Mark 15:33-47, The Death of the Son of God

[March 21, 2010] The Gospel according to Mark takes us now to the critical moment that the faithful obedience of Jesus has led Him. In the silence of the sixth to ninth hour we are struck dumb and can barely speak. But speak we must, for here is where the Roman Gentile—who represents the power of Babel, of the human empire, which at the time when the Gospel according to Mark was told was persecuting the church to death—declared that Jesus was the Son of God in the manner of His death. Here we bear witness with the women who helplessly stood by and yet saw these things.

Until now Jesus was the faithful martyr, scorned, humiliated and tortured by the world, who showed the way of the true disciple in the world. The disciple of Jesus is set apart from the world by his or her adherence to Jesus and suffers from the world whether by overt persecution or by the condescending ridicule of those in power and those seeking power and the fearful and subservient crowds.

But at this moment, we have gone as far as we can follow. Here no disciple can go. Here we can only be witnesses and recipients. Where Jesus goes He truly goes alone, and yet where He goes is for our sake, the sake of all who believe, all who give Him their lives. What happens here no one else can duplicate—the darkness, the rending of the veil—but here the powers of the world, though they do not know it, are defeated. They do not know it and imagine themselves victorious, for on their own terms they are (as Pilate confirms that Jesus is truly dead), but a power unseen and unnoticed by them subverts all their efforts (and all their certainty) so that they have only served God’s own purpose. Nothing has taken place that Jesus (and the prophets of Israel) had not predicted and had not knowingly and willingly—in active obedience—walked into.

The Significance of the Death of Christ in Mark

It has been noticed that the four gospels present the death of Christ according to the animal sacrifices described in the first five chapters of Leviticus. The Gospel according to John depicts Jesus as the whole-burnt-offering in Leviticus 1. No death takes place in the meal offering described in Leviticus 2, which speaks of our Lord’s life. The Gospel according to Luke depicts Jesus as the peace-offering in Leviticus 3. The Gospel according to Mark depicts Jesus as the sin-offering in Leviticus 4. And the Gospel according to Matthew depicts Jesus as the trespass(or guilt)-offering in Leviticus 5—6:7. I think this is accurate. The Gospel according to Mark follows Matthew’s account very closely, which is what we would expect since the sin and trespass offerings are very similar. But the trespass offering also requires restitution or reparation by the offerer. It addresses the responsibility of the individual for their sinful actions and thus it is governmental in nature. The sin offering in contrast deals with sin in relation to the holiness of God and therefore its innate (original) and collective nature. In both the fat is cut away from the inner vital organs and burned on the altar of burnt-offering for God’s satisfaction and the rest of the bull is taken outside the camp and burned. These, the sin and trespass offerings burned outside the camp are not a “sweet savor” to God, as are the others, because they are a judgment for sin, and this we also find in Matthew and Mark, which are the two gospels that record Jesus’ cry of abandonment before He lets out a loud cry and dies. The details here are all significant, but time does not permit us to go into them.

The marking of the sixth hour perhaps signifies that the fat of the offering has been offered on the altar of the cross, that the Father accepts the offering of Jesus’ life of perfect obedience.

Abandoned by God (Mark 15:33-34, 38)

From the sixth to the ninth hour (noon to three in the afternoon), for three hours, darkness came over the whole earth. The number three signifies the manifestation of what is hidden and thus the opening of the sanctuary of God, six the limit being reached, and nine the full manifestation. We will not dwell on the numerological issues here but it is nonetheless present and plays a role.

The withdrawal of the sun and the darkness that covers the earth certainly speaks to us of the divine displeasure and judgment. The rending of the veil that separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies signified a desecration of the Temple, reminding us of when the Babylonians destroyed the Temple the first time and foreshadowing the coming desecration by the Romans. God is hidden in the darkness that is exposed in the inner sanctum of the Temple. The darkness hides God and forbids us to draw near. We are unclean and sinful. On the cross the wrath of God is revealed from heaven (Romans 1:18) in the darkness that now encompasses everyone. No one is exempt from the darkness, for the entire human race with all its cultural achievements is guilty of rebellion against God.

While we did not historically put Jesus on the cross, our sinful disposition, which is at the foundation of our consciousness, attempts to murder God and separate God from us. The darkness only manifests what is already true. God is light and God’s light shines in every corner of creation. Our sin blinds us to whatever light there is in creation and our darkness becomes God’s judgment on us.

In our Babel-culture, we surround ourselves with our own works, alienated from the natural world and from our own bodies in connection to the natural world. We surround ourselves in every way and on every side with our own creations, the projections of our own consciousness, a consciousness that is at root alienated from God and consequently from the reality of creation. We lock ourselves indoors and are inactive, and compensate artificially for what we have lost. What surrounds us is not a reflection of our true selves but of our constructed soul, our alienated “flesh,” our darkened mind. God’s judgment is to deliver us up to ourselves, to give us what we have chosen.

And what we have chosen is to be cut off from God.

Jesus’ cry, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me,” interprets the darkness. It is a quotation of Psalm 22:1, spoken in Aramaic in Mark, in Hebrew in Matthew (where Eli includes the significance of “my Mighty One” whereas Elōi simply signifying “my God,” pointing us directly to God’s nature of holiness). Nevertheless it is not merely allusive but depicts Jesus’ actual experience. He is abandoned by God for these three hours. Only, for Him it is actual whereas God’s abandonment of the human race in our darkness is provisional. We abandon God, bringing upon ourselves the abandonment by God, but God has not yet fully abandon anyone. God gives us up to ourselves and the consequences of our choices (Romans 1:24, 26, 28) and this is His wrath, but He does not give us up completely, at least while we are yet alive, for He still gives to all life and breath and all good things (for in Him we live and move and have our being), leaving us a witness to His goodness. We live in darkness—the darkness of our own creation, which God allows us to suffer in His wrath—but this darkness is not the absolute darkness that Jesus experienced.

What Jesus experienced on the cross is what we deserve. The Son of God, and the Father and Holy Spirit in Him, in His (divine) Person, suffered abandonment by the divine Presence in His human nature. He suffered the wrath of God against us.

Humanity has raised up the “world” as an alternative to life with and in God. It is a lie with no real existence except in its very real effects—the destruction it wrecks on creation—but it nonetheless is an affront to God, a vain attempt to resist and escape from God. Why we would do this is part of the lie, for we do it to achieve happiness but no one ever has ever succeeded. The only happiness is God Himself, His life and glory incarnated in a fulfilled creation. Yet the moment we come into our life, we are brought into this “world” and taught to live our lives in it and by it. Our alienation from God coincides with our socialization, and no one has escaped it. It has given rise to our consciousness and the development of our consciousness has taken place in this condition of alienation. Alienation is actually too neutral and passive of a term. Our alienation is really a rupture in our relationship with God and reality, a rupture that we have created, participate in and perpetuate. Jesus never knew this alienation or rupture that we know so well. He always lived in communion with God.

But if we were to repair this rupture, what would it take? It would require that we surrender to the judgment of God against our false reality, that we submit to the wrath of God against us, that we submit to abandonment by God. Our submission and surrender would be the reversal of our rebellion. Two problems face us in this regard. First, if we did submit to God’s judgment, we would not survive it. Second, we will not do it, we are unwilling. Our will is not as free as the arrogance of humanity sometimes claims it is. Our will is subject to our inclinations and desires. It is subject to the inclination of our heart. And our heart is in bondage to the world, and because of this, it is blind to any options besides the world and its fictions. Therefore the will cannot choose God, it cannot choose to submit to the will of God. Nothing in us, in our alienated selves, can save us from our alienated condition and therefore from the consequences of our choice, which is to be abandoned by the God whom we have chosen to abandon.

Jesus took upon Himself our repentance, our willful submission and surrender to the judgment of God. He did this not mechanically but from the heart and with His entire will. Because of His love of God, and the fact that the rupture in His case never took place, He was able to do this. He did this in a “prayer” of intercession for us, including us in Himself (all who give themselves to Him). It was His love for us that created this “prayer,” the prayer of His whole life.  He surrendered to the judgment of God and the judgment of God fell on Him. He did not escape the judgment of God, and this can only mean one thing. Since He alone did not deserve God’s judgment, it means that God heard His prayer. He offered to God our repentance and God exhausted His wrath upon Him as if He were us. He was utterly abandoned by God and descended into hell for three hours.

What Has Elijah Got to Do with This? (15:35-36)

In Malachi 3 we are told, according to Jesus, that Elijah would come “and restore all things.” But in Mark 9:8-13 Jesus tells us that Elijah, in the form of John the Baptist, has come and suffered martyrdom. The restoration was never accomplished. He also said that the Son of Man would suffer the same fate. In contradiction to the taunt, “Let us see if Elijah comes to rescue Him,” Jesus intimated in Mark 9:9-10 that by His resurrection He Himself would bring the restoration that was promised by the return of Elijah.

But in the meantime, like John the Baptist, the appearance is that the restoration does not come and everything ends in disappointment. Our problem is we see the negative but we do not realize how negative the negative is. Jesus does not just suffer martyrdom and die, He is suffers the entire judgment of God against sin and is utterly abandoned by God. The negative is exhausted in Him. The negative is put an end to, it is thus overcome.

This is not merely an intellectual concept. We need to take it existentially and personally; we need to see how Jesus’ death includes us.

His Death (15:37-39)

Jesus dies with a loud cry of anguish (in Luke and John this is not the case). Matthew and Mark make no attempt to mitigate this in any way—to emphasize God’s total abandonment of Jesus—except by the statement that the veil of the Holy Place was ripped apart from top to bottom. While, as we already noticed, this signifies God’s judgment against the Temple and wrath against the nation (and in particular the city) as in the days when Judah rebelled against the Babylonians, it also signifies something positive.

In Mark the word used for “tearing asunder” used in verse 38 is the same word (in a different form) used at the baptism of Jesus when the heavens were ripped open (this is not the case in Matthew and Luke). At His baptism, the voice from heaven declared, “You are My Son, the Beloved; in You I have found My delight.” Upon His death the gentile soldier declared, “Truly this man was the Son of God.” In Mark 1:10 Jesus saw the heavens ripping open. In 15:39 the centurion sees the way in which Jesus died. In 15:32 and 36 the unbelievers want to “see” something but do not. This matter of seeing (as in the cases of the two stories in which Jesus heals a blind man before and after His journey to Jerusalem) is an important motif in Mark. The centurion “sees” Jesus—in His death—and as a result He believes and makes a declaration in full agreement with God’s own. We recognize this “seeing” as a spiritual seeing for he confesses that which Peter confessed when “flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17).

This confession by a gentile together with the tearing of the veil signifies the affect of the death of Christ. It has opened the heavenly Holy of Holies to believers, not only to Jews but also to the gentiles. In Mark 11:17 Jesus, at the same time He symbolizes the judgment of God against the earthly Temple, taught, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’?”

The confession of the gentile signifies the Gospel reaching gentiles and giving them access to the heavenly sanctuary of God, even the Holy of Holies, the innermost presence of God.

Notice, however, that it was the death of Christ that revealed Jesus to the gentile: the word of the cross, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians. In Mark, apart from the darkness and the rending of the veil, there are no apocalyptic signs such as the earthquake and the rising of dead people as in Matthew. It is the cross itself that opens his eyes. This is how the Spirit of God brings about conversion.

His Burial (15:42-46)

Joseph of Arimathea approaches Pilate for the body of Jesus. The additional details which Mark supplies emphasize Pilate’s determination that Jesus had really died. Pilate marvels that Jesus had already died and questions the centurion who verifies that Jesus had indeed died. This is unique to Mark. This ensures that we do not misunderstand the resurrection. That Jesus certainly died—and not as Muslims and Gnostics believe—is important for us to affirm.

The body of Jesus, even in death, is important for us because it is our body that is divinized in resurrection. We do not rise immaterially, apart from creation. It is our createdness that is resurrected and that partakes in the eternal life of God. The care that Joseph and the women show towards the body of Jesus is a hint in this direction.

On the one hand, Jesus did not rise merely in a vision but He rose in the flesh. On the other hand, this flesh—soul and body—had truly died. The life that survived death and that brought the body back to life in resurrection was not the body’s own but God’s. Spiritual life cannot be self-produced but can only be the gift of God.

The Witnesses (15:40-41, 47)

The women are mentioned as witnesses. Apart from the role of the centurion, who confesses Jesus, and Joseph, who tenderly cares for the body of Jesus in preparation for the resurrection, the role of the witness is the only other role for the disciple at this point. They too verify that Jesus died and the place where He was buried. Through their witness we “remember” the death of Christ. And we in turn are to be witnesses like them. That they are women is interesting (the male disciples hid in fear). As the New Testament demonstrates, women were also preachers in the apostolic church. But these women left their homes (and their men-folk) to follow Jesus to give Him their hospitality. The word “minister” in verse 41 is diakoneō and may hint at the primary place for the Christian witness—within the Christian household and at the dinner table.

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