Chapter 23. Sentence executed
Please read Mark 15:1-32
As we come to Mark 15 and the account of Jesus’ death, we have to begin with politics; for humanly speaking, it is politics that send Jesus to the cross. If we are used to the relatively polite and well-ordered arrangements of the western world, the politics of first-century Palestine will be very unfamiliar. It is hard, for example, to imagine the key players from Judea lining up for a live election debate: Pontius Pilate the Roman governor sharing the platform with Caiaphas the high priest and some leader of the Zealot nationalist party, taking questions from a studio audience! Still, there are elements we might recognise. There are some unexpected cross-party alliances at work. When the pressure is on, just as in our own elections, people behave in unexpected ways!
We begin, then, with Jesus’ appearance before Pilate in vv.1-15. It is early Friday morning (v.1). The Sanhedrin have reached their verdict; but they still have a problem. If there is to be an execution, the authority can come only from the Roman authority, personified in the prefect or governor, Pontius Pilate. They have to convince him to condemn Jesus to death. Because Pilate follows standard Roman practice of starting and finishing his working day very early, they need to catch him quickly. Pilate is not normally based here: his official residence is by the sea at Caesarea; and when he visits Jerusalem, as he will often have to do, he establishes a temporary headquarters here. The probable site is in Herod the Great’s old palace on the western side of the city, rather than the Antonia fortress at the edge of the Temple
Pilate, we can assume, has now been briefed; hence v.2. Clearly, it is the Sanhedrin who have produced this accusation. It will do no good to tell Pilate that Jesus is a blasphemer; so they frame a different charge which he will have to investigate. ‘King of the Jews’ is a sort of translation of the word ‘Messiah’ for the benefit of Gentiles. The key word is ‘king’, because that is a political term which Pilate is forced to take seriously. This expression ‘king of the Jews’ now runs through the whole of the crucifixion narrative. Pilate interrogates Jesus with it; then he taunts the Jews with it; then he actually has it written on the cross (v.26); meanwhile in v.18 the soldiers use it in savage mockery. The Jews themselves would never choose this expression. If they wanted to use the term ‘king’ at all, they would say ‘king of Israel’ – as their leaders do in v.32.
Jesus’ answer to Pilate in v.2 is difficult to translate exactly. We might express it ‘Yes, that’s one way of putting it’. In other words, Jesus clearly accepts the title ‘king’, but he hints that he’s not what Pilate understands as a king. John’s gospel gives us a long exchange between Jesus and Pilate on this point, where Jesus explains that his kingdom is not the sort that Pilate would recognise. Mark doesn’t report that, but he does imply that Pilate is not quite satisfied with Jesus’ first answer. But to all the accusations of the chief priests, Jesus, most unconventionally, has nothing to say at all (vv.3-5). A man on trial for his life will normally either try desperately to plead his innocence or else make a defiant speech, seizing his final moment in the spotlight. Jesus does neither; and at this point there is no doubt that Pilate would prefer to dismiss his case.
It now seems Pilate may get his chance to do so. There is an established custom of releasing a prisoner at Passover – now – and it’s not long before someone attempts to invoke it (vv.6,8). Surely, Pilate thinks, the crowd will get me off the hook by asking me to release this Jesus. Pilate may be cynical; he may be weak; but he’s not an idiot. It is not hard to work out that the Jewish leaders have a hidden agenda. Pilate can see that Jesus poses no danger to law and order; he can see that these chief priests simply want to dispose of him for reasons of their own (v.10). Pilate would really prefer not to oblige them; so he hopes the crowd will kindly help him out (v.9). Unfortunately for Pilate, the crowd don’t want to play his game. They have another candidate in mind (v.7). Defining this Barabbas depends on your point of view. The word Mark uses in v.7, translated ‘insurrectionists’ in the NIV, appears nowhere else in the New Testament; but some would call Barabbas a terrorist, and others a freedom fighter. It’s a political question. The big political issue of these days is not, How can we reduce our budget deficit?, or even, How should we deal with immigration? The big issue in Jerusalem is, How can our nation be truly free? What is the path to national salvation? Everyone has their own view on this question. The Pharisees say that the way to national salvation is to obey the Law of Moses in every tiny detail. The Sadducees say that the way to survive is to play the Romans’ game, to collaborate with them; then at least we can keep the Temple and the sacrifices, and some of us can do quite well out of it. Out in the desert somewhere is another group called the Essenes, who don’t appear in the New Testament itself; they say that all the others are corrupt and we need to start again and build a new nation. Then there are the Zealots, whose answer is armed violence against the Romans, a violent revolt to expel the oppressors from our land. That is what politics looks like in first century Israel. Jesus has not lined up with any of these groups – a political act in itself – but Barabbas is a Zealot. One of Jesus’ disciples, Simon, is a Zealot too; it is quite possible that they know each other. It turns out that the crowd, stirred up by their religious leaders, much prefer Barabbas to Jesus (v.11). It is ironic that the chief priests, who are Sadducees and collaborators, and therefore detest the Zealots, should agitate to get Barabbas released. As so often in politics, the fear of losing produces some strange alliances!
Three times Pilate asks the crowd; three times they respond. Pilate doesn’t help his own cause here: he cannot resist having a dig at the Jews by referring to Jesus as their ‘king’ (v.12). Of course they don’t call him ‘king of the Jews’ – and saying so is not calculated to win them over. The crowd’s response is unequivocal (v.13 and again in v.14b). They might, perhaps, have called for something less. There are less horrible methods of execution; but crucifying someone is the standard Roman way, especially out here in the provinces. And so, although to the end Pilate would prefer to set Jesus free, he adopts the line of least resistance and pacifies the crowd by decreeing the verdict of crucifixion (v.15). This hideous flogging – using a leather scourge embedded with pieces of metal or bone – could sometimes be imposed as a penalty by itself, but often it is used as a prelude to crucifixion, making the degrading humiliation even more severe. With no limit prescribed, contemporary history tells us it is quite common for men to collapse and die from the effects of the flogging alone, never even surviving to the cross. In Jesus’ case, that doesn’t happen; he survives the flogging and is still just able to walk.
So Mark presents the drama. We will examine it more closely by looking at some of the characters. , We have seen enough already of Pilate, with his abuse of power, weakness and lack of principle. First, then, we look at the crowd (vv.8-13). In ch 11 we read about the cheering crowds who joined Jesus on his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Sometimes people will compare these two stories and remark on how fickle crowds can be; but these are different crowds. The crowd who followed him into Jerusalem were pilgrims coming up for the Passover; probably they aren’t even staying in the city and they are most unlikely to be out on the streets at the crack of dawn. Most of this crowd have probably followed the Sanhedrin across the city; they will include the people who were taunting Peter as they waited for that first trial to conclude. Many of them probably work for the Jewish establishment. But whoever they are, they have their sympathies. They don’t particularly like Pilate; and given the chance, they are quite happy to shout for Barabbas. They might not be Zealots themselves, but it is a rare chance to put one over on the Romans. As for Jesus – most of them have seen him, and everyone has a view on him; they have no special reason to wish him harm, but they have to listen to what their lords and masters tell them. In short, like most crowds, they are very easily won over. They don’t have much to go on themselves, so they borrow someone else’s point of view.
One of Mark’s goals in this book is to bring everyone to a verdict about Jesus. He gives us the facts; he lets the evidence speak for itself; and he calls us to make our own decision about Jesus Christ. Everyone must reach their own verdict, just as Pilate did so unwillingly in this story; and just as the crowd did, for all the wrong reasons. Many today follow the example of the crowd and simply borrow a ready-made opinion from someone else, swayed by a sound-bite or inherited prejudice.
Secondly, look at Jesus. Mark, as we have noted several times, wants to show his readers how to prepare for suffering. He wants to warn them that if the Lord Jesus had to face injustice and hatred, the same would be true for them. He wants them to see how the Lord Jesus faced all that, so that when the time came for their own personal passion story, they would know how to stand firm. If we are Christians, we need to know that too. We have already seen what Jesus told his friends at Gethsemane: if you want to defeat temptation, watch and pray! But the challenges would not finish with that night. Remember what Jesus warned his disciples in 13:9. Until Christ returns, this is how it will always be. In many parts of the world Christians face just such treatment today. One day the same may happen to us: meanwhile, we have our own battles to fight; and we must learn to be on our guard, to watch and pray; and to follow the example of our Master. It is worth recalling what Jesus has already been through before he faces Pilate. In the course of a totally sleepless night, he has struggled with the horror of death and the dread of God’s wrath as he’s wrestled in solitary prayer; he has been betrayed by an ally and deserted by his friends; he has faced volleys of unjust accusations by people who hate him; and then he’s been beaten up – all in the last twelve hours. In other words, before this story even begins, he has encountered more trauma and provocation than we ever will.
Throughout his life, the Lord Jesus has obeyed the will of God actively. He has spoken, taught, healed, worked; now we find his obedience taking a different form. It is striking just how little Jesus now says or does. In fact, all the way through from his arrest to his death, Mark records only three times when Jesus speaks at all. Assaulted, he does not protest. Accused, he does not defend himself. He simply follows the path laid out for him. He makes no attempt to avoid the cross. He treads the path of a humble servant all the way to that dreadful death. How can he do that? Simply, he did what Peter and friends did not do. He watched and prayed. The victory was won at Gethsemane in solitary prayer among the trees. How do we stand firm when we are accused or persecuted? We watch and pray – ahead of time.
Thirdly, let’s look at Barabbas (vv.6-7,15). All the gospel writers mention Barabbas, but while Mark’s account of Jesus and Pilate is barely half the length of what we find in the other three gospels, he tells us more about Barabbas than any of them do. Mark clearly wants us to think about this man. What does he want us to see? Whatever his precise motives, Barabbas is a murderer. In one of the frequent failed uprisings of those days, he has killed people – perhaps he even managed to kill a Roman soldier, or maybe it was just some Jewish collaborator. He is a big sinner; a certainty for crucifixion, he fully deserves what he is going to get. By rights, it should be Barabbas carrying his cross out to Golgotha with the other criminals, that spring Friday morning. But instead, the soldier who comes and takes him from his cell this morning does not drag him outside the city walls to the place of execution. Instead, he leads him to the gates of the fortress, pushes him outside and turns his back, Go on – you’re free! And that is what the cross of Jesus does. The cross substitutes an innocent victim for a guilty criminal, so that the guilty criminal walks free. Barabbas is you and me – the offenders, the criminals, the guilty ones: released from our cell, taken out into the light, and set free. Like us, Barabbas deserves his sentence. Like us, Barabbas contributes nothing to his freedom except for his sin. As with us, the action takes place somewhere else while he reaps the benefit – just outside the city, where the innocent victim is nailed to the cross and takes the wrath of God on himself; and meanwhile we walk free.
There is, however, another character in this story. God the Father is unseen, but he is here. None of these events happens by accident or by merely human decision. How could Jesus make that detailed prediction in 10:33-34? He knew it all in advance, because he knew the plan. Jesus knows who is in charge – the unseen hand of God the Father is behind all these events. Why does Jesus not die under flogging, as so many others did? It is because God has decreed that he shall die on the cross. Prophecy said he must be lifted up, not die on the floor. Prophecy said he must be hung on a tree; so he dies on a wooden cross – because it is in God’s plan. Again, why are so many people implicated in the story of Jesus’ death? There’s a word which recurs time and again in this story – the Greek word paradidomi, which is sometimes translated ‘betray’, sometimes ‘hand over’ and sometimes ‘turn over’, but is really all the same word. Judas hands over Jesus to the chief priests. The chief priests hand him over to Pilate (v.1). Pilate hands him over to the soldiers to mock and crucify him (v.15). With every handing over, the guilt is spread around. So Judas is to blame; the chief priests are to blame; the crowd is to blame; Pilate is to blame; the soldiers are to blame; and we, each and every sinner, are to blame. God wants it made unmistakably clear that we are all to blame – and it is Jesus who can release us all.
History marches on. Governments rise and fall; wars are won and lost. But whatever historic moments this world may have seen, Christians know there was one supreme moment in time, a day when the earth witnessed its greatest drama of victory and defeat, one moment above all when history was made. In vv.16-32 we come at last to that moment. Christians know that there has never been a moment like this. When Jesus Christ went to the cross, that over-used expression was literally true: the world would never be the same again.
As we look closely at this account of the cross, we notice at once how little Mark tells us about the physical ordeal that Jesus has to undergo. In this whole episode, Mark uses only a single word in v.15 to describe the flogging and two words in v.24 to tell us they crucify him. We have to ask, Why does Mark, this most gritty and hard-edged of all the gospels, say little or nothing about the whips and the nails, the lacerations and the wounds, the long slow torture of death by crucifixion? There are two reasons. One is that most of his first readers in Rome already know the dreadful details. It is recognised as the extreme punishment, understood to be so unspeakably awful that the great Cicero, a century earlier, said that ‘even the mere word, cross, must remain far not only from the lips of the citizens of Rome, but also from their thoughts, their eyes, their ears’. But on the other hand, crucifixion is also quite common, particularly in times of turbulence and upheaval. The Roman authorities see it as quite normal to crucify many hundreds after rebellions, to deter people from ever again daring to oppose their rule. That will certainly happen forty years later, when the Jews rebel against Rome and the Temple is destroyed.
The second reason is more important. Mark does not dwell on the physical horrors of the cross because he knows they are not the most important part of the picture. Although it is what we would naturally dwell on, there is something even greater and more significant going on. So while he does not forget or ignore the physical dimension, and throughout the story he gives us reminders of that aspect of Jesus’ suffering, his focus is elsewhere. Mark’s focus, this day of days, is on the meaning of the cross.
We begin in v.16, still at the scene of Pilate’s temporary headquarters in Jerusalem. These soldiers – the Greek word speira indicates several hundred men – have come up with Pilate from his official base in Caesarea, probably local Gentile recruits who have no more love for the Jews than Pilate himself. Jesus is now entrusted to their tender care and they see this as a bit of light relief from the routine of garrison life. They now indulge themselves in abusing him (vv.17-20). Why not – he’s as good as dead now. They’ve heard this prisoner is claiming to be king of the Jews, presumably one of those irritating rebels they keep having to hunt down. So they find a purple robe to wrap round him – it may be no more than someone’s old cloak or blanket, but the point is that purple is the colour of empire – and from thorn twigs they create a wreath to crown him with. The crown of thorns is not intended as an instrument of torture, although it will certainly hurt him. It is a parody of the common portrayal of emperors, wearing what are known as radiate crowns with rays of light shining out from their heads to lend them the appearance of gods. They give him a staff as a sceptre but they use it to strike him as they spit on him. They kneel before him in pretended homage. It’s a scene of grotesque abuse from beginning to end. This is what we do with ‘kings’!
But soon it is time to go. They take Jesus outside the city to the place of execution. Following common practice, he has to carry his own cross, or at least, the cross-beam – it’s part of the humiliation – through the streets for everyone to see and take note. But weakened by the flogging he simply cannot do it (v.21). Mark tells this as if at least one of the family is known to his first readers in Rome. None of the other gospels mentions Alexander and Rufus; but Paul mentions a Rufus in Romans 16:13 and it could be the same man. Mark would be saying, You know Rufus – well this is how his dad first met Jesus!
Now Jesus arrives at the place known as Golgotha, the place of the skull, which suggests the appearance of a bare, rounded hillock. His walk to the cross is just a few hundred yards. He is now offered an anaesthetic drink – not by the Romans, who have no interest in mitigating the ordeal, but probably, according to tradition, by women from Jerusalem as an act of mercy. We can only imagine what it must have taken for Jesus to refuse the offer. He is determined to endure everything in full and without aid. Finally, around the middle of Friday morning, he is nailed to the cross and hung up to die
Mark completes the crucifixion scene by telling us that the charge against Jesus is inscribed above his head – ‘King of the Jews’. The custom is for the charge to be written on a wooden board and paraded to the place of execution along with the criminal, before being fixed there for all to see. Jesus’ cross is one of three that are hoisted up that morning. On either side there is a criminal, an outlaw (Greek lestes, which is probably best translated by a word like ‘bandit’), like Barabbas who should by rights have occupied the third. Again there is an echo of Scripture, this time Isaiah 53:12, another passage which calls up the theme of innocent suffering, foretelling the Servant who suffers in the deliberate purposes of God. (By the way, some manuscripts of Mark include that verse from Isaiah at this point; the quotation was then labelled as v.28 of this chapter.)
So Jesus hangs dying on the cross, in the company of rebels and surrounded by torrents of abuse, even from the two criminals. Luke’s account implies that one of them changes his mind (Luke 23:40-43); but in Mark’s stark account we read only of how the Lord Jesus is isolated and abused even in his dying hours. As we read vv.16-32, the spotlight falls most strongly on the words that are said – not by Jesus, for in Mark’s account here he utters not a word – but by his enemies, one group after another: soldiers, passers-by, Jewish leaders, fellow-victims. Here is the really remarkable thing – all that they say is true. Even the lies are true! Jesus goes to his death as the target of volley after volley of hateful insults, yet they are taunts that are ironically accurate. It’s with the words of three true taunts that Mark points us to Jesus’ true identity and mission.
The first of these taunts is ‘King of the Jews’, which as we have seen is a ‘translation’ of the Jewish idea of Messiah or Christ into terms that Pilate could understand. In v.32 that both expressions, Christ and King of Israel, are used in the same breath: they mean much the same. Now see how it is used as a taunt against Jesus, beginning with vv.17-20a. The soldiers have done Jesus up as a king; acclaiming him as ‘king of the Jews’ is the whole point of their game. To them it can mean only that he has set himself up in defiance of their emperor – that he has dared to challenge the might of imperial Rome. How pitiful an idea that is, now, as they look on this bloodied, gasping, half-collapsing figure who is entirely at their mercy. ‘King of the Jews’! We find the words again in v.26, this time in the notice pinned above Jesus’ head. This time the taunt comes from Pilate, directed not just at Jesus but at the entire despised Jewish nation, his message being ‘see what will happen if any of you dares to rebel’. We hear it again in v.32a from the chief priests and scribes, two of the groups involved in Jesus’ trial who have now come out to gloat at their success.
‘King of the Jews’ from the soldiers; from Pilate; from the Jewish leaders. None of them is serious: none of them believes it is true. A king should lead an army; a Messiah should reign in triumph. But ironically, it is true! King of the Jews is just what he is. After the long centuries of waiting, after all the prophets have said about him, after four hundred years of silence when God seemed to be doing nothing, Messiah is here, their promised Christ has arrived; astonishingly, their King is reigning from the cross – reigning with a crown of thorns on his head. There is something significant about those thorns – for how and when did thorns come into the world? Remember what the Lord said to Adam, that day of the first sin in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:17b-18). Ever since, thorns have been part of our lives. Thorns are a sign of the curse. They take us back to the Fall, back to our sin. Now as Jesus hangs on the cross that morning, he wears the thorns – he wears the curse for us. He carries the curse that affects the whole of humanity, descended from Adam and poisoned by sin; he takes it to the cross and deals with the curse for us; for people of every nation and language, not just for the Jews. He wins a kingdom from all of mankind, no longer from Israel alone. King of the Jews – King of us all – it is true!
The second taunt is heard in vv.29-31: ‘He saved others, but he can’t save himself’. Jesus has been crucified in a public place, deliberately so, for crucifixion was always intended to frighten and cow the local populace. Many of the passers-by, clearly, are hostile. They have accepted the line that Jesus is an enemy of the people, a threat to the peace. The chief priests and teachers of the law, meanwhile, have long hated him. They have longed for this day. They chortle to one another, He saved others – that’s intended as a reference to Jesus’ healing ministry, which no-one could dispute – but he can’t save himself. If the first taunt was sarcastic, this one is absolutely straight. In their eyes, Jesus is helpless, of course he is; and his very helplessness is the final proof that he is a fraud. His claims are empty; and now they have proved it by getting him nailed to that cross, pinned to a wooden frame – what clearer picture of powerlessness could there be? But again, their taunt is true. Jesus cannot save himself. It was not possible for Jesus to save himself if he was to achieve his mission. Yes, he had the power to come down from the cross; the nails could not have held him back; but then he would not have done what he came to do. The truth of what he has come for is explained by Jesus’ own words in 10:45. Jesus has to give his life – so he must stay on the cross until his life has departed. Jesus came to lay down his life for others, to save others; and not just to heal their bodies but to save them completely, from the hell he is even now experiencing. As Jesus hears the words flung at him, he knows what he is doing; and he knows that beyond their understanding, their words are true. He saved others, but he could not save himself.
For the third taunt, look again at vv.29-30: ‘Destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days’: on the face of it, a strange thing for anyone to say. It came up at his trial before the Sanhedrin in 14:57-58. That claim is now recycled by onlookers at the cross who have heard it passed on. Now in fact, this we know this is not what Jesus originally said. We know from John 2:19-21 that Jesus was not talking about destroying the great edifice of the Temple; he was saying, If you destroy this ‘temple’, my body, I will raise it up again in three days. Again, on the lips of his abusers, this taunt is a reminder of his weakness. ‘You’re going to tear down the Temple, are you? I’m sorry, when was that going to start? It still looked pretty solid when I went past this morning!’ It is just one more insult to throw; but in reality, it is true! They are destroying the temple of his body – life is ebbing away with every tortured breath – but that was not the end of the story! The cross is not the end of the story! Without knowing it, those onlookers are reminding the Lord Jesus of the resurrection that is coming soon. I wonder if in some unexpected and certainly unintentional way, this final taunt even brings him comfort. What their words really mean is that on the third day, he will be raised to life again! The taunting accusers will not have the last word, because beyond the cross is the empty tomb. The body destroyed will be raised again. This is not a day of defeat, whatever it might look like. This is victory.
Years before, at the start of his earthly ministry, Jesus was baptised (1:9-11). It was a baptism of repentance, but Jesus had no need to repent, not one single sin to turn away from; yet he was baptised with sinners as one of us. Now at the close of his ministry, Jesus is executed: a criminal’s execution, though Jesus has never committed a single crime. Yet he is crucified with sinners, numbered with the transgressors, dying our death, bearing our sin, wearing our curse. This is the true King of the Jews – the true King of all, who is reigning now, not from the cross but from his heavenly throne, the Lord of history who will return in glory as high as his humiliation was deep. This is the Christ, who could not save himself, because his mission was to lay down his own life to save us. And this is he who will be raised again, the temple destroyed but rebuilt in three days, for the cross is not the end.