Mark 15:33–41

What happened on the cross? Why did Jesus need to die? In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his exposition of the gospel of Mark, expressing why Christ’s death was required to bring reconciliation between the holy God and His sinful people.


Let us look this morning at Mark 15, where I will be reading again the later portion of the text we looked at last week. I will begin at Mark 15:33–41. I would like to ask the congregation to stand for the reading of the Word of God:

Now when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which is translated, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”

Some of those who stood by, when they heard that, said, “Look, He is calling for Elijah!” Then someone ran and filled a sponge full of sour wine, put it on a reed, and offered it to Him to drink, saying, “Let Him alone; let us see if Elijah will come to take Him down.”

And Jesus cried out with a loud voice, and breathed His last.

Then the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. So when the centurion, who stood opposite Him, saw that He cried out like this and breathed His last, he said, “Truly this Man was the Son of God!”

There were also women looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the Less and of Joses, and Salome, who also followed Him and ministered to Him when He was in Galilee, and many other women who came up with Him to Jerusalem.

In your hearing this morning, you have heard the Word that comes to us from God Himself. He who has ears to hear it, let him hear. Please be seated. Let us pray.

Our Father and our God, there is no more important, more unfathomable treasure for us to contemplate than the meaning of the cross, so we pray that in this hour, You would lend Your help to us, Your frail creatures. Give us insight into the meaning and significance of our Savior’s death, for we ask it in His name. Amen.

The Meaning of the Cross

Last week, we looked at the narrative of Jesus’ execution by way of my normal method of biblical exposition, but I mentioned that this week I would depart from the narrative and focus on a theological interpretation of the meaning of the cross. I mentioned last week that anyone who was an eyewitness of the event would likely not have understood what was taking place in the cosmic realm on that day. That was left for the Apostles in the Epistles to give us that added revelation of the meaning and significance of Jesus’ death.

Paul announced that he was determined to know nothing but Christ and Him crucified—that is, Paul’s focus was on the cross. Of course, Paul’s statement involved some hyperbole, a literary form of intentional exaggeration to make a point. It is not too far of an exaggeration, as we know Paul knew other things besides the cross, but nevertheless all that he knew and taught converged in the central message of what took place that day on the cross.

During my first year of seminary, a student in our preaching class gave a moving and eloquent sermon on the substitutionary satisfaction view of the atonement. In that class on preaching, it was customary that when the student finished, the professor of homiletics would give a critique. The idea was for it to be a constructive critique on the art of preaching.

On that day, the professor was furious. He glared at the student and said, “How dare you preach the substitutionary satisfactory view of the atonement in this day and age?” I heard that, and I was thinking to myself, “How dare this professor question the legitimacy of preaching on the satisfaction substitutionary view of the atonement?”

What is it in this day and age that makes the central understanding of the cross suddenly no longer acceptable? I mused on that for many years to come because when we talk about the satisfaction substitutionary view of atonement, we are trying to answer the question, What really happened there on the cross? One of the questions that attends that inquiry is this: Was Jesus’ death on the cross necessary at all?

The Necessity of the Atonement

There have been different answers to the question of the necessity of the atonement throughout church history. Early on, the Pelagians taught that Jesus’ death and atonement was not necessary at all and that God could have redeemed His people by many different ways. For example, He simply could have waved His wand of mercy and grace and pronounced His pardon on sinners without such a grisly method of execution.

Others took an intermediate position, saying that the cross was hypothetically necessary but not absolutely necessary. It was only necessary because, though God had many ways He could have accomplished redemption, from all eternity He chose to do so by the cross and was in agreement with His Son and with the Holy Spirit to reconcile the world by way of an atoning death. So, the atonement was not necessary de facto. It was not necessary de jure—that is, legally. But it was necessary de pacto—that is, because an agreement had been reached, a covenant had been made between the Father and the Son, and once that covenant was made, it had to be carried out.

Then the third view, which is the classic, orthodox Christian view, is that the atoning death of Jesus was absolutely necessary. We reach back in time to one of the greatest thinkers with which God ever blessed the church, the philosopher-theologian Saint Anselm of Canterbury, whose little book Cur Deus Homo? has become a Christian classic. The title of his book is really a question translated by the words, Why the God-Man? In the book, Anselm spelled out the reasons why the cross was absolutely necessary. The grounds and the necessity for Christ offering payment and satisfaction for our sins is to be found in the character of God Himself. The reason an atonement was necessary, dear friends, is because God is just, God is righteous, and God is holy.

We have lost sight of the character of God in our age. We conceive of God as some celestial grandfather, a cosmic bellhop who is on duty every hour of every day to give us all our needs. We allow the love of God to swallow up His justice and righteousness and obscure His holiness. We think that not only will God forgive all our sins without an atonement, but we believe He must forgive us if He is really going to be good and loving. Yet at the other side of that coin always stands His holy, righteous justice that must be satisfied.

God’s Perfect Justice

The Old Testament records a story about Abraham in which he got word that God was about to bring judgment upon Sodom and Gomorrah, cities that clearly invited judgment from God. Abraham was concerned about the few innocent people in those cities who might be punished along with the guilty, so he raised the question to God, “Lord, will you punish the innocent or the righteous with the guilty?” The reply was that God forbid that He would ever do such a thing.

Then the statement came out of that narrative, “Will not the Judge of all of the earth do what is right?” (see Gen. 18:25). To ask that question, dear friends, is to answer it, because the God of heaven and earth does not know how to do anything except that which is right. The God of heaven and earth has never done anything that is wrong.

According to our sensibilities, there are times in the Scriptures that we object to what God does. In my first year as a Christian as a college student, when I was reading the Old Testament, I used to pace the halls of my college dormitory long into the night, from three to four o’clock in the morning, because I had never heard of this God who was being revealed. All I can remember is thinking, “Wow, if I’m going to be a Christian, I’m going to have to be a Christian because God plays for keeps.”

If you do not believe that, let me direct your attention to another passage in the Old Testament. God delivered His law to Moses after He had rescued His people from slavery, and the focus of His law was a prohibition against idolatry. While Moses was speaking with God on the mountain, Aaron and the people made for themselves a golden calf and worshiped it. The Scriptures tell us that when God saw what they had done, He was outraged, and He demanded satisfaction for that sacrilege, for that work of idolatry.

I remind you that this episode in the Old Testament chronicles for us the most successful worship service in human history. The attendance that day at the worship of the golden calf surpassed all statistics before or after in Israel. The singing was so lusty that Joshua heard the music from miles away and thought he heard the sound of warfare. The church was filled to the brim, and the people loved the music as they danced around an idol that distorted the very character of God.

The golden calf is not the last time idolatry has happened in church history. It is our propensity to exchange the God of heaven and earth for an idol and fashion for ourselves a God who requires no satisfaction, who requires no payment for sin. In a day and age when we hear preached that God loves all people unconditionally, who needs an atonement? You do. I do—because the righteousness and justice of God must be satisfied.

Reconciliation with God

When we look at the concept of atonement in the New Testament, it is not monochromatic. I like to use the metaphor of a gorgeous tapestry that is woven by several strands. I do not have time this morning to even touch on some of the strands the New Testament uses to describe what took place on the cross. But one of the major themes in the New Testament is the theme of reconciliation, that Christ is the reconciliation for us. One thing that is absolutely necessary for reconciliation to take place is a previous estrangement because parties that are not estranged have no need of reconciliation.

I gave a message many years ago in a university to the atheists’ club that invited me to speak. They wanted to hear my case for the existence of God, and I gave it to them. After I finished that part of the message, I said: “I’m happy to deal with these intellectual issues. But you must know where I’m coming from. I believe that for you, the issue of the existence of God is not an intellectual issue at all. It’s a moral issue. Your problem is not that you don’t know that God exists. Your problem is you hate the God whom you know does exist.”

That was the closest I’ve ever come to being tarred and feathered. I was lucky to get out of there with my life. They were vehement in their denials and protests: “We don’t hate God.” Well, if the Word of God is the truth of God, then by nature, we are His enemies. We are at war with Him. We despise Him. But we do not get angry at the golden calf. If we create a new god, then we can live in comfort.

The biblical God is the object of our wrath to such a degree that the Scripture says we will not have Him in our thinking. That is where the estrangement is. That is where we are at war with God. That is where we are at enmity with God. That enmity was mediated for us on the cross so that Christ became an enemy of the Father to satisfy your hostility and enmity toward Him.

The Ransom Paid

Another dimension the New Testament describes regarding the cross and atonement is the dimension of ransom. Earlier in our study of Mark’s gospel, we read Jesus’ words that He did not come into the world to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many. Because of that statement and others, the church developed what is called the ransom theory of atonement.

There is more than one ransom theory of atonement. There is a good one and there is a bad one. The bad one, which is popular in some circles, is the idea that Jesus paid a ransom to Satan. After all, Satan is the prince of the power of the air. He is the prince of this world. He holds us captive and hostage. In a sense, he has kidnapped the people of God and now demands ransom for our release, and so Jesus makes a deal with the devil. He pays him what he wants to purchase our freedom from him.

The idea that Jesus paid a ransom to Satan creates all kinds of problems. In that case, the cross would not represent Christus victor but Satanus victor. Satan would be the winner. He would get the payment and enjoy it forever. There is a ransom paid, but it is not paid to Satan. It is paid to the Father. A debt has been incurred to Him that has to be paid.

The New Testament speaks of our being debtors to God, and not only are we mildly in debt; we are hopelessly in debt. The way the New Testament sets this forth is that we are debtors who cannot possibly their debt. We have an IOU that can never be redeemed.

Moral Debt to God

There are different ways to understand the concept of debt. One of my favorite illustrations of this is the story of a little boy who goes to the ice cream store, and he asks for an ice cream cone with two scoops of ice cream. When the lady behind the counter hands the little boy the cone, she says, “That will be two dollars,” and the boy’s face sinks. He is crestfallen. His lip begins to tremble, and he says, “But my mommy only gave me one dollar.”

What do you do if you are watching that transaction? You reach your hand in your pocket, you get out a dollar bill, you hand it to the lady, and you say: “Here, this is legal tender. I’ll pay the little boy’s debt, and we all can go home happy.” She must accept that payment because it is a pecuniary payment, a monetary payment of commercial debt.

But that is not the kind of debt that we are in here. The debt we have before God is not that we owe Him money we cannot pay. It is a moral debt. It is a moral obligation He has imposed upon us that we have not paid.

Let’s turn the story around with the little boy. He comes to the ice cream store and says, “I’d like to have an ice cream cone with two scoops,” and the lady hands him the ice cream cone, and she says, “That will be two dollars.” He sticks his tongue out at her, runs out the door, does not pay her anything, and she chases him, yelling, “Stop, thief!”

The little boy runs right into the arms of the patrolman walking down the block. He grabs the boy by the scruff of the neck, brings him back into the shop, and says, “What’s going on here?” The lady says, “That boy just stole two dollars’ worth of ice cream.” Let’s say I am watching that, I reach in my pocket, I take out two dollars instead of one, and I say: “Everybody settle down. Here’s the two dollars. No harm, no foul. Let the boy go.”

Does the owner have to accept the money? Absolutely not, because now a crime has been committed. A moral debt has been incurred. The policeman can look at me and my two dollars and look at the woman in the store and say, “Do you want to press charges?” The storekeeper has that option on this occasion.

We owe a moral debt to God. Even when His Son pays the debt as our substitute, when He pays the debt vicariously, the Father does not have to accept it. The fact that the debt is paid means justice is satisfied. The fact that the Father accepts the payment expresses His mercy and grace, so that, as the Apostle says, “He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). The justice is there insofar as Christ paid what was required, and God was serious about the debt.

Purchased by Blood

As the text indicates, the Son of God was forsaken, completely forsaken. Paul uses the metaphor in Galatians 3:13 that He was cursed by God. He became a curse to fulfill the law of the Old Testament because all who break the law of God—all who sin—are exposed to the curse of God’s wrath.

You might say, “But that’s not fair.” As I mentioned last week, once Christ willingly took upon Himself your sin and my sin, God punished Him to the fullest extent of the law. Christ did not just go to the cross. When He was on the cross, He went to hell, not after He died but while He was on the cross. He experienced the full measure of God’s wrath when the Father turned His back on the Son and cursed Him for you and me.

I am terrified when people come to me and say, “I don’t need Jesus.” I want to grab them and say: “O foolish one, don’t you understand that there’s nothing in the universe you need more than Jesus? Don’t you realize that at the end of your life, you will stand before God and be held accountable by God? The God before whom you stand will be holy and just and righteous. You either stand in front of Him on your own merit—and the only thing you are able to bring is demerit—or you stand covered in the righteousness of Christ. If you deny Christ, you face the curse on your own as a debtor who can’t possibly pay your debt.”

Karl Barth, the late Swiss theologian, with whom I disagree more often than I agree, made a comment many years ago that I agree with completely. He said that the single most important word in the New Testament Greek is the word hyper, which is translated by three English words: “in behalf of.” That is how the New Testament describes the death of Jesus: “in behalf of” His sheep, “in behalf of” the godless, “in behalf of” God’s enemies. He paid this price and purchased you, so that the Apostle says, “You are not your own.”

Even as Christians, we tend to think that even though we may not own the biggest house in the community or the biggest car in the community, one thing we do own is ourselves: “I own me.” No, you do not. No, I do not. Paul said: “You are not your own. You don’t own yourself. You’ve been bought. You’ve been purchased.” Paul said, “You’ve been bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:19–20). The price tag is the blood of Christ.

The Son Satisfied the Father

My friend, John Guest, once preached a sermon on the blood of Jesus. He said: “If Jesus would have come to Jerusalem and scratched His finger on a nail, would that have done it? There is blood.” It would not have done it. It took more than a scratch. The figurative significance of blood to the Jew means life. Jesus did not just give His blood. He had to give His life. He had to pour out His blood unto death, and that was the price tag. That was the ransom. That was the purchase price.

The New Testament tells us that in God’s eyes, at the top of the cross was not simply the accusation written by Pilate, but the words “it is paid” appeared figuratively on the cross in God’s sight. God is satisfied—propitiation. Our sins are removed—expiation.

As I’ve told you before, every time you come down the center aisle at this church, look at the cross. The architectural form of this building is cruciform. It is built in the shape of the cross. If you look from an airplane as you cross over Saint Andrew’s, you will see the form of a cross. The center aisle is the vertical beam of the cross. The transepts in which you are sitting are the crossbeams. The vertical beam points to heaven in the sense that propitiation was made. The Son satisfied the Father. In doing that, expiation happened on the horizontal level, and our sins were removed as far as the east is from the west. Therefore, dear friends, come, let us reason together, though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they be as crimson, they shall be as wool, for He bought you with His life.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.