Mark 15:39-47 — The Powers Recognize the Reality of the Kingdom of God in Jesus

Six hours on the cross are followed by an assortment of events which bridge Mark’s story from  the cross to the empty tomb. The body of Jesus is moved from the cross to a tomb. The Romans permit it, a Sanhedrin member does it, and some female disciples witness it. But is this text simply a narrative bridge or does it also function to say something significant about the reality of the kingdom of God?

The male disciples are absent. Peter, James and John are nowhere to be seen in Mark’s Gospel at this point. They have disappeared from the narrative. The ones who walked with Jesus, ministered with Jesus, and said they would die with him are missing.

But who is present?  A Roman centurion….some women…one of the Temple authorities. This is all counter-intuitive and the great reversal embedded here testifies that the kingdom of God is yet a living reality in the wake of the death of Jesus.

The Roman centurion confesses, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” This confession is, admittedly, perplexing. What does he mean by “Son of God”? How could he confess such a thing at the foot of the cross that bears the body of the “Son of God”?

Seeing the difficulty, some think the centurion is sarcastic. But this misses the narrative link. Just as Mark’s Gospel began with the confession that Jesus is the “Son”–by God (2:11; 9:7) and the demons (3:11; 5:7). It is particularly significant to see that this Roman soldier–a representative of imperial power–confesses Jesus as “Son of God” in concert with other representatives of the “powers,” that is, the demons. In other words, the powers recognize the presence of God in the death of Jesus. His confession, as one sworn to loyalty to the Emperor who is also called “son of God,” acknowledges the divine royalty of Jesus. The soldier’s confession is a piece of the ongoing tension between Caesar and Jesus, and here it functions as a bookend with the demonic confessions in chapter one. The powers recognize the King!

In particular, the Roman soldier saw something in the way Jesus died that evidenced the reality of the kingdom. Mark notes that the soldier was “facing” (standing opposite) Jesus when he breathed his last. He saw the look on Jesus’s face and heard his last cry. There was something about this moment that evoked this confession from an imperial soldier. The reality of the kingdom of God was evident even in the death of Jesus. Perhaps he heard the triumphal last cry and saw the trusting face of Jesus. We don’t know, but the way Jesus died moved this imperial soldier to confess, along with the demons, the reality of the kingdom of God in Jesus.

That reality is also evident in the presence of the women. The narrator painstakingly calls attention to the devotion of these women–the three and “many others.” While the male disciples are missing, the female disciples are not. They “followed and ministered” to Jesus, and they continue to do so. They followed Jesus to his cross and then to his tomb, and even in death they intended to minister to him when they came to the tomb on Sunday morning.

The presence of the women as followers and ministers (they “deaconed” Jesus) might have been read by some Greco-Romans as an embarrassment.  Perhaps it was a sign of Jesus’s weakness that only female disciples were present at his death. Perhaps it simply a narrative technique to evoke mourning for the death of jesus. I think it is more. It is a demonstration of the kingdom of God that women–culturally marginalized and neglected–follow Jesus to the cross and are the first at the tomb. Cross and resurrection are attended to by female disciples rather than the Twelve.

The Sanhedrin was complicit in the imperial action against Jesus. Indeed, they started the ball rolling and led him to Pilate. The “powers”–the forces arrayed against the kingdom of God–are present not only in Rome but in the Sanhedrin (Temple authorities) itself.

However, just as a Roman centurion confessed for the imperial powers the reality of the kingdom of God in Jesus, so now a council member named Joseph from Arimathea confesses, by his actions, that he also sees the reality of the kingdom in Jesus. Joseph represents a reversal. Though the Temple authorities had no more courage to interrogate Jesus in the Temple courts (Mark 12:34), Joseph has the courage to ask for the body of Jesus from the imperial power (Mark 15:43). Joseph, as one who was waiting for the kingdom of God rather than rejecting the stone like others (waiting and rejecting are from the same root, Mark 12:10 and Mark 15:43), requested the body of Jesus from Pilate. This act was a way of “receiving the kingdom” (Mark 10:15; same root as “waiting” and “rejecting”). It was a loving act, much like when the woman anointed Jesus for his burial in Mark 14.

The “powers” executed Jesus, but in the wake of his death “the powers” also recognize his identity. An imperial soldier confesses that Jesus is the Son of God and a member of the Sanhedrin buries Jesus with loving respect and honor. Disciples–women!–witnessed this. The kingdom of God is not dead; its reality is present even in the death and burial of Jesus. And it is about to break the bonds of death itself.

3 Responses to “Mark 15:39-47 — The Powers Recognize the Reality of the Kingdom of God in Jesus”

  1.   Ed Dodds Says:

    My first thought was that, having seen so much malice and hatred in death and war, for a soldier to hear a man ask for the forgiveness of the sins of his executioners while within the very act of execution took a power (the Holy Spirit) which one would only have access to if one were a son of God (a faithful seeker after God).

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      That might work for Luke, Ed (though the Roman confession is not present in Luke). But for Mark we don’t have that information. Mark accounts for the soldier’s confession on other grounds. I think we have try to see how the narrative in Mark explains this confession and how it functions for Mark.

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