- The Explore the Bible lesson for April 21 focuses on Mark 15:27-39.
Christ crucified. It is a phrase commonly uttered among Christians—and rightfully so. For those of us in modern times, we know of crucifixion from history books, movie portrayals and confessional statements.
For those in the first century, though, crucifixion was the stuff of memory and even current experience. For those who had witnessed a crucifixion, the sights, the sounds, the smells and the shame needed no embellishment.
So, when Mark invited his readers to the scene of Jesus’ crucifixion, his first readers would not have strained to imagine. We, thankfully, must. As you walk through this passage, then, try to do so through first-century eyes. Yes, find yourself disturbed at the crucifixion, but more importantly, find yourself astounded at the one who is crucified.
Crucified (Mark 15:27-28)
For the Roman executioners that day, this started as just another execution. There seemed to be nothing special about the center victim of that day’s tortuous deaths. The executioners would have been amused by the charge they affixed to the cross, though: “King of the Jews” (15:26). The disdain of the Romans for the Jews was made public. “Here is your king, Jews! Now you can see who is really in charge.” As Jesus was raised in place, so began the gruesome journey along his slow and excruciatingly painful path to death.
Mocked (Mark 15:29-32)
The irony in this portion of Mark’s narration is rich. Part of the shame and humiliation of crucifixion came from the derision of passersby who could hurl all manner of accusation and insult against the crucified. There was no protection and no hope of rescue. There was only exposure, isolation, suffering and abuse, both physical and emotional.
For Jesus, that abuse took the form of mockery as his words and deeds were thrown back on him by the smug and self-righteous with a perverted sense of satisfaction. “Let the pretender prove himself!” is an appropriate paraphrase of their comments.
As we see throughout Mark’s Gospel, Jesus once again showed himself a servant. He bore their abuse and resisted the opportunity to vindicate himself, choosing instead to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45) and entrust himself to God’s vindication.
Forsaken (Mark 15:33-36)
The vindication from God Jesus anticipated found expression in the Psalm he chose to quote, Psalm 22. Though the Psalm begins in despair, it concludes in hope and trust. The attentive listener would have recalled this prayer was sometimes uttered at that very time of day. The Psalm takes on a unique and unsurpassable meaning on the lips of Jesus, though (Craig Keener, IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, 173).
Victorious (Mark 15:37-39)
This scene concludes with the climax of Mark’s Gospel: the confession of a Roman centurion. A number of factors contribute to the significance of the centurion’s response. For one, this was certainly not the first crucifixion in which the centurion had taken part; even on that particular day, Jesus was merely one of three victims. People who were crucified were dissidents and rebels, instigators and agitators who threatened Roman rule, which he was sworn to protect and advance. What’s more, there before the centurion hung an unlikely object of reverence, especially for a Roman: a man naked, beaten, bloodied, crucified and, most notably, dead. If all this was not enough, above this man’s limp body the placard that announced his charge now seemed even more ridiculous than it did at first. Some king.
In spite of all these factors that should have led the centurion to scoff about one more dead Jew, however, the words on his mouth were words of confession not scoffing. Something about the death of this man arrested his attention and caused him to reconsider his assessment of the situation. Mark’s Gospel gives us insight into that “something.”
Early on in Mark’s Gospel, we read about a remarkable event that accompanied Jesus’ baptism at the outset of his public ministry. The heavens were “torn open,” the Spirit descended like a dove, and a voice from heaven confessed, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:10-11).
Fast forward to the conclusion of Jesus’ public ministry and his lifeless body hanging on the cross. Once again, the Lord tore something open. This time, it was the inner veil of the temple, which separated the innermost chamber of the temple, the Most Holy Place, from the chamber where priests conducted their daily activities (Mark 15:38). This innermost chamber was accessible only one time a year by the high priest alone on the Day of Atonement (see Leviticus 16). The tearing of the temple veil signaled a new reality; this literal elimination of separation was a sign of the figurative elimination.
Because of Jesus’ death at Golgotha, people no longer had to experience separation between God and themselves. Jesus’ death was the once-for-all sacrifice for all the sins of humanity (see Hebrews 9). Just as the Father tore open the heavens to announce his pleasure with the Son at his baptism, the Father demonstrated his pleasure once again at the tearing of the veil. Instead of the Father’s confession once again, though, the confession came from the Roman centurion, echoing the words from heaven.
At an unexpected place after an unexpected death of an unexpected Savior, an unexpected confession came from an unexpected source. Reality had indeed changed.
Mark’s account of the crucifixion maximizes the shame and harshness of the moment. It is only due to the event that follows that makes this tragedy a victory. It’s worth lingering in the tragedy for a time, though. The powerful, authoritative, miracle-working Son of God endured the most shameful of deaths. A Roman centurion was so struck by what he saw that he confessed agreement with God himself. May we not underestimate the power of the message of Christ crucified nor fail to share it (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).
Jeremy Greer is assistant professor of religion at East Texas Baptist University in Marshall.