Many in the world contemplate the birth of Jesus at this time of year. People relate to babies and are sympathetic to the plight of families in distress. Both of these can be found in the events leading up to Jesus’ birth.
Sadly this is where many people leave Jesus – as a baby in a rustic crib with animals around and receiving gifts (which isn’t really what Matthew and Luke recorded). You see, babies don’t make demands on how a person lives (except to feed and change them). Most are content with Jesus as a baby.
But why was Jesus born? He came to die. And his death was not a natural death but an execution and a horrific one at that. Crucifixion has to rank as one of the worst ways for a life to end, in excruciating pain. Jesus’ death for us does make demands on how we are to live. What happened when he died should cause us to ask “who was he?” Notice what Matthew recorded as happening that day.
“And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. 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 the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people. When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, ‘Surely he was the Son of God!’” (Matthew 27:50-54 NIV)
Many of these events seem to be overlooked when we think of Jesus’ death on the cross. When Jesus’ spirit left his body just after he had yelled in a loud voice a number of other things happened at that precise time.
At the instant Jesus died the curtain in the temple, separating the holy place from the most holy place, was torn in two from top to bottom. This was not a small curtain but one that was very high, reaching from the top of the second temple to the floor. The emphasis that it was torn from top to bottom shows that no person did this. This was a supernatural happening!
That it was torn is symbolic as well. No longer were people separated from God but with the death of Jesus for sin all now have access to God. This access is not through a person – in the Jewish system it was a priest – but all have direct access to God through Jesus. We can approach him directly (the letter to the Hebrews deals with this in some detail).
Notice what else happened: people who were dead came back to life! There was an earthquake which split rocks and opened tombs (and the area around Jerusalem is very rocky!). The bodies of many ‘holy people’ came back to life. They went into Jerusalem and were seen by people. And that is all we know about it. We aren’t told how long they remained alive or if this was just a brief happening. How would we react to all of this?
Notice that when the Roman soldiers saw all of this they were terrified – and who wouldn’t be? They connected what happened with they saw happening in front of them: the death of an itinerant Jewish teacher. This lead them to a sure conclusion: “Surely he was the Son of God!”
As people contemplate the birth of Jesus, find an opportunity to let them know the rest of the story. Jesus came to die, not because he did anything wrong but because of what we do wrong. He died so we can live.
And don’t forget the end of the story: he came back to life after three days and is looking for people to follow him so that we, too, can have eternal life with him. That is the greatest gift anyone can receive.
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Readings for next week: Matthew 24-28