Jesus of Nazareth has been hanging on the cross for approximately three hours. Ever since he was nailed to the rough wood at around 9:00 am he has been suffering pain of the most intense kind. Aside from the actual nail wounds in his hands and feet, the seven-inch spikes have crushed the main nerves in his wrists and ankles. This is causing stabbing, burning pain to shoot up his limbs. The two criminals crucified with him are also writhing in agony, increasing the stress and chaos of the scene.
Before Jesus had even reached the cross, Roman soldiers had flogged him with a metal tipped whip until his back was laid open and oozing with blood. The soldiers had mocked him as they forced a crown of thorns onto his head, causing deep puncture wounds. Jesus had then been forced to carry the heavy crossbeam of the crucifix through the twisting streets of Jerusalem. Part of the way to the place of execution he stumbled, unable to carry the load any further. No doubt, he was in the advanced stages of what is medically called hypovolemic shock. The blood loss was robbing him of most of his strength, causing him raging thirst and the swelling of his tongue.
Now on the cross, Jesus’ most pressing problem was not the pain, the thirst, or the exhaustion, but the inability to breathe. In order to exhale or to speak, he would be forced to push himself up with his legs, causing an even greater degree of pain. Soon he would run out of strength in his legs and sag down until stopped by the spikes holding his wrists.
However, to this point, Jesus had suffered no more than many thousands of others whom the Romans had executed in this manner. Crucifixion was an unimaginably horrible way to die. The Romans knew this and used it as an object lesson for any who might wish to defy their rule. Then, about noon (what the New Testament calls the sixth hour of the day), what Jesus had dreaded in the Garden of Gethsemane came upon him. The real suffering took place in this three hour period from noon to 3:00, during which God the Father somehow put our sins upon him and judged him in the full fury of divine wrath.
Matthew, Mark and Luke record that a deep and eerie darkness spread over the land during this second three hour period. This event was much noted in the ancient world and was evidently discussed in various writings for years afterward. A Greek author named Phlegon, writing around 137 AD reports that in the 202nd Olympiad (that is, 33 AD) there was “….the greatest eclipse of the sun (ever recorded). It became night in the sixth hour of the day, so that the stars even appeared in the sky.” He further states that there was a great earthquake, felt as far north as the Black Sea coast of what is now Turkey.
A writer named Thallus, whose original work (around 52 AD) is now lost, was quoted by a later author named Julius Africanus, who wrote in AD 221. In reference to this unusual darkness of 33 AD, he says, “Thallus in the third book of his histories explains away the darkness as an eclipse of the sun—unreasonably as it seems to me.” The early church leader Tertullian (215 AD) says that this darkness was widely observed in such cities as Rome and Athens, and calls it “a cosmic event”.
What was the significance of these three hours of darkness, with its accompanying earthquake? Let me suggest several things:
It was the time of God’s judgment on the world’s sin. In essence, God the Father identified his Son Jesus with our sins, turned his back on him and caused him to suffer our judgment. The Bible has many references to God being full of light. If the presence of God the Father was removed from Jesus, it would explain the darkness.
It was the time of Satan’s short-lived triumph. Satan is described as the Prince of Darkness in the Scriptures. For three hours Satan could abuse and torture Jesus spiritually, mentally, emotionally and physically as he gloated over the apparent failure of God’s Kingdom. The concentration of evil into that focal point also explains the darkness.
The earthquake is explained in Matthew 27:51, where it tells us that along with the violent shaking of the earth, the curtain in the Jewish Temple (which separated the holy presence of God from sinners) was torn in two from top to bottom. Clearly the New Testament is teaching that complete and final atonement for sin had been made. To put it simply, that earthquake tore the curtain separating us from God. Now the way to God’s presence is open for any who come through faith in Christ’s atonement.
At 3:00 pm, just before the earthquake, Jesus raised himself on his mangled legs one final time to proclaim, “It is finished. Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” As the dust from the quake settled and the darkness dispersed, Jesus’ friends took his body from the cross and put it in a tomb donated by a wealthy follower. There it lay as night came. A day and another night came and went.
Then, at dawn on Sunday morning, Jesus rose from the dead in victory over sin and death. Light from the rising sun supplemented light from the heavenly messengers in confirmation that atonement was complete. The rule of darkness was broken. The Kingdom of light and peace and joy was assured.
“So what?” you ask. Here’s the point. It is your choice whether to remain in the darkness or come into the light. John 3:19 speaks of those who refuse Christ’s light, preferring the darkness because their deeds are evil. Colossians 1:13 describes those who have put their faith in Jesus as being transferred from darkness into light. Jesus has paid for your sins and made eternal life available. Now the choice is yours: to go your own way, or to follow him!