Alexander Graham Bell was a scientist and an engineer. But, for all the things that he accomplished during his lifetime, we remember Alexander Graham Bell for basically only one thing – inventing the telephone.
And Thomas Edison invented a lot of stuff, but we remember him mostly for just one thing – we credit him with the invention of the light bulb.
We associate Henry Ford with automobiles and the assembly line, George Washington Carver with peanuts and crop rotation, and the Wright brothers with the airplane.
My point is that there are a lot of people in history who have one event in their life that is so much a part of their story that it’s hard to think about them without thinking about that one event.
But what about Jesus? When you think about Jesus, what is the one thing that comes to mind first? What is the one event that Jesus is most remembered for? From our study of the gospel of Mark over the past couple of months, you might think about his healings or his calming of the storm or his walking on the water. You might think about the cleansing of the temple or one of his confrontations with the Pharisees.
But I’m sure that, very quickly, your thoughts would turn to Calvary and to the crucifixion of Jesus. Because there is no other event in Christ’s life that is as central as his death on the cross. More than anything else in his entire life, Jesus is remembered mostly for his death.
And I think it’s safe to say that you can’t really tell the story of the life of Christ without talking about his death. Now there are some other people in history whose deaths are memorable – Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. But you can talk about the mark those men made in history without mentioning their deaths. Their deaths are a part of their stories, but their deaths are not the central part of their stories.
But if you’re going to talk about the life of Jesus, then you have to talk about his death. And so, here in Mark chapter 15, we come to the anticipated story about the cross. In fact, about half of Mark’s gospel is spent telling the events that lead up to the cross. Mark’s gospel is so centered in the cross that some people have called it a story about Jesus’ death with an extended introduction. The cross is at the very center of the story of Jesus.
But sometimes, when you hear stories over and over, you tend to think that you know what’s coming and so you don’t pay attention. And I think perhaps we tend to make this mistake with the story of the cross. We’ve heard about the cross so many times that we think we already know what Mark is going to say and why he’s going to say it.
But Mark doesn’t tell us about the cross for the same reason that Matthew does. And Mark doesn’t tell us about the cross for the same reason that the apostle Paul does, who goes into great detail explaining the meaning of the cross.
You see, we tend to think there’s only one reason to talk about the cross. And so, we’re tempted to read into Mark’s gospel all of those reasons that we know to be so important to understanding Jesus’ death: Jesus died because of our sins. His death was a sacrifice that makes possible our forgiveness. Jesus was reconciling us to God.
And all of those things are true, and are very, very important. But there are some other lessons to be learned from the cross and we need to let Mark tell us the story of the cross so that he can make the point that he wants to make.
Because Mark doesn’t try to answer the question, “Why did Jesus die on the cross?” Mark doesn’t go into detail telling us what the death of Jesus means for us.
Now there are some glimpses of that in Mark’s gospel. For example, in chapter 14, when Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, he said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.” (Mark 14:24).
And back in chapter 10, Jesus said, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)
So, there are some glimpses in Mark as to the purpose of Jesus’ death, but Mark doesn’t tell us the story of the cross to help us to understand and appreciate the role of the crucifixion in removing our sins and reconciling us to God.
Mark doesn’t go into detail as to why the cross was necessary, but he does go into great detail telling us exactly what happened at the cross. The story of the crucifixion of Jesus is ugly and repulsive. It was meant to be. In chapter 15, beginning with the first verse,
Very early in the morning the leading priests, the elders, and the teachers of religious law — the entire high council — met to discuss their next step. They bound Jesus, led him away, and took him to Pilate, the Roman governor.
Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
Jesus replied, “You have said it.”
Then the leading priests kept accusing him of many crimes, and Pilate asked him, “Aren’t you going to answer them? What about all these charges they are bringing against you?” But Jesus said nothing, much to Pilate’s surprise.
Now it was the governor’s custom each year during the Passover celebration to release one prisoner — anyone the people requested. One of the prisoners at that time was Barabbas, a revolutionary who had committed murder in an uprising. The crowd went to Pilate and asked him to release a prisoner as usual.
“Would you like me to release to you this ‘King of the Jews’?” Pilate asked. (For he realized by now that the leading priests had arrested Jesus out of envy.) But at this point the leading priests stirred up the crowd to demand the release of Barabbas instead of Jesus. Pilate asked them, “Then what should I do with this man you call the king of the Jews?”
They shouted back, “Crucify him!”
“Why?” Pilate demanded. “What crime has he committed?”
But the mob roared even louder, “Crucify him!”
So to pacify the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He ordered Jesus flogged with a lead-tipped whip, then turned him over to the Roman soldiers to be crucified.
The soldiers took Jesus into the courtyard of the governor’s headquarters (called the Praetorium) and called out the entire regiment. They dressed him in a purple robe, and they wove thorn branches into a crown and put it on his head. Then they saluted him and taunted, “Hail! King of the Jews!” And they struck him on the head with a reed stick, spit on him, and dropped to their knees in mock worship. When they were finally tired of mocking him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him again. Then they led him away to be crucified.
A passerby named Simon, who was from Cyrene, was coming in from the countryside just then, and the soldiers forced him to carry Jesus’ cross. (Simon was the father of Alexander and Rufus.) And they brought Jesus to a place called Golgotha (which means “Place of the Skull”). They offered him wine drugged with myrrh, but he refused it.
Then the soldiers nailed him to the cross. They divided his clothes and threw dice to decide who would get each piece. It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. A sign announced the charge against him. It read, “The King of the Jews.” Two revolutionaries were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left.
The people passing by shouted abuse, shaking their heads in mockery. “Ha! Look at you now!” they yelled at him. “You said you were going to destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days. Well then, save yourself and come down from the cross!”
The leading priests and teachers of religious law also mocked Jesus. “He saved others,” they scoffed, “but he can’t save himself! Let this Messiah, this King of Israel, come down from the cross so we can see it and believe him!” Even the men who were crucified with Jesus ridiculed him.
At noon, darkness fell across the whole land until three o’clock. Then at three o’clock Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
Some of the bystanders misunderstood and thought he was calling for the prophet Elijah. One of them ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, holding it up to him on a reed stick so he could drink. “Wait!” he said. “Let’s see whether Elijah comes to take him down!”
Then Jesus uttered another loud cry and breathed his last. (Mark 15:1-37, NLT)
The hatred of the religious leaders, which is so evident throughout the gospel of Mark, comes to a head in this chapter. They finally have Jesus exactly where they want him, and they unleash all of their wrath on him.
For the first time in Mark’s gospel, the crowds are opposed to Jesus. All those people who had flocked to him, who had shouted his praises and who had prevented his arrest for so long now cry out for his blood.
And then there was the mockery. Not only was Jesus deserted by everyone, but his enemies were there to mock him and to ridicule him.
He is mocked by his Jewish enemies after his first trial before the Sanhedrin. Going back to chapter 14, “Some of them began to spit on Jesus, and they blindfolded him and hit him. “Guess who hit you!” they said. And the guards took him and slapped him.” (Mark 14:65, GN). His enemies finally have Jesus in their clutches, and they enjoy humiliating him before they go on with this plot that they’ve been hatching for three years.
Then he’s mocked by the Roman soldiers after his trial before Pilate “They dressed him in a purple robe, and they wove thorn branches into a crown and put it on his head. Then they saluted him and taunted, “Hail! King of the Jews!” And they struck him on the head with a reed stick, spit on him, and dropped to their knees in mock worship.” (Mark 15:17-19)
And then Jesus is mocked while he’s dying on the cross “The people passing by shouted abuse, shaking their heads in mockery. “Ha! Look at you now!” they yelled at him. “You said you were going to destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days. Well then, save yourself and come down from the cross!”
The leading priests and teachers of religious law also mocked Jesus. “He saved others,” they scoffed, “but he can’t save himself! Let this Messiah, this King of Israel, come down from the cross so we can see it and believe him!” Even the men who were crucified with Jesus ridiculed him” (Mark 15:29-32, NLT).
Jesus was brutalized by an illegal trial. He was improperly condemned by a cowardly judge who couldn’t find any fault with him. He was tortured and tormented as he was nailed to a cross. And all the while his murderers were there to taunt him and insult him.
There wasn’t any need for Mark to describe the terrible suffering inflicted on someone who was crucified: the scourging, the nailing of hands and feet, the excruciating agony of a prolonged death. Mark touches on these details, but he doesn’t dwell on them. Suffice it to say this was not a quick and neat affair meant to humanely end the life of a convicted criminal. It was a shameful and degrading death intended to put its victim through as much agony as possible before the end.
And there’s one further rejection in this chapter which was the most painful of all, “At noon, darkness fell across the whole land until three o’clock. Then at three o’clock Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’” (Mark 15:33-34).
Jesus cried out that God the Father had deserted him. And there can be only one reason he would say that – because God had deserted him! Because of our sins that Jesus was carrying, God turned his face away from Jesus. These are the only words that Mark records from the cross, and they are significant. There is darkness over all the land. Even the sun hides its face as the Son of God dies alone.
The disciples are nowhere to be found; they’re not even mentioned in this chapter. They have utterly deserted Jesus. There are some women who watch from a distance. And there’s a member of the Sanhedrin by the name of Joseph who recovers and buries the body of Jesus. But the rest of the disciples are not mentioned.
We talked about their failures in chapter 14 last week. How the disciples, when push came to shove, slept when they should have been alert, ran when they should have stood fast, and ignored their promises to die rather than forsake Jesus. Peter, in particular, buckled under pressure. He slept. He ran. And then he also denied three times that he even knew Jesus.
There is such a sharp contrast between the disciples in chapter 14 and Jesus in chapter 15. Because no matter how difficult things get, Jesus stands firm. No matter how many people forsake him, he remains faithful. And that seems to be what fascinates Mark and serves as the lesson he wants us learn from the cross. In contrast with the failure of the disciples in chapter 14, Mark portrays a Christ in chapter 15 who is faithful to the end.
Remember what I said last week about Mark’s original readers? If we are correct in saying that Mark was written around AD 65 to the church at Rome, then Mark’s first readers would have been those very Christians who suffered the first wave of Roman persecution during Nero’s reign. Many of those Christians became martyrs for their faith. But there were also many of those Christians who abandoned their faith in order to save their lives. Every single one of them had to make the choice — will I be faithful to my Lord and give up my life, or will I hold onto my life and give up my faith?
And the best example of faithfulness that Mark could give them was the example of Jesus himself. And so, Mark shows them how Jesus’ death on the cross was an example of what it means to be faithful. When the disciples ran for their lives, Jesus did not. He is the ultimate example of faith and courage and dignity in the face of persecution.
There is so much restraint on the part of Jesus. He didn’t offer any resistance at his arrest. The crowds expected a fight – they came armed and ready and with overwhelming numbers (14:43). Jesus could have encouraged his disciples to fight. Even better, Jesus could have called 10,000 angels to his defense. But he didn’t. He didn’t resist at all.
And then Jesus was silent at his trial. Even though Jesus had a legal right to speak up in his defense, he chose instead to leave his accusations unanswered. The evidence against Jesus was flimsy and contrived. His accusers couldn’t even agree on their testimony. Even Pilate could see that the religious leaders were motivated more by envy than by the evidence itself.
In verse 3, “Then the leading priests kept accusing him of many crimes, and Pilate asked him, “Aren’t you going to answer them? What about all these charges they are bringing against you?” But Jesus said nothing, much to Pilate’s surprise.” (Mark 15:3-5, NLT). Jesus didn’t answer any of the accusations. He didn’t fight for his life in any way, because the cross was the will of God and Jesus submitted completely.
He was silent during the mockings. He allowed others to say terrible things about him: The religious leaders implied that he was a false prophet. The Roman soldiers mocked him as a false king. Those at the foot of the cross ridiculed him as a false savior. But not one word of response is recorded in Mark. Not one word of defense or rebuke. Just silence.
But Jesus wasn’t completely silent throughout this process. In fact, at the very times it seems like he “ought” to have kept quiet, he spoke! The one question Jesus answered was the one that got him killed. In Mark 14, Jesus was asked about his identity. He identified himself as the Messiah, the Christ, which resulted in the Sanhedrin condemning him as a blasphemer. In Mark 15, again, Jesus was asked about his identity, and he identified himself as the King of the Jews, which gave Pilate a reason to condemn him as a rebel.
This admission of who he really was, when it would have been so easy to remain silent, shows us the courage of Jesus. In spite of the circumstances and the shameful behavior of others around him, Jesus remained true to God. He was faithful to the very end.
And Mark’s readers needed to hear that, because they were suffering persecution. They were dealing with difficult circumstances. Nero was a cruel man, and Christians received the bulk of his cruelties.
Those early Christians needed an example of someone suffering with honor and faith. So, Mark shows them the death of Jesus. Not as the atoning sacrifice that it surely was. Not as the means by which forgiveness is found. But as an example of courage and endurance in the face of terrible circumstances and faithless friends. Those disciples needed to remember how Jesus suffered so that they could gain the strength for the suffering they themselves would have to endure.
The apostle Peter wrote his first epistle at the beginning of this persecution. We know that Peter and Mark were very closely related. Mark was Peter’s son in the faith, and he served as Peter’s secretary during the writing of I Peter. Their connection was so close that there is an ancient tradition that says that Mark’s gospel was actually the “Memoirs of Peter.”
Why is this connection between Mark and Peter significant? Because I want you to notice how Peter described the cross as he wrote to a church that was beginning to experience persecution.
1 Peter 2:20-23, “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. 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. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 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.”
For Peter, Jesus was the supreme example of being faithful in the midst of persecution. And I think that’s what his friend Mark has in mind here as well.
Mark wants his readers to see the suffering Christ as an example of faithfulness. And we need to see it as well. Because like the first readers of Mark, some Christians today are called to follow Christ in difficult situations. Now it’s true that we’re not persecuted – at least in the same way they were — but there are many Christians who struggle to be faithful in circumstances that make faith very difficult:
There are some Christians today who are forced to choose between a loyalty to God and to their families. Pressure is placed on them to give up their faith in order to maintain family ties. Many of us have heard of people who were given ultimatums — either give up this new faith of yours or you will not be part of our family any more. There may even be some people here this morning who have had to make a choice like that.
There are other Christians who must live their Christian life with husbands or wives who don’t share their faith. And while they may not be forced to choose between God and their mate, they don’t receive the daily encouragement to their faith that many of us take for granted. Everything they do for the Lord, they have to do it alone.
Other Christians strive to be faithful despite chronic sickness and pain. Others must live for Christ despite having a work environment that makes living for Christ difficult.
Maybe you’re on the road constantly and have to be away from your church family. Maybe you work hours that make it difficult to come to worship. Maybe you’re the mother of small children and have constant responsibilities. Maybe you deploy for months at a time, or your spouse does.
We could go on and on with such examples. And all of these situations are used by some Christians as an excuse to give up on Christ, to give up on their faith. And we have to admit that some of these things do indeed make living the Christian life difficult.
Mark would agree. But he would point us to the cross. Because everything about the cross was difficult for Jesus. He was totally abandoned and rejected. His closest friends gave up on him. He was left to suffer torture and death all alone. And yet he endured; he was faithful. And in remaining faithful, Jesus has left us an example to follow in his steps. Even when life is difficult, even when faith is difficult, the cross is our call to endure.
As the Hebrew writer said, “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2) So, this morning, let us come to the cross. Let us be taught by it. Let us be encouraged by it. Let us be strengthened by it. And let us be saved by it.