When he prayed in Gethsemane, Jesus’ victory was effectively secured. The work of redemption was soon to be finished. As Calvin notes, “But now, when the trembling is allayed, and the fear is subdued … [Jesus] may again present a voluntary sacrifice to the Father.” Jesus awoke his slumbering disciples and exhorted, “Rise, let us be going.” Why? “See, my betrayer is at hand” (v. 42). Judas was on his way.
Judas arrived to where he knew Jesus would be. (This, by the way, testifies to Jesus’ consistent prayer life: Judas knew exactly where to find him.) But he had not come alone. The temple guard was with him—ridiculously well-armed. From this point, Mark’s Gospel takes a dramatic shift. Jesus is portrayed as all alone, humanly speaking: no friends, no followers, and, soon (at least for a while), no Father.
I want to be extremely careful as we proceed with our text. None of us will ever be able to relate to how forsaken our Saviour was at this point. Though we experience deep heartache at the hands of others, even at the hands of fellow disciples, there really is no comparison between what we have experienced and what Jesus did. Nor is there any comparison between what we deserve and what Jesus did not deserve. At the same time, we can find comfort in our High Priest who is not unaware of our weaknesses and pain. Praise him: He sympathises with us (Hebrews 2:16–18; 4:14–16)!
Of course, there is another side to this account—one that we don’t like and yet need to relate to: our leaving Jesus all alone. We can all relate, at some level, to having fled from Jesus because being identified with him became a threat to job security, relational security, or, for some, physical security. With this in mind, let’s approach this passage with a view to taking comfort for those times when we feel alone in this world, but let’s also be convicted and repent of leaving Jesus alone. Then let’s embrace the good news that Jesus alone could and did die for our sins, reconciling us to God. Because of that, we will never be all alone.
Be Prepared for Hostility
We begin by noting that, as Jesus was, we should be prepared for animosity: “And immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders.”
A part of our preparation for hostility involves not being surprised about its source. In the scene before us, we see what Gundry called “hellbent animosity” from those who should have shown heartfelt loyalty. We are told that while Jesus “was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a crowd” of armed soldiers. “One of the twelve” highlights the “tragic element of the situation before us” (Gould).
In this opening verse, four people or peoples are mentioned who should have been the most supportive of Jesus: “Judas, the chief priests and the scribes and the elders.” We see here a disciple whom Jesus loved along with the ones responsible for shepherding Israel and pointing Israel to Messiah! Consider who their victim was: God’s Messiah. As Calvin says, “It is a display of amazing rage, that, relying on the power of arms, they do not hesitate to rise up against God.” And yet, observe the response of Jesus.
I cannot say this enough: Jesus’ composure is amazing. With all the hostility, apostasy, and abandonment, “against this background, the quiet dignity with which Jesus calmly goes his way stands out clearly” (Schweizer).
As the hour of rejection and crucifixion approached, the Lord Jesus never lost it. Yes, he had been deeply distressed and downright terrified at the thought of becoming sin and being the propitiation for the sins of the world. But having prayed through the temptations, he emerged confident, committed, and therefore composed. All was well, even though he was soon to face hell.
Lest I Forget Gethsemane
In this text, we are still in Gethsemane. That is instructive for us. When Jesus poured out his heart, first to the disciples and then to his Father, he was fully aware of what lay ahead. That was why he prayed. He was “preprayering.” As the writer of Hebrews tells us, “he was heard” (5:7). The reason he was heard was because he “feared” the Lord. The proof he was heard is in the scene before us.
“But wait a minute,” you might object. “What does it mean that ‘he was heard’ if the cup was not removed?” Jesus was praying for perseverance to overcome the temptation to turn away from the cross. He prayed for perseverance to willingly submit to the will of God. And his Father answered his prayer. His composure amid toward hostile crowd reveals this.
Jesus knew it was possible for his Father to remove the cup from him, but he also knew it was possible for his Father to provide him with the strength to persevere to drink the cup of sin and God’s wrath upon that sin.
We need to apply this to ourselves, particularly in a day in which prosperity theologies abound: the idea that escape is to be our primary pursuit; the idea that this is God’s priority. By the way, where are the prosperity preachers? Where is the promoter of Your Best Life Now? Where are Prophet Joshua and Shepherd Bushiri? They have become very silent amid the coronavirus pandemic. Why have they not willed it away? Kenneth Copeland infamously blew it away back in late March. I guess it hit a headwind and came back!
The biblical reality is that we have no promise from God that we will not get sick from this virus. We do not have a prophetic word when this will go away. We do have his promise that he is with us. We have his promise that he will provide the strength we need to persevere productively (Philippians 4:13). We have his promise that his grace is sufficient to overcome our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:1–3). We have his promise that he is working all of this for our good (sanctification) and for his glory.
But having these promises is one thing; appropriating and believing them is quite another. I believe this is what our Lord was doing in Gethsemane. Through prayer, Jesus was getting perspective. He was, as it were, talking to both his Father and to himself. He was praying, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, who is the health of my countenance and my God” (Psalm 42:5).
It was in the garden that Jesus was preparing for what he would face outside the garden walls. In private, in the garden, his composure looked fragile, but after what was perhaps three hours of prayer, his private and public composure displayed control and resolve in the face of hostility. Mark wants us to see this. He wants us to focus on Jesus rather than on the fleeing disciples, the insecure mob, or the betrayer. The spotlight is on our Lord.
Brothers and sisters, we are foolish if we do not prepare for the hostility that awaits us outside the garden. This is what Jesus was driving home to the trio of disciples. Peter, James, and John all boasted they would not deny him and yet they all did. The shepherd was smitten, and all of his sheep were scattered, just as Jesus said they would be (14:27). If only they had they listened to their Lord! If only they had they followed his example! Sadly, they slept rather than prayed and, when the hour came, they fell. It all happened so “immediately.”
Jesus fully anticipated this scene. The disciples? Not so much. They had difficulty ever since Caesarea believing Jesus’ pronouncement that he would be betrayed and be killed. Had they believed this, they would not have fallen asleep on their watch. Because they didn’t believe, they did fall asleep. Worse, they fled when the prophesied trouble arose. Ferguson observes, “It was not the weakness of a moment…. It was the result of failing to build a solid foundation in watching and praying earlier in the evening. They had been more conscious of their tiredness than of their frailty.”
In these unique days, keep watch over your soul and pray for perseverance to obey the revealed will of God. His revealed will empowers us to persevere in his decreed will. In these unique days, keep watch for others. Be on guard for them. The enemies of Christ arrived at night, away from the crowds and were well-armed. This shows that they were insecure. Jesus would address this later but, for our purposes here, note the hostility to the person and work of Jesus. The world is no friend of grace. It is hostile to Christ, his gospel, and his church. Be prepared by being preprayered. Be prepared by spending time in the garden.
Don’t Be Surprised by Depravity
Second, our text shows us that we should not be surprised by depravity.
Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man. Seize him and lead him away under guard.” And when he came, he went up to him at once and said, “Rabbi!” And he kissed him. And they laid hands on him and seized him. But one of those who stood by drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. And Jesus said to them, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. But let the Scriptures be fulfilled.”
Jesus was confronted by his enemies (though it could equally be argued that Jesus confronted them). This scene oozes the sinful depravity of man.
The Kiss of Death
We are informed that Judas had arranged beforehand (the meaning of “sign”) that he would kiss Jesus, calling him Rabbi, to indicate the one he had betrayed. It was “an act of love performed for a mission of hate” (Edwards).
Why was the sign necessary? Didn’t everybody already know what Jesus looked like? Perhaps because it was dark and Judas expected a crowd of people to be with Jesus. The deed must not be botched by mistaken identity. Judas obviously was concerned that there might be some upheaval at the arrest because he warned them to “seize him and lead him away under guard.” Having spent three years with the sons of thunder and impetuous Peter, he was prepared for a possible kerfuffle. He wasn’t taking any chances. After all, were Jesus to escape, he might not get his money. In this way, Judas enacted his diabolical, hypocritical plan.
Of course, Judas knew that Jesus knew. And yet he assumed that he would still be able to get close enough to Jesus to kiss him (a word implying friendship and affection). In other words, he knew that Jesus would not panic or resist. This makes his deed all the more horribly evil. He knew Jesus and yet betrayed him—like so many in churches today.
“At once” (v. 45), which could be translated “immediately,” is Mark’s frequent word in his fast-paced Gospel. Judas came up to Jesus and said, “Rabbi!” The word means, “O great one.” What hypocritical sarcasm. The words, “kissed him” imply fervent and affectionate kissing. This is a despicable scene. We talk about being stabbed in the back. This is a case of being stabbed in the front, if not in the face. “Here is the proof of utter moral blindness…. The miracle is that Judas could live so close to Jesus for three years, and yet could steel his heart against him like this” (Cole). Again, this is far too much like many in our homes and churches today.
This is the last mention of Judas in Mark’s gospel. “For Mark Judas is only a minor detail in the story. It is Jesus, not Judas, who is the centre of interest as the Gethsemane story concludes” (France). Every time Judas has been mentioned (3:19; 14:10), it has been with some reference to the scoundrel he was. And after this deed, he is not mentioned again. Mark wants his readers to see the Lord Jesus, not lying Judas.
Be careful: It is all too easy for us to utilise these passages to identify Judases in the life of the church, or in our own life. But the point of highlighting the depravity of Judas is to highlight the dignity of Jesus. Focus on him and you will be well-equipped to handle any Judas that God, in his sovereign wisdom, brings into your life.
The temple guards “laid hands on him and seized him” (v. 46). We are told that someone “drew his sword” (the word describes a long-bladed knife) and took a swing at the head of the one of the men. He missed his neck (presumably) and lobbed off a lobe of his ear.
Rebuking the Rabble
Mark doesn’t tell us who this was, but John does: It was Peter (John 18:10). It might be interesting to consider why Mark does not tell us this.
As often noted, Peter was likely the source of Mark’s information and he gives us some details that are not so flattering about himself (e.g. Mark 14:30; vv. 66ff). Why the silence here? I can only guess, of course, but when you consider this action, it is actually quite brave, if wrongheaded. It would take some courage to attack a platoon of guards whom we know were armed with swords (like Peter’s) and clubs. Perhaps we have a glimpse of Peter’s humility. He may have asked Mark to leave this detail out lest he exalt himself. Peter not only preached humility (1 Peter 5:5–6), he also practiced.
Peter would soon flee and so Calvin helpfully observes, “We are much more courageous and ready for fighting than for bearing the cross.” And Hughes notes, “How easy it is to be out of step with Christ when we think we are serving him, even defending him.” Christian, stop chopping off ears (especially from behind your keyboard!) and get back to carrying your cross.
Mark doesn’t record Jesus’ interaction either with Peter (and the disciples) or with the servant (whom we know, from John 18, was named Malchus). Rather he records Jesus’ rebuke to those who had pursued him. His rebuke calls into question their character and their courage. “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me?” The word robber describes a base thug, like those with whom he was crucified. Some linguists think that the word was used to describe the Zealots.
Jesus was offended at their assessment of his character and at their assumption that he was seeking to be a revolutionary. He was offended at their use of weapons as though there was anything in his history to lend credence to the idea that he would resist arrest. There was no reason for them to assume that he would respond violently. Even his disciples (besides Peter!) had no history of this. This reminds us of David’s response to Saul, “Why does my lord pursue after his servant? For what have I done? What evil is on my hands?” (1 Samuel 26:18). Here, the response of the greater David is all the more apropos.
Jesus further rebuked them, “Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching [not warring!], and you did not seize me.” He confronted their cowardly, conniving behaviour. The reason they waited for the cover of darkness, in the middle of the night, in a rather secluded place was because they knew how popular Jesus was. They well knew that people respected him more than them. Like so many in the history of the church, these men were conceited and critical cowards who were only concerned about their position. They didn’t care about the condition of the sheep.
Standing on the Promises
Jesus’ final words are a fitting closure to this interaction: “But let the Scriptures be fulfilled” (v. 50). Let’s note a couple of important things about this statement.
First, see again Jesus’ submission to the Father’s revealed will. Time and again, Jesus was characterised by serenity, in the most difficult of times, which arose from confidence in God’s sovereignty and Scriptures. This is so important for us to grasp.
Again, Jesus was God in the flesh. He was fully man and well as fully God (Romans 9:5). His living in the likeness of sinful flesh provides us with the perfect and motivating example when we find ourselves facing trials. Peter draws our attention to this (1 Peter 2:18ff).
When we are surrounded by what appears to be (and what might, in fact, be) inescapable enemies, run (like Jesus) to and rest in and rely on the Scriptures. Let these Scriptures be more than mere proof-texts. Look to the one who stands behind them: the sovereign Lord (see Psalms 1–2). “We, too, should train ourselves to see the hand that moves the pieces…. Then Christ’s calm will be ours” (Maclaren). Jesus’ response was not a mere acquiescing to the inevitable. This was not a ‘stoic response.’ Rather, it was a principled response.
Second, which “Scriptures” was Jesus referring to? We don’t know for sure, but perhaps he had Isaiah 53 on his mind and heart. In light of what he was praying in Gethsemane, in light of his knowledge of the curse he would become as he drank of the cup, Isaiah 53 would be so appropriate. In light of his words in 10:45—“The Son of Man came … to give his life as a ransom for many”—Isaiah 53 would be most appropriate. Again, as referenced, Zechariah 13:7 may have also been on his mind. For the shepherd was being arrested to be smitten (by swords and clubs and then the cross) and, in a moment, his sheep would scatter (14:27).
Regardless, don’t miss the truth that Scripture provides the disciple of Jesus with the same persevering, peaceful resolve as it did the Master. Learn it and live it! As Hughes comments, “This is what a life that has been steeled in prayer and submitted to the will of God can do. This betrayal was easily the most hurtful and grievous in human history, but Jesus was not conquered by it, nor was he taken captive by personal hatred.” His confidence in and his commitment to Scripture steeled him for the trial.
Don’t be Disillusioned by Apostasy
A third lesson we can take from this is that we should not be disillusioned by apostasy: “And they all left him and fled. And a young man followed him, with nothing but a linen cloth about his body. And they seized him, but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked” (vv. 50–52). These final verses are sad but deeply instructive. We best not rush through them.
The disciples, including the three most vocal ones, had all drunk of the cup of the new covenant (v. 23). They all boasted they would die with him (v. 31) and, now, “they all left him and fled” (v. 50). Despite what they all said, they all fled. They all, literally, ran away, leaving Jesus all alone.
Of course Peter and John would still be in the picture, but in a “Where’s Wally?” sort of way. To John’s credit, he would be at Calvary where Jesus would commend his mother, Mary, into his care (John 19:25–27). Peter would lurk in the shadows during the early stage of Jesus’ trial but would then deny knowing the Lord three times.
Theologically—salvifically—it was necessary for Jesus to be alone for he alone could die for the sins of the world (Acts 4:12). As Ferguson observes, “Jesus was being left entirely alone. In what he was about to do no one would stand with him. No one could. He would stand alone as Saviour because he alone was fit to bear the judgement of God in our place.”
The disciples, whom Jesus called “friends,” all abandoned him. What a marvel that he did not abandon them. They behaved both callously and foolishly while our Lord responded compassionately and wisely. The disciples behaved selfishly, while Jesus responded sacrificially. The disciples’ response was inevitable, due to their failure to watch and pray, while the response of Jesus was incredible because he carefully watched and prayed. The behaviour of the disciples was embarrassing while Jesus’s behaviour was exemplary (see 1 Peter 2:18ff).
Let us be on guard lest we, too, abandon our profession of faith. As Maclaren so pastorally helps, “Let us learn … to distrust our own resolutions. Aware of our own weakness, and the flutterings of our own hearts, let us not mortgage the future, nor lightly say ‘I will’—but rather let us turn our vows into prayers.” In the words of Jesus, “watch and pray lest you enter into temptation.”
Finally, for the faithful, “let not those that suffer for Christ think it strange if they are thus deserted; they are not better than their Master, nor can they expect to be better used by their enemies, or by their friends” (Henry).
The Mysterious Streaker
Mark is the only Gospel writer who records the incident of the young man fleeing naked. If you are inquisitive like I am, you want to know why Mark included this, and who this young man was. And perhaps, what was he doing there? Let’s see if we can gather some clues.
Before we try to answer the specifics above, let’s examine what has been revealed. Whoever this young man was, he had “followed” Jesus at this point. Perhaps he was a follower also in the sense of being a disciple. Regardless, he is to be commended for in “the LXX, the Jewish Apocrypha and Josephus, the term used by Mark designates young men who are exceptionally strong and valiant, or faithful and wise” (Lane).
We can surmise that he was an interested follower, if not a disciple of Jesus. We know from Mark’s record that Jesus was popular among the multitudes and, though he selected twelve men to be especially close to him to prepare them to be the foundation of the church, there were many others who followed him as disciples (e.g. John 19:38). Nevertheless, in light of what he was wearing, why was he there?
The word translated “linen cloth” refers to fine clothes worn by the wealthy. But it is also clear that that was all he was wearing and therefore most likely this young man did not plan on being out at this time. It’s only a guess but perhaps, when he heard the commotion, he was awakened in his nearby home and came out to see what was happening, curiously following along until he was unceremoniously seized at which time he fled naked, leaving his clothing behind. We need to be careful of the excesses of what Richard Baucham calls, “historical imagination,” including the danger of making our guesses authoritative, but let’s imagine for a moment some possible answers to the above questions.
First, who was this young man. The most common assumption is that it was John Mark, our author. Some have said that this was the author’s “hidden signature,” which was rather common in those days (as, indeed, in ours). There is much to be said for this.
Many are of the view that the home where Jesus observed the last supper was Mark’s mother’s, which might explain why he was nearby. From Acts 12:12 we are aware that her home was used by the church. Such a sizeable home would indicate wealth (and, therefore, the affordability of fine clothing). Why else would this incident be recorded? If all the disciples fled, including Peter, who else would best know this detail?
If this was Mark, it would not be the last time that he turned back from following Jesus. This same Mark would later accompany Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey only to turn back when difficulties arose (Acts 13:13; 15:36ff). But I must add, there came a day when Mark’s faith grew stronger and his commitment sounder—so sound, in fact, that he was entrusted by God to write this Gospel. I wonder if that is why Paul so badly longed for his useful company and ministry (2 Timothy 4:11)?
Again, this is all speculation. And though it is all very interesting, the larger question is why? Why is this included in this account? Perhaps for two reasons.
First, Mark wanted to highlight just how alone Jesus was. As English points out, “We do not need to have the answer to every question, but one thing is clear—Jesus is now deserted by everyone allegedly on his side.” And as Lane notes, “No one remained with Jesus, not even a valiant young man who intended to follow him.”
Again, Mark wants his readers to be drawn to Jesus, not Judas or the faithless disciples. Jesus is the centre of attention. When all others are removed, Jesus shines as the centrepiece.
We have all had times when have felt abandoned, not merely by foes, but even by friends, and in some cases by family. Yet as painful and heartbreaking as that is, nothing can compare to the abandonment that Jesus experienced.
In our best days, we do not deserve the best of loyalty from others, for we fail them. But Jesus is another matter altogether. He never failed and never fails. And yet he was abandoned by those whom he came to rescue. Let me put it more strongly: Jesus was abandoned by those whom he had rescued.
John records him doing so in this very place (18:1–9). Jesus had rescued them in the midst of storms. He had rescued them, no doubt, from his and therefore their enemies. In his prayers, certainly Jesus had interceded for them, time and again. He rescued them from bad, erroneous theologies. He rescued them from worthless shepherds. He rescued them from their sinful attitudes while reorienting their way of thinking and living. He rescued them from hunger, on several occasions. He rescued them from a provincial life in Galilee, opening their eyes to a wider world under the rule of a big God. He rescued them from the narrowness of worldly thinking about relationships (3:31–35). And I imagine that he also rescued them from sickness and demons. Of course, in line with his self-revelation, he was soon to rescue them from sin and Satan and death when hung on the cross for them. He would rescue them from the domain of darkness and bring them into his kingdom.
And yet, in spite of all of this rescue, in spite of such redemption, they abandoned him. So, before feeling sorry for ourselves, look to Jesus as he stands alone, forsaken by his church, and soon by his Father.
Second, perhaps the Holy Spirit ensured Mark kept the identity anonymous so that you and I would insert our names there. When we ask, “Who?” we are to answer, “It is I.” The Times of London once published a piece titled “What’s wrong with the world?” G. K. Chesterton wrote in a response:
G. K. Chesterton
That is how I feel when I read this account. In answer to the question, “Who forsook the Lord?” I want to answer, “I did.”
When we contemplate the account of Jesus’ betrayal and abandonment, too often we rush to self-identification with Jesus. That is not always wrong, for we do experience being betrayed by those whom we have called our friends (see Psalms 41:9; 55:12–14). That is extremely painful. To be honest, sometimes it leaves us in real despair. We feel as though our souls are sorrowful unto death. The reality is, there are betrayals from which we will not recover. Many a Christian can testify to this, including many ministers. That is why we need to look to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him despised the scorn and is now set down at the right hand of the Father.
We can also relate to the disciples who abandoned Jesus. But perhaps this account of the naked fleer is the closest to us. For, like him, we have tried to stay close to Jesus but, when push came to shove, we chose rather to live with shame (nakedness) than to pay the price of identifying with him.
Christian, have you run away from identifying with Jesus this week? Have you hid your light under a bushel? Have you compromised God’s truth this past week? Have you chosen the easy way of fleeing rather than the difficult path of staying and paying the price of faithful discipleship?
If so, remember that Jesus died for that failure. He died for those sins and will forgive. Come today and be clothed afresh in the righteousness of the Lord Jesus. As Donald English helpfully notes, “We should never be complacent about sin, since all sin betrays Jesus: but nor should we be destroyed by remorse or guilt when sin overtakes us—there is forgiveness and restoration (1 John 1:8–10).”
Non-Christian, perhaps you have assumed you are a follower of the Lord Jesus and yet now you realise you are not. You have been religious, yes, and yet lost in your sin and guilt. Today is the day to stop fleeing.
Think on Calvin’s comment concerning Judas: “It was … astonishing madness … to attempt to conceal himself by frivolous hypocrisy, when he came into the presence of the Son of God.” How long will you fool yourself that Jesus does not know?
Today is the day to repent and to believe on the crucified and risen Saviour. Do so now. Don’t be like Judas who, in spite of opportunity after opportunity, turned away and eventually became so hardened that he sold his soul, choosing his sin over the Saviour, choosing hell over heaven. Listen to Maclaren: “What a long course of hypocrisy must have preceded, and how complete the alienation of heart must have become, before such a choice was possible! Much hypocrisy of the unconscious sort precedes the deliberate and conscious.” Don’t be guilty of the same.
Let us praise and thank the Lord Jesus for his willing obedience to be abandoned by all, so we would be accepted by God. We can never say it too often: Hallelujah, what a Saviour!