Truly this Man was the Son of God! (Mark 15:39)
Mark’s gospel describes the crucifixion of Christ in simple language. It is the characteristic of a reliable witness that he does not embellish the true story, rather he just tells it as it was. Mark, the human author, would have likely been in Jerusalem during that time – a teenager, most likely. It is long suspected that he inserted an autobiographical description of himself as the young man who ran away naked in the Garden as Christ was arrested (Mark 14:51-52). But the details, what was not seen as an eye-witness, are well-researched, to know exactly what happened.
Here are the basic events as described by Mark.
Christ’s silence before Pilate, Mark 15:1-5: Christ was silent before his accusers, even before the man who held the legal power to free him or to determine the punishment. Christ admitted to being the “King of the Jews” – this was an ancient title of the coming Messiah. We read in Genesis: “The scepter will not depart from Judah or the staff from between his feet until He whose right it is comes and the obedience of the peoples belongs to Him” (Gen. 49:10). Christ came in the ancient authority of the prophecy as head of the Nation, yet was rejected by them or, as John wrote, “He came to his own, but his own received him not” (John 1:11).
It was in particular a Jewish matter, so Christ did not appeal to Pilate. The decision to accept Christ as the king of the Jews was a matter of Jewish loyalty. However, with no opposing testimony that would support Christ and counter the accusations of the religious leaders, Pilate had fewer legal options. In the Roman system a man had the right to assert his innocence, but Christ refused to give an answer to Pilate, he refused to try this matter before an unbelieving, non-Jewish, Gentile judge. It was not Pilate’s to decide, and Jesus, as the Messiah, as the future ruling king of all the earth, was not willing to appeal to Rome for leniency, or to bow before Rome in any capacity. The matter had been resolved with Jewish rejection.
Christ took the place of Barabbas, Mark 15:6-15: It was possible during Passover for Pilate to release a prisoner. He proposed Jesus, but the priests stirred up the crowd so that they would demand Barabbas. Barabbas was an insurrectionist, a rebel who had led others, who had committed murder. As such, he would have been in someway thought of as a “hometown hero.” Many Jews would have condemned his methods, questioned his judgment, rejected him as a potential leader, refused to follow him in battle, but they would have stilled admired his patriotism. Would it be Jesus of Nazareth, the Man of Peace, the healer, the miracle worker, the prophet, the teacher? Or would it be Barabbas, the rebel, the violent, the murderer, the angry man ready to strike at Rome violently?
The crowd chose Barabbas. It appears to have been a different crowd from those who had praised Christ on Palm Sunday. It was a crowd of temple sympathizers, urged on by the priests to hatred and to demand Christ’s crucifixion. The religious leaders orchestrated the entire thing, and they placed Pilate in a situation where, if his actions were audited, and they would be, he must do their bidding – even though he knew plainly how unjust the matter was.
Christ would die for Barabbas, and in so doing he would also die for all mankind. Christ was to bear the sins of the world. Barabbas has become an example of us all, an “everyman” in this capacity. He was released because Christ was condemned.
So often we choose those who are violent rather than those who are peaceful, those who will act in anger over those who would patiently love. Granted that the Bible does say that there is “a time of war and a time of peace” (Eccl. 3:8), and often in history those seeking to deal with aggression peacefully have in the end done more harm than good. One must stand up to a heartless aggressor. Yet, let us not be deceived that anger and war tends to promote in the end more bloodshed, not less. Violence promotes more violence. Peaceful means to resolve problems are always to be preferred.
Christ was scourged and ridiculed, Mark 15:15-20: The scourging of Christ was simply said in the text, but it was a brutal affair, quite possible of causing death by itself. Christ was brutally whipped with the infamous Roman whip that ripped flesh and shredded a man’s back. The soldiers then mocked him. Soldiers must be tough but not necessarily cruel, but it is not uncommon among the armies of mankind to encourage cruelty among the men, thinking that it helps them in battle to be merciless in heart as well as action. And, of course, the very people who ridiculed Christ, who abused him, he would die for. Here is love that patiently cares for others, even when those others are blind to their need and blind to love’s expression.
Simon of Cyrene helped to carry the cross, Mark 15:21: It is supposed that his name was given in the scripture because he became a believer later on, perhaps this is true. But Christ was unable to carry the entire cross – probably due to the scourging – and they grabbed Simon from the crowd. Here is a man whose name remains forever in the Scriptural record for he helped Christ in his greatest work, one soul who helped to carry the cross. But Simon himself could not absolve his own sins by his actions; he still needed Christ to die for him.
The inscription said “The King of the Jews”, Mark 15:22-32: Taken to a place called “Golgotha” or “Place of a Skull” he was crucified. He refused to take the narcotic offered – he would drink the cup “to the dregs” the Father had given him. They gambled for his garments while they crucified him naked. An inscription placed above his head said “The King of the Jews,” mocking his claims of greatness. The entire atmosphere was filled with ridicule, jesting, unbelief, and cruelty.
He cried to the Father, Mark 15:33-36: There are a total of seven sayings of Jesus from the cross, but Mark only includes one: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This was said in Aramaic, the mother tongue of Jesus, but it was a quote from Psalm 22 and called the entire psalm to bear witness to his crucifixion. We wonder why the religious leaders did not make the connection, for surely they were the perpetrators of the very fulfillment of a scripture they knew very well themselves. But envy and hatred create blindness and pride, and they were content with their hatred of this Galilean prophet.
But the cry to the Father teaches us that he who knew no sin became sin for us. He took the blame and the shame of sin and, for the only time in eternity or in history there was a division in the Godhead. God the Father turned away from God the Son, and God bore the sin of us all. This act was so great and so cataclysmic in its repercussions that God now has a means by which he can admit a sinner into heaven, and Christ is forever known as the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.
Christ died and the temple veil tore, Mark 15:37-39: The veil was a curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place in the temple, and its tearing indicated that now we have access with the Father through the death of Christ. It was torn from top to bottom, in a way that no man could do. It was as though God reached down from heaven himself and tore the curtain in two, allowing access now into his presence.
The centurion’s words, Mark 15:39: The centurion by his rank would have overseen the crucifixion, but he had given it to his soldier to carry out. The centurions in the New Testament were all described in positive terms, and this one, who fulfilled his duty and was an eye witness to his death, gave the final assessment: “This man was the Son of God.”
Buried in Joseph’s tomb, Mark 15:40-47: Women had attended to him during his life, and so at his death three of them stepped forward to take care of his body: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and Salome. Other gospels clarify the verification of Jesus’ death. Mark’s target audience appears to be the Roman, so his words were sufficient for them, that Pilate had inquired of the centurion whether or not Jesus was dead. The centurion said he was, and that was the end of it for Pilate, and proof enough for the Roman. But the other gospels clarify that at the site of the crucifixion, as Jesus’ lifeless body hung on the cross, a spear was run through the heart and lungs of Jesus, verifying his death.
Joseph of Arimathea was a prominent religious council member. We presume that he was not there during the “trial” of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, that he was excluded because his sympathies were known. But, nevertheless, he had the courage to step forward and ask for his body, and he gave his own tomb as the burial place of Jesus.
Seven Witnesses: Six people – (1) Simon of Cyrene, (2) the centurion, (3) Mary Magdalene, (4) Mary the mother of James and Joseph, (5) Salome, and (6) Joseph of Arimathea acted in some way to show sympathy, support, compassion, and love. The others were all steeped in meanness and cruelty, and they ridiculed Jesus to the end. The seventh witness was the temple itself, that gave testimony through the tearing of the veil or curtain to the character and effectiveness of the death of Christ.
There is devotional benefit for us to simply read the story of the crucifixion and to meditate on it, to consider what our Lord endured for us, and how greatly he loved us. Love kept Christ on the cross, not the nails, just as surely as love put him there.
What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:31-39)