Last week we looked at the Transfiguration and at a conversation Jesus had with his disciples immediately afterward. (Mark places it immediately after the Transfiguration; in real life it may or may not have happened immediately after. Remember that the Gospel writers all had other priorities besides strict chronological accuracy as we in the 21st century understand it.) In this conversation Jesus commands the disciples to not say anything about what they just saw until after he has risen from the dead. Tucked in here is the implication that Jesus will die. A few verses later Jesus says that “the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected” (Mark 9:12).
Jesus doesn’t come out and explicitly say here that he will die. But a few verses later he does:
They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it. (Mark 9:30-32)
This is the second of three places in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus predicts his death. The first came in the previous chapter:
He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the things of God but the things of men.” (Mark 8:31-33)
And the third comes a chapter after that:
They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.” (Mark 10:32-34)
Three times in three consecutive chapters Jesus predicts that he will die. The first comes immediately after Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ. The second comes after Jesus is dramatically revealed as the Son of God through the Transfiguration and the healing of a demon-possessed boy. In both these instances, Jesus is revealed or confessed as God’s Son, and Mark wants his readers to place this in the context of what must happen to him: namely, that as God’s Son, he must suffer and die and then rise from the dead. The first is an indirect quote; the second is a direct quote consisting of a terse couple of sentences.
The third is much different from the other two. It happens as Jesus and the disciples are on their way to Jerusalem. Jesus has just told a rich young ruler who wanted to follow him to go sell everything he has and give it to the poor, and exclaimed how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God. To which the disciples exclaimed, “Who then can be saved?” (Mark 10:26) The whole group is still astonished and afraid, when apparently from out of nowhere Jesus comes out and predicts his death. This time he is much more direct, and Mark has him spell out in much more explicit detail what is going to happen to him.
What we have here is a pattern of increasing directness and explicitness in Jesus’ predictions of his death, as he and the disciples get closer to Jerusalem. The shadow of the cross lies squarely across their path, and it looms ever larger the closer they get to Jerusalem. Mark wants us to see this. This is something that has to happen, and Jesus is walking intentionally towards it. He is going in with his eyes wide open, knowing full well what is about to happen. The disciples don’t get this, because the idea of a Messiah who suffers and dies goes against everything they were taught to believe, and because they have no framework at all to process the idea of someone rising from the dead.