Sermon December 1: Mark’s Passion Narrative

Mark’s account of what is often referred to as Jesus’s passion takes up all of chapters 14 and 15. Peter’s ‘passion narrative’—remember how we saw at the beginning that it is Peter’s account of Jesus’s life and ministry that Mark has written down—begins with the incident with the ointment at Bethany, and continues through the last supper, Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane, His betrayal by Judas and His capture in the garden, His trial before the Sanhedrin, Peter’s denial of Jesus, His appearance before the Roman governor, and finally His crucifixion, death and burial. I want to think about all of this by focussing on his trial, which begins in 14.53.

Jesus has been taken captive, and in v 53, He is brought to the High Priest’s house. What is waiting for Him there, according to v 55, is a gathering of members of the Sanhedrin, the council of Jewish priests and elders that governed the Jewish people. It was also the contemporary Jewish version of the Supreme Court, the place where all the most important legal issues were ultimately decided. What Jesus faces at the High Priest’s house is not an official sitting of that court, because it’s the middle of the night. But some members of the Sanhedrin have been looking for a way to get rid of Jesus for quite some time. Remember back in chapter 3, The Pharisees… held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. Both the religious and political arms of the government had determined to put Him out of the way, and the High Priest, the one responsible to the Romans for the good behaviour of the Jewish people, has obviously joined this group. It was the High Priest’s people who had taken Him from Gethsemane, and the leading members of the Council gather at the High Priest’s house to see if they can find an accusation that will stick.

According to v 55, they interview as many witnesses as they can find. Mark calls them ‘false witnesses’ because what they testify is not the truth; but in all probability they are not simply lying. What they say, v 58 says, is that they heard Jesus say I will destroy this temple that is made with hands and in three days will build another, not made with hands. There is an incident that they could be referring to, one described by John in his gospel, where Jesus is asked to prove He has the authority He claims to have, and He says Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days. He didn’t say He would destroy it, He said that if they could destroy it, He could raise it again in three days. What the witnesses report seems a garbled version of that; and the fact that the various witnesses interviewed all tell a different story—their testimony did not agree, v 59—suggests they weren’t lying. If they were going to lie they’d have agreed on a story. So they find no cause to put Him to death, v 55 says.

So they try to get Jesus to incriminate Himself: What is it that these men testify against you? But Jesus says nothing, literally not a word—until the High Priest brings up the issue that is the real cause of their anger against Him: Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One? Christ is Greek for Messiah, and the ‘blessed One’ was a common phrase the Rabbis used for God; ‘Are you the Messiah? are you the Son of God?’ Then at last Jesus speaks; He says, I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power and coming with the clouds of heaven. From their point of view, this is the jackpot—a confession. He’s claimed not just to be the Messiah, but to be God Himself. He couldn’t have incriminated Himself more completely. The High Priest turns to the rest and says What further witnesses do we need? You have heard His blasphemy. What is your decision? The kangaroo court is complete: they are not only prosecutors, judge and jury, but star witnesses as well!

It’s no surprise after what we saw in His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, that Jesus says exactly what is necessary to make sure that His purpose, to give his life as a ransom for many (10.45) would be achieved. What is your decision?  And they all condemned Him as deserving death. And some began to spit on Him and to cover His face and to strike Him.

It’s very important to understand why the religious establishment was so eager to get Him out of the way. Jesus makes it clear that everything that happens is inevitable, let the Scriptures be fulfilled, but that doesn’t mean that the people involved aren’t making real choices. Why did the religious leadership make this choice? After all, they all believed that a Messiah was coming one day; why, when Jesus announced Himself as that Messiah, did they not rejoice and join in His work?

One reason would be the fact that the coming of the Messiah would mean the end of the political power of the High Priest. In Old Testament times the High Priest had been a symbolic office without much in the way of earthly power; it was only under the Romans that this office had become one of real Government and power. When the Messiah came, every Jew believed he would exercise that power, and the High Priest, and those who had a place in the system he headed, would have gone back to what they had been before. So it was in their interest to dismiss messianic claims; political pressures trumped the claims of faith. A common enough event; I could give an example from much closer to home from just last week, but I won’t.

There was also the fact that there had been so many who had made this claim before. We know from other evidence that ever since the end of Jewish independence in the 6th century BC, people had appeared claiming to be the Messiah. It’s not surprising if, after so many false claims, their reaction was ‘oh, no, not another one’.

So at first sight, their reaction may seem understandable. But remember that this claimant was so different from any who had appeared before. All the others had been more or less the same thing: a tough fighting man who had gathered other fighting men around him, and was convinced God would help him drive out the hated foreigner and then put him in charge. The High Priest could always say ‘God bless you, we’ll be ready to serve you after you’ve won your victory,’ and then wait for the inevitable news that they were all dead. ‘Martyrdom operations’, as they are called today, are nothing new in the Middle East. But this Messiah was utterly unlike that. He had drawn no sword, had taught His followers to turn the other cheek when attacked, offered no resistance when armed men came to arrest Him, and had even acted as witness for the prosecution in the case against Himself. Why did none of this give the religious leaders of the people a moment’s pause?

The reason is told us in Acts 13:27. Paul is preaching the gospel in the Jewish synagogue in Antioch, and he says, Those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers—that’s the chief priests—because they did not recognize Him nor understand the utterances of the prophets which are read every sabbath, fulfilled them by condemning Him. The religious leaders of the people, the clergy and theologians, did not recognize that Jesus really was the Messiah because they did not think through the scriptures they read in the synagogue week after week. Jesus could see a level of meaning in the messianic prophecies that was not at all what had been traditionally thought. All the passages in Isaiah, for instance, that talk about someone suffering for the sins of others, like the one we heard from Isaiah—he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed… the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all—those had not been thought of as applying to the Messiah, but to the Jewish people as a suffering nation, and the hope of most people was that the Messiah would end this suffering. Jesus had read more carefully, and seen that these passages are for the Messiah as well as the people, and knew that the Messiah would suffer more than all of them, and suffer for the sake of God’s people. Isaiah 53.8, he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people—the people were not stricken for the transgression of the people, the whole point is one suffering for the sake of the many. Jesus had acted that out for the disciples that same night through the bread and the wine: here’s the bread, He said at the opening ceremony of the Passover meal He had shared with them, and this is my body, He told them. His words at the wine focus that more closely: this wine is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many. The phrase ‘blood poured out’ almost always represents death; we’ve even combined them into a single word for death and slaughter, ‘bloodshed’. Jesus is again making it clear that He is going to die, and reminding them why—for the covenant God made with His people to forgive their sins. At the last supper, Jesus proclaimed His death to the disciples, and gave them a way to respond in faith, just as the woman with the ointment had already responded: ‘I understand,’ she said by her act of anointing, ‘and I thank you for what you are doing for me.’ When the disciples received that bread and drank that wine, it was their opportunity to say ‘I understand, and I accept what You are doing for me, Lord.’ And so it remains; when we receive that bread and wine next week, it will be our opportunity to accept Christ’s death for our salvation.

But the priests had not read the scriptures as carefully as Jesus, and would not listen to His teaching about them, and so they fulfilled the prophecies in the way they would least have wanted to. Instead of anointing Him as Messiah, they are the instruments of His oppression and judgment, cutting Him off out of the land of the living. He is anointed as Messiah not by the High Priest, but by a woman in Bethany.

If it was political considerations that motivated the religious authorities, it is ironic that the thing they sought to prevent by handing Him over to the Romans happened anyway: the Romans destroyed the Temple, and ended the power of the High Priesthood. Within a century of Jesus’s death there was no more High Priest, no more chief priests. And all because they wouldn’t read the scriptures with open minds. Or wouldn’t re-read them, to be accurate; they’d read those scriptures many times, so many that they were satisfied they had nothing more to learn from them, and so they became just words.  By their very familiarity the scriptures lost their power to open their eyes to God at work.

Let me suggest to you that this was not a unique event. That the scriptures still become so familiar, sometimes, to religious people, that we can no longer hear the voice of God in them, shining His light into our hearts and showing us the truth about ourselves that we’d rather not know. God’s word is fully analysed, labelled and put away, and as a result everything is tidy, and under control.

And yet, for all the tidiness, for all our alleged control, so often there seems something missing in our lives, a level of satisfaction that escapes us. If any of you ever feel like that, will you try giving the scriptures another look? Just go back and see if there’s something you haven’t fully understood, the way the High Priest didn’t fully understand those passages in Isaiah? Give God the chance to speak to you afresh, to take you deeper into the truth than you’ve been?

There are legends that say many of the actors in this drama did that. There’s a legend that Pilate, years after Jesus’s death, finally understood who Jesus was, and put his faith in Him. The movie about Barabbas, based on a book by a Swedish writer, speculates that Barabbas did the same thing. Nikos Kazantsakis did the same thing with Judas. I like to speculate that perhaps the High Priest did that too, and that the fulfillment of the priesthood, when it unknowingly offered the final sacrifice, offering the Son of God for the sins of the world, was its own salvation. That’s only speculation, of course; what is not speculation, but even more certain than death and taxes, is that the death of the Messiah is the means of salvation for all who put their trust in Him. It’s what Jesus came for, it’s what He accomplished, and the fruits of it are freely available still to anyone who needs new life, new hope.

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