I never grow tired of reading about how Jesus died in my place. Even though today is Super Bowl Sunday, the most historic event in all of human history (besides the resurrection) is found in this chapter. Jesus dying on the cross for all of humanity, now that’s Super!
The Council of Religious Leaders Condemns Jesus / 15:1
15:1 The entire high council of Jewish leaders had already reached their verdict (14:64), but they had to make the decision at a meeting during the daytime in accordance with their law. Thus very early in the morning, they made it official that Jesus was worthy of death. So Jesus was bound like a common criminal and sent off to Pilate, the Roman governor. The council had to get permission from Pilate in order to carry out the death penalty.
Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor for the regions of Samaria and Judea from a.d. 26–36. Jerusalem was located in Judea. Pilate’s normal residence was in Caesarea on the Mediterranean Sea, but he was in Jerusalem because of the Passover festival. With the large crowds that flocked to the city for that celebration, Pilate and his soldiers came to help keep the peace. He stayed in his headquarters, called the Praetorium. Pilate was a harsh governor who felt nothing but contempt for the Jews; they, in turn, felt the same about him. Pilate was not popular, but the religious leaders had no other way to get rid of Jesus. So they interrupted his breakfast on this early Friday morning, bringing a man whom they accused of treason against Rome! Ironically, when Jesus, a Jew, came before Pilate for trial, Pilate found him innocent.
Jesus Stands Trial before Pilate / 15:2-5
15:2 Pilate asked Jesus directly if he claimed to be King of the Jews. Jesus’ answer was yes, but with a qualification attached (see John 18:36). Jesus did claim to be a king—to remain silent would be denying it (see also 14:62). But he wasn’t claiming kingship in any way that would threaten Pilate, Caesar, or the Empire. Jesus’ kingship was spiritual. Pilate could sense that the council’s case was embarrassingly weak and that the solemn rabbi standing before him was unlikely to lead a revolt against Rome.
15:3-5 Luke records the essence of these charges in Luke 23:1-2. The Jewish leaders had to fabricate new accusations against Jesus, so they accused Jesus of many crimes. These accusations were false, but the religious leaders were determined to have Jesus killed. Pilate knew the charges were preposterous, and he obviously expected Jesus to say something in self-defense against the false charges. But Jesus said nothing. Jesus’ silence had been prophesied in Scripture (Isaiah 53:7). Jesus had no reason to try to prolong the trial or save himself. Nothing would stop Jesus from completing the work he had come to earth to do.
Luke recorded a middle phase in all of this action. When Pilate found that Jesus was from Galilee, he sent him off to Herod Antipas, who was also in town for the Passover. But Herod only mocked Jesus and returned him to Pilate (Luke 23:6-12).
Pilate Hands Jesus over to Be Crucified / 15:6-15
15:6-7 Each year, during the Jews’ Passover festival, Pilate had made it a custom to release any prisoner they requested. Barabbas had taken part in a murder during an insurrection against the Roman government. Although he was a murderer, he may have been a hero among the Jews. Barabbas had no hope of acquittal, so he must have been surprised when the guards came to get him on that Friday morning.
15:8 The proceedings of this hearing by Pilate were held in public, so a crowd was hearing all that transpired, and the crowd probably grew larger as news spread. Perhaps this was all part of the religious leaders’ plan—to incite the crowd to ask that Pilate release a prisoner as usual, but that it be someone other than Jesus.
15:9-10 Pilate asked if the people wanted the King of the Jews released. This is the second time Pilate used that title for Jesus (see 15:2), and he would use it again (see 15:12; see also 15:18 and 15:26), probably in mockery. In any event, Pilate could see that this was a frame-up. Why else would these people, who hated him and the Roman Empire he represented, ask him to convict of treason and give the death penalty to one of their fellow Jews? Pilate understood that the Jewish leaders had arrested Jesus out of envy.
15:11-12 The power of the religious leaders took precedence with the Jewish crowd who would hardly side with the Roman governor. The leading priests stirred up the mob to demand the release of Barabbas. This left Pilate wondering what to do with Jesus.
15:13 The people made their choice, stated their preference, and confirmed their sin. This is just what the Jewish religious leaders wanted. Only slaves or those who were not Roman citizens could be executed by crucifixion. If Jesus was crucified, he would die the death of a rebel and slave, not of the king he claimed to be. In addition, crucifixion would put the responsibility for killing Jesus on the Romans; thus, the crowds would not blame the religious leaders.
15:14 The region of Judea where Pilate ruled as governor was little more than a hot and dusty outpost of the Roman Empire. Because Judea was so far from Rome, Pilate was given just a small army. The Roman government could not afford to put large numbers of troops in all the regions under their control, so one of Pilate’s main duties was to do whatever was necessary to maintain peace. We know from historical records that Pilate had already been warned about other uprisings in his region. Although he may have seen no guilt in Jesus and no reason to condemn him to death, Pilate wavered when the Jews in the crowd threatened to report him to Caesar (John 19:12). Such a report, accompanied by a riot, could cost him his position and hopes for advancement. Pilate became afraid. His job was in jeopardy. The last thing Pilate needed was a riot in Jerusalem at Passover time, when the city was crowded with Jews from all over the Empire. Pilate asked the people to specify some crime that would make Jesus worthy of death. But the mob kept on shouting more wildly to crucify Jesus.
15:15 Pilate decided to let the crowds crucify Jesus. Although Pilate washed his hands of responsibility (Matthew 27:24), the guilt would remain. Pilate had no good excuse to condemn Jesus, but he was wanted to please the crowd. So he released Barabbas, then flogged Jesus before handing him over to the Roman soldiers to crucify him.
The flogging Jesus received could have killed him. The usual procedure was to bare the upper half of the victim’s body and tie his hands to a pillar before whipping him with a lead-tipped whip. The whip was made of leather thongs that connected pieces of bone and metal like a chain. The continued lashing with these sharp instruments tore at the victim’s skin, even baring the bones. This torture by flogging always would precede execution; thus, Jesus was flogged before he was sent to the cross. The Romans did it to weaken the prisoner so he would die more quickly on the cross.
Roman Soldiers Mock Jesus / 15:16-20
Jesus was placed in the hands of men who probably knew little or nothing about him other than the fact that he had just been condemned to die. In their eyes, Jesus represented the stiff-necked Jews who resented the power of Rome. Jesus had to endure their pent-up hatred. He was taunted, tortured, and killed by brutal and vulgar men who were ignorant of his true identity and mission. This makes it all the more remarkable that one of these soldiers later confessed, “Truly, this was the Son of God!” (15:39).
15:16 The Romans had to execute Jesus, so the soldiers took him from the post where he had been flogged and led him, beaten and bleeding, back inside the Praetorium (Pilate’s headquarters). The entire battalion was called together, probably about two hundred men who had accompanied Pilate from Caesarea.
15:17-19 Someone found a purple robe and threw it around the shoulders of this supposed “king.” Someone else, with a brutal sense of humor, twisted some long, sharp thorns into a crown that was then jammed onto Jesus’ head. Matthew added that they put a stick in his hand, like a king’s scepter (Matthew 27:29). They beat him, striking him on the head. They insulted him by spitting on him and kneeling down in mock worship. Yet even all of this had been prophesied (Isaiah 50:6; 52:14–53:6).
15:20 After having their fun, the soldiers took off the purple robe and put Jesus’ own clothes on him again. Then he was taken out to be crucified. Probably only four soldiers under the command of an officer (15:39) actually went out to the site to perform the execution because John mentions that the soldiers at the cross divided his clothing “among the four of them” (John 19:23).
Jesus Is Led Away to Be Crucified / 15:21-24
15:21 Colonies of Jews existed outside Judea. Simon was from Cyrene, in northern Africa (see Acts 2:10), and was either on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover, or he was originally from Cyrene but resided in Palestine. His two sons, Alexander and Rufus, are mentioned as if Mark’s readers in Rome knew them. Rufus may be the same man mentioned by Paul in Romans 16:13. If so, this could mean that Simon became a Christian through this incident. Simon, on his way into the city, was randomly picked out of the crowd and forced to carry Jesus’ cross.
15:22 Some scholars say Golgotha (translated Skull Hill) derived its name from its appearance, a hill with a stony top that might have been shaped like a skull. Golgotha is the Hebrew word for “skull.” The familiar name “Calvary” is derived from the Latin calvaria (also meaning “skull”). Golgotha may have been a regular place of execution in a prominent public place outside the city along a main road. Executions held there served as examples to the people and as a deterrent to criminals.
15:23 Wine drugged with myrrh was offered to Jesus to help reduce his pain. Myrrh is generally understood to be a narcotic that was used to deaden pain. Tradition says women of Jerusalem prepared and offered this drink to condemned men. This also may allude to Psalm 69:21. But Jesus refused to drink it. He chose to suffer fully conscious and with a clear mind.
15:24 Mark’s words are simple and direct: They nailed him to the cross. Indeed, Mark’s Roman readers needed no elaborate description; they knew it all too well. Crucifixion, instituted by the Romans, was a feared and shameful form of execution. Death came by suffocation as the person lost strength and the weight of the body made breathing more and more difficult.
Contrary to the discreet paintings of the Crucifixion, Jesus was crucified naked. Roman soldiers had the right to take for themselves the clothing of those crucified, so they gambled for Jesus’ clothes. This act had also been prophesied (Psalm 22:18).
Jesus Is Placed on the Cross / 15:25-32
15:25-26 Jesus was placed on the cross at nine o’clock in the morning. A signboard stating the charge against him was fastened on his cross as a warning. Because Jesus was never found guilty, the only accusation placed on his sign was the “crime” of calling himself King of the Jews. This sign was meant to be ironic. A king, stripped and executed in public view, had obviously lost his kingdom forever. But Jesus, who turns the world’s wisdom upside down, was just coming into his Kingdom. His death and resurrection would strike the deathblow to Satan’s rule and would establish Christ’s eternal authority over the earth. Few people reading the sign that bleak day understood its real meaning, but the sign was absolutely true. Jesus is king of the Jews—and the Gentiles, and the whole universe.
15:27 When James and John had asked Jesus for the places of honor next to him in his Kingdom, Jesus had told them that they didn’t know what they were asking (10:35-39). Here, as Jesus was preparing to inaugurate his Kingdom through his death, the places on his right and on his left were taken by two criminals.
A person who wants to be close to Jesus must be prepared to suffer and die as he himself was doing. The way to the Kingdom is the way of the cross. If we want the glory of the Kingdom, we must be willing to be united with the crucified Christ.
15:29-30 Insult was literally added to injury when it came to public crucifixion. People passing by shouted abuse at Jesus. They again used the twisted accusation that had been brought against Jesus at the council (14:58), taunting him that if he could boast of building the Temple in three days, surely he had the power to save himself from the fate of the cross. Ironically, Jesus was in the very process of fulfilling his own prophecy. His body was being destroyed, but in three days he would rise again. Because Jesus is the Son of God who always obeys the will of the Father, he did not come down from the cross to save himself. If he had done so, he could not have saved us.
15:31-32 Apparently the religious leaders had followed the executioners out to Golgotha, eager to see their plot finally completed in Jesus’ death. Not content to have brought him to an unjust death, they also mocked him as they talked among themselves. They mockingly dismissed his healings and miracles because even though he saved others, he could not save himself. They taunted him to come down from the cross, and if he did that, they would believe him. They did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah, nor the king of Israel, but they taunted him with these names. Obviously Jesus wasn’t the Messiah, they thought, because he was dying just like the cursed robbers. Mark recorded that the two criminals also ridiculed Jesus; but Luke states that later one of these criminals repented (Luke 23:39-43).
Jesus Dies on the Cross / 15:33-41
Mark recorded the final scene of Jesus’ earthly life with graphic imagery. The dark sky was pierced by an anguished cry of abandonment. Those watching were gripped with awe.
15:33 Jesus had been put on the cross at nine o’clock in the morning. Death by crucifixion was slow and excruciating, sometimes taking two or three days. Three hours passed while Jesus put up with abuse from bystanders. Then, at noon, darkness settled over the land for three hours. We do not know how this darkness occurred, but it is clear that God caused it. Nature testified to the gravity of Jesus’ death, while Jesus’ friends and enemies alike fell silent in the encircling gloom. The darkness on that Friday afternoon was both physical and spiritual. All nature seemed to mourn over the tragedy of the death of God’s Son.
15:34 Jesus did not ask this question in surprise or despair. He was quoting the first line of Psalm 22, a prophecy expressing the deep agony of the Messiah’s death for the world’s sin. Jesus knew that he would be temporarily separated from God the moment he took upon himself the sins of the world, because God cannot look on sin (Habakkuk 1:13). This separation was the “cup” Jesus dreaded drinking, as he prayed in Gethsemane (14:36). The physical agony was horrible, but the spiritual alienation from God was the ultimate torture. Jesus suffered this double death so that we would never have to experience eternal separation from God.
15:35 The bystanders misinterpreted Jesus’ words and thought he was calling for Elijah. Because Elijah had ascended into heaven without dying (2 Kings 2:11), there was the popular belief that Elijah would return to rescue those suffering from great trouble.
15:36 John records that Jesus said he was thirsty (John 19:28-29). In response, one man filled a sponge with sour wine (this was not the same as the drugged wine offered to Jesus earlier). He put the sponge on a long stick and held it up so as to reach Jesus’ lips. Thinking Jesus had called for Elijah (15:35), the people watched to see if Elijah would come to rescue Jesus.
15:37 Jesus’ loud cry may have been his last words, “It is finished!” (John 19:30). Jesus’ loud cry climaxed the horror of this scene and showed his sudden death after over six hours on the cross. Jesus did not die the normal death of a crucified person who would merely breathe his last breath. Usually crucifixion caused a person to lapse into a coma from extreme exhaustion. Jesus, however, was completely conscious to the end. His cry exclaimed his victory.
15:38 This significant event symbolized what Christ’s work on the cross had accomplished. The Temple had three main parts—the courts, the Holy Place (where only the priests could enter), and the Most Holy Place, a place reserved by God for himself. It was in the Most Holy Place that the Ark of the Covenant, and God’s presence with it, rested. The room was entered only once a year, on the Day of Atonement, by the high priest as he made a sacrifice to gain forgiveness for the sins of all the nation (Leviticus 16:1-34). The curtain in the Temple was between the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place. Symbolically, the curtain separated the holy God from sinful people. By tearing the curtain in two, God showed that Christ had opened the way for sinful people to reach the holy God.
15:39 A Roman officer had accompanied the soldiers to the execution site. Undoubtedly, he had done this many times. Yet this crucifixion was completely different—the unexplained darkness, the earthquake, even the executed himself who had uttered words of forgiveness (Luke 23:34). The officer observed Jesus’ alertness throughout the crucifixion and his relatively quick death. This Gentile Roman officer realized something that most of the Jewish nation had missed: “Truly, this was the Son of God!” Whether he understood what he was saying, we cannot know. He may simply have admired Jesus’ courage and inner strength, perhaps thinking that Jesus was divine like one of Rome’s many gods. While the Jewish religious leaders stood around celebrating Jesus’ death, a lone Roman soldier was the first to acclaim Jesus as the Son of God after his death.
15:40-41 There had been many people at the cross who had come only to mock and taunt Jesus or, like the religious leaders, to revel in their apparent victory. But some of Jesus’ faithful followers were at the cross as well. Among the disciples, only John was there, and he recorded in his Gospel in graphic detail the horror he observed. Several women were also there watching from a distance. John wrote that Jesus’ mother, Mary, was present, and that Jesus spoke to John from the cross about taking care of Mary (John 19:25-27).
Mark mentions that Mary Magdalene was there. She had been released from demon possession by Jesus (Luke 8:2). Another Mary is distinguished (from Mary Magdalene and Mary Jesus’ mother) by the names of her sons who may have been well known in the early church. Salome was the mother of the disciples James and John and was probably Jesus’ mother’s sister. These women had come from Galilee with Jesus for the Passover. They had come with him to Jerusalem and had witnessed the Crucifixion.
Jesus Is Laid in the Tomb / 15:42-47
Although Mark mentioned only Joseph of Arimathea, John mentioned both Joseph and Nicodemus, two secret disciples of Jesus who took action to ensure his burial (John 19:38-42). Their commitment to Jesus forced them out of hiding. The Gospels carefully note that Jesus was clearly dead. Pilate checked. One soldier made sure (John 19:34). Two men who had followed Jesus from a distance undertook the compassionate task of removing Jesus’ body from the cross and placing it in a tomb, while several women watched.
15:42-43 The Sabbath began at sundown on Friday and ended at sundown on Saturday. Jesus died just a few hours before sundown on Friday. It was against Jewish law to do physical work or to travel on the Sabbath, so the day before was the day of preparation for the Sabbath. It was also against Jewish law to let a dead body remain exposed overnight (Deuteronomy 21:23). As evening and the Sabbath approached, Joseph from Arimathea (a town about twenty miles from Jerusalem) asked for Jesus’ body so he could give it a proper burial. Although an honored member of the high council, Joseph was a secret disciple of Jesus (John 19:38). That he was waiting for the Kingdom of God suggests that Joseph was a Pharisee, who hoped for God’s deliverance. Joseph gathered his courage and went to Pilate to ask for Jesus’ body in order to bury it. He went directly to Pilate who alone could give permission to take down the body. He had to hurry; Sabbath was fast approaching.
15:44-45 Pilate was surprised that Jesus had died so quickly, so he asked an official to verify the report. He summoned the officer who had been at the execution site (15:39). Only Mark recorded Pilate’s questioning of the officer, perhaps to show his Roman readers that Jesus’ death had been verified by a Roman military officer. No officer so trained in execution could make such a basic error.
15:46 Joseph bought a linen cloth; Nicodemus brought spices (John 19:39). The body was carefully taken down from the cross, wrapped in layers of cloth with the spices in between, and laid in a tomb. Jesus was given a burial fit for a king.
This tomb was probably a man-made cave carved out of one of the many limestone hills in the area around Jerusalem. It was large enough to walk into (John 20:6). Matthew records that this was Joseph’s own previously unused tomb (Matthew 27:60). Joseph and Nicodemus wrapped Jesus’ body, placed it in the tomb, and rolled a stone across the entrance. The religious leaders also watched where Jesus was buried. They stationed guards by the tomb and sealed the stone to make sure that no one would steal Jesus’ body and claim he had risen from the dead (Matthew 27:62-66). All of these actions give us verification that Jesus truly had died.
15:47 Two of the women who had been at the cross (15:40) followed these men as they carried Jesus’ body to the tomb. They wanted to know where Jesus’ body was laid because they planned to return after the Sabbath with their own spices to anoint Jesus’ body (16:1).
Tomorrow we’ll look at the resurrection, the event of the ages. I’m praying that in this time of reading and reflection that you will KNOW Christ like never before.
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