Mark 15:21-33. And they crucified him.

And they compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross. And they brought him to the place called Golgotha which means Place of a Skull. And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. And they crucified him and divided his garments among them, casting lots for them, to decide what each should take. And it was the third hour when they crucified him. And the inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” And with him they crucified two robbers, one on his right and one on his left. 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 also 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.

And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour.”

After a final supper with his disciples, Jesus has prayed in the garden and then been betrayed. He had faced “trial” before the kangaroo court of the Sanhedrin, and has faced trial again before Pilate. Both trials have been mockeries of justice, and Jesus has been handed over to be put to death. He has been beaten and flogged by the Roman soldiers, and led out to be crucified.

  1. Is there a big difference between Mark’s account of the crucifixion and some other popular accounts in film or books or sermons? If so, where does the difference lie?

  2. Why does Jesus die by crucifixion?

  3. Why does Jesus refuse the wine offered to him?

  4. Why does Mark tell us that the soldiers divided Jesus’ clothes?

  5. Who wrote the notice reading “King of the Jews”, and what was their point?

  6. When Mark tells us of the robbers, what does his language remind us of?

  7. Mark gives many details about the mockery from those by the cross. What is he trying to do here?

  8. Darkness falls for three hours. Why is this peculiarly appropriate?

  9. What should we take from this passage?

 

  1. Is there a big difference between Mark’s account of the crucifixion and some other popular accounts in film or books or sermons? If so, where does the difference lie?

When you think of the crucifixion, what images come into your mind? Popular films and popular imagination go for the agonising details- hammer blows driving rusty nails through the hands, lashes scourging flesh off the back, blood running down the face and caking in the beard and so on. I’ve not seen, and have no intention of seeing, Mel Gibson’s Passion film- I think it is in breach of the second commandment. But I can see how Jim Caviezel’s rangy physique would lend itself to that sort of depiction.

The Gospel writers, however, do not focus on the physical torture. Mark does not tell us all the graphic gory details. His readers would be well aware of how agonising a death was crucifixion, but he doesn’t want us to dwell on those aspects. In Mark, the key focus seems to be humiliation and cursedness more than anything else. It is the mockery and the apparent victory of Jesus enemies and the degradation of crucifixion and nakedness that are in view rather than physical pain. Darkness fits better into a focus on cursedness, along with the cry of dereliction and the Jewish take on crucifixion. As we go through Mark’s account, we’ll see some of these things.

 

  1. Why does Jesus die by crucifixion?

The word “crucify” has shock value in Mark’s world. It is an near-obscenity. Cicero says that “even the mere word ‘cross’, must remain far not only from the lips of the citizens of Rome, but also from their thoughts, their eyes, their ears”. It is a word you wouldn’t say on Rome TV unless in the context of a serious documentary well after the watershed. Crucifixion is the ultimate in degradation and humiliation. It is a slave’s death, a death for a non-person.

In the Jewish world as well, to die hanging on a tree is terrible. Josephus calls it “the most wretched of all ways of dying”, and the man who dies hanging on a tree dies under the curse of God (Deuteronomy 21:22-23, cf. Gal 3:13). Crucifixion is shocking in both Jewish and Roman worlds- degradation and curse.

Normally, a condemned man would carry the cross-beam of his cross to the place of execution, and be flogged once he had arrived. But Jesus had already been flogged, must have been near the point of collapse. He was simply incapable of carrying the beam through the streets of Jerusalem, and so the soldiers seize a man passing by and make him do it. This man seems to have been the father of men Mark’s readers knew- why else in a world where fathers were automatically more important than their offspring would a father be identified by his children? Mark mentions them for interest and for verifiability- they will be able to confirm that their dad was there and did this thing. Rufus is quite possibly the Rufus mentioned in Romans 16:13. It was a common enough name in both Roman and Jewish circles, but Mark is probably writing with the Roman Christians in view.

With a name like “place of a skull”, Golgotha could well have been a regular place of execution. It is not too far from a thoroughfare- there are people passing by. Many have assumed it to have been a hill shaped like the dome of a skull, which is possible although the Bible never calls it a hill. Mark has chosen to give his non-Aramaic readers a translation of the name, even though he doesn’t translate every place name for us (we don’t read, “Bethphage, which means ‘house of figs’”). But this one seemed appropriate. The name is sinister, which suits the content.

Golgotha is outside the city, it being a custom among both Jews and Romans to carry out executions outside the city walls. The Israelites are commanded to carry out stonings “outside the camp” ( Lev 24:14; Num 15:35; see also 1 Kg 21:13). The reason behind it is to do with cursedness. The evil-doer is expelled from the clean community before he is killed.

 

  1. Why does Jesus refuse the wine offered to him?

They offered him wine. Mark doesn’t tell us who “they” are; perhaps still the soldiers, although we are distant enough from v16 for it to have broadened out. It was apparently a custom for the women of Jerusalem to offer wine to those condemned to death- perhaps based on Proverbs 31:6- “give strong drink to him who is perishing and wine to those in bitter distress. Let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more”. Maybe that is who “they” were, and they were offering this wine as a kindness, something to dull the senses. This wine was mixed with myrrh, a combination known to other ancient writers as a luxury (Plutarch), but Jesus refuses it. Wine would mitigate or bypass his suffering. He doesn’t want to go out in an addled haze. He needs to be clear and focussed for this work, as clear as possible for a man in his condition. He won’t drink the cup of wine because he is determined to drain the cup of suffering his father has in store for him. Proverbs 31:6 may recommend wine for the dying, but it is actually a warning against wine for kings. Wine can be taken by those condemned to die who have no responsibilities, but it is not for kings, who need all their faculties about them in order to uphold the law and rule wisely. Jesus certainly is the King, and is making decisions on behalf of his people.

And again, Jesus has vowed not to touch wine until he drinks it afresh in the kingdom of God (14:25). Wine in the scriptures is something for when the work is over and it is time to kick back and relax and enjoy life. For Jesus, it is not yet time for relaxation and rest- there is work yet to be done. It is not yet finished.

 

  1. Why does Mark tell us that the soldiers divided Jesus’ clothes?

Criminals were normally crucified naked. The condemned man’s clothing was normally given to the executioners, as a perk of the job. These men cast lots to determine who will get which piece of clothing. The garments being divided in this way is a clear reference to Psalm 22:18- “they divided my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots”. In the psalm, the division if the garments is a token of the helplessness and defeated state of the king. The 22nd Psalm is woven into the crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus himself will later quote Ps 22:1 from the cross. The bystanders who shake their heads in mockery are found in Ps 22:7, the reviling in Ps 22:6, and the taunts about being saved in Ps 22:8. In the psalm, David is at first desolate and an object of derision, and then raised up and vindicated. But everything here is from the desolate half.

At what point were David’s hands and feet ever pierced? Maybe he is using metaphor, or talking about a plot of his enemies that was never realised. The Hebrew text actually reads “Like a lion, my hands and feet”, so perhaps David is thinking about when he had to flee to Achish and pretend to be mad, scrabbling at the door and making marks and drooling into his beard (1 Sam 21). In any case, the first part of the Psalm portrays a man utterly defeated, abandoned by his friends and crowed over by his enemies, exposed and humiliated. We are meant to take Jesus’ quote as expressing the full weight of the anguish in the Psalm.

Beyond a tie-in to Ps 22 though, there is another aspect of the detail about the garments- almost an implicit aspect. If Jesus’ clothes are in the hands of the soldiers, then what is he wearing? If you’re a medieval iconographer, then he is probably wearing a loin cloth. In fact, there is some evidence that Jewish authorities would give a loin cloth to men taken out to be stoned, to preserve modesty. But Jesus is not being stoned by the Jews but crucified by the Romans. Nakedness is part of the punishment, the humiliation. The crucified man is exposed to everybody. There is a stream of Biblical theology behind this. In Genesis 3, Adam and his wife realise that they are exposed and guilty. They try to make clothes for themselves and they try to hide from God’s gaze among the trees. Their own attempts to cover themselves are pitiful, and in the end God makes covering for them, killing animals to do so. Their nakedness, and the shame they feel because of it, underlines their guilt and awareness of guilt. In a fallen world, it is not good to be naked in public. In Genesis 9, Noah becomes very angry when his youngest son sees him naked and makes a joke out of it. The Canaanites are cursed because of it- it is the seed of righteous genocide. Priests in Israel are not to go up onto the altar because their nakedness would be exposed and they would be unclothed. God’s wrath would break out and they would have no shield. But here is Jesus with the covering removed, exposed to God’s anger. God’s wrath breaks out against Jesus, and he is unclothed before it- not because he has any guilt of his own- in his own right, he can stand naked and unashamed before his Father- but because he is the ben-Adam, the Son of Man, identified with us and bearing our guilt.

 

  1. Who wrote the notice reading “King of the Jews”, and what was their point?

By Roman custom, a board posted over the crucified man would specify his crime. This notice declared that Jesus was being killed as King of the Jews. The words are Pilate’s from earlier in the chapter, and it would be Pilate who was responsible for the choice of words on the board. Placing such a sign above a dying humiliated figure was mockery and deterrent rolled into one. Pilate has just suffered a defeat at the hands of the priests, but he is enjoying small victories. In order to win the battle to get Jesus condemned to death, they have effectively renounced their claim to any king but Caesar. They have had to pretend to be loyal subjects of Rome. Pilate can at least rub their noses in it, and report back to Rome that he has dealt with the king of the Jews. The priests will not be willing to recognise Jesus as a real “King of the Jews” at all, but Pilate is happy to goad them a bit. It was meant as a slight against the pretensions of their occupied territory to be a sovereign state. To the Romans, Jesus can’t really be a king of any sort- because he has nothing which they think a king must have. He has no army, no land, no people, no respect. This is Roman mockery of Jewry.

But there are layers of irony here. The true king is one who willingly lays down his life for his people. David is the pattern and model for any real king of Israel, and he first came to public notice because he was willing to put his own life on the line for God’s honour and God’s people, going out to fight the giant Goliath. Jesus on the cross is acting like a real king should act. He is suffering for his people. Nobody recognises this bloodied humiliated figure as kingly, but that isn’t because he’s not. It is because everybody is blind.

 

  1. When Mark tells us of the robbers, what does his language remind us of?

Criminals were crucified alongside Jesus. Theft and robbery were not capital crimes in Roman law, but Josephus can later use Mark’s word “robbers” to mean Zealot insurrectionists. In part, this is a fulfilment of Isaiah 53:12. There, the servant of God is numbered with the transgressors as he pours out his soul unto death. Jesus is very clearly the suffering servant described in Isaiah; faithful to God, and despised and rejected by men. Jesus is also spat upon and beaten (Isa 50:6) and flogged (Isa 53:5).

Mark is not only referring back to Isaiah though. He is also making reference to his own Gospel. Again full of irony, he repeats the request of James and John in chapter 10. They asked for the places of honour at Jesus’ right and left when he comes into his kingdom. Mark uses the same language here about the criminals.

Jesus replied to James and John by asking them if they were able to carry his cross and be baptised with his baptism. And here, in this mock enthronement, James and John have deserted Jesus and it is unknown criminals who hang at Jesus’ right and left, and a previously unknown stranger who physically carries Jesus’ cross. Here are the ones who enjoy the honoured positions at the side of the suffering king- robbers and strangers.

 

  1. Mark gives many details about the mockery from those by the cross. What is he trying to do here?

The Jewish bystanders challenge Jesus to come down- if he can tear down the Temple and rebuild it, then surely he can come down from the cross. Those who see him crucified joke about his inability to destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days- not seeing that this is precisely what he is doing as they speak. His body is the temple, and it is now being destroyed, and will be raised up again in three days. The Temple was the dwelling place of God, the point on earth where God made his home and where God could be found. Ever since Solomon built it, if somebody wanted to meet with God, then he should go to the Temple in Jerusalem. But that changed when Jesus came. When Jesus began to announce the arrival of God’s kingdom, he became the Temple in his own flesh. He was the dwelling place of God on earth. Jesus, not the temple any longer, is where men must go to meet with God. When he said that he would build the Temple again in three days (John 2:19), he was talking about his body. That claim has obviously been repeated and distorted in Jewish popular consciousness- Jesus said that when others destroyed the temple, he would rebuild it. It seems to have been twisted into a threat from Jesus to destroy the temple himself and rebuild it. The priests also made it an accusation (14:58). But none of them have understood what Jesus was talking about. The irony is that Jesus can’t come down from the cross because he is too busy doing what they taunt him for being unable to do.

The chief priests also mock Jesus amongst themselves in very similar words- if he saved others, then why can’t he save himself. If he did, we’d believe… The scribes and chief priests say “He saved others, but cannot save himself- and what they mean is “This man is a loser. He set himself up as the Messiah, and healed other people- but where has it all ended? They tell him to save himself and come down off the cross, knowing that a crucified man can hardly gather enough strength to breathe. They say, “Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now and we will see and believe”. They are making a joke out of Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah. They look at him, and see a helpless powerless figure, dying on a cross, cursed by God. He can’t possibly be the Messiah. His claims can’t be taken seriously now. He can’t be the dignified, powerful, victorious king who will deliver Israel from their enemies, and rule them under God in peace and prosperity. He’s dying, defeated and humiliated. Or so it looks to their eyes.

They no doubt are just thinking of Jesus’ miracles- healing the sick and casting out demons and raising the dead. But Mark, I should think, expects his readers to catch their unintentional double-entendre and give full weight to the word “save”. And again, the irony is striking. Jesus won’t come down and save himself, precisely because he has to stay there to save others.

Their mocking appears switched- why should the priests, whose concern is the Temple, mock regarding the salvation of others, and why should the people, who saw the miracles and healings and so on, mock concerning the Temple? The two are connected. Both are mocking assuming that Jesus stays because he can’t come down., and assume that this proves that he can’t really build the Temple, and can’t really save people. But ironically, it is by staying there that Jesus is doing both things. If he was to save his people, he couldn’t save himself. Maybe Mark highlights who makes which mockery in order to combine them, make it plain that they are to be thought of as one.

Along with Ps 22:6, we have echoes of Lam 2:15 and Ps 69:9, which latter contains (in the LXX) the same word for reviled as here, and a detail about zeal for the temple.

 

  1. Darkness falls for three hours. Why is this peculiarly appropriate?

Mark divides the day of the crucifixion into chunks of 3 hours. Nobody carries a watch around, so time isn’t measured with modern exactness, but Mark point out the key events happening at daybreak (6am, final consultation of the Sanhedrin in 15:1), at the 3rd hour (9am, crucifixion, 15:25), at the 6th hour (noon, darkness, v33), at the 9th hour (3pm, death of Jesus, 15:34f), and at evening (6pm, burial, v42f). It is clearly meant to be memorable and memorised.

V25 is still odd though. It’s a strong statement with no apparent point. Can’t be attached to the garments bit, or we’d be left with an orphaned second statement about crucifixion. Some textual critics say it’s an interpolation, but there doesn’t seem much manuscript evidence for this.

John says 6th hour for Pilate’s questioning of the crowd (Jn 19:14), and this presents problems. Maybe he’s using the Roman system, counting from midnight. If so, then that gives three hours between the second trial and the crucifixion, which is possible. Darkness fell, and reigned for three hours as Jesus hung on the cross. This is appropriate on a number of levels. Darkness is fitting, and darkness for three hours is especially fitting.

This is not normal darkness. Commentators have offered all kinds of explanations as secondary causes of the darkness. But those causes are all secondary. God brought it about, whether he did so by means we understand or means we don’t (though it certainly wasn’t a regular lunar eclipse of the sun. The Jewish calendar is lunar, and Passover, the commentators say, is on a full moon). The sun is given to rule the day, and the sun is a creature of habit. It rises in the morning, and goes down at night, and it shines upon us in between. We don’t get patches of darkness like we get patches of rain (well, if we’re lucky, the rain comes in patches).

Darkness is there at the start of the Bible. Darkness was on the face of the deep. The world began in chaos and darkness. Light was a blessing from God. And so when God wishes to show his displeasure, to return the world to thick darkness is appropriate. God wraps himself in thick darkness when showing his terrifying aspect (Ex 20:18-21; Ps 18:7-11). Those who sit in darkness are the disobedient (Ps 107:10). So generally, darkness works well as a sign of God’s curse.

But those who had read their OT, might well remember another occasion where darkness fell in the middle of the day. Where have you seen darkness before in the Bible? Exodus 10. The plagues on Egypt. When God wishes to punish Egypt and signify his displeasure, thick darkness is something he uses (Ex 10:22). The parallel with the plague on Egypt is very close. We have some strong similarities between the two situations. Significantly, darkness is the last-but-one plague to fall on the Egyptians. What is the plague after darkness, the last and final plague? And in what context do all these plagues appear? And what is the result of all these plagues?

God’s people in the early chapter of Exodus are groaning under a yoke of slavery. They desperately need to be delivered. They need a saviour, who will defeat their enemies, break the power of the Egyptians over them, rescue them from bondage, and lead them into the land they have been promised, a land flowing with milk and honey.

God himself is their saviour, who raises up Moses as a leader and prophet, and who brings terrible things to pass in Egypt until Pharaoh finally lets Israel go. God brings thick darkness over the face of the land for how many days? Three (Exodus 10:22, 23). And after that, there is no more warning to Pharaoh. God kills the firstborn sons of all the Egyptians. God’s patience is at an end, and he pours out his wrath on Egypt, and Israel escape only through the blood of the lamb on their doorposts- the Passover lamb.

So just before the Passover, darkness came on Egypt. And following the darkness came death. The sacrificial lambs were slain, and the firstborn sons were slain, as Gods’ anger was finally let loose. And through that, God’s people are delivered out of slavery.

And so here, when God is going to pour out his wrath on Jesus, when the death of the true Passover lamb and the only begotten Son of God is about to take place, darkness covers the earth before he dies. And freedom for God’s people comes through his death. They are brought out of darkness into light. It is prophesied in Amos 8:9-10. Amos is using Passover imagery to describe God’s wrath on a disobedient Israel- with darkness, and mourning as for an only son- but in Mark, it is the obedient son who is the object of wrath, so that the disobedient sons might live.

 

  1. What should we take from this passage?

The whole account is saturated with irony. Mark doesn’t just want us to see the humiliation- he wants us to see the purpose. Everybody else is blind. Everybody mocks Jesus. The Romans mock him as hopeless and powerless. The Jews mock him as a fraud and a charlatan. Even the robbers crucified with him, who you might have thought would have some sympathy, mock him.

But those who have read Mark’s Gospel through up to this point can see things differently. The humiliation and crucifixion of Jesus is not a tragic end to the Messianic hope. It is precisely in this humiliation of Jesus that the cursed earth is redeemed. He is not just a prophet and a king- he is a sacrifice.

He has not come, like David, to relieve Israel from some of the effects of the curse for a little while- to obtain relative happiness, occasional plenty, and a temporary reign of peace. He has come to turn the curse over, to take it upon himself and exhaust it. He has come to lay down his life for the good of others. The whole thrust of Chapters 9 and 10 have been about this- that Jesus is not a king like other kings. He is a servant king. He has come, as he himself said, not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

These things happened. They are real historical events. In fact, they are the central events of all history. Jesus is God. He came from heaven into a wicked world, to suffer and die, as a sacrifice to bring his people forgiveness, to save them. Those who saw him die mocked him, and their words are painfully ironic. Had they understood them seriously, they could have been saved. He saved others, but cannot save himself- well, yes, that was the point.

We can look on these events pretty much as the Jews and the Romans did- “this man was a fruitcake or a fraud, and his death proves it”.

Or we can trust him, and he will save us. This man was the saviour, and his death proves it.

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