were raised to life after Jesus died but didn’t come out of their tombs until His resurrection, what did they do for three days? How long did they stay alive? Did they die again? Are they still alive today? Let me be perfectly honest with you…I have no idea. And quite frankly, no one else does either. Because the Bible doesn’t say. The whole account is three sentences. You just read the whole thing. You know as many details as any Bible scholar. This is one of the strangest, most confusing stories in the whole New Testament. So why does Matthew include it at this crucial point in his story? Let me humbly make a few suggestions.
Perhaps Matthew wants us to see how the earth itself reacted to Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus’ death was a cataclysmic event and the physical world responded in kind. This could also be Matthew’s way of communicating to us that death itself was defeated by Jesus on the cross. The great enemy cannot even hold dead bodies underground anymore. Maybe this is Matthew’s ways of saying “from that moment on, death was a defeated force” (N.T. Wright). Or, possibly Matthew is telling us “From now on, you never know what God’s life-giving power will achieve” (Wright). Ultimately, I think this story is pointing forward to the final resurrection at the last days (Rev. 20). The Apostle Paul calls Jesus “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1Co. 15:20). His resurrection was not some one-off, unrepeatable event. On the contrary, Jesus’ resurrection was the prototype, if you will, for what is to happen to all of creation (Ro. 8; 1Co. 15).
John’s Gospel places special emphasis on Jesus’ resurrection occurring on the “first day of the week” (Jn. 20:1, 19). Since his opening line (“In the beginning”) John has been alluding to Genesis chapter one where God creates the world in a week. Now, with Jesus’ resurrection, a new week is dawning. Jesus’ resurrection marks the first day of new creation. And it even takes place in a garden (Jn. 19:41, 20:15). This is John’s way of telling us that everything is different now. God’s rule over the earth has been inaugurated and He is beginning to make all things new (Rev. 21:5). I want to suggest that this seemingly crazy story about holy zombies is Matthew’s way of communicating a similar message. Because the Son of God willingly gave up His spirit for the sake of humanity, the whole world has changed. N.T. Wright says,
“Look at it like this. The effect of his giving of his own life; the example of love, non-retaliation, the kingdom-way of confronting evil with goodness; Jesus’ taking of the world’s hatred and anger on to himself; and, way beyond all of these, the defeat of the powers of evil, the blotting out of the sins of the world, the love of God shining through the dark clouds of wickedness—all of this is now to be seen around the world. It is seen, not only in the millions who worship Jesus and thank him for his death, but in the work of healing which flows from it: in reconciliation and hope, for communities and for individuals. The world is indeed a different place because of what Jesus did in his death.”
We have been discussing some of the significant things that happened just before Jesus gave up His spirit on the cross. Now, we are going to look at some of the momentous things that happened after Jesus gave up His spirit. Immediately after this final act of Jesus, we read, “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Mt. 27:51).
The temple in Jerusalem was immensely important to the Jewish people and is a critical theme throughout the whole Bible. God’s desire, since the creation of the universe, has always been relationship with humanity. The Garden of Eden was the place where heaven (God’s space) and earth (humanity’s space) overlapped, and God could live in community with His image-bearers. The whole earth was supposed to be God’s temple, the place where His presence resides. After Adam and Eve sin and are exiled from the Eden, God still desires to be with His people. The place where this could be accomplished eventually became the temple building in Jerusalem. The building itself was full of Garden imagery, because this physical space, like the Garden of Eden, was where heaven and earth overlapped. One of the scandalous claims Jesus made, while on earth, was that He was the temple (Jn 2:21). Jesus Himself was the full presence of God on earth, the place where heaven and earth overlapped.
As the true Temple, Jesus exercised His royal authority over the temple building (Mt. 21; Mk 11; Lk 19; Jn 2). The Jewish leaders, however, did not recognize Jesus as the temple. They rejected Him, and in doing so, rejected God. They mocked Jesus as He was hanging on the cross on their behalf (Mt. 27:41-43). Then, when Jesus gave up His spirit, the curtain, behind which the presence of God dwelt, “was torn from top to bottom.” Jesus prophesied in Matthew 24 that the temple would be destroyed; a prophecy that was eventually fulfilled in A.D. 70. In the Old Testament, before the temple was destroyed, God’s presence departed from it (Eze 10:4-18). Now, in response to the people’s rejection and in anticipation of the coming judgment, God’s presence once again leaves the temple.
The tearing of the curtain has another important implication as well. The curtain separated the inner sanctuary from the rest of the temple. The inner sanctuary was known as the Most Holy Place, or the Holy of Holies because this was the place where God’s presence most fully dwelt. The High Priest was only allowed to enter the Holy of Holies once a year to offer a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. But now, through His sacrifice on the cross, Jesus made the ultimate atonement for the sins of the whole world. He “entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:12). His death reconciled humanity with God and the curtain tore symbolizing access to God being made available to everyone who accepts Jesus’ sacrifice as an atonement for their sins.
Having never lived in the time before Jesus made a way for us to commune with God, I think we sometimes take this amazing gift for granted. But the weight of this gift should never be forgotten and should always be appreciated. The curtain being torn means we are no longer separated from God’s throne of grace. We can come to Him in our time of need, because Jesus restored our access to His presence like it was in the Garden. Because Jesus gave up His spirit we can now “approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Heb. 4:16).
Before Jesus gave up His spirit, He cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Yesterday, we pointed out that this was a quotation from Psalm 22; a Psalm about a righteous sufferer who is vindicated by God. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus quotes this Psalm in Hebrew saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sebachtani?” Hearing Jesus cry out “Eli,” some of the people standing nearby misunderstood Him and thought He was calling for Elijah and they said, “Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him” (Mt. 27:49). The end of the book of Malachi says, “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the LORD Comes” (Mal. 4:5). Because of this, many people at the time of Jesus expected Elijah’s coming before the coming of the Lord. Also, rabbinic traditions of the time thought that Elijah acted like an angelic helper to rabbis in their time of need.
With this tradition if mind, Matthew wants his readers to think back to the previous mentions of Elijah in his Gospel. In chapter 11, speaking of John the Baptist, Jesus says, “all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come” (Mt. 11:13-14). Elijah then appears with Moses during Jesus’ transfiguration and Jesus again makes the connection between John the Baptist and the prophet Elijah saying, “To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way, the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands” (17:11-12). Jesus’ disciples “understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist” (17:13).
These passages illustrate one of the many ways in which Jesus flipped people’s expectations on their heads. The people observing the crucifixion thought Jesus was calling Elijah to come rescue him from the cross. But Jesus knew that “Elijah has already come, not to rescue Jesus from this fate but precisely to point him towards it, assuring him that he is going the way God has commanded” (N.T. Wright). This upside-down expectation is consistent with Jesus’ proclamation of an upside-down Kingdom. Jesus’ Kingdom is one where the poor, the hungry, the weeping and the hated are blessed (Lk. 6:20-23). Jesus’ Kingdom is one where people love their enemies, do good to those who hate them, bless those who curse them, and pray for those who mistreat them (Lk. 6:27-28). In Jesus’ Kingdom, the first are last, the last are first, the exalted are humbled and the humbled are exalted (Mt. 20:15; 23:12). And most upside down of all, in Jesus’ Kingdom, the King is enthroned on a cross and defeats His enemies by giving up His spirit.
In Matthew and Mark’s account of Jesus’ death, before giving up His spirit, Jesus quotes the opening line of Psalm 22, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” When reading through this psalm, it is easy to see why Jesus would have identified with it so strongly.
“All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads. ‘He trusts the Lord,’ they say, ‘let the Lord rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him’…a pack of villains encircles me; they pierce my hands and my feet. All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.” (v. 7-8; 16-18)
This psalm, of a righteous sufferer, expresses Jesus’ experience on the cross. When He "who had no sin" was made “to be sin for us,” He, for the first time in the existence of time, experienced separation from the Father (2Co.. 5:21). New Testament scholar N.T. Wright says,
“Part of the whole point of the cross is that there the weight of the world’s evil really did converge upon Jesus, blotting out the sunlight of God’s love as surely as the light of day was blotted out for three hours…Jesus is ‘giving his life as a ransom for many’ (Mt. 20:28), and the sin of the ‘many,’ which he is bearing, has for the first and only time in his experience caused a cloud to come between him and the father he loved and obeyed, the one who had been delighted in him.”
C.S. Lewis describes Jesus as “streaming forth from the Father, like light from a lamp, or heat from a fire, or thoughts from a mind. He is the self-expression of the Father—what the Father has to say. And there was never a time when He was not saying it.” These are all images attempting to express the intimacy and connection the Father and the Son have experienced since before the world began. Yet, here is the Son hanging from a cross asking the Father why He has forsaken Him. And what got Him to this point was perfect obedience. He had done nothing but the will of the Father. He had prayed for the Father’s will to be done over His own. As Wright says, Jesus “has remained obedient to the end, even through the period of God-forsakenness that formed the heart, strangely, of his God-given mission.” This is where Jesus’ mission led Him. This is the price that had to be paid to deal with the sin of humanity and to redeem the brokenness of the world. According to Wright, Jesus took “with him, into the darkness of death, the sin of the world: my sin, your sin, the sin of countless millions, the weight that has hung around the world’s neck and dragged it down to destruction.”
Matthew wants the gravity of this moment to sink in with his audience. The perfectly obedient Son of God, forsaken by God. However, we know that this is not the end of the story. And Matthew’s original audience, likely Jewish Christians who were intimately familiar with the Old Testament, would know that Psalm 22 also does not end with the suffering of the righteous man. Ultimately, Psalm 22, like the story of Jesus, is a story of vindication. “…he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help (Ps. 22:24). Because He was obedient to the Father, because He carried the weight of our sin, and because He willingly gave up His spirit, Jesus was vindicated by the Father and enthroned as the King of the world.
One of the final things Jesus did is recorded in Matthew 27:50: “And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.” This final action takes place after Jesus had endured unimaginable suffering. He had been betrayed and rejected by the very people He came to save. He had been handed over to the ruling authorities to be flogged. He had been forced to carry His instrument of execution. He had been mocked, spit on, beaten, and nailed to a cross. And all of this only accounts for the physical and social pain inflicted. On top of it all, Jesus took on the weight of our sin and experienced separation from the Father.
What Matthew 27:50 tells us, is that Jesus experienced all of this hardship voluntarily, and once the job He came to accomplish was done, He, willingly, gave up His own Spirit. The religious leaders who turned Him over to be crucified did not take His spirit. The Roman soldiers who carried out His crucifixion did not take His spirit. Not even the evil spirits behind those powers, nor the devil himself could take His spirit. He received the worst these powers could dish out, exhausted them of their malice, and then He gave up His spirit. By willingly suffering in this way, Jesus "disarmed the powers and authorities" and He, “made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Col. 2:15). What was meant to be the instrument of His public humiliation became the means by which He humiliated the dark powers of this world. What was meant to be the mechanism of His death became the vehicle by which He defeated death. All because He had the humility to take on suffering that He did not deserve and the willingness to give up His spirit.
Because Jesus “made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant” and He “humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross,” “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Php. 2:7-11). And Paul calls us, as followers of Jesus, to imitate the same humility in our lives (Php. 2:5). In Jesus’ Kingdom, we don’t lord authority over others. “Instead,” Jesus tells us, “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:42-45). This is the way power works in the Kingdom of Heaven. This is how Jesus conquered death. When Jesus’ followers imitate Him in this way and do “not love their lives so much as to shrink from death,” they overcome the Enemy as well (Rev. 12:11). Our Savior showed us the way by giving up His spirit for us.