Reflections on the Death and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth

Sam Tullock

 

Lesson Passage: Mark 15:1-16:8 (Matthew 27:1-28:15 and Luke 23:1-12)

 

The Gospel of Mark provides a somewhat less detailed account of the passion of Jesus, as compared to Matthew and Luke.  In this lesson material, I hope to provide a general summary and reflection on the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, as viewed from all three synoptic Gospels.  This story, as I see it, is the centerpiece of the Good News of Jesus Christ and the heart of Christian hope in Christ. 

 

Jesus’ Trial Before Pontius Pilate (Mark 15:1-15)

 

After a makeshift trial before the Sanhedrin, the authorities took Jesus to stand before Roman Governor Pontius Pilate, who ruled Judea, 25 or 26 to 35 A.D (Tacitus. Annals). The Roman procurator suffered a poor relationship with the Jews due to his heavy-handed rule of the region.  Shortly after taking power, for instance, he relocated the imperial forces from Caesarea to the holy city of Jerusalem, and the troops, of course, brought their standards bearing the image of Caesar Tiberius. The Jews rebelled against the presence of graven images in Jerusalem, and the resulting furor forced Pilate to remove the standards back to Caesarea. Also, Jesus mentioned, in Luke 13:1f, a violent incident, precipitated by Pilate, in which certain Galileans were killed as they offered sacrifices at the Temple.  Pilate’s misdeeds caused him to lose favor with Tiberius and Caligula, and the procurator was removed from power, according to Eusebius. Pilate committed suicide in 36 A.D. 

 

Pilate’s role in the execution of Jesus did not escape the careful attention of the early church.  The Sanhedrin brought Jesus to Pilate because the Jewish leaders had no authority to execute prisoners.  Pilate resided in Jerusalem during important festivals, and he reluctantly interrogated Jesus in the early morning hours of Friday, during Holy Week. After delivering Jesus to the procurator, members of the Sanhedrin found themselves confronted by a grief-stricken Judas, but the leaders refused to receive the blood money Judas threw at their feet.  Matthew tells us that Judas, smitten by grief, hanged himself.  Meanwhile, Pilate questioned Jesus.

 

Matthew and Luke reveal the spurious accusations brought against Jesus, but Mark merely implies that the Sanhedrin accused the Lord of insurrection, rebellion aimed at deposing Roman rule in Palestine.  Jesus did not deny the import of Pilate’s question, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  However, Jesus clearly infused this royal claim with very different meaning than the Sanhedrin and Pilate intended.  Christ’s Kingdom was (is) not of this world (See John 18:36).  Pilate marveled at Jesus refusal at self-defense; so, the inventive procurator tied to negotiate out of this awkward situation.

 

The Gospel of Mark does not mention Jesus’ appearance before Herod Antipas, but Luke describes the unseemly behavior of the king as he conversed with the Savior.  The Romans allowed a certain degree of self-governance in the provinces, and Herod ruled over Judea, after his father’s (Herod the Great) death.  When Herod murdered John the Baptist, he seemed to have some fear of the things of God, but, by this time, his heart was hardened.  His interest in Jesus centered on curiosity about the Lord’s reputation as a healer.  When Jesus refused to perform for Herod, the monarch mocked Jesus and deferred to the judgments of Pontius Pilate.

 

At the time of Jesus’ incarceration, Pilate’s prison held a notorious criminal named Barabbas, a nickname meaning “Son of Abba.”  We know little about this brigand, but the Bible says he was a murderer and insurrectionist.  Clearly, Pilate believed the people would chose Jesus over this disreputable felon, but the crowd, spurred by the accusations of the chief priests, called for the release of Barabbas and the crucifixion of the Nazarene.  The governor, of course, knew of Jesus innocence, but, in an effort to appease the violent crowd, Pilate determined to crucify Jesus, and, after a severe whipping, Pilate delivered Jesus to the execution squad. 

 

The Gospels of Mark and Matthew record the cruel brutality and mockery of the praetorian soldiers —mockery with a regal robe, the crown of thorns, a reed in his hand (a mock scepter), and they spit upon him. Scourging was a horrific punishment that often led to the death of the recipient. Typically, the soldiers stripped the criminal and lashed him to a post.  Several guards struck the man’s back, from different angles, ensuring the most injury.  A flagellum consisted of leather straps fitted with lead weights. The Gospels give no indication of the motives for the Roman soldiers to mistreat Jesus, but, perhaps the story intends to reflect the utter abandonment of the Lord, by both Jews and Gentiles.  Whatever the case, Jesus suffered greatly, even before the atrocities on Golgotha. Moreover, the story recalls the words of Isaiah 53:3-5.

 

He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.  Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.  But he was wounded for our transgressions, and he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.

 

The Journey to Golgotha (Mark 15:21)

 

The Gospel of Mark devotes only one verse to the arduous journey from Pilate’s palace to Calvary, but Luke provides more details.  The Synoptics identify Simon of Cyrene as the Jewish pilgrim commandeered to help carry Jesus’ cross.  The Romans required condemned criminals to carry the massive crossbeam of the cross, but Jesus, no doubt weakened by the severe beating of the Romans, collapsed under the weight.  An African man, Simon, was forced to carry the crossbeam.  We know little of this man, but Mark identifies his two sons, Alexander and Rufus.  Rufus appears briefly in the Epistle to the Romans (See 16:13), along with a cryptic reference to his mother (one would surmise, Simon’s wife).  It seems possible that the entire family became believers in Christ.

 

Luke mentions a group of women who wept for Jesus as the ghastly procession made its way to Calvary.  Some think these were professional mourners hired to publicly grieve for the dead or dying.  Other commentators surmise that these women were followers of Jesus, perhaps including Jesus’ mother Mary.  Whatever the case, the Lord redirected their mourning to those who would experience the wrath of God; that is, he refused their pity.

 

The Crucifixion (Mark 15:23-39)

 

The Romans routinely crucified men accused of serious crimes, especially insurrection.  When the execution party arrived at the crucifixion site, the soldiers affixed the crossbeam to a stake secured in the ground.  The wrists and ankles were nailed to the beams, in many cases; however, in some situations, the soldiers would simply tie the criminal to the cross.  Men crucified with nails tended, of course, to die more quickly.  Often, it took days for the criminals to die, and, under normal circumstances, the Romans would not allow the burial of their victims.  In some cases, the Romans would hasten death by breaking the legs of the criminals.  The prisoners were crucified naked, but, in some situations, the Romans allowed for loincloths, in the case of Jewish executions.

 

The soldiers stripped Jesus of his clothing and offered him, to no avail, a wine concoction to dull the agony.  Mark’s designation of the “third hour” proves problematic in light of John 19:14.  William Lane thinks this reference to the hour of Jesus’ crucifixion, in Mark, is a copyist’s gloss.  As the Lord suffered, the soldiers gambled for his clothing, apparently his only worldly possessions.  Adding to Jesus anguish, the crowds, even his fellow sufferers, mocked him.  Mark does not make any reference to the repentance of one of the malefactors (See Luke 23:39-43).  All three Synoptics refer to the darkness that enveloped the region, about midday.  About mid-afternoon, Jesus cried out the opening words of Psalm 22:1, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Lane observes, “The sharp edge of this word must not be blunted.  Jesus’ cry of dereliction is the inevitable sequel to the horror which he experienced in the Garden of Gethsemane… Now on the cross he who lived wholly for the father experienced the full alienation from God which the judgment he had assumed entailed.”  The crowd misunderstood his words, and they assumed he called for the aid of Elijah.  In response to the cry of anguish, someone lifted a sponge, dampened with vinegar wine, to relieve some of Jesus’ misery.  The Lord uttered an inarticulate word, and died.  Matthew and Mark mention the observation of the centurion, “Truly this man was the Son of God.” Mark concluded the crucifixion narrative with reference to three faithful, courageous women: Mark Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and Salome. 

 

Mary Magdalene came from a Galilean fishing village on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee.  The Gospel of Luke reveals that Jesus reportedly cleansed her from demon possession (See Luke 8:1-3). We know little about the second Mary, but her sons must have been well known to Mark’s audience. Salome was the wife of Zebedee and the mother of James and John.  Some commentators opine that she was Jesus’ aunt.  The prominent place of women, in this account, lends historical credibility to the claims about Jesus’ death and resurrection.  If, as many scholars have surmised, the early church fabricated this story, why did these redactors emphasize the testimony of women?  In a Jewish context, the deposition of women carried no legal validity; therefore, it seems most unlikely that creative church leaders would have manufactured a story that featured the faithfulness and testimony of women.

 

The Burial of Jesus (Mark 42-47)

 

Passover began at sunset, on the day the Romans crucified Jesus; therefore, the corpse had to be buried hurriedly.  Joseph of Arimathea (a village in Ramathaim-Zophim, about twenty miles northwest of Jerusalem), a member of the Sanhedrin, requested, from Pilate, the body of Jesus.  The prelate marveled that Jesus had died so quickly, but he allowed the request of Joseph.  Perhaps this seems an insignificant point, but it seems meaningful that two men, each named Joseph, played important roles in caring for Jesus, one during Jesus’ childhood and the other at Jesus’ internment.  Joseph was a man of some means.  He owned a burial chamber, and, in preparation for Jesus’ entombment, Joseph purchased expensive fine linen. The two Mary’s accompanied Joseph to the sepulcher, making note of its exact location.

 

The Resurrection of Jesus (Mark 16:1-8)

 

Mark devoted only one paragraph to the resurrection story (vv. 1-8).  Some commentators conclude that a longer ending did not survive, thus we have only this abbreviated account.  As an important sidelight, even very conservative Bible scholars freely acknowledge that the last portion of Chapter Sixteen, verses nine through twenty, do not constitute a part of the original text of Mark’s Gospel.  Most modern translations and Study Bibles make note of this, while including the questionable verses.  From my limited expertise, I believe the Gospel of Mark ends with verse eight. 

 

Mark focused attention on the three women mentioned in Chapter Fifteen, the two Marys and Salome.  They came to the tomb to complete the burial process abbreviated by the approaching Sabbath, on the previous Friday.  The women fretted about the heavy stone that blocked the entrance to the tomb, but, when they arrived in the cemetery, the worrisome rock was already removed.  Inside the sepulcher the women met a white-robed man who told them Jesus had arisen Matthew identifies the man as an angel, and Luke says two men appeared to the women.  To avoid any misunderstanding, the man identified the risen person as “Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.”  The women, startled and trembling, ran dumbfounded to tell the disciples and Peter. The women’s message included instructions for the disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee.