At the Cross, part 1

01 May

It seems like you can find crosses almost anywhere. You can find a cross around someone’s neck or on a lapel pin. Crosses serve as works of art—paintings, sculpture, plaques. Crosses serve as inspiration pieces, such as the cross found in the wreckage after 9/11. They can also become centers of controversy, as the 9/11 cross later became.

2,000 years ago, a cross became the center point of history when Jesus died on the cross. He is the King who died to save us from our sins.

Jesus endured a series of three religious trials (Mark 14:53-62). He was denied by one of his closest associates (Mark 14:66-72). Jesus endured three civil trials and the scourging that followed (Mark 15:1-15). Mark 15:16-32 takes us to the cross and describes the events leading up to the crucifixion.

The Roman practice of crucifixion was more than just hanging on a tree. It included humiliation and unrestrained torture. Jesus had already endured scourging. The Roman soldiers heap on the humiliation by mocking Jesus as being a king (16-20a). A faded scarlet military cloak serves as a royal purple robe. A crown of thorns takes the place of the victor’s laurel wreath. A reed or staff parodies a royal scepter. The mocking cry, “Hail, king of the Jews!” bears a mocking resemblance to, “Hail, Caesar, Emperor!” The whole affair was a grotesque, vaudeville production. After paying mocking homage to a king, the soldiers led Jesus to be crucified.

Crucifixion may have been invented by the Persians, but the Romans raised it to an art form. It was one of the most horrifying forms of execution ever devised. After being stripped and flogged, the victim carried his own cross or crossbeam to the place of execution. This was typically outside the city at a crossroads where passersby would see it and be warned about the might of Rome.

The condemned victim was forced onto his back and nailed to the cross as it lay on the ground. The nails, measuring five to seven inches long and resembling modern railroad spikes, were driven through the wrists (rather than the palms of the hand) in order to support the full weight of the victim’s body. The victim’s feet were then secured with a single spike, with the knees bent so that he could push himself up in order to breathe.

The cross was then slowly raised until it was vertical. The foot of the cross was then dropped into place into a deep posthole, landing with a reverberating thud that sent excruciating pain jolting through the victim’s body.

Rather than kill the victim, the process was designed for maximum suffering. Death could take a number of days, and the victim often died of exposure and exhaustion. Sometimes, the Roman soldiers would break the victim’s leg to hasten the death.

After scourging and mocking Jesus, he was made to carry his cross or crossbeam through the city. He was so weak that the Roman soldiers compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, to carry it the rest of the way (21).

After arriving at Golgotha (22), Jesus is offered some medicated wine which he refused (23). This act fulfilled one more prophecy about the Messiah (Psalm 69:21).

Rather than describe all the hateful details, Mark simply says, “…they crucified him…” Since his readers were Roman, they already knew the details about crucifixion.

A victim’s personal belongings became the property of the execution squad. In Jesus’ case, the four-man group cast lots, probably dice, for his clothes (24). This also fulfilled a prophecy about the Messiah’s death (Psalm 22:18).

Mark seems to use the Jewish method of counting hours from sunrise when he says that the crucifixion occurred at the third hour, or 9AM. In contrast, John uses the Roman method of counting hours from midnight when he says Jesus was condemned at the sixth hour, or 6AM (John 19:14).

Jesus was crucified between two criminals (27). This also fulfilled messianic prophecy (Isaiah 53:12).

While on the cross, Jesus is subjected to verbal abuse, both by passersby (29-30) and the religious leaders (31-32). Ironically, the religious leaders state the truth of the gospel in their jest, “He saved others; he cannot save himself.” If Jesus saved himself, he could not save others; by not saving himself, he did save others.”

In the midst of his suffering, Jesus extends grace to one of the thieves (Luke 23:39-43). One thief mocked him while the other asks for mercy and receives it. He became a trophy of God’s grace to this day.

In his commentary on the gospel of Mark, Pastor R. Kent Hughes tells the story of Donald Grey Barnhouse, the famed pastor of the Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. On one occasion, Dr. Barnhouse was visited by a ships’ captain. During a tour of the church, Dr. Barnhouse asked the man, “Sir, have you been born again?” The captain replied, “That is what I came to see you about.”

By this time they had reached a chalkboard in the prayer room, and Dr. Barnhouse drew three crosses. Underneath the first one he wrote the word “in.” Underneath the third he wrote the word “in.” Underneath the middle cross he wrote the words, “not in.” He said, “Do you understand what I mean when I say those men who died with Jesus had sin within them?” The captain thought and said, “Yes, I do. Christ did not have sin within him.” Then over the first cross and over the third cross Dr. Barnhouse wrote the word “on.” He said, “Do you understand what that means?” The captain wrinkled his brow—he didn’t quite understand. Dr. Barnhouse said, “Let me illustrate. Have you ever run through a red light?” “Yes.” “Were you caught?” The man said, “No.” “Well, in running that red light you had a sin in you. If you would have been caught, you would have had sin on you. So here the thieves bear the penalty of God.”

Then he wrote another “on” over Jesus Christ and said, “The one thief’s sins rested on Christ by virtue of his faith in Christ.” Then he said, “Which one are you?” Well, the man was a very tall, distinguished man of British carriage, and as he stood for a moment Dr. Barnhouse could see that he was fighting back tears. He said to Dr. Barnhouse, “By the grace of God, I am the first man.” Dr. Barnhouse said, “You mean your sins are on Jesus?” He said, “Yes, God says my sins are on Jesus!” He shot out his hand and said, “That’s what I came to find out!” Dr. Barnhouse invited him to lunch and further shared with him, and the man went back to New York a glowing Christian.

Which one are you? Are your sins on you or on Jesus? Jesus Christ is the King who died for our sins.

This is the synopsis of a message preached at First Central Baptist Church in Chicopee, MA, on May 1, 2016. It is part of a series in the Gospel of Mark. Please click on the link to download a copy of the sermon notes.


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