"And there followed Him a certain young man , having a linen cloth cast about his naked body; and the young men laid hold on him: And he left the linen cloth, and fled from them naked."— Mark 14:51, Mark 14:52.
The insertion of this story of the young man with the linen cloth needs accounting for. Mark omits many important details in the story of Christ"s arrest, apparently in the interests of brevity. But this same evangelist, who in his passion for brevity omits items of importance, inserts this story about the young man with the linen cloth, though it is trivial in itself, and in no way affects the course of events. Why did this stern economist of words spare two verses in his brief and pregnant Gospel to tell this irrelevant story about some unknown young man? There must have been some strong reason operating on Mark to induce him to insert it.
A Personal Interest.
The usual way of accounting for its insertion is by saying that the little incident must have had some special interest for Mark himself; indeed that he himself was the young man of whom he speaks. If that supposition is right, we can understand how the story came to be inserted. If Mark was the young man in question, the incident was not trivial to him. The act that brought him even into momentary contact with Christ on that dread and bitter night would be one of supreme interest and importance. There are other guesses as to the identity of this young man. Some commentators, for example, think that he was James ,the brother of our Lord; others, the son of that unknown friend of Christ"s who lent Him the Upper Room; whilst Dean Plumptre and Ian Maclaren make the ingenious guess that he was Lazarus. But all fail to account for the insertion of this trivial incident in the narrative. The one supposition that has real plausibility and likelihood is the one most often adopted, namely, that the young man was Mark himself.
After the Gospel Manner.
Let me indicate some of the things that lead me to think this young man was the evangelist himself. (1) I begin with this, that Mark should introduce himself into his narrative in this anonymous way is exactly in keeping with the Gospel manner. Take the Fourth Gospel for illustration. In that Gospel John has to narrate many incidents in which he himself took part, but he never once mentions himself by name. He speaks of himself, half shyly as it were, as "the disciple whom Jesus loved," or "that other disciple." It often happened that artists would introduce their own portraits into the pictures they were painting. But they always put their own portraits in the background. And one had to be familiar with the painters" features to recognise them at all. It was so with the evangelists. If they have to come into the picture, they keep to the background; they stow themselves away in some inconspicuous corner. They introduce themselves anonymously, and for Mark to speak of himself in this way as "a certain young man" is exactly in keeping with evangelic usage.
The Touch of an Eye-witness.
(2) The vivid detail of the narrative seems to suggest the eye-witness. Speaking broadly, this Gospel is Peter"s Gospel. The uniform account of tradition is that Mark was Peter"s "interpreter," and amanuensis, and that he wrote down the various details of his Gospel as he heard Peter narrate them. Now Peter could not have given him this story. For Peter had taken flight and had not yet recovered from his flight. And even when he did recover, it was "from afar" that he followed, and he was not in a position to know what happened in the near vicinity of Christ Himself. But, if Peter did not give Mark this story, whence did he get it? The almost irresistible conclusion is that Mark puts in here a little bit "on his own." The detail of it, as I say, suggests the personal narrative. And the detail comes out specially in the use of the Greek word which is translated "linen cloth." The evangelist specifies a costly kind of linen cloth, a "sindon" which, according to Edersheim, "no doubt corresponds to the Sadin or Sedina which, in Rabbinic writings, means a linen cloth, or a loose linen wrapper, though, possibly, it may also mean a night-dress." Apparently it had been used as a coverlet for the bed. That the evangelist should specify in this way, should be so minute and exact, and should crowd so much detail into the account, all points to the conclusion that he was writing of something which happened to himself.
(3) Once again, all that we know about the evangelist"s circumstances favours the idea that the young man was Mark himself. First of all, we know that Mary, Mark"s mother, lived in Jerusalem. It is quite possible her house may have been situated in one of the streets through which the procession marched on its way from the Garden to the Judgment Hall. Furthermore, we know that Mary"s house was a large house, sufficiently large to accommodate the prayer-meetings of the Church. It was in her house that the Church had met for prayer when Peter lay in his prison, and it was to her house that Peter made his way on his release. We infer that people who live in large houses are possessed of ample means, and so we conclude that Mary, Mark"s mother, was a well-to-do woman. This is supported by the fact that one of her connections, Barnabas, was a landed proprietor and a rich man. If Mary was the well-to-do woman we have every reason to think she was, then we can understand how it was that it was a sindon in which her son wrapped himself when he made his hurried rush into the street.
(4) Moreover, everything that we know of Mark"s character fits in exactly with the description of the young man here given. Mark is referred to, as you will remember, more than once in the Acts. He accompanied Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey. All went well while they were in Cyprus. But when they crossed over to the mainland of Asia Minor, and were about to face the notorious dangers of the Pamphylian mountains, Mark suddenly deserted the mission and returned to Jerusalem. That is exactly the same kind of person as this young Prayer of Manasseh , who, with headlong enthusiasm championed Christ, but when he found his championship of Christ"s cause brought him into trouble, left the linen cloth in the soldier"s hands and fled.
Mark , the Stump-fingered.
(5) And, finally, I call your attention to the curious epithet by which Mark was distinguished in the early Church. He was called Mark "the Stump-fingered." We are not told why he was so called. But may not the explanation be found, as Dr David Smith suggests, in this incident? Perhaps the incident, after all, may not have been quite so trifling as Mark"s account would lead us to suppose. Perhaps he lost more that night than his linen cloth. The Roman soldier was in no mood to brook interference, and it may well have been that Mark"s interposition on behalf of Christ was rewarded with a sword slash which whipped off his finger.
And now let us just look at Mark"s exploit on this dark betrayal night. We must think of Jesus as being led through the streets of Jerusalem from the Garden to the high priest"s palace. The passing of the procession caused considerable uproar; the torches the soldiers carried flashed light into many a darkened room and wakened many a sleeper. Some, I have no doubt, got up to see what was astir. Mark was not content simply to get up, he went out, simply casting about him the first article on which he could lay his hands, which happened to be this "linen cloth," this fine linen garment. When he got into the street, he found that a prisoner was being led away for judgment. A second look, as the glare of the torch fell on his face, told him this prisoner was none other than Jesus—the Man about Whom all Jerusalem was talking; the Preacher to Whom Hebrews , along with thousands of others, had listened with such keen delight in the Temple: yes, and I can go further, the Jesus in Whom he and his mother had already begun to trust as the promised Messiah, the Man Who had won their souls. Wishing to know what Jesus had done, and why He was being dragged along by the soldiers and the high priest"s servants, Mark , undressed as he was, followed with the crowd, keeping as near to Jesus as he could.
I will believe that, as he walked, love for the Christ and indignation at the treatment meted out to Him, was filling Mark"s soul. At a certain stage of the journey something happened, some insult was offered to Christ, some rough and brutal deed was done to Him by the soldiers who held Him on either side, and at last the indignation that was swelling and surging in John Mark"s soul became vocal. He made vehement and passionate protest. And upon that, some of the other soldiers in the band, promptly proceeded to lay hands on Mark himself, meaning to drag him off along with Jesus. But that was more than Mark had bargained for. At the rough grasp of the soldier"s hand and at the flash of his sword, Mark"s heat quickly cooled, and concern for Jesus gave way to anxiety for himself. He had no intention of standing in the dock as a prisoner side by side with the Lord. So by a sudden wrench he extricated himself from the soldier"s grip, and leaving behind his "linen cloth," and possibly his finger, he fled naked.
That is the story. And from that story we may gather a lesson or two for life today. Mr Spurgeon has, I believe, a sermon on this incident, which he divides into two heads. (1) Here is Hasty Following. (2) Here is Hasty Running Away. Those are the two thoughts which the story inevitably suggests.
Here is hasty following. Everything about Mark in this midnight adventure betokens inconsiderateness and haste. If he had thought for a moment, if he had meant to follow Christ to the bitter end, he would not have been content with the linen cloth about his naked body. That was no garb in which to face danger and peril for the Lord"s sake. The "linen cloth" in a sense is symbolic and characteristic of a merely temporary discipleship. For that headlong zeal that made Mark "follow with Christ," when He was in the hands of the soldiers, and all His disciples had fled, I have nothing but admiration. There is something generous, unselfish, noble about it. I only wish we had more of it in our Christian life and our Christian service today, for nobody can say that the modern Church suffers from excess of zeal. What I criticise is not the enthusiasm, but the hastiness of it. It was not a reasoned, considered, steady enthusiasm. The "linen cloth" which was his only garment carries "temporariness" stamped upon it. And a Temporary, at the time, Mark turned out to be. At the touch of the soldier"s hand and the sight of the naked sword, Mark"s enthusiasm fizzled out. "He left the linen cloth and fled naked."
What does Tennyson say about "haste"? Is not it this? "Raw haste, half-sister to delay." Raw haste is half-sister to delay, and unthinking enthusiasm is half-sister to desertion. As I read the Gospels I am almost driven to believe that Christ feared haste as much as anything. He knew the Christian service and the Christian life were not lightly to be embarked upon. He knew there were difficulties to be encountered, and hardships to be endured, and perils to be faced. He knew that the difficulties and the hardships and the perils lasted the whole way. The Christian life was a long and arduous campaign. A mere fit of enthusiasm would Garry no man through it. It would need courage, not simply dash, but steady courage, a fixed and resolute will to enable a man to endure to the end. And so our Lord would have no man become a disciple in a hurry. He was constantly bidding would-be disciples stop and think. He bids men sit down first and count the cost. For in the Christian life it is not the first step only which costs, it costs all the way through. And it is only he who can endure to the end who gets saved. And because Christ is anxious that no follower of His should turn deserter, He bids us still stop and think before we embark upon His service. It is not to ease Christ calls us, but to labour. It is not peace he sends, but a sword. It is not to comfort He invites us, but to a campaign. A "linen cloth" is no equipment for this business. No, if we mean to see it through, we shall have to take to ourselves the whole armour of God, the breastplate of Righteousness, the shield of Faith, the helmet of Salvation, and the sword of the Spirit. For the men Christ wants are not the men who follow Him today and desert Him to-morrow, but men who will be faithful unto death and so receive the Crown of Life.
Hasty following in John Mark"s case issued in hasty running away. It may be, as Dr Watson suggests, that the thought of the appearance he would make arrayed before the Jewish Court with only this linen cloth about him, had something to do with his flight. That makes no difference to the truth I am now trying to enforce. Even if it were modesty and not fear that lay at the root of his desertion, it remains true that it was his haste in following, that led to his haste in running away. And the one generally ends in the other. Our Lord in His parable of the seed warned us of this tragic and disappointing sequence. The seed sown on the rock, He said, represented those who, when they heard the word, straightway with joy received it. But when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word straightway they are offended. They were in a hurry to begin, they were in a hurry to give up. There is not a Church in the land, there is not a Christian minister in the land who does not know of men and women who began but were not able to finish, who did run well but who are not on the course today. What of ourselves, have we faltered? Are we of them that draw back?
The Changed Man.
I have talked of Mark"s hasty following and his equally hasty running away. But that was not the end of Mark"s Christian career. Had it been so this Gospel that bears his name would never have been written. I am not going to trace his history, but to remind you of one little fact about Mark. Venice boasts of Mark as its patron saint, and there, close to the Grand Canal, you can see the pillar dedicated to his name. And on the top of the pillar a lion. The lion of St Mark! That is Mark"s symbol in Art—the lion! He does not shape much like a lion in this incident. The timid hare would seem to us a fitter symbol of this man who ran away at the first onset of danger. But the Church is right. The lion is Mark"s legitimate symbol. For this man got the better of his timidities and fears, and developed into a brave and dauntless soldier of the Cross. Christ changed him, Christ transformed him, and Mark , the runaway, at Alexandria laid down his life for his Lord.
John Daniel Jones