Jesus predicted his passion and death repeatedly — at least three times. Yet Jesus’ arrest, trial, passion and crucifixion seems to have caught the Twelve completely off guard. Why weren’t they expecting it? Hadn’t Jesus told them?
Why was Peter in particular so adrift and distressed that he denied the Lord three times, despite all the miracles he had seen?
Today’s Gospel offers an important clue: After the Transfiguration, Jesus charges Peter, James and John not to relate what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. The Gospel ends with this line:
So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what rising from the dead meant.
“What ‘rising from the dead’ meant”? What else would it mean but, you know, rising from the dead?
In order to understand the disciples’ bafflement, it’s important to remember that the gospel story as we read it in the Gospels and the story as it appeared at the time to those living through it are two very different things.
C.S. Lewis once pointed out that something similar is true of the Old Testament in its original context and in a post–New Testament context, and noted how older Christian writers often failed to appreciate this point:
“Our ancestors seem to have read the Psalms and the rest of the Old Testament under the impression that the authors wrote with a pretty full understanding of Christian Theology; the main difference being that the Incarnation, which for us is something recorded, was for them something predicted. In particular, they seldom doubted that the old authors were, like ourselves, concerned with a life beyond death, that they feared damnation and hoped for eternal joy.” (Reflections on the Psalms)
As far as we know, no Old Testament writer, nor any Jew in Jesus’ day, had any notion of the invisible and unimaginable God becoming a human being, much less being crucified and raised from the dead. What hopes or expectations of a coming “messiah” existed were far more vague, shadowy and diverse than is widely imagined today; indeed, “the messiah” played a far smaller role in Second Temple era Jewish thought than readers of the Gospels might guess.
More important than “the messiah” in early Jewish thought was the idea of the “kingdom of God.”
According to one version of this idea, Israel’s God would one day would soon reassert his dominion over all the Earth and all mankind, bringing the world to judgment in an apocalyptic upheaval or cosmic transformation. Israel would be liberated from the tyranny of foreign powers, and all the nations (goyim) would bend the knee to Israel’s God and turn to Israel to learn true wisdom and knowledge of God and of his holy law.
In this “kingdom of God,” it was natural to think, given God’s promises to David, that a human king — a royal Davidic “messiah” or anointed/chosen one — would exercise dominion on God’s behalf. He would probably also be a military leader who would play a key role in defeating God’s enemies — i.e., foreign powers, especially the Romans.
But this apocalyptic Davidic messiah was still a figure of limited importance, at least according to some Jewish sources which suppose him to be under the supervision and instruction of the priests who mediate God’s law to him.
On a side note, where Mark and Luke report Jesus (and John the Baptist before him) proclaiming the coming “kingdom of God,” Matthew’s Gospel often gives the reverent circumlocution “kingdom of heaven” so as not to overuse the divine Name, but this means the same thing. The “kingdom of heaven” in Matthew is not heaven itself as we think of it, but heaven’s reign on Earth.
Thus, when John the Baptist began announcing the coming of the “kingdom of God,” and when after him Jesus took up this theme, it would have been understood by many if not all that they were announcing the imminent liberation of Israel from Roman tyranny, and this would widely have been understood, certainly by the Romans, as a heralding of insurrection and revolutionary war.
This is probably why Jesus was so secretive about his messianic status, why he bound everyone to secrecy, etc.: A self-proclaimed messiah was likely to wind up on a Roman cross — a means of execution reserved for certain particularly grave offenses including insurrection. (The “bandits” with whom Jesus was crucified were probably implicated in outlaw revolutionary activity.)
A crucified messiah was thus a reliably debunked, falsified messiah. (This is one reason even nonbelieving historians generally consider Jesus’ crucifixion to be among the most historically certain of his biographical details; it’s too humiliating to have been invented.)
Jesus went to some trouble not to get arrested prematurely, often keeping his movements secret. (Note the precautions he takes even during what we now call Holy Week, for instance not even telling his own disciples where they would celebrate the Passover, but sending two of them to meet a supporter who would lead them to the Upper Room. This was perhaps because he knew that if the location were known in advance among his disciples, including the one who would betray him, it would not long remain a secret from his enemies, and he would be arrested before celebrating that last supper which became the first Eucharistic liturgy.)
These ideas about the kingdom of God and the messiah are in evidence in the Gospels among Jesus’ followers and even among the Twelve. The one thing they did not expect, despite Jesus’ clear words on the subject, was for Jesus to be arrested, tried and executed.
How could they have missed what he had spoken about so plainly? Here’s the catch: Jesus was always saying outrageous, over-the-top things: plucking out your right eye and severing your right hand; eating his flesh and drinking his blood; tearing down the temple and rebuilding it in three days; letting the dead bury the dead; etc.
He was always telling bewildering parables and speaking in riddles; even a seemingly offhand remark about leaven might turn out to be a warning about false teaching. And let’s not forget the follower of Jesus “taking up his cross.” None of that, seemingly, meant what it seemed to mean on the surface. (Eating his flesh and drinking his blood was another penny waiting to drop.)
And so naturally enough Jesus’ talk about crucifixion and resurrection seemed to them one more inscrutable saying, yet another impenetrable metaphor. And that’s why, after the Transfiguration, we find Peter, James and John scrutinizing Jesus’ words, looking for a hidden meaning rather than taking the words at face value.
As late as Jesus’ arrest in Gethsemane, Peter still expected to fight for Jesus rather than watch him be arrested and crucified; he drew his sword and slashed at one of the crowd coming to take him. Surely the time for some great revelation of Jesus’ power over God’s enemies was at hand.
Peter had been there days earlier on the mountain when Jesus was transfigured in glory and spoke with Moses and Elijah. Perhaps now he would be transfigured again, would become like the glorious “son of man” described in Daniel 7, riding clouds of heavenly glory and claiming dominion over all nations and peoples, beginning with those who foolishly thought they could arrest him.
Imagine Peter’s cognitive dissonance when Jesus himself not only told him not to resist, but allowed himself to be taken away. What followed must have been a descent into unthinkable horror: Jesus the wonder-working prophet, Jesus the expeller of demons, Jesus whom Peter himself had dared to pronounce the messiah, was suddenly a helpless victim in the hands of Israel’s great adversary.
All their hopes were turning out like those of the followers of all the other would-be messiahs who had ended in shame and failure on Roman crosses. Instead of reigning at his side, the Twelve were next in line to be crucified, and that would be the ignominious end of the story.
None of this excuses the disciples’ doubts and fears or Peter’s denials, but it helps us understand the context in which they occurred.