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The Trial and Death of Jesus Christ: Chapter 21 - The Signs

By James Stalker


      There are indications that to some of those who took part in the crucifixion of Christ His death presented hardly anything to distinguish it from an ordinary execution; and there were others who were anxious to believe that it had no features which were extraordinary. But God did not leave His Son altogether without witness. The end of the Saviour's sufferings was accompanied by certain signs, which showed the interest excited by them in the world unseen.

      I.

      The first sign was the rending of the veil of the temple. This was a heavy curtain covering the entrance to the Holy Place or the entrance to the Holy of Holies--most probably the latter. Both entrances were thus protected, and Josephus gives the following description of one of the curtains, which will probably convey a fair idea of either; five ells high and sixteen broad, of Babylonian texture, and wonderfully stitched of blue, white, scarlet and purple--representing the universe in its four elements--scarlet standing for fire and blue for air by their colours, and the white linen for earth and the purple for sea on account of their derivation, the one, from the flax of the earth and the other from the shellfish of the sea.

      The fact that the rent proceeded from top to bottom was considered to indicate that it was made by the finger of God; but whether any physical means may have been employed we cannot tell. Some have thought of the earthquake, which took place at the same moment, as being connected with it through the loosening of a beam or some similar accident.[1]

      At critical moments in history, when the minds of men are charged with excitement, even slight accidents may assume remarkable significance.[2] Such incidents occur at turning-points of the life even of individuals.[3] They derive their significance from the emotion with which the minds of observers happen at the time to be filled. No doubt the rending of the temple veil might appear to some a pure accident, while in the minds of others it crystallised a hundred surging thoughts. But we must ascribe to it a higher dignity and a divine intention.

      Like the pillar of cloud and fire in the wilderness, it had a double face--one of judgment and another of mercy.

      It betokened the desecration of the shrine and the exodus of the Deity from the temple whose day of opportunity and usefulness was over. And it is curious to note how at the time not only the Christian but even the Jewish mind was big with this thought. There is a Jewish legend in Josephus, which is referred to also by the Roman historian Tacitus, that at the Passover some years after this the east door of the inner court of the temple, which was so heavy that twenty men were required to close it, and was, besides, at the moment strongly locked and barred, suddenly at midnight flew open; and, the following Pentecost, the priests whose duty it was to guard the court by night, heard first a rushing noise as of hurrying feet and then a loud cry, as of many voices, saying, "Let us depart from hence."

      Nor was it only in Palestine that in that age the air was charged with the impression that a turning-point in history had been reached, and that the ancient world was passing away. Plutarch[4] heard a singular story of one Epitherses from the rhetorician Aemilianus, who had it from the man's father. On a certain occasion this Epitherses happened to be a passenger on board a ship which got becalmed among the Echinades. As it stood near one of the islands, suddenly there came from the shore a voice, loud and clear, calling Thamus, the pilot, an Egyptian, by his name. Twice he kept silence; but, when the call came the third time, he replied; whereupon the voice cried still louder, "When you come to the Paludes, proclaim that the great Pan is dead." Pan being the god of nature in that ancient world, all who heard were terrified, and they debated whether or not they should obey the command. At last it was agreed that if, when they came to the Paludes, it was windy, they were not to obey, but, if calm, they would. It turned out to be calm; and, accordingly, the pilot, standing on the prow of the vessel, shouted out the words; whereupon the air was filled, not with an echo, but the loud groaning of a great multitude mingled with surprise.[5] The pilot was called before the Emperor Tiberius, who strictly enquired into the truth of the incident.

      Such was the meaning of the rending of the veil on its dark side: it denoted that the reign of the gods was over and that Jerusalem was no longer to be the place where men ought to worship. But it had at the same time a bright side; and this was the side for the sake of which the incident was treasured by the friends of Jesus. It meant, as St. Paul says, that the wall between Jew and Gentile had been broken down. It meant, as is set forth in the noble argument of the Epistle to the Hebrews, that the system of ceremonies and intermediaries by which under the Old Testament the worshipper might approach God and yet was kept at a distance from Him had been swept away. The heart of God is now fully revealed, and it is a heart of love; and, at the same time, the heart of man, liberated by the sacrifice of Christ from the conscience of sin, as it could never be by the offering of bulls and goats, can joyfully venture into the divine presence and go out and in with the freedom of a child. "Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, which He hath consecrated for us, through the veil--that is to say, His flesh--and having a High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith." [6]

      II.

      The second sign was the resurrection of certain of the dead--"The graves were opened, and many bodies of the saints which slept arose and came out of the graves after His resurrection, and went into the holy city and appeared unto many."

      Whether or not the rending of the veil in the temple was connected with the earthquake, there is no doubt that this second sign was. The graves in Palestine were caves in the rocks, the mouths of which were closed with great stones. Some of these stones were shaken from their places by the earthquake; and the bodies themselves, which lay on shelves or stood upright in niches, may have been disturbed. But in some of them a greater disturbance occurred: besides the external shaking there took place within them a motion of the life-giving breath of God.

      In the minds of many devout scholars this miracle has excited suspicion on several accounts. They say it is contrary to the teaching of Scripture elsewhere, according to which Christ was the firstfruits of them that slept. If these dead bodies were reanimated at the moment of this earthquake, they, and not He, were the firstfruits. To this it is answered that St. Matthew is careful to note that they came out of their graves "after His resurrection"; so that St. Matthew still agrees with St. Paul in making Christ the first to rise. But, then, it is asked, in what condition were they between their reanimation and their resurrection? The Evangelist appears to state that they rose from death to life at the moment of the earthquake, but did not emerge from the tomb till the third day afterwards, when Christ had risen. Is this credible? or is it an apocryphal marvel, which has been interpolated in the text of St. Matthew? The other Evangelists, while, along with St. Matthew, narrating the rending of the veil, do not touch on this incident at all. The whole representation, it is argued, lacks the sobriety which is characteristic of the authentic miracles of the Gospels and broadly separates them from the ecclesiastical miracles, about which there is generally an air of triviality and grotesqueness.

      On the other hand, there is no indication in the oldest and best manuscripts of St. Matthew that this is an interpolation; and many of the acutest minds have felt this trait to be thoroughly congruous and suitable to its place. If, they contend, He who had just died on Calvary was what He gave Himself out and we believe Him to be, His death must have excited the profoundest commotion in the kingdoms of the dead. The world of living men and women was insensible to the character of the event which was taking place before its eyes; but the world unseen was agitated as it never had been before and never was to be again. It was not unnatural, but the reverse, that some of the dead, in their excitement and eagerness, should even press back over the boundaries of the other world, in order to be in the world where Christ was. The question where they were or what they were doing between their reanimation and resurrection is a triviality not worth considering. At all events, they rose after their Lord; and was it not appropriate that when, after the forty days, He ascended to heaven, there to be received by rejoicing angels and archangels, He should not only appear in the flesh, but be accompanied by specimens of what His resurrection power was ultimately to do for all believers? If it be asked who the favoured saints were to whom this blessed priority was vouchsafed, we cannot tell. The dust, however, was not far away of many whom the Lord might delight to honour--patriarchs, like Abraham; kings, like David; prophets, like Isaiah.

      But the true significance of this sign is not dependent on such speculations. Even if it should ever be discovered, as it is not in the least likely to be, that this story was interpolated in St. Matthew, and we should be driven to the conclusion that it was invented by the excited fancy of the primitive Christians, even then we should have to ask what caused them to invent it. And the only possible answer would be, that it was the force of the conviction burning within them that by His death and resurrection Christ had opened the gates of death to all the saints. This was the glorious faith which was begotten by the experiences of those never-to-be-forgotten days, whether the sight of these resurrected saints played any part or not in maturing it; and it is now the faith of the Church and the faith of mankind.

      This may well be called the rending of another veil. If in the ancient world there was a veil on the face of God, there was a veil likewise on the face of eternity.[7] The home of the soul was hidden from the children of men. They vaguely surmised it, indeed; they could never believe that they were wholly dust. But, apart from Christ, the speculations even of the wisest as to the other world are hardly more correct or certain than might be the speculations of infants in the womb as to the condition of this world.[8] Christ, on the contrary, always spoke of the world invisible with the freedom and confidence of one to whom it was native and well known; and His resurrection and ascension afford the most authentic glimpses into the realm of immortality which the world has ever received.

      In this sign, indeed, it is with the death and not with the resurrection that this authentication is connected. But the resurrection of Christ is allied in the most intimate manner with His death. It was the public recognition of His righteousness. Since, however, He died not for Himself alone, but as a public person, His mystical body has the same right to resurrection, and in due time it will be made manifest that, He having discharged every claim on their behalf, death has now no right to detain them.

      III.

      The first sign was in the physical world; the second was in the underworld of the dead; but the third was in the common world of living men. This was the acknowledgment of Christ by the centurion who superintended His crucifixion.

      Whether, like the preceding signs, this third one is to be connected with the earthquake is a question. Probably the answer ought to be in the affirmative. The sensation produced by an earthquake is like nothing else in nature; and its first effect on an unsophisticated mind is to create the sense that God is near. Probably, therefore, the earthquake was felt by the centurion to be the divine Amen to the thoughts which had been rising in his mind, and it gave them a speedy and complete delivery in his confession.

      This confession was, however, the result of his observation of Jesus throughout His whole trial and the subsequent proceedings; and it is an eloquent tribute to our Lord's behaviour. The centurion may have been at the side of Jesus from the arrest to the end. Through those unparalleled hours he had observed the rage and injustice of His enemies; and he had marked how patient, unretaliating, gentle and magnanimous He had been. He had heard Him praying for His crucifiers, comforting the thief on the cross, providing for His mother, communing with God. More and more his interest was excited and his heart stirred, till at last he was standing opposite the cross,[9] drinking in every syllable and devouring every movement; and, when the final prayer was uttered and the earthquake answered it, his rising conviction brimmed over and he could not withhold his testimony.

      St. Luke makes him say only, "This was a righteous man," while the others report, "This was the Son of God." But St. Luke's may include theirs; because, if the centurion meant to state that the claims of Jesus were just, what were His claims? At Pilate's judgment-seat he had heard it stated that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, and perhaps he had heard Him make this claim Himself in reply to Pilate's question. This name, along with others like it, had been hurled at Jesus, in his hearing, by those standing round the cross.

      But what did he mean when he made this acknowledgment? It has been held that all which he, a heathen, could imply was that Jesus was a son of God in the sense in which the Greeks and Romans believed Hercules, Castor and other heroes to be sons of their deities. This may be near the truth; but his soul was moved, his mind was opened; and, once in the way, he could easily proceed further in the knowledge of Christ. Tradition says that his name was Longinus, and that he became bishop of Cappadocia and ultimately died a martyr.

      Have we not here the rending of a third veil? There is a veil on the face of God which requires to be removed; and there is a veil on the face of eternity which requires to be removed; but the most fatal veil is that which is on the heart of the individual and prevents him from seeing the glory of Christ. It was on the faces of nearly all the multitude that day assembled round the cross. It was on the faces of the poor soldiers gambling within a few feet of the dying Saviour; in their case it was a veil of insensibility. It was on the faces of the ecclesiastics and the mob of Jerusalem; and in their case it was a thick veil of prejudice. The greatest sight ever witnessed on earth was there beside them; but they were stoneblind to it.

      The glory of Christ is still the greatest sight which anyone can see between the cradle and the grave. And it is now as near everyone of us as it was to the crowd on Calvary. Some see it; for the veil upon their faces is rent; and they are transfixed and transformed by the sight. But others are blinded. How near one may be to Jesus, how much mixed up with His cause, how well informed about His life and doctrine, and yet never see His glory or know Him as a personal Saviour! It is said that people may spend a lifetime in the midst of perfect scenery and yet never awake to its charm; but by comes a painter or poet and drinks the beauty in, till he is intoxicated with it and puts it into a glorious picture or a deathless song. So can some remember a time when Jesus, though in a sense well known, was nothing to them; but at a certain point a veil seemed to rend and an entire change supervened; and ever since then the world is full of Him; His name seems written on the stars and among the flowers; He is their first thought when they wake and their last before they sleep; He is with them in the house and by the way; He is their all in all.

      This is the most critical rending of the veil; because, when it takes place, the others follow. When we have our eyes opened to see the glory of Christ, we soon know the Father also; and the darkness passes from the face of eternity, because eternity for us is to be forever with the Lord.

      [1] "May this phenomenon account for the early conversion of so many priests recorded in Acts vi. 7?"--EDERSHEIM.

      [2] Shakespeare is very fond of describing the portents by which remarkable events are foreshadowed. Thus, Julius Caesar, Act I. Scene ii.:--

          "O Cicero,
         I have seen tempests, when the scolding winds
         Have rived the knotty oaks; and I have seen
         Th' ambitious ocean swell and rage and foam,
         To be exalted with the threatening clouds;
         But never till to-night, never till now
         Did I go through a tempest dropping fire.
         A common slave--you know him well by sight--
         Held up his left hand, which did flame and burn
         Like twenty torches joined; and yet his hand,
         Not sensible of fire, remained unscorched.
         Besides--I ha' not since put up my sword--
         Against the Capitol I met a lion,
         Who glared upon me and went surly by,
         Without annoying me. And there were drawn
         Upon a heap an hundred ghastly women,
         Transformed with their fear, who swore they saw
         Men, all in fire, walk up and down the streets.
         And yesterday the bird of night did sit
         Even at noonday upon the marketplace,
         Hooting and shrieking. When these prodigies
         Do so conjointly meet, let not men say,
         'These are their reasons--they are natural,'
         For I believe they are portentous things
         Unto the climate that they point upon."

      See also Act II., Scene ii., and Act V., Scene i. of the same play; Macbeth, Act II., Scene ii.; Hamlet, Act I., Scene i. Such impressions are not, however, even in modern times, confined to poetry alone. Historical instances will suggest themselves to every reader.

      [3] Some of the most interesting I have read occur in a brief memoir of the founder of the Bagster Publishing Company issued on the centenary of its opening.

      [4] De Oraculorum Defectu, quoted by Heubner in his commentary, in loc.

      [5] stenagmos ama thaumasmo.

      [6] Heb. x. 19-22.

      [7] So the ignorance of immortality is expressly called in the beautiful passage, Isa. xxv. 7.

      [8] Sir Thomas Browne, Hydrotaphia, chap. iv.: "A dialogue between two infants in the womb concerning the state of this world might handsomely illustrate our ignorance of the next, where, methinks, we still discourse in Plato's den, and are but embryo philosophers."

      [9] Parestekos ex enantias autou.

Back to James Stalker index.

See Also:
   Preface
   Chapter 1 - The Arrest
   Chapter 2 - The Ecclesiastical Trial
   Chapter 3 - The Great Denial
   Chapter 4 - The Civil Trial
   Chapter 5 - Jesus and Herod
   Chapter 6 - Back to Pilate
   Chapter 7 - The Crown of Thorns
   Chapter 8 - The Shipwreck of Pilate
   Chapter 9 - Judas Iscariot
   Chapter 10 - Via Dolorosa
   Chapter 11 - The Daughters of Jerusalem
   Chapter 12 - Calvary
   Chapter 13 - The Groups Round the Cross
   Chapter 14 - The First Word from the Cross
   Chapter 15 - The Second Word from the Cross
   Chapter 16 - The Third Word from the Cross
   Chapter 17 - The Fourth Word from the Cross
   Chapter 18 - The Fifth Word from the Cross
   Chapter 19 - The Sixth Word from the Cross
   Chapter 20 - The Seventh Word from the Cross
   Chapter 21 - The Signs
   Chapter 22 - The Dead Christ
   Chapter 23 - The Burial

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