Welcome back to a new week on the Ask Pastor John podcast. We have a full week of questions on the docket ready to go, and we begin the week with a very specific Bible question from Scott in Springfield Illinois, although sent to us in clouded and veiled terms. Scott writes: “Dear John, I’m struggling with finding the purpose of Mark 14:51–52. I’ve asked some people around me and looked online but can’t seem to find an answer. For what reason was this stated here? Surely it was stated here for a reason. What is that reason Pastor John?”
Well, nobody knows what we are talking about until we read it, right? So, let me put these two verses in context. So here we are at Mark 14:46–50:
“They laid hands on Jesus and seized him. [So this is in the Garden of Gethsemane.] But one of those who stood by drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. And Jesus said to them, ‘Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. But let the Scriptures be fulfilled.’”
And then here come the two verses he is asking about: “And a young man followed him, with nothing but a linen cloth about his body. And they seized him, but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked.” And Scott wants to know: What is with this guy? Who is he? Why is he there?
We know nothing about this man’s identity. All guesses are guesses. Some guess Mark himself. Some guess the rich young ruler. Some guess the angel who showed up as a “young man in the tomb.” Some say Joseph of Arimathaea, because he wrapped Jesus in a linen garment and so it has some symbolic connection. And all the guesses are guesses. And I don’t find any of the links with those guesses anywhere near compelling. So I could never preach from any of those because I wouldn’t have any authority to preach. There is just not enough clues.
So here is the first lesson I would say. Possible symbolic connections — linen, youth, nakedness, fear, and fleeing — all of those symbolic possible connections need enough signs of intentionality by the author, some evidences of intentionality by the author to make the connections look anything more than incidental rather than being significant. And so look for the evidences, by all means. If you can find good clues and solid evidences that something symbolic is being done here with linen or nakedness or fear or whatever, go for it. Find it and then try to make it compelling to people around you, but I don’t see any of that myself yet. I am open to seeing it, but I read a couple of commentaries. They threw out all kinds of possibilities over the history of the Church and I thought, “No, I don’t think so.”
So what do we do with it then? I mean, do we just say, “Oh, it’s just meaningless in the context here”? No, we don’t. We see what significance it can have in its immediate context by how it relates to what is going on. And I think there is some pretty profound and significant stuff going on to which this verse makes significant contributions.
So the details of this story at this point, I would say, communicate that there was incredible tension and fear and anger and a crisis in the air. You don’t lunge at somebody with a sword and cut off their ear unless there is a heart thumping tension and anger and fear and mob-explosiveness in the air here. We need to get back into that and just let the sheer narration of the facts make us feel some of what must have been going on there. I mean, these soldiers at any moment could have and probably would have simply overwhelmed and killed every last one of those disciples at that lunge if Jesus hadn’t interceded on behalf of the wounded slave. That is one thing to see.
A second is that the aim of this text seems to show that Jesus is remarkably poised and innocent and, in a sense, in charge. He says, “Day after day I was with you in the temple and you didn’t seize me there?” I mean, this is a very composed man in the face of the kind of heart-thumping tension there must have been.
The third aim of the text seems be that everybody is forsaking Jesus. They all, to fulfill the Scriptures, it says, fled and left him alone. So even though that is a massive failure from one angle, it is totally according to plan. That is the point of saying it was to fulfill Scripture. So God is not fumbling the ball here at all. Jesus is not out of control. Everything is moving according to plan.
And the fourth aim I see in the details of this text — in other words, what the author is trying to communicate — is that they were all so scared, so terrified, that they ran away, every one of them, all of them. It says, “‘But let the Scripture be fulfilled.’ And they all left him and fled” (verse 50). I mean just picture it. Here he is, the one they have been with for three years and all of them just run away. And that is probably because at any moment they saw, “We are about to be killed. We are about to be arrested, because Peter can’t control himself.” Peter has just cut off the ear of one of their servants. So they were running away and fleeing.
Now at that point we read, “And a young man followed him, with nothing but a linen cloth about his body. And they seized him” (verse 51). Now that is the only record we have of anybody but Jesus being seized. And so one of the functions it has is that they were going to seize them. They were about to seize the apostles. They were going to take them. And this man was evidently slow to go or maybe he was too close to one of the soldiers as the others got free and ran into the woods. He was a little too slow and they seized him. And then verse 52 says, “But he left the linen cloth and he fled naked.”
So it seems to me that what we have here is a flesh-and-blood illustration of what the apostles experienced in the terror that night in two ways. One is that the man was seized. Nobody else but Jesus was seized, yet this man was. So all of them probably saw this coming. In other words, the soldiers were making their move, getting ready to arrest them all. They bolted into the dark. And so we see how terrified they were because this man was seized the way they were all going to be seized.
And the second thing is that he left his garment and ran away naked. Now I don’t think the question we should ask at all is, “Why didn’t he have on any underwear?” I don’t think we should go there. That is just not the point. Surely the point is mainly he was so terrified that he would rather be running naked in the woods than be arrested with Jesus. That is how terrifying the moment was. Better to lose his reputation than be dead with Jesus. That is how terrifying it was.
So it seems to me as seemingly surprising as the appearance of this young man was in Mark, his presence is not meaningless and it is not insignificant and we don’t need to resort to speculations about his identity or the symbolism of the linen or the nakedness to see why he is mentioned. He is a concrete, vivid example of the terror they all felt and the completeness with which the Scriptures were fulfilled that they would all flee.