THE GOSPEL OF MARK
The Passion Narrative
Before we look at these episodes in the Passion Narrative, we need to comment about the truth of these events. Did these events really occur, or, as some claim, did the early church just make up these stories? The episodes of Peter's denials and Jesus' praying in the garden more than any other episodes point to the truth of the Gospel stories. Throughout his Gospel, Mark has taken great pains to show the disciples in a realistic light—they are continually lacking in faith even after Jesus has performed miracles.
Well, the other episodes pale in comparison to these episodes in showing the frailties of the disciples. Whereas throughout the rest of the Gospel Jesus has been shown a Man totally without fear or any sign of human frailty, here we see Jesus as completely frail. In this episode, Jesus will feel the full weight of the horror of the impending crucifixion and will almost collapse beneath its weight. If the Gospel writers were going to make up stories about Jesus and His disciples, these are not the kinds of stories they would have made up. The frailties of Jesus and His disciples in these episodes give us full confidence that these events really did occur.
PREDICTION OF PETER'S DENIALS (14:27-31)
After Jesus celebrates the Passover meal with His disciples, He most likely takes them through the Temple complex, down across the Kidron Valley into an olive garden called "the Garden of Gethsemane." On His way to the garden, Jesus predicts that God is about to strike Him and that the disciples will all abandon Him. He quotes Zech. 13:7: "I will strike down the Shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered." According to Zechariah, even though the sheep would be scattered, a new people would emerge in place of Israel because God had struck down the Shepherd. Out of the death of Jesus a new people would emerge. God's people would now include not just Jews but Gentiles in addition to believing Jews.
Peter—true to nature—bursts out that even though the rest of the disciples might abandon Jesus—probably WILL abandon Jesus, HE will never abandon Jesus. To this Jesus replies that Peter will not simply abandon Him but that he will even deny Jesus THREE times! Before the cock crows 2 times, Peter will have denied Jesus 3 times. By denying Jesus 3 times, Peter's denial of Jesus will be complete. It won't be just a slip; it will be a deliberate and persistent denial of Jesus.
Instead of taking to heart what Jesus is saying, Peter goes on to claim that even if confessing Jesus means death, Peter will never deny Jesus. The other disciples join in this chorus. (Note that although the focus is going to be on Peter, the truth is that the other 10 disciples made the same claim. To a certain degree, they failed Jesus just as much as Peter did; however, since Peter is the source for most of our material in Mark, Peter zeroes in on his own failure and not on the others'.)
GARDEN OF GETHSEMANE (14:32-42)
As was said earlier, Jesus leaves the upper room and heads for the Garden of Gethsemane located across the Kidron Valley, at the base of the Mount of Olives. Why did Jesus take His disciples there? It was late at night, and Jesus probably did not want to walk the extra distance to Bethany. Moreover, Jewish Law dictated that you were supposed to spend the night in Jerusalem during Passover. Finally, since Judas knew where the place was, Jesus most likely had spent several other evenings in this garden with His disciples.
We need to be careful with the meaning of words; however, in this case, the meaning of the word "Gethsemane" seems to have special significance for what is about to occur. The word "Gethsemane" literally means "olive press" because in that garden the olives were pressed in order to produce olive oil. The olives were pressed 3 times in order to extract the oil from the olives: once to produce oil for the Temple (the best oil); another time to produce oil for consumption; and the last time for general purposes. A greater pressing was about to take place in this garden. Just like the olives were crushed 3 times to extract the oil completely from the olives, so three times Jesus will feel His soul crushed because of the crucifixion looming just around the corner.
When Jesus enters the garden, He leaves 8 of the disciples at the skirts of the garden, and then takes Peter, James, and John farther with Him into the garden. Why these 3? Probably because He was needing their support during these critical hours of His life and ministry. Although Jesus was fully God, He was also fully human, and He was about to face an ordeal which no one else had ever faced or ever would face. The sad thing is that although Jesus extended to these 3 disciples the great honor of being His support, they nevertheless failed Him miserably by falling asleep. The only time Jesus probably ever really needed them, and they fall asleep! Jesus informs them that His soul is grieved to the point of death. He is in so much misery that He could literally die from it.
Jesus then goes a little farther into the garden to pray to the Father. Jesus prays the most honest prayer He could have prayed at that time. He does not address God formally as "Father" but rather intimately as "Dad." It is the form of address that a child would call his own dad. He asks His Dad to remove the cup of suffering that His Dad wants Him to drink. Jesus, in other words, is asking God to change the plan and allow Him to forego the suffering of the cross. As has been pointed out millions of times, Jesus is not referring simply to the physical horrors of the cross which were bad enough but to the spiritual horrors—the one point in history in which God the Father would abandon His Son. And now just abandon Him but abandon Him when He needed Him the most—on the cross.
Note, though, that Jesus does not demand that the Father do this. Rather, He asks that if it is possible for God to devise another way of salvation for mankind, that He would do so now so that Jesus could escape the cross. This is the moment in Jesus' ministry. If He rejects the Father's will, then all is lost for mankind. Moreover, the unity in the Godhead is broken, and the entire universe plunges into darkness. That is how critical this moment is not just for Jesus but also for the entire universe.
Jesus, though, is the perfect Son, and as a perfect Son, He perfectly trusts and obeys His Father. If His Father wants Him to go to the cross, then as the perfect Son, He will go to the cross. As the perfect Son, He finishes His prayer with "Thy will be done." This is not easy for Jesus because 3 times Jesus must spend at least an hour in prayer processing what God wants from Him; however, THE critical moment in Jesus' life passes with Jesus being completely reconciled to the Father's will. The real victory for Jesus occurred in Gethsemane; the next events are merely a carrying out of the decision Jesus and His Father made in the garden. It was in the garden that Jesus processed what was about to happen; the garden gave Him the strength to go through the next few hours.
In contrast to Jesus who persisted in prayer, the 3 disciples are fast asleep in the garden. Jesus exhorts them to be vigilant and pray; otherwise, when the hour of temptation comes, they will not be able to resist. Three times Jesus returns to discover that they are fast asleep. Each time when Jesus arouses them from their sleep to exhort them to pray, they are speechless. The third time Jesus informs them that the hour has now come—Judas is on his way. (Note also that Jesus singles out Peter. Peter had been boasting about his loyalty to Jesus, and Jesus has been trying to help him prepare himself spiritually so that he won't actually deny Him 3 times. Peter, though, has failed even this test. The worst is yet to come.)
At this point, Jesus beholds the Temple police approaching the Mount of Olives to arrest Him. Having been to the Mt. of Olives, I can assure you that Jesus definitely saw them coming and could have escaped over the mountain if He had wanted. Instead, Jesus approaches them. Judas, who is leading the group, addresses Jesus as "Rabbi"; in order to identify Jesus, he begins to kiss Jesus fervently. Kissing Jesus was not unusual because disciples normally kissed their rabbis whenever they greeted them. Judas kissing Jesus, however, was a sham because Judas was making a total mockery of Jesus. He was no genuine disciples of Jesus and therefore had to right to greet Jesus in this manner; his kissing Jesus—even kissing Jesus fervently—was a mockery of Jesus. He was taking a symbol of intimacy and using it to betray Jesus.
At this point, one of the disciples, Peter (according to the Gospel of John), takes a sword and cuts off the ear of one of those accompanying the Temple police. (Again, according to John, this person, Malchus, was the servant of the High Priest; Malchus had probably come along with the throng in order to report back to Caiaphas what had happened in the garden.) Why did Peter strike the servant's EAR? The truth is that Peter was not aiming for the ear but was trying to cleave in 2 the servant's head. He missed and only got the ear. [Mark does not record it, but Luke (ever the doctor) informs us that Jesus healed the servant's ear.]
Jesus then rebukes the Temple police sent by the Sanhedrin. They had come armed against Him as if He were a terrorist (literal meaning of the word translated "robber.") Treating Him like a criminal was humiliating to Jesus. He definitely did not deserve this kind of treatment and is not afraid to tell them so. Daily He had been teaching them in the Temple where they could have arrested Him easily. By refusing to arrest Him in the Temple area during broad day light and by arresting Him with weapons at night, they were revealing themselves to be the cowards they really were. Jesus then allows them to arrest Him. This results in the 11 disciples scattering just as Jesus had predicted.
At the end of this episode, Mark adds an element the other Gospel writers do not mention—the flight of the young man. Apparently, a young man had been aroused in the night by the events swirling around Jesus. He got out of bed with just his bed clothes on and followed Jesus and the 11 disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane, seeing everything that had happened to Jesus. The young man was apparently rich because his bed clothes were made of linen, a mark of the rich. When the police discover him there, they attempt to capture him; however, they're only able to grab his bed clothes.
Why does Mark mention this account? Many speculate (probably rightfully) that this young man was none other than John Mark who lived in Jerusalem at his time and whose house later became a major meeting place for the early church. Like the young man, Mark at this time was both young and rich. Mark may be confessing that he actually abandoned Jesus too. Yet more is probably operating here. The Greek words used to describe the young man imply that he was not just young but was actually strong and brave. By mentioning this episode, Mark is claiming that Jesus was not abandoned by weak disciples but also by the powerful, brave, and rich. Jesus had to face the ordeal up ahead totally alone. He had completely been abandoned even by the strong and brave.
PETER'S DENIAL (14:54, 66-72)
Mark once more weaves 2 stories together—Jesus' trial before Caiaphas the High Priest and Peter's 3-fold denial. By weaving together the 2 stories, Mark is first contrasting the way Jesus responded to His situation and the way Peter responded to his. The 2 different responses are due to the fact that whereas Jesus prayed in the garden, Peter remained fast asleep. (Peter is going to come off looking bad in this episode; moreover, neither Mark nor Peter attempt to excuse Peter's behavior. We must remember, though, that of the 11 remaining disciples, only Peter and John had the courage to follow Jesus to Caiaphas' house. Although Peter proves to be a coward, he is nevertheless more courageous than 9 of the other disciples.) Second, by weaving together the 2 stories, Mark is implying that Jesus is not the only person on trial that night. Peter was on trial too. The sad thing is that even though Jesus passes with flying colors, Peter fails miserably.
One question that confronts us the reason Mark included this account in his Gospel. Probably for 2 reasons. First, Peter's denial of Jesus was really a dramatic event in the history of Christianity. How could Peter the Rock deny Jesus? If Peter denied Jesus, then who would not deny Him if faced with persecution? This event sent shock waves throughout he band of apostles. Second, Mark probably included this episode to comfort Christians who had actually denied Jesus during times of persecution. Just like Peter was eventually restored to full fellowship with Jesus (John 21), so they too could be restored to full fellowship. They needed to remember one thing though: later when Peter again faced persecution, he remained loyal to Jesus at the cost of his own life.
Peter enters into the courtyard of Caiaphas the High Priest. Apparently, Caiaphas' house was built around a courtyard. If the house in Jerusalem designated as Caiaphas' house is genuinely his, then Jesus was most likely downstairs in the interrogation room. By looking up through the doorway, Jesus would have not only heard Peter denying Him but also could have seen him in this sad display of cowardice.
The first and second circumstances of Peter's denial involved the servant girl who guarded the doorway to the High Priest's house. Peter is not going to crumble at the sight of a strong, brave Roman soldier intent on harming him, but at the sight of a little servant girl. Moreover, Peter becomes more and more adamant and hostile as he is confronted with the claim that he is Jesus' disciple. The first time he merely claims that he did not know nor understand what she was talking about. The third time, though, he is actually calling down curses upon himself if what he is saying is not true—“May God curse (condemn, damn) me if I know the Man!" At this point, a rooster crows for a second time, thereby fulfilling Jesus' prediction. (It is really interesting that even today the only place in Jerusalem where I heard the rooster crowing constantly is this very place where Peter denied Jesus 3x. It is like even today Peter cannot get a break!).