Did Jesus Know When He Was Going to Die?
Did Jesus expect to die? Did he intend to? If so, how did he view his death?
According to the Synoptic Gospels, from Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi onward, Jesus warned his disciples of his impending fate.
Historical evidence for the passion predictions
Some have argued that these passion predictions are prophecies created after the fact by the church, since Jesus could not have predicted his own death. Yet there is good evidence for their historicity:
- Jesus uses the title Son of Man, which is characteristic of the historical Jesus rather than the later church;
- there is no reference to the cross in these sayings; and
- there is no atonement theology expressed in them.
Surely if the church invented these sayings, they would have included the significance of Jesus’ death.*
What Jesus knew
Even from a merely human perspective, Jesus could have foreseen his likely fate. He faced constant opposition from the Pharisees and scribes, who considered him to be working by the power of Beelzebub (Mark 3:22–27) and to be a blasphemer (Mark 2:7), a false prophet (Mark 14:65), and a Sabbath breaker (Mark 2:23–28; 3:1–6; Luke 13:10–17; 14:1–6; John 5:1–18; 7:19–24).
He must have known that they wished to get rid of him.
He also surely knew that entering Jerusalem as he did and clearing the temple would have been viewed as a dangerous provocation by the temple authorities.
Jesus the Suffering Prophet
In the same vein, Jesus often spoke of the persecution and murder of the Old Testament prophets and identified himself with them (Mark 6:4, Matt. 13:57, and Luke 4:24; Mark 12:1–11, par.; Matt. 5:12; 13:57; 23:29–39; Luke 6:23, 26; 11:47–50; 13:33–35).
In the Nazareth synagogue, he said that “no prophet is accepted in his hometown” (Luke 4:24, par.) and later affirmed that he was heading to Jerusalem to die: “I must keep going today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!” (Luke 13:33).
The early church is unlikely to have created these “prophet” sayings, preferring exalted titles for Jesus, like Christ, Son of God, and Lord.
It is safe to conclude that Jesus viewed himself as a prophet and expected the fate which befell the prophets—persecution and even death.
Jesus’ Expectation of the Coming Crisis
There are also a number of Jesus’ sayings which point cryptically to a coming crisis. At the Last Supper, he calls for his disciples to sell their cloak and buy a sword (Luke 22:35–38). Such a saying would hardly have been created by the later church.
In Mark 14:27, Jesus quotes Zechariah 13:7: “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.” Jesus also speaks of bringing fire to the earth and of the cup he must drink and the “baptism” he must undergo (Luke 12:49–50; Mark 10:38)—Old Testament images of coming calamity.
All of these have a strong claim to authenticity and speak of a dangerous crisis which Jesus expected to face.
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* Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 242–43.
This post is adapted from material found in the Four Portraits, One Jesus online course, taught by Mark Strauss.