Dear radio friends,
The Scripture that we consider today on the Reformed Witness Hour is found in Matthew 27:51. There we read: “And the earth did quake, and the rocks rent.”
No sooner were the lips of Jesus of Nazareth silenced in death than God came forward to speak in a language all His own — a language powerful, awesome, eloquent, and clear. He did not speak in Latin, Greek, or Hebrew as Pilate had written above the cross. He spoke in the language of miracle, a language that silenced men, a language forceful and comforting. All could understand and hear, even if they put their fingers in their ears. God spoke and all heard. He spoke in a language of the blessing of the dying Christ. The earth quaked and the rocks were rent.
The taunts of men at the cross had implied that God was not at Calvary. They had said to Jesus, “Let God deliver him if he will have him.” They believed that God was absent from Calvary. Jesus’ cry at the end of the darkness might have given the impression that God had abandoned Him: “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” He cried out. However, no sooner did God’s Son yield up the ghost than God speaks. God made it plain that He was there and that everything at the cross was under His control and serving His purpose.
God spoke, as I said, in a language universal and powerful. The earth did quake and the rocks rent. That is, at the moment that God’s Son cried out, “It is finished,” and He commended His spirit into the hands of the Father, there was an earthquake and the rocks around Calvary were torn in two.
Do you know what God was saying in that? He was saying, “All who, by grace, believe.” He was saying that God is now present with us in the power and the victory of salvation. And He was saying that there is but one place of refuge and safety in the God of our salvation in Jesus Christ. And He was also saying to all who reject the gospel and live in impenitence that there is a certain judgment to come under the wrath of God upon all those who reject His Son who has died upon Calvary.
What did it mean? We read that the earth did quake and the rocks rent.
Remember, it happened at the very moment that Jesus gave His spirit into the mighty hands of God. The Holy Spirit is directing us to the timing of this event. “Jesus, when He had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost. And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain … and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent.” At the moment in time that the full payment for sin had been made, at the last breath of Jesus (He is dead, His works are finished upon the cross), at that moment, God shook the earth. And I hold to the interpretation that the word “earth” is to be taken in the same sense as the miracle of the three hours of darkness that “covered the whole earth.” We read in Luke 23:44, “And there was a darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour.” It was felt, that darkness, in the temple, where the priests in the Holy Place were ministering the evening sacrifices. In the Holy of Holies — there was darkness there. It was felt by all at Golgotha. But now also this earthquake was felt by all on the earth — in Jerusalem, in the high priest’s house, in Herod’s palace, in Pilate’s judgment hall, yes. But over the earth — in Rome (perhaps Caesar at that moment presiding over the Roman Senate), in Egypt’s pyramids, in Greece (at the Parthenon), in Gaul, in Asia where no man wandered. God arose, and He shook the earth the moment His Son had laid down His life for our sins.
The word “earthquake” is the standard word used in Scripture. The meaning you will grasp when I say it in the Greek: seismos. We get from it our word “seismograph,” an instrument that measures the intensity of an earthquake. It was of great magnitude, this earthquake. Everyone felt it. We read in verse 54 of Matthew 27, “Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God.” They saw, not felt. They felt it, too. But the earth behaves like waves in an earthquake, moving up and down as if it were sea. He saw the earthquake. All experienced this earthquake, and they agreed there is no word to describe it. It reminded them of their littleness, of their dependency, of God’s presence, of God’s power. That is always true of an earthquake, when the ground is moved under the feet of man by the hand of God.
We are also told that the rocks were rent. That is, they were broken apart, they were cracked open. This was a separate act of God. It was not to be considered simply the result of the earthquake, when the shelves of the earth or boulders collide and break against each other. But rocks, boulders, granite slabs were broken open. They were rent. This is the same word as the veil of the temple was rent, torn, in twain.
Remember that Golgotha, the mound where they crucified our Lord, was a rocky outcropping resembling a skull — something like Little Roundtop or the Devil’s Den, if you have ever been to Gettysburg, the place where many huge rocks are scattered around. And those rocks that were scattered around Golgotha were burst apart, were cracked in half, were broken as eggs. The moment God’s Son yielded up the ghost, when He had ceased the work of making a payment for our sins, when it had all been accomplished — at that moment God’s hand shook the planet earth and God broke rocks into pieces.
What was God saying?
It is very plain that at its simplest level God was giving His Amen to something. God was marking something. God was drawing everyone’s attention to the fact that some glorious thing has been accomplished. God gets man’s attention. God drew the earth’s attention to the fact that a great work had been accomplished. It is as if God would say to the world, “Wake up! Jar yourself out of earthly stupor. I have done something for my church.” So He arose and He shook the earth and He tore apart rocks. And, in love, God says now to the church: “Pay attention to what has just happened. My Son has given up the ghost. He has died upon Calvary’s cross. The great and the only good for you has now been accomplished. The sacrifice for sin has been made.” God stops the world in its tracks and God, in love, gets the church’s attention.
Look and behold what has happened.
But, specifically, what is God saying? What does it mean?
Before I answer that, I want you to think, for a moment, of our day that has grown exceedingly dull of hearing what God says when He speaks through the creation. The theory of evolution not only blinds men’s eyes to the glory of God in the creation, but also makes men’s ears hard of hearing and deaf when God speaks in the creation through what is called natural disasters. Evolution is the attempt to silence the voice of God in the creation. In our Lord’s day and in ages gone by, men knew that God was speaking through catastrophes upon the earth in the creation. And He was speaking about repentance. But now sin has progressed and the lie of evolution has been received.
The Romans and the unbelieving Jews in that day knew that an earthquake was the speech of God. They did not interpret it right. They did not listen. They did not obey. But they knew this much: that God spoke in the fire and that God spoke in the earthquake. The pagan Roman world was superstitious. Mount Vesuvius erupts and they run to the temples to sacrifice to appease their idol gods. The Jews believe that when something like that happened it was because those people were worse sinners than other sinners.
And today, men are worse than beasts. A cow can hear God speak in an earthquake and in thunder and in fire and take cover. A cow at least gets the point a little bit. But foolish man does not. The earth quakes and he responds: “All operates by natural law. Let’s take out our seismograph and let’s measure it. It doesn’t mean anything when God shakes the ground.” The false priesthood of science tries to comfort mankind and says, “This is not saying anything about your soul. This is not saying anything about God. This does not say that you are in God’s hands.”
God was speaking in the earthquake.
And in the last day God will speak through the great earthquake when He shakes the earth, and He will get man’s attention.
In this earthquake God was speaking a word of comfort to His church. The earthquake meant that the presence of the God of covenant in all of His majesty and grace was now risen upon all those who believe. The earthquake powerfully reminds us of God’s presence — that God is ever-present in power and in might and in majesty and in glory. It reminds us of all of His power and mercy unto us — that He is the God of covenant mercy who draws near to us in saving grace. The earthquake at the death of Christ said, “I’m at Calvary.” God said, “My presence and My purpose is attained. I have come now in the fullness of salvation.”
But, secondly, it was (and this also must be understood) a word of God’s righteous judgment and anger. God was saying that He is present, now upon the basis of Christ crucified, as the Judge of all unbelief and wickedness. The earthquake is God’s Word that God holds men in His hand and will judge all wickedness and all unbelief and all rejection of His Son with dreadful fury. That is the Scriptures.
You will find that throughout the Old Testament prophets and throughout the book of Revelation. In Isaiah 13:13 for instance, we read, “Therefore I will shake the heavens, and the earth shall remove out of her place, in the wrath of the LORD of hosts, and in the day of his fierce anger.” When God shakes the earth it is always a symbol that He is present to judge and will take men up in His hands in judgment. So we read in Hebrews 12 that it is a fearful and frightening thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
When the earth quaked at the death of Jesus, God was speaking. God was saying, “Something has happened that forever shall affect the course of history and all eternity. My Son has brought the payment for the sins of My people. They are forgiven. I am present. I am present in My crucified Son and in covenant nearness to bless my people. And I am present as the Judge of all the earth, of all men, to judge men by Jesus Christ and to pour out My righteousness and My fury upon all those who stand in wicked rejection of Jesus.” Hear what God says.
God speaks just as powerfully now as then. We can hear the message of the earthquake even more clearly than when it first happened. We have the entire Scriptures. We have the Word of God. Listen, child of God, to the Amen of God. Transport yourself back to the scene of the cross, as given in Scripture, to 3 P.M. on Friday afternoon, after three hours of pitch darkness are passed, ending with the words of Jesus crying out, “It is finished.” He has sucked the vinegar out of the sponge. He has uttered His cry of victory. He commends His spirit to God’s hands, and He gives up the ghost. Then the earth shakes and the rocks are split open. God was saying “Amen.” The ransom has been made, the guilt has been removed. The condemnation has been obliterated. God was saying, “I call earth and sea, mountains and men, Roman civilization and all creatures, to witness. My Son has redeemed My chosen church. Amen,” says the Lord, “So let it be! It is done, My Son.”
You may read in the book of Revelation, and you will note that whenever God has accomplished some great thing in redemption — the ascension of Jesus Christ, the return of Christ in judgment — that the book of Revelation introduces it with the words, “The sound of thunder and the quaking of rocks and the earth did quake.” God speaks through the creation. God has stamped His approval upon the cross.
Do you hear that?
You say, as a struggling child of God (and I am speaking now to a struggling child of God, not to one who is deceitful with God, not to one who is coldly indifferent toward God, but to a struggling child of God), you say, “My sin.” You see only your sin. You find no reason for God to love you. You find no reason for any hope to be in you of salvation. You look within yourself in the way the devil wants you to look into yourself, and the attempt to try to find something in yourself to base your salvation upon. And you find yourself hollow and empty and vile and evil within.
Now listen. I hear God speaking. I hear Him speaking as only He can speak. I hear Him speaking by His Spirit. He speaks in the death of Jesus: “I have loved you with an everlasting love. I have given My own Son for you. I have not spared Him but delivered Him up for you that you might have life.”
Then I speak to a child of God who is going through trials. And in those trials the voice of your fears is heard and you say, “My cherished hopes are all lost, and my way is only a way of heartache and strewn with difficulty.” Then perhaps, with Jacob, you say, “The Lord is against me,” or your say with the psalmist, “My way is hid from the Lord.” Listen. One thing is as true as God Himself is true. One thing cannot be changed. One thing abides. The sins of God’s people are paid in full. Listen as God speaks in the earthquake and as He breaks the rocks: “My righteousness shall stand. My Son has triumphed. Rest your soul.”
But then also hear Him speak as He says, “I am present in covenant mercy.” The experience of the living presence of God is something of which we are so deficient by nature. We focus and rivet our thoughts upon men and the things of this present life. But what about the wonders of God and His glory, of His grace and mercy and holiness and power? To see these things, we so often need to be jarred, do we not? We need to be jarred into reality.
God shakes the earth in order that you might be reminded of how great His hands are, of how little you are, but how great He is and His word of salvation in Jesus Christ. And God says, through that earthquake, “I am now with you with the crucified Savior and I am present with you in all the power of My salvation in Jesus Christ.”
To be in the presence of God through Jesus Christ is an awesome thing. As a mighty earthquake, God has paid my debt. God has made me free. What an awesome and profound truth that is.
Also hear this word: God comes in judgment upon all unbelief and wickedness. Apart from the cross of Jesus Christ there can only be terror. The great fear is not terrorists. It is not bombs. It is not biological poisons. But it is this: to stand before the one, only, living, holy God in sin and unbelief. We read in Hebrews 10:27, then there would only be “a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries.” In the earthquake we hear God saying that He comes in judgment upon all ungodliness and all unbelief of men, in which He shall consume it and destroy it. The judgment upon the sins of God’s people has taken place. Now all those who stand in rejection of this Jesus Christ, that cross says to them that the judgment of the Son of God will fall upon them. On the basis of Christ crucified, men are judged. The cross saves all who, by grace, repent and believe through grace. And it condemns and is the power of death unto death in all those who continue in sin and unbelief.
Repent and believe the gospel. Only the gospel is salvation. Only the very Son of God upon the cross, dying for our sins — there is salvation nowhere else. Through that cross God has accomplished all of His purposes. He has triumphed. Therefore, we do not stand in fear. For we stand upon the rock of the everlasting love and salvation of God. When God sent the earthquake, we hear Him speaking. Perfect salvation and certain victory is ours in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Let us pray.
Father, we again thank Thee for Thy Word. We pray that it may enter, by the power of the Holy Spirit, into our hearts today. Turn us from our sin and cause this glorious gospel to go forth to conquer and to bring to repentance Thy children into fullness of trust in Him, our crucified and risen Lord. We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.