His Probable and Improbable Escapade as a Young Man (Mark 14:51-52)
Look first at Mark 14:51-52: “A young man was following Him, wearing nothing but a linen sheet over his naked body; and they seized him. But he pulled free of the linen sheet and escaped naked.” The Mark referenced in the title of this gospel is, of course, John Mark. We will look later at the reasons why we say this and the significance of this, but right now it is important because it impacts the interpretation of these somewhat obscure verses.
I have called this escapade or peculiar incident both probable and improbable. Let me explain why.
It is probable in the sense that this is probably Mark’s own cryptic reference to himself in his gospel. Why do I say this? Why do I believe that this a reference to John Mark himself? My foundation for believing this is that this story is found in the Gospel of Mark himself.
- There are similar cryptic references in the Gospel of John to John the author of that gospel. Cf. John 19:26-27. Just as John did not name himself in his gospel, so also modesty forbid Mark to say with reference to the young man in this story, “This young man was I.”
- This account of the young man fleeing naked from the Garden of Gethsemane is only given in Mark. The implication is that this incident had some particular importance for Mark. That particular importance is easily explained if the young man was Mark himself. Hendriksen says: “Neither Matthew nor Luke has retained this item. It does not appear to have been of special interest to them. But to Mark, to him alone, it was of sufficient importance to be included in the Gospel. This is understandable if he himself was that young man.”
- The story told here of the young man really does seem a somewhat strange thing to include in the gospel story. What might be important about this crazy and madcap story of a young man streaking naked late at night through the streets of Jerusalem? This strangeness disappears, however, if the young man was Mark himself. Once more Hendriksen remarks: “By itself the item is rather insignificant, except if it refers to what the author, Mark, himself experienced that solemn night.”
Bottom-line? This young man was probably John Mark himself. That is the most probable interpretation of the passage. On the other hand …
It is improbable, because this story contains details which are strange and peculiar. Let me just recount it, and you will see what I mean. The setting of this story in the Gospel of Mark follows the account of the Garden of Gethsemane. That ended, you remember, with the flight of the disciples after Jesus’s arrest. We are then told that another follower of Jesus was there in the Garden. He had sneaked off from his home after the Last Supper following Jesus and the eleven. Most likely he had been in bed asleep or trying to sleep when he heard them all leaving. This means that the very old tradition that the Last Supper was held in the home of Mary the mother of John Mark is probably true. If he had been in bed in the very house where the Last Supper was held by Jesus and his disciples, this would explain both the fact that he follows Jesus and the eleven and that he was wearing nothing but a linen. That is the broad meaning of the Greek word used here. This linen was either a linen bed sheet; or it could also possibly be a linen undergarment or even pajamas. Cf. the use of this word in Proverbs 31:24 (where it means garment) and Luke 23:53 (where it is used of the sheet in which Jesus body was wrapped.) This very young man followed Jesus and the eleven. He saw the arrest of Jesus and the flight of the disciples from the darkness of his hiding place. Then he was spotted by someone in the crowd sent to arrest Jesus. They actually seized him and got their hands on him. But slipping off his linen (whether it was a sheet, undergarment, or pajamas), he was able to escape. His escape was both dramatic and accomplished with not a little agility and dexterity. It was also entirely lacking in dignity. We are forced to imagine him late at night streaking stark naked through the streets of Jerusalem and finally rushing into his home and perhaps huddling and shuddering in bed from the near and close escape. Now certainly this is a weird, wacky, and bizarre story that makes us shake our heads and, in spite of the seriousness of the event of Jesus’ death, smile at the naked streaker as he flees from the Garden through the streets of Jerualem to his home.
What are we supposed to make of all this practically? Why does Mark include this account? Of course, it had personal importance for him, but he must have felt it was significant for his readers as well. Why did he think it was important to include in his account of the gospel?
- John Mark is confessing humbly his own fear and flight. Perhaps he is deprecating himself by making a little joke at his own expense. At any rate, he is saying that like the other disciples he too had been a spiritual coward. He also had fled the scene of Jesus’s capture and abandoned the Savior.
- At the same time, perhaps he felt that his escape, cowardly though it was, was also due to the providential protection of God who allowed the other disciples to escape as well. Jesus had told the crowd which had come to arrest him to let his disciples go (John 18:8). Mark no doubt saw his escape as arranged also by the providence of the Son of God. He wants to glorify God for his escape.
- Another spiritual lesson of this account would surely be to underscore the majestic bravery of Jesus as compared to the fearfulness of His disciples. Hendriksen speaks in this connection of the “unshakable and majestic composure of Jesus.”
- But more directly to our purposes, we begin to learn something about John Mark. He is a young disciple growing up in the very middle of the historical revelation of the gospel. He is there at the Last Supper—at least in the house. He is there in the Garden of Gethsemane. He is a witness, though not in the same sense as the apostles of Christ, of the original facts of the gospel. He is also revealed to be what we might call a curious coward. He is inquisitive and adventurous enough to follow Jesus to the Garden of Gethsemane late at night. Yet he is a fickle and fearful young man. At the cost of the loss of his dignity and self-respect, he runs away from the arrest of Jesus and abandons him.
Dr. Sam Waldron is the Academic Dean of CBTS and professor of Systematic Theology. He is also one of the pastors of Grace Reformed Baptist Church in Owensboro, KY. Dr. Waldron received a B.A. from Cornerstone University, an M.Div. from Trinity Ministerial Academy, a Th.M. from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. From 1977 to 2001 he was a pastor of the Reformed Baptist Church of Grand Rapids, MI. Dr. Waldron is the author of numerous books including A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, The End Times Made Simple, Baptist Roots in America, To Be Continued?, and MacArthur’s Millennial Manifesto: A Friendly Response.