By Neil Earle
What is there about the Gospel story that draws even tough-minded political commentators such as Bill O’Reilly of FOX News to write a book about the last days of Jesus? Million-selling Christian writer Philip Yancey mentioned that the Gospels slow down rather than speed up when they get to the Crucifixion.
How strange, thought Yancey. Unlike all other biographies, Gospel writers devote nearly one-third of their length to the last week of Jesus’ life (The Jesus I Never Knew, page 188).
This is because the events of what Christians call Holy Week, the arrest, crucifixion, resurrection and appearances of Jesus Christ, these represent the turning point, the pivot of the whole human experience.
We usually like mysteries or novels where events take an unexpected turn. That sure describes the career and ministry of Jesus Christ. Even in the power-packed Gospel of Mark which begins with a spectacular display of healing power, by the beginning of Chapter Three the shadows are already gathering for Jesus (Mark 3:6).
Mark’s Gospel is worth a second look, especially at this time of year. His fast-moving style indicates he is writing to a church under the threat of persecution or a group which has already faced deadly encounters. For example, right in the middle of his account of Jesus’ teaching Mark puts the hard-edged message of the Cross – “If anyone would come after me he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). The New Testament expert Ralph Martin, after sifting the evidence, concludes that there is a good chance Mark is writing just after the death of Peter and Paul in Rome to a church that is still in shock from the unbelievably cruel attacks of Nero Caesar.
Mark’s perspective, says Martin and others, is that only after the resurrection is Jesus known for who he was. Mark accentuates the humanity of Jesus not, as in John, his divinity. “He is realistic in admitting that Christians may have to tread a lonely path in darkness…Some Christians may even die in the anguish of God’s withdrawn face, when he fails to comfort and cheer his own…this is all they can hope for, that beyond defeat and death God will care for his church and vindicate his own” (Mark: Evangelist and Theologian, page 219).
This, for Martin, Gordon Fee and other New Testament teachers is why in some manuscripts and translations Mark’s gospel ends abruptly at Mark 16:8. It says of the disciples that “they were afraid” after encountering the resurrection. They were in the presence of something far greater than themselves. They were reeling from not the super-natural but super-nature! It took a while to sink in that this Jesus of Nazareth was who he said he was – a King, but a King with us in our suffering and for us in our suffering.
But within the text of Mark’s Gospel are some fascinating insights into how people responded to the Gospel and how we should respond. In fact Mark sketches briefly seven human reactions to a real-life encounter with God in the flesh. They are all compressed in Mark 15:29-47, the stories of people who saw the death of Jesus and how they reacted.
First, the skeptics and cynics. This was those who passed by the crucifixion site on the hill of Golgotha. They taunted Jesus: “Come down from the cross.” But as the great Greek expositor William Barclay once wrote, it was because Jesus was God that he did not come down from the cross. The debt of sin that we have all incurred must somehow be paid. The scales of this tough universe must somehow balance. Jesus did that. He stood between the dreaded drum-beat of Sin and Punishment and took our guilt upon him and in so doing reconciled the world back to God (Romans 5:10).
The second group were the cold-hearted intellectuals – the scribes and chief priests, the intelligenstia of the land. They too taunted Jesus and challenged him to leave the cross. But what then? What if Jesus had come down? Wouldn’t that have been the stark shattering end of all their carefully promoted careers and religious equations. The intelligentsia are with us still – raising endless questions but still finding it hard to believe.
The third group are the two thieves crucified with Jesus. They taunted him with “Get us out of here! If you are God, why don’t you do something?” This cry is often heard today after great disasters and tragedies. We’ve all felt that undermining complaint tugging at us inside. But, as Yancey writes, Jesus did not come to offer Band-Aid solutions. He could have reached every one in his lifetime but that would still be only 2% of people who ever lived. Jesus on the cross showed that the kingdom would be saved by humility and meekness and often human-seeming weakness. This is one reason Christians operate food banks and homeless shelters and recovery homes. They are on a mission of mercy for those Jesus have chosen to draw to himself.
Fourth, the thrill-seekers. This was represented by those who misunderstood Jesus’ death cry and offered him sour wine to see if Elijah would come to deliver him (Mark 15:33-38). No. They missed it completely as thrill-seekers usually do. But how many of them exist today, haunting our evangelistic crusades and shopping endlessly among the churches, ever learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.
Ralph Martin was right. Mark is hard-hitting and realistic. But somehow through the physical darkness and emotional distress of that awful day a pattern began to emerge like sun slowly returning after rain. For in spite of it all a tenacious spark of light shone forth from people who steadfastly believed in spite of everything. A Roman centurion – probably the officer in charge of the crucifixion – spoke his personal reaction and his utterance began to dispel the darkness. He had seen many men die and as he watched Jesus on the cross he knew there was something different about a man who prays for forgiveness for his enemies, sees to his mother’s security and accepts a thief into his bosom in the middle of the agony of the cross.
“Surely,” he said, “this man was the Son of God (Mark 15:39).”
The centurion not only forecast by his reaction the unlikeliest place to find believers and the conversion of the outside world to the Gospel but he also shows, as Barclay noted, how it is the Cross that can penetrate our tough defenses. “If Jesus had lived on and taught many he might have attracted many, but it is the cross which speaks straight to the hearts of men” (Mark, page 365). This is still true.
Group six: the women. Jesus’ mother and closest soul mates – the women from Galilee – were standing far off from that horrible place of death, watching and wondering, NOT understanding all that was happening. But they were there! (Mark 16:40-41). As Dr. Frederick Grant wrote of these women, “the defeat on Calvary did not shake their faith in Jesus or their devotion to him. The overwhelming might of evil had no effect on their continuing loyalty…among this group, so helplessly watching, were many who a little later were in the upper room in Jerusalem, launching a movement which would reverse the verdict that iron nails were the final power in the universe” (Interpreter’s Bible, page 908).
That’s saying a lot. There’s a universe of meaning in that phrase.
The seventh group is represented by Joseph of Arimathea. He had been a “secret disciple” (John 19:38) but is now moved to act by the steadfastness of the women and especially Jesus’ refusal to lose control and curse his executioners. “When he had seen Jesus alive, he had felt his attraction but had gone no further. But when he had seen Jesus die…[much changed inside].” Barclay is right: the Cross and what happened at Calvary speaks to us better than a sermon.
Is there an eighth group?
Yes. It is represented by another group described by St. Paul in the book of Hebrews. It includes all of us who live 2000 years later. There’s room for us at the cross too. As preachers say, the ground is level there. Paul put it this way: “Let us go to him outside the camp bearing the disgrace he bore (since) Jesus suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood” (Hebrews 13:12-13).
And there’s the lesson. The death of Jesus reconciles us back to God just as his living presence inside of us through the Spirit – a life vividly presented to the disciples in his resurrection appearances – guarantees our eternal life. “Because I live,” said Jesus, “you shall live also.” Thank God for this wonderful chance at eternal life and abundant life here and now. Thank God for the cross and the empty tomb.