In the crucifixion narrative of Mark’s Gospel in Chapter 15 verse 16 onward, we catch some important glimpses of the various people involved with and gathered around the Cross of Jesus. Mark’s view is not the view of the crowd looking at Jesus, but rather the view from the Cross itself, looking at the crowd. Gathered around the foot of the cross were a great number of individuals, or groups of individuals, who he brings before us so that we might see their reactions to the crucifixion of our Lord. Let’s look at them one at a time:
(1) And they compelled a passer-by, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry His cross. (Mark 15:21 RSV). If you have any imagination at all, you can picture the feelings and attitudes of Simon when he was thus so rudely interrupted in what he had scheduled to do that day. He was from the country of Cyrene in North Africa and had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover Feast. He was coming from his lodgings outside the city and had no idea that this strange event was about to take place. But, as he was watching Jesus stagger under the weight of the cross, Simon suddenly was grabbed by the soldiers and forced to carry the cross. There is little question that his feeling was one of anger and indignation at this interruption. Undoubtedly his attitude was one of unwilling involvement.
There are many believing Christians, who given a chance, would never get close to the Cross. Hence, sometimes, God has to thrust the Cross into our lives unannounced in order to achieve His ends. There are others who are resentful that God should ever change their plans — should ever interrupt what they have scheduled to happen. I have felt this way myself, and so have you. We resent it when some circumstance over which we have no control suddenly changes our plans, especially if it involves pain and suffering. This was the attitude of Simon of Cyrene as he bore the cross of Jesus. However, some bible commentators believe that he was there on the Day of Pentecost and very likely did become a Christian as a result of this sudden interruption of his plans.
(2) Gathered around the foot of the cross were the soldiers who had crucified Jesus, those rough Roman soldiers who had crucified perhaps scores and scores of people (Mk 15:24). Undoubtedly these soldiers had much experience in crucifixion, because when they had finished their work and Jesus was hanging from the cross, these callous soldiers got out a pair of dice and started to gamble at the foot of the cross. It seems strange to us that any man could look upon the death of Jesus and carry on in such an indifferent way. But here were men who were far more interested in making a buck than they were in the blood of Jesus. Mark indicates that at all times there are many people who are not at all concerned about the meaning of the death of Christ. Their whole concern is focused on making fast money. These soldiers stand forever as examples of those callous individuals who have no interest in the great story of the cross. The world is full of people who are unconcerned about this great event that split time and made history. They go about with their one focus – making money in whichever way. That is their all-consuming pastime.
(3) And with him they crucified two robbers, one on his right and one on his left. (Mark 15:27). Here are two men who had been arrested due to their violent crimes; they were professional criminals. They were angry young men, committed to the philosophy of “get what you can, any way that you can, and it doesn’t matter who is hurt in the process.” These two looked upon Jesus as a criminal just like them; they took out all their frustrations on him and reviled him because he could be of no more help to them than they could be to him. “get what you want whenever you want it — that is your God-inspired right.” Now that is a widespread philosophy in our day and there is no question that if Jesus were crucified again, there would be representatives of this philosophy around who would mock him and revile him as these robbers did.
Mark doesn’t tell us what happened to one of these men. Other gospel writers inform us that the other one was watching all that was happening and repented of his abuse of Jesus. He said, “We deserve to be here, but this man does not deserve this,” (Luke 23:41). One of the most beautiful things about the story of the crucifixion is that just before Jesus breathed his last, this man, seeing all that had happened, suddenly realized, in a moment of truth, that Jesus was indeed a king entering a kingdom in which he had great power and authority. This one-time robber threw himself on the mercy of Jesus and cried out in a voice that has echoed through the centuries, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” (Luke 23:42).
(4) And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads, and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” (Mark 15:29-30). These were just bystanders, but when they saw Jesus, they remembered that he was the one who had made these great claims, and they said, “Look, they’ve caught you, haven’t they? You’ve gone too far. You were doing fine teaching the people, but then you began making these ridiculous claims that you could destroy the temple and raise it up again. You got what you had coming.” Notice that Mark shows the derision by the little phrase, they went by “wagging their heads, and saying, ‘Aha! They’ve got you!'”
There are many people today who feel that way; But whenever these people read in the Scriptures any claim by Jesus that he is anything more than human, any claim to the supernatural or when He said, “I am the Son of God”, or “I am the only way to the Father”, they cannot accept it. They cannot buy that kind of a claim and they rip it out of their Bibles. Mark makes it clear that such a denial of the person of Jesus is deadly wrong and prevents them from seeing what God wants them to see in His Son.
(5) So also the chief priests mocked him to one another with the scribes, saying, “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.” (Mark 15:31-32a). These priests had been very frightened of Jesus before but were very arrogant now. Before, they were threatened by him. They saw that he was able to lead and teach the crowds and bless the crowds in ways that the priests had no power to do themselves. So they were jealous of him and angry at him, and they accomplished his death. Their moment had come and they stood around the cross mocking him and gloating over his helplessness. They hurled these words at Him, “Come down from the cross and save yourself; you’ve saved others, but you can’t save yourself. If you’ll just come down from the cross, we’ll see and believe.” There are many religious leaders today who use the name of Christianity but say they can accept everything about Christianity except the cross. If Jesus would just abandon the cross, they would swallow the whole thing. They don’t like the cross because of the gore and the blood and its message of death. If you ever hear a gospel preached that doesn’t have at its core the Cross of Jesus Christ, then you are listening to what Paul called “another gospel,” which is anathema to God. The Cross is at the very heart of the good news of Jesus Christ and is God’s instrument of salvation.
(6) There was another man at the cross who was interested in all the proceedings. His name is not given to us. He was just one of the bystanders. But he enters the picture when Jesus calls out to God, in verses 35-36. And some of the bystanders hearing it said, “Behold, He is calling Elijah.” And one ran and, filling a sponge full of vinegar, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” (Mark 15:35-36)
At first glance, it looks like this man is moved with compassion for Jesus. He runs to get vinegar, an anesthetic that will deaden the pain of suffering. He fills a sponge with it and puts it up to the lips of Jesus. It looks like he is trying to relieve his suffering and offering him some relief from his pain. But, if you look at Mark’s account carefully, that is not his motive at all. His motive is to see if something exciting will happen. He is not moved by compassion, but by curiosity.
I remember as a young boy, how we overturned the garden bricks during the monsoon to look for earthworms. Then we would put salt on the worms and watch them wriggle and die. A kind of morbid curiosity-cum-sadistic nature which is so much a part of us. This man at the cross is saying, “Let’s delay this death.” He gave Jesus the sponge so he would not die too quickly. “Wait,” he said, “let’s see whether Elijah will come and deliver him.” I think perhaps of all those who gathered around the cross of Christ, there is no incident more characteristic of our own day than the cheap, thrill-seeking desire for sadistic pleasure that this man exhibits. Here is human nature at its worst often depicted in Roman times by the crowds in an amphitheater who screamed with sadistic thrill for blood, while gladiators fought below.
At this point, Jesus dies. Those described now are the lovers and admirers of Jesus. The first, found in Verse 39, is the centurion who was in charge of the crucifixion crew.
(7) And 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 15:39). This centurion was a pagan; he probably believed in many gods. Yet the cross brought him to a sobering awareness of the reality that what he was watching was not a joke after all — that some ghastly mistake was being made in the crucifixion of this man. He sees that Jesus indeed is a royal personage, the Son of God. He suddenly becomes aware of the true character of Jesus. Notice he speaks in the past tense — this man was the Son of God. Many people understand that God is at work in the death of Jesus. They understand that strange and mighty forces are being released in this remarkable event. They understand that he was more than a mere man, but it never gets further than that. They are impressed by the cross and impressed by the character of Jesus, but it never becomes personalized, and they never enter into the eternal value of that death.
In Verse 40, Mark describes a great crowd of women who were gathered about the cross.
(8) There were also women looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome, who, when he was in Galilee, followed him, and ministered to him; and also many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem. (Mark 15:40-41)
Isn’t it strange that around the cross of Jesus were gathered a crowd of women. Where were the men? Where were James and John and Peter, with all his big talk? John’s gospel tells us that John had been there; he had been there with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and they stood at the foot of the cross in those first three hours, Jesus had found time in the midst of his own suffering to commit his mother to the care of the disciple John. But evidently John was gone now. He had led Mary away, and all that was left around the cross was this crowd of women. Women — they were the first to love Jesus and they were the last to stop loving him. This says something beautiful that I think is truly characteristic of women. Women, who love first, who easily respond are also able to maintain their love longer than men. This is a beautiful tribute to womanhood.
These women are not gathering around the cross in hope; they are gathering in hopelessness. This is a picture of hopeless commitment. It was the women who stayed with Jesus and tried to minister to his dead body, bringing spices to anoint him. The men were gone. There are many today who believe in God; they believe in the record of the Scripture. They believe that God is there and that he works — until it comes to the exact moment of a crisis in their own life. Then their hope is gone. Their faith is strong as long as everything goes well, but when the bottom drops out, they still love, but their faith is gone.
(9) And when evening had come, since it was the day of Preparation, that is the day before the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, took courage and went to Pilate, and asked for the body of Jesus. And Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he was already dead. And when he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph (Mk 15:42-47)
Here is Joseph of Arimathea, the secret disciple, a wealthy Sanhedrin of Jerusalem, looking for the Kingdom of God. He was attracted toward Jesus, but he was afraid to come out in the open. But after the death of the Lord, when the body was hanging dead on the tree, Mark says Joseph took courage and finally stood up as a man ready to be counted.
A lot of us are like that. We are willing to go along with our Christianity until it gets us into trouble or threatens us. Then we resist and we hide for a long time. But when the chips are down, we stand up and say, “Yes, I’m with him too.” Thank God for Joseph, who at last found the courage to stand up for what he believed.
These are the hearts of the people around the cross, stripped of all pretense and cover. The cross always removes all hypocrisy and leaves us standing stark naked before God.
Finally, a half mile away in the court of the temple, within the sacred enclosure of the holy place, the huge veil that stood as a barrier to the holy of holies where only the high priest was permitted to enter once a year was split from top to bottom. By an invisible hand it was torn apart and split wide open until the holy of holies was exposed to the gaze of the priest. What was the meaning of this event? It was God’s dramatic way of saying for all time and for all people that the way into his heart is wide open. God is not planning revenge. All those who gathered around the cross in hatred and malice against Jesus — every one of them are welcome to come back. That is what the rent veil means. The penalty has been paid for the hateful, the cruel, the ignorant, the selfish, and the empty-headed thrill seekers. The way is wide open and God is waiting to restore the hopeless, the helpless, the fearful, anyone who was willing to come to Him through the new and living way provided through the shed blood and the rent veil which is the torn flesh of His only Son Jesus Christ (Heb 10:19-20).
The Father sends His invitation into the highways and the byways, to the mountains and the valleys calling all those chief priests who mocked Jesus, those who taunted Him to come down, those who abandoned Him, those who gambled for His garments, those who are thieves, criminals, thrill-seekers, murderers, liars, pretenders, perjurers, slanderers, boasters & lovers of self, hard-hearted, conceited and every kind of evil doer on this planet earth. All are invited to come to His only Son and put their trust in Him for there is no other name in heaven and on earth by which men may be saved but by the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12).