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“Scorning Jesus”

Mark 15:1-32
Bob DeGray
May 10, 2009

Key Sentence

The scorn heaped upon Jesus is a measure of how low we are and how far he excels us.


I. Scorned by the Leaders of the Jews (Mark 15:1-5)
II. Scorned by the Crowd (Mark 15:6-14)
III. Scorned by the Romans (Mark 15:15-27)
IV. Scorned by the Crowd (Mark 15:28-30)
V. Scorned by the Leaders of the Jews (Mark 15:31-32)


Atheists and skeptics have scorned Jesus intellectually for centuries. Philosophers like Nietzsche, and others with a naturalistic world view ridicule Christianity. Even so-called biblical scholars want a historical Jesus, without miracles or a resurrection. Robert Funk, founder of the Jesus Seminar, says that “the notion that God interferes with the natural order of things is no longer credible . . . the resurrection of Jesus did not involve the resuscitation of a corpse. Jesus did not rise from the dead at all, except perhaps in some metaphorical sense.”

On a more public, immediate level we had an example this week. The President decided not to have a National Day of Prayer celebration in the White House. His spokes-man said he prays every day but still it felt like he was utterly dismissing any kind of desperate dependence on God in prayer - scorning, perhaps, what Jesus died for.

And it’s worse in the culture at large. Last year an ESPN anchorwoman, Dana Jacobson, publically reviled Jesus. It was at a sports banquet; she was drunk; she repeatedly used a four letter word to attack Jesus. Rap groups and other foul-mouthed artists have been fascinated with this for years. A recent heavy metal album was called ‘Howl Mockery at the Cross’ and one of the songs was ‘Liar of Nazareth’.

In some ways this reaction by skeptics and unbelievers is natural: if someone confronts you with a truth you don’t want to believe, you tend to dismiss them or even attack them. That’s the definition of scorn; “Contempt or disdain felt toward a person or object considered despicable or unworthy” and “The expression of such an attitude in behavior or speech.” As I perused the atheist web sites again this week I found plenty of stuff I didn’t even want to copy or image because the scorn was so bitter.

This bitter scorn has its roots in the life of Jesus himself. Recoiling for every selfish reason against the truth he preached, the people of his own day scorned and despised him. We see this clearly in Mark 15, and as we explore the details of his last trial and crucifixion, we will see the scorn heaped upon Jesus as a measure of how low we are and how far he excels us. My goal this morning is simple: to elevate Jesus in our eyes by seeing how vilely the rest of mankind treats him.

I. Scorned by the Leaders of the Jews (Mark 15:1-5)

We begin where we ended last, as Jesus’ trial moves from Jewish courts to Roman. Mark 15:1-5 Very early in the morning, the chief priests, with the elders, the teachers of the law and the whole Sanhedrin, reached a decision. They bound Jesus, led him away and handed him over to Pilate. 2"Are you the king of the Jews?" asked Pilate. "Yes, it is as you say," Jesus replied. 3The chief priests accused him of many things. 4So again Pilate asked him, "Aren't you going to answer? See how many things they are accusing you of." 5But Jesus still made no reply, and Pilate was amazed.

In chapter 14 Jesus was betrayed by Judas, deserted, arrested, and taken before the Jewish ruling council. There he was falsely accused, reviled, beaten, spit upon and ultimately condemned to death. But the Sanhedrin didn’t have the power to enforce a death sentence: only the Romans could do that; it was one of their most jealously guarded rights. So the Jews had to take Jesus to Pilate, the Roman procurator.

The detail that Jesus was delivered to Pilate early in the morning points to the historical accuracy of Mark’s account. The Sanhedrin had to bring its business to Pilate as soon after dawn as possible, because the Roman working day began early, with trials held shortly after sunrise. If the chief priests had delayed until morning to examine Jesus they would have had to interrupt the Roman’s leisure time.

They had condemned Jesus for blasphemy, but Roman law would not punish that crime. So at the end of their meeting the Sanhedrin decided to hand Jesus over on a charge of treason, insurrection.

This is clear in verse 2, where Pilate’s first question was “Are you the king of the Jews?” The substance of the accusation against him was he claimed to be a king, which Pilate would understand as a zealot insurrectionist.

Because Jesus really was a king, though in a different way, he responded affirmatively to Pilate’s question, but with a reservation and probably a tone of voice that hinted at his different understanding. John gives us a greater level of detail here, and records that Jesus ultimately told Pilate “my kingdom is not of this world.”

As Pilate continues to examine Jesus, these chief priests take the opportunity to heap on further scorn, ‘accusing him of many things’. Luke says they charged him with inciting the people to riot, forbidding payment of taxes to Caesar, claiming to be the king. And Pilate’s response is not so much sympathy with Jesus as it is antagonism and disdain toward the leaders of the Jews he ruled.

So he gives Jesus an opportunity to reply, but to his astonishment Jesus refuses to defend himself. Surrounded by unbelief and hostility he exhibits the exalted sublime silence of God’s suffering servant, revealing a presence and a dignity which amazed Pilate. The contrast is stark: Jesus refusing to lower himself to the level of his shrill accusers, refusing to explain how badly their scornful charges distorted his teaching and character.

II. Scorned by the Crowd (Mark 15:6-14)

But the chief priests were not the only ones guilty of scorning Jesus. The entire population of Jerusalem joined in this guilt. Verses 6-14: Now it was the custom at the Feast to release a prisoner whom the people requested. 7A man called Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising. 8The crowd came up and asked Pilate to do for them what he usually did. 9"Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?" asked Pilate, 10knowing it was out of envy that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him.

11But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead. 12"What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?" Pilate asked them. 13"Crucify him!" they shouted. 14"Why? What crime has he committed?" asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, "Crucify him!"

Pilate didn’t believe Jesus was guilty, but rather than appear soft he decided to take the easy way out by offering Jesus to the will of the people. Mark explains that it was the custom at the feast to release a prisoner of the crowd’s choice. a practice with precedent elsewhere in the Empire. Pilate may have thought the people would ask for Jesus: he’d been highly popular less than a week before at the Triumphal Entry, and since the leaders obviously hated him Pilate thought the crowd would love him.

But there was another popular prisoner, Barabbas who had committed murder as an insurrectionist. He seems to have been something of a hero, his supporters may have already been lobbying for his release. And the chief priests would rather see him go free, though most of the zealots were irreligious, than to have Jesus escape their clutches. So they stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas.

But there was more to it than that. The crowd themselves, the people themselves, had certainly turned against Jesus - they scorned him. Matthew’s account at this point includes one of the most chilling verses in all of Scripture. Matthew 27:25 “And all the people answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’” That’s a heart hardened toward God and toward his anointed. That’s the fulfillment of Isaiah - “he was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering.”

The scorn of the people reaches it’s peak when Pilate asks “What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?” They respond “Crucify him!” Crucifixion was the lowest form of Roman execution, reserved for rebels and murderers who had no citizenship rights.

The crowd could at least have asked that Jesus be killed in a more merciful way, as John was. But their contempt for Jesus consumed them. Pilate says “What crime has he committed?" They shout “Crucify him!”

III. Scorned by the Romans (Mark 15:15-27)

So Jesus has been exposed to the scorn of the crowd; the scorn of the leaders. Every hand among his people is now turned against him. But he didn’t come just for the Jews. John teaches that God loved the world so much that he sent Jesus. We shouldn’t be surprised that the Romans also contributed to this tsunami of scorn. Verses 15-27: Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified. 16The soldiers led Jesus away into the palace (that is, the Praetorium) and called together the whole company of soldiers. 17They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him. 18And they began to call out to him, "Hail, king of the Jews!" 19Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him. Falling on their knees, they paid homage to him. 20And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.

21A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross. 22They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means The Place of the Skull). 23Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it.

24And they crucified him. Dividing up his clothes, they cast lots to see what each would get. 25It was the third hour when they crucified him. 26The written notice of the charge against him read: THE KING OF THE JEWS. 27They crucified two robbers with him, one on his right and one on his left.

Pilate is, above all, a political creature, and even though the righteousness of Jesus has impressed itself on him, he cannot escape his slavery to his office and his own advancement. He cannot risk the anger of the crowd for the sake of doing what is right. In the end fear rules him. He scorns the righteous Jesus and embraces the evil of the Jewish nation, handing Jesus over for flogging and death.

And as for Jesus? Isaiah 50, verse 6, again: “I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.” Flogging was one of the most calculated cruelties in the Roman world. The victim was stripped, bound to a post or a pillar and beaten by his tormentors until his flesh hung in bleeding shreds. The instrument indicated by Mark’s text, the flagellum, was a whip of leather thongs into which were braided many pieces of bone or lead. Men condemned to flaggelation frequently collapsed and died.

Now the focus shifts from the leader of the Gentiles to the people of the Gentiles, just as earlier it had sifted from the leaders of the Jews to the people. Mark is careful to show that all the world participated in scorning Jesus, contributed to his suffering.

He tells us that “The soldiers led Jesus away into the palace (that is, the Praetorium) and called together the whole company of soldiers.” There they mocked his presumed claim to be a king. They put on him some tattered purple robe, in mockery of the purple worn by the Roman emperors and by their vassal kings. They made him a crown from some thorny plant, not just as an instrument of torture but as a mockery of the crowns worn by emperors and kings.

They spat on him, in mockery of the kiss of homage due a king. They hailed him, in mockery of his subjugation to them. And they brutalized him. Already bleeding, beaten and flogged, they took a rod to his head, possibly the only part not yet laid open. Mark wants us to see the cruelty of men toward Jesus. He wants us to see that both Jews and Romans, both leaders and followers joined in this scornful cruelty.

Having satisfied for the moment their lust for the pain and humiliation, the soldiers carried out Pilate’s final decree, dressing Jesus in his own clothes again and parading him through the streets carrying the heavy cross-piece from which he was to hang.

But after all the abuse Jesus was already close to death, too weak to stagger forward under the beam. Finally the soldiers co-opted a man from Cyrene and forced him to carry it. This man, or at least his sons, apparently became known in the church, for he is carefully identified, and it may be his son Rufus is mentioned in Romans 16:13.

Eventually they arrive at the place of crucifixion, Golgotha, an Aramaic word which Mark translates for his Greek readers: ‘the Place of the Skull’. The exact location of the crucifixion is disputed. The traditional site, now marked by a church, is east of the city. Recently a site to the north has been found which many think a better choice. But the city has grown in 2000 years; both sites are now inside the city walls. At the time this skull hill was outside the walls and the author of Hebrews tells us that just as the bodies of sacrifice animals were burned outside the camp, so also “Jesus suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood.”

Verse 23: “Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it.” According to an old tradition, respected women of Jerusalem provided a narcotic drink to those condemned to crucifixion in order to decrease their sensitivity to the excruciating pain. Jesus bore that pain, and because he did not wish to desensitize himself to the sufferings appointed to him, he refused the narcotic wine.

Like the other Gospels, Mark records the fact of the crucifixion with utmost restraint. The details would be well known in the Roman world and did not need elaboration. The victim’s arms were stretched out and nailed or tied to the beam he had carried. This cross piece was then raised and fitted to a stake already sunk into the earth.

The feet were nailed. A block of wood about halfway up provided a little support, and to the cross was nailed the placard containing the charge against the criminal.

In June of 1968 a team of Israeli scholars opened a tomb which had been sealed since sometime around the time of Christ. Among the remains were those of an individual whose lower calf bones had been broken and whose heel bones had been transfixed with a single iron nail; clear evidence of the historicity of the Gospel accounts.

Crucifixion was essentially death by exhaustion. The use of nails was a mixed curse, they heightened the pain, but the increased bleeding made death come mercifully faster. Where ropes were used men sometimes lived several days. The victim was unable to breathe. He had to painfully pull himself up to get each breath. For someone as physically abused as Jesus, death could easily come in hours, but when the Romans wanted to hasten a death, they would break the victims legs with an iron club.

Roman legal texts confirm that the executioner’s squad had claim on the minor possessions of the victim. In Jesus’ case this was just his clothing; outer garment, belt sandals, possibly a head covering. For these items the soldiers cast lots, oblivious to the fact that their gambling fulfilled the ancient prophecy of Psalm 22:18 “They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.”

Having noted most of the scorn heaped on Jesus by the Gentiles, Mark summarizes a few further details in verses 25 to 27: “It was the third hour when they crucified him. 26The written notice of the charge against him read: THE KING OF THE JEWS; and 27They crucified two robbers with him, one on his right and one on his left.” Each of these quick facts anticipates something that Mark will come back to later.

IV. Scorned by the Crowd (Mark 15:28-30)

We’ve seen that both Jews and Gentiles scorn Jesus; both the leaders of the Gentiles and the common soldiers of the Gentiles contribute to his suffering, to his degradation, to the scorn that is heaped upon him. The death that he is dying is the culmination of that scorn. But Mark doesn’t want to end with the idea that the fault or the cruelty or the fulfillment of the Scriptures was entirely in the hands of the Romans, so he comes back briefly to the Jewish people and then to the Jewish leaders.

Verses 29-30: Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, "So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, 30come down from the cross and save yourself!" You’ll notice I didn’t include verse 28. All the early manuscripts leave this verse out, and it’s reasonable to think scribes who commented on Mark’s text put a note in the margin, probably quoting Luke 22:37. This was later incorporated in the text, a very common phenomenon in copying.

Verse 29 tells us that the Jewish people continued to heap scorn on Jesus; they hurled their insults at him; shook their heads at him in frustrated disgust. To the people, Jesus was the furthest thing from what they had hoped for: they wanted a militant conqueror; Jesus was a weak failure. They remembered, inaccurately, Jesus’ comments on the destruction of the temple, how he would rebuild it in three days. That, they thought, would be the kind of power a Messiah should display. But Jesus could not even come down from the cross. So they scorned and dismissed him.

V. Scorned by the Leaders of the Jews (Mark 15:31-32)

Verse 31: In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. "He saved others," they said, "but he can't save himself! 32Let this Christ, this King of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe." Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him.

Here they are again, these chief priests and teachers of the law. They mocked Jesus in chapter 14, they mocked him at the beginning of this chapter and now they mock him with scorn. Can’t you just see them, standing at the foot of the cross, exchanging snide remarks? Doesn’t it make your blood boil? These urbane, cool, confident killers mocking the one they were killing, the one who had come to save?

Like the passers–by, they mocked the powerlessness of the one on the cross. When they refer to others he had ‘saved’ they are probably thinking of Jesus’ healing ministry, but Mark intends his readers to take the words in their spiritual sense. Thus the scorn of verse 31 expresses a profound truth: if Jesus was to fulfill his mission on behalf of men he could not save himself from the suffering appointed by God.

There is cruel sarcasm in the challenge “come down now” which throws into bold relief Jesus’ helplessness, while the addition ‘that we may see and believe’ clothes their taunt in the rotten rags of the hypocritical piety. The contempt shown by these leaders undoubtedly encourages the two others who were crucified there to join in, though we know that ultimately one of them repented and came to faith in Jesus.

So what have we seen? Let me repeat the dictionary definition of scorn: it is contempt or disdain felt toward a person or object considered despicable or unworthy. Further, it is the expression of such an attitude in behavior or speech. Everybody in this text expresses contempt, disdain and mockery of Jesus. This is what was prophesied in Psalm 22: “All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads.”

So what are we supposed to do with this? Let me propose two different thought and heart projects that you could do, growing out of this text. The first is to examine yourself for scorn: is there anything in your life that expresses, in attitude, behavior or speech, a disdain for Jesus? Do you show disdain in the amount of time, energy or focus that you give him? Do you show disdain by agreeing in silence to the world’s evaluations of him?

Do you show disdain by the contrast between what you say about Jesus and how you treat others? We did this exercise last week with other attitudes, but I think having you go home and do this would be profitable.

Second thought and heart project: exalt Jesus by comparing him to other men. Everyone else, in all chapter 14 and these verses of chapter 15 has shown themselves to be sinners and scorners. Mark does this on purpose so we’ll see the contrast with the righteousness of Christ. Study Scripture and see if there is anyone in biblical history who occupies this niche of sinless suffering servant. You won’t find one. You’ll find some role models, and they’re good to study, but you won’t find anyone who lives without sin and dies as a sacrifice - except this one silent righteous Savior.

In the same way if you compare even the best of men, the William Wilberforces and George Washington Carvers and Mother Theresas of the world, compare them to Jesus and you will find that they are only pointers in his direction - they do not match his righteousness. The scorn heaped upon Jesus is a measure of how low we are and how far he excels us. He alone is worthy.