There has been a lot of news recently concerning South Africa’s irresponsible and unhealthy relationship with alcohol. Drunk driving has long resulted in carnage on our highways, and this pattern has resurfaced with the easing of alcohol restrictions following the ban during early lockdown. Gender-based violence and other forms of trauma are on the increase since the ban has been lifted. The stats reflect the same level of alcohol abuse pre-COVID. In this way, life is, unfortunately, getting back to normal.
Because people are not saying no to intoxicants, a lot of lives are being destroyed. If people would say no when offered that extra drink, many lives might be preserved. Just as in our text for this study.
In Mark 15:23, Jesus refused a drink and therefore millions, if not billions, of lives will be saved. Because “he did not take” the “wine mixed with myrrh,” the will of the triune God was accomplished. His chosen people were redeemed. Because he said no, multitudes have been graced to say yes to the gospel to the glory of God. Because he said no when offered a way to escape the wrath of God, multitudes have been delivered from the wrath of God.
As we saw previously, this text is not an argument for abstaining from the consumption of alcohol. It is a space-time historical event exemplifying and exhorting Christians to abstain from easy offers of escape from the sufferings of the cross. This record of Jesus saying no serves as an appeal for us to also say no. It serves as an exhortation to his disciples about following Jesus. That is, disciples, like Jesus, know when to say no.
This verse reveals the heart and mind of Jesus. Because he was devoted to doing the Father’s will, he said no to that which would ease—and perhaps even offer an escape for—his suffering. He said no because embracing hardship was more important than escaping it.
Those who are following Jesus Christ face a similar challenge. In a world that is quick to say yes to the easy way, to escape the hardships of bearing our cross, we must be wise to the better option. That is, we must refuse the easy escape and rather embrace the pain. Such a choice will prove blessedly productive.
Jesus knew that his suffering was required to save sinners and to establish his church, and therefore when offered a potential way out “he did not take it.” We too need to reject the many easy offers of escaping the cost of bearing our cross and following Jesus. This is the burden of this message.
As the Lord walked the Via Delarosa (“the way of suffering”) to the place of crucifixion, “they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it.” “They” likely refers to a group of women who appointed themselves to this compassionate task. The Babylonian Talmud tells of these women. It appears that they took this task upon themselves guided by the instruction of Proverbs 31:6–7: “Give strong drink to the one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more.”
Criminals condemned to die by crucifixion had already suffered much. Their suffering was soon to become unbearable. Realising this, these women took it upon themselves to aid the “perishing,” to help soothe the minds of those “in bitter distress,” and to help them “forget their … misery.” They did this by offering them an anaesthetic.
This mixture of wine and myrrh was a narcotic. Its design was both to dull the pain and perhaps to speed up the process of death—much like morphine—though some have argued it might actually prolong death.
Though it was offered in compassion, Jesus “would not take it.” He would not drink that cup because he was determined to drink the cup (14:23–24, 32–42). He refused this cup because he had resolved to drink his assigned cup. He said no to avoid the dulling of his senses for, in contrast to Proverbs 31:6–7, he did not want to forget his poverty and his misery. He said no because he would not be distracted from his mission: He did not want to escape perishing (Proverbs 31:6). He said no because he would not be detoured from his purpose: to suffer distress. In short, he said no to the offer of easing the way to the cross.
Having submitted to his God and Father in Gethsemane, he continued to submit to him along the way. There was too much at stake for him to be detoured now. What an amazing example of faithful and devoted perseverance. What an amazing demonstration of love for sinners. Jesus rejected any hint of potential escape so that sinners, like you and me, could be delivered.
The Queen Mother Speaks
If it is true, as a majority of interpreters conclude, that these women were practically applying Proverbs 31:6–7, we should understand its original context.
It seems that Bathsheba, the queen mother, penned these words to her son, King Solomon. Listen: “It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to take strong drink, lest they drink and forget what has been decreed and pervert the rights of all the afflicted” (vv. 4–5).
The Queen mother refers to Solomon by the euphemistic name, “Lemuel” meaning, “for” or “belonging to God.” Perhaps she used this name to remind him that he was to live and reign for God.
She exhorts her royal son concerning the danger of the abuse of alcohol. It is not appropriate for a king to be taken in by its allurement. She tells him that a drunk king may perhaps forget God’s legal decrees, resulting in injustice for the needy and for those who have been oppressed of their rights. An intoxicated king will fail his subjects. A clear head is a mark of the wise.
As Kidner helpfully notes, a leader “has better things to do than to anaesthetize himself.” In the context of Mark 15, that observation is strikingly relevant.
The queen mother contrasts a sober king with those who might be justified in “anaesthetising” themselves; that is, those who are hopeless and otherwise helpless (vv. 6–7).
Hearkening back to the need for clear-headed leadership, the queen mother tells her son that, by refusing to drink, he will be of immense help to the mute, the destitute, the poor, and the needy. To summarise, a sober king will serve his subjects well. A sober king will be in a position to save his people and his kingdom.
Jesus was a King for God
Mark is emphasising the kingship of Jesus in this penultimate chapter. Six times, Jesus is referred to as King (vv. 2, 9, 12, 18, 26, 32). Of course, the terms are used in mockery and scorn and the Romans are also seen perversely parodying his kingship (vv. 18–19). Nevertheless, the joke would be on them. What they mocked in word and deed was actually coming to pass before their blinded eyes. Jesus was entering his kingdom via the throne of the cross. On his day of inauguration, Jesus made sure he was clear-headed and fully prepared to carry out the righteous decree of his Father. He remained sober to save.
Jesus uniquely belonged to God. He was the true Lemuel and was deeply committed to pleasing God his Father. He came to set the captive free and to give justice to the needy (Isaiah 61:1–2). As the King committed to the righteous law of God, he kept a clear head to ensure that God’s holy will was honoured. He said no to the temptation to disobey. In a sense, these women were saying, “Save yourself!” Jesus’ response was, “No, I’ve come to save others.”
Jesus came to rescue the afflicted in accordance with what had been decreed. He came to save rebel subjects. Of course those he came to save had no rights but, by his grace, he satisfied justice by exchanging his righteousness for our sins and our sins for his righteousness. Therefore, he refused this drink. Because he was committed to drink of the Father’s cup, he would not drink of this cup. He refused the cup of escape in order that sinners might escape the just condemnation of God. He said no to his own deliverance because, from eternity past, he had been saying yes to our deliverance. He rejected the easy way and continued on the hard way and thus is the only way to God and to the forgiveness and reconciliation we so desperately need.
We can summarise and say that Jesus said no because of his commitment to the sufferings of the cross for the sake of sinners to the glory of God.
Christian, his way is to be our way. We too are often called upon to say no to the easy way and to continue on the more difficult way. We are constantly confronted with two cups from which to choose. Will we drink of the cup of sacrifice—the cup of the cross—or will we drink of the cup of escape?
The Wisdom of God
So much of what we see surrounding the crucifixion looks foolish to the world. But those who are saved see the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:18ff).
The world says, “How foolish! Jesus could have dulled his senses and mitigated his suffering, yet he refused.” The Christian says, “How wise that Jesus rejected, all the way to the end, any temptation to veer away from the cross. What a Saviour!” The world says, “How foolish! Jesus could have come down from the cross and saved himself and proved himself.” The Christian says, “What profound wisdom that he delayed vindication in order to secure our justification!” The world says, “How foolish! Jesus could have escaped so much suffering.” The Christian sees the same scene and says, “What wisdom! Jesus suffered temporarily that others would escape suffering eternally!” Sometimes wisdom requires us to just say no, as Jesus did.
While preparing this study, I received a notification about a bargain book. It is a New York Times best-selling work titled The Wisdom of No Escape. It argues that hardships can helpfully shape our lives and therefore we should not always choose the path of least resistance. And though its author is a Buddhist nun, the point is valid. Sometimes, the wisest course of action is the hardest course of action. Ask Noah. Ask Joseph. Ask Daniel.
Wisdom, I would suggest, often requires refusing the way of escape. This was clearly the case with Jesus refusing the mixture that would anaesthetise himself. His ethical refusal to drink the compassionate concoction arose from his devoted relationship with his God and Father. He came to fulfil his covenant with him (Hebrews 13:20) and he refused anything that threatened that.
When Jesus accepted the cup of God’s will—the cup of God’s wrath—while in the garden (14:32–42) he also rejected anything that would dilute that cup. He chose the wisdom of no escape over the folly of an easy escape, not only when he refused to drink, but also when he refused the taunts to save himself. It is often said that what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger. In Jesus’ case, he knew that what would kill him would actually make him stronger. That is, the knowledge of what the cross would accomplish empowered him to persevere toward it and on it.
Good Intention, Bad Idea
There are many lessons to glean from this, but at this point I want to point out that this episode highlights that compassionate attempts at alleviating pain is not always the best course of action. We need to be careful when we see people in need. Sometimes, we can get in the way of what God is doing by coming to the immediate rescue. Jesus would take a drink (v. 36; John 19:30), but only after he had fulfilled the will of God. Let me illustrate.
The Coddling of the Christian Mind
In their best-selling book, The Coddling of the American Mind, the authors argue that one of the things destroying society in America is the idea of fragility. Fragility is the idea that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you weaker and therefore one must avoid all potential difficulties. Whereas children and young people should be raised with a view to anti-fragility—that hardships strengthen us for other realities of hardship in life—children and young people are being raised in bubbles of what is being called “safetyism.”
They offer numerous examples of “helicopter parenting” in which parents so hover over their children that they never toughen up for real life. Parental compassion kicks in and too often the children are rescued when what they needed was a bit of hardship.
Sadly, schools and universities continue to foster this fragility with the result that society is weakened. One real-life example comes from Brown University, an Ivy League University that is supposed to train future leaders.
A few years ago, the university established a building as a “safe space” for those who might be offended by various speakers who would be invited to address potentially controversial issues. If a student felt “unsafe” (read: uncomfortable) he or she could go to this area that was “equipped with cookies, bubbles, colouring books, Play-Doh, calming music, blankets, and a video of frolicking puppies.” The idea was to “calm” the disturbed. Really. I am not making that up. And, by the way, that is becoming the norm throughout facilities of higher education in the United States.
Now here is the point: Facing difficult situations is far more productive than running from them. Persevering through a difficult trial is more apt to build character than avoiding all potential trials. Embracing hardship is often more productive than avoiding it at all costs. Persevering through trials is both an expression of our faith and a means to grow our faith. The alternative—embracing the easy escape, like the fear of man (because of such fear?)—brings a snare.
Christian, we do have a safe space: the triune God. Jesus knew this and hence refused to drink. He knew that the cup his Father prepared for him would be hard, but he also knew that there was no safer place than to be in the will of God.
Of course when I speak of “safe” I don’t mean to imply trouble-free. Jesus was in the centre of God’s will and was crucified. What I mean is safety from spiritual demise. Hardships are often the means to keep us from apostasy. Refusing the anaesthetic, and refusing to offer the anaesthetic, is often the better course for the Christian.
A sage pastor cautioned me several decades ago that often the biggest threat to unity in a church arises from those with the gift of mercy. That sounds strange, but think about it. Those who are particularly compassionate can sometimes err in rescuing people when what they really need is to experience the pain that comes with bearing their cross. Think of someone who struggles with laziness. You might be tempted to throw money at them when what they really need is to learn to work. Or think of a church member who has sinned and is under discipline, perhaps to the point of excommunication. Out of a wrongheaded compassion, the call to avoid them might be ignored. The result is that they do not feel the pain which God has designed to restore them. And they carry on in their sin, to their detriment as well as to the detriment of the church.
As I hope now to illustrate and apply, refusing to anaesthetise, and sometimes refusing to be anaesthetised is the path to God’s fullness.
As I seek to apply this principle, let me point out some anaesthetics offered to which we need to say no.
The Anaesthetic of Resignation
First, we need to avoid the anaesthetic of resignation. By this, I mean the anaesthetic of quitting: the drink of giving in and giving up.
We’ve all been there. Some of you may be there now. You may be thinking, “I can’t take any more pain. I see no joy ahead. I cannot see any scenario in which things will improve and I am hurting so badly that I am just going to throw in the towel.”
The first time I ran the Two Oceans Marathon, there was a point at which quitting seemed to be the logical thing to do. In retrospect, I am so glad that I did not give in or give up. It was hard to persevere, but the reward justified the effort. We often face the same temptation in the Christian life.
For example, some might be tempted to quit their church membership because of heartache from being wronged. Don’t do it. The local church can be a painful place. Though we strive for it to be a safe place, it will never be a fully comfortable place. The sinful DNA of its members precludes this. We will be hurt along the way. Though there are a few scenarios that would justify quitting, in most cases one needs to choose the wisdom of staying put. One needs to persevere for the joy set before them—the joy of knowing Christ and suffering on his account (Colossians 1:24–29). Refuse the easy way out. Once you drink that cup, you may develop a taste for it. That is not productive. That is not the way to grow up into Christ.
Paul didn’t exhort the members of the Corinthian church to quit. Rather, they were to persevere in the hard work of reformation, including forgiveness.
You might be tempted to quit ministry because of the heartache of being mistreated, the pain of what appears to be futile labours, or the pain of unceasing criticism. I’ve been there. Again, there are times when it is justified to drink the cup of stepping aside. But those times are rare. Rather, we must refuse resignation, participate in the sufferings of Christ, and enjoy growing in communion with him (Philippians 3:10–14).
Paul faced deep affliction in his ministry, but as he told the Colossian church, he realised that persevering amid the affliction, rather than quitting, was a means to building up Christ’s church (Colossians 1:24–29). We need to see that as well.
Paul was not saying that the afflictions of Jesus were not enough. He was saying that we should expect no less suffering for the benefit of the church than did the Lord Jesus. And just as Jesus experienced, the affliction is worth it. So keep on. Don’t cave in and choose the easy path of giving in and giving up.
You might be tempted to quite marriage because it is not what you expected. Divorce is a favoured drink of many in our society. It is an easy escape, people assume. But, Christian, in the vast number of cases, the cup of divorce is to be refused. Rather, empowered by the Holy Spirit, equipped by the word of God, envisioning the marriage of Christ and the church, do the otherwise incredibly difficult thing of denying yourself, take up your cross and follow Jesus to both pain and joy.
Brothers and sisters refuse the cup of resignation. Refuse the anaesthetic of quitting.
The Anaesthetic of Apostasy
Having been in the ministry for three decades, my heart has been shattered numerous times by those who have turned away from Jesus Christ. Some of those are in my prayer notebook. Others I have long forgotten, until I cross their path.
People that I have witnessed being baptised, and those whom I have affirmed as Christians and church members with a hearty amen, now deny the faith. How sad. Like the parable of the soils, some seed initially sprung up like green shoots only to eventually dry up and fall away. Why? Because the cost of following Jesus, in their foolish estimation, was too great. They refused to say no to relationships, riches, and habitual sins. They chose to drink the cup of apostasy in order to escape what they assumed would be unbearable pain in their marriage if they followed Jesus. They could not bear losing relationships, prestige, or employment. Instead, they chose the path of least resistance. And they have found—or they willfind—that the cost they traded was not worth it.
Think about the likes of Demas, who drank the cup of the pleasures of this world (2 Timothy 4:10). There is no indication that ended well for him. In contrast, it is instructively ironic that what was a playground for Demas (Thessalonica) was a battleground for the faithful church (see 1 Thessalonians 2:13–16; cf. Acts 17:1–10). Those like Demas, who choose the easy path, find heartache in the end while those who chose to bear their cross experience the joy of the Lord. We celebrate the troubled and triumphant church at Thessalonica, while we lament the failure of tourist-minded Demas.
Consider modern day examples such as Josh Harris. So sad. How will that end? Brothers and sisters refuse the world’scup and continue to drink the Lord’s cup. Be true brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ. Follow the example of our elder brother, who refused to drink the one because he chose to drink the other. That is how his family is to live.
The Anaesthetic of Compromise
Following Christ is wonderful, but it can also be painful. The Christian life is antithetical and counterintuitive to the way of the world. The gospel is not attractive to self-sufficient and self-righteous sinners. Sadly, churches try to make the gospel attractive by watering it down. The word is handled in such a way to make it palatable to the world. Pastors grow weary of being deemed out of date and judgemental and narrow. Hence, they anaesthetise the crowd with a gentler version of the truth. God’s righteous judgement is edited out of their sermons and the demands of the lordship of Christ are domesticated into a tamer and vague call to “just be loving.” We must reject such temptations, for a Christianity without the cross is no gospel at all.
When we choose the comfort of compromise concerning church membership, we will not fulfil the will of God. Church membership with its expectations of holiness, and gathering, and mutual ministry is relegated to an antique of the distant past and replaced with a no-demands consumeristic vague attachment. To demand otherwise is just too painful. The problem, of course, is that this compromise keeps people trapped in their self-centred lifestyles, which in the end lead to futility.
We need to reject such intoxicants and embrace denial of self, teach the truth of what God expects of his people, and lovingly though painfully holding one another accountable to meaningful church membership.
The Anaesthetic of Drink and Drugs
Living in a broken world can become so painful that any means of escape becomes attractive, especially if such escape is as close as our mouths. A bottle or a pill can anaesthetize us, for a while, from the heartache, anxiety, pain, and fear with which we are confronted. But we need to be on guard against this.
It is an understatement to say that we live in a highly medicated society. Both drugs and alcohol have become for many an addictive attempt to escape. Even for Christians. We need to beware.
Numbing ourselves is not a faithful way to live. It usually creates even more problems. Just look around at our society. Christian, God wants us at times to feel the depth of despair that we might experience the height of his joy. Beware of those who too easily prescribe that which may in the end delay you getting to where God wants you to be.
The Anaesthetic of Self-Indulgence
This is really what the above is all about: doing the easy thing and avoiding the thing that will make your life more difficult.
Learning to faithfully, say no to your desires is absolutely essential if you do the will of your Father in heaven. The hard thing of bringing your body into subjection is inseparable from taking up your cross and following Jesus.
The Anaesthetic of Self-Preservation and Self-Pity
We are not there yet, but the day is coming when we are going to need to say no to the comfort of our homes, the ease of livestreaming, and the security of our cocoons and venture out and face some risk.
This is a serious concern, which is widespread among churches. If we believe the gospel, then we need to embrace the worldview of the apostle Paul: “To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).
Consider our heritage of faith and those who refused to compromise. Say no and experience the joy God has set before you. This brings us to our conclusion.
Why did Jesus say no? Because he said yes. He said yes to the cross. And he said yes because he saw the ultimate and therefore was not blinded by the immediate. He saw the joy set before him: the joy of souls saved, and the establishment of an everlasting kingdom, to the glory of God. Therefore he endured the cross, despising its shame. That is, having said yes, he could easily say no.
Brothers and sisters, having said yes to Jesus, we are enabled to say no to that which gets in the way of following him. Have you said yes? If so, keep preaching his gospel to yourself. Remember his death for you, his burial for you, his resurrection for you and his present intercession for you. He knows the anaesthetics that are powerfully tempting us. But he also knows the power to overcome them. And that power is available to you. Seek him and be strengthened by him.
If you have not said yes, then stop saying no. Repent of your sins and embrace the one who died to reconcile repentant sinners to God. Trust the one who rose from the dead to deliver sinners from the just wrath of a holy God. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and experience forgiveness from our merciful God.
Let us rejoice that, because Jesus Christ said yes (and therefore no), we can be saved from a truncated life of self-preservation, which will end in eternal condemnation. Jesus obeyed God. He was perfect in every way, including doing the hardest thing ever required of a sinless person: suffering for sinners like you and me. But because he did, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him (Hebrews 5:7–9). Will you obey him and be saved? That is, will you deny yourself, repenting of your sins and take up your cross and follow him? Just say yes. Once you do, like Jesus, you will be empowered to also say no.