Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Mark 15: Passion with a Purpose (Part 1)

We perhaps tend to think that we should look to the Gospels for an historical description of the cross and to the Epistles to give us the meaning of Christ’s atonement. But we need to remember that the theology of the Epistles is rooted in the historical event of Christ’s death and that the Gospels give us history with a theological message. Mark’s passion narrative contains several indicators that Jesus died under God’s judgement for our sin. Here is passion with a purpose.
The idea that Christ died under the wrath of God is not limited to a few texts in the New Testament that use the term “propitiation”. That Christ died in our place, bearing the penalty of our sin, is at the heart of all that the New Testament has to say about the cross.
The doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement was once regarded as a hallmark of authentic evangelical theology. These days, penal substitution is up for debate in evangelical circles. If you are interested in following the controversy, I suggest that you get hold of Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the glory of penal substitution, by Steve Jeffrey, Mike Ovey and Andrew Sach, IVP, 2007 (see my review here). But I don’t want to engage in that controversy directly in this post. I simply want to reflect on what Mark 15 has to say about the Son of God as sin-bearer.
The factual details of the crucifixion of Jesus speak to us about the nature of his death. They are much more than a bare description of the events, merely "bare" facts that are open to different interpretations. Once we look below the surface, and in terms of the Old Testament background, we will see that the details of the narrative in Mark 15 testify that Jesus is dying under the wrath of God, and that he is doing so as a substitute for sinners. Many of the signs of God’s judgment displayed here may be traced back to the terrifying covenant curses. These curses were directed at those who transgressed God’s covenant commands (Deut 27:26, 28:15). As we reflect on Mark’s passion narrative with this in mind, we will see that the Evangelist is telling us that Jesus was treated as covenant breaking sinners deserve to be treated. Mark gives us six signs that Jesus died under God's judgement.
1. Jesus is handed over to the Gentiles
Six times in Mark 15 we are told that Jesus is the King of the Jews (2, 9, 12, 18, 26, and King of Israel in 32). This King of the Jews has been handed over to the Gentiles. At one level this is the fulfillment of what Jesus said would happen. Consider his words in Mark 10:33-34:
"See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise."
At another level being delivered over to the Gentiles is a traumatic sign of being under God's judgement. It is one of the covenant curses in Leviticus 27 & Deuteronomy 28, (Deut 28:47-50). This is expressed poetically in Psalm 106:40-41,

"Then the anger of the LORD was kindled against his people, and he abhorred his heritage;he gave them into the hand of the nations, so that those who hated them ruled over them."

The same idea is expressed by Ezra as he acknowledges the guilt of the people of God that led to the exile (the ultimate OT expression of judgement). Ezra 9:7b reads:

"And for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been given into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, to plundering, and to utter shame, as it is today."

In the OT being handed over to the nations was a sign of God's anger. This is happening to Jesus in Mark 15.
2. Jesus is silent before his accusers
We know that the charges brought against Jesus by the Jewish leaders were both unjust and incoherent (Mark 14:55-61). Before Pilate, as again Jesus is falsely accused, he remains silent. Why does Jesus not speak up in his own defence? Why does he not silence the lies of his enemies? Pilate is amazed at this (Mark 15:3-4). The Roman Governor knew full well that Jesus was innocent of the charges brought against him, (15:9 & 10, 14). But the sinless Jesus refused to plead his innocence. His silence is spoken of in the words of Isaiah 53:7:
"He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth;like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth."
The silence of Jesus before his accusers is a sign that he is the suffering servant who will bear the penal consequences of the sins of others by substitutionary atonement (Isa. 53:4-6, 10). Mark also highlights the fact that Jesus identified himself with guilty sinners in 15:27 & 28. His was a guilty silence. But it is our guilt not his that he bore.
3. Jesus is hung on a tree
The very instrument of execution, the cross, spoke of the nature of Christ's death. In the words of Deuteronomy 21:22-23:

"If a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God."

Jesus was not personally guilty of any crime that could issue in his death. His death was therefore substitutionary. For clearly in being hung on a tree, he was "cursed by God" for us. This is reinforced by the crown of thorns that Jesus was forced to wear by the Roman soldiers (Mark 15:17). Thorns are associated with God's curse upon creation after the fall (Gen. 3:17-19). Paul draws our attention to the fact that Jesus was made a curse for us in Gal. 3:10-13 cf. 1 Peter 2:24.
I hope to publish Part 2 tomorrow. These articles originated in some notes for a pre-Easter Bible study inspired by this post by Martin Downes.

No comments: