Fragments from the Cross

I frequently tell others that one of the most difficult parts of sermon preparation is deciding what to leave behind. Since God’s Word is infinitely profitable, no one can ever mine the full depths of even one passage or one verse. Thus, after spending time in study, I have never come away wondering if I have enough to say to fill up my normal sermon length; rather, I always have comments, applications, and quotations that I wish could have been included but would ultimately detract from the overall thrust of the message. We are limited, finite creatures, after all. We simply cannot guzzle down in all of the glories and splendors that are to be found within even one phrase of Holy Writ.

With all of that said, this last sermon was particularly full of pieces that needed to be left behind, so here are a few of them.

First of all, whenever I contrasted Jesus’ mock coronation by the Roman soldiers with how Roman soldiers would have treated Caesar, I considered pointing out how Mark seems to be subtly highlighting Jesus in contrast with others.

Before the Sanhedrin, Jesus stood as the great high priest in contrast with Caiaphas, the wicked high priest that perverted justice in order to condemn Jesus.

During Peter’s denials, we see that rock (which is the meaning of Peter’s name) failing, whereas Jesus, the Rock of our salvation, endure without faltering.

Standing before Pilate, Jesus is sentenced to death, while Barabbas is allowed to go free. Interestingly, some manuscripts note that Barabbas’ first name was Jesus, and his last name, Barabbas, means “son of the father.” Thus, Jesus Barabbas, the insurrectionist against Rome, was allowed live, looking very much more like the kind of Christ that the Jews wanted, while Jesus the Son of the Father was sent to be crucified, which was the eternal purpose of the Christ.

Thus, the mock treatment of Jesus as if He were Caesar in this passage is another sharp contrast that Mark subtly places before us.

I did not address the repentant robber upon the cross because Mark does not mention him in his Gospel. However, the following quotation from John Calvin has forever changed my view of that confession. You see, I have never given much thought to the thief’s last-minute repentance as anything more than an example that grace can pierce into a soul even moments before death. Yet Calvin rightfully points out the marvelous faith of the robber to confess Christ as king in the midst of His lowest humiliation:

In this poor thief we see as outstanding an example of faith as ever there was. We ought, then, to thrill and marvel at this miracle wrought by God. Consider his plight. He is close to death, and suffers awful torment as he waits for someone to come and break his bones and to dismember him–torture so bitter and terrifying as to make him lose both mind and memory. He sees our Lord Jesus Christ hanging there, like him, and suffering the greater disgrace. Yet what does he say? He not only acknowledges his faults humbly before God, not only assumes the role of teacher, so as to bring his companion back to the right path, but makes a confession which, when we look at the facts closely, deserves to surpass all others. ‘Remember me,’ he says, ‘when you come into your kingdom’ (Luke 23:42).

How could he conceive in Jesus Christ the idea of a kingdom? Our Lord is hanging there on the tree, cursed both by God and men, for the law of God with his own lips had said, ‘Cursed is the man who hangs on a tree’ (Deut. 21:23). It was no accident, then, that this was where God placed his only-begotten Son. When, therefore, the thief sees Jesus Christ accursed by God and man, and in human terms sunk in utter despair, only through faith and in spirit could he fix on the idea that Jesus Christ was king. He was well aware of the things which might make him think that it would be foolish and wrong to trust in him. Despite that he calls him king, and sees him as such even in death. ‘Save me!’ he says, ‘Give me life! Remember me! Only then will I be saved!’

In weighing up all these circumstances, we can be sure that this thief’s faith was as splendid as that of anyone who has ever lived.[1]

Here is also a quotation from the Grace & Truth Study Bible’s notes. I love especially how the Peter Bolt (who wrote the notes on Mark) ties this passage back to the vision of Daniel 7.

Ironically, the words of the mockers acknowledge exactly what is going on before their very eyes. This is a king that is dying (Mk 15:16-20). He is dying because in order to save others, he cannot save himself (v. 31; 9:35; 10:42-45; 14:36). He has embraced the will of God as Messiah, the servant of the Lord. The Son of Man now suffers before the kingdom comes (9:9-13). It is ironic that the chief priests and teachers of the law demand a final miracle (15:32). They know he has saved others from death (cf. 3:1-6). Now they say that their hardhearted unbelief will dissolve if Jesus comes down from the cross before their eyes. But they clearly believe that to be impossible. Death has defeated Jesus. But Mark’s readers know Jesus repeatedly predicted that after the Son of Man dies, he will rise. He will not avoid death; he will pass through it. In order to come to the Ancient of Days to receive the kingdom, the Son of Man must die.

For my final fragment, I go to G. Campbell Morgan, whose sermons through Mark have been a treasure to work through. In his twenty-eighth sermon, he took Mark 15:1-32 as his text, but in reality he focused almost entirely on verse 31’s phrase, “He saved others; he cannot save himself.” The whole message is powerful, but consider two quotations particularly.

[Jesus] was strong enough not to save Himself, strong enough to decline diplomacy with the Procurator, strong enough to be silent when one word would have turned the mob into an army of His friends, strong enough to restrain His own omnipotence, and to bow, bend, stoop, submit. He could not save Himself.[2]

If we name His name, if we wear His sign, if we profess that we are Christ’s men and Christ’s women, then we have to remember that this is not the Gospel only; it is the law. It is the abiding principle of the propagation of the Gospel, and must be to the end of stress and strain and conflict. Every Christian worker of whom it is true that he or she is saving others, cannot save himself or herself. Or again to change the method of the statement; the measure in which we are at the end of attempting to save ourselves, is the measure in which we are moving out upon the highway of being able to save others. That is true in statesmanship. That is true in all the ministry of men to the needs created by the tragedy of life. It is true of Sunday School class; and it is true of the pulpit… We can make no contribution toward the victory of spiritual truth save at the point of sacrifice. A young minister fresh from college, said to W. L. Watkinson, that master of satire, upon one occasion, “You know, Dr. Watkinson, preaching does not take anything out of me.” “No,” said Dr. Watkinson, “and therefore, it puts nothing into anyone else!” That is true, Biblically true. If we are to save others, we cannot save ourselves. The only question that we have to face is this: Are we strong enough to be weak, mighty enough to submit, able for the gracious disability out of which the forces that renew, spring for the blessing of humanity?[3]

[1] John Calvin, Crucified and Risen, 103-104.

[2] G. Campbell Morgan, The Gospel According to Mark, 320.

[3] Morgan, Mark, 325-326.

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