Courage in the Face of Despair | Mark 15:39-47

And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”

There were also women looking on from a distance, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. When he was in Galilee, they followed him and ministered to him, and there were also many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem.

And when evening had come, since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Pilate was surprised to hear that he should have already died. And summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he was already dead. And when he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the corpse to Joseph. And Joseph bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud and laid him in a tomb that had been cut out of the rock. And he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid.

Mark 15:39-47 ESV

COVID-19 was an apocalypse. Now, I mean that in the technical sense of the word. Apocalypse means revelation or unveiling, and any crisis inevitably leads to a kind of revealing, especially of people’s hearts. One immediate effect of the pandemic has been a greater societal awareness of illnesses. Many headlines warn to beware of a tripledemic of Covid, flu, and RSV. Winter, however, has always been a season of viruses, particularly respiratory, and some seasons are inevitably worse or better than others. That has not changed, but our awareness has.

Yet, in my opinion, the greatest unveiling of the Covid pandemic was its exposure and amplification of a psychological epidemic of despair that had been growing long before 2020. For instance, suicide rates and the desperate pleas for euthanasia were certainly present before Covid, but the pandemic and the lockdowns have certainly brought them to the surface and even heightened them. Being forced to face our own mortality did not settle well on our secular society, and it exposed that most people simply cannot face the reality of death. That is why we sedate ourselves against reality as much as possible with drugs and entertainment, and when the sedation no longer works, we would rather take death into our own hands rather than embrace the uncertainly of life. We are a culture in despair.

We would do well to consider intently this passage of Mark because His followers were certainly faced with despair in the wake of Jesus’ death. You see, even though Jesus told His disciples three times that He would both die and rise, we have also seen repeatedly that they did not yet have eyes to see that blessed promise. Rather, the Christ who they hoped would restore the kingdom of Israel had been crucified, ridiculed by men and cursed by God, and His disciples had abandoned Him in His suffering. During His life, Jesus made it seem as if God’s kingdom really was at hand, but with His death, it never felt more distant. The sun may have begun to shine again with Jesus’ death, but an even greater darkness loomed over the hearts of the faithful. Though the greatest victory of all time had been accomplished, they could only see the most savage of all defeats.

Yet in the midst of this despair, Mark records for us three examples of courage (a confession, discipleship, and an act of love) from the three unexpected places. We will look at each individually before considering their collective exhortation for us today who likewise live between the cross and the resurrection.

TRULY THIS MAN WAS THE SON OF GOD! // VERSE 39

Although the priests and bystanders were not able to understand the sign of the darkness around because of the darkness within them, a ray of light pierced through the most unlikely person imaginable at the foot of the cross.

And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”

Although there were other Roman soldiers at the crucifixion, this centurion was their commander. He was responsible for overseeing the execution of Jesus and the two robbers on either side of Him. Timothy Keller notes:

Centurions were not aristocrats who got military commissions; they were enlisted men who had risen through the ranks. So this man had seen death, and had inflicted it, to a degree that you and I can hardly imagine.

Here was a hardened, brutal man. Yet something had penetrated his spiritual darkness. He became the first person to confess the deity of Jesus Christ.[1]

Indeed, Mark explicitly notes that the centurion saw Christ’s divinity through His manner of death. He saw how Jesus breathed His last breath, and a fountain deep within the centurion’s violence-stained heart broke open. As a dealer of death, he knew it very well. He brought the curse of Adam upon others for a living, so he was no doubt intimately familiar with how it snatched up the strong and the weak alike, both old and young, men and women, slave and free. He knew firsthand that all living would be dragged down into that everlasting darkness called the grave.

Yet Jesus was different. Death did not fall upon Jesus; He gave Himself over to it. Even while hanging from the tree, mocked by men and forsaken in our place by the Father, Jesus was still Lord. As both God and the only sinless man, death had no claim over Him; therefore, His life could never be taken from Him. He could only lay it down. I doubt that the centurion could have expressed his thoughts and emotions very well, but I believe that this is what he saw. As the one presiding over the crucifixion, I think he understood that even from the cross Jesus was really in command of the proceedings. Jesus’ death was so unlike normal deaths that the centurion could only conclude that Jesus was indeed divine. Indeed, as Keller said, he is the first human to confess Jesus’ divinity in Mark’s Gospel, and he is the first to confess the second part of Jesus’ twofold confession of Jesus: that He is the Son of God.

Now, we do not know the degree of the centurion’s faith past this point. Did he become a Christian? Perhaps; perhaps not. We will never know on this side of the river. We should, however, commend both his faith and his courage. We can safely assume that the centurion did not have everything in mind that we as Christians do today whenever we talk about the Son of God. I do not think, for example, that he was miraculously given understanding of the Trinity. Instead, the phrase ‘son of god’ was an honorific title given to humans who were deemed to have ascended to divinity. Most notably, it was a title used by Caesar, that is, the centurion’s king and commander. He was, therefore, making a very dangerous confession. He was, at the very least, confessing Jesus to be as equally divine as Caesar.

Also, we should note with wonder and joy that this centurion Gentile is only a foretaste of the salvation that Christ’s death would bring to all nations.

REVEALED UNDER THE CROSS // VERSES 40-41

The second example of faith and courage in the face of despair is not an individual but a group of women:

There were also women looking on from a distance, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. When he was in Galilee, they followed him and ministered to him, and there were also many other women who came up with him from Jerusalem.

Though all the disciples fled from Jesus and did not have the courage to follow Him to Golgotha (John being the only exception), this small crowd of women did. Just as they had followed Jesus in Galilee, they now followed Him as He went to His death. They were likely forced to do so from a distance because the soldiers would not let them nearer.

I find it significant that Mark makes the revelation of how these women followed and minister to Jesus throughout His ministry immediately after His death while His body still hung upon the cross. In most of the events that we studied in this Gospel, these women were there as eye witnesses. Hearing His words, and seeing His wonders. Yet we are only told of their presence here. I would imagine that their ministry to Jesus was largely unnoticed by the other disciples as well. Luke tells us that it was women like Joanna and Susanna that financially supported Jesus’ ministry, yet their mention is almost like a footnote. They served in the background, until this moment when the more prominent disciples fell away in fear. This again is a picture in miniature of what Jesus taught. The proud will be humbled, while the humble shall be exalted. The servant of all is counted the greatest in the kingdom. The first become last, and the last become first.

There is a great scene in The Great Divorce, where Lewis sees a woman of dazzling beauty and glory coming down from the mountains of heaven. This dialogue with his guide, George MacDonald, follows:

‘Is it?… Is it?’ I whispered to my guide.

‘Not at all,’ said he. ‘It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on Earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.

‘She seems to be… well, a person of particular importance?’

‘Aye. She is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are quite different things.’[2]

I think Lewis is right. It is the same principle that Paul Washer strikes at whenever anyone asks him who the greatest preacher of this generation is and he answers, “You don’t know him.” The greatest in the world to come will likely be those who were largely overlooked in this life, yet faithfully and diligently stored up their treasures where moths, rust, and thieves cannot destroy.

ASKING FOR THE BODY // VERSES 42-47

Finally, we have the example of Joseph of Arimathea before us:

And when evening had come, since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Pilate was surprised to hear that he should have already died. And summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he was dead. And when he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the corpse to Joseph. And Joseph bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud and laid him in a tomb that had been cut out of the rock. And he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid.

One thing that ought to be noted about this passage is how much Mark labors the point that Jesus was, in fact, dead. Jesus did not swoon upon the cross, as many today try to argue, nor was it all a grand ruse. Keller says,

He is “certifying” that Jesus was really dead. Joseph of Arimathea is named here as an identified witness who actually had Jesus’s body wrapped up and sealed it in a tomb. A Roman centurion (who would be an expert) bore witness of Jesus’s death to Pilate (who would be the legal authority on the matter). Finally, two women are cited as eyewitnesses to the burial. So multiple experts and witnesses prove he was really dead.[3]

As for Joseph, it did indeed take courage for him to ask Pilate for Jesus’ body. First, Joseph was a member of the council, that is, the Sanhedrin that orchestrated Jesus’ execution. Luke’s Gospel describes him as “a good and righteous man, who had not consented to their decision and action” (Luke 23:50-51). Yet he evidently believed Jesus in secret, like Nicodemus, who John says also helped with the burial. He had a high and noble position that could be ruined by identifying Himself with Jesus, not to mention what Pilate could have done to him. Furthermore, he was handling a dead body, which made him unclean for Sabbath and Passover.

But why did Joseph choose Jesus’ death of all times to take courage? Mark tells us explicitly that Joseph was looking for the kingdom. He was anticipating the work that God would do through the Christ, and he had come to believe that Jesus was the Christ. He had hoped that Jesus would be their King, that He would sit on the throne of David and subject the nations to Himself. But even if those hopes were now dead, Joseph clearly revered Jesus as a teacher and a prophet.

I imagine, therefore, that his need to bury Jesus’ body had something to do with the indignity with which the bodies of the crucified were disposed of. Often the bodies of the crucified were left hanging for the birds to eat as a standing warning for others to avoid their fate. The bodies that were taken down were tossed into a landfill. The crucified were considered garbage anyway, so they were disposed of with the rest of the garbage. Jerusalem’s landfill, of course, was Gehenna, which Jesus used as a real-world metaphor for the eternal torments of hell. Thus, Joseph likely considered it unbearable that a teacher as great as Jesus should have such humiliating burial. Even if Joseph held onto no hope that Jesus would rise back to life, he probably wanted to show honor to His body by giving Him a proper tomb. Pilate likely granted that request for two reasons. First, he clearly never saw Jesus as a political threat. Second, Jesus’ death firmly secured that He would be no political threat. It is probable that Pilate saw Joseph for what he was: a secret disciple of Jesus in mourning, hoping to honor His body in death.

LIFE ON SATURDAY

Ray Stedman once wrote:

Someone has called our present generation “Saturday’s children,” and it is an apt term. Our great American cities are, for the most part, teeming with pools of human misery where people live out their days in a kind of ritual godless world, despair grips people’s hearts everywhere. Hopelessness and meaninglessness come crushing in on us from every side.[4]

His words are certainly no less true today. The despair that engulfed Jesus’ followers on the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter has gone mainstream, and from a secular vantagepoint, why should it be otherwise? Secularism, which is the de facto state religion in the West, is fundamentally nihilistic.[5] Our word secular comes from one of Latin’s two words for world. The first was mundum, which means that world as we think of it today, geographic and spatial. The second word, saeculum, was temporal, meaning the world in time. Indeed, a saeculum was often used as a measurement of time to mean the span of one human life. Our word secular comes from this Latin root. When the suffix –ism is attached, we have before us an entire worldview that is focused squarely, even exclusively, upon this life. Secularism excludes eternity, or at least argues that it is a non-factor. It foregoes the transcendent to fix our attention on the here and now.

In other words, secularism is a worldview perpetually set on Saturday. The reality of death is certainly unavoidable in the end, and it eventually swallows up even the greatest among us, like it apparently did Jesus. But since there is no resurrection, only the endless void and nothingness, it is best to avoid considering death as much as possible. As desensitized to on-screen deaths as we are, it is highly telling that few now stand beside a deathbed until their hair begins to gray. Our culture’s obsession with entertainment and narcotics (but, of course, I repeat myself) reveals that we have collectively taken up the nihilistic philosophy of old: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:32).

All of this is important because in a very real sense, all of this life is a very long Saturday. O’ we certainly have the great joy of reflecting upon Christ’s resurrection, which we will come to in a moment, but for the present, death swallows us up and the day of resurrection has yet to come. In a very real sense, all our lives are spent between the cross and the resurrection. Therefore, we have more in common with the centurion, women, and Joseph than we first realized. We are in a very similar position. Like them, we are forced to grapple with what the Preacher calls the vanity of life under the sun.

Throughout the book of Ecclesiastes, the Preacher wrestles with the vanity of living, even going so far as to say that he hated life. Yet in what so many read as a book of despair, he repeatedly asks us to look beyond life under the sun toward God. He calls us not to the nihilistic motto of eating and drinking to the full since tomorrow we die; rather, he urges us to eat and drink and enjoy the life that God has given to us. Then with his final words, he gives this ultimate counsel:

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

His ultimate conclusion is that we ought to wait for the judgment of God and fear Him and keep His commandments while we do. That happens to also be a remarkable description of the actions that we have been studying. In the face of Christ’s death, which in their eyes was likely the greatest vanity ever seen under the sun (indeed, it was great enough for the sun to hide its face), they continued to fear God and keep His commandments. The Gentile centurion made a confession of Jesus’ deity. The women followed Jesus as His disciples even to the foot of the cross. Joseph displayed his love and reverence for Jesus by giving His body a proper burial. A confession, discipleship, and an act of love, each offered in the face of what seemed to be death’s greatest victory.

We ought to take their courage to heart, for we have a better vision of things than they had. We know that death did not defeat Christ but that death was defeated by Christ through His dying. Like Christ’s substitutional atoning for our sins, His humiliation was also finished upon the cross. To those looking on, His burial seemed to be the most disappointing in a long stream of would-be messiahs, but in reality, His burial, His descent to the dead, was the beginning of His eternal exaltation. Although Saturday must have been the longest Sabbath the disciples ever felt, the new week began with Jesus’ resurrection, which Paul calls the first fruit. Christ’s resurrection is a foretaste and a guarantee of the great resurrection of all God’s people still to come.

Thus, even as we still die and our bodies will likewise be placed in their graves, we look for the resurrection of the dead to come and our eternal life with Jesus our Lord. By taking the curse of our sins upon Himself, Jesus is now undoing the curse of sin. “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26). We are waiting for Christ’s return and for the redemption of our bodies (and of all creation), but we do not wait as those who have no hope. And with this great hope before us, let us be all the more diligent to follow these examples that Scripture has given. Like the centurion, may we boldly confess our great hope that Jesus is the Son of God. Like the women, may we follow Jesus wherever He leads us, even to Golgotha. Like Joseph, may we devote ourselves to acts of love and honor for our Lord and for our brothers and sisters in His name around us.

Back in July of 2018, Tiff and I went to the hospital and watched, beside her family, a church member breath her last. Here is a bit of what I wrote later that evening.

Typically, death happens slowly. We die a little every day. Life, after all, is terminal. It has an end, a destination, a climax. Some go quickly at the force of a bullet, the shattering of metal and glass on a highway, or a sudden defect in the heart or brain. The rest, however, live long enough to feel the gradual decay, day by day moving closer to the grave.

Judy was dying for a long time, but around 11:57 yesterday morning, the cord snapped. The deed was done. The spirit was gone. Only the flesh remained.

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.

Tiff and I walked outside afterwards into the bright, clear day. Cars passed by on the highway. The hospital continued to treat their other patients. The world didn’t even blink at Judy’s passing. She, alongside her generation, are going, but the earth keeps doing what it has always done. My generation and I will do the same. As will my children and theirs. If we were to keep a scoreboard of battles with death, the statistics don’t look so good. Even the Son felt its sting. Of course, death ultimately lost that battle. It could not hold Christ in the grave. Within three days, He stood triumphant over death itself. And He now promises to one day do the same for His disciples. Death is wrong. It is a curse, a grievous evil. But for those who are in Christ, death is not the end. He will someday raise our broken bodies back to life, glorified in the face of Christ.

So Tiff and I then went to Panera Bread for lunch, doing the only thing worth doing.

There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?

Brothers and sisters, the world around us eats, drinks, and indulges themselves in despair because death might come at any moment. We ought to eat and drink in hope and thanksgiving to God, knowing that Christ has overcome the grave and He might return for at any moment. Indeed, it is precisely that hope that we proclaim here at our King’s Table. Just as Christ’s resurrection is the down payment or guarantee of the resurrection of all His people still to come, this morsel of bread, this sip of the cup, and the communion with Christ and with one another that they represent are only a foretaste of the great feast into which we will all be gathered at the end of this age. Therefore, as we eat this bread and drink this cup, let us together joyfully proclaim our Lord’s death until He returns.


[1] Timothy Keller, King’s Cross, 207-208.

[2] C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, 118-119.

[3] Keller, King’s Cross, 214.

[4] Cited from R. Kent Hughes, Mark: Jesus, Servant and Savior, 401.

[5] Nihilism comes from the Latin word for nothing; thus, it is the philosophy that ultimately nothing matters.

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