For two hundred years Christians have sung, “In the cross of Christ I glory, towering o’er the wrecks of time; all the light of sacred story gathers round its head sublime.”1 Surely the story of God’s redemption does gather around the cross of Christ. But as we begin to look into the events of Christ’s crucifixion we wonder, “Where is the glory?” Instead we see shame, humiliation, and gloom. If the cross is glorious, its glories are veiled to natural man under a dark curtain.
He Was Crucified (Mark 15:16–32)
Mark’s crucifixion narrative describes Christ’s final hours in four locations: the Praetorium, the road out of Jerusalem, Golgotha, and the cross; each one step lower in his descent into hell.
Jesus’ Suffering in the Praetorium (vv. 16–20)
The soldiers who led Jesus to the Praetorium (Matt. 27:27), or Roman headquarters, saw him as just another—though notorious—“criminal” to be punished. For them Jesus could later pray, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). They stripped Him of His clothes and, mocking His claim to royalty, wrapped Him in a scarlet robe and pressed a crown of thorns upon His head. William Hendriksen points out that every thorn prick we experience is a reminder of the curse of the ground (Gen. 3:18). Now Christ takes upon His own head this thorny curse.2 Into His hand they put a flimsy reed to symbolize a scepter. They knelt in phony homage before Him. With His own “scepter” they struck Him on the head (Matt. 27:30), perhaps indicating that His own actions had brought this upon Him (if they only knew!). With each blow, the scepter drives the thorns deeper into Christ’s brow. Finally, the soldiers refitted Jesus with His own dirty, bloody clothes.
It is amazing that we can care so much for our dignity when our Savior allowed Himself to be stripped and utterly humiliated to win our salvation! Jesus’ dignity bowed before His mission.
Jesus’ Suffering on the Road out of Jerusalem (v. 21)
The Old Testament required the sin offering be made outside the camp (Exod. 29:14; Lev. 4:21) signifying sin’s repulsiveness. As the great sin offering, Jesus was appropriately sacrificed outside the camp (Heb. 13:11–12). Exiting the Praetorium the soldiers hefted the heavy cross upon Jesus’ lacerated back. Dragging His burden behind Him He began that painful walk to Golgotha—like a modern death-row inmate being forced to mix his own lethal concoction. In Old Testament imagery the greater Son of Promise carried His own wood to the sacrificial alter (Gen. 22:6). Because of the beating Christ had received He became unable to carry the cross. The man conscripted to carry it, Simon from Cyrene, likely later became a Christian (Rom. 16:13). As He walked great crowds of people wept over Jesus (Luke 23:27–31). Weak as He was Jesus warned them to heed instead their own future. Jesus preached the gospel to the end!
Jesus’ Suffering at Golgotha (vv. 22–24)
Arriving at Golgotha (“Place of a Skull”) Jesus was offered myrrh-laced wine to dull the pain; perhaps an intended love token from His few lingering friends. Raising it to His lips He discerned its character (Matt. 27:34). Because He desired a clear mind as He ministered from the cross, reciting and fulfilling Scripture, He refused to drink.3 He manfully drank from His Father’s cup to the last accursed drop, enduring the full measure of divine chastisement for our redemption.
Again, Jesus’ garments were removed and divided. When Adam sinned God clothed him. When Christ atoned for our sin God stripped Him. He was stripped naked so that we would not have to appear naked before God but instead be clothed in His righteousness.
Jesus’ Suffering on the Cross (vv. 25–32)
At Golgotha Jesus was stretched out on the cross as soldiers drove nails into His hands and feet. As the base of the cross dropped into its hole in the ground His body rippled with pain.4 Hung between heaven and earth, with a criminal indictment pinned above His head, Christ was counted as a transgressor (vv. 27–28; cf. Isa. 53:12). God does not delight in the death of the wicked (Ezek. 33:11); the Jewish leaders relished in the death of the Righteous. “Come down, and we’ll believe in you!” they cried. Despite the great temptation to lash out in self-defense Christ remained on the cross. To prove His great love for us, Christ endured mocking by both great and small—including common criminals (vv. 29–32).
The design of crucifixion was to make a public spectacle of the accused. In God’s providence, the real public spectacle was the “principalities and powers” that Christ defeated at the cross (Col. 2:15). “The greater . . . disgrace which he endured before the world so much the more acceptable and noble a spectacle did he exhibit in his death to God.”5 With all our hearts we can sing, “In the cross of Christ I glory, towering o’er the wrecks of time!”
He Died (Mark 15:33–47)
As Christ suffocated on the cross, Mark’s great theme verse neared fulfillment: “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give His life a ransom for many” (10:45).
Last Moments (vv. 33–36)
From noon until three, darkness blanketed the land offering poetic commentary on the scene at Golgotha. As the plague of darkness symbolized God’s judgment against Egypt (Exod. 11:21–23), so this miraculous darkness publicly denounced the treasonous actions of apostate Israel. It also symbolized the hellish judgment that was falling upon Christ. God turned the radiance of His face from Jerusalem, where the curse-bearer hung. “Hell came to Calvary that day, and the Savior descended into it and bore its horrors in our stead.”6 At the darkest hour of history God was doing a great work. Believers experience the light of God’s grace because Christ experienced the darkness of dereliction. His loss is our gain.
The last words of Christ that Mark records reflect the dreadful darkness smothering the land: “My God, you’ve forsaken me . . . Why?” In His humanity and under the duress to which He had been subjected, the Son loses sight of the Father’s abiding love. In the capacity of Only Begotten Son Christ is never forsaken by His Father. But as sin-bearer (2 Cor. 5:21) He is rejected so that we might never be. To His cry, Christ received no immediate answer, neither from the Father nor from Elijah.7 For a time, the Father held offered no help that He might demonstrate the serious nature of the atonement.
Last Breath (v. 37)
His last loud cry (v. 37) is evidence of both the physical and spiritual torment He endured on our behalf. When Christ realized the full weight of God’s opposition to Him as sin-bearer He cried out in terror. Still, even under unspeakable torment, He died not in despair but in hope: “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). Even when questioning His forsakenness He addressed the Lord as “my God.” Entrusting Himself to the care of His father, He breathed His last.
The Christian’s experience of death has been softened by Christ’s. He died under the curse of God; we die in a perfect right standing before God. He died forsaken; we die having been accepted in the beloved (Eph. 1:6) and in fellowship with God through His Spirit. Because Christ committed His soul in death to the Lord, we can do the same. As this last breath exited Christ’s body the ransom that He came to pay was paid. Herein is our hope. A day is coming when each of us will breathe our last. The only way to prepare for that day is to commit ourselves to Jesus.
Witnesses of Christ’s Death (vv. 38–41)
As Paul would later remind King Agrippa, Christ died not in a hidden corner but on a public stage before hosts of witnesses. According to Mark, one witness to Christ’s death was the veil that separated the temple’s Holy Place from the Most Holy Place (Exod. 26:33). Here, once a year, God would meet with the high priest who represented the people (Heb. 9:4). The writer to the Hebrews interprets this veil, that way into the Holy of Holies, as a symbol of Christ’s flesh (Heb. 10:19–25). Christ’s broken body is the new and living approach to God. During the old dispensation, any outsider who came near the veil was killed (Num. 18:17). In Christ we approach God with confidence (vv. 19, 22; Eph. 2:14).
Another witness to Christ’s death was the centurion (v. 39). Something about Christ’s death wrested from His own killer a surprising confession: “This man was the Son of God.” “The centurion must have felt how nature reacted to the death of Jesus.”8 He might have perceived that Christ reverently wrestled with God His Father and died as a faithful Son. The Man whom he had just helped to kill was no mere man.
A third witness to Christ’s death was a group of devoted women (vv. 40–41). The world of Jesus’ time viciously discriminated against women. But God honored women as witnesses of His death and resurrection; with the exception of John we know of no man who lovingly followed Jesus to the cross. So many women followed Jesus because He didn’t judge them by their gender. Through their contact with the Savior they were emboldened to live vigorous Christian lives, sharing in the ministry of Christ. These women, like their male co-workers, labored in the ministry of the gospel because they looked to Jesus (v. 40) for comfort in life and in death. Those who look to Jesus find that no personal sacrifice for God is too great.
He Was Buried (Mark 15:42–47)
All burials are solemn events. If not for the burial of Christ, they would also all be tragic. Christ’s burial is the last stage of His humiliation. It is also the beginning of His glorification and the basis for any human hope beyond the grave.
Background to the Burial (vv. 41–42a)
Because it was unlawful for a body to hang overnight and because that particular evening brought on the Sabbath, Jesus’ body was quickly removed before dusk (Luke 23:54; cf. Deut. 21:23). For this reason a nearby grave was used (John 19:41). Jesus’ body, like the bodies of all those who died an accursed death, also needed to be removed by evening to prevent the land from being defiled at the start of a new day.9 Jesus’ body was removed from the cross to signify the removal of the curse. Sin’s wages have been paid. The sacrifice is now handled with honor and dignity.
The “undertaker,” Joseph of Arimathea, was a good and righteous man (Luke 23:50) who was looking for the kingdom (Mark 15:43) and had not consented to Jesus’ death (Luke 23:51). It is striking that both he and his accomplice, Nicodemus, were respected members of the Sanhedrin (Mark 15:43). God’s grace can win over even the most natural of enemies.
Both men were secret disciples of Jesus (John 19:38; Matt. 27:57) who “because of the Pharisees . . . did not confess Him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God” (John 12:42). Because the entire council condemned Him to death (Mark 14:64) Joseph, an influential, good man, might have absented from the vote. As Edmund Burke said, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Joseph had learned this lesson and now enlisted his influence and affluence (Matt. 27:57) in the service of God.
Joseph’s Request and Action (vv. 43b–47)
When Joseph asked Pilate for Jesus’ body he was endangering his good position as a prominent councilman. But this secret disciple had been strengthened by the death of Christ. He now answered God’s call not waste the opportunities each of our respective prominence affords. Having received permission from Pilate, Joseph and Nicodemus proceed to care for the body:
Jesus’ body is wrapped completely in a linen shroud . . . [with] a sweat cloth . . . wrapped around the head. Considering the large quantity of ointment (75 pounds) we have to imagine that the entire body and head were covered, with the cloths and the surrounding shroud drenched in ointment and formed, as it were, into a fragrant, protective second skin . . . Jesus’ burial is lavish.10
The way that Joseph and Nicodemus cared for the body of Jesus contributes to a theology for the care of the dead. Christians care for bodies because God cares for bodies. By reflecting the manner in which the Firstfruits of the resurrection was buried (1 Cor. 15:20) we give tangible credence to our belief in the resurrection. By contrast, in the Bible cremation is a sign of judgment, not honor (1 Kings 13:2). It is no wonder that Joseph did not burn Jesus’ body on a pyre, collect the ashes, and store them in a jar. That Joseph buried Christ in his own tomb (v. 46) reveals that he was preparing for his own eternity even when he was completely healthy. Modern longevity may incline us to forget about the brevity of life. But the godly prepare for death without superstition.
Why Was Christ Buried?
Christ was buried “to prove that he really died.”11 Jesus’ death was witnessed by huge crowds, demonstrated by a soldier’s spear, and certified by the Roman governor. He was copiously embalmed and sealed in a tomb before eyewitnesses. Allowing, for the sake of argument, that Jesus did not rise from the dead and that the disciples really did steal Jesus’ body, what they stole was a dead body (Matt. 28:13). But hundreds of witnesses saw Jesus alive over the next forty days. The burial narrative confirms Jesus’ death, beyond a shadow of doubt, and sets up the marvelous resurrection account.
Still, Christ’s tomb speaks to more than the reality of His death. Jesus sanctified the grave. It is unsettling to think about dying. If Christ’s body had simply ascended into heaven from the cross we wouldn’t know how to relate to the grave. But Christ’s burial (and subsequent resurrection) teach us that death need not be damning. As the good shepherd, Christ never leads where He has not first gone Himself. Now in heaven Christ gently leads us to our own graves saying, “I’ve been there before and will lead you through. Trust me.”
Some time ago, someone asked me the kind of question a pastor loves to hear: “How can I grow in love for God?” That’s a great question. The greatest commandment is not to be successful for God, or appreciated by people, but to love God. If I had to give just one answer to that question it would be this: We grow in love for God by looking to the cross (cf. 1 John 4:10). There we See from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down. Did e’re such love and sorrow meet? Or thorns compose so rich a crown? Were the whole realm of glory mine that were a present far too small. Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.12
1. John Bowring, “In the Cross of Christ I Glory,” Psalter Hymnal (Grand Rapids: Publication Committee of the Christian Reformed Church, 1976), song number 429. 2. William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Mark, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976), 644. 3. Later, in response to Jesus’ words, “I thirst,” He is given a sponge full of vinegar (Luke 19:28–29). Because this sour wine was not mingled with myrrh He felt free to drink (John 19:30). 4. Perhaps because of its gruesome nature and out of reverence to Jesus none of the Gospel writers gratuitously describe the actual crucifixion. 5. John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989), vol. 1, 296. 6. Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Mark, 660. 7. The onlookers mistook Christ’s cry as directed to Elijah (vv. 35–36). His name in Aramaic sounds similar to the name of God that Christ used. Christ’s question is answered as He is glorified beginning with His resurrection (cf. Ps. 22:21). 8. Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Mark, 666. Matthew tells us (27:51–54) that other miraculous events took place which contributed to the response of faith. 9. Cf. John Calvin, Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses Arranged in a Harmony (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1989), vol. 3, 47–48. 10. Jakob Van Bruggen, Christ on Earth: The Gospel Narratives as History (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 272. 11. Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A 41. 12. Isaac Watts, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” Psalter Hymnal (Grand Rapids: Publication Committee of the Christian Reformed Church, 1976), song number 350.
Rev. William Boekestein is the pastor of Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, MI.
Points to Ponder and Discuss
1. Calvin says that these verses “call for secret meditation, rather than for the ornament of words.” Why is this so? If possible, spend some time meditating on these verses.
2. How can you be strengthened by the prolonged mocking which Jesus endured (cf. 1 Pet. 2:23–24)?
3. How does Christ’s forsakenness comfort us during our seasons of forsakenness?
4. How does Christ illustrate that death is a violent rending of body and soul (Mark 15:37)?
5. How can we commit our souls to God in life and in death?
6. Are you tempted, like Joseph and Nicodemus, to be a secret disciple? Are you willing to be known as a disciple at church but not when you are on the playground, the job site, or your computer? Whose praise is more important to you?
7. How does an honorable burial show honor both to our humanity and to our Maker?