Monday, March 09, 2009

Mark 15:37-39 -- The Miracles of the Cross

Imagine with me a Roman soldier recently deployed to Jerusalem before the middle of the first century. Upon arriving there, he sees the most amazing building he’s ever laid eyes on. It is Herod’s Temple. So massive and incredible is this structure that it had been under construction for nearly 50 years at that time and it still wasn’t finished. The historian Josephus described it, saying, “Now the outward face of the temple in its front wanted nothing that was likely to surprise either men's minds or their eyes; for it was covered all over with plates of gold of great weight, and, at the first rising of the sun, reflected back a very fiery splendor, and made those who forced themselves to look upon it to turn their eyes away, just as they would have done at the sun's own rays. But this temple appeared to strangers, when they were coming to it at a distance, like a mountain covered with snow; for as to those parts of it that were not gilt, they were exceeding white.” Gazing at this magnificent building, this soldier stops a Jewish man and says, “Hey, what’s that?” The man tells the soldier, “That’s our temple. That is where we go to worship our God.” The soldier says, “Wow. That is amazing. Can I go there and see it?” And the Jewish man says, “Well, you can go there, but you can only look at the outside. You see, you are a Gentile. You can only access certain outer courts of the temple. If you wanted to get closer than that, why, you’d have to be born again—born to Hebrew parents. That’s the only way to get a closer look.”

The soldier, looking dejected, says, “What’s inside that big part there in the middle?” The man says to him, “That’s the holy place. Inside there is a great golden candle-stand, and a table of very special bread that has been prepared, and a golden altar where incense is burned as our prayers ascend to God.” The soldier says, “Oh, I wish I could be born again as a Hebrew man so I could go in and see that! I would like to smell that incense and eat that bread and light one of those candles.” But the Jewish man says, “Well, actually, I can’t even go in and see that. The only way you could get in there is if you were born again – born to the tribe of Levi and the family of Aaron so you could be one of our priests.” The soldier, even more dejected, says, “Is there anything else inside there?”

The man replies, “Oh wow, I haven’t even told you the best part yet. Inside that holy place there is a massive tapestry curtain, and behind that veil is what we call ‘the most holy place.’” The soldier exclaims, “The MOST Holy Place! What on earth is in there?” The man explains to him that in there once stood the ark of the covenant. He explains to the soldier how this box had been made of wood during the Exodus and covered with gold and how it was adorned on top with two large golden angels. He tells him that inside that box was the rod of Aaron that had budded in Egypt; the tablets of the ten commandments God had given them at Sinai, and a jar of manna that God had provided in the wilderness. And he tells this soldier how during the days of old, God used to dwell between the angels on the top of that box in the form of a pillar of a cloud by day and fire by night. And though the ark had disappeared after the Babylonian siege nearly 600 years earlier, he tells him that for most Jewish people, that space is still considered to be the very presence of God. “Wow!” the soldier says with excitement. “I wish I could be born again as one of your priests so I could enter into God’s presence. Why, I’d go in that room every morning and stay all day! I’d even sleep there if they would let me so I could just live in the presence of God.” Now looking dejected himself, the Jewish man says, “Well, actually, most of our priests never even get to peek inside behind that veil. If you wanted to get in there, you’d have to be born again—you’d have to be our high priest! And even then you could only go in one time a year, on the Day of Atonement when the high priest takes the blood of the sacrifice to sprinkle in there for all of our sins. And he can only go in after very careful preparations have been made, and only for a very short time.” Sadly the soldier thanks the Jewish man for his time, and they both walk away. Is there no hope? Is there no help? Is there no way to ever be in God’s presence?(*)

Humanity has since the Garden of Eden been in a state of rebellion against our Maker. Every one of us is born in sin and chooses to live in sin. And that sin keeps us separated from God. Sin is the reason that temple was built, and the reason that veil was hung. God cannot allow sin into His presence. And man can do nothing to get himself out of his sinful state. Is there no help? Is there no hope?
Jesus said that He had come to give His life as a ransom. Mark tell us here that as He died, He uttered a loud cry. His actual dying words are recorded in John 19:30—“It is finished!” One Greek word underlies these three English words: Tetelestai. In saying this, Jesus was announcing that in His death, the redemption of humanity from sin had been accomplished. This Greek word was also written on business documents or receipts in ancient times to show that a bill had been “paid in full.” The ransom had been paid in full. The death of Jesus Christ upon the cross marked the completion of the ultimate sacrifice for the sins of humanity, for there the sinless Son of God became the substitute who died in the place of every sinner who has ever lived or ever will. Jesus received in our place the full outpouring of the judgment of God that our sins deserve so that we can be forgiven and reconciled to our Maker.
This fact is attested at the moment of Jesus’ death by two divine miracles recorded in this passage. The first is the miracle in the sanctuary, and the second is the miracle in the soldier. These are the miracles of the cross.

I. When Jesus died on the cross, there was a miracle in the sanctuary (v38).

We are told that Jesus died around the ninth hour, which would be about 3 pm. At the very moment when Jesus died, across town at the Temple something very significant was going on. The first century Jewish historian Josephus tells us that two sacrifices were conducted every day: one in the morning and one at about the ninth hour. And as the officiating priest entered the sanctuary of the temple to burn the incense and perform his other sacred duties at this time, he would have beheld something that would have absolutely blown his mind.

The veil that separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies was no living room drapery. It measured 60 feet in height by 30 feet wide. It was said to be as thick as the palm of a man’s hand and so heavy that it took a multitude of priests to manipulate it. This veil served one purpose. It was a loud and clear declaration that God is holy and set apart from sinful humanity. It announced to everyone near and far, “STAY OUT OF MY PRESENCE.” If you enter into that place, you better be the foremost priest of all, and you better come on the holiest day of all, and you better bring the blood with you, and you better not stay long. The whole sacrificial system of that Temple revolved around that understanding. But when Jesus died, that old system met its expiration date. No longer would any man, woman or child come to God by that way again.

When Jesus died, a miracle happened in that sanctuary. The officiating priest, entering into burn the incense at the time of the evening sacrifice, would have beheld that veil ripped in half. No man could have torn it. A yoke of oxen couldn’t have torn that thing. With the sharpest of implements, you probably couldn’t make a dent in the bottom of it, but if you did, it would have never reached the top. And yet, when Jesus died, this veil was completely torn asunder from the top to the bottom. It had been torn by God Himself. Because of the death of Jesus, there is no more need for sprinkling the blood of bulls and goats. Every one of them that had died had been an advance preview of what Christ would do in the ultimate sacrifice. His own blood had been shed once and for all. Because of the death of Jesus, there is no more need for a day of atonement. All of those old Jewish festivals and feast days had been but types and shadows of what Jesus would do on that most holy day as He died. Because of the death of Jesus, there is no more need for a priesthood because He has become our High Priest, representing us before God and representing God before us. Because of the death of Jesus, that veil that says “KEEP OUT!” has been rendered totally unnecessary. God’s presence is no longer cordoned off by an impenetrable veil but rather is freely entered into through an open door. In the shredded fragments of that veil, God was saying to all who might see or hear of it, “COME IN.” The price of redemption from sin has been paid in full, forgiveness and reconciliation are made possible, and Christ (!) has become the door we enter through into God’s holy presence. Because of Jesus’ death, there was a miracle in the sanctuary that opened the way into God’s presence.

But then there was another miracle in the moment as Jesus died.

II. When Jesus died on the cross, there was a miracle in the soldier (v39).

The centurion who Mark mentions here in this verse was not someone who just happened to be passing by. He was on duty. He was “standing right in front of” Jesus as He died. A centurion was a commander of 100 men, and undoubtedly this man was in command of the death squad. He was the overseer of all that had been done to Jesus that day. Likely he had been present earlier in the morning when Jesus had been beaten, scourged and mocked. He may have even been giving the orders to those who tortured Him. He had likely accompanied Jesus as He was marched toward Golgotha. He may have even been the one who commanded Simon of Cyrene to carry Jesus’ cross. And he was certainly there, giving the orders, when Jesus was nailed to the cross. Undoubtedly, this centurion had witnessed more than his share of crucifixions. Hard as it may seem to fathom, he may have become numb to the sights and sounds of watching men die in this way. The entire ordeal had probably become routine to him. When this day began, Jesus was just another hoodlum being taken out to die. But something happened in the heart of this centurion as the day went on.

While on duty in Jerusalem, this centurion had probably learned something about the one true God and the beliefs of the Jewish people. With all the commotion going on in Jerusalem over the preceding week, he had probably been alerted to who Jesus was and why all the controversy had been swirling around Him in and around the temple. He may have even overheard Him teaching at some point. He had seen the charges inscribed—“King of the Jews.” He may have even witnessed or learned of the High Priest’s interrogation about Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God. But Mark says that when this centurion saw the way that Jesus had breathed His last, his heart was changed. He’d seen many die upon crosses, but this one was different. When this man died, darkness covered the whole land. Other gospel writers tell us that there was an earthquake that took place. No one else had ever cried out while the nails were being driven into their flesh and bone, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” As the centurion watched Jesus die, the Holy Spirit of God began to move upon the centurion’s heart to reveal spiritual truth to him, and in that moment he was converted. He said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”

This is the climactic moment of the Gospel of Mark. The book began in Mark 1:1 declaring that this is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As Jesus emerged from the baptismal waters of the Jordan, the heavens opened. The Greek word Mark uses in 1:10 of the opening of the heavens is the same word that he uses in 15:38 to describe the tearing of the veil of the temple. And when the heavens opened, God the Father had audibly declared from the heavens, “You are My beloved Son.” When the temple veil opened, a sinful human declared for the first time in this Gospel, “He was the Son of God.” Who better could typify the sinfulness of humanity than the commanding officer who had carried out the murder of Jesus? Who better could represent the fact that Jesus died for our sins than this man who had ordered the driving of the nails? And as he considered the death of Jesus with all of its accompanying phenomena, the Spirit of God convicted him of the truth about Jesus and of his own sin, this centurion came to faith in Christ. He had been born again. So you and I find ourselves guilty because of our sins of the death of Jesus. It was my sins that drove the nails. It was your sins that put Him on the cross. We are like that centurion. And like that centurion, we stand in front of Him watching Him die for us, and the Spirit of God begins to deal with our hearts about the matter. He is drawing us to faith. Will we confess Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of God, our Lord and Savior and be born again to new life in Him?

Born-again! Yes! The veil opened and access granted to enter into God’s presence. But how? How have such miracles happened? They have happened through the death of Jesus Christ. The writer of Hebrews employs the themes we have read about here in this brief passage repeatedly in that wonderful New Testament letter. He tells us in Hebrews 6:19-20, “This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil, where Jesus has entered as a forerunner for us, having become a high priest forever.” Yes because of the high priesthood of Jesus who has stood before God’s wrath in our place and brought us into God’s presence, our souls have been anchored there within the veil. We are eternally secured in the presence of God because Christ. The way has been made for each of us to enter in. You can be born-again by turning from sin and trusting in Christ to save you, and know that the anchor of salvation holds you in His presence eternally.

And Hebrews 10:19-25 even helps us with the practical application of this truth: We read there that “since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus,” … “and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.” The writer of Hebrews would have us to know that because of this access we have to God that Christ has made possible for us, we can remain in close fellowship with Him by faith, fully assured of our redemption and the forgiveness of our sins. And we can steadfast cling to the truth of the gospel and God’s Word, “the confession of our hope without wavering,” because we know that God is faithful. And we can be encouragers of one another, as iron sharpens iron, stirring one another up in the body of Christ to love and to good deeds as we regularly gather together in the fellowship of the church. And so let us do this, in the name and for the sake of Him who died to make the miracle of access to God and salvation from sin possible for us. Ever more so, as we approach the day of His return.

* This story is adapted from a similar one related by John Phillips in Exploring Hebrews.

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