“It was about the sixth hour, and there was a darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour” (Luke 23:44). This is the first of the remarkable signs that accompanied the death of Christ. There were the rending of the veil of the temple, the great earthquake, and the opening of the graves of many saints, but first there were these three hours of darkness.
This darkness commenced around midday, when the sun would have been at its brightest. Some have surmised that there was an eclipse of the sun, but that is impossible. First, Christ was crucified at Passover time, which was at the full moon, when a solar eclipse is impossible. Second, an eclipse doesn’t last long enough to produce three hours of darkness at any particular spot. So there was no eclipse. God sent the darkness. It was supernatural.
The darkness spread over “all the earth.” Translating Matthew’s account, the Authorized Version says the darkness was “over all the land,” and many argue that it extended only over Israel or even just the area around Jerusalem. Though the Greek noun gē may refer to either the earth or a region of it, the context here demands that we understand this darkness as universal. Why? The answer is simple: Luke immediately explains the reason for the darkness. He says, “The sun was darkened” (verse 45). From very ancient times that was understood to mean that “the sun was failing,” a reading that crept even into some very ancient manuscripts. The cause of the darkness lay in the sun’s “failing” so that the entire part of the earth that should have been in daylight was plunged into darkness.
Darkness: A message of judgment
Why would God have sent such a darkness on the earth? Many reasons have been suggested, but one has the clear support of Scripture. The darkness provided a powerful sign that God was acting in judgment, for in Scripture darkness is a frequent sign of divine judgment. Describing the day of judgment and wrath, the Bible associates the judgment with darkness. Joel says, “The sun shall be turned to darkness …. The sun and the moon shall be darkened, and the stars shall withdraw their shining” (2:31; 3:15). Isaiah makes the same association (5:30; 13:9–11). The Lord Jesus prophesied, “After the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened … : and then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in the heaven” (Matthew 24:29–30), and He described hell as “outer darkness” (Matthew 8:12). The apostle Peter records that the angels that fell are reserved in chains of darkness unto the final judgment, a destiny that is reserved for apostates forever (2 Peter 2:4, 17). So we can be sure that darkness at Calvary tells us that God was working in judgment.
Darkness: A message of grace
But here God’s judgment is not falling on guilty sinners. They throng the cross, even mocking the Son of God in His sufferings, but God does not strike them down in wrath. No, at Calvary His judgment falls on His own dear Son. He who did not spare the angels that sinned, nor Sodom and the cities of the plain, “spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all” (Romans 8:32). Darkness shrouded Sinai when God gave the law, and darkness surrounded Golgotha as our Saviour paid the penalty of the broken law and so delivered us from its curse (Galatians 1:4;
3:13). Thus the darkness sounds out the word of gospel grace: God “made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
The darkness lifted once Christ finished the work of atonement. That is a glorious truth. It tell us that “there is therefore now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). When God dealt with His Son in the deep darkness of Calvary He exhausted His wrath against the sins of His people on Him. “Jesus paid it all.” He left no wrath for any of His people to bear. And to prove it, He rose again from the dead (Romans 4:25).
Darkness: A warning
“God spared not his own Son,” though He was personally sinless, because He “bare our sins in his own body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). That should make every sinner shudder, for it tells us that God is holy and will judge sin wherever He finds it. For those who are “in Christ” the darkness of judgment is past, but for those who reject Christ outer darkness awaits. Let every one of us be sure to flee to Him who alone can bring us “out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Peter 2:9).
Dr. Alan Cairns is minister emeritus of Faith Free Presbyterian Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and the founder of Let the Bible Speak.