106. Darkness and Jesus' Death (Luke 23:44-49)

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Gospel Parallels §250

James J. Tissot, 'The Death of Jesus' (1886-94)
James J. Tissot, 'The Death of Jesus' (1886-94), gouache on gray wove paper, Brooklyn Museum, New York.

"44  It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour, 45  for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46  Jesus called out with a loud voice, 'Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.' When he had said this, he breathed his last. 47  The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, 'Surely this was a righteous man.' 48  When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away. 49  But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things." (Luke 23:44-49, NIV)

Jesus is suspended on the cross, hanging between heaven and earth, his life force draining out of him, and has been hanging here for the past three hours.

Yet he has hope. He forgives his executioners (Luke 23:34). He promises paradise to a thief dying beside him, and now waits, laboring to take his next breath. To do so he must lift his body, pulling up with arms made strong by carpentry, and taking another breath. Thus he will breathe so long as he has strength, though the savage scourging of the Roman soldiery has taken much out of him. He can feel himself weakening.

Darkness Over the Land (Luke 23:44-45a)

"It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour, for the sun stopped shining." (Luke 23:44-45a)

It was about 9:00 am when Jesus was crucified, Mark tells us (Mark 15:25), but at noon, darkness falls over the whole land. The word rendered "stopped shining" (NIV) or "was darkened" (KJV) is the Greek verb ekleipō (from which we get our English word "eclipsed"). It means to "fail, give out, die out." The lexicographer notes, "Luke's diction is standard for a description of an eclipse" in ancient Greek literature.1169

An eclipse has taken place not so long ago on November 24, 29 AD, but what takes place this day is no natural eclipse. A normal eclipse is physically impossible during the time of the full moon on which Passover falls. We aren't told how it happened. The darkening may have been caused locally by a hamsin or sirocco wind.1170 We just don't know.

Throughout Jerusalem -- and especially in this killing ground -- the darkness is felt, heavy and foreboding. But what does the darkness mean? What is its significance? The Gospel writers don't tell us, but there are several possibilities:

1. It may symbolize the reign of moral darkness. Jesus had said to his enemies in the Garden: "Every day I was with you in the temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on me. But this is your hour -- when darkness reigns" (Luke 22:53). Darkness is a symbol in Luke's Gospel of ignorance, spiritual blindness, and evil (1:79; 11:34). The contrast between darkness and light is especially well developed in John's Gospel (1:5; 3:19; 8:12; 12:35, 46).1171

2. Likely, it is a portent of the Last Days, if not a complete fulfillment of the vision of the Old Testament prophets:

"The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord." (Joel 2:31)

"'In that day,' declares the Sovereign Lord,
'I will make the sun go down at noon
and darken the earth in broad daylight.

I will turn your religious feasts into mourning
and all your singing into weeping.
I will make all of you wear sackcloth
and shave your heads.
I will make that time like mourning for an only son
and the end of it like a bitter day.'" (Amos 8:9-10)

3. But it also may represent the Father's anger at the way his only begotten Son is being treated. I can't help recall the terrible prophecy of Isaiah:

"See, the day of the Lord is coming
-- a cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger --
to make the land desolate
and destroy the sinners within it.
The stars of heaven and their constellations
will not show their light.
The rising sun will be darkened
and the moon will not give its light.
I will punish the world for its evil,
the wicked for their sins.
I will put an end to the arrogance of the haughty
and will humble the pride of the ruthless." (Isaiah 13:9-11)

What should the Owner of the Vineyard do when the tenants kill the Son? (Luke 20:15-16). That God in his mercy spares mankind displays great grace. That God intends his Son's suffering to actually redeem us from our sins is truly astounding (Mark 10:45).

Temple Curtain Torn (Luke 23:45b)

Luke passes over Matthew's record of other portents that took place -- an earthquake and the resurrection of some of the saints (Matthew 27:52-53). But Luke reports another amazing phenomenon:

"And the curtain of the temple was torn in two." (Luke 23:45b)

The curtain referred to (Greek katapetasma) seems to be the inner curtain that separates the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place.1172 The word "torn" (NIV) or "rent" (KJV) is Greek schizō (from which we get our English words "schism" and "schizophrenia"). Here it means "to divide by use of force, split, divide, separate, tear apart."1173

Think of the force that would have been required to tear this massive curtain! Edersheim tells us of two curtains separating the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place that were 60 feet long and 30 feet wide, as thick as the palm of a man's hand, woven in 72 separate squares, and joined together.1174

Perhaps it was the earthquake that caused the fall of a lintel that began the vertical rip that went from top to bottom (Mark 15:38). Edersheim writes,

"That some great catastrophe, betokening the impending destruction of the Temple, had occurred in the Sanctuary about this very time, is confirmed by not less than four mutually independent testimonies: those of Tacitus, of Josephus, of the Talmud, and of earliest Christian tradition."1175

What does it mean? The Gospel writers don't tell us. But it may signify:

  1. An opening of the way between people and the very presence of God, brought about by means of the redemption of Christ on the cross.
  2. A forewarning of the destruction of the temple.

Perhaps both.

Into Your Hands I Commit My Spirit (Luke 23:46)

Luke omits several of the Seven Last Words and concludes his account with Jesus' last utterance:

"Jesus called out with a loud voice, 'Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.' When he had said this, he breathed his last." (Luke 23:46)

Notice the loud voice, scarcely what one would expect from an exhausted man about to die. But Jesus seems determined that his words be heard. Let us examine three aspects of this utterance.

  1. Jesus speaks to God as "Father," as he has done throughout his ministry, though here the word is the more formal patēr, rather than Jesus' characteristic term, abba. Death is no out-of-control enemy. No matter how bleak the moment, his Father is present and has always been present with him -- now to receive his spirit.
  2. Jesus entrusts himself to his Father. "Commit" (NIV) or "commend" (KJV) is the Greek verb paratithēmi, "to entrust for safekeeping, give over, entrust, commend." Here it is used in the sense of "entrust someone (something) to the care or protection of someone."1176 The words are from the Septuagint translation of Psalm 30:6, part of an evening prayer used daily by devout Jews.1177
  3. Jesus gives up his human life to his Father who gave it to him 33 years before. The word "spirit" (NIV) or "ghost" (KJV) is the common word pneuma, "breathing, breath of life." It can refer to the Holy Spirit. But here probably refers to the personal spirit of Jesus which is part of the human personality (Hebrews 4:12; Philippians 1:27; 1 Thessalonians 5:23).1178 The phrase "breathed his last" (NIV) or "gave up the ghost" translates the Greek verb ekpneō, "breathe out one's life/soul, expire," a euphemism for "die."1179 We see similar expressions in Acts 7:59 and 1 Peter 4:19.

So ends the human life of Jesus, Son of God, Son of Man, King of kings, and Lord of lords -- as the Nicene Creed puts it, "God of God, Light of Light, Very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made." How can we fathom this? Paul later writes, perhaps using the words of an ancient Christian hymn:

"... Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death --
even death on a cross!" (Philippians 2:5-8)

The Centurion's Declaration (Luke 23:47)

Now Luke records the reactions of the onlookers to Jesus' death:

"The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, 'Surely this was a righteous man.'" (Luke 23:47)

The centurion, a career Roman military officer, has doubtless seen and supervised many crucifixions in his life. Though the task is unpleasant, he has become used to it. But in this man whom he has observed for only a few hours, he sees something different. He sees a death different than the many hundreds he has witnessed. And he is in awe.

Though a Gentile, he praises God. The word "praised" (NIV) or "glorified" (KJV) is the Greek verb doxazō, "praise, honor, extol."1180 Since it is in the imperfect tense, it suggests continued action in the past, that is, he kept on praising God. He muttered over and over again. Perhaps he just couldn't get over the realization that he had been a party to crucifying not just a man not guilty of the crime with which he was charged, but a truly righteous, holy person.

He declares Jesus "righteous" (NIV, KJV). The word translates the Greek adjective dikaios. It means more than innocent of a crime, but is used to describe one who lives with high standards of rectitude, "upright, just, fair."1181 Matthew 27:54 and Mark 15:39 record his additional words, "Truly this man was the Son of God." Later, this very centurion is questioned by Pilate who wants to make sure Jesus is dead (Mark 15:44-45). I wonder what he told Pilate about the nature of Jesus' death?

Bystanders' Mourning (Luke 23:48)

The reaction of the centurion is awe and praise. The reaction of the bystanders is deep grief:

"When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away." (Luke 23:48)

"Sight" is Greek theōria, "that which one looks at, spectacle, sight," mostly used of public spectacles, religious festivals, processions.1182 Beating one's chest was a sign of contrition or sorrow.1183 Perhaps there is a hint here of the fulfillment of the prophecy of Zechariah:

"And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem
a spirit of grace and supplication.
They will look on me, the one they have pierced,
and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child,
and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son." (Zechariah 12:10)

Closest Followers Stay and Watch (Luke 23:49)

The reaction of Jesus' disciples, both men and women, is shock:

"But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things." (Luke 23:49)

"Those who knew him" (NIV) or "his acquaintance" (KJV) is the Greek adjective gnōstos, here a substantive, "acquaintance, friend, intimate."1184 The word "followed" is the Greek verb synakoloutheō, "to accompany someone, frequently in the interest of maintaining an association, follow," here with the connotation of being a disciple.1185

But they stand at a distance (Greek makrothen) -- whether out of fear of danger or because the Roman guards had shooed them away, we do not know. Earlier, however, John's Gospel records that "Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene" (John 19:25). Now they are separated from him by death.

How would you have felt if you had just witnessed the death of your leader, your friend, your Lord? As a pastor I have spent the last hours with many families and witnessed their pain and shock. Sometimes there are audible cries, sometimes they take the news with a mute numbness.

It has been so sudden. Less than 24 hours ago they were in the courtyard of the glorious temple, watching and assisting as Jesus teaches thousands of eager learners. Now his voice has been stilled, his teaching finished. They are crushed with sorrow, unable to imagine life without him, though, as we see in the next lesson, they set about arranging for his burial. 

Sometimes you and I can reach places of such hopelessness. But when we conclude that there is no joy beyond this, no hope of meaningful life, nothing but emptiness, we err. On the third day from now, Jesus' shattered followers will learn that God never lets death have the last word. In the backdrop of the cross, our loving, weeping heavenly Father is fashioning LIFE spelled large and eternal, to be revealed when Jesus steps forth from the grave.


Father, we have known what it is to be crushed and hopeless, unable to believe that what we have desired and hoped for has been destroyed. We know how to grieve. Teach us how to hope, how to rebuild our faith in you. Comfort us, we pray, with your everlasting arms. Thank you for the steadfast love of Jesus that refused to forego the shame and degradation that would bring us life. Thank you for redeeming us. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.

Key Verse

"Jesus called out with a loud voice, 'Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.' When he had said this, he breathed his last." (Luke 23:46)


Click on the link below to discuss on the forum one or more of the questions that follow -- your choice.

  1. What does the darkness at Jesus' crucifixion represent, do you think? (Luke 23:44-45a)
  2. What is the meaning of the curtain of the temple being torn in two? (Luke 23:45b)
  3. What does Jesus mean when he says, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit"? (Luke 23:46) Why does this saying comfort us so much?
  4. What did the centurion see in Jesus' last hours that caused him to declare Jesus innocent, a righteous man? (Luke 23:47)
  5. What would you have felt like had you witnessed Jesus' crucifixion -- if you didn't know the next chapter in the story?
  6. Why is faith so important during the dark chapters of our lives? What does it take to shake off the numbness and depression and take hold of that faith once more?
  7. What does Jesus intend for us disciples to learn from this passage, do you think?
Discipleship Training in Luke's Gospel, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Lessons compiled in 805-page book in paperback, Kindle, & PDF.


Abbreviations and References

[1169] Ekleipō, BDAG 306.

[1170] Marshall, Luke, p. 875.

[1171] See also Acts 26:18; Ephesians 5:11; 6:12; Colossians 1:13; 1 Peter 2:19; 1 John 1:5; etc.

[1172] Katapetasma, BDAG 524. See also Hebrews 6:19 and 10:20.

[1173] Schizō, BDAG 981.

[1174] Edersheim, Life and Times 2:611. He cites Yoma 54a, Kethub 106a; Sheqal. viii. 5.

[1175] Edersheim, Life and Times 2:610. He cites Tacitus, Hist. v. 13; Josephus, Wars 6, 5, 3; Jer. Yoma 43c; Yoma 39b. Marshall, Luke, p. 874 notes Jewish references to such portents 40 years before the fall of Jerusalem, and cites Strack and Billerback I, 1045f., but notes that Josephus dates these in 66 AD. Edersheim (2:610) observes, "So in the Gospel according to the Hebrews, from which St. Jerome quotes (in Matt. 27:51, and in a letter of Hedibia) to the effect that the huge lintel of the Temple was broken and splintered, and fell. St. Jerome connects the rending of the Veil with this, and it would seem an obvious inference to connect again this breaking of the lintel with an earthquake."

[1176] Paratithēmi, BDAG 772.

[1177] Marshall, Luke, p. 876.

[1178] Pneuma, BDAG 832-836.

[1179] Ekpneō, BDAG 308. See also Eduard Schweitzer, ekpneo, TDNT 6:452-453.

[1180] Doxazō, BDAG 258.

[1181] Dikaios, BDAG 246-247.

[1182] Theōria, BDAG 454-455.

[1183] Typtō, BDAG 1020. Gustav Stählin, typtō, TDNT 8:266.

[1184] Gnōstos, BDAG 204.

[1185] Synakoloutheō, BDAG 964.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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