In Mark, only at his death did the Roman centurion who was present at his execution recognize who Jesus was.
In Mark, all men prove incapable of recognizing who Jesus is, even his disciples. The only exceptions are John the Baptist and the Roman centurion at Golgotha, the very man in charge of his execution. Mark has threaded this theme throughout his gospel to make the point – The Messiah cannot be understood apart from his death on Calvary.
Scripture, John the Baptist, and the “voice from heaven” all confirmed his identity. Moreover, his healing miracles and authority over demonic forces attested that he was the “Son of Man.” Even the “unclean spirits” exorcised by him recognized him and declared that he was the Son of God.
But DESPITE all this, men remained confused about who he was. Even his family and closest associates failed to recognize that he was the Son of God. Apparently, he was just not the kind of Messiah everyone anticipated and desired.
After the heavens were “rent asunder” at his baptism, the voice from heaven declared that he is the “Son of God.” The term rendered “rent asunder” translates the Greek verb schizō, which means “to rend asunder, cleave, split open.” In Mark, it occurs only at his baptism and when the veil of the Temple was “rent” at his death.
Moreover, the “rending” of the heavens alludes to the passage from Isaiah when the prophet longed for Yahweh to “rend the heavens” and make His name known throughout the earth – (Isaiah 64:1-2, Mark 15:38).
In the town of Capernaum, he cast out an “unclean spirit” that recognized Jesus as the “Holy One of God.” The men present were all astounded, and they asked, “Who is this?” Despite his impressive deed, to them, he remained unrecognizable, though the demons certainly understood who he was and the danger he posed to them (“Are you come to destroy us?”).
This pattern is repeated several times in Mark. Though demonic spirits recognize him, men and women fail to do so, including members of his own family and inner circle – (Mark 3:11-12, Mark 5:1-7).
Proximity to Jesus did not mean recognition. The “scribes” from Jerusalem could not deny his ability to cast out demons, but rather than acknowledge that he did so by divine authority, they charged him with casting out demons by “Beelzebub, the prince of demons” – (Mark 3:21-30).
By his word only, he calmed a storm raging across the Sea of Galilee. In great fear and confusion, his disciples asked one another, “Who is this, that even wind and the sea obey him?” Even a tremendous display of power over nature was insufficient for them to recognize their Messiah – (Mark 4:36-41).
Jesus healed the daughter of the local synagogue leader who was dying, leaving the crowd amazed but dumbfounded, and ignorant of his identity. Even his ability to raise the dead was insufficient to convince anyone who he was – (Mark 5:21-43).
At one point, he returned to his hometown and began to teach in the synagogue. Many who heard began to question who he was. Rather than rejoice that the “Son of God” was present in their village, the people of Nazareth were “offended by him.” (Mark 6:1-6).
After he miraculously fed five thousand men, he departed to a mountain to pray. When the disciples crossed the Sea of Galilee by boat against a contrary wind, Jesus appeared suddenly and walked on the water. He identified himself, entered the boat, and caused the wind to cease. Previously, they had seen him calm a great storm, yet this stupendous display failed to convince them about who he was because “their hearts were hardened” – (Mark 6:45-52).
On the way to Jerusalem, momentarily, Peter began to grasp his identity. When Jesus asked, “Who do men say that I am,” he answered correctly – “You are the Christ!” But he then admonished the disciples to remain silent on the matter, explaining that “the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” To this, Peter objected. The very idea that the Messiah would suffer torment and death was beyond the pale – (Mark 8:27-38).
Whatever insight Peter gained was lost when he was confronted with the reality of the suffering Messiah. Nevertheless, his mission meant exactly that – to endure rejection and death. Jesus rebuked Peter, recognizing Satan’s attempt to thwart him from his Father’s will – (Mark 8:31).
Likewise, Jesus taught his closest disciples that he must be “delivered up into the hands of men, and they shall kill him; and when he is killed, after three days he shall rise again.” And once again, they could not understand his words.
TRIAL AND DEATH
When he was put on trial, the High Priest demanded to know, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus responded, “I am he. And you will see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power and coming in the clouds of heaven.” Before the priestly leaders of the nation, he identified himself as the Messiah. Now, there could be no more doubt. But rather than accept him, they charged him with blasphemy, and the “chief priests and the whole council” condemned him to death – (Mark 14:60-64).
Ironically, the Roman governor confirmed his messianic status when he had “King of the Jews” inscribed on the sign that was nailed to his cross. Yet, as he was hanging on it, Jewish spectators mocked him – (Mark 15:26).
During his death throes, the chief priests and scribes ridiculed him despite the testimony of God, Scripture, his miraculous deeds, and his own sworn testimony before them. It was clear to anyone with “eyes to see” that he was the “Son of God” and the promised Messiah of Israel. But the Temple authorities mockingly challenged him – “Let him come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” Even the two brigands crucified alongside him “were casting it in his teeth” – (Mark 15:26-32).
Only at Calvary did a human voice declare him to be the “Son of God.” As he uttered his last cry just before he died, the “the veil of the temple was rent in two from the top to the bottom,” and the centurion standing before the cross declared, “Truly, this man was the Son of God” – (Mark 15:37-39).
Thus, two related and significant events were caused by his death, the tearing of the Temple veil and the confession of the centurion. This was the veil that was before the Holy of Holies. Mark intends for us to connect the tearing of the veil with the centurion’s confession – (Exodus 26:31-37, Hebrews 9:3, 10:20).
Just as the “rending of the heavens” at his baptism produced a declaration regarding his status, so, too, the “rending” of the Temple veil produced the same confession, only now on the lips of the pagan centurion. Only as Jesus was crucified did a human being begin to understand just who he was, and paradoxically, NOT by any member of the Jewish nation, a member of his family, or one of his disciples. Instead, it was the Gentile officer most likely in charge of the execution squad.
When Jesus revealed what it meant to be the Messiah – humiliation and death – even his disciples were horrified and rejected the very idea. Nonetheless, only in his suffering and death are we able to grasp the identity and mission of Jesus, and consequently, what it means to be his disciple. As wonderful as miracles, signs, and wonders are, the true understanding of Jesus can only be found on Calvary.