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The End of the Beginning (14:1-16:8)
We have followed Mark in calling the whole story "the beginning of the gospel" (Mark 1:1). This final act, therefore, may properly be called the end of the beginning. In this act the various episodes are tightly woven together into a single, swiftly moving chain. The struggle steadily becomes more intense, each word and deed becomes more heavily weighted with meaning, each verse becomes a solemn summary of all that has happened earlier as well as a pregnant forecast of what will happen thereafter. At every step historians discern riddles and are far from agreement on how to solve them. Yet even more tremendous dilemmas are posed for the believer, inasmuch as the story is told as a preview of what following on this "road" will entail for him. Our present study will stress these dilemmas, because Mark was intent upon the story’s impact on his Roman brothers, and we, too, are addressing our comments to believers.
Three Forecasts (14:1-16)
Mark introduced the Passion Story by weaving together three different types of preparations. The first was accomplished in Jerusalem by the priests and scribes, whose plot, hatched in the Temple whose demolition Jesus had announced (Mark 13:2), required the help of a disciple. The second was accomplished outside the Holy City in Bethany, not in the homes of "the clean," but in the home of a leper, where Jesus ate supper with his disciples (Mark 14:3-9). The third was accomplished in the deliberate movement by Jesus from Bethany into Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover (vss. 12-16). Mark detected the symbolic weight of these three places.
Mark also took care to accent the times. All three forms of preparation pointed straight toward the Passover. The ominous preparation by the enemies took place two days earlier (vs. 1). Preparation by the leper and the woman of Bethany took place one day earlier (vs. 3). On that same day, Jesus made arrangements through his disciples for the Passover meal (vss. 12-16). If we are to follow this schedule, we need to remember that the Jews reckoned days from one sunset to the next. Supper marked the beginning of a day. The first day of Unleavened Bread introduced an eight-day memorial of deliverance from Egypt. This first day began with supper and ended in the afternoon, "when they sacrificed the passover lamb" (vs. 12). Passover itself was a single day, introduced by the evening meal (vs. 17), the second of the eight days of Unleavened Bread. According to Mark’s calendar, this particular Passover fell on the day before the Sabbath (Saturday). The Crucifixion took place on the Passover Day, and on the same day the burial (Mark 15:42). Nothing happened on the Sabbath, but the story began again (Mark 16:1-2) on the first day of the week (Sunday).
All three forecasts, then, point toward the Passover Day, the day of Jesus’ death. The first forecast was drawn up by those who sought that death as a means of defending the Temple, the Law, and themselves. These were the men of whose "leaven" the disciples had been warned, whose leaven Judas ate on the day of Unleavened Bread (Mark 14:10-11). With him they struck a bargain (a truly demonic covenant), the conclusion of which was reached on the next day, the Passover itself.
Between teliing how the plot had been arranged (vss. 1-2) and how Judas had shared in it (vss. 10-11), Mark told of an important supper in Bethany (vss. 3-9). The host was a leper; the guests, Jesus and the Twelve, including Judas. It established, as did all meals in Israel, a covenant between the host and his guests, for each meal bound the people together in a pact of mutuality. In this case all would have been infected, or, as Mark saw it, all made clean. During the meal an unnamed woman gave a prophecy by anointing Jesus with a very expensive perfume. Some were angry at the waste and "reproached her." But breaking into their protests and her silence, Jesus revealed the beauty of her gift. She had anointed his body for burial, although this was usually done after death (Mark 16:1); she had prophesied that in the coming days the disciples would be left alone (vs. 7); and she had established a permanent memorial in the later preaching of the gospel, which would everywhere proclaim salvation by this death (vs. 9). The beautiful action of the woman had thus provided a sharply etched contrast to the actions of the chief priests and the traitorous disciple.
Having narrated what preparations had been made by these enemies and by this woman, Mark then gave the account of Jesus’ own preparations. His commission, as at earlier strategic moments, had fallen upon two disciples (Mark 11:1; Mark 6:7). He had sent them as scouts into hostile territory, like the spies sent out by an earlier Jesus (Joshua 2). He knew that they would find even in the stronghold of his foes a householder who would welcome them and provide a room for their meeting — similar, perhaps, to accommodations in some of the house-churches of Rome (see Introduction) and to the welcome accorded to itinerant Apostles (Mark 6:10). In the houses of Palestine, the upper room, often on the roof, would be the place for receiving guests. This room would be large enough. Here disciples would prepare the meal, but they must do it at the Master’s command, and at a place of his selection, for he would be their host at this table. Thus Mark prepared the reader for the story to follow. He gave these pictures, separate yet interlocking, of the different initiatives which had been taken by the enemies, by the serving woman, and by the serving Teacher.
The Covenant in Blood (14:17-31)
It is easy to overlook the fact that all that transpired from this evening (vs. 17) until the burial (Mark 15:46-47) took place during a single day, beginning with the supper and ending with the shutting of the tomb. Therefore it is entirely natural that the conversation at supper, since it was the final rendezvous of this group, should deal with the meaning of all that would happen on that day. Each word requires for its understanding the entire story; moreover, both to Jesus and to Mark, the story embraced both what men accomplished and what God accomplished in these events.
The terrible, redemptive day began with supper. But how did the supper begin? With the awful announcement, "One of you will betray me" (vs. 18). And how did the supper end? With the equally paralyzing declaration, "You will all fall away" (vs. 27). The account of the supper itself proceeded within these two brackets, these two announcements which would come true within a matter of hours. These brackets indicated how completely Jesus was concerned with his disciples. It was for their sakes that he broke this bread, and for their sakes, also, that Mark told the story. The story clearly indicated where Mark intended to place the accents. Notice how the infamy of the betrayer was stressed: "one who is eating with me . . . one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread in the same dish with me." And how the denial was described: "the sheep will be scattered . . . you will deny me three times ... ’I will not deny you’ . . . they all said the same." There was a contrast between betrayal and denial: one would betray but all would deny. Each of the Twelve asked if he were the traitor, but all denied their denial, stoutly affirming their readiness to die with him. Yet Jesus knew their hearts; his prophecy would come true.
We must not overlook, however, one feature in the story. Between the brackets, in full awareness of their fears and self-deceptions, Jesus broke the bread and poured out the cup for them and for many others. Thereafter none could deny that it was "while we were yet sinners Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). None could trust his hold on Christ, but all could trust Christ’s hold on them. Knowing this, they could preserve his testimony to their treason; the same testimony assured them of his love, for their Master, in eating with them, had prophesied more than their denials. He had prophesied the saving value of his death, promised them to sup with them again in God’s Kingdom (see Matthew 26:29), assured them of his meeting them in Galilee, where he would again gather the scattered sheep. In the preceding lecture on the Mount of Olives he had taught them that their primary concern must be to endure to the end (Mark 13:9-13); now his actions spoke louder than his words. This was how he had endured to the end, and how in doing so he had accomplished their redemption, for at his orders they all drank the "blood of the covenant" (vs. 24).
We must say something about the meaning of Passover and Unleavened Bread to first-century Jews and Christians. To both groups this was the most sacred season of the year, because it celebrated anew the deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage and anticipated anew the fulfillment of all God’s promises. The hymns praised God for his rescues. The Scripture enabled each father to instruct his son in the holy tradition (Exodus 11-14), telling how all the hosts of the enemy had been defeated and the Covenant people had escaped from slavery to Pharaoh. Eating this meal alerted the people for a hasty pilgrimage, on which they would again forsake all their possessions and set out toward the Promised Land. "In this manner you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste" (Exodus 12:11). It was a time for ridding every house of the old leaven (1 Corinthians 5:6-8), for holy assembly and grateful songs. All these meanings carried over into Christian observance of the Eucharist, for the New Covenant in Jesus’ blood continued and fulfilled the Covenant which God had sealed in the sacrifice of the paschal lambs (Exodus 12:13). Perhaps a part of the hymn sung by Jesus and his disciples was Psalms 114:
When Israel went forth from Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language,
Judah became his sanctuary, Israel his dominion.
The Night Watch (14:32-52)
The journey to the Mount of Olives was no casual sequel to the supper but its continuation, for the meal and the lonely watching, linked together by the Hallel Psalm, were intrinsic parts of the same celebration. Especially was this true for Christians who thought of their own life as that of pilgrims on a new Exodus. They recalled, therefore, with added understanding, God’s command concerning the night following the meal:
It was a night of watching by the Lord, to bring them out of the land of Egypt; so this same night is a night of watching kept to the Lord by all the people of Israel throughout their generations (Exodus 12:42).
Of what did such watching consist? Jesus gave a complete demonstration. It consisted of prayer in solitude, without support from anyone else (vs. 32). Of agony of spirit, as distressing as the pangs of death (vs. 34). Of accepting the hour and drinking the cup, the cup which contained the Covenant blood (vss. 24, 36). Of resisting the temptation to place his own will above the Father’s (vs. 36). Of accepting, without resentment, or fear, betrayal by a follower "into the hands of sinners" (vs. 41).
This "night of watching by the Lord" demonstrated also what was meant by sleeping. Point by point, the story embodied the point of the parable in Mark 13:32-37. The Lord commanded his servants to watch, and then left them alone. Three times he came to them during the night to find them asleep. They did not understand or share his praying, his suffering, his struggle with God’s will, his sorrow over the hatred of the world. They had not prayed, but had in fact succumbed to Satan’s testing of their flesh (vs. 38). They did not quite know why Jesus reproached them, what was transpiring in his struggle, or why they should not snatch some rest. Whereas Judas had betrayed him by action, they betrayed him by complacency and insensitiveness. This was the way the story spelled out the simple word "asleep."
During their sleep he was betrayed by one of them. The kiss of Judas stamped Judas as more guilty than the crowd armed with clubs. In kissing Jesus, Judas identified him so that strangers could arrest the right person, but the kiss revealed more about Judas than about Jesus.
The events bore out Jesus’ prophecy, not only that one would betray him but also that all would deny him. When the test came, "they all forsook him." Even the slight exceptions proved the rule. One used his sword in a halfhearted way, but such an action was ill-advised and futile (vs. 47). Another started to follow (vs. 51), but not for long; when the soldiers seized him, he panicked. His momentary allegiance, symbolized perhaps by the loose linen robe (compare with Revelation 3:4-5; Revelation 3:18), turned to flight, and he left with the soldiers the token of his discipleship, his very nakedness signifying his shame (compare with Revelation 3:17; Revelation 16:15). No, the arrest showed how Jesus had long been ready for it, and how all the others were ill-prepared, whether they relied on "swords and clubs" (vs. 48) or on scuttling away into the darkness. Gethsemane itself had been a courtroom with its own verdicts of innocent and guilty.
The Twin Trials (14:53-72)
Now the scene shifted, and the same persons faced a trial in which the secrets of their hearts would be revealed in more official actions. The story continued to deal simultaneously with the trial of Jesus and the trial of the disciples, in the person of Peter. For the sake of clarity we should separate these two trials and examine each in turn.
Before whom was Jesus tried? All the recognized leaders of Israel, from the scribes and elders through the priests to the high priest. In them was vested the right to represent and to govern Israel. It was the "whole council," the Sanhedrin, which now heard the formal examination of witnesses. We would misread the story if from the outset we labeled this court too blackly as totally corrupt. Notice that Jesus nowhere castigates their personal integrity and nowhere repudiates the legality of the proceedings. The pathos of the situation was all the greater because they were the legitimate and reputable rulers of God’s people. To them he had been sent as the long-awaited deliverer. For them he had done his assigned task. To be condemned by them was harder to accept than death itself. For Israel to deliver its Messiah to the Romans for execution would be a stupendous sign of the failure of his hopes and his mission.
Of their desire to convict him, the story leaves no doubt. Yet the first stage of the trial frustrated this desire. The testimony was quite inadequate to justify the charges (vs. 55). To be sure, witnesses presented evidence that was damning enough, but no two of them would agree. When Jesus was invited to answer his accusers, he preserved strict silence. He would not debate the case with them. When no conclusive evidence could be marshaled to secure a conviction, the high priest became desperate. He asked Jesus point-blank: "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?" (vs. 61). This was the pivotal moment in the trial. Would he confess or not? We do not know what answer the high priest expected to get. Nor does the reader at this point know what to expect. We cannot with assurance recover why Jesus at last answered so directly and unequivocally. Was it because Israel, through its supreme representative, was at last asking him to declare himself? Perhaps. Did he know that his answer would seal his death and, more than that, give a final official stamp to Israel’s rejection of God’s good news? That seems to be the thrust of Mark’s story. That story made it clear that Jesus had been officially condemned "as deserving death" not because the testimony of his accusers was true but because his own confession was true: "I am; and you will see the Son of man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven" (vs. 62). It was this imperious declaration which had fully merited the charge of blasphemy. He had claimed to be not only David’s son but his Lord (Mark 12:37), not only Israel’s Servant but its ruler, not only God’s messenger but his anointed Son. It was by his own choice and his own word that he had brought upon himself this repudiation by God’s people. If this were his true anointing, he could not now deny it to God’s high priest; if false, then he had been deluded from the beginning, and the high priest’s conclusion of blasphemy had been necessary (vs. 64). Thus the trial before the high priest simply published to the world the decision which Jesus had made in the night watch on the Mount of Olives. In his mission to Israel he would endure to the end.
The trial of Peter, which had been going on at the same time, provides a vivid contrast. Jesus had been condemned by his own confession; faced with a less serious charge, Peter was freed by his own denial. Jesus had been innocent of the charges others had shouted; Peter was guilty: he had been "with the Nazarene" (vs. 67). During the time when Jesus had been under interrogation, Peter warmed himself by the fire with the guards. The Lord had remained undaunted by a massive array of official witnesses; Peter was terrified by the curiosity of a waitress. When asked, Jesus had said simply, "I am"; Peter invoked binding oaths to reinforce his thrice-repeated lie: "I do not know this man." It took a shrill-voiced rooster, announcing the dawn, to bring Peter to his senses. The night of the two trials was over. Jesus had watched throughout the night; his top lieutenants had fallen asleep.
Such is the story which Mark had heard from the Apostles, perhaps including Peter himself. Mark recognized that this story was an authentic Christian testimony to Jesus. What made the testimony sound authentic? Was it Mark’s confidence that every detail had been verified by an eyewitness? That the proceedings had been accurately recorded by an expert secretary? No. The more impressive clue to its authenticity was the candid picture of the disciples’ weakness. Only men who had shared Peter’s cowardice could give such overwhelming evidence of the Master’s strength under fire.
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"Commentary on Mark 14". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 7 / Ordinary 12