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Doug Van Meter - 6 Sep 2020

God’s Son is Dying (Mark 15:33–39)

Mark Exposition

The cross of Christ is the crux of the matter. That is not a mere play on words but the firm conviction of every disciple of Jesus. Without the cross, there is no gospel. Mark wanted his readers to appreciate that the one who died on Golgotha was God’s Son. As we study this text, we dare not approach it with anything less than reverence. God’s Son is dying. Pay attention. Pay your respects. Repent and believe.

Scripture References: Mark 15:33-39

From Series: "Mark Exposition"

An exposition of the Gospel of Mark by Doug Van Meter.

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In 1972, my father-in-law preached what would become something of a famous sermon in our church. It was recorded and even placed on LP and distributed for evangelistic purposes. He titled the sermon, “God’s Son is Dying.”

Though we have come a long way since LPs, our zeal for the gospel, I trust, has not diminished. Certainly, the centrality of this message to the Christian faith has not changed. I will therefore borrow my father-in-law’s sermon title for this study.

Mark wanted Christians (and non-Christians) in Rome to read his biography of Jesus and to be motivated to follow him. The major motivating theme is the death of Jesus. Jesus’s death is as extraordinary as his life. All four Gospels emphasise this, while Mark, proportionally, spends more time on it than any of the other three. Mark wants us to see that, in the words of one commentator, that “the death of Jesus on the cross is not a defeat but the consummation of his mission and the climactic revelation of his identity as the Son of God.”

The cross of Christ is, of course, the crux of the matter. That is not as much a play on words as it is the firm conviction of all disciples of Jesus. Apart from Jesus crucified, there is no gospel. This is why Mark was so concerned to describe the essentials of the crucifixion. He wanted his readers to appreciate that the one who died on Golgotha was God’s Son. And he was careful to record that, when God’s Son died, a Gentile observer took note. It is not too much to say that, because God’s Son died, someone that very day became one of God’s many sons.

As we study this text, we dare not approach it with anything less than reverence. God’s Son was dying. Pay attention. Pay your respects. Repent and believe. Keep on repenting and believing.

Darkness and Desolation

The text opens with a reference to darkness and desolation (vv. 33–34). Two important realities occur in these verses. Each needs its own heading.

Darkness

“When the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour” (v. 33). It was noon, yet it looked like midnight on a moonless, starless night. Being Passover week, and therefore the time of full moon, this was not a solar eclipse. And since it was the time of the annual rains, neither was the darkness caused by a sirocco wind kicking up thick dust. Rather, it was dark because God’s Son was dying. It was dark because God’s judgement was falling on his Son and upon a nation. The curtain was coming down on the diminished light of Israel. The lights were going out on Jerusalem and the nation it represented. It was dark because Israel had become Egypt.

The last plague that God brought upon Egypt and Pharaoh before the final judgement of death was darkness (Exodus 10:21ff). That darkness was so thick that it could be felt (v. 21) and “they could not see one another” (v. 23). That darkness was the last word of God to Pharaoh before Passover and the death of the firstborn (11:1-12). No doubt, this was not lost on Mark, for “now the Exodus was finding its fulfilment in the exodus which Jesus was accomplishing at Jerusalem” (Ferguson).

One would think that such an event would arouse fear and trembling, leading to conviction. Perhaps, as the darkness enfolded the land (the word refers to a localised land, not the whole world, which actually makes it more of a miracle), those who called for Christ’s crucifixion had cause to pause. After all, if they were familiar with Amos 8:9–10, the parallels were uncanny:

“And on that day,” declares the Lord God, “I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your feasts into mourning and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on every waist and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son and the end of it like a bitter day.”

Sadly, the people largely remained blind. Like many in our day.

God’s wrath is being displayed in a multitude of ways, yet people carry on ignoring God’s Son. Twenty-six million COVID-19 infections with nearly 900,000 deaths. Darkness is enveloping our own land, and yet where is the fear of God? Where is the repentance?

A famous unbeliever recently encouraged people in the pandemic by saying, “I send my love to you. Be disciplined. Stay strong.” When I read that, I though, what about, are we ready to meet God?

But before we get smug about unbelievers, how is God’s obvious judgement affecting we who profess to be Christians? Where is the brokenness and the humility and the repentance and the obedience? Where is the seeking first God, his kingdom and his righteousness?

God’s “only Son” was dying on this bitter day. God’s great High Priest was offering up, not a substitute lamb, but rather himself as that once-for-all Passover Lamb to take away the sins of the world. Small wonder it was dark. God was killing his Lamb (Isaiah 53:4–6). For three hours, God was extinguishing the Light of the world.

To summarise, it was dark, for some reasons we will explore below. But, fundamentally, this was what we might term “eschatological darkness.” Things were changing. One era was being removed while another was being inaugurated. As we saw recently, this is the King’s cross. Jesus was being enthroned, which was good news for his willing subjects and bad news for his rebellious subjects (Philippians 2:9–11; Psalm 2).

Desolation

As Jesus hung on the cross, nearing the end of his life, he “cried with a loud voice”—a shout for help in a tumultuous way—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” His cry “expressed his unfathomable pain at his real abandonment” (Hughes). Let that sink in. When it does, the result will be both humiliation and celebration. For his sufferings saved us.

The words “cried with a loud voice” are used in Scripture as a cry of distress by demons under the power of God, by a blind man asking for mercy, and by God’s people crying out for justice. It is a heart-wrenching lament for deliverance before a holy God. So it was here. As Warfield described, Jesus embraced “voluntary endurance of unutterable anguish.”

Jesus knew the Scriptures and knew God. He therefore could appreciate the horror of Deuteronomy 21:22–23 to a greater depth than anyone. Listen to these words: “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God.”

The Lord Jesus was being cursed in our place that we would be blessed (Galatians 3:13; 2 Corinthians 5:21). He was being smitten by God (Isaiah 53:4–6). Our response must be, “My God, my God, why such grace to us?”

Some suggest that, since Jesus was quoting Psalm 22:1, he knew the whole psalm and was therefore comforted by how it ends. That is, though it begins with the experience of hell (vv. 1–21a) it ends with the experience of heaven (vv. 21b–31). Perhaps. And yet, let me remind you that the promise of rescue did not mitigate the experience of rejection. The knowledge of deliverance didn’t lessen the experience of desolation. The promise embraced still required the pain to be endured. Experiencing the pressure and displeasure of the vice of God’s wrath was still tortuous, even though Jesus would experience the pleasure of God’s vindication.

We have all had times when we have (wrongly) convinced ourselves that God has forsaken us. That is a painful place to be. But no one has actually experienced such God-forsakenness as did Jesus Christ. As Hughes says, “Not even the most evil man, including Nero or Hitler, has ever known in this life the horror of being completely cut off from God. But Christ knew it.”

We would deserve such abandonment, Jesus did not. Hence, the “why?” Jesus was perfect. He was sinless and therefore, at one level, this made no sense. Perhaps the darkness speaks of deep mystery. God forsaken by God. It is, in fact, this indescribable, inexplicable cry of desolation that is the focal point of the cross.

Friend, until you can hear this cry on your behalf, the cross will remain merely a symbol, or merely a sentiment or a mystery to you. Until you hear his cry on your behalf—until you can say, “I am the ‘why?’!”, you will remain in the darkness—just like those who went about their business after the darkness lifted.

We must note that, amid the cry of desolation, Jesus also expressed confident dependence. Jesus wasbeing forsaken; nevertheless, his faith remained and he could say, “My God.” Though it wasn’t “Abba” (14:36), neither was Jesus agnostic. He remained submissive precisely because he knew his God and therefore knew his God was faithful. God’s Son was dying; but God was very much alive.

In the darkest hours of eternity, God was manifesting his wrath as an expression of his love, a love which is like “an ocean without shores or bottom” (Jonathan Edwards). Unutterable anguish and unfathomable love. Amazing mystery.

Misunderstanding and Mythology

Verses 35–36 reveal what we might call misunderstanding and mythology: “And some of the bystanders hearing it said, ‘Behold, he is calling Elijah.’ And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.’”

Verse 35 repeats a sad but common theme throughout Mark’s Gospel: the clueless crowds. When you think about it, Jesus spent most of his ministry correcting misunderstandings concerning his person and his teaching. Even in his death, people gravely misunderstood him. They were near the cross and yet so far away. Spiritual blindness characterised Jesus’ hearers all the way to the end. As we will soon see, not quite all.

There was a mythical legend rife within Judaism that Elijah served as some kind of a patron saint, who could rescue God’s people from harm. The idea originated in the myth that Elijah never died, and therefore that he was alive and available to help God’s covenant people. A wrong view of a messenger got in the way of a right view of Messiah. The same error remains alive in our day.

Apparently, some bystanders mistook Jesus’ “Eloi” for “Elijah.” They thought he was calling for Elijah to rescue him. Of course, if Jesus wanted to be rescued, he would have simply come down from the cross when taunted (v. 32). Or perhaps, to add some flare, he could have called for thousands of angels (Matthew 26:53).

These people still did not get it. They did not understand the Scriptures about the suffering Servant. They did not understand that, in fact, Elijah had already come and was rejected (cf. 9:9–13 with 6:14–19).

We might learn from this the danger of misunderstanding the real message of the cross. It is not a message of deliverance from all suffering but a message concerning our greatest need: rescue from sin and the wrath of God. It is a message of reconciliation and redemption, not a message merely about rescue from the hardships of life.

We should also learn the danger of exalting mere people and trusting others for the deliverance that only God can provide.

At this point Jesus was offered sour wine, which was the common wine of the day and was often associated with Roman soldiers. It was wine mixed with water. I suppose we would liken it to boxed wine rather than more expensive bottled wine. Why did they do this? Perhaps to help Jesus to remain alert—like an energy drink. From other Gospel accounts, Jesus asked for it, was given it, and he received it.

Some were afraid it might in some way interfere with Elijah’s appearance. Whatever the reason, it seems that, up until the very end, the Lord Jesus, the second member of the Trinity, the one who created all things, was being treated with contempt. These bystanders may have been known by their neighbours as friendly and civil. But when confronted with the message of the cross, all they could do was sneer.

As mentioned, Jesus did drink this wine (John 19:28–30), perhaps in fulfilment of his words to the disciples in 14:25. If so, then we have another example of God transforming the sour into the sweet. The scorned and slaughtered was King! What a God (Acts 2:23; Romans 8:28–30)!

Near isn’t Enough

When the scribe asked Jesus, “What is the greatest commandment?” he responded, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (12:34). Being near is better than being far away, but if one never gets in, you may as well be far away. So it was here at the cross.

We need to take seriously the very real danger of being near and yet missing the point completely. They were quite literally near the cross, and yet they were so far away from Christ. What about you?

Far too many are tragically members of a local church and yet not members of the Body of Christ. This is why church membership process is so important. Too many members of churches are near the cross in that they know something about Jesus and Calvary, but do not understand the why and the what of it. They may even sing “Near the Cross.” They may wear a cross. But they do not know Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. The tragedy is that they are so far away though they sing with gusto, “On a hill far away.”

Children of church members, are you merely near, or are you in? You know the message of the cross, but do you know the Master who died on that cross? Have you repented of your sins? Put your pride in your pocket and come to Christ—now!

Make sure that you listen to Jesus on the cross and be done with myths and misunderstandings of traditions that gut the cross of its power (Galatians 1:6–9). Don’t allow the merely curious bystanders to interpret the message of Christ and his cross for you.

In summary, you don’t need a human deliverer, anymore than did Jesus. You need God’s deliverer—the one accursed for you on the cross. You and I need the one to whom the human messenger points (1:3). Put your faith in Jesus, not in the preacher.

Obedience and Reward

Verses 37–39 are the heart of this passage. They are the heart of the message of the cross and are therefore the heart of Mark’s Gospel. Here, we become witnesses to the full and final obedience of Jesus Christ and his promised reward for that obedience. We see the glorious power of the cross.

Faith’s Obedience

“Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last” (v. 37). I think one reason for the popularity of Mark’s Gospel is its short and succinct wording, as in this verse. Ten words say it all. This was a cry of completion. It was a final cry in which Jesus, in John’s words, tells us that he has “finished” (John 19:30) what he came to do. And what was that? To live a sinless life and to die a submissive, substitutionary, sacrificial death for sinners (10:45).

We are told in Philippians 2:8 that Jesus took upon himself the form of a servant by becoming obedient to death on a cross. The ultimate submission was not Jesus’ incarnation but rather his crucifixion and expiration in that crucifixion.

Because we are sinners, we are each appointed to die (Romans 5:12; Hebrews 9:27). Jesus, however, was not a sinner, and yet he too was appointed to die—though his was a different kind of appointment. For Jesus to die would require his obedience. We die because that is our condemnation. Jesus died because it was his choice. Amazing love—to his Father and to us.

The final act of Jesus’ perfectly obedient life occurred here when he “uttered a loud cry and breathed his last.” His cry was, I believe, a cry of triumph (as the centurion’s response implies). By his death, he accomplished what he came to do (10:45). His death sealed the deal. Having been faithful, Jesus now bid farewell. As with everything he did, he did this too by faith.

It has often been observed that this was a supreme act of faith. Jesus was doing something for the first, and only, time in history: a member of the triune God was dying. The Father had promised he would raise Jesus from the dead. Jesus believed this. His voluntary death was the supreme act of entrusting himself to the Father. God’s Son was dying, God’s Son died, and he did all of this by faith.

Jesus was not taking his own life but was giving up his life in a way that only the God-Man could. Even when he died, he was in control. This is why he alone and only can save us from our sins. This faithful-obedience of Jesus on the cross provides his disciples with the faith and courage both to live, and to die, well.

Faith’s Vindication

As he died, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (v. 38). God’s Son who died would be vindicated throughout history, in many ways. Eventually, he would be fully vindicated before a watching world. But in v. 38, upon Jesus’ death, he was vindicated behind closed doors, as it were.

As he breathed his last, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” France calls this “divine vandalism.” As God did at the opening of Mark’s Gospel (1:10), so God again tore open something and declared, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” (1:11). Heaven was opened for those on earth.

It was also his way of saying, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him” (9:7). By his death, Jesus made a new way into God’s presence. Look and listen and repent and believe.

There were two curtains in the temple. One served as a door to the temple proper: the Holy Place. There was another tent, separating the inner Most Holy Place from the outer Holy Place. Mark’s term for temple indicates the curtain torn was the latter. Though the first curtain would be visible to many, this inner curtain would only be visible to the priests who served in the temple.

Behind this curtain was the ark of the covenant. Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest was allowed to enter beyond the veil. This second curtain made the statement that man was cut off from God apart from the work of a high priest bringing blood from a particular sacrifice. If you have been paying attention, you are beginning to see what God’s Son dying has to do with this.

When Jesus died, the ultimate sacrifice had been given and accepted by God. The blood of God’s dear sin, which redeems believing sinners and reconciles believing sinners to God and cleanses believing sinners from their sin (1 John 1:8) was offered to God beyond the veil. Jesus’ flesh was torn for our sins and accepted by God. He fulfilled all the pictures of the high priest and there are no more needed. Therefore God celebrated his victory by tearing the curtain in two. He did so from top to bottom (at least twenty metres high and the thickness of a man’s hand), thereby declaring that salvation is of the Lord. And, only of the Lord (See Hebrews 6:19–20; 10:1–25).

When God’s Son died, the Father vindicated his life and death by tearing the curtain as testimony that Jesus is the way, and the only way, to God. You can resist and reject that all you want. You can try to sew up the curtain with your philosophical and ideological and religious objections, but the truth remains, unalterable. The only legitimate response is to repent and trust him.

It must be noted that this tearing of the curtain was the initial step in dismantling the temple. This was a fulfilment in part of Jesus’s prophecy that he would rebuild the temple (John 2). The death of God’s Son was the first step toward the destruction of the temple and the building of a new one (1 Peter 2:4–10; Ephesians 2:19–22). Jesus’s faith was vindicated. Will you believe? You can, for the way has been opened for all.

We should note that what occurred in secret would have worldwide implications. How do we know the curtain was torn in two? Who witnessed it? The priests on duty that busy Passover day. Josephus records that the Passover lambs were sacrificed at 3:00 PM: the same time that Jesus chose to “breathe his last” and when God tore the curtain in two. This must have rattled the priests. In fact, they were probably terrified because by all biblical precepts. They should have died! But they didn’t. Why? Because, on that day, God’s Son died, reconciling sinners to a holy God. In fact, we are told in Acts 6:7 that many of the priests in Jerusalem believed on Jesus. Were these the ones on duty that day? Perhaps.

Friend, the way has been opened for all. Will you enter? Mark wrote this so you would. And he wrote this so those who have will continue to find rest for their souls.

Faith’s Reward

In many ways, this verse is the climax of Mark’s Gospel. At the opening verse, we are told that Jesus is God’s Son. We are provided glimpses of this throughout (1:11; 3:11; 5:7; 9:7; 12:6, 35–37; 14:61–62). Yet neither the crowds nor Jesus’ disciples seem to have grasped this. The closest anyone came was Peter, but he couldn’t seem to keep this truth before him (8:29ff). But now, at Jesus’ death, someone finally grasped it—a Gentile! This Gospel, written to Christians in Rome, testifies that, at Jesus’ death, the first convert was a Roman soldier. This Roman soldier confessed that Christ, not Caesar, was Lord. He wouldn’t be the last (Acts 16; Philippians 1:12–14). Church, be encouraged!

There is a causal (not merely a casual) connection between vv. 37–38 and v. 39. They are an unbreakable unit of truth.

We are told that, when this centurion “saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God.’” As the centurion “stood facing him,” he observed Jesus dying in such a way that he was persuaded that he was God’s Son. It was the death of Christ that brought the centurion to confess Christ.

Those who died on the cross died exhausted and of suffocation. Jesus died with enough strength to be able to cry out. He detected a supernatural strength.

Perhaps he also observed, in some way, that Jesus’ life was not taken from him but that he mysteriously laid it down of his own volition. He’d never seen anyone die like this.

The soldier observed Jesus asking the Father to forgive those who crucified him. This was radically different from others who protested their innocence and who probably cursed the soldiers.

I think we can summarise that the centurion was convinced that Jesus was God’s Son because he saw that Jesus was silent, bearing his suffering without complaint, without bitterness, without cursing, and without hatred; that Jesus was sinless (imagine seeing a sinless person die!); that Jesus had divine strength to be able to die this way; that Jesus had supernatural sympathy for others and offered them forgiveness; and that Jesus was sovereign, fully in control throughout the ordeal. No person had ever lived like Jesus lived and therefore no one had ever died like him. He alone is worthy of our trust.

The way Jesus died, as well as how he lived, is what God expects of Jesus’ disciples. Those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God are to conduct themselves like a son of God (1 John 3:1; 2:6). We who confess Jesus Christ are to follow the supernatural example of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:18–25).

When you are mistreated, when you suffer, or when you face injustice, look to Christ and, empowered by his cross, be silent. Look to Christ and, empowered by his cross, don’t sin. Look to Christ and, empowered by his cross, be strong. Look to Christ and, empowered by his cross, be sympathetic. Look to Christ and, empowered by his cross, submit to God’s sovereignty. Exercise self-control.

God’s Saving Grace

There are those who say that the translation should be “a son of God” and that this man did not believe in the Christian sense. I reject that. I believe we are on good grounds to conclude that he did believe in a saving sense. First, the Greek grammar justifies the translation “the Son of God.” But second, a major reason we should accept this man’s true confession is that to a Hellenistic Gentile, to a Roman, the idea of a suffering—let alone a dying!—god was unthinkable.

Rather, the centurion’s conclusion, and his confession that Jesus was God’s Son, is evidence that God had graciously opened his heart to believe. And his belief is an invitation to any and all of Mark’s readers to believe as well.

Geoffrey Grogan helps us to see the power of God in converting this soldier.

The centurion was a kind of non-commissioned officer and so could represent perhaps an ordinary Roman, with all the strengths and weaknesses of such a person. Without doubt, he would be enamoured by power rather than weakness, by authority rather than submission, by action rather than passive acceptance. Yet here he articulates faith in an apparently helpless Jew who had been crucified by the hands of a military detachment under his own command! This makes his recognition of Jesus truly astounding.

Perhaps this man had heard about Jesus. Perhaps he had heard about his claims, his miracles, and his marvellous teaching. Perhaps he was aware of Jesus’ “trial” before Pilate. He may have been intrigued. But standing “facing him” at the cross, God sovereignly and graciously granted him a new heart, and he now believed. Interesting. Fifteen chapters of evidence from the life of Christ, and no confession of faith. But now, at his death, confession occurred. And not from a Jewish person, but from a Gentile!

It is essential for us to remember that no one is able to believe the gospel apart from the grace of God (1 Corinthians 2:14–16). Apart from God’s sovereign grace and spiritual power, apart from the new birth (John 3), no one will believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God (1 John 5:1–5). But, thank God, he does enable people to believe, like this centurion. We must see that that the ultimate revelation of God occurs through the message of the cross.

Please don’t miss this! It was seeing Jesus Christ crucified that produced this man’s confession of faith. It has always been this way. It wasn’t, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” It wasn’t, “Are you empty and purposeless? Then come to Jesus.” It wasn’t, “Do you want to go to heaven when you die?” These may all be wonderful benefits to believing, but preaching Christ crucified is what produces saving conviction and true conversion (see Acts 2:15–41; 3:11–26; 7:51–8:1 with 9:1–9; 10:34ff; 13:26ff; etc.).

Brothers and sisters, God saves sinners through the preaching of the cross of Jesus Christ. So, preach the cross of Christ, leaving the results to him (see 1 Corinthians 2:1–5; Galatians 3:1–3).

Christian, keep preaching the cross. It remains the power of God for salvation (see Isaiah 53:12–54:3).

Parents, preach the cross of Christ to your children. Your children need to see Christ dying for their sins. Pastors, we need to preach the cross of Christ, constantly, to our people. Christian, preach Christ crucified and trust God with the results. John Flavel once preached Christ crucified to a young man named Luke Short. Luke was fifteen years old at the time. Eighty-five years later, Short recalled that message and bowed the knee to Christ. Preaching Christ crucified is never in vain.

Brothers and sisters, as we contemplate God’s Son dying, may we be moved, not by mere sentiment, but rather by the power of the Holy Spirit to faithfully confess him amid a world that denies him. May the Holy Spirit so help us to face our trials empowered by the cross of Jesus Christ. May people look at us and say, “Truly the one they follow is the Son of God.” And may many of them come to the realisation, “The Son of God loved me, and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

Friend, see God’s Son dying for sinners like this centurion—sinners like you and me. Stop with the foolish arguments and rejections and rather repent and believe on the Son of God who gave himself a ransom for the many. The cross points us to a saving through suffering God who is the victorious God.

If you are not a Christian, I trust that you will heed Mark’s purpose in recording the death of Jesus Christ. That is, “Mark … invites his readers to make his words their own” (Ferguson). Will you do so, now?

AMEN