Pilate’s Court (Mark 15:1-15)
We come now to the great crisis that had been in the mind of our Lord from the beginning of His sojourn here on earth. This crisis had in fact brought Him from the glory that was His with the Father before all worlds began, into this world where sin defiled the fair creation.
Details given in the other Gospels are omitted in Mark’s account. The scene moves rapidly from the council of the Jewish leaders to Pilate’s judgment hall and then to the cross. There is no mention of the court of Herod, nor of other matters on which the Spirit of God led the other writers to elaborate.
Early in the morning the high priest summoned the Sanhedrin together and with their endorsement bound Jesus as though He were a dangerous criminal. As soon as Pilate was prepared to hold court they delivered Him up to be judged according to Roman law and executed as an insurrectionist. They knew that the trumped-up charge of blasphemy would mean nothing to the procurator who was acting as representative of the imperial government.
Crafty, self-seeking, and relentlessly cruel, Pilate was a scheming politician who regarded the rights of no man if to maintain them might prove an embarrassment to himself. He was thoroughly convinced of both the innocence of Jesus and the enmity behind the accusation brought by the leaders in Israel. But he quailed before the threat embodied in the words, “If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar’s friend” (John 19:12). Fearing that his political enemies might misrepresent him before the emperor, Pilate chose to sacrifice the Lord Jesus in order to retain the favor of Rome. (In Pilate’s eyes Jesus was an unimportant Galilean artisan turned teacher.) Consequently his name has gone down in infamy throughout the centuries, his dishonor embodied in the words of the creed: “Christ… suffered under Pontius Pilate.”
The leaders accused Jesus of proclaiming Himself the rightful King of the Jews and gathering a group of malcontents with the intention of delivering Israel from the Roman yoke. Pilate put the question directly to the prisoner, “Art thou the King of the Jews?” Jesus replied, “Thou sayest it”—that is, “You have said that which is indeed the truth.” For He surely was King of the Jews, though the time had not yet come to claim the throne of David. Vehemently the chief priests shouted out one accusation after another against Jesus, to which He made no reply.
Marveling at the calmness of the lowly man who stood so meekly before him, Pilate asked Him, “Answerest thou nothing?” Then he added, “Behold how many things they witness against thee.” But Jesus, as the prophet Isaiah had foretold, opened not his mouth (Isaiah 53:7).
Pilate was perplexed. He saw through the priests and scribes’ pretended concern for the honor of the empire. He realized that they were moved by a spirit of envy against this man who had captivated the imagination of so many. There can be no doubt that Pilate had heard much of the sayings and miracles of Jesus, for his agents were everywhere. He knew well why the leaders in Israel hated the Nazarene.
Pilate considered how he might release Jesus without angering these haughty ecclesiastics. He recalled that some time before, Rome had authorized him to release one political prisoner at the Passover season in order to placate the Jews, leaving the choice to them. He thought of an actual insurrectionist who was once followed by many, but who was now awaiting execution, and Pilate decided to offer the people the choice of this malefactor or Jesus.
The name Barabbas means “son of the father.” Some ancient manuscripts call him Jesus Barabbas. He was well-known as a leader in a revolt against the Roman rule over Palestine and had participated in an insurrection in which he had been guilty of murder. Evidently he was a hero in the eyes of the rabble, for they at once began to cry out, begging Pilate that he would follow the custom referred to above and give them their choice of a prisoner to be released.
Pilate agreed to this, but hoped it would free him from any further responsibility concerning Jesus. So he inquired, “Will ye that I release unto you the King of the Jews?” The title was used by him sardonically, as though he recognized in Jesus a rebel against Rome, for in his heart he knew the real reason back of their hatred for Jesus.
“The chief priests moved the people,” who were easily swayed in such a scene of excitement, and stirred them to ask for Barabbas, which they did. The choice that was made that day between Jesus and Barabbas is also the choice that the nations have been making all down through the centuries. Thus Barabbas became, as it were, a figure of the antichrist.
“What will ye then that I shall do unto him whom ye call the King of the Jews?” Pilate vainly endeavored to forego all responsibility in the matter. He put the question of Jesus’ fate to them in such a way as to make them feel that the final decision was their own.
“They cried out again, Crucify him.” These base religious leaders demanded a cruel death for Him who had so often rebuked them for their hypocrisy.
The Roman judge knew Jesus had broken no law of the empire and therefore did not deserve to die. But Pilate was too much afraid of the Jews to take a positive stand against them. The rabble, stirred up by the priests, demanded the crucifixion of the One against whom no evil could be proved.
Pilate should have maintained the right of the innocent but he was more concerned about conciliating the Jews than protecting Christ. So he who had a little while before declared Him a just person (Matthew 27:24) sentenced Him to die by crucifixion. If Pilate had been a conscientious judge, he would have refused to countenance the unproved charges of Christ’s adversaries and set Him free. But God overruled and used him as the instrument to fulfill the prophecy regarding the manner of Christ’s death.
The Soldiers’ Cruelty (Mark 15:16-24)
After Pilate’s pusillanimous behavior in giving in to the chief priests and condemning Jesus, the Lord was led from the judgment hall to the outer court called the Praetorium. There the soldiers subjected the patient sufferer to a season of rude mockery and torture.
They had heard the charge that Jesus claimed to be a king; so with fiendish glee they pretended to acknowledge Him as such, clothing Him with a purple robe as a sign of apparent recognition of His royalty. They pressed on His sacred brow a crown made of the wild thorn bush so common to the countryside. Bowing before Him in mock humiliation they saluted Him: “Hail, King of the Jews!” To these rude soldiers this was all an absurd jest. In spite of all the barbarities they heaped on Jesus, they were not half as guilty as those of His own people who had demanded His crucifixion.
After satisfying their sadistic desire for pleasure the soldiers divested Jesus of the robe and put His own garments on Him. They proceeded to lead Him out to the place of crucifixion. A heavy cross was placed on His shoulders that He might bear it to Calvary, or Golgotha. Tradition says He fell beneath the weight of it, but there is no such statement in Scripture. We are told only that a Cyrenian named Simon, here designated as the father of Alexander and Rufus, was conscripted to bear the cross and thus relieve the condemned One. The early Christians said that this Cyrenian and his sons all became loyal followers of Jesus in later days. Some identify one of the sons with the Rufus mentioned in Romans 16:13.
“The place of a skull.” Many believe that this refers to the skull-shaped hill outside Jerusalem, near the Damascus gate. This hill is known as Gordon’s Calvary. Others understand the words to refer simply to the place of execution. Golgotha, Calvary, the place of a skull—what sacred memories cluster around these words! Before our Lord was crucified they meant nothing to anyone except that they designated a place outside the walls of Jerusalem where criminals—offenders against the laws of mighty Rome—were executed. But for more than nineteen centuries since the Son of man was lifted up, the name Calvary, or its equivalent in other tongues, has stirred the hearts of millions. That name has become the symbol of a love that was stronger than death, a love that the many waters of judgment could not quench.
The soldiers offered the Lord Jesus a drink, but He would not partake of the wine mixed with myrrh. This stupefying draught was prepared in order to assuage the suffering of those dying by crucifixion. He would not accept anything that might hinder His entering fully into all that the cross involved.
“They parted his garments, casting lots upon them.” In this activity the soldiers were fulfilling unknowingly the prophecy of David, uttered over a thousand years before and recorded in Psalm 22:18. A criminal’s garments were recognized as part of the perquisites of the soldiers officiating at a crucifixion.
From the moment when He came forth from the Father to the stable of Bethlehem, the cross was ever before our blessed Lord. He became man in order that He might be the propitiation for our sins (1 John 2:2). One of our hymn writers said it well:
His path, uncheered by earthly smiles,
Led only to the cross.
At Calvary the sin question was settled for eternity when He, the sinless One, was made sin—that is, became a sin offering—that “we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
The Crucifixion (Mark 15:25-39)
Christ was crucified at “the third hour,” counting according to Roman time from sunrise, which we call six o’clock.
“His accusation… THE KING OF THE JEWS.” It was customary to fasten placards above the heads of those crucified to indicate the nature of their offense. Pilate ironically designated Jesus the King of the Jews, assigning Him the crime of rebellion against the Roman authority.
The two thieves who were crucified with Christ were actually guilty of crimes against the law of the land. Seven centuries before Isaiah had written of Christ, “He was numbered with the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12). Now his words were fulfilled literally. The Gospel of Mark records neither the conversation of the crucified men nor the confession of the one who cried to Jesus for deliverance (see Luke 23:39-43).
“They that passed by railed on him.” With no pity for His grief and agony, the jeering mob distorted His words and flung them in His face. They taunted Him and called on Him to demonstrate His power by descending from the cross if He were indeed the anointed of God. They did not realize that it was their sins that held Him on that tree, not the nails that were driven through His hands and feet.
“He saved others; himself he cannot save.” The chief priests uttered these words in mockery but they were declaring a tremendous fact. If He would save others He could not save Himself.
“Let Christ the King of Israel descend now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” In cruel irony they addressed Him by the very titles that were His by right, but He did not respond. To descend from the cross would have meant the eternal doom of all our fallen race.
We note with awe and reverence that for six dreadful hours the Son of God hung on that cross of shame. These six hours are divided very definitely into two parts. From the third to the sixth hour—that is, from what we would call nine o’clock in the morning till noon— the sun was shining, and all could see what was transpiring. During those three hours Jesus Christ was suffering at the hands of man. For all their malignancy men have to be judged unless repentance lead them to turn for salvation to the One they crucified (Acts 2:23; Psalm 69:20-28). Yet it was not what men inflicted upon Him that put away sin (Hebrews 9:26).
From the sixth to the ninth hour darkness spread over all the scene. No human eye could pierce that gloom. It was then that Messiah’s soul was made an offering for sin. As that supernatural darkness covered the scene, a terrible sense of horror must have struck the souls of the ribald multitude. It was in those three hours that the cup of judgment was pressed to the Savior’s lips and drained to the dregs, that we might drink of the cup of salvation (Psalm 116:13).
“Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” The words are Aramaic and are found in Psalm 22:1—”My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Elizabeth Barrett Browning called these words “immanuel’s orphaned cry.” They tell us, as nothing else could, of the awful abandonment of soul into which the Lord Jesus Christ went when He became the great sin bearer. It was then that God, the righteous Judge, dealt with Christ as the surety standing in the sinner’s stead. Impenitent sinners will yet have to experience this abandonment.
“Behold, he calleth Elias.” These were the words of one who did not understand the Aramaic and thought the cry “Eloi” was addressed to the prophet Elijah.
As the darkness passed away Jesus recalled one prophecy yet unfulfilled (Psalm 69:21) and He cried, “I thirst” (John 19:28-29). In answer to His cry a sponge filled with vinegar was pressed to His parched lips (Mark 15:36). The Lord Jesus Christ refused the cup of myrrh and wine, but drank of the vinegar. The first was calculated to bring about insensibility. He would not permit this. The other spoke of the sourness and bitterness of man’s attitude toward Him. He accepted this without a murmur.
“Jesus cried with a loud voice.” He did not die from exhaustion. He dismissed His spirit when all was accomplished (Matthew 27:50).
God’s hand tore the temple veil in two, signifying that the way into the holiest had now been opened up (Hebrews 10:19-20). God need no longer dwell in the thick darkness (2 Chronicles 6:1). He could come out in the light, and man could go in to Him because of the cleansing blood of Christ (1 John 1:7).
“Truly this man was the Son of God.” Convinced by what he saw and heard, the Roman centurion in charge of the crucifixion declared his personal faith in the supernaturalness of the holy sufferer who had just died on that cross.
The crucifixion of our Lord Jesus was far more than a martyrdom for truth; though it was that too (John 18:37). The cross was the display of God’s hatred against sin and His infinite love for lost mankind. We should never think of Calvary as though it simply involved an innocent man dying for guilty men. It was God giving Himself in the person of His Son to bear the judgment that His righteous law declared to be the penalty of sin. There “the Offended died to set the offender free.” Because of what Christ endured there, expiation has been made for iniquity and now God can “be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (Romans 3:26). God grant that our hearts may ever be tender and that our spirits may be deeply moved as we consider anew the Savior’s death on Calvary.
The Burial (Mark 15:40-47)
There is something tenderly pathetic about the little company of faithful women to whom the Lord Jesus Christ was precious. Bewildered and perplexed as they must have been, they stood at some distance, beholding the One whom they had believed to be the Messiah of Israel, God’s anointed King, dying on a cross of shame.
Mark mentioned two women by the name of Mary: Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and of Joses—that is, of James and Jude, two of the apostles. He did not mention Mary the mother of our Lord. We know, however, from John’s account that she stood by the cross until her dying Son commended her to the care of the beloved apostle John.
Salome and some others had come from Galilee to be near Him and hear His gracious messages. What must have been the thoughts of their hearts when they beheld Him apparently powerless in the hand of His enemies! Did they remember what His apostles had forgotten: that He had promised He would rise again the third day? Apparently not, for we find afterward that His resurrection was as great a wonder to these women as it was to any of His other friends.
Isaiah wrote seven hundred years before the crucifixion that Jesus would be with the rich in His death (Isaiah 53:9). And so when our Lord had given up His life, Joseph of Arimathaea, a member of the high council of Israel, came boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of the crucified Savior. Joseph was a disciple in secret and waited for the kingdom of God, but now he came out into the open identifying himself with the rejected Christ.
Those who were put to death by crucifixion often lingered not only for many hours but even for days on their crosses before death brought relief from their sufferings. So Pilate could hardly believe that Jesus was already dead. He called the centurion who had been in charge of the execution and inquired of him whether Jesus was actually dead. When Pilate was assured that it was indeed true he commanded that the body should be entrusted to Joseph, who reverently and tenderly took the body down from the cross. In accordance with the Jewish burial customs he wrapped the precious form in the fine linen he had bought. He laid the body in his own new tomb, a sepulcher that was hewn out of a rock close by the place of crucifixion. After rolling a great stone across the entrance of the sepulcher, Joseph went his way.
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary stood at some distance looking on, observing where Jesus was laid. It was their thought to come back to the tomb as soon as the sabbath was passed and properly embalm the body that had been so hastily placed in the sepulcher. But this was not to be, for God was about to manifest His power and express His approval of the work of His beloved Son by raising Him in triumph from the tomb.