“In Christ Alone”
May 17, 2009
Christ alone, in his historical death paid the full price of our sins.
I. Christ alone (Mark 15:33-36)
II. The price fully paid (Mark 15:37-39)
III. His death witnessed (Mark 15:40-41)
IV. His death sealed (Mark 15:42-47)
I really liked the illustration from children’s corner. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. That’s obvious. And salvation is only as strong as its weakest link. If Christ did ninety-nine percent of what it takes to save us and if every link in that salvation is strong as steel, but the one link we contribute is Play Doh, salvation is hopeless. Only if Christ did a hundred percent of the work of salvation will it be possible to be saved. Our salvation is in Christ alone.
We’ve been studying the crucifixion passages in Mark. Last week in Mark 15 we saw the crucifixion in its historical and physical context: Jesus receiving all the horrors of Roman law and custom; being flogged and nailed and raised up on the cross; being scorned and mocked and physically broken.
But the end of the chapter adds a more theological focus. Mark appears to have two important purposes. One is to establish beyond doubt the historical truth of the death and burial of Christ. The other is to highlight the theological truth of the uniqueness of Christ. Mark is saying that Christ alone, in his historical death, paid the price of our sins. We can, we must trust in Christ because his crucifixion is historically true and because his crucifixion is theologically the only and all-sufficient way to be rescued from sin.
I. Christ alone (Mark 15:33-36)
We’ll focus on the theological truths of the passage. We ended last week at Mark 15:32. We pick up with just verses 33-36: At the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour. 34And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?" -- which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" 35When some of those standing near heard this, they said, "Listen, he's calling Elijah." 36One man ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink. "Now leave him alone. Let's see if Elijah comes to take him down," he said.
The title of this message is also the title of the song we sang a few minutes ago, “In Christ Alone” by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty. ‘In Christ alone my hope is found. He is my light, my strength, my song. This cornerstone, this solid ground, firm through the fiercest drought and storm.’
Verse 2 of the song touches what we saw last week: ‘In Christ alone, Who took on flesh, fullness of God in helpless babe! This gift of love and righteousness, scorned by the ones He came to save.’ We saw that scorn clearly in the first part of chapter 15. Yet that was only the culmination of the process by which Mark deliberately shows the growing isolation of Jesus from all people.
In chapter 14 Jesus was denied, deserted, betrayed, falsely accused and condemned by all the people, each in their own way. Prior to that he was unsupported by his disciples as he prayed in the garden, misunderstood by them in his passion prophecies, and opposed from the beginning by the leaders of his people. So when we sing or say ‘In Christ Alone’ there is really a double meaning. We’re saying that he is the only one who can save’, and according to Mark, we’re saying he did it in utter aloneness, isolation and uniqueness.
And these verses culminate that truth. Mark tells us that darkness came over the land for three hours, from around noon until the death of Jesus. Those looking for naturalistic explanations of Biblical events are baffled by this darkness, for you cannot have a solar eclipse during the full moon of Passover. It was supernatural darkness, with theological significance.
For example, in Amos God reveals that “In that day I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight.” He goes on to say that that time will be “like mourning for an only son” – which is what God was doing. But at the same time he was bringing a curse, like the plague of darkness that preceded the death of the firstborn in the Exodus.
Darkness in Scripture represents judgment of sin and separation from God. John’s Gospel is full of this imagery. John 3:19 “This is the judgment: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” Jesus himself says “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
But this darkness represents God’s judgment poured out on Christ, because at this moment he is bearing the sin of the world. This is one of the simple, central most awesome truths of Scripture. 1 Peter 2:24 “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness.” 2nd Corinthians 5:21 “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Galatians 3:13 “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree."
R. Kent Hughes, whose commentaries I’ve used throughout this series, describes this moment well: “Wave after wave of men’s sins were poured over Christ’s sinless soul. Again and again during those three hours his soul recoiled and convulsed as all the lies of civilization, the murders of a thousand “Killing Fields,” the whorings of the world’s armies, and the noxious brew of hatreds, jealousies, and pride were poured on his purity.”
“And there is more! Because he became sin for us, he had to undergo separation from God who “is light; in him there is no darkness at all” In the dark of the Cross’s night, Jesus was alone. His separation was not just felt; it was real. The essential unity of the Trinity was not broken, but the separation of the Son from the Father and Spirit was fact. The physical agony was nothing in comparison to the sin which caused him such agony—my sin and yours.”
The black silence goes on for an hour, two. Wave on wave comes to his convulsing soul. At the end of three hours the silence is shattered. Verse 34 “Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Crucifixions were normally punctuated by intermittent raging or pleading or cursing by the crucified. But Jesus suffers silently until this great sad, almost shocking shout from Psalm 22:1. Various attempts have been made to soften the force of this, the most popular being that the quoting of the first verse of a Psalm implies the content of the whole Psalm, and Psalm 22 ends on a triumphant note. But such explanations blunt God’s Word.
Actually, Jesus’ cry expressed unfathomable pain at his real abandonment. John Calvin explains: “Jesus expressed this horror of great darkness, this God-forsakeness, by quoting the only verse of Scripture which actually described it, and which he had perfectly fulfilled.” With perfect integrity Jesus laid bare his soul. Moreover, by repeating “My God, My God” he was affirming even at that moment of anguished separation his ongoing trust in the Father.
The next few verses record the crowd’s response to this cry of desolation. The plea “Eloi, Eloi” was mis-understood or willfully misinterpreted as a cry to Elijah rather than to God. There was a popular belief that Elijah would come in times of critical need to protect the innocent and rescue the righteous.
Perhaps because the cry was indistinct, a man, one of the soldiers, soaked a sponge in wine vinegar diluted with water and held it up on a reed to Jesus’ mouth This was a kindness: this particular mixture was used in the ancient world by laborers and soldiers. It relieved thirst more effectively than water and was inexpensive. The people, however, are not moved from their scorn, even after all of Jesus’ suffering: “No, leave him be, let’s see if Elijah will come!”
So it’s no exaggeration, not really even a play on words, to say our salvation is found in Christ alone. He alone paid the price; he was utterly alone while he did it: denied and deserted, condemned and scorned by all men; and even his fellowship with the Father and the Holy Spirit broken for those hours by his sin-bearing. By himself he bore our sins; by himself he faced our death.
II. The price fully paid (Mark 15:37-39)
God demonstrates his own love for us in this; while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Verses 37 to 39: With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. 38The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. 39And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, "Surely this man was the Son of God!"
Jesus maintained consciousness to his last breath; in the moment of death, a cry burst from his throat; possibly the same cry John from his eye-witness vantage recorded as ‘it is finished’. The strength of the cry indicates he didn’t die like most who were crucified, suffering long periods of complete exhaustion or unconsciousness. Jesus did not die unwillingly for his own sins, but willingly for the sins of others. As he himself had said in one of the high points of Mark’s Gospel: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."
As he died, Mark tells us, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The direction of the tearing tells us that this rending was from God. There has been debate as to which curtain was torn, the one in front of the holy place, visible to the temple courtyard, or the other one, separating the holy place from the most holy place where the high priest went a year to place blood on the mercy seat, the cover of the ark of the covenant.
Those who defend the tearing of the outside curtain point out that it would have been a very public thing, an obvious affirmation of God’s judgment of the temple through Jesus. The strength of this position comes through Jewish historical reports that this very thing happened at about this time.
But there are also good reasons to think this was the inner veil. The rending of this curtain would symbolize the end of the era of sacrifice and the beginning of direct access to God through Jesus. This is how the writer to the Hebrews understands the sacrifice of Christ. Hebrews 6:19-20 “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, 20where Jesus, who went before us, has entered on our behalf.”
The tearing of the curtain shows that we now have access to God through Jesus. Hebrews 10:19: Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.” This is the work of the cross, the tearing of the curtain: now we have access to God.
The centurion in charge of the execution had seen it all: the terrible scourging, Jesus’ features beaten into anonymity, the Via Dolorosa. He had supervised Jesus’ nailing to the cross. He had seen Jesus’ ministry to the thief and his care for his mother. He had seen the midday darkness come. Finally be saw Jesus’ explosive, triumphant death! Mark records his response: “And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, ‘Surely this man was the Son of God!”
We need not presume the centurion had had a fully formed faith. By “Son of God” he probably meant Jesus was a divine man, a designation and title normally given to the Caesars, as worshiped in the ‘emperor cult’ The centurion sees that the crucified Jesus, not the emperor was the one who displayed divine character. Furthermore, Mark intends that we recognize genuine Christian truth in a way the centurion didn’t understand. We hope and trust he learned the full truth as the events of the following days unfolded.
The second verse of ‘In Christ Alone’ summarizes what we’ve seen so far: ‘This gift of love and righteousness, scorned by the ones he came to save; Till on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied; For ev'ry sin on Him was laid— Here in the death of Christ I live.”
I’ve been reading J. I. Packer’s introduction to John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. Owen, a Puritan, writes with such complexity that I can’t follow him. But Packer clarifies what Owen says about the atonement: “According to Scripture, preaching the gospel is entirely a matter of proclaiming to men, as truth from God which all are bound to believe and act on, the following four facts:
(1) that all men are sinners, and cannot do anything to save themselves; (2) that Jesus Christ, God’s Son, is a perfect Savior for sinners, even the worst; (3) that the Father and the Son have promised that all who know themselves to be sinners and put faith in Christ as Savior shall be received; none cast out;
And (4) that God has made repentance and faith a duty, requiring of every man who hears the gospel “a serious full resting of the soul upon Christ in the promise of the gospel, as an all-sufficient Savior, ready, able and willing, through the preciousness of his blood and sufficiency of his ransom, to save every soul that shall freely give up themselves unto him for that end.”
Are you fully resting on Christ? “No guilt in life, no fear in death: This is the pow'r of Christ in me; From life's first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny. No pow'r of hell, no scheme of man, can ever pluck me from His hand; till He returns or calls me home, here in the pow'r of Christ I'll stand.”
We’ve seen that Christ fully atoned, becoming sin for us. He did this utterly alone, forsaken even by the Father, offering himself as a ransom for many. He tore the curtain of separation between God and man, allowing us to freely enter God’s presence. Christ alone, in death paid the full price of our sins. This theological truth of the crucifixion calls us to put our faith and trust in Him.
III. His death witnessed (Mark 15:40-41)
The historical truth of the crucifixion grounds our faith in reality. In the last two sections of today’s text, which we must cover briefly, Mark returns to his theme of the historical reality of Christ’s death. Mark 15:40-41 Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. 41In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.
Mark wants us to know that the body of Christ was seen by reliable witnesses from the cross to the grave. These women were watching from a distance. They saw him die; they will see him buried. And Mark names names, people who can be tracked down for confirmation: Mary from the town of Magdala, who Luke tells us was delivered from seven demons. Mary the mother of James and Joses. Apparently her sons were well known in the church. Salome, who Matthew tells us is the wife of Zebedee, thus the mother of the disciples James and John. All these were eyewitnesses to the death of Jesus.
IV. His death sealed (Mark 15:42-47)
Finally, Mark gives the historical truth that his body was buried. Verses 42-47: It was Preparation Day (that is, the day before the Sabbath). So as evening approached, 43Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus' body. 44Pilate was surprised to hear he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. 45When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph.
46So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. 47Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid.
By this time it was late Friday afternoon, called preparation day in Judaism: the next day, Saturday, was the Sabbath. Unlike the Romans, who often let the bodies of criminals rot on the crosses for the birds and beasts to consume, the Jews were committed to burying all people, even condemned criminals. They would never allow a body to remain unburied even until sundown. And that would be doubly so when the next day was a Sabbath.
But the Romans had rules, especially about people executed for treason. Only the one who ordered the crucifixion was permitted to release the body, and only to family members. But there was no family: Mary was surely distraught, and Jesus’ brothers don’t seem to have been there. So Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin, took the initiative to go to Pilate and ask for the body. Mark tells us Joseph was waiting for the kingdom of God; he must have felt he’d seen its dawn in Jesus, even if the Day now seemed far off.
Pilate was surprised that Jesus was already dead. So he summoned the centurion, who was required to follow the whole case closely, and asked him. When he learned that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph. The release of one condemned for treason, especially to one not an immediate relative, was unusual. Only if Pilate had no reservations about the innocence of Jesus would he have granted the request of the council member.
In Mark’s account Joseph of Arimathea buys the linen, takes down the body, wraps it and places it in the tomb. The other gospels let us know that he was aided by Nicodemus. Because of the late hour the body was hastily prepared for interment: more would have to be done after the Sabbath. It was placed in a nearby tomb which Matthew says belonged to Joseph of Arimathea.
The site traditionally identified as the tomb of Jesus was in fact a cemetery in the first century. As was frequently the case in Palestine, this cemetery was an abandoned quarry, where stone-cutters had worked their way into a hillside, leaving a rugged cliff into which tombs were cut. The low doors led into small chambers where the body could be placed on a stone bench or shelf.
Mark says the tomb was sealed with a stone that was rolled into place. If the tomb was an expensive one it may have had an elaborate disc-shaped stone about a yard in diameter, placed in a groove cut into the rock. Since the groove would be sloped toward the doorway, the stone could be easily rolled into place, but to roll it aside would require several men. Only a few tombs with such stones are known in Palestine, but they all date from the time of Jesus.
So once again, Mark is giving us reliable data to show the historicity of this burial. Further, verse 47, the same women who saw Jesus die saw him buried. They knew where his body was laid. They saw every stage of the Gospel fulfillment. As Paul says in 1st Corinthians: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” They saw every stage – but we’ll get to that next week.
From these last verses the main truth we see is the historicity of the crucifixion: grounded in reality, grounded in historical events with a real body in a real grave, with eye-witnesses. No court in the world would deny these facts.
But the historical truths serve to confirm the theological truth that in Christ, alone and forsaken, the debt was paid for our sins; he bore them in his body on the cross; the whole weight of our sins, the crimes and evils and horrors that should have separated us forever from God, the death that we should have died, the wrath that we should have endured, he bore that darkness.
Christ alone, in his historical death paid the full price of our sins. And this historical and theological truth calls us to put our faith and trust in Christ alone. We could not have paid the penalty he paid. We could not have saved ourselves. And we can’t. The salvation he paid for comes to us only as we give up on ourselves, recognize our utter sinfulness and need, and believe that out of his love, he died to redeem us. Our faith is in Christ alone.