The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached May 23rd, 2021*
Sermon Audio: The Crucified King (Mark 15:1-32)
A family of missionaries stationed in China had decided to employ a local woman to help manage the home. She spent hours each week with the family, saw how they cared for their children, and how they lived their life. It was a wonderful evangelism opportunity—mission work delivered to their front door! Their relationship with been going well until they noticed that the caretaker began to become noticeably uncomfortable. The husband and wife tried as hard as they could to make the woman feel welcome in their home and to be as warm and engaging as they could whenever she was around. However, her discomfort continued until it could not be ignored any longer. The wife eventually asked the woman what was wrong and she replied: “I see that you are good people and deeply care about your children, but why would you have a picture of a naked criminal being hung to death on a cross in the sight of your children?”
We can often become so familiar with the cross that the shock and gruesomeness of it is forgotten. The cross is a religious symbol, an emblem that to many communicates peace, not horror. Seeing the cross through new eyes reminds us of just how strange that is—why would a crude and ugly instrument of torture be something we would make art of and hang on our walls?
Today we arrive at the crucifixion scene in Mark’s gospel, a scene we can be so familiar with that it almost passes us by in its shocking brutality, in its offensive ugliness. Tom Holland, a classical scholar, writes, “No death was more excruciating, more contemptible, than crucifixion. To be hung naked, ‘long in agony, swelling with ugly weals on shoulders and chest,’ helpless to beat away the clamorous birds: such a fate, Roman intellectuals agreed, was the worst imaginable,” (Dominion, p. 2). What does it mean for us that our Lord and Savior suffered one of the most horrifying deaths known to man? Turn to Mark’s gospel and let’s read:
And as soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. And they bound Jesus and led him away and delivered him over to Pilate. 2 And Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered him, “You have said so.” 3 And the chief priests accused him of many things. 4 And Pilate again asked him, “Have you no answer to make? See how many charges they bring against you.” 5 But Jesus made no further answer, so that Pilate was amazed.
6 Now at the feast he used to release for them one prisoner for whom they asked. 7 And among the rebels in prison, who had committed murder in the insurrection, there was a man called Barabbas. 8 And the crowd came up and began to ask Pilate to do as he usually did for them. 9 And he answered them, saying, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” 10 For he perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up. 11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release for them Barabbas instead. 12 And Pilate again said to them, “Then what shall I do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” 13 And they cried out again, “Crucify him.” 14 And Pilate said to them, “Why? What evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him.” 15 So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified.
16 And the soldiers led him away inside the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters), and they called together the whole battalion. 17 And they clothed him in a purple cloak, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on him. 18 And they began to salute him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 19 And they were striking his head with a reed and spitting on him and kneeling down in homage to him. 20 And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. And they led him out to crucify him.
21 And they compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross. 22 And they brought him to the place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull). 23 And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. 24 And they crucified him and divided his garments among them, casting lots for them, to decide what each should take. 25 And it was the third hour when they crucified him. 26 And the inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” 27 And with him they crucified two robbers, one on his right and one on his left. 29 And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, 30 save yourself, and come down from the cross!” 31 So also the chief priests with the scribes mocked him to one another, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. 32 Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also reviled him. – Mark 15:1-32
Historical Understanding of the Crucifixion
Jesus is brought before Pilate, the Roman governor who is over the city of Jerusalem, so that Pilate might able to give his consent to Jesus’ execution. The charges that the high priests have accused Jesus of are religious in nature (blasphemy, destruction of the temple) and so they would be of no immediate relevance to Pilate. However, the chief priests decide to highlight a political danger to Pilate. They accuse Jesus of setting Himself up as a rival to Caesar (cf. Luke 23:2; John 19:15). Ah, Pilate thinks, here is another rebel thinking he can overthrow Rome. So Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (Mark 15:2; see Luke 23:2-3). Jesus responds indirectly, “You have said so,” (Mark 15:3)—perhaps because Pilate’s conception of a “king” is very different than the kind of king Jesus really is. After this, however, Jesus remains silent.
Now Pilate had a custom to release a prisoner every year to the Jews during the Passover feast. And he offers the crowd a choice: Barabbas or Jesus. Barabbas, we are told, was “among the rebels in prison, who had committed murder in the insurrection,” (Mark 15:7). We aren’t told specifically what the “insurrection” is that Barabbas participated in, but since it is called “the insurrection”, Mark assumes his readers are familiar with it, so it must have been large enough to be well known. What we know is that Barabbas is a rebel who committed murder in some sort of revolutionary activity. He is precisely what the chief priests are trying to depict Jesus as to Pilate: a dangerous threat.
At first glance, the choice between the two seems obvious: on the one hand there is a popular teacher, beloved by the multitudes, a wonder-worker who could heal diseases, raise the dead, and work miracles, and on the other hand you have a murderer. And yet, “the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release for them Barabbas instead,” (Mark 15:11). What a poignant warning of both the danger of the influence of wicked leaders and the social pressure of a crowd. Just because a leader is telling you to do something, and everyone else is joining in doesn’t make it right. In Mark’s gospel the “crowds” have by and large been supportive of Jesus. But here? In a frenzied mob, the crowds shout out for Barabbas’ release and for Jesus’ crucifixion. The approval of the world is a fickle thing.
Pilate wonders out loud what evil He has done to be worthy of such a punishment, but the crowd only responds with screaming even louder (Mark 15:12-14). So, “Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified,” (Mark 15:15).
Jesus was then delivered over to the praetorium (governor’s headquarters) where a whole battalion is called together (approx. 600 soldiers) just to mock Jesus, likely after his scourging. You get a sense of the brutality of Rome and the way they despised Jews by how they treat Jesus. They dress him up like a mock king, make a crown of thorns (likely out of a local vine with thorns 3-4 inches in length) and crunch it down on top of his head, and pretend to bow down to Him, laughing at what a pathetic and weak spectacle the “king of Jews” is, before they begin spitting in his face and striking him with a rod (Mark 15:16-20). Once they’ve exhausted their savage humor, they lead Jesus away to the cross. Only, Jesus is now too weak to carry the cross (a testament to how intense the scourging process was), so must receive help from a bystander “Simon of Cyrene” who just happened to be walking by at the moment, to carry the cross-bar outside of the city to Golgotha, where He will be crucified (Mark 15:21-22)
What did it mean to be crucified?
Cicero, the ancient Roman, said that the crucifixion was, “the most cruel and horrifying punishment,” and that any decent citizen should avoid even talking about it (Verrine Orations 2.5.165). It was forbidden for any Roman citizen to be crucified and was reserved only for slaves and the worst kind of criminals. The entire purpose of crucifixion was to serve as a kind of psychological weapon of terror for Rome. They worked hard to imagine the most public and gruesome form of death so that they could display to everyone what would happen if you tried to disobey Rome (“Whenever we crucify the guilty, the most crowded roads are chosen, where the most people can see and be moved by this fear,” – Quintillian in Declamationes 274).
Before an individual was crucified they were first scourged (see Mark 15:15). The criminal would have their hands tied to a post and would be whipped with a scourging tool that had nine leather cords coming out of a handle with bits of rock, bone, glass, or metal attached to the end of the cords. While the leather cords would sting and cut the skin, the metal hooks would dig and rip into the muscle. The scourging would remove most of the flesh off of the back of the victim, sometimes exposing bones or organs—at times even killing the victim right there. The purpose of the scourging was to accelerate the victim’s death after being affixed to the cross.
After the scourging, the victim then was responsible to carry the horizontal cross bar to their execution site—another way of humiliating the victim and spreading terror to the bystanders—where he was then stripped totally naked and nailed or tied to the cross. Since no major arteries would be severed by the nailing process, victims didn’t bleed to death but would die from asphyxiation (slowly suffocating from not being able to inhale deeply enough because of their stretched out posture on the cross) or heart failure.
“Crucifixion was a ghastly form of death: excruciatingly painful, prolonged, and socially degrading. The thought that God’s Messiah could suffer “a cross of shame” (Heb 12:2) was so scandalous that some twenty-five years later Paul confessed that the preaching of a crucified Messiah was “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23),” (Edwards, PNTC).
Jesus is offered “wine mixed with myrrh,” a rudimentary narcotic meant to numb his pain, but He refuses (Mark 15:23). The soldiers, like vultures, pick through the little belongings Jesus has—his clothes—gambling over who gets what (Mark 15:24). As was typical for those crucified, there is a placard affixed to the cross detailing the victims crime that deserved their punishment, “The King of the Jews,” (Mark 15:26). Another chilling reminder to the watching crowd: this is what happens to Jews who try to fight Rome; if THIS is what we do to your king, what will we do to you if you defy us? Somehow, rather than evoking simple human sympathy and compassion, the crowds gathered around Jesus, hung between two other criminals, and taunt Him, hurling insults at this would be Messiah, laughing at His impotence and impending death (Mark 15:27-32).
While Mark doesn’t cite it explicitly here, he obviously sees what is occurring as a fulfillment of Psalm 22, (which Jesus will quote in Mark 15:34) a psalm written a thousand years before the crucifixion of Jesus:
“All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; “He trusts in the LORD; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”… For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet—I can count all my bones—they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.” Psalm 22:7-8, 16-18
The Ironies of the Cross
As we read through this account, we will notice many twists of irony. Irony is when someone says or does something that means something different or the exact opposite of what they intend. We, the readers, know the truth, but the characters in the story are blind to it.
The Innocent is Declared Guilty so the Guilty can be Declared Innocent
Barabbas, a guilty murderer who participated in a violent revolution, is set free, so that Jesus, the innocent who is wrongly accused of being a revolutionary, is condemned. Barabbas’s name in Aramaic literally means, “Son of the Father,” (bar = son, abba = father). So the contrast is shocking: a guilty son of the father declared innocent; the innocent Son of the Father declared guilty. Here we have a tightly packed picture of the divine exchange that we all experience when we come to faith in Christ: Jesus stands in our place and takes the penalty we deserve so we can receive the pardon and blessings He deserves.
The Man who is Mocked as King is Really King
Could you imagine if you bumped into a person at work who, in your estimation, was kind of pathetic, unimpressive, and he asked you to do some task and you simply laughed out loud and sarcastically snipped back, “Sure thing boss! Let me just drop EVERYTHING I’m doing to wait on you hand and foot!” Only to later realize that that man really was your boss? The soldiers bowing down in mock homage to Jesus are, unknowingly, rightly identifying Jesus as King. The sign posted on the cross as a mockery of Jesus is, in fact the truth: He is the King of the Jews. Even more than that, He isn’t just the King of the Jews—He is the King of Romans, and the Greeks, and the Persians, and the Americans, and the Russians, and of every nation, from all time, in all places. It will not be long until, “every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father,” (Phil 2:10-11).
The One Accused of Being Powerless is All Powerful
As the crowds and chief priests gather around the cross they mock and scorn Jesus they unknowingly are confessing the truth. Well, some of the truth.
“You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” (Mark 15:29-30). In John’s gospel, John records this short interaction with the chief priests from earlier in Jesus’ life, “Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body,” John 2:19-21. The temple is Jesus’ body, and it is being destroyed, and it will be raised again in three days. It is precisely this reason that Jesus cannot save Himself.
“He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe,” (Mark 15:31-32). The chief priests have heard the stories of Jesus’ miracles. If Jesus really could do such things, then He should be able to use the same power to rescue Himself from the cross right now. And, of course, Jesus really could have done that. But, again, the chief priests are speaking the truth more than they realize: He saved others, he cannot save Himself. This is exactly true—it is precisely because He is—right now!—in the process of saving others, that He cannot save Himself. “It was not the nails that held Jesus to the wretched cross; it was his unqualified resolution, out of love for His father, to do His Father’s will—and, within that framework, it was his love for sinners…He really could not save Himself,” (Carson, Scandalous, p. 30).
Jesus is accused of being guilty, but really He is innocent. Jesus is mocked because they assume He is a nobody pretending to be a somebody, but really He is the King. Jesus is mocked as being powerless, when really He is all powerful. He is challenged to prove He is the Messiah by saving Himself, but He is demonstrating He is the Messiah by not saving Himself. What do these ironic reversals tell us? They provide a dramatic picture of who Jesus is and what He came to do.
Who normally gets crucified? Guilty, powerless, nobodies. Who is Jesus? Innocent, all-powerful, King of the Universe. And yet Jesus allows Himself to be treated like a guilty, powerless, nobody so guilty, powerless, nobodies like me could be forgiven, washed, and adopted into Jesus’ family.
Why the Cross?
Of all the ways Jesus could have died, why crucifixion? If Jesus needed to die in our place, to absorb the wrath of God, couldn’t He have just had a heart attack? A bolt of lightning strike Him?
1. To be a depiction of the horror and gruesomeness of sin and the wrath it deserves.
The cross is a terribly ugly thing. But the physical pain and shame of the cross is simply a picture of the horror and ugliness of our sin against God and the punishment it deserves. The physical agony Jesus experienced on the cross, though considerable, was not the worst thing He experienced. It’s amazing that Mark never records Jesus complaining of the physical pain He is experiencing. The only thing Jesus laments at the cross is the abandonment of the Father, His being forsaken by God (Mark 15:34).
2. To demonstrate just how low Jesus was willing to go to redeem us, how deep the Father’s love was for us.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life,” John 3:16.
3. To show the world and Satan that their most vile weapons can be bent to serve God’s sovereign purposes.
To comfort Christians that no matter how dark their suffering is, no matter how unjust, God can use it for good. If He can redeem something as atrocious as the cross, He can redeem your pain.
4. So Jesus could relate with those who suffer as a sympathetic high priest–He knows what it is like to suffer unjust, unthinkable torment.
5. To be a visceral picture of what real discipleship, real greatness, real power means: “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Me.” (Mark 8:34)
Do you remember the story of James and John approaching Jesus to ask if they could have seats of prominence in the Kingdom? “And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Mark 10:37. Jesus responds to them and explains, “You have no idea what you are asking.” The one other place that the phrase “one at the right hand and one on the left” appears in the gospel of Mark is in the crucifixion story describing the two thieves crucified, one on Jesus’ left and one on His right. James and John are under the delusion that the path of discipleship, that Jesus’ Kingdom will be one of worldly comfort, status, and glory. But Jesus shows them that the way “up” is actually “down.” The path to greatness in the Kingdom, is the path of the cross, the path of service. Jesus explains:
“You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 43 But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:42-45