The Crucifixion of Jesus – Mark 15:21-32
If you have a Bible, I invite you to turn to the Gospel according to Mark, where we are going to be looking at Mark 15:21-32.
Thus far, in Mark’s account of the Passion of the Christ, we have seen the agonizing prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, the betrayal of Judas and the arrest in the garden, the beating and mocking at the house of Caiaphas the high priest, the denial by Peter, the trial by Pilate, and the scourging, beating and mocking by the Roman soldiers. But the worst was yet to come.
Mark 15, beginning in verse 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. 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.”
In the Shakespeare play, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth wants her husband to take the throne, so together they plot to kill the king. After the murder of the king, Lady Macbeth begins to sleepwalk. And as she sleepwalks, she rubs her hands together, over and over, as if she’s trying to wash them. She sees blood on her hands, but no matter what she does, she cannot get them clean.
Macbeth is a terrifying play, because it shows that once you are guilty of something, guilt is seemingly impossible to get rid of. It isn’t literal blood on Lady Macbeth’s hands; it is a symbol of her guilt. Blood you can wash away, but not guilt. She realizes to her horror that nothing she can do will ever get rid of it.
We are the same way. We might not be sleepwalking, trying to wash away what we think is blood on our hands, but each one of us wrestles with what to do with our guilt and how to get ourselves clean.
We try to convince ourselves that we haven't actually done anything wrong, and that we really don’t have anything of which to feel guilty. We try to be a better person, doing good things to overcompensating for the wrong things we’ve done. We compare ourselves to other people, saying, “I’m not as bad as that person.” We may feel bogged down by our guilt, wondering, “How could God ever love someone like me?” Each one of us wrestles with the issue of guilt.
And for our time together, this morning, we are going to look at the crucifixion of Jesus. And as we unpack what happened to Jesus on the cross, we are going to discover that Jesus is the answer for how to get clean of our guilt. The answer to guilt is found in the fully divine and fully human Son of God, Jesus Christ.
Verse 20 tells us that “they led him out to crucify him.” A condemned man normally carried his own patibulum, the heavy crossbeam, to the site of the crucifixion, where it would have been nailed to the upright post. But Jesus is seemingly unable to carry it.
It’s here where we see the humanity of Jesus. He is likely exhausted from being awake for over 24 hours. He has just suffered an intense beating and flogging. He has just gone through emotional agony in the garden of Gethsemane, as He anticipates the spiritual suffering He will receive when He will satisfy the full wrath of God against sin and when His heavenly Father will forsake Him.
It’s the humanity of Jesus, and it’s important for us to maintain this, because one of the heresies in the early church was the denial of Jesus’ humanness. There were some who believed that Jesus’ body wasn’t actually real but was only an illusion. There were others who believed that Jesus was half-human, half-God, and could therefore switch from one to the other to perhaps dull the effect of physical pain and suffering.
But what Mark wants us to see is that Jesus is fully God and fully man, and that He really did suffer in all of His humanity throughout every stage of His Passion. We see it here in the fact that Jesus is burdened under the weight of the cross. And so, in verse 21, it says 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.”
Mark doesn’t make a point of naming people. There have been many times over the course of his Gospel, where he has just left people anonymous. But here, he names three people, specifically.
And this is essentially acting as a footnote, like in a book. It’s as though Mark is saying, “If you want to know that what I am saying about Jesus of Nazareth is true, you can fact check it with Alexander and Rufus.”
These individuals would have been known to Mark’s readers in Rome. In fact, it is quite possible that the same Rufus here in Mark is the same Rufus in Romans 16:13, where the apostle Paul writes, “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; also his mother, who has been a mother to me as well.”
There is a good chance that Simon and his whole family came to faith in Jesus, because he was passing by at the same moment when Jesus was going to be crucified. I mean, you don’t come away from that experience, unchanged.
In fact, Simon, whether he knew it or not, becomes the first person in Mark to literally fulfill the command of Jesus, in Mark 8:34, that “if anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Simon would take up the cross of Christ and would follow Jesus to where Jesus would be crucified on his behalf.
The cross that was meant for Simon became the cross of Jesus. The death that Simon deserved to die became the death by which Christ would die for him. Jesus calls us to come and die. It’s what discipleship is about. Simon would get a taste of what following Jesus would be like. Have we taken up our cross, as well?
Verse 22 says that “they brought him to the place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull).” This would have been outside the city walls and along a public highway, so that many people could see how the Romans handled criminals worthy of death.
In Leviticus 16, we read about the Day of Atonement—the day on which the high priest of Israel offered a sacrifice of atonement, so that the whole of Israel could be made clean of all its sins. It was the only time of the year that the high priest could enter into the holy of holies—the place in the tabernacle where God was said to dwell in all His holiness.
Two goats were brought to the tabernacle to deal with the sins of the people. One goat was killed and its blood was sprinkled on top of the ark of the covenant, on the mercy seat—the place where God’s righteous wrath was appeased. Since the punishment for sin is death, the goat died as a representative of, and substitute for, the people of Israel.
The other goat, after hands were laid on it, was sent into the wilderness, outside the city, to represent the fact that the sins of the people had been taken away from them, and away from the Holy God who cannot, and will not, tolerate sin.
And what we need to see here is that Jesus is the full atonement for the sins of the people. He endured our condemnation and appeased the full wrath of God against our sin, acting as our representative, our substitute, on the cross.
But as Hebrews 13:12 says, “Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood.” Jesus was cast away from the people, and away from the presence of His heavenly Father, so that we could be brought back to God.
Where the blood of goats could only temporarily save, the blood of Christ would take away sin and guilt and shame, forever. Before the cross, we were enemies with God; because of the cross, we are children of God. Before the cross, we were separated from God; because of the cross, we can confidently draw near to God. Before the cross, we were dead in the trespasses and sins in which we once walked; because of the cross, we have been made alive in Christ Jesus through His death.
It’s the glory of the cross. But the cross is only glorious because of the One on the cross. It’s why Mark leaves out the details of crucifixion. He doesn’t want the point to be about the horror of the cross, but about the horror done to the One on the cross. What we know about crucifixion was that it was a ghastly form of death: excruciatingly painful, prolonged, and socially degrading.
A victim of crucifixion didn’t die from blood loss, because the Romans made sure they didn’t catch any major arteries when they hammered the nails through the wrists and the feet. No, victims of crucifixion would either die from asphyxiation, because they would eventually become too tired to lift themselves up on their feet to bring in oxygen, or they would die from heart failure, because their compressed heart would simply give out.
It’s no wonder the apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 1:23, writes that the message of Christ crucified was “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.” The good news of a crucified Christ, a crucified King, didn’t make sense. But as 1 Corinthians 1:18 says, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” For those who have believed, we know the good news of the message of the cross.
In verse 23, it says that they offered Jesus “wine mixed with myrrh,” in fulfillment of Psalm 69:21, which says, “They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink.”
A narcotic drink was sometimes offered to criminals to deaden the pain of crucifixion. But it says that Jesus “did not take it.” Instead, Jesus would take all the pain and shame that would come with the cross, so that Hebrews 12:2 says that Jesus, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
And it was shameful. In verse 24, it says that they stripped Jesus of His clothes and gambled over them. Despite how paintings portray Jesus on the cross with a loincloth, it is more likely that our Saviour died completely naked.
This would fulfill Psalm 22:16-18, which says, “For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet—I can count all my bones—they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.”
Now, why is this significant? Because, back in the garden of Eden, before sin entered into the world, the first man and the first woman had no clothes. They “were both naked and were not ashamed,” Genesis 2:25 says.
But in Genesis 3, after Adam and Eve sinned, it says that “the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.” What changed? They were naked before, but something happened to cause them to become aware of their nakedness. It was the guilt of eating fruit from the forbidden tree.
So, what did they do? It says that “they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.” They tried to cover up their nakedness. They tried to atone for their sin. But they were unable to do so, adequately. And so, it says that God made garments of skins for them and clothed them. God provided a way for their nakedness to be covered. He made a way for their sin and their guilt and their shame to be dealt with. But a better and more permanent way was coming.
Here, Jesus is physically stripped naked before God and mankind. In order for Jesus to undo the effects of Adam’s sin, He must go all the way back to where Adam was—naked before God—and render to God a righteousness which Adam did not render.
Jesus took upon Himself our sin, our shame, our guilt, our nakedness, so that in Him we might be clothed, not with fig leaves or with animal skins, but with His perfect righteousness, so that 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Jesus became our much needed covering for sin on the cross, so that we can stand before God unashamed and free from guilt.
In verse 26, it says that they nailed an inscription above Jesus with the charge against Him that read, “The King of the Jews.” John 19:20 tells us that this inscription was written in three languages: “in Aramaic, in Latin, and in Greek.”
Jesus is referred to as the “King of the Jews” or the “King of Israel” six times, throughout Mark 15. In Mark 15:17, it says that they clothed him in a purple cloak and put a crown of thorns on His head. In Mark 15:19, it says that they knelt down in homage to Him.
Even in their mockery, they cannot help but acknowledge Jesus as the King of the Jews, and so He is. Jesus is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. This Jesus who is stricken and smitten and afflicted. This Jesus who is struggling for every breath. This Jesus who is bearing the weight of sin upon His shoulders. Yes, this Jesus is King. But, of course, you don’t see it until chapter 16.
“Man of sorrows what a name for the Son of God, who came ruined sinners to reclaim: Hallelujah, what a Savior!” But then, in chapter 16: “Up from the grave he arose; with a mighty triumph o'er his foes; he arose a victor from the dark domain, and he lives forever, with his saints to reign. He arose! He arose! Hallelujah! Christ arose!” Jesus is our Suffering Saviour and Conquering King.
In verse 27, it says that they crucified Him with two robbers, “one on his right and one on his left,” so that Isaiah 53:12 would be fulfilled that says, “Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.”
Ironically, this was what James and John, Jesus’ disciples, had asked for, back in Mark 10:37, when they said to Jesus, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Jesus told them that they didn’t know what they were asking for. Certainly, this was not the glory they had in mind. And yet, these two criminals occupy the places requested by James and John.
It says that those who passed by “derided him.” The NIV says that they “hurled insults at him.” Mark uses the Greek word, blasphemeo. Literally, they blasphemed against Jesus.
Back in Mark 2:7, they claimed that Jesus was blaspheming for claiming to forgive sins—something only God can do. Ironically, the derision hurled at Jesus here is the very blasphemy against God they were condemning Jesus of doing.
They wagged their heads at Him and taunted Him for His claim to “destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days.” Even the Jewish leaders get in on mocking Jesus: “He saved others; he cannot save himself.”
This is a fulfillment of Psalm 22:6-8, which says, “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; ‘He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!’”
It seems as though the Jewish leaders, the crowd, the Romans, everyone has missed why Jesus came to this world. In Mark 10:45, Jesus says, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
In verse 32, the Jewish leaders go so far as to ask for a sign: “Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.” And what the Jewish leaders don’t realize is that if Jesus saved Himself, He could not save others. In order to save others, Jesus could not save Himself. They claim that they would believe if Jesus came down from the cross, but it is precisely because Jesus stayed on the cross that we believe.
Jesus is experiencing the temptation of Satan on the cross. In Luke 4:3, the devil says to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” In other words, “If you truly are who you say you are, then show me what you can do. This should be no problem for you, if you truly are the Son of God.”
How about in the garden of Gethsemane? As Jesus is sweating drops of blood from the anguish of what He was about to experience, the temptation is again before Him, “You don’t have to go through with this. You can do this another way.” But there was no other way. God the Father made it clear that there was no other way. This was the way through which mankind would be saved from the penalty of sin and the burden of guilt.
Mark tells us that the two criminals crucified with Jesus “also reviled him.” But there came a point, according to Luke’s Gospel, when one of the criminals moved from insulting Jesus to trusting in Jesus. In Luke 23:42, the one criminal says to Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he would not be disappointed, as Jesus would assure Him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
Romans 3:23-25 says that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”
Though we stood condemned before God for our crimes of rebellion against Him, Jesus stood in our place, acting as our redemption, so that by faith, we may be saved from the judgment to come. That’s the good news of Jesus. And it’s this same good news that cleanses us from our guilt.
In that sleepwalking scene with Lady Macbeth, her doctor quietly watches her as she tries desperately to clean her hands. His conclusion is that this disease is beyond his practice. Instead, he says, “More needs she the divine than the physician.” There is no animal sacrifice, no doctor, nothing we can do that can atone for sin and deal with this guilt—nothing but the blood of Jesus.
“What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus. What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus. O precious is the flow that makes me white as snow; no other fount I know; nothing but the blood of Jesus.”
Hebrews 4:14-16 says, “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
We must acknowledge that we are daily in need of a Saviour, that nothing we can do will ever be enough to save ourselves, but that God in Christ Jesus has already done the work for us. By putting our faith in Jesus and His completed work on the cross, though we don’t stop sinning, we have a Suffering Saviour and Conquering King to whom we can take our guilt. We don’t have to live with guilt, because there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
If you have not trusted in Jesus Christ and this good news of great joy for you, then I encourage you to do so, today. Just like the thief on the cross who, in the final moments of his life, experienced the grace of our great God and Saviour, you can experience grace today like you never dreamed was possible.
“There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Immanuel's veins; and sinners, plunged beneath that flood, lose all their guilty stains.”
“The dying thief rejoiced to see that fountain in his day; and there may I, though vile as he, wash all my sins away.”
“Dear dying Lamb, Thy precious blood shall never lose its power, till all the ransomed Church of God be saved, to sin no more.”
“Ever since by faith I saw the stream Thy flowing wounds supply, redeeming love has been my theme, and shall be till I die.”
“When this poor lisping, stammering tongue lies silent in the grave, then in a nobler, sweeter song I'll sing Thy pow'r to save.”
How are we to respond to this good news? Worship. Bow down and worship. Weep at what it cost to redeem you, church. Look at the cross. Don’t get those images out of your head. Don’t let 2,000 years removed from the crucifixion of Jesus cause you to be desensitized to the pain and the suffering of it. Worship the Son of God who brought you near to your heavenly Father, by taking away all your guilty stains, according to His great love and mercy. Let’s pray…