Mark 15: Unnamed and insignificant

Application

Mark 15 may be one of the most painful and powerful chapters in all of history. After thirty-three-ish years on earth, three and a half years of public ministry, hundreds of miles walked and thousands of lives impacted, Jesus walked one final time, to the cross, where he was crucified for crimes he didn’t commit. For my sins. His act of self-sacrifice, in and of itself, would be painful and powerful, but for me, what accentuates the pain of this chapter is the utter alone-ness which Jesus must have experienced in those final hours of his life. Yes, John records that he and a handful of women were near enough to the cross that Jesus could address them, but here in Mark, we discover that they were the only ones. And that address in John was barely a single moment toward the very end of the hours of Jesus’ trials, the mocking and beating at the hands of the guards, and ultimately, the crucifixion itself. No, for most of this fateful day, Jesus was all alone in a sea of people, forsaken by the fans who had cheered his arrival barely five days earlier and abandoned by virtually everyone who had been counted among his closest friends and followers up til now.

If there is one thing that is made clear in Scriptures, though, it’s that, as bad as things may seem, God always retains a remnant. And so it was, even here, in Mark 15, that three men emerged to follow Jesus even on this dark day. All together, we know virtually nothing for certain of these men except that they appear here, in Mark 15. In fact, of one of them, we don’t even know his name. And yet it was these three men who emerged from the mists of history to become the most prominent followers of Jesus on that day. So let’s take a look at them.

The first was Simon of Cyrene. Aside from the fact that he was from Cyrene and had two sons, Alexander and Rufus, Simon is one of those people whose name appears for one brief instant and then fades once more into the mists of time. From what we learn here in Mark, though, we can draw a couple of conclusions. The first is that he was merely a visitor to Jerusalem. In fact, his hometown of Cyrene was located in what we would call Libya, along the northern shores of Africa. Approximately 400 years earlier, a group of some 100,000 Jews had emigrated to the city and established a colony there. Even four centuries after their emigration, though, these settlers’ commitment to their faith was such that there was a synagogue specifically dedicated to them in Jerusalem. Even so, as a visitor to Jerusalem, Simon may have heard whispers about this Jesus character, but now, as he saw Jesus being prodded his way, with the massive beam of a cross lashed to his shoulders, stumbling and weaving, his eyes rolling back into his head from physiological shock, Simon tried to duck into the crowd and out of the way. When Jesus stumbled and collapsed once more, right at his feet, though, the guard acted quickly. With a swift kick to Jesus’ ribs, the guards communicated their displeasure, but when Jesus merely winced, refusing to curse or even spit angrily at the men, Simon hesitated. And then came the gruff finger. The guard wanted Simon to assume the cross.

Compared to the other two men being led out at the same time, Simon noticed immediately that Jesus was in far worse shape. He could hardly walk. And during the eternity it took to get to Golgotha, Simon quickly became transfixed. As the hammer clanked, pushing the nails through Jesus’ flesh and into the beam, Simon found himself fixed to the very spot. And over the next hours, as his precious boys clung to his side, stained with Jesus’ blood, he found himself in the shoes of Abraham that day with Isaac on the mount. Kneeling beside his sons, Alexander pointed to Jesus and said to Alexander and Rufus, “Behold, God has provided the Lamb.”

The impact of Simon will probably never be known. But if tradition is true – and there is good reason to believe it is – his sons did eventually missionaries because of what Simon did that day. At any rate, Simon’s impact must have been dramatic. After all, you don’t get mentioned in the Bible, much less Mark, if you didn’t do anything of consequence!

The second minor player who appears on the scene is a true unknown soldier. After years of service to the empire, this unnamed man had fought in countless battles, quite possibly throughout the known world. He was a seasoned. Battle-hardened. And yet, in those final moments of Jesus’ life, as he took custody of the man who should have been just another prisoner, there was something different. The other two hanging on crosses that day were known criminals. The only charge that accompanied this guy was that he supposedly claimed to be king of the Jews. The other two had to be pushed and prodded all the way out to Golgotha and finally drug, literally kicking and screaming, to their fate. This guy, bloodied as he was, staggered silently, almost voluntarily. The others screamed in agony and rage as the nails were driven home. This guy merely winced. And then there were his eyes. In stark contrast to the blind hatred that the other Jews had for him, and even the absolute indifference that the Roman soldiers displayed as they divided up his clothes, this guy’s eyes were filled for compassion. Everything about his actions and mannerisms as he hung were wrong. He wasn’t supposed to be there.

And then there was the darkness. The centurion hadn’t paid much heed to the rumors about this guy being the son of God, but the darkness… that was weird. Then, when he cried out and died, just a few hours into what should have taken days, it was disconcerting. And when, in that same instant that this guy died the earth quaked beneath him and more, the time-tested, battle-hardened, Gentile centurion was convinced. There could be no other conclusions. This man was – he just had to be – the Son of God.

Finally, enter Joseph of Arimathea. For months, even years, he had followed Jesus at a distance. A wealthy businessman and respected member of the synagogue, he had reserved judgment about Jesus when all of his friends deemed him a hack. Too much of what Jesus said just made sense. And those miracles were impossible to deny. In fact, while all his associates conspired to see Jesus killed, Joseph found himself compelled to believe that he had to be the messiah. More than that, he had to be the Son of God. It was the only viable option. And strangely, even Jesus’ death didn’t dissuade him from this.

So when Joseph saw that Jesus had died, shocking as it was, Joseph went straight to Pilate. Mark tells us that he “went boldly,” but I find myself wondering exactly what that means. Did he walk in and demand loudly and bluntly that Pilate release Jesus’ body to him? Or was it bold enough that he merely entered the palace despite the Jewish taboos about being unclean and all for the Passover? I don’t know. But I do know that it was quite the risk. Pilate had a reputation for brutality. Simply marching into his palace without an invitation could have been lethal. The synagogue leaders would surely shun him for touching a dead body and making himself unclean. And if they pressed the matter, they could string Joseph up for sympathizing with Jesus.

But none of that mattered. After following in the shadows for so long, Joseph chose this critical moment to take the risk, make the plunge, and step out into the light as a follower of Jesus, regardless of what it would cost him.

It is interesting that, through this entire chapter, not one of Jesus so-called disciples appear, but each of these three get a significant block. And their contributions here seem so insignificant – Simon carried the cross for a few moments, the centurion confessed that this was the Son of God, and Joseph loaned a dead man a tomb, but Mark considered two of them so significant that he even recorded their names for all posterity.

Here’s why I think this is absolutely awesome: it means that even people and actions that normal people wouldn’t even afford a footnote in history can play a significant role in God’s plan. If that’s true, then I can play a significant role in God’s plan even if our church never becomes a burgeoning mega-congregation with weekly Pentecost-like experiences, we never become rich and/or famous people of tremendous influence over the masses and the ears of every world leader, and I never become the great preacher whose very shadow people long to touch. And if that’s true, then maybe it’s not just the “big” things that merit a place in God’s record books. Maybe it’s just my place, where I’m being obedient to what I know is His will for me, whatever (read that, however small or big) that may be.

Notes

  • (1) Just like the times I’ve been in the parking lot waiting for the local grocery store, etc., to open, I imagine this is what the leaders were up to. They were waiting with Jesus on Pilate’s doorstep so that they could rush in and be first in line the moment the palace opened for business.
  • (8) It is interesting that Mark records that it was at the crowd’s request that Pilate even considered releasing a prisoner. They wanted someone out of prison, as long as it wasn’t Jesus. From prince to utterly forsaken in 5 days.
  • (15) Once again, we see that Mark continues his rapid-fire pace. He skips over a significant number of details that the later gospel writers, Matthew, Luke, and John, would pick up. What we do have, though, is the essential thrust of the account. Pilate gave in to the people and handed him over to be crucified. So much for justice.
  • (21) Imagine it. Simon of Cyrene had come to Jerusalem all the way from northwestern Africa to mark the Passover, and now, here he was thrust into the headlights of history to carry the cross of a man he had likely just heard about. He had never intended to be in that place, at that time, and yet Mark records his name, presumably because it would have been recognized by his readers. Indeed, a number of scholars even suggest that the Rufus mentioned in Romans 16:13 was Simon’s son, and one ossuary found in a Kidron Valley tomb bore two inscriptions reading “Alexander son of Simon,” suggesting that, if this was the Alexander mentioned here, Simon’s son would eventually grow up to be men of some standing. In fact, tradition holds that Alexander and Rufus became missionaries.
  • (39) All it took to convince this centurion supervising the crucifixion was to hear the cry and see how Jesus died. Indeed, while Mark skips details like the earthquake that coincided, etc., it would have been difficult to not be convinced. Even after all the mocking, even with Jesus dead on the cross, the battle-hardened, Gentile centurion believed.
  • (43) After following Jesus for some time from the shadows, Joseph finally emerges to announce that he, too, was a believer. But he didn’t do it in a quiet sort of way. Rather, he went “boldly to Pilate.” There comes a time when we must decide whether we’re in or out, and from then on, we must be bold about it.
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