And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.
In 1864 the then Emperor Theodore III of Ethiopia had held a group of 53 European captives (30 adults and 23 children), including some missionaries and a British consul, in a remote 9,000-foot-high bastion deep in the interior. By letter, England’s Queen Victoria pleaded in vain with Theodore to release the captives. Finally, in 1868 the government ordered a full-scale military expedition from India to march into Ethiopia—not to conquer the country and make it a British colony, but simply to rescue a tiny band of civilians.
The invasion force included 32,000 men, heavy artillery, and 44 elephants to carry the guns. Provisions included 50,000 tons of beef and pork and 30,000 gallons of rum. Engineers built landing piers, water treatment plants, a railroad, and telegraph line to the interior, plus many bridges. All of this to fight one decisive battle, after which the prisoners were released, and everyone packed up and went home. The British expended millions of pounds (of currency) to rescue a handful of captives.
- We marvel at such expenditure—unless, of course, we were one of the captives. Clearly these captives were highly valued. On a per-person basis the cost is quite high but I’m sure that some accounting wiz can likely calculate what was paid for each of these 53 captives. What we can never calculate is the cost to God for our rescue from captivity to sin. We read today in Psalm 145:3 that God’s “greatness is unsearchable.” In offering himself for our sakes, Jesus was an offering of incomparable value and it is no mistake that the cross has become the symbol that expresses the heart of Christianity.
The author of our study on the book of Mark (Soul) Nate Locke begins his lesson on the cross of Jesus this way: “Christians are pretty weird people aren’t they? Christians celebrate the brutal death of Jesus. Think about that. It’s a pretty weird thing to do.” Fleming Rutledge in her excellent book The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ makes a similar point. She writes, “Christianity is unique. The world’s religions have certain traits in common, but until the gospel of Jesus Christ burst upon the Mediterranean world, no one in the history of human imagination had conceived of such a thing as the worship of a crucified man.”
I encourage you to set aside some time to read the gospel of Mark at one sitting. It is my experience that about one hour and a half is sufficient. Read the story without stopping except to sip a coffee or cup of tea (or glass of wine). Such a reading makes apparent how the death of Jesus looms large in the Apostles’ minds. Over one third of everything Mark shares about Jesus is about that last week of Jesus’ life that culminates in the crucifixion. Throughout the story of the rest of our Lord’s ministry that cross casts it shadow shaping what Jesus teaches his disciples. Repeatedly and plainly Jesus tells his disciples that he will be killed. The anticipation of cross at Jerusalem is the background of the canvas on which Mark paints the stories of another third of the book that details the journey to Jerusalem.
It is interesting to note that when we speak of “the crucifixion,” even in this secular age, many people will know what is meant. It is amazing the oddity of such a universally recognized signifier, “the crucifixion.” As Fleming Rutledge points out, “There have been many famous deaths in world history; we might think of John F. Kennedy, or Marie Antoinette, or Cleopatra, but we do not refer to “the assassination,” or “the guillotining,” or “the poisoning.” Such references would be incomprehensible.” But when you say “the crucifixion” people know we mean the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
“There is something in the strange death of the man identified as the Son of God that continues to command attention. This death, this execution, above and beyond all others, continues to have universal reverberations. Of no other death in human history can this be said. The cross of Jesus stands alone in this regard; it is sui generis (of its own kind). There were many thousands of crucifixions in Roman times, but only the crucifixion of Jesus is remembered as having any significance at all, let alone world-transforming significance.” (Rutledge, The Crucifixion, p. 4)
It is recorded that several thousand slaves were crucified after the failed rebellion of Spartacus, but we do not know the name of a single victim. Crucifixion was designed to be so odious it wiped that name of the crucified from memory. Yet, even today over 2000 years from the event, and when we say “the crucifixion” we know we are speaking about Jesus. The Apostles’ declared that Jesus’ death by crucifixion was of unrepeatable significance.
- I invite you to turn your attention with me to the significance of the crucifixion of Jesus. It is evident from the Apostles’ writings that the significance of the crucifixion of Jesus needs to be interpreted. The fact of our Lord’s crucifixion is not self-interpreting. Consider Mark’s description of the events. He spends little ink on the facts of crucifixion. Of the horrors of the mechanics of crucifixion he simply writes “and they crucified him.” Mark rather has us pay attention to how people responded to Jesus’ at the crucifixion. How Pilate placed an inscription over Jesus; how the soldiers gambled to divide his clothes; how passers-by derided him; how the chief priests and the soldiers crucifying him mocked and taunted him—“can’t you save yourself?”
Mark has his hearers listen to Jesus’ cry of dereliction—he wants us to note this moment of God-forsakenness. He has us hear Jesus’s loud cry and last breath—he wants us to note that Jesus “gave a loud cry and breathed his last,” so to say that Jesus “gave” himself up. Mark has us take note that the curtain in the temple was torn; points out the centurion’s claim, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” Mark is interpreting the event of Jesus’ crucifixion to his hearers. Though derided and mocked Jesus is the “king of the Jews.” The significance of what is happening to Jesus is to be understood in what Jesus said—in the cry of “God forsakenness.” Even though the powers of this world are martialled against him, Jesus is truly the “Son of God
In the study material Soul author Nate Locke highlights the idea of our Lord bearing the punishment for sin with respect to the meaning of the cross. Indeed, Jesus for sins as the Apostle Peter wrote, “for Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” (1 Peter 3:18) Yes, our Lord’s death is said to be was for us and in our place As the Apostle Paul wrote, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) The preposition Paul uses has both the significance “for” and “in place of.”
The point I want to underline is that the idea of punishment for sin does not exhaust the meaning of the cross. I want to be clear the gospel never pictures God the Father pounding the Son when he should have pounded you as if such an exchange could ever explain the sinfulness of sin or what sin means to God. God is acting at the cross; Father and Son experience the rift together as they bear in themselves what will mean for the rectification of humanity and its rescue from sin.
The New Testament is from beginning to end a living witness to the apostolic preaching. The cross was at the core of their preaching. In every new generation, various theories of the meaning of the crucifixion of Christ will be examined again as more people come up against the question for themselves: What does Jesus’ death on the cross a long time ago have to do with us now?
The Old and New Testaments give us images—drawn from many sources—making a kaleidoscopic, inexhaustibly rich storehouse from which to draw meaning and sustenance for all times in all generations. No one image regarding the significance of the cross can do justice to the whole; all are part of the great drama of salvation. The Passover lamb, the goat driven into the wilderness, the ransom, the substitute, the victor on the field of battle, the representative man—each and all of these and more have their place and the cross is diminished if any one of them is omitted. We need to make room for all the biblical images.
So back to this emphasis that some make on punishment. If Jesus Christ has followed our way as sinners to the end to which it leads, in outer darkness, then we can say that he has suffered this punishment that is ours. But we must not make this the one main concept.
The Bible distinguishes between sins and sin. Sins are the outworking of sin and sin is also spoken of as a power that captivates and renders the human powerless. The big power is called death and these lesser powers serve the big one. When we understand this Paul’s affirmation that “the wages of sin is death” takes on another meaning. The power of sin serves this power of death to which the human is a hopeless captive.
According to a story in The Moscow Times, in June of this year “Doctors at a Russian hospital have been asked to reduce the number of deaths to once a week in order not to spoil the statistics.” The hospital added another restriction—the number of ambulance calls in "each district should not exceed 11 per week." A doctor interviewed for the story said that these notices were put up all over the hospital "and the staff were told the requirements were necessary in order to 'keep up good statistics.'" This is probably the best we can do against the power of death—fudge the numbers. But at the cross of Christ all that changed.
The theme that at the cross Jesus defeated the power of sin and death is another of the images the Newer Testament declares about the significance of the cross. Here Jesus became sin for us and death did its worst thinking it had triumphed at the cross. But God raised Jesus from the dead victorious. The motif of Jesus Christ as Victor is stamped all over Mark’s gospel. Jesus bested every power that destroys human life. And so at the cross he rescues us from the power of sin—he frees us who were in captivity to sin and could do nothing about it.
- Today is the Sunday we think reflect on the upcoming Remembrance Day—we think particularly about those who sacrificed life for others. Some may wonder if such sacrifice is ultimately pointless. And what about lesser sacrifices people make for others, are they really worth it—be they for family or otherwise? What about that time you dedicate in volunteering for some helping agency?
Jesus once said of his ministry, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” The context of this saying was because an argument had broken out among the disciples over who would get the power positions in our Lord’s coming kingdom. Here Jesus speaks of his death as example—the cross shows us the way. To be sure, only he can be this ransom for us. The point I raise with you is that his death for us wasn’t pointless. Therefore through faith in him all our sacrifices for others—even death—is never ultimately fruitless.
And they crucified him. Here the fathomless love of God meets our sin.