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"Good Friday 2011"

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MESSAGE FOR GOOD FRIDAY 2011 FROM MARK 15

          Our text this afternoon is from Mark’s gospel in the 15th chapter beginning with verse 2.  At this point, Jesus has collapsed under the weight of his cross as he carried it through the streets of Jerusalem.  Mark writes, “21 And they compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross. 22 And they brought him to the place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull). 23 And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. 24 And they crucified him and divided his garments among them, casting lots for them, to decide what each should take. 25 And it was the third hour when they crucified him. 26 And the inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” 27 And with him they crucified two robbers, one on his right and one on his left. 28 29 And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, 30 save yourself, and come down from the cross!” 31 So also the chief priests with the scribes mocked him to one another, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. 32 Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also reviled him. 33 And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. 34 And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 35 And some of the bystanders hearing it said, “Behold, he is calling Elijah.” 36 And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” 37 And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. 38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39 And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!

          Mark has a distinct purpose for highlighting each character or group of people in this narrative.  The Holy Spirit, who inspired Mark, is not simply telling the story arbitrarily—there is a high degree of purposefulness here.  We can learn much of his purpose from what Mark records about each character or group and today we want to focus on a man who, in this cosmic drama Mark records has only one line.  That is—the centurion who, having witnessed the spectacle of Jesus’ crucifixion, makes a remarkable confession of faith as he stands facing the now dead Messiah and says, “Truly this man was the Son of God! For anyone who knows anything about a Roman centurion in this position, this would have been perhaps the last thing you would expect him to say in this context.  Whenever someone in the Bible makes a statement that is radically different than what would be expected of him, it’s always profitable to dig into the statement and mine for important truth. 

The fact that this centurion says anything at all beyond barking order to his underlings was almost certainly a significant diversion from his common practice.  It’s surely true that this centurion—(a Roman soldier who had authority over 100 men), was part of a specially trained crucifixion unit within the Roman army.  That meant he would have seen countless men die--and not just die, but die this hideous, prolonged and tortuous death that was the intent of crucifixion.  Just to stave off insanity from hearing all these condemned men who, for days cried out in agony as they waited to finally surrender to death, the hardening of these Roman soldiers on crucifixion detail must have been profound.  The sheer numbers of people whose crucifixions this centurion had overseen could very well have been astronomical.  To say that the Romans crucified a lot of people would be a significant understatement. 

          The Romans kept order within the empire at all costs.  That meant sending a very clear message to potential trouble makers.  That is—if you break Roman law, this poor screaming wretch you see, whose tortured body is suspended between heaven and earth and is dying in agony—could be you.  So, keep in line!  During the siege of Jerusalem in AD 70, the Romans crucified 500 Jews a day.  According to the Jewish historian Josephus, two hundred years before Christ a Roman official in Palestine had 800 Pharisees crucified because they were in revolt crucified.  About the time of Jesus’ birth the Roman governor of Syria crucified 2000 Jews who had defied Roman rule.  The Roman rulers thought nothing of crucifying massive numbers of people at a time.[1]  The point is—when we see this hardened Roman centurion responding to the death of Jesus with tenderness, poignancy and reverence, that’s something so remarkable the Holy Spirit wants us to think about it a bit.  Today, we want to focus on the death of Jesus by looking at it through the lens of this man’s response and the reasons it is important.

          I find three reasons why this statement is important.  The first and most obvious reason for the centurion’s highly unusual statement at the foot of the cross is—the utter uniqueness of Jesus and his redeeming death.  At the very least, any onlooker that day would have admitted that Jesus was an exceedingly atypical victim of crucifixion.  As we have said before, death by crucifixion was almost certainly the most brutal form of formal execution ever devised. To remind us of this, I want to read a treatment on crucifixion as gospel scholar Bob Stein records in his book, “Jesus the Messiah.”  Stein writes, “The term “crucifixion” can refer to several forms of capital punishment…  Crucifixion can… refer to the impaling of a person on a stake.  Such a crucifixion would generally bring instantaneous death.  Such a death, however, did not serve well the tastes of those who preferred death to be slow and painful.  The better-known forms of crucifixion involved hanging a person on a cross of some kind… Among the Romans, crucifixion was a form of punishment for the lower classes…Roman citizens were spared this form of execution …The method of attachment to the cross varied.  Tying and nailing the victim were the most common.  Since this did not affect any vital, internal organs, death was slow.  After being fastened to the crossbeam, the victim was then lifted up with it as the crossbeam was raised by forked poles.  The crossbeam was then inserted in a notch in the vertical pole and secured.  John 20:2 makes clear that Jesus’ hands were nailed to the cross. In actuality the nails were driven not through the palms of the hands but through the wrists, for the hands would not be able to support the weight of the victim…. The nails were generally driven between the two major bones in the wrists.  With the discovery of a crucified man in 1968 whose feet were nailed independently to the sides of the vertical beam, there is no need to question Jesus’ hands…and feet being nailed to the cross.

          If the victim was supported only by the nails, he tended to die more quickly than the torturers wanted.  As a result, they sometimes placed a footrest…at the bottom and/or a block of wood to support the buttocks.  Crucifixion was sometimes described as “sitting on the cross.”  Although this allowed some relief for the body, it was not done as an act of kindness or mercy but as a means of prolonging the agony.”  [The victim’s strongest desire--for self-preservation was diabolically employed to prolong his agony.]…Crucifixion is one of the most abominable forms of torture and execution that the world has ever seen.  It is so horrible that only Christians speak positively of it, and that is only because of the redemption Jesus achieved by means of it…Crucifixion involves all that a sadistic and evil torturer could want.  The Roman poet Cicero referred to it as “the most cruel and most hideous of tortures” and said that “the very name `cross’ should not only be far from the body of a Roman citizen, but also from his thoughts, his eyes, and his ears.’  Crucifixion involved lengthy torment… There was nakedness and shame and the insults of those who seem always to find a sickening delight in the pain and torment of others.  There was the feeling of absolute helplessness.  Slowly, very slowly, the living corpse awaited the blessing of death.  But it would not come until as much pain and suffering were extracted from the victim as possible.  Almost any modern form of capital punishment looks amazingly “gracious” when compared to crucifixion.” 

This is what these Roman soldiers assigned to crucifixion detail witnessed day after day, week after week as, before their eyes, the condemned criminals died agonizing deaths. Yet, when Jesus died on his cross, the centurion, instead of simply ordering his men to take his corpse off the cross, makes a profound confession of faith.  He declares that this man whose death he had just witnessed truly was the Son of God.  In the other gospel accounts, this man’s response is attributed to events surrounding the death of Jesus—the darkness, the earthquake and the resurrection of dead people from their tombs, but Mark implies that the main reason for this response was because—facing Jesus and having witnessed all that had happened in the six hours of his crucifixion, this centurion, who had seen so many crucified men die with screams of rage and pain and shouts of indescribable anguish, saw an utterly unique death by crucifixion.  39 And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”

          What was so unusual about the death of Jesus as a victim of crucifixion?  One difference would be that Jesus simply did not behave as most victims of crucifixion did while on the cross.  William Lane Craig writes in his commentary on Mark’s gospel, “Crucifixions were marked by screams of rage and pain, wild curses and shouts of indescribable despair by the unfortunate victim.”[2]  The only words we see in Jesus’ time on the cross were uttered under his complete control as he fulfilled prophecies or expressed his anguished cry of heartbreak over his Father’s abandonment of him.  This would have been a cry very different from a man expressing terror as he faced his approaching death, or the venting of rage through profane and blasphemous outbursts as a wicked man fills the air with the darkness of his heart.  It’s an axiom that in times of crisis people are like sponges.  By that I mean that all of us have something within us that is not always manifest—sin and/or grace.  But like a sponge, what is inside us is often revealed  when sufficient pressure is exerted on us.  Every other victim of crucifixion had a heart filled with pride and anger and hate.  Jesus’ sinless heart harbored none of that. So when this extreme pressure is exerted on his life through the torture of the cross, what was inside his heart spilled out—his love for his crucifiers who did not know what they had done—his love for his mother—his love for his Father as manifested in his anguish over his temporary separation  from him.  What was inside Jesus came pouring out, as the intense physical, emotional and spiritual pressure was placed on him while on the cross.  And what came gushing out of Jesus was…love.  I daresay, no one else ever responded to the cross as Jesus did because he alone had within him, only humble, servant love to express when his heart was revealed under pressure.

Perhaps the most startling difference between Jesus’ death on the cross and the countless others this centurion had witnessed would have been the “loud cry” Jesus uttered immediately preceding his death which Mark records in 15:37.  As we have seen, death by crucifixion was ultimately a death by exhaustion where the victim “normally suffered long periods of complete exhaustion and unconsciousness before dying.[3]  There was no such swooning by Jesus.  At the moment of his death, he was still vital enough to cry out with a loud voice and it would have been astonishing for a crucified man at the point of death to do this when his life had slowly ebbed away from a method of execution designed to kill you by asphyxiation and exhaustion.  Yet, when we think about what Jesus said about his upcoming death, this should be no surprise to us.   Jesus says in John 10:17-18, 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”  

That tells us that all we said earlier about how people die on the cross was at some level in the case of Jesus, irrelevant.  Although the cross tortured Jesus, it did not kill him in the same way it killed every other victim.  Jesus died on the cross, but the cross is not what killed him.  The centurion and the other Roman soldiers did not take his life from him when they nailed him to the cross.  Jesus, on his own authority—not Rome’s—laid down his life.  He did this actively—he was not passive in his own death as if the cross stole his life from him.  One reason for his loud cry was to communicate that his life had not slowly ebbed away from him.  Luke gives us more detail about this cry.  He says in 23:46, “Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!”  Jesus had accomplished his redemptive mission—and on his own authority, he would lay his life down while still physically vibrant.  Jesus’s death was of necessity unique and it is no surprise that in response to Jesus’ death this Roman centurion said, “This truly was the Son of God.”  The scholars tell us that this title “Son of God” to the Romans would have meant a “divine man or deified hero who accepted humiliation and death as an act of obedience to a higher mandate.”[4]  It’s interesting that for Romans of this era this title was used as a common designation for the Roman ruler who they worshipped.  That means this centurion is confessing that it is Jesus, not his emperor who is the true Son of God, so this is a publicly treasonous statement by this centurion.[5] 

A second reason for this statement by the centurion has to do with one of the overarching themes of Mark’s gospel.  Mark states this theme several times in his gospel.  He begins his gospel with this opening statement in 1:1, 1 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  Ten verses later, at Jesus’ baptism, we see this again.  Verse 11 relays God’s response at Jesus’ baptism, “11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”  Later, during another crucial moment in Jesus ministry at his transfiguration, we read in 9:7, “7 And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.”   Later still, when Jesus is before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish leaders question him in 14:61 and Mark recounts, “61 But he remained silent and made no answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?”[Blessed is a Jewish euphemism for God]  62 And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”  This is Jesus’ own profession of his identity as the Son of God.  Finally, here at the moment of his death, Mark continues to trace this truth at in 15:39. “39 And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”  When you see statement this within the broader context of Mark, it’s even more amazing.  A second reason for this confession of the centurion is because it adds another layer of witness to one of the main claims of Mark’s gospel.

          The book of Deuteronomy tells us that a truth claim is valid only if it is attested by two or three witnesses.  The first witness is in Mark’s opening statement.  At his baptism and his transfiguration, the Father attests to this truth and in chapter 15, we have this non-Jew centurion—who was doubtless speaking more than he knew, attesting to the truth of Jesus as the Son of God.  This should leave even the most skeptical Jew no excuse.  Jesus was and is the Son of God—God in the flesh, fully human, fully God.  As a man, Jesus is eligible to die for sin because, although he was without sin, he became part of a race of sinners who had rebelled against God—so he was eligible to pay for the sin of this fallen race.  As God, Jesus has the capacity or power to endure the infinite wrath of God for sin on the cross.  A third reason for this confession of faith is related to this one.  That is—it highlights the contrast between this theologically ignorant Gentile soldier who rightly confesses Jesus, with the self-deceived, religious Jewish spiritual leaders.  This is perhaps the most powerful example of the truth of John 1:11, “He came to his own and his own people did not receive him.”  As we have seen so many times in the book of Acts, Mark here wants us to contrast the Gentile—a pagan, emperor-worshipping Roman soldier who accurately identifies Jesus as God’s Son, with the Jewish leadership who had 2000 years of redemptive history and the entire Old Testament to prepare them to make this identification of Jesus, but who instead refuse to believe.

          This event, where the contrast is so transparent is a powerful expression of the truth from Isaiah and quoted by Paul in Romans10 where God, speaking of the Gentiles says, “I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.”   That is—God in his mercy will reveal the truth of redemption to those who have no desire for it.  There is no evidence this centurion had been earnestly seeking after the truth.  It’s the sheer, unpredictable grace of God that enables this man to see the truth about Jesus.  The self deception of the Jewish leaders is seen even more graphically in Mark 3:11--another text Mark uses to argue for Jesus as the Son of God.  Mark reports that “…whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.”  So this pagan Roman soldier knew who Jesus was and the demons of hell clearly recognize him, but the religious leaders who were charged to teach the word of God to the Jews refused to believe.

These learned Bible scholars who had supposedly been waiting their entire lives for the Messiah—are not illuminated by God.  But this pagan soldier, whose responsibility was to ensure the death of Jesus--to this man God reveals the true identity of his Son.  What happened to this man after this we do not know.  What we DO know is that Mark wants us to see the contrast between this hardened Roman soldier and these Jewish religious leaders. 

          God delights in taking the most unlikely people in the Bible —whether this hardened centurion in charge of the execution of the Son of God, that most wicked of all Old Testament kings, Manasseh, a hated and crooked chief tax collector named Zaccheus or the most zealous persecutor of the church, Saul of Tarsus—he loves to save those people to demonstrate his raw, sovereign saving power.   This supports John’s claim that these believers”… were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”  He also loves to show us that those people who are the most religious and would seem most likely to respond in faith—like these Jewish religious leaders or devout Jews like the rich young ruler—or the most outwardly respectable of all the apostles, Judas Iscariot, are in no way sure to respond.  One reason God does this is to demonstrate that salvation is of the Lord and is in no way dependent upon a person’s station in life or religious training or background.  Perhaps the most glaring Biblical example of this is seen in the fact that after only a few years after Pentecost, it was the Gentiles, not the Jews who responded to the gospel with genuine zeal. 

          As we close, let’s look at two points of application from this focus on the centurion and his response to the crucified Christ.  First, All those who haven’t trusted in Christ must place their trust in him.  Maybe you’re here today and you have thought about trusting in Christ, but frankly the idea of you becoming an enthusiastic worshipper of Christ just doesn’t seem to fit your understanding of yourself.  I’m sure the centurion, who had heard of this miracle-working prophet from Galilee, would have thought the same thing…until he saw him and recognized him as the utterly unique Son of God.  Saul of Tarsus had declared open war on Jesus…until he met him on the Damascus Road and afterward lived a life of intense dedication to Christ as his most zealous apostle.  Zaccheus was a traitorous thief who made a fortune overcharging his own Jewish brothers as he collected taxes for the Romans who brutalized them.  Then he met Jesus and his life changed forever.  If you can’t see yourself as a devout follower of Christ, you’re in good company. You just need to meet him.

          And the biggest reason you need to meet him by faith is because you’re a sinner and your sin is repugnant to God—no matter how nice you are or how much money you give away or how many times you’ve have gone to church or done good things for others.  Your sin cancels out all your attempts to be good enough for God because the Bible says that God’s standard is not doing good things, it’s being perfect—without spot or blemish.  And that presents you and all of us with life’s most serious problem.  We live before a God who demands perfection, and the penalty for not being perfect is eternal torment far worse than any victim of crucifixion ever suffered.  Yet, we are not even close to perfect.  You must feel the awesome weight of that problem—it needs to press in on your soul so that you are brought to a point of desperation over your sin.  When you understand your sin that way, you are ready to meet Jesus—God gives his grace to the humble, but he opposes the proud.  That means that those who humbly identify themselves as sinners and see their desperate need for forgiveness and a righteousness that is not your own.  God gives grace to those people—not to those who, in their pride, have very little sense of their need for God.

          The good news is that God has solved this problem for you by sending his Son to that cross and all you need to receive salvation from the just penalty of your sin is place your trust in Christ.  You’re not perfect, but Jesus is—he lived on this planet without sin though he faced the same temptations you do.  He never sinned in thought, word, deed or attitude—perfect.  But he chose to die a death he didn’t deserve—to receive a punishment from God he did not earn—for people like you.  He died as a substitute for me—he died in my place and paid the penalty for sin that I deserved and he did not.  The Bible says, “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. The stored up wrath for my sin that I had earned, God instead poured down on his Son so I wouldn’t have to receive it.  That’s what it means to say, Christ died for me—he died in my place to pay my penalty for sin.  But he not only died a substitute death for me, he also lived a substitute life for me.  In his death I have been forgiven of my sin, but that doesn’t make me perfect, just forgiven.

          But Jesus lived a perfect life and if you trust in him he takes that perfect life of his and makes it ours—he declares that you are perfect because when you trust in Christ—you become united with him—his perfect standing with God becomes yours.  The Holy Spirit indwells us and causes us to see more and more of the glory of Jesus and causes us to fall more and more in love with him—causes us to increasingly live for him and not for ourselves—cause us to have a passion for His glory instead of our own glory. And all we have to do is place our trust in Christ—look to him in faith—cry out to God and confess your sins—trust that his blood cleanses you from your sin and his perfect righteousness makes you acceptable to a holy God.

          A second point of application is for those who may have spent all their lives in the church.  That is—those who are religious must be careful not to be deceived about the state of their souls.  Those who don’t know Jesus can look at the centurion for inspiration.  But we who profess faith in Christ, must see the lives of the religious leaders and people like the rich young ruler as warnings to us.  It’s possible to think that you are a Christian because of your family heritage—several generations before you believed.  Or, maybe because you prayed some kind of prayer when you were younger.  Or, because you know the facts of the gospel and have heard it a million times.  Those things may make you religious, but none of those qualifies you for heaven.  Have you seen through the eyes of faith--Christ in his holiness and seen the ugliness of your sin in comparison?  Have you experienced that desperate sense of need for forgiveness and a righteousness you don’t have that would make you acceptable to God?  Have you in faith cried out to Jesus to save you?  And if you have, has it transformed your life?  Or, do you live pretty much like those around you only with superficial differences like using less profanity or your attendance at worship services.  Any Hindu can claim that.  Have you placed your trust in Christ and received the life-transforming power of the Holy Spirit?  Do you genuinely love God and show it by your obedience?  Do you hate sin and grieve over it because it grieves your best Friend, Jesus.  If that is not you, then don’t be deceived—cry out to Jesus and he will save you.  May God give us the grace to follow the lead of that centurion who at the foot of the cross saw the glory of Jesus.


[1] Stein, Baker, ECNT, Mark, p. 711.

[2] NICNT, The Gospel of Mark, William Lane Craig, p. 572.

[3] NICNT, The Gospel of Mark, William Lane Craig, p.574.

[4] Ibid., p.576.

[5] Ibid.

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