The Passion of the Servant, Part Five
Topic: Gospels Passage: Mark 15:1–47
Back in the early-70s a series of hour-long documentaries appeared on television that dramatically depicted some of the major events of history. Apparently, there were not enough “history-geeks” like me who appreciated them, because the program was short-lived in duration, producing only a dozen or so episodes.
The program was called Appointment with Destiny, and—for its time—it was reasonably well acted and presented. The scenes were filmed to look as authentic as possible, black-and-white footage while a narrator described what was taking place. One of the episodes was entitled “The Crucifixion of Jesus.” Forty years can affect a person’s memory in terms of recalling the details of a television program, but the scenes in which Jesus was prominent made him appear to be the weak and helpless victim of circumstances. In other words, his “appointment with destiny” was something that was beyond His control.
I had come to Christ only a short time before, and I remember taking offense at what I was watching...much as I still do whenever I believe my Savior is being misrepresented. If there is anything that the Scriptures insist upon it is that Jesus Christ was in control of His destiny through the time He drew His last breath and bled His final drop of blood.
We come to Mark 15 this morning. Although, Mark’s record of Jesus’ passion is more abbreviated than the other Gospel writers, his account is still vivid and difficult to read. This chapter moves us from the illegal trial Jesus endured at the hands of the Jewish religious establishment to the brutal events that transpired under the oversight of the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. As we trace Jesus’ final steps through Mark’s eyes, it is clear that the writer is more concerned with the significance of what is taking place than with many of details that are found in the other accounts. Nevertheless, some of those must be mentioned if we are to comprehend what our Lord endured in order to be the perfect sacrifice for sin.
The sun has now dawned on that fateful Friday as we enter this chapter. A number of reputable scholars, in calculating the available data, have concluded that the date would have been April 7, 30 AD. It would turn out to be Jesus’ final day. It had been a bitter night beginning with His agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, followed by His arrest and abandonment by His disciples. One of them had betrayed Him, another had denied Him, and they had all fled. He had endured the endless questioning and false accusations of the Jewish religious court. He had gone without sleep or food...and, still, the worst was yet to come.
Mark begins with...
The trial (verses 1-15)
...that Jesus faced before Pilate.
Verse 1 tells us that with the first light of day Jesus was “bound... led... away and delivered” to Pilate. Although the Sanhedrin declared Him worthy of death, they were unable under Roman law to carry out the sentence of execution. That would await the order of Pilate. But first the governor would need to be persuaded that their judgment of Jesus was accurate.
Pilate was in the middle of a ten-year term as the Roman authority over Judea. History remembers him as being cruel and generally insensitive to Jewish beliefs and practices. Pilate couldn’t have cared less that Jesus had been charged with violating religious law, so when He was brought before the governor, the Jews presented Him as a traitor to Rome. In that way, Pilate would be forced to listen to their charges and to question Jesus himself.
Pilate’s major assignment was to preserve peace within the region and to deal swiftly and forcefully with any sort of rebellious uprising. In spite of his position, he was a weak man who obsessively feared arriving at a wrong decision that would result in the loss of his position. His first question to Jesus, therefore, was to ask Jesus if He claimed to be a “king.”
“Are you the King of the Jews?” It is a question that will haunt Pilate until he at last concedes to Jesus’ crucifixion. As he interrogates the One standing before him, he is amazed that Jesus does not plead for leniency or make any appeal to have His life spared. Instead, Pilate is “amazed” at Jesus’ quiet and unshakable demeanor.
Unable to find merit in the Jews’ charges against Jesus and anything worthy of death (cf. Luke 23:14), Pilate begins looking for a way to release him. He was able to see through the Jews’ plot, sensing that they had handed Jesus over to him “out of envy.”
In a symbolic gesture of benevolence, it was customary “at the feast” for the governor “to release for them one prisoner for whom they asked...And the crowd came up and began to ask Pilate to do as he usually did for them.” He saw this as his opportunity to release Jesus, so he asked, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” But, we are told, “The chief priests stirred up the crowd” and demanded that a convicted insurrectionist—a Jewish nationalist and true enemy of Rome—be set free instead.
That man’s name was “Barabbas,” which literally means “son of the father.” To add further irony, there is manuscript evidence from Matthew 27:16 and 17 suggesting that his given name was “Jesus.” But he was everything that Jesus Christ—the eternal Son of the Heavenly Father—wasn’t, and nothing of what the Savior was. And yet he was the one whose release was being clamored for. Consider for a moment that Jesus was falsely accused by the Jews and condemned by Pilate for the very thing of which Barabbas was actually guilty, treason against Rome. It has been pointed out that Barabbas may have more accurately fit the description of the type of messiah that the people looked for and wanted than did Jesus. It was, therefore, in that infamous moment, the mob chose lawlessness over righteousness, violence instead of love, and death instead of life.
Stunned, believing that even an angry mob would not be so bloodthirsty as to sentence an innocent man to death, Pilate asks, “Then what shall I do with the man you call King of the Jews?” Their response continues to resonate down the corridors of human history, revealing man’s enmity with his Creator: “Crucify him”! Pilate appeals to them again, “Why, what evil has he done?” And the cries of the crowd became even louder: “Crucify him”! And then we read those regrettable words in verse 15, “So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd.” Let that linger for a moment. Do not they carry a certain ring of contemporary familiarity? Pilate was convinced of Jesus’ innocence, but out of expediency was willing to hand him over to death. He wasn’t about to sacrifice his career for this Jesus. Choosing instead to “satisfy the crowd,” Pilate “released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, he delivered hand to be crucified.”
The “scourging,” which was known as “the halfway death,” has been described in gruesome terms by others. I will spare you most of those details this morning. A Roman flogging was a brutal beating that preceded the execution of a capital sentence, although it was often administered as an isolated punishment. The prisoner was stripped, tied to a post, and beaten on the back by several guards using short leather whips studded with sharp pieces of bone and metal. No limit was placed on the number of blows that could be administered to a helpless prisoner. Often this punishment was fatal.
W.A. Criswell, the longtime pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, tells of having a dream in which He saw Jesus being flogged. Criswell writes, “His back was bare and there was a soldier lifting up his hand and bringing down that awful cat-o’-nine-tails. In the dream I rose up and grasped his arm to hold it back. When I did, the soldier turned in astonishment and looked at me. And when I looked at him, I recognized myself.” Many of us are identify with what Criswell must have felt. If you can’t then you should, because it was for you that he endured that beating...and more.
Having handed over the Son of God, Pilate literally “washed his hands” of Jesus (cf. Matthew 27:24). But as he and all who have followed in his trail eventually must learn, no amount of water is able to cleanse the stain of sin and declare us innocent of the blood of the sinless Son of God.
The indignity that Jesus endured was just beginning. From the severe flogging, Jesus is next led away to face...
The mockery (verses 16-20)
...foisted upon Him by a ruthless battalion of bloodthirsty soldiers. Their actions were a parody of royal allegiance as they paid sarcastic reverence to Him. We cringe with horror as we listen to how Mark describes their ridicule and derision in verses 17 through 20:
“And they clothed him in a purple cloak, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on him. And they began to salute him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ And they were striking his head with a reed and spitting on him and kneeling down in homage to him. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. And they led him away to crucify him.”
The crucifixion (verses 21-32)
...of Jesus Christ cannot be adequately described. Oh, we may be able to imagine the horrific physical treatment that He received, but the spiritual suffering He endured can never be fully told. That being said, we do not want to minimize the degree of agony our Savior experienced. Indeed, His physical sufferings are a window through which we see His heart.
Crucifixion was the public deterrent to prevent people from rebelling against Rome. It is believed to have been invented by the Persians, but Rome had perfected it. It was the ultimate Roman punishment for slaves and provincials, but it was not used for Roman citizens. It was one of the most horrifying forms of execution ever devised.
The usual practice was for the condemned to carry the crossbar to the place of execution. Because Jesus was so weakened from the flogging He had received, verse 21 tells us that “a passerby” named Simon, was compelled “to carry his cross” for Him. Arriving at hill upon which He would die, Jesus was offered “wine mixed with myrrh” as a sedative intended to induce a mind-numbing effect. But we are told that “he did not take it.”
Mark understates the tragic scene in verse 24 when he says. “And the crucified him.” We believe that Jesus’ hands were nailed above the wrist on the horizontal beam, and his feet were placed one above the other and then nailed to the vertical beam. The cross was then hoisted into position with His feet suspended no more than a few inches above the ground. As with all victims of crucifixion, He was left there to die. This form of execution was intended to prolong suffering for as long as the victim survived, which frequently could be for as long as three days.
The writer informs us that “it was the third hour (or 9 a.m.) when they crucified him.” The charge for which a victim was being crucified was often written on a board and nailed to the vertical beam above his head. Pilate made sure that the charge against Jesus was made clear, for it read “The King of the Jews.”
We are also told that two criminals were crucified at the same hour, “one on his right and one on his left.” Mark omits the details of the conversation that transpired between the three that Luke records, choosing to focus instead on the taunting that Jesus continued to receive by those who looked on. He tells us, beginning in verse 29, that...
“And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!’ So the chief priests with the scribes mocked him to one another, saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.’ Those who were crucified with him also reviled him.”
Ironically, the One who had been falsely accused of blasphemy became the object of blasphemy...the most damnable blasphemy the world had ever seen. Had Jesus come down from the cross in response to the taunts leveled at Him, He would have saved neither Himself nor others. The ideal Servant had come “to give his life as a ransom for many” (cf. Mark 10:45), and only by staying—and dying—on the cross could He do so.
One can only speculate but never fully relate to the physical, emotional, and spiritual agony the Savior endured over the next several hours. By the time we get to verse 33, three more hours have passed. It is now “the sixth hour”—high noon—and the blazing Middle Eastern sun was directly overhead beating upon His wounded brow. But the unseen flames of hell burned far more intensely than the sun as our Lord’s final hours waned from Him.
And then something very unusual happened: “There was darkness over the whole land” for three hours. What happened during those three hours must, at least for now, remain a mystery. There have been those who have attempted to explain away this miraculous occurrence as a solar eclipse. But as even the most amateur scientist will tell you, solar eclipses do not occur during a full moon, and that is when the Passover takes place. It is better, rather, to view these three hours of intense darkness as an act of God in which He was displaying His displeasure and judgment upon humanity for having put to death His Son.
The death (verses 33-41)
...of Jesus came “at the ninth hour,” according to verse 34. That would have been 3:00 in the afternoon. At the precise time when the daily sacrifice was being offered in the Temple, “the Lamb of God” (cf. John 1:29) was surrendering His life just outside the city walls. As His breathing became more shallow and His heart rate slowed, Mark tells us that “Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”
As you likely know, that is a direct quote from Psalm 22:1. There are no words that could more clearly describe what Jesus was experiencing. In becoming “a ransom for many” by bearing the sins of the world, God the Father could not be with Him. Think of that...not only was He deserted by the closest of His earthly companions, but He was also abandoned by His Heavenly Father. Never from all of eternity had Jesus ever known even a millisecond of separation from the Father and the Holy Spirit. But now He was alone... utterly and completely alone. In those three dark hours, sin was poured out upon Christ’s soul until—as the Scriptures—declare, He became “sin for us” (cf. 2 Corinthians, NIV). You and I cannot even imagine that. But what we do know is that the physical agony He endured—as great as it was—was nothing compared to the weight of our sin that He bore.
With His voice having been reduced to a whisper, His cry to the Father was misunderstood by “some of the bystanders,” who thought He was “calling Elijah” to come to His rescue. There seemed to be much confusion and a curious sense of anticipation among those who witnessed Jesus drawing His final breaths. Someone ran to Him and offered Him a sponge filled with sour wine to moisten His dried lips and parched throat.
With the last remaining strength He could muster, suddenly “Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last.” John records that His final word was “τετελεσται”... “It is finished,” with which “he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (John 19:30). Death came sooner to the Savior than it did to most. Verse 44 informs us that even “Pilate was surprised to hear” that Jesus had died so quickly. Perhaps it is not surprising, however, because never had one borne the burden and the weight that our Savior did on that day.
As you and I reflect on the six hours that Jesus hung on the cross, let us not lose sight of the fact that Jesus did not die an ordinary death by crucifixion. He surrendered His life on His own terms. It was not taken from Him. His shout was not merely the last gasp of a dying man. It was a shout of victory that anticipated validation at the Resurrection. He was not “finished off” by His enemies. He had finished the mission that the Father had sent Him to do.
It was likely at that very instant, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” That detail suggests an actual and irreversible occurrence that coincided with the moment of Jesus’ death. The passive verb and the direction of the tear indicate that this was God’s action. As the author of Hebrews explicitly tells us, the renting of the veil was a sign that Jesus’ death ended the need for repeated sacrifices for sins, and opened a “new and living way” of free and direct access to God (cf. Hebrews 10:19-20).
A Roman centurion, standing at the foot of the cross—one who perhaps had helped put Jesus on that cross—observing the series of events that were transpiring and especially noting the manner in which He died, said, “Truly this man was the Son of God.”
There is considerable debate regarding whether this was a confession of saving faith or instead an expression of amazement at the unusual events that were taking place that day. Rather than speculating what the death meant to the centurion, it is better to ask what the death of Jesus Christ means to us. Have you considered that recently?
Mark adds an interesting and sometimes overlooked bit of information in verses 40 and 41, by naming the women who observed the events “from a distance.” They had played a significant but unsung role in ministering to Jesus and His disciples and we should not overlook them. After all, they were the last of His loyal followers at the cross. And within a couple of days they would be the first at His empty tomb. One cannot help but believe that they may have provided the later Gospel writers with eyewitness testimony which became a part of the biblical record.
All that remained was...
The burial (verses 42-47)
...and Mark provides his account of that in verses 42 through 47.
For the first time we are introduced to a man named “Joseph of Arimathea.” He is described as “a respected member of the council, who was...looking for the kingdom of God.” You will recall that it was the proclamation of this “kingdom” that had launched Jesus’ public ministry. Perhaps Joseph had become something of a “secret disciple” whose faith was not fully hatched until Jesus’ death. We are told that he “took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus” in order to provide Him with a proper burial. It was bold request to make. Normally, bodies of the deceased were released only to family members. But Pilate, having confirmed that Jesus was already dead, granted the request.
Being late in the afternoon on “the day of Preparation,” there was little time to waste if Jesus’ body were to be removed from the cross and buried. The Sabbath officially began at sunset. Carefully wrapping Jesus’ body in a linen shroud, Joseph placed the corpse “in a tomb that had been cut out of the rock. And he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb.” Matthew (27:60) tells us that it was Joseph’s “own new tomb,” suggesting that he was a man of some means. Like Mary’s perfume, it was an expensive gift.
The chapter closes with the second of three references to the women in this passion narrative. They continued to observe, and therefore confirm, that the events Mark is describing for us here are indeed accurate.
Before leaving Jesus in the tomb, we should pause and reflect what must have been going through the minds of the disciples, the women, and even the so-called “secret” followers of Jesus that evening and all day Saturday. No doubt it was a time of depression, shattered dreams, gloom, and inertia. All hope would seem to have been lost.
Each of us has experienced something of that feeling in our lives. Ray Stedman has written that apart from the Resurrection, we are all “Saturday’s children,” stuck between the “already” of Good Friday and the “not yet” of Easter Sunday. We may see Christ as having done some heroic thing on the cross. We may even see it as the consummate act of love in the universe. But without the Resurrection, there is no power in it...for us or anyone else!
The 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him,” and he then asks, “How shall we comfort ourselves?” Sadly, we believe, Nietzsche died without ever having found an answer.
The Bible gives us that answer. Listen again to Paul’s words as He has left them for us in 1 Corinthians 15(:13-14 and 20): “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching in vain and your faith is in vain...But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead.” Thankfully, there is a 16th chapter of Mark, and we will look at that together next Sunday.
The cross reveals the love of God as nothing else in the universe could. That is why John Piper is spot on when he writes that “The most spectacular sin that has ever been committed...is the brutal murder of Jesus Christ, the morally perfect, infinitely worthy, divine Son of God.” And what is amazing is that the precise details surrounding the death of Jesus were prophesied in God’s Word hundreds of years before they happened.
- The Scriptures told that evil men would reject Jesus when He came (cf. Psalm 118:22).
- The Scriptures said that Jesus would be hated (cf. Psalm 35:19).
- The Scriptures foretold that Jesus would be betrayed by a close friend for thirty pieces of silver (cf. Psalm 41:9).
- The Scriptures predicted that Jesus’ disciples would abandon Him (cf. Zechariah 13:7).
- The Scriptures showed that Jesus would be pierced, but none of His bones would be broken (cf. Psalm 34:20 and Zechariah 12:10).
- And not only the Scriptures, but Jesus Himself, repeatedly declared—down to the smallest detail—the precise manner in which He would be killed (cf. Mark 10:33-34).
What these prophecies reveal is that God foresaw and did not prevent that His Son would be rejected, hated, betrayed, abandoned, denied, condemned, spit upon, flogged, mocked, pierced, and killed. All of these were included in the mind and sovereign plan of God long before they happened to Jesus. God’s Son, who was the object of His supreme affection, became the object of His wrath in order to satisfy the demands of a holy God with respect to the sins of man. Those horrific deeds that fell on Jesus did not just happen. God could have stopped them at any point along the way, but He didn’t. They happened according to His sovereign will. In the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all...It was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief” (Isaiah 53:6 and 10).
Why should this matter to you? It should matter because if God were not the main Actor in the death of Jesus Christ, then that death could never save us from our sins, and we would perish in hell forever. The death of Jesus is the very heart of the Gospel. That truth is summarized well by the Apostle Paul in Romans 5:8, where he writes, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” It takes grace to fathom that, but apart from seeing it and responding to it in faith, the death of Jesus Christ becomes just another dusty event tucked away in the annals of history.
But, as three days later would show, it was more...so much more. Have you come to that realization in your own life? Have you embraced the cross and the Savior who hung upon it for you? Honestly now, what does the death of Jesus Christ mean to you?