The Essential Jesus

Jesus' Death

Mark 14:53-15:39

Teaching t12781


Reiterate series topic.  One of the unique features of biblical Christianity (compared to other world religions) is the central significance of its Founder’s death.  The deaths of Buddha and Muhammad, for example, are almost an after-thought.  Their most significant accomplishments are prior to their deaths – their visions/enlightenment, their teachings, and (in Muhammad’s case) their military conquests.  But Jesus’ most significant accomplishment was His death by execution.

This is why the gospel authors spend a disproportionate amount of space (15% - 30%) describing His last 24 hours.  One scholar calls the gospels accounts of Jesus’ death with long prologues.  This is hyperbole – but it is exaggeration to make a valid point.

To understand why Jesus’ death is His most significant accomplishment, you must understand its context.  The Old Testament prophets predicted that Messiah’s death would be uniquely significant because it would be substitutionary – His righteous life given voluntarily as a payment for our sins (Isa. 53:5a,6b,8b,10a,11b,12b).  Thus, His forerunner (John the Baptist) announced Him to Israel as “the lamb of God who comes to bear the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29).  Jesus Himself said that the purpose of His coming was to “give His life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45).  His apostles repeat this assertion concerning His death (1 Pet. 2:24,25a; 3:18a).

With this context in mind, let’s read Mark’s account of Jesus’ trials and execution (Mk. 14,15) – supplementing it with some other passages from Matthew, Luke and John – picking up immediately after His arrest.  Mark wrote Peter’s eye-witness memoirs, and Mark himself was an eye-witness of some of these events (read 14:51,52 – this young man was probably Mark!).

Jesus’ trials

Jesus was actually tried six different times that night and into the next morning – three trials by Jewish leaders, and three more by Roman rulers.  Mark narrates one of the trials by the Jewish leaders and one by Pilate, the Roman governor.  Three themes characterize all of these trials: their injustice, Jesus’ calm and dignified bearing, and how the focus becomes who Jesus is – not what He did.

Read 14:53-65.  Before the priests and scribes and elders, notice:

They were unable to provide testimony that Jesus committed a capital crime (14:55).  They produced false witnesses, and even their testimony was inconsistent (14:56-59).  They both initiated and allowed physical abuse of Jesus (14:65).

Jesus refused to defend Himself against the above accusations (14:61a).  Only when the high priest adjured Him to answer (Matt. 26:63) did He speak.

Thus, the focus is on Jesus’ identity.  He affirms that He is the Messiah, and (quoting Dan. 7) non-vindictively declares that the day will come when they see Him coming to judge the humanity – including them (14:61b,62).

Thus, the Jewish leaders condemned Jesus for blasphemy.  But they were not allowed to execute criminals; only Roman rulers could do this.  And Roman rulers would be unconcerned about Jesus’ claim to be the Jews’ Messiah.  So they brought Jesus to Pilate (the Roman governor), and charged Him with sedition (claiming to be a rival earthly king opposed to Roman rule).  Notice the same three themes:

Read 15:1-5.  The focus is on who Jesus is (15:2).  Jesus gave a further explanation (read Jn. 18:36,37) which made it clear that He was no political threat to Rome.

Even though Jesus’ life was on the line, He refused to defend Himself against the Jewish leaders’ accusations (15:3-5).  Pilate had never seen this behavior by anyone charged with a capital crime.

Read 15:6-15.  Even though Pilate knew that Jesus was being unfairly charged, he refused to simply acquit Him as he should have.  Instead, he played his annual “pardon card” in a way that would make the Jewish leaders unpopular if the crowds requested Jesus’ release.  But his plan back-fired – and Pilate chose popularity and fear of a bad report to his superiors (Jn. 19:12,13) over justice.[1]

In Barabbas’ release in exchange for Jesus’ execution, we see the beginning of the substitutionary theme – the guilty one is pardoned in exchange for the innocent one being condemned.  This theme predominates in Mark’s following account of Jesus’ execution – sinners unjustly reject Jesus – but God works through Jesus’ rejection to forgive sinners.

Jesus’ execution

Read 15:16-20.  The entire cohort (500-600 soldiers) brutally mocked Jesus’ “kingship.”  In Gen. 3:18, thorns symbolize God’s curse on sinful humanity.  So by placing a crown of thorns on His head (SLIDE) as a mockery of the “radiant corona” crowns of 1st- century rulers (SLIDE), they unwittingly signified Jesus’ substitutionary death – that He was bearing God’s curse on humanity for their sins.[2]

Read 15:21-26.  On one level, Simon was ordered to carry Jesus’ cross because He was too physically weak after the scourging to carry it Himself.  But on another lever, does this signify that sinners – not Jesus – deserve to die?  As the soldiers nailed their victims to the cross, they normally screamed out curses on them and the onlookers.  “But,” Luke tells us, Jesus prayed for their forgiveness (read Lk. 23:34) – as He voluntarily paid the price of their forgiveness with His own death.  (“For they do not know what they are doing” is not the basis for their forgiveness; it is an expression of Jesus’ mercy.)

Read 15:27-32.  Vs. 28 is not in the earliest manuscripts, but Jesus said this to His disciples in Lk. 22:37 (read) pertaining to His imminent execution.  This is a quote of Isa. 53 which predicts that the Messiah will be executed with transgressors because He will die for transgressors (Isa. 53:12).  The mockery of the religious leaders’ mockery (15:31) is deeply ironic – Jesus could save others only by not saving Himself!

Read 15:33-36.  From noon to 3:00 PM, darkness like that of a total solar eclipse covered Palestine.  But this was not a solar eclipse – they don’t last for three hours.  This darkness, which has extra-biblical attestation[3], was in the Old Testament often associated with God’s judgment (see Zeph. 1:14,15; Amos 8:9,10).  This darkness was not a coincidence; it was a physical manifestation of God’s judgment of His Son – which is why Mark follows this description with Jesus’ cry in 15:34.  Jesus was being forsaken and condemned by His Father – not because He was the sinner the onlookers called Him, but because He was bearing the rejection and condemnation that they deserved.  Jesus quotes Ps. 22:1 to make it clear that His God-forsakenness was God’s predicted plan (read Ps. 22:14-18’s amazing description of crucifixion). The onlookers’ misunderstanding of Jesus’ words is consistent with their misunderstanding of His identity and death.

Read 15:37-38.  Jesus’ loud cry, according to John’s gospel, was a shout of victory: “It is finished!” (Jn. 19:30) – or “Paid in full!” (tetelestai).  He had paid humanity’s sin debt  by offering Himself as a perfect sacrificial Substitute.  This is why the temple veil was immediately “torn from top to bottom” (not “frayed from bottom to top”).[4]  This veil separated worshipers from God’s presence, symbolizing humans’ separation from God because of our sins.  Only once a year could the High Priest enter, with the blood of a blameless animal substitute, to offer it in symbolic payment for the people’s sins.  Jesus death had now fulfilled that symbolic sacrifice.  Now that old religious system was defunct; now the way into God’s presence was available to everyone – if we come through faith in Jesus’ death for us.

Read 15:39.  The centurion’s response to Jesus’ death is ironic.  The Jewish onlookers, who knew Ps. 22, misunderstood who Jesus is.  But the Roman centurion, who was ignorant of Ps. 22, understood who Jesus is. 

How will you respond to Jesus’ death?

Here are the facts.  The trials and crucifixion of Jesus are a historical fact, thoroughly substantiated by eye-witnesses who chose persecution and death rather than retract their testimony.  The context of Old Testament prophecy that the Messiah’s death would be substitutionary is undeniable – you can read passages like Isa. 53 and Ps. 22 as often as you want and know that they were written centuries before Jesus’ death.  You can ponder why Jesus would deliberately choose a death He could have easily escaped – no explanation makes sense except that He truly believed that He was the Lamb of God who had come to bear the sin of humanity.  So what?  So you have to choose how you will respond to Jesus’ death.

Will you choose, like the religious leaders and soldiers and onlookers, to reject Jesus’ claim and say that He got what He deserved?  All I can say is that you’re taking a big and risky step of faith when you could instead receive a big gift (vs. PASCAL’S WAGER).

Will you choose, like Pilate, to prize human approval (or at least avoid human disapproval) and refuse to make a decision?  Clearly, this is a decision to reject Jesus!

Will you choose, like the crowds, to be fickle – and keep switching to whatever/whoever seems to promise you immediate advantage?  How well has that worked for you so far?

Or will you choose, like the centurion, to look at how and why Jesus died – and say with him from your heart: “Truly this was the Son of God!”  That Jesus is the promised Messiah, and that He died for your sins, so that you can be forgiven by and reconciled to God (1 Pet. 3:18a)?

[1] Pilate’s fear of Jewish unpopularity does not fit his behavior prior to late 31 AD (see Lk. 13:1).  But when Sejanus conspired against the emperor (Tiberius) in October 31 AD, suspicion fell on Sejanus’ associates – among whom Pilate was one.  Thus, Pilate’s fear of a bad report from the Jews (see also Jn. 19:12,13) makes sense if Jesus’ trial was after 31 AD.  See Gary DeLashmutt, “Sejanus and the Chronology of Christ’s Death” (

[2] “With this “crown” the soldiers unwittingly pictured God’s curse on sinful humanity being thrust on Jesus (cf. Gen. 3:17–18).”  Grassmick, J. D. (1985). Mark. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, p. 187). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.


[3] Strikingly, there is extra-biblical evidence for this event.  The Christian apologist Tertullian, writing in the second century, called it a “cosmic” or “world event”--evidently visible in Rome, Athens, and other Mediterranean cities, and challenged his non-Christian adversaries with these words: “At the moment of Christ's death, the light departed from the sun, and the land was darkened at noonday, which wonder is related in your own annals, and is preserved in your archives to this day.”  The Greek writer Phlegon, writing in 137 AD, reported that in the fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad (33 AD) there was “the greatest eclipse of the sun . . . it became night in the sixth hour of the day (noon) so that stars even appeared in the heavens.”  Tertullian quote cited in Oswald Sanders, The Incomparable Christ, p. 203 (documentation not provided).  Phlegon quote cited in Paul Maier, Pontius Pilate (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1968), p. 366.

[4] Three non-Christian 1st-century sources make reference to some ‘great catastrophe, betokening the impending destruction of the temple, (that) had occurred in the Sanctuary about this very time.”  Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1973), Part 2, p. 610.  The sources are Tacitus (Hist. V. 13), Josephus (Wars of the Jews VI, 5, 3) and the Talmud (Jer. Yoma 43c; Yoma 39b).