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Mark 16:8. The end.

June 15, 2018

And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

So ends Mark’s Gospel as we have it.

  1. What are we to make of the “Longer Ending” in v9-20 and/or other suggested endings?

  2. How do we make sense of the ending in v8, if it is the real ending?

 

  1. What are we to make of the “Longer Ending” in v9-20 and/or other suggested endings?

We have various suggested endings from ancient sources, but the earliest and best manuscripts of Mark simply end with the statement above. We don’t possess the original manuscript, in Mark’s own handwriting. We have copies. And sometimes those copies are mistaken. They are slightly different from each other- a word is spelt differently, or even a whole verse inserted. Usually, it isn’t too difficult to sort out which copies are the accurate ones. You arrange the manuscripts into families- a little like evolutionary tree families- except that here you are starting with the correct premise that they were copied from each other, not the incorrect premise that they were copied from each other. You look for similarities, and you also take into account where the manuscripts were found and what was found with them, and you try to trace back the differences until you reach the source of each difference. And then you can see which version was the change and which was the original.

Here though, we have a very unusual problem; a number of variants, especially a long passage which is there is some manuscripts and not in others. The two oldest reliable manuscripts end at v8. But other manuscript traditions contain some more verses, most of them having v9-20 (known as the “Longer Ending”) and a very few of them having just 34 more words (known as the “Shorter Ending”). Some have both; the “Shorter” followed by the “Longer”. The “Shorter Ending” tells us how the women took the news to the disciples, and then Jesus himself sent out the proclamation of eternal salvation into all the world through the disciples. The “Longer Ending” is included in most English translations along with a note to say that it is not in the earliest manuscripts.

For the sake of argument, assume that you (like me) think that the extra bits on the end are not original. You can see how it could have happened. A scribe realised that Mark ends his Gospel rather abruptly and unexpectedly. The scribe didn’t understand why, and so he added a bit more, a postscript, an appendix, describing the teaching of the early church about what happened next. Most of the factual matter (almost all except a bit about drinking poison and handling snakes) in both endings is also given in Matthew, Luke, and John. It isn’t had to imagine a scribe, or a committee of scribes, adding an ending on to finish what seemed to them unfinished, and their ending gradually becoming widely used and accepted.

But if you assume that the longer ending is original to Mark, then the manuscripts we have which contain it must be copies of manuscripts even earlier than the earliest ones we have. And, harder to explain, the early manuscripts we have which don’t contain it must have been unfinished, and for some reason both end in the same place.

The church fathers up to about AD 400 seem to indicate that the longer ending was not known widely among them, and was not regarded as original where known. To the best of my judgement so far, Mark ended his Gospel at verse 8.

 

  1. How do we make sense of the ending in v8, if it is the real ending?

Some people have agreed that Mark finished at verse 8, on the grounds of the manuscript evidence outlined above, but they can’t understand why he would end so abruptly, and why he wouldn’t mention the resurrection appearances or any of that. So they hypothesise that Mark was forced to finish early- Mark’s Gospel talks a lot about persecution, and we know that Christians across the Roman Empire were persecuted. Maybe, they say, Mark was executed while his work was still unfinished. Or maybe Peter was executed, and Mark stopped writing for a while in order to gather more information from other eyewitnesses, and never managed to finish his Gospel.

The reaction of the women to the angel’s announcement comes as little surprise. Mark has repeatedly shown us people being afraid of Jesus when they see him plainly as more than a mere man. The disciples were “filled with great fear” when he calmed the storm (4:41). Those who saw the Gerasene demoniac clothed and in his right mind “were afraid” (5:15). The woman suffering from bleeding, “knowing what had happened to her, came in fear”, and Jesus tells Jairus not to fear too (5:33,36). The disciples who see Jesus walking on the sea “were terrified” (6:50). The three disciples who are taken onto the mount, when they see Jesus transfigured before them, “were terrified” (9:6). They have seen an angel, and heard of a risen Lord. Fear is natural.

But why does Mark end with this? It seems bizarre in more ways than one. Why, having named the women three times and identified them as the key witnesses to the resurrection, would he then end his Gospel by saying that they said nothing to anyone? Why recount the angel’s message to the disciples, and Jesus’ promise to meet them in Galilee, but then not tell us how that meeting took place?

More importantly than that, why not give us any account of the resurrection appearances at all? Mark’s readers know that the women did tell their tale in the end, know that Jesus did meet with his disciples- they are part of the early church which grew out of the preaching of the resurrection of the Christ. But why does Mark not show us the risen Lord?

Jesus had spoken about his resurrection to his disciples, but they had not understood him at all. They thought that he would establish a kingdom before he died, and refused to consider the possibility of death for the Messiah. We have seen that this is one of the central themes to Mark’s Gospel; the way that nobody understood that Jesus came to die.

Mark has shown Jesus coming as Messiah; the King, yes, but a King who will reign over a new Israel, an Israel who have had their hearts turned to love God and repent of their sins. And so he has not cast out Romans; he has cast out demons. He has not brought prosperity to Israel and made the nations pay tribute; he has brought peace to all nations. He feeds the 5000, the army of Israel- and has enough left for all the 12 tribes. And he feeds the 7000, all the nations of the earth, and has enough left to give food to the four corners of the earth. And he excites fierce opposition from those who call themselves Israelites, but who do not love God, instead serving themselves and growing fat on their positions as leaders of God’s people.

And then Jesus shows himself in heavenly glory to three disciples- the inner circle- but they still don’t understand the nature of his kingdom, the sort of king he is. And he tells them not to tell anyone else what they had seen until after the Son of Man has risen from the dead.

He teaches the disciples about his way- the way of leadership by suffering and self-sacrifice- and he predicts his death to them three times. And it bounces off them. They are confused. And at the root, they still seem to assume that Jesus will set up an earthly kingdom, and they will get to be his advisers.

They all head to Jerusalem, and the same things happen as in the earlier parts of the Gospel- but more so. The leaders confronting Jesus are the national leaders, who speak for the nation as a whole, not just local Scribes and Pharisees any more, but the Sanhedrin. And Jesus pronounces judgement upon them.

And then they take Jesus, and kill him. And the disciples all flee. They don’t know what to do. Having promised loyalty to Jesus, they scatter- just as Jesus himself had said they would, quoting Zechariah, “You will all fall away, for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.”

And nobody had understood that Jesus would actually change things forever. he wouldn’t be a saviour like the Judges, who pushed back the enemies for a while, and then died. He wouldn’t be an “anointed one” like a good king who could reform the nation and uphold God’s laws for a while, but then die and have his influence die with him. He would die, but his death would not be a defeat, not a cause for mourning. It would be a victory. We’ve seen that in the response of the centurion, “surely this man was the Son of God.” The death of Jesus, and his victory in death, is where Mark has been heading since the first verse he wrote. Why then does he only talk so briefly about the resurrection, and not actually show us the risen Jesus?

We’ve argued before that Mark’s Gospel is taken from Peter’s account. Peter had his set form to present the story of Jesus, much of it learned from Jesus himself. Any congregation taught by Peter could probably have recited many small accounts of Jesus’ different doings and a summary of his life. Before Mark wrote it down for the early Christians, they’d heard the material many times as oral presentations. Jewish rabbis habitually taught in memorable phrases which they’d received from other rabbis. Spontaneity and originality were not qualities valued by the rabbinic tradition. Faithfulness to the traditions of the fathers was. Rabbis received things and passed them on. In the NT, the apostles continued this method. Peter preaches in Acts 10, and Luke gives a summary of his sermon, which is pretty much an account of Jesus’ life. Peter begins with Jesus’ baptism, goes on to Galilee and miracles and doing good, and ends with Jerusalem and death and resurrection. From Acts, this seems to be Peter’s routine presentation. This is the standard way he preaches the Gospel. The structure is similar to Mark, and the reason is almost certainly that Mark drew on Peter for the bulk of his source material. All the evidence is that this is Peter’s book, and Mark is Peter’s interpreter, putting down what Peter preached, with explanatory notes. But there is one big difference. Peter didn’t leave the women at the tomb. Peter talks about the resurrection appearances. Mark doesn’t.

Why would he do that? If you were writing a Gospel, where would you end it? With Jesus death? With his resurrection appearances? With the ascension? With the day of Pentecost? With evidences of Jesus’ continuing presence with the Church? Luke opts for the ascension. That is the impression he wants to leave us with- Jesus going up into heaven to be seated at his Father’s right hand. Luke then produces a second volume, beginning with the ascension and going right up to the work of the kingdom being established in Rome among the Gentiles. Matthew goes for the great commission- Jesus final words to his troops. That is the impact he wants to make at the end. John tells us about various resurrection appearances, including some in Galilee, where Jesus eats fish and speaks with the disciples. Mark ends with the women running away from the tomb in fear and amazement.

2 reasons…

Firstly, Mark wants to leave us with the fact of the empty tomb. The women saw that there was no body there. The body was gone- and who had taken it? Not the disciples- they were hiding away in a locked room together. Not the Romans or the Jews- they would have no reason to do so, and if they had, they would produce it pretty quick to silence any dangerous rumours about a man being raised from the dead.

Many have tried to disprove the resurrection- the disciples stole the body, or the Jews stole the body, or Jesus did not really die, but swooned and revived. But none of that is even remotely convincing. It bears all the marks of people who don’t want to believe in the resurrection, desperately trying to convince themselves that it didn’t happen. The fact of the growth of the church alone disproves it. You have the men who had fled from Jesus, regrouping, and standing firm in the face of death themselves- fighting to establish a kingdom not along the lines of the one they’d always had in their minds before the resurrection, but of the kingdom not of this earth which Jesus came to usher in. Where did they get their new vision? Where did they get the new power which accompanied it? Why were they willing to live lives of poverty and pain, ending in frequently painful death, because of it? Look at Paul- he gave up a stellar career as a Rabbi and Jewish theologian to become a man despised by all- and he considered it joy. Why? Answer- because Jesus was risen, Jesus appeared to him, and he did it because he loved his Lord and wanted to serve him, and considered it an honour to be like him in suffering. Had the resurrection not happened, Jesus would be no more than a line in Josephus’ antiquities, and probably not even that. The empty tomb is a huge problem to solve for those who would deny the resurrection, and Mark leaves us at a full stop with that fact.

And secondly, Mark is emphasising the fear and amazement felt by the first disciples when they first realised that Jesus was risen. Mark, I think, is quite far-sighted in so doing. We read the verses- at least I read the verses, and unless I think about it, they don’t hit me with fear and amazement. Because I know what happened. I already knew the ending before I started reading. It’s like an Agatha Christie- ever read any? Detective novels, where there’s a murder, and nobody knows whodunnit. It must have been one of this small group of people, because they were all locked up in a deserted country house in the middle of nowhere at the time. And the plot develops, and just as you start to suspect somebody, Christie kills them off. And only on the last few pages does the great detective gather everyone into the drawing room, and point the finger to the murderer, and explain how he knows they did it, and they break down and confess just as the policemen burst out from behind the curtains where they were hiding to arrest them. The way to ruin the book is to skip to the last few pages and read them first. Because then you know who it is all along, and it seems obvious, and the big surprise at the end that it was actually the butler all along lacks the required punch.

So with Mark. We all know that Jesus rose from the dead- and we spot the “clues” all the way through- although they’re not meant to be subtle clues. Jesus says plainly that this is how it ends. But the disciples didn’t know. And Mark wants us to feel their surprise as we read. They are terrified. They don’t know what’s going on. And this is stressed so that we who might read the resurrection as an expected and even a necessary occurrence, instead are left with the impression of the women’s trembling, astonishment, fear, as we read the final words of the Gospel.

This fear is always the response of men and women to God, and Mark has consistently told us so. When people see God’s power breaking in, they are afraid. The disciples were afraid when Jesus calmed the storm. There they all were on the boat, thinking that they were going to die- and Jesus wakes up and speaks the word- and bang! Like a millpond. And then, when it’s all quiet, then they are afraid, and they say to each other, “Who is this, that even the wind and the waves obey him.” The Gerasenes were afraid when Jesus delivered Legion. They saw him clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid. The three disciples on the mount of transfiguration were afraid. Peter said “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here, why don’t we make three tents, one for you, one for Elijah and one for Moses”, because he didn’t know what to say, because they were terrified. The disciples were afraid when they saw Jesus setting his face toward Jerusalem, to clash with the leaders there. As Jesus shows his majesty and power as the Son of God, people are astonished and afraid.

And that is the nature of a true response to Jesus. Mark has written this Gospel, and has begun it by telling us who Jesus is- the Son of God. He has made us ask again and again- who is this? What is he like? And he has answered those questions. We need to come to see Jesus with awe and wonder, to see who he is- the Son of God, come among men, living and dying and rising again for the redemption of all who come to him.

Mark 15:40-16:7. He is risen.

June 15, 2018

There were also women looking on from a distance, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. When he was in Galilee, they followed him and ministered to him, and there were also many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem. And when evening had come, since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Pilate was surprised to hear that he should have already died. And summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he was already dead. And when he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the corpse to Joseph. And Joseph bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud and laid him in a tomb that had been cut out of the rock. And he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid.

When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back— it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed. And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Mark has told us about the centurion who saw the way in which Jesus died, and who said of him “Surely this man was the Son of God”. That was the high point of Mark’s Gospel. The structure all builds to that point. But there were more people there at the cross than one. The centurion was there, and so were others. There were some women looking on from a distance.

  1. There were women at the cross, and Mark repeats their names three times. Why does he do that?

  2. Who was Joseph of Arimathea?

  3. Why does Joseph need to “take courage”? What is brave about what he does?

  4. Who is the young man in white by the tomb, and what is the significance of what he says?

  5.  

  1. There were women at the cross, and Mark repeats their names three times. Why does he do that?

Mark tells us about some of the women at the cross. Mark names three of them who were there to see Jesus die in v40, and then names two of those three again in v47 when they saw him buried on Friday evening, and then names all three again in 16:2 when they come to the tomb early on Sunday morning.

These women were “looking on from a distance”. They didn’t dare, or weren’t allowed, to come too close at this point. But they had followed Jesus for a long time, having become his followers while he was in Galilee, and they were still following Jesus as he died. They were obviously very devoted. They had left home and family to become part of Jesus’ entourage, following him up to Jerusalem. This is very odd- Jewish rabbis did not normally have female disciples. (Luke is bigger on this than Mark. Mary sat at Jesus’ feet- Lk 10 or 11). They have stayed with Jesus, presumably all through the day, as he hung on the cross. They have followed his body as dusk fell that Friday evening, watching Joseph as he carries the corpse into his tomb. They have seen Joseph, or Joseph’s men, roll the stone down its little groove into place at the mouth of the tomb- for these sorts of tombs can still be seen around Jerusalem today, with a downhill channel so that the rock can be rolled into place relatively easily, but opened only with difficulty. Then they have waited all through the long Sabbath, and as soon as darkness fell and the Sabbath ended, they have gone out to buy spices to anoint the body. And very early on Sunday morning, as the sun rose, they have set out so as to be at the tomb as soon as they could see enough to do anything useful. They don’t expect to be able to do anything useful- they know that the tomb is sealed, and they talk as they walk there, saying to one another “well, we won’t be able to get it open, will we”. But they go anyway- it isn’t strictly rational, but they can’t do anything else, so they do what they can.

These women were also the first witnesses of the resurrection, as we find in ch 16. They saw Jesus die, they saw him buried, and they were the first there at the tomb to find the body gone. Mark’s deliberate mention of their names each time makes it very clear that they can be identified and asked for their testimony. They would be known to the early Christians (Salome is probably the mother of James and John, cf. Mt 27:56), and their accounts of what they saw would have been told and re-told many times.

That is important. It underlines the trustworthiness of the Gospel narrative. There are good reasons even for those who don’t accept the authority of Scripture to take this as an authentic account of what eyewitnesses saw. Mark isn’t making it up, because if he was he’d have chosen witnesses more congenial and trustworthy than women. To a western 20th century mindset, female testimony is just as admissible as that of a male. Women have equal status to men under law, and a woman can testify in a court of justice. This was not the case in Israel, and Roman society was little different in that respect. Women were second class citizens. This was enshrined in the Temple itself- at least in Herod’s Temple- you have a court of Israel, and a court of the Gentiles. But the court of Israel is only for the circumcised. Women are not allowed further in than the court of the Gentiles. And female testimony was inadmissible in a law court. As witnesses, women had no standing. No Israelite who wanted to fabricate an account of something would make up an event witnessed only by women. But in this account of the burial and the empty tomb, a great deal rests on things seen only by these women.

In contrast to their faithfulness, the key male players are shown in such a bad light. The male disciples, the leaders of the early church, are (to be blunt) boneheads and cowards. No more so than we would have been in their places, but still… They are chosen as Jesus’ disciples, and yet they don’t understand the kingdom they are part of, and they don’t give their king support when he needs it most; they flee instead. Peter boasts about how big and bold and brave he will be, and then collapses when questioned by a servant-girl.

The fact of it being only the women whom Mark shows us as being there at the cross, and only the women who go to anoint the body, also underlines how little the disciples were expecting the resurrection. Despite the fact that Jesus foretold it so clearly and repeatedly, it still came as a huge surprise to his closest followers. The men aren’t on the scene at all, and the women are grief-stricken. These women had followed Jesus ever since the beginning in Galilee. They had seen him as the Messiah, and now, like the apostles, their hopes were crushed. The apostles fled and scattered, but these women- maybe because they were more faithful, maybe because they had less to fear- hadn’t run and hidden themselves. And they saw him die, saw him buried, and were plainly not expecting him to walk out of the tomb three days later.

 

  1. Who was Joseph of Arimathea?

After Jesus has died, on Friday evening, a man names Joseph of Arimathea takes courage and asks Pilate if he can give burial to the body. He knows he needs to screw up his courage and ask now, or else it will be too late. The Jews reckon days from sundown to sundown, so Joseph is in a hurry because the Sabbath will begin in a few hours, and he doesn’t want the body to remain unburied until the Sunday. Although the Friday (being Passover) was a holy day already, it was a festival day and festival days seemed to have been viewed as less sacred than the weekly Sabbath. So Joseph had about three hours to get permission to take Jesus down, to get hold of a shroud, and to wrap the body and place it in his tomb. He had to make the crunch decision, or leave Jesus on the cross for days, against the prohibition of Deut 21:23..

Joseph of Arimathea was among those few followers of Jesus there at the cross. Either that or he had servants he could have sent to watch on his behalf. He knew that Jesus had died, so somebody who was hanging around watching must have told him. Who was this man? We learn a fair bit about him here. He was a member of “the council”. Since we are in Jerusalem, and since the only council in Marks’ narrative so far has been the Sanhedrin, we understand that Joseph was part of the Sanhedrin. And he was not just any old member of the Sanhedrin, but a prominent member, “respected”. The council has 70 members, just like Moses’ 70 elders of Israel, whom he took up Mt. Sinai (Ex 24). But like any group of people, some will be more respected than others. Their words will carry more weight. They are recognised big players. Joseph is important. He is one of a handful of people who could come to Pilate with this sort of unusual request, and actually have it granted. And he is wealthy, owning a big family tomb cut out of the rock (see Isa 22:16 for background on the sort of man who would have a tock tomb).

But more than that, we read that Joseph was “looking for the kingdom of God”. What exactly does that mean? In one sense, it is a phrase which could be used of any Jew, since all of them hoped for God’s intervention into their history to defeat their enemies and so forth. If a Jew thought at all about religious things, then he must have looked for the coming of God’s kingdom. But the phrase here is used to mark Joseph out from everyone else, so it can’t mean only that. It must mean something more. I should think it means that he really looked for God’s kingdom, and not just for something he had imagined and to which he gave the name “God’s kingdom”. You understand the difference? There are thousands of people- maybe even a majority of people- who, if you ask them “Do you believe in God?” say, “Well, there’s something up there”. But if you ask them about the God they believe in, it is obvious that their god is not the god of the Bible. Their God could be almost anything, but he’s probably a sort of vague power, who nudges things in the right direction, occasionally, on a whim, makes things to go in ther favour, and who isn’t too bothered about letting them do as they wish. In fact, strangely enough, their god agrees with them on almost everything. He shares all their opinions about Global Warming, and people being nice to each other, and what should be done about the homeless, and about how disgraceful it is that Mrs. Biggs down the road tries to force her beliefs onto other people. And if you think about it, you realise that if their god is defined at all, then he not quite like anyone else’s god in the way that they are not quite like anyone else. Because their god is made in their own image. They have dreamed up a god who is just the god they want. The Pharisees were like this. Their god was better defined, and you could say that they had one god in common, because they had the law and the prophets to draw upon. But the Pharisees who would have said “We’re looking for the kingdom of God”, weren’t really. They were looking for a kingdom of men; the kingdom they wanted, with themselves in charge.

Joseph was different. He looked for the kingdom as it really was and not as he fondly imagined it to be. Mark means that he was one of those to whom Jesus spoke blessings in his sermon from the mountain. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth… Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus was talking to those who really were looking for the kingdom, and telling them that now, blessing had come to them. So Joseph hungered and thirsted after righteousness. Nicodemus, Joseph’s his fellow Sanhedrin member, had been told that unless a man was born again, he could not see the kingdom of God.

Joseph and Nicodemus both seem to have been secret disciples. Born again, by the time of Jesus’ death, and able to see that the kingdom of God had arrived, but too timid to follow Jesus openly. They wanted something more than the Judaism of the Pharisees or the Sadducees. They could see that the God of their fathers was a God concerned for holiness, and his kingdom would be a place of justice and righteousness, a place where his people happily obeyed him, loving him with all their hearts- and they wanted that. Joseph looked around him and thought that although this was the promised land, it was a far cry from being happily under God’s righteous and benevolent rule. In effect, Joseph longed for the new covenant to come, and understood the nature of that covenant better than his compatriots. He longed for God to rend the heavens and come down and set up his throne in people’s hearts.

More even than that, for Mark, the “kingdom of God” is one and the same with the kingdom of Jesus. Joseph could see that Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom having come in himself was true (Matt 27:57, Jn 19:38). Mark doesn’t call him a disciple, and he hadn’t declared for Jesus openly, but he believed what the disciples believed.

 

  1. Why does Joseph need to “take courage”? What is brave about what he does?

Having been a secret disciple for some time, it is suprising that Joseph would reveal his loyalty now, now that Jesus has been crucified as a criminal! Up to this point, he has not wanted to be a full-on disciple. He was scared to follow Jesus openly. He had a lot to lose- position, power, friends, money, and he kept quiet about his beliefs. Maybe he had a more basic fear- he could see that if he followed Jesus, he might be next in line for death. He wouldn’t have approved of the council decision to try to execute Jesus (see also Lk 23:51), but we don’t hear about him kicking up a fuss over it. And it seems plausible that he wouldn’t have been on the guest list to be roused from bed to attend the illegal night time meeting which condemned Jesus. Political cliques back then worked the same way as they do now.

But now that Jesus had died, perversely Joseph seems to have realised how important he had been and wanted to honour him even after his humiliating death. So Joseph decided to take the plunge. He summoned his courage, and went to ask Pilate for Jesus’ body, to give it an honourable burial. Often, the bodies of crucified criminals were left to be a spectacle on the cross for days, before being slung into a common grave. And it wasn’t uncommon for them just to be left up to rot or be eaten by birds and animals. In Roman law, corpses of criminals belong to the state and are not necessarily given decent burial, part of the point of crucifixion being to deter others. It depended on the magistrate- he could give or withhold permission for the body to be removed for burial. A request from the relatives would usually be granted, few governors being so high-handed as to refuse when the grieving relatives came to ask. But a major exception was for high treason, when it was usually denied on principle. There could be no ceremony or public mourning for a traitor.

But Jesus was to share a grave with the rich in his death, as Isaiah has prophesied (53:9). And Jewish law forbade the leaving of bodies hanging from trees overnight- (Deut 21:22)- it was unthinkable to a Jew that burial should be denied to anybody (also see II Sam 21:12-14). So just before the day of Preparation- Thursday sunset to Friday sunset- ended, and the Sabbath began, Joseph went to see Pilate.

Why was this was brave? Not because Pilate would be angry, but because it was a public action. Since Jesus had been crucified as a traitor to Rome, one may have thought on the surface that Pilate would be angry. But Joseph probably knows that Pilate didn’t really consider Jesus guilty, and only let him be crucified because he’d been backing into a corner and had to choose between condemning an innocent man and risking a public outcry and disturbance. Being the sort of amoral ruthless coward he was, he went with the latter. But he wouldn’t be personally affronted if somebody were to want to honour Jesus body with burial. He knew that Jesus wasn’t a criminal. His only concern was that this wasn’t some kind of a trick to rescue Jesus. If Jesus were to appear alive again in a few days and resume his teaching in the Temple, then Pilate would have a situation on his hands. Crucifixion usually took a few days, the criminal hovering between life and death for a long time. So Pilate sent for the centurion who had seen Jesus breathe his last, to confirm that Jospeh was telling the truth. Pilate was surprised to hear that Jesus was dead, but when that was established, he granted Joseph the body- another (tacit) admission that he didn’t think Jesus to be a dangerous criminal at all- for had Jesus really been a dangerous rebel leader, he’d almost certainly have been left up as a warning to other rebels.

It was brave because it would almost certainly be found out, and the rest of the Sanhedrin would not be happy about it. At the moment the Sanhedrin were rejoicing at Jesus’ death, one of their number was declaring his allegiance to the dead man. What made him show his hand now? Why abandon secrecy now, now that Jesus is dead? It seems like the worst possible time for it. But it shows that the death of Jesus had already begun to take effect. Not only had the centurion recognized that this was the son of God, a timid Jewish man was publicly taking a stand for the crucified savior. One explanation is that Joseph really does believe that God will raise Jesus from the dead. The decision was forced on him- he had to act quickly, or it would be too late, for the day was nearly over, and the Sabbath was about to begin.

Some people have heard about Jesus Christ, and they believe. They’ve read the Bible, and they know that the Bible is true. They believe, in Mark’s sense rather than the centurion’s sense, that Jesus is the Son of God. But they don’t want to stand up and be counted… at least not yet. They’ve too much to lose- or so they think. It takes commitment to be a Christian- and indeed it does. And they’re not ready to take that step. Joseph was like that. But he couldn’t stay a secret disciple for long, and neither can anyone else. The secrecy will kill the discipleship, or the discipleship will kill the secrecy. There comes a point when the secret disciple has to burn his boats. Maybe when others publicly reject Jesus, and force the disciple into the open. Maybe when the disciple realises once more Jesus’ significance, and summons up courage to step forward and be counted.

People say that faith is a deeply private matter. Well, Christianity is personal. But it is also public. You can’t truly believe that Jesus was the Son of God, and died for the sins of all who come to him, without giving up everything for him. It shows in the life. The Bible sometimes does give details of the conversions of individuals. Joseph is not one of those. We have details of Levi’s conversion in Mark, of Lydia and the Jailer in Philippi, of Saul’s remarkable and dramatic conversion. But there are plenty who appea as believers. And we know that they are believers because their lives tell us so. By their fruits shall you know them, said Jesus. And “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples- if you love one another. How people came to trust Jesus Christ in a way, doesn’t matter. It matters that they do trust, and therefore do obey. And anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.

 

  1. Who is the young man in white by the tomb, and what is the significance of what he says?

The women, as we have said, come to the tomb first thing on Sunday morning, and they come expecting to find a sealed tomb with a dead body inside. They carry spices for the body, and they talk about how they hope somebody will be around to roll the stone away and let them go in. Joseph has buried Jesus in a hurry. John tells us that Nicodemus had come with spices before the burial, to be included with the body in the burial shroud (19:40), but the women don’t seem to have witnessed this, and so they come with their own spices early on the Sunday morning, thinking that the body had been buried unprepared.

Instead of a closed tomb and a body, they find an open tomb and a young man seated there. Is this an ordinary young man, one who has come to visit the tomb like the women, but arrived first and found it empty? Mark might call him a “young man”, but he is no human. Angels often appear as men, and are often described according to their appearance, even when the one giving the description knows exactly what they are (Gen 18:2; 19:5 etc.). His clothing is white like Jesus’ garb at the transfiguration (Mark 9:3, whiter than humanly possible, see also Rev 6:11; 7:9,13 for white clothing as a mark of the purity of heaven). Matthew identifies this figure in white at the tomb as an angel (28:3). Johns tell us that there were two of them, and that they were angels (John 20:10). Luke speaks of two “men” at the tomb (24:4) who are later identified as angels (24:23), and the same usage is found in Acts (1:10; 10:30). This young man, all in white, is a messenger from heaven.

If he is a messenger, what is his message? He gives them five short sharp sentences. He begins with reassurance, addressing their emotional state. They were afraid at the sight of him (v5), and he calms their fears (v6). They didn’t stay unafraid (v8), but this sort of reassurance is a commonplace of angelic appearances (Daniel 10:12,19; Matt 28:5; Lk 1:13,30; 2:10; Acts 27:24).

But the real substance of what he wants to say is that Jesus of Nazareth, whom they seek, is no longer here. He has risen. The tomb is empty, as they can see. Jesus breathed his last on the cross, and his corpse was taken down and buried. But his life has come back into his body, and Jesus has been raised. He is living and active once more, going ahead of his disciples into Galilee to meet with them there.

There is no description of the resurrection itself, either in Mark on any of the other Gospels. The Gospel narrative tells only of the discovery of the empty tomb, and the post-resurrection appearances. The actual resurrection happened in a sealed tomb, hidden from human eyes.

But, “He has risen”, is possibly the most important statement ever made. The resurrection changes everything. Jesus is alive. Death has no hold on him. He has defeated even death, the last enemy. When the women first heard it, nobody had even begun to work out the implications of this, and it has so many. The curse under which the earth has laboured so long is revoked for one man at least. He has overturned it. Now all joined to him, though they die, they shall live. The end of the story is in view, and more than that- is guaranteed. The resurrection is life and hope and certainty of the new heavens and the new earth, the home of righteousness.

The risen Jesus has a message for the disciples, and especially for broken Peter. He wants them to meet him in Galilee. This too is reassurance and hope. These disciples have all deserted their master, and Peter’s desertion has come after strong professions of loyalty even to death. But Jesus, through the angel, shows them that he knows their desertion is only temporary. They might have abandoned him to his death, but now that he is alive again, he will not abandon them. Rather, he wants them all, including Peter, to come and meet him. They too will be filled with new life and power.

Mark 15:34-39. The secret is out.

June 15, 2018

And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And some of the bystanders hearing it said, “Behold, he is calling Elijah.” And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”

  1. In the darkness, Jesus cries out, using the opening words of Psalm 22. What does he mean? Why does he quote this psalm?

  1. Some bystanders, hearing Jesus’ words, say that they’ll wait around and see if Elijah shows up to rescue him. Why do they take it that this is what Jesus said- why would it make sense to them if he had?

  1. The Temple curtain is torn from top to bottom. Why do we need to know? What is the history of the Temple curtain and significance of the tearing? Why from top to bottom and not bottom to top?

  1. The centurion, watching Jesus die, declared him to be the Son of God. What did he mean?

  1. v37-39 is the high point of Mark’s Gospel, both theologically and structurally. How does it fit into his structure?

 

1. In the darkness, Jesus cries out, using the opening words of Psalm 22. What does he mean? Why does he quote this psalm?

Psalm 22 actually ends on a high note. It is the prayer of a man weighed down by suffering, persecuted unjustly, and despairing. But he calls out to God, and although he felt abandoned, he is sure- in the end- that God will answer. The righteous man seems to know that he will be vindicated, and his enemies overthrown.

But Jesus doesn’t quote the end of the psalm. He quotes only the first verse. Those are the words Jesus uses- the cry of a righteous man who feels abandoned by God. Jesus is usually very aware of the context of all the Scriptures he quotes or to which he alludes, and we are usually justified in reading a great deal into his words. I’m not convinced that the same applies here though. Jesus is in agony, and to read the happy ending of the psalm into his words here is to undermine the words as they stand. On the cross, we see Jesus overwhelmed. Not just with physical pain and exhaustion- which none of the Gospel writers dwell on even though it must have been considerable- and not just with the taunts of the crowd and the humiliation of his position, but with the agony of being abandoned by his Father.

As a Christian, I can say that sin makes me miserable. I mean, I sin all the time. There has never been a sinless moment in my life. But at times, I am especially aware of some failing. It is particularly obvious to me that I am a sinner. My own conscience accuses me. And that is a miserable feeling for a child of God, to feel cut off from God. And if I feel like that, one who can go days without really praying and not even realise it, how much more would Jesus feel the weight of sin? Jesus has always lived in complete harmony with God. He has never known what it is to sin. He has never been cut off from God. Nothing has ever come between the Son and the Father. And now, he looks up to his Father, and there is nobody there. And make no mistake- Jesus is here accursed. He is God forsaken, having become the sin-bearer.

If you’ve ever gone swimming, and gone to swim a length underwater, and your lungs are nearly bursting when you reach the end, and you go to surface, but one of your friends is there, and puts his hand on your head for just a second to stop you coming up- there is a moment of panic, a split second when you think you’re going to drown. Maybe this felt like that, but worse. It is as though he has gone down underwater, and can’t see any way back up again.

In what way was Jesus forsaken? In the way that God forsakes sinners. We find after the fall that God forsakes the company of Adam. God has walked with Adam in the garden, but now Adam is driven out of the garden, forced out of God’s presence, away from the tree of life.

At the flood, God forsakes the world. He abandons it because of its sin, and he destroys it. Sodom and Gomorrah became God-forsaken places. Had there been ten righteous men there, they wouldn’t have become so, but there weren’t, and they did. And now God forsakes his Son. He is cursed, hanging on a tree, as Paul writes to the Galatians. He was made sin for our sake, Paul writes to the church at Corinth.

Psalm 22 must have been on Jesus’ mind on the cross- it can’t not have been. He’s seen people dividing his garments (Ps 22:18/ Mark 15:24). He’s seen them mock, wagging their heads (Ps 22:7/ Mark 15:29). They’ve taunted him, challenging him to save himself (Ps 22:8/ Mark 15:30-31). Perhaps now Jesus is so weary that he can’t even pray in his own words, and the words that come most easily are those of the man broken and abandoned, feeling that God is far from helping him or hearing his prayers.

And yet Jesus does pray. He is utterly forsaken by God, and feels it, but he is still looking to his Father. He sees God turning his face away- and yet keeps looking to God, keeps trusting. And though he experiences the pain and the God-forsakenness, and cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, there will come a time when his head breaks up through the water again, and he will be able to breathe, and his Father will speak to him. He will be buried in the tomb, but on the third day, he will rise again. And even before that, he will be able to cry out as he dies, and his cry- as we shall see- will not be one of despair, but one of victory.

 

2. Some bystanders, hearing Jesus’ words, say that they’ll wait around and see if Elijah shows up to rescue him. Why do they take it that this is what Jesus said- why would it make sense to them if he had?

On hearing his cry, one of the bystanders seems to have thought that he was calling Elijah. Why the misunderstanding? There are several possibilities.

a) There was a Jewish myth that Elijah would come for the oppressed and needy righteous man, to help in his hour of need. It was folk-religion, superstition, much like the patron saints of some Catholics. Elijah was the patron saint of the oppressed, and so they might pray to him. The later Jewish literature indicates that this belief was present- there are a number of bizarre episodes where Elijah is said to have made a sudden appearance to come to someone’s aid. So perhaps these men are Jewish, but are more in tune with the folk Judaism of their day than the Bible. And if Jesus’ cry is indistinct, then perhaps they genuinely thought he was calling Elijah, mistaking “Eloi” for Elijah’s name. There’s option 1. But it seems unlikely. Would a Jew, even a not-very-religious one, really not know Psalm 22? Would he never have heard it? Would he not have sung it himself at some point, or heard it read in the synagogue? This level of ignorance is very unlikely- like someone who has grown up in the English evangelical scene from childhood, but who doesn’t know that the words “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound” form the first line of a hymn, or that “Shine, Jesus, Shine” is the start of a ubiquitous and irritating chorus. Unless Jesus’ voice was so unclear as to obscure the words, this option seems pretty shaky. And if Jesus’ voice was that unclear, then how does Mark know what he said?

b) It is in fact Roman soldiers who are the bystanders saying this, and not Jews. Their ignorance of Ps 22 is to be expected. But then, you have the opposite problem. They show surprising knowledge for Gentile Romans. Would such men know about Elijah, or any Jewish folk religion going around? Maybe they’d have picked a bit of it up, but then would they give Jesus wine and suggest waiting to see if Elijah comes? Maybe the wine and the suggestion are mockery- and with Psalm 69:21 in the background, that seems likely- but Roman mockery wouldn’t take the form of exaggeratedly holding the breath and waiting for Elijah to show up. Some think that the very fact that one of these men is able to get near to the cross shows that he must have been a soldier in the execution detail. But it is far from unthinkable that the soldiers would let bystanders come near, as long as they weren’t trying to get the criminals down.

c) The bystanders are Jewish. They understand full well that Jesus is quoting Ps 22, and they also are well aware of the folk religious superstitions going around. But they are above such beliefs, and are mocking Jesus,. Perhaps they are pretending that he couldn’t possibly be calling on God, and so are using the folk tradition as a joke. “Oh, listen, he must be calling Elijah! Give him some wine to keep him going a bit longer! Clear the area, and let’s see if Elijah comes to save him!” That would be my reading of what is going on, and Mark may be introducing a further irony here- Elijah has come, and they did not listen. They put John the Baptist to death. So how is Elijah to appear and deliver the Elisha?

 

3. The Temple curtain is torn from top to bottom. Why do we need to know? What is the history of the Temple curtain and significance of the tearing? Why from top to bottom and not bottom to top?

Mark whisks us away from the cross outside the city, to the heart of the city, to the Temple. v38 could be cut out, and the narrative would superficially run more smoothly. So why is v38 there? Because Mark is making an important point? Well, Mark is probably making more than one important point.

In the Tabernacle of Moses, and the Temple that succeeded it, there was an inner barrier and an outer barrier. Exodus 26:31-36 describes both; the inner curtain separates the Most Holy Place from the Holy Place, and the outer curtain separates the Holy Place from the rest of the Temple. The inner curtain is blue and purple and scarlet, and carries images of cherubim, and the outer curtain may well be a larger copy of it- Josephus, the Jewish-Roman historian, described the outer curtain of Herod’s Temple as carrying a panorama of the heavens. The function of both curtains (and Mark doesn’t name one of the two in particular) is like the function of the curtain between first class and livestock class in an aeroplane. It marks the boundary, and hides the inner sanctum from the unwashed gaze of the masses.

Go back to Genesis 1, and we see God and Adam walking together in the cool of the evening. They speak face to face, as it were. But then in Genesis 3, man sets himself up as God. Because of sin, Adam is driven from the mountain garden where he knew God and the way back is permanently barred. What bars it? Why can’t Adam just climb back up the mountain and walk back into the garden? Gn 3:24- the cherubim and a flaming sword turning every which way. There is fire and a sword and guardians. Man is cut off from God. There is a barrier- with cherubim.

Then fast forward to Exodus. God has chosen a nation, and has promised to be their God, and to dwell among them. How will God dwell among them? Moses is given detailed instructions about a tent, a tabernacle, which he is to make, and which is to be the place where he will meet with God. This is the “Tent of Meeting”. It is a series of concentric chambers, one within the next within the next, like those Russian dolls you can buy. There are two veils within the tent of meeting. The inner veil splits the Holy Place with the table of show bread and the lamp stand from the Most Holy Place with the Ark of the Covenant inside. God comes to rest over the Most Holy Place, and there are boundaries in between God and the rest of the world. On the innermost veil to the Most Holy Place, what is pictured on the divider? Cherubim, just like at Eden, barring the way in to God’s presence.

It isn’t just the tent of meeting itself that forms the layers. The whole Israelite system is packed full of layers. Israel live in a camp, and there is a boundary between the camp and the wilderness. And within the camp, there is an inner layer of Levites, camped in the middle with all the other tribes around them on the outside, because the Levites are holy to the Lord. And the tabernacle is in the middle of the Levite encampment There is a multiple separation between God and the rest of the world.

In Leviticus 16, there is a glimmer of hope. One man, on one day of the year, can actually come all the way in to the Most Holy Place. The high priest can break through all the boundaries and be in God’s immediate presence- on earth, at least. If you read through the chapter, you will see all the rituals, the detailed washings and changing of clothes which had to be done, and all the blood that had to be shed, before a sinful man could enter the Most Holy Place. Everyone must be aware of how holy God is, that he cannot be freely approached. Aaron’s sons who offer unauthorised fire, and Uzzah who actually dares to touch the ark, all die immediately. There is no “Step away from the holy thing” warning- just instant death (Lev 10, 1 Chron 13). The holy God is dangerous to sinful men.

With all that as background, we can see several things going on here. On the one hand, this coupld be seen as a desecration of the Temple. But on the other hand, it could be seen as a consecration of everywhere else.

In view of 12:38-13:2, it is pretty clear that Jesus took a dim view of the Temple and its activities. The Temple was run by those who devoured the houses of destitute widows, and it would soon be levelled to the ground. The properly appointed guardians of the Temple had turned it into a robbers’ hideout. God’s Son came to purify the Temple, and they have killed him. They have already desecrated the Temple, and now God himself desecrates the Most Holy Place within it. With Jesus’ death, the fate of Israel is sealed. She has rejected the Messiah, and judgement is inevitable. The tearing of the curtain is a foretaste, a guarantee of what is to come when the whole temple is torn apart.

But at the same time, there is another- and corresponding- significance. The point of the original veil was to bar access to God. But now God himself reaches down from heaven and tears the veil in half. It is important that the veil is torn from top to bottom, the way it would be torn by God himself reaching down from heaven to grasp the top. God is removing the inmost barrier to his presence. He is opening the way in. This verse fits just where it is. Jesus dies, and through his death Eden is reopened for those who come through him. Man can walk with God again. The obsolescence of the Jewish Temple means the ingrafting of the Gentiles. The Messiah comes and the Jews reject him, but he comes to open a way for all, Jew and Gentile alike, into God’s presence. The barriers are all torn down.

It is an interesting question as to what was actually in the Most Holy Place at this point in history. Originally, the Ark of the Covenant had been housed here- the visible symbol of God’s presence, the seat of God. But the fate of the Ark is mysterious- we read at the end of Jeremiah that the Babylonians ransacked the Temple and stole away all the precious things of gold and silver- but the Ark itself is not mentioned. Did the Babylonians take it? If so, was it ever brought back to Jerusalem? There is no mention of it in Nehemiah or Ezra. When Herod the Great rebuilt the Temple, was the Ark around? We don’t know. And once the Most Holy Place had been rebuilt, only the High Priest would know what was in there. So if the veil is torn to expose the Ark, it fits well with the way being opened to God. But if the veil is torn to expose the absence of the Ark, then it fits with the exposure of the emptiness of the Temple-made-with-hands.

Either way, it means that we can draw near to God through his Son, Jesus Christ. We can have the confidence to come to God. God made the world and everything in it, and we are sin-stained little creatures. God is perfect and undefiled, but we can come near through one who can make us perfect and undefiled. I don’t know whether you are ever afraid of God. Whether you ever know that you are unworthy, feel that you are sinful. Feel more like running away from him than coming into his presence? Well, you’re right. But you can’t run from him. Where would you run to? God made you and everything there is- you can’t run and you can’t hide. And the torn curtain tells you that unworthy as you are, you can come because of Jesus Christ. Come trusting in him, and you will be received as a son.

 

4. The centurion, watching Jesus die, declared him to be the Son of God. What did he mean?

Mark’s Gospel began with the statement “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” And here, very near the end, we have the same title for Jesus. The centurion who was standing at the foot of the cross, and who presumably had been in charge of the actual crucifixion, hears Jesus’ loud cry, and it amazes him. He hears it, and it makes him say “this man was the Son of God”. This was a hard man, and a successful man. He was an active soldier, who had been promoted to be in charge of a hundred men. He wasn’t young and foolish, and he wasn’t old and senile. He is no stranger to death. We hide death away from ourselves, putting the old into nursing homes and hospitals, rather than keeping them at home. When our loved ones die, we put them into coffins and don’t look at them. That isn’t the case in Israel, and certainly wouldn’t be the case for this man. He must have seen plenty of men die. Probably hundreds if he had anything to do with execution squads in Jerusalem. This should be just another day at work for him, but it isn’t. What makes this particular death so different for him? Why is he amazed, and what does he mean by that phrase owning Jesus as Son of God?

Perhaps oddly, it is the way in which Jesus breathes his last that surprises the soldier. We might expect him to be surprised by the unnatural darkness, but it is the cry and the way in which Jesus dies that makes him say that Jesus is the Son of God.

How did the Roman commander understand the phrase he uses? It is difficult to know exactly what he actually meant when he said it. He’s a Roman, and probably has a Hellenic theological background. It is probably some sort of Greco-Roman expression of attained divinity, or a heroism so dramatic that it can only be the work of the gods. In his culture, it was commonplace to believe in many gods and goddesses, all with special qualifications and areas of power. But these gods and goddesses weren’t much like God. They were basically big magic men and women. They had human desires, human temper tantrums, and limitations- they weren’t all-powerful. Sometimes they fell in love, and came into the world and slept with men and women, and had children. And these “sons of gods” were heroes, and were themselves idolised. Achilles was the son of Peleus, a human king, and Thetis, a sea goddess. His mother dipped him in the Styx when he was a child, and he became invulnerable- all except the part she was holding on to, his heel. This is why we have the phrase “an Achilles’ heel”. Hercules was ranked among the gods after his death. In the book of Acts, we read of Simon Magus who did impressive works of power, and the people of Samaria called him “the divine power known as the Great Power.” (Acts 8:10).

There is all that background, and one more thing. Something possibly closer to home for a Roman centurion. “Son of god” was a term used for Caesar. There was the cult of emperor worship, where the emperors had themselves set up as divine. Like Hercules, but while they were still alive, the emperors claimed to be gods. And now one of Caesar’s own soldiers is using the term for a naked bruised battered broken dying man. It is strange. This man would have known about- maybe even taken part in- what had gone on in the barracks, where the soldiers mocked Jesus and spat on him. But still, he sees something somehow noble and heroic in the way Jesus dies, and he is driven to express his thoughts when he hears Jesus cry out. It is a bizarre comparison. The emperor, who stands in Rome, in shining clothes, with crowds cheering him as his endless armies march past- and this man, convicted as a criminal and now dead. The emperor, the supreme power in a dominion so vast that you could travel on a horse for half a year and not cross it, and this bloodstained friendless helpless Jew. And yet the centurion still says “This man was the Son of God”

What is it about this cry that evokes the statement? Jesus’ final cry is not a whimper, but a victory cry. John tells us that he cried “It is finished”. Quite possibly the centurion didn’t understand what Jesus was saying, and it isn’t important in Mark’s scheme, since Mark doesn’t record it. But it is clear that Jesus didn’t die as crucified men were supposed to- slowly and painfully weakening until the effort required to breathe was too much. He shouted loudly, and his cry was one of victory. Like the torn curtain in the Temple, this is testimony to the fact that his work was accomplished on the cross. Mark has shown us that Jesus has been leading up to this through the whole of his public ministry. Mark has been working up to it through the whole of his Gospel. Jesus came to die. He deliberately, willingly, obediently laid down his life, the shepherd for his sheep. And so Jesus doesn’t die a defeated figure- his death has not been in vain. The centurion presumably thought that this Jesus, “King of the Jews” as the sign above him read, was another failed religious revolutionary. A man who had wanted to lead the Jews in an uprising against Rome, and was now dying at Roman hands, his followers scattered. Such a man would have reason only to despair. He would see his life’s work in tatters. But Jesus clearly does not.

And even though all the centurion may have meant by his statement that Jesus was the Son of God was that he died bravely and triumphantly, it is clear what Mark means. We don’t limit the meaning of this statement to the meaning of the man speaking it. Think of Caiaphas in John’s Gospel, saying “It is better for you that one man should die for the people”- by which he means “Let’s kill Jesus and stop this Messianic nonsense getting out of hand and getting us into a fight with Rome”, but John tells us that he spoke as a prophet because Jesus would die for the nation, and not the nation only but all the scattered children of God (John 11:50f). Or think of Peter’s statement about the OT prophets in 1 Peter 1:1-12. The prophets themselves didn’t fully understand all that they said. They realised that there were deeper meanings than the immediate one. The OT is like a room full of dimly lit figures and mysterious shadows- but when you study the NT and come back to the OT, it is as though somebody has turned the lights on. We can see so much more of what is there in the OT than the Jews ever did, because we understand what it is pointing to. And so it is here. Jesus does die with a shout of triumph, which is probably what the centurion is referring to, but we are to understand more than he did. We don’t read his words as 1st century Romans. Mark has identified Jesus as the Son of God right at the outset (1:1). Mark has recorded for us that the Father said “You are my beloved Son” at Jesus’ baptism, and “This is my beloved Son” on the Mount of Transfiguration. Now the centurion also says it. He has never seen or heard anything like this in his life before, and even if he doesn’t see this far, the cross reveals Jesus as the Son of God, doing his Father’s will even to the point of death, and loving his own even to the point of death.

Again, like the torn curtain, this shows us that Jesus’ death worked. It accomplished what it was meant to do. Jesus was the shepherd, laying down his life for his sheep- and it was not pointless. He was not like a shepherd who fights the lion, and loses, and dies knowing that the lion will go on to destroy the flock. By dying, Jesus won.

 

5. v37-39 is the high point of Mark’s Gospel, both theologically and structurally. How does it fit into his structure?

How does Mark work as a book? What is the structure? The Gospels are structured- they are considerable works of literature. They are works of art. A great painting isn’t simply a realistic snapshot of what the painter sees. It is an impression, a meaning-laden image. Each brushstroke is designed to hold the eye or to direct the attention in a certain way. A master portrait-painter might be giving you a portrait of Lord and Lady X, but his intent isn’t just to show you what they looked like on the outside to the disinterested observer. He will frame the couple, pose them, paint light and shadow, use colour and perspective, in order to focus the attention on certain things. He will bring out some aspects of reality and minimize others in order to tell a story about the couple, about their characters, and their relationship to each other. The Gospel writers, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, are doing the same sort of thing. If they weren’t, then we wouldn’t need four Gospels. We should expect to see the Gospel writers using form and structure and style to advance their theological agendas. And when we read their works, that is what we do see.

We’ve observed several times that Mark has split his Gospel into two halves, geographically and thematically. The first part is set around Galilee, where Jesus proclaims to Israel that the Kingdom of God has come, and demonstrates that it is among them. The second part is set on the way to, and in, Jerusalem, where Jesus teaches that the king must die, and that his kingdom is one of humility and servant-leadership. Mark overlays the geographical divide with a change in focus. In the Galilee half, Jesus teaches that he is the king and the kingdom has come. In the Jerusalem half he teaches that as king, he will lay down his life for his people. First half, Galilee, Jesus is the Messiah. Second half, Jerusalem, Jesus is a particular sort of Messiah with a particular work to do. This is a stylised presentation, but there’s nothing wrong with that. All the Gospel writers stylise to underline their central point(s). Luke omits every encounter between Jesus and a Gentile until Cornelius in Acts 11. Matthew has a 5-fold structure.

Mark’s two sections are marked off by three events- one at each end, and one in the middle

Overview of Mark's structure

The events all have things in common- all of them share a common statement about Jesus being God’s Son. All of them involve similar words to do with movement top to bottom. All of them explicitly have the heavens being torn.

The Gospel is split by Peter’s confession and the transfiguration, which are themselves two halves of one event. The Christ is revealed as the son of God by internal revelation to Peter and the other apostles, and then by external revelation on the mountain. Peter says -the first time that anybody has said- that Jesus is the Christ. He says this as spokesmen for all of the Twelve. It is implicit in Mark (though explicit in Matthew) that flesh and blood could not have revealed this to him. It is a secret from everybody else, but the Twelve are aware that Jesus is the Christ, the son of God. Then on the mountain, three of the twelve (and there is a reason why three) are shown Jesus revealed in glory. Peter puts Jesus on a par with Moses and Elijah, offering to build three tents for them so that all three may stay on the mountain, but the Father then speaks to tell the three to hear Jesus. Then they see Jesus only.

How have the disciples been brought to this point? They’ve followed Jesus, seen his signs, heard his public teaching, and his private explanations of the things the public aren’t allowed to know. They’ve been given all the data they need to identify Jesus as the Christ.

All that has happened in Galilee. There in the North, the disciples see the signs and hear the teaching. The first half of the book is set in Galilee. Then, at 9:30, they pass through Galilee, no longer stopping. They say goodbye, and come to Judea and the region beyond the Jordan. From that point onwards, we’re in Judea and moving towards Jerusalem, where we arrive in 11:1. In the first half, Jesus has made it plain when he leaves Galilee that he hasn’t been sent there, and the people don’t have a claim on him.

Mark has simplified things. We know that Jesus visited Jerusalem several times in the course of his ministry, but in Mark, Jerusalem comes only after the mid-point and the revelation to the disciples of Jesus as the Christ.

So as the disciples travel to Jerusalem, Jesus’ teaching changes also. Now, he is spelling out to the disciples exactly what his work is. He began to do this immediately after they recognised him as the Christ (8:31), saying, “I’m the Son of Man and I will suffer many things”. He then gives a series of predictions of his death. In the first half, we have only obscure hints of anything like this. Direct statements are reserved for the second half.

We can see the structure underlined for us by an incident which occurs in the middle of the Gospel. The blind man at Bethsaida (8:22-26) is like the disciples. He is blind at first, then his eyes are opened to see. But though he sees, he doesn’t see fully. He sees in a distorted way- men look like walking trees. Then, in a second stage, Jesus opens his eyes to see clearly. So, in narrative terms, if we ask how Mark structures his story, the answer is that he is telling us about the disciples and how their eyes were opened. It is hard for us to forget what we know and put ourselves in their sandals. We take for granted that Jesus will die. They knew nothing of that. We also see why Mark has no birth- narrative in his book. He doesn’t want one. He is writing about Jesus as seen through the eyes of the disciples, not Mary or shepherds or kings. We’re supposed to discover the secret along with the disciples, and for them, the earliest starting point was John’s ministry.

Mark’s Gospel is a colossal literary achievement. Mark manages, though writing post-resurrection and post-pentecost, to succeed in writing proper history. He presents the developments as they took place. Consider Mark’s relationship with Peter. Mark knew Peter as a great man, a hero of the faith, a man who had 100% clarity on who Jesus was and why he came. Peter had taught Mark most of what Mark knew. But even so, Mark grasps that Peter once was pretty clueless, and had to be taught himself. And Mark doesn’t just grasp this in a theoretical sense- he is able to enter into it all.

The whole Gospel of Mark, then, is about a secret being revealed. The book has three peaks of revelation. At the start, there is Jesus’ baptism. In the centre, there is Peter’s confession and Jesus’ transfiguration, and at the end, there is the cross. At all of these points, Jesus is identified as God’s son. At baptism, the voice says, “You are my beloved Son”; at transfiguration, the voice says, “This is my beloved Son”; at the cross, the centurion says, “Truly this man was the Son of God”. At each of these three peaks, the secret is let out further.

At the start, only Jesus knows the secret. Jesus, and perhaps John. Mark says that when he came up out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. Mark doesn’t say that anybody else saw those things happen, and the voice from heaven addresses Jesus personally- “you are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased”. John tells us that John the Baptist saw the dove, and implies that he heard the voice. Luke says that the dove came “bodily”. But even so, John didn’t necessarily understand the secret. And Mark doesn’t mention anybody else seeing or hearing anything. He is focussing on the Father and the Son sharing the secret at this point. The revelation will develop as we progress through the Gospel. In other Gospels, we have hints that the disciples might have some inkling of what is going to happen- John tells us that Thomas said something like, “let’s go to Jerusalem and die with him”. But in Mark, the disciples don’t get it. Jesus becomes more and more explicit until he is there at the Lord’s supper almost trying to force them to see- breaking bread and pouring out wine in front of them, eating dead lamb. But they are still arguing about who will be the greatest of them in his kingdom. The disciples had the same OT as we have. Why didn’t they see in it all that we see? Maybe Jesus explained parts of it to them. When Mark tells us how Jesus called himself the “Son of Man”, he could be condensing several hours of teaching into one line. But the disciples were half-blind. They didn’t understand when Jesus told them in plain Aramaic. Perhaps their blindness was even wilful. They feared to ask (9:32), like a wife who makes sure she doesn’t find any proof that her husband is having an affair, not even asking why he’s back home later then he used to be. They have got the idea that Jesus is going to bring God’s kingdom about, and they want it to be a particular sort of kingdom. James’ and John’s mother expects Jesus to take the throne in triumph inside a month or so. James and John have no idea what sort of baptism they will undergo. The disciples have all the pieces of the jigsaw, but only post-pentecost do they put the pieces in place. Jesus is Messiah, and Jesus has to die. But not until Jesus rose from the dead do we see the disciples put those things together. And Mark doesn’t really give us resurrection narratives either.

Hengel, in the third book of his trilogy, discusses at length the question of whether a suffering hero would be comprehensible to a Jew. He argues that only in the Maccabean age did this idea come through, and even then only as a rare thread in the tapestry. Post-Gospels, Tolkein can tell such a story and captivate even unbelievers. Samson was glorious in defeat, but we read Samson with Christian eyes. Maybe his death was not the glorious thing- his destruction of the idolatrous temple was the glorious thing. Baldur was beautiful, and he died. But his death was tragic. He was honoured for being beautiful, not for dying. The idea of the hero laying down his life and therefore being raised to the highest place is distinctively Christian.

Mark 15:21-33. And they crucified him.

June 14, 2018

And they compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross. And they brought him to the place called Golgotha which means Place of a Skull. And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. And they crucified him and divided his garments among them, casting lots for them, to decide what each should take. And it was the third hour when they crucified him. And the inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” And with him they crucified two robbers, one on his right and one on his left. And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” So also the chief priests with the scribes mocked him to one another, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also reviled him.

And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour.”

After a final supper with his disciples, Jesus has prayed in the garden and then been betrayed. He had faced “trial” before the kangaroo court of the Sanhedrin, and has faced trial again before Pilate. Both trials have been mockeries of justice, and Jesus has been handed over to be put to death. He has been beaten and flogged by the Roman soldiers, and led out to be crucified.

  1. Is there a big difference between Mark’s account of the crucifixion and some other popular accounts in film or books or sermons? If so, where does the difference lie?

  2. Why does Jesus die by crucifixion?

  3. Why does Jesus refuse the wine offered to him?

  4. Why does Mark tell us that the soldiers divided Jesus’ clothes?

  5. Who wrote the notice reading “King of the Jews”, and what was their point?

  6. When Mark tells us of the robbers, what does his language remind us of?

  7. Mark gives many details about the mockery from those by the cross. What is he trying to do here?

  8. Darkness falls for three hours. Why is this peculiarly appropriate?

  9. What should we take from this passage?

 

  1. Is there a big difference between Mark’s account of the crucifixion and some other popular accounts in film or books or sermons? If so, where does the difference lie?

When you think of the crucifixion, what images come into your mind? Popular films and popular imagination go for the agonising details- hammer blows driving rusty nails through the hands, lashes scourging flesh off the back, blood running down the face and caking in the beard and so on. I’ve not seen, and have no intention of seeing, Mel Gibson’s Passion film- I think it is in breach of the second commandment. But I can see how Jim Caviezel’s rangy physique would lend itself to that sort of depiction.

The Gospel writers, however, do not focus on the physical torture. Mark does not tell us all the graphic gory details. His readers would be well aware of how agonising a death was crucifixion, but he doesn’t want us to dwell on those aspects. In Mark, the key focus seems to be humiliation and cursedness more than anything else. It is the mockery and the apparent victory of Jesus enemies and the degradation of crucifixion and nakedness that are in view rather than physical pain. Darkness fits better into a focus on cursedness, along with the cry of dereliction and the Jewish take on crucifixion. As we go through Mark’s account, we’ll see some of these things.

 

  1. Why does Jesus die by crucifixion?

The word “crucify” has shock value in Mark’s world. It is an near-obscenity. Cicero says that “even the mere word ‘cross’, must remain far not only from the lips of the citizens of Rome, but also from their thoughts, their eyes, their ears”. It is a word you wouldn’t say on Rome TV unless in the context of a serious documentary well after the watershed. Crucifixion is the ultimate in degradation and humiliation. It is a slave’s death, a death for a non-person.

In the Jewish world as well, to die hanging on a tree is terrible. Josephus calls it “the most wretched of all ways of dying”, and the man who dies hanging on a tree dies under the curse of God (Deuteronomy 21:22-23, cf. Gal 3:13). Crucifixion is shocking in both Jewish and Roman worlds- degradation and curse.

Normally, a condemned man would carry the cross-beam of his cross to the place of execution, and be flogged once he had arrived. But Jesus had already been flogged, must have been near the point of collapse. He was simply incapable of carrying the beam through the streets of Jerusalem, and so the soldiers seize a man passing by and make him do it. This man seems to have been the father of men Mark’s readers knew- why else in a world where fathers were automatically more important than their offspring would a father be identified by his children? Mark mentions them for interest and for verifiability- they will be able to confirm that their dad was there and did this thing. Rufus is quite possibly the Rufus mentioned in Romans 16:13. It was a common enough name in both Roman and Jewish circles, but Mark is probably writing with the Roman Christians in view.

With a name like “place of a skull”, Golgotha could well have been a regular place of execution. It is not too far from a thoroughfare- there are people passing by. Many have assumed it to have been a hill shaped like the dome of a skull, which is possible although the Bible never calls it a hill. Mark has chosen to give his non-Aramaic readers a translation of the name, even though he doesn’t translate every place name for us (we don’t read, “Bethphage, which means ‘house of figs’”). But this one seemed appropriate. The name is sinister, which suits the content.

Golgotha is outside the city, it being a custom among both Jews and Romans to carry out executions outside the city walls. The Israelites are commanded to carry out stonings “outside the camp” ( Lev 24:14; Num 15:35; see also 1 Kg 21:13). The reason behind it is to do with cursedness. The evil-doer is expelled from the clean community before he is killed.

 

  1. Why does Jesus refuse the wine offered to him?

They offered him wine. Mark doesn’t tell us who “they” are; perhaps still the soldiers, although we are distant enough from v16 for it to have broadened out. It was apparently a custom for the women of Jerusalem to offer wine to those condemned to death- perhaps based on Proverbs 31:6- “give strong drink to him who is perishing and wine to those in bitter distress. Let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more”. Maybe that is who “they” were, and they were offering this wine as a kindness, something to dull the senses. This wine was mixed with myrrh, a combination known to other ancient writers as a luxury (Plutarch), but Jesus refuses it. Wine would mitigate or bypass his suffering. He doesn’t want to go out in an addled haze. He needs to be clear and focussed for this work, as clear as possible for a man in his condition. He won’t drink the cup of wine because he is determined to drain the cup of suffering his father has in store for him. Proverbs 31:6 may recommend wine for the dying, but it is actually a warning against wine for kings. Wine can be taken by those condemned to die who have no responsibilities, but it is not for kings, who need all their faculties about them in order to uphold the law and rule wisely. Jesus certainly is the King, and is making decisions on behalf of his people.

And again, Jesus has vowed not to touch wine until he drinks it afresh in the kingdom of God (14:25). Wine in the scriptures is something for when the work is over and it is time to kick back and relax and enjoy life. For Jesus, it is not yet time for relaxation and rest- there is work yet to be done. It is not yet finished.

 

  1. Why does Mark tell us that the soldiers divided Jesus’ clothes?

Criminals were normally crucified naked. The condemned man’s clothing was normally given to the executioners, as a perk of the job. These men cast lots to determine who will get which piece of clothing. The garments being divided in this way is a clear reference to Psalm 22:18- “they divided my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots”. In the psalm, the division if the garments is a token of the helplessness and defeated state of the king. The 22nd Psalm is woven into the crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus himself will later quote Ps 22:1 from the cross. The bystanders who shake their heads in mockery are found in Ps 22:7, the reviling in Ps 22:6, and the taunts about being saved in Ps 22:8. In the psalm, David is at first desolate and an object of derision, and then raised up and vindicated. But everything here is from the desolate half.

At what point were David’s hands and feet ever pierced? Maybe he is using metaphor, or talking about a plot of his enemies that was never realised. The Hebrew text actually reads “Like a lion, my hands and feet”, so perhaps David is thinking about when he had to flee to Achish and pretend to be mad, scrabbling at the door and making marks and drooling into his beard (1 Sam 21). In any case, the first part of the Psalm portrays a man utterly defeated, abandoned by his friends and crowed over by his enemies, exposed and humiliated. We are meant to take Jesus’ quote as expressing the full weight of the anguish in the Psalm.

Beyond a tie-in to Ps 22 though, there is another aspect of the detail about the garments- almost an implicit aspect. If Jesus’ clothes are in the hands of the soldiers, then what is he wearing? If you’re a medieval iconographer, then he is probably wearing a loin cloth. In fact, there is some evidence that Jewish authorities would give a loin cloth to men taken out to be stoned, to preserve modesty. But Jesus is not being stoned by the Jews but crucified by the Romans. Nakedness is part of the punishment, the humiliation. The crucified man is exposed to everybody. There is a stream of Biblical theology behind this. In Genesis 3, Adam and his wife realise that they are exposed and guilty. They try to make clothes for themselves and they try to hide from God’s gaze among the trees. Their own attempts to cover themselves are pitiful, and in the end God makes covering for them, killing animals to do so. Their nakedness, and the shame they feel because of it, underlines their guilt and awareness of guilt. In a fallen world, it is not good to be naked in public. In Genesis 9, Noah becomes very angry when his youngest son sees him naked and makes a joke out of it. The Canaanites are cursed because of it- it is the seed of righteous genocide. Priests in Israel are not to go up onto the altar because their nakedness would be exposed and they would be unclothed. God’s wrath would break out and they would have no shield. But here is Jesus with the covering removed, exposed to God’s anger. God’s wrath breaks out against Jesus, and he is unclothed before it- not because he has any guilt of his own- in his own right, he can stand naked and unashamed before his Father- but because he is the ben-Adam, the Son of Man, identified with us and bearing our guilt.

 

  1. Who wrote the notice reading “King of the Jews”, and what was their point?

By Roman custom, a board posted over the crucified man would specify his crime. This notice declared that Jesus was being killed as King of the Jews. The words are Pilate’s from earlier in the chapter, and it would be Pilate who was responsible for the choice of words on the board. Placing such a sign above a dying humiliated figure was mockery and deterrent rolled into one. Pilate has just suffered a defeat at the hands of the priests, but he is enjoying small victories. In order to win the battle to get Jesus condemned to death, they have effectively renounced their claim to any king but Caesar. They have had to pretend to be loyal subjects of Rome. Pilate can at least rub their noses in it, and report back to Rome that he has dealt with the king of the Jews. The priests will not be willing to recognise Jesus as a real “King of the Jews” at all, but Pilate is happy to goad them a bit. It was meant as a slight against the pretensions of their occupied territory to be a sovereign state. To the Romans, Jesus can’t really be a king of any sort- because he has nothing which they think a king must have. He has no army, no land, no people, no respect. This is Roman mockery of Jewry.

But there are layers of irony here. The true king is one who willingly lays down his life for his people. David is the pattern and model for any real king of Israel, and he first came to public notice because he was willing to put his own life on the line for God’s honour and God’s people, going out to fight the giant Goliath. Jesus on the cross is acting like a real king should act. He is suffering for his people. Nobody recognises this bloodied humiliated figure as kingly, but that isn’t because he’s not. It is because everybody is blind.

 

  1. When Mark tells us of the robbers, what does his language remind us of?

Criminals were crucified alongside Jesus. Theft and robbery were not capital crimes in Roman law, but Josephus can later use Mark’s word “robbers” to mean Zealot insurrectionists. In part, this is a fulfilment of Isaiah 53:12. There, the servant of God is numbered with the transgressors as he pours out his soul unto death. Jesus is very clearly the suffering servant described in Isaiah; faithful to God, and despised and rejected by men. Jesus is also spat upon and beaten (Isa 50:6) and flogged (Isa 53:5).

Mark is not only referring back to Isaiah though. He is also making reference to his own Gospel. Again full of irony, he repeats the request of James and John in chapter 10. They asked for the places of honour at Jesus’ right and left when he comes into his kingdom. Mark uses the same language here about the criminals.

Jesus replied to James and John by asking them if they were able to carry his cross and be baptised with his baptism. And here, in this mock enthronement, James and John have deserted Jesus and it is unknown criminals who hang at Jesus’ right and left, and a previously unknown stranger who physically carries Jesus’ cross. Here are the ones who enjoy the honoured positions at the side of the suffering king- robbers and strangers.

 

  1. Mark gives many details about the mockery from those by the cross. What is he trying to do here?

The Jewish bystanders challenge Jesus to come down- if he can tear down the Temple and rebuild it, then surely he can come down from the cross. Those who see him crucified joke about his inability to destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days- not seeing that this is precisely what he is doing as they speak. His body is the temple, and it is now being destroyed, and will be raised up again in three days. The Temple was the dwelling place of God, the point on earth where God made his home and where God could be found. Ever since Solomon built it, if somebody wanted to meet with God, then he should go to the Temple in Jerusalem. But that changed when Jesus came. When Jesus began to announce the arrival of God’s kingdom, he became the Temple in his own flesh. He was the dwelling place of God on earth. Jesus, not the temple any longer, is where men must go to meet with God. When he said that he would build the Temple again in three days (John 2:19), he was talking about his body. That claim has obviously been repeated and distorted in Jewish popular consciousness- Jesus said that when others destroyed the temple, he would rebuild it. It seems to have been twisted into a threat from Jesus to destroy the temple himself and rebuild it. The priests also made it an accusation (14:58). But none of them have understood what Jesus was talking about. The irony is that Jesus can’t come down from the cross because he is too busy doing what they taunt him for being unable to do.

The chief priests also mock Jesus amongst themselves in very similar words- if he saved others, then why can’t he save himself. If he did, we’d believe… The scribes and chief priests say “He saved others, but cannot save himself- and what they mean is “This man is a loser. He set himself up as the Messiah, and healed other people- but where has it all ended? They tell him to save himself and come down off the cross, knowing that a crucified man can hardly gather enough strength to breathe. They say, “Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now and we will see and believe”. They are making a joke out of Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah. They look at him, and see a helpless powerless figure, dying on a cross, cursed by God. He can’t possibly be the Messiah. His claims can’t be taken seriously now. He can’t be the dignified, powerful, victorious king who will deliver Israel from their enemies, and rule them under God in peace and prosperity. He’s dying, defeated and humiliated. Or so it looks to their eyes.

They no doubt are just thinking of Jesus’ miracles- healing the sick and casting out demons and raising the dead. But Mark, I should think, expects his readers to catch their unintentional double-entendre and give full weight to the word “save”. And again, the irony is striking. Jesus won’t come down and save himself, precisely because he has to stay there to save others.

Their mocking appears switched- why should the priests, whose concern is the Temple, mock regarding the salvation of others, and why should the people, who saw the miracles and healings and so on, mock concerning the Temple? The two are connected. Both are mocking assuming that Jesus stays because he can’t come down., and assume that this proves that he can’t really build the Temple, and can’t really save people. But ironically, it is by staying there that Jesus is doing both things. If he was to save his people, he couldn’t save himself. Maybe Mark highlights who makes which mockery in order to combine them, make it plain that they are to be thought of as one.

Along with Ps 22:6, we have echoes of Lam 2:15 and Ps 69:9, which latter contains (in the LXX) the same word for reviled as here, and a detail about zeal for the temple.

 

  1. Darkness falls for three hours. Why is this peculiarly appropriate?

Mark divides the day of the crucifixion into chunks of 3 hours. Nobody carries a watch around, so time isn’t measured with modern exactness, but Mark point out the key events happening at daybreak (6am, final consultation of the Sanhedrin in 15:1), at the 3rd hour (9am, crucifixion, 15:25), at the 6th hour (noon, darkness, v33), at the 9th hour (3pm, death of Jesus, 15:34f), and at evening (6pm, burial, v42f). It is clearly meant to be memorable and memorised.

V25 is still odd though. It’s a strong statement with no apparent point. Can’t be attached to the garments bit, or we’d be left with an orphaned second statement about crucifixion. Some textual critics say it’s an interpolation, but there doesn’t seem much manuscript evidence for this.

John says 6th hour for Pilate’s questioning of the crowd (Jn 19:14), and this presents problems. Maybe he’s using the Roman system, counting from midnight. If so, then that gives three hours between the second trial and the crucifixion, which is possible. Darkness fell, and reigned for three hours as Jesus hung on the cross. This is appropriate on a number of levels. Darkness is fitting, and darkness for three hours is especially fitting.

This is not normal darkness. Commentators have offered all kinds of explanations as secondary causes of the darkness. But those causes are all secondary. God brought it about, whether he did so by means we understand or means we don’t (though it certainly wasn’t a regular lunar eclipse of the sun. The Jewish calendar is lunar, and Passover, the commentators say, is on a full moon). The sun is given to rule the day, and the sun is a creature of habit. It rises in the morning, and goes down at night, and it shines upon us in between. We don’t get patches of darkness like we get patches of rain (well, if we’re lucky, the rain comes in patches).

Darkness is there at the start of the Bible. Darkness was on the face of the deep. The world began in chaos and darkness. Light was a blessing from God. And so when God wishes to show his displeasure, to return the world to thick darkness is appropriate. God wraps himself in thick darkness when showing his terrifying aspect (Ex 20:18-21; Ps 18:7-11). Those who sit in darkness are the disobedient (Ps 107:10). So generally, darkness works well as a sign of God’s curse.

But those who had read their OT, might well remember another occasion where darkness fell in the middle of the day. Where have you seen darkness before in the Bible? Exodus 10. The plagues on Egypt. When God wishes to punish Egypt and signify his displeasure, thick darkness is something he uses (Ex 10:22). The parallel with the plague on Egypt is very close. We have some strong similarities between the two situations. Significantly, darkness is the last-but-one plague to fall on the Egyptians. What is the plague after darkness, the last and final plague? And in what context do all these plagues appear? And what is the result of all these plagues?

God’s people in the early chapter of Exodus are groaning under a yoke of slavery. They desperately need to be delivered. They need a saviour, who will defeat their enemies, break the power of the Egyptians over them, rescue them from bondage, and lead them into the land they have been promised, a land flowing with milk and honey.

God himself is their saviour, who raises up Moses as a leader and prophet, and who brings terrible things to pass in Egypt until Pharaoh finally lets Israel go. God brings thick darkness over the face of the land for how many days? Three (Exodus 10:22, 23). And after that, there is no more warning to Pharaoh. God kills the firstborn sons of all the Egyptians. God’s patience is at an end, and he pours out his wrath on Egypt, and Israel escape only through the blood of the lamb on their doorposts- the Passover lamb.

So just before the Passover, darkness came on Egypt. And following the darkness came death. The sacrificial lambs were slain, and the firstborn sons were slain, as Gods’ anger was finally let loose. And through that, God’s people are delivered out of slavery.

And so here, when God is going to pour out his wrath on Jesus, when the death of the true Passover lamb and the only begotten Son of God is about to take place, darkness covers the earth before he dies. And freedom for God’s people comes through his death. They are brought out of darkness into light. It is prophesied in Amos 8:9-10. Amos is using Passover imagery to describe God’s wrath on a disobedient Israel- with darkness, and mourning as for an only son- but in Mark, it is the obedient son who is the object of wrath, so that the disobedient sons might live.

 

  1. What should we take from this passage?

The whole account is saturated with irony. Mark doesn’t just want us to see the humiliation- he wants us to see the purpose. Everybody else is blind. Everybody mocks Jesus. The Romans mock him as hopeless and powerless. The Jews mock him as a fraud and a charlatan. Even the robbers crucified with him, who you might have thought would have some sympathy, mock him.

But those who have read Mark’s Gospel through up to this point can see things differently. The humiliation and crucifixion of Jesus is not a tragic end to the Messianic hope. It is precisely in this humiliation of Jesus that the cursed earth is redeemed. He is not just a prophet and a king- he is a sacrifice.

He has not come, like David, to relieve Israel from some of the effects of the curse for a little while- to obtain relative happiness, occasional plenty, and a temporary reign of peace. He has come to turn the curse over, to take it upon himself and exhaust it. He has come to lay down his life for the good of others. The whole thrust of Chapters 9 and 10 have been about this- that Jesus is not a king like other kings. He is a servant king. He has come, as he himself said, not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

These things happened. They are real historical events. In fact, they are the central events of all history. Jesus is God. He came from heaven into a wicked world, to suffer and die, as a sacrifice to bring his people forgiveness, to save them. Those who saw him die mocked him, and their words are painfully ironic. Had they understood them seriously, they could have been saved. He saved others, but cannot save himself- well, yes, that was the point.

We can look on these events pretty much as the Jews and the Romans did- “this man was a fruitcake or a fraud, and his death proves it”.

Or we can trust him, and he will save us. This man was the saviour, and his death proves it.

Mark 15:1-20. He opened not his mouth.

June 14, 2018

And as soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole Council. And they bound Jesus and led him away and delivered him over to Pilate. And Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered him, “You have said so.” And the chief priests accused him of many things. And Pilate again asked him, “Have you no answer to make? See how many charges they bring against you.” But Jesus made no further answer, so that Pilate was amazed.

Now at the feast he used to release for them one prisoner for whom they asked. And among the rebels in prison, who had committed murder in the insurrection, there was a man called Barabbas. And the crowd came up and began to ask Pilate to do as he usually did for them. And he answered them, saying, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” For he perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release for them Barabbas instead. And Pilate again said to them, “Then what shall I do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” And they cried out again, “Crucify him.” And Pilate said to them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him.” So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified.

And the soldiers led him away inside the palace that is, the governor’s headquarters, and they called together the whole battalion. And they clothed him in a purple cloak, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on him. And they began to salute him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they were striking his head with a reed and spitting on him and kneeling down in homage to him. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. And they led him out to crucify him.”

In the previous chapter, Jesus has been tried before the Sanhedrin. They have gone to the trouble of seeking out liars to bring false accusations against Jesus, but the weakness of the case against him has been embarrassingly obvious. The so-called witnesses have contradicted one another in their testimony. Trying to get Jesus to convict himself, the High Priest has asked him, “Are you the Christ?” Jesus has said that he is and that the Sanhedrin will see him glorified. The High Priest has then torn his clothes and declared Jesus guilty of blasphemy. Perhaps not all the members of the Sanhedrin are there, and perhaps some who are present have secret misgivings, but they all consent to the guilty verdict.

  1. As soon as morning comes, the chief priests consult the elders, scribes, and the whole Sanhedrin (v1). But haven’t the Sanhedrin already met, held a trial, and reached a verdict? Why this continued meeting?

  2. Pilate asks Jesus whether he is the King of the Jews (v2). Why should Pilate ask this? What does he understand the title to mean?

  3. The chief priests spew out a flood of accusations (v3). Why doesn’t Jesus answer, and what is the significance of Pilate’s amazement at his silence (v5)?

  4. According to custom, there is a Passover amnesty whereby the Roman prefect releases one prisoner each year. Pilate offers Jesus to the crowd. What is he trying to do here?

  5. What is the point of the soldiers’ mockery of Jesus?

  6. Mark puts the trials of Jesus before the Sanhedrin and before Pilate next to one another, and we are supposed to see the parallels and differences between them. What is Mark’s point in the juxtaposition?

  7. What are we supposed to see about Jesus from this passage?

 

  1. As soon as morning comes, the chief priests consult the elders, scribes, and the whole Sanhedrin (v1). But haven’t the Sanhedrin already met, held a trial, and reached a verdict? Why this continued meeting?

The Sanhedrin consult again early in the morning, probably later in the same meeting, even though they’d reached a verdict earlier that day (the morning would be the same day by the Jewish reckoning- there is evening, and then there is morning, and that is a day). They’ve already condemned Jesus to death, but there is still work to do. They’ve agreed that Jesus is guilty of blasphemy, a capital crime, which means that they have a legal veil under which to hide the murder they wanted to do all along. But they still have two problems.

Firstly, they are not sovereign in Jerusalem. Judea is an occupied territory, under the power of Rome, and Rome is particularly jealous about the death penalty. Though she often allows conquered peoples to maintain their own customs and legal structures, she reserves the death penalty for herself. Only Rome has that authority; and in Judea, Rome’s authority is vested in Pilate, the Prefect. Pilate is in Jerusalem- he lived in Caesarea normally, but it is customary for the Roman Prefect to be present in Jerusalem for the religious festivals. This makes it very awkward for the chief priests; if they put Jesus to death under Pilate’s nose, it could well be taken as a calculated insult. Pilate and the chief priests do not get on well- Philo quotes Agrippa calling Pilate “inflexible, merciless, and obstinate”, and Josephus isn’t complimentary either. Pilate is painted as a cruel obnoxious man who did all he could to annoy the Jewish rulers. But Pilate is ultimately the boss, and the priests can’t afford to flout his authority quite so blatantly as to carry out the death penalty without his say-so, especially not in his presence. Of course, it wasn’t unknown for the Jewish leaders to kill undesirables and to let the Romans worry about it afterwards- they would later kill Stephen without any official permission from Rome. But at Passover time, the governor himself was present, the city was well supplied with auxiliary Roman troops, and the Jewish crowds were swollen with non-Jerusalem dwellers. So Pilate’s rubber stamp over the decision must be obtained. It’s safer to do things by the book.

The second problem is downstream of that first problem. It is the charge of blasphemy on which they have convicted Jesus. Blasphemy is a capital offence under Jewish law, but “Blasphemy against the God of Israel” is by no means an offence under Roman law. The Sanhedrin can tell the Jews, “We’ve tried him, and we’ve heard him utter the most horrible blasphemies”, and they will be believed enough to let them get away with it. Pilate is a different matter. The Sanhedrin knows he despises them, and knows that he might be uncooperative just for kicks. If they come to him with a charge of blasphemy, they are almost inviting him to throw it out of the Roman court, telling them that it is a Jewish religious question, and that they can give Jesus some lesser punishment. They need to spin this to Pilate so that he will find the case against Jesus compelling. For preference, they would like a way to get Pilate over a barrel so that he can’t get out of having Jesus executed. So they continue plotting and scheming. They want to thrash out a strategy for their case to Pilate. They are moving extremely fast and making policy on the hoof. It can’t be more than a handful of hours since Judas tipped them off. Jesus’ death is not yet a certainty. They lay their plans, and then they bring Jesus to Pilate early in the morning, first thing in his day.

 

  1. Pilate asks Jesus whether he is the King of the Jews (v2). Why should Pilate ask this? What does he understand the title to mean?

The question Pilate asks shows us the line the chief priests have spun him. The outcome of their meeting has obviously been a tactical decision. They will come to Pilate and try to make out that Jesus is a political danger to Rome. They have condemned Jesus under a charge of blasphemy, but that isn’t something which will bother Pilate in the slightest. So the priests alter the charges against him, and frame them in terms of rebellion against Rome. Jesus has claimed to be the Messiah- he has admitted to being the Christ (14:62) – and the chief priests “translate” that for Pilate, making Jesus out to be a potential rebel against Caesar. If they can do this successfully, then they will leave Pilate little option but to meet their demands for the death sentence. Pilate won’t want to risk letting Jesus go if he thinks that Jesus might be a focal point for anti-Roman sentiment among the population. If news of such a thing were to get back to Rome (and the chief priests could make sure that it did), then Pilate’s superiors would not be happy.

Mark has a strong sense of irony, and this is tremendously ironic. The Jewish leaders condemn Jesus for being the ruler they know he isn’t. They don’t think of rebellion against Caesar as a crime at all, and they know that Jesus isn’t guilty of it anyway. It is especially ironic that having rejected Jesus and branded him a blasphemer because he did not match up to their expectations of a national ruler, the Sanhedrin now condemn him for being that ruler. They hate him because he isn’t the sort of king they want, but they accuse him of being that sort of king. They have rejected him as their Messiah, but it is as “King of the Jews” that they have him condemned.

These are clearly not the same charges as they made against him in their own trial. To be “King of the Jews” is not exactly the same thing as being the Messiah, and is a long way removed from charges of blasphemy. The Sanhedrin knows that Pilate will understand the title differently from the way they understand it. There is no reason why the title should resonate with him the way it does with Jewish folk. Pilate will hear “King of the Jews”, and think of a rebel leader who wants to be king. Jesus knows that his kingship must be understood in different terms altogether, but even the Sanhedrin put far more behind the concept of a Messiah than a mere head of a rebellion. They know that they are not being honest when they alter the charges against Jesus. But they are dishonest men, and they don’t mind breaking any number of God’s commandments concerning truth and justice, as long as they can get Jesus killed.

If we look at the way Pilate uses the term, we can see that he understands it simply to mean “a king”. Pilate uses the phrase three times, and the last time he tells us that it is the Jews themselves who call Jesus this. He’s heard it from the priests or from other Jewish sources. He seems to be using it almost as a mockery of all things Jewish- when he offers to release the “King of the Jews”, Jesus is standing there, and is not looking like Pilate’s idea of a king. Jesus must look a real mess. He has been kept awake and on his feet all night. He’s been spat on, has had a bag put over his head, and has been beaten around the face. He’ll be bleary eyed and bloodied. Pilate calls him “King”, but the idea is to say, “This pathetic figure is your king, is he? Nice King, Jews. Don’t you think he looks a bit ragged and defenceless? Good example of your vain hopes in the face of mighty Rome.” Interestingly, when Jewish folk use this title, it is the “King of Israel” (v32), not “King of the Jews.” But whichever form of the title the priests gave Pilate, they have referred to Jesus in this way in order to make him a danger in Pilate’s eyes as a pretender to the throne.

 

  1. The chief priests spew out a flood of accusations (v3). Why doesn’t Jesus answer, and what is the significance of Pilate’s amazement at his silence (v5)?

Pilate asks Jesus directly- does he plead guilty to the charges against him? “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus reply is not straightforward. There has been much debate over what exactly Jesus meant by saying “You have said so”– with some arguing that it is an affirmation- “You are right to have said so” , some taking it as a denial- “That’s what you say, not what I say”, and others arguing for anything between the two. Context shows us at least that it can’t be an unqualified affirmation. If Jesus had said “Yes, dead right I am”, then Pilate would probably have convicted him on the spot. But it is unlikely to be a flat denial either. Jesus knows that he is the king of the Jews, even if he is not anything like what Pilate means by the title. Jesus’ answer likely means something like, “Well, if you want to put it like that…”. The effect of it is to throw the onus for the decision back onto Pilate. Pilate is made to dig a little deeper.

The priests immediately come in with a raft of other accusations, accusing him of “many things”. They don’t want to give Pilate time to think about whether Jesus is guilty or not- they try to overwhelm him with volume of smears. Maybe this is stuff like “He rode into the city on a donkey, and we Jews know that that is a claim to be a king”, or “He smashed the Temple up- he’s a disruptive influence”. Mark leaves these other accusations vague- presumably they are either not serious or not substantiated. It is plain enough in any case that the tactic fails. Pilate won’t be railroaded like that; he gives Jesus time to answer. And in the end, Pilate does not seem to think that Jesus is in any way guilty of law-breaking.

Pilate asks Jesus again if he admits guilt in these matters. But Jesus makes no reply at all, refusing to defend himself. Pilate knows that the chief priests are acting in bad faith (v10), and he would probably be inclined to believe any defence Jesus might make. But Jesus refuses to avoid his sentence. Jesus is aware that a refusal to defend himself will result in his death, but he is quite content to go to his death, knowing that this is the Father’s plan for him. We know, and Jesus knew, that this silence was in deliberate fulfilment of scripture (Psalm 38:13 and Isa 53:7). Jesus sees himself as the suffering servant of Isaiah- the one obedient to God and unjustly treated by men, whose soul makes an offering for sin and who shall see his offspring. Jesus knows that he is endpoint of Psalm 38, the man whose enemies hate him, and who suffers God’s righteous anger, yet who calls out to God for salvation. So Jesus does the appropriate thing, and keeps silence in the face of unjust accusations from those who hate him.

Pilate is amazed at Jesus’ silence. Pilate would not have known the scriptures well enough to know the Isaiah passage about the sheep dumb before the shearers, and the servant opening not his mouth. He’s not shaken because he sees the prophecies coming to pass. He is shaken simply because he has never seen a prisoner quite like this. Pilate, as we’ve said, is a real piece of work. If reports are to be believed, he’s vicious, cold, and brutal. But Jesus has an impact on him. Other prisoners Pilate has seen have been gibbering with fear, or begging for mercy, or hotly defending themselves. Jesus does none of those things. He is different. His life is at stake, but he is calm, self-possessed. Something about him hits Pilate hard- maybe there is a deliberate echo of Isa 52:15, where kings shut their mouths because of the suffering servant.

Other people have been amazed in Mark’s Gospel- the Jews in Galilee, on seeing Jesus cast out unclean spirits, 1:27; the people of the Decapolis, again after the casting out of demons, 5:20; the disciples at Jesus’ words when he told them that it would be hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God, 10:24; the twelve again when it becomes clear that Jesus is headed for Jerusalem, 10:32. When Jesus does something that shows his power and his destiny, and those around him can’t understand it, they marvel.

 

  1. According to custom, there is a Passover amnesty whereby the Roman prefect releases one prisoner each year. Pilate offers Jesus to the crowd. What is he trying to do here?

Pilate has not been fooled by the Sanhedrin’s tricks. He did not think that Jesus was guilty of any crime, and did not think that he was a serious danger to Caesar either. But rather than throw the case out, he seems to have decided to try and get Jesus off by amnesty. It was traditional at Passover for the Prefect to release a prisoner at the request of the Jewish people. Pilate had a pretty efficient network of informers. It is likely that he had heard about the recent disturbances in the Temple (and probably filed them under “do nothing”- why should he worry if one Jew disagreed with the others in their own Temple?). He’ll have known that Jesus enjoyed popular support. He could see that the Sanhedrin hated him out of envy- Jesus was the sort of teacher they wanted to be but weren’t. Jesus had the authority and the respect, and even the love of the people, that they coveted. So Pilate saw a golden opportunity opening up for him to kill three birds with one stone. He could use up the amnesty without having to release a genuine troublemaker, he could release the innocent man in front of him now, and he could really annoy the Sanhedrin, all in one stroke. Win win win. So Pilate offered Jesus to the crowd with every reason to think that the crowd would gladly accept Jesus as their released prisoner. He seems to have expected Jesus to be released and the Sanhedrin thwarted.

But things don’t go according to Pilate’s plan. The Sanhedrin had come to Pilate at daybreak, at first light. The trial has taken perhaps an hour, so it is still early in the morning. But by this time, a crowd has assembled, and has begun to ask for the release of a prisoner, as was the custom. Pilate offers the assembled crowd his choice. He offers them Jesus, the “King of the Jews”, confident that they will accept. So sure is he that he is even mocking them with that phrase, as he offers them the release of this prisoner. But this crowd have someone else in mind. They ask for the man Barabbas. The crowd before Pilate is probably not identical to the crowds around the Temple, those who supported Jesus enough to make the priests fear to arrest him in public. The people here may not have anything against Jesus, but they are probably strong supporters of Barabbas. These people have gathered in the early morning, delaying any other business of the day, in order to ask for a prisoner to be released. They very likely had someone in mind, and wanted to get in first, and secure his release. And the chief priests are active in the crowd, stirring up support for anybody other than Jesus. Pro-Barabbas feeling would be easy to encourage, since Barabbas seems to have been some kind of a Zealot hero. His crime was to have killed somebody during an apparently well-known insurrection against the Roman oppressors. So Pilate’s plans and expectations were overturned. It was never going to be hard for the Sanhedrin to get the support of a crowd who would always trust them over the hated Roman Prefect. If the people are given one choice by Pilate and another by the Sanhedrin, then they’ll go with their own leaders- especially given that some of them will have come with Barabbas’ release as their big agendum.

Pilate is playing political games. He thinks he can outwit the Sanhedrin and score off them. But he finds himself outmanoeuvred, and he spins out of control. He starts making serious tactical blunders. When the crowd call for Barabbas, Pilate is surprised, and he asks the crowd what they want done with Jesus. That’s a big mistake. Maybe he expects them to ask for Jesus’ release too, or maybe he expects them to call for a mild punishment for him. But their reply is callous- crucify him, they shout. Maybe the priests have already been spreading the story that Jesus is a blasphemer. Pilate tries to reason with them, telling them that Jesus has done no evil, but they won’t listen to the Roman Prefect. By asking the crowd what they want, Pilate has created the dangerous situation where the crowd is in control. Having lost his game of getting Jesus off on amnesty, he should have released Barabbas and taken Jesus back inside to continue the trial. Release under a Passover amnesty did not imply guilt and prior conviction- it was an abolitio, not an indulgentia. So the fact that Jesus had been offered for release did not imply that his trial was over and he had been found guilty. But now the crowd are calling for Jesus’ blood, and Pilate has painted himself into a corner. He faces a riot if he ends up releasing Jesus now. He’s lost all control of the situation.

So he has Jesus flogged -the flogging would be with the Roman flagellum, leather thongs plaited with pieces of bone or metal. It could easily expose the bones with repeated strokes, and it was not uncommon for men to die from a flogging like this- and hands him over to be crucified, washing his hands of the affair.

Responsibility of the Jews is stressed all the way through, and we find the same in Acts as well. In Acts, Pilate is seen as the representative Gentile, conspiring together with Herod and the Jews against Jesus (4:27); but he is also defended as the one who would have released Jesus if there had been no pressure to do otherwise (3:13). Pilate does realise that the Sanhedrin’s charges are trumpery. Maybe he genuinely wants to do the right thing, but only if it is cost-free. When it becomes difficult, he has no qualms about punishing the innocent. Pilate is a callous man in the end. He doesn’t care very much what happens to Jesus as long as his own power isn’t threatened. He’d rather sentence an innocent man to death than risk civil unrest in his province. He has publicly declared Jesus to be innocent, but he allows him to be killed as a criminal anyway.

 

  1. What is the point of the soldiers’ mockery of Jesus?

Soldiers lead Jesus to the governor’s headquarters. These will be the governor’s troops; auxiliaries, not proper legionaries. A cohort of them would be about 300 men. Jesus is in the middle of a large mob of soldiers. These are violent brutal men- they have to be, to do their job. They are paid to fight and kill. People can be very disciplined in one sense, and let all that discipline evaporate when they don’t think it is needed. And people can be cruel. Jesus is a pitiable figure by now. He has just been scourged, and is almost dead. But these men bully Jesus, because they can. Children throw stones at cats because they can, and they find it fun. You’ve probably seen groups of bullies intimidate people at school- maybe you’ve been bullied. Sinful people enjoy exercising power over others, and an obvious way to prove that someone is in your power is to hurt and humiliate them, and prove that they can’t do anything to retaliate. The cat can’t throw stones back. The victim can’t fight the bullies. Human nature is brutal and cruel. Jesus is delivered over to these men and they abuse him, because they’ve nothing better to do, and they enjoy it, and because he’s a prisoner and can’t do anything to get them back.

They don’t understand this, but Jesus does have power. He could call down legions of angels to rescue him. But he won’t. He is willingly suffering- the shepherd in the place of the sheep. “Normal” human nature would be to take revenge- and a bit more than revenge as well. The OT law of “an eye for an eye” was given not only to ensure punishment was given for crimes, but also to limit revenge- an eye for an eye, not two eyes and part of an ear for an eye. Most people, when someone hits them, want to hit back as hard- for justice- and a little bit harder. That is why bullying is a demonstration of power. The bully bullies because it gives him a feeling of power, which he needs because he is inadequate in all sorts of ways, and he only gets that feeling of power because he knows his victims would hit him back if they weren’t too scared of him. They want to retaliate, but they fear what would happen to them if they did. If they didn’t want to retaliate, then not hitting back wouldn’t demonstrate the bully’s power.

Jesus could hit back. It wouldn’t matter how many soldiers there were, how big they were, or how many swords they had- Jesus’ power is in a different league altogether. But he doesn’t hit back. He is perfectly obedient, and perfectly humble. He doesn’t react with wounded pride, doesn’t react to defend himself. Instead, he suffers for others.

One aspect of the soldiers’ mockery is very specific. They strike his head with a reed and spit on him, but before that, they put a purple cloak on him, and jam a crown of thorns onto his head. The purple dye in those days was extracted from shellfish, and was very expensive to obtain. Only important people, such as royalty, wore purple clothes. The soldiers put it on Jesus to make fun of his claim to be a king. The crown of thorns would be painful, but the main point of it wasn’t to cause physical pain, but to mock. It is a fake crown for a fake king. Jesus is dressed up as a mockery of a king. Christian readers will see the Genesis 3 symbolism here- the ground is cursed because of the man, and it will bring forth thorns. Jesus wears the curse. The king who was supposed to bathe in the blood of grapes will instead go crowned with thorns to his death. The soldiers don’t do that intentionally. For them, they are just dressing Jesus up as a clown-king. They salute him as if he were a commander of some sort, and say “Hail, King of the Jews”. Roman troops would salute the emperor, “Ave, Caesar”. They adapt that cry to mock Jesus. They do him mock obeisance, kneeling before him and chortling at how funny the idea is. Jesus is being executed as the King of the Jews, that is the charge against him on the Roman sheet, and the Romans mock his kingly status. He is clearly not a king in their eyes. He is battered, bruised, dirty, bloody, and defeated. He is about to be killed as a criminal, and they are free to do as they like to him. He does not cut a kingly figure in their minds. So they sneer.

 

  1. Mark puts the trials of Jesus before the Sanhedrin and before Pilate next to one another, and we are supposed to see the plain parallels and differences between them. What is Mark’s point in the juxtaposition?

Mark tells us about one trial after the other, and he subtly highlights similarities for us. There are several parallels in this passage to the earlier trial in 14:55-65.

  • Both the High Priest in 14:61, and Pilate in 15:2, unwittingly announce the truth in their question. Both judges ask Jesus if he is who he really is- but both men already have their own ideas about what Jesus’ answer means.

  • Both the High Priest in 14:60, and Pilate in 15:4, ask Jesus the same question; “Have you no answer to make?

  • In both trials, Jesus is silent before false accusations.

  • Jesus is mocked after both trials, spat on after both trials, and beaten after both trials.

Mark has a polemic here- comparing the Jewish leaders to Pilate and to the soldiers- they are all equally ruthless, amoral, merciless, and ignorant. Neither trial is a proper trial- there is no concern for truth and justice at either. There is a desperate need for a real king to administer justice- but where will one be found?

The difference between the two trials, seen perhaps most clearly in the mockery at the end, is the particular irony involved. The charges are different, and the emphasis of the mockery is different. In the Jewish trial, the charge is one of being the Christ, the Son of God, and Jesus is mocked as a prophet. In the Roman trial, it is as King that Jesus stands accused and is mocked.

 

  1. What are we supposed to see about Jesus from this passage?

We are supposed to see the thing to which everybody in the narrative is blind. Jesus really is a king, and really is a prophet, and he is going deliberately to his own death. He is in control throughout.

Jesus is the innocent condemned. Pilate knew that he was innocent. The priests knew their trial was a sham. The crowd could not tell Pilate what Jesus had done wrong. But Jesus was found guilty anyway. Why?- the answer lies in what Jesus had already told his disciples- these things must happen to the Son of Man (Mk 8:31). The just must die for the unjust, to reconcile the unjust to God. The chief priests, Pilate, and Barabbas are all part of a tapestry of grace for the guilty.

Barabbas really is guilty of rebellion, the sort of violent rebellion for which the Sanhedrin tries to make out that Jesus wants to perpetrate. Jesus is condemned, and a wider truth is enacted. Barabbas, though guilty is freed. Jesus, though innocent is condemned.

Why doesn’t Jesus defend himself? He doesn’t defend himself because he is the substitute. He is not guilty in his own actions-far from it, he alone is pure. But he is silent because he stands there for his people, and they would have to be silent. There is nothing that any of us can say in our defence before God. We are rightly condemned. But Jesus was in the place of his people, the just for the unjust as Peter puts it (1 Peter 3:18). He didn’t defend himself because he wanted to die for his people. He didn’t defend himself, because his people were guilty.

Mark 14:66-72. The wobbly rock.

June 14, 2018

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.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” 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 cock 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. (Mark 14:27-31).

And he came and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Mark 14:37-38).

And they led Jesus to the high priest. And all the chief priests and the elders and the scribes came together. And Peter had followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest. And he was sitting with the guards and warming himself at the fire. (Mark 14:53-54).

And as Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came, and seeing Peter warming himself, she looked at him and said, “You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus.” But he denied it, saying, “I neither know nor understand what you mean.” And he went out into the gateway and the cock crowed. And the servant girl saw him and began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” But again he denied it. And after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.” But he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know this man of whom you speak.” And immediately the cock crowed a second time. And Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him, “Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept. (Mark 14:66-72).

  1. Why did Peter flee, and why did he then follow, even at a distance?

  2. Did Peter overreact to the first question of the servant girl?

  3. As Mark gives us the account, why is Peter’s second denial worse than the first?

  4. Why does Peter break down in tears?

  5. We know that all things work together for good for those who are called according to God’s purpose. How did this experience work for Peter’s good?

  6. Why does Mark tell this story in dribs and drabs, interwoven with Jesus’ trial?

 

  1. Why did Peter flee, and why did he then follow, even at a distance?

Jesus said that the sheep would be scattered when the shepherd was struck. Peter fled for the reason Jesus gave. For the last three years, Peter has followed Jesus, building his hopes on this man as the glorious victorious Messiah. Now his Messiah has just let himself be taken captive, offering no resistance and even forbidding others to resist on his behalf. Peter saw Jesus taken captive, and he ran into the darkness. Peter has just had a crushing shock. The man he had trusted as Messiah has been arrested, and worse, he has meekly accepted arrest and has gone with his enemies, in their power, without a fight. Peter had thought that Jesus was invincible, but now he has seen him suffer indignity and apparent defeat. Why didn’t Jesus call on God to strike his enemies down? He didn’t even allow Peter to defend him- why not? Peter couldn’t understand it, and he fled with the others. This wasn’t part of his plan- everything seemed to be falling apart, and so he panicked. It wouldn’t have been too hard for him to get away. The soldiers were only really after Jesus; they wouldn’t waste time chasing the others as long as they had the main prize secure.

Peter had been so full of self confidence and even full of scorn for the others. See his statement in the first quote above? “Even though they all fall away, I will not”. He thought that he was a better man than the rest- he was stronger and braver and more steadfast. Even if the others all ran away, he would stand with Jesus until they pried his sword from his cold dead hands.

But he has already slept in the garden along with the others, failing to stand by Jesus in his hour of need. Why would things be any different at Jesus’ arrest? Peter failed, along with the others, to stand by Jesus when Jesus seemed to accept defeat willingly. Rather than be arrested along with his master, Peter ran.

But then he seems to have found his nerve again. He stopped running, and returned to the scene of the arrest. The Mount of Olives would be dark, but the soldiers were carrying torches. Peter could have seen the torchlight procession winding its way back down into the city, and could have followed them, slipping through the streets after them until they reached their destination. The procession went to the house of the chief priest, where the Sanhedrin was already gathered, summoned together out of hours for a highly irregular urgent meeting to try Jesus. Peter trailed them, and after they had gone inside, he snuck in after them. As far as we know, of all the disciples, only Peter and John took this risk- the bravest and the most loved of the Twelve. Peter is taking a considerable personal risk to do this.

Has he now re-gathered his tattered hopes in Jesus as a mighty king? Is he hoping that this apparent weakness of Jesus is only a temporary thing, and that he will suddenly cast it off like Samson in his final hour? Is this all part of the plan- did Jesus only go along with the capture because he wanted to stand in the midst of the Sanhedrin so that he can destroy them all at a stroke?

We can’t be sure what is in Peter’s head. Maybe his hopes are all dead, and he just follows out of a flickering remnant of love and loyalty. Maybe he is curious. Maybe he thinks that he can act as a witness at the trial. Or maybe he still harbours a hope against hope that Jesus will turn it all around and emerge triumphant.

He is in the courtyard, and he can see the trial taking place. He can see Jesus, and Jesus- if he turns his head- can see Peter. But Peter doesn’t see Jesus about to reveal his glory and strike down the wicked rulers of Israel. He sees Jesus with a bag over his head, getting punched silly. If he was hoping that all his hopes would be fulfilled, then he is bitterly disappointed. All he sees is that Jesus is definitely not the Messiah he thought he was.

 

  1. Did Peter overreact to the first question of the servant girl?

Inside the High Priest’s house, there is a servant girl who thinks she recognises Peter. Jesus has been a prominent figure in Jerusalem over the last week. Lots of people have seen him in the Temple, and they will also have seen the same circle of men around him every day. Maybe this girl has been in the Temple and has seen Jesus with his followers, and thinks that she remembers Peter’s face. She looked at him- she needed to peer closely in the gloom and flickering firelight to be sure that it was him. But on inspection, she was convinced. She asks Peter whether he isn’t one of Jesus’ followers. We don’t know her tone of voice- whether she was accusing him, or was merely curious, even sympathetic. There is no direct threat in her words- and Mark hasn’t identified Peter as the man who pulled the sword on the high priest’s servant, so we are not meant to be thinking about his fear connected to that incident. There is no reason to assume that she was hostile. Jesus was popular among the people. Sure, he’s just been arrested, but everybody knows that the chief priests have it in for him. This girl could well just be asking an innocent question, ready to offer sympathy to the supporter of the unfairly treated rabbi.

Even if she is more hostile than that, asking the question with an accusatory edge to her voice and a pointed finger, there’s no immediate threat. She’s just a servant girl. If Peter is ready to lie to save his own skin, then he could have done a better job than he did. Peter could have acted casual, told her he’d come down from Galilee for the Passover, and had bumped into Jesus a few times up in the North. That would have been more believable, but Peter isn’t thinking straight. Peter’s world has fallen to pieces. He had known with utter certainty that Jesus was the Messiah. He has seen the man feed thousands of people, and walk on water, and speak with Moses and Elijah on the mountain. He has suppressed resolutely the idea that Jesus could suffer and die. But now he sees his Messiah helpless and beaten. He will feel sick to the pit of his stomach. He can’t think clearly. He doesn’t know what the outcome of the trial will be. He is no longer sure about anything. A servant girl asks him a question, and he jumps to the conclusion that she’s out to get him.

Peter denies in general terms- but this is not a sort of blustering “what a ridiculous thing to say”, as a man might give if he wanted to escape but not actually give a specific definite denial. There are not the weasel words of a politician asked whether he’d like to be party leader and giving a careful non-denial denial. Peter’s reply is more like a Sherman denial (when asked about his presidential ambitions, Sherman said, “If asked, I will not stand. If nominated, I will not campaign. If elected, I will not serve”). It is more definite than it sounds to our ears. “I neither know nor understand what you are saying” is a set form of legal denial common in Rabbinical law. You can read Jewish trial accounts, and the accuser might ask the defendant “Where is my ox?”, and the defendant will reply “I neither know nor understand what you are saying”. This should not be read as an attempt to fob the girl off without denying Jesus. There has been no formal accusation, but Peter is quick to deny what he hasn’t been accused of.

  1. As Mark gives us the account, why is Peter’s second denial worse than the first?

Peter then went out into the gateway, perhaps looking for somewhere where it was darker and where he could hope to be less conspicuous. Caiaphas’ home would be large and impressive- a fire in the centre of the courtyard might not shed much light into the doorways at the edges. The cock crows, which is the first warning for Peter. Mark wants us to remember Jesus’ prediction that Peter would fall away before Peter remembers it. We are supposed to hear the cock crow, and remember how Jesus said that Peter would fall away and how Peter was so sure that he wouldn’t. Judging by Peter’s actions, he appears not to be aware of it. But bear in mind that this is Peter’s own eyewitness account; so if Mark knows that the cock crowed, he has probably learned it from Peter. Peter had obviously clocked it- even if he was only half- aware of it. His second denial, even if in the same words as the first and no further, is more culpable.

The girl is now suspicious of Peter- perhaps his emphatic denial the first time around has aroused her suspicion. She passes close by him again, is again struck by the similarity between him and one of Jesus’ entourage, and this time she appeals to the crowd around them- “He is one of them, isn’t he? It’s not just me, is it? Haven’t you seen him with Jesus? And again, Peter denies it, perhaps in the same way as before. But his denial did him no good. The crowd were interested. They knew he was a Galilean because they could hear his Northern accent. Galileans had a distinctive sound to their speech, and Peter stood out a mile among the Judeans in the courtyard. One of the “Galilean jokes” of the day went:

A certain Galilean went around saying to people, “Who has amar? Who has amar?” They said to him, “You Galilean fool, do you mean amar for riding, amar for drinking, amar for clothing, or amar for slaughtering?” The joke being that he could have been saying the word for ass, for wine, for wool, or for lamb (hamar, hamar, amar, and immar respectively, and don’t ask me about pronunciation), but since Galileans can’t talk properly, although the fellow was desperate for whatever it was, nobody could know. It’s like our joke about the two Irish lumberjacks who saw a job vacancy advert pinned up on the wall that read, “Wanted: Tree-fellers”. Pat takes a squint at it and says to Mick, “Y’know, Mick, it’s a crying shame that there’s only the two of us. We could have gone for that job if only we had another one”.

Peter has identified himself as a Galilean simply by speaking. And while there might have been lots of Galileans in Jerusalem at Passover time, there wouldn’t have been many- if any- in the High Priest’s household. If he’s there, then isn’t he likely to have come because he had been with Jesus? And in any case, any Galilean could be expected to support Jesus at least in general terms.

 

  1. Why does Peter break down in tears?

Then comes the third accusation. Peter’s denial didn’t deter them for long- they could see that he was uncomfortable, and wouldn’t leave him alone. They confidently challenge him- surely you are one of them, you’re from Galilee- all of you guys up there support this Jesus of Nazareth, don’t you? It’s as though Aston Villa have played Man City at Eastlands, and a Villa fan who was at the game has rather stupidly gone for a quick pint on his own in a pub in the wrong part of Manchester. When the City fans at the bar ask him whether he supports Villa, his claim- in broad Brummie- that “No, I’ve never really been that interested in the football, me” will do nothing to put them off. They will take it as read that he is a Villa fan, and he’ll be a lucky man if he can walk away and suffer nothing more than insults.

Peter is now in trouble. It is not just a single servant girl asking questions, but a suspicious crowd. Peter’s nerve breaks utterly at this point, and he begins issuing fevered denials in the strongest possible terms, invoking curses on himself if he should be lying. He can’t bring himself to take Jesus’ name on his lips- his “this man of whom you speak” implies that he cares nothing for Jesus and calls to mind Jesus’ own words in 8:38.

And then things happen quickly- the cock crows again. Reports of Palestinian cockerels’ habits over a 12 year period say that they crow first at about 12:30, and again at 1:30 and again at 2:30. The watch between 12 and 3 was called “cock-crow” because that was when they crowed. It must have been about an hour since Peter’s second denial. This is the second crowing, and Jesus had predicted three denials before the cock should crow twice. Mark says that it crowed immediately- as soon as the denial had left Peter’s lips. It is a sudden jarring reminder, and Peter suddenly recognises the exact correspondence between what has just happened and what Jesus said would happen. He remembers Jesus’ words to him, telling him that before the cock crows twice, he will have denied Jesus three times, and he breaks down in tears- in front of the crowd. He knows that he has failed. He still loves Jesus, even if his hopes have been ruined.

The denial calls to mind many of Jesus’ sayings- “whoever denies me before men, I will also deny before my father in heaven” (Matthew 10:33). “Whoever is ashamed of me… indeed the son of Man will be ashamed of him” (Mark 8:38). Peter will have known those words. Denial of Jesus is a serious thing throughout the NT. Paul says “If we endure, we shall also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us” (2 Timothy 2:12). John tells us that “No one who denies the Son has the Father” (1 John 2:23). Jesus commends the church who “have kept my word and have not denied my name” (Revelation 3:8). Peter himself accuses the crowd in Jerusalem of denial- “you denied the holy and righteous one, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you” (Acts 3:14). He also speaks about false teachers who “deny the Lord who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.” (2 Pet 2:1). Peter knows how serious a thing it is to deny the Lord, even as soon as he has done it.

Maybe Peter is simply in despair at this point. He has nothing left. His Messianic hopes are gone, but so has everything he’d ever valued. His self-respect is gone. He’d taken pride in being stronger and braver and more resolute than all the others, but now he has denied Jesus, despite all the warnings, even the warnings given only to him and to nobody else.

 

  1. We know that all things work together for good for those who are called according to God’s purpose. How did this experience work for Peter’s good?

This is a turning point for Peter. The chickens come home to roost for him. He has gone for three years following Jesus on assumptions that were not exactly false, but which had a lot of falsehood mixed in with the truth. He was never expecting death and suffering and weakness to be part of the deal. He expected victory and strength. Perhaps he has never really thought of himself as weak before now. He is a natural leader. He is the first to do things- and even when he has failed, it is only because he tried to take on too much too soon.

We get an insight into the way Peter thought from some of his statements in Mark. When Jesus first predicted his death, it was Peter who was sure enough of himself to take Jesus to one side and attempt to put him straight on the matter. In the garden, when Jesus tells them all that they will fall away, Peter is sure that he is stronger than Jesus thinks and stronger than the others. Even when Jesus tells him specifically that he will certainly deny his master, Peter turns round and says “No I won’t”. Disciples did not usually contradict their rabbis, but Peter has that sort of self confidence. It isn’t that Peter was completely self-assured and had unshakeable trust in his own powers. Luke tells us that when he first met Jesus, he fell to his knees and confessed himself to be a sinful man, unworthy to be in Jesus’ presence. But there seems to have been an element in his thinking that he is the one who won’t break, the one who can be depended upon. He is used to being strong and having the answers.

But he now realises that he is weak and pathetic. He sees that he can’t be trusted, he hasn’t got the strength and courage he thought would never leave him. He’ll never think that way again. He now knows that he needs mercy and compassion and strength from Jesus.

This is the foundation of Peter’s future usefulness. Before he could be filled with the Spirit of God, he had to be emptied of himself. Before he could be strong (and he was), he had to be broken. Before he could be filled with joy unspeakable, he had to weep bitterly. We won’t have quite the same experience, but God has not stopped working to that general pattern. Luther was asked what made a great theologian, and perhaps the questioner was expecting an answer like, “Constant and unwearying study of the scriptures” or, “Grasping the distinction between law and grace”. But Luther’s answer was, “suffering”. God breaks a man before remoulding him. God won’t use the proud. What Peter comes to understand is theological gold- weighty and precious.

 

  1. Why does Mark tell this story in dribs and drabs, interwoven with Jesus’ trial?

There are actually two trials going on in the High Priest’s house. Mark is contrasting Jesus’ trial before the court of the Sanhedrin with Peter’s trial before the crowd in the courtyard. There was a reference to Peter following Jesus in v 53, and now Mark comes back to that thread of the story. He is interweaving the accounts of Peter and Jesus, using a technique by now familiar to his readers, to underline the way that these stories fit together. He did the same thing in chapter 3:14-35, flicking between the disciples, Jesus’ family, and the scribes. He did it in 5:21-43, with Jairus’ daughter and the bleeding woman. Again, the same technique in 6:7-30, with the disciples, then Herod, then the disciples again. And very clearly in 11:12-21 with the fig tree and the Temple, using each story to interpret the other. These two accounts of two very different trials are contrasting examples of how to react under fire. Jesus is brave and faithful. Peter cracks and betrays.

The passage has already been contrasting Jesus and Peter. Jesus has been tested three times in prayer, and has come through his trial faithful and ready to face the trial by men. Peter slept three times while Jesus prayed (and even though they all slept, it is Peter who is singled out by Jesus as the sleeper in v37). Peter will now deny him three times, failing his trial before men.

Jesus faces a very formal trial, but one where none of the evidence adds up and the witnesses disagree. Peter faces a very informal real trial, but the evidence mounts up and is compelling, and all the witnesses- even his own accent- are saying the same thing. Jesus faces the most powerful Jewish rulers in Israel and remains calm and in control. Peter faces a servant girl and reacts with fear and panic. Jesus faces formal charges and refuses to deny them, though they are obviously false. Peter faces no formal accusation, but he denies it vehemently, even though it is obviously true. Jesus is mocked and commanded to prophesy, but even while the Sanhedrin mock him, he is shown to be a true prophet by the poultry in the courtyard.

Throughout Mark’s Gospel, the readers have been supposed to watch the disciples, and especially Peter, grow in their understanding of who Jesus is. They have seen the disciples come to the point where they know that Jesus is the Messiah, and they have seen them fail to understand Jesus’ repeated references after that point to his impending death. The readers are supposed to learn from the short-sightedness of the Twelve. Here, we are supposed to see Peter broken, and learn to see the world the way he sees it now, not the way he saw it before. We are also supposed to see Jesus, accepting injustice and hardship for the sake of his people.

Peter despaired of himself, and found hope in Jesus and his promises. We should learn that that is exactly what we need too. We need to learn not to trust ourselves, but more than that, we need to look to Jesus as the one who alone can be trusted.

Judas and Peter both sin. What, if any, is the difference between apostasy and backsliding? God’s sovereign working? Scripture answers it on another level. Peter wept bitterly, and turned to Jesus for forgiveness. Judas had only regret, and no hope. Both men despaired- but Peter despaired of himself, and found hope in Jesus and his promises. Judas despaired of himself, and of God and of grace. Ps 130:3-5. When we sin like Peter, we need to repent like Peter too.

Mark 14:42-65. Like a lamb to the slaughter.

June 14, 2018

And he came the third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? It is enough; the hour has come. The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.” 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. 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.” 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.

And they led Jesus to the high priest. And all the chief priests and the elders and the scribes came together. And Peter had followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest. And he was sitting with the guards and warming himself at the fire. Now the chief priests and the whole Council were seeking testimony against Jesus to put him to death, but they found none. For many bore false witness against him, but their testimony did not agree. And some stood up and bore false witness against him, saying, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’” Yet even about this their testimony did not agree. And the high priest stood up in the midst and asked Jesus, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?” But he remained silent and made no answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” And the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further witnesses do we need? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death. And some began to spit on him and to cover his face and to strike him, saying to him, “Prophesy!” And the guards received him with blows.”

Jesus has eaten his last Passover with his disciples, and they have slipped out of the city to the garden of Gethsemane. Judas has already agreed to betray him to the chief priests, and has gone out at some point during the meal to give him away. Jesus has warned the others that the sword of God’s anger will fall on him, and that they will all fall away. Peter has been sure that this won’t happen- that he will never desert Jesus. But we saw straight away that Peter doesn’t share in Jesus’ sorrow; when Jesus weeps, he weeps alone. Then the time is over- Judas and the soldiers are coming.

  1. The description of the disciples as “the Twelve”, and especially of Judas as “one of the Twelve”, is repeated in this chapter (14:10, 17, 21, 43). Why does Mark do this?
  2. Judas needs to identify Jesus to the soldiers in one way or another. Why is a kiss peculiarly appropriate?

  3. Jesus doesn’t resist arrest, saying “let the scriptures be fulfilled”. Which scriptures?

  4. Why do the disciples wait until Jesus’ statement before they flee? And why does Mark tell us about the young man who ran away naked? Is it an irrelevant detail, just there for a bit of colour?

  5. When Jesus is brought to trial, the thrust of the first accusation against him concerns the Temple. Why should that be a big deal to either the accusers or to Jesus?

  6. The second accusation is more obviously central; the high priest asks Jesus whether he is or is not the Messiah. What is Jesus’ answer?

 

  1. The description of the disciples as “the Twelve”, and especially of Judas as “one of the Twelve”, is repeated in this chapter (14:10, 17, 21, 43). Why does Mark do this?

Mark is describing a betrayal, and he wants us to see how sharp a betrayal it is. Judas was one of the Twelve- a number Mark uses as shorthand for the group of Jesus’ closest disciples. These twelve men had been hand-picked by Jesus to follow him. There were twelve of them because there were twelve tribes of Israel and they were the true Israel in embryo, the leaders of the new people of God. They joined with Jesus in his labours and were sent out to bear witness to him throughout the land. They were with him wherever he went. They listened to all his public teaching, and often had private sessions afterwards so that Jesus could explain things to them in more depth. They watched him and learned how he handled people, how he prayed, even how he ate and slept. They were closer to him than his mother and brothers. They were the apostles, the chosen and carefully trained men who acted as personal representatives of Jesus. Eleven of them would be the men who would lead the first church.

But now it is the twelfth of them who leads this group of Jesus’ assorted enemies to him. One of those men, the ones chosen to be the real Israel, the true people of God, Jesus’ family; one of them tries to destroy him.

 

  1. Judas needs to identify Jesus to the soldiers in one way or another. Why is a kiss peculiarly appropriate?

It is driven by practical concerns. The soldiers- probably the Temple police, who were Levites, under the command of the High Priest by Roman permission- may well have seen Jesus in the Temple, but are unlikely to know him well. In the darkness and flickering torchlight, Judas needs to mark Jesus out as the target for arrest. If the enemies simply burst in and try to grab everybody, there would be confusion. Swords and clubs would be waving (Judas knows that some of the disciples are carrying steel), and men shouting and running around. It would be hard for soldiers to identify anybody, even to tell friend from foe. It would be easy for one man to melt away into the hillside and escape. The attackers have no way of knowing that Jesus wouldn’t do that; and if he does do it, their assault would be in vain. In the circumstances, taking hold of Jesus to kiss him is a clever tactic. It disarms any suspicions the disciples might have; here is a band of armed men! But look! Judas is out in front of them and coming to embrace Jesus. They must be friends! It identifies Jesus to the men of Judas’ party. And the embrace will effectively immobilise Jesus, preventing him from escaping.

But more than those things, this is part of the sharpness of the betrayal. Judas walks up to Jesus and says, “Rabbi”, “My teacher”, and kisses him. The kiss which is meant to be a mark of love and respect is used to mark Jesus out as the target. Even at the moment of treachery, Judas is outwardly professing love for Jesus.

  1. Jesus doesn’t resist arrest, saying “let the scriptures be fulfilled”. Which scriptures?

Jesus tells the mob that he has no intention of fighting, and never would have fought arrest, even if they had come by daylight in the Temple. But they come for him in this way because it was foretold that he would be taken by treachery. His comment stresses the incongruity and underhandedness of it all. They come armed to the teeth, and in darkness, to arrest one who they could have taken in the Temple in broad daylight at any point if their arrest had been justified. Jesus has not been hiding from them like a criminal. He has been going around openly in Jerusalem as a law-abiding citizen, going into the Temple and teaching under their noses. But now that the dishonest arrest is taking place, he will not resist. He will let the Scriptures be fulfilled.

Jesus is not surprised to see Judas coming. We know from the other Gospels that he knew the identity of his betrayer (Matt 26:25; Jn 13:27). And Jesus knew the scriptures.

Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted up his heel against me” (Ps. 41:9). It was straight from the Passover meal where Jesus broke bread and shared it with the twelve, that Judas went to the priests to tell them where they could find the one they hated.

For it is not an enemy who taunts me- then I could bear it; it is not an adversary who deals insolently with me- then I could hide from him. But it is you, a man, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend. We used to take sweet counsel together; within god’s house we walked in the throng… My companion stretched out his hand against his friends; he violated his covenant. His speech was smooth as butter, yet war was in his heart; his words were softer than oil, yet they were drawn swords” (Ps. 55:12-14, 20-21).

Psalms 41 and 55 are both psalms of David, psalms about, or to be sung by, the king of Israel, the anointed of God. Jesus knew them well, and knew that they would find their fullest expression in him.

Everything that happened in the garden, and then in the trial, and then on the cross, took place as the working out of God’s great design. David was betrayed by Ahithophel and others, but David was just a pattern. The armed men following Judas were God’s instruments brought there by God. Jesus could have avoided arrest- he has walked through crowds before. He could have called down legions of angels to defend him. But the scriptures must be fulfilled. So instead, he submitted willingly to the arrest, knowing that he would soon offer up his life, the creator being taken by mere creatures, in obedience to his Father and to save those he loved.

  1. Why do the disciples wait until Jesus’ statement before they flee? And why does Mark tell us about the young man who ran away naked? Is it an irrelevant detail, just there for a bit of colour?

It is at Jesus’ words that the disciples flee. They have been determined to stand by him, even to death, and they were ready to do that. Jesus himself offered no resistance to the soldiers, but one of those standing there did. An unnamed man (John tells us that it was Peter, but Mark doesn’t mention his name) drew his sword and aimed a blow at one of the arresting party. Yet Jesus himself refused to fight. He is not going to kick and scream. He has decided to lay down his life, and he shall take it up again. A willing sacrifice does not need to be hunted to death. His defence is left to someone else- someone who doesn’t understand Jesus’ willingness to die. The disciples have been expecting Jesus to lead a rebellion- they go about armed, and one of them now shows that he is willing to die for Jesus, fighting against stupid odds. The priests were expecting trouble- this is why they couldn’t arrest Jesus publicly- the crowds would have rioted. They know that Jesus is with only a few men, but they would have sent enough soldiers to subdue those few. It would have been a large-enough group of well armed police against eleven men who had never killed anyone in their lives. The man who strikes out with his sword is willing to die for the Messiah. But Jesus has no intention of fighting and every intention of being arrested and eventually laying down his life. When that became obvious, the disciples’ nerves broke. Jesus has warned them repeatedly that his enemies would take him, that he would be handed over, that he would die, that the shepherd would be struck down. But they still are taken by surprise when it happens. They seem still to have been expecting him to defeat all his enemies and reign in glory. They would be willing to fight by his side against even insurmountable odds, but they are not willing to stand by his side and be meekly arrested with him, going to trial and death without making any complaint. When the crunch comes, they are not ready to take up their crosses and follow Jesus.

The young man is likely Mark himself, appearing in his own work as a film director might cast himself in a cameo role. We know that his family owned a large house in Jerusalem, used for church meetings in Acts. Maybe Mark has heard something of the goings on in the upper room, and has followed Jesus and the others when they left the house, grabbing the nearest item of clothing handy. The point, perhaps, is that he doesn’t want his readers sneering at the disciples for cowardice. He ran too, and so would any of us.

  1. When Jesus is brought to trial, the thrust of the first accusation against him concerns the Temple. Why should that be a big deal to either the accusers or to Jesus?

Jesus is led off to the High Priest’s house, where the chief priests, elders, and scribes, have come together. These men formed the Sanhedrin, the whole council (v55). They have convened to try Jesus. This is quick movement on their part. Ancient Jewish sources say that the Sanhedrin quorum was 23 members, so messengers have likely been sent out within minutes of Judas reporting to the High Priest.

This may or may not be an official formal trial, but it is all the trial Jesus will have from the Jewish authorities. and it is a travesty, in no sense a fair trial. Mark tells us that far from being gathered to weigh evidence and determine the truth of accusations, they have been “seeking testimony against Jesus, to put him to death” They are not interested in justice, but only in arriving at a “guilty” verdict. And that verdict is the one that matters. Having condemned Jesus in v64, the Sanhedrin will hold a further brief consultation at first light (15:1), and will then force Pilate’s hand and have Jesus put to death.

This trial is irregular in many ways, and is even in breach of many of the Jewish laws. According to the Mishnah (tractate “Sanhedrin”), capital trials must take place by day, must not reach a verdict in a single day, must take place in a courtroom, and must begin with the ase for the defence. While those laws may not have been in force in Jesus’ day, there were other laws which had been in place since Moses. To condemn a man, there must be at least 2 witnesses whose testimony agrees (Num 35:30; Deut 17:6; 19:15). The high priest knows how thin the case is when he grasps desperately at straws and tries to make Jesus answer the accusations in v60f.

The first accusation brought against Jesus is that he said he would destroy the Temple. Jesus has actually said, “Destroy this Temple, and in three days, I will raise it up” (John records the words in John 2:19), but that is a promise to rebuild a temple, not to destroy one. Jesus has also taught publicly against the Temple, calling it a den of robbers. And Jesus has told his own disciples that the Temple will be destroyed (Mark 13:1-2) But the false witnesses are misquoting him, misunderstanding him, and contradicting each other. This is nothing new- it happened to Jeremiah. When he warned that the Temple would be destroyed, he was accused of speaking against it, and there were those who would have killed him (Jer 26:1-19).

The accusers use emotive language. “Made with hands” is Isaianic language referring to idols (Isa 2:8; 17:8; 31:7), and “not made with hands” evokes Daniel’s prophecy (Dan 2:45) and the kingdom of God that destroys the kingdoms of men. So they are accusing Jesus of implying that the Temple is a pagan idol, and that he is going to destroy it as he brings in the righteous Kingdom of God. As we have said before, the Temple is the centre of their religion. Tearing down the Temple would destroy everything they stand for.

John comments on Jesus’ words in Jn 2, saying that he was talking about his own body as the true temple, the dwelling-place of God. Mark’s readers will understand that while the Sanhedrin is up in arms in defence of their Temple building, which Jesus has condemned, they are actually seeking to tear down the true Temple, destroying Jesus himself. Jesus himself supersedes the temple. Before, Jews would go up to Jerusalem to meet with God- although they should have known that God was not bound to Jerusalem- for God had gone with them in the wilderness, resting on the tabernacle, before ever the temple was built. But now Jesus has come, it is his body that is the temple. God dwells in Jesus.

There is also a comparison to be made between Jesus behaviour before he condemned the Temple and their behaviour at this trial. Jesus actually went to the trouble of inspecting the Temple, to see if there was any fruit there. They have pre-judged Jesus’ case without hearing any evidence.

  1. The second accusation is more obviously central; the high priest asks Jesus whether he is or is not the Messiah. What is Jesus’ answer?

The High Priest gets to the point, asking Jesus a yes or no question: “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” Those two titles he uses denote the same thing. “The Christ” means “the anointed one”- a Greek word equivalent to the Hebrew, “Messiah”. “The Blessed” is a reverent circumlocution for God, used by pious Jews wary of misusing God’s name. “Son of the Blessed”, however, does not necessarily imply deity. Davidic kings like Solomon can be called sons of God. What the High Priest is asking is, “Are you the Messiah, the promised anointed King?”. This is the question underlying the whole Gospel.

The High Priest is trying to make Jesus condemn himself, to get him to either deny that he is the Messiah (in which case such a denial could quickly be made public), or to affirm it (in which case, he can be handed over to the Romans as a rebel against Caesar).

Jesus confesses that he is the “Son of Man”. He has used this title of himself before, frequently and openly (Mark 2:10, 28; 8:31, 38; 9:9, 12, 31; 10:33, 45; 13:26; 14:21, 41). There is a degree of ambiguity in the title itself, and we have previously gone through the OT background and seen it used to mean mere men, Adamic kings and image-bearers of God, the Davidic Messiah, and the mighty figure of Daniel 7. Here though, on the final occasion Jesus wil use the title in Mark, he makes it clear that it is Daniel 7:13 behind his usage. He speaks of the “Son of Man seated at the right hand of power, and coming with the clouds of heaven”. The clouds of heaven are a feature of Daniel’s vision, and the sitting at the right hand of power calls to mind Psalm 110:1. Jesus, whom the Sanhedrin presumed to judge, is actually the judge of all the earth. The Sanhedrin cannot entertain this claim. How could this battered, tired, man standing before them powerless, possibly be the great king, the glorious Messiah, the one to deliver Israel? The High Priest tore his robes in “shock”- not the special high priestly garments, which Josephus says were kept by the Roman governor, and only given back for the great feasts- and called for the death penalty. The charge now is one of blasphemy; not because they think Jesus has made a claim to be God, but because they consider his claim to be the Messiah to bring such dishonour on God’s name that it qualifies as blasphemous. How could this shabby prisoner be the glorious figure of Daniel’s vision? The whole court agrees- such a claim is blasphemous, and the blasphemer must die (Lev 24:15-16).

Then the Sanhedrin show their true colours. Spitting is a ritualised gesture meant to demonstrate disavowal of the disobedient or unclean (Job 30:10; Num 12:14; Deut 25:9; Isa 50:6), but it is also humiliating and unpleasant. They blindfold Jesus and hit him, while mocking- you’re a prophet aren’t you? Then who hit you? This perhaps reflects a Jewish interpretation of Isa 11:2-4; Isaiah speaks of the Messiah, the new beginning of David’s line, and says he will judge not by what he sees or hears. Some Jewish interpreters thought that he must therefore be able to judge by sense of smell alone. But these blows are not just a supposed test of Messianic ability- they are meant to hurt. These men are meant to be respectable responsible rulers of God’s people. But faced with the true king, they become a degenerate rabble. The light reveals the hidden depths of the darkness. And Jesus responded meekly, as should his followers.

Mark 14:27-42. The sword and the cup.

June 2, 2017

“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.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” 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 cock 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.

And they went to a place called Gethsemane. And he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. And he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch.” And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” And he came and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour?  Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy, and they did not know what to answer him. And he came the third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? It is enough; the hour has come. The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.”

 

Jesus has eaten a final Passover with his disciples- the last Passover. He has enjoyed family fellowship with them, remembering God’s great deliverance of Israel out of Egypt, and eating again the sacrificial lamb by which they were redeemed. And Jesus has made it explicit that this Passover is a picture of the greater redemption which God will perform. He has spoken of a new covenant, sealed not by the blood of lambs, but by his blood. And he has then gone out with the disciples, leaving the final cup un-drunk until such time as the final Passover sacrifice- the real Passover sacrifice, his own suffering and death- will be made and his work will be finished. After that, he will drink the final cup with his people, when it is time to feast. Judas has agreed to betray him to the chief priests, and has already gone out at some point during the meal to give him away. Jesus knows that he has not got much time left now, and he goes to pray quietly.

 

  1. Jesus tells the disciples that they will all fall away. What will cause them to desert him?
  2. Peter is sure that he will never run away. He says he’ll die with Jesus rather than deny him. Why is he so sure?
  3. Jesus is looking for victory, but not in the same way as the disciples. How is Jesus looking for victory?
  4. In Gethsemane, Jesus is greatly distressed. What is it that distresses him? How do we see the depth of his distress?
  5. How is Jesus thinking about his Father at this time? What can we learn from him?

 

 

  1. Jesus tells the disciples that they will all fall away. What will cause them to desert him?

The word Jesus uses is a strong one. Jesus tells the disciples that they will be “scandalised”; that they will all desert him in horror and shame. Jesus knows this because he knows the scriptures, and the particular scripture he quotes is about God striking “the shepherd”. This is the event that will cause the disciples to run from Jesus, who has been their shepherd these last few years. When the sheep see their shepherd struck down, they all run in terror. Sheep don’t seek to defend their shepherd- they are helpless, and the shepherd is their defender. When the disciples see Jesus arrested and submitting to arrest, they will run and hide.

But this is worse than the shepherd simply being struck down. If the disciples were to see Jesus fall in a fight, taking on the corrupt Jewish rulers and the Roman invaders, then that might well break them- after all, they’ve pinned all their hopes on Jesus as God’s Messiah, and God’s Messiah can’t lose, can he? If they saw Jesus struck down by evil men in battle, then their hopes would be broken, and the would be left numb and cold. But what Jesus is talking about here is worse even than that. This isn’t the shepherd, battling with wolves and lions, and being overpowered. The real scandal here is to do with how the shepherd is struck, and who it is who does the striking. Jesus quotes Zechariah 13:7- “I will strike…” -it is God himself who will strike the shepherd.

It is worth our while reading Zechariah 12:1-14:5. Jesus quotes from the passage, so it has evidently been on his mind as he meditates on his coming death. Zechariah is basic background reading for the account of Jesus’ death. Zechariah predicts a day when there will be great turmoil in Jerusalem- when the nations will gather against her, and God shall overthrow them. They will find that assaulting Jerusalem is suicidal. Jerusalem is like a heavy stone- they will struggle to lift it, but will only give themselves a hernia. And on that day, God’s Spirit will be poured out on Jerusalem. The people will cry to God for mercy, and they will look on one whom they had pierced, and will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child. And on that day, God will open up a fountain to cleanse his people from wickedness. God will provide a new cleansing from sin, and will wash out idolatry and false prophets from the land. And linked to all this is a blow from God which is directed upon God’s shepherd who stands at his right hand. The shepherd will be struck down, and the sheep will run- but this will be all for the good of the flock. It will be part of a process to purify them, and to create a new people of God who will all know him as God.

The sword in Zechariah- the sword that will strike the shepherd will be God’s sword, the sword of wrath, the sword that threatened sinners at the gates of Eden. It is the sword of justice, the sword of outraged holiness. This sword will fall on the shepherd and pierce him. The shepherd will die, and it will looks like defeat, but it will result in victory and salvation.

Jesus knew himself to be the shepherd, and he knew that he would be smitten by God. And he knew that when the disciples saw it- saw him go meekly into the custody of those who would put him to death, saw him crucified, hung on a tree under God’s curse- they would scatter.

 

 

  1. Peter is sure that he will never run away. He says “emphatically” he’ll die with Jesus rather than deny him. Why is he so sure?

The disciples don’t understand what Jesus is talking about. They have followed Jesus to Jerusalem, expecting him to take up his throne and rule over God’s people as Messiah. And they have seen occasions when, humanly speaking, that could very easily have happened. If Jesus had made a bid for power when he first entered the city, riding on a donkey, what then? The whole city was behind him. They could have overthrown the Roman garrison and taken control of the city. The chief priests would have been furious, but powerless to stop it. Jesus could have reigned as King in Jerusalem. The Romans would have sent the legions to crush the rebellion, but that wouldn’t have happened immediately (and in any case, the disciples have seen Jesus calm storms and command demons. A Roman army wouldn’t have given him any problems). The disciples have long expected a battle which would be easily won.

Since the entry into Jerusalem, maybe the disciples’ expectations have changed a little. They have seen Jesus spend a week in Jerusalem, largely in the Temple, and have seen him humiliate the priests and rulers and religious authorities. But although he has established his authority to govern the Temple, he hasn’t tried to take power in the way that the disciples expected. There has been no call to arms for Israel, no summons or proclamation, no descent of an angelic army. And maybe now they are wondering whether the moment has passed. They have just eaten a secret meal with him, which they know he has arranged so as to be out of reach of the authorities. He has graphically portrayed to them the fate of his body. Now it is night, and they are sneaking furtively through an olive grove on the Mount of Olives. Jesus will soon tell them to keep watch, as though he is expecting a sudden assault from his enemies. It is very different from the triumphant entrance into Jerusalem. If they understand anything at all, they will be aware that something has “gone wrong”, and that they are now on the run.

And in v31, it seems that the something of that truth is dawning on Peter. He claims that if it comes to it, he would die with Jesus rather than deny him. Peter is saying, “OK, even if it does all end in death, I don’t care. I still won’t run away. I’ll stick with you and die with you.” And they all say the same. They understand now that this might not end in glory, with a kingdom and crowns for them all.

But they still don’t understand exactly what Jesus has said. It is as though they have heard him say that they will all be scattered, and have been so taken up with the implied slur on their loyalty that they don’t think about the first word of the quotation. They have recognised that they might all die, but the death they expect is still a glorious death. Peter is thinking of dying at Jesus’ side in some sort of a gallant last stand. He expects to die fighting, to go out in a blaze of glory. If you’ve ever seen the film, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, maybe that’s the kind of ending Peter expects. Butch and Sundance have gone on a bank-robbing spree, and end up on the run in Mexico. The pair of them get pinned down in a little hut by a bunch of policemen, and the two sides exchange pot-shots until the outlaws run out of ammo. They get wounded in a desperate foray out of the hut to get more bullets from a pack on a mule outside, but manage to retreat to the hut, where they bind up their wounds and reload their guns ready for a final bid to shoot their way to freedom. But while they’re sitting in the hut, and unknown to them, the Mexican army arrives. Hundreds of soldiers line every available rooftop, just waiting for the two men to emerge from shelter. Butch and Sundance don’t stand a chance. They come out shooting, and they collapse under a hail of bullets. Peter seems to expect to go out like that. He has a sword strapped on under his clothes, ready for action when Jesus’ enemies to come and strike the shepherd with their swords. Peter expects to be outnumbered and expects to lose, but he is sure he won’t flee. “You can count on me, Jesus. This lot might run away, but not me! Even if you die, I’ll die with you”.

Peter seems to be a very direct man- transparently so. There is something attractive about that. He has no guile. What you see is what you get. But here he contradicts Jesus and Zechariah. His gut reaction is that he won’t ever desert Jesus. He knows he loves Jesus. Jesus is his closest friend, the one he trusts more than anyone else. If Jesus tells Peter to jump out of the boat and come to him, then Peter jumps out and trusts that it will only be the soles of his feet that get wet (Matt 14:28-29) If Jesus told him to jump off a cliff, he’d do it. And when Jesus says that all the disciples will run away, and quotes Scripture to show that this has been foretold by the prophets, Peter is convinced that he won’t run, and he says so. He contrasts himself with the other disciples- “Even if these guys turn chicken, I won’t.” He is so self confident, and sure that he’s stronger than the others are. They might let Jesus down, but Jesus can bank on his support right to the end.

Peter is obviously insulted. He thinks that he is a fine dependable man- Jesus himself has called him Peter- “the rock”, hasn’t he? Well, Jesus has obviously forgotten what a fine man Peter is. He isn’t weak or cowardly. He has faced death before. He is used to leading men- and now he has been an apostle of Jesus for three years, and he isn’t likely to give up just because of a bit of opposition. He felt that he has laid it all on the line for Jesus already. We remember his words a little earlier, back in Ch 10. When Jesus told the rich young man to sell all he had, give the money to the poor, and follow him, Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” And so now Peter hears Jesus’ words and he is stung. He looks back at Jesus, and says, believing every word, “Even if I have to die with you, I will not deny you.”

And the other ten all say “Amen to that.” They don’t think that they’ll be running away either. Jesus speaks of himself dying, and them all being scattered, but they speak of a shared destiny, all sticking together under their shepherd.

How wrong they were. They might have meant what they said, but they were not ready to see God to strike their shepherd. They were not ready to see Jesus willingly wait to receive the blow in obedience. That will scandalise them, and they will desert Jesus and deny him.

Jesus prepares Peter for what is coming as far as is possible. He cuts Peter down to size. He predicts, in front of the others- for Peter has boasted in front of the others- that Peter would deny him three times that very night. Then- another “three”- Jesus tells the disciples to watch while he goes to pray alone, but he returns to them three times and finds them asleep on each occasion, underlining the constancy of their faithlessness. The first time round though, it is Peter whom Jesus singles out for special attention, rebuking him by name and using the non-rock name name, “Simon”, rather than “Peter”. Peter will flee, and he will flee not after a great battle, or after a long period alone without fellowship, facing hardship and danger, weary and tired. He will flee that very night. He has enjoyed a meal with his master and the other eleven, and then they all go out together into the night, singing “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, his steadfast love endures forever.” And that very evening, Peter will deny Jesus three times. It would have been fatal for Jesus to have thanked Peter for his loyalty- it would have made the fall much worse when it came.

 

 

  1. Jesus is looking for victory, but not in the same way as the disciples. How is Jesus looking for victory?

We know that within an hour or two, all the conviction and determination of the disciples had vanished away like the dew in the morning. When the soldiers came, and Jesus didn’t resist them, the disciples all fled, just as Jesus had said they would, which prediction they had all dismissed. The thing that shatters them, I think, is Jesus’ willingness to die. They believe that Messiah will have an eternal kingdom. He will be the conqueror of every enemy, even including death, and therefore he can’t die. They just don’t see how Jesus can possibly accept death in the way that he will shortly do. They haven’t understood that to defeat death, Jesus must first come face-to-face with it. To break the power of the curse, Jesus must take the curse upon himself.

And also in part, they didn’t know themselves. They didn’t know their own capacity for cowardice. How little any of us know how we will behave in any given situation until we’re there.

But Jesus deals tenderly with them. He isn’t angry with them. He promises to restore them all. He knew that they would all desert him, but he still has taught them, broken bread with them, sung with them. They are weak, and so full of ugly sins- pride, thoughtlessness, ignorance.

But there is hope for them. They will be forgiven and restored- precisely because Jesus will die and will rise again. Jesus says that he will go before them to Galilee after he has been raised up. He knows that God will strike him down, and he looks with fear and dread to that blow, but he knows also that God will raise him up. He looks beyond the cross to the resurrection, to the time when God’s sword will have been satisfied, and when every enemy will be put under his feet, to the time when sin and death are broken, and he has been vindicated.

The resurrection will clear all the mystery away. It will be like the morning, chasing away the cold and the darkness and bringing light and warmth.

Presumption is dangerous. Raw recruits are rarely presumptuous, and the instructor uses that to good effect, telling them not to take risks. Neither should Christians. Follow Jesus in everything. We are just like them. They had had warnings about what was going to happen, but they didn’t pay attention. And they thought that they could cope with whatever lay ahead anyway.

We are all facing a future in which we are going to meet many temptations, coldness of heart, the roots of bitterness going down into our souls, selfishness and self-pity welling up within us. We face a future in which we will all give account to God of how we have spent the time he has given us, and how we have behaved. We will face the last great trial of all when all of us die, and after death there is the divine judgement and our destiny spent in heaven or in hell. These are the facts about the future of every one of us. I am telling you what God says about your future, and that you have to be ready for all these things.

There is hope. Jesus has defeated death. He has risen, to gather a people around himself. There is forgiveness with him. Don’t think that whatever happens, you can deal with it. That is arrogance. Jesus Christ alone can help. You ask him that he will forgive you for your sins, and that he will give you the Holy Spirit to help you to stand and to follow him.

 

 

  1. In Gethsemane, Jesus is greatly distressed. What is it that distresses him? How do we see that depth of his distress?

Gethsemane is an olive garden on the Mount of Olives- the name is Hebrew, meaning, “Olive press”. Jesus intends to pray, and takes three closest companions with him in his hour of pain and grief. These three have seen Jesus raise the dead, witnessed the transfiguration, and all three have boasted of their ability to share his sufferings (10:35-40; 14:29ff). And now they see Jesus overwhelmed with sorrow. What is it that distresses Jesus? And do these three share in his sorrows?

Jesus, Mark says, is, “greatly distressed and troubled”, and,  “sorrowful even to death”. He is in turmoil, and genuinely feels that the pain might kill him. His affliction is so great that it begins to affect him physically, and we can see him fall to the ground, collapsing underneath his troubles (cf. Ps 42). So what is it that has put him in this state? He is aware that the time has come for him to die, but is that really enough to explain what we see in these verses? Jesus has known for some time that he is going to die. He has spoken of his death to his disciples several times without showing this amount of distress at the prospect. The fact that death is nearly upon him might make some difference. You can hear about an exam which is going to happen in a year’s time, and it doesn’t seem like that big a deal; but when the year has passed, and the exam is tomorrow morning, it is panic time. But even so, it is not simply death, even painful death, that Jesus fears.

The clue to what he fears is in Jesus’ actual words. See what he says, see the imagery he uses. He talks of being overwhelmed to the point of death, and he prays about a cup which he has in his hand, as it were.  Why does Jesus speaks of the cup, and ask that it may be taken from him?

Jesus has used cup imagery before. When James and John were putting themselves forward for pole positions in his coming kingdom, back in chapter 10, Jesus asked them whether they were able to drink the cup he would drink. They couldn’t see any problem with that at all, but their lack of fear only showed their lack of understanding.

Jesus naturally and instinctively uses Old Testament imagery to describe his fears. The cup of wine is found in Psalms 60:3; 75:8; Isaiah 51:17-23; Jeremiah 25:15-28; 49:12; 51:7; Lamentations 4:21-22; Ezekiel 23:31-34; Habbakuk 2:16; Zechariah 12:2 (it is also helpful to see the NT use of the picture in Rev 14:10, 16:19). The idea of the cup is that it is something which men or nations receive from God, and drink, and it makes them stagger. It is placed into their hands as a divine judgement, and when they drink it, they behave as though drunk; they become helpless and fall down and cannot get up. The cup is a metaphor for total ruin, willed and brought about by God. The cup is a cup of holy wrath. The man who drinks the cup is the man who suffers God’s anger and retribution. God puts the cup into his hands and makes him drink. Perhaps especially relevant to Mark 14 is Jeremiah 25, where the sword and the cup go together, both to describe the anger God will display against the nations. The cup of the wine of God’s fury is forced into the hands of the kings of the nations, and they drink, and the sword then pierces them.

This is what Jesus dreads- it is tasting the Father’s displeasure. This is the horror of a perfect man, a man who lived in perfect communion with God from his earliest days. He has never known what it feels like to be cut off from God by sin. He has never felt guilty, never wanted to run from God and hide because of things he had done. He has always been in perfect unclouded fellowship with his Father. We know only too well how it feels to avoid praying because we know that praying would mean repenting of particular sins we have done. Jesus, though he had to fight against weariness and all the other things we struggle with, has not felt the weight of sin. But he will, and he dreads it like nothing else. He knows that it is God’s sword that will fall on him, and he knows that it is the cup of God’s wrath which is before him.

We see him pray that the hour might pass, if possible. We need to take the “if possible” seriously. Jesus, before now, has known that this was not possible. He had, right at the start of Mark’s Gospel, determined to bear the weight of the curse, and gone into the wilderness to taste of it. And he had spoken of his death, and set his face toward Jerusalem with a resolve that amazed his disciples and made them afraid (10:32). He has been completely sure that the Son of Man must go to Jerusalem and die there. But now as the hour draws near, he is no longer certain. All the certainties are gone. He is in anguish, searching for a hope that he thinks might just have eluded him.

Satan is in this garden, just as he was in Eden and just as he was in the wilderness with Jesus. He is tempting Jesus to refuse the cup given him by God. He is saying “You don’t have to do this”. And there is a proper and right abhorrence and fear of this cup. It isn’t easy. But there is no other way.

 

 

  1. How is Jesus thinking about his Father at this time? What can we learn from him?

It is often assumed that Jesus went to Gethsemane seeking the sympathy and support of the closest disciples. But this seems unlikely. The disciples have consistently failed to understand why Jesus must die. Jesus has foreseen that they will all forsake him. And it is to God he turns, not them. He prays to “Abba”; the word he uses for “Father” is tender and intimate. He prays submissively. Although everything in him longs to escape the darkness ahead, he will willingly accept it if it be his Father’s will. In the end, his trust in his Father wins through. He hates the thought of being struck down by his Father, and he is in darkness of soul because of it, but he still prays “Yet not what I will”.

Compare Jesus here to Job. Job is stripped of everything, and thrown into similar turmoil. He is sure that he is a righteous man, but sure also that the tragedies which have befallen him are from God’s hand, and he cannot reconcile the two. It is an act of faith for Job to shout at God and demand justice, rather than to curse him and turn away from him. But Jesus has all Job’s faith and none of his folly. He still looks to his Father as “Abba”, and he still, in the end, submits to his will, sure that what his Father wants is better and wiser than any of his own desires.

Our own distresses are petty by comparison, but we still need to learn the same trust and submission to the Father. We may not be able to see why he is doing a particular thing or dealing with us in a particular way, but when we don’t understand, we need to trust.

Notice also that Jesus prays, then returns to the disciples, then prays again, then returns, then prays a third time, before rejoining the disciples finally. Mark tells us that he prayed, “saying the same words” (v39). Maybe we shy from repetition in prayer because we rightly want to take Jesus’ own admonition to heart, and avoid heaping up empty words (Matt 6:7). But if you mean the words, then they are not empty. Jesus, in great distress, has wrestled in prayer, trying to put his desires into words, desperate for God to grant him what he asks. Then eventually, his praying comes to an end, and he stands up and goes back to the disciples. But once there, he is seized again with the need to pray. He can’t find anything new to say, nothing he hasn’t already prayed for, but he simply repeats his desire that the cup might pass from him if at all possible. Just as we do, Jesus had to fight the same battle over and over. He defeats it, but the temptation floods back, and he has to regain the same ground.

Jesus’ humanity and holiness shine through. He remains faithful when overwhelmed with sorrow, and when nobody stands with him. He is the only saviour. He took upon himself our forsakenness so that we might be accepted as he is. He is the saviour we need.

Mark 14:12-26. An unfinished meal.

October 12, 2015

“And on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb, his disciples said to him, “Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?” And he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says, Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ And he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready; there prepare for us.” And the disciples set out and went to the city and found it just as he had told them, and they prepared the Passover.

And when it was evening, he came with the twelve. And as they were reclining at table and eating, Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” They began to be sorrowful and to say to him one after another, “Is it I?” He said to them, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the dish with me. For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.”

And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.”

 

When most of us eat meat, it is all fairly clinical- we pick up a shrink-wrapped joint from the chiller cabinet at the supermarket, take it home, unwrap it, and pop it in the oven- no mess, no fuss, no blood, no screaming animals, no slit throats. It is easy for us to forget that eating meat involves death.

At Passover time, the Israelites performed a ritual remembrance of how they were delivered from bondage in Egypt. You can read about the first Passover in Exodus 12. On each subsequent year, to mark the anniversary, Israelite families met around the table. They ate a lamb, bitter herbs, and unleavened bread. They remembered how their fathers had been sustained for the journey ahead of them by eating. Especially, they remembered how they had been protected from the angel of death by the blood of the lamb, smeared on their door-posts.  When the Israelites ate the Passover lamb, it was far from clinical. This lamb was not just a joint from Tesco- it was a living creature sacrificed for their sakes.

Mark tells us about the last Passover Jesus ate in Jerusalem with his disciples. Jesus, we shall see, went to great lengths to ensure that he had this uninterrupted time to spend with his disciples, and he uses the time to give them a tradition of their own.

1. Mark again tells us that it is Passover time (he has already done this earlier in Ch 14- note that it important to the passage). With whom would an Israelite normally eat Passover? Why would Jesus go against custom here?

2. Why is there all the mysterious secrecy – the cloak and dagger bits where the disciples are to follow a man carrying a jar?

3. In the intimate cosy setting of the upper room, why does Jesus raise the issue of betrayal? What is he teaching the disciples here? Other than “Don’t betray Jesus”, what can we learn?

4. This is plainly meant to be a Passover meal. How was a Passover meal usually conducted?

5. Jesus changes or adds to the traditional Passover structure in at least three ways here.

  • What does he mean by his saying about the bread?
  • What does he mean by his saying about the wine?
  • Why does he say so emphatically that he will not drink wine again until the day when he drinks it new in the kingdom of God?

6. This meal is the foundation for our practise of communion. How does this account affect our understanding of what we are doing when we break bread and drink wine together in our churches?

 

  1. Mark again tells us that it is Passover time (he has already done this earlier in Ch 14). With whom would Joe Israelite normally eat Passover? Why would Jesus go against custom here?

The Passover in Israel was a big festive occasion, in the same way as is Christmas over here, or perhaps Thanksgiving in the US. People would get together and rejoice, feast, and share fellowship. The landmark events of our years tend to be the big shared holidays- Christmas, New Year, Easter, Guy Fawkes night (now, sadly, being swallowed up by Halloween)- mostly Christian festivals in origin, even in a land of people largely apathetic towards Christianity. The landmark events of the Jewish year were without doubt the religious festivals. The Torah laid down seven great festivals for Israel (Leviticus 23)- Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread in the first month, then First Fruits when the first of the crops were ready to harvest, then the Feast of Weeks seven Sabbaths later, and then – all coming hard on one another’s heels in the seventh month- the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles. Three times a year, for the pilgrim festivals of Passover, Weeks, and Tabernacles, all Israel would gather in Jerusalem.  Moses had said that the Passover should be eaten in the place that God would choose to set his name (Deuteronomy 16:2-8). Jerusalem was the city where God had put his name, and so it was the proper place to eat Passover. Not everybody would be able to make it every year, but a lot of people would. Jerusalem would be heaving at Passover, packed with crowds. The priests at the Temple would be working overtime to slaughter lambs for a quarter of a million people.

But Passover would not actually be eaten in the Temple itself. For one thing, the logistics would be impossible. Even eating in shifts, there would be no chance that everybody would be able to fit in the Temple for a meal between twilight and sunrise on the same day (and the time constraints were important- the lamb had to be killed at twilight, and none of it was supposed to remain when the sun rose in the morning (Exodus 12:5-10).

More than mere practicality prevented people from eating in the Temple though. Passover was meant to be a family festival. The original Passover meal, eaten in captivity in Egypt as Israel sought protection from the final plague that would strike the Egyptians, was eaten in households. The plague itself was a family plague- death of the first-born son of each family.  One lamb per family was the rule. There was provision made for small families unable to eat a whole lamb- they could join with their nearest neighbours and form one large household for the evening and the night. But the meal was essentially a family meal, and was eaten in the family home (Exodus 12:3-4). The lamb’s blood was painted on the door-posts and lintels of each homestead, for the protection of each household sleeping there that night.

Think of Christmas, or the US tradition of Thanksgiving. It is normal in our culture for Christmas dinner to be a family meal- and emotions sometimes run high concerning who eats with whom for that reason. If a teenaged son goes to eat Christmas dinner with his girlfriend’s family, then his Mum might be upset- he has chosen to be with a new family, and she feels an implicit rejection of the home she has made for him. For Passover, Jewish folk would find space somewhere in Jerusalem to gather with their families and eat the meal together. But for this Passover, there were at least 13 families in Israel with a missing member. The disciples, asking Jesus, “Where shall we go and prepare Passover for you?” (v12), simply assume that they and Jesus will eat Passover together, as members of one household. The bonds which hold them together are stronger than any natural family ties. Jesus too (v15) has taken this as read and has planned for things to be this way. They, the disciples, won’t be eating with their wives and children. Jesus won’t be eating with his mother and brothers. Instead, they will eat together. Perhaps they have been eating Passover together for the last few years- it has been a while since Jesus made it plain that his disciples were closer to him than his natural family, saying that whoever did the will of God was his brother and sister and mother (Mark 3:35). And the Twelve have given up normal family life in order to follow Jesus wherever he goes.

Jesus and the Twelve are now family. These were the men closest to him- they had followed him for the last three years, sharing his hardships, his excitements, his fears, his joys, his disappointments. When he had nowhere to rest his head, neither did they. When he stayed up all night, so did they. When he was glad to see crowds hearing his teaching, so were they. He did signs to show that the kingdom was here, and so did they. They were his family. But on occasions like this, the allegiance of the disciples to Jesus above all others is particularly pointed. Lonely people feel especially alone at Christmas, and the disciples would be especially drawn to their parents, wives, and children at Passover.

The church today is a family, a household. When someone is converted and baptised and added to the church, he gains a new family. His allegiances must change. Natural families are certainly good gifts from God, and a great source of happiness and joy. On family life, I prefer Adrian Mitchell’s gentle parody to Larkin’s deliberately jaundiced original poem about family life -though in a fallen world, iniquity really is visited from generation to generation, and there’s a great deal of truth in both (For Mitchell see below. Larkin’s original is quite rude, so I’m not going to post it here; you’ll have to Google it). But even the strongest natural loyalties must bow before the Lord Jesus Christ. When the expectations of a believer’s family run contrary to the things Jesus asks- when a family expects a believer to join in drunkenness, to laugh with them at crude jokes, to agree that an unregenerate grandmother has “gone to a better place”, or to spend Sunday morning at the cinema and not in church- then the family must have their expectations disappointed. This can be shocking to the world, outrageous and offensive. But the disciples rightly assume it will be this way- they are Jesus’ family now.

“They tuck you up, your Mum and Dad
They read you Peter Rabbit, too.
They give you all the treats they had
And add some extra, just for you.

They were tucked up when they were small,
(Pink perfume, blue tobacco-smoke),
By those whose kiss healed any fall,
Whose laughter doubled any joke.

Man hands on happiness to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
So love your parents all you can
And have some cheerful kids yourself.”

 

  1. Why is there all the mysterious secrecy – the cloak and dagger bits with the man carrying a jar?

When the disciples ask Jesus where they will all eat the Passover, Jesus gives some mysterious instructions. He tells two of them to go into Jerusalem, and follow a man carrying a water jar. They are to watch the jar-man until he goes into a house. Then they are to go to the house and knock on the door, and they are to ask a certain question of the householder. On hearing the question (a pre-arranged “password”?), the householder will show them to an upper room which would already have all the furniture and equipment that would be needed for the Passover meal. The two disciples could then prepare- they could get the bread, get the bitter herbs ready, make sure wine was available, get the lamb- do everything needed for the Passover. And the two disciples did as Jesus said, and found that everything happened just as he had said.

Jerusalem may be crowded, but a man carrying the jar would stick out even in a crowd. If men carried water at all, they would usually do so in skins. Women- not men- carried jars on their heads, and fetching the water from the well was usually a woman’s job anyway. A man with a jar on his head would be a <ahem> jarring sight to any careful observer, as conspicuous as a man carrying a bright pink handbag in our day and age. He would be noticeable, and yet not everybody would know what he was about. Others might point him out, but only the two disciples would know his true purpose. His job is to lead the disciples to the house where Jesus has arranged for a room to be made ready for him.

All this seems to be done in order to keep secret the location of the upper room. It will even be secret from the disciples- all of them except the two who will prepare the meal, and even they won’t know where the place is until they get there. So why did Jesus go to all this trouble? Why worry about who knows where he will be to eat Passover? Why can’t he just book a room like everybody else, and tell all the disciples where they’ll be?

Because Jesus is conscious that the chief priests are after him, and that they would love to catch him away from the crowds. But Jesus also wants to eat the Passover with his family- with the Twelve. He wants it to be an intimate occasion, which means he has to leave the protection of the crowds for the evening. This meal would be an ideal occasion for Jesus’ enemies to strike. If they could only find out where Jesus will be, they could wait until the meal had begun and then come in with the heavy mob to grab him. The John Le Carre stuff is a sad necessity.

This, of course, sets the scene for the betrayal that is to come. Jesus has to hide the location from his disciples until they are actually there because he knows well that he has a traitor among the Twelve. Judas can’t be allowed to know anything worth telling the chief priests until it’s too late. If Judas overhears what Jesus says to the two disciples, he still won’t have any idea where the house is. The secrecy tells us how important it was for Jesus to eat this family meal with the disciples, without a gang of soldiers bursting in half way through. Jesus wants to be with the twelve, and to teach them quietly and in peace, before he leaves them.

 

  1. In the intimate cosy setting of the upper room, why does Jesus raise the issue of betrayal? What is he teaching the disciples here? Other than, “Don’t betray Jesus”, what can we learn?

Having set the scene by showing us the closeness of Jesus and the disciples, and the lengths to which Jesus goes to ensure that they are uninterrupted, Mark then records the teaching Jesus gave on this occasion. It is hard teaching to hear. Jesus has gone to such lengths to spend time with these men as his family; yet now, when the food is prepared, and the twelve are all reclining at the table- as was the custom- Jesus tells them that somebody in the room will tear the family apart, betraying the one who gathered them together. Mark is really emphasising the violation of fellowship and intimacy. This shadow hangs over their family meal. Their fellowship would soon be broken.

The disciples can hardly believe it. They all ask, “Is it me?”, unable to suspect their brothers.  Judas too, puts on a great act, even though he has already taken the money to hand Jesus over and knows full well who it is that Jesus is talking about. Then Jesus warns Judas. Jesus knows that he is going to die, and knows that this is God’s purpose- that the Son of Man should go as it is written about him- but the one who betrays him is still doing a desperately evil thing. Judas knows so much about Jesus, knows Jesus so well, has seen Jesus’ power and Jesus’ kindness, but still loves money more, and is willing to sell him. And so Judas is blind and deaf to the warnings. Judas is the supreme example of the man who rejects the light and deliberately chooses darkness. The man who hears so much that is good, but who hardens himself and is hardened. In one sense, Judas couldn’t have been a “sinner” in the way the Pharisees would have defined the term. He was one of Jesus’ right hand men. He can’t have been a murderer or an adulterer; he can’t have indulged in filthy talk. The sins he did, he kept secret. And he was very good at keeping secrets. Nobody among the other eleven seems to have suspected him. When Jesus tells them that one of them will turn traitor, they don’t all turn to look at Judas, nodding slowly. Rather, they suspect themselves. Remember that they have spent three years on the road together. They think they know each other inside out. Judas must have been able to pray as convincingly and warmly as the others could. He had done miracles, as they all had. He had preached to crowds, as they all had. He must have seemed kind, caring to the poor, faithful to Jesus- at least as much as the other disciples did. But in his case, it was all a sham. He was a fake. He was in it for himself. And over the years, I should think that he became more hardened. After three years, he can hear Jesus telling him that the man who is the traitor will be held guilty, and it would be better for that man if he had never been born, and he doesn’t even blink. In the context of this intimate family meal, where all those present are supposed to love and trust one another like brothers, when they are sharing bread, Judas can be plotting against Jesus in his heart, wondering when he can slip away to tip off the Chief Priests about where they are.

Jesus alludes to Ps 41:9, and maybe Obadiah v7, in his warning-  “Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me.” The allusion not only makes implicit claims to Davidic kingship, but underlines the seriousness of the warning. In Ps 41, the righteous sufferer will be raised up by God to repay those who have whispered against him. Judas should take heed.

Judas teaches us about sin. Sin both deceives and hardens. When you are faced with a choice, and you can either do what is right on one hand, or do what is wrong on the other hand, and you choose to do what is wrong, that decision actually changes you. It leaves you a slightly different person from the person you were before you chose. It makes the part of you that chooses, that little bit harder. And the next time you choose, it will be easier for you to ignore your conscience and do what is wrong anyway. Taking your life as a whole, with all the thousands of little choices you make everyday, you are either turning into a heavenly creature, in harmony with God, full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control. Or you are turning into a hellish creature, hardened against God, at war with God, and so at war with everything, including yourself. Sin will master you, if you choose to sin. Do not be fooled. Do not kid yourself that you will be able to stop sinning and repent when you feel like it. Because if you keep sinning, you’ll never feel like it. And the longer you sin, the less you’ll feel like it.

Judas realised when it was too late. He descended into madness, horror, rage, self-hatred, and suicide. We should remember Judas if we are ever tempted to think that we can ignore what God says, put it aside for another day. We should remember him if we see that we are hardening ourselves against God, deliberately doing what we know is wrong. Sin is addictive. It will rule you like it ruled Judas, to the point where he couldn’t stop. He wasn’t in the driving seat any more. He had given up control, bit by bit, and now Satan had entered into him.

 

  1. This is plainly meant to be a Passover meal. How was a Passover meal usually conducted?

This is definitely a Passover meal, made clear by a number of points. It is held in Jerusalem (in accordance with Deut 16:2), not in Bethany where Jesus and the disciples seem to have been staying. It is held late at night, when most folk would eat earlier in the evening (Ex 12:8). Wine was drunk, which wouldn’t be the case at normal meals for a rabbi and his disciples. There is hymn-singing in v26, which was part of a normal Passover meal. And- of course- Mark says that this was a Passover meal (v12, 14, 16).

There is a complicated debate over how to (for some scholars, whether to) reconcile the statements of John’s gospel with those of the Synoptics at this point. The Last Supper in John takes place “before the Feast of the Passover” (Jn 13:1). When the chief priests deliver Jesus over to Pilate, they have not yet eaten the Passover (Jn 18:28). And Pilate tries Jesus on the  day of preparation of the Passover (Jn 19:14). Some of the solutions offered end up ignoring fairly clear statements in the Gospels. Some argue that John’s dates are so clear that the Last Supper in the Synoptics is not truly a Passover; others argue that the Last Supper in the Synoptics is so clearly a Passover that John’s dates must be a reinterpretation of strict reality in order to allow Jesus’ death to occur as the Passover lambs are being sacrificed in the Temple. We’re not going to attempt an exhaustive evaluation here, but there are at least two possible solutions with which I’d be happy.

a) Different Jewish groups held to different calendars, and for that reason and also the practicality of sacrificing thousands of lambs in a short period; the Passover was actually celebrated by different groups on different days.

b) Jesus deliberately and knowingly celebrated Passover a day early, perhaps aware that it will be too late when tomorrow comes.

In any case, Mark’s Last Supper is clearly a Passover meal, and a normal Passover meal was done according to a plan. There was an “order of service”- a series of events that happened according to plan and custom. At each point, most people round a Passover table would know what was going to happen next. While we can’t be sure of all the details of normal 1st century Jewish practise, the meal was divided by the drinking of four cups of wine. A possible reconstruction could go as follows:

  1. The head of the household pronounces a blessing on the table and on the 1st cup of wine.
  2. The 1st cup is drunk.
  3. The whole roast lamb (referred to as “the body”) is brought in, along with the rest of the food. There would be bitter herbs, unleavened bread, and stewed fruit. Each item is symbolic, used as a visual, taste-able, memory aid. The herbs and the unleavened bread hark back to the historical Exodus. The stewed fruit is a later addition, thought to represent the red clay of Egypt, evocative of the bricks made by the Israelite slaves.
  4. The “haggadah” is recited. The youngest son of the household asks what makes this night unique with its special food and customs, and the head of the household retells the story of the first Passover and God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt, and offers praise and thanks to God.
  5. The first part of the Hallel psalms are sung- the Hallel are the psalms from 113 to 118.
  6. The 2nd cup is drunk.
  7. Unleavened bread is taken by the head of the household, who says, “This is the bread of affliction which our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. Let everyone who hungers come and eat; let everyone who is needy come and eat the Passover meal”, echoing Isa 55. He blesses the bread and breaks it, and the pieces are passed from hand to hand in silence until all have been served.
  8. The bread is eaten with fruit and herbs. The main meal is eaten, before midnight. HoH commands praise to God.
  9. Following the meal, the 3rd cup is drunk.
  10. The head of the household gives thanks, concluding with the words, “May the All-merciful One make us worthy of the days of the Messiah and of the life of the world to come. He brings the salvation of his king. He shows covenant-faithfulness to his Anointed, to David and to his seed forever. He makes peace in the heavenly places. May he secure peace for us and for all Israel. And say you all Amen”.
  11. The second part of the Hallel psalms are sung- perhaps Ps 116-118.
  12. The 4th cup is drunk, and the meal ended.

 

  1. Jesus changes or adds to the traditional Passover structure in at least three ways here.

When you have a religious ritual, a set pattern of events, alterations are not made without very good reason. Even in “low” churches, there tends to be an established pattern for Lord’s day services, varying very little from week to week. The same basic elements are always there- a Bible reading (or maybe two), the singing of 4 hymns, a short prayer, the notices, a longer prayer, the sermon, a closing prayer. And they are usually in the same order. Some changes might be acceptable on occasion- the pastor might want to sing an extra hymn, saying that it is especially appropriate. A visiting preacher might do things in a different order because he doesn’t know the “proper” order. But changing things around for no reason is a) pointless, and b) likely to disturb people, and c) rarely happens.

But here, Jesus very definitely disturbs the normal Passover liturgy. There are things about this Passover meal that are completely new. Either Jesus throws out some of the traditional elements, substituting  new ones (i.e., when the bread is broken at point 7 above, Jesus makes it refer not to the Exodus from Egypt, but to his own exodus- his death; and when the 3rd cup is drunk, Jesus calls it his blood of the covenant). Or perhaps the traditional liturgy is followed, but Jesus makes space in the middle of the meal for a new ritual, breaking bread a second time. Either way, he has important reasons for doing what he does.

  • What does he mean by saying, “Take, this is my body”?

What does he mean? Obviously, the bread does not actually become human flesh, and the wine does not become human blood, the drinking of which would be utterly repulsive even to a modern Briton, and would have been a thousand times more so to a Jew.

But the bread is Jesus’ body. By eating it, the disciples join themselves to Jesus. They are still unaware of what will happen to him, but recognise that sharing this bread denotes a sharing of close fellowship. Jesus says that the bread is his body, and then he gives it to the disciples. Having just said that one of them will betray him, this is a promise that he will be with them despite betrayal, despite all their failures, and (though they don’t yet understand this) despite his own death.

Why is it bread that is used, rather than the lamb? The lamb was full of meaning in the Passover meal. It was, of course, the sacrificial lamb; and at the Exodus, its blood had averted God’s wrath from falling on the houses which placed themselves under the blood. This Old Testament picture had an obvious fulfilment in Christ (1 Cor 5:7). The lamb would be right there, steaming on the table. Why doesn’t Jesus say, “This body is my body, I am the true Passover lamb, sacrificed for you”? The lamb was traditionally referred to as “the body”, which image Jesus evokes, but Jesus breaks bread rather than carving lamb, designating the bread as his body.

Jesus knew he was starting a church tradition, and he didn’t want his followers for the next so-many-thousand years to be observing a Passover meal with a sacrificed lamb. We don’t need another blood sacrifice. The whole sacrificial system would soon reach its zenith and completion on the cross. The sacrificial blood of the new covenant, the blood that really cleanses from sin, is not the blood of a lamb, but of the lamb of God.

So we don’t slaughter an animal. Instead, we eat bread for sustenance for the journey ahead. We live on Jesus, drawing sustenance from him for the journey ahead, as the Israelites did from their Passover lamb.

  • What does he mean by saying, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many”?

Covenant blood is again a feature of the Exodus, and particularly of the events at Sinai (Ex 24:8), where covenant blood ratifies and seals the covenant God makes with Israel. The Passover meal commemorated the covenant God made with Israel, based on his deliverance of the nation from Egypt, and ratified at Mount Sinai. But Jesus’ words at this Passover do not look back to the Exodus. Instead, they look forwards, to his own death.

Jesus’ words draw on a complex of Old Testament scriptures. The “pouring out” of blood of which Jesus speaks of in v24 should be understood as meaning a violent death (cf. Gen 4:10-11; 9:6; Deut 19:10; 2 Kgs 21:16; Ps 106:38; Jer 7:6; Matt 23:35). But more than that, Jesus is drawing on Zechariah and Isaiah’s language.

In the servant song of Isa 53, the servant pours out his soul to death, bearing the sin of many (Isa 53:12). In Zechariah 9, more explicitly, God makes reference to the “blood of my covenant”, a covenant he has made with the king. Following the entry of the King into Jerusalem (Zech 9:9, cf. Mk 11), God makes a covenant in blood with the King and with his people. He will set them free, and set the King to reign over them in peace and prosperity.

Jesus is speaking of this, great, unilateral, covenant, soon to be sealed and ratified in his blood. He offers the cup to his disciples, extending the benefits of this covenant to them.

  • Why does Jesus say so emphatically that “I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the Kingdom of God”?

Not only does Jesus say this, but he backs it up with a further departure from Passover tradition. If this cup was the third cup, the next verse tells us that they sung a hymn and then went out to the Mount of Olives. According to the traditional order, after the singing there ought to be a 4th cup to end the meal.  Jesus and the disciples seem to omit the fourth cup altogether, going out straight after they have sung.

Having given his disciples the 3rd cup, Jesus says that he won’t be drinking any more wine until the Kingdom of God comes. Jesus is extending the Passover meal, refusing to bring it to an end. The fulfilment of the Passover hasn’t yet happened. Jesus, the lamb of God, has not yet been crucified; his blood not yet poured out. He will drink the final cup when the Passover is over, but he has not yet paid the price for the sins of the many. He has not yet redeemed his people. So he puts off the drinking of the final cup.

Jesus’ promise to abstain from wine bears similarity to a Nazirite vow (Num 6:2-4). Jesus is consecrating himself for sacrifice, but also looking to the accomplishment of the period of his vow. He is looking forward to the kingdom of God, to the great banquet of Isa 25 when God feasts his people with rich food and well-aged wine. He will himself drink the cup of death, and then he will share with his people the cup of rejoicing in the Kingdom of God

In the Jerusalem Talmud, the four cups of the Passover are interpreted in terms of the four-fold promise of Ex 6:6-7: “I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians… and I will deliver you from slavery to them… and  I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgement… I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God”. On that reading, the third cup- the cup which Jesus designates as his covenant blood- is the cup linked to the promise of redemption. The 4th cup is the cup linked to the promise of God’s taking his people as his own. It was drunk after the singing of Psalm 118- about God’s king coming victorious to God’s city, to reign over a people rejoicing in God’s steadfast love. With Jesus’ death, the first three promises are fulfilled. The fourth waits for his second coming to be complete.

  1. This meal is the foundation for our practise of communion. How does this account affect our understanding of what we are doing when we break bread and drink wine together in our churches?

Sharing bread and wine is, for believers, a tangible sign of the inclusion into the body of people redeemed by Jesus, and called to follow him. In the Last Supper, it anticipated Jesus’ imminent death. For Mark’s readers, when they shared communion, they would have looked back on Jesus’ death. It would be a means of grace to them. They would again take to themselves forgiveness, and again take grace and strength to follow faithfully. Jesus himself would give them these things as they ate and drank. By eating and drinking, they would place themselves into the care of Jesus, under the protection of his blood. They would receive the blessings he gives.

By eating, we reaffirm, remember, the covenant Jesus has made with us. We feed on him and gain strength for the journey ahead.  We acknowledge that we need Jesus Christ for life and health and strength. He gave himself for us, and we need him as our saviour. By drinking, we include ourselves in the many for whom Jesus’ blood was poured out. We demonstrate our total reliance on the covenant made in Jesus’ blood. We take again his blood to forgive our sins and to bind us to God.

The Lord’s Supper also points forward to the consummation, to the great heavenly feast, to what John calls “the marriage supper of the lamb” (Rev 19:9). Paul tells us that by eating and drinking we, “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (I Cor 11:26).

The meal is symbolic, certainly, and a ritual, for sure; but not all rituals are empty. Think of a marriage. There is a ritual exchange of vows and of symbolic rings, but that ritual accomplishes something real. Two people go into it unmarried, and come out of it joined to one another for life. The Lord’s Supper is a real means of real grace. It is like a couple re-affirming their vows of betrothal, making them more sure that they belong to one another, and pointing them to their wedding day ahead.

Mark 14:1-11. Preparation for burial.

July 20, 2012

It was now two days before the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him, for they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar from the people.”

And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they scolded her. But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, whereverthe gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”

Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. And when they heard it, they were glad and promised to give him money. And he sought an opportunity to betray him.

 

Mark has spent a chapter telling us about Jesus’ instructions to his disciples about the near, and more distant, future. It has been the longest section of direct teaching in the Gospel. Mark now brings us back to the events of the last week of Jesus’ life- the events immediately leading up to the cross.

Jesus’ death has a crucial place in Mark’s narrative. It is the climax of the book- just as it was the climax of Jesus’ life. Mark has been working up to it, recording how Jesus looked ahead to it. There are the three occasions where Jesus plainly tells the disciples that he is going to die; once in each of chapters 8, 9, and 10, all at about verse 30 of their respective chapters. But also, when Jesus told the parable of the evil tenants, he knew that the chief priests, scribes, and elders, were plotting his death (12:7). And when he spoke to his disciples in the last chapter, he spoke of a time when others would come claiming to be the Christ- a time when Jesus himself would no longer be with the disciples in the flesh.

Apart from Jesus’ own words, Mark has alerted us to the fact that various groups have been plotting to kill Jesus, some of them for a long time (3:6, 14:1). Blasphemy- the charge under which the Sanhedrin will finally condemn Jesus- was made as an accusation right at the beginning (2:7). And when Judas Iscariot was first introduced, he was identified then as the one who was going to betray Jesus (3:19). Mark knew then where he was heading, just as Jesus deliberately set himself towards Jerusalem and the final conflict with the enemies of God.

So it is that in this account, Jesus can look ahead to his burial as a fixed fact, a thing certain to take place in short order.

 

  1. Why do we need to know that it was “now two days before the Passover”? What point has Mark been making from the timing of the events at the end of his Gospel within the Jewish festival year?
  2. The chief priests and scribes are now actively plotting Jesus’ death. But they are wary of making their move during the Passover feast. Why?
  3. Mark introduces the plotters in v1-2, then moves to the account of the woman and the perfume, and then takes us back to the plotters in v11. Why does Mark structure the passage in this way?
  4. One denarius was reckoned to be the standard wage for a labourer for a day. The unnamed woman blows about a year’s wages on one act. Why such extravagance?
  5. Jesus justifies the woman’s actions not by reference to her devotion, but by reference to his own coming death. Does this affect how we understand her actions? Which passages in the Old Testament are at the forefront of Jesus’ mind here?
  6. This event seems to precipitate Judas into betraying Jesus to the chief priests. Why should this tip him over the edge?

 

1. Why do we need to know that it was “now two days before the Passover”? What point has Mark been making from the timing of the events at the end of his Gospel within the Jewish festival year?

 Moving backwards out of the speech of chapter 13 and into the narrative of chapters 11 and 12, we know that Jesus has been staying near Jerusalem for a week or so now. He and the twelve were lodging in Bethany, some two miles outside the city walls. They came to Jerusalem with a huge fanfare- Jesus rode a donkey like a king, and there was a big public welcome. Crowds lined the streets and spread their cloaks on the ground for Jesus. They cut branches from trees and chanted parts of Psalm 118- a kingly victory psalm- as Jesus rode past.

From the actions of the crowd, and from the psalm they choose to sing, one might be forgiven for thinking that this was the time of year for the Feast of Tabernacles. Psalm 118 was very much a Tabernacles psalm. At the Feast of Tabernacles, people would flock to Jerusalem and live in temporary structures- the “tabernacles” of the feast’s title. They would cut branches from the trees to construct their shelters on their friends’ rooftops and in the streets. The feast was held at a time of year just after the harvest had been gathered in. It was a time for Israel to rest from their labours, to give thanks for the harvest God had given them, and to remind themselves that God had given them the very land which produced the harvest. They lived in shelters to conjure up cultural memories of the time they spent wandering in the wilderness (see Leviticus 23), and they would give thanks for God’s deliverance of his people into the land of milk and honey. The Feast of Tabernacles was a time to be thankful, to rest, and to look forward to future blessings.

This feast then was naturally the time of year most linked to hopes for the new age. Psalm 118 is a victory song, to be sung by a triumphant king and his triumphant people, looking forward to peace and plenty. The crowds thought that the end of history had arrived. They saw Jesus as the conquering king, come to sweep away the old order. They thought that Jesus was coming into Jerusalem to be crowned and to reign forever. They thought the harvest had come and the work was all but done. With a king like Jesus, able to command the wind and waves, able to feed thousands with a few loaves, surely a victory celebration wouldn’t go amiss. Even if the end hadn’t quite yet come, Jesus’ coming to Jerusalem as king was at least the beginning of the end. And we’ve seen that the disciples thought the same thing. Jesus has just spent a chapter trying to puncture their triumphalism and set them straight.

Mark, however, is well aware that Jesus’ work is far from over. In reality, it is not time for Tabernacles, but time for Passover. Passover is a very different sort of festival. At Passover time, the people would slaughter a lamb, and smear its blood on the doorposts of their houses. They would remember the time when the blood of the lamb protected each household from the angel of death, while the firstborn sons of the Egyptians died. Passover marks the start of deliverance from Egypt, not the end. It marks the start of the long hard slog through the wilderness, not the enjoyment of the harvest.

Mark makes a point of telling us the date, because the events that are about to happen are intimately connected with the Jewish festival year. It is appropriate that Jesus should die at Passover time. The lamb was slain as a sacrifice for sinners, and so will Jesus be slain. The lamb was slain to protect Israel from the angel of death, for their deliverance out of Egypt, and so will Jesus will die to deliver his people from slavery and death. Jesus knows that his hardest work is only just beginning.

  

2. The chief priests and scribes are now actively plotting Jesus’ death. But they are wary of making their move during the Passover feast. Why?

 Jesus has been walking into Jerusalem every day with his disciples and walking back to Bethany in the evening. He has taught in the temple courts every day, and has not made himself popular with the chief priests. If you remember as far back as chapters 11 and 12, Jesus has overturned the tables of the money lenders, and has made fools out of the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to make a fool out of him. He has been very disruptive as far as they are concerned. Jesus is, in fact, the Lord of the temple, and can do whatever seems good to him. It is he who has the right to say what does and does not go on in his Father’s house, not the chief priests. But the chief priests don’t see it that way. They see Jesus as a dangerous man, one who undermines their authority with the people, and who is likely to bring the Romans down on the city by sparking a popular uprising. And they don’t question their idea that they are the rightful leaders of God’s people and the guardians of God’s honour. They have debated among themselves how best to deal with Jesus. They have failed in their attempts to humiliate him before the people, ending up humiliated themselves.

So the issue now with the chief priests is no longer whether or not to kill Jesus, but how and when. The statement of their hostile intent is similar to that of the Pharisees (3:6), but this is now the chief priests and their gang. They are much more dangerous, much more skilled in the arts of managing the crowds and bringing political leverage to bear. Although the Pharisees have been opposing Jesus, and plotting against him, they are not linked directly with his death- the chief priests are the more dangerous enemies.

The chief priests are wary of making their move during the feast because they fear a public disturbance. Jesus is a popular teacher- the crowds like to hear him, and if they go taking him off to be killed, the crowds might kick up a fuss. The festival season is relevant to this concern in a strictly practical sense. The population of Jerusalem would balloon during the feasts for all Israel. People would come in from all over the country, and the city would be heaving with bodies. Normally, about 50,000 people lived in Jerusalem. During the feasts, this went up around five-fold, to 250,000. The general populace were more excitable and a riot would be much easier to start and much harder to control. On top of that, the incomers would not be people who saw the chief priests a lot. People who lived in Jerusalem would be at the Temple every day, where the priests worked. But during the feasts, Jerusalem was full of outsiders. Many among the influx may know Jesus better than they know the priests. Jesus has just spent 3 years touring the country, especially Galilee. Some of the pilgrims would be from Galilee, and lots of them might be natural Jesus supporters rather than Chief Priest supporters. You see it with football teams. Which team do you support? Usually one based where you live, or where your family came from. You see it in the kings of Israel. David was accepted as king in his home tribe of Judah long before the ten Northern tribes would submit to him. The chief priests are canny, and they are wary of trying any dirty tricks with such a large and excitable crowd around, when they can’t trust the crowd to be loyal to them. They know they won’t have too long to wait before the crowds go home.

The two feasts of Passover and Unleavened Bread were closely linked, Passover lasting a day, and then the feast of Unleavened Bread for a further week. Passover was celebrated on the 14th of Nisan, with a ritual meal at the start of the day. Bear in mind that when we say “the start of the day”, we don’t mean breakfast. The Jews got their definition of a day from Genesis. The very first days, the creation days, started with evening “and there was evening and morning, the first day”. For the Jews, the day began at sunset, and sunrise happened halfway through. Preparations for the Passover, including the slaughter of the lamb to be eaten, took place on the afternoon of the 13th. The solemn meal was then eaten on the evening of the 14th, which would be followed by the morning of the 14th. The feast of Unleavened Bread then ran for a week, from the 15th to the 21st, with both of those end days reckoned as special Sabbaths. So this is on the 12th of Nisan, two days before the Passover, in the evening. The chief priests have only to wait 10 days, and then it will all be over and they can get at Jesus.

It is striking that, although the chief priests are aware of the festival season, they seem totally blind to the theological implications. Their concerns are strictly pragmatic. But in the end, it is the theological concerns which drive the timing. In God’s plan, it is important that the Messiah should die at this time- at Passover- because it fits with the meaning of the festival. When Judas offers to give the plotters their chance on a plate, to betray Jesus to them, to tell them where and when they could get Jesus with nobody watching, they jump at it. But by telling us that the plotters had already said “not during the feast”, Mark underlines God’s sovereignty over the whole thing. The plans of the priests are thrown out the window. In God’s purposes, Jesus would be slaughtered at Passover. And God can work things so as to change the desires of men.

 

3. Mark introduces the plotters in v1-2, then moves to the account of the woman and the perfume, and then takes us back to the plotters in v11. Why does Mark structure the passage in this way?

 Mark is using his sandwich structure again, as with the fig tree, and with John the Baptist’s death, and with the groups of people in Ch.3. Sandwiched between the two halves of the tale of betrayal (v1-2 and v10-11), is the account of the woman who anoints Jesus with perfume. Mark presents the two accounts as interwoven because he wants us to see how they relate to one another. The two stories are connected inasmuchas it seems to be the events in Simon’s house which spark off Judas’ betrayal. But more than that, Mark is comparing and contrasting the woman with Judas and the priests. All of them are making preparation for Jesus’ death. She, whether she understands what she is doing or not, anoints Jesus for burial. They plot to kill him. But she does what she does out of love, where they have only hatred for the saviour.

 

4. One denarius was reckoned to be the standard wage for a labourer for a day. The unnamed woman blows about a year’s wages on one act. Why such extravagance?

 One evening in Bethany, Jesus was at the house of Simon, a leper, for a meal. Simon is probably a healed leper, perhaps even healed by Jesus (leprous lepers would not be hosting dinner parties, and we never read of Jesus turning away anybody who wanted healing). As Jesus and the other guests were reclining at the table, a woman came into the room. For a dinner party, the guests would lie on couches at an angle to the table, heads towards the food and feet out. This woman came up to Jesus, between the couches, and anointed his head with a large quantity of expensive perfume. It was not unheard-of for honoured guests at banquets to be anointed with oil, probably perfumed oil (Psalms 23:5; 141:5, see also Luke 7:46). This, however, goes way, way beyond custom. It is an act of extraordinary personal devotion. The woman’s perfume is probably a family heirloom, passed from generation to generation. It is likely the single most precious possession she has. She wouldn’t have had a pension scheme, she’d have had savings. Her family would have bought valuable things which could be sold off in time of need, and this probably represents a sizeable chunk of her wealth. But she wants to give it to Jesus. So she takes it from its place in her home, carries it over to Simon’s house where she knows Jesus is eating, goes up to Jesus, breaks open the bottle, and pours the perfume out on his head- her future, her security, poured out in gratitude. The perfume is worth about a year’s wages, as people there remark.

What the woman does, although in a private house, is a fairly public act. She has walked up to the table, where everybody else is lying down, and has poured out a whole jar of perfume. It isn’t something that could be done unobtrusively- the scent will fill the room. When I was a schoolboy, I had an elderly (to my young eyes at least- she was probably actually somewhere in her fifties) lady chemistry teacher, who used to wear excessive amounts of perfume. We could tell when she came into the room, even if we had our backs turned. If she came close to you to explain some point one-to-one, the cloud of fragrance hanging around her was eye-wateringly unpleasant. Breaking open a whole jar of pure nard would have a similar effect- nobody could fail to notice what had happened. The reaction among the others in the room to this extravagance was less than warm. Some of the spectators were indignant. “If the perfume had been sold, then there would have been lots of money available, which could be used for all sorts of good things”, they said, “It could have gone to the poor, couldn’t it? But instead, there it is, soaking into the ground! What a waste!”.

There is an implicit lesson to be drawn from comparing the woman and her critics. Whatever her specific reason for doing what she did, it must have been driven by love for the Lord, a belief that he deserved everything she could give him. They rebuked the woman harshly, we are told. And the harshness of their response perhaps reflects the poverty of their own love for Jesus and their understanding of who Jesus is. They don’t see it as being worthwhile to make an expensive act of devotion to Jesus, if it does no good to anyone else. But this woman clearly does see Jesus as important.

Many perhaps can see no more interest in Christ than in what he can do for them, how he can make them happier. They have no deep gratitude because they have no real stake in what Jesus really came to do.

 

5. Jesus justifies the woman’s actions not by reference to her devotion, but by reference to his own coming death. Does this affect how we understand her actions? Which passages in the Old Testament are at the forefront of Jesus’ mind here?

 Luke talks about an anointing of Jesus at a banquet in somebody else’s house, but that is a different event, taking place earlier in Jesus’ ministry and at the house of a Pharisee. There, the ointment isn’t nard, and the objection isn’t, “This is way too expensive”, but “Yuck! A sinner! Can’t Jesus tell?” This anointing in Mark could well be the same event as recorded in John’s Gospel, in which case the woman is Mary, and she is motivated by love for Jesus and by the thought that Jesus won’t ever die. John tells us that Mary was keeping the perfume for Jesus’ burial, but that she had just seen him raise Lazarus from the dead. Her thinking seemed to be, “This man isn’t ever going to need a burial. I can use the oil on him now”.

But Mark doesn’t name the woman, and doesn’t speculate on her motives. He wants us, I think, to concentrate on what Jesus makes of the incident, and thinks it would be a distraction to think about what the woman thought she was doing.

So what did Jesus say about the incident? How did he react? Jesus commended the woman. He responded with joyful appreciation, rebutting her critics and saying that she had done a beautiful thing. And then he made two more points. What are they?

Firstly, the poor will always be there to give money to. Jesus will not always be with his followers. Sure, the money could have gone to the poor, and would doubtless have done good there. But Jesus is more important than anything else. And he would only be with his followers for a while- for another few days.

Jesus’ point is made more startling when you consider his use of the Old Testament. He is quoting Deut. 15:11- “There will always be poor people in the land.” But the conclusion drawn in Deuteronomy is “therefore I command you to be open-handed towards your brothers, and towards the poor and needy in your land.” Jesus takes the first part of the quote, but draws a conclusion almost contradictory to that of the law. He is saying that he takes first place, ahead even of the poor and needy. He made himself poor so that people like this woman might become rich, and so she gave him all that she had, because she loved him.

She put him first, made him the most important thing, gave him the most valuable thing she had. A grudging spirit towards Jesus from a professing believer is worrying. Matthew tells us that these critics are actually the disciples, but it is unclear whether the twelve are in view. In John, Judas objects to the act from Mary. Here in Mark, Jesus is speaking to those to whom he can say, “you will not always have me”, which fits well with the disciples. It is terrible to see men more interested in other things than in their master. In the Christian life, there is no holding back, no begrudging anything. Jesus gives life, in all its fullness, to the dead. How then can those who owe him their lives, not give him their all? She did what she could, said Jesus. Her critics did nothing

In the temple, what was the one thing which Jesus had found good? It was the widow who had put in the two copper coins, all she had. It is not insignificant that once again, in this passage, it is the action of a despised woman, who gives what is valuable to her, which stands in contrast to the religious leaders who hate Jesus, and to others at the meal who criticise, and to all who have no love for him. In a world where many people seem to think that the first of the two great commandments is adequately observed in the keeping of the second, we need this reminder that personal devotion to Jesus himself is of first importance. Loving our neighbour is only part of what it means to love God.

Secondly, and most importantly, Jesus says that this anointing was a preparation for burial. Maybe she didn’t realise the full significance of her act at the time, but Jesus himself didn’t miss it. He knew that he would soon have to die. Perhaps somewhere in his mind was the 23rd psalm, with the picture there of the man under God’s care, who has his head anointed with oil, who sits at a table among his enemies, and who goes confidently into the valley of the shadow of death. More directly though, he sees this as a funeral anointing. Only bodies of criminals were not anointed for burial after death. Jesus was buried in a hurry, and there was no time for those who would have liked to anoint his body to do so. By the time some of his followers tracked the tomb down and came to anoint Jesus’ body, Jesus was gone. So this is the only anointing for burial which Jesus receives. Jesus accepts the anointing as a burial ritual ahead of time.

Jesus says of this woman that wherever the Gospel is preached, what she did will be told in memory of her. This is factually true- places where the gospel is preached sooner or later end up with copies of Mark’s Gospel, and the deed of this woman is read and heard about. By her actions, this woman points us to the gospel- she anticipates the death of Jesus, who came to die that we might live.

 

6. This event seems to precipitate Judas into betraying Jesus to the chief priests. Why should this tip him over the edge?

 This particular event seems to have acted as the catalyst to turn Judas into an active traitor. It was after seeing the actions of this woman, and hearing what Jesus said about the event, that Judas went out to the chief priests with an offer too good for them to refuse.

We know that Judas was a greedy man, and had his hand in the disciples’ kitty, which could have been enlarged by the addition of 300 denarii if the perfume had been sold. But Mark doesn’t suggest the money motive here as a driving factor in Judas’ betrayal, though we know from the other Gospels that it was at least a strong influence. Mark only mentions money for Judas after he has made his decision to betray Jesus- Judas goes to the priests intending to betray Jesus, and once he’s there, they promise him money. The impression is that money wasn’t the key thing.

The other options are the woman’s devotion, and the things Jesus said about burial. Maybe Judas simply couldn’t understand this devotion, and was repulsed by it. Satan does use evidences of grace in some to harden others. But on the other hand, he- along with the other eleven- had given up house and home and family to follow Jesus. Would devotion like this really be such a shock to him?

Perhaps it is more that this incident finally convinces Judas that Jesus is serious about his death and burial. Jesus actions here would otherwise be starkly out of character. A fortune is spent in a few moments, just to make Jesus smell nice. It has no other purpose, nobody except Jesus stands to gain from it. Where else has Jesus accepted lavish gifts in the course of his ministry? In the three years Judas has known him, Jesus has been a model of self-denial. Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head. Televangelists and pastors drive flashy cars and wear expensive suits, but they are not following the man they claim as their master. Judas holds the purse strings- he knows better than any of the disciples that Jesus doesn’t indulge himself in luxuries. He knows how Jesus and all of them frequently sleep rough and go hungry.

Passover was the time of year to give to the poor. It really would have been appropriate for the woman to sell the ointment and give the money to the poor- if there hadn’t been a compelling reason to anoint Jesus.

Maybe Judas sees Jesus accept the gift uncomplainingly, and it clicks- Jesus really does intend to die. He’d never have allowed this otherwise.

Judas won’t follow a messiah who intends to lay down his life in apparent defeat. But we know that Jesus is worthy of trust and devotion precisely because he laid down his life for those who trust him. He went down to the grave, taking the curse upon his own head, in order to redeem cursed sinners. There is nobody more worthy of love.