[February 21, 2010] During the first five Sundays of Lent we will give our attention to the cross of Christ in proportion to the text of the gospel that we are considering—in this case, Mark’s—instead of following the practice of the Revised Common Lectionary of reserving the reading of the entire passion story (Matthew 26:14—27:66; Mark 14—15; and Luke 22:14—23:56; John not at all) to the sixth Sunday of Lent, where it is combined with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (Luke 23:33-43 is also read on Christ the King Sunday). In the texts of all four gospels, the crucifixion of our Lord is given much space, with reason. For us also it is too important to take for granted!
On Ash Wednesday we again brought together the messages of Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon with the Gospel to prepare for the Lenten season. In Ecclesiastes the word for human being, Adam, is predominant throughout. The book emphasizes the futility of our Babel-project (beginning with the story of Cain, whose name means acquisition). It is all emptiness, vapor, smoke (the word, Abel) and a chasing after wind. The preacher counsels that we give up the illusion. On the other hand the Song of Songs is about our love affair with Christ, which is where we find ourselves when we wake up to reality. This year we read 2:8—3:4 where the Bridegroom calls the bride but she would rather admire Him than “rise up” to follow Him. When He leaves her, she has to exercise herself much to find Him. She took Him for granted and it cost her. So in the Gospel according to Mark, Jesus counsels His disciples to “watch!” The disciples fail (Mark 13:37; 14:37). We may take our visions of glory for granted, without understanding the role of the cross, but we do not conquer our demons without prayer (Mark 9:29).
So today we skip ahead to the scene following Jesus’ own struggle in Gethsemane. Here Mark, following Matthew’s text (or rather Peter as he retells the story), emphasizes the disciples’ inability to watch with Him. As a result, Jesus struggles alone to take the cup of the Father’s will, yet He prevails.
Treachery and Betrayal (Mark 14:43-45)
While Jesus is speaking to His disciples who were “still sleeping and resting,” still uncomprehending (the same three disciples who saw Him transfigured on the mountain), another of His disciples comes leading a mob with swords and clubs to lay hold of Him: one of the Twelve whom Jesus had specially chosen to be with Him, to be His witness and whom He “sent” (apostellō) to preach with the authority to cast out demons (Mark 3:14-15), Judas, who was one of them. He betrays Jesus to the chief priests and the scribes and elders—the Jerusalem establishment—who were frightened of Jesus and opposed Him, as He opposed them.
Mark’s gospel alone speaks of “leading Jesus away securely.” Some have imagined that Judas did not foresee what would happen to Jesus, perhaps intending to force Jesus to act. We can speculate but we cannot know Judas’ motives. The words probably only mean that Judas wanted to leave nothing up to chance with respect to taking Jesus into custody. The opportunity would not be repeated.
No, Judas—one of the Twelve—betrays Jesus, and does so with a kiss. The one whom I “kiss” (phileō): this—not something else—was the signal he chose for the mob that had come to arrest Him. Indeed, he was bold enough to step up to Jesus and call Him “Rabbi” (a respectful term for a teacher of Scripture), kissing Him repeatedly (kataphileō) as the woman did who anointed Jesus’ feet (Luke 7:38, contrasted with phileō in 7:45). The contrast is stark between his action and its purpose. To His face, Judas betrays Jesus’ trust. This is treachery.
Earlier that week Jesus warned the disciples (Peter, James, John and Andrew) that “brother will deliver up (betray, same word) brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against their parents and put them to death” (13:12). Betrayal was not beyond what the church itself could expect in difficult times.
“A certain one of those standing by drew his sword and struck the slave of the high priest, and took off his ear.” In Matthew and Luke it was clearly one of the disciples—indeed, in John it was Peter himself—yet in Mark it sounds as if it were one of the armed mob. This could be a disagreement, or Peter was protecting himself and the Twelve from legal reprisals, but it could also be that at this point, especially once one of them drew a sword, the disciples were indistinguishable from the mob.
In contrast, Jesus, who in Mark’s gospel says nothing in reply to Judas (compare Matthew 26:50 and Luke 22:48), submits willingly, without any resistance, to their seizing Him. He even reprimands those who came to arrest Him that they should even have expected resistance from Him: “Have you come out as against a robber with swords and clubs to arrest Me? Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching and you did not seize Me.” They could have arrested Him openly, for He would not have resisted. Instead, they come at night and by stealth with an armed band. They may have chosen the time and place to avoid the Passover crowds, but then why did they come “with swords and clubs”? Jesus, in fact, expected them and was willing to be taken.
The disciples, on the other hand, did not understand and did offer resistance, contrary to Jesus’ will. At first, the disciples are sleeping, unable to watch with Jesus in prayer. Then when they rouse themselves to action, they take the wrong course by refusing the way of the cross. Ever since Peter rebuked Jesus when Jesus first told them of the cross, the disciples have resisted the “Way.” To take up the sword in defense of the Gospel is to resist the cross in disobedience of Jesus.
While natural self-defense is necessary, the Gospel renounces the right to defense. When we stand up for the Gospel or act for its cause we also must renounce it. The defense of the Gospel, and of ourselves when we represent it, must come from God alone. Mark does not even retain the words recorded by Matthew in which Jesus says, “Do you think that I cannot beseech My Father and He will provide Me at once with more than twelve legions of angels?” or retain the record of Luke that Jesus healed the man’s ear. For in Mark, Jesus is always the example of faithfulness for us to follow. Though, as Jesus says in Matthew’s gospel, He was not in reality powerless, in Mark’s gospel He takes on that role. In submitting to arrest, He submits to the Father’s will, exercising no power but rather leaving all power in the Father’s hands.
While Jesus submitted to the will of his arresters, it was that the Scriptures might be fulfilled. He submitted not to them but to the Father: “May the Scriptures be fulfilled.” In the same way we are called not to submit to others but only to submit to the Father’s will. As Jesus told Pilate, “You would have no authority against Me if it were not given to you from above” (John 19:11). So also Acts 2:23 and 4:27-28. Jesus chose to submit not because He was powerless but because it was the Father’s will. Repeatedly He prophesied these events, including His betrayal, the disciples’ abandonment and Peter’s denial (Mark 8:31; 9:30-32; 10:32-34; 14:18-21, 27-31).
The church was being persecuted in Rome at the time when Peter retold the story of Jesus as recorded by Mark. The church needed to be faithful in the same way that Jesus was and not offer any resistance to Rome.
What about when the church is not being openly persecuted? What about when a culture that once had some familiarity with Christianity, and could understand its language, loses its memory of it? We are living in such a time, when even the churches across the country have become illiterate of the Bible and can no longer recognize the language of Canaan. The church has often gotten it wrong, and Protestantism has fallen into false hands more than once because it has lost sight of the Gospel. But now, in America and around the world, the Gospel has been dumbed down to such an extent that the caricature that remains is a serious distortion. The little “persecution” that we endure is rarely even directed at the Gospel but rather at what we have produced because of our failure to even comprehend it. We have become like the disciples who “follow” Jesus but do not comprehend Him and reject the cross.
We put ourselves in the position of having to fear arrest for striking the slave of the high priest—which is not the same as the persecution to which Jesus submitted.
“They All Left Him and Fled” (14:50)
Then Jesus—and those who would be faithful to Him (by remaining with Him in His rejection)—is left alone, to bear the cross by Himself. The disciples all left Him and fled. Jesus, our Lord, our Savior, our Model and our Strength, did not allow Himself to faint or become discouraged. He remained faithful to the Father’s will even though He had to do it alone, even though no one accompanied Him, even though no one even understood.
This seems to be one of the greatest trials. Can we stick to Jesus even when the church itself seems to abandon Him? It is not surprising if the culture, the media and the powers-that-be have their own reasons for wanting to stop (“arrest”) Jesus. He embarrasses them—as Jesus embarrassed the Jerusalem establishment before the Roman governor—and they have the power to remove Him or at least to distort His self-presentation. And we can accept that there are betrayers within our midst, turn-coats who would hand us over to our enemies. But can it be that the disciples who uphold His name, the church, also abandon Him? Paul warns that “the time will come when they will not tolerate the healthy teaching; but according to their own lusts they will heap up to themselves teachers, having itching ears, and they will turn away their ear from the truth” (2 Timothy 4:3-4). He could say “that all who are in Asia turned away from me” (1:15), and “at my first defense no one was with me to support me, but all abandoned me” (4:16).
Sometimes the church grows in number. Then they become like the world, and society rewards them with a respectable place. Then those who name themselves Christians begin to privilege themselves and see themselves as a club. There is no cost to discipleship; the cross becomes a mere symbol and loses its bite. The cross comes to be seen as something only for Jesus to endure. He bore the cross so that we do not have to. Now we can be comfortable. But the character of the world does not change. It may adopt Christian concerns in its institutions and the social movements that precede new institutions. But it is still as threatened as ever by the Gospel itself even though it cannot name or describe that which threatens it. For what threatens the world, which premises itself on a delusion, is the truth, the revelation of reality. Meanwhile, those who comprise the church no longer recognize this reality themselves.
When we cling to Jesus and the truth that is revealed in Him, we may find ourselves abandoned even by the church, or at least, we may find that no one in the church understands. Yet Jesus calls us to be faithful, faithful to Him and faithful to the cross, even when we are all alone.
For, even when we are alone—and this is a difficult trial because we may severely doubt ourselves—the Father is still in control. The events around us that put us in this place, as chaotic as they may seem, are ultimately not subject to the forces of chaos but to the will of God. Though “Satan went forth from the Lord’s presence and struck Job with severe boils,” yet when Job attributed it to God, “in all this Job did not sin with his lips” (Job 2:7, 10). Christ is working out His purpose in us, even when it seems—and it may be true!—that everything around us is falling apart. For, the purposes of God are worked out with us, as it was worked out in Christ, by the cross. “We are pressed on every side but not constricted; unable to find a way out but not utterly without a way out; persecuted but not abandoned; cast down but not destroyed; always bearing about in the body the putting to death of Jesus—that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who are alive are always being delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So then death operates in us, but life in you” (2 Corinthians 4:8-12). For as Jesus said in Luke’s gospel, “You will be delivered up (betrayed) even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. And you will be hated by all because of My name, yet a hair of your head shall by no means perish” (Luke 21:16-18).
Jesus endured the cross, despising the shame, for the joy set before Him (Hebrews 12:2). Even though in Gethsemane Jesus “began to be awestruck and deeply distressed” (Mark 14:33), the inner vision that He received on the mount of transfiguration kept Him. It was a vision of the reality that already was. It was a vision that the three disciples who failed Him in the garden also received, but they did not understand its relation to the cross. Jesus did understand it, for on the mount He spoke with Moses and Elijah about the cross. It was because He saw the inextricable connection between the two (the cross and the glory) that the vision could sustain Him in His humanity.
This is no less true for us. We need to “look away to Jesus” “so that we may not grow weary, fainting in our souls” (Hebrews 12:2-3).
A Picture of Baptism? (14:51-52)
We are also told of a young man “accompanying Jesus, clothed with a linen cloth over his naked body.” This is not recorded in the other gospels, and speculations about who this young man might be seem futile. Was it John Mark whose mother was a woman named Mary and whose uncle was the wealthy Barnabas? Mary’s house was in Jerusalem and perhaps Jesus ate the Passover there with his disciples.
On the other hand, the word used for the linen cloth that he wore is the same word used for the cloth that wrapped Jesus’ dead body (Mark 15:46). And the young man who sat in Jesus’ tomb (16:5), clothed in a white robe, is designated by the same word that designates this young man. In the early baptisms of the church, people would come to baptism in a linen cloth, which would be removed from them when they descended into the water. Then they would be re-clothed with a white robe when they ascended from the water. In the waters of baptism they went—symbolically—into the grave with Christ, identifying with His death, and rose in newness of life, sharing in His resurrection (Romans 6). Could this young man be pointing us to this?
He was seized, as Jesus was, but Jesus dies in our place (we leave our burial cloth behind). Yet when Jesus rises, we are there, testifying to the reality of His resurrection. It is an interesting thought. In baptism we identify with the shame of the cross and testify to the world that we dis-identify with its programs and belong only to Christ.
On the other hand, when the young man in the garden fled, this emphasized that Jesus was left utterly alone, abandoned by all His sympathizers. We also bear our cross alone, in the sight of God. Upheld by Jesus (“the Lord stood with me and empowered me,” Paul says in 2 Timothy 4:17), we—like Him—are called to be faithful even when there is no one else but God to rely on. Can we suffer along with the Gospel (1:8)? We do this when we remain faithful to Christ in our daily life, regardless of whether there is any outward persecution. Paul says, “I endure all things for the sake of the chosen ones, that they themselves also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (2:10). May we do the same.