The Crucifixion: A Torn Curtain
4/5/2017 3:17:21 AM
“The Crucifixion: A Torn Curtain”
April 2, 2017
Rev. David Williams
Scripture: Mark 15:21-41
I want you to imagine that you’ve been invited to witness an execution. [pic] Canada doesn’t have the death penalty, so this is not realistic in our country, but imagine with me. Is this something you would attend? Executions are never pretty. They are always final. They are heavy. How would you feel witnessing an execution? What if the person was a hardened murderer? A serial killer, perhaps?
I have a feeling we would all be uncomfortable with such a thing. It’s not a form of entertainment in our culture, although at one time it was. At one point in history, public executions drew tremendous crowds, but not anymore. And I think that’s probably a good thing.
[pic] A number of years ago, 1999 to be precise, there was a movie, “The Green Mile,” starring Tom Hanks. The movie took place in the death row wing of a prison. Over the course of the movie a number of people are executed by means of the electric chair. It was a very good movie, nominated for 4 Oscars, with redeeming qualities, but the execution scenes were always chilling. I personally really liked this movie, except for the execution scenes. I do not envy the officers responsible for looking after death row prisoners or carrying out executions. There is a necessity to be cold, efficient, prepared and trained in order to do this job. It would be difficult.
We don’t have public executions any more. We don’t see them. The closest we come is movies like the Green Mile. And the executions are chilling. They make us uncomfortable. And they should.
So it is understandable that when we read of an execution in the Bible it should be chilling. It should make us uncomfortable. Certainly that is true in the case of the execution of Jesus, his crucifixion.
Easter is just a few weeks away. I know every year, trying to work in a Palm Sunday sermon, it always feels rushed trying to look at everything that happened the week leading up to Jesus’ death and resurrection. There is a lot packed in there! So this year we are going to look at the crucifixion this week. Next week we will rewind to the Triumphal Entry of Palm Sunday. On Good Friday we will look again at the crucifixion from another angle. Finally, on Easter Sunday we will look at the resurrection. It’s a little bit “back and forth” but, unless we want to have services every day of Holy Week, it’s hard to even scratch the surface of all the events described in the four Gospels during that week. We haven’t even mentioned the Last Supper which also took place in those days!
The Romans were very efficient at executions. They were efficient at just about everything, actually, including executions. Crucifixions were their specialty. Did you know that our word “excruciating” actually comes from Latin for “out of the cross,” and is a reference to the pain of crucifixion? [David E. Garland, Mark, p. 588] The Romans were very good at what they did, including putting people to death.
The Romans also had a bit of a flare for the dramatic. They had a theatrical side to them. Not just with executions, but certainly their dramatic talents were used there. [Garland, p. 586] They would crucify criminals along the side of public roads as a reminder to the people passing by of what would happen if you rebelled against Rome! They would remind the everyday people of the region that along with the benefits of being a Roman province came strict reprisals for challenging Rome’s authority.
The victims of crucifixion could linger for days. Often, the criminal’s crimes were printed on a placard and attached over the victim’s head. [Garland, p. 586] It was a warning to every passer-by to submit to the power of Rome. And crucifixion was not a pretty way to go. It was cruel. It was brutal. It was drawn out and painful.
I remember one of my seminary profs saying that if you look at the history of art, no crucifixions, included Jesus’ crucifixion, are depicted in paintings until at least a generation after the last crucifixion by Rome. Why is that? Because nobody who had been alive to actually witness a crucifixion had any desire to depict one in a painting! So after crucifixion ended in the Roman Empire, an entire generation came and went before artists
started to depict Jesus’ death on the cross, because crucifixions are that brutal.
I want to give you this context because we are going to read together from Mark’s Gospel his account of Jesus’ crucifixion. Of the four Gospels, Mark’s account is the briefest and also the gloomiest. This is because crucifixions are gloomy and dark. Mark doesn’t give us all the information we would like, but that is because he is originally writing to people who know all about crucifixions. He didn’t need to tell them the details. They knew all too well! Instead, the details Mark includes are those with theological significance, rather than historical significance. [Garland, p. 588] We are going to take a look at some of those details and their theological significance now.
Please read with me our passage today. Turn to Mark 15:21-41.
What It Says
There are a few things I want to point out about some of the details Mark includes in our first paragraph. The Roman soldiers “forced” Simon to carry Jesus’ cross. The term “forced” is a technical term for “commandeered.” [Garland, p. 587] Normally, a prisoner would be required to carry his own cross beam out to the site of crucifixion, but Jesus, having been scourged, was too weak and slow. So the Romans commandeered a passer-by to carry it for him to speed things along.
It is interesting that we are told the man’s name and that of his two sons. He was chosen at random out of the crowd, so how do we know who he was? It seems that Simon and later his two sons must have become Christians! They must have been known to the early church, in particular the first recipients of Mark’s Gospel. Otherwise, Mark wouldn’t have known their names and would not have bothered including the information in his Gospel. [Garland, p. 587] It is also interesting to note that in Romans 16:13, Paul mentions a Rufus who was a Christian in Rome that Paul knew before going to Rome. Rufus was a common enough name in that time that we cannot be sure it is the same person, but it’s interesting.
Jesus, Simon of Cyrene and their guards all went out to a place named Golgotha. This was a local name for the spot. Mark tells us that it translates to Greek as “place of the skull.” Our word “Calvary” comes from the Latin for skull based on this verse. [Garland, p. 588]
When they arrived, Jesus was crucified. What Mark’s original audience would have understood was that means Jesus was attached to the crossbeam Simon had carried. Although sometimes victims were tied to the cross piece, Jesus later had nail holes in his hands, an indication he was nailed to the cross. He was offered wine mixed with myrrh. Likely it was Jewish women who offered this to him as an act of mercy. It had become a custom for women to go out and offer this mixture to prisoners in order to help dull the pain. [William L Lane, Mark, p. 564] Jesus refused this offering. Much has been made of his refusal, including pointing out that he wanted to experience the whole of crucifixion without his senses being dulled. I personally don’t find that particularly convincing because it had become a customary part of crucifixion outside Jerusalem. Rather, if you think back to the Last Supper, which had taken place just the day before, Jesus vowed to his disciples that he would not “drink of the fruit of the vine” until he drank it with them in the Kingdom of God! Jesus was being faithful to his vow! [Garland, p. 588]
Mark then tells us that the sign reading the charges for which Jesus was being executed read, “The King of the Jews.” Remember, Mark includes details with theological significance. Jesus was very careful to distance himself from the kingly expectations people had of the Messiah. This is why he often told people who declared him to be the Messiah to be quiet. It wasn’t that Jesus didn’t think he was the Messiah, but that he realized most people around him equated “messiah” with “king.” He didn’t come to be an earthly king. He was careful not to attach any kingly or military aspects to his role as Messiah, but this was ultimately the charge for which he was executed! [Garland, p. 589]
On his left and right, two other criminals were also crucified. They are referred to as thieves, which was true, but theft was not a crime that warranted crucifixion. Likely they were also political agitators being executed for the same crime as Jesus, rebelling against Rome. Roman law had two categories for robbers, the more severe including robbery and violence both. Josephus, a contemporary Jewish historian, consistently used the term for violent robbers and applied it to Zealots, political agitators trying to overthrow Roman rule. Likely these men were being executed for this crime, the same Jesus had been accused of. [Lane, p. 568]
You may recall that two of Jesus’ disciples had asked him, in Mark 10, to be given the places of privilege sitting on Jesus right and left when he came into his kingdom. Jesus said to them that they did not know what they were asking and that those places were for others already chosen. Here, a few chapters later, we see that the two positions of supposed privilege were actually held by these two prisoners! When Jesus came into his kingdom, into his authority and power, the two on his left and right were the two criminals being crucified with him! [Garland, p. 589]
Those who passed by Jesus, presumably on the road in and out of Jerusalem, heaped insults on him and the others being crucified. That was the custom. In Jesus’ case, those who recognized him made specific reference to his claims that he would rebuild the temple in 3 days. It’s interesting that the Greek word for “hurled insults” is blasphemo. It’s the word for blasphemy, which means mocking God and God’s power. Just a few hours earlier, the high priest had accused Jesus of this very thing, “blasphemy,” for mocking God’s power by claiming to be the Messiah! So at Jesus’ trial, Jesus is accused of blasphemy. Now, a few hours later, the passers-by are described as “blaspheming” Jesus by mocking him on the cross. They were, in fact, the ones mocking God’s power!
In verse 31, the chief priests mock Jesus that he “saved” others but could not save himself. One thing I learned this week is that throughout Jesus’ ministry, his healings are referred to as “saving” people! (Mark 3:4; 5:23, 34; 6:56) So Mark has been saying throughout his book that Jesus saved people when he healed them. Now, at his crucifixion, the chief priests mock Jesus for saving others but not himself. There are two things going on here we should note. First, it means the chief priests acknowledged that Jesus did, in fact, heal people! They recognized his power to save people from physical sickness and demon possession! But their problem was that they couldn’t admit that it was because God was with Jesus! They were so afraid of admitting Jesus might be the Messiah because it challenged their authority, both politically and as interpreters of Scripture.
The second thing to note is that earlier in Mark, Mark 8:25, Jesus told his disciples that those who seek to save their lives will lose it, but those who give up their lives will save it. Here Jesus lives out that principle. It is by losing his life that he saved others and ultimately was resurrected. Jesus could have saved himself on cross, but he chose not to. Why? Because it would mean not being able to save us from our sin and, speculating, I think it would have meant when he died later he would not have been resurrected. Dying on the cross, choosing not to save himself, was an act of obedience to the Father. To have saved himself would have meant disobeying.
Mark goes on to say that at the sixth hour, which is noon, darkness covered the sky. Two things about this. First, darkness was a sign of divine displeasure. Culturally, it was considered a sign that a great man had died. In Amos 8:9-10 the prophet speaks of the Day of the Lord. Speaking for God, the prophet says, “On that day, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight.” So this is a fulfilment of prophecy about the Day of the Lord!
Second, the chief priests had just demanded of Jesus that he come down off the cross as a sign so that they might believe. For Jesus to come down would have been disobedient, so that wasn’t an option. But, reading Mark carefully, it is just as the chief priests demand a sign that God gives them one! He gives them the sign of darkness covering the land at noon! The chief priests should have been familiar with the Amos passage. This was a sign for them to believe, but they did not. Which illustrates the principle that for those who are unwilling to believe it is not a question of evidence. They had plenty of signs. They even admitted Jesus’ healings! It is not for lack of evidence that people deny Jesus.
At the ninth hour, Jesus cried out. This is only the second time that Mark has used the term “cried out” in his writing. The other time was at the beginning of his Gospel when John the Baptist came, crying out “prepare the way of the Lord!” Now, at the end of the Gospel, Jesus cries out because the Kingdom of God is at hand.
The words Jesus cried out are the first verse of Psalm 22. We are going to look at this in a few minutes in greater detail. For now, though, take note that Psalm 22 is a prayer. Jesus said these words at the 9th hour, or about 3 in the afternoon, which was the Jewish hour of prayer! (Acts 3:1) [Garland, p. 601]
Shortly thereafter, Jesus died. We are told that the curtain in the temple was torn in 2, from top to bottom. The centurion, the Roman captain overseeing the crucifixion, was so moved by Jesus’ death that he declared, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” In terms of theological significance, there is the flat declaration of Jesus’ identity. He was the Son of God! But notice who is saying this- the centurion. First, a Roman would only say that Caesar was the Son of God! For a Roman to say that Jesus was the Son of God marked a radical shift in his
Second, this wasn’t a Gentile who had followed Jesus during his earthly ministry. This centurion had only known Jesus a few hours, and in a very different context! He had only known Jesus as one of many prisoners he had been tasked with executing. We don’t know how many executions this centurion had overseen, but that that he was in charge of 100 men means he was an experienced soldier. Likely he had witnessed dozens if not hundreds of crucifixions. Yet, Jesus’ crucifixion and death was so radically different from all those others he had seen that it moved him to acknowledge Jesus as being more significant even than Caesar, his commander in chief!
Third, consider how Mark has crafted his Gospel. We move from the chief priests who had witnessed some of Jesus’ healing miracles. They believed they had occurred. They heard Jesus’ teaching, which was one of the reasons they hated him so much! They knew the OT scriptures and should have seen how Jesus fulfilled prophecy about the Messiah, but they were unwilling to admit it, in spite of all the evidence in front of them.
By contrast, here is the Gentile centurion, who had never heard Jesus teach, never seen a miracle, knew nothing of the OT, but merely based on his own experience witnessing Jesus’ death, he was brought to believe Jesus was the Son of God! What a difference! [Garland, p. 604]
Finally, we are told that a number of women watched from a distance. These included women who had followed Jesus and cared for his needs during his earthly ministry. Remember, Mark included details with theological significance! He is telling us that these women were the witnesses of the events surrounding Jesus’ trial and crucifixion! It was the women who reported the insults, the words of the passers-by and the chief priests. It was the women who witnessed and reported Jesus’ words on the cross, and the words of the centurion. Thank God for women who bear witness to Jesus and then declare the good news about him! And then these women went and told the men, the male disciples, what they had seen. They were Mark’s source for what we just read.
What It Means
So what does all of this mean? I hoped you’ve learned at least a few things as we moved through this passage today. I know I learned a number of things preparing this message! I don’t think I had ever noted before how carefully Mark has written his Gospel, pulling in terms from throughout the work and placing them in his crucifixion narrative. It is a well-crafted book!
But let’s go a bit deeper. We can’t cover everything in the passage, but let’s look at a two things. First, zero in on what Jesus said in verse 34. He cried out the first line of Psalm 22. Remember, Psalm 22 is a Psalm of lament; it is a prayer to God for help. Let’s read Psalm 22 together and then consider our passage again.
Hopefully a few things jumped out at you as we read through this Psalm! Notice v. 7, “All who see me mock me, thy hurl insults, shaking their heads.” Mark 15:29 tells us that those who passed by hurled insults, shaking their heads. The chief priests in v. 31 mocked Jesus.
What is the content of the mockery? They say, “Let God save him because he trusts God.” Here in Mark, the mockery is “save yourself.” I think there is a double ententre here because Jesus is the Son of God! Certainly there is a link that the mocking is about being saved. I like to think Mark had a double meaning too.
Ps 22:16b, “a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced by hands and my feet.” Really?!? Wow! The Romans had surrounded Jesus and pierced his hands and feet. Two verses later, Ps 22:18, “They cast lots for my clothing.” The Romans cast lots for Jesus’ clothing.
So clearly Psalm 22 has a huge number of connections with Jesus’ experience on the cross. That’s incredible given that the Psalm was written a thousand years earlier! So when Jesus cried out his prayer, the first verse of this Psalm, we can be confident that Jesus had the whole Psalm in mind. It is a prayer for deliverance in times of trouble. His words about “Why have you forsaken me,” in this context of Psalm 22, show that although for the moment it appears God has forsaken him, he will remain faithful because he knows ultimately, in the long run, God will vindicate him and save him. That was what David had in mind when he wrote the Psalm. That is what Jesus had in mind when he quoted it.
Take note of how Psalm 22 finishes. From v. 22 onward it is about remaining faithful to God in spite of circumstances, declaring God’s praise in spite of suffering, and that ultimately God will make things right. God’s blessing, in v 27, will even spread to all the families of the nations who will bow down to the Lord. In Mark, just a few verses after Jesus invokes the first line of this Psalm, a Gentile Roman centurion declares Jesus is
the Son of God! The Psalm is being fulfilled immediately!
The parallels between Psalm 22 and Jesus’ crucifixion are amazing. And we should remember that Psalm 22 was not considered a Messianic Psalm. This wasn’t a triumphal Psalm that a person would later try to recreate as part of being the Messiah. The connections, then, to the crucifixion are astounding. And Mark has picked all of them out and laid them out for us to see one by one. Remember, Mark is sharing with us the theologically significant details, and in light of Psalm 22 we see more of the theology behind them. The Psalm opens with a cry for God and ends with God’s triumph over evil and all the nations of the earth bowing down to him. On the cross, Jesus cries out for God, in tremendous anguish and lament, but knows that the cross ends with God’s triumph over evil and (eventually) all the nations will bow down to Jesus after the resurrection!
The second thing I want to look at for this passage’s meaning comes from the tearing of the curtain in the temple. There were two curtains in the temple, one between the holy place and the spiritual centre of the temple, the “holy of holies.” The holy of holies was the place priests entered once a year to offer a special sacrifice for the people. The other curtain was between the outer courts and the sanctuary. [Lane, p. 575] Mark doesn’t specify which curtain he is referring to, but there is good reason to believe it was the outer curtain. First, if the inner curtain was torn, it would only have been seen by the few priests in that part of the temple, where average people were not permitted. They would have easily covered up the fact that the curtain tore. On the other hand, if it was the outer curtain, many people would have witnessed it. In fact, there are Jewish accounts, Christian and non-Christian both, that speak of the curtain at the entrance to the sanctuary being torn! [Lane, p. 575]
But what does the tearing of the curtain mean? It shows a couple of things. First, it marks an end to the barrier between God and humanity. What was the temple? The temple was a place of worship, but why? The temple was understood to be the place on earth where God was physically present. His presence was most concentratedly centred on the holy of holies, but his presence was in the entire temple. The tearing of the curtain, whether it be at the holy of holies or the entrance to the sanctuary mark and tear in the barrier between God and the world.
Why is this significant? One commentator pointed out this may actually represent a breaking “out” from the temple of God’s presence! [Garland, p. 603] God’s glory is no longer confined to the temple. We see this happening a few weeks after the crucifixion and resurrection when the Spirit comes on the day of Pentecost. The power of God, the glory of God has broken out of its confines to fill the world!
The tearing of the curtain also marks the end of one era and the beginning of a new era. It marks the end of the era in which God was only properly worshipped in one location and begins the era in which people can worship God in spirit and in truth, not in any one spot, but wherever they are. It marks the end of the old order in which the temple was the centre of God’s presence and activity in the world.
Why It Matters
So why does this matter? First, we see that the crucifixion was part of God’s plan all along. The connections with Psalm 22, as well as Amos 8 and other passages from the OT we haven’t even considered all point to the fact that the crucifixion does not mark an end to Jesus’ plans, but was part of the plan all along.
We see that Mark has written this passage very carefully. Although he may not answer all our questions today, he has gone to great lengths to make some important theological points! Hopefully we’ve learned a few things today! We see the importance of Jesus choosing not to save himself, because he chose instead to save others. We are incredibly self-centred people in our culture. Jesus’ radical obedience to God and radical fulfilment of his own words about seeking to save one’s own life are a stark contrast to what our culture promotes- self-fulfilment and gratification!
We see that God’s glory broke out of its confinement at the crucifixion. Rather than God’s absence on the cross, we see God’s presence most profoundly revealed! [Henry Nouwen cited in Garland, p. 607] At the cross, “God’s power absorbs the toxin of human sin and hatred and turns it into salvation for all who put their trust in a God who loves this much and works in this way.” [Garland, p. 606]
As we approach Easter, we love to focus on the resurrection of Jesus. That’s what Easter is about! And it is true that we should focus on the resurrection. That is God’s triumphal proof that sin and death have been defeated! But as we race to the resurrection, we must be careful not to skip or gloss over the crucifixion. It was an execution. It was dark. It was gloomy. Thank God it was not permanent! But in our comfortable lives, in our
comfortable Christianity, it is easy for us to skip over the incredibly difficult crucifixion that was necessary for Jesus to endure in order for our sins to be forgiven.
Salvation is given to us freely when we trust in Jesus, but that does not mean salvation was freely obtained. Salvation is free to us but was costly to Jesus. And we need to remember that and appreciate that when we think about our salvation. We need to appreciate Jesus, be grateful to him and show him that gratitude. Our salvation cost Jesus dearly!
As we approach Easter, resist the urge to get caught up in chocolate and bunnies. Resist the urge, even, to get caught up in the resurrection of Jesus and the new life he brings if it means ignoring or minimizing the death he died to accomplish our salvation. Jesus didn’t die peacefully in his sleep and then get raised 3 days later. No! He died a painful, excruciating, death because of us. He was crucified for rebelling against the authority of Rome because we rebel against the authority of God. In the words of the hymn, it was our sin that held him on the cross. Don’t forget it!
And as you ponder the depth of pain, suffering and evil that went into the crucifixion of Jesus, let it turn your heart to gratitude. The crucifixion represents the worst of humanity but the best of God. It shows the range of human hatred for God, but the power of God’s love for us! Jesus did that willingly for you and me! He did that so you and I could be reconciled to God! He took our place to give us a place with him and the Father! That is generosity in a scale we can barely comprehend! And the appropriate response to generosity is gratitude! So have gratitude to Jesus for what he has done. Develop gratitude for Jesus in your hearts as we get closer to Easter. That is the best way to celebrate the best day in history and the best day in the year. Amen.
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