Commentary on Mark 15b (Jesus’ Crucifixion)

Crucifixion victims are often required to carry the horizontal crossbar of the cross, but Jesus is so weakened after his flogging that, sometime during the procession, the soldiers randomly choose a man from the crowd, Simon of Cyrene, to carry the crossbar for Jesus the rest of the way to Golgotha. Simon, and later his sons, Alexander and Rufus, would evidently become Christians, since Mark assumes his readers are familiar with them.

Mark’s account of the actual crucifixion is succinct. During the first three hours after Jesus is crucified, Mark reports the following: 1) Jesus is offered wine to deaden his pain, but he refuses to drink it, 2) Jesus’ garments are divided up among the four soldiers, 3) Jesus is crucified at roughly 9 am with two other men on either side of him, 4) a sign reading “King of the Jews” is affixed to the cross, indicating Jesus’ crime, 5) Jesus is mocked by spectators, Jewish religious leaders, and the two criminals crucified beside him.

After three hours on the cross, darkness comes over the land for the last three hours of Jesus’ life. Mark Strauss, in Matthew, Mark, Luke: Volume One (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), offers five possible meanings for the darkness:

  • “It was a sign of mourning (Jer. 4:27–28).”

  • “Darkness was associated in the ancient world with the death of great men.”

  • “In the Scriptures, darkness is an apocalyptic sign of judgment and could be construed as signaling the advent of divine judgment.”

  • “The darkness also announces the great Day of the Lord in prophets such as Amos, and the darkness that settles on the land signifies that the day has dawned with a new beginning.”

  • “The darkness may veil the shame of the crucifixion: ‘God hides the Son from the blasphemer’s leering.’”

At roughly 3 pm, Jesus cries out, ““My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” What could Jesus mean by this statement? Craig Evans, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible), writes:

The important thing to recognize here is that he was quoting Psalm 22:1, a Davidic psalm expressing David’s feelings of estrangement. Jesus was revealing that he was the fulfillment of the typology of the psalm, that he was experiencing forsakenness because of our sins. What exactly that forsakenness entailed is uncertain, but it likely stemmed from Jesus’ taking on our sins so that sin would be judged. As the apostle Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 5: 21, God the Father ‘made the One who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.’

Mark Strauss adds:

One could not expect a crucifixion victim to recite an entire psalm, but it is possible that citing the first verse of the psalm refers to the entire psalm. Without chapters and verses to identify specific passages, initial words or key phrases were cited (see Mark 12:26). If this is the case here, Jesus prays the opening words of this lament psalm that, when read through to the end, expresses not only bitter despair but also supreme confidence. This interpretation does not deny the real anguish that Jesus experiences but understands his cry as an expression of trust that God will intervene and ultimately vindicate him.

Some bystanders misunderstand Jesus to be calling for the prophet Elijah to rescue him. According to Craig Keener in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, “Members of some circles of Jewish tradition believed that Elijah was sent like an angel to rescue famous teachers, in addition to his role in the time of the end.”

Finally, Mark reports, Jesus utters a loud cry and dies after six hours hanging on the cross. The way Jesus dies is unusual because crucifixion victims tended to last more than a day before succumbing to asphyxiation. Keener explains, “Crucifixion generally killed by asphyxiation: one became too weary to keep pulling one’s frame up on the crossbeam, the diaphragm was increasingly strained, and eventually one became unable to breathe. But death usually took a few days—much longer than the few hours Jesus suffered.”

James Brooks adds:

Most people who were crucified grew weaker and weaker and gradually and quietly expired. Mark’s account suggests that Jesus’ death was sudden and violent, that he was still quite strong at the moment of his death, that he voluntarily and deliberately died with the shout of a victor (cf. John 19:30). Therefore ‘breathed his last,’ although literal, is not an adequate translation in context. Mark’s concept of the death of Jesus is not unlike that of John 10:17–18.

When Jesus dies, one of the two giant curtains in the temple tears from top to bottom (we’re not told which). The outer curtain separated the sanctuary from the outer porch and the inner curtain separated the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place. Regarding the inner curtain, the Mishnah reports it being a handbreadth thick, sixty feet long, and thirty feet wide. This second apocalyptic sign (darkness being the first) that Mark reports has both positive and negative significance. Strauss writes:

Being torn from top to bottom points to its irremediable destruction and to God as the agent. It may signify the end of the Jewish cult and the destruction of the temple. . . . The rending of the veil may also be interpreted as a decisive opening. All barriers between God and the people have now been removed (Heb. 10:19–20).

The centurion in charge of Jesus’ execution, after taking in everything he’s seen, pronounces, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” Mark also carefully notes that several women disciples of Jesus witness his death from a distance.

The profession of the centurion would have been important to Mark’s original audience. After all, earlier in the Gospel, a divine voice and demons have called Jesus the Son of God. Here, at the end of Gospel, we have the first human to do so, but he is a Gentile Roman soldier, not a Jew. James Brooks aptly comments, “At last [Jesus] is confessed as such by a human being who is a type of thousands and even millions of Gentiles who later will stand by faith before the cross and confess that the man Jesus of Nazareth is the unique Son of God.”

Did the centurion have a full understanding of who Jesus was? Doubtful, but he clearly knew that Jesus had a unique relationship to God. Mark Strauss writes:

After Julius Caesar was deified, his adopted son, Augustus, became widely known as ‘son of god’ (divi filius). It was not a title applied to emperors in general. This soldier transfers the title from the most revered figure in the Roman imperial cult to a Jew who has just been executed. The opening words of the Gospel (1:1) and this confession directly challenge the claims of the imperial cult. Jesus, not Augustus nor any other emperor, is Savior and Lord.

Jewish law (see Deut 21:22-23) demanded that a body be buried the day of death. In addition, since the Sabbath would begin at sunset on Friday (no work could be done on the Sabbath), there was little time for Jesus to be buried. Instead of his disciples stepping forward to bury him, Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin and secret admirer of Jesus, goes to Pilate and requests that Jesus’ body be given to him. None of Jesus’ friends or family had approached Pilate, likely out of fear, so Pilate acquiesces to Joseph’s request. But first, Pilate asks his centurion to confirm that Jesus is indeed dead because he is surprised at how quickly Jesus died.

Joseph takes Jesus’ body down from the cross, wraps a linen shroud around him, and then places him in a tomb cut out of rock. He then rolls a stone over the entrance to seal the tomb. The women disciples are watching the burial from a distance so that they know exactly where Jesus is buried. Thus Jesus is buried in a tomb before sunset Friday evening.