Mark 15:37-39 – Christ Crucified: Heaven Opened ... Open Eyes
Read Mark 15:37-39
Good Friday is the day on which we commemorate the death of our Savior for our sins. It is a day on which we "cherish the blessed memory of the bitter death" (Lord's Supper Form prayer, p. 599 of the Book of Praise) of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. A bitter death does not seem to be something to commemorate, to cherish the memory of, and yet we do. In fact, the death of Christ on the cross is at the heart of gospel; it is good news, proclamation. As the apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1: the church preaches Christ crucified (v. 23). The cross, the bitter death, is worthy of proclamation. To be sure, the cross is a stumbling block to the Jews, complete foolishness to the Greeks. Yet, the cross is the power of God and the wisdom of God to those who are called, both Jew and Greek. On Good Friday we can and we do commemorate the shameful suffering and bitter death of Christ on the cross, because God was at work there for the salvation of His people. Christ crucified is not our stumbling block, but the power of God to new life through the forgiveness of sins, for us. Christ crucified is not foolishness to us; it is God's wisdom, His perfectly planned and executed way of salvation, for us.
What Paul was speaking about in his letter to the Corinthians – stumbling block to Jews, folly to Greeks – we see at the cross on Golgotha on that day of Christ's death. The Jews were asking for a sign. They called out: "Save yourself, and come down from the cross!" (Mark 15:30-32.) Give us a sign of power and then we will believe, they cried. Also the soldiers, the Gentiles, were mocking the Lord Jesus Christ. What foolishness, they said, to have such a King! King of the Jews, indeed. They knew only the type of king they had, an emperor in Rome's splendour and glitter and power. As far as the Jews and the Greeks were concerned, the power of God and the wisdom from God was not in this Jesus of Nazareth. Despite their many differences, despite the hatred of the Jews for the oppressing heathen Romans, despite the hatred of the Romans for that troublesome Jewish province, Jew and Greek were completely united in mocking, rejecting and reviling the Lord Jesus. As far as both were concerned, this was not a work of God. This Jesus was not the Saviour of the Jews and was nothing but trouble for the Greeks. Right at the cross we can see it: Christ crucified, a stumbling block for Jews, folly to the Greeks.
Yet, the Lord God was accomplishing His purpose at the cross. It is as the congregation of Jerusalem said in its praise of God at a later time: "Truly, in this city there were gathered together against Thy holy servant Jesus, whom Thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Thy hand and Thy plan had predestined to take place" (Acts 4:27). God was at work. That's what we also see on that day at the cross where the Jews were mocking and the Gentiles reviling.
We can read through Mark 15 to see how it all went up to the moment of Christ's death. The Lord Jesus was handed over by Pontius Pilate to be crucified. The soldiers immediately took the Lord away, inside the palace (v.16). They called the whole battalion together, probably including also the centurion of verse 39. There, inside the palace, the soldiers mocked the Lord Jesus. With a purple robe and a crown of thorns they set Him up as the king He claimed to be. They saluted Him, they struck Him, they spat on Him, and they knelt down in homage to Him. This was their sport, their mockery. Where is God? Doesn't God step in? Does He let it go on?
It goes on. The Lord God lets it go on. It had to go on, and the Lord Jesus knew it. It was the will of God to bruise Him, and Christ submitted to the will of the Father above all else. "Not what I will, but what Thou will," he had prayed in the agony of Gethsemane. We do not see God intervene now. Neither do we see Christ trying to get out of His suffering. "When He was reviled He did not revile in return; when He suffered He did not threaten; but He trusted to Him who judges justly" (1 Peter 2:23). He went as a Lamb to the slaughter, to take away the sins of the world.
The suffering went on. The Lord Jesus was crucified. They divided His garments. He was executed with the criminals. Still the mockery and the reviling and the suffering went on. Those who passed by derided Him, shook their heads. "You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!" Also the chief priests with the scribes mocked Him. "He saved others; He cannot save Himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe." They do not see God in this man hanging on the cross. Also the robbers reviled Him; He is an outcast even among the outcasts. The abuse and the suffering of Christ went on. The suffering became heavier yet. The darkness set in from the sixth hour to the ninth. The light of the sun was withdrawn from Christ; God Himself took the light away. The Lord Jesus stayed on the cross in the midst of the darkness. "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?" It became light again, but the mocking continued. Still the Lord God did not intervene. There was the mockery about Elijah. The Lord God let the mockery and the suffering continue. He did not put an end to it. Christ had to go on to the end. The end was His death, the death of the cross: "And Jesus uttered a loud cry, and breathed His last."
The Jews were already convinced that this Jesus was not the Messiah. To the Gentiles this man was nothing but a trouble-maker. Surely, the death of Christ, His last breath, only put a stamp on what they already so firmly believed. Now they could say: see, He is dead, this was not and could not be a man of God; what He did was not the work of God. Much less was this the Son of God.
How are the Jews ever to believe that this is the Son of God, their Messiah, in whom is their salvation through faith in Him? How would you even begin to tell the Gentiles that this Jesus is the Son of God, the Savior of the world? Jesus of Nazareth is dead. Where is God? The Jews did not see Him here and neither did the Gentiles. Jesus did not come down from the cross. God did not intervene to take Him down. For that matter, neither did Elijah. He was forsaken by God and man. So He died. A failure?
It was not a failure. Contrary to all appearances, contrary to all the expectations of men, the crucified Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. Exactly here in the death of Christ on the cross, God's purpose was accomplished. Immediately, then and there, God showed His purpose in the death of Jesus. He made it clear that all these things had to happen in this way to make satisfaction for sin, for salvation.
Christ died. The curtain of the temple was torn from top to bottom into two parts. Such a tear from the top down was clearly an act of God; it could not be anything but that. Christ's death effected that tear. In His death, the temple ministry came to an end, for the living way was made open. The shadows were abolished; the substance of them was Christ crucified. By His death He opened the way for His people to enter the heavenly sanctuary by His blood. The whole Old Testament temple service as God gave it to Israel was now fulfilled in God's Christ, through faith in this crucified Christ, the living way to God in the heavenly sanctuary is opened.
To the Jewish leaders, to the chief priests and the scribes, to those religious experts who had reviled the Christ of God, God revealed that this was His work, salvation work, temple work, heavenly sanctuary work accomplished on the cross for His people. Christ was High Priest and He was the once for all sacrifice. He put an end to the work of the chief priests. The scribes who studied the Word had the answer in Christ crucified to their Scripture searching. Christ crucified is the way to the throne of God. Thus, in this sign, God vindicated His Christ, at the very place where it would really count for the Jews – at the temple, the holy of holies.
The cross is the victory we commemorate. Christ's victory was that He did not come down from the cross as the Jews wanted. He could have done so, Christ, however, went God's way, even though forsaken by God on the way. Through this way of God, the heavens are opened. God and His people enjoy fellowship through the forgiveness of sins. "We have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which He opened for us through the curtain, that is through His flesh" (Hebrews 10:19-20; cf. Hebrews 12:22-24).
Something else happened at the moment of the death of Christ. Christ's death also accomplished something at the foot of the cross. "When the centurion, who stood facing Him, saw that He thus breathed His last, he said, 'Truly this man was the Son of God!'" Mark tells us only that the Lord Jesus uttered a loud cry. He does not tell us what that cry was. We do know that the Lord Jesus spoke more words before He died: "It is finished;" "Father, into Thy hands I commit my spirit." Mark, however, does not tell us the contents of Christ's loud cry. Apparently, we are to pay heed only to the fact of the cry, rather than its content. With this cry, whatever it was, Christ announced His death for all to hear. Everyone present is called to pay attention, to see Christ's death. That is what the centurion did. He heard the cry, he paid attention and he was amazed at what he saw.
Who was this centurion? He was a soldier in the Roman army, the army of the occupying powers. He belonged to the heathen, the Gentiles. The centurion served the emperor of Rome, who was considered by his loyal forces to be nothing less than a god, or the son of a god. The centurion was also a man of title; a centurion was an officer in charge of a hundred men. Quite possibly this centurion was the one in charge of the situation there on Golgotha. He was standing before the Lord Jesus, seeing to it that the cross was indeed the end with this trouble-maker. The centurion was a man doing his job right the first time. He was in charge of Christ's death. That was his priority (cf. Mark 15:44-45).
When this man saw the way Christ died, how He cried loudly and breathed His last (for that is all we are told that he saw) he was amazed and said, "Truly, this was God's Son." Those were not just any words which the centurion spoke. They have an earlier reference point. This claim of Christ to be the Son of God was, in fact, the whole matter surrounding the sentencing of the Lord Jesus by the Sanhedrin. Jesus of Nazareth testified that He was the Son of God (Mark 14:64). Blasphemy! cried the Jews. Crucify Him! He says He is the Son of God! Away with Him. That is what it had all been about.
But now the centurion sees it before his very eyes and declares: "Truly, He was the Son of God." This means: it's just like He said; He is who He just claimed He was! Until this point everyone had been mocking the Lord Jesus because all had thought it was one big joke: this man the Son of God? They mocked and reviled Him. Now, however, the centurion's eyes were opened. He realize: this man was right. He is innocent. He died innocently; right to the end He is innocent. He is the Son of God, as he said. That awesome revelation came to the centurion through Christ's death. Instead of the Lord's death on the shameful cross being the final sign that this could not be the Son of God, His death was the revelation that He was the Son of God as He had said. His death brought to light the truth about His life. In His death, the Lord Jesus was vindicated out of the mouth of this Roman centurion.
We can ask, of course, how it is that this man, this centurion of all people, comes to the conclusion that this was the Son of God. What does he know? But that is the whole point. Exactly because this centurion knows the least, and yet says so much, we learn that God himself is at work in the death of His Son, to open the eyes of this heathen centurion whose only task was to make sure the trouble-maker was dead. His morbid task of confirming death is changed by the power and wisdom of God in the death of His Son, to the beautiful task of what is actually gospel proclamation, when he says, "Truly, beyond a doubt, this was the Son of God." It is the Lord God himself who is behind the words of this Roman centurion, to vindicate His own Son.
Where was God on that day when the Lord Jesus died on the cross? There was God, showing his justice in His wrath against sin, showing His full fury, there in the death of His Son. Where was God? There was God, showing His love and mercy, showing His sovereign grace, there in the death of His Son. It looked like the end. It looked like the death was it. But it was God's fullest self-revelation. So great was that self-revelation that this centurion was stunned with what he saw. The truth of God opened up his eyes. No one less than God's Son suffered there, was crucified there, was forsaken there and died there.
Heaven opened, opened eyes. Truly, the cross, Christ crucified, is the power of God and the wisdom of God. For Jews, He is the promised Messiah, who fulfilled the temple service, to open the way to the heavenly sanctuary by His blood. For Gentiles, He is the Savior of the world, who opens the eyes of the blind, whose truth will be proclaimed and will prevail even in the midst of the darkness, to overcome the darkness. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
Among the commentaries used, one was especially helpful: J. Van Bruggen, Marcus: Het evangelie volgens Petrus (CNT, 3rd series), Kampen: Kok, 1988, pp 377-384.