Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible

Mark 15

Verses 1-47

Chapter 15


15:1-5 Immediately, early in the morning, the chief priests, together with the elders and the experts in the law--that is to say, the whole Sanhedrin--held a consultation. They bound Jesus and took him away and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus answered, "It is you who say so." The chief priests made many accusations against him. Pilate again questioned him, "Have you no answer to make?" he said. "See how many accusations they have made against you." Jesus answered nothing further, and Pilate was amazed.

As soon as it was light, the Sanhedrin met to confirm the conclusions they had arrived at during their meeting in the night. They themselves had no power to carry out the death penalty. That had to be imposed by the Roman governor and carried out by the Roman authorities.

It is from Luke that we learn how deep and determined the bitter malice of the Jews was. As we have seen, the charge at which they had arrived was one of blasphemy, of insulting God. But that was not the charge on which they brought Jesus before Pilate. They knew well that Pilate would have had nothing to do with what he would have considered a Jewish religious argument. When they brought Jesus to him they charged him with perverting the people, forbidding them to give tribute to Caesar and calling himself a king (Luke 23:1-2). They had to evolve a political charge or Pilate would not have listened. They knew the charge was a lie--and so did Pilate.

Pilate asked Jesus, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus gave him a strange answer. he said, "It is you who say so." Jesus did not say yes or no. What he did say was, "I may have claimed to be the King of the Jews, but you know very well that the interpretation that my accusers are putting on that claim is not my interpretation. I am no political revolutionary. My kingdom is a kingdom of love." Pirate knew that perfectly well. Pilate went on to question Jesus more, and the Jewish authorities went on to multiply their charges--and Jesus remained completely silent.

There is a time when silence is more eloquent than words, for silence can say things that words can never say.

(i) There is the silence of wondering admiration. It is a compliment for any performance or oration to be greeted with thunderous applause, but it is a still greater compliment for it to be greeted with a hushed silence which knows that applause would be out of place. It is a compliment to be praised or thanked in words, but it is a still greater compliment to receive a look of the eyes which plainly says there are no words to be found.

(ii) There is the silence of contempt. It is possible to greet someone's statements or arguments or excuses with a silence which shows they are not worth answering. Instead of answering someone's protestations the listener may turn on his heel and contemptuously leave them be.

(iii) There is the silence of fear. A man may remain silent for no other reason than that he is afraid to speak. The cowardice of his soul may stop him saying the things he knows he ought to say. Fear may gag him into a shameful silence.

(iv) There is the silence of the heart that is hurt. When a person has been really wounded he does not break into protests and recriminations and angry words. The deepest sorrow is a dumb sorrow, which is past anger and past rebuke and past anything that speech can say, and which can only silently look its grief.

(v) There is the silence of tragedy, and that is silent because there is nothing to be said. That was why Jesus was silent. He knew there could be no bridge between himself and the Jewish leaders. He knew that there was nothing in Pilate to which he could ultimately appeal. He knew that the lines of communication were broken. The hatred of the Jews was an iron curtain which no words could penetrate. The cowardice of Pilate in face of the mob was a barrier no words could pierce. It is a terrible thing when a man's heart is such that even Jesus knows it is hopeless to speak. God save us from that!

THE CHOICE OF THE MOB (Mark 15:6-15)

15:6-15 At the time of the Feast, it was the custom for the governor to release to the people a prisoner, whom they were accustomed to choose. There was a man called Barabbas, confined with the revolutionaries, who had committed murder during the insurrection. The crowd approached Pilate's judgment seat and began to request that he should carry out the customary procedure for them. Pilate answered, "Do you wish me to release to you the King of the Jews?" For he knew that the chief priests had handed him over to him through sheer malice. The chief priests stirred up the mob to demand the release of Barabbas all the more. Pilate again asked them, "What shall I do to the man you call the King of the Jews?" Again they shrieked, "Crucify him!" Pilate said to them, "What harm has he done?" They shrieked the more vehemently, "Crucify him!" Pilate wished to please the mob, and he released Barabbas for them, and, when he had scourged Jesus, he handed him over to them to be crucified.

Of Barabbas we know nothing other than what we read in the gospel story. He was not a thief, he was a brigand. He was no petty pilferer but a bandit, and there must have been a rough audacity about him that appealed to the crowd. Perhaps we may guess what he was. Palestine was filled with insurrections. It was an inflammable land. In particular there was one group of Jews called the Sicarii (Greek #4607), which means the dagger-bearers, who were violent, fanatical nationalists. They were pledged to murder and assassination. They carried their daggers beneath their cloaks and used them as they could. It is very likely that Barabbas was a man like that, and, thug though he was, he was a brave man, a patriot according to his lights, and it is understandable that he was popular with the mob.

People have always felt it a mystery that less than a week after the crowd were shouting a welcome when Jesus rode into Jerusalem, they were now shrieking for his crucifixion. There is no real mystery. The reason is quite simply that this was a different crowd. Think of the arrest. It was deliberately secret. True, the disciples fled and must have spread the news, but they could not have known that the Sanhedrin was going to violate its own laws and carry out a travesty of a trial by night. There can have been very few of Jesus' supporters in that crowd.

Who then were there? Think again. The crowd knew that there was this custom whereby a prisoner was released at the Passover time. It may well be that this was a crowd which had assembled with the deliberate intention of demanding the release of Barabbas. They were in fact a mob of Barabbas' supporters. When they saw the possibility that Jesus might be released and not Barabbas they went mad. To the chief priests this was a heaven-sent opportunity. Circumstances had played into their hands. They fanned the popular clamour for Barabbas and found it easy, for it was the release of Barabbas that that crowd had come to claim. It was not that the crowd was fickle. It was that it was a different crowd.

Nonetheless, they had a choice to make. Confronted with Jesus and Barabbas, they chose Barabbas.

(i) They chose lawlessness instead of law. They chose the law-breaker instead of Jesus. One of the New Testament words for sin is anomia (Greek #458), which means lawlessness. In the human heart there is a streak which resents law, which desires to do as it likes, which wants to smash the confining barriers and kick over the traces and refuse all discipline. There is something of that in every man. Kipling makes the old soldier say in Mandalay:

"Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the


Where there aren't no Ten Commandments an' a man can raise a


There are times when most of us wish there were no Ten Commandments. The mob was the representative of men when it chose lawlessness instead of law.

(ii) They chose war instead of peace. they chose the man of blood instead of the Prince of Peace. In almost three thousand years of history there have been less than one hundred and thirty years where there has not been a war raging somewhere. Men in their incredible folly have persisted in trying to settle things by war which settles nothing. The mob were doing what men have so often done when they chose the warrior and rejected the man of peace.

(iii) They chose hatred and violence instead of love. Barabbas and Jesus stood for two different ways. Barabbas stood for the heart of hate, the stab of the dagger, the violence of bitterness. Jesus stood for the way of love. As so often has happened, hate reigned supreme in the hearts of men, and love was rejected. Men insisted on taking their own way to conquest, and refused to see that the only true conquest was the conquest of love.

There can be hidden tragedy in a word. "When he had scourged him" is one word in the Greek. The Roman scourge was a terrible thing. The criminal was bent and bound in such a way that his back was exposed. The scourge was a long leathern thong, studded here and there with sharpened pieces of lead and bits of bone. It literally tore a man's back to ribbons. Sometimes it tore a man's eye out. Some men died under it. Some men emerged from the ordeal raving mad. Few retained consciousness through it. That is what they inflicted on Jesus.


15:16-20 The soldiers led Jesus away into the hall, which is the Praetorium, and they called together the whole company. They clad him in a purple robe, and they plaited a crown of thorns and put it on him, and they began to salute him, "Hail! King of the Jews!" And they struck his head with a reed, and they spat on him, and they knelt down before him and worshipped him. And after they had made sport of him, they took off the purple robe, and clad him in his own clothes. And they led him away to crucify him.

The Roman ritual of condemnation was fixed. The judge said Illum duci ad crucem placet), "The sentence is that this man should be taken to a cross." Then he turned to the guard and said, I, miles, expedi crucem, "Go, soldier, and prepare the cross." It was when the cross was being prepared that Jesus was in the hands of the soldiers. The Praetorium was the residence of the governor, his headquarters, and the soldiers involved would be the headquarters cohort of the guard. We would do well to remember that Jesus had already undergone the agony of scourging before this horse-play of the soldiers began.

It may well be that of all that happened to him this hurt Jesus least. The actions of the Jews had been venomous with hatred. The consent of Pilate had been a cowardly evasion of responsibility. There was cruelty in the action of the soldiers but no malice. To them Jesus was only another man for a cross, and they carried out their barrack-room pantomime of royalty and worship, not with any malice, but as a coarse jest.

It was the beginning of much mockery to come. Always the Christian was liable to be regarded as a jest. Scribbled on the walls of Pompeii, whose walls are still chalked with coarse jests to-day, there is a picture of a Christian kneeling before an ass and below it is scrawled the words, "Anaximenes worships his God." If ever people make a jest of our Christianity, it will help to remember that they did it to Jesus in a way that is worse than anything likely to happen to us.

THE CROSS (Mark 15:21-28)

15:21-28 And they impressed into service a man called Simon of Cyrene, who was passing by, on his way in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, and they made him carry his Cross. So they brought him to the place Golgotha, which means the place of a skull. They offered him wine mingled with myrrh, but he would not take it. They crucified him. And they divided out his garments, throwing dice for them to decide who should take what. It was nine o'clock in the morning when they crucified him. And the inscription of the charge against him was written on the Cross--"The King of the Jews." With him they crucified two brigands, one on his right hand and one on his left.

The routine of crucifixion did not alter. When the cross was prepared the criminal had himself to carry it to the place of execution. He was placed in the middle of a hollow square of four soldiers. In front marched a soldier carrying a board stating the crime of which the prisoner was guilty. The board was afterwards affixed to the cross. They took not the shortest but the longest way to the place of execution. They followed every possible street and lane so that as many as possible should see and take warning. When they reached the place of crucifixion, the cross was laid flat on the ground. The prisoner was stretched upon it and his hands nailed to it. The feet were not nailed but only loosely bound. Between the prisoner's legs projected a ledge of wood called the saddle, to take his weight when the cross was raised upright--otherwise the nails would have torn through the flesh of the hands. The cross was then lifted upright and set in its socket--and the criminal was left to die. The cross was not tall. It was shaped like the letter T, and had no top piece at all. Sometimes prisoners hung for as long as a week, slowly dying of hunger and of thirst, suffering sometimes to the point of actual madness.

This must have been a grim day for Simon of Cyrene. Palestine was an occupied country and any man might be impressed into the Roman service for any task. The sign of impressment was a tap on the shoulder with the flat of a Roman spear. Simon was from Cyrene in Africa. No doubt he had come from that far off land for the Passover. No doubt he had scraped and saved for many years in order to come. No doubt he was gratifying the ambition of a lifetime to eat one Passover in Jerusalem. Then this happened to him.

At the moment Simon must have bitterly resented it. He must have hated the Romans, and hated this criminal whose cross he was being forced to carry. But we may legitimately speculate what happened to Simon. It may be that it was his intention when he got to Golgotha to fling the cross down on the ground and hasten as quickly as he could from the scene. But perhaps it did not turn out that way. Perhaps he lingered on because something about Jesus fascinated him.

He is described as the father of Alexander and Rufus. The people for whom the gospel was written must have been meant to recognize him by this description. It is most likely that Mark's gospel was first written for the Church at Rome. Now let us turn to Paul's letter to Rome and read Romans 16:13. "Greet Rufus, eminent in the Lord, also his mother and mine." Rufus was so choice a Christian that he was eminent in the Lord. The mother of Rufus was so dear to Paul that he could call her his own mother. Things must have happened to Simon on Golgotha.

Now turn to Acts 13:1. There is a list of the men of Antioch who sent Paul and Barnabas out on that epoch-making first mission to the Gentiles. The name of one is Simeon that was called Niger. Simeon is another form of Simon. Niger was the regular name for a man of swarthy skin who came from Africa, and Cyrene is in Africa. Here it may well be that we are meeting Simon again. Maybe Simon's experience on the way to Golgotha bound his heart forever to Jesus. Maybe it made him a Christian. Maybe in the after days he was a leader in Antioch and instrumental in the first mission to the Gentiles. Maybe it was because Simon was compelled to carry the Cross of Jesus that the first mission to the Gentiles took place. That would mean that we are Christians because one day a Passover pilgrim from Cyrene, to his bitter resentment at the moment, was impressed by a nameless Roman officer to carry his cross for Jesus.

They offered Jesus drugged wine and he would not drink it. A company of pious and merciful women in Jerusalem came to every crucifixion and gave the criminals a drink of drugged wine to ease the terrible pain. They offered this to Jesus--and he refused it. When Dr. Johnson was ill with his last illness he asked his doctor to tell him honestly if he could recover. The doctor said he could not without a miracle. "Then," said Johnson, "I will take no more physic, not even opiates, for I have prayed that I may render up my soul to God unclouded." Jesus was resolved to taste death at its bitterest and to go to God with open eyes.

The soldiers diced for his clothes. We have seen how the prisoner was marched to the place of crucifixion amid the four soldiers. These soldiers had as their perquisite the clothes of the criminal. Now a Jew wore five articles of clothing--the inner robe, the outer robe, the sandals, the girdle and the turban. When the four lesser things had been assigned, that left the great outer robe. It would have been useless to cut it up, and so the soldiers gambled for it in the shadow of the Cross.

Jesus was crucified between two thieves. It was a symbol of his whole life that even at the end he companied with sinners.

THE LIMITLESS LOVE (Mark 15:29-32)

15:29-32 Those who were passing by hurled their insults at him, wagging their heads at him. "Aha!" they said, "you who are going to pull down the Temple and build it in three days, come down from the Cross and save yourself!" Even so the chief priests jested with each other, with the experts in the law. "He saved others," they said, "He cannot save himself. Let this Anointed One of God, this King of Israel, come down from the Cross, so that we may see it and believe." And those who were crucified with him flung their taunts at him.

The Jewish leaders flung one last challenge at Jesus. "Come down from the Cross," they said, "and we will believe in you." It was precisely the wrong challenge. As General Booth said long ago, "It is because Jesus did not come down from the Cross that we believe in him." The death of Jesus was absolutely necessary and the reason was this. Jesus came to tell men of the love of God; more, he was himself the incarnate love of God. If he had refused the Cross or if in the end he had come down from the Cross, it would have meant that there was a limit to God's love, that there was something which that love was not prepared to suffer for men, that there was a line beyond which it would not go. But, Jesus went the whole way and died on the Cross and this means that there is literally no limit to God's love, that there is nothing in all the universe which that love is not prepared to suffer for men, that there is nothing, not even death on a cross, which it will refuse to bear for men.

When we look at the Cross, Jesus is saying to us, "God loves you like that, with a love that is limitless, a love that will bear every suffering earth has to offer."


15:33-41 When it was twelve o'clock midday, there came a darkness over the whole earth, and it lasted until three o'clock in the afternoon. And at three o'clock Jesus cried with a great voice, "Eloi, Eloi lama sabachthani?" which means, "My God! My God! Why have you abandoned me?" When certain of the bystanders heard it, they said, "See! He is calling for Elijah!" Someone ran and soaked a sponge in vinegar and gave him a drink. "Let be!" he said, "till we see if Elijah is going to come and take him down." Jesus uttered a great shout--and died. And the veil of the Temple was rent in two from top to bottom. When the centurion who was standing opposite him saw that he died like this, he said, "Truly this man was the Son of God." There were some women watching from a distance, amongst whom were Mary of Magdala, and Mary the mother of James the little and of Joses, and Salome. They had accompanied him in Galilee and had attended to his needs. And there were many others who had come up with him to Jerusalem.

Here comes the last scene of all, a scene so terrible that the sky was unnaturally darkened and it seemed that even nature could not bear to look upon what was happening. Let us look at the various people in this scene.

(i) There was Jesus. Two things Jesus said.

(a) He uttered the terrible cry, "My God! My God! Why have you abandoned me?" There is a mystery behind that cry which we cannot penetrate. Maybe it was like this. Jesus had taken this life of ours upon him. He had done our work and faced our temptations and borne our trials. He had suffered all that life could bring. He had known the failure of friends, the hatred of foes, the malice of enemies. He had known the most searing pain that life could offer. Up to this moment Jesus had gone through every experience of life except one--he had never known the consequence of sin. Now if there is one thing sin does, it separates us from God. It puts between us and God a barrier like an unscalable wall. That was the one human experience through which Jesus had never passed, because he was without sin.

It may be that at this moment that experience came upon him--not because he had sinned, but because in order to be identified completely with our humanity he had to go through it. In this terrible, grim, bleak moment Jesus really and truly identified himself with the sin of man. Here we have the divine paradox--Jesus knew what it was to be a sinner. And this experience must have been doubly agonizing for Jesus, because he had never known what it was to be separated by this barrier from God.

That is why he can understand our situation so well. That is why we need never fear to go to him when sin cuts us off from God. Because he has gone through it, he can help others who are going through it. There is no depth of human experience which Christ has not plumbed.

(b) There was the great shout. Both Matthew (Matthew 27:50) and Luke (Luke 23:46) tell of it. John does not mention the shout but he tells us that Jesus died having said, "It is finished." (John 19:30.) In the original that would be one word; and that one word was the great shout. "Finished!" Jesus died with the cry of triumph on his lips, his task accomplished, his work completed, his victory won. After the terrible dark there came the light again, and he went home to God a victor triumphant.

(ii) There was the bystander who wished to see if Elijah would come. He had a kind of morbid curiosity in the face of the Cross. The whole terrible scene did not move him to awe or reverence or even pity. He wanted to experiment while Jesus died.

(iii) There was the centurion. A hard-bitten Roman soldier, he was the equivalent of a regimental sergeant-major. He had fought in many a campaign and he had seen many a man die. But he had never seen a man die like this and he was sure that Jesus was the Son of God. If Jesus had lived on and taught and healed he might have attracted many, but it is the Cross which speaks straight to the hearts of men.

(iv) There were the women in the distance. They were bewildered, heart-broken, drenched in sorrow--but they were there. They loved so much that they could not leave him. Love clings to Christ even when the intellect cannot understand. It is only love which can give us a hold on Christ that even the most bewildering experiences can not break.

There is one other thing to note. "The curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom." This was the curtain which shut off the Holy of Holies, into which no man might go. Symbolically that tells us two things.

(a) The way to God was now wide open. Into the Holy of Holies only the High Priest could go, and he only once a year on the day of Atonement. But now, the curtain was torn and the way to God was wide open to every man.

(b) Within the Holy of Holies dwelt the very essence of God. Now with the death of Jesus the curtain which hid God was torn and men could see him face to face. No longer was God hidden. No longer need men guess and grope. Men could look at Jesus and say, "That is what God is like. God loves me like that."


15:42-47 When it was now evening, since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathaea, a respected member of the council, and a man who was himself waiting for the Kingdom of God, ventured to go to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Pilate was amazed that he was already dead. He summoned the centurion, and asked if he had been long dead. And when he had learned the facts from the centurion, he granted the body to Joseph. And Joseph bought fine linen, and be took him down from the Cross and wrapped him in the linen, and put him in a tomb which had been hewn out of rock, and he rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. And Mary of Magdala and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he had been laid.

Jesus died at three o'clock on the Friday afternoon and the next day was the Sabbath. We have already seen that the new day started at 6 p.m. Therefore when Jesus died, it was already the time of preparation for the Sabbath, and there was very little time to waste, for after 6 p.m. the Sabbath law would operate and no work could be done.

Joseph of Arimathaea acted quickly. It frequently happened that the bodies of criminals were never buried at all, but were simply taken down and left for the vultures and the scavenging wild dogs to deal with. In fact it has been suggested that Golgotha may have been called the place of a skull because it was littered with skulls from previous crucifixions. Joseph went to Pilate. It often happened that criminals hung for days on their crosses before they died, and Pilate was amazed that Jesus was dead only six hours after he had been crucified. But when he had checked the facts with the centurion, he gave the body to Joseph.

Joseph is a curious study.

(i) It may well be that it is from Joseph that all the information came about the trial before the Sanhedrin. Certainly none of the disciples was there. The information must have come from some member of the Sanhedrin, and it is probable that Joseph was the one. If that is so he had a very real share in the writing of the gospel story.

(ii) There is a certain tragedy about Joseph. He was a member of the Sanhedrin and yet we have no hint that he spoke one word in Jesus' favour or intervened in any way on his behalf. Joseph is the man who gave Jesus a tomb when he was dead but was silent when he was alive. It is one of the commonest tragedies of life that we keep our wreaths for people's graves and our praises until they are dead. It would the infinitely better to give them some of these flowers and some of these words of gratitude when they are still alive.

(iii) But we cannot blame Joseph overmuch, for he was another of those people for whom the Cross did what not even the life of Jesus could do. When he had seen Jesus alive, he had felt his attraction but had gone no further. But when he saw Jesus die--and he must have been present at the crucifixion--his heart was broken in love. First the centurion, then Joseph--it is an amazing thing how soon Jesus' words came true that when he was lifted up from the earth he would draw all men to himself. (John 12:32.)

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

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Bibliographical Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Mark 15". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". 1956-1959.