November 19, 2017
We face many challenges dealing with the cross. The first is familiarity, which can breed contempt or even boredom. We read the book, saw the movie, bought the tee shirt. We hear the story many times a year – usually during communion, and at least once a year at Easter. And in its familiarity, it can lose its unique glory.
Another challenge is that of time – we are some 2000 years removed from the event. It fades in our collective memories. Which brings yet another challenge: ignorance. I don’t mean that negative – I simply mean, none of us has ever seen someone crucified. Most of us have never witnessed a death, let alone an execution. We have no experience with crucifixion. The Jews knew it well – it is estimated 30,000 of them were crucified by the time Jesus was. They had seen crosses line their roads after revolts. For them, crosses were everywhere. Us too, but not in the same way.
Which leads to another challenge: glorification. What do I mean? Crosses are everywhere for us, but again in a different way. They adorn our churches. We wear them as jewelry. Some bear in their bodies the marks of the Lord Jesus, in tattoo form. We’re buried beneath them. I preach under one. You see them everywhere you look. I’ve said this before, you don’t see many wearing an electric chair or hangman’s noose as jewelry. The cross was an instrument of unimaginable horror and shame in execution. Why, then, glory in the cross?
There is something different about it, so I suppose it is right to glory in it – I would even call it biblical. The Apostle Paul said, Galatians 6:14, “But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,…” And I Corinthians 2:2, “For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.” There is nothing more important than the cross.
Why? That leads to the final challenge – that of focus. We generally focus on the results of the cross – what the cross of Jesus did for me. And that’s also proper and biblical. Peter wrote [I Peter 2:24], “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.” Paul said [I Corinthians 1:18], “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
There is much to rejoice in, glory in, celebrate in the cross of Jesus Christ. The crucifixion is the climax of redemptive history. God’s redeeming work culminated in the cross, where Jesus bore the sins of the world. Incredibly, it was the plan of God before the foundation of the world. And then, John later speaks of a heavenly scene, in which he sees, in the middle of the throne, a Lamb standing, as it had been slain. It seems we will always glory in the cross.
And yet, one author wrote, the crucifixion of Christ is also the vilest expression of evil in human history. It displays the utter depth of humanity’s depravity. He summarizes, “The death of Jesus Christ was therefore the supreme revelation of the gracious love of God while also being the ultimate expression of the sinfulness of man.” (John MacArthur) Do you see? We glory in the cross, and we should – it the greatest symbol of God’s glorious and gracious love toward us. But the ignominy, brutality and shame of the cross should also remind us of the depth of our sin.
The Scripture focuses on both aspects of the cross. Both the shame and the glory of the cross. In the gospel accounts, John focuses primarily on God’s redemptive love and grace. Matthew, on man’s wickedness. Mark’s focus seems to be the shame and humiliation of the cross. So, this week, in Mark, we arrive at the crucifixion. I plan to cover it this week and next. Today, we will focus on the shameful nature of the death of Christ on a cross. And I want God, through His present and powerful Spirit, to move us with this truth. As I told you last week, we are on holy ground. I believe there is power in this story. Read it with me, Mark 15:16-32.
I’m going to treat the text in four parts around the four groups of people who mock, insult, revile, and crucify our Lord. We see in this text the shame of the cross. There is, however, great irony in the mockery – most of it was actually true: Jesus was the King of the Jews, He is the Temple to be raised in three days, He is the Christ, the Savior of Men, the Son of God. Our points go like this:
- First, we’ll see the evil treatment by the Roman soldiers, culminating in the cross (16-28). We’ll spend most of our time there.
- Then, we’ll see the abuse of the passing crowd (29-30).
- Third, we’ll see the mocking of the Sanhedrin (31-32).
- And we’ll finish with the insults of the robbers (32).
The last words we read last week were, “after having Jesus scourged, [Pilate] handed Him over to be crucified.” He was handed over to the Roman cohort. A cohort consisted of 600 men. Here, we read the whole Roman cohort was gathered around Jesus. Whether that means all 600, or all of the those who were present at the Praetorium, we don’t know. What I do know is a lot of Roman soldiers were involved in this abuse of our Christ.
The Praetorium, you’ll remember, was the residence of the Roman governor, meaning, the home of Pilate, very likely Herod’s palace or at the Antonia Fortress next to the Temple. These Roman soldiers, like most, were probably not Romans, but rather soldiers conscripted from conquered nations. They weren’t, however, Jews – Rome had an agreement not to use Jewish men in their army. Typically, garrisoned Roman soldiers came from a neighboring country so they would be familiar with the culture and language. Very likely, these were Syrians, who knew Aramaic – the common language of the Jewish nation, and also hated the Jews. Not only that, given the troubled nature of Judea, these soldiers were likely Legionnaires, top soldiers in the Roman army.
It was to these soldiers Pilate gave Jesus to be crucified. They probably didn’t know much about Jesus, and what they did know – they didn’t care. To them, He was nothing more than a conquered, oppressed, subjugated, despised Jew. He was also a Galilean – the lowest of the low. It’s obvious they knew the charges leveled against Him – they had likely been present at the Roman trial. They knew Jesus was being put to death because of His claim to be a king.
Remember, by this time, Jesus had been kept up all night, beaten, slapped and spat upon by the Sanhedrin. He had already been scourged by two Roman soldiers. The others watched. The scourging left His flesh in ribbons – cut deeply, bleeding profusely, probably with bones and organs exposed. Jesus stood before them, quivering in pain. Don’t get the idea because He was God He was somehow immune to pain – He wasn’t. He stood before them in excruciating pain, yet strangely silent. They would not have been impressed. Beaten, bleeding. No subjects standing by His side, no soldiers willing to fight. Silent. They may have even thought Him stupid. He became the butt of their jokes. And we remember the question last week – what kind of king is this?
You see, He didn’t look much like a king – this peasant looked poor, weak – not very majestic or kingly. To them, He was nothing but a joke – someone to make fun of. This is the king of the Jews? They decided to play along with this charade. Let’s dress Him up like a king. And they made sport of Jesus. First, they stripped Him naked. Then, they put a scarlet robe on Him. The word actually speaks of a soldier’s tunic – short and red in color. Mark and Luke call it purple – supplying what the soldiers were trying to suggest – the color of royalty. All the while, Jesus remained silent, which to these soldiers, was nothing more than a sign of weakness.
Every king needs a crown. Caesar, a true king, wore a laurel wreath. You could see it on the coins which bore his inscription. So they weaved together a crown of thorns. Thorns grew abundantly in Palestine in many varieties – some with two-inch thorns. The pressed it down with force and the blood began to flow from His already beaten head.
To complete the royal ensemble, every king needs a royal scepter. They gave Him a reed – placed it in His right hand, which speaks of authority. But they weren’t finished with the charade. “Hail Caesar” was the cry given to their king. So, they knelt before Jesus, mocking, “Hail, King of the Jews.” Now, He looked more like a king, don’t you think?
The soldiers apparently weren’t impressed, because after kneeling, they spat on Him, took the reed and began to beat Him on the head; the head already bearing the crown of thorns driving the thorns deeper into His brow. And Jesus remained silent. Should we supply groans and cries of anguish? Probably. Cowering as they beat Him again and again? Probably. But there was no pleading, no threatening, no reviling, no cursing – rather, He will later say, Father, forgiven them.
To them, He was nothing but a joke – a mockery of a king. They took the tunic off, gave His clothes back, and led Him away to be crucified. Usually, it was a quaternion, a contingency of four soldiers who took care of the deed. Part of the process required the condemned to carry his own cross to the site of crucifixion. Whether he carried the whole cross or just the cross piece, we don’t know. Often, the condemned wore a placard around his neck with the charges listed. Jesus, weak from lack of sleep, repeated beatings, scourging, was only able to carry His cross from the Praetorium to the gate of the city. As they were going out, He lacked the strength to go further.
Coming into the city at that time was a man named Simon of Cyrene. A lot of legend has arisen around this man though the years. What we know is he was likely a Jew from Cyrene, a city in North Africa, where there was a large Jewish population. He was probably one of the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who had made their way to the Feast of Passover.
He was also the father of Rufus and Alexander. That seems a superfluous piece of information, unless, it is supposed, Rufus and Alexander were well known by the church. Attempts have been made to identify them. I’m not sure we can, but I do think Rufus and Alexander meant something to the church. It’s possible the legend which says Simon became a Christian and took Christianity back to his family and Cyrene is true. We just don’t know.
Simon was compelled to carry the cross to the site of the crucifixion. We are told they came to Golgotha, which means the Place of the Skull. The Latin word for skull is calvaria, from which we get our word, Calvary. Attempts have been made to identify the site – the two most popular being the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and Gordon’s Golgotha. Here’s an interesting note – nowhere does it say it was a on a hill far away – it was, however, an emblem of suffering and shame.
While we can’t be sure where it was, we know crucifixion, in addition to being used for execution, was also used to set an example and instill fear. So crucifixion sites were usually very visible, where people could see. We also know a Jewish law, which the Romans observed, stated executions must be held outside the city gate. With that in mind, listen to Hebrews 13:11-12:
11 For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy place by the high priest as an offering for sin, are burned outside the camp.
12 Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate.
He was the Lamb of God, come to take away the sin of the world. When they arrived at Golgotha, they gave Him wine mixed with myrrh to drink. Lots of discussion about that. Who gave it to Him? Why did they give it to Him? Some suggest it was actually the women who gave Jesus the drink, intended to be a mild narcotic. The idea was to dull the senses to the excruciating pain of crucifixion. And so, it is said, when Jesus tasted it, He spit it out – He wanted His senses fully intact to carry the weight of the world’s sin on His shoulders.
That may be – but nowhere does it say women gave Him the drink. Here, it seems clear it was the soldiers who did so. If it served as a narcotic, does that mean they were suddenly softening a bit – feeling sorry for Jesus? I don’t think so. More likely, they mixed the wine with myrrh to make it bitter. It was intended to be yet another sick joke – another piece of mockery. Here, we’ll give you something to drink. And it was so bitter, Jesus had to spit it out. And they had a cheap laugh at the expense of this joke of a king.
Which brings us to the horror of the cross itself. Again, the cross presents us with the challenges of familiarity, time, ignorance, focus. But we must, for a moment, try to enter into the brutality and shame of the cross. It was unspeakably painful and degrading. Crucifixion had actually been invented by the Persians who wanted to lift the body above the earth so as not to contaminate the earth. The Romans borrowed the cross from the Persians, seeing it as the most painful death imaginable. You see, Romans saw death as an escape, and wanted to torture their victims before they escaped.
The cross was so offensive to Romans they refused to allow their citizens to be crucified, no matter what crime they committed. It was typically reserved for the worst criminals and lowest classes of people. Cicero, who lived from 106-43 BC, said of crucifixion, “It is a crime to put a Roman citizen in chains; it is an enormity to flog one; sheer murder to slay one; what, then, shall I say of crucifixion? It is impossible to find the word for such an abomination…. Let the very mention of the cross be far removed not only from a Roman citizen’s body, but from his mind, his eyes, his ears.”
Add to that Deuteronomy 21:22-23, which says, “If a man has committed a sin worthy of death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse shall not hang all night on the tree, but you shall surely bury him on the same day (for he who is hanged is accursed of God),” The Jews applied this to crucifixion, and saw the victims of the cross as cursed by God.
Again, while we are accustomed to hearing about crucifixion – few know the horror and shame associated with it. First, they would strip the condemned. We know they did this to Jesus, because in a moment, they gambled for His clothes.
They would then lay the victim down on the cross and either lash his arms and legs to the beams, or they would nail him to the cross. We know, not from the crucifixion accounts in the gospels, but from other passages, they nailed Jesus to the cross. Passages like John 20, where Thomas says, “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, I will not believe.” Or the words of Peter’s first message on the Day of Pentecost, “this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death.”
Most of you know they didn’t place the nails in His hands, the structure of the hands would not have supported His weight. They placed the nails through the wrists. Then they nailed His feet to the cross with a single nail, probably through the Achilles tendon. The pain would have been unbearable.
Most of you know this – and I don’t want it to sound like a medical report – but we’re talking about Jesus. Once nailed to the cross, they raised it up, and placed it in a hole. The weight of the cross and Christ would have settled in the hole with bone-jarring impact. We usually have a picture in mind of a very high cross – with the Roman soldiers having to use a ladder to reach Him. But typically, the cross would lift the victim no more than a foot or so off the ground. But the words of Jesus come to mind, “if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.”
Death usually came slowly – sometimes they would last up to three days. Victims of crucifixion usually died by heart failure or asphyxiation. You see, hanging by your arms made it almost impossible to breathe – specifically to exhale. So, in order to breathe, you had pull yourself up by your arms, or push yourself up with your legs. Either way, you would slide up the cross to exhale and gulp in air. Remember, Jesus was naked – His back bare, his flesh in ribbons from the scourging – and He had to slide up the rough wood just to take a breath. After hours and perhaps days, with no food or water, muscles would cramp – they would no longer respond, and you would suffocate. If the Romans wanted to hasten death, they would break the legs of the victims right below the knees, making it impossible for him to push himself up. Later, they will do that to the two robbers – but Jesus will already be dead.
Mark doesn’t tell us any of this. His readers knew well what crucifixion was. Mark hardly mentions it. Four words at the beginning of verse 24, “And they crucified Him.” That’s it – having crucified Him, they gambled for His clothes. In a final insult, as they kept watch over Him, they divided up the loot. It was the third hour, about 9:00 in the morning.
To the top of the cross, Pilate gave instructions the charge against Him be displayed, which simply read, “The King of the Jews.” John tells us it was written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek for everyone to read. The Jewish leadership protested – they said, “Don’t write, The King of the Jews, but that He said, I am the King of the Jews.” Pilate, tired of giving in to the Sanhedrin said, “What I have written, I have written.”
Which brings us to our second point – the abuse of the crowds. You see, I told you – there was not only the pain of crucifixion, there was the shame of it. He hung there naked, broken and bleeding for all to see, and they walked by hurling abuse at Him, more literally, they were blaspheming Him, wagging their heads.
Look at what they said, “Ha! You who were going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save Yourself and come down from the cross!” Do you see the irony? They didn’t realize two important things. First, the temple was being destroyed – and He would raise it up in three days. And second, it was precisely because He stayed on the cross – He didn’t save Himself – that He would save those who would believe.
Next, we see the Sanhedrin wasn’t done with their mocking. “In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes, were mocking Him among themselves and saying, ‘He saved others; [stop right there. They acknowledged He saved others. He healed them, delivered them from demons, raised them from the dead. They never questioned His miracles – they were just too blind to see why He performed the miracles – proof that He was the Messiah. He saved others]; He cannot save Himself. [The fact is, Jesus could have saved Himself, but not if He was to save others. He could have saved Himself, but He came to give Himself a ransom for many.] Let this Christ, the King of Israel [He doesn’t look much like a king, hanging there on a cross – there’s irony there, He was the King of Israel]; now come down from the cross, so that we may see and believe.” They were seeing the very thing they needed to see, to believe.
Which brings us to our last point. Verse 27 says two robbers were crucified with Jesus – one on His left, the other on His right. Last week I told you the word for robber is also the word for insurrectionist. Know this: robbery was not a capital offence, insurrection was. Barabbas was an insurrectionist. It’s very possible these were two of his men – fellow insurrectionists, and Jesus died on the cross prepared for Barabbas. How appropriate – Jesus dying in someone else’s place. We can’t help but think of Isaiah 53:12, “…He poured out Himself to death, And was numbered with the transgressors; Yet He Himself bore the sin of many, And interceded for the transgressors.”
Verse 32 says even the robbers crucified with Him were insulting Him. Luke tells us specifically what they said, “Are You not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” They weren’t interested in whether or not Jesus was the Christ – they was only interested in saving their own skin.
True, Luke also tells us at some point, one of the men crucified with Jesus had a change of heart. Mark doesn’t record it. You see, at this point, he is only focusing on the shame of the cross and the sinfulness of man. Four groups of people: Romans soldiers, the passing crowd, the Sanhedrin, and even the insurrectionists – all mocked, all insulted, all hurled abuse at Jesus.
Which brings us to our conclusion. Last week I concluded by asking you, what kind of king is that? I ask you the same question today – what kind of king is that? This week, I hope you’re offended by the question. Because while everyone present in Mark’s account is hurling abuse at Jesus – He is our Savior – He is our King. While they did not believe He was the Christ, the Son of God, because He didn’t come down from the cross, we believe He was the Christ, the King precisely because He stayed on the cross. They said, we’ll believe if you come down – we believe because He stayed up. I’m going to ask you to stand as we sing. We’re going to sing with everything we have – contrary to what everyone thought and said that day – contrary to what most think today – Jesus is the King. He is my King. We will not hurl abuse – we will lift praise.