The Gospels contain many vivid details of Christ’s life, and some of them are very striking, if not odd. For example, did you ever wonder why Mark included the following details after Jesus was arrested?
Mark 14:50-52: “And they all left him and fled. Now a young man followed him wearing nothing but a linen cloth about his body. They seized him, but he left the cloth behind and ran off naked.”
Why would Mark include this seemingly odd and inconsequential detail about the young man losing his clothing when his Gospel is only 16 chapters long? What is so profound about a young man running off without his clothes?
One could answer that Mark recorded it because it happened, which is certainly true, but it doesn’t explain why he chose to include this detail and leave out dozens of others.
Another possible answer is that the “young man” was John Mark himself, and because it was personal he wished to include it in the Gospel. This is possible, but not very likely since the early Church fathers understood the young man to be either John the Apostle (Ambrose, Chrysostom) or James (Epiphanius). But even if the young man was John Mark, there must be more to the story than John Mark including a personal anecdote. Running off naked must have meant something more to his original audience.
I must confess I never gave this incident much thought until a good friend mine, Bob Salmon, showed me some interesting background information at work “behind the Bible” in this passage.
The Jews living during the time of Jesus knew the Temple and many of its most public functions. One of these better-known functions was the work of the Temple guards. Each night priests were assigned to posts to guard the Temple area. Throughout the night, the head of the Temple Guard with others carrying torches would walk from post to post to check on the priests standing watch. If he found a guard standing at his post, he would say to him “Peace to you.” But if he found a guard sleeping at his post, the head of the Temple Guard would strike him with his stick. If worse punishment was needed, the guard’s clothes would be torn off and burned, making him run home naked and ashamed.
When this background information is applied to Mark 14, some surprising details come to light. First, when Christ came to Gethsemane to pray with His disciples, and especially Peter, James, and John, they fell asleep. And what did Jesus say to them when he found them asleep? “Could you not keep watch for one hour?” (Mark 14:27)
Keep watch? What were they supposed to keep watch over? A possible answer is that they, like the Temple guards, were supposed to keep watch over Jesus, the true Temple (John 2:19-22).
When Judas and the priests, scribes, and elders came, the disciples “…all left him and fled” (Mark 14:50), but one disciple did not leave unpunished. Like the Temple guard who was caught asleep at his post, he was stripped of his clothing and ran off naked.
Another allusion to this practice appears in Revelation 16:15, where it says: “(‘Behold, I am coming like a thief.’ Blessed is the one who watches and keeps his clothes ready, so that he may not go naked and people see him exposed.)”
In this passage, Jesus’ Second Coming is likened to a thief who comes when the home owner least expects a break-in (cf. Matthew 24:42–44; 1 Thessalonians 5:2, Revelation 3:3). But the reference to clothing and the shame of being exposed doesn’t make sense, unless perhaps it is harkening back to the Temple guard who sleeps at his post.
As you can see, this seemingly incidental detail in Mark may indeed be more significant than it first appears. We, too, need to keep watch and be vigilant. Otherwise, we may be put to shame at Christ’s coming (1 John 2:28).
Gary Michuta is an author, speaker and apologist and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.