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The Wonderful Cross

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“The Wonderful Cross”

Mark 15.21-47

There are some who attempt to soften the message and teachings of Jesus because people are offended by some of the things he had to say. And in an attempt to minimize offense, many have suggested that we ought to emphasize the life and ministry of Jesus and minimize his seemingly harsh words. I would strongly caution you from adopting this method for several reasons. Jesus’ harsh words were often directed to those who would misrepresent him and true religion. We, as Christians, are expected to continue to declare his message of repentance and faith. And, thirdly, the events of the cross make no sense apart from this gospel message. It is entirely too short-sighted to believe that Jesus dying on the cross serves an example of suffering and humility. This is the most significant event in all of history that Mark and the other gospel writers have recorded! This event encapsulates our hope and our message to the world!

There is a great temptation to think that we can attract people to Jesus by merely being nice, inviting, gentle and kind. And these are certainly good things! My reading of Scripture would suggest that these are insufficient and actually contrary to the teaching and ministry of Jesus. I was reminded of this yesterday as my Bible reading had me in John 15 where Jesus says, ““If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have been guilty of sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin. Whoever hates me hates my Father also. If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin, but now they have seen and hated both me and my Father. But the word that is written in their Law must be fulfilled: ‘They hated me without a cause.’

The reason I bring this up at the outset of the message today is because we see much of this bubble to the surface in these events. You should have noticed throughout our study of Mark’s Gospel, that Jesus does not have the effect of unity of all people. Rather, he is a wedge that divides them. We don’t like to think this way. We naturally want all people to be on the same team and get along. It would be tremendous if all the world would trust Christ and become brother and sister for all eternity. But we know this is not the case.

Luke 12.51-53 Jesus states, “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” The quote in the bulletin puts it well: ““The Cross of Jesus Christ divides men into classes as the Last Day will. It, too, parts men—’sheep’ to the right hand, ‘goats’ to the left. If there was a penitent, there was an impenitent thief; if there was a convinced centurion, there were gambling soldiers; if there were hearts touched with compassion, there were mockers who took His very agonies and flung them in His face as a refutation of His claims. On the day when that Cross was reared on Calvary it began to be what it has been ever since, and is at this moment to every soul who hears the Gospel, ‘a savour of life unto life, or of death unto death.’” As much as it is our desire to win all for Christ by attracting people to him, we must acknowledge that this is not possible.

Like I mentioned, we see this play out at the events of the cross. Let’s turn to Mark 15 as we continue our study. We will be concluding Mark’s Gospel next Sunday, Lord willing. We are covering Mark 15.21-47 this morning. Let’s read as we get underway.

            As you can see there is a lot packed into this text. We have some very significant events taking place, a lot of details with cultural influence, and a lot of different characters with different responses in the narrative. While following the storyline, I hope to be able to clarify some of the ambiguity of the event while also acknowledging that we tread lightly on holy ground and must be content not to grasp the full magnitude of the death of Jesus, the Son of God on the cross.

            Last time, we witnessed the kangaroo court that saw a crowd manipulate Roman authority to acquit a guilty insurrectionist and sentence the sinless Son of God to crucifixion. It was truly a glimpse into the depravity of man as religious leaders stirred up the crowd, as Pilate caved to the fear of man and showed himself to be a spineless leader with no moral compass. And all the while we acknowledged that God uses such things to carry out his plan of redemption – to pay for the sins of his people.

            Jesus was first scourged before being led away by the Roman soldiers where he was mocked by the whole battalion. They had dressed him as a king in jest by clothing him with a purple cloak and placing a crown of thorns on his head. They mock him by hailing him the King of the Jews. They hit him with reeds and spit on our Lord Jesus. Then they removed the purple cloak, return his clothes and lead him down the road to the place where he will be brutally killed.

            We enter our passage as Jesus is led to a place outside the city – Golgotha. We remember that scourging would sometimes lead to the death of a prisoner before he arrived at his place of execution. And at the very least, it appears as though Jesus is so beaten that he is unable to bear the cross without some help. Simon of Cyrene had likely come to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem. And he is given the tremendous privilege to carry the cross of Jesus Christ!

            The first point is Carry the Cross. What do we know of this individual who comes out of nowhere to carry Jesus’ cross? Not much. Cyrene was located on the northern tip of Africa, west of Egypt. The mention of his sons, however, may provide some more information. It is possible that Rufus is one who is mentioned in Paul’s letter to the church at Rome. It comes in chapter 16, where Paul sends greetings to Rufus who was chosen of the Lord. Recall also that at the outset of our study, we thought that Mark may have been writing his account specifically for believers in Rome. If these are both true, it is possible that this family (including Simon) were disciples of Jesus. That’s pretty neat to consider, isn’t it? Who knows if they came to Jerusalem believing in Jesus or if these events convinced them of who he was.

              According to verse 22, they are led to Golgotha which is believed to be a hill to the west of Jerusalem. Many speculations have been offered as to the description of the “Place of a Skull.” Some say it is identified as such because the hill is shaped like a skull. And others say it is because of the many crucifixions. Ultimately, it is not important for our understanding. Perhaps the significance we would find in the place of execution are the words from Hebrews 13.12 which state that “So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify people through his own blood.”

            We had noted before that crucifixion is a terrible way to die. They would hoist the criminals up and put nails in their wrists and their feet to hold them to the wood. They would predominantly die of asphyxiation or shock from their body position and difficulty in breathing. The only “relief” would come from pushing yourself up from your nail-pierced feet to gasp for breath. And knowing that this was an excruciating ordeal, there was offered to him wine mixed with myrrh. This was known to have a mild numbing effect and in a very minimal way lessen the pain. Jesus, however, refused this opportunity in order to keep his mind clear for his last great fight until death.

            In verse 24, Mark tells us that they crucified the Lord Jesus – the Son of God. It was customary that the garments of the criminals would be distributed. These were viewed as some sort of reward. And this is why they would cast lots for the more valuable pieces of clothing.

 For the astute student of Scripture, one would have been aware of the many fulfilled prophecies being carried out on this day. As the soldiers divided up Jesus’ clothes, the words from the Psalmist would have been ringing in their ears. Psalm 22.18, “they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.”

And it was the third hour when they crucified him. This is the equivalent of 9 am. It is here that Jesus will spend the next six hours in excruciating pain for your sin and my sin. And if that were not enough, he will do so as he is ridiculed and mocked by those looking on.

It was customary also that they would place an inscription that would describe the charges brought against the criminal. Pilate noted that it was his affirmation of being the King of the Jews. We saw last time that this would have posed a threat against Roman rule and was punishable as a capital offense. And with this inscription, Pilate justifies his actions. And not only this, the identification would also been an insult to the Jewish leaders. We know from John’s account that they were not entirely pleased with the identification as their king. They preferred that Pilate would have written, “this man said he was the King of the Jews.” Ironically, in his attempt to both insult Jesus and the religious leaders, Pilate was unwittingly proclaiming the truth regarding the King of Kings!

The sinless and spotless Lamb of God now stands between two robbers who deserve to die in this manner. Isaiah 53.12 says, “Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.”        

While hanging from the cross, people would walk by him, look upon him, and wag their heads at him. Psalm 22.7, “All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads.” Psalm 109.25, “I am an object of scorn to my accusers; when they see me, they wag their heads.” The shaking of the head was a gesture of contempt.

And unbelief is the order of the day. “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself…” In other words, they were suggesting that Jesus could not even help himself let alone destroy their precious temple and religious system. And, of course we saw that he never even said he would destroy the temple. And then the chief priests and scribes chime in with “He saved others; he cannot save himself.” They were referring to the many miracles he performed of healing and feeding.

The irony of this statement makes this most dramatic! It was precisely because he refused to save himself, that he was able to save others! If Jesus was to save us, then he could not save himself from the cross! How would you do if you were Jesus, the Creator, King of Kings, Lord of Lords? Nailed to a cross as these mere mortals chide you, spit and strike you? And then they say that you can’t even save yourself? Fortunately, I nor you are Jesus. And Jesus has faced this sort of temptation before. In the Garden of Gethsemane, as Jesus is being apprehended, Matthew records these words (26.53,54): “  Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” Or how about John 10 when Jesus is referring to himself as the Good Shepherd? Jesus says “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.” So it had nothing to do with inability that Jesus remain on the tree. It had everything to do with the completion of his mission. And to think that he had to endure the pain AND the ridicule of mere mortals to do so.

And more mockery. The religious leaders taunt him, “Let the Christ, the King of Israel come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.” “Prove it. Now’s your chance, Jesus.” That we may see and believe??? Hardly. As demonstrated by the entirety of Jesus’ life and ministry, they were only concerned with condemning him and not believing in him. In fact, they yet did not believe even when he rose from the dead.

In this first point, where do you find yourself? I know you were not there the day Jesus was mocked and crucified. But can you identify with Jesus in a way that Simon from Cyrene did? I’m not sure how much choice Simon had when “compelled” to carry the cross. But do you find it interesting to harmonize this act with Jesus’ teaching. Jesus said in Mark 8.34, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Have you taken up your cross and followed after Jesus? Are you so closely identified with him that those around you would understand?

For Jesus, there was a great temptation to numb the pain of his suffering. Are you in any way trying to minimize your suffering for Jesus? Have you pulled back for fear of ridicule or difficult conversations? Or have you launched yourself into his life and death so completely that you take these things head on? Jesus faced mockery and opposition time and again. How do you fare in your following after him? Remember Jesus’ words from John 15, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you.”

Are you somebody who might say, “show me that I may believe?” Are you still looking for visible proof, tangible evidence? Do you find it strange to see many of us worshipping a God we do not see? I understand. This is why we call it “faith.” Consider also Jesus words to Thomas after he rose from the dead. John 20.27-29, “Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

The next point is Cries at the Cross. In verse 33, three hours later, an eerie supernatural darkness comes over the land for three hours. There is something about darkness that communicates God’s judgment. Recall the plague of darkness in Egypt. Consider Amos 8.9, ““And on that day,” declares the Lord God, “I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight.” And here I believe it speaks to God’s displeasure with sin for it is at this point where the sin of the world rests upon the Son of God.

In verse 34, we tread lightly and with caution. The first cry at the cross is a cry of separation. Jesus cried out… with a loud voice… “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Here we encounter the depths of the significance of the cross. Here we get a glimpse into what it must be like for Jesus who from before all eternity had enjoyed unhindered relationship with the Father. Here he comes to a point where, I believe, he is no longer conscious of the Father/Son relationship. Note that he does not cry out to his Father, but his God.

The best we can identify with is separation from a loved one that is extremely short-lived compared to eternity. This does not take Jesus or us by surprise because it is well prophesied in the Old Testament. Psalm 22 begins with “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? And we find indicators of the reason for this separation from Isaiah 59.2. “but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.”  God is so holy and sin is so repulsive that he has no choice but to turn his face away from the Son.

But this is only the beginning. Not only did Jesus have to experience this separation from the Father, but he had to bear his wrath. This does not refer to merely his displeasure. On the cross, Jesus bore the full weight of the unmitigated wrath of God for sin. REPEAT slowly. We can know only partially of what his wrath is like here on earth. His wrath throughout history has been restrained. God had not released his wrath and anger for sin until the cross… where his Son hangs, mocked, beaten, separated… and the object… of the Father’s wrath. Let that sink in…

How does this not affect us? If you question God’s love, think deeply on the cross where the Lamb of God died in your place. We all deserved the punishment, the full wrath of God because of our sin. We don’t know what sin is. We think that sin is when we slip up, tell a white lie, a mistake. SIN is the reason that the Lord Jesus hangs bloodied and bruised and separated from the Father and punished by his Father! Why else would this have to take place?

To the unbeliever who has yet to trust the only Savior, here is your opportunity. Look at these verses. This is the word of God. This is the love of God for you. Consider your state before God and the provision he has made on your behalf. Trust in the only solution for your sin. There is no other way. If there is another way, why… would he do this to his only Son??

Believer, how often do you consider the cross when you enter willingly into sin? It was this very sin that caused these events to occur. How do we not allow these truths to purify us from sin? How do we not tell the story of the substitionary sacrifice on behalf of sinners such as us?

The onlookers thought he called on Elijah to save him. Malachi 3 and 4 give us indication of the anticipation of the appearance of Elijah on the scene to deliver. Others come forward with a sponge of sour wine, not out of pity or compassion, but to prolong his suffering. This would enliven his senses.

There is then a cry of victory and completion. In verse 37, Jesus utters a loud cry. In John 19.30 it is the cry of “It is finished!” that is uttered from his lips. And Jesus breathed his last. Have you ever stopped to consider that sentence? Jesus, the creator and life-giver, breathed his last breath. He stopped breathing. Once Jesus dies, all mocking ceases and only voices of the respectful and mourners are heard.

At the moment that the Son of God breathes his last, things tremble. Matthew records the earth shaking and rocks splitting – dead people coming to life. Mark is concerned with one thing here. The curtain of the temple was torn in two. The curtain of the temple represents the separation between the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place where only the High Priest on the Day of Atonement was permitted.

In this moment, the death of Jesus abolishes the sacrificial system and the priestly ministry. At the death of Jesus, a way has been opened for Jew and Gentile to approach the God of the Universe without the intervention of the priest. Jesus has become the sacrifice and the priest with his death! In Hebrews 9, it is written, “For a tent was prepared, the first section, in which were the lampstand and the table and the bread of the Presence. It is called the Holy Place. Behind the second curtain was a second section called the Most Holy Place, he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.” And in chapter 10, listen to this, “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh.” Believers have access to God because of Jesus Christ and this very moment where he died on the cross – where he breathed his last.

All of this had a tremendous affect on at least one bystander. There was a Roman centurion nearby. Here was a man who had witnessed many crucifixions. But, to him, this one was radically different! Look at verse 39, “And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, Truly this man was the Son of God!” There was something different about this one. The way he died… This one wasn’t supposed to be here. He knew what it is like to watch criminals die. This man was innocent. This man was who he claimed to be. This man, truly, was the Son of God!” This was the third cry from the cross.

Do you find it ironic that the bold one at Jesus side throughout his ministry, Peter, denied the Lord Jesus and fled. The Roman centurion, at Jesus’ side, confess him to be the Son of God. Do you also find it significant that most of the disciples had abandoned Jesus? But there were these women. We won’t go into great detail about the women. I do want to point out the importance of their presence here. Here were faithful women who stood with Jesus to the end. They were eyewitnesses to the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. This is important! They were faithful servants to Christ.

The third point is Courage and Sovereignty. There was a mandate that originated from Deuteronomy 21.23 that a man that was killed on a tree needed to be buried the same day that he died. Verse 42 tells that that when evening had come, it was the day before the Sabbath. And there needed to be a burial. Enter another interesting character – Joseph of Arimathea. Mark provides us with some very significant details about this man. Joseph was a respected member of the Council – the Sanhedrin. Now isn’t that interesting? Wasn’t it the Sanhedrin that had condemned Jesus to die? Yes and no. Luke tells us in his Gospel that Joseph was a good and righteous man that had not consented to their decision and was in fact looking for the kingdom of God. A detractor!

Not only was Joseph a righteous man, he had courage. Look at this. In God’s sovereignty, he had planned out that a man from the Sanhedrin would have the courage (and access to Pilate!) to ask him for the body of Jesus. We know from elsewhere that he was a wealthy man with the perfect tomb for the body to be buried. Coincidence? I think not!

Here was a man who again is courageous and contrasted with the faithless disciples of Jesus. And here was a man who likely had much to lose for the sake of Jesus. A respected member of the Sanhedrin, opposed to the verdict on Jesus, not only sticks around, but asks for his body so that he could use the tomb he acquired for Jesus. What a man of faith!

He approaches Pilate and asks for the body. Pilate is surprised to hear Jesus has died already for it often took days for those to die. So Pilate checks with the centurion to ensure that Jesus is dead and grants the corpse to Joseph. Look at this little meeting. We now see Pilate and Joseph and the centurion meeting together!

Josephs buys some burial items, takes Jesus down, wraps him and lays him in his tomb. This would be a tomb where a large stone would be rolled downhill in order to adequately seal it and prevent people from entering. The scene closes and the camera fades as once again we see the women looking on to the tomb where he was laid. And then silence…

I hope that you have seen the many different characters in the story. The person of Jesus demands a response. You are either those who mock him and deride him and are filled with unbelief or you are those who identify with him in trusting in him for salvation. I pray that God would grant you to see the glories of his grace this morning.  If you have not yet bowed the knee to the One who died, consider it mercy that you are still alive to encounter this great truth. Jesus paid the penalty for you and me. And he offers salvation to the one who would believe. This is the purpose of all existence – that we might be reconciled to the God of the universe for all eternity.

“For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” – 2 Corinthians 5.14-21. Let’s pray.

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