One of the clearer facts about Jesus’ ministry is that he made a hard turn about half way through. He switched, as we would say, from Plan A to Plan B.
The moment I’m referring to is when the disciples tell Jesus they think he’s the messiah, aka, the Christ. Before this moment Jesus said absolutely nothing about being killed1, and as soon as this happened, he began telling them he’d have to die. Here’s the passage from Mark chapter 8:
“But who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ.” And he charged them that they should tell this to no man. And he began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.
“And this,” the passage continues, “he said openly.”
So, upon hearing that the disciples believed him to be a religious (and slightly biblical) figure, Jesus does two things:
He tells them not to repeat this.
He starts telling them that he’ll have to go through a nightmare scenario in Jerusalem and die.
This marked a pivot point in Jesus’ life and work. A modern interpretation arises, of course, along the lines of “they finally figured it out, and so he told them what was coming next.” That, however, serves primarily to preserve beloved dogmas, not to find the truth of what Jesus was doing and why.
The argument that “they figured out he was Christ,” falls apart when looked at seriously, because it assumes Jesus was thinking the opposite of, “Don’t call me Lord; just believe what I say.”
Calling Jesus “Christ” is the same in substance as calling him, “Lord,” and depending upon how we take the terms even more so. At the barest minimum, this was something Jesus cared about not at all. And in actual fact, a religious title was just about the last thing he wanted from the twelve.
Notice also that he says “the son of man” has to die, not “the Christ.” That is, he immediately distances himself from the religious position they were applying to him. (And “son of man” was not the religious position that some modern teachers claim. You can see Discourses On Judaism, Jesus And Christianity for details.)
This was the moment at which Jesus’ Plan A became moot and he had to move to Plan B. More than likely he saw it coming, but it marked a turning point all the same. And he surprised them by speaking openly about it.
Jesus’ Plan A was simply to prepare the twelve to go out on their own and spread the good news. He wanted them to understand it, to internalize it, and to prepare for the difficulties of traveling and teaching. Then he would send them out in pairs to the cities and towns of Israel.
We see this very clearly two chapters before the turning point, as Jesus sends them out to teach in the villages:
And he called to him the twelve, and began to send them out two by two… charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts… he said to them, “Where you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place”… So they went out and preached that men should repent.
And as I noted earlier, this word, “repent” meant “to change your mind,” more than it did to fall down and beg forgiveness. “God,” according to several scriptures, both in Hebrew and Greek, is said to have “repented” in this way; and so the necessity of having sinned really is separate from “repent.”
Jesus’ plan at this point was to improve the people of Israel, so they would go out and spread that improvement to the rest of the world. Jesus believed this to be a necessary first step, as we see when he says he has been sent only to the children of Israel.
This concept, of execution not being part of Jesus’ original plan, however, is a terrible and utterly unacceptable thing to the theologies of Christianity. It negates the sacrifice of “Christ” to expiate guilt. Again I understand, and I am not pleased to lay that kind of contradiction on you, dear reader, but the facts are what they are, and Jesus did undertake a hard pivot after Peter called him Christ, and announced only then that he’d go to Jerusalem and die.
The whole question comes down to a simple choice: Do we prefer what Jesus said, or do we prefer what Paul or Peter or saints or mystics said?
Dogma pulls, and hard. Previous choices, and especially things we’ve taught to others, pull very hard. Fear of our co-religionists presses hard. The fear that by believing wrongly we doom ourselves to eternal punishment terrifies. Still, Jesus said what he said and did what he did, and we have a choice to make.
That choice doesn’t need to be made in an instant, however. So long as we don’t reflexively hurl the new idea away before we can consider it, we can take all the time we need. And I suggest that you do take time to consider this.
Plan B was clearly to die… to be executed. Jesus said that clearly and stuck to it, even though he obviously didn’t like the idea. (Hence his “is there no way around this?” prayer in the garden of Gethsemane.)
The question is why this was necessary. And the truth here is that I have no answer that’s clearly supported by the records we have. What I can give, you, however, is a scenario that fits the other things we know, and I will proceed with that. You’ll make your own judgment about it.
Before I do that, however, I should add that it makes sense that Jesus didn’t explain the reasons for his Plan B to the twelve: They had just gone over into a frame of mind that caused him to accept a death sentence; they were clearly not prepared to understand his choices and their causes. For one thing, they’d have to understand that they were effectively killing him, which was certainly too much for them to take.
The chain of thought running into the necessity of a very public death runs like this:
By the time the disciples are telling Jesus that he’s the messiah, religious images are already rooted in their minds. And given that this all occurred within a religious culture, I have to think that Jesus at least half expected it.
He immediately tells them not to say this to others, but he knows it’s only a patch. Among a religious people, such a religious image will root and grow.
People thus affected by the religious interpretation of Jesus and his teachings will be rendered not only useless to the message, but will tend to replace it with their religious ideals.
In order to stop his message from turning into religion, he must dash their hopes. Merely teaching against it will not be enough; the change must be visceral and emotional if it is to cancel beliefs that are deep-rooted and emotional.
Still, he cannot dash the message itself, or else it was all for naught.
The only practical solution to this scenario is that he must die, and very publicly. Even though they will be traumatized, the people who have good seeds in them will not lose them.
Thus he must die at passover, in Jerusalem. The magic religious figure must be uprooted, but the message not directly damaged. A messiah who died will not fill their religious models, even if he was said to be alive again. It would necessarily remain outside of them.
I think you can see that such a scenario makes a good deal of sense. I cannot guarantee that this is why Jesus had to die, but it remains true to what Jesus himself said and did.
The Second Turning Point And Plan C
This one will also surprise modern Christians, but it is again supported by our records.
Once Jesus had gone through the horrific ordeal at Jerusalem and was returned to life, his one request was that his disciples should meet him in Galilee. The Mark gospel has Jesus telling this to the disciples as he’s about to be killed:
After I am raised, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.
And as two of the Marys encounter a young man in white in Jesus’ tomb, the man says to them,
Go tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you.
Nonetheless, they did not go. They remained, hiding, in Jerusalem. Jesus was left alone in Galilee, on a mountainside, waiting for them.
Regardless of how new and shocking this may seem, it follows our best records very closely. And we learn Acts that Jesus “appeared to them over forty days” after his resurrection. And from Paul – an intelligent man who visited the original disciples in Jerusalem for two fairly protracted periods – we learn that after his resurrection, “he was seen by more than five hundred people at once.”
So, during the forty days Jesus traveled and taught. The fact that we lack any detail from this period further confirms that the now-eleven disciples weren’t very much involved. They had, in modern slang, ditched Jesus, leaving him to continue on his own for a forty day period.
We do learn, again from the Mark account, that some time during the forty days he snuck back to Jerusalem, found the eleven, and “upbraided them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen.”
I see that as a direct reference to them leaving him to wait on a Galilean hillside, but you can make your own determination.
What we’ll call Plan C, then, involved Jesus teaching in Jewish backwaters for forty days or so. The purpose, it would seem, was to finish reaching the small places he would have sent the twelve, had Plan A continued.
Judea was Roman territory and if he avoided it previously, we can be sure he avoided in during this time. Being caught there would involve a repeat of the horrors he had already gone through once. In addition, the religious assumptions that had cost him so much were almost certainly weaker in Galilean field workers, laborers and housewives. These people could still be taught, and he went about to teach them.
Still, at the end of the forty days, and for whatever reason, Jesus prepared to leave. And so he set up what would follow as best he could. We can call this Plan D.
The remaining eleven disciples, however foolish they had been, were probably among the most able men of Israel, with strong capacities for endurance, persistence and communication. But for whatever reason, Jesus wanted to salvage them.
And so Jesus went and “upbraided” them, after which they did go to the mountain in Galilee, where Jesus is recorded giving them clear orders then leaving for good.
You’ll notice that these last orders were an extension of his Plan A:
Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation.
Or as Matthew renders it:
Go, and teach all nations.
Notice that Jesus says “all nations” and “all the world.” This meant every human and every place – not just the Jews – and it was a very clear order.
But once again, they did not do it. Instead, they returned to Jerusalem and formed a religious group. Over the following decades some of them did go out, but not for a long while.
1 This is perfectly clear in the Mark gospel, which is also the earliest record of Jesus’ life. Matthew, written a generation or so later, embellishes the “no sign will be given to this generation” passage to add Jonah and the three-day imagery, but this is clearly an addition, since when Jesus says he must die (as noted above), Peter “rebukes” him, displaying his ignorance of prior mentions. (See Matt. 16.)