Mark 15:33-39

MarkSeriesTitleSlide1Mark 15

33 And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. 34 And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 35 And some of the bystanders hearing it said, “Behold, he is calling Elijah.” 36 And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” 37 And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. 38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39 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!”

In G.K. Chesterton’s amazing book, Orthodoxy, he says something astonishing about what Christianity brings to the table. He writes of Jesus’ “cry of dereliction” on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Here is what Chesterton says:

That a good man may have his back to the wall is no more than we knew already; but that God could have his back to the wall is a boast for all insurgents forever. Christianity is the only religion on earth that has felt that omnipotence made God incomplete. Christianity alone has felt that God, to be wholly God, must have been a rebel as well as a king. Alone of all creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator. For the only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point—and does not break. In this indeed I approach a matter more dark and awful than it is easy to discuss; and I apologise in advance if any of my phrases fall wrong or seem irreverent touching a matter which the greatest saints and thinkers have justly fear to approach. But in that terrific tale of the Passion there is a distinct emotional suggestion that the author of all things (in some unthinkable way) went not only through agony, but through doubt…When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God. And now let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay (the matter grows too difficult for human speech), but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.[1]

I realize that that last phrase makes us wince, but understand what Chesterton was trying to say here. He was saying that, in the cry of dereliction, God cried out wondering where God had gone! In that sense, He “seemed for an instant to be an atheist.”

Whatever one may think of Chesterton’s approach, he certainly gets at the difficulty of this passage and of these words. What was Jesus doing when He cried out asking God why God had forsaken Him? What was happening in that moment? It was, in fact, a critically important step in our own salvation: God crying out and questioning God!

Jesus walked into our darkness.

Our first point is a spiritual point prompted by an atmospheric miracle.

33 And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour.

The timeline here is very important. Jesus is crucified around 9 a.m. He hangs for three hours on the cross. At noon, darkness falls over the earth for three hours. He then breathes His last and dies around 3 p.m. That darkness is a powerful statement. It is a statement about the fundamental darkness of sin and the ways in which sin disrupts a harmonious relationship with God.

On the cross, Christ took our sin upon Himself. In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul writes:

21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

While He Himself never sinned, He became our sin on Calvary. And while this was happening, darkness fell over the earth! It is no wonder. The scriptures frequently link sin and darkness. In fact, the little book of Jude does so twice. The first reference is to the darkness that fallen angels have fallen into. The second is a reference to the darkness that false prophets and teachers will fall into.

6 And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day—

13 wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever.

Sin is darkness. Just think of your own life. Think of your sins, your rebellions. Do we not all seek the cover of darkness when we sin? Tommy Nelson once said that sin always looks best in the dark. That is true. It looks ugly and hideous in the light, but, in the dark, we can convince ourselves that this sin is ok.

I remember as a boy my dad telling me and my brothers, “Nothing good happens out there after midnight.” He was right. There was no reason to be out there in the dark. The darkness of sin oftentimes seeks the darkness in which to sin.

This is why “integrity” is defined as being the same person in the darkness that you are in the light. To be a hypocrite is to be one way in the light and another in the darkness. To be a person of true character and integrity is to be the same. How often have we seen the tragic fall of men and women when light if finally thrown on their darkness? The darkness of our lives will not hide the truth of our character forever. Light will eventually illuminate the darkness and we will be seen as we really are.

One of the most powerful moments in the 2018 Passion Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, was when Priscilla Shirer talked about how much she loved taking her children fishing. She said she loved putting them in the boat, going out on the water, and fishing. However, she shared that there was one moment she truly did not care for. She did not like that point when she had to turn the boat over from the place where it had been positioned upside-down to drain. The reason, she said, that she did not like doing this was because she never knew what might come slithering out of the dark when it was exposed to the light! She went on to ask us what it was that was hiding in the dark places of our lives, what would come slithering out when the boat of our own lives was turned rightside-up.

Yes, sin is darkness. Sin hates the light, shuns the light, runs from the light. On the cross Christ took on our sin and “there was darkness over the whole land.”

It strikes me that this, too, is a “thin place,” as the Celtic Christians call it. To them, “thin places” were places so beautiful that the barrier between earth and heaven had become thin enough for the glory of God to peak through. But Calvary too is a thin place, for here, in this darkness, the grief of heaven is manifested for all to see as darkness covers the earth.

But here is the critically important point: Christ intentionally and knowingly walked into our darkness in order to save us. Think of it: Christ, the light of the world, was willing to take our darkness upon Himself, feel the full weight of it, and enter it so that He might save us from the ravaging destructive effects of it! The cross was Christ’s rescue mission for humanity lost in darkness!

Jesus took the full horror of our darkness.

And what did Jesus experience in the darkness? He experienced, in ways we cannot understand, the horror of our darkness.

34 And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 35 And some of the bystanders hearing it said, “Behold, he is calling Elijah.” 36 And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” 37 And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last.

Here we find, quite simply, the single most difficult passage in all of scripture. Christ, after enduring the cross, after taking our sins upon Himself, after enduring the darkness, cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

James Brooks surmises that “the only saying from the cross in Mark’s Gospel is undoubtedly authentic” because “the early church would not have invented such a potentially embarrassing statement and then attributed it to Jesus.”[2] This is a valid point. It is a shocking statement to be sure.

The people, of course, misunderstood what Jesus said. They think that Jesus is calling for Elijah to come. Elijah and the coming of the Messiah were firmly fixed together in the minds of the Jews. Thus, in Matthew 11, Jesus enigmatically says that John the Baptist was the Elijah who is coming.

13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, 14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15 He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

In Matthew 16, when Jesus asks His disciples who people think he is, somebody noted that some thought He might be Elijah.

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

In Matthew 17, Jesus again says that John the Baptist fulfilled the role of Elijah in his preparatory ministry.

And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.” 10 And the disciples asked him, “Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” 11 He answered, “Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. 12 But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.” 13 Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.

Some of the people think Jesus is calling for Elijah. In this, they misheard or misunderstood or were not willing to accept what Jesus had said. Regardless, I am struck by Michael Card’s blunt assessment of their confusion: “But Elijah is not coming. No one is coming.”[3]

Yes, the people misunderstand Jesus’ saying. And, in truth, we have struggled to understand it for two thousand years. There are many theories that attempt to figure out what Jesus is doing in this saying, this “word from the cross.” Of course, it is often pointed out that Jesus is quoting the first part of Psalm 22. This is true. And the idea is that by quoting the first part of Psalm 22 Jesus was alluding to the whole. And the point of that is that Psalm 22 goes on to celebrate the faithfulness and goodness of God!

It is very important point. Jesus does indeed quote a psalm that ultimately celebrates the victory and faithfulness of God. I agree with that. Even so, it cannot be used to set aside the awkwardness of this moment. It does not explain everything. I agree with R.T. France, who wrote of this idea:

It is of course true that Ps. 22, having begun on this note of despair, concludes twenty verses later in hope and thanksgiving, but Jesus echoed not the latter part of the psalm but its opening, and to read into these few tortured words an exegesis of the whole psalm is to turn upside down the effect which Mark has created by this powerful and enigmatic cry of agony. Six hours after he was placed on the cross, and after three hours of darkness, Jesus feels abandoned by God.[4]

I believe this tension must be allowed to stand: the tension between the ultimately triumphant note of Psalm 22 and the heart-rending agony of the first verse that Jesus quoted: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?!”

Actually, I think we should also consider Jesus’ words in light of the next psalm, Psalm 23. Think of the darkness. Think of the cry of dereliction, the cry of abandonment. Then think of these words we know so well.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

That is so, and Jesus, of course, knows the truth of this better than we do. Even so, in this moment, in ways, again, that defy our understanding, Jesus felt the horror of the darkness and the loneliness of the darkness. For a moment, He felt alone in the valley of the shadow.

He felt alone…and this is the horror of the darkness. The great horror of the cross was not primarily the physical agony of it, though that too was a horror. The great horror was this darkness. Christians sometimes speak of the Father “turning His face away.” I think we have to be careful with that idea if pressed too far. The Father sends the Son for this! The Father is ever faithful to the Son. So we must be careful with what we mean by saying that the Father turned His face away. But if by “turning His face away” we simply mean that Christ’s becoming our sin on the cross introduced the first disharmonious element that the Son had ever had in His relationship with the Father and that that disharmony manifested itself in darkness, then it is correct.

“[W]hy ‘My God’ and not ‘My Father,” asks Danny Akin. “Because in this one moment in all of time and eternity, He views Himself and knows Himself not as the Father’s Son but as the sinner’s sacrifice.”[5]

Christ enters our darkness and takes onto and into Himself the full horror of our sin and its effects.

Jesus tore the curtain down so the light could flood into the darkness.

But of course, Christ crucified did more than even this. He went into that darkness in order to find us and in order to remove the impediment between us and God. This fact was most poignantly seen in the ripping of the temple veil when Jesus died.

38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39 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!”

This veil stood between the Holy of Holies and the people of God. This veil represented the barrier between God and man, the sense of separation that lost humanity felt and feels. But when Jesus entered the darkness of human sinfulness and paid the price for our sins to reconcile us to God the veil was ripped from top to bottom.

In other words, Jesus went into the darkness and tore the curtain down so the light could come flooding in! This truth is reflected in the consistent New Testament depiction of Christ Jesus bringing light into darkness. We see this, for instance, in John 1, in John’s powerful introduction to the person and work of Jesus.

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Yes, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it!” Paul, in 2 Corinthians 4, likens the light of Christ to the first light of creation from Genesis 1.

6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

What a beautiful image! In Ephesians 5, Paul writes of our having been rescued from darkness.

8 for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light

So, too, in Colossians 1.

13 He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son

For this reason, Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 5, our very lives should now be lives of light!

5 For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness.

And for this reason, Peter writes in 1 Peter 2, we are now enabled and emboldened to be proclaimers of light!

9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

I love that in our text, after Jesus breathes His last, the centurion standing nearby knows that this Jesus is the Son of God! He was so gripped by the light that shines in the darkness that he was finally able to see the truth! And this is what Jesus does. He enables us to see and know and proclaim and live in the truth.

And the truth is life.

And the truth is light.

And the truth is Jesus.


[1] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy. (New York, NY: John Lane Co., 1909), 256-257.

[2] James A. Brooks, Mark. The New American Commentary. Vol. 23 (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1991), p.260.

[3] Michael Card, Mark. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), p.184.

[4] R.T. France, The Gospel of Mark. The New International Greek Testament Commentary. Gen. Eds., I. Howard Marshall and Donald A. Hagner. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), p.652-653.

[5] Daniel Akin, Mark. Christ-Centered Exposition. (Nashville, TN: Holman Reference, 2014), p.355.


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