Why was there darkness before Jesus died?

Why was there darkness before Jesus died?

A series of very strange things happened around the time of the death of Jesus on the cross. While he was hanging on the cross, it became dark like night-time in the middle of the day, from around midday to 3 p.m. (Matt 27:45). That would be incredibly creepy. At the time when the light was usually the brightest, it was darkness instead.

Many have approached this event by trying to work out the way that it could have happened. Maybe it was an eclipse? Well, no. This happened at Passover time, which meant a full moon, so an eclipse was impossible. In any case, a solar eclipse doesn’t lead to darkness for three hours. We’re not told the mechanism that God used to do this. Obviously this doesn’t usually happen and cannot easily be explained, yet we believe that God controls all things and can most certainly do something like this.

The real question to ask is what it means. Why would God do something so odd? Matthew doesn’t stop to explain it; he only reports it. As readers of the gospel, we should be asking if there is anywhere in the Old Testament that might help us understand this. And there is; in fact, with this event, there are two important places to look.

  1. The ninth plague in Egypt

When God was about to save his people from slavery in Egypt, he sent a series of ten plagues on the Egyptians. They progressively became worse and worse. The ninth of these plagues was the plague of darkness. For three days, complete darkness came over the land, a darkness that could be felt (Ex 10:21). This was the second last plague, the one that immediately preceded the death of the firstborn, the Passover lamb.

We see all kinds of connections from this passage to Jesus’ death. The darkness lasted three hours (linked to the three days), and it came immediately before Jesus’ death. God is making sure we join the dots. Jesus’ death is just like the Passover, the tenth plague. We have no hope except that one dies in our place to save us.

  1. The prophecy about God’s judgment from Amos

Later on in the Bible story, we get a prophecy about God’s future judgement in Amos, which reads like this:

9 “And on that day,” declares the Lord GOD, “I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight. 10 I will turn your feasts into mourning and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on every waist and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son and the end of it like a bitter day. (Amos 8:9-10 ESV)

Amos was writing about a coming day of God’s judgement. The sun going down at noon, the mention of a feast time, and the mourning as for an only son make it impossible not to see the connection to Jesus. Jesus’ death is also the place of God’s judgement, where sin is paid for, a time of mourning and bitterness.


Putting it together

So, how do these Old Testament passages help us to understand the darkness before Jesus’ death? God is showing us that Jesus’ death is both the place to find His salvation and His judgement. Like in Exodus, Jesus’ death is the place where his people can be saved, knowing that One is sacrificed in their place. Like in Amos, Jesus’ death is where God’s judgement is centred; our sins are poured out on Jesus instead of us.

God is the same God in the Old Testament and the New. A God who saves his people who don’t deserve it, and who requires all sin to be paid for. That is what we see at the cross. How incredible!