Luke 23: 44-49 – Death of Jesus Christ on the Cross

The Passion narrative comes to its climax in the description of Jesus’ death. Two extraordinary events occur at his death – darkness over the whole land and the rending of the Temple veil (Lk 23: 44-45). As he dies Jesus makes a perfect self-surrender to the Father (God) (Lk 23: 46). The death of Jesus has its effects on those who stand by. The Roman centurion proclaims: “CErtanily this man was innocent” (Lk 23: 47). He is yet another witness to the innocence of Jesus, and the crowds that gathered to see the sight become repentant (Lk 23: 48). Jesus is not abandoned at his death by his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee. ‘They stood at a distance and saw these things’ (Lk 23: 49). Luke had already mentioned s similar detail in Luke 23: 35, and he will repeat it in a similar fashion in his description of the burial of Jesus (cf. Lk 23: 55).

The death narrative in Luke 23: 44-49 is based on gospel of Mark 15: 33-41. However, Luke has made certain omissions and redaction changes of his parallel. While gospel of Mark records the rending of the Temple veil after Jesus’ death, gospel of Luke has it, together with the extraordinary phenomenon of darkness at noon, before the death of Jesus as a dramatic setting for the death itself. Both “darkness at noon” and “the rending of the veil” are to be understood symbolically. ‘Darkness’ is a prophetic and apocalyptic symbol which expresses God’s wrath on the Day of Judgment, on “the Day of Yahweh” (cf. Amos 8: 9; Joel 2: 10; Is 13: 9-10 etc). Probably this is the meaning of ‘darkness’ at the moment of Jesus’ death in Mark’s gospel. But in the Lukan context this need not be the primary meaning of the symbol. In gospel of Luke “darkness over the whole land” (Lk 23: 44) may represent the forces of evil, Satan and Satanic power. It may refer more to the “power of darkness” (Lk 22: 53), to Satan and the manifestation of Satanic forces (cf. Lk 22: 3, 31-32). It must be added here that the meaning of the “darkness over the land” in gospel of Luke 23: 44 remains uncertain. Some scholars suggest, especially in view of the Lukan explanatory note “while the Sun’s light failed” (Lk 23: 45), that an eclipse of the Sun caused darkness at noon. (An eclipse of the Sun at the full moon, the date of the Passover, is impossible). Others think of sirocco wind, namely, sand-laden wind obscuring the Sun! According to other views, the two extraordinary events attending Jesus’ death are expressions of universal grief. None of these view is convincing, and we must remember that the evangelists are using certain imageries of the Old Testament associated with the “Day of the Lord.” Here again, it should be noted that symbols, by their very nature, are polyvalent and therefore different meanings can be attributed to them.

The “rending of the Temple veil” is perhaps easier to interpret than the “darkness” at noon. The question about the identity of the veil, whether it was the veil that separated the Holy of Holies from the Holy place (cf. Ex 26: 31-33) or it was the curtain in front of the Holy place, is rather speculative. The rending of the veil may symbolize the free access to the intimate presence of God made possible to all by the death of Jesus.

As he dies, Jesus surrenders himself to the Father (God). The last words of Jesus before his death are words of prayer addressed to His Father (God) in self-surrender: “Father into your hands I commit my spirit” (Lk 23: 46). In gospel of Mark 15: 34 Jesus cries out: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus, who was abandoned by his disciples, mocked and derided as he hung on the Cross seems to experience even the absence of God and therefore he cries out: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk 15: 34). This, however, is not the case in Luke’s gospel. Here Jesus is not abandoned either by God or by his friends (Lk 23: 49); on the contrary he experiences the presence of his Father (God), and lovingly commits himself to the Father (God) at the moment of his death (cf. Ps 31: 5).

Jesus’ death had its effects on those who witnessed it. Nothing is said about the chief priests and others who brought Jesus to the Cross. Luke mentions the declaration of the Roman official, the attitude of the crowds, and the presence of Jesus’ acquaintances. The declaration of the Roman centurion in gospels of Matthew and Mark is a confession faith: “Truly this man was the Son of God” (Mk 15: 39; Mt 27: 54). In gospel of Luke, however, his declaration is an acknowledgement of Jesus’ innocence: “Indeed, this man was innocent” (Lk 23: 47). The pagan official is yet another witness to Jesus’ innocence. His declaration of Jesus’ innocence is itself his praise of God. The word used here means “glorifying.” The centurion recognizes in Jesus the innocent man whose martyr’s death itself is a glory for God. Luke concludes his account of Jesus’ death by mentioning the crowd who became repentant (Lk 23: 48) and the presence of Jesus’ friends who witnessed “these things.”

According to gospel of Luke Jesus dies peacefully, forgiving and praying to his Father (God). His death is witnessed by his own acquaintances and the woman from Galilee and by a repentant crowd. That Jesus through his Passion, Death, and Resurrection will become the source of Salvation to all is the theme which Luke will elaborate in the next chapter and in the Acts of the Apostles.

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26 thoughts on “Luke 23: 44-49 – Death of Jesus Christ on the Cross

  1. thanks for writing this article. Quick question: what evidence is there that the rending of the veil and the sun’s darkness are to be taken figuratively rather than literally?

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