Jesus Dies on a Cross
Focal Passage: Mark 15:22-39
Background Text: Mark 15:1-47
Purpose Statement: To recall the unprecedented sacrifice of Jesus on the cross
Key Verse: “But Jesus let out a loud cry and died. The curtain of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom” (Mark 15:37-38).
I have always loved Palm Sunday! The hymns are so happy, and worshipers celebrate Jesus as the one who comes in the name of the Lord. I imagine the patchwork quilt of coats laid on the street as he entered Jerusalem that day, carefully placed so that not even the hooves of the donkey that carried Jesus would touch the ground.
One year when I was a child, we received a special gift on Palm Sunday at church. Someone had taken palm branches, cut them into little strips, and then stapled them together in the form of a cross. We each got one as we went in for worship. It was the first time I remember feeling the conflict between Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday or remembering the death of Jesus on the cross.
As I held the pieces of palm fronds, I could feel, right in the center, the hard, sharp edges of the staple that held the fronds together. It felt for me like the sharp edges of the nails that held the crucified Jesus to the cross. In the midst of that grand celebration of the procession of palms, I held the symbol of what would come to be the saddest day of the year. I grew up a little bit that day.
As you reread the Passion story, do so a bit more slowly than usual. Try to recreate in your own mind the events on the day Jesus died. Doing so can help us come to a deeper gratitude for what the Son of God endured for our eternal sake and life.
A Matter of Fact
One of my hobbies is to explore my family history. I’ve made connections to the Mayflower and even to King Charlemagne (mostly for boasting rights!), but the more fascinating parts have come as I’ve discovered various death certificates of my long-lost family members.
They are stark in their descriptions, usually simply stating the date of death, the location, and the specific time. They also usually state the cause of death: cancer, cancer of the stomach, heart attack/stroke, pleurisy, brain disease, or old age. Quite a few relatives were killed in battle. There are lots of ways we can die, aren’t there? My extended family seems to represent a wide variety. However, nowhere do we find “died by crucifixion” as a cause of death.
Mark’s way of writing his Gospel involved wasting no words. He almost seems to have been in a hurry to record only essential details. He didn’t create any flowery illustrations or images. For example, read Mark 15:24, which bluntly states, “They crucified him.” Simply horrible but plainspoken, just as it was to read of the process by which the soldiers determined who would get the only things left that Jesus owned: “They divided up his clothes, drawing lots for them to determine who would take what.”
Jesus had been taken to Golgotha (verse 22) outside the city walls, most likely close to where the burial site was located. The word Golgotha comes from the Aramaic, gulgulta, which, as the Bible states, literally means “the place of the skull.” Some scholars say that the actual location somehow looked like a skull, but others simply connect it as a place of death. The word Calvary comes from the Latin calva, which means bald head, or skull. Different languages but the same essential meaning.
The Romans had a passion for maintaining order and did so through a wide variety of execution methods. Beheading, stabbing, strangling, stoning, burning alive, and worse were all in the repertoire of the Roman executioners. Only they, however, would use the tool of crucifixion, and they used it as a political weapon. One could be crucified, not for stealing or adultery, but for sedition, which was the attempt to overthrow the government.
Some believe that the two men crucified with Jesus (verse 27; “thieves,” King James Version; “bandits,” NRSV) were “outlaws” (CEB) or “rebels” (NIV) against the government since there were dozens of rebellious groups in Palestine at the time. Even though the high priest believed Jesus should be executed for blasphemy, Rome didn’t care. It wasn’t their religion. However, they did agree to crucify Jesus for committing a civil crime, of making statements and promoting the belief that he indeed was King of the Jews and a civil threat to Roman power.
However we might interpret the reasons for his execution, there is no doubt of the humiliation, pain, and agony that Jesus experienced that day. Imagine the incredible sacrifice he gave himself over to experience. For us as followers of Christ, we believe this act of self-giving, as horrible a way as it was for Jesus to die, brought eternal life and salvation to this world.
As you think about the plain, simple facts of Jesus’ crucifixion, what does it mean to you personally to know he died for you?
What is the best way for you to respond to Jesus’ death on a cross?
My God, My God!
When our two sons were growing up, Cheri and I often took them on hikes through various areas of the Black Hills of South Dakota. One day, we decided to hike to the top of Bear Butte, an ancient mountain-like formation.
It was a long walk uphill. By the time we reached the top, we were a bit winded. On the way down, Adam, seven years old at the time, was curious about everything. “Dad,” he asked, “do you think there are any rattlesnakes around here?” Without thinking, I responded, “I’m sure there are some.” Before I finished the sentence, Adam transformed into a human pogo stick, jumping back and forth, hearing for certain a thousand rattles, ready to strike. He was terrified and could not get back to the car fast enough.
We all have been through times of fear and terror in our lives, and some of them were legitimate, even life-threatening. Keep in mind that fear is always a future-directed emotion. What might happen creates the fear, not what has happened or what is happening. Even if it is moments away, it’s still in the future and undetermined.
Do you think Jesus felt fear on the cross that day? He knew he was going to die, but he had never experienced death and only knew that pain and agony awaited him. It must have been terrifying. I think that’s why he turned to Hebrew Scripture and recalled what he had learned as a boy: “My God, my God, why have you left me?” (Mark 15:34; also Psalm 22:1). Jesus recalled the words appearing in the psalm just preceding the one that states, “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1, KJV).
Psalm 22 is a long psalm, with 31 verses in contrast to the six verses we find in Psalm 23. When we read it in its entirety, we discover that it is a song of agony and suffering. “I cry out during the day . . . even at nighttime I don’t stop,” the psalmist said (Psalm 22:2).
But the psalm does not end there. Beginning in verse 19 and through the rest of the psalm, we find praise of God and affirmation of trust in God’s presence and care, even when things are horrible. This was the psalm Jesus offered as he hung from a cross. In his sacrifice, Jesus called out in pain and suffering. But just as surely as the psalmist’s words, expressing feelings of abandonment, were part of his life and heart, so also were the words of affirmation and trust that followed.
How naturally do we employ that kind of faith when we are faced with times of agony, grief, and loss? Some of us have experienced incredible pain, and it perhaps makes us cry out, wondering why God has forsaken us. The circumstances themselves are painful enough, but that pain and suffering are multiplied by the sense that God has abandoned us, leaving us to try to endure it alone.
That’s why investing the time and effort to grow in our faith is so critical. Studying the Scriptures, spending time in prayer, nurturing our relationship with God, learning in community with others, and understanding more fully the gift Jesus is in our lives—all of these things combine to create a different posture from which we live. When things seem hopeless and without purpose, we can trust that God has indeed not forsaken us. Beyond the momentary feeling of loss, we know that God is with us in all things, and we are not alone.
That assurance comes when we take our Christian faith seriously and make the growth of our faith a core priority for our lives. Our faith is not simply an add-on to living a good life. It is the center of living during times of abundance and in times of suffering, because in all things, we do so with God’s love.
How might you live in the upcoming Easter season that would give you the firm foundation for living a life of faith in the months to come?
The End of the Temple
My dad died July 21, 1993. He died in the morning in the hospital after a fitful night flooded with morphine that was supposed to ease his pain and calm him. It didn’t. Outwardly, Dad had been fine up until late spring that year. What eventually appeared to be cancer was insidious and difficult for the doctors to determine.
Dad’s dying was a powerful and significant part of all of our lives, but his death created a new reality for the Cross family. As a retired lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, Dad was the squadron commander for our family. Mom certainly was a leader as well, but where she expressed her love through tenderness, reason, and conversation, Dad expressed his through order, routine, and a larger-than-life presence. When he was gone, it was as if pieces of his life and gifts were suddenly spread around to the rest of us.
Granted, oldest brother, Ray, thought he would simply take on the mantle, which is typical of firstborns, but it didn’t turn out that way. We have survived and done pretty well, but we are different now. What was on that day in July, simply wasn’t anymore. We often talk about “what used to be” and even laugh at the ways in which our family organization lived out its mission. But today, those days are done. It’s not better or worse; it’s just different.
Mark 15:37 uses the same stark simplicity we find throughout the rest of the Gospel: “But Jesus let out a loud cry and died.” It was over. The life of the itinerant preacher and teacher from Galilee, who led and taught and healed and brought a new understanding of the kingdom of God, was gone. Even before Resurrection three days later, the world changed. The sacrifice of the Son of God was complete; and the world, although it didn’t know it quite yet, was offered a new way of living and existing, as the sin of the world had been also carried into death and destroyed forever.
In the Temple, “the curtain of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom” (verse 38). Some traditions hold that the Temple curtain was 60 feet tall, four inches thick, and made of blue, purple, and scarlet fine linen. Where Jerusalem was the heart of Jewish life and the Temple the heart of Jerusalem, the Holy of Holies was believed to be the earthly dwelling place of God. Only the high priest could enter there, and then only on occasion, to offer the sin offering on behalf of the people. Because of sin, the people were symbolically and literally kept apart from God.
On that Friday, Jesus’ sacrifice became the once-and-for-all sin sacrifice, and it also meant for Christians that the Holy of Holies no longer need keep us away from God, nor would the Temple be needed as the symbol of the old covenant. With the tearing of the curtain, the new covenant with Jesus Christ was ushered into the world.
In one sense as we read this Scripture, we may be struck in awe over the incredible sacrifice of Jesus us. In another sense, we can see that the sacrifice also changed the world forever. Also notice that the change in everything was not by human effort. This was done by God’s hand. Some imaginative writers have suggested that the curtain was torn from the inside of the Holy of Holies, as God tore the barrier between where God was believed to have dwelt and the entire world outside of that place.
We celebrate and affirm that the work of Good Friday, although physically done by the hands of Roman executioners, was accomplished by the grace of God, who has freed and reclaimed this world through the gift of God’s Son. We know that this time next week, we will celebrate a different reality and experience as we will rejoice in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Let’s not, however, miss the solemn opportunity to rejoice in this week’s powerful and loving gift of God. Nothing we have done has enabled this to happen, but certainly everything we do can be known as a grateful response for the gracious gift of God through Christ.
What is your own response to God as you have considered the events recorded in this Scripture?
Gracious and loving God, grant me today the powerful understanding of your love for me, given through Jesus; in Jesus’ name. Amen.