Mark 15:33-41

Last time we considered from the previous paragraphs the crucifixion as an historical event and the repugnance that was felt in those days, by Jew and Gentile alike, to crucifixion as a method of execution. It was the worst possible way to die and it was precisely for that reason that Jesus gave himself up to that particular death. He was bearing our curse on account of our sin and only a form of death that demonstrated him to be utterly accursed was adequate for the purpose. This morning we move on to consider what precisely happened on the cross: what was it that transpired there that made this event, those few hours, this one death the very center of the history of the world?

Text Comment

He had been hung on the cross at the third hour of the day, that is at 9:00 a.m. The sixth hour would be noon. This darkness cannot easily be explained as natural phenomena. Solar eclipses do not occur when the moon is full, as it always is at Passover; and dust storms do not normally occur during the wet Spring season. [Edwards, 475]. This darkness was a sign of God’s judgment. In Amos 8:9 we read: “’In that day,’ declares the Sovereign Lord, ‘I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight.’” If you remember, the darkness that descended over Egypt was the ninth plague and the one immediately before the first Passover when the lamb was sacrificed and its blood smeared on the doorposts of Israel’s homes to ward off the divine vengeance that was falling that night on Egypt’s homes. Once again there was darkness before the lamb was slain!
At 3:00 p.m. Jesus cried out the opening words of Psalm 22 in Aramaic, his mother-tongue.
Popular Judaism believed that Elijah, the great OT prophet, would return like an angel in times of crisis to rescue the righteous. The name Elijah (Eli) in Aramaic is very similar to the Aramaic word for my God (Eloi) and it is possible these bystanders thought he was actually calling to Elijah rather than to God, all the more as the Lord uttered the words in an agonized shout, and the articulation may not have been so clearly heard, as we read in v. 34. [France, 654] The drink was offered perhaps in hopes that by preserving his life they might see a miraculous deliverance at the 11th hour. They hoped to keep him alive until Elijah arrived on the scene.
Drained of energy as he was, the loud cry both here and earlier in v. 34, indicate the depth of the Lord’s emotion. Luke has the Lord saying, “Father into your hands I commit my spirit,” just before he died, and John has the Lord saying, “It is finished,” just before he died, though how much before we are not told. Whether one or both of these statements are what Mark means by “loud cry” we cannot say, but, given the Centurion’s response, which we are about to read, it is likely that it was something more than simply a groan, something that would have made the Centurion realize that he was witnessing something extraordinary.

Mark doesn’t tell us at what time the Lord died, but apparently it was soon after the 9th hour, or three p.m. This would mean the Lord was on the cross for about 6 hours.

The tearing of the curtain of the temple would not, of course, been witnessed by anyone standing at Golgotha at the time. But Mark tells us that this is what happened at the temple at the time of Jesus’ death. There is no certain historical verification of this event, but there is an interesting remark in the Talmud (b. Yoma 39b) to the effect that during the 40 years before the destruction of the Temple the doors of the temple would open by themselves.”
Mark does not tell us precisely what made the Centurion sure that Jesus was the Son of God. He doesn’t even tell us precisely what the Centurion meant by saying that Jesus was the Son of God. It was “how he died” that impressed him, but we are not told precisely how this impression was made. This hard-bitten soldier had, no doubt, seen a great many men die by crucifixion. Something was very different in Jesus’ case. He certainly knew what was being said about Jesus; something about his reputation as a miracle worker; he knew he was supposed to have claimed to be the king of the Jews. No doubt he had heard a great deal about Jesus as everyone had in those days. It may have been a combination of things: the darkness, the Lord’s demeanor, the things he said from the cross, his loud shout at the end when ordinarily victims of crucifixion suffered the slow ebbing away of life, the rapidity with which he died, and perhaps other things as well, such as are reported by the other Gospel writers. At last, however, he understood that Jesus was no mere political revolutionary or common criminal and was, in fact, a man of God and from God and related to God.
The women are mentioned here because, in Mark’s Gospel, they link the crucifixion to the Lord’s resurrection the following Sunday. They will be the only witnesses of the resurrection mentioned in the Gospel of Mark and so they are important to the verification of the history of these events. They witnessed both his death on the cross and his resurrection. In other words, the women here at the cross are the first side of another Marcan sandwich, the burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea in the center, and the women at the tomb on Sunday morning the other side of the sandwich.

Any conscientious minister will tell you that the task of preaching is not the same Lord’s Day by Lord’s Day. Some sermons are more difficult to prepare and to preach than others. Some sermons virtually preach themselves. Of course, as you who hear sermons know very well, some sermons succeed better than others. Very often the sermons that are easier to prepare and to preach are those the minister knows in advance will be of immediate interest to his hearers. I know from past experience that when I preach on the subject of sex I can count on the congregation’s undivided and rapt attention. But this is generally true of any subject that people feel are full of interest or immediately relevant to their daily lives.

A Puritan minister once preached 145 sermons on the text from Isaiah 42: “a bruised reed he will not break.” God’s people have an abiding interest in their own problems and are eager to hear about God’s sympathy and promise of help. What is more, some texts are fascinating in their own right and command attention and interest more than others.

But this morning I am faced with a problem. Every one of you is thoroughly familiar with the text we have read. You have read it and its parallels in Matthew, Luke, and John many times. You have heard any number of sermons, those of you who have been Christians for any length of time, on the death of Jesus Christ. You understand what this means. You know how central the cross is to the Christian faith and you know why. You have heard about the cross and the death of Jesus on the cross all your lives, many of you. The rest of the New Testament takes pains to explain the Lord’s death on the cross as a penal, substitutionary atonement: that is, in dying on the cross, Jesus suffered the penalty due us for our sins in our place and on our behalf. And you have heard this many times.

And that is our problem. We come to think that we already understand these things. It all begins to seem plain to us. We can find it less interesting than other things simply because we have heard it so many times and because we think we already know all about it. It is familiar and, as we all know, familiarity breeds contempt. It may seem almost blasphemous to say so, but serious Christians admit that they find sex more interesting, a more engaging subject than the cross, the titanic achievement of the Son of God by which we were granted entrance into eternal life. But do we really understand the cross as well as we imagine? Is this really old hat?

The fact is that while the New Testament’s explanation of the cross, and the Lord’s own explanation, is entirely clear, straightforward, and understandable, that explanation leaves a universe unsaid and unexplained. The Lord said that he came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many. We read that in Mark 10:45. That is not so hard to understand. The Lord’s death was a ransom paid to deliver his people from bondage. Paul, and other biblical writers, explain that the principle at work here was the satisfaction of justice, the payment of penalty on our behalf by the Lord Jesus as our substitute. “Christ died for our sins” is Paul’s summary of the Gospel; “he loved me and gave himself for me.” We understand that and that by itself is wonderful beyond the power of words to express. He died to save us from our sins and the guilt and punishment of those sins.

It is this understanding of the cross that has found such a treasured place in Christian devotion and worship through the centuries. But, at the same time, it is worth our remembering that it is an understanding of salvation that has been deeply offensive to many minds from the very beginning and is still today. However much Christians may love to sing of Christ the Mighty Maker dying for man the creature’s sin, the very idea has been relentlessly attacked from the moment this message was proclaimed to the world. That fact in itself serves to remind us that there is something more here than meets the eye. Who is going to quibble about a man dying for those he loves. It is heroic, admirable; certainly nothing to object to or to find offensive.

But, as we said last time, the Jews could not conceive a crucified Messiah and the Gentiles could not imagine any god worth his salt subjecting himself to such ignominy and torture. The early so-called Christian Gnostics, the folk Dan Brown of The DaVinci Code thinks were the true blue early Christians, were so much people of their time and place that they could not imagine a true god, spiritual as he would have been and inhabiting the world of spirit as gods do, they couldn’t imagine him involved in any way with the dirty, messy business of physical suffering. And so they taught either that Jesus only appeared to suffer on the cross, feigned suffering or, as later in the Koran, they held that Jesus was miraculously taken to heaven from the cross and actually didn’t suffer at all. They too accommodated the cross to the philosophy of their day. They wanted to be Christians of a sort, but they wanted Christianity without a cross. In that they were very typical of the people who heard the message of the cross in those early years.

The German Christians of the Nazi party dismissed the cross as it is understood in the New Testament as a message of weakness and defeat, incompatible with a heroic theology of Aryan victory. Modern feminism in its so-called Christian forms has largely rejected the Biblical presentation of the cross as substitutionary atonement the satisfaction of divine justice in our place by our substitute holding that for the Son to be punished in such a way by his Father would not only be cruel and unusual punishment but a form of child abuse.

So uncongenial to modern tastes is this historic Christian understanding of the cross that John Hick, a typical modern liberal Christian theologian, can say,

“It is hardly necessary to criticize the penal-substitutionary conception (of the atonement), so totally implausible has it become for most of us.” [Cited in Paul Wells, Cross Words, 9]

We know some of the reasons why the world responds with such hostility, even with such venom to what we think is so surpassingly wonderful a message. The cross presumes a God of justice and judgment, a very unwelcome prospect to sinful men and women. It requires our sin and guilt to be taken very seriously, to be considered momentous in their effect and consequence, and this too sinful men and women are loath to do. There are a great many voices in our modern world and the modern church that want man to be saved without making much of his sin. They think God should be able simply to forgive and forget – he should be large enough for that. Why should punishment be required? They forget that without God’s justice there would be no justice.

Then, the horror of Christ’s death on the cross is the index of how bad human beings are; no wonder human beings resist its message. Christians are perhaps no where more different from non-Christians than right here. They have come to see that the Bible’s pessimistic verdict on human life as comprehensively sinful and offensive to a holy God is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. When they hear people talking about how human beings are fundamentally good and so on, Christians think to themselves, “What on earth are these people thinking? Can they not see what is perfectly obvious about human life? Are they simply unwilling to face facts?” Once the true moral condition of mankind is admitted, however, the cross becomes not only the index of man’s sin and guilt but also of God’s love.

So long as people think they are something and that they deserve God’s forgiveness, or, worse, that they don’t even need it, the cross will be an offense to them, a message that their salvation took so much, so horrible a thing.

The Christian message of the cross also makes salvation inevitably an achievement outside of us, without us, by someone else; it renders us merely the recipients of salvation as a free gift. It is the most inexorable, even pitiless demonstration of our helplessness in ourselves, a rude shock to human pride that only some people will be willing to tolerate. The cross is also, inevitably, the demonstration that Jesus is the only savior of sinners and the only name under heaven whereby men may be saved and that too is hard to swallow. It is not only in our pluralistic and relativistic age that people have found that idea offensive. That everyone must be a Christian, that every other religion and philosophy is wrong in its foundation and in its center – which is as unquestionably the implication of the death of the Son of God on the cross as it is the explicit teaching of the rest of the Bible – it does not take a genius to predict that idea would not be popular. Yet if on the cross the Son of God, the creator of heaven and earth was dying for the sins of the world, then it is perfectly obvious that this is the way of salvation and that there is and can be no other.

So let the world deride or pity, we understand the cross, we know why Jesus had to die, we grasp the theory of it and glory in the historicity of it, as an event in space and time, and see very clearly what it is and why it is the way and the only way of salvation.

The cross is about a right relationship with God. We human beings know a great deal about broken relationships. We know about alienation and disappointment and bitter recollections and the death of love. The question of how to repair broken relationships is a perpetual concern of human life. We face it in a marriage and in a family, we face it on the job, we face it in the life of our nation as whole groups of people are alienated from one another. We also face it in international relations. How can we be reconciled to the Muslims who want to destroy us, how can blacks be reconciled to whites, labor to management, the haves to the have-nots, and on and on? And what is it that destroys relationships but sin? Lies, betrayal, violence, selfishness, irresponsibility, a failure of sympathy or care or understanding; all lead to broken trust, to recriminations, resentment and hatred. These in turn often lead to anger and aggression which cause the relationship to deteriorate still further. [Wells, Cross Words, 7] The history of the world is the history of broken relationships.

But what if the breach is between us and God himself? What then? And what if we human beings are inveterate sinners and break his commandments at every turn? What then? What if the wrong we have committed that has broken the relationship cannot be made good? What if, so far as it depends on us, things will never be right between us and God; nothing can be done about it? What then? Then it is perfectly obvious that only God can put matters right. Only he can see to repairing the breach. Only he can remove the offense. Only he can restore the friendship, the fellowship, and the love. And this is what he has done by Jesus dying on the cross. God was, as Paul says, in this way reconciling the world to himself.

But logical and sensible and rational and understandable as all of that is, we do an injustice to this momentous event if we imagine that we really understand what happened there or that we actually grasp what Jesus was doing and what he suffered in our place. We can give a theological explanation and that explanation is true and wonderful. But there is so much more here than meets the eye and perhaps some of the world’s problem in accepting the message of the cross has been also that Christians have too often spoken too glibly about it. For the fact is we have before us this morning an impenetrable mystery. We acknowledge that fact especially in our hymns.

‘Tis mystery all! The immortal dies!
Who can explore his strange design?
In vain the first-born seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine.

But we must constantly remind ourselves of how deeply mysterious the cross actually is and must remain because it is the great work of the infinite personal God himself. The cross is a mystery in the sense that it is a reality that remains profoundly unfathomable, beyond the reach of our intellect or understanding. There is a great deal, in fact, in the ways of God that are utterly mysterious in this sense, far beyond our tracing out, completely beyond our ability to understand, much less explain. And so here. While the cross can be explained at one level, it is incomprehensible in many other ways. Christian theologians have sometimes attempted to dispel the mystery but in so doing they have reduced the cross from what it actually is to something much smaller and less amazing.

Think for a moment of the cry of the Lord from the cross recorded in verse 34: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” There was perhaps never in all of human history any sentence spoken that was so full of emotion of every kind: sorrow, fear, desperation, and longing. But what does it mean? It is easy enough to say that Jesus was crying out to his Father in heaven and expressing a sense of abandonment. And we can say with confidence that his abandonment was the penalty of our sin being born by him in our place. God was turning away from his Son because his Son was bearing our sins and no greater suffering could be imagined than for the Son of God to be alienated from his Father. That is all true so far as it goes. But when we say those words we hardly have the vaguest idea what we are talking about. These things are utterly beyond our knowing.

Jesus prayed that prayer and uttered that cry as a man. We know that. But he was also God the Son. It was his own wrath that he was suffering. It was his own offense at sin that he was bearing. It was his own justice that he was satisfying. Did Jesus the man fully appreciate and understand that? And what was it like to experience that abandonment? What was the abandonment of the Son of God by God? Martin Luther is said to have given himself to meditation on that text for hours only finally to rise and say, “God forsaken of God! Who can understand it?” How could it be that Jesus Christ’s divine nature, as it were, took sides against his human nature and that he was in this mysterious sense at war with himself on the cross? But to make it still much, much worse, Christ was a perfect man who hated sin with a perfect hatred. What is it like to be the sin-bearer when you are as disgusted and revolted and ashamed of sin as a perfect man would be? We are so accustomed to our sin, we are so familiar with it, and we like it so much, it is hardly any burden for us to bear. But what was it for him? It was upon this man, this sinless man that God’s wrath fell for our sins. That must have made his suffering indescribably worse, completely innocent as Jesus was. This best of all men became, as it were, the most guilty, unworthy, despicable sinner who ever lived and was made at last to face the true enormity of human evil as if it were entirely his own. Who can understand that?

You remember how Dante described the gate of hell through which he passed to enter that world of woe. Over it were written the most terrible words in all of human language and literature: “All hope abandon, you who enter here.” Christ somehow passed through that gate while he hung on the cross. As John Calvin reminds us,

“If Christ had died only a bodily death, it would have been ineffectual. No – it was necessary at the same time for him to undergo the severity of God’s vengeance… He [had to] grapple hand to hand with the armies of hell and the dread of everlasting death.” [Institutes, II, xvi, 10]

“Grapple hand to hand with the armies of hell and the dread of everlasting death.” We know what the words mean but we don’t really understand them. And the fact that the Bible does not attempt to explain to us what they meant for Jesus suggests that we couldn’t understand if it were explained. How can the finite grasp the infinite? How can man grasp the nature and the works of almighty God? How can the creature enter into the heart of the creator? What is sin to the infinite personal and holy God whose eyes are too pure to behold iniquity? You have had perhaps some moments of intense shame in your life when you have been discovered in sin and have felt the terrible, ugly stain of it in your conscience. You have hated yourself and wished you were someone and something else than who and what you are. But you got over it quickly enough and went on soon having forgotten all about it. What must it be like to have that sense to the nth degree and no relief? What is God’s wrath like when it falls upon a man? Hell is to be abandoned by God; and that is what happened to Jesus on the cross. We are given only images of hell in the Bible, not explicit descriptions; perhaps because it cannot be explicitly described to people like us. What Jesus suffered was damnation, but what is that? What is it like? We have seen the terrible toll that abandonment takes: a mother who has lost a child, a wife deserted by her husband, a man by his company. We know what devastation abandonment can be. But what of abandonment by God? We hardly can begin to imagine what that would be like because the world in which we live basks in God’s presence even sinful and rebellious as it is. It is God in the world that makes human life so normal, so bearable, and even so pleasant so much of the time, even for unbelievers. Take God away from this world, with his justice and goodness and his light, leave man utterly to himself, his small, petty, sinful self; take away all the influences that make him better than he is in himself, and what is left? We shudder to think.

Fox Butterfield was the first U.S. correspondent to be allowed to live in China after the Communist Revolution. He wrote of his experiences as the New York Times bureau chief in what was then Peking (now Beijing) in the 1970’s and early 80’s, well before China had liberalized as much as now it has. Early on in his sojourn he met a middle-aged woman, a Party member, chairman of her local street committee, and was invited to visit her in her fifth-floor walk-up apartment. He was incredulous to find her reading the Bible. When he asked her is she were not afraid of getting in trouble, she laughed and told him how she had come by the Bible.

Recently a forty-five year old man had knocked on her door and introduced himself as a friend of a friend. He wondered if she believed in God or had read the Bible and he offered to give her one. It was a very dangerous act and she was impressed with his sincerity and intrigued by his story. It turned out that he had spend ten years in prison on account of his Christian beliefs and now was not able to get a job. “If there is a god,” she asked him, “why has he let you be treated so cruelly?” “You don’t understand,” he replied. Actually God has been very good to me. God has given me a wonderful wife. “When I was in prison,” he told her, “the police demanded that my wife divorce me to show that she did not share my belief in Christ, but she refused. Though she is only a factory worker, she now supports both of us because no one will give me a job.” The woman in the end accepted the offered Bible and, weeks later, Butterfield found her reading it with evident interest.

Here is a man who spent ten long years in prison for his faith in Jesus Christ, a man who was not later allowed to work to support himself and his wife, but not once did he think that he had been abandoned by God. He understood perfectly well that no believer will ever be abandoned by God, no matter his circumstances; no matter the suffering he may have to endure as a follower of Jesus Christ; no believer will ever be cast away by God because Jesus Christ was so thoroughly and completely abandoned by God in his people’s place. It was that abandonment that both left Luther speechless and put the spring in the step of a 45 year old unemployed man who, after ten years in prison, risked imprisonment again to offer a Bible to a member of the communist party. There is more here, much, much more here in the cross than meets the eye; a depth, a mystery to this event that we will never fathom. It is dark and ugly in ways we hardly begin to fathom; but it is, at the same time, life, hope, goodness, and joy for all who can see Jesus there on the cross offering himself a sacrifice for them.