Please read Mark 15:33-47
All of a sudden people are looking at the sky. The crowd are no longer watching the figure on the central cross; they are staring upwards instead. Suddenly, incomprehensibly, with the sun shining overhead out of a clear blue sky, it’s getting dark. No-one can explain it. They’ve heard of eclipses – but you can’t have an eclipse now, it’s Passover, it’s full moon. They look out across the countryside and see the valleys filling with shadows; they look back towards the nearby city and its buildings are barely visible. It’s mid-day – and it’s dark. Some scurry home; some stay to watch; some must simply remain on duty. The centurion at the foot of the cross casts worried glances about – after all, this darkness would make great cover for anyone trying to stage a rescue attempt. He’s heard this prisoner claimed to be a king. But there is no rescue attempt. Instead, the darkness simply continues. The centurion settles down again to wait. At last the growing silence is broken. The prisoner speaks – or yells – words that the centurion does not understand, words of Aramaic, the common language of Palestine. Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? The words confuse even the Jewish onlookers. Some imagine he is calling on the prophet Elijah – there is that old tradition that Elijah pops up at times of need to pull innocent men out of impossible situations – perhaps this crazy character thinks Elijah will come for him now! I wonder if he’ll say anything else bizarre; or who knows, Elijah might actually appear! So they dip a sponge in a jar of sour wine, the soldiers’ customary drink, and raise it to the prisoner’s lips. This cross is higher than most; they have to jab the sponge on the end of a stick and reach up to his mouth. That should keep him going for a little longer.
To their surprise, the end is not long delayed. One more loud cry; and quite suddenly, the prisoner is dead. The body hangs limp and silent. The soldiers are baffled. They have seen dozens of crucifixions and this is simply not how it goes. Crucified men invariably sink in torment, gasping into unconsciousness. They do not give a powerful cry and then breathe their last! Again the centurion wonders; he thinks back over all he has seen and heard these past few hours; he looks round – and he realises he can see the faces of the crowd again. The light has returned. He peers up at the face that gazes back with lifeless eyes; the mouth that has screamed none of the usual curses; the man who has accepted this hideous death with heroic dignity – who, in a place where no-one has control or decision over anything, seems to have decided the exact moment to give up his life! He thinks about the darkness that has paralleled his dying and that has lifted as he dies; and he puts his thoughts into words. ‘Surely this man was the Son of God!’
Meanwhile, not far away in the city, the priests in the Temple, scurrying round the precincts on Passover business, hear a sudden sound that first puzzles and then terrifies them. The great Temple curtain which guards the way into the holy places of their religion has mysteriously torn; a single tear extends from top to bottom and the two pieces can be seen hanging separately so that anyone can see inside. The barrier is down! Horrified, they run to tell the authorities. Immediate action is imperative. The dividing barrier must be kept intact!
Back at the execution scene, the crowd begins to disperse. A group of women have been watching the central cross, keeping their distance, supporting one another through what is a terrible ordeal for them – for they were devoted to this prisoner. This past couple of years they have done all they could to support him as he has moved around the country; and here they have stayed to watch. Three in particular are watching closely: two named Mary, and one named Salome – eye-witnesses who have heard and noted every detail, and who quite soon now will see something even more astonishing than this. But all they know for now is that the Jesus they knew and loved so much is dead; and no hope remains in their hearts as they gaze at the body on the cross.
This is the story of how Jesus dies, as Mark recounts it. Finally, he dies: his mission is accomplished. He has done what he came to do. But exactly what has he accomplished, and why does it matter? These are the two major questions which are answered in Mark 15:33-47.
We turn first to vv.33-41; to Jesus’ death and what it achieves. Mark’s narrative gives us five clear pointers. First, Jesus’ mission took him to the depths (v.34). This verse gives the only saying from the cross which Mark records, indeed the only words he mentions Jesus speaking between his opening exchange with Pilate and the moment of his death. So this is important! These are astounding words – especially in view of the claim that Jesus himself is God. It sounds at first like a cry of utter despair. We need to know that Jesus is quoting the opening words of Psalm 22, though he speaks in the common Aramaic and not the original Hebrew. Psalm 22 is the song of the innocent sufferer; it speaks of someone enduring torment and abuse that is totally undeserved and crying to God to rescue him. As Jesus hangs on the cross he is living the experience described in this psalm. It is amazing to think that the Lord inspired David to write it so that a thousand years later he himself could speak it from the cross!
Psalm 22, however, is not entirely about suffering. If you read it, you will see that it ends on a high note of praise and assurance. Some have suggested, therefore, that Jesus’ cry from the cross is really an expression of confidence that everything will be all right in the end. I believe that idea is mistaken, for Jesus’ experience on the cross does not lead towards that confident conclusion; it actually leads away from it. Compare Mark’s account with Psalm 22 and you will see what I mean. Jesus goes to the cross and the soldiers gamble for his clothes – v.24, corresponding to Psalm 22:18. Then Jesus is mocked – vv.29-32, corresponding to Psalm 22:6-8; notice how the details line up. Then comes this cry from the cross, the ‘cry of dereliction’ as it is known, in v.34 – corresponding to Psalm 22:1. It’s as if Jesus is being taken back through the psalm to its opening verse, not towards the place of assurance, but away from it
Does this mean, then, that God is torn apart from God? Is the Trinity broken apart at the cross? Many have gone astray here, including prominent theologians
Secondly, Jesus’ mission placed him under judgement. This explains his abandonment by the Father. Jesus knows he is innocent – not just of any crime worthy of execution, but of anything remotely sinful or wrong in his entire life. He identifies with the righteous sufferer of Psalm 22:9-10 who proclaims his obedience to God – and in the case of Jesus this is literally and absolutely true. He has been totally faithful; but instead of a reward, he gets condemnation. Here on the cross he finds himself under the judgement of God: the darkness that falls is a clear sign of that. The prophets often spoke of the Day of the Lord, the day when God would intervene in history, judge his enemies and save his people. Those who had rebelled against God would be judged and punished for their sins. Judgement means that every offender faces the consequences of what they have done – an utterly terrifying prospect, for judgement means God’s wrath, his pure and perfect anger against human sin, poured out on the rebels. The prophets foretold that this Judgement Day would be accompanied by unmistakable signs, such as supernatural darkness. See, for instance, Amos 8:9. Darkness falling at mid-day is a sign of falling judgement. But it is not falling on the whole world – not now. Today judgement is falling on just one spot; it is focused down on a rocky outcrop outside the walls of Jerusalem, on that one agonised figure on the cross. That is why he is abandoned. The Father’s fury is poured out on the Son.
This raises the question again, Why? Why is Jesus, the perfect one, under judgement? Why is it falling on him? It is because, thirdly, Jesus’ mission paid for our sin. The darkness of judgement and wrath which he endured was endured for us. Jesus is doing exactly what he explained in such simple words in 10:45; and this is the cost. The cost of the ransom is to take our judgement, our hell; to divert the wrath of God away from us and onto his own head. On the cross, Jesus takes our disastrous record of failure and rebellion onto himself. Jesus suffers in his humanity, as we have said; but it is only because Jesus is also divine, only because of the infinite strength of his divine nature, that he can bear this unimaginable weight. The Father looks at him, the pure and innocent one; and sees there the guilt of a billion sinful lives; and he holds the Son to account for them all. In these agonising hours, Jesus is a terrorist, a mass murderer, a rapist, a child abuser. He is an armed robber, a drug dealer, a gangster; and God’s wrath is poured out on him for all of these. Has our sin appeared yet in the list? Jesus has stolen, blasphemed, bribed, walked out on responsibilities, cheated in exams, envied the rich, looked down on the poor. God’s wrath is due for all of these too. Jesus has resented his parents, been infuriated by his children. He has left the truth half-said. He has talked behind people’s backs, dodged taxes, fiddled expenses, snapped in impatience, said one thing and done another, held grudges, failed to offer a kind word when he had the chance. Surely we recognise these sins; and for all these too, Jesus bears the unspeakable wrath of God. He has become sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Fourthly, Jesus’ mission was accomplished in full. Mark does not give us the words of Jesus’ final cry, as John does (John 19:30); but he does tell us how Jesus died (v.37). This is simply not how crucifixions end. If the victim has any strength left to cry out, he is not close to death. If he is close to death, he has no strength left for a cry. Mark makes it clear that Jesus chooses to lay down his life when the task is done, when the sacrifice is complete. Hour after hour he has hung there in the darkness. Wave after wave of God’s wrath has engulfed him as the long record of our sin rolls on and on. It has seemed unending; but at last the moment comes. At last he has the sense of the burden beginning to lift, the horror abating; God’s wrath is exhausted, the price is paid. He brings his mission to its conclusion; he completes the sacrifice by surrendering his life. Jesus dies. Fellowship with his Father is restored. On earth, the darkness lifts. Mission accomplished!
There is another sign that Jesus’ mission was completed (v.38). There were in fact two curtains in the Temple. The first hung at the entrance to the building, the entrance to the Holy Place which only the priests could enter. The second curtain was inside, dividing off the Holy Place from the innermost sanctum, the Most Holy Place, where only the High Priest went, and that only once a year – understood to be the place where God’s very presence dwelt at the heart of his people. The traditional view has been that it is this inner curtain that is torn at Jesus’ death, showing that his death opens up the access for us all into the presence of God. It is true that his death achieves exactly that; and the book of Hebrews expands on that truth. But I think it is more likely that it is the outer curtain that is torn. Damage to the inner curtain could be very easily hushed up – it would only ever be seen by a handful of priests and no-one outside need ever know. But a tear in the outer curtain – eighty feet high and vividly coloured – could be seen by anyone in the Temple courts, as long as the gates were open; and there is a Jewish tradition that something very strange did happen at the entrance to the Temple building. Everything else in this passage is about public evidence of the meaning of Jesus’ death – signs that can be seen and heard – and the outer curtain was far more public than the inner one.
At the end of our previous chapter, we noted a strange parallel between Jesus’ death scene and his baptism in Mark 1. But there are other parallels as well. At both his baptism and the cross, there is a declaration that he is God’s Son. At both baptism and cross, there is the image of something descending from above: the dove descends at his baptism, the tearing curtain at his death. And at Jesus’ baptism, we read that the heavens were seen torn open as the Spirit descends and the voice of God speaks into the world. On the outer curtain of the Temple there was a great woven tapestry, torn open as Jesus dies. And the tapestry depicted – a picture of the night sky – the heavens! His earthly ministry began with a moment of God’s intervention, rending the heavens; now it concludes in the same way!
Whichever curtain it was, the meaning is much the same – it’s a message of salvation completed – the way opened, either into the Temple for us all to serve as priests or right into the presence of God. At the same time, it marks the end of the Temple era. Now that Christ has died, now that our sin has been paid for in full, there is no need for sacrifices, for priests, for dividing walls or for any barriers to the presence of God. Jesus has already told his followers that one day soon it will be utterly destroyed (13:2); and here is the first sign of it.
Fifth and last, Jesus’ mission proved him to the world (v.39). We have seen what induced the centurion to say such words, but what did he mean by ‘the Son of God’? The Greek allows either translation, ‘Son of God’ or ‘a son of God’. In either case, the centurion does not and cannot mean ‘he is the second person of the Trinity’; that concept would mean nothing to him. ‘Son of God’ to him would mean something like ‘superhero’, a ‘man with god-like powers’. This exclamation may very possibly be the first step to a living faith in Jesus Christ, but it is no more than a step. Mark, however, intends more than that. Mark wants his readers to recognise a true statement in a far greater sense than the centurion could understand. Just as when Peter confessed ‘You are the Christ’ (8:29) without really understanding what that would mean, so the centurion declares ‘This man was son of God’ and Mark whispers to us, He said it!
This is specially important for Mark’s first readers in Rome. ‘Son of God’ is exactly what the emperors are beginning to call themselves. Mark is telling his persecuted readers, There at the cross, the official representative of Rome called Jesus by his true name. The emperor is not the Son of God – Jesus Christ our Lord is Son of God. In this recognition by a Gentile, limited as it might be, unwitting as it might be, we see the beginning of the way Christ’s death is preached across the world. With the death of Christ the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile is broken down; the great news of the gospel goes out to every nation, as Christ who has taken the judgement of humanity creates a single new humanity. Jesus is truly identified, at last, at the foot of the cross; his saving death will be proclaimed to every nation and people group on earth; and when that task is complete, the Lord Jesus will return – not in the humiliation of the cross, but in glory and as Judge.
For us, the most important thing by far is simply to see and to grasp what Jesus has done: to see how low he went, what he went through as he faced the judgement and bore the wrath. When we talk about salvation, God’s rescue plan, this is what we mean – that the Son of God himself, with depths of love beyond our comprehension, should suffer in our place so that we can have full and free access to a perfect God. As we look at Jesus suffering on the cross, we see too what it means to trust God in impossible situations. When Jesus is in the depths, when he knows that for this time the Father has abandoned him, he still insists on saying ‘My God’ and does not let go. Jesus, in a situation more appalling than we will ever face, cries out, but he cries out to God. If your situation is impossible, if there are questions neither you nor anyone else can answer, remember that you are united to Christ, who plumbed the deepest depths – and in the place of no answers, still trusted his God. Finally, we need to remember that if Christ died for us, there is no guilt left for us to worry about – none at all! If we are still plagued by guilt from our past, the answer is to look at the cross and see what was done there. See the cost; see the completeness; and understand that we have nothing to add.
In the Khanyar district of Srinagar in Kashmir stands a very ordinary-looking building, single-storey, rectangular, on a slightly raised platform with green railings at the front. Until recently, it used to be open on request; but ever since it was listed in the Lonely Planet travel guide, it’s been much harder to get into. Inside, there is the final resting place of a Muslim holy man; another man who may be a Muslim saint, though some say he was just the caretaker; a gravestone covered in green cloth and a rock with mysterious markings, said to have been made by feet that have been crucified. This, according to some, is the true tomb of Jesus of Nazareth, or Yuz Asaf as he is known locally. According to the story, Jesus did not die on the cross. He survived the crucifixion, recovered from its effects and travelled to Kashmir where he lived out the rest of his days and died a perfectly normal death. This building is the place of his burial. Until recently, most of the world had never heard of this idea; but that is changing. Its growing popularity, to quote a recent BBC article, is due to ‘an eclectic combination of New Age Christians, unorthodox Muslims and fans of the Da Vinci code’, all of whom prefer to believe that Jesus Christ did not really die on the cross.
This is in fact the official doctrine of the Ahmadiyyas, a Muslim sect regarded as heretical by other Muslims. Mainstream Muslims believe that Jesus did not go to the cross at all; he did not die, neither in Jerusalem nor anywhere else, but was taken straight up to heaven. They say that someone else, such as Simon of Cyrene, was made to look like Jesus and crucified instead; though exactly why God should want to perpetrate such a deception is not very clear. But either way, Jesus did not die on the cross; and so the very basis of the Christian gospel is challenged and denied. In which case, the story of Christ’s death on the cross may be very powerful, may be intensely moving, but is not actually true; in fact it is deeply misleading. Some people today would say that doesn’t matter. Perhaps the remains of Jesus are lying in an obscure building in Kashmir – so what? We shouldn’t worry whether the Bible has got its story straight or not: as long as we believe it and it gives us hope and meaning, as long as it ‘works’ for us, that’s all that counts. Is that right?
It is interesting that at this point in his story, vv.42-47, Mark seems to pause for breath. He seems to be standing back in order to set out the evidence that these events really did happen; so with Mark, having studied the story of the crucifixion itself, we will now stand back and look.
At this point, with Jesus dead, there comes a quieter interlude. Mark begins this section by reminding us of the time (v.42). Here is another pointer that he is writing mainly for Gentiles, who might need to be told that ‘preparation day’ is Friday, the day before the Sabbath, which would begin at sunset. Joseph of Arimathea – a village about twenty miles north-west of Jerusalem – is introduced in v.43 as a senior member of the Jewish council, the body that convicted Jesus the previous night. Almost certainly Joseph was absent from the meeting; there could be a wide variety of reasons for that, but clearly he was not part of the decision that sent Jesus to Pilate and the cross. That Joseph is ‘waiting for the kingdom of God’ means he is a faithful Jew who is longing for the day when God will intervene in the nation’s history and bring in the new era foretold by the prophets. So Joseph is presented to us as a godly man, who has recognised that Jesus is at least a prophet and perhaps something more, and who must be devastated that Jesus has been sent to the cross. His death has galvanised Joseph into action: at least, he resolves, Jesus shall have an honourable burial. Joseph will have in mind the law on burial found in Deuteronomy 21:22-23. It is imperative that Jesus be buried before the day is over.
The move Joseph makes is risky. By going to ask for Jesus’ body, he is associating himself with a man convicted for rebellion against Rome. Moreover, governor Pilate is off-duty by this time of day and probably doesn’t want to be disturbed. It’s likely that Joseph has to use every bit of prestige and influence he can muster to gain access to Pilate and obtain a hearing for this remarkable request. So the word ‘boldly’ is absolutely appropriate: Joseph is risking his life. He faces a further problem too. Under Roman law, executed men lose all their rights, including the right to a decent burial. That is even more the case with a crime of high treason, like this. Normally the body would be left on the cross in public view to rot. History tells us that exceptions were occasionally made, but only at the discretion of the authorities; and there is no reason for Joseph to think that Pilate will co-operate. Why should he want to soften even slightly the terrible deterrent value of a crucifixion? What Joseph does not know, as he waits nervously for his hearing, is that Pilate has already concluded Jesus poses no real threat to the State. He would much have preferred to let Jesus go, as vv.9-15 make clear. That explains why, most unexpectedly, Pilate will eventually agree to Joseph’s request; but first he makes an important check (vv.44-45). Crucified men might well survive for two or three days until they died of suffocation or thirst, but Jesus has lasted no more than about six hours. This is unusual.
Naturally, there can be no question of releasing the body if there is any possibility of life remaining. So Pilate does the sensible thing and calls in the professional. This would be very easy to do. All the locations in this story are very close together; Golgotha, where the crosses are standing and where two men are still dying, is probably no more than five minutes’ walk away; in fact, depending where in Herod’s old palace this conversation takes place, it is even possible that they can see the cross of Jesus as they speak. The centurion confirms what he has observed so closely; unexpected it may be, but yes, Jesus is certainly dead. Death is confirmed. This account is perfectly consistent with v.37, that just before he dies, Jesus is still strong enough to cry out, loudly, indicating that his physical strength is not exhausted; but he has laid down his life at the moment he chooses. The period of unconscious struggle that normally precedes death does not happen; indeed in the purposes of God there would be no point in that.
Now Joseph has what he wants. Given his status, he will certainly have help available – John’s gospel confirms that he does – and he will need it, because time is running out. By now there can only be a couple of hours of daylight left: when the sun goes down, the Sabbath will begin and no work can be done. It is only Mark who tells us that Joseph has to buy the linen shroud now (v.46), another indication that he did not expect Pilate to agree to his request! There is no time to perform the full rites of burial; that will have to wait until after the Sabbath. Carefully, they take the body of Jesus down from the cross. They will find time to wash the body; then it is wrapped in the linen and placed in a rock-hewn tomb nearby which Joseph has at his disposal
At this point Mark gives us another supporting witness (v.47). While the male disciples are still lying low, the women are watching on. These are two of the same women listed in v.40 as witnesses to the crucifixion. Having watched the burial, they will be in no doubt at all (as is sometimes alleged) which tomb contains the body of Jesus. They know that burial has been hasty and there is more work to do to prepare the body. So they make completely sure they know where it is, because they are planning to return. This is a detail no-one would invent. In New Testament times, women are simply not regarded as reliable witnesses. In the mindset of these times, inserting a note about women as witnesses would not strengthen the evidence base; if anything it would weaken it. Mark tells us they are there; so they must be there. In God’s purposes, the women are primary witnesses of all these events; and in making them primary witnesses, God is demonstrating that the testimony of women is worth exactly as much as the witness of men. We might wonder why the women seem so silent in this account. In a culture where extravagant and public wailing and mourning is the norm, why do they just stand and watch? The answer is simple: it’s against the law to mourn the death of a condemned criminal. So they contain their pain; they simply watch and witness.
All this we know from Mark’s account. Can we say any more, for instance about exactly where these events took place? This is where archaeology helps us. We can be fairly sure, though not certain, that we know exactly where Jesus was crucified and where he was buried. Neither ‘Gordon’s Calvary’ nor the ‘Garden Tomb’ are credible locations for these events; rather, both sites lie within the walls of what is now the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The tomb at the focal point of that rather grotesque building is very likely the real tomb of Jesus, although not in its original form; and about fifty yards away to the east, an outcrop of rock is probably the remains of Golgotha, where the cross stood nearly two thousand years ago. The evidence for these sites is very strong: the area was indeed just outside the city walls in the time of Jesus, being enclosed about ten years later in the time of Herod Agrippa. It is known to have been a stone quarry in previous times, leaving just the kind of low cliffs into which tombs could easily be cut. Indeed, six other first-century tombs have been located in the immediate vicinity. As for the rocky outcrop identified as Golgotha, it was probably left unquarried because of its poor quality and would have formed a low hillock, a prominent landmark close to the path leading in to Jerusalem via the nearby Gennath Gate
So why does it matter? We have seen so far that Mark’s account makes sense; that it is consistent both internally and externally; and that it fits what we know from history and archaeology. We have also seen that Mark has gone to some lengths to set his story out as a sober historical account, fully backed up by witnesses and evidence. There are at least three reasons why it matters that all this is true.
First, it matters because the Christian faith is grounded in history. Some people say that the Christian message is all about some good ideas, or some profound teaching; that is all that matters. The ideas and the teaching don’t depend on whether anything happened or not. But the early Church knew that it mattered. Peter’s speech to the crowd just six weeks later shows as much: he emphasises the facts they know as the foundation for his message (Acts 2:22-23). In similar vein, see what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. Notice how he stresses the reality of the events, the named witnesses who saw them: these facts of history are ‘of first importance’, not just a useful bonus. Peter and Paul are quite clear that the Christian message stands or falls by the reality of those events. The early Christians lived and died for a faith that was grounded in history. Christianity was never just a philosophy, merely a set of ideas. That made it different from all the religions on offer at the time, which were about secret knowledge, mythology or mysterious ceremonies. The great scandal of the Christian faith – it’s known as the ‘scandal of particularity’ – is the claim that at this one time, and in this one place, and in this one way, God intervened uniquely in the person of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, who suffered and died to set people free of their sin and restore their relationship with him. That is shocking, but it is the gospel.
It matters that this is true, secondly, because there can only be one truth. Today we talk about living in a time of post-modernity. This means that we can all tell our different stories, we can all hold our different beliefs, and they are all equally valid. No-one’s story can be privileged over anyone else’s. My truth can be true for me while at the same time your truth is true for you. In most areas of life, we understand that this idea is ridiculous. If my car runs out of fuel and I need to fill it up, I might have a sincere belief that it will work best when I fill it with water. You might have an equally sincere belief that diesel is the best thing for it; but in fact, we would both be wrong, because my car won’t run on either. The idea that our sincere beliefs about how to run my car are equally valid is understood to be absurd. Sincerity does not make nonsense into truth! And sincerity is not enough to determine whether our beliefs about the world, and about God and Jesus and life after death, are true either. Jesus did not both ‘die’ and ‘not die’ – one option must be true, the other option must be false. However sincerely you believe the false option, it is still false. If Jesus did really die, so much more follows. If Jesus died, as the Bible asserts on page after page, and as the historians of the time also agree, then it follows naturally that the Bible writers are also telling the truth in the way that they explain that death. One thing non-Christians cannot reasonably say is that Christians are fine with their beliefs, and at the same time so are their own. There can really only be one true truth.
The third reason is simple: if this is the truth, then a response is required. If Mark’s account as we have it is true and reliable, and all we have seen about the cross and the tomb is much more than an inspiring story, it cannot be left as an episode of history. This is the message we have to proclaim, summoning people to recognise the reality of Jesus’ death, what it has to mean for them, and their need to accept his sacrifice for themselves. We can be sure that our faith is no exercise in wishful thinking. The gospel accounts are sure and certain; we can be absolutely confident of the foundations they give us. We can stand firm on the ground where the early Christians stood firm. If we know all that, then we are called to be witnesses – confident in our faith, bold in our proclamation. In this passage our model is the boldness of Joseph, who took his life in his hands as he approached the Roman governor; our model is the women, who watched and witnessed faithfully to what they knew – to the death of the Lord, and then to the glorious events they would see the day after the Sabbath.