April – Crucifixion Service


  • Main text: Mark 15:16-39
  • Accompanying text: Psalm 22:1-2, 14-21

What this passage means to us

Imagine, if you will, that you are an early first century Christian. All you have are the Hebrew scriptures, a few letters from Paul and the Gospel according to Mark. Access to them is limited to when you go to church, if your church is lucky enough to have copies of them. Most scholars agree that the first gospel to be written was Mark’s, perhaps between 50 and 70 AD. “Not surprisingly, the three synoptics have a clear literary connection, based on Mark. Although placed second in our New Testament, Mark was almost certainly written first” [1]. What if, you are hearing Mark’s account of the crucifixion for the first time? The other gospels are not yet written or available, and the details they record are not yet fully known. Only Mark’s has been copied faithfully by a Christian scribe. What would be the impact?

With a service designed to highlight the crucifixion, Mark 15:16-39 is an ideal passage. We could begin with reading this passage aloud instead of with a hymn. Rehearse it several times beforehand in private to minimize mistakes. It would catch the congregation’s attention. Choose your preferred translation, mine would be the English Standard Version (ESV). Remember to pause appropriately. Read it with conviction. Mark’s wording is poignant in its simplicity and it packs a punch without the need for us to comment as we read it aloud. His gospel account “is written primarily for unbelievers, and you quickly notice its vivid, dramatic and emotional style. It is a gripping page turner, hard to put down once started” [2]. Reduce announcements only to essential ones. When choosing hymns, think of those that might link to the text or to the event. Examples could be Man of Sorrows what a Name, Amazing Grace, Just as I am without one Plea, There is a green hill far away, and, a good one to end with, When I survey the wondrous cross. This is not meant to be prescriptive, rather it describes an idea.

Mark mentions Rufus and Alexander as if his readers would know who they were. Did they attend or sometimes visit the Roman, church, which, according to most scholars, was Mark’s target readership? Had they witnessed their father help their future Lord? Was this their story that they gave to Mark for his gospel account? Jesus, who had told his disciples to bear their cross, became too weak to carry his own cross. He had been scourged (Mark 15:15). A whip had been made of several leather straps, encrusted onto the end of which were sharp objects, such as nails and broken rocks. The aim was to inflict as much pain as possible by cutting through the flesh to the bone of the victim. Jesus had been whipped repeatedly, and, staggering, he began to carry the cross, but he could barely continue. Jesus, being fully human as well as fully divine, suffered and felt pain. To move things along someone else had to bear the burden for him. The Roman soldiers forced Simon, who, presumably had come to Jerusalem for the Passover observance, to carry the cross of Christ. All kinds of thoughts come to mind for us today. When we help someone through difficult times, it is as if we help Jesus carry the cross. “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40), says Jesus. “Carry each other’s burdens”, said Paul, “and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). Jesus also helps us bear our cross. He makes light work of our heavy burdens. 

The shame of the cross and the indignities Christ endured on our behalf are clear in Mark’s account. The book of Hebrews tells us, “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15). Jesus, the Son of God, became flesh for us, and remained flesh even through his death on the cross. Mark’s depiction of him is of someone rejected and alone. Jesus quotes Psalm 22:1, voicing our human fears of being abandoned completely by God at the time of death. Was the final loud cry an inarticulate cry of pain before Jesus “breathed his last” (Mark 15:37). Perhaps some of you have witnessed someone die in agony, or you have been there when another human being gasps his or her last breath. A kind of empty silence often follows. Jesus could have called ten thousand angels, but he did not. In death he continued to be the Word made flesh. Even this is part of Christ’s humanity. “The last word of the Word is that of an impotent Word, reduced to silence. The power of the word is here the silence of the Word, stripped of all power” [3].

Storyline and Context

The humiliation, torture and crucifixion of Jesus followed an early morning meeting of the religious élite: “Very early in the morning, the chief priests, with the elders, the teachers of the law and the whole Sanhedrin, made their plans. So they bound Jesus, led him away and handed him over to Pilate” (Mark 15:1). This was the same group that Jesus described as being “like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean” (Matthew 23:27). It’s fascinating to note that Joseph of Arimathea, one of the council members, who “had not consented to their decision and action” (Luke 23:51), chose voluntarily to give his own recently hewn-out rock tomb to Jesus as a burial place. Joseph “was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders” (John 19:38), and Mark writes that Joseph made the courageous move of going “boldly to Pilate” and asking for Jesus’ fragile body (Mark 15:43). Given the hostility of his own peers and of the fickle Jerusalem crowds towards Jesus, Joseph, joined by Nicodemus (another Sanhedrin member – see John 2:1), was making a brave move indeed.

Not all of Jesus’ followers deserted him at the time of his death. John records that he was there at the cross along with Mary, the mother of Jesus, “his mother’s sister (Salome), Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene” (John 19:25-26). Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus and some of the women were concerned enough to care for Jesus’ dead body. Also, of course, God the Father was there. He has not abandoned his Son during Christ’s ordeal and death. The Father had not hidden his face from his Son (Psalm 22:24), and he heard him when “Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit’” (Luke 23:46). “God the Father…raised him from the dead” (Galatians 1:1) because he would not “abandon (Jesus) to the realm of the dead”, nor would he “let (his) faithful one see decay” (Psalm 16:10).

“So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb” (Mark 15:46).

Scripture resources

  • Isaiah 53:3-12
  • Hebrews 2:9-15

Other GCI resources:

Footnotes and References

  1. David Pawson, Unlocking the Bible (London, UK: HarperCollins Publishers, 2015). 781
  2. Ibid. 784.
  3. Rémi Brague, On the God of the Christians (and one or two others) translated by Paul Seaton (Indiana, USA: St Augustine’s Press, 2013). 101.
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