We know from the other Gospels that there were Roman soldiers in this group sent to arrest Jesus. Pilate no doubt had authorized the arrest.
We learn in the other Gospels that the servant’s name was Malchus, that the one wielding the sword was Peter, and that the Lord healed the servant’s ear with a touch, the last public miracle that he performed. I wonder if Peter does not here identify himself because the act, though foolish, seems courageous and he couldn’t bear to present himself as a courageous man when his cowardice is about to be displayed in such awful detail.
Scholars debate the suggestion but it seems almost certain to me that this odd reference to an unnamed young man who fled in fear, found only in this Gospel, is a reference to Mark himself, his signature on the Gospel so to speak.
Jesus had resisted making such a public acknowledgment throughout his ministry but there was no longer any reason for secrecy and so he said the truth: “I am the Messiah and I am the Son of God.” Jesus would in the final analysis be executed for telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
We are drawing near to the climax of the Gospel history, the crucifixion of Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God for the sins of men. Remember Paul’s simple summary of the gospel: “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.” The cross was made necessary by our sin. Justice required the punishment of our sins and Christ endured that punishment in our place. That is the theology of the Gospel. But it is also the history of the Gospel.
As the mighty love of God approached its greatest work, there was an outburst of sin, sin of every kind, the very sin that made the cross necessary. As the love of God was displayed in its supreme magnificence, at that very moment of that the sinfulness of man was displayed in all of its ugliness and disgusting pettiness, hurtfulness, and selfishness. We are given to see in the culminating moment of the world’s redemption the ugly reality that made that redemption absolutely necessary.
We live, as we know, in a day that takes sin lightly. We live in a culture that is making a project of removing behaviors from the list of sins. It is no longer sinful in our day to have sex outside of marriage, some of you young people who are so well accustomed to the normality of that practice may be unaware that just a generation ago in our land almost everyone would have at least said that sex outside marriage was a sin. Even television shows would have presented a consistent testimony against sexual promiscuity! It is no longer sinful to kill a baby in the womb, it is no longer sinful to desert one’s marriage and family for the sake of self-fulfillment and one’s own personal fulfillment. We could go on and on. Ours is a culture at war with sin but the strategy by which to overcome it is not to kill sin but to deny its very existence. Western man has tired of sin and of attempting to restrain it and overcome it. Like any beaten enemy it seeks to make peace and become friends. Without tongue in cheek our society is taking to heart Oscar Wilde’s advice: “The best way to get rid of temptation is to give in to it.”
Christians have nothing to fear from this making peace with sin that is going on all around us in our day. It is not as if the world will find a better way, a more successful way to deal with sin than that way proclaimed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There will be, to be sure, a great deal of personal anguish as a result but no culture and no human being can live at peace with sin. Sin is a principle so inhuman, so anti-human that it must harm, corrupt, and destroy wherever it is given entrance. No one whose life principle is friendship with sin – and I am speaking of what God calls sin – can make a true success of his or her life, because God did not make man and he did not make the world to prosper under the rule of sin. Sin will always pay a wage and the way of the transgressor will always be hard.
Divorce for self-fulfillment has not made people happier, sex outside of marriage has been utterly destructive of the dignity of human beings, abortion has not only broken countless hearts but spread a dirty film over our national life. And on and on it goes. Sin is what robs us of what every human being knows is good and right, of what we ourselves were made for. Sin is what corrupts and ruins what ought to be beautiful and good. We know we were made for something higher and better. We have the testimony of that in our own heart and our own conscience. But we find in ourselves this powerful bent toward attitudes and behavior that are unworthy, unkind, untrue, impure, and utterly proud and selfish. When we see that behavior in others we despise it. When we are forced to see it in ourselves – and we often successfully hide it from ourselves – we are ashamed of it. Such is the ineluctable reality of sin.
We pass judgment all the time if not with our words than in our minds, proving that we know the difference between right and wrong; but all the time we do the same thing. Terry Anderson, the journalist, who became a Christian while being held captive by terrorists in Lebanon, wrote that during his captivity he saw a great deal in his captors that he despised. The more the saw them and the more he talked to them the more he was repelled by them. But he had also to admit to himself – through those long hours, days, weeks and months when there was almost nothing else for him to do but think – that he did not see anything in them that he could not find in himself. Mark Felt, the high FBI official who was the source called Deep Throat, who led Woodward and Bernstein to the information that brought down President Nixon is hailed as a hero in many quarters. But, of course, he violated his oath of office, he lied, he broke his promise just like President Nixon did. And he kept all his malfeasance a secret until after his death. To speak the truth openly would have cost him his job. Sin is everywhere, it stains everything, it is the great, incontestable, irrefutable fact of human existence.
And for this reason we have a tableau of sin painted as the backdrop of the crucifixion of the Son of God. Sin everywhere. Dorothy Sayers, the English author, playwright, and amateur theologian explained the death of Jesus Christ in this way: “He was executed by a corrupt church, a timid politician, and a fickle proletariat.” Nothing exceptional, just the ordinary disgusting smallness of human life that we see every day. She might have added that it was easy for others to kill Jesus, easier than they supposed it would be, because his own followers provided no protection for him whatsoever. They were, to put it bluntly, out and out cowards, every one of them.
In fact, there is not much to choose between the Lord’s disciples and his enemies. The sins are pretty much the same. Start with hypocrisy. We apparently all hate hypocrisy. We rarely say the word without a sneer. “He is such a hypocrite.” We are saying that such a person said one thing and did another; that he is a poseur, someone who portrays himself as one sort of person but acts very differently. Peter is a perfect example of a hypocrite. He protested his loyalty to the Lord, he promised never to desert him no matter the danger, and then when exposed to what he imagined was danger to himself he ran, and then followed at a safe distance, and then, when confronted with his association with Jesus, lied about it repeatedly. There probably wasn’t any real danger. What was the servant girl going to do? What were those other lowlifes in the courtyard going to do. Laugh at him probably. Peter, like so many others of us, was probably more afraid of being laughed at than being arrested.
His behavior, seen in the cold light of day, was despicable. And so was the behavior of the religious leadership, the Sanhedrin, the Court of the People that the Roman government allowed to exercise some local control in Judea. They maintain the pretence that they were only seeking justice – those hypocrites. They had to have evidence, this is a court after all and this is a trial. But Mark puts his finger on their hypocrisy in v. 55. They weren’t looking for justice, they were looking for a conviction. The efforts to manufacture evidence against Jesus were even too obvious for them. Their hypocrisy needed some cover. They needed something better.
Scholars have pointed out that in one particular after another this so-called trial violated virtually every principle and procedure of criminal proceedings as they were to be held in those days. It was held at the wrong place, the rules of evidence were run roughshod over, and so on. But they didn’t care. They hated this man because, as Mark will later say, they were jealous of him – so jealous that even Pilate couldn’t help but see what was going on –; they wanted him gone. Rules of evidence be damned! And lest anyone suppose that they were really, must have been really more honorable men than that, v. 65 puts paid to that. They allowed men to spit on Jesus, to mock him, to blindfold him and strike him. That is the behavior of a group of very small people. Jesus’ trial was not justice but a paroxysm of hatred pretending to be justice. What is that but hypocrisy and the worst and the ugliest form of hypocrisy. They accused the Son of God of blasphemy! Can you believe it! There is nothing more horrible than to see deeply sinful actions undertaken in the church and accompanied with pious gestures and words. The High Priest tore his clothes as if righteousness were his great concern, but, of course, the only unrighteousness was his own and that of his friends.
And we are just getting started. Hypocrisy is but one of the sins on display here. There is, of course, cowardice as well. Credit the Gospel writers with their brutal honesty about themselves, and if indeed the reference in v. 51-52 is to Mark, all the more. They admitted it about themselves. They turned tail and ran. They deserted the Savior in his hour of need to save their own skin, and that, in all likelihood, completely unnecessarily. They deserted the one who was in great danger to escape a largely theoretical danger to themselves. No one in the arresting party had spoken of arresting them. No one had expressed any intention of sweeping up the entire group. It was Jesus and Jesus they would come to seize.
And, of course, there is the lying. Peter’s lying and Judas’ kiss and the priests and elders’ deceitful pretence. The other Gospels make it clear that they brought an entirely trumped up charge against him to Pilate. They accused him of being a political revolutionary when everyone knew it was precisely his refusal to undertake that role that had been the chief cause of the people’s disappointment with him. There is the cruelty and the selfishness and all the rest. There is the mob following orders, just following orders. What of those soldiers who saw the Lord heal Malchus’ ear? Did any one of them say, “Wait a minute. I’m not arresting this man. Do with me what you will, but this man should not be arrested, he should be listened to and followed.” Not a one said that, I think I am safe to say. One doesn’t get ahead by disobeying orders. We are a people who know better than virtually any people in the history of mankind, we twenty-first century people, how much genuine evil and unimaginable cruelty can be performed by ordinary people just following orders. And then what of Judas’ avarice? He took the money to betray his friend. Second thoughts on his part later on don’t change the fact that he took the money; the thirty pieces of silver meant more to him at that moment than all he had received from Jesus, the honor and privilege it had been to be the close friend of the Son of God those past three years.
Several things are worth noting about all of this sin. First, it is mostly the sin of church members, members of the congregation of the Lord. There were some Roman soldiers in the Garden to affect the arrest, but they wouldn’t have been there had the Sanhedrin not asked for their help in apprehending Jesus. No Peter, Mark, and the other disciples and the Sanhedrin had this in common: they were all loyal members of the synagogue, they were all by their own profession the people of God. The Messiah was someone of importance to all of them. As the Bible never tires of reminding us, the worst sinner will never be found in a prison, but always in a church. The greatest sins are always sins committed against light, privilege and knowledge. And these were all men who had been given light, privilege and knowledge.
Second, there isn’t really anything to choose between the sins of the Lord’s disciples and the sins of the religious leadership – his most bitter enemies. They committed the same sins. There was a different heart commitment to be sure, a commitment that subsequent events would demonstrate, but it would have been hard to tell it that night with the disciples scattered and Peter cursing and swearing to convince the folk around the fire that he had never met Jesus of Nazareth.
In the most striking way we have demonstrated at this climatic moment that the difference between Christians and non-Christians is not that non-Christians are sinners and Christians aren’t. It is often supposed by unbelievers that this is what Christians think, that we are better than they. But no real Christian thinks this or, if he or she does, it is a failure on their part to be true to their faith.
We surely don’t deny that having Jesus in your life makes a difference to the way you live your life, the way you treat other people, the way you order your priorities. It surely does. The Bible says it will and we have seen the difference Christ makes to a man or woman’s behavior. How many non-Christians have become Christians at least in part because of what they have seen in the living of the Christians they knew? They were kind and sympathetic. They were honest. They were grateful. They had the courage of their convictions but they were gentle with other people. They were humble and self-effacing. They lived peacefully and happily and all of this was immensely attractive to those who were observing their lives.
One important third century church father, Gregory (known to church history as Gregory Thaumaturgus, Gregory the miracle-worker) became a Christian through the personal witness of Origen, in whose home he stayed while a student. Gregory speaks of the impact made upon him by Origen’s kind and affectionate disposition and his possession of what is such a rare combination – a strong mind together with personal grace, gentleness and kindness. I know people today who would say the same thing about their own conversions. It was watching Christians that convinced them that there was something real to Christianity. That is why it is so important to spend time with unbelievers and to have them in our homes. We are conscious of our failings, our shortcomings and we imagine that no one will see anything in us that would lead them to Christ, but unbelievers can tell a difference where we cannot. They can smell his life in us.
But that being admitted, the difference between Christians and non-Christians is not that great if you are going to measure the difference by behavior. Any Christian will tell you that there is a great deal in his or her life that is disappointing, unworthy of the Lord, and disgusting to himself or herself. And so it has always been. This was not, alas, the last time Peter would show himself a coward.
Christians break all of God’s commandments all the time. We are the first to admit it. It grieves us, but even our grief over our moral failures is a sin in its own right. If we grieved as much as we ought we would do more to kill those sins and we would commit them less often. What is more, our sins are worse than an unbeliever’s sins because we have less excuse for them and ours bring the Lord’s name into active reproach which is not the case with the sins of unbelievers’.
My point is simply that sin – bad behavior, untrue, impure, selfish, low, proud, unloving thoughts, words, and deeds – are something all human beings have in common. It is what we have in common with everybody else. It is what binds us to the life of the unbelievers around us. We all behave in despicable ways. We all violate the standards that we ourselves use to judge others so harshly. We all live so far below the standard we ourselves know to be good and right. We are moral failures to a profound degree. And the only reason any human being refuses to admit this is because he is afraid to.
And recognizing that is the beginning of all wisdom. Everyone lives with sin, sin in himself and sin in the world around him. The world may no longer use the language of sin but it cannot escape the thing itself. Pascal put it this way: “There are only two kinds of human beings: the righteous who know themselves sinners, and the rest, sinners who believe themselves righteous.”
What Pascal means is that there is no way forward, there is no way to deal effectively with one’s sin apart from the honest admission of it. But once admitted there is a way forward, a way to deal with one’s moral failure comprehensively and permanently. It is hard for non-Christian people – they just can’t see it and it is very hard to see that it would be a liberating thing – to admit how bad they are. That seems to them a discouraging and defeating thing. And, of course, there are many so-called experts who are telling them the same thing, who are helping to provide excuses for their behavior, behavior that their own consciences condemn. But that is the counsel of despair. You are always then left where you were before: a moral failure having to lie about it to yourself and others; a hypocrite who has to pose as if he were better than he is; a man or woman who must continue to condemn other people for the same moral failures of which he or she is equally guilty.
People think that it is a hurtful thing, a cruel thing to tell another person that he or she is a sinner before God, that he or she is a moral failure when judged against the standards by which God himself judges human life. But this is not so. It is a good thing, a kind thing, a loving thing, and the most helpful thing of all to tell another person. As Tennyson put it:
“He taught me all the mercy for he showed me all the sin.”
So long as a person denies his or her sin, denies that sin is the real problem of his or her life, that person must be shut up to despair, because there is no way for mere human beings to solve their moral problems, deep and intractable as they are. They can deny them, but they don’t go away. They can attempt to redefine them but they are sturdily resistant to artifice. They bubble to the surface every day in attitudes and behavior that no one can explain away. They can try to make up for their sins with other things, but nothing is sufficient to satisfy a life so full of wrong thinking and behavior.
Simone Weil, the great French philosopher turned Christian, wrote that “all sins are attempts to fill voids.” Peter solved his fear problem, his insecurity with a lie. The Sanhedrin solved the problem that Jesus posed to their sense of self and security with their corrupt judgment. Whether it is our behavior sexually or maritally or professionally or relationally, we are attempting to fix ourselves in ways that God does not permit and will not bless.
In an interesting column in the Village Voice, Cynthia Heimel observed that all the people she knew in New York City before they became famous movie stars did not improve as people as a result of their success. Before their stardom they worked behind make-up counters at Macy’s or selling movie tickets. But when they became stars, she said, every one of them became more angry, unhappy, and unstable than they had been before. Why? This is Heimel’s explanation.
That giant thing they were striving for, that fame thing that was going to make everything OK, that was going to make their lives bearable, that was going to fill them with ha-ha-happiness had happened, and the next day they woke up and they were still them. The disillusionment turned them howling and insufferable. [Cited in Keller, The Reason for God, 167]
There is no solution to the sin problem we all face, we all suffer so much from, that blights our lives and the lives of others, no solution except the one God has provided. The very best things in life, the greatest pleasures, the most money; they don’t do a thing against sin. These things invariably increase sin’s power, they don’t conquer it. This is why there is so much sin in the Bible’s account of the conquest of sin: so we will not miss the point. Believers and unbelievers alike are sinning every which way while the one who is suffering for that sin makes his lonely way to the cross and to his appointment with the holy justice of God.
Everyone needs desperately what only Jesus can provide: a real answer to our sin. First, we need forgiveness and God grants us that through Jesus Christ. He can forgive us with his own integrity and justice intact because the sin has been punished; it has been properly dealt with according to the demands of divine justice. And, second, we need to escape sin’s power over us, the grip that it has on our thoughts, words, and deeds. And this God also can give us. Christ comes into our lives by his Holy Spirit and the work of transformation is begun; only begun in this life and this world, but begun nevertheless. And the resurrection of the Lord Jesus guarantees that the work will be completed and we will eventually be made entirely new and sinless creatures forever. Our entire being craves this. Human beings don’t realize this but if they would just stop and think about it, what they want more than anything else is to be good.
Look at these men here: Peter, Mark, Judas, the other disciples, the priests, the elders and the scribes. There is nothing here to admire. The best we can do is to pity them. But then, honesty compels us to admit, that all these centuries later we don’t see anything in them that we don’t find in ourselves. The hypocrisy, the lying, the cruelty, the cowardice, the indifference to human suffering, the small-mindedness, the selfishness, there is not a sin we do not also find in ourselves, in our thoughts, our words, and our deeds. In the things we do and the things we fail to do. But to acknowledge that is not to surrender yourself to despair; it is to take the first step to true freedom.
If you attempt to deal with yourself and with your moral failures by any other means, the Bible and the observation of human life combine to prove to us that you will fail. Your sins, your moral failures will keep the upper hand. What you need is a decisive break, a victory, a conquest of sin’s power in your heart and life. And only God can give you that and he will give it to you, but only through Jesus Christ, his Son who achieved that conquest of sin on behalf of his people.
In a paradoxical way there is wonderful hope in all of this bad behavior on display as Jesus makes his way to the cross. The sin that these men commit, sin of all types, is precisely the reason the Son of God came into the world and it is precisely that sin he conquered and subdued on the cross. He didn’t conquer it for himself – for he had no sin – but for others. For all who will admit their sin, confess it, and seek its forgiveness and its destruction through Jesus Christ.
As a very wise man once put it: “God needs to do a great deal to sinners in order to turn them; but God is requiring nothing of sinners but that they turn.” Christ did the work; he achieved the conquest of sin, that very sin that so darkens your life. Look to him.
The Christian church can be honest about sin – and we are virtually alone in being honest about human sin – because we are convinced of the reality of God’s grace. It is hard, it is virtually impossible really, to admit your problems if there is no solution at hand; it is much easier to admit the truth when the solution is there for the taking.