In Jesus’ final moments on the cross Matthew says Jesus cried out in a loud voice and gave up his spirit. This final “cried out” most likely correlates with John 19:30 where John records Jesus shouting out a triumphant death cry, “It is finished!” Jesus' full possession of his senses and his energy is contrary to normal crucifixion victims who faded into death in weakness and exhaustion. It is clear that Jesus' death was a voluntary relinquishing of his life as he said it would be in John 10:17-18:
“No one takes if from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”
Several commentators point out that the writers of the Gospels, including Matthew, do not use any of the usual methods to say Jesus died. They all describe Jesus’ death in a way that is unique. Matthew says, “He gave up his spirit (pneuma),” which is to say, “He gave up his breath,” as does Mark and Luke who use the Greek verb exepneusen which means, “expired” or “breathed his last” (Luke 23:46; Mark 15:37). John says paredoken to pneuma, or “delivered up his spirit” (John 10:18) which fits with the prophecy of Psalm 31:5, “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” Notice that all of these quotes concern Jesus’ pneuma, or spirit/breath. There is no way the writers are referring to the Holy Spirit of God. The point they are all making is Jesus gave up his breath (or his spirit, or his life), and so, he died.
After describing this amazing, unique death the next word Matthew uses in the Greek (which is translated in the NIV as, “At that moment”) is the words, kai idou, which mean, “And look!” or “Behold.” Idou is used throughout the book of Matthew to indicate that something extraordinary and unexpected took place. And, Matthew does not disappoint us here with his use of “idou!” because some of the strangest and most difficult verses to explain and verify in the New Testament follow!
- "The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” – This curtain was made of 72 braids each individually made up of 24 threads twisted together to make a curtain thirty feet wide. This curtain was suddenly shred in two pieces, but the tear began at the top of this sixty foot high curtain and ripped it top to bottom. According to Josephus this curtain hung in front of two gold plated wooden doors of the same height. In Jewish writings about this exact year, 30 AD, forty years before the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD, the Jews record such strange things as the following quote from Yoma 39b in the Talmud: “Our Rabbis taught: During the last forty years before the destruction of the Temple … the doors of the Temple would open by themselves.”
Jewish commentators said, “They would close the gates of the Temple by night and get
up in the morning and find them wide open.” In those days many Jews understood this
as a sign that the time for the fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy in Zechariah 11:1 was near:
“Open your doors, O Lebanon, so that fire may devour your cedars!
The teachers of the Law and the scribes understood this verse from Zechariah to be a prophecy of a day in the future when the Temple would once again be burned. The reference to “Lebanon” was understood to refer to the Temple and the “cedars” were the wooden paneled walls made for the cedar wood taken from the forest of Lebanon. (see Psalm 74:4-5 and 1 Kings 7:1).
The tearing of the curtain could have served as a sign of: 1) coming judgment of 70 AD; 2) the Temple was no longer needed; 3) the way to God was opened as in Hebrews 6:19; 10:19-20; 4) the presence of God had left as in Ezekiel 10; 5) God’s divine presence and revelation had now left the heavenlies and been revealed to mankind.
- “The earth shook” – most likely an earthquake which when accompanied with darkness, which had began three hours earlier at 12:00, as in Amos 8:8-10 served as a sign of great spiritual significance and judgment. Around 30 AD an earthquake damaged the Temple as recorded by Josephus and Jerome.
a. “the rocks split” – Matthew uses the same verb that is translated “split” concerning the rocks as is translated “torn” concerning the curtain.
b. “the tombs broke open” – it appears that the tombs broke open during the shaking of the earth or the earthquake that may have resulted in the tearing of the Temple curtain and the splitting of the rocks recorded by Matthew, and also, the damage to the Temple as recorded by Josephus, Jerome and the Talmud.
- “The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life” – we do not have as many details here as we would like, but this is speaking of a physical resurrection of bodies of holy people, not a mere spiritual appearance of men like Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration. The holy people could be pious Jews from history or it could be people of the contemporary time that had died more recently.
a. “They came out of the tombs” - in order to maintain orthodox theology that matches the rest of the New Testament, it would seem necessary that they came out of the tombs not when the rocks were split at Jesus death, but instead came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection. (1 Cor. 15:20-23; 1 Thes. 4:14)
b. “after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city” - there will be a second earthquake at the time of Jesus’ resurrection according to Matthew 28:2.
c. “appeared to many people” – again, we are left hanging with many questions: Who saw these resurrected saints? What did they say? Did they talk about the underworld in Hades? How long did they continue on earth? Did they vanish after forty days when Jesus ascended into heaven and “led captivity captive?” Surely, they didn’t die again?
Even though there are many details we would like to understand and confirming reports from other sources we would like to access, we must know that Matthew’s point for writing these verses was to tell us two basic principles:
A. Jesus’ death was unique and unlike any other death in history
B. The results of Jesus death and resurrection were astounding and more than worthy of the introductory word “idou!”