Were the Disciples Expecting Jesus to Rise From the Dead?

Title: Were the Disciples Expecting Jesus to Rise From the Dead?
Text: Mark 8:31-32, Luke 24:25, Mark 16:1-3
Time: April 7th, 2015

I mentioned last time that I’d just watched part one of the made-for-television series “A.D. The Bible Continues.” In it the disciples are shown talking about the prophecy of Jesus that he would rise from the dead after three days. It shows that Mary, mother of Jesus, did believe that it would happen. It also shows that Mary Magdalene was thinking that it might come to pass. But it mostly shows the disciples discouraged, depressed and anxious to leave Jerusalem out of fear of the Jews who might want to round them up and either jail or kill them to prevent them from spreading the teachings of Jesus. Peter is inclined, the presentation shows, to wait for at least three days to see what happens – to see if Jesus rises from the dead as he said, until he and the other disciples flee the city for their own safety. So the TV drama shows the disciples conscious and reflecting and pondering that Jesus might indeed rise from the dead. Now the only problem with this depiction is that it isn’t anywhere in the New Testament of the Bible. What the biblical record shows is that the enemies of Christ and his disciples – the Jewish leader and Pharisees in particular – were indeed thinking about the Jesus prophecy of resurrection after three days. We know this because they went to Pilate to ask for a Roman guard to seal and watch the tomb in order that nothing could happen that might give anyone the impression that Jesus had fulfilled prophecy by rising from the dead. They didn’t want anyone moving or stealing the body of Christ and then spreading the rumor that he had risen from the dead. So Pilate sent troops to seal and guard the tomb of Jesus as the Jews had requested. So we know from the Bible that the Jews were thinking about the resurrection prophecy, and we know that the Romans were now thinking about it due to the Jews bringing it up, but we don’t have any evidence – at least that I’m aware of – that the disciples were thinking or contemplating or expecting anything like Jesus rising from the dead. In “A.D. The Bible Continues” while some of the believers are hoping the prophecy comes true, others like Peter doubt it, as he says in one scene, “I’d give my right arm to believe that Jesus is coming back to life again, but I cannot.” Clearly the TV presentation shows the disciples considering it. But is this actually accurate? I think it’s a fascinating topic because we often don’t take the time to think through what it must have been like to live as a Christian believer during those dark days after the death and burial of Christ. Did they truly believe at that point? Were they expecting something to happen? Or were they downhearted, discouraged and depressed? Let’s investigate the matter a little closer.

First, it’s clear from the gospels that Jesus did in fact prophesy of his resurrection after three days. Mark 8:31-32, “He (Jesus) 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.” On a number of occasions Jesus came right out and prophesied his death, burial and resurrection. We know that his disciples heard him because here in this verse we see the Apostle Peter rebuking Jesus for being so negative. “No, Lord, may it never be,” said Peter. So it’s clear that Jesus made the resurrection prophecy, and he probably did so a number of times during the three years of his ministry. So the disciples and believers and Jesus followers probably all heard it. But that’s not all. The enemies of Jesus clearly heard the resurrection prophecy as well. Matthew 27:62-66 records, “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. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised form 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.” So the enemies of Christ either heard Jesus prophesy directly that he’d rise from the grave after three days, or they heard from witnesses that he’d said so. It must have been widely known that he had prophesied about resurrection after three days. Now the Jewish leader and Pharisees didn’t take the prophecy seriously, that is, they never really believed that Jesus would actually rise from the dead. But they feared that others might believe it if the body of Jesus was missing from the grave. So that motivated them to have Pilate’s soldiers seal and guard the tomb to make sure the body of Jesus stayed in the grave. Then, if there were any spurious rumors of his resurrection, they could simply go to the tomb, unroll the stone and produce the dead corpse of Christ to disprove it. Jesus wasn’t at all secretive about his resurrection prophecy. Like he said before the Jewish leaders on the night of his trial, “’I have spoken openly to the world,’ Jesus replied. ‘I always taught in the synagogues or at the temple, where all the Jews come together,” John 18:20. The truth is, anyone who listened to Jesus, both friends and foes, knew that Jesus had prophesied his own resurrection after three days. But believing it was a different matter.

Second, it’s also clear from the New Testament that the disciples of Jesus were often slow to hear and believe in his teachings. Luke 24:25, “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?” This discourse of Jesus occurred after the third day, after his resurrection, as he walked on the Emmaus Road, he met some believers. He rebuked them for the unbelief. Then, he Jesus appeared to his disciples and rebuked them for not believing in the resurrection on the basis of testimony from others. “Later Jesus appeared to the Eleven as they were eating; he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen,” Mark 16:14. As we see here, not only did the disciples seem to doubt that Jesus would fulfill prophecy by rising from the dead on the third day, they even refused to believe reports that Jesus had raised from the dead coming from eyewitnesses. Now how can we explain this? Weren’t these men closest to Jesus? Weren’t they most heavily invested in the life and ministry of Jesus? So then why were they the last, as it were, to believe in the resurrection? Maybe because they had been so heavily invested in Jesus, so close to him, that when he was tortured and killed and finally buried, they took it really hard. They were probably deeply saddened and hurt. They were probably confused and in shock. How could the Messiah Jesus have died? And how could it have occurred the way it did, at the hands of the Jewish leaders by means of the Romans? They had hoped so strongly that Jesus was the One, yet from all outward indication they had been wrong. They were crushed. They were discouraged, depressed and despairing. Their whole world had fallen apart. So we can understand why, in part, why they were not eager to get their hopes up again in talk of a prophecy of resurrection, because they were afraid they might be setting themselves up only to be let down again. They might have thought that having been disappointed in Jesus once, they weren’t about to go through that a second time. Now the TV presentation “A.D. The Bible Continues” shows the mother Mary believing and putting hope in her son Jesus’ resurrection prophecy, and it shows a few women among them also entertaining the hope. But sadly there’s nothing in the Bible account that supports this. It might have been, but there’s no direct evidence for it. All the direct evidence shows that the believers, followers and disciples after the death and burial of Jesus were discouraged, not encouraged and grieving not anticipating,

Third, the Bible does offer one possible piece of evidence of Jesus followers hoping for his resurrection after three days. Mark 16:1-3, “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, ‘Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?’” The only thing that might indicate faith in the resurrection prophecy on the part of the followers of Jesus is that the women went early to the tomb on the third day. Why were they going? To anoint the body, the biblical account says. But did they go also to see if in fact Jesus had risen? Maybe, but we aren’t told that. What we are told is that they went to anoint the body, which would imply they assumed the body would still be there, although they might have hoped it wouldn’t be. They were also concerned about and discussed the issue of moving the large stone in front of the tomb in order to get at the body of Jesus to anoint it for proper burial. Were they counting on the Roman soldiers and/or Temple guards stationed there to move it for them? Did they even know about the guards at the tomb? Did they know there would be a seal on the tomb that wasn’t to be disturbed? There were a number of different and difficult issues that the women seemed to not have known about or had not thought through in order to accomplish what they set out to do, that is, to properly anoint the body of Jesus for final burial. Again, we ask the question, “Could these women have entertained the notion that they might indeed find an empty tomb?” They weren’t talking like they were expecting the tomb to be empty, after all, why talk about moving the stone if they were thinking resurrection? Or maybe they were hoping Jesus had risen from the dead but that the stone might prevent them from knowing whether he had or not. In other words, could they have been worried that because of the stone they might be able to know whether the resurrection prophecy had or had not be fulfilled? Nothing in the biblical account says anything about such questions. As far as the Bible is concerned, these women, the followers of Jesus and his disciples were all not talking about or hoping openly for a resurrection appearance of Jesus. Might they been secretly entertaining such thoughts? Yes, but if they were the Bible doesn’t say anything about it. So what can we conclude about the state of faith of the followers of Jesus after his death and burial? Can we give them faith like the TV presentation does?

We probably can’t attribute faith in a resurrection prophecy on the part of any of the followers of Jesus. There’s just no evidence for it. It seems like at least some of the followers, believers and disciples of Jesus would have at least hoped that Jesus would return, but the Bible just doesn’t give us any evidence of that. Can we read between the lines and insist that because Jesus had spoke of resurrection before his death that somebody, somewhere must have looked for it? In the TV Bible presentation it shows Mary, mother of Jesus, saying, “He raised others from the dead, I must believe he will be raised from the dead as well.” That sounds reasonable, but again, nothing in the Bible indicates that anything like it was ever said or thought. The Bible account indicates that the enemies of Christ, the Jewish leaders, feared that the resurrection prophecy was so strong within the followers of Jesus that they, Christ’s followers, might try to help things along by manipulating events, such as entering the tomb, stealing the body, and spreading the news that Jesus had been raised. What a cynical view of things these Jewish leaders must have had. We know they were master manipulators, as we saw so very clearly in the trial, sentencing and execution of Jesus. Out of their own manipulative imaginations they were projecting fears that the disciples of Jesus might steal the body and claim the prophecy had been fulfilled and that Christ had risen. They projected these schemes onto the disciples because that is something of the sort of thing they, the Jewish leader, might do in another context. But little did they know that they really had nothing to fear about. The disciples weren’t thinking about the possibility of resurrection at all, as far as we know from the biblical accounts. And they certainly wouldn’t have resorted to stealing the body and then lying about Jesus returning to life if it weren’t true. As far as the disciples were concerned it was all over. The Jesus mission had ended in failure. How could they go forward without Jesus? What message could they carry now, seeing that their master had been so brutally killed? What they were probably thinking was how were they going to avoid being either jailed or killed themselves. So did the TV Bible presentation get it wrong about the disciples? Yes, as far as the Bible tells us. But it’s still fun to speculate as to what was really going on in the minds of the Jesus followers during this time. Might there have been some or even one believer who remembered what Jesus had prophesied about resurrection and also believed it? Perhaps. But for a final answer we’ll all have to wait and see in the next life.

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