Mark 15:22-39: “And they brought him to the place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. And they crucified him and divided his garments among them, to decide what each should take. And it was the third hour when they crucified him. And the inscription of the charge against him read, ‘The King of the Jews.’ And with him they crucified two robbers, one on his right and one on his left. And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!’ So also the chief priests with the scribes mocked him to one another, 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.’ Those who were crucified with him also reviled him.
“And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ And some of the bystanders hearing it said, ‘Behold, he is calling Elijah.’ And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, 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.’ 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!’
Reading the account of Jesus’ death in Mark can be, frankly, a little disappointing and disorienting after his high-impact ministry of teaching and miracles. It would have been a great moment for Mark to show us Jesus trusting in his Father with all his might, encouraging his disciples to have faith in his coming resurrection. But that’s not what we get. In a brutal scene, forsaken by his apostles, Jesus dies lamenting that God had abandoned him. What is this supposed to teach us? Did God really abandon His Son on the cross?
Typical for Mark’s style, there is more depth to this passage than we can see in a cursory reading. Underneath the surface, he is making a bold, hopeful statement: Jesus really is the king of Israel and the Son of God. The question is, how do we see this deeper meaning?
Understanding Mark here requires us to look back at the Old Testament, from which he is drawing. Specifically, he is taking many images from one of the Psalms. Many of the people who were the original readers of this gospel would have been very familiar with the Psalms of their beloved king David, and they would have quickly seen beyond the surface meaning of this passage into its deeper sense.
The key to the entire passage comes in verse 34, when Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Believe it or not, this is more than a desperate cry for help. Jesus is quoting the first line of Psalm 22. When we look at this psalm, and how Mark is using it here, we see that the message is quite different than it first appears to be. (I invite you to read the entire psalm to get a sense of the overall context.)
Let us look at some more important parallels between this crucifixion account and the 22nd psalm. Verse 7 reads, “All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads.” Look now to Mark 15:29a, 31a: “And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads . . . So also the chief priests with the scribes mocked him to one another.”
Next look at verses 16-18 of the psalm: “For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet – I can count all my bones – they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.” Then, Mark 15:24: “And they crucified him and divided his garments among them, casting lots for them, to decide what each should take.”
Do you see the similar imagery? Mark is seeing the fulfillment of psalm 22 in the death of Christ. He isn’t the only one to see it, either. The author of the letter to the Hebrews also points this out in Hebrews 2:8b-12: “Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
“For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying (here quoting Psalm 22:22),
‘I will tell you your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.’”
Our next question is: why is Mark using this imagery from the Psalm? Mark uses it to make two bold statements. First, Jesus Christ is indeed the Messiah king that everyone has been waiting for, a king worthy of as much and more honor than king David, the author of the Psalm. Linking Jesus to king David through the Psalm makes the claim that Jesus is the rightful king of Israel. Ironically in the account, the inscription put up on Jesus’ cross, mockingly labeling him as the “King of the Jews,” is entirely true.
Second, far from describing a Jesus in despair, Mark’s description of the crucifixion is a profound message of hope. With the lens of Psalm 22, we can see Mark’s interpretation of this event. In the Psalm, despite David’s dire situation, he trusts in God to save him. Out of his predicament, the psalmist says to God, “Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame”(Psalm 22:3-5). Mark is telling us that despite his being nailed to a cross, Jesus, like David, remembers how God saved his ancestors, and continues to put his faith in Him. Christ’s cry at the end of his life is a cry of anguish, but it is also an expression of his perfect trust in his Father.
The Psalm actually comes to a triumphant note: “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. For kingship belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations”(Psalm 22:27-28).
In expressing the fulfillment of this Psalm in Christ, Mark is boldly declaring that the time is coming when God will be king over all the nations, not just Israel. And, as we have seen, if Jesus is being declared a king here, then he is boldly being declared to be the LORD God Himself.
Even though in this passage Jesus appears helpless and conquered by his enemies, in actuality this is his victory over evil and death, and the declaration of his kingship over the nations. Here is the full extent of what Jesus meant when he said, “’And whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’”(Mark 10:44-45).
Returning again to Hebrew’s, this passage is an example of that author’s message: “At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of god he might taste death for everyone”(Hebrews 8b-9). Even though we do not yet see the world in subjection to Christ, and the world appears grim like in Mark’s account of the crucifixion, just under the surface we see that Christ has died so that we may have eternal life and he is reigning with the Father.
The closing words of Psalm 22 look toward the future, saying of Christ, “Posterity shall serve him; it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation; they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it.”
In the end, Mark’s message is simple. Even in the darkest and most distressing situations, Christ is king and Lord, and will deliver us from all evil.