by G. Campbell Morgan
There is always the danger that we might read this verse too quickly. We treat it too often as though it were merely the record of something incidental.
As a matter of fact, it is the central verse in the story of the cross. It concerns the very central hours of the experience of the Savior of men. During those hours transactions were accomplished that through all eternity defy the apprehension and explanation of finite minds. Three hours of darkness and of silence—as all the Synoptists record. Man had done his last and his worst.
All of the cries that passed the lips of Jesus beyond the darkness were significant. "My God! My God, why didst Thou forsake Me!" (Matt. 27:46, cf. Ps. 22:1) And then as John is most careful to record for us, "Knowing that all things were now finished, He said, I thirst" (John 19:28). Beyond that came the words of the great proclamation, "It is finished" (John 19:30). And at last the words of the final committal, full of dignity, were spoken: "Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit" (Luke 23:46). Everything was changed beyond the hours of silence and of darkness.
Much which is not warranted by any careful spiritual attention to the story itself has been written about these hours of darkness. Many years ago it was argued that the darkness was that of the sun's eclipse. But that is entirely impossible, for Passover was always held at full moon, when there could be no eclipse of the sun. The darkness has been described as nature's sympathy with the suffering of the Lord, but that is a pagan conception of nature. It has been said that the darkness was brought about by an act of God, and was expressive of His sympathy with His Son, but to declare that that darkness was caused by God because of His sympathy with His Son is to deny the cry of Jesus which immediately followed the darkness: "Thou didst forsake Me."
If I have succeeded in these words spoken in reverent spirit, in suggesting to you the difficulty of those central three hours, then our hearts are prepared for going forward.
I submit that no interpretation of that darkness is to be trusted save that of the Lord who experienced it. Will any word He spoke help us to explain those silent hours? I think the answer is to be found in these narratives, and to that teaching of the Lord we appeal in order that we may consider the meaning of the darkness, and the passing of the darkness, and thereafter attempt reverently to look back at the transaction in the darkness.
What was this darkness? What did it really mean? We shall attempt to discover its meaning in the light of what our Lord Himself said before He passed into the darkness.
Luke records for us the fact that in Gethsemane Jesus said to the man who came to arrest Him, "This is your hour, and the power of darkness" (Luke 22:53). That was a most suggestive word, and I ask you to ponder it most carefully.
At the beginning of our Lord's public ministry, He referred to an hour which was not yet, to an hour which was postponed. During the course of His ministry, you will find that the evangelists more than once allude to the same hour, as to a postponed hour. Men attempted to arrest Him, but they could not because His hour was not yet come. Men desired to encompass His death, but they were unable, because His hour had not yet come. Over and over again, our Lord was looking forward toward some consummating, culminating hour which no man could hurry, and which no man could postpone, until in the economy of God its set time should have come.
One of the profoundest sayings of Jesus in illuminating His own immediate ministry was: "We must work the works of Him that sent Me while it is day. The night cometh when no man can work" (John 9:4). That was the consummating hour to which He looked, the night of darkness that at last would come, in which no man could work, but God alone must work.
Now we come to Gethsemane. The soldiers were about to lay hands on Him and lead Him away to Caiaphas and to Pilate and to Herod, and then to Pilate and to death. Before they did, He said, "This is your hour, and the power of darkness." The hour postponed had arrived, and this was its character. From the sixth hour until the ninth hour there was darkness over all the land. It was the period of the infinite silence, the period of the overwhelming darkness.
In those three hours we see the Savior in the midst of all that which resulted from the action of evil. Not without remarkable suggestiveness did the great Apostle Paul speak in a letter written long afterwards of Satan as "prince of the power of the air" (Eph. 2:2); and not without suggestiveness did he speak of him as presiding over the age as ruler of the darkness. Likewise did John, the beloved apostle, say concerning Jesus that "in Him was life, and the life was the light of men; that the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness apprehended it not, comprehended it not" (John 1:4).
Neither "apprehended" nor "comprehended" means "understood" in this connection. The declaration is not that the darkness did not understand the light, but that the darkness did not extinguish the light. In that very negative declaration of the apostle you are brought face to face with the positive purpose of evil, with the purpose of Satan. What was Satan's supreme desire? To extinguish the Light.
From the very beginning of the shining of that Light, focused in history by the Incarnation, the one supreme purpose of the enemy was to apprehend it, to comprehend it, to extinguish it, to put it out. And in these three hours of darkness we are brought face to face with the time when all the force of evil was brought to bear on the soul of the Son of God, and all the unutterable intent and purpose of evil wrapped Him about in a darkness that is beyond our comprehension.
In that moment there was material darkness. It was the symbol of the empire of sin. Listen to these phrases, and immediately you will see how darkness is indeed a symbol of spiritual evil: "The people which sat in darkness" (Matt. 4:16). "If thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is the darkness!" (Matt. 6:23). "The sons of the kingdom shall be cast forth into the outer darkness" (Matt. 8:12). "Cast ye out the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness" (Matt. 25:30).
Wherever the word occurs in the Gospel of Matthew, and indeed in the New Testament or its equivalent in the Old, it is the symbol of spiritual evil. Darkness is the twin sister of death. Death and darkness express the ultimate in evil. And in this hour, when the Lord Himself was passing to death, there was darkness. That material darkness which impressed the evangelists and the multitudes, and changed their attitude of mind toward Him, was but the outward and visible sign of the more mysterious and unfathomable spiritual darkness into the midst of which He had passed. In the hour of the dying of the Son of God, in that infinite, awful mystery, spiritual evil had its material manifestation in the darkness that settled over all the land. The darkness was of Satan; it was coincident with the ultimate in the suffering of the Son of God.
The Passing of the Darkness
And now, before we ask the most difficult of all questions concerning the transaction of the darkness, let us look once more at the passing of the darkness. In order that we may understand, let us listen again to the four words that passed the lips of the Lord beyond the ninth hour when the darkness was passing away and the light of day was again breaking through on the green hill, on the cross, and on all those Judaean lands. Notice reverently the four cries that escaped His lips.
The first cry was the expression of a backward thought. "My God, My God, why didst Thou forsake Me?" It was the call of Jesus as He emerged from the darkness, and from all that happened therein. It was in itself a revelation, like a flash of light piercing the darkness.
In the next word we have the expression of His immediate experience, in which He in His humanity became supremely conscious, "I thirst."
Almost immediately following it we have: "It is finished."
The final word described a forward glance. As the first word beyond the darkness expressed the backward thought, the last word expressed a forward confidence, "Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit."
We have listened to these words simply in order that we may try to be near Him as the darkness passed, and with all reverence, appreciate something of His thinking. A backward thought, "My God, My God, why didst Thou forsake Me?" An immediate experience within human limitations, "I thirst." Next the spiritual accomplishment, "It is finished." Then the glorious future, "Father into Thy hands I commend My Spirit."
Then He died, not of a broken heart, not of human brutality, not of murder by human hands; but of His own volition He yielded up His Spirit, commended to God, passed to God. The death that saves was not that physical dissolution, but the infinite spiritual mystery of the three hours and the darkness, which being passed, He Himself did say, "It is finished."
In all that remained of the story beyond the hours of darkness, Satan seems to have been absent. There were only loving disciple hands that took Him from the cross, wrapped Him round, and buried Him, giving Him the temporary resting place of a garden tomb. In death He was wonderfully preserved from all dishonor.
Where was Satan? In Colossians 2:15 we find this written concerning Christ: "Having put off from Himself the principalities and the powers, He made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it." In the deep darkness, and in the midst of the silence, He triumphed over the forces of evil, the principalities and powers, and made a show of them openly by the cross, putting off from Himself all that assaulted Him in, and by, and through the darkness.
So, finally, we come to the most impossible subject of all, the transaction within the darkness. We admit that this can have no final exposition. Every aspect of the infinite whole is larger than we can know. God cannot finally be expressed in finite terms. "The stone which the builders rejected is become the head of the corner. This is the Lord's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes" (Matt. 21:42). It cannot be explained; it is the perpetual marvel. God have mercy on any child of God if the day comes in which he has not to sing, "Love so amazing, so divine." When the amazement dies out, it is not that the cross has been analyzed, but that the gazer upon it has become blind.
Yet we may gain some light from the words of the Lord as He emerged from the darkness. We remember the word we have in Matthew 4:16: "The people which sat in darkness." Into that darkness the Son of God experientially passed. "The sons of the kingdom shall be cast forth into outer darkness" (Matt. 8:12). The Son of God passed into that outer darkness.
I have no answer as to what happened. I know only this, that in that hour of darkness He passed into the place of the ultimate wrestling of evil in actual experience. There is light as I hear the final word, "Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit," for the word declares that whatever the transaction was, it was accomplished; that whatever the dying indicated, it was done.
Let us go a little further back, before the darkness, and listen to the chief priests who joined in the hellish clamor that beat on the suffering soul of the dying Savior. Among other things, they said, "He saved others; Himself He cannot save" (Matt. 27:42). That brings me nearer than anything else. Those were wonderful hours of the transmutation of basest things to high and noble things. That was the last taunt of His enemies; it has become the most illuminative word about the cross.
Hear it again as a truth sublime and awful: because He saved others, He cannot save Himself. In order to save others He will not save Himself. The rabble and the rabbis said, "Let Him come down from the cross" (27:42). He did not come down from the cross, He went up from the cross. The great Priest who already had burned the incense in the holiest place bore the symbolic mystery of His own shed blood into the holy place. But before He could do so, He passed into the darkness and abode in the silence three hours, and in those three hours He could not save Himself because His heart was set upon saving others.
He might have saved Himself. He might never have gone to Gethsemane's garden. He might even in Gethsemane's garden have asked for twelve legions of angels, as He Himself did say. He might with one glance of His shining glory have swept the rabble from about the cross and descended to the deliverance of Himself. If He had spoken in terms of power He might have saved Himself. But He could not save Himself because He is God, and because God is love, and love is never satisfied with the destruction of a sinner, but with the saving of a sinner.
Love could find no other way because sin knows no ending save by that way. The conscience of men demands that, the experience of men demands that. I base the twofold affirmation on the testimonies of the centuries and the millenniums. I base the affirmation on what I know within my own soul of sin. My conscience cries for a cleansing that is more than a sentiment of pity. Somehow, somewhere, in order that I may have forgiveness, there must be tragedy, something mightier than the devilish sin.
I do not know what happened in the darkness, but this I know, that as I have come to the cross and received the suggestions of its material unveiling, I have found my heart, my spirit, my life brought into a realm of healing spices, to the consciousness of the forgiveness of sins. And there is no other way and there is no other gospel of forgiveness.
In the darkness He saved not Himself, but He saved me. Out of the darkness has come a light. The word spoken to Cyrus long ago has been fulfilled in the spiritual glory to the Son of God, "I will give thee the treasures of darkness" (Isa. 45:3). And because fulfilled to the Son of God by the Father who loved Him, and wrought with Him through the mystery of His forsaking, the word has been fulfilled also to the sons of God who are born not of blood, nor of man, nor of the will of the flesh, but of God. He gives us the treasures of darkness.
From the sixth hour until the ninth hour there was darkness over all the land, and from the darkness have come the treasures of pardon, and peace, of power, and of purity.