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Mark 15:1-47 Biblical Commentary:
MARK 14. THE CONTEXT
Jesus was arrested and brought before the council during the night (14:43-65). The chief priest asked, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” (14:61). Jesus answered, “I am. You will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of the sky”(14:62)—at which the chief priest tore his clothes and asked the council for a conviction and death sentence, which they willingly gave.
Some scholars note that Jewish law forbids proceedings during the night that could lead to a death penalty, so the Sanhedrin should withhold action until 6:00 a.m. to comply with the law. However, the Jewish law in question comes from the Mishna, the codification of Jewish oral tradition that was not completed until two centuries after Jesus’ death. Many of its provisions had been part of Jewish tradition for centuries, so it is quite possible that the prohibition against night proceedings in capital cases was in effect when Jesus was tried. However, we cannot be certain about that (Brooks, 240).
MARK 15:1-5. ARE YOU THE KING OF THE JEWS?
1Immediately in the morning the chief priests, with the elders and scribes, and the whole council, held a consultation, and bound Jesus, and carried him away, and delivered him up (Greek: paredokan—from paradidomi) to Pilate. 2Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He answered, “So you say.”3The chief priests accused him of many things. 4Pilate again asked him, “Have you no answer? See how many things they testify against you!” 5But Jesus made no further answer, so that Pilate marveled.
“Immediately in the morning the chief priests, with the elders and scribes, and the whole council, held a consultation” (v. 1a). The council did its work during the night, in part to avoid inciting Jesus’ followers and, in part, because Roman officials begin work early in the morning. As noted above, it might constitute a violation of Jewish law (the Mishna) to conduct a trial at night that could lead to a death penalty. If so, it is possible that the chief priests and elders ratify their nighttime findings once it is morning as a way of skirting that law.
If the council is to get action from Pilate before the Sabbath, they need to hand Jesus over to him early in the morning, because time is short. First, they must get Pilate to agree to a crucifixion. Then the crucifixion must be carried out. Finally, the body must be removed from the cross and buried prior to sunset, when the sabbath will begin, to comply with the requirements of Deuteronomy 21:23.
“and bound Jesus, and carried him away, and delivered him up (paredokan—from paradidomi) to Pilate” (v. 1b). This word paradidomi (delivered up) has a sinister quality:
• It is first used in this Gospel to speak of John the Baptist being arrested (1:14).
• Jesus uses it to tell his disciples that he will be betrayed (9:31; 10:33).
• He then uses it to warn his disciples that they will be handed over to councils (13:9)—and that“Brother will deliver up brother to death, and the father his child. Children will rise up against parents, and cause them to be put to death” (13:12).
• Paradidomi is used to speak of Judas’ betrayal, and is translated “betrayed” (3:19), “betray” (14:10-11, 18), or “betrayer” (14:42, 44) when used in conjunction with Judas.
• It is used to speak of the chief priests handing Jesus over to Pilate (15:10) and Pilate handing Jesus over to be crucified (15:15).
• However, while Jesus and the disciples seem to be victims of this “betrayal” or “handing over,” the power of God is at work here and it is God’s plan of salvation that is being implemented by the “handing over.”
“and bound Jesus, and carried him away, and delivered him up to Pilate” (v. 1b). Jews are subject to Roman law. Rome offers subjects some measure of local rule, but retains authority over serious matters, including capital crimes. Pilate lives in Caesarea Maritima, but brings a contingent of soldiers to Jerusalem at major festivals to maintain order. During his stay in Jerusalem, he most likely resides either at Herod’s palace or the Fortress Antonia—most likely the palace. Pilate has served as the Roman procurator since 26 A.D. and will serve in that capacity until 36 A.D., when he will be relieved because of official complaints by his subjects. He has a reputation for despising Jewish people and dealing insensitively with them.
“Pilate asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?'” (v. 2a). Mark provides no record of the conversation between the council and Pilate. Pilate’s question to Jesus makes it clear that the council has accused Jesus of seeking to establish himself as king, a treasonous act against Rome that would require Pilate’s immediate response. Since the death of Herod the Great, the Jews have had no king—Rome having denied that title to Herod’s sons.
The charge against Jesus is not entirely without substance. Jesus has admitted to being the messiah (14:62), and the Jewish people expect the messiah to be a king like David, who will re-establish the greatness of their nation and drive out the Romans. However, if the council truly believed Jesus to be the messiah, they would support him to the hilt. Instead, they believe him to be a blasphemer and a threat to their personal power, so they want him dead. They have no authority to impose the death penalty, so they bring Jesus to Pilate, who has that authority. Pilate would not care about charges of blasphemy, so the council couches their charges against Jesus in terms actionable under Roman law—sedition—treason.
The irony, of course, is that Jesus is, indeed, both messiah and King of the Jews. The crowds had given him a royal welcome when he entered Jerusalem (11:1-10). He had been anointed (14:3-9). Pilate called him “King of the Jews” (15:9, 12). The soldiers mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews” (15:18). When enthroned on his cross, the inscription above his head read, “The King of the Jews” (15:26).
“He answered him, ‘So you say'” (v. 2b). Jesus gives a non-committal response to Pilate’s question. To admit that he is a king would give the false impression that he is establishing himself as a rival to Rome’s power, which is not true, but denying that he is a king would be equally false. He is, indeed, King of the Jews, but in a spiritual rather than a political sense. He is not plotting violence against Rome, but is establishing a spiritual kingdom that will wax even as Rome wanes. An irony is that, before long, Rome will no longer be known as capitol of the Roman Empire but of the messiah’s church.
“The chief priests accused him of many things” (v. 3). Mark provides no details about these charges, but we can imagine Jesus’ enemies shouting all sorts of accusations in their attempt to persuade Caesar to prosecute Jesus.
“Pilate again asked him, ‘Have you no answer? See how many things they testify against you!’ But Jesus made no further answer, so that Pilate marveled” (vv. 4-5). Pilate cannot imagine anyone refusing to defend himself against capital charges. Pilate also senses that he is being used to implement the council’s agenda rather than his own, so he wants Jesus to give him reason for acquittal. Jesus, however, gives him nothing. He has already explained to his disciples that “the Son of Man must(Greek: dei—it is necessary—a divine necessity) undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (8:31). Now that his hour has come (14:41), he is cooperating, not with the council or Pilate, but with that divine plan.
MARK 15:6-15. CRUCIFY HIM!
6Now at the feast he used to release to them one prisoner, whom they asked of him. 7There was one called Barabbas, bound with those who had made insurrection, men who in the insurrection had committed murder. 8The multitude, crying aloud, began to ask him to do as he always did for them.9Pilate answered them, saying, “Do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?” 10For he perceived that for envy the chief priests had delivered him up. 11But the chief priests stirred up the multitude, that he should release Barabbas to them instead. 12Pilate again asked them, “What then should I do to him whom you call the King of the Jews?” 13They cried out again, “Crucify him!” 14Pilate said to them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they cried out exceedingly, “Crucify him!” 15Pilate, wishing to please the multitude, released Barabbas to them, and handed over Jesus, when he had flogged him, to be crucified.
“Now at the feast he used to release to them one prisoner, whom they asked of him” (v. 6). Not a great deal is known about the custom of releasing a prisoner at the festival, and some have questioned the authenticity of the practice. There is, however, a record of similar amnesty being granted to Phibion a few years later, so which provides support for Mark’s account (Lane, 553). If there is anything odd about the story of Barabbas, it is that Pilate would release a zealot who engaged in treason against Rome.
“There was one called Barabbas, bound with those who had made insurrection, men who in the insurrection had committed murder” (v. 7). Barabbas is a common name made up of two words, bar (son) and abba (father). The name thus presents us with yet another irony—an innocent Son of the Father (Jesus) dying in the place of a guilty man named “son of the father” (Barabbas)—a substitutionary sacrifice in keeping with the Passover, where an innocent lamb is sacrificed to save the people.
In his Gospel, Matthew identifies the insurrectionist as “Jesus Barabbas,” which adds another layer of irony. The crowd must choose between Jesus Barabbas and Jesus the messiah.
It seems likely that Barabbas is a zealot who has participated in treason against Rome. This would make him a popular figure among Jews, and the crowd seems to come for the purpose of asking for Barabbas’ release.
“The multitude, crying aloud, began to ask him to do as he always did for them. Pilate answered them, saying, ‘Do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?'” (vv. 8-9). The crowd demands the release of a prisoner, and Pilate offers to release Jesus, not Barabbas. His reference to Jesus as King of the Jews is sarcastic and contemptuous. If Pilate truly wanted to influence this crowd, he would stifle his sarcasm, which only alienates the crowd. Pilate, however, is not a man accustomed to ingratiating himself with people, and has little stomach for wooing Jews.
“For he perceived that for envy the chief priests had delivered him up” (v. 10). Pilate has his limitations, but he is no fool. He understands that the chief priests are unlikely ever to hand over anyone to him except to serve their own agenda.
“But the chief priests stirred up the multitude, that he should release Barabbas to them instead”(v. 11). The crowd favors Barabbas, but the chief priests stir them up even further in Barabbas’ behalf.
“What then should I do to him whom you call the King of the Jews?” (v. 12). Again Pilate uses the title, King of the Jews, in a sarcastic manner. He compounds the negative effect of his remarks by referring to “the man you call the King of the Jews.”
“They cried out again, “Crucify him!” Pilate said to them, ‘Why, what evil has he done?’ But they cried out exceedingly, ‘Crucify him!'” (vv. 13-14). By this time Pilate and the crowd are locked into an adversarial relationship, and there is no room for dialogue.
“Pilate, wishing to please the multitude, released Barabbas to them” (v. 15a). Josephus records other incidents that reveal Pilate to be an obstinate leader who would nevertheless back down under pressure by a crowd. His actions in this incident, therefore, are entirely in character. Pilate has brought a cohort of soldiers to Jerusalem to keep peace during the festival, and does not want this crowd to get out of control now. He has no desire to punish Jesus, but feels little obligation to protect a person who is not a Roman citizen against his own people. He understands that the chief priests are acting “out of jealousy” (v. 10), but wishes “to satisfy the crowd” (v. 15). He might be sympathetic to Jesus, but business is business. He would like to do the right thing, but only at the right price. He presents us with further irony—a governor who turns over governance to the governed.
The trial has not been properly concluded nor has Jesus been pronounced guilty. Pilate’s offer to release Jesus suggests that he is treating him as guilty, but also demonstrates his doubt that Jesus constitutes a threat to Rome. Whether he sees something attractive in Jesus, wants not to condemn an innocent man, or simply dislikes acting as a pawn of the Jewish establishment, he clearly does not want to sentence Jesus.
“and handed over Jesus, when he had flogged him, to be crucified” (v. 15b). Earlier, on the road to Jerusalem, Jesus warned the disciples that he would be flogged (10:33-34). This flogging also fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy, “But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).
Romans customarily flog people sentenced to be crucified. Flogging is a punishment almost as terrible as crucifixion. Its victims are beaten by thongs embedded with pieces of bone or lead, and sometimes die of the flogging. Survivors weakened by flogging die more quickly when crucified. Then Pilate “handed over” (paradidomi) Jesus to be crucified.
MARK 15:16-20. HAIL, KING OF THE JEWS!
16The soldiers led him away within the court, which is the Praetorium; and they called together the whole cohort. 17They clothed him with purple, and weaving a crown of thorns, they put it on him.18They began to salute him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 19They struck his head with a reed, and spat on him, and bowing their knees, did homage to him. 20When they had mocked him, they took the purple off of him, and put his own garments on him. They led him out to crucify him.
“The soldiers led him away within the court, which is the Praetorium; and they called together the whole cohort” (v. 16). As a condemned prisoner, Jesus has no rights—the soldiers are free to do with him as they will. They lead him into the courtyard of the palace, most likely Herod’s palace, and call together the whole cohort (v. 16), as many as 600 soldiers. These are strong, rough men accustomed to using physical force. Their mockery of Jesus is the day’s entertainment. This is the second of three mockeries that Jesus will experience—the first being at the Jewish council (14:65) and the third at the crucifixion (vv. 26-32).
“They clothed him with purple, and weaving a crown of thorns, they put it on him. They began to salute him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ They struck his head with a reed, and spat on him, and bowing their knees, did homage to him” (vv. 17-19). Compared to the flogging that Jesus has just sustained, the soldiers’ horseplay is nothing. The flogging was intended to punish—to brutalize—but this horseplay is intended only to mock.
Purple is a royal color, so the soldiers put a purple cloak on Jesus. The crown of thorns may inflict injury, but is a really a parody of the radiate crown (a laurel crown that encircles the head) worn by rulers portrayed on coins. The salute and the greeting, “Hail, King of the Jews!” is mockery based on the greeting, “Hail, Caesar!” The reed with which they strike Jesus is too light to inflict injury, but suggests a king’s scepter. To strike a king with his own scepter is to use his symbol of power to demonstrate his weakness. Spitting could be a parody of the kiss of homage. The soldiers kneel before Jesus. Each of these actions is intended to mock Jesus for his pretensions to royalty. The irony, of course, is that Jesus really is a king, anointed by God and deserving of honor.
This mockery fulfills two Old Testament scriptures:
• “All those who see me mock me. They insult me with their lips. They shake their heads, saying, ‘He trusts in Yahweh; let him deliver him. Let him rescue him, since he delights in him'” (Psalm 22:7-8).
• “He was despised, and rejected by men; a man of suffering, and acquainted with disease. He was despised as one from whom men hide their face; and we didn’t respect him” (Isaiah 53:3).
“When they had mocked him, they took the purple off of him, and put his own garments on him. They led him out to crucify him” (v. 20). The condemned man would be led on a long route through the streets by four soldiers, two in front and two in back. He would carry the crossbar of the cross—the upright portion would already be in place at the crucifixion site. He would carry a sign on which the nature of his offense would be written—in this case, “King of the Jews.” The lengthy route through the streets is intended to impress on the populace the folly of criminal behavior.
MARK 15: 21-24. CRUCIFYING HIM, THEY PARTED HIS GARMENTS
21They compelled one passing by, coming from the country, Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to go with them, that he might bear his cross. 22They brought him to the place called Golgotha, which is, being interpreted, “The place of a skull.” 23They offered him wine mixed with myrrh to drink, but he didn’t take it. 24Crucifying him, they parted his garments among them, casting lots on them, what each should take.
“They compelled one passing by, coming from the country, Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to go with them, that he might bear his cross” (v. 21). Cyrene is a Greek colony in the country that we now know as Libya.
Being required to carry a cross for a criminal must be a crushing disappointment for Simon, who has come to the Holy City on a religious pilgrimage—very possibly a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage. Hoping for spiritual uplift and wonderful memories, Simon instead finds himself at the center of an ugly affair. To say that this incident spoils his weekend would be a gross understatement. However, Mark identifies him as “the father of Alexander and Rufus,” as if these two men are well known to the Christian community. Perhaps Simon became a Christian as a result of walking the way of sorrows with Jesus. Perhaps his sons followed in his footsteps, becoming familiar figures in the early church. If God can redeem Good Friday for Jesus, he can do the same for Simon.
Earlier Jesus said, “Whoever wants to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (8:34). Now, although not by choice, Simon becomes the first literally to do just that.
“They brought him to the place called Golgotha, which is, being interpreted, ‘The place of a skull'”(v. 22). The old Gospel song says, “On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross”—but the scriptures do not tell us that Golgotha is a hill. We don’t know the origin of its name. Perhaps it is shaped like a skull. It is unlikely that it would be a place where there would be human skulls lying around, because Jews are fastidious about burials, even of criminals (Deuteronomy 21:23) (Brooks, 257).
“They offered him wine mixed with myrrh to drink, but he didn’t take it” (v. 23). Scholars are divided on the issue of myrrh—whether it has a narcotic effect or is simply intended to make the wine more drinkable. This seems to be an allusion to Proverbs 31:6, “Give strong drink to him who is ready to perish; and wine to the bitter in soul,” the intent being to relieve suffering. Jesus has come to take the world’s sin and suffering upon himself, and so refuses the drink.
“Crucifying him, they parted his garments among them, casting lots on them, what each should take” (v. 24). So much has been written about the horrors of crucifixion that I will not elaborate here—and the Gospels tend not to pander to our interest in the horrid details. Crucifixion is death by exhaustion, and victims typically live several hours or several days, depending on their physical state when first hung on the cross. Men are usually crucified naked, but the Romans sometimes defer to Jewish sensibilities, allowing the victim a loincloth. Romans usually leave the corpse to rot on the cross to warn the populace of the folly of crime, but sometimes defer to Jewish sensibilities that require immediate burial in accord with Deuteronomy 21:23, which says, “his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall surely bury him the same day; for he who is hanged is accursed of God; that you don’t defile your land which Yahweh your God gives you for an inheritance.”
“Crucifying him, they parted his garments among them, casting lots on them, what each should take” (v. 24). The soldiers have an unpleasant and boring job. Some people remain alive on a cross for several days, and soldiers are required insure that nobody rescues the victims. They must maintain their vigil day and night with little to do but wait. In such circumstances, soldiers develop routines to pass the time. Dividing the victim’s clothing would be such a routine. With a little luck, they might sell the victim’s clothing for enough to buy a skin of wine to help them forget the unpleasantness of the affair. The irony, of course, is that the most momentous event of history is taking place in their midst, but they are looking down at a pile of clothing instead of up looking up to see Jesus. It is a common human experience to bury one’s nose in the trivial and to miss the crucial (this last word is related to the word cross).
MARK 15:25-32. SAVE YOURSELF!
25It was the third hour, and they crucified him. 26The superscription of his accusation was written over him, “THE KING OF THE JEWS.” 27With him they crucified two robbers; one on his right hand, and one on his left. 28The Scripture was fulfilled, which says, “He was numbered with transgressors.” 29Those who passed by blasphemed him, wagging their heads, and saying, “Ha! You who destroy the temple, and build it in three days, 30save yourself, and come down from the cross!” 31Likewise, also the chief priests mocking among themselves with the scribes said, “He saved others. He can’t save himself.32Let the Christ, the King of Israel, now come down from the cross, that we may see and believe him.” Those who were crucified with him insulted him.
“It was the third hour, and they crucified him” (v. 25). This early hour (nine o’clock A.M.) raises two issues: The first is whether it would be possible to try Jesus before Pilate and to have him flogged, mocked, and marched to the crucifixion site by such an early hour. The second is that the Gospel of John has Jesus still with Pilate at noon (the sixth hour). There are no definitive answers to the issues raised by Mark’s early hour.
“The superscription of his accusation was written over him, ‘THE KING OF THE JEWS'” (v. 26). As far as the Jewish leadership is concerned, Jesus’ crime is blasphemy—his claim to be the messiah. As far as the Romans are concerned, Jesus’ crime is that he has set himself up as King of the Jews—a rival to Caesar. As far as Mark is concerned, Jesus is both messiah and King of the Jews, and the cross is his enthronement. In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ cross is presented as a part of his glorification. Mark does not use the word, glorification, but that is very much how he views the cross.
“With him they crucified two robbers; one on his right hand, and one on his left” (v. 27)—an allusion to the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53:12, “he poured out his soul to death, and was numbered with the transgressors.” The two bandits could be insurrectionists rather than common thieves.
Earlier James and John requested of Jesus, “Grant to us that we may sit, one at your right hand, and one at your left hand, in your glory” (10:37). Now James and John are nowhere to be found. Only women are present, watching from a distance (v. 40). Peter has denied Jesus (14:66-72), and everyone else has abandoned him. Those who remain (with the exception of the women) are there for the purpose of crucifying or mocking him. Jesus is cosmically alone.
There are many reasons to believe that Jesus was, in fact, crucified. One reason has to do with the shameful nature of crucifixion—no death was more shameful or degrading. If the early Christians had been trying to invent a story to impress people, this is hardly the story they would have chosen (Donahue & Harrington, 445).
“The Scripture was fulfilled, which says, ‘He was numbered with transgressors'” (v. 28). At some point in time, a scribe inserted Isaiah 53:12, which became verse 28, but it is not found in the best manuscripts. A number of modern translations leave it out.
“Those who passed by blasphemed him, wagging their heads, and saying, ‘Ha! You who destroy the temple, and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross'” (v. 29-30). Passersby, priests and thieves join together for the third and last mocking of Jesus. They challenge him to save himself and to come down from the cross (v. 30). “Shaking their heads” is a gesture of contempt.
“Likewise, also the chief priests mocking among themselves with the scribes said, ‘He saved others. He can’t save himself'” (v. 31). Again, these verses are steeped in irony. Jesus cannot save himself and come down from the cross without aborting his mission to save the world. It is true that “he cannot save himself,” but not because he is helpless. The challenge to come down from the cross so that they might believe (v. 32) demonstrates their lack of faith—faith does not require such signs.
“‘Let the Christ, the King of Israel, now come down from the cross, that we may see and believe him.’ Those who were crucified with him insulted him” (v. 32). Even the thieves join in this tormenting of Jesus (v. 33)—Mark does not mention the good thief who takes Jesus’ side—only Luke tells us that part of the story (Luke 23:42).
MARK 15:33-39. TRULY, THIS MAN WAS THE SON OF GOD!
33When the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land (Greek: gen—from ge, which means land or earth) until the ninth hour. 34At the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which is, being interpreted, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 35Some of those who stood by, when they heard it, said, “Behold, he is calling Elijah.” 36One ran, and filling a sponge full of vinegar, put it on a reed, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Let him be. Let’s see whether Elijah comes to take him down.” 37Jesus cried out with a loud voice, and gave up the spirit. 38The veil of the temple was torn in two from the top to the bottom.39When the centurion, who stood by opposite him, saw that he cried out like this and breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”
“When the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land (gen) until the ninth hour” (v. 33). The darkness from noon to three o’clock is an allusion to Amos 8:9, “On that day, says the Lord God, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight.” It is reminiscent of one of the plagues of Egypt, in which God caused darkness to fall over the land of Egypt, a darkness that could be felt (Exodus 10:21). It is an eschatological sign, signifying the judgment of God, not just on Jerusalem or Israel, but on the whole earth (Greek: gen).
“At the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which is, being interpreted, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (v. 34). The words come from Psalm 22:1, a psalm that is at the same time the lament of a righteous sufferer and his confident hope of vindication. The psalmist who asks why God has abandoned him also says that God, “has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, Neither has he hidden his face from him; but when he cried to him, he heard” (Psalm 22:24). Mark quotes the Psalm in Aramaic, and then gives the meaning in Greek.
Jesus, who has “emptied himself” of his heavenly glory (Philippians 2:7) and has taken on human flesh now suffers not only the pain of his wounds but also the pain of spiritual loneliness. Psalm 22:1 expresses that kind of painful loneliness, but also expresses great hope in God the deliverer. Its last verses are celebratory in tone. The Jews who witnessed the crucifixion and heard Jesus’ words would be quite familiar with Psalm 22, and would know that the grim beginning words quoted by Jesus serve only to set the stage for God’s deliverance.
“Some of those who stood by, when they heard it, said, ‘Behold, he is calling Elijah'” (v. 35). Bystanders either misunderstand Eloi, Eloi or decide to mock Jesus once again by re-interpreting those words to mean Elijah, a person who is supposed to help people in distress.
But Jesus earlier said, “Elijah has come, and they have also done to him whatever they wanted to, even as it is written about him” (9:13). Matthew’s Gospel makes it clear that Jesus understood John the Baptist to be the embodiment of Elijah (Matthew 17:11-13). But John’s role was not to defend Jesus from those who wanted to kill him. John’s role was to prepare the way for Jesus—to proclaim, “Make ready the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight” (1:2-3).
“One ran, and filling a sponge full of vinegar, put it on a reed, and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Let him be. Let’s see whether Elijah comes to take him down'” (v. 36). A sponge of sour wine could be intended either to ease Jesus’ discomfort or to torment him even more. The comment about Elijah, however, constitutes part of the mockery.
“Jesus cried out with a loud voice, and gave up the spirit” (v. 37). Those who suffered crucifixion most often grew weaker and weaker until they lapsed into unconsciousness. This verse tells us that Jesus remained conscious and alert until the moment of his death—and died with a loud shout.
What did Jesus say? Mark doesn’t tell us. Jesus’ dying words in Luke’s Gospel were “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46). John records Jesus’ dying words as “It is finished” (John 19:30). Both of those reflect Jesus’ assurance that he had completed the Godly work that he had come to earth to do.
“The veil of the temple was torn in two from the top to the bottom” (v. 38). Like the darkness, this is an eschatological sign, but we are not certain of its meaning. The temple had two veils, an outer veil that hung at the entrance to the sanctuary and an inner veil that hung between the sanctuary and the Holy of Holies. Only the high priest was allowed to enter through the inner veil, and he only on the Day of Atonement.
• If it was the outer veil that was torn, it would signify the opening of the holy precincts—expanding those eligible for salvation to include Gentiles as well as Jews.
• If it was the inner veil that was torn, it signals that the death of Jesus has ripped open the barrier between God and humans—breaking down the dividing wall (Ephesians 2:14)—granting free access to all—and this is the usual interpretation (see also Hebrews 10:19-21).
The Roman centurion, seeing Jesus die, says, “Truly this man was the Son of God” (v. 39). He is responding, not to signs such as the darkness or the torn veil, but to Jesus himself. This centurion, captain of the squad guarding Jesus, has seen men die, but he sees in Jesus’ death something that he has not seen before. His comment reminds us of the beginning of Jesus ministry, when the heavens were torn apart and the voice of God declared, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (1:10-11)—so Jesus’ ministry begins and ends with affirmations that he is the Son of God. We are not surprised that God would say this at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, but we are surprised at this centurion’s statement. This is the first such confession of faith in this Gospel, and is a portent of things to come—the opening of the Gospel to Gentiles.
MARK 15:40-41. THERE WERE ALSO WOMEN, WATCHING FROM AFAR
40There were also women watching from afar, among whom were both Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome; 41who, when he was in Galilee, followed him, and served him; and many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem.
“There were also women watching from afar, among whom were both Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome” (v. 40). As Jesus is crucified, his disciples, the twelve, are nowhere to be found. Throughout his Gospel, Mark has portrayed them as unfaithful and unseeing. These women stand in marked contrast. We would expect them to stay away, because it would be so difficult to watch Jesus being shamed and brutalized—but they come and stay. They watch from a distance, but we can be sure that Jesus knows that they are there. Their presence speaks loudly of their love. They cannot rescue Jesus, but they can be present with him in his darkest moment. All others have either abandoned or tormented him, but these women remain faithful.
The role of these women as witnesses is remarkable. Jewish law does not acknowledge women as witnesses, but these women will serve as witnesses to the crucifixion, the burial (15:47) and the resurrection (16:4-6).
Mark gives us the names of these three women:
• Mary Magdalene is a woman from whom Jesus has cast out demons (16:9; Luke 8:2). Tradition suggests that she might have been a prostitute, but there is no biblical evidence for that.
• Mary is the mother of James and Joses. Mark mentions these men’s names as if they are well known to the church. Earlier Mark told us that two of Jesus’ brothers are named James and Joses (6:3), so it is possible that this Mary is the mother of Jesus—but it seems more likely that Mark would identify Jesus’ mother as such. We know from John’s Gospel that the mother of Jesus was present at the crucifixion, as was Mary Magdalene and Mary, the wife of Clopas (John 19:25).
• Salome could be the mother of James and John (see Matthew 27:56).
Mark tells us that these women “who, when he was in Galilee, followed him, and served him” (v. 41). Limited by gender roles, there was much that these women could not do, but they found much that they could do. They quietly undergirded Jesus’ work. Mark says that there were “and many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem.” This is the first that we have heard of them.
MARK 15:42-47. THEY LAID HIM IN A TOMB
42When evening had now come, because it was the Preparation Day, that is, the day before the Sabbath, 43Joseph of Arimathaea, a prominent council member who also himself was looking for the Kingdom of God, came. He boldly went in to Pilate, and asked for Jesus’ body. 44Pilate marveled if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he had been dead long.45When he found out from the centurion, he granted the body to Joseph. 46He bought a linen cloth, and taking him down, wound him in the linen cloth, and laid him in a tomb which had been cut out of a rock. He rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. 47Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of Joses, saw where he was laid.
“When evening had now come, because it was the Preparation Day, that is, the day before the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathaea, a prominent council member who also himself was looking for the Kingdom of God, came. He boldly went in to Pilate, and asked for Jesus’ body” (vv. 42-43). Jesus died at three o’clock (v. 34). It is Friday afternoon, and the Sabbath will begin at sundown, about six o’clock at this time of year. Once the Sabbath begins, it will no longer be possible, according to Jewish law, to proceed with the preparation or burial of Jesus’ body. Anyone who has ever arranged a funeral for a loved one will understand the difficulty of recovering a body from a cross, preparing it and burying it in only three hours.
Rome’s usual custom is to leaves bodies on the cross as a continuing warning to those who might otherwise break the law. Jewish law, however, requires burial before sundown of anyone hung on a tree. The purpose is to avoid defiling the land rather than to honor the body, because “he who is hanged is accursed of God” (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). If asked, Rome will sometimes turn over the body to the family for burial—but not if the person was convicted of treason. Pilate, however, is surely aware of Jewish sensibilities regarding burial and is clearly unconvinced of Jesus’ guilt.
Joseph of Arimathea is “a respected member of the council” (v. 43). All four Gospels mention Joseph of Arimathea. The council of which he is a member is the Sanhedrin, the governing body of the Jews. The Gospels tell us that Joseph was a secret disciple “because of his fear of the Jews (John 19:38)—that he had not agreed to the council’s plan and action (Luke 23:51)—that he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God (Mark 15:43; Luke 23:51)—that he was rich (Matthew 27:57)—that he “boldly went in to Pilate, and asked for Jesus’ body” (Mark 15:43)—that he and Nicodemus wrapped Jesus’ body “and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as the custom of the Jews is to bury” (John 19:40)—that the tomb in which he buried Jesus was “a tomb that was cut in stone, where no one had ever been laid” (Luke 23:53)—that it was “his own new tomb, which he had cut out in the rock” (Matthew 27:60)—and that he rolled a great stone to seal the door to the tomb (Mark 15:46; Matthew 27:60).
Mark tells us that Joseph goes boldly to Pilate to request the body for burial—BOLDLY! He has, no doubt, been chosen to serve on the Sanhedrin because of the respect that people have for his reputation. It takes a great deal to establish such a reputation, but it takes little to compromise it. Joseph assumes a good deal of personal risk by going to Pilate with a request to bury a man so despised by his peers on the Sanhedrin—a man who was crucified for treason by the Romans.
An ordinary man would find it difficult to gain access to Pilate, but Joseph’s position as a member of the Sanhedrin gives him access.
“Pilate marveled if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he had been dead long. When he found out from the centurion, he granted the body to Joseph”(v. 44-45). It is not uncommon for people to suffer for two or three days on a cross, but Jesus lived only six hours. Pilate summons the centurion to confirm Jesus’ death—presumably the centurion who has just said that Jesus is the Son of God. Having confirmed Jesus’ death, Pilate releases the body to Joseph. This incident has the effect of eliminating any question about whether Jesus was really dead. The centurion certifies the death, and Joseph buries Jesus. Neither would have taken these actions unless they were certain of Jesus’ death.
“He bought a linen cloth, and taking him down, wound him in the linen cloth, and laid him in a tomb which had been cut out of a rock. He rolled a stone against the door of the tomb” (v. 46). Given Joseph’s high status, the difficulty of handling a dead body, and the short time available, it seems likely that Joseph employs servants to remove Jesus’ body from the cross and to prepare it for burial. Mark tells us that he wraps the body in a linen cloth, signifying an honorable burial. He lays it in a tomb hewn out of rock, and rolls a stone against the entrance to protect the body from animals or grave robbers.
“Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of Joses, saw where he was laid” (v. 47). Two of the women whom Mark named in v. 40 as witnesses to the crucifixion also witness the burial. All three will serve as witnesses to the open tomb (16:1-4).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2015, Richard Niell Donovan