Luke 23:44–49

As Jesus hung dying on the cross, the world was plunged into darkness. While the midday sun failed, the Son of God achieved perfect victory in His work of atonement. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his expositional series in the gospel of Luke and reflects on the dark day of our Savior’s death.


We will continue with our study of the gospel according to Saint Luke. I will be reading from Luke 23:44–49 and ask the congregation please to stand for the reading of the Word of God:

It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last. Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, saying, “Certainly this man was innocent!” And all the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts. And all his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance watching these things.

This is just a small portion of the biblical record of the death of our Savior in His atonement. These words are given to us by the superintendence and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of truth. I pray that you will receive them as the truth of God Himself. Be seated. Let us pray.

Our Father and our God, we marvel at what transpired that day in Jerusalem. Even with the light of Your supernatural revelation given to us in sacred Scripture, we can hardly begin to comprehend it. We plead for Your help in understanding and embracing these things for our salvation. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

The Light of Creation

Luke 23:44 tells us what time it was: “It was now about the sixth hour.” In antiquity, the Jewish people counted the hours beginning at six a.m. Luke is telling us that what took place at the sixth hour was at twelve noon. This lasted until the ninth hour, or three o’clock in the afternoon.

Before I comment on this text in Luke 23, let me go back for a moment in time to the first page of sacred Scripture. We call the whole Bible the Word of God, and indeed it is, but I want to look for a moment at the very first words in the Bible that came from the lips of God.

The Old Testament Scriptures begin, as you all know, with the words, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” It goes on to say, in that primordial situation, “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep”—formlessness, emptiness, and a total impenetrable darkness. The Spirit of God hovered on the waters and, for the first time in recorded history, God spoke.

Do you remember what God said? He uttered a commandment, a divine imperative, a divine fiat where He spoke into this darkness and said, “Let there be light.” There was no hesitation at that moment. No sooner had the words escaped the lips of God than the lights came on.

Remember, beloved, this was before God made the sun. This was before He made the moon. This was before there was a single star shining in the sky, but the power of the voice of God was enough to vanquish this impenetrable darkness.

The source of that light at creation was probably the same source of life we are told of in the final chapters of the book of Revelation. In the new heaven and the new earth, there will be no temple, no lamp, no artificial lighting, no sun, no moon, and no stars, for the glory of God and of the Lamb will be its light. At the dawn of creation, the first act of the Creator was to call out of nothing, out of the darkness, a glorious and victorious light.

The Failure of the Sun

I started on page one in the first book of Genesis because when we get to our text, we see the polar opposite. We see the exact antithesis of what took place at the dawn of creation; the cycle was completely reversed. At noonday, twelve o’clock, when the sun was at its apogee, God said, “Let it be dark.” This darkness came ex nihilo, out of nothing—not from an astronomical perturbation, not from an extended solar eclipse, but by divine, supernatural fiat and command, the world was plunged again into utter darkness.

We read in verse 44: “It was now about the sixth hour,” high noon, “and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour.” Three hours of absolute darkness, during which the sun’s light failed. This was the first day in history after God created the sun for a specific task and purpose, to bring warmth and light to the planet, that this created orb failed in its duty.

Every day since the creation of the world, the sun has been shining. You do not always see it in its full strength; it can be hidden by the darkness of the clouds, or temporarily by a solar eclipse, or you could live at the polar ice cap in the north or the south and experience a perpetual winter and a perpetual time of darkness. There is a reason that is the most sparsely populated region of the world—because of the absence of the sun’s normal function. On the day Christ died, the sun, S-U-N, failed. The Son, S-O-N, was victorious over heaven and over hell.

The Darkness of Judgment

Beloved, any time we see the metaphor of darkness in sacred Scripture, it is associated with a judgment of God. In all the types and shadows of the Old Testament and the celebration of the Day of Atonement, the high priest transferred the sins of the people to the back of the scapegoat and dismissed it outside the borders of the encampment of the people of God. It was sent into the wilderness, what was called “the outer darkness.”

When the full measure of the judgment of God against evil fell upon His beloved Son, when His beloved Son was sent into the wilderness outside the camp, outside the city, being cursed entirely by the Father, God turned out the lights. The crowd had been mocking, taunting, and tormenting Jesus, saying: “If you are the Christ, get down off the cross. You saved others; can you not save yourself?” When this event took place, every one of the taunts, mockeries, and torments were stopped instantly. Every mouth was silenced as the people were plunged into total darkness. They were there to watch the spectacle, to laugh at Jesus at high noon and see Him exposed to humiliation, when suddenly, they could not see their hands in front of their faces.

Do you have any idea how terrified this multitude was? It was not a momentary blotting of the sun. It lasted across the whole land for three solid hours. They trembled. They could hear Jesus talk, but they could not see Him anymore.

A Barrier to Paradise

Then the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Thirty feet high and forty-five feet wide, the temple curtain was the wall of partition between the Holy Place in the temple and the Sanctum Sanctorum, the Holy of Holies, where only the high priest could go once a year on the Day of Atonement, and even then, only after going through elaborate rituals of cleansing.

Let us again go back to the early pages of Genesis, to the dawn of creation, when God breathed into the dirt of Adam and Adam became a living soul. Then He created a helpmate suitable for Adam. From his rib, He made his wife, Eve.

The first foreboding tension we encounter is in Genesis 3, as we read, “And the serpent was craftier and more subtle than all of the beasts of the field.” You know the story. The serpent slithered into the garden of Eden and asked a simple question: “Did God say that you should not eat of any tree in the garden, and that if you did, you would surely die?”

That was not what God said. The serpent knew that was not what He said. Adam and Eve knew it was not what God said, but they were tricked and tempted and succumbed to the temptation. Suddenly their eyes were opened, and they were naked and ashamed. This was the first time in human history that man and woman sought out the darkness. They looked for a place to hide, a place where the gaze of God would not penetrate. Because of their nakedness and because of their shame, Adam and Eve hid themselves.

When the Creator came in the cool of the evening, He called to His creatures, saying, “Adam, where are you?” The voice replied: “We’re hiding because we’re ashamed. We’re ashamed of our nakedness.” “How do you know you’re naked? Did you eat of that tree?” Of course they had, and the first act of God’s redeeming grace was to cover His shamed creatures with skins from animals to hide their guilt.

That covering was an act of mercy, but what followed was an act of judgment; God expelled and banished Adam and Eve from Paradise. He made them leave and go to live east of Eden. Not only that, but for the first time in human history, God appointed an earthly government. He assigned a sentinel, an angel with a flaming sword, to guard the entrance to Paradise, lest Adam and Eve try to re-enter. A sign was posted on Paradise: “No admission; no entrance here,” because they were expelled into the darkness.

The Veil Torn Down

Throughout Jewish history, the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the immediate presence of God was symbolized in the pages of the Old Testament through the construction first of the tabernacle, then of the temple, where this wall of partition was made from several layers of cloth. It was not made of wood or gold that could be smashed with sledgehammers. Anybody who wanted to destroy that wall of separation, if they sent blows against it, the plied cloth would simply give.

On this final Day of Atonement, the curtain in the temple was torn—not by an earthquake, not from the ground up, but by the hand of God from the top down, as if the Lord God omnipotent reached down. Because of the atoning work of Jesus Christ, He took the veil of the temple and ripped it. He tore down the sign that said no admittance.

All who are covered by the righteousness of Christ and justified by His life and death would have the resolve, as the Apostle Paul declared, that being justified, we have peace with God and access into His presence. The sentinel that stood at the gates of Paradise had his flaming sword extinguished and put back in his scabbard as he was dismissed from service. For the first time since the fall, we could go home, without shame or fear, to the presence of God.

I love the “Highland Hymn” that we sang today; never mind that I wrote the words. I love it anyway, if for no other reason than the music that was composed to go along with it:

Lutes will sing
Pipers play
When we see Him face to face

The curtain was torn, the bar removed, and we once again have access to our God.

Jesus’ Last Words on the Cross

Finally, Luke tells us, “Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’” Seven times Jesus spoke from the cross, at least that were recorded. No one gospel writer mentions all of them, but this, presumably, was the last one. With His last breath, He made a commitment to the Father.

I remember when my father died, I was there. I heard the death rattle during his coma, and I listened to his breathing as it became more and more shallow. You would expect that in the last moment of Jesus’ life, whatever He would say would be hardly audible at all as He spoke with His last breath. But did you read what Luke said? Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit!”

Jesus committed His spirit into the hands of the One who had just poured out every drop of wrath upon Him, into the hands of the Father who had put this curse upon Him. This was like Job but infinitely magnified. Job had said, “Though Thou kill me, yet will I trust you.” Here, Jesus said, “Regardless of the torture, regardless of the wrath, Father, I commit My soul to You.”

He Breathed His Last

Jesus breathed His last. Almost as if concluding a scientific footnote, Luke adds, “Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God”—not Caesar, not Zeus; he praised the God of heaven and earth and said—“Certainly this man was innocent!” He did not say, “I think He was innocent,” or, “I hope He was innocent,” or, “Maybe He was innocent.” No, he said, “Certainly,” echoing the very judgment of Pontius Pilate: “I find no fault in this man.”

“All the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle, when they saw what had taken place,” listen to what Luke tells us: they went home, not “licking their chops,” but “beating their breasts,” which was an indication of fear and trembling among them. After what they witnessed when the lights came back on, what they heard of the commitment of Jesus, when it was over, they went home in self-torment, beating their breasts. All His acquaintances and the women who followed Him from Galilee stood at a distance watching these things.

I believe, beloved, in the inerrancy of sacred Scripture. I know there are many scholars and theologians who do not, but I do, categorically and unequivocally. One might quibble about a possible error found here in the text because Luke recorded that Jesus breathed His last, and He did breathe His last before He died. But the rest of the story says He did not breathe His last, because He breathed again.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.