The following is adapted from a sermon I preached at Greencastle Christian Church on September 25, 2021.
Let me begin by saying something that might be a little controversial. The gospel is political. Let me say that again, the gospel is political. I am not saying that Jesus is a Republican or a Democrat or anything like that. Rather, what I mean is that the gospel message that Jesus is King confronts and challenges all worldly powers and authorities, and the means by which the world governments maintain their power.
We have seen this theme throughout the book of Mark. Look, for example, at the very beginning of Mark, the first chapter.
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.Mark 1:1 English Standard Version
Right off the bat, Mark challenges the authority of none other than Caesar, the Emperor of Rome. How do we know this? Well first of all, we understand that Mark was writing in Rome to a church made up of Jewish believers and Roman Gentile believers. Now in Rome, announcements by or about the Emperor were heralded as “good news” or “gospel.” Not only that, but the Roman Emperor was treated as being either a god or the son of a god. So here Mark is making an unmistakeably political claim that Jesus is greater than the Roman Emperor.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”Mark 1:14-15 English Standard Version
The message Jesus preached was that the Kingdom of God was arriving. He taught this through parables and demonstrated it through miracles. So we have this conflict between the authority of King Jesus and the authority of Rome. But, how can Jesus be greater than the Emperor if Jesus was crucified? How could Jesus be a king, if He died a criminal’s death?
Now we come to Mark 15 and Mark’s account of the crucifixion. I came across something interesting in my study for this sermon. Some, like Thomas E. Schmidt, believe that Mark’s account, the details he highlights, deliberately portray the crucifixion in terms of a Roman Triumph.
In Roman history, generals who achieve great victories were awarded a triumph, a ceremonial parade to mark their greatness. When the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire, the triumph became the exclusive right of the Emperor. So Mark is going to show that the crucifixion of Jesus is the very mark of Jesus’ triumph and coronation as King!
Let’s take this section by section and I will show you what I mean.
And the soldiers led him away inside the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters), and they called together the whole battalion. And they clothed him in a purple cloak, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on him. And they began to salute him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they were striking his head with a reed and spitting on him and kneeling down in homage to him. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. And they led him out to crucify him.Mark 15:16-20 English Standard Version
The first detail Mark gives us that Jesus was taken by the soldiers to the Praetorium. The ESV translates it as “the governor’s headquarters.” Here’s the thing, why is Mark highlighting that detail? He already said they took him to the palace. Why include this extra bit of information?
A Roman triumph is part military parade and part religious ceremony, and so it starts with the Emperor gathering with the troops. The official troops of the city of Rome who guard the Emperor are called the Praetorian Guard. Mark’s original audience knew this, and Mark is giving a wink and a nudge.
The soldiers place a purple robe or cloak on Jesus. Purple was the color of the aristocracy and the elites. It was also the color of the robe that the Emperor wore in a triumph. In fact, they would take the purple robe that typically dressed the statue of Jupiter, the Roman version of Zeus, the king of the gods in their mythology.
Next they fashioned a crown of thorns. In a triumph, the Emperor wore a crown of laurels. This was the crown of victors whether military or athletic victors. They dress Jesus up and hail Him as King of the Jews, much like they would hail Caesar.
Now the soldiers are doing all this ironically. They are mocking Jesus. But even in their mockery, they are giving Jesus the honor of a King.
And they compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross. 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, casting lots for 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.Mark 15:21-32 English Standard Version
Here we see yet more evidence of a triumph as Jesus is paraded through Jerusalem. Remember triumphs were part military parade and part religious ceremony. The religious ceremony involved a bull that followed along the Emperor. In depictions and art, the bull is accompanied by a man with an axe, the instrument of execution. Here Jesus is the sacrifice, and Simon carries the instrument of execution.
Now maybe you think, “Okay, Sam, that’s all just coincidence.” Maybe, but all of the coincidences start to add up.
They lead Jesus to a hill, Golgotha. Again, Mark adds an aside, a parenthesis, to translate the name for his readers. Why? Why does it matter what Golgotha means? Well, in a Roman triumph, the triumphal parade ends at the temple of Jupiter on Capitaline Hill. Caput is the Latin word for head, so literally “head hill.” Meanwhile, Jesus’ parade ends at Skull Hill.
At the temple, the Emperor would be offered wine, which he would refuse and pour on the ground. Then the bull would be sacrificed. Meanwhile, Jesus is offered wine, and He refuses, and then is crucified.
In a triumph, the Emperor would be flanked by lieutenants on the right and left. Meanwhile, Jesus is flanked by criminals on the right and left. It makes me think of the scene when James and John asked to be at Jesus’ left and right in His glory. Seems like they truly did not understand what they were asking.
So what is the point of all this? Mark is writing to Christians in the heart of the Roman Empire who were declaring allegiance to another King. This allegiance would cost them their lives in the Coliseum and in prison. Would you undergo torture and death for a beaten and executed criminal? But Mark is saying, “Look, the very moment of Jesus’ execution is the moment of His exaltation! Jesus is King, not despite the cross but because of it!”
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.Philippians 2:5-11 English Standard Version
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!”Mark 15:33-39 English Standard Version
Two more connections we need to look at. First, with a triumph, people would look for signs from the gods. Eclipses or other phenomenon that show the Emperor is approved by the gods. Well, yeah, we see signs in Jesus’ triumph. The sky is darkened and the curtain of the temple is torn in two.
And then Jesus cries out this odd phrase, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” There is debate about this. Is Jesus accusing the Father of abandoning Him? I am of the camp that thinks Jesus is quoting from Psalm 22 here. Jesus, with His limited strength left, is telling us that all of this is connected to Psalm 22. Take a moment to read this Psalm in its entirety.
Psalm 22 starts out with a question about God’s presence, but it ends with a declaration of faith in God’s goodness. I do not think Jesus is questioning the Father’s presence on the cross, rather He is referring to a Psalm that declares His faith in the Father’s goodness and His ultimate victory. That ultimate victory comes a few days later.
and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.Romans 1:4 English Standard Version
The ultimate sign pointing to Jesus’ triumph and greatness and kingship is the fact that the tomb is empty.
Mark rightly caps off his account of the crucifixion with the acknowledgment by a Roman soldier no less that Jesus truly is the Son of God.
For the Christians in the Roman Empire, they had to decide. They had to answer the question. Who is your king? Is it Caesar? Or is it Jesus? In the same way, we all have to answer that question. Who is your king? Is there anything or anyone that has priority in your life over Jesus? That is your king. Yet there is only one King who truly deserves to wear the crown, and that is the one who took up the crown of thorns for you.