Chapter 21. The scene is set
Please read Mark 14:1-26
Throughout chapters 11 to 13, since Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem, the tension has been rising. The sense of menace has grown as Jesus’ opponents manoeuvre to trap him and as he himself looks ahead to the conflicts and suffering that his people must face. Now with ch 14 we reach the point where those threats turn to action. The climax is now very near. In this section we combine two stories which set the scene for that climax: in vv.1-11 we are preparing for his death and in vv.12-26 we are picturing it.
Preparing for his death
Financial advisers are fond of telling us that we should be very, very careful with our money. They make statements like ‘the market value and surrender value of traded endowments can go up as well as down’ and ‘past performance is not necessarily a guide to future performance.’ In the wake of the financial disasters of recent years, that’s become a more familiar message than ever. But the message from God’s Word is exactly the opposite! The Bible encourages us not to be cautious with our money, but to be reckless. The woman in the story in vv.1-11 does not calculate. She does not consult a financial adviser! She is joyfully free – and, to the horror of the onlookers, the Lord Jesus praises her.
The first point to notice about this story is that Mark is doing what we have seen before – he is bracketing, or sandwiching, one story inside another. At the beginning and end of the passage, vv.1-2 and 10-11, he tells us about the plot which will lead to Jesus’ death. At the beginning, the authorities are looking for a way to kill him. At the end, Judas gives them a way to kill him. The story in the middle, the filling in the sandwich, vv.3-9, explains why Judas finally decides to do that. Understanding this structure explains something which otherwise looks like a mistake. John’s gospel – John 12:1 – clearly places the story about the woman just before the Triumphal Entry, that is several days earlier. But Mark is telling her story in flashback to explain why Judas becomes a traitor. As ch 14 begins, the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which follows straight on from Passover, are just two days away. The chief priests and scribes are now desperate to get their hands on Jesus, but while that might sound easy, they do have a problem. The city is crammed with people. Its population increases by at least a factor of five at this festival time – so catching Jesus in some quiet corner is next to impossible. If they try and grab him in public, there will almost certainly be a riot. They didn’t dare voice any criticism of John the Baptist (11:32) even though John has been dead for a year or so. A public arrest of Jesus, who is daily delighting the crowds by making the leaders look like fools would be suicidal. Every night he seems to melt away into the countryside; so they need a stealthy way, a secret way, of getting hold of him (v.1).
Mark leaves that plot hanging in the air while he cuts back to the scene in Bethany a few days before. Jesus has evidently made this home in Bethany his base. v.3 tells us it belongs to one ‘Simon the leper’. John’s gospel tells us it’s the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus – possibly this Simon is the father of those three, perhaps living alone somewhere because of his leprosy. Into this scene, in the middle of dinner, into the busy, crowded room, comes the woman whom Mark does not name although John tells us she is Mary, Martha’s sister
Now the woman stands condemned for her profligate foolishness. What a waste. Stupid woman. Perhaps now she begins to wonder if they are right. But Jesus sees it differently (vv.6-8). He tells them to leave her alone. Note how kindly he shields her from embarrassment and makes it clear that he is not embarrassed. ‘She did what she could’ does not imply that she is rather pathetic but should be allowed to make this rather futile gesture! He knows she has poured the perfume out of love for him. It is a beautiful thing she has done. She does not understand that in a week or so he will be buried, that his dead body will be entombed and that perfume and spices point to that death. No doubt she can sense that some great crisis is approaching, but only he understands what that is, as he always has; but how appropriate that at this time his body should be anointed. Unwittingly, she is preparing for his death.
Jesus does not mean, of course, that it is wrong to help the poor. Occasionally people have misread v.7 to mean that. Rather he is quoting the Law of Moses in Deuteronomy 15:11, which says that if everything is as it ought to be, there shouldn’t be any poor; but in actual fact there will be, so make sure that you take good care of them. Jesus is recalling that passage and telling them, yes, you should certainly take care of the poor at all times – but what this woman has done is to seize the moment when I am here in person. Then in v.9 he goes even further. The tale of this woman’s extravagant love and sacrifice will be woven into the story of his own death and sacrifice, so that wherever the gospel goes, her story will go too. There’s a nice twist to this as well. The first people to share the gospel message and to tell her story will be the very disciples who are grumbling about what she has just done!
Having told us the story of the woman, Mark returns to the ‘outside’ story, the story of the plot against Jesus (vv.10-11). We now know what tipped Judas over the edge. He may well have other reasons; probably he’s become increasingly disillusioned over many months; but certainly if Jesus can praise a foolish woman who throws money away while publicly carpeting his own followers, then it’s time for him to go. For Judas, money talks; so as soon as the opportunity arises, he seeks out the authorities – who, not surprisingly, are thrilled at their good luck – and arranges that he will betray the Lord Jesus. All he needs is the right moment. He won’t have long to wait: meanwhile the tension hangs in the air!
You see what Mark has done here. The story on the outside is about the plot. The story on the inside gives us Judas’ reasons. On the outside, they are preparing for Jesus’ death in one way. They are preparing to kill him! On the inside, the woman prepares for Jesus’ death in another way, by anointing his body for burial. They spend money to arrange his betrayal: she spends money to anoint him. They act secretly for fear of people’s reaction: she acts openly and faces people’s reaction. The skilful way Mark tells the story simply highlights this amazing and wonderful act of devotion. And the more he highlights her actions, the more pointed the story is for us. This story raises some very searching questions.
The first question is a simple one: As we hear this story, what is our honest response? Which of the characters in the dining room is you? Do we have some sympathy with these glowering onlookers who disapprove of the woman’s recklessness? I’m frightened by the suggestion of my own heart that perhaps these people had a point. Or does the woman’s story make your heart leap at the thought of doing something so wonderful for the Lord Jesus? That is how it should be, of course. Yes, there is a time and a place for calculation – for remembering that prices can go down as well as up and for doing your sums very carefully! – but that time is not when you are making your commitment to Jesus. The measure of his commitment to us will be demonstrated within a week of this story, at the cross which fully reveals the reckless lengths of his extravagant love for us. How do our hearts respond?
That leads on to the second question. What do we value the most? Do we value money, or do we value Jesus the most? This woman’s answer, her scale of values, was clear. The perfume was probably the most precious thing she had ever owned, but with Jesus before her, she broke it and poured it out; and it was gone. Life would not be so secure from now on. That jar was her savings account. Our lives and actions reflect what is most important to us. If someone were to study our lives, what would they conclude? If they looked at the evidence of the books by your bed, or the history button on your web browser, what story would it tell? Or suppose, more searching still, they could read even your thoughts and dreams, what story would be revealed? Or, to put it another way, have you ever done anything extravagant for the Lord – anything reckless, where there was a real cost to you, a cost that made life risky and uncomfortable? Sadly, there are some who would reply, Well, I used to be like that. When I was younger, I used to give to the Lord freely and trust him to look after me. I used to tell him, Lord I will go anywhere, give anything to serve you. I used to love him like that. But not any more. Now I’m older, and I’m more sensible, and if I’m honest I’m more cynical. If you are honest enough to admit that, you need to understand that it doesn’t have to be that way. We don’t have to accept the kind of Christian life that will always play it safe, that needs to see before it will believe – the attitude that would always put the jar of perfume back in the cupboard and shut the door.
But there are others who will read this who have shown by your actions that it’s the Lord Jesus you value the most. You have given up your security, or left behind the people you loved, or given to the point of breaking your own lifestyle – and not to win points or to earn favour, but because you loved him. There have been times when people have questioned or mocked what you have done. They’ve told you it was pointless; they’ve asked, Why this waste? Perhaps there have even been times when you’ve wondered if they were right. But the Lord says, You have done a beautiful thing for me. You have done what you could.
Picturing his death
Now at last the Passover festival arrives. Mark 14:12-26 tell the story of how Jesus takes this old, familiar feast, shocks everyone and seemingly hijacks the whole celebration. Passover recalls the day, 1,500 years before, when the Lord God rescued his people from captivity in Egypt and led them out towards the Promised Land. Every year, his people commemorate that night – God has told them to do that, and he has told them how; and while there are many of his commands that they don’t follow, this one they certainly do, en masse. It’s a national event. It’s a night to remember what God has done, the freedom he brought them so long ago. It’s a night of anticipation for what they are longing God will do again. It’s a night of excitement. It’s all about events of long ago – and here is Jesus saying, It’s about me, here and now, today. Even more shocking is that the heart of Passover is a death; and Jesus is saying that the death pictured by Passover is his own.
The time is now very short. Everything is in place for Jesus’ arrest and death; and this story pictures his death, now less than twenty-four hours away. It is safe to assume the story starts in Bethany, just outside Jerusalem, where Jesus has had his base for the week. In v.12, we have reached Passover time, the first day of the festival, when the lambs are sacrificed – recalling the slaughtered lambs whose blood was smeared around the doorposts on that first Passover night. It is quite natural that the disciples should ask Jesus where he plans to celebrate the feast: all Jews have to do it. But it’s not quite as simple as that. The Law is very clear that there is only one place you can slaughter and eat the Passover lamb (Deuteronomy 16:2,7) – and that one place is Jerusalem. So, like many other pilgrims at this time, Jesus needs to locate a dining room within the city boundary. Hence Jesus’ plan in vv.13-15. Most likely Jesus has arranged this – he has had plenty of time to do so as he’s passed in and out of the city for the last several days. He sends two of his friends ahead, probably for security reasons – he knows he is a target, whereas they will not be easily recognised. For the same reason, a signal has been arranged, probably a prearranged rendezvous. Jesus has a sympathetic contact in Jerusalem – a secret disciple, even – who owns an appropriate house with a room big enough for a party of thirteen. He arranges for a servant to intercept Jesus’ advance party; and the signal is that he is carrying a water jar. For a man to carry a water jar is unusual; like it or not, that is women’s work! The beauty of this scheme is they don’t even have to speak to him – the disciples simply follow the servant to the house, where clearly Jesus is known and expected.
It’s possible that this house belongs to Mark’s own family, which is the house where we read of the church meeting in Acts 12. In any event, the room is already set up and the disciples have only to prepare for the feast itself. It all turns out exactly as Jesus has explained (v.16). The two of them now busy themselves with the preparations. There will be the unleavened bread and the wine; the bitter herbs which recall the bitterness of slavery; and the special sauce whose ingredients also connect with captivity and freedom. Finally, they will arrange for the Passover lamb which must be slaughtered after sunset, just as it was all those years ago. It is Thursday night: by Jewish reckoning, where the new day begins at sunset, it is the fifteenth day of the month Nisan: and before this day is out, the Lord Jesus will himself be dead. Evening has come, then; Jesus arrives at the house with the rest of the party. It’s normal for the Passover meal to run far into the night; and right across Jerusalem, many thousands of other households are eating exactly the same meal, the various dishes in precisely the same order. At each stage the head of the house explains exactly what it all means. At the beginning and end of the meal they sing Psalms 113 to 118 – known as the Hallel psalms. Stage after stage of the meal is accompanied by words of blessing to God and prayers that they will enjoy many further feasts in peace; that the city will be built up in safety; and blessing him for his great works of the past.
It’s near the start of the meal that Jesus drops the first bombshell, vv.18-20. Although the most famous paintings of the Last Supper, like Leonardo da Vinci’s, show the party sitting upright, they would in reality be reclining on sofas or on carpets. Jesus looks around and solemnly declares that there is an enemy in their midst. From their reaction, it is clear that the disciples haven’t got a clue who he means. Interestingly, Mark does not name Judas in this story. Mark is most concerned to highlight the fact that Jesus is betrayed by someone who is so close to him – one who for three years has been part of this closely-knit group will turn out to be a double agent. Jesus’ words in v.20 deliberately echo Psalm 41:9, the song of the righteous sufferer. They are at the point where bread is dipped into the special sauce and shared together – eating together is always meaningful for Jews, but this is a moment of supreme fellowship – and one who shares that bread is now to betray him.
The second bombshell soon follows. The leader would lift up the unleavened bread and bless it with the words: ‘Praised be you, O Lord, Sovereign of the world, who causes bread to come forth from the earth.’ He would break it and it would be passed round the room for each person to receive. But this time it’s different (v.22). Suddenly, this is no longer about 1,500 years ago. Jesus says, This is about me! Can you feel the shock? This bread which is broken is myself – it is myself which I am giving to you
Now the Passover meal is over. The usual hymn is sung, the second half of the Hallel psalms; and the group make their way out into the darkness of the streets. It’s around midnight, perhaps later; too late to return to Bethany, so like many others they prepare to camp out among the trees on the slopes of the Mount of Olives.
The story of the Last Supper presents Jesus’ death in four important ways. Firstly, Jesus’ death fulfils God’s plans. Look at how Jesus speaks of his betrayal in v.21: literally Jesus says ‘departs’. He knows that his approaching death is all in God’s plan: it is ‘as it is written’. The Lord Jesus knows the prophets: all that is written about the suffering, dying servant in Isaiah, those mysterious words in Zechariah 12:10 about ‘looking on the one they have pierced’, Psalm 22 with its depiction of horrible suffering. He knows those words have been written about him. Jesus goes to his death deliberately, freely, voluntarily, knowing that he is doing the will of God as he does so. Still, that does not make it any better for the one who betrays him (v.21). In other words, the betrayer of the Lord Jesus is going to hell. He is fully responsible for what he is doing; and he will face the consequences. Judas was tempted by Satan, but he can’t blame Satan. He was carried away by the world’s ideas of power and wealth, but he can’t blame the people who influenced him. His betrayal of Jesus is part of God’s plan, but he can’t blame God. We, like Judas, stand responsible for our own sin and failure. We too are accountable for every action we take. Yes, there is a mystery here. There is God’s sovereignty, whereby he brings about everything according to his own will. In this case he is doing something wonderful through an act of human evil: even the betrayal is part of his plan, yet the man involved is still responsible for his actions. His free will is absolutely genuine; so is ours.
It is this assurance that God is in charge that allows Jesus to go to the cross with confidence. The final words of the hymn they sing as they leave, the last words of Jesus as he heads out into the darkness, are from Psalm 118:28-29. Empty words, we might think, under the circumstances. But they are not! Jesus can sing those words with meaning because he knows his Father is in control. See how Psalm 41, which he has virtually quoted in speaking of his betrayal, continues in vv.11-12. This is the confidence that Jesus has as he approaches the cross. For us too, knowing that our Father is in control is what allows us to face times of pain and suffering with the confidence we are in God’s hands and he will bring us through.
Secondly, Jesus’ death takes our place (vv.23-24). There can be no doubt what this means. The red wine; the mention of the blood and the covenant; the Passover setting – Jesus is identifying himself with the Passover lamb. On that final night in Egypt, every Israelite household slaughtered a lamb. Its blood was brushed around the doorposts of the house. When God’s angel came past, he passed over every home like that; and wherever there was no blood, the angel slew the family’s eldest son. The death of each lamb substituted for the death of one son. Inescapably, the Passover speaks of a substitution. Now Jesus is saying, The true Passover lamb is me. Those lambs are just a picture: the reality is before you tonight. I am the one who takes your place so that you can be set free. This is my blood! My blood, he says in v.24, is ‘poured out for many’, reminding us of 10:45. Both these verses echo Isaiah 53:12 where the prophet speaks of the Servant who will bear the sin of many. Jesus dies as our substitute.
Thirdly, the death of Jesus proves God’s commitment (v.24). This, says Jesus, is covenant blood. The ‘covenant’ is God’s commitment to us. In the covenant with Moses, God commits himself to forgive sins and accept his people on the basis of blood sacrifices. In the blood of Jesus, that covenant is renewed. In the blood of Jesus, in fact, those sacrifices are brought to an end. This is the only way that a holy God could ever make a covenant with sinful people like us – through the blood of the perfect sacrifice, his Son the Lord Jesus. So Jesus’ death shows us God’s total, unbreakable commitment to us – that he did not even spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all (Romans 8:32). This is the ultimate act of commitment. Do we recognise the depth of God’s commitment to us and how unreservedly he has expressed it?
Fourthly, Jesus’ death points to glory (v.25). They have drunk together the Passover cups of wine and water. Now Jesus says, That’s it. I won’t taste this again here on earth. This speaks of the imminence of his death, but he also looks far beyond, for he says, There is a time when I will drink this again. When the Kingdom I have begun here has arrived in full, then I will celebrate once more. The day will come when I will again share a feast with my friends. Again, this shows that Jesus knows ahead of time exactly what is going to happen. But these words of his take us on to the end of the age, when he returns to the earth in glory and majesty. Then will come what the Jews called the Messianic banquet, and what the New Testament calls the wedding supper of the Lamb, when the Lamb of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, claims his bride the Church (Revelation 19:6-9). If we belong to him, this blessing is for us. Our names are already written on the invitations. The place of that feast will not be the earthly city of Jerusalem, where Jesus ate with his friends that night and where very soon he would be condemned to die. The place will be the new Jerusalem, where the Lord Jesus lives with his people for ever more, without interruption by death or by anything else, as Revelation 21 promises us. Every time we share the Lord’s Supper together at the Communion table, we remember the death of the Lord Jesus; and we look ahead to the day of glory, when he comes again and we celebrate anew, with him, in the Kingdom of God.