When I was around 8 or 9 I came down with chicken pox, and had to stay home from school a few days. One day while I was watching tv I saw the first part of the movie Spartacus. It was divided into two parts, and when they showed the scenes of the conclusion which would air the next day, there was this unbelievable battle scene – soldiers charging up a hill, flaming logs rolling down over them, and sword fights! I couldn’t wait to see it! Unfortunately, my Granny had a different programming schedule. She wanted to watch one of her stories, and I didn’t get to see part two!
When I finally did see the rest of the movie, I was a little taken back at how it ended – with Spartacus and his slave soldiers crucified all along the Appian Way. Hundreds of them. It surprised me because as a child I had always thought of crucifixion as something that happened only to Jesus. To learn that 70 years before Jesus was born hundreds of rebellious slaves suffered the same fate was somewhat of a shock.
In one sense the crucifixion of Jesus was just another execution. But in another sense what happened on that Friday in Jerusalem was unparalleled – before or since. And that is how I want to look at the text in Mark 15, separating those details that are common features of a crucifixion from those that are unique to Jesus.
I. The Common Events of the Crucifixion (15:22-32)
In some ways the account of Jesus’ death reads like an account of any of the other thousands of crucifixions that took place in the first century. On one level, nothing out of the ordinary happened. This was just one more Jewish insurgent being tortured to serve as a warning to others.
First, in keeping with common practice, Jesus was offered a sedative.
22 And they brought him to the place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull). 23 And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh
“Myrrh” was known to have a tranquilizing effect, and so the combination of wine and myrrh was offered almost as a crude form of morphine which would numb the victim. If this offer was made with the intent to ease Jesus’ suffering, it calls to mind Prov. 31:6-7:
6 Give strong drink to the one who is perishing,
and wine to those in bitter distress;
7 let them drink and forget their poverty
and remember their misery no more.
But it is just as possible that this was offered to prolong the amount of time the victim lasted on the cross.
Regardless, the text says
but he did not take it.
Jesus came to give His life, and He would do so fully alert and aware of what was taking place.
Second, in simple straightforward language, the text says,
24 And they crucified him
None of the four gospel writers go into elaborate detail as to the specific mechanics of crucifixion. They didn’t have to. Its horror was well known in the ancient world, a legacy passed on to us in the word excruciating, which comes from the Latin for “the pain that comes out of crucifixion.”
If you had lived in the first century, here is what this chilling phrase “and they crucified him” meant. It meant that they took long spikes and drove them into Jesus’ forearm, between the bones of the wrist, securing them to the cross beam. It meant that they mounted the crossbeam on the main stake, to which they nailed Jesus’ feet – probably with one spike. Was this fatal? No – not at first. It wasn’t intended to be. It was intended to torture. With the body twisted to one side, and the arms hyperextended as they were, the chest would cramp, and breathing would eventually become labored. The only way to draw in a deep breath would be to relieve the tension in the chest by stretching out, to pull up with the arms – causing pain to burn through the spikes in the wrists – or to push up with the legs, sending searing pain through the spikes in the feet.
This lasted for hours, sometimes for days, as the victim struggled in this alternating fashion to breathe. Eventually, the victim simply could not continue this nightmarish way of breathing and suffocated. If the Romans were in a hurry they would take a club or butt end of a spear and break the shins.
This nightmare happened thousands of times in the first century during the Roman occupation. It was a punishment reserved for the worst of criminals, and its highly public nature served as a deterrent.
When one senator was threatened with crucifixion, the statesmen Cicero rose and protested that “the very word ‘cross’ (Latin crux) should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen but his thoughts, his eyes, his ears…the very mention…is unworthy of a Roman citizen and a free man.”
The Latin word for cross, crux, was literally a four-letter word in Jesus’ day.
A third detail in the text that was typical is that they:
24b divided his garments among them, casting lots for them, to decide what each should take. 25 And it was the third hour when they crucified him.
From Roman legal texts we know that the executed lost all rights to personal property, which meant that Jesus’ clothes were up for grabs. It also meant that in all likelihood Jesus was completely naked when He was crucified, adding to the shame and humiliation of His suffering.
Some of you have gone to a hospital or nursing home to visit a loved one, and perhaps you have walked in at a moment when they felt very unpresentable, and were ashamed. Maybe they told you, “I don’t want you to see me like this.” The Bible says that Jesus despised the shame of the cross (Heb. 12:2). He despised it! To be seen by all the world on such grotesque display. How could we even begin to know the shame he felt.
Fourth, in keeping with custom, they publicly charged Jesus with His crime. The Romans would take a small board covered in white chalk and engrave the crimes of the convicted.
26 And the inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.”
The charge against Jesus was treason. He claims to be king when there is only one true king, Caesar. And alongside Jesus two others were also executed for sedition.
27 And with him they crucified two robbers, one on his right and one on his left.
This word “robbers” is the same word Josephus uses to describe the Zealot rebels who tried to overthrow Rome. And they are to be executed with this claimant to the throne, one on His right and one on his left. Now we know what Jesus meant in Mark 10 when James and John came requesting to sit on His right and left in His glory, and Jesus responded,
38 Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”
They did not understand that before Jesus entered His glory He had to suffer, and that if they were to sit with Him in glory, they had to stand with Him in suffering.
Fifth, and finally, as was cruelly typical of executions in that day, Jesus was mocked. Even in our country in an earlier time executions had almost a carnival atmosphere to them, in which the townspeople would chide the criminal who had once frightened them but was going to die. Three different groups taunted Jesus:
-First, the Sanhedrin.
29 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, 30 save yourself, and come down from the cross!”
The reason I think this was specifically the Sanhedrin is because that is the group that heard the charge against Jesus that He would destroy the temple and rebuild it. They are thrilled that this man who had troubled them for so long is now dying.
-The second group consisted of the “chief priests and scribes,” in whose side Jesus had been a thorn since the very start of the gospel.
31 So also the chief priests with the scribes mocked him to one another, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. 32 Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.”
These people grew to hate Jesus because of those very times in which He saved others from disease or demons, because He healed on the Sabbath and ignored their traditions. And they right in one respect – He cannot save Himself! Because if He saved Himself He would damn us all, and that is not why He came!
-And the third group that mocked Him was the pair of brigands flanking Him-
31c Those who were crucified with him also reviled him.
These men choose to spend some of the last few hours of life on earth mocking a man dying like they are dying? What is it about the sin-sickness of the human heart that makes us so petty, so cruel, so mean-spirited? Like a little child who gets a spanking but makes fun of his brother for getting one too. Is it that they thought to themselves, well, we may be rebels, but at least we never claimed to be Messiah?
Whatever the case, we have in these verses a scene that was repeated frequently in the first century: a crucified man stripped of his clothes and his dignity.
But there are also so very unusual things that happened.
II. Unusual Details in the Crucifixion
First of all,
33 And when the sixth hour had come,
Which refers to noon, the sixth hour from sunrise, the time of day when the sun should be its brightest
there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour.
Darkness in the middle of the day. In the Old Testament, darkness was often an omen of divine judgment. When Isaiah announced the judgment against Babylon he said:
13:10 For the stars of the heavens and their constellations
will not give their light;
the sun will be dark at its rising,
and the moon will not shed its light.
11 I will punish the world for its evil,
and the wicked for their iniquity;
I will put an end to the pomp of the arrogant,
and lay low the pompous pride of the ruthless.
In other words, lights out for Babylon.
Another passage which speaks of the darkness of divine judgment is Amos 8-
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.
So the shroud of darkness that engulfed Jerusalem in mid-day sent a message that this was a time of judgment, as God was about to pour out the cup of His wrath for the sins of the world on His Son, His only Son, which nature itself begins to mourn.
A second unusual feature of the crucifixion is recorded in v. 34 – 36.
34 And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 35 And some of the bystanders hearing it said, “Behold, he is calling Elijah.” 36 And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.”
It is not unusual that someone might pray in their final hours, and certainly not out of the norm for Jesus to pray. What makes this unusual is the degree of dejection in this prayer - Why have you forsaken me – what commentators usually call the “cry of dereliction.” If someone is derelict in their duty we mean they have abandoned their post. In this cry of dereliction, is it as if Jesus is saying that God has abandoned Him.
What are we to make of this prayer? The key to understanding this prayer is its OT background. I am embarrassed to say that it was many years after I had been studying the story of Jesus before I realized that this prayer is actually a quotation from Scripture – Psalm 22:1. Psalm 22 is a lament, a statement of profound sorrow. It is the prayer of a man who is overwhelmed by sorrow, but feels as if God is nowhere to be found.
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest.
You don’t have to read far to realize that this entire psalm must have been on Jesus’ mind as He hung on the cross. Look at verses 6-8-
6 But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by mankind and despised by the people.
7 All who see me mock me;
they make mouths at me; they wag their heads;
8 “He trusts in the LORD; let him deliver him;
let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”
Do you think that those who mocked Jesus realized they were simply repeating lines of dialogue prophesied centuries earlier?
And look at verses 14-18
14 I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
it is melted within my breast;
15 my strength is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
you lay me in the dust of death.
16 For dogs encompass me;
a company of evildoers encircles me;
they have pierced my hands and feet— 17 I can count all my bones—they stare and gloat over me; 18 they divide my garments among them,
and for my clothing they cast lots.
Do you think those pagan soldiers knew they were merely playing a part scripted for them hundreds of years earlier?
And here is the key point – most lament psalms end on a triumphant note, as they sufferer is delivered by God. That key turning point is found in 22:22-24
22 I will tell of your name to my brothers;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
23 You who fear the LORD, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him,
and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
24 For he has not despised or abhorred
the affliction of the afflicted,
and he has not hidden his face from him,
but has heard, when he cried to him.
So what did Jesus intend for us to understand when He said, “My God My God why have you forsaken me?” I think two things:
-First, that prayer, much like the prayer in the Garden but to an even greater degree, reflected the very real sense of sorrow and grief that Jesus experienced as our sin-bearer. I know that sometimes brethren have used terms like “God turned His back on Jesus,” or that “Jesus was separated from God.” I think we need to be careful, since the Bible never uses those terms, and besides that we are dealing with the interplay of God the Father and God the Son, something which none of us will ever grasp.
However, here is what we do know. We do know from Scripture that God hates sin and that sin deserves His wrath (Rom. 1:18). We do now that Jesus bore our sins in His body on the cross (1 Peter 2:24). We do know that Jesus who knew no sin was made to be sin (2 Cor. 5:21). So, I prefer to use this language – Jesus came to take the penalty we deserved, the wrath of God, and become the propitiation for our sins. He came to drink the cup of God’s wrath, and that prospect is what prompted His prayer in the Garden and His cry on the cross.
-But, just as Psalm 22 ends in the vindication of the sufferer, I think a second point Jesus intended for us to take is that the story would not end on the cross, that just as God delivered David from his troubles, that God would hear Him and deliver Him from death itself. It is both a cry of dereliction and deliverance.
A third unusual detail in the account is that Jesus died so quickly.
37 And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last.
Normally a person lingered for many hours, and gradually the life ebbed from them and they died. Jesus was only on the cross for six hours, and rather than a slow silent descent into death, Jesus “uttered a loud cry” and then died. We will see in 15:44 that Pilate was amazed Jesus died so speedily. And I have to think that one of the mitigating factors that explains Jesus’ unusually rapid death is the tremendous toll the deeper mission of His death achieved as the lamb of God slain for the sins of all the world.
A fourth unusual detail in the text involves the temple.
38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.
There were two huge curtains in the temple. One hung between the courtyard and the entrance into the sanctuary, and of course the other was between the holy place and most holy place. Josephus says it was 80 feet long and 24 feet wide. It was torn top to bottom, not by a man on the ground, but by some other force. This peculiar sign is full of meaning-
-It is a foretaste of the destruction of the temple Jesus warned about in Mark 13 and symbolized in driving out the buyers and sellers when He came into the temple.
-It shows that there will no longer be barriers between God and His people. That Jesus has given us in His death a “new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain” (Heb. 10:20).
And a final unusual detail in the text is the confession of the centurion.
39 And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”
What was it exactly that this pagan saw that led him to make such an unexpected exclamation? And what did he mean by it? Does he just mean something like, this man must be one of the gods? Or has he come to have faith that Jesus is indeed the Messiah?
Whatever he meant, his confession that Jesus is the “Son of God” ties the story of the crucifixion all the way back to chapter 1, where after Jesus’ baptism the heavens “open” (literally split apart, same Greek word used to describe what happened to the veil in the temple), God says, “You are my beloved Son” (1:11).
Who knows if the centurion meant the same thing that God meant, but either way, the death of Jesus had enormous impact on the centurion, as it should on us.
III. Some Applications
Specifically, it is the way Jesus died that impressed the centurion, and it is the way He died that I want us to think about.
We are called to suffer for Christ – and while we can learn a lot from all aspects of Jesus’ life, it is His suffering that the Bible specifically says He came to be an example for us-
1 Peter 2:19 For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.
Here is what I can learn from Jesus suffering-
1) If I suffer, I should do so unjustly – in other words, I shouldn’t deserve what I am getting. Do good and suffer. That is what Jesus did – He saved others, but He did not save Himself.
It is easy sometimes to fall into a martyr’s complex in which we think everything that happens to us is because we are martyrs for the faith. I see this happen with preachers sometimes. A man berates brethren, bullies members, displays none of the patience or kindness the Bible commands preachers to possess, and then finally the congregation asks him to leave, and he tells his friends that he is suffering for the gospel! That is ridiculous.
If you suffer, make sure it is because you were doing what is right.
2) If I suffer, I should do so graciously. Jesus did not “revile in return” or threaten.
Think of how quiet Jesus has been over the last 24 hours. Other than His brief comments to the Sanhedrin and Pilate, He has been silent. And on the cross, in His final hours, you could take all the things He said that are recorded in all four gospels and easily fit them in one slide. He barely said anything, much less return the vile insults He received on the cross.
I can tell you from experiences I have had in my life that I have had times where I suffered for what I believe were unjust reasons. And I did so because of my love for God and my desire to please Him above everyone. So I can say that I am willing to suffer for God. But I cannot say I have always done so graciously. To be accused and mocked and taunted at times has proven too much for me. And the only reason that happens to any of us is because we think our dignity is so important that just have to say something to defend ourselves, clear our name. And yet the Son of God – the king of Kings, the Lord of glory – was taunted in the most shameful way, and He said nothing – except to pray to His father to forgive them.
May God grant us the strength to suffer graciously.
3) Finally, if I suffer, I should suffer patiently. Peter says that Jesus continued to entrust Himself to God who judges justly.
Patience in suffering means that I need to pour my heart out to God, as fervently and frankly as Jesus did, and let Him know my fears and frustrations. But it also means that like Jesus I must be willing to wait, and to let God work His answer in His time, and not mine.
Intellectually, you and I know how the story will end, just as Jesus did. Remember He predicted His death and His resurrection three times in Mark. And we know by the same promise that some day all suffering will be taken away by Jesus’ return. But in the moment of trial, that intellectual knowledge is challenged by the immediacy of the hurt, and that is when we must be patient like Jesus and wait. As Peter says in 1 Peter 4:19-
19 Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.
The only execution I have ever witnessed was the hanging of Saddam Hussein. When he was executed, someone made a video with a cellphone, and the footage made its way around the world on the internet. Many of you probably watched the clip, as I did. As he was led to the gallows to be hanged, the Shi’ite guards whose people had been oppressed by Saddam began to taunt him. According to the subtitles later provided, he began to challenge them to act like men and to have dignity. The behavior of those guards troubled a lot of Iraqis and a lot of Americans as they seemed to ignore the sobriety of the moment and act like people who have no respect for the rule of law. Saddam was a madman, a brutal tyrant and mass murderer. But as I watched the footage I have to say part of me felt like his sentence should have been handled a lot better.
It is easy for us to take the story of Jesus’ murder for granted since we read these accounts so often. And that familiarity may mute the sense of sheer outrage we should feel about the way Jesus was treated. This was an outrage! It was a despicable act of injustice and cruelty! For the very creator of this world to be treated like the vilest class of criminal! To be mocked by the very people He was dying to save!
Cicero said that the very mention of the cross was unworthy a free men. But you and I know that the cross is the only way we can become free men. And that we cannot mention it enough. From God’s perspective this was the supreme moment of love and grace. It is the moment when through His own Son He paid the penalty for our sins, so that His wrath could give way to mercy and forgiveness. And He paid this price because He loves us and wants to give us life. It wasn’t fair or just – grace isn’t fair and none of us would want to the justice we deserved. It was love, and it is that love we invite you to embrace.