Jesus has come to be abandoned, but he will never fail (Mark 14:26–52)

You will fail.

That’s not a popular message. The Atlantic recently featured an article by Lori Gottlieb entitled “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy,” in which the author explained that parents are afraid to let their children fail, because they’re afraid it will damage their self-esteem. The result is that their children are unable to adjust to the anxieties and difficulties of life outside of their parents’ umbrellas. After years of working with college students, I know firsthand that this is true. Parents are terrified that their children may fail and even be unhappy sometimes (gasp!).

Jesus, on the other hand, knows his disciples will fail him. Rather than shielding them from the fact, he tells them to their faces that they are weak and pathetic sheep.

Before Jesus was betrayed and crucified, Peter never struggled with self-esteem. He was a self-assured individual, not afraid to assert himself in front of Jesus. So when Jesus warns all the disciples, “You will all fall away,” Peter is not happy. Where is Jesus’ faith in me? he thinks. He announces, “Even though they all fall away, I will not.” Rather than backing down, Jesus gets in Peter’s face. “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” Unfortunately, Peter’s self-esteem bubble still hasn’t been popped, and now the other disciples begin asserting their loyalty as well.

Their failure begins at Gethsemane. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John (his inner circle) deep into the garden. At this point, Mark writes, he “began to be greatly distressed and troubled.” The hour of his death has drawn near, and whatever is about to take place is overwhelming Jesus. He tells his inner circle, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch.” They are to stay alert and keep their eyes open for trouble.

Jesus prays on his own for a while, then returns to his disciples—and they have all fallen asleep. Jesus singles out Peter, telling him, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Twice more he leaves them to pray, and twice more they fall asleep.

As if this weren’t enough, a mob approaches them, led by Judas, one of Jesus’ closest friends. Judas identifies Jesus by greeting him with a kiss—a horrible act of betrayal! Chaos ensues; Jesus is seized and arrested, swords are drawn and swung around wildly. “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me?” Jesus protests. They are treating him like a common criminal.

As soon as his disciples realize that Jesus will not be resisting arrest, Mark records, “they all left and fled” with their tails between their legs. Most shameful of all is the desertion of a young man who would rather run away naked than stay with his Lord during his darkest hour.

The failure of the disciples is total. They begin the evening by boasting of their loyalty, then fall asleep while their Lord suffers and desert him when confronted by a mob. Their boasting only aggravates their shame.

Were it up to our own strength, you and I would abandon Jesus as quickly as his disciples do. “The flesh is weak,” and we are afraid of what other people can do to us. You and I have nothing to boast about.

God is leading us to esteem not ourselves but Jesus. At the centre of these events, we are allowed to listen in on his “loud cries and tears” (Hebrews 5:7). He calls out, “Abba! Father! All things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me!” He pleads with his Father to take away the “cup of the wine of wrath” (Jeremiah 25:15) from which rebels against God are forced to drink. No doubt his words “watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation” are not meant merely for his disciples but himself. He resists temptation and chooses to follow the will of his Father, conceding, “Not what I will, but what you will.”

Each of Jesus’ disciples failed to “deny himself and take up his cross” (Mark 8:34). None of them submitted himself to the will and authority of God. But Jesus has done it perfectly. He is the only man who has.

You may think that you are a loyal and faithful servant of God. But you are much weaker than you think; you are easily tempted away from doing his will. This is why you need Jesus. He sought another way—any other way—to accomplish the mission God gave him. But he never wavered in his commitment to doing what his Father required. If you trust him instead of yourself, his goodness and faithfulness is what God sees when he looks at you. He doesn’t focus on your failures but on the success of his Son, who became a man to represent you and become “the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:9).

God knew you would fail him when he chose to save you. That’s why he gave you Jesus.

Jesus has come to give himself, even for his unfaithful disciples (Mark 14:12–25)

One of my greatest fears is that, as I grow older, I will harden into a particular shape. What I mean by that is this: I’ve seen so many people who, as they age, become very rigid in their outlook on the world. An older gentleman has already seen enough of the church and theology that he’s decided where he stands, and no one will shake him from his dogma. An older woman has decided that Political Party A is the cause of all that’s wrong with the country, and no amount of reasoning will change her mind. Another older man complains incessantly about the “kids” who are so disrespectful; he’s convinced that this is the root of evil in society, and don’t you try to disagree with him. To be old and unteachable is one of the saddest fates I can think of. (And truth be told, many people don’t wait until they’re old to become unteachable.)

One particular shape we can harden into is that of a bitter and fearful person. I wish I could say I don’t see this much, but I do. This is a person who’s been burned in the past, betrayed by someone she trusted. So now this person builds a wall around herself, keeping out anyone and anything that might pose a threat to her safety. She’s under lock and key; she doesn’t want to be hurt again.

Jesus, too, was betrayed and abandoned by his closest friends. How did he respond? Did he harden into a fearful person, surrounding himself with a protective shell?

We’re nearing the end of the last week of Jesus’ ministry before his death. Mark relates the story of how Jesus prepared to celebrate the Jewish Passover festival. Just like his preparations to enter Jerusalem (Mark 11:1–6), Jesus has everything planned out. He tells them to look for a man carrying a water jar, which would have been unusual since that was the responsibility of a woman or a servant in that culture. They find the man, who shows them a guest room that is ready for them to use. Whether or not Jesus has arranged this in advance is not clear; the point is that he is orchestrating the final week of his life. Jesus isn’t walking into a deathtrap—he knows exactly what is taking place.

So when they begin celebrating the Passover, Jesus warns them about what is coming: “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” His betrayer will not be a random member of the crowd but one from his trusted inner circle. I’m sure this was not easy for Jesus to know. How would you respond if you discovered one of your treasured friends or family members was looking for a way to hurt you?

When his disciples hear these words, they are devastated. Mark records that they begin asking Jesus, one after another, “Is it I?”

Think about that for a moment. This tells us that Judas is not an aberration. He is the betrayer, sure, but it could have been any one of the other disciples. They are all weak and vulnerable; under the right circumstances, they might be the ones who hand Jesus over to his enemies. Jesus is surrounded by unreliable, unfaithful friends. He confirms, “It is one of the twelve.”

Jesus also says, “The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” It has always been God’s plan that Jesus will be betrayed by Judas. From the foundation of the earth this was ordained to take place. Yet Judas is not acting as a puppet; he is entirely responsible for his actions. Jesus has known his betrayal is coming, and he knows that Judas is perfectly happy to be the betrayer.

So how does Jesus respond? Does he hold his disciples at arm’s length? Does he refuse their company? Does he do his best to protect himself so he won’t be hurt?

No. Instead, Jesus takes the Passover bread and breaks it. He says to his disciples, “Take; this is my body.” The bread is a symbol of his own body that will be broken for them. Then he takes a cup of wine and gives it to all of them to drink (even Judas!). He tells them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”

Jesus responds to betrayal and unfaithfulness by allowing himself to be broken and poured out for those who will abandon him. His bloody death inaugurates a new covenant, better than the covenant that came through Moses. With this new covenant, God promises, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.…They shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquities, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:33–34).

Jesus promises that a new kingdom is coming. It is so close that he says, “I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” And to bring his disciples into this kingdom, God will change their hearts to know him and to love his law. He will forgive them for their sin, for their rebellion against his reign.

That is the beauty of the gospel. Jesus’ disciples have done nothing to deserve this awesome gift. He gives his very self on behalf of traitors and cowards—on behalf of you and me. We have wounded him and killed him, but he invites us to his table as his dearest friends.

Jesus has come to be betrayed, though he is worthy of the highest honour (Mark 14:1–11)

In the village of Bethany, two days before the Passover, there is a man named Judas, part of Jesus’ inner circle of twelve disciples. There is also a woman, who is not valued as highly in that culture simply because she is not a man like Judas. She isn’t an insider like Judas is. Mark doesn’t even tell us her name.

The man, Judas, is a clever, calculating, ambitious individual who is looking for a way to earn money. He’s an entrepreneur, of sorts. The woman is impulsive, irrational, and wasteful. She’s about to lose a lot of money and look like an idiot in the process.

Judas is about to make a lot of people very happy; he’s going to win the approval of a lot of prestigious men in high society. The woman is found in the house of a former leper, where she’s going to make a lot of people furious at her.

And while the woman anoints Jesus for burial, Judas digs his own grave. Judas’ actions will lead to eternal shame and his premature end, while the woman’s actions will lead to an eternal legacy. Why? Because Judas hates Jesus and is looking for a way to betray him, but the woman loves Jesus and remains fiercely loyal to him.

This is another one of Mark’s “sandwich stories.” As the author of this account of Jesus’ life, Mark will often begin by telling Story A, then interrupt it with Story B, then return to finish Story A. He does this because without Story B, you won’t understand the meaning of Story A the way that Mark wants you to understand it.

Story A is a story of conspiracy and betrayal. The “chief priests and scribes”—the political, social, and religious leaders of the Jews—want to arrest and kill Jesus. The problem is that Jesus is wildly popular, especially among his Galilean countrymen who have arrived in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. These leaders don’t want to incite the crowds into a riot, because they’re afraid of how the occupying Roman government will respond.

They catch their break when one of Jesus’ inner circle of twelve disciples approaches them. Judas Iscariot, on his own initiative, offers to turn Jesus over to them. He knows where Jesus will be when the crowds aren’t around. The Jewish leaders are thrilled and promise to pay Judas for betraying his rabbi to them.

Interrupting this sinister turn of events is a beautiful story of devotion. Jesus is staying at the home of a former leper named Simon. Simon lives in a small village outside of Jerusalem named Bethany. As Jesus and his disciples are eating dinner, a woman enters the room—a major faux pas according to local custom! She hurries over to Jesus, carrying an expensive alabaster flask. She shatters the flask and pours its entire contents on Jesus’ head. The whole room is filled with the smell of nard, an insanely expensive perfume from India.

I’m sure that this would rank among the top five awkward moments in Jesus’ ministry. The dinner guests are in shock. As they realize what this woman has done, they begin to grow angry. “Why was the ointment wasted like that?” they begin to ask themselves. “This ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor!” A denarius was about how much money a Jewish laborer would have earned in for a day’s work. In other words, this jar of perfume was worth a year’s salary for the average Jewish man! It was probably a family heirloom—how else could this woman possess an object of such value?

And what a waste! Think of all the good things that could have been done with that money! It could have fed a colony of homeless and starving people. And yet this woman simply dumps it all out and even breaks the jar! What a foolish, impulsive thing to do!

They dinner guests lash out at the woman. They let her know what a stupid and wasteful thing she has done. And apparently the poor woman is reduced to tears, because Jesus jumps to her defense: “Leave her alone! Why do you trouble her?”

Here’s where the values of God’s kingdom and the values of the world are clashing with one another. “She has done a beautiful thing,” Jesus tells his disciples. “She has done what she could.” It is a good thing to be generous to the poor, but it is a better thing to lavish honour upon Jesus, because he won’t be with them for long. In fact, he tells them, “She has anointed my body beforehand for burial.” He is going to be killed as a criminal, and she is sparing him the shame of being buried as a criminal, in an unceremonial manner. And Jesus stuns his disciples by telling them, “Truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”

This little speech was the final straw as far as Judas was concerned. That very night, he promises to betray Jesus to his enemies.

As evil as Judas’ behavior is, and as wonderful as the woman’s actions are, the story isn’t about them. It’s about Jesus. If Jesus is simply another man, a great teacher or a prophet, then the woman’s actions are stupid and wasteful, and he is a narcissist for praising her. That’s the way Judas sees it, because he doesn’t believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. He doesn’t believe that Jesus is God’s anointed King. He doesn’t believe that Jesus is worthy of the highest honour.

Make no mistake, Jesus deserves much more than an alabaster flask filled with perfume. He deserves our entire affection and allegiance. This woman gave it to him, and he praised her for it. In turn, he gave his whole life for her and for all who believe in him as Savior and Lord. He came not to receive honour but to be betrayed. That is why he is worthy of the highest honour we can give him.