Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

215. A Young Man with a Linen Garment (Mark 14:51, 52)*

"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." (Mk.)

These two verses, coming in Mark's gospel only, are generally believed to be about the author himself. The argument usually advanced-that none but the young man himself could have supplied this information-is not as conclusive as it is often deemed to be. Even so, the conclusion is probably correct. Else why should this insertion be made in the narrative at all, for it is really aside from the main story of the sufferings of Christ? The author's own personal interest in this incident furnishes the best explanation.

The mention of a "linen cloth" may perhaps supply a link of a sort. Linen was normal wear of the priests, and John Mark is known to have been related to Barnabas who was a Levite (Col.4:10; Acts 4:36).

But what brought him to this dangerous situation? It has been surmised, with every degree of reasonableness, that Judas naturally led the soldiers first to the upper room where he had left Jesus. Finding the group gone he immediately knew where they were to be found. Meantime John Mark (at whose home, very probably, the Last Supper had been eaten) was roused from his sleep by the disturbance, and, realising the danger which threatened Jesus, he snatched up the first garment available and ran by some short cut to Gethsemane to warn Jesus and the rest. However he arrived too late, and only just escaped being apprehended himself.

One writer has added a further speculation. According to one tradition, the early church knew John Mark by the nickname Kolobodaktulos-Stump Fingered! (it was a word which was applied to the de-horning of cattle). Did John Mark leave his garment because as he sought to snatch it out of the grasp of those who would arrest him, a slash of a sword took off the ends of his fingers?

But the question still remains: What purpose lies behind the inclusion of this incident in the gospel?

It is known that Matthew left his signature in his gospel in the story of the call of Lev! (Mt.9:9). And John likewise, with his mention of "the disciple whom Jesus loved" who saw "and bare record, and his witness is true" (Jn.19 :26,35), And, Luke, Samaritan (see "Acts", by H.A.W ch.113) and "beloved physician", may have had tribute paid to him in the Lord's parable of the Good Samaritan, which comes only in Luke's gospel.

Doubtless, similarly, these two verses in Mark 14 are John Mark's way of signing his gospel. But there must be more to it than this. Here is an attempt to cope with the problem.

In the first missionary journey John Mark left Paul and Barnabas at Perga (Acts 13 :13). Why did he abandon the work? almost certainly not because of homesickness or lack of courage, but because he had no sympathy with Paul's intention to take the gospel to the Gentiles. So he returned, not to their starting point Antioch, where already Gentiles were being brought into the church (Acts 11 :20-22RV), but to Jerusalem where the Jewish brethren still remained zealous for the Law (Acts 21 :20).

The issue was an important one-without doubt the most important the early church encountered. Were Gentiles to be admitted to the church on equal terms with Jewish believers, or not? No wonder this problem later made John Mark a source of contention between Paul and Barnabas. Probably the latter took the line that it would be wrong to offend the susceptibilities of Jewish brethren by following Paul's policy. And were there not still plenty of Jews to preach to in almost every city of the empire? Thus his own gentle concessive nature chimes in with personal attachment to his nephew. However this only provoked a disagreement of the gravest kind.

In this contention Paul was certainly right, as is intimated by the words: 'And Paul chose Silas, and departed, being recommended by the brethren unto the grace of God" (Acts 15 :40). There is no hint of a formal blessing of the church being similarly bestowed on Barnabas and Mark when they went off to Cyprus.

In time the soundness of Paul's stand was fully recognized by all, and reconciliation with John Mark duly took place (Col.4:10;2 Tim.4:11).

The gospel story of that flight in Gethsemane can now be read as Mark's amende honorable in later days. Remembering the intensely symbolic character of the gospels ( a feature of those writings which is far from receiving adequate recognition in these days) it is possible to see in his leaving the linen garment (an apt figure of the Law) a picture of his later reluctance to abandon the Law and its gospel of works. Yet the relinquishing of it was nevertheless inevitable if he was to be of further use to the cause of Christ.

Thus, it may be, when John Mark wrote his gospel, he included this as his public acknowledgment that he had been wrong in his earlier attitude to the problem of Gentile converts and their relation to the Law of Moses.

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