Monday, January 05, 2009

Misunderstanding Jesus: Mark 14:43-52

Audio available here

Throughout human history, I suppose that no other individual has been the subject of so much study, research, investigation, and inquiry than the person of Jesus Christ. More than any world leader, more than any military hero, more than any philosopher, scientist, or artist, Jesus has been the subject of careful and thorough scrutiny for some two millennia. If one considers the study that went into the Messianic promises of the Old Testament prior to His coming, that timeline could be stretched for at least two more millennia. Yet for all the hours and ink that have been spent trying to figure out Jesus of Nazareth, it is probably fair to say that no other individual has ever been so misunderstood as He. He was misunderstood by many before He came, He was misunderstood by many while He walked among us, and He is misunderstood by many today. And on that dreary night in Gethsemane, several of the various ways in which He has been misunderstood are seen in the various cast of characters that take the stage in this narrative. And the ways in which these have misunderstood Him are the same ways that many misunderstand Him today.

I. Jesus is misunderstood by self-seeking betrayers (vv43-45)

Of the multitude of people that this narrative encompasses, only two are named: Jesus and Judas. At its roots, this is a story about these two. Judas had gone to conspire with the chief priests on handing Jesus over to them. And we were told in Mark 14:11 that he began seeking how to betray Him at an opportune time. During the Passover meal, when Jesus announced His awareness of the betrayal plot, it appeared to Judas that the time had come. The iron was hot and ready to strike. The other gospels indicate to us that, at some point during the supper, Judas had left the company of Jesus and the disciples and went out to trigger the prearranged arrest party. And he comes now in the dark of night to the location where he knew Jesus would be, and plants a kiss on the Lord. The word for kiss here is intensified, indicating that Judas made an elaborate show out of this kiss. While appearing to lavish affection on Jesus, in reality, he was pointing Him to the arrest party by a prearranged sign.

Luke 22:3 says that Satan entered him. John 13:2 says that the devil put it into his heart to betray Jesus. Then in John 13:27, we read that Satan entered into him. But Satan only influences people to do what they are willing to do in the first place. So Satan is an agent, but like you and I when we sin, it ultimately boils down to our own desire. As stated in James 1:14-15, “each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin.” Satan appealed to some internal desire in Judas to lure him into this act. What kind of desire was it? While we are not told specifically, we can induce a possible factor from the information we are told in the text. First, we know from earlier in Mark 14 that Judas went out to make this deal with the priests following the lavish act of the woman who poured out the perfume on Jesus. That perfume had an estimated value of approximately one year’s salary for the average laborer in that day. Secondly, we are told in John 12 that Judas protested against the woman’s action, insisting that it was a waste, and that the perfume could have been sold and given to the poor. But John also tells us that “he said this, not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box, he used to pilfer what was put into it.” So, Judas was the treasurer of the disciples, and was secretly embezzling money from their funds, therefore, he was only thinking of how much of that money he might have been able to take for himself. Thirdly, we are also told in Mark 14:11 that the priests promised to give Judas money for the inside information that would lead to their capture of Jesus. Now from all of this, we can reasonably suggest that Satan was appealing to the self-serving greed of Judas. He was content to follow Jesus so long as he could skim a little personal profit off the top, but when following Jesus no longer produced a personal profit, Judas began seeking a way to profit by betraying Him. He misunderstood Jesus as being a means to his ends, and when his ends were no longer being served by Jesus, he began to find other means to those ends, even at the cost of handing Jesus over to die.

While there can only be one Judas Iscariot, and his act of betrayal is much more severe than any other that ever has or ever will be committed, we find that there are those who commit similar, albeit smaller, acts of betrayal still. There are those who find that being involved in a church opens up doors of social networking and business relationships with others in the church, or that calling themselves Christians gives them an advantage in the marketplace. I can’t tell you the number of times over the years that I have had to confront individuals who sought to exploit the fellowship of the church by recruiting others into pyramid marketing programs. Then are those who have been persuaded by false teachers into believing that following Jesus will make them wealthy. These and others like them misunderstand that following Jesus is not about having my bank account enlarged or my portfolio expanded. It is not about making this life more luxurious or comfortable. Following Jesus is about the denial of self, not the gratification of self. But these have used Jesus as a means to their own ends, and when those ends are no longer satisfied by Jesus, they conveniently turn away from Jesus and seek another angle toward furthering their own agendas. They are self-serving, which is a monumental misunderstanding of Jesus and His message and mission.

II. Jesus is misunderstood by intimidated oppressors (vv48-49)

Jesus says in v48, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest Me, as you would against a robber?” The Greek word rendered robber is the same word that is used to describe the two men who were crucified with Jesus. It can also mean “revolutionary,” and is used to describe Barabbas, who was charged with murder during an insurrection. Thus the NIV renders this verse: Am I leading a rebellion," said Jesus, "that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? And it would appear from the details given to us of this arrest party that those who sought to oppress Jesus indeed considered Him to be an intimidating threat and a revolutionary leader. Judas has not come to Jesus with a renegade gang of street fighters. We read in v43 that he has come with an entourage that has been assembled by the Sanhedrin – the Jewish ruling council that consists of the chief priests, scribes and elders. And this entourage is armed to the teeth with swords and clubs, a violation of the Jewish law to put aside weapons on the Sabbath and special occasions such as Passover. John’s gospel indicates that this group includes a cohort and a tribune. These are Roman military terms. A cohort would be somewhere between 600 and 1,000 armed soldiers, and a tribune is a commander over a thousand soldiers. Even being conservative with the estimate, it is safe to say that hundreds of armed personnel have been dispatched by the Sanhedrin to accompany Judas for the arrest of Jesus. This is a much stronger force than would be deployed to catch a simple thief. And they have not come to take Him publicly in broad daylight, as they have had ample opportunity to do. All week long Jesus has been in and out of the Temple, giving plenty of chances for them to seize Him. But they have come at night, and suited for battle, to the dark and private confines of His encampment on the Mount of Olives. We have to wonder just what they expected was going to happen! They were certainly prepared for a strong resistance. The authorities have determined that Jesus is a threat to national security.
This indicates that the Sanhedrin had misunderstood Jesus.

Though Jesus made it clear that He had come to establish a new Kingdom, He had not come to overthrow any political regimes or earthly kingdoms. Though this is what many had expected and even hoped that the Messiah would do when He came, this was not His mission. In fact, these goals were too low for Jesus. His kingdom would be established not be established with the weapons of earthly warfare nor would it be seated upon an earthly throne, but rather His Kingdom would be established in the hearts of human beings as the truth He proclaimed liberated them from the bondage of sin and Satan. But the Sanhedrin were so caught up in their own power, that they could not receive this message. The popularity of Jesus among the common people threatened their security and led them to take excessive measures to eliminate the threat.

It seems that in our own day, Jesus is once again threatening the powers that be. Across the world, governments are enacting stricter controls on religious freedoms in fear that a widespread movement of Christianity will undermine the strongholds that tyrants and oppressive regimes exercise over their lands. Weekly, and even daily, I receive news from around the world of churches burned, Christians tortured and killed, and other unspeakable atrocities that are committed by armed militias, some working independently and others sanctioned by the government. In our own nation, the freedoms that we have long cherished are evaporating as Christians find themselves more and more restricted from speaking openly about their faith in the workplace and marketplace. The steady stream of literature being published by those who call themselves “the new atheists” attack Christianity with outlandish claims, even blaming all the evils of the world on Christianity and accusing those who religiously educate their children of child abuse. Do they stop to consider what the world would be like if Christianity had been absent from world history? Have they considered the work of Christians in establishing schools (the very schools at which many of these new atheists teach!), hospitals, orphanages, and other social ministries? Have they considered the impact of the Christian worldview on human rights and the rise of democracy? Have they considered the lives transformed for the good by the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? No, they only consider the Christian message a threat to their monopoly on the intelligentsia of our day. They have come out with pen and paper rather than swords and clubs, but with the same hellbent animosity with which the arrest party came to the garden to seize Jesus. Like that armed delegation of the Sanhedrin, they have misunderstood Jesus, His mission and His message.

III. Jesus is misunderstood by violent defenders (v47)

This passage is not a case of the good guys vs. the bad guys. Even those who would be “good guys” in this text are also guilty of misunderstanding Jesus. One of the disciples takes up arms to fight back against this crowd. We have to do some comparative readings in the other gospels to make more sense of this account for Mark’s details are scarce. Let’s turn to Luke 22:36 &. Here Jesus had told the disciples that the time had come that whoever has no sword should sell his coat and buy one. The meaning of this statement is debated among scholars, but the consensus seems to be that Jesus was speaking figuratively, indicating that the days ahead would be filled with difficulty. When the disciples told Jesus in v38 that they had two swords among them, Jesus said, “It is enough.” That statement is also debated, with some interpreting Him to mean that two will suffice, and others interpreting Him to mean that they have misunderstood what He said, and the conversation is over. “That’s enough of that kind of talk!” or something would be intended. Either way we interpret His words, “It is enough”, we can see that He is obviously NOT calling the disciples to armed resistance, for two swords would hardly defend the whole group. But apparently, they have brought these swords with them into the garden. Luke goes on to tell us in vv49-51 that when the militia encompassed Jesus and His disciples, they began to ask if they should strike with the sword, and before He could answer, one of them had already severed the ear of the high priest’s servant. And Jesus rebuked the disciple and said, “Stop! No more of this!” Matthew 26 gives us more of what Jesus said to the sword-wielding disciple. He said, “Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.” John tells us that the servant’s name was Malchus, and that it was Peter who did this. It seems that Peter is still inclined to speak and act before thinking or consulting with Jesus about his actions first. And Luke tells us that Jesus immediately touched the ear of this servant and healed him. So rather than fighting back, rather than condoning the violence of His disciple, Jesus heals one of those who have come to take Him away to death! Malchus’ ear stands as a reminder to us that Jesus will not have His followers take up arms in His defense. He has not come to destroy Malchus or anyone else, but to save them. And in touching his ear to heal him, Jesus demonstrates that His mode of operation is grace, not warfare. But Peter and countless others who have called themselves followers of Jesus have misunderstood Him, and many have taken to violence to defend and advance the faith, contrary to the very nature of Jesus.

The name of Jesus has been foolishly attached to crusades and violent episodes in many embarrassing episodes of Christian history. These events are frequently recounted to us by nonbelievers who would characterize Jesus and His movement by the misguided actions of those who claimed to follow Him. In the last several decades there have been high profile incidents of so-called Christian groups who have stockpiled weapons in barricaded compounds or carried out acts of violence against abortion clinics and other institutions which stand for the things we oppose. But these actions do not represent Christ! Christ says, “Put away the sword!” and He even extends grace toward those who would come against Him. Christianity has become so deeply stained by the ways of the world that we often proudly assert a militant disposition and throw around ridiculous slogans at which the world takes rightful offense. We have so severely misunderstood the way of the Master – the way of nonviolent resistance, the way of peace, the way of civil disobedience – that those like the Mennonites who continue to hold fast to these biblical ideals are often ridiculed by other Christians as being overly na├»ve. What an ironic development! The Apostle Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 10:4-5 that our weapons are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses, and those fortresses are not military compounds, but rather Paul says, they are “speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.” In Ephesians 6, he tells us that the sword of the Spirit is the Word of God. We defend and advance the Christian faith by sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with a lost and dying world in hopes that they would be saved!

Jesus told Peter in Matthew 26, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels? How then will the Scriptures be fulfilled, which say that it must happen this way?” You see, when Peter, or any of us, resort to violence in the name of Jesus, we minimalize the power and sovereignty of God. God is in control of the events of Gethsemane, and He is in control of every other event in the world. He has told us what we are to do – we are to be His witnesses, proclaiming His truth in love to the world – and if stronger action is necessary, then God Himself will enact it. As for us, we must be true to the message and the mission of Jesus, come what may, and leave the rest to God, who is more aware, more able, and more just and gracious in His dealings with humanity than we will be. When violence occurs in the name of Jesus, there has been a misunderstanding of who He is, what He has said, and what He has come to do for the world.

IV. Jesus is misunderstood by casual followers (vv51-52)

This passage is a showcase of strange individuals. We have the one who betrays with a kiss; we have the armed posse come against the Prince of Peace; we have the ear-slicing disciple; and now we have even a streaker. Unlike the sword-wielding disciple and the earless servant of the high priest, we are not helped here by looking at other gospels. This incident is recorded only in Mark. We have no idea who this is. It has been suggested by many that it is Mark himself, who inserts this personal recollection into the account. While that is entirely possible, we cannot say for certain. From the description of his linen sheet, we can infer that he has come out from his home where he was sleeping. This was either his bed-sheet, or else a sleeping garment. And being described as a linen sheet, we can also infer that this was a wealthy individual, for linen was a costly fabric in that day. Aside from this, he is mysterious. We don’t know who he is, or why he was there. But we are told that he was following Jesus. Was he a disciple? Was he a curious onlooker? We do not know. But when following Jesus became dangerous for him, he left his bedsheet and his dignity in the hands of the militia and fled naked from the scene.

While we want to be careful not to read too much into this rather obscure recollection here, the presence of this one is sufficient to remind us that the life of faith is not a casual endeavor. It is not to be undertaken in one’s pajamas. To publicly identify oneself with Jesus is not a pass to a pleasure-filled life of comfort and peace. While in our society, being a follower of Jesus is not always viewed negatively, in most of the world for most of history, to follow Jesus has been to invite trouble upon oneself. There is a cost of discipleship, and that cost is often suffering. We keep our eyes focused on the pleasures of heaven, because often the pleasures of earth will be forfeited for the follower of Jesus. And if we are not prepared to endure the hardships that following Jesus will often entail, then we have misunderstood him.

The image of the naked young man fleeing the scene puts a vivid image in our minds of a reality that would otherwise be merely cold and impersonal data on paper. You see, in v50 we read that “they all left Him and fled.” Matthew left Him, John left Him, James left Him, Andrew and Peter left Him. They all left Him and fled, just as Jesus had said in v27. All shared the last supper with Him; all pledged to die with Him; and when the chaos erupted, all abandoned Him. And the naked runner in the streets warns us all that difficulties will come, and when they do, we will have a choice to make. We will either endure the hardship with Jesus, or else we will flee. Though we may keep our clothing intact, we will be stripped of our testimony and equally shamed in that moment should we abandon Him in the difficulties we encounter as His followers. If we get going when the going gets tough, then we have misunderstood Him and what it means to be His follower.

There are many things in the world that we will never understand. Fortunately, for most of us, there are many things we don’t need to understand. There are many things about which we may be mistaken which are of no great importance. Most of us will be just fine in life without a mental grasp of quantum physics, calculus, mechanical engineering, or the life cycle of garden slugs. But if we misunderstand Jesus, then when this life is over and we stand on the threshold of eternity, it will matter very little what else we may have ever understood. If we have found Jesus to be a convenient means to our self-centered ambitions in life, then we need to quickly repent before we find ourselves turning our backs on Him when He ceases to provide for our comforts and luxuries. If we have disregarded Jesus with contempt because we deem Him to be a threat to our own power, then we have forsaken the opportunity to be saved and are left without help and hope. If we have put a militant face on our Christianity and sought to advance or defend the name of Jesus without regard for the ways of Jesus, then we have trapped ourselves in a contradiction that we must escape through repentance and rededication to the Christ of Scripture. And if we have failed to prepare ourselves for the hardship that we may have to endure for His name’s sake, then we must begin to consider the cost of being His disciple. Living for Christ in this fallen world is not going to get easier as time goes by, and the day will likely come when we will choose to maintain our security or our testimony, being unable to hold fast to both. Ultimately, when it is all said and done, eternity is staked on our understanding of Jesus, His message and His mission. That is one thing we don’t want to mistaken about.

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