He Changes Everything: “The Old Rugged Cross”- Mark 15:22-47

A man was driving down a backstreet in a small town. He looked up into the rear view mirror, and noticed the flashing lights of the police cruiser. He looked down at recognized that he was proceeding at ten miles past the speed limit signs. He pulled over. It could be any place, any day or any time, but it would still be a familiar scene. As he pulled over, a host of issues rolled through his mind. If he is like most Americans, he is disgusted that the police officer would waste time on him instead of catching “real criminals”. If he is like most Americans, he will surmise cynically that the city is running low on cash, and that the motivation for the stop is financial. If he is like most Americans, the very last thing on his mind will be his actual infraction – buried behind a raft of good reasons why he wasn’t really as wrong as the policemen was going to suggest with the ticket.

Here is the problem: Our culture has confused GOODNESS for RIGHTEOUSNESS. In the last 100 years, the number of “mitigating circumstances” that allows a defense attorney to argue “not guilty” on our behalf has grown at a staggering rate. Don’t misunderstand me, there are mitigating circumstances that need to be considered in judgment. The problem is that people become deceived into thinking that they are truly NOT GUILTY because they believe they are basically good, and had a good reason for doing wrong.

Why do I bring this up as we look into Mark 15 and the story of the Cross of Jesus? Because the enemy is convincing our fallen culture that because they are basically good people (a left over of God’s image stamp on them in creation) – that they are also RIGHTEOUS (truly not guilty of sin under the judicial penalty of God).

Go back to our man sitting in the driver’s seat. Let’s say he is a GOOD MAN. Let’s stipulate that he volunteers at Big Brothers of America, is a scout leader, donates regularly to Good Will, is ecologically sensitive, grew up in Sunday School and helps little old ladies across the street. Let’s name him “Dudley Dooright” and give him a “A” for civic minded efforts. What does that have to do with the fact that he was GUILTY of speeding? Everything. It gives him a reason to try to justify himself in his own mind, while calling into question the law enforcement official. It has a graying affect on the black and white of his situation. It adds subjective standards to what is really objective.

Now take that same driver, and bring him to church. If it is a Bible teaching and Bible believing church – it will offer this picture of the man: HE IS A SINNER, CONDEMNED BY GOD. He will sit and look around, perhaps squirming a bit. Why is he a sinner? He is a GOOD GUY – we have already established that! What right does that Pastor have to call him a SINNER – “I’ll bet he is trying to get money out of me for the building program!” he’ll muse. Maybe he will argue in his own mind, “This guy doesn’t know me, how can he say ANYTHING about who I am?” He will leave the service feeling condemned (a bad feeling) and that will reinforce his reasons for thinking church people aren’t for him. Like in the case of his traffic violation, it will not occur to him that the whole event occurred because he was ACTUALLY GUILTY before the law (unrighteous). He confuses being GOOD GUY with being UNRIGHTEOUS in regard to violation of an absolute standard.

It was not always so. Puritan culture understood the judicial nature of our Creator. They believed they were sinners, and they needed the cross. Our twenty first century culture in America has no need for the cross as any more than a symbol of giving. It is a hallmark moment that brings an “Ahhhh” to the modern crowd. Jesus has joined the ranks of the radical peaceful protestors, alongside Mahatma Ghandi and other examples of non-violent protest.

To a student of the Bible, Jesus’ work was not simply about EXAMPLE – it was the solution to the judicial unrighteousness of man. To a Christian, the Cross on which Jesus died became a symbol of inestimable worth. It captured in time the single greatest moment in world history since the Fall of man, only to be eclipsed by the King’s return at the beginning of the Millennial Kingdom. It symbolized the breaking of sin’s inevitable hold on mankind. It symbolized the finished work to conquer sin and death (meaning a separation from God). It graphically depicted God’s love for man. It is the source of our hope.

In this passage we will go back to stand on a hill outside of Jerusalem. We will watch victory and tragedy meet. We will again be amazed at the love of our Creator, and the faithfulness of His Son…

Key Principle: The Cross changed everything. At the same time, it offers potential life to those who accept it and eternal death to those who reject it.

Before we read from Mark 15, we must understand a Biblical idea about God’s judgment. Every man or woman is judged TWICE. One judgment is for his RIGHTEOUSNESS and the other for his GOODNESS. His eternal destiny is determined by the judgment of RIGHTEOUSNESS. The degree of his reward or punishment is determined by his GOODNESS. How do I know? There are many passages, but we will suffice it with one very clear passage in the end of the Bible:

Revelation 20:11 Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. 13 And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. 14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

Note three specifics of the passage you just read:

First, there are two different measures of the passage – a single book of life by which a destiny is determined and a library of books that houses the record of one’s works in life. The Book of Life simply requires a name listing, the other books have details of works.

Second, there are two judgments – whether one is in the Book of Life and the other refers to what works one had done. Though every person not found in the Book of Life is sent to the Lake of Fire – not all are equal in the works they have done.

Third, it is possible to be GOOD in terms of works, but UNRIGHTEOUS in terms of the Book of Life. The passage we read doesn’t specify who is in the Book of Life – but the Bible elsewhere does. That is where the CROSS story comes into the problem – offering a judicial solution to UNRIGHTEOUS MAN.

Now to the Cross. There are three essential parts to the story as given by Mark. First, there is the Setting of the Execution itself. Next there is the special focus on the moment of Jesus’ death. Finally, there is the Reaction of the Observers.

The Setting of the Execution:

The very word Crucifixion brought fear to a non-citizen during the Roman period. It is still considered by most historians one of the most gruesome of deaths. Mark describes it: Mark 15:22 Then they brought Him to the place Golgotha, which is translated, Place of a Skull. 23 They tried to give Him wine mixed with myrrh; but He did not take it. 24 And they crucified Him, and divided up His garments among themselves, casting lots for them to decide what each man should take. 25 It was the third hour when they crucified Him.

These four verses offer some important truths to historically set the redemption act of Jesus. It is essential that we have details, in order that we assure each generation that these were not simply “cleverly devised myths” (2 Peter 1:6). The details given are:

The Place:

Christians use a number of words that remind us of the place of Jesus’ death, simply because the Biblical terminology for the site includes the terms Golgotha, the Aramaic word for “skull,” and Calvary, from the Latin term calvaria also meaning “skull” (Matthew 27:33, Luke 23:33, John 19:17). All that we know historically about the place was that it was outside a wall to the north and west of the city, on the western hill of ancient Jerusalem. There was a garden nearby, as well as a cemetery contemporary to Jesus’ time. The Crosses may have been ON the hill, or in a flat space BELOW the hill, since the text doesn’t indicate their actual location.

The Cross:

Mark offers four important details of the actual event: 1) the drink they offered Jesus (23), 2) the method of execution (24), 3) the parting of his personal effects by casting lots (25), 4) the time of the event (26). Each of these add special texture to the history and drama, and offer details that suggest one who was there was the source. Each of these four records are consistent with the details of an eyewitness. Since this method is now removed (thankfully) from our public life, some details of the scene may be helpful to really capture the event.

  • Their Purpose: Crucifixion was another of the “spectacles” of Roman society. Even punishment was designed to send a message to people on every level of society. The crucified were often left on display after death as a deterring warning to any who might attempt insurrection. This method was particularly slow, painful (hence the term excruciating, literally “out of crucifying”), and a terrifyingly public gruesome display. Specific methods varied with location.
  • Their Variety: “Crucifixion” applied to many forms of execution, from impaling on a stake to affixing to a tree, to an upright pole (a crux simplex) or to a combination of an upright (in Latin, stipes – 300 pounds or more) and a crossbeam (in Latin, patibulum – 75–125 pounds).
  • Use of Nails: Normally attached by rope to the wood, nails were not always used. They are specifically mentioned by Josephus Flavius, in a record of the Siege of Jerusalem (in 70 CE) where he says, “the soldiers out of rage and hatred, nailed those they caught, one after one way, and another after another, to the crosses, by way of jest.” Seneca the Younger suggest that victims were crucified completely nude. When the victim had to relieve bowel or bladder – they did so in open view, increasing the attraction of flies and insects, and adding to the awful smell of the place.
  • Other tools: In the normal course of the execution, the legs of the person executed were shattered with a club, an act called “crurifragium”– a punishment applied without crucifixion to rebellious slaves. This act hastened the death, but was not considered merciful on its face.
  • Roman Records: Roman citizens were spared this execution form, and its horrors were shunned by some eminent orators. Cicero described crucifixion as “a most cruel and disgusting punishmentthe very mention of the cross should be far removed not only from a Roman citizen’s body, but from his mind, his eyes, his ears.”
  • Roman Superstitions: Strangely, just like objects associated with gladiators, the nails after a crucifixion were sought as amulets with perceived medicinal qualities.

The only clear archeological evidence of crucifixion of the Roman period in ancient Judea is that of “the case of the crucified man” at Giv’at HaMivtar. The discovery was in a tomb, unexpectedly uncovered by road and construction work in the 1960s. The tomb yielded a number of ossuaries, boxes containing the bones of the dead, which were examined by archeologists. One of the ossuaries contained a curiosity that is still the subject of much discussion (See Israel Exploration Journal, vol.35, no.1, 1985, pp. 22-7). The excavator, Vasilios Tzaferis, took the skeletal remains of a male who appeared to have been crucified at about the age of 28. Evidence for the man’s death as a crucifixion included a bent nail, still positioned in the foot bones. The nail was 11.5 cm (4.5 inches) in length. Tests were run at Hebrew University Hadassah Medical School and published by an anthropologist with the Israel Exploration Society. It was determined that the crucifixion in this particular case did not include the use of the crurifragium (a sledgehammer). Further, the victim did not appear to have evidence of hand injury, implying that his arms were roped and not nailed, and may have been nailed to an olive tree. If the same type of crucifixion were applied to the Gospel narrative, Jesus may well have been nailed to a patibulum (crossbeam) and then boosted against a small olive tree.

Note that Mark includes three statements that set the cruelty of the scene in Jesus’ case very carefully:

  • His charge: A charge was nailed above Him, explaining the Roman crime He was convicted of – INSURRECTION. Mark 15:26 The inscription of the charge against Him read, “THE KING OF THE JEWS.”
  • His companions: He was not crucified alone, but was a later addition to those who were killed that day. It is likely that Barabbas’ companions were those who accompanied Jesus in death. Mark 15:27 They crucified two robbers with Him, one on His right and one on His left. 28 [And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And He was numbered with transgressors.”]
  • His curses: Mark 15:29 Those passing by were hurling abuse at Him, wagging their heads, and saying, “Ha! You who are going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, 30 save Yourself, and come down from the cross!” 31 In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes, were mocking Him among themselves and saying, “He saved others; He cannot save Himself. 32 “Let this Christ, the King of Israel, now come down from the cross, so that we may see and believe!” Those who were crucified with Him were also insulting Him.

The Death: How Jesus was Executed

Two details are drawn out of the spectacle on Calvary that morning long ago. Mark focused on Jesus’ personal agony as He perceived the Father’s turning from Him in the midst of the crucifixion. Jesus cried out:

Mark 15:33 When the sixth hour came, darkness fell over the whole land until the ninth hour. 34 At the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “ELOI, ELOI, LAMA SABACHTHANI?” which is translated, “MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?” 35 When some of the bystanders heard it, they began saying, “Behold, He is calling for Elijah.” 36 Someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed, and gave Him a drink, saying, “Let us see whether Elijah will come to take Him down.” 37 And Jesus uttered a loud cry, and breathed His last.

The Gospel writer was not unaware of the theological realities he was trying to teach in his writing. In the middle of the scene, we need to recall some important truths about the Cross. Jesus made two essential changes at His death – He changed man’s potential relationship to God and He changed all Creation’s hope of redemption. The scene of the Crucifixion was not simply in Jerusalem – it was played out in HEAVENLY PLACES for all Creation to watch and learn.

The work at the Cross changed Man’s Potential Relation to God

The most profound effect of the Fall into sin was on man’s connection to God. Sin was primarily against God. It was a deliberate mutiny, not a personality flaw. For that reason, the Biblical notion of sin can be seen in the lost son’s confession in the parable of Joy (Luke 15): “I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight.” Much earlier, the wayward King David (after he had committed adultery and arranged a murder) acknowledged, Ps. 51:3 “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. 4 Against You, You only, I have sinned and done what is evil in Your sight, so that You are justified when You speak and blameless when You judge.” From a Biblical view, others may be hurt by our sin, but sin is primarily directed against the character of a righteous God the way a physical attack on our President would be considered an attack against our country. Sin is the personification of self will and rebellion – the opposite of dependence upon God and the desire for submission.

From the time of the Fall, sin separated man from God. God’s revealed nature is HOLY – and holiness cannot overlook sin. Our mutiny of sin naturally separates the sinner from God as oil from water – their physical properties do not mix. Sin is a barrier ever separating permanent the fellowship between man and God that he once had in the Garden of Eden. Paul called  our state in Ephesians 2 simply “dead in sin.”

The result of sin is guilt of mutiny before God, a condition passed to every baby born of man’s sperm, where God says the defect is extended. Each sinner is responsible both by their blood (at birth) and later by their deeds – all offenses chargeable before God. Sin requires God’s condemnation – just as crime requires that of any human judge. The necessary punishment to satisfy the judicial nature of God must be met – and God set the payment terms of a holy life in exchange for an unholy one. That was Heaven’s view of the Cross of Jesus. He became the Lamb slain for me.

The Bible is not silent on the state of man without the payment of the Cross (one who chooses to try to satisfy God without relying on the work of Jesus at the Cross). “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Sinners deserve death. Paul said, “They which commit such things are worthy of death” (Rom. 1:32). “Because all men sinned, death passed upon all men.” (Rom. 5:12.)

“But I wasn’t there in the Garden!” one may object. That’s true, but one who represented you was in the Garden. Just as an Ambassador for our country represents us today before other nations, so Adam and Eve represented all of us. If our Ambassador, our President and our Congress declares war –YOU declare war. You pay for it. You support it. You send your sons and daughters to fight it. Because they represent you – they speak for you – and you pay the price. They are your FEDERAL HEAD – and so was man and woman in the Garden. One more thing: the Bible is clear, and so are our lives – we would have made the same choice. We lied and cheated without any instruction – our hearts showed self dependence since we uttered “MINE!” at age two.

God is life – and he who rejects God, rejects LIFE – and asks for the penalty of death. Choosing door number two means you rejected door number one – that is the very nature of choice.

Biblically, in His sacrifice Jesus took the believer’s place. He paid the debt left by sin on behalf of the sinner that opts into the program. Just like TRAVEL INSURANCE you cannot expect to be covered if YOU OPTED OUT OF THE COVERAGE.

The man who OPTS OUT of sin coverage of Jesus lives self-centered instead of God-centered – EVEN IF HE IS A GOOD PERSON. The righteous standard is determined by the JUDGE, who has written that man cannot live righteously until he is living godly. Man’s goodness to his neighbor is meant to be a social expression of his redemptive relationship with God. We only really love our neighbor as self when we first have a walk with God and reflect the values God has stated in every other relationship – so says the Creator. Ultimately, GOOD is subservient to RIGHTEOUS. That is why the Bible says that “No one does good!”

Mark includes the detail of the curtain of the Temple to show that the division between God and man was changed at the Cross. Mark 15:38 And the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.

The Response of Observers:

One final feature of the scene of the Cross in Mark’s Gospel is perhaps the most relevant part of the story to anyone studying the event today – the reactions of people. Why is this more relevant? Because the work of the Cross only POTENTIALLY changed a man’s destination. If they don’t accept the work of Jesus – the work has only one impact on them – it becomes a STANDARD OF CONDEMNATION before God. The check box to OPT OUT becomes the CONDEMNING CHOICE by which your claim to Heaven is denied.

Consider three who appeared to be moving toward the Cross:

The Centurion as a leader of 80 men in the Roman army, and perhaps the highest official on the scene, knew that Jesus was not guilty of subversion, and thought His death was a statement of WHO JESUS IS: Mark 15:39 When the centurion, who was standing right in front of Him, saw the way He breathed His last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”

The women who stood back and watched were shocked into Covert Action. They loved Jesus, but could not understand the plan: Mark 15:40 There were also some women looking on from a distance, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the Less and Joses, and Salome. 41 When He was in Galilee, they used to follow Him and minister to Him; and there were many other women who came up with Him to Jerusalem.

The Pharisee Joseph showed Courage, and wanted to honor Jesus by offering his tomb for a proper burial. Mark 15:42 When evening had already come, because it was the preparation day, that is, the day before the Sabbath, 43 Joseph of Arimathea came, a prominent member of the Council, who himself was waiting for the kingdom of God; and he gathered up courage and went in before Pilate, and asked for the body of Jesus. 44 Pilate wondered if He was dead by this time, and summoning the centurion, he questioned him as to whether He was already dead. 45 And ascertaining this from the centurion, he granted the body to Joseph. 46 Joseph bought a linen cloth, took Him down, wrapped Him in the linen cloth and laid Him in a tomb which had been hewn out in the rock; and he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. 47 Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses were looking on to see where He was laid.

The real question is not whether you RESPECT Jesus, love Jesus’ example, or want to HONOR Jesus through some show of self sacrifice. The real question is whether you will OPT IN to accepting Jesus as the only satisfaction for sin before the justice of God.

If you believe you are too GOOD to be UNRIGHTEOUS – you are confusing the judicial standard, and answering the wrong judgment. The Cross changed everything. At the same time, it offers potential life to those who accept it and eternal death to those who reject it.

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