Doug Van Meter - 23 Aug 2020
The King’s Cross (Mark 15:16–32)
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In the 1940s and 50s, there was a historical education television and radio show called “You Are There.” The show would highlight a particular historical event in the form of a virtual time warp, encouraging the viewer/listener to pretend as if they were there. There is a sense in which Mark is doing much the same in his account of the crucifixion. He writes as if he wants his readers to imagine that they were there.
Imagine that you were there when Mark’s Gospel arrived at your church in Rome, the mid-to-late 60s AD. As a Roman Christian, you have faced persecution from Emperor Nero. He has killed some of your friends and impoverished others.
As you hear Mark’s Gospel read, you are initially encouraged by the reminder that the Lord Jesus Christ came to establish the kingdom of God (1:14–15). As you listen, you conclude that Jesus is King and that is extending his rule. You can almost hear the scornful laughter of the triune God as he is busy thwarting the evil deeds of the likes of Nero, as well as the corrupt Judaism of the day (see Psalm 2). This is good news indeed!
As Mark 4 is read, you are encouraged that the planted seed will bring forth the promised kingdom (4:26–29). As the reading continues, you hear seventeen references to God’s kingdom. How exciting!
But you also hear that the kingdom of which Jesus spoke was radically different than what the kingdoms of this world envisioned, including the Jewish world. God’s kingdom would come, not by a political or military king, but rather via God’s suffering servant (8:31). You appreciate afresh that King Jesus will be enthroned, by way of the cross.
Around this time, you hear a commotion outside your meeting place. Roman officials have once again arrived to disrupt your worship and fellowship. And you are tempted to think, “It sure doesn’t look like God’s kingdom has come! It doesn’t appear that King Jesus is ruling and reigning. If Jesus is King, why all this suffering?” But as you reflect on Mark’s Gospel, you are reminded that appearances can be deceiving. You are reminded that we live by faith, not by sight. You and I need this reminder as well.
In this study, we will consider the King’s cross. May God the Holy Spirit enable us to see the glory of our King, remind us that, apart from God’s grace, we will never see Jesus as King and empower us to live as faithful subjects of the King by denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following him.
There is much for us to learn and live out from these seventeen verses. But before we can apply it, we need to understand it. So let’s dive into the text.
A Perverse Parody
Our text opens with what I would call a perverse parody:
And the soldiers led him away inside the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters), and they called together the whole battalion. And they clothed him in a purple cloak, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on him. And they began to salute him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they were striking his head with a reed and spitting on him and kneeling down in homage to him. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. And they led him out to crucify him.
We could equally title this section “blind brutality.” It is brutal and reveals profound spiritual blindness.
As Paul would write, if the Jewish, and Roman “rulers of this age understood” who Jesus was and what God was doing at this point in history, “they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Corinthians 2:8).
This entire scene is a gross and blasphemous treatment of the one who created the heavens and the earth. He who, in three days, would claim all power and authority in the universe, was scorned by a battalion of Roman soldiers.
A battalion was anywhere from 200–600 soldiers, the latter being the norm. These soldiers would have come from surrounding nations and would be Gentiles. In fulfilment of Psalm 2, we are given a glimpse of the nations raging in diabolical and depraved partnership with Israel against God, the King.
The soldiers gathered inside the courtyard of the governor’s mansion where they commenced their further indignities upon Jesus. Having scourged him, most likely bare-backed if not naked, they now wrapped Jesus in a purple cloak. Most probably, this was a ragged purplish cloak from one of the soldiers. Purple was a colour for royalty (the emperor wore a purple gown). The emperor also wore a golden crown and the soldiers parodied that with a twisted crown of thorns. As they placed these on Jesus, they hit him on the head with a crude sceptre, bowed the knee to him in mock homage, and chanted, “Hail, King of the Jews!” You can imagine the sneering way in which they must have said this.
Such a greeting mimicked the similar greeting to Caesar: “Hail, Caesar, victorious Emperor!” As Lane notes, “the soldiery … regarded [Jesus] as only an object of ridicule since he dared to rival the sovereignty of the divine emperor.” But, of course, there was a double entendre here because the soldiers were also casting scorn upon the despised Jews: “Look what kind of a King you have! Ha!”
The text tells us that they were “spitting on him.” It is remarkable how this scene fulfilled Jesus’ prediction of 10:33–34: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him and flog him and kill him.” As the reader knows, the following words would also be fulfilled: “And after three days he will rise.”
After this barbaric cruelty, they took the cloak off of Jesus (like harshly ripping off a bandage from a wound) and put his own clothes on him. They then “led him out to crucify him.”
The Curse of Crucifixion
Crucifixion was reserved by the Roman authorities for non-Romans. It was the most ignoble way to die. It was designed to bring about the greatest amount of shame and suffering. Those guilty of severe crimes against the empire, particularly acts that would be deemed treasonous, were condemned to die in this way.
Sometimes, crucifixion could last for several days and the cause of death was usually suffocation. When the crucified person could no longer bear up their own weight, their legs gave way, their chest caved in, and they were unable to breathe. Pilate was surprised that Jesus had died so soon, without the assistance of his legs being broken (15:44; John 19:31–37).
We also need to reflect on what it meant for a Jewish person to be crucified. Under old covenant law, those executed for capital crimes were stoned to death. But often their dead bodies were then hung on a stake of wood or on a tree. This was a sign to all the community that such an individual was cursed by God (Deuteronomy 21:22–23).
Think about this: Jesus Christ, God’s Son—his anointed Messiah—was being proclaimed as accursed of God. As we know, and as we will examine in our next study, Jesus was cursed so that sinners like you and I would not be. Paul wrote, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’” (Galatians 3:13).
Whenever we contemplate these passages, we need to consider that perhaps some of these soldiers came to repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ after his resurrection. If the centurion at the cross was involved in this brutality, thank God he came to believe (v. 39)!
But for the Grace of God
We also need to soberly consider that, apart from the grace of God, we would be just as blind to the person and work of the Lord Jesus as were these men. Apart from the light of the glorious gospel of the grace of God shining into our hearts (2 Corinthians 4:3–6), our fundamental response would be no different than either the Roman soldiers or the Jewish religious leaders (14:64–65).
When the godly John Bradford of England watched a criminal being led to execution, he was overheard saying, with deep meaning, “There, but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford.” The doctrines of grace, properly embraced, will produce humility as we observe the wicked behaviour of others and the consequences of that behaviour. We should be humbled as we read the conduct of these soldiers.
When Christians are aware of brutality, we are rightly horrified. We should also be rightly humbled and greatly thankful that God has brought us to himself. We should be grateful that the Lord has opened our eyes to see our sin, and to see and to believe on the Saviour. And we should pray for God to open the eyes of those who remain blind.
A Powerful Irony
The second major part of our text contains a powerful irony:
And they compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross. And they brought him to the place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. And they crucified him and divided his garments among them, casting lots for them, to decide what each should take. And it was the third hour when they crucified him. And the inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” And with him they crucified two robbers, one on his right and one on his left. And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” So also the chief priests with the scribes mocked him to one another, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also reviled him.
Jesus was walking what is commonly called the Via Dolorosa (vv. 21–22). This Latin phrase means “sorrowful way” and his walk that morning was indeed sorrowful and sobering. Paradoxically, it was also his way to victory.
Those condemned to death were required to carry the cross bar to the place of crucifixion. The crossbar weighed roughly 40kg, which made it an exhausting cross to bear. This was particularly the case for Jesus, having experienced the brutality and injustice that he had.
Usually the march to the place of execution was deliberately the long way around in order to send a message to those tempted to defy Rome. It served as a warning far and wide not to mess with Roman authority.
When it became clear that Jesus was unable to bear the burden, one Simon from Cyrene (Libya) was compelled by the soldiers to carry the cross. He took it up the cross and followed Jesus. Pause and think about this. I think Mark wanted his readers to.
We don’t know if this man was a Jew. Perhaps he was, and perhaps he was in Jerusalem for Passover, since we are told that he “was coming in from the country.” What we can say with some certainty is that, while he may have not been known by Mark’s readers, his sons Alexander and Rufus apparently were. Perhaps they were members of the church in Rome (Romans 16:13). If so, it is appealing to make an argument that this experience of witnessing their father carrying the cross, identified with Jesus, led to their conversion. What a marvellous lesson for us! When we take up the cross and follow Jesus, others are affected. Some may even be converted and join us.
On a Hill Not So Far Away
The little party came to Golgotha, which was a slight hill that looked like a skull. Mark interprets this word for his readers, which provides some internal evidence that he was writing to those not familiar with Jerusalem. This supports the notion that this Gospel was written to the church in Rome. They would have paid particular attention to this Roman crucifixion.
The “they” of v. 23 were likely a group women who had taken it upon themselves to minister to those being crucified. “According to the Babylonian Talmud … respected women, in response to the merciful injunction of Proverbs 31:6 to ‘Give strong drink to the one who is perishing,’ appointed themselves to provide condemned victims with a narcotic, pain-reducing drink before execution” (Hughes).
Jesus rejected this narcotic (Psalm 69:21). In a highly medicated age like ours, it is hard to imagine him refusing that which would have alleviated his sufferings. But he had come to suffer and die, even the horrific death of the cross (Philippians 2:5–8). He would not allow himself to be tempted to escape it. He chose to be clear-headed so that he might bear the full weight of suffering on behalf of our sins. His lucidity of mind enabled him to minister to the dying thief whom he took to paradise. What a man! What a Saviour! Oh, the blessed God-man!
Embracing the Pain
Perhaps a lesson for us is to beware the temptation to numb ourselves from the suffering that attends living for Christ in this world. Suffering will occur. But if we are obsessed with escape, we will miss out on our opportunity to experience the pleasures of God that await those who persevere. Consider the joy that must have been Jesus’ as his sufferings ended and he subsequently committed his spirit into the hand of the Lord.
It should be noted that there may also have been another reason for his refusal of the cup: In 14:25, after the institution of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus said that he would not drink of the cup until he would “drink it new in the kingdom of God.” After he paid for our sins—in other words, after he secured his kingdom—he did drink wine (15:36; John 19:28–30). The cross was the way to the crown. It always is.
Gambling for Garments
In vv. 24–25, we see the soldiers gambling for his garments.
It was customary for four soldiers to accompany a criminal and carry out the actual crucifixion. As payment for services rendered, they would share in whatever belongings he or she left behind. They cast lots for these, gambling for the garments of God’s Son. I shudder to think about this. Perhaps the Holy Spirit would later use this to remind and convict these soldiers of what they had done. And though they stripped Jesus naked in order to shame him, God in his love was willing to clothe them in Jesus’ righteousness to cover their shame. Even amid this horrific scene—actually, because ofthis horrific scene—we see the glory of the love of God.
We are told that it was “the third hour,” which is 9:00 AM. So much evil so early in the day!
The remainder of the passage elaborates the cruel and scornful treatment of the Lord Jesus Christ and contains some prophetic irony. For those who have eyes to see and hearts to understand, the Lord Jesus was actually being vindicated. In both word and deed, this entire scene substantiates all that Jesus taught from day one (1:14–15). His kingdom wascoming, and he was being enthroned via the cross. As we will see, things are not always what they seem. In the words of Joseph, who in so many ways was a type of Jesus Christ, what people intended for evil, God intended for good (Genesis 50:20).
True or False?
We can characterise this scene as “innocent as charged.” It was customary in a crucifixion that a placard stating the crime would be placed atop the cross. Prior to that, on the march to the cross, a soldier would carry the placard so all could see and be warned. This is a side note, but capital punishment does serve as a deterrent.
Anyway, the sign was usually a board covered in white chalk on which were painted red or black letters. The purported crime for which Jesus was being executed was treason: He claimed to be “the King of the Jews.” The charge was both true and false.
It was true because Jesus was God’s appointed Messiah, the King of the Jews. When the Jewish leaders asked Pilate to change the sign to reflect his claim to being the King of the Jews, Pilate would not budge (John 19:21–22). I think this was for a few reasons.
First, he knew the charges were trumped up. He wouldn’t give the Jewish leaders the opportunity to wiggle out of this. Second, it was a way for Pilate to shame the Jews. After all, what kind of a King was this brutalised and weakened man? Third, he needed to justify his decision to condemn Jesus to death. Regardless, the joke was on him, for Jesus really was King (see Psalm 2)!
But of course in another sense, the charge was false for Jesus was not the kind of King most people think of (v. 2). He was King of a spiritual kingdom (while not denying the material, physical implications). In other words, Jesus did not come for a political revolution but for a spiritual one (John 18:33–40). The latter would indeed affect the former, but it was not the priority. First things first, as they say.
The point is that what they meant for mockery, scorn, and political manoeuvring was, in ironic fact, true. The King was in their midst and yet they could not see. Like others before them, with the King in their presence, they physically were not far from the kingdom of God (12:34). However, the condition of their hearts meant they were also yet infinitely far away.
Seated with Jesus
You may remember when James and John made their audacious request to be seated and Jesus’ right and left hand when he came into his kingdom. Jesus warned them that they did not realise what they were asking and asked if they thought they were capable of entering into suffering with them. “We are able,” they replied. Jesus responded, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptised, you will be baptised, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared” (Mark 10:37–40).
Now that Jesus was about to enter his kingdom, where were these brave disciples? The Mossad couldn’t find them! “We are able” proved to be bluster. No, the ones for whom the right and the left hand were prepared were two insurrectionists!
Please don’t miss this: The ones crucified with Jesus were those who had prioritised the kingdoms of this world, hence their treason against Rome. These “robbers” had sought to save their lives and, in the end, they lost their lives.
This was the same erroneous thinking of James and John, with the rest of the disciples. They needed their thinking to be radically altered (Mark 10:41–44). It was at the end of that interaction that Jesus revealed his mission statement: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many (v. 45).” This was happening now in the very text before us.
Jesus was laying down his life for many, including one of those who was crucified with him (Luke 23:39–43). Everything was going according to plan. As v. 28 (omitted here, but included in other translations) tells us, “And the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “He was numbered with the transgressors.” This quote comes from Isaiah 53:12 and summarises all that occurred here. Jesus died with sinners, in the place of those sinners who will acknowledge they are sinners and bow to him, in repentance and faith, as King.
Practicing What He Preached
As the mockery and scorn continued, so does the power of God.
God was bringing his Son into his kingdom with all those whom the death of his Son would ransom. While Satan may have thought that he was pummelling and defeating the King of kings, the King of kings was, in fact, plundering Satan’s kingdom! As Satan’s minions were destroying the temple of Jesus’ body, he was laying the foundation for a new temple: the church of the living God (Ephesians 2:19–22). Even though, on the surface, it appears that Jesus was losing, he was actually saving—just as he so often said (8:31–35).
Someone has commented that what is physically possible is often morally or spiritually impossible. So it is here.
Jesus was taunted by the stirred-up loiterers: “Save yourself and come down from the cross!” Not to be outdone in evil, “the chief priests with the scribes mocked him to one another, saying, ‘He saved others [by healing them and/or claimed to forgive their sins], he cannot save himself.’” Truer were never spoken! Jesus could not both save himself and others. Someone would have to lose their life if others would be saved. If Jesus chose to come down from the cross, those the Father gave to him would be eternally lost. Without a Saviour, the sheep were hopeless. But because Jesus Christ chose to lose his life, not only was his life saved in the end, so were ours (see John 12:20–25).
Mark records three occasions that Jesus told his disciples about his death. The first occurrence (8:31–38) contains the longest record of what following Jesus looks like. It looks like losing one’s life in order to save it. This was so counterintuitive that Peter resisted it. He rebuked Jesus for even entertaining the idea that he would lose his life. Jesus sharply rebuked him because, among other things, he knew that the only way for him to save, to receive his kingdom, was to lose his life—at least for a little while. He expected all those who would be his disciples to follow him with the same worldview. He not only preached this; praise God, he practiced it as well.
Physically, Jesus had the ability to come down from the cross, but his holiness and his love for his Father—not to mention his love for his bride, the church—“held” him there. The nails were not necessary at all.
There is so much that can be said about this, but suffice it to say at this point that these enemies of Christ and the cross still taunt the Christian and the church. The world is all about saving itself. Unbelievers live for self, preserving their own comfort, and watching out for numero uno, hence the rejection of the gospel by multitudes.
The world does not know the value of the soul. But when, by God’s grace their eyes, are opened, they see that gaining the whole world is no comparison for losing their valuable soul (8:36–37).
This scornful crowd was ashamed of their king, and they were now in the precarious position of being rejected by him as he entered his kingdom (8:38).
Christian, Jesus practiced what he preached and you are the fruit of this. Let this reality motivate you, like Jesus, to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow him. Before the world, you will lose your life (prestige, relationships, reputation, possessions, perhaps even your physical life), but in the end, also like Jesus, you will be enriched beyond description as you experience the King in his glorious kingdom.
To See, You Must Believe
“Those who were with him also reviled him.” In the end, everyone got into the abusive frame of mind. Everyone was blind, at least for a while (v. 39). I am assuming that they all shared the wrongheaded approach to entering the kingdom—that is, seeing before believing. Jesus, however, taught that believing precedes seeing (8:11–13).
Twenty-five years after the crucifixion, Paul would address the same problem. He wrote to the church at Corinth:
For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
(1 Corinthians 1:22–25)
It is still like this, and the problem is not reserved for those of Jewish descent.
Again, we are faced with the question: Why do some believe while others do not? The issue is not degree of depravity, for we are all sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). The difference is the grace of God. Both thieves were sinners; one was saved and the other apparently not. Both were in close proximity to Jesus, but only one repented and believed. Both physically saw the same evidence, but only one saw spiritually.
So, what shall we do? We should cry out to God for mercy and grace to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. Seek God as Saviour and don’t stop until he is found.
Jesus Christ is King. He has entered his kingdom. He is ruling and reigning today. And that could be really frightening news, for he is holy and he judges sinners (Psalm 2). But that is not the whole news. The good news is that he not only rules and reigns; he also redeems.
How do we know all of this? Why should we believe this? Because Jesus did not come down from the cross. He did something so much more glorious. He died on that cross and then rose from the dead. In doing this, he paid the penalty for our sins. He took upon himself the wrath of a holy God for those who will bow to him as Saviour and as King. And we know he is worthy of this because his resurrection was God’s vindication of what he did. The resurrection was the Father’s everlasting testimony that Jesus Christ is King. Is he yours?
I trust we have seen that this passage is not merely a historical record, though it is that. Neither is it a sensational or sentimental account of Jesus’ mistreatment. Rather, it is a narrative intended to contrast the way disciples see the world and the way the world sees it. Until his very last breath, Jesus revealed the inverted values of his kingdom in comparison those of the kingdoms of this world.
There are several applications that arise from this passage. Let me conclude with a few of these, in the form of principles by which Christians live.
First, Christians see a King and a Kingdom while the world sees a king and a kingdom. We need the perspective of Daniel who saw God’s rule rather than Nebuchadnezzar’s, Belshazar’s, Darius’s, Cyrus’s! Kings come and go; Jesus remains, rules, reconciles, and redeems forever!
Psalms 2 and 110 remain true. Our King trumps their king. Stop being intimidated. Stop being small-minded. Stop being pessimistic. Start (and keep) praying and proclaiming the kingdom of God. The world is still turned upside down by the gospel (see Acts 17:6). The God of Joseph is the God of Daniel who is your God and mine.
Second, Christians see salvation where the world sees only loss. Christians are willing to lose in order to win. They are willing to lose the temporal to gain the eternal: relationships, riches, reputation, recognition—even life itself. As Jim Elliott said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.”
Christians see power as a means to serve and save where the world sees power as a means to control and suffocate. Christians are therefore willing to look like fools—because, by God’s grace, they are wise. Our value system has been set aright.
Third, Christians see the glory of the cross where the world sees the foolishness of sacrifice. Christians celebrate what the world denigrates. Quit thinking that the gospel should be respectable. It is reprehensible to the world. Quit trying to be popular by making the gospel look palatable. Rather, like Paul, let us glory in what the self-sufficient world despises. Let us glory in the cross (Galatians 6:14–18).
Fourth, Christian see, the world does not (1 Corinthians 2:14–16). Things are rarely what they seem. Christians sees the ultimate, whereas the world sees the obvious.
Brothers and sisters, we must never take for granted God’s saving grace to us. He has graciously made us see his love when others only see injustice. In fact, in this injustice, his justice was satisfied.
Jesus does not want our sentiment; he wants our souls. As Kent Hughes reflected, “Fellow-believers, the cross is one place where sophistication and emotional detachment cannot be. It demands our passionate return of love.”
The King’s cross calls to you to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow him as your King into his kingdom. May God the Holy Spirit empower you to do so today.