Running From Lions
Across cultures and through centuries, the lion remains a symbol of courage, power, royalty, and justice. In Roman mythology, the lion was a beast whose roar was thought to wake the dead. It is perhaps strange, then, that the follower who fled in fear of his life from the scene of Jesus's arrest is commonly depicted in Medieval and Renaissance art as a lion. As early as the fifth century, Mark, the writer of the second Gospel, also called John Mark, was depicted symbolically as a winged lion. The other three writers were given similar symbols in accordance with the four beasts described by the prophet Ezekiel. By the seventh century, these curious creatures were universally employed as symbolic of the four writers. Today, the majestic lion depicting the witness who once ran away in fear can be seen throughout European museums and Venetian cathedrals in stone and on canvas.
By definition, a follower of a particular cause or leader cannot run in the opposite direction of the thing or person they are following; doing so, they would, of course, no longer be following. Similarly, Jesus once told a would-be disciple, "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:62). These words strike fear in some of us, even as they seem to acknowledge something Christ knew would be a challenge to all who accept the invitation to come after him. The capacity to run away from God for whatever reason seems at times present in all who profess to follow.
Mark mentions in his Gospel a young man (commonly thought to be Mark himself) who fled in such fear during the arrest of Jesus that he left his clothes behind. Writes Mark, "A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind" (Mark 14:51-52). Fear is a powerful motivator to leave a scene running. Other times it is pride or apathy, disappointment, greed, or defeat. Regardless, each time we pick up running, we drop our hold on grace, hope, and sovereignty like garments left behind. For Mark, it would not be the last time he opted to run.
The book of Acts recounts John Mark as a companion of Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey. He had accompanied the two as their assistant, but something happened after the team left Cyprus. Arriving in Pamphylia, John Mark left them and returned to Jerusalem. It was a decision that did not go over well with Paul. Years later, planning another missionary journey, Barnabas wanted to invite their former companion, but Paul did not think it was wise to take him "because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work" (Acts 15:38).
For those who carry in their identity the burden of being a deserter, for those who have run from God and the Son we once thought to follow, the memory is like the roar of a lion that keeps us hiding in the wilderness. How do you resist the familiar instinct to run? And if you do find a way to resist, how do you live down the times you didn't? For such disciples, stories of well-known runners roar with hope. For running can at times remind us who we are again, like David who found there was nowhere he could flee from God's presence, or Jacob who discovered he couldn't run forever but had to wrestle with the sovereign one behind his pride and fear, or Mark himself who seemed to realize that sin and shortfall only illumine the urgency of our need for Christ the King.
Beginning his Gospel with the urgency of "the voice crying in the wilderness," Mark wrote with intensity throughout—skipping introductions, delving into events, speaking with immediacy. It is apparent that he concerned himself most with getting the story out and the message across. Jesus is Lord, the Son of God, the promised Messiah, and there is no time to run. And yet, throughout this Gospel of action and miracles, Mark repeatedly draws attention to human difficulty and temptation in the midst of Christ's power. He describes a world of people blinded by their own weaknesses, demanding signs, and forever missing the message. There is little doubt Mark understood how easy it is to continue running from the one we need most to stop and follow.
Yet even for disciples with the reputation of running, Mark is a symbol of courage and hope. Years after their initial incident, Paul found the formerly uncommitted Mark a much needed presence in his own ministry. In the apostle's concluding epistle, he instructed Timothy: "Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for ministering" (2 Timothy 4:11). The once-rejected young worker with the capacity to run finally held fast to the hope of being found by the Son, and he spent his life declaring it. Mark's urgent story is a lion's attempt to stop the running and wake the dead—within a world torn open by one who is neither inhibited by distance nor death.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.