Almost, Judas gets his wish. At the moment of betrayal, one of the disciples draws a sword and lops off an enemy ear. The resistance has begun. They will fight to the end, and die if they have to. When Peter swore loyalty even unto death (14:31), this is what he meant. Good soldiers die, and he is willing to risk it for revolution. And then Jesus says the unimaginable: “Have you come out to seize me with swords and clubs, as though I were a revolutionary?” (14:48)?
The passover provides the dramatic backdrop for all that comes next, so that the meaning of the Passover infuses every scene. Do not read “It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread” as mere trivia. God is about to work redemption.
Mark 13 is a strong contender for status as the most disputed and obscure passage in the New Testament. Moreover, its difficulties can make it extremely distracting to readers, especially when we are focusing on the gospel narrative. Strangely, at the same time, there is no chapter of Mark whose main idea is so clearly spelled out. If we concentrate on this main point, as Mark wished readers to do, it will be easier to make sense of the details.
Because the religious leaders have determined to put an end to Jesus yet fear to do so directly, their public strategy is to continue putting him to the test. Two stories sum up the attacks from various camps, a third marks a turning of the tables, and a fourth story shows Jesus on the offensive. The section ends with a strong critique of the religious system, represented by the “scribes” who have attacked him.
At this point in the story, readers tend to get distracted by Jesus’ apparently supernatural foreknowledge. That is not Mark’s point, however. His emphasis falls where it should, given the story’s trajectory to this point: on Jesus’ arrival to Jerusalem as king. He commandeers the colt as would any sovereign, stating directly, “Its Lord has need.” Thus, Jesus enters Jerusalem mounted, as a king should, amid the acclamation of those “going before and following” and the deference of the “many” spreading out cloaks and leafy branches in his path.
The teaching on taking up the cross continues with the story of the rich man and culminates in the third and final prediction-misunderstanding-teaching instance. The whole section comes to a climax in Jesus’ statement about his own vocation. The story of another blind man healed contrasts with the parallel story that opened the section (8:22-26), providing the bookend to the teaching.
The second instance of the prediction-misunderstanding-redefinition movement opens this section. Mark states summarily that Jesus privately repeated the teaching about his death and resurrection. He writes directly that the disciples did not understand (9:32) but were afraid to seek clarification--quite reasonably given that Jesus had recently called Peter “satan” for his reaction to the prediction! But more importantly, the disciples’ internal argument demonstrates that they had not grasped the meaning of the cross for Jesus or themselves: “for they argued with each other on the way about who was the greatest.” The implied attitude and agenda is utterly opposed to the call to die to self and take up the cross.
There are many opinions about who Jesus is. There are many assumptions reigning among both believers and unbelievers. There are powerful expectations among everyone who reads this story, just as there were among these most intimate followers. And so, this question--the heart of the Gospel of Mark--is pivotal for our evangelistic study. We are called to give account for what we have witnessed to this point. Has Jesus reshaped our expectations, or do they strive to reshape him?
Quite suddenly, we find Jesus surrounded by Jerusalem authorities. Once again, they are looking for a fight, this time over ritual purity. Like the Sabbath confrontations, the practices at issue are vitally important to the Jews as markers of their difference from those not in covenant with God (Gentiles). While the “traditions” they advocate are not the Levitical purity laws, those laws are their origin and impetus. We must not allow our own advocacy of “biblical Christianity” over against “traditions” to confuse us into thinking that the problem here is that they are practicing traditions rather than Torah alone.
Jesus finally sends out the “sent ones.” It’s a bold move, because the last we saw of them they were terrified, astounded, and generally faithless. This is a sink-or-swim school of ministry. Again, the summary of their ministry is clearly an imitation of Jesus’ word and deed proclamation of the kingdom.