They were on the road which goes up to Jerusalem. Jesus was leading them. They were stunned; those who followed were afraid. Taking the Twelve
asideagain, he began to tell them what was about to happen: “Look, we’re going up to Jerusalem. The Son of Man will be handed over to the head priests and the scribes. They’ll condemn him to death. They’ll hand him over to the foreigners. They’ll mock him. They’ll spit on him. They’ll flog him. They’ll kill. After three days, he’ll rise.”
Whenever you read what skeptics believe about Historical Jesus, most of them claim his death in Jerusalem totally caught him by surprise: They say he went to Jerusalem expecting to be hailed as Messiah and King, and instead was arrested and crucified. Some of them will go so far as to say his arrest was part of his plan, ’cause he thought his followers, or God, would rescue him… but nobody did, and he died in despair, feeling abandoned.
Where do they get this idea from? Mainly The Last Temptation of Christ (either the film or novel), and its author, Nikos Kazantzakis, apparently got it from missionary and modernist theologian Dr. Albert Schweitzer. See, these skeptics don’t believe Jesus was literally raised from the dead; nor do they believe he knew in advance he’d be raised from the dead. So they don’t believe this story. They think it was fabricated by believing Christians like Mark.
If Jesus wasn’t raised (and didn’t know he’d be raised), why on earth would he then go to Jerusalem, knowing the enormous risk he’d be caught and killed? Well, the skeptics conclude, because he was naïve. Or had some odd, but wrong, beliefs. Or Schweitzer’s/Kazantzakis’ theory works for them: Jesus thought he’d be hailed, and it didn’t work out like he planned. Anything to avoid the resurrection.
So when you bring up this verse to skeptics, don’t be surprised when they dismiss it as “something Christians made up after the fact.” They haven’t personally seen and experienced Jesus, so we can’t really blame them for their doubt. (Or if they have, they’re in serious denial, and we certainly can blame them, but whatever.) We who have seen and experienced Jesus, have no good reason to doubt this story happened. It’s consistent with everything we know of him.
Stunned and afraid.
The story begins with fearful and anxious followers. Jesus was going to Jerusalem. While John’s gospel had Jesus visit Jerusalem a bunch of times, Mark’s gospel only gave this one instance—the Passover when he was executed—and everyone in Jesus’s entourage was fearful because they knew how very dangerous Jerusalem would be for Jesus. The Jerusalem scribes had already declared Jesus in league with Baal Chebul (or Beelzebub, as the KJV has it), and had already plotted to kill him. Certain Pharisees were already out for blood. Well, Jerusalem was Pharisee headquarters, and if ever they had an opportunity to get him killed, here it was.
And here, Jesus told his Twelve, “Yep. They’re gonna kill me.”
This was not the first time he’d foretold his death. He’d done it twice before. He had to rebuke Simon Peter because Peter didn’t want to hear it. He told them again, and this time they didn’t get it and didn’t ask him what it meant either. And now, when they really needed to know this fact, when it was time to take the exam, Jesus forewarned them again… and again they fumbled it.
As I explained previously, sometimes we’re just not ready to hear a message. Sometimes we hear that message over, and over, and over again. And we miss it every single time. Sometimes it never sinks in. Sometimes it does, years later, after we’ve been Christians a good long time, and we respond in awe, “Wow! I never heard that before. And our fellow Christians will stare at us in confusion, ’cause they heard that before, and you were right there with them when they heard it, and what was your problem? Were your medications interacting or something?
Well, to repeat myself, ’cause Jesus repeated himself: The students grew up in synagogue, and had heard message after message about what was really supposed to happen to the Son of Man. They had their End Times Timeline memorized. They believed nobody gets resurrected till the End, so Jesus’s statements about “he’ll rise in three days” made zero impact on them, ’cause it made no sense to them. Jesus had a decade of sermon-brainwashing to undo, and it seemed the only way to get through to them would be to shock it out of them. Maybe by getting crucified.
But let’s not rule out the fear. When you’re afraid, you don’t tend to be rational. You tend to run on instinct: You do whatever “comes natural.” Now, sometimes the things which “come natural” aren’t really all that natural: You had to learn them, and you learned them so well you think they’re natural, and they’re not really. When you’re asked what two plus two is, you blurt out, “Four!”—but you had to learn how addition worked, because when you were two years old, you could barely count, much less add. When soldiers are thrown into a firefight, their “instincts” kick in—but long before they were deployed, their original instincts (to run away, hide, shriek, soil themselves, or do other non-productive things), had been carefully replaced with training. Usually the new instincts kick in. But every so often, fear pulls out the old instincts, and those soldiers aren’t just useless, but a danger to their team. Fear can either bring out the best in people, or the worst. And as we know, from reading ahead, fear definitely didn’t bring out the best in Jesus’s kids when he died. The only followers who kept their heads were the adults; specifically, the women. The kids ran.
The reason we gotta learn what Jesus teaches—and learn it again, and again, and again, and let it sink in, and really take it to heart—is because we have to prepare for the fear. When we’re afraid, we’re gonna revert to instinct—and our instincts need, just as in the military, to be carefully replaced with training. When we’re afraid, we need to respond with fruit of the Spirit, and solid teachings from Jesus. Sad to say, I don’t see a lot of that behavior in a lot of Christians I know. They look at the politics of the day, of the threats of war, and they respond in anger and outrage and arguments and slander and all sorts of works of the flesh. Which is to be expected of pagans—which only goes to show how they haven’t been replacing their old pagan ways with new Christian ways.
And they wouldn’t do so even if Jesus taught this to them personally. Because Jesus taught his resurrection to his students personally, multiple times, and they still wouldn’t get it. No matter how good a teacher Jesus is.