In the heart of the Hawaiian Islands is the island of Molokai. Today that island is a paradise, but during the 1800s it was an island of horrors. In 1848, an outbreak of leprosy (Hansen’s disease) occurred in Hawaii. By the 1860s, the outbreak had become a terrifying epidemic. The Hawaiian government rounded up everyone infected with the disease and quarantined them on Molokai.
The leper colony was located on Kalaupapa Peninsula, which was cut off from the rest of Molokai by a sixteen-hundred-foot cliff. There was no dock or harbor, so the ships would drop anchor offshore, and the lepers would be made to jump overboard and swim to the rocky shore. The government did not provide shelter, drinking water, or amenities. Those who survived found what shelter they could in caves or rude shacks made of leaves and branches. Occasionally supply ships would toss crates of food into the water; if the currents were favorable, the crates would reach the jagged shore, where the lepers could retrieve them.
The Kalaupapa leprosy colony existed for seven years before Father Damien arrived in 1873. His skills ranged from carpentry (for building houses and churches and caskets) to medicine (for treating wounds, bandaging sores, and amputating diseased limbs). For years he lived among the lepers. He taught his skills to them, constructed buildings, cared for the living, buried the dead, and encouraged them through his prayers and preaching.
One evening, Father Damien filled a basin with boiling water, preparing to wash his feet. It was his custom to mix hot and cold water to a bearable temperature before putting his feet in the basin. This night, he forgot the cold water, but when he put his feet in the boiled water, he felt no pain.
That was in 1885. After twelve years living among the lepers, Father Damien had taken their disease into himself. The following Sunday, he stood before his congregation in the simple wooden church he had built and began his sermon with the words “We lepers.” Four years later, he was dead at the age of forty-nine.
The life of Father Damien reminds us of the one who came among us while we were isolated and condemned by sin, castaways without any hope. He came as a carpenter, a healer, and a teacher. He encouraged us with his prayers and preaching. And in the end, he took our disease into himself, giving his life for us. He was the one of whom Isaiah prophesied:
Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all (isaiah 53:4–6).
We come to the moment that Isaiah spoke of, when Jesus was pierced for us, when he was crushed for us and our sin was laid on him as he hung on the cross. As we glimpse something of the awful penalty that Jesus paid on our behalf, may we understand that we are not merely witnessing the tragic martyrdom of a religious idealist. We are watching as a ransom payment is made for our souls.
“And They Crucified Him”
Mark’s account of the crucifixion is different in tone and detail from that of the other three gospels. Mark leaves out a number of details that other gospel writers include. For example, Mark includes only one sentence spoken by Jesus. The description of Jesus’s actions and words that Mark records are limited to three short passages. Here is the first passage: “They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means ‘the place of the skull’). Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. And they crucified him” (mark 15:22–24).
Before the crucifixion began, one of the soldiers offered Jesus wine mingled with myrrh, a bitter gum resin that was believed to have a narcotic effect. The Romans commonly drugged crucifixion victims to make it easier to drive the nails through their hands and feet. Jesus probably refused the drink because he had no intention of struggling or making the task difficult for his executioners. This is one more way we see how willingly Jesus accepted our penalty and laid down his life for us.
The gospel writers demonstrate reserve when describing the crucifixion. They do not describe the driving of the nails or the agony Jesus endured. All of the incomprehensible horror of the cross is compressed into those four stark words: “And they crucified him.”
Mark passes over almost all of the first three hours on the cross. In his second passage describing the words and actions of Jesus on the cross, Mark takes us to the dark abyss of the Lord’s loneliness: “At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ (which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’)” (mark 15:33–34).
Then there is Mark’s third and final passage describing the Lord’s words and actions on the cross. In that passage Mark takes us to the final moment of his earthly life.
“With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (mark 15:37–38).
Mark’s account of the crucifixion—of the moments when Jesus hung on the cross and gave his life for us—is simple and concise. His focus is not on what the people in the crowd see as they gaze at the cross but what Jesus sees as he looks out on the crowd.
The View from the Cross
Gathered around the foot of the cross were a great number of individuals or groups of individuals. Mark focuses on each of them so that we might witness their reactions to the crucifixion of our Lord. Mark intended this account to contrast the mysterious workings of God and the ways and the thinking of humanity. He wants us to see that this event is truly timeless.
But first let’s go back to the beginning of these events, to a point immediately following the Lord’s trial before Pilate. There we find the first of these character sketches drawn by Mark. It occurred as Jesus was on his way to the cross. The Roman soldiers are taking Jesus out to crucify him. As they pass through the streets of Jerusalem, Jesus stumbles and falls. So the Roman soldiers grab a stranger from the crowd and force him to carry the cross of Jesus. “A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross” (mark 15:21).
Simon is from Cyrene in North Africa and has come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. He has left his lodgings outside the city and has no idea that this momentous event, the crucifixion, is about to take place. Suddenly his plans for the day are interrupted by a strange procession winding through the narrow streets of the city. Before he knows what is happening, Simon is grabbed by the rough hands of the soldiers and is pushed out into the street. The cross is placed on Simon’s back, and he is ordered to carry it outside the city.
Simon was likely angered over being forced to shoulder this burden. I think we can identify, because we can recall many times when we have felt this way whenever we have felt that God was calling us to shoulder a cross. We resent it when circumstances create a burden in our lives or bring pain and suffering to our souls. This, I believe, must have been what Simon of Cyrene felt as he was forced to bear the cross of Jesus.
There is a hint in Acts that Simon of Cyrene was there on Pentecost (see Acts 2:10). Mark makes clear that Simon was the father of Alexander and Rufus, who are well known to the Gentile believers to whom Mark is writing. Paul, in Romans 16:13, mentions a Rufus with whom he was closely associated and whose mother had been kind to Paul. It is probably the same Rufus. So it is likely that Simon of Cyrene became a Christian as a result of this interruption of his plans.
Soldiers and Rebels
The Roman soldiers who crucified Jesus gathered around the foot of the cross. This was a time of great unrest and rebellion in Palestine, and crucifixions were common. Historians tell us that following one of these insurrections, which took place some years before the crucifixion of Christ, two thousand Jewish dissidents were rounded up and crucified. So these Roman soldiers had a lot of experience with crucifixion. That is why they seem so callous.
Immediately after they nailed Jesus to the cross and hoisted the cross into place, these hardened soldiers got down on the ground, took out a pair of dice, and began to gamble as Jesus hung dying. Such casual indifference to human suffering and death seems unthinkable to us.
Mark next introduces us to the two rebels who were crucified with Jesus. “They crucified two rebels with him, one on his right and one on his left” (mark 15:27). Mark adds: “Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him” (v. 32). These two men were revolutionaries or terrorists who had been arrested in a violent insurrection. They were angry young men committed to the unlikely goal of overthrowing Roman rule in Palestine. In the process of carrying out their acts of murder and terror, they took what they wanted and didn’t care who might get hurt in the process. They must have heard of Jesus and known of his claims of messiahship, and like the rest of the populace, they mistakenly understood that the promised Messiah would be a political and military deliverer. So now they hung on either side of the man who, a few days earlier, had been cheered by the crowds on his way into Jerusalem. He had proved a bitter disappointment as a revolutionary, so these two revolutionaries now reviled him. He was dying on a Roman cross, just as they were.
Mark’s gospel doesn’t tell us the full story of these two rebels. But by comparing this account with the parallel account in Luke, we find that one of these men eventually repents of his abuse toward Jesus. Luke records:
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (luke 23:39–43).
One of the most beautiful things about the story of the crucifixion is that one of these dying men realizes the truth. This crucified Jesus is in fact a king who is about to enter a kingdom where he will have full authority and power. What was it about Jesus that changed this man’s heart and convinced him of who Jesus was? We are not told, but we know that there was something about the way Jesus faced death that had great power to change a man’s heart.
Mockers and Priests
Mark also tells us that there were certain passersby at the foot of the cross. “Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, come down from the cross and save yourself!” (mark 15:29–30).
These were just bystanders, but when they saw Jesus hanging on the cross, they remembered that he was the one who had made such great claims. So they taunted him: “You made those ridiculous claims! You said you were going to destroy the temple and raise it up again! Well, you don’t look so powerful now!”
Mark illustrates the derision by telling us that they were “shaking their heads” at him. the irony is that he was in the process of fulfilling the words they flung back at him. The temple he promised to destroy was the temple of his body, and that destruction was taking place before their eyes. He had willingly placed himself there, and with every ounce of blood that drained from his veins, his temple was being destroyed. Little did they know that on the third day, the rest of his prophecy would be fulfilled.
Next Mark portrays the priests and scribes, the men who plotted the death of Jesus, as they stand at the foot of the cross. “In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. ‘He saved others,’ they said, ‘but he can’t save himself! Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe’” (mark 15:31–32).
These priests had been frightened and jealous of Jesus before. They had seen him teach and bless the crowds in ways they could never do. But they had plotted against him, and now they had him where they wanted him, or so it seemed. This was their moment of triumph, and they reveled in it.
Mark tells us about another man at the cross who was interested in all the proceedings. His name is not given to us, but he enters the picture when Jesus calls out to the Father, moments before Jesus dies.
When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.”
Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar , put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink.
“Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said.
With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last (mark 15:35–37).
The Centurion, the Women, and the Secret Disciple
At this point, Jesus calls out with a loud cry and breathes his last, but the story is not over. Mark has three more accounts to relate, three more individuals or groups of people to introduce to us. But these final three are of a different character from the ones we have met thus far. After the death of Jesus, there is no mention of anybody who abuses, mocks, or reviles him.
Those who hate Jesus seem to slink away, leaving only a small group of people who love him. The first person we meet after the death of Jesus is probably the last person we would expect to find among his admirers. It is the centurion who was in charge of soldiers who carried out the crucifixion. “And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, ‘Surely this man was the Son of God!’” (mark 15:39). This Roman centurion was a pagan. Given his culture, he likely believed in many gods. Yet the cross brought him to a sobering awareness of ultimate reality. To the men in his command who had carried out the crucifixion, this event had been a job, even a joke. But to this centurion, this crucifixion was a ghastly mistake, the execution of a man not only innocent but also divine. There was something about the way Jesus died that the centurion had never seen before—a dignity, a nobility, a force of personality that transcended the merely human.
Notice that the centurion speaks in the past tense: “This man was the Son of God.” There is no hope here, no glimmer of redemption or resurrection, only a sense of incalculable loss and grievous error. The centurion knows that a horrible injustice has been committed, and it can never be undone. And because of that, the centurion does not understand what this event means to his life, to his soul.
It is not enough to say, “Jesus was the Son of God.” We must go further, make it personal, and say, “Jesus, please be the Lord and Savior of my life.”
Next Mark introduces us to a group of women who have gathered around the cross of Jesus. “Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome. In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there” (mark 15:40–41). Here are the women who loved Jesus, but where are the men? Where are the disciples who walked with him? Where is bold, blustering Peter? John’s gospel tells us that John was at the cross with Mary, the mother of Jesus. In those first three hours, Jesus, despite his suffering, committed his mother to the care of the disciple John. But from this account in Mark it would seem that John and Mary are no longer present; perhaps John has led Mary away.
In any case, these women are the only ones who remain around the cross. They are not gathering in hope but in utter hopelessness. They do not expect a resurrection. They do not expect God to act in their hour of despair. Their love remains, but their hope and faith are gone.
Sometimes we come to the end of ourselves. We still love God, but we have no hope, no faith, that he will deliver us. We see only darkness and despair. It will be helpful, in such times, to remember that a resurrection is coming soon.
But there is one last person Mark wants us to meet. He is a faithful follower of the Lord. His name is Joseph of Arimathea.
It was Preparation Day (that is, the day before the Sabbath). So as evening approached, Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph. So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph saw where he was laid (mark 15:42–47).
Joseph of Arimathea was a wealthy member of the Sanhedrin. He had believed in Jesus but was perhaps afraid to profess his belief openly. All through the record of the trial of Jesus, there is no mention of Joseph. He didn’t raise his voice in the court when Jesus appeared before the Sanhedrin. He was afraid to openly voice his support of Jesus, afraid of what the others in the Sanhedrin would think or do. But after Jesus died, when his body hung lifeless on the tree, a transformation took place within Joseph. Something about the crucifixion stirred a newfound courage within this man. At long last, Joseph stood up to be counted.
If We Will Come
At the close of Mark’s account, the writer confronts us with three profound and cataclysmic events, three narrative threads that combine to form one strong cord of truth. During the last three hours of Jesus’s life, a mysterious and terrible darkness comes over the land. At the end of that darkness comes what has been called “Emmanuel’s orphaned cry”—“Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani? . . . My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Almost immediately after that cry, Jesus dismisses his spirit. It is important to understand that he didn’t simply die; he dismissed his spirit. His death was deliberate and voluntary. He wasn’t a victim; he was a sacrifice.
A half-mile away, in the court of the temple, within the sacred enclosure of the holy place, something amazing happened. The great veil that enclosed the Holy
of Holies was torn from top to bottom. That veil marked off a place where only the high priest was permitted to enter once a year. Now, as if by an invisible hand, that veil was split, and the Holy of Holies was exposed.
These three events are tied together to form one significant, meaningful truth. The orphan cry in the darkness of the cross, the dismissing of the spirit of Jesus, and the rending of the veil in the temple—Mark brings them all together so that we can understand their meaning.
When Jesus called out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” bystanders must have recognized
the opening words of Psalm 22. When you read
through that psalm, it is as if you are reading Jesus’s version of the crucifixion.
I don’t think it’s possible for us to remotely understand the depths of separation and loneliness Jesus felt at the moment he became sin for us. We cannot grasp what it means. But we can know this. The awful sense of aloneness and darkness that wrenched such a cry from the throat of Christ is what lies ahead of us if he is not our Lord and Savior. He took on himself the awful penalty that we have earned by our sin.
Then Jesus dismisses his spirit, and the veil of the temple is torn. It was God’s dramatic way of saying for all time that the way into his heart is wide open. Anyone who wishes to be saved may come. The priests who plotted against Jesus, the Roman governor who signed his death warrant, the soldiers who drove the nails into his flesh, the bystanders who mocked and wagged their heads—all may come. That is what the torn veil means. The penalty has been paid for the hateful, the corrupt, the cruel, the selfish, the murderous. The price of sin has been paid in full.
For too many people, the cross is nothing but a fashion statement. But for those who have had a life-changing encounter with the Lord of history, the cross is the most profound statement ever made. The apostle Paul tells us, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 corinthians 1:18).
The cross, once an ugly instrument of torture and death, has become the beautiful, sacred instrument of our eternal life.