“Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man shall be delivered unto the chief priests and scribes; and they shall condemn him to death, and shall deliver him unto the Gentiles to mock, and to scourge, and to crucify: and the third day he shall be raised up” (Matthew 20:18-19).
The time is drawing near. The final journey of Jesus’ earthly ministry has begun.
It would have been fascinating to stand there on that early spring day in 30 CE to see how Jesus made this declaration in Matthew 20:18-19. Where did He pause? What did the disciples think and say among themselves? We could imagine many different scenarios.
The first part of the statement brimmed with promise. Jesus and the Twelve were going up to Jerusalem. It was not the first time they did so, of course, but this time was going to be different. The disciples were no fools; they knew that Jerusalem was the center of Jewish life and that the Messiah’s Kingdom must begin from Jerusalem. All of their hopes and dreams regarding their work in Jesus’ Kingdom were pinned on Jesus’ accession to His throne in Jerusalem. As before, so again– their hopes were focused on an earthly kingdom, made evident by the request of the family of Zebedee soon after (Matthew 20:20-28).
And this is precisely why Jesus does not end His statement with the fact that they are going to Jerusalem– He also describes what is going to happen there.
This is not the first time He has done this; in fact, this is the third warning in Matthew’s telling of the Gospel regarding His imminent suffering, death, and resurrection (cf. Matthew 16:21-23, 17:22-23). There is likely some symbolism in the fact that there are these three warnings between the confession of Jesus as the Messiah and His entry in Jerusalem; there is also a heightening effect. At first the disciples are told that He would suffer, killed, and be raised (Matthew 16:21); again that He would be delivered into the hands of men, killed, and be raised (Matthew 17:22-23); now we are finally introduced to the graphic scene: Jesus will be handed over to the Jewish authorities, who will condemn Him, and will in turn hand Him over to the Gentiles, at whose hands He will be mocked, flogged, and crucified, and then be raised on the third day (Matthew 20:18-19).
Why would Jesus make such a progressive revelation? Some might say that it was progressively revealed to Jesus Himself. Such is possible, but Jesus is God and His part of the plan was understood from eternity (Ephesians 3:11). We must allow for the possibility that the revelation was not progressive at all, and He explained all of this to His disciples in Caesarea Philippi from the outset. Whether He did or not, Matthew, in his telling of the story, is providing progressive revelation of what is going to take place, so the question remains. Why does the description get more detailed and graphic over time?
It is likely that Matthew does so, in part, for our benefit, to remind us that this was the plan all along. The resurrection and promise of Christ’s return was not “plan B” after “plan A” failed and Jesus was crucified. No; Jesus’ life, suffering, death, and resurrection have always been part of the plan. Jesus knew it in advance and warned His disciples in advance; it was sufficiently part of His teaching or understood beyond His disciples so that the chief priests and Pharisees knew that He had predicted His resurrection on the third day after His death (Matthew 27:62-66). As hard as it often is to wrap our heads around how Jesus fulfilled God’s plan for our redemption, it was no accident or contingency plan. Everything that happened to Jesus was predicted.
Yet there are also many good contextual reasons– mostly to throw cold water on the disciples’ expectations. Jesus is fulfilling God’s purposes for Him; He is the Messiah, and He will sit upon the throne and rule; yet none of it is happening according to expectation. In fact, the specific description Jesus uses goes a long way to show the contrast between expectation and reality. That contrast is instructive for us.
Notice how Jesus describes Himself in Matthew 20:18-19: the Son of Man. All of these terrible things– condemnation at the hands of the Jewish authorities, mocking, flogging, and death at the hands of the Gentiles– will happen to the Son of man.
The description of “Son of man” has its main force in demonstrating the humanity of the Christ– yes, He is the Son of God, God the Son, but He is also flesh, a human being (John 1:1, 14, Philippians 2:5-11, Colossians 2:9, Hebrews 1:3). That was the force of “son of man” as a description in the Old Testament– it was just another way of calling someone a human.
Nevertheless, there is one passage that provides a Messianic flavor to the title of “Son of Man”– Daniel 7:13. Daniel sees that one “like a son of man” would stand before the Ancient of Days and receive dominion, glory, and a kingdom, and everyone would serve him, and his kingdom would remain forever (Daniel 7:13-14). It is in this sense that Jesus is the “Son of Man” in ways that no other human being could be. It is in this Messianic sense that the disciples, no doubt, envision Jesus as the Son of Man.
As the Son of Man, Jesus will receive this honor, glory, and dominion when He stands before the Ancient of Days. He will receive that Kingdom that will never end, and all people will be subject to Him. But not before He is humiliated and suffers greatly.
When we combine our understanding of the Son of Man from Daniel 7:13-14 with Jesus’ use of the term in Matthew 20:18-19, we should be even more greatly impacted by Jesus’ great suffering. The Son of Man who will receive all power will be first condemned by the existing earthly authority. The Son of Man who will rule over every nation will first be mocked and flogged by the nations. The Son of Man who will receive glory and honor will first be humiliated and crucified.
These events are not optional: they are required to reach the end goal (Philippians 2:5-11). And this is why Jesus says that believers must serve, since the “Son of Man” did not come to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28). There can be no glory, honor, and dominion without first experiencing suffering, degradation, rejection, and humiliation.
If anyone ever deserved the easy road, it would have been Jesus of Nazareth. Yet, in order to accomplish God’s purpose for mankind, He first had to suffer and to be humiliated. In order to obtain the highest glory and honor, He first had to experience the greatest depths of pain and degradation. Before He could rule over all men He had to be condemned by His own people and mocked mercilessly by the heathen Gentiles. We do well to learn the lesson, even if it means that we must swallow hard. The way to glory is paved with suffering, humiliation, and degradation. We very likely will be rejected by our own people and mocked by foreigners. Yet, as Paul says, all of these sufferings cannot compare with the glory waiting for us in the resurrection (Romans 8:17-18). Let us learn from the treatment of the Son of Man, and be willing to suffer and to be humiliated in order to obtain eternal glory and honor!
Ethan R. Longhenry