There is great irony here, of course, as the soldiers unwittingly acknowledge Jesus’ true identity. In Mark, as in the other Gospels, the accent falls not on the physical torture, the fact of which was stated simply and without elaboration in v. 15 and now again in v. 19, but on the mockery.
The beating mentioned here is the third which Jesus suffered. First from the Sanhedrin in 14:65, second, by the temple guards in 15:15, and now this by the Roman soldiers themselves. These beatings may well explain why Jesus couldn’t manage to carry the heavy crossbeam to the place of execution, one more humiliating feature of Roman crucifixion. The condemned man had to carry his own instrument of execution to the site where he was to be put to death.
The identification of this man by three specific names, his own and that of his two sons, as we saw last Easter night, almost certainly indicates that all three of these men became Christians. Simon was the source of eyewitness testimony incorporated in the Gospel accounts. He was there and told others what had happened.
In any case, “A soul’s great hour sometimes leaps upon it, and destiny stands waiting all unexpected at the corner of some common road; so it was with Simon of Cyrene.” [J.S. Stewart, The Life and Teaching of Jesus Christ, 166] If, as seems virtually certain, Simon became a Christian, it is unlikely that he was when dragooned by the soldiers and forced to carry Jesus’ cross. It was this encounter with Jesus that changed Simon.
As you may know, there are several different sites outside of what would then have been the walls of the city of Jerusalem that have been identified as possibly the site of Calvary or Golgotha. The most likely remains that upon which the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built at least by the 4th century, now sits. Golgotha was a regular site for crucifixions, a public place so that the deterrent effect of executions would be felt by the people as they passed by and saw what was happening.
Since the offer of a drug to dull his pain would not likely be made by the Roman soldiers, it is supposed that it was made either by some of the Lord’s own sympathizers or a company of Jewish women who regularly stood by to help condemned men in their agony. But the Lord refused. He would endure his suffering with full awareness and keep a clear head so as to render his obedience to God to the very end. Had he taken the drug we would not have the seven statements he uttered while hanging on the cross, which taken together are one of his great gifts to his people and vivid proof of his righteousness to the very last moment of his life.
The understatement of the Gospel writers’ account of the Lord’s crucifixion has long been noted. It would have been easy to elaborate the terrible torture that crucifixion involved but we read only “they crucified him.” The reference to the dividing up of the Lord’s clothes is the first of several links between Mark’s narrative of the crucifixion and the prophecy of it in Psalm 22, the first verse of which Jesus will quote directly in v. 34. Mark is concerned to demonstrate as he has been throughout his Gospel that all of this also was happening in fulfillment of the plan of God long ago prophesied.
The third hour would have been at 9:00 a.m. It was customary to affix the nature of the crime for which the man was being executed either to the cross or on a placard hung about the criminal’s neck. This was another way of enforcing the deterrent effect of execution by this means – commit this crime and this is what will happen to you. In the Gospel of John we learn that the religious leadership complained about the title and asked Pilate to have written instead “He claimed to be King of the Jews.” But Pilate was through accommodating the people who had ruined his morning and took some pleasure in embarrassing them and leaving the words as they were. The sign is high irony, of course: it delighted Pilate precisely because it infuriated the religious leadership, it infuriated the Jews because of the nature of the claim but, unbeknownst to any of them, it happened to be true in the deepest conceivable sense.
In Isaiah 53:12 we read that the Suffering Servant would be “numbered with the transgressors.” At the end, in other words, everything seemed to suggest that he was an ordinary criminal being executed as ordinary criminals were among a number of ordinary criminals. The “one on the right and one on the left” recall the request of James and John to sit at the Lord’s right and left in glory and their boast on that occasion (10:39) that they could drink the cup that the Lord would have to drink. Where are they now?
Again, Mark makes an emphasis primarily of the mockery that Jesus suffered while hanging on the cross. They laughed at him because he could not save himself. “It was a fact, it was indeed the central fact of the gospel that in his passion to save the world…Jesus would not and could not save himself.” [Ibid, 169]
It is worth remembering, as we consider our text this morning, that among virtually all people in the world we encounter a sense of sin and misery and the deep feeling of need and a hope for better things. People know that all is not well with them, much less with the whole world. It is this sense of need for something better that has marked human life from its beginning in recorded history and the cherished hopes of mankind for something better is as easily detected everywhere in human life today as it ever was in the past history of mankind. There is something wrong with human beings and at least to some degree we admit that that something wrong is in ourselves. And despite all the efforts that have been made through the ages to address that problem, however much human beings may have achieved culturally, intellectually, scientifically, and technologically, the problem remains; man is not satisfied and we continually long for more and we are continually undone by our failures. The Christian message is that the problem is man’s alienation from God on account of his sin and the solution can be found only in redemption and the reconciliation to God achieved by the removal of man’s sin and guilt.
Almost as universal in human life and experience throughout history is the practice of sacrifice. There is everywhere we look in human life this deep and powerful urge that compels men to offer sacrifices. There is an ineradicable sense that human beings are related in some way to an invisible divine power and that by sacrifice they can exert some influence upon God. However incoherent, however inconsistent these conceptions of sacrifice may be, it is striking how universal they are in human experience.
These realities are deeply fixed in the nature of man: a sense of need, the belief that God alone can meet that need, and the conviction that something must be given to God before he will meet that need. There are exceptions, of course. But even the few atheists there are have a conception of life that, however inconsistently held, still rests upon this same foundation: a fixed morality that is not being met by human beings and the necessity of improvement, however despairing they may be of that improvement.
So when we come to the straightforward, historical narrative of the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ, we have before us the culmination of human hopes and the validation of human instincts. Man’s problem is his alienation from God. Sacrifice is essential to solving that problem. But few men anticipated a sacrifice like this! Few men understood that the sacrifice that must be given to God, God himself would have to provide.
The cross is a sacred and beloved symbol to Christians. The cross, standing for the death of the Son of God in our place, his paying the price of our deliverance from sin and guilt by bearing in our place the punishment our sins deserved, is the sacred emblem of the Christian faith. We have built our churches in the shape of crosses, we adorn our churches with crosses, we hang gold crosses around our necks, or pin them to our lapels. And that we do so is in one sense utterly amazing because there was nothing originally attractive or beautiful about a cross. No one in Jesus’ day would have worn a cross around his neck. No one would have written hymns or poems in celebration of a cross.
The cross was nothing less than supreme humiliation and the most exquisite torture known to that world at that time. Crucifixion was the most extreme form of the death penalty then in use in the Roman Empire. There were then three forms of execution: death by burning, by the beasts, and by crucifixion. Everyone acknowledged that crucifixion was by far the worst of those three.
The nailing of the criminal to the cross and his being hung up was often preceded, as it was in Jesus’ case, by beating. There was no set form for this cruelty and full room was left to the sadism and cruelty of the executioners. Indeed, it was not uncommon that the prisoner would actually have been beaten to death before his body was hung up for all to see. But, if so, he was the fortunate one. The Lord’s three-fold beating may explain his relatively speedy death. The unfortunate ones could take days to die. The position of the body was such as to produce indescribable pain and, by all accounts, a raging thirst. And, of course, the man was hung for all to see and to make sport of, stripped naked, wasted. The German scholar, Martin Hengel, in his valuable study of crucifixion in the ancient world, points out that crucifixion was reserved almost exclusively for slaves and the lower classes. A Roman citizen would be crucified only for the most heinous crimes and very rarely even at that.
He also notes that educated Romans of the period almost never mention crucifixion, never wrote about it, never spoke of it. It was something of an embarrassment that such sadistic torture should be a feature of their sophisticated civilization. In other words, crucifixion offended the sensibilities of decent people.
The Jews were offended by crucifixion for other reasons. The OT law (Deut. 21:23) decreed that having one’s body hung on a tree was a mark, a demonstration of that person being accursed of God. It is not unlikely that the religious leadership wanted Jesus crucified for precisely this reason: that it would in its very nature demonstrate that Jesus, far from being the Son of God, was cursed by God. The idea of a crucified Messiah was utterly preposterous to them. But, beside this, the excessive use of crucifixion by the Romans in the pacification of Judea had associated it in the Jewish mind with their mistreatment at the hands of the Romans and with their galling servitude as a people, perhaps something akin to an Auschwitz crematorium to the modern Jewish mind. Paul had this Jewish thinking about crucifixion in mind when he spoke of the “offense of the cross,” in Galatians 5:11. He was speaking of the offense that Jews took to the very idea that through crucifixion, this brutal and ugly form of death, this unmanly and inhuman treatment of another human being could be found the salvation of a sinner. Imagine wearing a little gold concentration camp or crematorium around your neck and you’ll get some idea of why people thought it so strange, even repulsive that Christians gloried in and sang about the cross.
But it was only in keeping with the fact that Jesus’ death was payment for our sin that the manner of his death should have been the most humiliating, excruciating, and ignominious imaginable and that his own people should have screamed for it in his case. He was accursed of God and he died the death that would most plainly demonstrate his accursedness. When Jesus died, he died by the worst means available, and, for that matter, by means of a form of death that has not been exceeded in cruelty in all the ages since. Even the Nazis and the Communists did not crucify people as a rule. And he died a form of death in which it could be said, “His body was hung on a tree.” But, even here, remember, the physical suffering is only a small part of the actual penalty that Jesus bore on our behalf. This may be why the Gospel writers do not dwell on the physical pain of crucifixion: the nailing of the hands and feet, the cramping of the muscles, the necessity of forcing one’s body up in order to be able to breath. There is terrible suffering here, to be sure, exquisite suffering, but there is much much more suffering that is hidden beyond sight. The cup of divine wrath being drunk to its dregs: what was that and how did Jesus experience that? The creator being mocked by his creatures: how did Jesus experience that? The righteous man being accused of sins no one ever hated as much as he: how did Jesus experience that? We cannot say; we do not know.
The cross is sharp, but in thy woe this is the lightest part;
Our sin it is that pierces thee and breaks thy sacred heart.
What is made perfectly clear in the rest of the NT and in the materials of early Christianity is that the manner of Jesus’ death, death by crucifixion, presented an immense obstacle to the world in believing the gospel when that message was first proclaimed to the world. Paul, in the first chapter of 1 Corinthians admits that the message of the cross – his message that man’s redemption, his peace with God, his hope of eternal life rested upon the crucifixion of a human being – was a message of utter foolishness to people. He preached it and they couldn’t believe that an intelligent person would say something so ridiculous. It was preposterous to them to think that their salvation, their peace with God, their hope of eternal life could rest on the crucifixion of anyone. “We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,” Paul wrote. The Jews couldn’t any good man, much less the Messiah, being crucified, hanging on a tree a sign of God’s curse as it was, and the Gentiles couldn’t imagine a real God being crucified.
As one historian of that period puts it: “The enemies of Christianity always referred to the disgracefulness of the death of Jesus with great emphasis and malicious pleasure. A god or the son of god dying on the cross! That was enough to put paid to the new religion.” [W. Bauer in Hengel, Crucifixion, 19]
One famous example of this scorn with which the Christian claim that Jesus Christ who died on the cross was the Son of God is a crude drawing found by archaeologists on the wall of the dormitory of the imperial pages on the Palatine Hill in Rome. It serves also as a touching example of a Christian boy’s faithfulness to his Lord. The drawing, from the third century and executed in an obviously youthful hand, is that of boy standing in an attitude of worship before the figure of a man, with the head of a donkey, hanging on a cross. Underneath is scribbled “Alexamenos worships his God.” Clearly one of the page boys was a Christian and unashamed of the fact and his fellow students were mocking him for what they took to be his ridiculous religion: a god being crucified. What sort of god would be crucified – a god with a donkey’s head.
Celsus, one of the first intellectuals of the Roman world to take pen in hand to write against Christianity, made sport of the notion that a real god should suffer crucifixion; should be unable to keep himself from such ignominy and shame. “…if Jesus were really so great, as the Christians claim, he ought in order to display his divinity, to have disappeared suddenly from the cross.” Interestingly, that is the very taunt hurled at him by those who watched Jesus die. Celsus’ most sarcastic dig at the Christians comes when he mocks their penchant for venerating the instrument of Jesus’ death.
“Everywhere they speak in their writings of the tree of life and of resurrection of the flesh by the tree – I imagine because their master was nailed to a cross and was a carpenter by trade. So that if he had happened to be thrown off a cliff, or pushed into a pit, or suffocated by strangling, or if he had been a cobbler or stone-mason or blacksmith, there would have been a cliff of life, or a pit of resurrection, or a rope of immortality, or a blessed stone, or an iron of love, or a holy hide of leather. Would not an old woman who sings a story to lull a little child to sleep have been ashamed to whisper such tales as these.” [Origen, Contra Celsum, 6:34]
And over and over the same offense at the cross has surfaced as Christianity has spread through the world. In the Koran we read that God put Jesus’ likeness on another man so that they ignorantly crucified a substitute in Jesus’ place while Jesus himself was taken up to heaven. “Allah would not permit such a wonderful person as the Prophet ‘Isa to be so mistreated.”
But, you see, that is precisely the point. It is precisely the ignoble character of Jesus’ death, the horrific, the disgusting, the repellent nature of crucifixion, of his being hanged on a tree, his being accursed of God that conveys the nature of this particular death and its meaning and importance. Jesus was not a criminal. He did not suffer for any crime that he had committed. He was dying in our place for our sins and it is their enormity and the enormity of the divine wrath against them that is demonstrated in the manner of death that Jesus died.
Here then at the cross of Jesus two fundamentally opposite conceptions collide. In the one case the offense of the cross – the idea that anything important, anything life-giving could come from such an execution – and in the other the Christian proclamation that only through such a death on the part of the Son of God could men be put right with God. And this antithesis, these two different conceptions of the cross are always resolved in the same way. It is only when a person realizes that he or she deserves that death that Jesus died on the cross it suddenly makes sense. It is only when a person comes to feel that he deserves what Jesus suffered that the appalling nature of Christ’s death becomes no longer an obstacle to faith but its tremendously powerful attraction.
Remember what Mark and the other Gospel writers are at pains always to insist upon. Jesus could at any time have come down from that cross. He could at any time have answered the mockery of those who taunted him as he hung there naked, exposed, and in wracking pain. He could have called down legions of angels to destroy those who had contributed in any way whatsoever to his humiliation. I imagine that legions of angels were at the time leaning over the battlements of heaven gnashing their teeth, just waiting for the command to lay waste the creation for what it was doing to its creator. Jesus was not an unwilling victim of this ignoble death!
He went there and to that particular death of his own free will. He had often said in one way or another, “no one can take my life from me; I lay it down of my own accord,” and he had prophesied that his death would by this means, crucifixion, being hung on a tree. God the mighty maker was dying for the man the creature’s sin and nothing short of the worst of deaths would do and so it was to that death that Jesus went. It was love that brought Jesus into the world and it was love that took him to the cross and it was love that made his death a death by crucifixion. As Augustine memorably put it: “the cross was Christ’s pulpit, and the message he preached was love.”
Let a person only see that in dying on that cross Christ was dying for him or for her, in his or her place, for his or her sins, was bearing the curse, suffering the penalty that he or she deserved, and in that moment a halo is cast around that ancient instrument of torture. That Christ went willingly to that for me is the reason why Christians speak so fondly of the cross and why Paul should say, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Others may consider it an offense or foolishness, but to me it is the power of God and the wisdom of God.
We began by saying that people know there is something wrong and they want it to be put right. They often instinctively feel that a sacrifice must be made of some kind, something that will move God to act to solve what man cannot solve and to repair what he cannot repair. What they are often unwilling to admit is that putting right what is wrong with them would take something as horrible as the crucifixion of the Son of God.
But let that truth be grasped and all becomes perfectly clear. Then the cross – now transformed into the symbol of Christ’s love and our deliverance – casts its shadow over the entirety of our lives. Tertullian, the 3rd century church father, put it this way for himself and the Christians of his time – people who were still all too familiar with the cross as an instrument of execution.
“At every forward step and movement, and every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign of the cross.” [De Corona, iii]
This is simply a beautiful way of saying that Christians see the cross in everything. In the cross they learn of God’s love for them, of their forgiveness and acceptance with God, of the certainty of their entrance at last into heaven, and of the debt they owe to Christ every moment of every day for his great sacrifice for them.
The entire offense of the cross depends upon the assumption that Jesus’ death was imposed upon him against his will. Once it is admitted that he chose it for himself because only such a death would suffice as a sacrifice for our sins, the offense is removed and the glory of the cross shines through.
Never was the thinking of man further from the facts than when his judges and his executioners, and the hangers-on who witnessed his suffering, imagined themselves his masters. Finally, they had put him in his place! Finally they had him under their control! In fact, Jesus was supremely the master in that hour when he went to his death, “not beaten by human malice or dragged helplessly at the chariot wheels of fate,” but voluntarily, an obedient and dutiful Son, acting in accordance with the will of his Father and so victoriously completing his work which work was to offer himself a ransom for many. [J. Stalker, Life and Teaching of Jesus Christ, 164-165.]
Malcolm Muggeridge, a late convert to Christianity, who lived a long life seeking the things the world thinks are important, those things one hopes will fill the void and make everything better, would later in his life write this.
“I may, I suppose, regard myself as a relatively successful man. People occasionally stare at me in the streets: that’s fame. I can fairly easily earn enough to qualify for admission to the higher slopes of the Internal Revenue: that’s success. Furnished with money and a little fame, even the elderly, if they care to, may partake of trendy diversions: that’s pleasure. And it might happen, once in a while, that something I might have said or wrote was sufficiently heeded for me to persuade myself that it represented a serious impact on our time: that’s fulfillment. Yet I say to you, and beg you to believe me, multiply these tiny triumphs by a million, add them all together, and they are nothing, less than nothing, a positive impediment, measured against one draught of that living water Christ offers to the spiritually thirsty, irrespective of who or what they are.” [Jesus Rediscovered, 77]
So long as a man or woman continues to believe he does not absolutely need God’s forgiveness, Jesus and his cross will continue to be opaque, dark, forbidding, and perhaps even repulsive. Still from this great distance at the moment a man or woman understands that he is a sinner who needs God’s forgiveness or else the cross of Jesus rises above in its deathless glory.
By dying the worse conceivable kind of death – crucifixion – he demonstrated the full measure of his suffering, his accursedness, so far as it could be demonstrated. The worst of it, of course – the being made sin, the bearing of God’s wrath, the alienation from his Father – these are things we cannot see or measure. The cross is the suffering we can see and the symbol of the suffering we cannot, the curse he bore for us. But all the suffering and ignominy and the shame and the terrible pain of those hours hanging there was for us! The cross is capable of breaking even the hardest hearts, if only the Holy Spirit will open that heart to see what was really happening there.