Courage in the Face of Despair | Mark 15:39-47

Courage in the Face of Despair | Mark 15:39-47

We know that death did not defeat Christ but that death was defeated by Christ through His dying. Like Christ’s substitutional atoning for our sins, His humiliation was also finished upon the cross. To those looking on, His burial seemed to be the most disappointing in a long stream of would-be messiahs, but in reality, His burial, His descent to the dead, was the beginning of His eternal exaltation. Although Saturday must have been the longest Sabbath the disciples ever felt, the new week began with Jesus’ resurrection, which Paul calls the first fruit. Christ’s resurrection is a foretaste and a guarantee of the great resurrection of all God’s people still to come.

And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”

There were also women looking on from a distance, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. When he was in Galilee, they followed him and ministered to him, and there were also many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem.

And when evening had come, since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Pilate was surprised to hear that he should have already died. And summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he was already dead. And when he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the corpse to Joseph. And Joseph bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud and laid him in a tomb that had been cut out of the rock. And he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid.

Mark 15:39-47 ESV

COVID-19 was an apocalypse. Now, I mean that in the technical sense of the word. Apocalypse means revelation or unveiling, and any crisis inevitably leads to a kind of revealing, especially of people’s hearts. One immediate effect of the pandemic has been a greater societal awareness of illnesses. Many headlines warn to beware of a tripledemic of Covid, flu, and RSV. Winter, however, has always been a season of viruses, particularly respiratory, and some seasons are inevitably worse or better than others. That has not changed, but our awareness has.

Yet, in my opinion, the greatest unveiling of the Covid pandemic was its exposure and amplification of a psychological epidemic of despair that had been growing long before 2020. For instance, suicide rates and the desperate pleas for euthanasia were certainly present before Covid, but the pandemic and the lockdowns have certainly brought them to the surface and even heightened them. Being forced to face our own mortality did not settle well on our secular society, and it exposed that most people simply cannot face the reality of death. That is why we sedate ourselves against reality as much as possible with drugs and entertainment, and when the sedation no longer works, we would rather take death into our own hands rather than embrace the uncertainly of life. We are a culture in despair.

We would do well to consider intently this passage of Mark because His followers were certainly faced with despair in the wake of Jesus’ death. You see, even though Jesus told His disciples three times that He would both die and rise, we have also seen repeatedly that they did not yet have eyes to see that blessed promise. Rather, the Christ who they hoped would restore the kingdom of Israel had been crucified, ridiculed by men and cursed by God, and His disciples had abandoned Him in His suffering. During His life, Jesus made it seem as if God’s kingdom really was at hand, but with His death, it never felt more distant. The sun may have begun to shine again with Jesus’ death, but an even greater darkness loomed over the hearts of the faithful. Though the greatest victory of all time had been accomplished, they could only see the most savage of all defeats.

Yet in the midst of this despair, Mark records for us three examples of courage (a confession, discipleship, and an act of love) from the three unexpected places. We will look at each individually before considering their collective exhortation for us today who likewise live between the cross and the resurrection.

Truly This Man Was the Son of God! // Verses 39

Although the priests and bystanders were not able to understand the sign of the darkness around because of the darkness within them, a ray of light pierced through the most unlikely person imaginable at the foot of the cross.

And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”

Although there were other Roman soldiers at the crucifixion, this centurion was their commander. He was responsible for overseeing the execution of Jesus and the two robbers on either side of Him. Timothy Keller notes:

Centurions were not aristocrats who got military commissions; they were enlisted men who had risen through the ranks. So this man had seen death, and had inflicted it, to a degree that you and I can hardly imagine.

Here was a hardened, brutal man. Yet something had penetrated his spiritual darkness. He became the first person to confess the deity of Jesus Christ.[1]

Indeed, Mark explicitly notes that the centurion saw Christ’s divinity through His manner of death. He saw how Jesus breathed His last breath, and a fountain deep within the centurion’s violence-stained heart broke open. As a dealer of death, he knew it very well. He brought the curse of Adam upon others for a living, so he was no doubt intimately familiar with how it snatched up the strong and the weak alike, both old and young, men and women, slave and free. He knew firsthand that all living would be dragged down into that everlasting darkness called the grave.

Yet Jesus was different. Death did not fall upon Jesus; He gave Himself over to it. Even while hanging from the tree, mocked by men and forsaken in our place by the Father, Jesus was still Lord. As both God and the only sinless man, death had no claim over Him; therefore, His life could never be taken from Him. He could only lay it down. I doubt that the centurion could have expressed his thoughts and emotions very well, but I believe that this is what he saw. As the one presiding over the crucifixion, I think he understood that even from the cross Jesus was really in command of the proceedings. Jesus’ death was so unlike normal deaths that the centurion could only conclude that Jesus was indeed divine. Indeed, as Keller said, he is the first human to confess Jesus’ divinity in Mark’s Gospel, and he is the first to confess the second part of Jesus’ twofold confession of Jesus: that He is the Son of God.

Now, we do not know the degree of the centurion’s faith past this point. Did he become a Christian? Perhaps; perhaps not. We will never know on this side of the river. We should, however, commend both his faith and his courage. We can safely assume that the centurion did not have everything in mind that we as Christians do today whenever we talk about the Son of God. I do not think, for example, that he was miraculously given understanding of the Trinity. Instead, the phrase ‘son of god’ was an honorific title given to humans who were deemed to have ascended to divinity. Most notably, it was a title used by Caesar, that is, the centurion’s king and commander. He was, therefore, making a very dangerous confession. He was, at the very least, confessing Jesus to be as equally divine as Caesar.

Also, we should note with wonder and joy that this centurion Gentile is only a foretaste of the salvation that Christ’s death would bring to all nations.

Revealed Under the Cross // Verses 40-41

The second example of faith and courage in the face of despair is not an individual but a group of women:

There were also women looking on from a distance, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. When he was in Galilee, they followed him and ministered to him, and there were also many other women who came up with him from Jerusalem.

Though all the disciples fled from Jesus and did not have the courage to follow Him to Golgotha (John being the only exception), this small crowd of women did. Just as they had followed Jesus in Galilee, they now followed Him as He went to His death. They were likely forced to do so from a distance because the soldiers would not let them nearer.

I find it significant that Mark makes the revelation of how these women followed and minister to Jesus throughout His ministry immediately after His death while His body still hung upon the cross. In most of the events that we studied in this Gospel, these women were there as eye witnesses. Hearing His words, and seeing His wonders. Yet we are only told of their presence here. I would imagine that their ministry to Jesus was largely unnoticed by the other disciples as well. Luke tells us that it was women like Joanna and Susanna that financially supported Jesus’ ministry, yet their mention is almost like a footnote. They served in the background, until this moment when the more prominent disciples fell away in fear. This again is a picture in miniature of what Jesus taught. The proud will be humbled, while the humble shall be exalted. The servant of all is counted the greatest in the kingdom. The first become last, and the last become first.

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