As promised, here is the next instalment in the gospel book you’re helping me write. I felt a bit excited and daunted at the same time working on this draft. There’s nothing more bracing than writing about the death of Jesus, but I also couldn’t escape the feeling of not wanting to muck this up. We’re getting to the heart of things; this has to be good!
I’m not sure whether it is yet, but I’m sure you’ll help me figure that out.
Just a quick recap: this chapter is based on Point 4 of the Two Ways to Live outline:
Because of his love, God sent his Son into the world: the man Jesus Christ.
Jesus always lived under God’s rule.
But Jesus took our punishment by dying in our place.
The first instalment dealt with the opening two statements, under headings of ‘His arrival’ and ‘His life’. This second part of the chapter is about ‘his death’.
You can read the text below, or listen via the audio player above, or you can also download a PDF of the chapter, which is easier for printing and for referring to specific lines and paragraphs.
If you’ve never really read one of the Gospels, you might assume that they are mainly about Jesus’ teaching and parables and miracles. That it’s all good Samaritans and prodigal sons and walking on water.
There is certainly quite a bit of that.
But as biographies the four Gospels are strangely lopsided. They say very little about Jesus’ birth and early life (Mark and John don’t mention these subjects at all). They ignore his adolescence and young adulthood entirely. They recount in snapshot fashion the key events of his public ministry that took place over an approximately three year period—his teachings and parables, his healings and mighty works, his clashes with the religious authorities.
But then the narrative slows right down. Each of the Gospels spends chapter after chapter recounting in depth the final days of Jesus’ life, and in particular the details of his betrayal, trial and humiliating death. It’s as if the events of Jesus’ arrival and extraordinary life are an extended introduction. The real action of the story is the death of the hero.
If this seems strange to you, then join the party. It was also very confusing for Jesus’ disciples.
Throughout the Gospels, they become increasingly convinced that Jesus is the One—the Messiah-king or ‘Christ’ whom God had sent to save his people and rule the world. About half way through Mark’s Gospel, Jesus comes straight out and asks his disciples who they think he is.
Peter answers with a directness that is typical of him, “You are the Christ” (Mark 8:29).
You would think this might be the climax of the story. After seven chapters of following him around and watching everything, and not always covering themselves in glory, the disciples have finally done something right. They have realised who Jesus is, and said so. Bells pealing. Fireworks going off.
Jesus responds in an unexpected way. He starts by strictly commanding them not to tell anyone else what they’ve come to know about him—which seems odd. Doesn’t he want people to know that God has sent his Christ into the world?
And then he explains to them that he must “suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31).
This is even stranger. Jesus not only wants to be an anonymous, under-the-radar sort of Christ, but he insists that the Christ is going to rejected and killed by the key religious leaders of the Jewish people—the very people you would expect to welcome the Christ with fanfare and festivals.
Peter is incredulous and takes Jesus aside and starts telling him off. To which Jesus gives the famous reply, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Mark 8:33).
I can’t help feeling a bit sorry for Peter. He has, after all, just gotten something right for pretty much the first time in the Gospel story so far. He has recognized that Jesus is the long-promised Saviour-King. And understandably, he thinks that everything is on the up and up. All that remains is for Jesus to be anointed King, to defeat all Israel’s enemies (like the occupying Romans), to establish a new, glorious kingdom, and for everything generally to be hotsy-totsy.
This is what any of us would have expected a glorious Christ-Saviour-King to do. What’s the point of waiting centuries for the Messiah to turn up, only for him to say, “Oh and by the way, they’re all going to hate me and kill me”? It seems crazy.
And from a human point of view it is. This was Jesus’ rebuke to Peter: you’re thinking along human lines, not along God-type lines. God has a completely different plan for what his Christ will do, and how he will establish his kingdom.
That plan unfolds over the following eight chapters of Mark’s Gospel. As Jesus heads towards Jerusalem and towards the final week of his life, two things increase in intensity—the angry opposition of the religious authorities, and Jesus’ predictions about his impending death.
Twice more he takes his disciples aside and tells them that when they get to Jerusalem he is going to be humiliated, tortured and killed. The disciples remain dumbfounded, and continue to make stupid comments.
In chapter 10, for example, just after Jesus has again predicted his death, the brothers James and John take him aside and ask him a favour: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mark 10:37). When you do become the glorious king, which we’re sure is still going to happen somehow, can we be your Deputy King 1 and Deputy King 2? What about it?
(A Jewish friend of mine once commented: “Talk about a pair of pushy Jews!”)
Jesus gently rebukes James and John by suggesting that they don’t really know what they’re asking for. There will be two spots available, as it turns out, one on his right and one on his left, when he is crucified a few short days later. Are those the positions they’re asking for?
But then he explains in the clearest words so far what he has been talking about all this time. His kingship, his Christ-hood, is not the kind of rule or lordship that we specialise in as humans—the kind that we know so well from history and from our current political leaders; the kind that is lordly and arrogant and obsessed with power. It’s quite different.
“You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 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 10:42-45).
In the kingdom of Jesus, greatness is servitude. And this is from the king all the way down. For even the king himself, the Christ, the ‘Son of Man’ (as Jesus was fond of calling himself), “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”.
Jesus is the greatest, and he undertakes the greatest possible service—to give up his life as a payment or price or ransom for many others. The reason for his approaching death was not only going to be the growing hostility of the religious authorities. In some way, it was also going to be a ‘payment’. It was going to be a ransom that set people free.
If James and John and the other disciples were good readers of their Bibles—which at the time consisted of what we now call the Old Testament—they would have known exactly what Jesus was talking about.
Scattered in plain sight throughout the Old Testament are numerous events, laws and prophecies that foreshadow just such an idea. The Old Testament promised that when God finally fixed everything up, and established a new kingdom through his Messiah-Christ-King, he would need to deal with the fundamental human problem—the problem of humanity’s rebellion against him as our Creator and Ruler, with all its consequences.
This takes us back to chapters 1-3 of this book, and why they are such essential background for understanding the message of Christianity. The death of Jesus was God’s answer to problem of human rebellion against him.
Perhaps the most famous Old Testament passage about this is one we’ve already looked at. Back in chapter 2, we quoted the prophet Isaiah describing our basic rejection of God like this:
We all like sheep have gone astray; each of us has turned to his own way … (Isaiah 53:6)
But those three dots at the end of that quote indicate that the sentence is not finished. The whole sentence reads:
We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
Iniquity is not the most common word these days. I’ve been known to describe the cost of toll roads in Sydney as ‘iniquitous’. And cheap, low-life, degenerate establishments are sometimes called ‘dens of iniquity’.
But the general idea is straightforward enough. It means something grossly wrong or guilty or wicked.
God has laid on ‘him’ (in this quote) the guilt and wrongdoing of us all.
We know all about the guilt and wrongdoing (see chapter 2). And we know that the rightful sentence against us is death (see chapter 3).
But who is the ‘him’ that all this iniquity is laid upon?
In the rest of the extraordinary prophecy of Isaiah, it becomes very plain who it is. It’s a prophecy about a ‘servant’ who will come to save God’s people. Here are some of the verses that lead up to the quote above, and then follow on from it:
See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.
Just as there were many who were appalled at him — his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness—so he will sprinkle many nations, and kings will shut their mouths because of him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says that he is a servant, who will be rejected by men and die as a ransom for many, and that after that he will ‘rise’ to glory. It could not be plainer that he sees himself fulfilling the words of this ancient promise.
God’s extraordinary plan was to send his own Son into the world as a servant, to die as a substitute for rebels like us. Jesus died so that our iniquity might be laid on him.
The logic of the whole thing is stunning and humbling. It goes like this:
We all rebel against God as our Creator and Ruler. We all deserve his judgement. We all deserve death.
Jesus was a man, but never rebelled against God. He didn’t deserve any judgement or any death.
But Jesus did willingly and deliberately die at the hands of rebellious humanity.
Jesus died not for his own rebellion but for ours.
He died to take upon himself the punishment we deserved. He died as a ransom for many.
This is what happened when a man named Jesus died by crucifixion on a hill outside Jerusalem in 33AD, and it is no wonder that the day of his death became known as ‘Good Friday’. It’s no wonder that the cross became the centre and symbol of Christianity, and that as Christianity grew and shaped Western civilisation, the concept of humble, sacrificial service became a central value of our culture.
The death of Jesus on behalf of rebels is the glorious and confounding twist that dominates the Gospel narratives. His death was no accident, and no failure. It was the supreme act of love—God sending his Son to die as our substitute, to die the death that we deserved, so that we could be set free from death and judgement.
But what does this ‘freedom’ mean? What are the consequences and implications of Jesus’ death?
To answer this, and to arrive at the final climactic truth of the Christian message, we turn to the even more extraordinary event that comes three days after Jesus’ death.
As usual, send your comments and feedback to email@example.com, or jot them in the comment section on the website.
Once again, a huge thank you to the many of you who’ve been sending in feedback and ideas as the instalments have rolled out. Apologies that I haven’t been able to respond individually to you all (as I normally do with the emails I get)—but there are just too many!