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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible Commentary

Mark 15

Verses 1-15

Innocent or Guilty? (15:1-15)

Ever since the original event, men have found it difficult to apportion blame to the various groups which joined in murdering Jesus. According to all the New Testament accounts, both the Jewish and the Roman leaders were implicated. But in some, the onus falls more heavily on the Romans, in others on the Jews. The tendency of one report to hold the Romans accountable may often have been due to the particular situation of the reporter; to him the most dangerous foes to the Church were the political authorities. The tendency of other reports to blame the Jews often reflects on the part of their writers a different predicament, in which the synagogue leaders were the Church’s most implacable opponents. Usually, as was the case in Mark’s Rome, the worst crises faced by the Church arose from the co-operation of political and religious foes. Often the synagogues created the public unrest and voiced the charges of sedition; this clamor then attracted the notice of the police. Most situations were of this sort; Jesus’ encounter with a twofold opposition, symbolized by the two hearings, was repeated in the Church for many decades.

But to whom did Mark’s story assign the preponderance of guilt? A preliminary answer may be found on the surface. It was the "whole council" of Jewish leaders who "led him away and delivered him to Pilate" (vs. 1). It was they who brought the charges, and not Pilate’s own agents (vs. 3). Moreover, the response of Jesus to Pilate’s query strikes a different note from his answer to the high priest (compare Mark 15:2 and Mark 14:61-62). In the latter case, when questioned by a representative of Israel, Jesus had answered clearly and unequivocally (according to Mark; compare Matthew 26:64; Luke 22:67). When he had been questioned, however, by a Roman politician, in political language, "Are you the King of the Jews?", Jesus had replied, "You have said so." Did Jesus reply in this evasive fashion because he did not recognize an obligation to Rome comparable to his duty to Israel? Perhaps. Possibly, too, he knew that to affirm this title would only confuse things, because to Pilate it would assert a claim to immediate political authority. In any case, Pilate was unable to establish just grounds for execution. Left alone, Pilate would have let Jesus go. Thus far, Mark appears to acquit the Romans of major guilt.

The next incident seems to corroborate this conclusion. Pilate three times indicated a willingness to release Jesus (vss. 9, 12, 14). He was impelled to ask, "What evil has he done?" (vs. 14). Pilate’s desire for justice, however, was weak and short-lived. In spite of his knowledge that "envy" was a factor (vs. 10), he was more intent on satisfying the crowd (vs. 15) than on dispensing justice. Yielding to opportunism, he scourged Jesus and delivered him to be crucified. In telling the story of this trial scene Mark was concerned not so much to free Pilate of the guilt of crucifying Jesus as to show that the action of Jewish authorities had the full support of Israel. It was the crowd of Israelites who preferred the release of a political insurrectionist, a murderer, Barabbas (vs. 11), and who shouted again and again, "Crucify him."

We return to the question of how Mark apportioned the responsibility. The answer, I believe, is twofold: First, no one proved to be without guilt. Everyone had shared in the outcome. Mark agreed with Paul: "All men, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin" (Romans 3:9); for him as for Paul, this truth had been exhibited in the death of Jesus.

Second, Mark believed that guilt for rejecting Jesus increased in proportion to previous Covenant obligations to God. Because they belonged to the Covenant People, the Jewish crowd (vs. 14) was more culpable than Pilate or his cohorts. More culpable, in turn, than the crowd were the authorized rulers of Israel (vss. 10-11), including Pharisees and Sadducees, scribes, elders, and priests. Still more culpable was Judas, who had willingly agreed to be their tool. Even more guilty than Judas were the disciples who had fled, chief of whom was Peter. In this assignment of guilt, Mark believed he had Peter’s own support (Mark 14:72). These men Jesus had called and taught. He had shared with them his authority and power. He had revealed to them the mysteries of the Kingdom, warning them repeatedly and countering their fears. With them he had broken bread on that very day. To the question, to whom belongs the shame, then, Mark answers, "All," and more often, "We." He would have agreed heartily with First Peter, in his quotation from Isaiah: "He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree" (1 Peter 2:Z4; Isaiah 53:4).

At this point, therefore, we may refer back to our outline of Mark’s message. "The good news which Jesus had preached about God" could become "the good news which the Apostles preached about Jesus" only after they had fulfilled Jesus’ prophecy of their flight (Mark 14:27), and after he had sealed them with the "blood of the covenant . . . poured out for many" (Mark 14:24).

Verses 16-39

The King’s Enthronement (15:16-39)

The New Testament is filled with haunting and glorious paradoxes. Of these we have noted a small sampling: the wealth of the poor, the joy of the sorrowing, the power of weakness, the sin of the righteous, the glory disclosed in shame, the foolishness of wisdom. These reversals of ordinary human logic were all grounded in the one event: the life in death of the Son of God. He was executed as "King of the Jews" (vs. 18), yet this was in fact his enthronement as King. In this event, the last truly became first (Mark 10:45).

Mark’s account of this event is somber and glorious. Perhaps we should read it in the way we listen to great music, like the Passions of Bach. We should listen not to the separate words but to the recurring cadences and rhythms. We should sense the contrapuntal movement which weaves together the strident shrieks of the mob and the quiet deep voice of God. To read the story thus may help us to detect the profound ironies beneath the surface. What the scoffers say about their target is true, startlingly true. Yet they are sure that it is false; they are laughing at the joke it would be if it were true. Perhaps, behind the scene, God is holding them in derision. At least that was the conviction of many Christians of Mark’s day, who read the account of Good Friday with one eye on Psalms 2. They had told the story often, fusing it with Psalms and prophecies on the one hand (for example, Psalms 22; Isaiah 53), and with their own experiences of shame and ridicule on the other. If one reads looking for exact historical data, the text becomes opaque and a mere collection of riddles. But if one reads to observe the irony of the situation (the King of all, being enthroned amid the taunts of all), he will find the music more transparent.

Where does the King go? First of all "inside the palace," led by the whole battalion of soldiers (vs. 16). How inappropriate yet appropriate! The soldiers dress him in the royal robe, and for him they devise a crown (vs. 17). They shout praises to him, give him a royal scepter, and kneel in homage before him (vs. 19). Ribald and vulgar, they revel in their rowdy sport, yet unwittingly this very humiliation is the true mark of his dignity. "By his wounds you have been healed" (1 Peter 2:24).

The irony continues en route to Golgotha. No disciple is available to help with the cross, so the soldiers impress a passer-by to carry it. When Mark introduces Simon, he mentions his sons, who possibly had become well-known Christians, thus indicating perhaps how this very cross had been instrumental in converting men. At nine o’clock came the crucifixion and the nakedness. The soldiers took from him his last remaining possession, his clothing, and made sport by gambling for the separate pieces. How telling this picture of shame and poverty! "Though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor" (2 Corinthians 8:9). He was lifted aloft as a king, and like any king he needed chief officers, viceregents. So they gave him two robbers, to take the places for which the two disciples had blindly asked (Mark 10:35-45). Even these thieves joined in the abuse (vs. 32). Everyone joined in the mockery: soldiers (vs. 19), passers-by (vs. 29), chief priests and scribes (vs. 31), thieves (vs. 32). Had he predicted the Temple’s destruction? Let him come down from the cross (vss. 29-30). They did not know that the Temple was being destroyed and rebuilt from that very throne, having no suspicion of the strength of this weakness. "He saved others; he cannot save himself" was meant as a jest, but for Mark it concealed a final truth. Only because Christ did not spare himself was he even then saving others, giving his life as a ransom for those very men (Mark 10:45). They called again for signs. What could be more convincing than a descent from the cross "that we may see and believe"? (vs. 32). But to those who believed, this cross became the final sign of God’s power and God’s wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:24). By it this King was establishing his authority over "the rulers of this age" (1 Corinthians 2:8). They thought he was so firmly nailed that he could not come down; they little realized that he was nailing to the cross "the bond which stood against us with its legal demands" (Colossians 2:14). Thus through the entire morning, from nine until noon, men of all kinds continued their lampooning, all the while unwittingly giving evidence of God’s miraculous grace : "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin" (2 Corinthians 5:21).

From noon until three p.m. "there was darkness over the whole land" (vs. 33). What kind of darkness was this? Surely Mark knew it represented more than an accidental solar eclipse, more than a cosmic portent. We must look elsewhere in Scripture for hints. Was this the darkness which would not be able to overcome the light (John 1:5), the darkness in which all men walk so long as they do not recognize the light (John 8:12)? Was it that deep darkness which Amos had promised for the Day of the Lord? (Amos 5:18). Perhaps it symbolized the kingdom of death with which Jesus was contending for the souls of those who die. Perhaps it was the shadows in which, as Isaiah knew, all men sit waiting for their redemption (Matthew 4:16; Isaiah 9:2). Did Mark mean to accent the darkness in the minds and hearts of the onlookers (Romans 1:21; Romans 11:10), or that more terrible darkness for Jesus, in which he experienced the withdrawal of God’s supporting hands (vs. 34; Psalms 22:1)? The nearest parallel to Mark’s thought may appear in Luke where Jesus said to his enemies: "This is your hour, and the power of darkness" (Luke 22:53). In this hour of their triumph, when he is utterly under their control, Satan’s power has reached its maximum. For Satan was widely considered the ruler of darkness. Here, then, he shows his greatest strength, so that to defeat him now would be a decisive defeat from which he would never recover. And that is what the Man on the cross did. In dying for men, he defeated the world rulers of darkness and delivered men from their clutch (Ephesians 6:12; Colossians 1:12). With Jesus at the point of death, the scene on Golgotha represented the fullest marshaling of the demonic forces, the most conclusive proof of the weakness of God’s emissary, and therefore the place where victory on the part of the King of the Jews would make him in truth King of all kings (Revelation 11:15; Revelation 19:16). Mark’s story gave two tokens of that victory: the rending of the Temple veil and the startled cry of the centurion.

The veil was the curtain which separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple. It protected the innermost shrine from contamination by the worshipers. Only the high priest could enter once a year after he had offered sacrifices for his own sins and those of the people. It was that most holy place where God himself in his infinite glory had chosen to bestow his Presence. For this curtain to be torn so that it could never be restored was the symbol of ominous, awesome changes in God’s dealings with his people. To early Christians, and we must go to them for explanation, these changes were described in many different ways. Jesus himself had now become the High Priest, entering into the presence of God where he makes intercessions for men. His sacrifice replaced and redefined all other sacrifices. He had atoned for men’s sins, giving the one full and perfect sacrifice. His New Covenant had fulfilled the old and had made it obsolete (Hebrews 8). His body, broken on the cross, had provided the only access for men to God, and for God to men. His body had become in fact God’s temple, the house where God dwells with his people. The high priest of the one Temple had succeeded in destroying Jesus, but in the tearing of the curtain God had declared his failure. The vineyard would now be given to others (Mark 12:9-10).

Similarly, the word of the centurion (vs. 39) demonstrated the failure of the Roman power. The high priests of Israel had delivered the Son of Man to the Gentiles (Mark 10:33). He had been delivered over by Pilate to the soldiers (Mark 15:15). The soldiers had mocked him and spat upon him. As the head of their execution squad, the centurion had made sure they had done their job. He must stay until he could report to his chief that the mission had been accomplished and that the criminal was dead (vs. 45). He it was who gave the first confession to Jesus’ Sonship. His simple words blotted out the taunts and scourgings. He gave his witness to all the ribald lies and unconscious truths which had been uttered. Silently the dying Jesus had preached his gospel to the most hostile congregation, and God had demonstrated the power of the Cross. Even before the burial, that power had done its work over two of the groups present, over the passers-by in the case of Simon of Cyrene and over the Roman troops in the case of this centurion. The sequel will show the promise of new life even to a member of the Sanhedrin (vs. 43) and ultimately to the erstwhile disciples (Mark 16:7).

Fear and Trembling (15:40-16:8)

During the King’s enthronement, his closest disciples, the Twelve, had been absent. This is worth remarking, because they had been constantly with Jesus since the opening of his crusade. At cockcrow on this dread day the last one had disappeared (Mark 14:72). Where were they? Presumably still in flight. Jesus’ important word, however, had been only halfway accomplished. This word, uttered after supper on the previous evening, must be recalled: "I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered" (Mark 14:27). This had been fulfilled. God had struck down the Shepherd, for Mark knew that God had remained in the shadows around the scaffold, and that all had happened in accordance with his will. The sheep had been scattered. Then how were they to be gathered again? The second half of Jesus’ prophecy had given the answer: "After I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee" (Mark 14:28). This half had not yet been fulfilled, so the rest of the narrative tells of its fulfillment (Mark 16:7). Mark will not stop writing before that point.

But let us return to Golgotha. What took place by way of epilogue after the centurion’s amazing confession? First, a group of women was introduced. They seem to spring from nowhere, since Mark has not mentioned them earlier — a striking reminder of how much his story omits. They were neither unknown nor unimportant. In Galilee they had followed Jesus and ministered to him (vs. 41). They had been close enough to his party to join the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Perhaps they had lifted their voices at the Triumphal Entry (Mark 11:9). Whatever they had done, Mark had displayed little interest in them (which fact does not make him an antifeminist) . He needs them now, however, to show how Jesus fulfilled his promise to the Twelve. The women had watched from afar the long hours of mockery and agony. They had seen Jesus die. Testimonies to the actual dying later became important to Christians in meeting Jewish attacks and in resisting Gnostic heresies. Not only Pilate (vss. 44-45) but also the centurion and the women could vouch for the reality of his death. More important still, they watched "where he was laid" (vs. 47).

The account of the burial requires little comment. It was Jewish law that a corpse must not be allowed to remain over the Sabbath uninterred. After the last loud cry (vs. 37), little time was left before sundown. Hurriedly a member of the Sanhedrin, which had condemned Jesus, secured an official permit to bury him. This took "courage," not only to risk Pilate’s suspicions but to risk the hatred of his colleagues on the Council. It also required more than courage. For a family’s burial chambers to be used for the corpse of an executed criminal was bound to pollute those chambers. Joseph’s motives must have been very strong for him to do this, but the only explanation Mark gives is this: Joseph "was also himself looking for the kingdom of God." This characterization may remind us of the scribe who was not far from the Kingdom (Mark 12:34), and of the rich man whose only sorrow was unwillingness to sell all (Mark 10:21-22). In telling the story, however, Mark was interested in the links between the tomb, the women, and the Twelve (vs. 47).

Late on Friday afternoon, Joseph had completed his sad duty. Early on Sunday morning, some thirty-six hours later, the women came to do theirs. The body had yet to be anointed, a task for which there had been no time on Friday, and such work was forbidden on the Sabbath. On arrival they discovered that Jesus had received a higher anointing. Or rather, in less metaphorical language, they were amazed by two things. The huge round stone which had been used as a door into the burial cave had been rolled back. Entering the tomb, they saw, sitting on the ledge where they expected to find the corpse, a heavenly messenger. The "white robe" of the "young man" almost surely indicates that he is serving as an angel to bring a word from God to them. They, and the readers as well, realize that this word is of first importance. Verse 6 gives part of the message: "He has risen, he is not here." This word, of course, had many overtones for Mark’s readers. Amazement is natural, but it is quietly rebuked. Those who seek for Jesus in a tomb will not find him there. The shelf where Joseph had laid his body is empty. The message from God is itself assumed to be sufficient for faith. This laconic announcement (like that with which Jesus had begun his work, Mark 1:15) answers very few questions of the skeptical or pious. When did he arise? By what means? In what form? By what evidence may we be sure? No such questions are answered. Rather is a single truth announced: "He has risen." All else seems nonessential.

Mark shows greater interest, however, in the message of verse 7. Here there is a command, "Go." God does not disclose the Resurrection fact except to enlist people in a task. The women must go to the Twelve with a special message; not a new one, to be sure (Mark 14:28), but a most important one. They must tell his disciples and Peter: "He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him." Did the disciples understand the full import? Many readers, at least, do not. Questions galore spring to our minds, especially if we compare the Marcan account with the other Gospels. AH the problems concerning the Resurrection intrude, but here we must be content with Mark’s words. At the very least, they underscore the assurance that both the Most High God and the most lowly Son were deeply concerned about the disciples,. and especially about Peter (distinguished here perhaps in the same way and for the same reason he was distinguished at the Last Supper; see Mark 14:29-31). They were supremely concerned about the disciples’ return to Galilee and their work there. The movements of the disciples were now to be determined by Jesus’ promise that he would go before them, just as he had gone before them since calling them in Galilee. They have been followers; they will remain followers. "There you will see him, as he told you." Does this refer to such an encounter as is described in John 21 or Matthew 28? Or does it refer to the climactic vision of their Lord after they have endured, like Stephen, to the end? (Acts 7:55-56). Or does it refer to seeing the Son of Man coming at the close of the age? (Mark 13:26). Perhaps one, perhaps all three. In any case, a sequel is expected, a necessary sequel. Nor does Mark tell us what it is. He insists, however, that this story is incomplete without a later development; and the later development will be unintelligible without this story as its beginning. The women carry the message of Resurrection to the Twelve, who will then carry the message of Resurrection to the world, "beginning from Galilee after the baptism which John preached" (Acts 10:37-43). The story of Jesus’ baptism will be the beginning of their message; the Presence of the Risen Lord will be the source of their power and the goal of their endurance. It is in such a direction that God’s message to the women points.

And now we come to the last verse, perhaps the most difficult of all, and certainly a strange way for even a strange book to end : "for they were afraid." In the Greek the sentence seems to break off in the middle, as if the thought had not been completed. So strange was this ending that many early scribes filled in what they thought was lacking, and some of their additions still remain in the manuscripts. They compared Mark with the other Gospels (which of course were written one to three decades later than Mark) and became convinced that Mark must have intended to include similar stories of how Jesus had been seen by his disciples. Scholars are in agreement that these stories (Mark 16:9-19) do not come from the book Mark wrote. They are not in agreement on whether Mark intended to stop at Mark 16:8. It is possible that a column or two from his scroll was accidentally torn off, or that it became tattered from frequent use. It is even possible that some editor tore it off because he did not like what it contained. But whatever explanation is adopted for this abrupt ending, we must be content to expound the text as it stands. The writer of this commentary believes that Mark fully intended to halt his account with this verse.

The chief impact of the verse is simply to describe the indescribable. The key words all show this. The amazement of the women (vs. 5) turns into trembling, astonishment, fear, flight, silence. All of these are considered in the Bible to be appropriate and normal human responses to an appearance of God, to a message from God, to an event in which God’s power is released. The prophets all knew this fear and trembling (for example, Isaiah 6). They all knew the unutterable weakness of those who receive God’s call. Fear stresses the reality of the divine power and glory. Flight (very different from the flight at Jesus’ arrest) accents the unbearable character of the presence of God. Silence is appropriate to God’s speaking, and to the stupendous impact of God’s word. Who can stand when he appears? Who can speak when he speaks? Who can remain calm when he gives a commission? At least the women could not, and presumably neither could the disciples when the message from the women had been delivered, starting them on their new work.

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Mark 15". "Layman's Bible Commentary".