65) There They Crucified Him: John 19:16b-30; Mark 15:16-32July 6, 2022 Biblical Studies
Gospel of John #65
There They Crucified Him
John 19:16b-30; Mark 15:16-32
[Once again, we find it necessary to combine the recorded accounts of Christ’s crucifixion as found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. No one gospel author gives us an exhaustive portrayal of what happened. So I will be referring to several events that transpired that we do not find in John 19. Even then, you should know that I will not be commenting on everything that occurred. Our focus will be somewhat limited.]
Aside from a few notable biblical exceptions such as Enoch and Elijah, all people die. I suppose I should also include as exceptions to that otherwise unbreakable law the final generation of Christians who will be alive when Jesus returns. But, again, aside from these obvious and unusual exceptions, the law of life is that all people die.
How they die and what their deaths accomplish is another matter entirely. Some die quietly and calmly, after a long life and without much physical pain. Others die young and suffer greatly. The effects and influence of their deaths also vary widely. Most die in obscurity. Few even notice their passing. Others die very much in the public eye and their deaths can lead to either to war or peace. Some die as righteous examples while others die as an embarrassment to all that is good and decent.
A little more than 2,000 years ago, three men died together, having been executed as perceived threats to the peace and welfare of Rome. To an uninformed passerby, there wasn’t any way to know that one was any different from the other two. Death by crucifixion was common in that day and time. They were all pretty much alike. Except for one.
So what made the death of Jesus different from the deaths of those two men crucified on his left and his right? Why should we care more about his suffering than we do about theirs?
The answer of course is clear to anyone who reads and believes the Bible. Jesus wasn’t suffering for himself or his own sins and crimes, as were the other two. He was suffering for the sins and crimes of others. Jesus didn’t die because of his own guilt. He died because of my guilt. He died because of your guilt. His suffering and death weren’t merely the result of a civil judgment passed by human beings. His suffering and death were the punishment imposed by divine judgment, at the hand of God.
The suffering and death of those two men crucified on either side of Jesus have no effect on me or you, but the suffering and death of Jesus is our only hope for forgiveness of sins, our only hope for reconciliation with God, our only hope for salvation and redemption and eternal life in his presence. That’s what made the suffering and death of Jesus so utterly and entirely different. Our aim today will be to unpack the significance of this death for our eternal destiny.
Prelude to the Cross
After sadistically scourging Jesus, leaving him bloodied and near death, they re-clothed him and led him away to be crucified. Normally the victim was forced to walk naked to the place of crucifixion and was scourged along the way. But since Jesus had already been scourged this custom was abandoned. If it had been repeated, Jesus would surely have died before reaching Calvary.
Custom also required that the victim carry the cross-beam or the horizontal piece of wood on which he would be nailed. It weighed about 35 pounds. The vertical beam would already be firmly embedded in the ground, so that when they arrived they would lay the cross-beam on the ground. The victim would be placed upon it with is arms stretched out. They would then nail his hands to it, raise it up and attach it to the vertical beam. They would then drive nails through his feet, impaling him on the cross.
As expected, however, it was physically impossible for Jesus to carry such a heavy load. Following the emotionally tense atmosphere in the upper room, the betrayal by Judas, the agonies of Gethsemane, the denial by Peter, the trial and torture by the Sanhedrin, several hours in a filthy dungeon, another trial by Pilate and Herod, the ordeal of being scourged, and the abuse from the soldiers, it comes as no surprise that Jesus was incapable of carrying the beam.
We read in Mark 15:21 that “they compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross.” Simon was either a Jewish pilgrim who had journeyed to Jerusalem for Passover, or was a member of the community of Jews from Cyrene who had settled permanently in Jerusalem. Cyrene was the equivalent of modern Libya. There is an important lesson in his role:
In seeing Simon carrying the cross of Jesus to Calvary we ought to see ourselves carrying the cross we justly deserved to our own Calvary. It is we who escorted Jesus to Calvary and nailed him to our cross. Might we not imagine ourselves in Simon's place, bearing that heavy load to Calvary, not knowing if the soldiers might decide to impale our bodies to it as well, only then to hear the voice of Jesus say: “Give it here friend; it is for me to suffer thereon, not you.”
The Pain of the Cross
The place of Jesus' crucifixion is called Golgotha (John 19:17), lit., “place of the skull.” It was located outside the city proper in accordance with Jewish and Roman custom (Lev. 24:14; Num. 15:35f.; Acts 7:58; Heb. 13:12-14).
The “two robbers” (v. 27) who were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left, were probably insurrectionists caught in the same uprising that had led to the arrest of Barabbas (cf. Isa. 53:12). Only Luke (Luke 23:39-43) tells us that at the last minute one of the two thieves appeals to Jesus for forgiveness: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (v. 42). To which Jesus replied, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (v. 43). The opportunity for repentance, faith, and the forgiveness of sins never ends until you cease breathing. This man had no opportunity to make amends for his murderous life or his thefts or his rebellion against the government. But he did have one final opportunity to entrust himself to Jesus. On that very day, the day he died, he would find himself in the presence of Christ Jesus in the paradise of God.
According to Mark 15:23 “they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it.” This was a narcotic designed to numb the victim to the pain of crucifixion (see Prov. 31:6-7). But Jesus refused to drink it, as he was committed to enduring with complete consciousness the agony of judgment in the place of others. In John 19:29 we read that “they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth.” In this case, he did drink it. Clearly these are two separate events. Whereas the first offer of wine with myrrh was declined, the second was in response to Jesus having said, “I thirst” (John 19:28).
The inscription placed above his head read: “Jesus of Nazareth, he King of the Jews” (v. 19). This charge is, of course, highly ironic. Pilate, wishing to offend the Jews and to mock their hopes of one day throwing off Roman rule, rubs their noses in their subservient status. Unknowingly, of course, he charged Jesus with being precisely who, in fact, he was.
The reference to his garments being divided by the casting of lots (John 19:23-24) is an allusion to Psalm 22:16-18. It was customary to divide the victim's clothes among his executioners. Jesus would have had only a bloody inner and outer garment, a belt, a head covering, and a pair of sandals.
One would think that Jesus had been subjected to enough public humiliation, yet we read in Mark 15:29-32 of the taunting of the crowds (see Psalm 22:6-8). As noted, crucifixion was purposely public in order to deter others and especially to add to the humiliation of the victim by exposing him to the taunts of passersby. With expressions of malicious glee, they sadistically mock him and take delight in his pain.
The first taunt is recorded in Mark 15:29-30 – “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross.” Of course, Jesus actually said no such thing. These were men who likely had been present with the Sanhedrin when the original accusation had been made (Mark 14:58).
The second taunt is found in Mark 15:31-32 – “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.” This reminds us of Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the wilderness (Matt. 4:3,6). “Through the passersby Satan was still trying to get Jesus to evade the Father's will and avoid further suffering” (Carson, 576).
Evidently they did not address Jesus directly but spoke among themselves in the sort of whisper that one intends to be overheard by the object of one's scorn. Note that they spoke “to one another” (v. 31).
“He saved others” (Mark 15:31) is probably a reference to his healing ministry. There is a double meaning here that is profoundly ironic. In the sense in which the Jewish leaders meant it, they were obviously wrong. He who healed others and raised the dead could certainly have saved himself. And yet, on the other hand, if he is to accomplish that redemptive work for which he went to the cross, he cannot save himself. He must yield himself up to crucifixion. In other words, “if Jesus had come down from the cross, he would have saved himself but not others” (Kostenberger and Taylor, 152). It is only by remaining on the cross that he can save and deliver anyone at all. In other words, here we see that Jesus does not save himself, not because he cannot, but simply in order that by not saving himself he might save us.
It is as if these hypocrites are suggesting that their failure to believe Jesus is Jesus' fault! “It's your fault; if we don't believe, you've got no one to blame but yourself. Come on down and we will bow before you!” But as someone once said, “These men would have believed him if he had come down from the cross. We believe in him precisely because he stayed upon it!”
Not knowing that their taunts were a fulfillment of Psalm 22:8, these men hurl their final blasphemy. Based on their belief that God must honor and deliver his Messiah, they conclude that Jesus' helplessness is proof that his claims were false and his death was deserved. Of course, God did vindicate and deliver him, but this was not the hour. That glorious confirmation of Christ's deity and messianic identity awaited the resurrection.
The Descent of Darkness
The “darkness” (Mark 15:33) that enveloped the land of Palestine reminds us of Amos 8:9-10 and thus symbolizes judgment on both the land and the people of Israel (note the “land”, not the “earth”). It also reflects the fact that Jesus’ sufferings have cosmic implications (cf. Col. 1:16-20). Most important of all, darkness in the physical realm symbolizes darkness in the spiritual realm; more specifically, the darkness of the sky is a visible portrayal of the darkness in Christ’s soul as he suffers for sinners.
How did it happen? (1) Some say it was an eclipse (see Lk. 23:44-45). But the text gives no support for this view. Moreover, solar eclipses do not occur when there is a full moon at Passover. We must be careful not to read our technical astronomical terminology back into words that in the first century may not have carried that force. Also, could an eclipse have lasted for three hours? (2) Others say it was a mid-day thunderstorm. But would a thunderstorm have covered “all the land”? Would a mere thunderstorm have evoked anything but passing notice? (3) More than likely this darkness is to be understood as a miraculous intervention by God. Whether or not he employed some natural phenomenon is unclear.
The Cry of Dereliction
It was common for crucifixions to be accompanied by screams of rage and anguish, loud cursing and shouts of despair by the victim. But this cry (Mark 15:34), no doubt, was not so much because of the physical pain, as horrific and profound as it was, but because of the abandonment of the Son by the Father.
Some suggest that Jesus only felt forsaken of God but in fact was not. This often happens with us. When things go badly we all too quickly conclude that God has abandoned us, when nothing could be further from the truth. But could Jesus have been mistaken about something so fundamental as his relationship to the Father? Could Jesus have been confused about the meaning of that one event for which he knew he had been sent into the world? If anyone knew the difference between fact and fantasy, it was Jesus.
The meaning of this cry is to be found in the four principal parts of our Lord's cry.
(1) Here Jesus refers to God as “God”, not “Father”. Yet Jesus always referred to God as his Father in the gospels. In all other 21 instances when he prays he addresses God as Father. Indeed, earlier on the cross Jesus had said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Later he will say, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Lk. 23:46). So why the difference? The answer must be that now Jesus knows the relationship is not paternal but judicial. Jesus sees himself not principally as God's Son but as sin's sacrifice. In this one indescribably horrific moment, judgment, not intimacy, characterized the relationship of Jesus and God the Father.
(2) Notwithstanding the first point, note that Jesus refers to him as “my God.” He doesn't say, “Oh, God; oh, God,” but rather “my God; my, God!” Jesus does not die renouncing God, but reaching out to him. It is as if when the Father pulls away, Jesus clings to him, saying: “You are still my God!” It is a cry of distress, but not of distrust. It is an expression of personal desolation, but not of rebellion. Though suffering for sins he himself never committed, he ever entrusts himself to God.
(3) Note the interrogative “why?”. This is not a question of unbelief, but a desire for information. His manhood was searching for a reasonable explanation for this abandonment. The “why” also implies a conscious innocence on the part of Jesus. As far as his moral being was concerned, he knew of no basis on which the Father might forsake him. It is an inquiry concerning the grounds upon which he is condemned, for nothing in himself deserved such treatment (cf. John 5:19-20; 6:38; 8:28-29). He is forsaken, but not for his own sins (see 2 Cor. 5:21).
(4) Finally, what could it possibly mean to say that God the Father “forsook” or “abandoned” Jesus? Consider how the loneliness and isolation of Jesus has progressively increased: huge crowds initially followed him, often forcing him to retreat – the crowds soon left him, once they grasped the meaning of what he said (John 6) – soon, only 12 followed closely – eventually, the 12 became 11 (Judas betrayed him) – eventually, the 11 became 1 (Peter) – then, even Peter abandoned him – but he could always count on the Father to be there – yet, finally even the Father turned away: “You! I can understand why everyone else has left. But why you?”
Let us also remember that this forsaking was utterly singular and unprecedented in the experience of Jesus. Never before had he known anything remotely similar to this that might have prepared him for it. He had lived in constant touch and close fellowship with God. The Father was always near and dear to him. But now, for the first time, he feels the reality of being forsaken as he takes upon himself the guilt of sinners.
Loneliness is not picky or discriminating. At some time or another it strikes everyone. Yet, without for a moment wanting to minimize the pain of loneliness that we all at times feel, nothing has ever compared with the eternal loneliness experienced by Jesus. The most horrifying cry of loneliness ever heard came not from a prisoner or an elderly widow or from an orphaned child. It came from the cross, from the lips of a sinless savior named Jesus: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
There must be a reason why a holy and righteous God would forsake the only good man who ever lived. There must be a reason why God would injure the only innocent man who ever lived. Why did Jesus react to his sufferings in this way whereas others face death without so much as a whimper?
The only explanation that makes sense of the cry of dereliction is the imputation to Jesus of the guilt of sinners and his consequent experience of the wrath of Almighty God. In our place, as our substitute, Jesus endured and exhausted in his own soul the penal judgment which our sin required. Hereby was God's holy nature propitiated (1 John 2:1-2) or satisfied, and we were set free!
How, then, shall we respond? Said Spurgeon: “Let us abhor the sin which brought such agony upon our beloved Lord. What an accursed thing is sin, which crucified the Lord Jesus! Do you laugh at it? Will you go and spend an evening to see a mimic performance of it? Do you roll sin under your tongue as a sweet morsel, and then come to God's house, on the Lord's-day morning, and think to worship him? . . . Sin murdered Christ; will you be a friend to it? Sin pierced the heart of the Incarnate God; can you love it?" (545-46)
The Mother of Jesus and the Beloved Disciple
Mary, the mother of Jesus, together with “the disciple whom he loved,” most likely John, and a few other women were standing near the cross. Joseph, the adoptive father of Jesus, had most likely long since died. And the half-brothers of Jesus had not as yet come to faith in him as Messiah. So he entrusts the care of his mother to John. It’s just like Jesus, is it not, that in the moment of his unimaginable agony, he thinks of others, in this case the welfare of his mother, Mary.
“It is finished!”
Our immediate response to this victorious declaration by Jesus is often met with a declaration of our own: “No. It can’t be completely finished. There are things that I must do to atone for my sin. I’m still not living a perfect and sinless life. I have bad habits to overcome. I need to give more money to global missionaries. I need to lose weight. I need to made amends with God for all that I’ve done and the countless ways I’ve failed him.”
We think this way, ironically, because of our pride. We actually believe we are capable of doing something more that will impress God or move him to love us or prompt him to forgive us. But Jesus has done everything necessary. He has lived the perfect, obedient life you should have lived but couldn’t and never will. He has endured the judgment and died the death you and I should have suffered but now never will. “It is finished” may well be the most difficult thing for us to accept and believe that Jesus ever said. But once you understand it and receive it and embrace it in your heart, it is also the most wonderful and liberating thing he ever said.
The Tearing of the Temple Veil
There were two veils in the Temple, one separating the outer court from the Holy Place, and one separating the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies. Surely it was the second of these that was torn (v. 38). This was the veil that separated all men from God and barred entrance into the Holy of Holies. This was the veil through which only the high priest could pass once a year. It was massive: 60 ft. long, 30 ft. high, and 1 inch thick. Ancient sources tell us that it took 100 priests to put it in place.
How did this happen? I have no doubt but that God reached down and shred it in two with no less power and glory than when he divided the waters of the Red Sea!
What was the symbolic significance of this rending of the veil? Surely three things: (1) It points to the complete, perfect, and altogether sufficient sacrifice for sins that Jesus has offered in himself on the cross. The sin that had created a barrier both spiritually and naturally between God and man has been atoned for. (2) It also points to the end of the Mosaic Covenant and its laws, which have been fulfilled in Christ. The “old order” has passed away! (3) It points to the fact that God in all his glory is now freely and fully accessible to all men and women who come to him by faith in Jesus Christ. For centuries before the coming of Christ, God had confined the revelation of his glory and majesty to the Holy of Holies. Now he bursts forth to dwell no longer behind a veil in a house built with wood and stone and precious jewels, but to dwell in the hearts of his people.
The Resurrection of the Saints
“And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many” (Matt. 27:51-53).
This event is not mentioned in the other three gospel accounts and many find it so strange that they dismiss it as fiction. Personally, I see no reason to doubt the historicity of this event, even if I can’t fully explain it or make sense of its purpose. If indeed this literally occurred as recorded, as I believe it did, there are at least three possible ways of making sense of the text, each of which yields a different sequence of events.
(1) One view argues that the saints are raised when Christ dies (on Good Friday) but remain in the tombs until after he is raised (on Easter Sunday) and only then depart from the tombs and enter the city. This is certainly possible, but strikes me as unlikely. If this were true, what were they doing in the tombs during the time between Christ’s death and resurrection? Why would they have remained there? And would it not be theologically problematic that they experienced bodily resurrection before Jesus did?
(2) Another view is that the saints are raised when Christ dies, leave their tombs at that time, and go somewhere else in the vicinity of Jerusalem until after Jesus is raised, then appear in the city. Again, this is unlikely for the same reasons noted above.
(3) The most likely interpretation is that the saints are raised only after and because of Christ’s resurrection (on Easter Sunday). They enter into the city at that time, i.e., on Easter Sunday. Lest it seem strange that the tombs are opened on Good Friday when Jesus dies but the saints are not raised until Sunday after Jesus is raised, remember this: the breaking open of the tombs was designed to signify Christ’s conquering the power of sin and death by his atoning sacrifice. It wasn’t to let the resurrected saints out. If these saints were raised in supernatural, glorified bodies, as I believe they were, “there is no more reason to think they were impeded by material substance than was the resurrected Lord, the covering rock of whose grave was removed to let the witnesses in, not to let him out” (D. A. Carson, Matthew, 582).
Therefore, the graves were opened at the moment of Christ’s death to witness to the power of his sacrifice over the tyranny of sin. As John Wenham explains, “the later appearance of the saints in the city then demonstrates the power of his resurrection, by which God fulfills his promises to the saints of old and through which he promises resurrection to all who fall asleep in Jesus” (“When Were the Saints Raised?” JTS 32, 152).
So, with what kind of bodies were they raised? If they were raised like Lazarus, with bodies the same as before death, they most likely died yet again (or, they could have been immediately translated like Elijah was, bypassing physical death altogether). Most likely they were raised with glorified and supernatural bodies, identical to the body of Jesus. If so, they were either translated to heaven very soon after their resurrection, or possibly constituted a glorious retinue for Jesus at his ascension some 40 days later (Acts 1:9-11).
Some object to the idea that they received glorified bodies based on 1 Corinthians 15:20. There we read that Christ is “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” In other words, he is the first to be raised and to receive a glorified body. But this objection is valid only if we assume that the saints were raised on Friday when Jesus died but before he was himself raised. If, however, these saints were raised and entered the city only after Christ’s resurrection, then he is himself the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
As for the identity of these “saints”, they remain anonymous. However, they may have been certain well-known OT and inter-testamental Jewish believers, spiritual heroes and martyrs, or people such as Joseph (the adoptive father of Jesus) or even John the Baptist.
Three men died that day. In the eyes of many who witnessed it firsthand, there was no difference separating them. They were all three enemies of the state, condemned criminals, and they deserved to suffer such torments.
But we know that one death differed not only from the other two but from all other deaths that men and women die. Jesus was not dying because of his own sin, but because of ours. The only question that must be asked, and only you can supply the answer, is this: “What do you see in the death of Jesus? Was he merely a martyr dying for his cause? Was he a blasphemer and a threat to the sanctity of the Jewish people? Was he a victim of political pragmatism, a thorn in Pilate’s side who had to be disposed of? Or was he the sinless Son of God, the man who is God, dying your death, suffering for your sins, satisfying the wrath of God that you deserved to endure?” That is the question we must all answer.