In June 2009, I preached a sermon from Exodus 15 titled “When the Music Fades.” There, God’s people, having just celebrated his faithfulness and power, worshipfully sang in response (vv. 1–21). Almost immediately after their celebration, they murmured because of unbelief (vv. 22–27). They went from celebrating God’s faithfulness and power to denying him. They fell away, as it were. So here.
Having just celebrated God’s faithfulness to his old covenant people, and having just celebrated the establishment of God’s new covenant people, the disciples joined Jesus in singing, among other lyrics, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the LORD’s doing; it is marvellous in our eyes. This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it,” and, “Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever” (Psalm 118:22–24, 29). But shortly after the singing came a stinging announcement. Having sung about God’s faithfulness, they were stunned with a pronouncement of their unfaithfulness. Jesus warned the eleven, “You will all fall away.” God would remain steadfast, but they would not. They would move from promise to failure, and from celebration to humiliation. Have you ever been there?
Kent Hughes pastorally comments that he is uncomfortable when new converts boast “no turning back, no turning back” and that he prefers to hear something like, “I know I can’t do it alone, but by God’s grace I’m going to do my best.” Such biblical perspective can guard us from needlessly going from the heights to the depths, from great hope to the pits of failure, from great resolve to great tragedy, and from a strong start to weak finish.
I am not being cynical. I am being honest. What happened with the disciples happens to all of us, in some way. We leave worship singing, strong in our faith, firm in our trust in the promises of God. But, along the way, we do the unthinkable. As the music fades, so sometimes does our courage and hence our commitment to live for Jesus. As we will see in our next study, we sometimes learn the hard way that, while our spirit is willing, our flesh is oh so weak (vv. 32–42).
In this study, we will begin our consideration of the most sorrowful passage in Mark. May it sober us to spiritual maturity so that, when the music fades, our faithfulness will not.
A Prophesied Fall
Jesus knew that the disciples would fail him and said so quite clearly: “And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. And Jesus said to them, ‘You will all fall away, for it is written, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered”’” (vv. 26–27).
Having commemorated Passover—the last legitimate Passover in history—and having then instituted the new Passover (the Lord’s Supper, the first of many for the rest of history), Jesus and the eleven disciples headed to the Mount of Olives. Since the Passover meal occurred in the evening, and could last until midnight, we know it was late. It was dark and, in a tragic way, it was going to grow even darker. “These scenes become increasingly dark, with the relationship of Jesus and the disciples going from bad to worse to worst” (Witherington).
The Mount of Olives was often filled with campers during Passover. Rather than returning to Bethany, as they had done for the past week, they went to this familiar place, where Jesus had recently pronounced judgement upon the temple and the city. It was at this mountain where this interaction between Jesus and the disciples unfolded.
Jesus had already told them that one of them (one of the Twelve) would betray him (vv. 17–18). They were horrified at the thought, each saying, “Surely, not?” (v. 19). But now, “that dire prospect is balanced by the even more far-reaching tragedy of the failure of the whole group to support Jesus when the time comes” (France). Having just celebrated the first Lord’s Supper in history, we learn from this account that the Lord’s Table is a place of grace, not of merit.
Though they would not betray Jesus, they would fail him. They would deny and disown him. What a tragic night this was turning out to be. Or so it seemed.
The Offence of the Cross
“You will all fall away” translates a word Jesus has used earlier: skandalizo. It means to trip up or to cause to stumble and is used to imply an enticement to sin. Mark uses the word in 4:17 and 6:3. In 9:42–47, Jesus warned the disciples about any behaviour or demeanour that would trip someone up in their path of discipleship.
Green says that the word means “to cause a person to begin to distrust and desert one whom he ought to trust and obey” (Green). It is used in the passive tense meaning that their failure, though their responsibility, would not be intentional. Factors would mount and they would not stand when they needed to. “It carries a passive sense, that is, it does not mean that the disciples will wilfully defect but that external factors will act upon them and cause them to do so. It is, in other words, a lapse rather than an egregious rebellion” (Edwards). As we will see, their best intentions would not sustain the assault. We can deduce that the woes of 9:42–47 would abide on the heads of those who were active in their temptation.
Smitten Shepherd and Scattered Sheep
“For it is written” is an extremely important statement. Before unpacking what indeed was “written,” think for a moment how Peter and the disciples would have processed this. Jesus was saying, “A long time ago, the Old Testament Scriptures prophesied your failure.”
This must have been sobering. Perhaps now they were beginning to get a glimpse of what Jesus meant when he said that the first would be last, and the last first. They seemed be heading for last place.
The Authoritative Assurance of Scripture
Consider the one at the centre here: the Lord Jesus. As we saw previously, the storm clouds had arisen and were about to break open on our Lord. So much sorrow, so much hatred, so much rejection. What enabled Jesus to persevere? Clearly, his conviction about the authority of Scripture played a huge role. He knew that none of this was an accident. As France observes, “as each stage of the tragedy unfolds, he shows by his accurate predictions that he is not being taken by surprise.” He knew this was all part and parcel of God’s sovereign plan. He was not in this by accident. Rather, he was an informed, willing, and submissive participant. After all, since “it is written,” he could trust the one who wrote it.
This is how we are to face our Gethsemanes: trusting God’s word. Our conviction about its authority provides the ground for great assurance. Since it reveals God and his purposes, we can find rest amid the dark night of our soul.
The Realism of Jesus
No one has ever been treated with such disregard, disrespect, and distrust as Jesus. And yet is it not amazing how he retained his holy, content, and committed composure? There was not a trace of bitterness in our Lord where one might expect litres of it. Why?
Again, his trust in the Father empowered him to faithfully endure mistreatment (1 Peter 2:18–23). But there was also something else: He was realistic about human nature, even in his disciples. He expected failure from his disciples. Sinclair Ferguson captures this well when he writes that Jesus “was safeguarded from a disappointment which leads to bitterness because he saw the real state of human nature.” He knew that though the spirit was willing, yet the flesh remained so weak (vv. 32–42).
No doubt Jesus was deeply saddened by his knowledge of Peter’s imminent failure of Peter, and that of his fellow disciples. Even as he made this prediction, his heart must have been grieved. But though saddened, he was neither surprised nor shocked by their failure. And yet at no time do we detect bitterness. After Peter’s infamous fulfilment of this prophesy, Jesus reached out to him, communicating forgiveness and a willingness for reconciliation and restoration (Mark 16:7; John 21:15–19).
Because Jesus “knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man” and because “he himself knew what was in man” (John 2:24–25), he did not overestimate the disciples’ ability. He had biblical expectations and therefore, though disappointed at times, he was never disappointed to the point of despair or to a disposition of bitterness. Most importantly, he was never disappointed with God. Fundamentally, this is the object of our all our bitterness. After all, God is in control, so we bitterly complain (without usually admitting it), “Why did he allow this?”
It is for this reason that the statement “as it is written” is so significant. It empowers while it assures.
The Fellowship of the Fallen
The local church is the fellowship of the forgiven. And, because of this, it is the fellowship of those with enormous potential for holiness and for good.
Yet a simple reading of the book of Acts and the epistles reveal the corollary that the local church is also the fellowship of the frail and therefore often resembles the fellowship of the fallen. If you are not prepared for this, if you are not equipped with biblical truth, you are headed for serious disappointment. And perhaps, you are headed for bitterness as well.
Again, listen to Ferguson: “Put your trust first in him, and learn to live within the fellowship of failures knowing that he will never fail you.” In other words, church members will fail you. Sometimes they will deeply hurt you. If you are not putting your trust in the Lord—if he is not the supreme object of your devotion—then your hurts will morph into hates. This may evidence itself in a number of ways, including a growing critical, fault-finding spirit; withdrawal from the body; and what I call the “silent scream.”
The silent scream is seen in the church member who never interacts with a kind or encouraging word and the only time you hear from them is when they are unhappy about something (a point of theology, some practical failure in the administration and life of the congregation, etc.). The sounds of silence can be deafening.
It was because the Lord Jesus was focused on the Father that he would not, and could not, abandon the family. It was this primary devotion that fuelled his devotion for the fallen. After all, he came not to save the righteous but rather to seek and to save those who were lost. Physicians are not needed where there is no illness. The church needs to be seen as a hospital, as a rehab centre. If you can’t handle the smell of sickness, you won’t last long in a healthy church.
Rather than sticking your self-righteous nose in the air, take a good whiff of your own failures and start ministering to the fallen. Those who have no need for forgiveness will be the loneliest people in the church.
Brothers and sisters, we need to be realistic, not only about ourselves (more on that later) but also about one another. Being biblically, charitably optimistic is one thing; being unbiblically perfectionistic is quite another. Let me be blunt: Your fellow church members will fall. They will fail—including those you hold in high esteem and your leaders. The sooner you embrace this biblical realism, the sooner you will be equipped to guard your heart against planting seeds of disillusionment, which eventually bring forth bitter fruit.
It’s wonderful when you come to a new church—both for pastors and church members. At first, everything seems rosy. Your fellow church members can do nothing wrong. You have never found been to such a loving, Spirit-filled place before. Until the first time a member sins against you, and the honeymoon is over.
I am not making light of failure and falling away. Not at all. I am trying to help us to grasp the reality that, even with all the time we spend with Jesus, we still struggle with the world, the flesh, and the devil and we are not always victorious. Yes, we need to hope for the best but don’t be devastated by the worst. And for your sake, for the church’s sake, for God’s sake, don’t become bitter.
I pray regularly through our church directory. Most weeks, I pray though it in its entirety. Sometimes it makes me sad. I come to a member, or to a family, and am reminded of their sinful actions and attitudes. I am reminded of wrongs done against others, and sometimes wrongs done against me. It is precisely then that I need to really pray. I need to pray for those who, at that moment, are behaving like enemies. Praying helps me to remember my own frailty. It helps me to forgive. It helps me to hope for the best because it reminds me that an omnipotent God is our Father who can turn things around. Praying also reminds me that my loving Father may choose not to turn things around and yet he is enough. Sometimes, God may choose not to turn things around because I need to mature in my faithfulness, so I don’t fall and fail others.
The Smitten Shepherd and the Scattered Sheep
What was “written”? Jesus quotes Zechariah 13:7, an amazing prophecy about the good, great, chief shepherd who would be smitten—to death—and his sheep who would be scattered. Observe, most importantly, that God himself is the one in the passage who would be smiting the shepherd. Yahweh would do this.
It is important to understand this is not a case of poetic license. Jesus didn’t quote this verse because it described something similar. This was, instead, the very fulfilment of what God had prophesied through Zechariah so long ago. What was that?
Zechariah was prophesying to a returned remnant from exile in Babylon. They were rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem. But all would not be well. In fact, Zechariah prophesied Israel’s continued rebellion and God’s response of righteous judgement. The nation would experience turmoil in the centuries to come, including persecution by the Syrian leader, Antiochus Epiphanes. This would be followed by oppression from Rome. During all this time, the nation would be led by “worthless shepherds” (11:17; see Mark 6:34). Then Messiah would come. He would come, in fact, to the Mount of Olives (14:4). And, according to Zechariah, Messiah would be rejected (12:10ff; 13:7) and smitten.
Zechariah was prophesying about Israel’s rejection of King Jesus (The term “shepherd” often described kings in the ancient world) and God’s subsequent destruction of Jerusalem (see Mark 13). And now, as Jesus once again stood on the Mount of Olives, he told his disciples that the remainder of Zechariah was about to be fulfilled. God would bring it to pass. God would smite him, their Shepherd. And by doing so, a new covenant people would be scattered and regathered. Lane explains: “In the context (Zechariah 13:7–9) God commands that the shepherd (‘the man who stands next to me’) be struck down that the sheep may be scattered as an integral part of a refining process which will result in the creation of a new people of God.”
To see this, we need to proceed to our second heading.
A Promised Recovery
The prophesied abandonment would not be final: “But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” This short verse is packed with hope and encouragement, but one suspects that this diamond was so buried under their emotional darkness that the disciples didn’t detect it.
It seems that Jesus did not take a breath between his announcement of their falling away and the prophesy of his resurrection and rendezvous with them in Galilee. Let that sink in and enjoy this expression of faith, hope and love.
Jesus was certain of his resurrection (which is another reason why he was not despondent about the failure of the disciples). His statement that he would “go before” them to Galilee is rich with meaning.
We are provided with a reassuring picture of his continued shepherding. The words “go before” envision a shepherd-leader. Jesus himself was soon to walk through the valley of the shadow of death. But when he emerged on the other side (after he was “raised up”), he would be there to lead the disciples through theirs.
His mention of “Galilee” is a reminder of where it all began (Mark 1). It also envisions a new beginning. Matthew would flesh this out in his account of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16–20). On a mountaintop, Jesus would commission the new Israel of God, sending them forth to be his kings and priests on earth (Exodus 19; Revelation 1:5–6). Zechariah prophesied this as well. We learn from this that “the kingdom of God that Jesus brings and embodies cannot be scuttled by human failure” (Edwards).
The final phrase of Zechariah 13:7 can be translated “and I will turn my hand to the little ones” or, as some paraphrase, “I will come to the aid of my little ones.” Verses 8–9 of Zechariah 13 are a wonderful prophesy of Jesus protecting, providing for, and gathering his people in covenantal relationship. After his resurrection, Jesus would confirm that they were his people and he their God. With his characteristic pastoral heart John Calvin writes,
God does not cease to recognize as his sheep those who are driven out and scattered in every direction for a time. This scattering did not prevent the Lord from gathering his sheep at length, by stretching out his hand towards them.
The Redeemer … having begun to collect the flock of God, was suddenly dragged to death. But so much the more strikingly was the grace of God displayed, when out of dispersion and death the remaining flock was again assembled in a wonderful manner.
Christ does not simply say that he will rise again, but promises to be their leader, and takes them for his companions, as if they had never swerved from their allegiance to him.
We can take great encouragement from this that failure need not be final. It need not be final for either the individual disciple or for the corporate local church. Again, there are times when we will fall and even, for a while, fall away. But if the Lord is our shepherd, he will regather us. The power of his resurrection assures us of this (see Romans 6; Philippians 3:10–14). In fact, Mark knew this by experience. We need to believe our Shepherd for this.
Local churches, as well as individual Christians, can be restored and revived. I am currently praying about this for a church I am familiar with. I am excited to think of the prospect.
Before moving on, we must pause and marvel at the composure of Jesus. Betrayal and denial having been acknowledged, Jesus was focused on the promise of his resurrection and the future of his people. He believed God. He trusted his Father in the darkest of times. We are to follow his example.
In these days of almost palpable uncertainty, remember, that “it is written.” It is written that God will supply all your needs according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:19). It is written that Christ will build his church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18). It is written that he will never leave or forsake his people (Hebrews 13:5). It is written that you can cast your care on him (1 Peter 5:7). It is written that he will be with you in great trial (Isaiah 43:2–3). It is written that everything that happens works for the ultimate good of those who love him (Romans 8:28).
In times when you wonder whether you will persevere to the end, when you question whether you will make progress in holiness, remember, “it is written.” It is written that he will complete the work that he began in you (Philippians 1:6). It is written that he will do what he has called you for (1 Thessalonians 5:24). It is written that he is able to keep you from stumbling and present you faultless before his throne (Jude 24–25).
When you are anxious about the progress and effectiveness of God’s work through his word, remember that it is written that his word will not return void (Isaiah 55:10–11). When you face the darkness of sickness and death, remember that it is written that he is the resurrection and life and those who believe in him will live (John 11:25).
O what a Saviour! Empowered by the Holy Spirit, let us follow his example and, by faith, display his calm and trustful composure in the dark nights of our soul.
A Prideful Response
Almost as if they had heard nothing he said, the disciples responded with great hubris:
Peter said to him, “Even though they all fall away, I will not.” And Jesus said to him, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” But he said emphatically, “If I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And they all said the same.
Peter responded to Jesus’s pronouncement in much the same way he did in Caesarea Philippi (cf. 8:31–33): He audaciously and vehemently corrected him. And as there, Jesus confronted and corrected him. Witherington helpfully notes, “Every time Jesus speaks of his passion in this Gospel, it provokes a crisis among the disciples and a furry of verbiage.” This is the case here.
Peter could fathom such a failure on his part, though it seems that he had no problem assuming the worst of his fellow disciples. This is suggested in his response: “Even though all fall away, I will not.” “Full of false pride in his own fancied strength, and scorn for the weakness of others; [Peter] had no difficulty in believing the words of Jesus to be true of his fellow disciples” (Cole). This must have stung the other disciples.
But Jesus corrected Peter with an emphatic response: “Truly, I tell you, this very night.” There are several “truly, I tell you” statements in Mark, which emphatically declare a certainty. Jesus’ “this very night” highlights the certainty of Peter’s denial.
Mark is the only one who mentions the rooster crowing twice. If there is significance to this, it might be in the fact that Peter is widely accepted to be the source of Mark’s information and this detail stuck with him. It is remarkable that Peter was so transparent with Mark about his failure. Good leaders are. It is as if Peter was saying to Mark, “I really blew it back then. I was so full of pride and presumption. Make sure you highlight this so that others can learn from my failure.” This was a great example to the church about humble honesty. It still is.
The bold, courageous, passionate, and, of course, impetuous Peter would not be detoured. Apparently, he knew better than the Lord (can you relate?), so he “emphatically” declared, “If I must die with you, I will not deny you.”
The word translated “deny” means to disown. This was unthinkable, not only to Peter but also to the rest of the disciples. They joined in with their declaration of undying loyalty: “And they all said the same.”
Jesus had made it clear that to follow him means a willingness to die (“take up your cross”). With the response of the disciples, they are “realistic about the prospect, even if not about [their] ability to go through with it” (Cole).
The Safety of Self-Distrust
We commend them for their zeal, but not for their lack of self-knowledge. They assumed their faith was stronger than it was. They assumed their courage was stronger than it would actually prove to be. “That Peter and the others meant what they said is not in doubt. The mistake they made was to be too confident in their ability to stand faithfully on their own when the battle became fiercest” (English).
This is a classic case of speaking without first thinking. I am not being unduly harsh here. I am pointing out our natural tendency to boast, which is rarely wise. As Calvin said, “Nothing is more fading or transitory than inconsiderate zeal.”
Alexander Maclaren pastorally exhorted his congregation about what he called, “the safety of self-distrust.” Knowing our weakness is just as important as knowing our strength. He counsels, “So, in all Christian hearts there should be profound consciousness of their own weakness. The man ‘who fears no fall’ is sure to have one. Examples of others falling are … to set us to think humbly of ourselves and to supplicate divine keeping, ‘Lord save me, or I perish!’”
Of course, later in this chapter, the Lord’s words will prove true (vv. 50, 66–72). We should learn from this that all of our best intentions must be considered in the face of honest self-examination. As Paul put it, “let anyone who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). Such a warning will guard us from spiritual slothfulness and will move us to spiritual watchfulness and wakefulness. It will also help us to be less critical of one another. “Those who live in glass houses”—well, you know how that goes.
It has been well said that too many people are willing to die for Jesus but not enough are willing to live for him. There is something to that. Rather than bold and sometimes brash declarations of devotion, let us simply commit ourselves to watch and pray with Jesus (vv. 32ff). If we don’t do this, we will lack the spiritual courage to identify with him when the opposition mounts.
Brothers and sisters, we need to pray. We need to honestly examine our spiritual condition. We need to take seriously the word of God, which tells us our propensity to sin and for self-preservation. We need to listen to our fellow church members who identify weakness and potential dangers in our lives. Only then will we be able to truthfully declare our devotion. Only then will we do so in dependence upon the Lord. For if we do not do so in dependence upon him, we will, in some way, disown him when the darkness descends.
Don’t overestimate your devotion. Don’t underestimate your depravity. Don’t underrate warnings by fellow disciples.
Unbeliever, Christians fail, and many have perhaps failed you. They have not practiced consistently what they profess. We will give account for this. But you will give account for your rebellion and rejection of God. The good news is that you can be forgiven. Only Jesus can provide this. He died in the place for all those who are willing to repent and trust him who died and rose again.
Christian, when the music fades—that is, when following Jesus becomes very difficult (and it will)—keep looking to Jesus. He not only died for your sins but also rose from the dead. He therefore ever lives to make intercession for his own (Hebrews 7:25).
When you go from feasting with Jesus to failing Jesus, keep looking to our forgiving Jesus, who has gathered you into his kingdom and who will continue to regather you when you go astray. Lest you think that such an exhortation will lead to complacency about sin, think again. As Peter came to know, there is nothing more bitter than failing your Saviour. Rather, like Peter, you will learn to be alert and to know yourself, thus being on guard against the weakness of your flesh.
And, church member, don’t be so hard on those who are trying and failing. Rather forgive and fortify them. One day you will need this as well.
So, when the music fades, keep following.