There are three “commentators” on the death of Jesus that Luke brings forward in Luke 23, like a prosecutor presenting material witnesses. Each of the three brings an unveiling, a revelation – an opportunity to see the evidence in a new way.
The sky, the curtain and the Scripture itself are each unveiled…
(1). The Sky Speaks
There’s a powerful description of a breaking storm in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Wrecker: “Overhead, the wild huntsman of the storm passed continuously in one blare of mingled noises; screaming wind, straining timber, lashing rope’s end, pounding block and bursting sea contributed; and I could have thought there was at times another, a more piercing, a more human note, that dominated all, like the wailing of an angel; I could have thought I knew the angel’s name, and that his wings were black.”
The last sentence suggests a demonic subtext to a physical event. The same might be said of the weather conditions at the death of Jesus. Mark uses the term “schizo” in his account. No prizes for guessing which English terms derive from this root. The Greek word is translated as “torn apart.” The skies were ripped open, like the cruel dislocation of a diseased mind. As Jesus prophesied: “This is your hour – when darkness reigns,” (Luke 22:53).
Creation speaks with darkness and at “the sixth hour “(noon), darkness descends on the earth. This suggests the presence of judgment. The metaphor of Joel 2:10 is being actualised:
“Before them the earth shakes,
the heavens tremble,
the sun and moon are darkened,
and the stars no longer shine.”
The sun’s failure pictures a creation put out of joint, rendered schizoid.
(2). The Veil is Torn
Even at the place that signifies God’s presence all is not right. “The curtain of the temple was torn in two.”
Is it the curtain at the entrance to the Holy of Holies or the curtain that separated the outer court from the temple proper? The Greek term used by Luke, “katapetasma,” is ambiguous. Either way, the basic symbolism of a disruption at the nation’s place of worship is clear.
But what does it mean?
Primarily, given the context, it suggests that time is up. As abruptly as the darkness has fallen, judgement has come. And it is a judgment on the temple itself, and on the religious ideology that has failed to recognise its own Messiah. In this sense, it pictures the end of the old covenant (as described in Hebrews 8-10) and opens up the way to the new.
And don’t forget the scene that has just unfolded, of Jesus’ announcement to the penitent thief that “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” The curtain being torn is a symbol of Jesus opening the way, and providing “a new and living way” through his own death.
(3). The Scripture is fulfilled
The third witness that reveals the truth about the death of Jesus is Scripture itself.
Jesus dies uttering words from a psalm that breathes a radiant confidence, (Psalm 31:5). This psalm was often used in Jewish evening prayer as the believer commended himself into God’s care during the night to come. It was the equivalent of the child’s prayer: ”Now I lay me down to sleep…”
Jesus takes a similar step of faith. His last words are a commentary not only on his death but also on his life: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” From first to last, Jesus has lived to serve God. His life’s creed on his lips, he dies. The psalm comments on the trust that Jesus places in God as he passes away.
By way of a huge contrast, the other Gospel writers quote Psalm 22:1 and its lament, (noting that Jesus dies uttering a loud cry). But Luke supplies the final detail of this ultimate confidence and quiet assurance.
Lament has given place to trust.
There’s a line in Jodi Picoult’s Second Glance about that quality of trust: “Love meant jumping off a cliff and trusting that a certain person would be there to catch you at the bottom.”
And in that trust, Jesus tasted death for everyone.