Matthew 27 and Mark 15 are almost identical, but with certain significant differences. I have already given a complete run-down of the Matthew chapter, so I will not repeat myself here. Matthew contains extra material of mainly Jewish interest:
- The fate of Judas Iscariot;
- The overt rejection of Jesus’ Messiahship by the Jewish people, ending with the phrase: “His blood be upon us and upon our children”;
- The supernatural resurrection events in the Holy City after Jesus’ death; and
- The Jewish authorities setting their guard at the sealed tomb.
Marks’ account is relatively short, sharp, and to the point. He doesn’t waste his words; he doesn’t elaborate or dwell on the agony, the gore, or the misery of crucifixion. His Roman readers knew how things worked, in any case. Those of us who wish to discover more about this most depressing of execution methods can find plenty online, including https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crucifixion
For me, it is Mark’s matter-of-fact-ness and his understatement that make this chapter so chilling and powerful. The facts are laid out and the imagination is allowed to roam freely. The reader is invited to ponder what was going on under cover of darkness during those three terrible hours of Jesus’ agony. Even Mark’s own sparse treatment of the mechanics of the process seem to direct us to a far more sinister punishment being suffered by the Victim on that cross. “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21, NASB). Mark states that the crucifixion began at ‘the third hour’ – i.e. 9am in western time. Nothing is mentioned about one of the robbers crucified with him repenting on the cross.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” – the quotation of Psalm 22:1 – sums up what was going on in that darkness. Some of those listening to that whispered cry misheard and thought that Jesus was calling on Elijah’ help. But very quickly, Jesus, having paid the price for the sins of the world, died. It may have been an act of mercy on God the Father’s part, and it may not have been humanly possible to stay alive one minute longer after that unique trial…
“Answer me, O Lord, for Your lovingkindness is good;
According to the greatness of Your compassion, turn to me,
And do not hide Your face from Your servant,
For I am in distress; answer me quickly.
“Oh, draw near to my soul and redeem it;
Ransom me because of my enemies!
You know my reproach and my shame and my dishonour;
All my adversaries are before You.
“Reproach has broken my heart and I am so sick.
And I looked for sympathy, but there was none,
And for comforters, but I found none.
They also gave me gall for my food
And for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.”
(Psalm 69:16-21, NASB)
Mark makes it clear that the first sabbath had not yet begun – but that time was of the essence. Pilate himself was surprised that Jesus had already died and didn’t need to have his legs broken to hasten death. He then allowed Joseph of Arimathea to take charge of the body and to bury it in a rock tomb. The two Marys looked on from afar.
From the vantage point of our carefree Western lives, this chapter seems unimaginably barbaric, and we must wonder how our soft and pampered existence has prepared us for events such as these. (Not well, I think!) Most of our contemporaries in other nations across the globe do have to cope with these things, and we are the fortunate exceptions at present.
One thing that does immediately come across is the seriousness and severity with which the Judge of All the Earth regards sin, and the enormous cost to Jesus of our redemption from it. Perhaps today we would benefit from a greater sense of seriousness and sobriety, and a deeper awareness of eternal issues.
LEVITICUS 21, 22 and 23
If yesterday ended with warnings against injustice, idolatry, and impurity, then today emphasises the more positive aspects of Jewish family and cultural life. The role of the priest was pivotal, and they were expected to live a lifestyle of absolute purity, since they drew as close to the presence and glory of God as was humanly possible. Priests (we see in Chapter 21) could not approach a dead body – unless it was a very close relative – and were restricted in whom they could marry (e.g., no-one divorced or having dabbled in prostitution). High Priests could not even marry a widow, but only a virgin from the tribe of Levi. Their relatives had to be on their best behaviour also! No relative of a priest who was deformed or disabled or diseased was permitted to offer up food to the Lord – although he was allowed to eat of it himself. This seems harsh but it was partly to emphasise ceremonial holiness and a total respect for the glory of God in their midst. In that sense, the insistence on physical purity is not a moral requirement of the Law, but a ceremonial one. It has been fulfilled and dispensed with under the New Covenant in Christ.
More importantly, the animals offered to God had to be in perfect condition to be acceptable as sacrifices and offerings. It was no good offering up the runt of the litter that was half dead already! A sacrifice that cost nothing was, by definition, not a sacrifice!
Chapter 23 lists all the key festivals that Israel was expected to observe. There were three resting events: the weekly Sabbath, the Sabbath Year (see Ch. 25) and the Year of Jubilee (Ch. 25). The aim was rest, not restriction, and was intended to benefit people, animals, the land, and to rebalance the entire economy and the social structures.
Then there were three key festivals that every citizen had to attend: Passover/ Unleavened Bread (in March/April for 8 days); Pentecost (the start of the wheat harvest, in May/June); and Tabernacles (the end of the grape harvest, in Sept/Oct.).
Finally, there were three individual days of special significance: First Fruits (in March/April, to give God the very first of the new year’s crop); Trumpets (in Sept/Oct., which later became the New Year’s Day); and the Day of Atonement, or ‘Yom Kippur’ (Sept/Oct., which was the only one in which fasting was prescribed).
Some additional festivals were added later in Israel’s history, but these are the basic set that God intended them to observe. It is a feature of the kindness and thoughtfulness of God that he chose to break up the monotony of everyday labour and struggle in society by calling his people together to rest, to feast, and to celebrate. Of course, he himself was the focal point of that celebration every time, but he provided a purpose and a beautiful rhythm to Israel’s annual cycle that must have been very pleasant and enjoyable for all. The days, years and Jubilee year of rest were a mercy and a blessing, and indeed, the Jubilee provided a second chance to every citizen from an economic, a social and a spiritual standpoint – there is nothing like this even in our so-called civilised nations today. God really cares!