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16. A Follower’s Substitute - Mark 14:53-15:41

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This lesson features the climactic moments in the Gospel of Mark: The crucifixion of Jesus. We will also learn the message of the Gospel in three words (sin, substitution, and faith), as demonstrated by three figures that Jesus encounters in this passage. Perhaps a review of Passion Week would be helpful at this time. Passion Week began when Jesus entered Jerusalem (the Triumphal Entry) exactly one week before His resurrection. This Sunday has traditionally been called Palm Sunday, so named for the palm branches spread out before our entering Lord. On Monday of Passion Week Jesus entered the temple and cleansed it. On Tuesday or Wednesday of Passion Week Jesus delivered the Olivet Discourse. On Thursday the events of the Last Supper, Gethsemane, betrayal, arrest, and abandonment all took place. Today’s passage records the dark events of Friday of Passion Week, beginning in the wee hours of the morning.

Mark enjoys describing individuals who encounter Jesus. In this lesson, three such encounters will be highlighted. One person had known Jesus for more than three years; one never met Jesus, but nevertheless benefited from His death; one responded perfectly to Jesus after his first encounter with Him.

Peter demonstrates sin (14:53-72)130

14:53 Then they led Jesus to the high priest, and all the chief priests and elders and experts in the law came together. 14:54 And Peter had followed him from a distance, up to the courtyard of the high priest. He was sitting with the guards and warming himself by the fire. 14:55 The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death, but they did not find anything. 14:56 Many gave false testimony against him, but their testimony did not agree. 14:57 Some stood up and gave this false testimony against him: 14:58 “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with hands and in three days build another not made with hands.’” 14:59 Yet even on this point their testimony did not agree. 14:60 Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, “Have you no answer? What is this that they are testifying against you?” 14:61 But he was silent and did not answer. Again the high priest questioned him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?” 14:62 “I am,” said Jesus, “and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.” 14:63 Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “Why do we still need witnesses? 14:64 You have heard the blasphemy! What is your verdict?” They all condemned him as deserving death. 14:65 Then some began to spit on him, and to blindfold him, and strike him with their fists, saying, “Prophesy!” The guards also took him and beat him.

14:66 Now while Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the high priest’s slave girls came by. 14:67 When she saw Peter warming himself, she looked directly at him and said, “You also were with that Nazarene, Jesus.” 14:68 But he denied it: “I don’t even understand what you’re talking about.” Then he went out to the gateway, and a rooster crowed. 14:69 When the slave girl saw him, she began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” 14:70 But he denied it again. A short time later the bystanders again said to Peter, “You must be one of them, because you are also a Galilean.” 14:71 Then he began to curse, and he swore with an oath, “I do not know this man you are talking about!” 14:72 Immediately the rooster crowed a second time. Then Peter remembered what Jesus had said to him: “Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept.

Two witnesses were required for capital punishment, according to Numbers 35:30 and Deuteronomy 17:6. Those who accused Jesus of claiming He would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days were perhaps misunderstanding Jesus’ statement in John 2:19 (mixed with Mark 13:2). Otherwise, Jesus never claimed to do such a thing.

Jesus had two trials, a religious one and a civil one. The religious one was overseen by Annas, then Caiaphas; the civil one by Pilate, then Herod, then Pilate again (Luke 23:6-12). Jesus had by-and-large veiled His messiahship until now. He first responds with “I am,” but then lets them have it with a very bold—and obvious—claim to messiahship (v. 62; note especially the reaction of the Jewish leadership).

Apparently, Jesus and Peter were both undergoing interrogation. “Following” Jesus has been a recurring theme in Mark’s Gospel.

Those who “follow” (ἀκολουθέω) Jesus in Mark’s Gospel:

  • Peter and Andrew (1:18)
  • Levi (2:14)
  • Tax collectors and sinners (2:15)
  • A crowd from Galilee (3:7)
  • Large crowd (5:24)
  • His disciples (6:1)
  • Any who wish to come after Jesus (8:34)
  • Invitation to the rich young ruler (10:21)
  • Peter et al (10:28)
  • Those going to Jerusalem with Jesus (10:32)
  • Bartimaeus (10:52)
  • Those at the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem (11:9)
  • Peter, from a distance (14:54)
  • Mary, Mary, and Salome (15:41)

For the first time, however, someone is following Jesus “from a distance.”131 Sure, the literal meaning suggests a physical distance between Peter and the one he was following, but the notion of “following” in Mark’s Gospel almost always means more than merely walking behind someone. It suggests loyalty and allegiance. Peter was still following Jesus, but he want to distance himself from Jesus to ensure that he was safe from the danger. Notice what happens to Peter because he has permitted distance to develop in his relationship with Jesus. He denies his Lord . . . three times. He thought he was protected from the danger, but found that more danger lurks when distance separates us from the Lord. Does distance exist in your relationship with Christ?

Barabbas demonstrates substitution (15:1-20)

15:1 Early in the morning, after forming a plan, the chief priests with the elders and the experts in the law and the whole Sanhedrin tied Jesus up, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. 15:2 So Pilate asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” He replied, “You say so.” 15:3 Then the chief priests began to accuse him repeatedly. 15:4 So Pilate asked him again, “Have you nothing to say? See how many charges they are bringing against you!” 15:5 But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.

15:6 During the feast it was customary to release one prisoner to the people, whomever they requested. 15:7 A man named Barabbas was imprisoned with rebels who had committed murder during an insurrection. 15:8 Then the crowd came up and began to ask Pilate to release a prisoner for them, as was his custom. 15:9 So Pilate asked them, “Do you want me to release the king of the Jews for you?” 15:10 (For he knew that the chief priests had handed him over because of envy.) 15:11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas instead. 15:12 So Pilate spoke to them again, “Then what do you want me to do with the one you call king of the Jews?” 15:13 They shouted back, “Crucify him!” 15:14 Pilate asked them, “Why? What has he done wrong?” But they shouted more insistently, “Crucify him!” 15:15 Because he wanted to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas for them. Then after he had Jesus flogged he handed him over to be crucified.

15:16 So the soldiers led him into the palace (that is, the governor’s residence) and called together the whole cohort. 15:17 They put a purple cloak on him and after braiding a crown of thorns, they put it on him. 15:18 They began to salute him: “Hail, king of the Jews!” 15:19 Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him. Then they knelt down and paid homage to him. 15:20 When they had finished mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes back on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.

Who are Pilate and Herod? Pilate was the Roman governor of Judea (a.d. 26-36), where Jerusalem was located. His residence was in Caesarea, though he travelled to Jerusalem during festivals and stayed in the late Herod the Great’s pallace. Herod Antipas was governor of Galilee, though he too enjoyed making the trip to Jerusalem for the festivals. Luke records that when Pilate learned that Jesus was a Galilean, he sent Him to Herod (the Galilean governor) since he was in town. Herod then sends Jesus back to Pilate, who ultimately sentences Jesus to crucifixion.

They chose to release Barabbas over Jesus. I find it ironic that when Jesus proved to be a different type of Savior than they wanted, they chose to replace Him with one who was what they wanted—a political insurrectionist. Many thought Jesus, as the Messiah, would lead a revolt and conquer Rome; Barabbas had done just that. Do you serve the Christ who is or the Christ you want?

Flogging was not necessarily a part of crucifixion. Pilate was probably trying to disuade the crowd from crucifying Jesus (John 19:4-5). When they persisted, though, he had no choice.

Mark 15:16 describes the whole cohort, which comprised hundreds of soldiers. They struck him on the head with the staff after they had placed the crown of thorns on his head. Mockery ensued, beatings, etc. The crucifixion of Jesus was a lengthy, painful process, not a point in time. Perhaps the most painful part of the episode was their kneeling before Jesus in mockery, though it certainly foreshaddowed everyone’s kneeling before Him one day (Phil. 2:10-11).

Mark’s details pertaining to Barabbas paint a vivid picture of what Jesus did for you and me. Barabbas had been judged and legally condemned. Barabbas was guilty. Barabbas deserved death. Barabbas could do nothing to free himself. Jesus took the place of Barabbas and died on Barabbas’ cross. Barabbas was released. I am Barabbas.

The Centurion demonstrates faith (15:21-41)

15:21 The soldiers drafted a passer-by to carry his cross, a man coming from the country, Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. 15:22 They brought Jesus to a place called Golgotha (which is translated, “Place of the Skull”). 15:23 They offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it.132 15:24 Then they crucified him and divided his clothes, throwing dice for them, to decide what each would take. 15:25 It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. 15:26 The inscription of the charge against him read, “The king of the Jews.” 15:27 And they crucified two outlaws with him, one on his right and one on his left. 15:29 Those who passed by defamed him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who can destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, 15:30 save yourself and come down from the cross!” 15:31 In the same way even the chief priests—together with the experts in the law—were mocking him among themselves: “He saved others, but he cannot save himself! 15:32 Let the Christ, the king of Israel, come down from the cross now, that we may see and believe!” Those who were crucified with him also spoke abusively to him.

15:33 Now when it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 15:34 Around three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?15:35 When some of the bystanders heard it they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah!” 15:36 Then someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Leave him alone! Let’s see if Elijah will come to take him down!” 15:37 But Jesus cried out with a loud voice and breathed his last. 15:38 And the temple curtain was torn in two, from top to bottom. 15:39 Now when the centurion, who stood in front of him, saw how he died, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” 15:40 There were also women, watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. 15:41 When he was in Galilee, they had followed him and given him support. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were there too.

Note the brevity in the passage—“And they crucified him.” The event that all of history hinges on is given only cursory treatment. It is almost too sacred to elaborate upon; or too sacrilegious to consider that the second person of the Trinity was undergoing such cruelty. What they witnessed on the cross was a complete contradiction; it blew all of their categories. By definition, the Messiah was the furthest thing from a crucified criminal.

Cicero (106-43 b.c.), a Roman author, said about crucifixion: “Even the mere word, cross, must remain far not only from the lips of the citizens of Rome, but also from their thoughts, their eyes, their ears.” He elsewhere conveys his opinion that crucifixion was the grossest, cruelest, or most hideous manner of execution. One of the privileges of being a Roman citizen was that you were exempted from the cruelty of crucifixion. They reserved it only for non-Roman citizens.

Mark records only one of Jesus’ seven sayings from the cross. He quoted the first verse of Psalm twenty-two (much of this Psalm is victorious, leading some to speculate that perhaps He quoted the rest of the Psalm the moment He arose).

Mark customarily records an act or saying of Jesus, and then pans the audience to record their responses. Here, he merely records that Jesus was crucified, then he pans the crowd to record the response of the soldiers (15:24), the passers-by (15:29-30), the chief priests and experts in the Law (15:31-32), the criminals with Jesus (15:32), bystanders (15:35-36), the righteous centurion (15:39), and the women (15:40-41). He gets everyone’s response.

The Centurion is one of only a handful of people in the Gospel of Mark that respond appropriately to Jesus. A Centurion in the Roman army has charge of one hundred soldiers.

In Mark, the right response to Jesus is described in the very first verse: Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. The Centurion nailed it. And the Gospel demands such a response of faith every day. We exercise faith in the Gospel the first time for salvation, but every day after that we must walk by faith.

Meditation Verse

We conclude each lesson with one verse from the passage we’ve studied. We refer to it as a “meditation verse” to leave a broad range of uses: meditate, reflect, memorize, reread, etc. Our meditation verse for this lesson is Mark 15:39:

15:39 Now when the centurion, who stood in front of him, saw how he died, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

130 Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are taken from The NET Bible.

131 It was Peter who followed Jesus at a distance. Though, according to John 18:15-16, another disciple accompanied Peter.

132 Jesus refused a mixture that would have deadened the pain.

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