Mark 15 and the doctrine of penal substitution
In order to establish the doctrine of penal substitution we are not dependent on a few isolated proof-texts here and there in Scripture. The doctrine is woven indelibly into the very fabric of the account of the crucifixion, with numerous threads drawn from the Old Testament. Rather than instinctively looking to the gospels to provide the facts about the crucifixion, and to the letters to supply the meaning of those facts, we must turn to the OT, the vantage point from which we are to survey the cross.
In Mark’s gospel we find a compelling unity of fact and meaning, of event and interpretation. The factual details of the crucifixion speak to us about the nature of Christ’s death. They are much more than a bare description of the events, merely ‘bare’ facts that are open to different interpretations. The historical details have been interpreted in advance for us. Once we look below the surface, and specifically in terms of the OT background, we will see that the details of the narrative in Mark 15 testify that Jesus is dying under the wrath of God, and that He is doing so as a substitute for sinners. Mark shows us six signs that Jesus died under God’s judgement. Some of these signs are well known to Bible readers, others less so. Taken together they speak clearly and powerfully to us about the sin-bearing, wrath averting, substitutionary nature of Christ’s death.
He was handed over to the Gentiles
Six times in Mark 15 we are told that Jesus is the King of the Jews (vv2,9,12,18,26, and ‘King of Israel’ in v32). This King of the Jews has been handed over to the Gentiles. At one level this is the fulfilment of what Jesus said would happen (Mark 10:33-24). At another level being delivered over to the Gentiles is a traumatic sign of being under God’s judgement. Psalm 106:40-41 speaks of God’s people being handed over to the nations as a consequence of being under judgement.
The same idea is expressed by Ezra (‘we…have been given into the hand of the kings of the lands’, Ezra 9:7b) as he acknowledges the guilt of the people of God that led to the exile. In the OT, being handed over to the nations was a sign of God’s anger. This was happening to Jesus in Mark 15.
He was silent before His accusers
We know that the charges brought against Jesus by the Jewish leaders were both unjust and incoherent (Mark 14:55-61). Before Pilate, as again Jesus is falsely accused, He remains silent. Why does Jesus not speak up in His own defense? Why does He not silence the lies of His enemies? Pilate is amazed at this (Mark 15:3-4). But the silence of Jesus, like a sheep before its shearers, is spoken of in Isaiah 53:7. This is a confirmatory sign that He is the suffering servant who will bear the penal consequences of the sins of others by substitutionary atonement (Is. 53:4-6,10).
He was hung on a tree
The very instrument of execution spoke of the nature of Christ’s death (see Deut. 21:22-23). Jesus was not personally guilty of any crime that could issue in His death. His death therefore was as a substitute for clearly it was a death that showed Him to have been ‘cursed by God’. This point is drawn out in Galatians 3:10,13:
- For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’
- Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’…
He was mocked by His enemies
When Hollywood wants to portray the death of Jesus it does so by focusing our attention on the physical details of His sufferings. The graphic nature of His beating and execution is brought to the forefront. Mark, however, places that in the background. Mark places minimal attention on the act of crucifixion; He simply says ‘and they crucified him’ (15:24).
Mark draws our attention not to the wounds of Jesus but to the words of His enemies. He goes into great detail to record the taunts and verbal abuse that Jesus suffered (15:29-32,35). Why does he do this? Why do we need to know about this mockery of Christ? Because this too is a sign that Jesus is dying under God’s judgement. This point is drawn out in Psalm 89:38-42 (in context this is about God’s king from David’s line). In Psalm 89 being scorned by his enemies was a sign that God’s king was under God’s judgement for his sins. And here in Mark 15? King Jesus is scorned by His enemies. He is the condemned King. The King of the Jews is bearing God’s judgement, not for His own sins, but as a substitute for sinners.
The same point is also evident when we compare Lamentations 2:15 with Mark 15:29-30:
- All who pass along the way clap their hands at you; they hiss and wag their heads at the daughter of Jerusalem: ‘Is this the city that was called the perfection of beauty, the joy of all the earth?’
- And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!’
- The suffering city of Jerusalem, under God’s wrath, scorned by her enemies, has been replaced by the suffering Saviour.
He died in the darkness
We are surely meant to recall the darkness that fell upon Egypt during the plagues as we see Jesus plunged into the darkness in Mark 15:33. This too was what God threatened Israel with in Deuteronomy 28:29 ‘and you shall grope at noonday, as the blind grope in darkness’. Amos also warned of this sign of judgement (Amos 8:9). As Jesus dies even the very elements testify to the presence of God’s judgement at the cross.
He was forsaken by God
Jesus cried out, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Mark 15:34). Was the omnipresent God not present at the cross when Christ was forsaken? He was spatially as present in Jerusalem then as He is today. Nevertheless in a way that we cannot comprehend but which is the cause of all our hope in time and eternity, we believe that the Son of God knew all the torments of a condemned sinner, and all the relational distance that guilty sinners will endure.
Christ’s experience of being forsaken was not imagined (Mark 15:33-34). In that cry of dereliction He knew abandonment. Jesus of Nazareth, the only true and perfect covenant keeper, bore the full weight of the covenant curses (Gal. 3:10-13). This was not separation from God that could be measured in space, rather it was the separation felt by the Son as He endured the curse that should be borne by sinners. What was happening to Jesus on the cross? He was bearing sin, its full penalty, in the place of His people.
Were these six threads to be unravelled we would be left with a totally different crucifixion narrative. The handing over to the Gentiles, the silence, the tree, the mockery, the darkness, and the cry, all belong to history. They cannot be undone. Furthermore, they cannot be separated from the verbal revelation that preceded their occurrence and explained them in advance.
Let me conclude with two historic testimonies about the atonement. Free Church theologian George Smeaton (1814-1889) affirmed that:
- Jesus was visited with penal suffering because he appeared before God only in the guise of our accumulated sin; not therefore as a private individual, but as a representative; sinless in himself, but sin covered; loved as a Son, but condemned as a sin-bearer, in virtue of that federal union between him and his people, which lay at the foundation of the whole. Thus God condemned sin in the flesh, and in consequence of this there is no condemnation to us.
The much neglected Westminster Larger Catechism summarises the traumatic nature of Christ’s humiliation in death as follows:
Q 49. How did Christ humble himself in his death?
- A. Christ humbled himself in his death, in that having been betrayed by Judas, forsaken by his disciples, scorned and rejected by the world, condemned by Pilate, and tormented by his persecutors; having also conflicted with the terrors of death, and the powers of darkness, felt and borne the weight of God’s wrath, he laid down his life an offering for sin, enduring the painful, shameful, and cursed death of the cross.
Martin Downes is the minister of Christ Church, Deeside. A longer version of this article first appeared at www.reformation21.org in October 2009.