The Suffering of Jesus
Abraham Lincoln, Muhammad, William Shakespeare, Napoleon, Jesus of Nazareth. According to the results of a recent software project that scoured digital and written archives to determine the most influential people in history based on their lasting impact, Jesus Christ was deemed the most significant person to ever live. But unlike many other historical figures, one of the most important features about Jesus’ time on earth was his death (solidified by his resurrection, which is next week’s sermon). So today, we’re looking at arguably the most important event in the life of the most important person in the history of the world… the very foundation of Christianity. But given the familiarity & centrality of the death of Jesus on the cross, it can be easy to skip over the impact of the cross on our daily lives. Today we want ask God to give us fresh eyes as we zoom in on this incredible event, that we’d walk away changed, like the hardened centurion, who seeing Jesus’ death up-close, was convinced that he was in fact the Son of God (Mark 15:39).
We’ll walk through the text this morning by asking three questions… 1) How did Jesus suffer? 2) Why did Jesus suffer this way? And 3) What does his suffering mean for us? We’ll take them in turn, but first, let’s pray.
Father, these are incredible words we are lingering over today. We ask that, by Your Spirit, you would help us, prepare our hearts, show your glory and your shocking love for us in the mystery of the cross. Change us, we pray. Amen.
How Did Jesus Suffer?
So first of all, let’s look at the text in Mark 15 and ask how did Jesus suffer? I think Mark shows us three primary categories in the text. Jesus endured physical torment, emotional trauma, and spiritual agony. Initially, let’s walk through some of the ways that Jesus endured physical suffering during this most important day in history.
After his arrest, very early in the morning Jesus is brought to Pontius Pilate by the high council of Jewish religious leaders to be tried for his claims to be the actual Son of God and for making himself out to be a King. During the trial, it becomes clear to Pilate that Jesus is innocent (15:14), and that the chief priests are envious of this upstart teacher & revolutionary (as they said). However, Pilate bends to the will of the crowd, sentencing Jesus to death by crucifixion - a punishment Jesus clearly did not deserve, but one fitting for treason against Rome. As was customary prior to a Roman execution, Pilate first has Jesus scourged.
Scourging was an incredibly painful torture inflicted by a whip with multiple leather cords that would commonly have bits of sheep bone and sharp pieces of metal embedded throughout. This instrument were designed to inflict maximum pain and blood loss, as each lash would have ripped out large pieces of flesh, essentially exposing the skeletal muscles completely. With his hands tied to a post, Jesus endured this horrific pain at the hands of Roman soldiers as a crowd of onlookers watched. And like many other things on this day, Jesus had known this was coming - specifically predicting flogging to the disciples in Mark 10:34.
After the flogging, Jesus has lost a massive amount of blood. His back has been literally ripped to shreds, and he would have been incredibly weak. At this point, Roman soldiers drag him away to the governor’s palace, where they commence a new level of mockery and humiliation. Twisting together a crown of thorns, they ram the symbol of the curse given to Adam down on to the head of the second Adam. With fresh blood now running down Jesus’ face, the soldiers begin to beat him over the head with a mock scepter, driving the thorns even deeper into his temples and forehead. When the horrific ordeal was complete, they rip off the mock royal robe and lead him outside the city walls to Golgotha, the Hill of the Skull.
And now, already weakened and bloodied to a state barely recognizable, Jesus is to be crucified. Again and again, Jesus is fulfilling Scripture. In Isaiah 52, written hundreds of years before this moment, the prophet had written: “many were astonished at you, his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind…” Jesus has truly been marred beyond resemblance. And now, for the crucifixion. Today, when you hear the word crucifixion, you probably instantly think of Jesus. But back then, this was a method of torture, humiliation, and execution that ancient Rome had used liberally on non-citizens, criminals who would threaten Roman rule. It was a death reserved for the absolute dregs of humanity.
Writing in the first century, Mark would not have had to explain crucifixion to his audience. But we don’t live in a time where this is a commonplace event. After being forced to carry the horizontal cross-beam through the streets, Jesus collapses, requiring a random stranger from the crowd named Simon to carry it the rest of the way. At the top of the hill, Jesus is thrown down on his back, exacerbating his already open wounds. They grab his hands, place iron stakes over his wrist joint, and drive these giant nails into them. He is lifted up and affixed to the vertical beam, now forming the familiar “T” of the cross, where his feet are now nailed as well.
The cause of death in a crucification was typically suffocation. With the entire weight of your body hanging by your wrists, you cannot properly exhale. Suffice it to say that for the next six hours, every single breath Jesus takes is literally excruciating. The cumulative physical suffering and pain Jesus endures throughout this execution is some of the worst imaginable in human existence. I think it’s important for us to understand the flesh and blood reality of what Jesus went through, because the first readers would have intimately familiar. And yet, there is a pattern of psychological and emotional suffering in this text that is perhaps even worse.
And so we move to our second vantage point within our initial heading of how Jesus suffered: the emotional trauma. We’re going to rewind the scene back to 6AM and watch this unfold from a new perspective.
First, Jesus is rejected by the religious leaders (v1-5). He is brought before Pilate and accused of many things - and we heard last week how many of these things were false. Have you ever been accused of something you didn’t do? You know that instinct of self-defense and justification that wells up in you? Jesus feels that temptation, and promptly crushes it, faithfully trusting the plan He and the Father have set out upon. He knows this is how it must be… but it hurts to hear your name, your reputation, dragged through the mud, and to allow it to happen. It hurts especially because these priests and leaders are the ones charged by God to shepherd and protect his people, to guide them towards truth and help them listen to Him. And now the God-man is standing in their midst, and they spit on him, literally and figuratively, completely rejecting his gracious rule. So there’s emotional trauma number one.
Next, Jesus is rejected by the government (v6-15). He’s brought before Pilate, and as a reader, there is a dramatic tension for the moment that you think he might actually get justice. But no, Pilate’s cowardice before the people results in a rejection for Jesus here as well. The true high King of the universe suffers injustice at the hand of a system designed to protect justice. Injustice, being treated unfairly, cuts to the core of the human soul. Jesus, God in the flesh, has been through that.
Then, Jesus is rejected by the people (v13-15). The same Jewish crowds who had lined the streets with palm branches and seemingly accepted their Messiah shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” as he rode into the city on the donkey, now turn on him completely. Given the choice between a convicted murderer and the sinless giver of life, the people reject Jesus for Barabbas. This signals the kind of king they had wanted Jesus to be - one who would storm in and throw off Roman rule. Instead, the crowds of people that Jesus taught, healed, fed, and ultimately came to save would send him to die. And again, here we can understand how painful the disapproval and disdain of others can be, even though we may not have experienced the outright hatred of a mob. On the cross, Jesus is even rejected by the criminals sentenced on either side of him. And his disciples are nowhere to be found.
As the rejection builds, we move into the third vantage point on how Jesus suffered… the spiritual agony. As awful as the physical torment, and as degrading and humiliating the emotional rejection by each successive party… the reason Jesus’ death was different from any others before or since comes in verse 33. “And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. [Literally the sun stopped shining for three hours in the middle of the day. Darkness like this in Scripture carries with it a meaning of divine judgement] And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Now I don’t think we will be able to fully understand the mystery of what this means. But we know on some level that Jesus is forsaken. He is abandoned, deserted, stranded by God Himself, and he feels this intense pain of loss and loneliness in the core of his soul. But he’s asking a question here. And so this is a good time for us to press in and ask it with him… why?! Why in the world is the perfect son suffering like this - physically, emotionally, psychologically, and most of all, spiritually? Why is he forsaken?
Why Does Jesus Suffer?
Let’s dig in to our second question in the outline - WHY is Jesus suffering like this? There are a few clues in Mark that illustrate this for us. Let’s go back to the night before, when Jesus is praying in darkness of Gethsemane. Joe talked about it last week. During his prayers, Jesus includes this fairly odd phrase about a cup. “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me.” Now, this cup is figurative. It’s the same one he referenced in chapter 10 when James and John asked to sit on his right and his left when he comes in power. He said, “can you drink this cup that I am to drink?” What is this cup about? In the Old Testament, specifically in the book of Isaiah, there are references to a “cup of staggering” which is the “bowl of [God’s] wrath” (Isaiah 51:22). The cup is a symbol of God’s right anger, His judgment upon evil that he will pour out. Perhaps you can imagine this. Picture a cup. A big goblet. And then imagine that every time evil has been committed by the human race since the beginning of time, the cup is filling up. The cup of God’s holy wrath against evil, as the good King that He is, it’s filling up - drip, drip, drip. And justice must be done. Someone has to drink the cup. Either you and I will drink the poison cup of God’s judgement on our sin, our rebellion, or someone has to drink it in our place.
Drinking the cup of judgment
In these moments on the cross, Jesus is drinking that cup. He’s draining it to the bottom. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says that “For our sake [God] made him to be sin,” and in Galatians 3:13 “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” So Jesus is being treated by God as Sin itself, as a very Curse to be wiped out. And it is for our sake.
But knowing that background, let’s think some more about why Jesus calls out the way he does. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We’ve seen that Jesus is experiencing the judgment of God in our place. And along with the physical, emotional, and psychological agony, there is this profound sense of abandonment that comes closer to breaking Jesus than anything else. In the Bible, the judgement of God and the felt absence of God go hand in hand. In the garden, after the Fall into Sin, Adam and Eve are sent away from the garden, away from God’s unique presence. Cain, the first murderer, is sent away from the presence of the Lord. When God’s people Israel fall into a state of desperate idolatry and rebellion, God allows them to be exiled, sent away from God’s felt presence in the Temple. And at the end of time, the final judgement is described in 2 Thessalonians 1 as “the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might…” Let’s put this together. Jesus on the cross, as darkness overtakes the land, signaling the judgment of God, drinks the cup of God’s wrath on Sin, which is felt most acutely in the soul-tearing act of God His Father turning away from Him. Jesus is abandoned, and with that he absorbs the wrath of God on our behalf, as our substitute.
Ransom for many
But there’s another important aspect to note from the gospel of Mark itself on why Jesus suffers… Jesus says earlier in Mark, “The Son of Man came… to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Jesus knew what this mission, ending on the cross, was all about, and he says it’s fundamentally about laying down his life as a ransom payment for many. He is paying a costly price to redeem those who would believe in Him for salvation, to buy us back. And what struck me this week as I was studying Mark 15 is just how shocking it is that Jesus would give his life for the people like those depicted in the text! Over and over, Jesus is deserted by his friends, slandered by the religious leaders, convicted unjustly by the government, mocked, laughed at, humiliated by all different kinds of people. Prior to his death, for the entire chapter, there isn’t a single positive description of someone in their actions towards Jesus.
And this reminds me of Romans 5, where the apostle Paul writes, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly… God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us… while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Romans 5:6-10). Do you hear that? Jesus died for the ungodly, the unholy, the profane, while we were still sinners, while we were his enemies! How much does the whole of Mark 15 showcase this? In one sense, you can see the whole of humanity in this chapter arrayed as enemies of Jesus, fully and completely against him… even as He is wholly and absolutely FOR them, FOR us, giving his life so that we could live. And God did this, the Father and the Son agreeing together, because he LOVES us! He loves us in spite of us. His love is not just unconditional, it’s actually contra-conditional. We were not lovable according to the conditions of his covenant with us. Love like this is beyond our understanding, but it is our absolute joy to experience it.
What Jesus’ Suffering Means for Us
And with that, now that we’ve seen 1) how Jesus suffered, and 2) why Jesus suffered, we turn to our final point, 3) what his suffering means for us. We’re going to zero in here at the text itself, because we’d be here through August if we tried to unpack all of the implications. So starting in verse 37… “And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”
I think there are two main takeaways that we can leave with this morning on what the cross means for us. Access and confidence. When Jesus dies, finishing his work, the curtain of the temple is torn from top to bottom. This is the curtain that would have separated the most intimate and special place in the entire temple, the Most Holy Place. In the temple system, the High Priest was only allowed in once a year to this place, and when he did go in, he had to bring a sin offering for the guilt of the people. What Jesus accomplished on the cross, depicted vividly in the tearing of the curtain, ripped wide open the way to God, the way to experiencing the presence of the real, living God through His Son Jesus. What does that mean for us? In Hebrews 4:16, the author puts it like this, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Because of the finished suffering of Jesus, because the curtain is now torn wide open, we can draw near to the God of the universe with confidence! Not sheepishly. Not sulking. Not unsure of his love for us. We draw near with confidence to receive grace, whenever we need it, TODAY. The curtain is still open. Are you anxious? Come close. Are you worn-out? This way. Are you grieving? Enter in. Do you need help? Head straight up to the throne, dear friend. Because of Jesus, by faith in Him, you are welcome in the palace of the high King, no longer as a stranger or an enemy, but as a son, as a daughter!
And this brings us to the Table, where our access to the presence of God and our confidence in His love for us are cemented week-after-week. We’ve just walked the very passage that this meal is all about. We’ve watched how Jesus body was broken for us - remember Him as you crush this bread. And we’ve seen how Jesus drank the cup of judgment in our place, so that this cup is one of victory.