Why Didn’t the Disciples Believe Jesus Would Rise From the Dead?

Title: Why Didn’t the Disciples Believe Jesus Would Rise From the Dead?

Text: Mark 8:31-32, John 11:38-44, Matthew 27:40-43, 62-66

Time: March 8th, 2013



“He (Jesus) said to them, ‘How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself,” Luke 24:25-27.  This is Jesus rebuking his followers for not believing that he would or could come back from the dead after his crucifixion. And so starting from this passage we ask again the question, “Why didn’t the disciples and followers of Jesus believe that he would rise from the dead after his execution?” He rebukes them for being so hard of heart and so unbelieving about his resurrection. Yes, eventually, they all believed, but it certainly took a lot of convincing to get them to that point. So why were they so slow to believe? Why did it take Jesus demonstrating to them that he did rise from the grave before they would believe that he would or could rise from the dead? In other words, why didn’t they believe he would or could before he showed them? Now maybe for some people it seems I’m being too hard on the disciples and other followers of Christ. Some people might ask, “Well, why would we assume that Jesus’ original followers should have believed that he’d rise again to life?” And the answer to that question is that he told them he’d rise to life after death, and also he demonstrated the power to overcome death by raising to life a dead person, Lazarus, during his ministry. So then Christ’s rebuke of his followers for not expecting his resurrection – or being surprised or shocked when he appeared again to them – is warranted. He had repeatedly told them that he’d die and return from the dead. And he demonstrated the possibility of resurrection power when he raised Lazarus from the dead. So in light of these things he had every right to suppose they’d expect his resurrection. So why didn’t they? Now someone else might respond, “But how do we know they didn’t expect Jesus to rise from the dead? Maybe they did expect it – or at least maybe some of the disciples or followers of Jesus did expect, even if they all didn’t.” The problem with this is that there is no evidence, not one shred of evidence, that shows any of Christ’s followers expected him to raise from dead after his crucifixion. Now we might have expected that somebody, somewhere in the gospel accounts would have shown some faith or confidence in Christ’s resurrection power; but we don’t see anyone. Why was everybody so unbelieving? I’d like to try to answer that question today.


First, it’s clear that Jesus repeatedly told his followers he’d raise from the dead. Mark 8:31-32, “He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.” Jesus tells his disciples the same thing in the next chapter, Mark 9:31-32. And then a third time in Mark 10:32-34. And these are just the times the Gospel of Mark mentions Jesus teaching his followers about his death and resurrection; the other gospel accounts give similar descriptions, some of which might not just be parallel accounts or duplications, but actually separate teachings. So it’s plain from the gospels that Jesus taught his disciples and followers a number of times, repeatedly, that he’d die and rise to live. So why didn’t they believe it? I wish we had the disciples here for questioning because it would be a good thing to ask them – “Why didn’t you guys expect Jesus to return from the dead after his crucifixion since he told you over and over again that he would?” I’m not sure what they’d say in response; maybe they wouldn’t even be able to say why they didn’t believe. But perhaps we have a clue in Mark 8:32 and other similar passages in the gospels. In this verse Jesus had just finished telling his followers about his coming death and resurrection, when Peter steps in and cuts Jesus off. He objects to Jesus saying such a thing. The text says that “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.” But rebuke him for what? Not for talking about his resurrection, but for talking about his upcoming death. In other words, what upset Peter, and probably all the other disciples and followers, was Jesus talking about dying. And they were probably so upset that they didn’t even hear the part about his rising from the dead. At least, that’s my theory anyway. We’ve all seen or heard people talking out loud in a tough or difficult situation, saying, “We’re going to die!” And what’s the first thing we naturally say? “Stop talking that way, it’s negative. We aren’t going to die. Everything is going to be alright.” Now in Jesus’ case, Peter took him aside and said, “Jesus, stop talking like that. You aren’t going to die. Everything’s going to work out alright.” That’s the natural thing to do, that is, try to get the conversation going in the positive direction. What about talk of resurrection? It got lost in the midst of the talk about dying. The death of Jesus and the manner in which it would come about – through handing over to the Romans by the Jews and the crucifixion – was just too much for the disciples, so much so that they completely missed or overlooked the positive part about resurrection. They so reacted against Jesus talking about death that they missed the part where he was talking about new life again. But there’s more.


Second, it’s clear that Jesus demonstrated to his followers God’s ability to raise the dead to life. John 11:38-44, “Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. ‘Take way the stone,’ he said. ‘But, Lord,’ said Martha, the sister of the dead man, ‘by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.’ Then Jesus said, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, ‘Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, ‘Take off the grave clothes and let him go.’” Now what’s interesting about this account is it shows Lazarus had been dead in the grave four days, one more day, as it turns out, than Jesus was in his own grave later on. Because, you remember, Jesus was dead in the grave for only three days. So Lazarus had been longer than Jesus before he was raised to life, one more day longer – not that it’s important one way or another. But it just shows that here was a dramatic demonstration by Jesus of the possibility of resurrection to his disciples and followers. It’s hard to understand after witnessing such a powerful demonstration of resurrection power that these same disciples and followers would be so slow to catch on to the fact that Jesus would raise from the dead after his death. A possible explanation is that while they could understand how Lazarus was raised from the dead by the miracle worker Jesus, they might not have comprehended how that same process could work for Jesus; since he rose Lazarus, but who would be there to raise him? Of course, God Almighty, the Father in heaven, raised Lazarus through the power of Jesus; but it took the prayers and power of Christ to facilitate that resurrection. Who would be the facilitator of Christ’s resurrection? That might have been the problem, and why they couldn’t believe in Christ’s resurrection before it actually occurred. Raising another from the dead, like Jesus did for Lazarus, is one thing. It’s certainly a mighty miracle, a marvelous feat of spiritual power. But raising oneself from the dead, like the disciples might have thought Jesus was describing, is another thing altogether. It might have been too much for their faith. It obviously was too much for them to believe, because as we know they didn’t believe it.


Third, even if some did believe Jesus could raise to life again before, after his crucifixion it’s clear they didn’t believe it. Matthew 27:40-43, “And (the two criminals) were saying, ‘You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!’ In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. ‘He saved others,’ they said, ‘but he can’t save himself! He’s the King of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, I am the Son of God.’” Now the problem a lot of people had with Jesus, why they didn’t believe him to be the Messiah or Lord was that he was taken captive, suffered and crucified. Just the fact that the so-called messiah could be taken captive, suffer and be put to death was evidence enough for many of the Jews that he couldn’t be the true messiah. Could the real messiah be defeated so easily? Wouldn’t the messiah actually triumph over his enemies rather than be taken captive by them? If a would-be messiah could be captured, held, tortured and executed, wasn’t that proof positive that he wasn’t the true messiah? It was for many Jews. And sadly enough, it probably was proof enough for the Jews who considered themselves disciples or followers of Jesus. In other words, if any of the disciples did believe the words of Jesus that he would raise from the dead after his death, if any of the followers of Jesus were convinced by the resurrection of Lazarus that Jesus too would be raised to life again – and we have no evidence, not any, that any of Christ’s followers believed this, but even if some did, certainly after his suffering and death on the cross they had lost any faith in it. Because even though they were not as eager to dismiss Jesus as the Jewish leaders and other Jews, still, the disciples being Jewish must have wondered among themselves whether a true messiah would have been taken captive, tortured and executed. That certainly wasn’t in the expectations of any Jew concerning the true messiah. The true messiah, as all Jews believed, would conquer the enemy, not be conquered by the enemy. So if any of the followers of Christ had believed anything about resurrection before his arrest, trial, torture and crucifixion, they certainly didn’t believe afterwards. The death of Jesus, so to speak, put a nail in the coffin of any real hope of resurrection. Again, nothing indicates that anybody was thinking resurrection after Jesus died on the cross. There was no talk of such a thing among the disciples. For them, it was over, really over.


Now the curious thing is that while the disciples spoke nothing about resurrection, and probably had no such thoughts even in their own minds, the enemies of Christ were the only ones who even remembered the words of Jesus promising to raise from the dead. Now that’s ironic! The only people thinking and talking about Jesus rising from the dead were his enemies! “The next day, the one after preparation day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. ‘Sir,’ they said, ‘we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, “After three days I will rise again.” So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Other wise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.’ ‘Take a guard,’ Pilate answered. ‘Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.’ So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard,” Matthew 27:62-66. It’s amazing that the only people who remembered the prophecy of Jesus of rising from the dead were the same Jews who handed him over for death. The disciples and other followers of Christ weren’t remembering what Jesus said about resurrection. But the hostile Jewish leaders specifically remembered Jesus saying, “After three days I will rise again.” So Jesus must have repeated the prediction of resurrection often enough that it was general knowledge to anyone who heard him. Yet the disciples and his own followers didn’t remember it, or most likely, didn’t believe it. Now we can understand why Jesus rebuked his followers after appearing to them, after his resurrection, for their failure to believe. I can only imagine that their disappointment was so great that they weren’t thinking about anything except how much they missed Jesus, and how sad they were over his awful death. In other words, they were grieving, they were mourning. We have to also remember that they were probably afraid to put any more hope in Jesus, since what good had they past hope and trust been? Now Jesus was dead and all hope of him as messiah was gone as well. They might have felt foolish for believing in him in the first place. They probably weren’t in too much of a hurry in raising their hopes again with the slim chance of him coming back from the dead, if they were even letting the thought enter their minds – which they probably weren’t. The resurrection of Jesus took everyone by surprise; it changed everything. Have you made this great discovery? Do you believe? Maybe you are close but haven’t taken the final step of faith in Jesus. If that’s you, believe today, trust him, it’s true. Find out what the early followers found; Jesus is alive! It will change your life forever.


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