Inspired by the Spirit of God, Mark began his account of the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth by proclaiming the good news — the gospel that Jesus was and is the Messiah, the Son of God. Mark kept emphasizing this truth throughout his book,1 and even reported a
Roman centurion at the foot of the cross stating that Jesus was the Son of God. His clear declaration of the person of Jesus has shaped the theology of the church and its profession that Jesus was both God and man, the promised ruler of all creation.
Many Christian scholars believe Mark’s gospel is one of the earliest New Testament books,2 likely written to Jesus-followers in Rome just before the Romans destroyed the Jewish nation and the temple in Jerusalem. If so, the claims he makes for Jesus no doubt were provocative and dangerous. Even if he did not write to the community of Jesus in Rome, his account proclaims Jesus to be Lord and God of all, which all but invalidates the emperor’s claims. It also makes clear that pax romana, the Roman peace, is not the shalom promised by God in the Hebrew Bible.
In turbulent first-century Rome, there was more to Mark’s choice of language about Jesus than we might realize. The terms gospel, Messiah, and Son (of God) define the person of Jesus and also parallel (and therefore, undermine) Roman beliefs and practices regarding the emperor’s sovereignty and deity. Christians today usually assume that gospel is a religious word coined to describe news about Jesus, but gospel had deep cultural meaning for Jews and anyone under the rule of Imperial Rome. Announcements concerning the emperor — the birth of an imperial heir, a victory over Rome’s enemies, the coronation of a new emperor, or in some cases simply an imperial announcement — were officially described as good news or gospel.
Mark’s choice of the word Messiah (Hebrew, mashiach meaning “anointed”) also conveyed a pointed message. The word technically referred to people who God anointed for a specific task — prophets, priests, and kings in particular. It was specifically applied to the coming King — the Messiah — and became a synonym for Him. At the time Jesus was born, religious Jews commonly believed that the Messiah would appear as Lord of all to judge and punish the wicked and to establish God’s shalom for His chosen people. But Caesar, and in Jesus’ time, Caesar Augustus, also claimed to be “Lord and God” of all and “Savior” of the world. So Mark’s declaration of Jesus being God’s anointed King and Lord of all clearly established that Jesus was everything the emperor claimed to be and more. Hence, Caesar was not who he claimed to be.
Mark’s opening words introducing Jesus as the “Son of God” no doubt shocked Jews and Gentile Romans alike and fostered intense reactions far beyond what his words communicated about Caesar. After all, Pontius Pilate — Caesar’s representative — had crucified Jesus and declared Him to be an enemy of the state. How, then, could one claim that Jesus (and not Caesar) is Savior and Lord?
One might expect that a Jesus-follower would downplay the story of Jesus’ crucifixion or ignore it altogether and concentrate on Jesus’ successes in attracting crowds and performing miracles. Mark, however, did the opposite. He highlighted Jesus’ great accomplishments as Messiah and made Jesus’ suffering and agonizing execution a central part of his message. In fact, the cross is the very basis of Jesus’ lordship over all. Mark’s gospel — as one scholar brilliantly explains — is an apology, a defense of the cross.3
Mark’s entire gospel focuses on Jesus’ suffering and presents it as God’s victory over sin, the Evil One, and death. His portrayal of the crucifixion appears to make that triumphant point subtly and powerfully.4 Although emperors declared their lordship and deity in
many ways, none was more dramatic or intentional than the Imperial Triumph. Mark, however, viewed Jesus’ walk to the cross as an even greater Triumph. Would an audience that had recently experienced the Triumph of Nero have recognized the greater Triumph in the story of Jesus’ walk to the cross? Let’s see.
The Very Words of God
And being found in appearance as a man, He [Jesus] humbled Himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross! Therefore, God exalted Him to the highest place and gave Him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in Heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. — Philippians 2:8-11
Think About It
God often acts in ways quite opposite from what we might expect.
To be great in God’s kingdom, for example, is to be humble and to serve others. By generously sharing our treasure on earth, we gain treasure in Heaven. Even the birth of Jesus — the King of kings and Lord of lords — seems far too modest to us. Why would the eternal King of heaven be born in a crude shelter for animals instead of a grand palace? What challenges do such descriptions of the ways of God and His Son, Jesus, present for us when we share the gospel in a world that views bigger as better, wealth as power, and celebrity as worth?
How do you explain (or avoid explaining) God’s flagrantly countercultural perspectives to people in your world?
Watch the Video
- What in this presentation of a Roman Triumph as a metaphor for Jesus’ sacrifice for all of humanity stood out to you, and why?
- The Imperial Triumph made a powerful statement about the emperor and his reign to the people of the Roman Empire. To what extent do you imagine the display of power, drama, and glory would draw the hearts of the people into the kingdom of Rome’s world — the kingdom of the Evil One?
- Imagine what it was like for the early followers of Jesus, who likely were facing persecution from the Roman regime, to see Jesus’ crucifixion as a Triumph! How do you think it may have affected their faithfulness to obey Him in all things and walk in His ways?
How does what you have learned about a Triumph change your picture of what Jesus accomplished on the way to the cross?
What impact does Jesus’ Triumph have on you, and how does it influence your understanding of what it means (and what it may require) to follow Jesus?
- As modern Westerners, we marvel at the Colosseum as a grand ancient structure, not realizing the statement it made about the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world: because it was built in part with the plunder of Jerusalem and the temple, the gods of Rome are greater than the God of the Jews.
How hard do you think it was for believers in Rome to explain the greatness and worthiness of a seemingly “lesser” God to people in their world?
In what ways does our culture perceive God to be “lesser” — the God who judges, the God who doesn’t do enough to alleviate human suffering, the God who requires obedience, etc. — and in what ways is it difficult to display Him as He is to people in our world?
Small Group Bible Discovery and Discussion
Understanding the Path to the Cross in Light of a Roman Triumph
The Roman Triumph was a procession in which victorious generals, and later no one but the reigning emperor, marched through Rome to present the spoils of conquest to the people of the city. The Triumph was a dramatic and powerful declaration of the emperor’s sovereignty and deity, and it helped to build awe and excitement for his greatness among the people.
Accounts by ancient historians have provided a clear and detailed picture of a Roman Triumph,5 which adds great meaning to our understanding of Jesus’ crucifixion as recorded in Mark’s gospel. According to tradition, Mark’s gospel was written between 65 and 69 AD to followers of Jesus in Rome6 who would have seen Emperor Nero’s Triumph and coronation. Even though Mark did not use the word Triumph in describing Jesus’ mission,7 his audience would have noticed the similarities between Jesus’ procession to the cross and the familiar practice of Imperial Triumph.
Mark’s gospel is an example of how Jesus’ first followers defended the story of the cross and saw in it God’s declaration that Jesus is both Lord and God. Although the purpose of Jesus’ procession was similar to that of an emperor who had defeated his enemies — to declare His absolute authority and His triumph over sin and death and the Evil One — the nature of Jesus’ procession was quite different. Let’s consider Mark’s account of the path Jesus took to the cross in light of the practices of a Roman Triumph.
- A Triumph began at a military outpost outside Rome with the presence and support of the Praetorian Guard, an elite group of Roman citizen soldiers established by Caesar Augustus that became the emperor’s personal unit. The Praetorian Guard was the most well-trained unit in the Roman army, and its presence and protection kept the emperor in power.
After Jesus was tried by Pilate, where was He taken and who was there? (See Mark 15:16.)
- The triumphator was given the purple robe from Jupiter’s statue, and a laurel wreath, sometimes made of gold, was placed on his head. In mockery, what did Praetorian soldiers give Jesus and place on His head? (See Mark 15:17.)
- The procession for a Roman Triumph began as Roman soldiers acclaimed Caesar as Lord and God. How did the soldiers “acclaim” Jesus? (See Mark 15:18-19.)
Did You Know?
The procession that accompanied the triumphator’s chariot gave spectators an idea of the victory won. Not only were the spoils of war carried along — weapons, gold, silver, and jewelry — but also images of battle scenes and towns conquered. The procession marched to a flourish of trumpets, the beat of drums, and the aroma of incense — perhaps worth millions of dollars.
The chained prisoners, the most prominent of whom were usually killed in the dungeon before the sacrifice was made to Jupiter, accompanied the triumphator’s chariot. The triumphator was preceded by the lictors in red war dress. The magistrates and the senators also walked ahead of the chariot with the triumphator and his young children. Older boys accompanied the triumphator on horseback, as did his officers. The chariot was followed by Romans who had been liberated from slavery.
- Monuments depicting Roman Triumphs often show a sacrificial bull, decorated with a garland around its neck being led in the procession along the Via Sacra. Next to the bull an official carries the ax to be used to kill the sacrificial animal.
How did the way Jesus traveled along the Via Dolorosa (the way of grief, suffering, and pain) reflect His imminent sacrifice and the instrument of His execution?8 (See Mark
- Jesus’ procession through Jerusalem that ended at Golgotha is not the Triumph of a king that we might anticipate, but was it what Jesus had expected? And what does it reveal about the power of His kingdom? (See Matthew 20:18-19; Mark 10:33-34; John 1:29, 35-37.)
Golgotha: The Place of the Skull
Romans typically established set places for executions, especially crucifixions when bodies were often left hanging as examples of Rome’s policy toward those who refused to submit to Imperial authority. Apparently that place in Jerusalem was Golgotha, which Mark translates from the Hebrew as “the place of the skull” (Mark 15:22). The Hebrew word used generally refers to a human head detached from the body. The implication is that Jesus
Was crucified at “head” hill or “the place of the head,” which is a strong parallel to Capitoline Hill, the final destination of each Imperial Triumph.
- After making its way past Mars Ultor, the procession continued up to Capitoline Hill and the temple of Jupiter. Capitoline, or “head” hill, was so named because of the myth that when the temple’s foundation was laid, an intact human head was found in the earth.9
Where did the soldiers lead Jesus to be crucified, and how would that have strengthened the metaphor between an Imperial Triumph and Jesus’ crucifixion? (See Mark 15:22.)
Did You Know?
During a Triumph, wine was presented to the triumphator as the procession arrived at its destination, just before the sacrifice was made. In like fashion, wine mixed with myrrh was offered to Jesus when He reached Golgotha. Wine mixed with myrrh was an expensive delicacy in the Roman world, and there is no known custom of Romans providing it to condemned prisoners — especially those facing the humiliation of crucifixion. So Mark’s account of this spiced drink of the rich being offered to Jesus emphasizes the mocking of Jesus as “King of the Jews” by the soldiers. This unusual detail adds a noteworthy connection between Jesus’ procession and the Roman Triumph.
Later, while on the cross, Jesus was offered “sour wine” (Mark 15:36; Matthew 27:48) that he tasted and refused. Sour wine or “wine vinegar” (NIV) apparently was used to deaden pain or to make the crucified person sleepy. Jesus apparently was determined to be fully aware as He offered Himself as the sacrificial lamb for sinners. The offer of this wine is probably an allusion to Psalm 69:21.
- At the temple of Jupiter, just before the bull was sacrificed, the triumphator was offered a cup of wine that he rejected and poured out on the ground.
What was Jesus offered when He arrived at the site of his sacrifice (Mark 15:23), and what did He do with it?
- It was common to see the emperor flanked by two officials as he made a public appearance.10
Who did the soldiers crucify at Jesus’ left and right as He hung on the cross, and what kind of a statement may the soldiers have been making? (See Mark 15:27-32.)
- Roman Triumphs were given to those who had killed the most, subjugated the most, destroyed the most, and had won great victories at the expense of those who lost.
How did Jesus, who died for all, freeing all, restoring any who believed, and came completely at His own expense, achieve victory? (See Philippians 2:8-11.)
Faith Lesson (3 minutes)
Mark wrote to people in the Roman Empire who were familiar with Roman power and the shamefulness of crucifixion as the penalty for those who rejected the ways of Rome. For many people of Jesus’ day (and people today as well) the idea of a crucified Lord was foolishness. But the cross is actually the story of God’s great power — the power of servanthood and sacrifice as well as the exaltation of Jesus who gave Himself for all humanity.
Mark’s message is clear: Jesus’ walk to the cross and his brutal death by crucifixion11 is actually His Triumph. The cross is not a defeat; it is a great victory!
Isaiah 53:1-12 prophesied that God intended Jesus suffering to be used for our redemption. We are the condemned prisoners of Jesus’ Triumph, but instead of being killed, Jesus
gave His life as the sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sin. Through this act of humiliation and weakness, even to the point of death, God gave Jesus a place among the great (Isaiah 53:12). God turned upside-down this world’s view of power and victory. Through Jesus’
crucifixion and resurrection, God overcame the power of sin, the Evil One, and the hold that sin and death had on all humanity.
The greatest victory and power were not the result of violence and killing but of selfless sacrifice and dying (Isaiah 53:4-6)!
Jesus expressed His strength, power, and lordship through the Triumph of His weakness, service, and sacrifice — not the Roman Triumph of war, victory, acclaim, and domination. Since true disciples imitate their rabbi, those of us who claim to be Jesus’ disciples must also take up our crosses. To follow in the footsteps of Jesus and demonstrate to our broken world the true nature of God and His kingdom, we each are called to the life of servanthood and sacrifice that Jesus demonstrated for us.
This path at times can seem overwhelmingly painful. Even Jesus, as He hung on the cross, cried out to God in anguish,
My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me? — Mark 15:34
His cry was not simply an expression of separation from God’s presence; it was a recitation of Psalm 22:1, a psalm that speaks of mockery and the agony of rejection even by God’s people.
- As you read the following portions of Psalm 22, prayerfully consider what Jesus
suffered — the cross He took up — on your behalf. Consider also the price — and the victory — of taking up your cross as you seek to advance God’s kingdom in your world.
- Psalm 22:1: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?
- Psalm 22:6-8: But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads. “He trusts in the Lord,” they say, “let the Lord rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.”
- Psalm 22:19, 24: But You, Lord, do not be far from me. You are my strength; come quickly to help me… For He has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; He has not hidden His face from him but has listened to his cry for help.
To what extent are you convinced that God is near, that He will hear you, and that He will answer your cries and lead you into the battle to extend His kingdom in your world?
Read 2 Corinthians 2:14 aloud together:
But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of Him everywhere.
Then pray, thanking the Lord that Jesus was willing to walk the road to the cross. Praise Him for being the King of kings whose power and unfailing love encompasses the grace to humble Himself and face the scorn, mockery, jeering crowds, and a brutal death to save His people and bring forth His kingdom. Pray for the grace and commitment to learn how to walk as Jesus walked — in servanthood, humility, and sacrifice. May we be mindful of our brothers and sisters who are, even now, faithfully walking the path of persecution so that the influence of God’s kingdom will grow. In the name of Jesus, our Savior, Amen.
But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of Him everywhere. — 2 Corinthians 2:14
In Mark’s gospel, he uses the Greek euaggelion: “gospel” or “good news” five times; the Greek christos from the Hebrew mashiach meaning “anointed” to refer to Jesus seven times; the phrase “Son” or “Son of God” referring to Jesus’ sonship twenty-two times.
References in Mark’s gospel concerning war in Judea and persecution suggest that it was written in the 60s AD. Several early church fathers attest that the book was written to Rome during the persecution of Nero (64 – 67 AD ).
Robert H. Gundry, Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1993).
The following sources provide exceptional background to this study and valuable understanding of the context of Jesus’ crucifixion: Robert H. Gundry, Mark: a Commentary on His Apology for the Cross; T. E. Schmidt, Mark 15:16-32: The Crucifixion Narrative and the Roman Triumphal Procession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, New Testament Studies, 1995), Vol. 41; and Craig A. Evans, “Mark’s Incipit and the Priene Calendar Inscription: From Jewish Gospel to Greco Roman Gospel,” http://www.craigaevanscom/studies.htm.
H. S. Versnel, Triumphus: An Inquiry into the Origin, Development and Meaning of the Roman Triumph (Brill, 1970). This work is an extended study of the nature and development of the Triumph in Greek and Roman practice. See also Mary Beard, The Roman Triumph (Harvard University Press, 2007), an excellent investigation of the history and place of a Triumph in Roman practice.
The mention that Simon, who carried Jesus’ cross, had two sons, Alexander and Rufus (Mark 15:21), might appear unnecessary. But scholars have suggested that because the Bible mentions Alexander and Rufus as part of the community of faith in Rome, this may be significant support for the tradition that Mark wrote to believers in Rome who must have known these two men, but perhaps not their father, Simon. See Romans 16:13 and 2 Timothy 4:14 (written when Paul was in Rome). Obviously, it is not certain that this is the same “Rufus” and “Alexander” mentioned by Mark, but that is church tradition.
In his excellent essay, “Jesus’ Triumphal March to the Crucifixion,” Thomas Schmidt describes a typical Roman Triumph and compares it to Mark’s account of Jesus’ death, noting several parallels in Mark’s account to a Roman triumph.
T. E. Schmidt, Mark 15:16-32: The Crucifixion Narrative and the Roman Triumphal Procession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, New Testament Studies, 1995), Vol. 41, 2, 3, 7. See Mark 1:32; Mark 2:3; Mark 4:8; Mark 5:27-28; Mark 9:17-20; Mark 12:15-16, especially Mark 12:22.
Thomas E. Schmidt, “Jesus’ Triumphal March to the Crucifixion,” Bible Review, February 1997, 34. Schmidt quotes Dionysius of Halicarnassus’s account of this ancient myth in Roman Antiquities.
Near the end of Caesar Augustus’s life, a Triumph was held for his appointed successor, his son, Tiberius. He was seated next to the emperor with a consul on either side. After Nero’s suicide, the Praetorians chose Vespasian, a general who was in Galilee fighting the Jewish Zealots during the first revolt, to be the next emperor. He arranged a Triumph and is pictured during the process and at the temple between his two sons, Titus and Domitian. The decision by the soldiers to place a rebel on a cross on each side of Jesus is likely an attempt to humiliate Jesus, who was believed to be righteous by many. Even his opponents acknowledged his character. It may also have been an attempt to mock Jews who resented Rome’s rule by identifying their “king” with two terrorists who had obviously failed in resisting Rome.
See article in the Journal of the American Medical Association on the physical process of death by crucifixion: “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” William D. Edwards, MD; Wesley J. Gabel, MDiv; Floyd E. Hosmer, MS, AMI JAMA, 1986; 255(11):1455 – 1463
Excerpted with permission from The Mission of Jesus Vol. 14 by Ray Vander Laan, copyright Ray Vander Laan.
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