Jesus’ crucifixion is the most surprising, memorable, and important fact about him.

Mark 15:33-41


Remembered by his death

About a decade ago, my wife Linda and I had the privilege of visiting Zurich, Switzerland. Our primary interest in that city was the life and work of Ulrich Zwingli, the sixteenth century father of the Swiss-German Reformed faith. The statue in Zurich that honors him depicts Zwingli with a sword in his hand because he died in a war against the Catholic provinces of Switzerland. A brilliant intellectual with bold ideas and decisive action is remembered by the way he died.

The sword is an appropriate symbol of Zwingli. He was a fighter – a fighter for the truth of the gospel, for biblical worship, for married priests, and for many other causes. Still, isn’t it odd when your icon is the instrument of your death?

We should never become too comfortable with the fact that the symbol most commonly used to represent Jesus is a cross. The cross is the most visible symbol of Jesus because Jesus’ crucifixion is the most surprising, memorable, and important fact about him. Surprising: if Jesus is who we believe him to be, the second person of the Trinity, it’s far more surprising that he died than that he rose from the dead. Memorable: Jesus himself said to remember him not by an empty tomb, but by broken bread and poured wine that represent his death. Important: you could say Jesus’ death would have no significance without his resurrection, and you would be right, but there is no need for resurrection without the cross. The New Testament writers say more about his death than his resurrection. Mark needs 119 verses to tell the story of Good Friday, and only 8 to describe Easter Sunday.

The meaning of death

We have been walking through Holy Week for the last few Sundays, one day of the week each Sunday. On Sunday Jesus entered Jerusalem as a peacemaking king, not a warrior. On Monday he taught the disciples a lesson they would need all week about believing God for the impossible when the fig tree he cursed withered and died. On Tuesday he interacted on the temple mount with the Jewish leaders as they tried to create a case against him that would justify the death penalty. On Wednesday, he stayed out of sight while Judas betrayed him for thirty pieces of silver. On Thursday, Jesus met privately with his disciples in an Upper Room to prepare them not only for his death, but for their life when they could no longer see or touch him.

Today we come to Friday of Holy Week, the day Jesus died. The Bible records much about this day. Jesus never slept Thursday night. From late Thursday night through Friday morning at 9 AM, Jesus left the Upper Room, prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, was taken into custody by a small army Judas guided, endured a series of trials by Jewish and Roman authorities, was mocked and whipped, and was forced to carry his cross beam from the site of his condemnation to the site of his execution just outside the city. He hung on the cross from about 9 AM to 3 PM, then expired and was buried.

Mark 15:33-41 includes nine verses that cover three hours – Noon to 3 PM. The center verse (37) records Jesus’ moment of expiration. What do we learn from Mark about the meaning of death?

Death darkens (33). Darkness blanketed the land during Jesus’ final three hours. Darkness is scary because you can’t see what’s in front of you. Darkness obscures, and so it frightens. Death is like that. The darkness itself is terrifying.

Death separates (34). Jesus calls out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus is very alone. He’s suspended between heaven and earth, rejected by both. Death severs relationships. That’s why it hurts so much.

Death confuses (35-36). “My God” in Hebrew is “Eli,” which sounds like a short form of Elijah, the prophet who is associated with the coming of Messiah in Judaism. The soldiers offered him wine, which they had probably brought to deaden their own senses during such a gruesome act. They were confused, but death perplexes everyone.

Death finishes (37). This is a rather obvious point, I suppose, but let’s not forget about it. “Having released a great cry, Jesus breathed his last” is the way Mark describes that moment. The compound word combines “out” and “spirit” or “breath.” The King James Version says he “gave up the ghost,” so now you know where that phrase came from. He expired. Life was over.

Death defines (38-39). At the moment Jesus expired, the thick curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place in the temple tore from top to bottom. Also at that moment, the centurion (probably comparable to a sergeant in our Army, but this one specialized in executions) who saw how he died said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” As soon as you die, people start saying who they think you were.

Death connects (40-41). Earlier we said that death separates, and that is true. The irony is that death also connects. Mark mentions several women by name, and implies that there were others as well. The disciples had all forsaken Jesus, but these women who had traveled with the boys during the itinerant ministry and helped with practical matters stayed with him and clung to each other.

All of this is true about Jesus’ death, and it’s true of yours and mine as well. Why is this important? The writer of Hebrews (2:17) says that Jesus was made like us every way, fully human, so he could be a faithful high priest for us. A significant part of Jesus’ incarnation was a fully human death.

The meaning of his death

Scholars often note that the Gospels are not biographies. Each evangelist has an apologetic and evangelistic purpose – he wants you to believe in Jesus. Since that is true, it’s a bit surprising to me that the Gospel writers don’t write into their accounts more explicit theology than they do. Mark is writing this Gospel in Rome, probably two or three decades after the events. I think he’s writing a prequel to Paul’s letter to the Romans, that he and the Roman Christians already had access to that great treatise. If that’s true, he could have quoted from Paul whose Christology was so highly developed. Instead, Mark is content just to tell you what happened. We, however, can look back on his account of Good Friday and find layer upon layer of rich, life-altering truth.

Most importantly, it’s clear from what Mark writes that this is no ordinary death. Yes, we can find significant commonality between our death and Jesus’ death, but Mark would not want you reading this text and thinking his death and your death have the same meaning. Jesus is unique in human history in being remembered and symbolized primarily by his execution – for good reason.

What Mark writes not only marks Jesus’ death as unique, but also fills it with meaning unlike any other death. We have to push back a little from this moment to get it. That’s why movies like “The Passion of the Christ” don’t do justice to Jesus’ death. They focus your attention on that moment, that day, on what happened – but not on what it means. What is the meaning of Jesus’ death?

First, his death justifies hope. When Jesus cries out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he is quoting from Psalm 22. We Christians read Psalm 22 as a Messianic psalm (a psalm speaking of the Messiah), but Jews don’t agree.

Why? Messiahs shouldn’t need to lament about anything, in the Jewish view. Messiahs come, conquer, and make the world right. To this day, the reason Jews don’t honor Jesus as Messiah is because from their standpoint Jesus didn’t change anything. He didn’t throw off the Romans and, in fact, a few decades later the Romans destroyed the magnificent Jewish temple which has never been rebuilt. Subsequent history has unfolded a string of pogroms culminating in the Holocaust. If Jesus had been Messiah, that should never have happened. A Jewish Messiah doesn’t need to sing about being God-forsaken.

What Jews miss in their own Bible is the consistent theme of the righteous sufferer. In fact, it seems that the more righteous the person, the greater the suffering. That would logically lead one to believe that the most righteous person ever would suffer the most, that God himself, if he were to show up in the world, would suffer infinitely.

Many commentators believe that when Jesus quotes Psalm 22:1, he does so to turn the whole psalm, not just the first verse, into a Messianic psalm. Indeed, other parts of the psalm are quoted in the New Testament. Psalm 22 is one of the deepest expressions of pain and suffering in the Bible, but it ends on a note of vindication and praise: “You who fear the LORD, praise him!… For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of his afflicted one” (vv. 23-24).

David writes Psalm 22 and looks for a reason to turn lament into praise, but during the course of his life hope rises and falls, only to rise and fall again. From a human perspective, we never know what’s right around the corner. And we struggle with whether we’ve done something to deserve the struggles we face.

Jesus, the greatest human being, suffers the worst human fate as he hangs on that cross. He doesn’t just feel forsaken; he is abandoned by God – yet without breaking the unity of the Trinity. He bears our curse on the tree, as Paul says in Galatians 3:13. “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us,” Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 5:21.

If the most horrible, the most unjust, the deepest suffering ever witnessed on the face of this dark earth can result in salvation, in hope, in redemption, then no suffering or death is meaningless. In the midst of our suffering, we can say with Paul, “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him freely give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). It is the death of Jesus Christ that justifies hope.

Second, his death executes death. Mark offers a number of hints that Jesus died willingly. Earlier he had said this is why he came into the world – “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). He also chose how and when he would die.

The entirety of Holy Week sees this theme play out. The Jewish leaders have tried to get him before, and they couldn’t. Now he deliberately plays into their hands. He enters the city with crowds shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” He goes into the temple and chases out the moneychangers, provoking the priests. He dodges every illegitimate attempt to create a false accusation, and then plainly tells them he is the Christ, and they will see him sitting at the right hand of God. When he’s ready to die, he’s willing to die – but it will be on his terms and timetable.

In Mark’s account of Jesus’ death, he utters a loud cry just before his last breath. If you’ve ever been with someone at death, you know people don’t yell just before they die. Jesus does so to demonstrate that he was in charge of life, even to the end.

The point of all this is that Jesus takes charge of death. Death is a terrorist if death is in charge. But in Jesus’ death we see that death is no longer in charge. It doesn’t matter when or how we die, young or old, unexpected or after years of battle. Death is not in charge. Jesus is.

If we fear death, we need to return to this scene and remember that no matter how difficult or undeserved our death or the death of a loved one may be, it will never be as difficult or undeserved as Jesus’ death. Yes, it’s because of the resurrection that Paul mocks death: “Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55) But Jesus models for us that we can stare death down, walk right toward it, choose the ultimate sacrifice, and not be afraid. Death holds no terror for the believer because Jesus destroyed its power.

Third, his death crushes sin. At the moment of Jesus’ death, the curtain that separated the Holy of Holies, that marked it as an inaccessible place, was torn from top to bottom. Historians tell us the curtain was 60’ high, 30’ wide, and 4” thick. Inexplicably from a human perspective, on that day it ripped – not from bottom to top but from top to bottom. It wasn’t a human event; it was supernatural.

Death is separation – separation from others but also separation from God because of sin. Or it used to be, before Jesus died. Paul writes to the Romans, “For we know that our old self was crucified with him” (Romans 6:6). The Heidelberg Catechism notes this as one of the great benefits of Christ’s sacrifice and death on the cross. When he died, sin’s power over you and me perished as well.

The catechism also asks, “Since Christ died for us, why do we have to die?” I love this answer: “To put an end to our sinning.” Christ conquered death and sin, but we still live in a sinful world and battle a sinful nature. One of the reasons death is not fearful for us is it has such a glorious result. When we die, the next thing is we rise with full power over sin. That is the meaning of death, thanks be to God, and it’s all because Jesus died.

That’s a lot of good news before we even get to the resurrection. We’ll go there next Sunday. Amen.

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