With this first of three formal predictions of Jesus’ passion (the others are Mark 9:30-31 and 10:32-34) we come to the heart of the Christian gospel, namely that the suffering of Jesus was at the behest of God, and that it was done for the sake of others. That this is the first mention in Mark that Jesus taught specifically his disciples may be Mark’s way of a) indicating that the apostolic interpretation of Jesus’ fate is the only true one, since it comes from Jesus himself and b) indicating the central nature of these words of Jesus for the Christian faith.
The phrase “Son of Man” in v. 31 is unique to Jesus himself; someone else uses it only in Acts 7:56. It is used nowhere to address Jesus, and it appears in none of the confessions or hymns found scattered throughout the New Testament, nor does Paul or any other author use it to refer to Jesus. The phrase is derived from the Hebrew and can mean simply “human being,” as it does, for example, in Psalms 8:5 or 80:18. In Ezekiel the phrase “Son of Man” means specifically a human being, i.e. Ezekiel himself, in contrast to God (2:1, 3, 6, 8; 3:1, 3). It has the same meaning in Daniel 8:17. In Daniel 7:9-10, however, it has a very different meaning — referring to an ancient savior-figure. The interpretation of the phrase in Daniel 7:15-17 indicates that this Son of Man is the representative of Israel, and is a figure of power and might, not of humility. To this figure, the Gospels, following Jesus, attach in paradoxical contrast the idea of one who must suffer and die. Thus, in Jesus’ understanding, the powerful and glorious son of Man becomes the humiliated and suffering son of Man.
Jesus also says that he, as Son of Man, “must” suffer. This necessity is most likely derived from the suffering servant of Isaiah 53:3-4, with whom Jesus also apparently identified himself. In Isaiah the servant is despised and subjected to suffering (Isa. 53:5, 11). Thus, in our passage, the “Son of Man’ goes the way of the servant of God, bearing the burden of the necessity of suffering for others. But in Isaiah the son of Man was the representative of Israel. That means all the enmity of the world for God is centered on Jesus as representative of the chosen people, and in his suffering he fulfills the destiny of Israel.
Finally, the list in v. 31 of those who oppose Jesus — elders, high priests, scribes — is made up of the Sanhedrin, the highest official body in Israel. Opposition to Jesus reached to the highest level of the chosen people.
That Jesus spoke this prophecy about his fate “openly,” not in parables or riddles, makes it all the more difficult to understand the disciples’ horror and flight when Jesus was in fact crucified. But this is a key part of Mark’s understanding of Jesus, namely that one cannot understand him until after the crucifixion, as the Centurion demonstrates in Mark 15:39, where even an unbeliever can immediately recognize who Jesus is, the Son of God, upon his death on the cross.
This point is demonstrated by Peter’s rejection of the prediction, showing that despite his confession earlier he had not understood who Jesus really was. In fact, Peter’s rejection of the prediction amounted to a rejection of God’s own plan for Jesus, as Jesus makes clear in v. 33. Peter’s attempt to turn Jesus from his vocation of suffering is directly opposed to what God wants, and is therefore from Satan. And since Satan rules this world, human beings will also hold that opinion — something Peter demonstrates with his rebuke to Jesus. All of this means that Peter’s confession is not the central point of the Gospel of Mark, since Peter obviously did not understand what he was saying. The central point here is rather the prediction of Jesus that he would suffer, die, and be raised, the central point of the whole of Mark’s Gospel.
Jesus’ words about following him (vv. 34-38) show how the fate of those who do follow him is related to the fate of their Master. Mark shows this in two ways. First he includes both disciples and crowds in his introduction to the sayings (v. 34), and second, he includes the phrase “and the gospel’s” in v. 35. In both cases, it is clear that what Jesus says concerns not only the Twelve but also anyone who would follow Jesus, and not only during Jesus’ lifetime. Giving up one’s life also “for the sake of the gospel” shows that such a vocation continues even after Jesus is no longer physically present with his followers. The phrase “take up one’s cross” is then clarified in vv. 35-38.
The Greek word psyche, sometimes translated “soul,” really means life as a whole, not in the abstract, but concretely as it is lived by a living person. To live for oneself is to lose that life, as v. 38 shows. Hence to save one’s life by denying Jesus means ultimately to lose one’s life in the final judgment. On the other hand, to lose one’s life means to confess Jesus, even if it means losing one’s life due to persecution of Christians, because it will then be restored by the Son of Man in the final judgment. Even if denying Jesus would mean one gained all the wealth of the whole world, it would still be of no account, because not even all that wealth is enough to give God in exchange for one’s life (v. 37).
The sense of the sayings thus moves from readiness to suffer (v. 34), even to die (vv. 35-36), to future judgment and restoration (v. 38). But that is precisely the order of events embodied in the prediction of the passion: Jesus will suffer, die, and be raised. Thus Mark reports here how disciples must emulate their master, and emphasizes it not only in the content but in the very structure of these verses.
Paul J. Achtemeier is professor emeritus of biblical interpretation at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Va. He is the author or co-author of 14 books as well as the former editor of the quarterly, “Interpretation.”