Tuesday, September 17, 2019

According to Mark: The Suffering Messiah

Our review of the gospel according to Mark has nearly reached its end. I’ve remarked a number of times through this study that it concludes on the highest of notes, but in this entry we are going to see it first reach the very lowest of lows. That, after all, is what triumph requires. Something must be overcome. And Jesus Christ came to overcome sin and death themselves.

Though it is a lot of material, we are going to look at Mark 14–15 today. This passion narrative is the most detailed passage in Mark, and yet it is actually truncated in comparison to those in the other three gospels. Though there are a few valuable theological points being made, the evangelist does not seem to have been as concerned to make them as he was to lay out the bare facts of the events surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus. This means these two chapters are a very straightforward read, and mostly speak for themselves. As always, I highly recommend you go through them on your own before turning to my comments below.

In Memoriam 

If I gloss over anything you have questions about, make sure to leave a comment so that I can discuss it with you or do another article on it. For now, we are going to jump right to Mark 14:22–25 and the institution of the Lord’s Supper. This is another reminder for us that Jesus knows what is coming. He saw His anointing in Bethany as preparation for His burial (Mark 14:3–9), and He has anticipated His betrayal by Judas (Mark 14:18–21). With all that is about to happen to Him, though, His mind is still on His friends.

He takes the Passover meal, established to commemorate the rescue of the Israelite slaves from Egyptian slavery (Ex. 12), and redefines it as an expression of His sacrifice. The old covenant had depended on the blood of animals and concerned obedience to the law (Ex. 24:4–8). Now, in Christ, the forgiveness of sins would be accomplished through the breaking of His body and the spilling of His blood.

Though He is the one who is about to suffer a horrible death, Jesus tells His followers these things to comfort them and to leave them symbols of His love for them. And it is important to remember, they are just symbols. Jesus was not offering His actual flesh and blood to the disciples. After all, His sacrifice had not yet begun and He was still whole. More importantly, to lose sight of their symbolism is to raise them to an idolatrous level. Grace is not received through eating. It is received through trusting in the efficacy of the sacrifice for which the elements stand as a memorial. Just as a portrait should not be favored over being in the presence of a loved one, so Communion should not be elevated above the actual work of Christ.

Fear and Obedience 

After predicting the failure of all His disciples, not only His betrayer, Jesus offers one last word of comfort by promising His resurrection and His reunion with them. For all His confidence, however, Jesus still experiences fear. It makes Mark 14:34–36 an especially difficult passage for Christians to explain. How could He be afraid if He knows what is going to happen and that He will be victorious? And how can He ask to be released from this destiny?

The answer has a lot to do with the subtle difference between knowing something and comprehending it. We can know that at His crucifixion, Jesus took on the weight of all our sin and paid the penalty for it (Mark 10:45; 2 Cor. 5:21). But we cannot fully grasp what that means. Jesus, the sinless Son of God, felt the guilt of every act of rebellion against God committed by every one of the billions of us throughout all the time that mankind has lived and will ever live. Add to the horrible oppression of this the fact that He had taken on our weak nature. As His soul was tormented, so was His body to undergo some of the worst tortures that men have devised for one another. The death He was to die would be dying painfully, and dying for all.

In the face of such anguish, it is more miraculous that He was able to go through with it than it is astonishing He would attempt to escape it. And He did go through with it because He received an answer to His prayer in the silence. He asked for an alternative, but none was given. There was no other way. Only through Him could mankind be saved. As the perfect and obedient Son, He accepted the will of the Father in the doom that awaited Him for our sakes.

This obedience makes Jesus once again the positive exemplar of discipleship. We are meant to model our own response to suffering on His. And, once again, the disciples are the negative model that we want to avoid. His three closest friends cannot stay up with Him when He asks them to. Another sells Him out with a kiss, making a mockery of the deep intimacy Jesus had offered him. All the others run at the first sign of trouble. And Peter, so confident just a few hours before, does exactly what Jesus had said. His fear of being associated with Jesus leads him to curse the people who question him about it and to swear that he has never met the Man that he has followed for years and once called the Messiah (Mark 8:29). He may not have been the traitor Judas was, but Peter was still an utter failure.

The Trials of Jesus 

Meanwhile, Jesus continues on the path set before Him. The trial in Mark 14:55–65 is an absolute mockery of justice. Illegally convened, held under cover of darkness, removed to an extrajudicial setting, and supplied with false witnesses, there could be no question that it was a sham. Even so, Jesus could have had an out. He could have defended Himself. With all the uncorroborated testimony, He could have even walked away by remaining silent. But when the high priest asked Jesus to identify Himself, Jesus did directly for the first time in Mark. By saying He was the Messiah and God’s Son who would sit beside God’s throne and return with God’s glory, He only told the truth. With that truth, though, they condemned Him as a liar. And He knew they would. He gave them the ammunition they needed so that the Father’s will could be fulfilled.

After a few more hours, at first light, the chief priests took Jesus to the Roman governor to accuse Him of sedition. The Messiah was generally understood to be a king, and therefore a rival to the claims of Caesar. Pontius Pilate was not enough of a fool to believe it, but he was too much of a pragmatist to do anything about it. He tried, ineptly, to release Jesus. When the crowd refused to have Him, Pilate sent Him to be crucified. Better to kill this one prisoner than to have a riot. That was the extent of his vision and leadership.

A couple of things about the trial before Pilate are worthy of note here. First is the makeup of the crowd that requested Barabbas instead of Jesus. It is possible that they had a positive view of Barabbas, since insurrectionists were often seen as freedom fighters. Still, they did have to be led to ask for his freedom. It is not why they had gathered there. Even more importantly, the fact that they were shouting for Christ’s death is telling. Pilate gave them a chance to ask for His release, as well. Then, he asked them to give an explanation for why Jesus should die. They did not care. It seems clear to me that they were there from the start to determine this outcome. In other words, they were the partisans of the Jewish leaders. At most, they were random people that the priests brought into the courtyard and induced to condemn Jesus.

Sometimes people will talk about how the same crowds that had welcomed Jesus a few days previously were now calling for His death. I think any overlap is unlikely. More important is the fact that Jesus had no defenders. Besides Judas, I do not find evidence that anyone turned on Him. But they all abandoned Him. At the moment His fate was decided (from a human perspective), He was totally alone.

The other thing that stands out is Barabbas himself. There is no indication that he was any better than he was made out to be. He was an outlaw and rebel, a murderer and an associate of murderers. But the innocent Jesus was crucified in his place, allowing him to escape the punishment he unquestionably deserved. Barabbas’ specific circumstances represent the situation of all humanity. We do not know how Barabbas responded to what Jesus made possible. Did he turn his life around, or go right back into his old ways? It is impossible to say. All we can say is that this is the choice before each of us when we hear the gospel. A happy ending is not guaranteed, and it only comes if we respond in faith.

Darkest before Dawn

The horror of what follows the trial is something on which each of us must dwell. It is important to come to terms with the suffering that Christ endured. But it is also worthwhile to note the irony. The soldiers that beat Him mockingly treat Him as a king. The passersby scoff at (and wrongly state) His predictions of the destruction of the Temple and His promise of restoration after three days. The priests toasted themselves on their victory and laugh at the Savior who cannot save Himself, challenging Him to walk away from the cross to prove Himself the Messiah. To them, these concepts are a joke. But in fact, they are all true. Jesus was the King of Glory who refused to save Himself in order to save others, and in three days He would be restored and released from death.

The story is headed there, but it is not there yet. Jesus has one thing left to say before the end. In the midst of the deepest misery ever experienced, He cries out,

My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?

This cry has sometimes been used to argue that in this moment, Jesus was separated from the Father because the Father could not look on the sins that Jesus bore. That interpretation is not really warranted, and it is not supported anywhere else in Scripture. It is important to bear in mind that the phrase Jesus shouts is a quotation from the first verse of Ps. 22. This is a messianic psalm that predicts many of the elements of Christ’s crucifixion. Roughly the first half of it deals with the pain of the Messiah and His feelings of rejection. But the second half acknowledges that God hears and vindicates Him. He has not actually been abandoned.

Jesus is therefore expressing two things at once. In repeating the lament, He expresses His very real pain and His sense of loss, which matches the claims of His enemies. But by quoting Scripture, particularly this one and the ending it foreshadows, He declares His trust in spite of the circumstances. He knows He has not been abandoned. This is only temporary.

The Son has Paid the Price

A short time after that, He breathed His last. This is followed by two incredible moments that serve as capstones to the two most important verses in the gospel. First, in Mark 15:38, the same moment Jesus dies is the moment the Temple curtain is torn from top to bottom. The curtain divided the Temple, separating the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place. The Most Holy Place represented the presence of God, and had been the location of the Ark of the Covenant before it was lost. It could only be entered once a year, and only by the high priest. This was to be done on the annual Day of Atonement, when an offering was made and the blood was sprinkled in the Most Holy Place to pay the price for Israel’s sin.

The tearing of the curtain therefore has multiple meanings. First, as a result of Christ’s sacrifice, the old system has been done away with. Animals no longer have to be offered year after year because, at long last, a permanent and truly efficacious payment for sin has been made. Second, because the payment has been made, there is no longer anything that separates us from God. Through faith in Christ, we can boldly enter the Father’s presence (Heb. 4:14–16). The torn veil is proof that the Lord has accepted the life that Jesus gave “as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

This is followed by the confession of the centurion. We do not know the depth of this confession or what he meant by it, nor whether he became a Christian afterward. Its place in Mark’s theology is obvious, though. He is the first human in the book to call Jesus the Son of God and to recognize His death as proof of it. Mark 1:1 started us off with this acknowledgement, and we have returned to it over and again. Now, here it is at the end. Only one thing remains to encapsulate it. That is what we will turn to next week.

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