From our perspective it seems so strange. They were with Jesus. Heard his teaching. Witnessed his miracles. Were prepared by him for what was coming. Experienced his authority. How could the disciples not understand? How could they not expect Jesus’ resurrection? Why did they doubt, not believe, and lose hope?
Jesus began to tell the disciples he must die and be raised from the dead. “And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you’” (Matthew 16:22). Jesus died on the cross. His dead, lifeless, body was laid in the tomb, partially prepared for burial. “When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him” (Mark 16:1). They came to finish the preparation of the body of Jesus. There was no expectation of his resurrection. Jesus told them! Yes, but none of the disciples understood. That is not the way it was supposed to be. Those Jews who believed in resurrection believed in a final resurrection of all God’s people. There was no expectation of God’s Messiah, of one person, being raised first.
When Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and found the body of Jesus gone, she did not rejoice. “So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him’” (John 20:2). The disciples did not understand what Jesus meant when he told them he would be raised on the third day. Raised? No. Stolen? Yes. The crucifixion of Jesus crushed their hopes. Obviously Jesus was not the one for whom they were hoping. A prophet, a man of God, who did mighty works and spoke powerful words, this was Jesus, but not the hoped for Messiah.
On the road to Emmaus the resurrected Jesus came upon two disciples, walked along with them, and conversed with them. They did not recognize him. Surprised this man was not aware of what had recently happened in Jerusalem they told him of the disappointing events which happened that Friday. It was Sunday as they walked to Emmaus. “And they said to him, ‘Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened’” (Luke 24:19-21, emphasis mine). A prophet, condemned, crucified, dead, buried now three days, they had hoped he was the one, but obviously Jesus of Nazareth was not the one for whom they hoped. Jesus of Nazareth was not the Messiah.
The cross had a clear meaning in the days of Jesus. “We Romans run this place, and if you get in our way we’ll obliterate you.”1 The cross was not exactly a symbol of victory over evil. It was just the opposite. Crucifixion presented a clear message concerning Jesus of Nazareth. He was not the Messiah. The expectations of those looking for a promised Messiah were about victory over the pagans not defeat and crucifixion.
From his study of the Second Temple period, N. T. Wright summarizes the expectations the Jewish world of the first century had concerning the Messiah. “Win the decisive victory over the pagans,” which of course meant the defeat of Rome and the liberation of Israel. “Rebuild or cleanse the Temple. Bring true, god-given justice and peace.”2 “Bring Israel’s long history to its climax, reestablishing the monarchy as in the days of David and Solomon.”3 There were would-be Messiahs before and after Jesus. Wright discusses two who came after Jesus whose agendas and efforts fit more into the expectations the people had for God’s Messiah.
In the Jewish revolt against Rome in 66-70 A.D. Simon bar-Giora was a would-be Messiah. The Romans crushed the revolt, destroyed Jerusalem, and flattened the Temple. The Roman victory was memorialized in Titus’s Arch at the east end of the Forum in Rome. Among the depictions, on the arch, of the victory procession through Rome, is that of the procession of Jewish prisoners carrying the spoils which included articles from the Temple. Simon was marched into Rome and executed. The city celebrated the Roman victory, Roman justice, Roman empire, and Roman peace. That was the end of Simon. There was no effort by his followers to continue his movement. He was dead, defeated. Obviously he was not the Messiah for whom they hoped.4
A second Jewish revolt against Rome occurred from 132-135 A.D. Simeon ben Kosiba led this revolt, initially meeting with success. One of the leading rabbis of the day hailed Simeon as Messiah. Simeon’s agenda and confidence is seen in the coins he had minted for three years. The dates on the coins were year 1, then year 2, then year 3, signifying the beginning of the new Jewish era with the coming of the Messiah and the kingdom of God. One of the coins depicts a restored Temple with the ark of the covenant. Simeon’s plan was to rebuild the Temple. The agenda of rebuilding the Temple, of being king in Jerusalem as David, Solomon, Hezekiah, and others, establishing the kingdom of God, and defeating the forces of paganism, was more in line with the expected agenda of the Messiah than that of Jesus. The rebellion was crushed by Rome. Simeon was killed. Dead, defeated, so was the end of Simeon. There was no effort by his followers to continue his movement. Obviously he was not the Messiah for whom they hoped.5
Considering the expectations for the Messiah which were held by the Jewish people and seeing what happened with the movements of men like Simon and Simeon, the disciples of Jesus losing hope and doubting, is not surprising. What is surprising, somewhat shocking, is to see the rise of Christianity after the death of Jesus. Crucified, dead, defeated by Rome and by the religious authorities, it was clear, Jesus was not the Messiah, the one for whom they hoped. There was a clear alternative for the disciples of Jesus. As with the followers of other so-called Messiahs who had been defeated and killed by the Romans, the disciples could go home, be grateful they escaped with their lives, and forget about Jesus of Nazareth who made such claims but was dead.6
Fifty days after the crucifixion of Jesus there is a surprising scene. Peter and the other apostles are found in Jerusalem before a large crowd gathered for the celebration of the Jewish feast of Pentecost. Peter preached. He gives a shocking conclusion to his message. “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). Jesus died. His body was in the tomb. Why did Peter proclaim Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, and the kingdom of God has come? Why did the disciples of Jesus make such claims concerning him with a willingness themselves to face rejection, arrest, beatings, and even execution? Unlike other messianic movements, why was there the rise of Christianity after the death of Jesus?
The disciples came to believe in the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth was the foundation for Peter’s bold claim concerning Jesus. “God has made him both Lord and Christ.” Notice Peter’s words in Acts 2:24 and 32. “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses.” The disciples saw Jesus, risen. That is their claim. Seeing Jesus, talking with him, eating with him, touching him, convinced them to believe. He is risen! He is Lord and Christ.
When the women came and the two disciples from the Emmaus road came to the disciples the apostles did not believe they had seen Jesus. He was dead. The empty tomb, his enemies must have taken his body. Then that Sunday evening Jesus came into the room where they were gathered in fear, all but one of them. They believed. The following Sunday Jesus came to them again. Thomas, who was not there the previous week, was present this time. Jesus said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:27-28). Resurrection–this was not a ghost, not a battered, bleeding survivor, but here was Jesus, living, his body raised from death.
The resurrection of Jesus was God’s vindication of Jesus. The resurrection was God’s proclamation that Jesus of Nazareth who died such a shameful death, who by all appearances was defeated, was dead, therefore done, and certainly not God’s Christ, is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Thomas responded, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). The apostle Paul wrote, “the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 1:1-4, emphasis mine). Teaching in the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch Paul proclaimed, “But God raised him from the dead, and for many days he appeared to those who had come up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people. And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you.’ Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you” (Acts 13:30-33).
Their belief in the resurrection of Jesus, the result of their seeing the resurrected Jesus, I understand to be the best explanation for the preaching, faith, courage, and changed lives of the disciples and for the explosion of Christianity in the first century. No other explanation makes sense within the context of history.
Jesus is risen. This is why I believe in the truth and trustworthiness of Jesus. Why I believe what Jesus claimed and what his disciples said about him is true. Why I believe the religion, Christianity, founded on Jesus of Nazareth is true. God raised Jesus from the dead. Believing this, Jesus Christ is my core belief, the place I stand, the lever and fulcrum which enable me to believe in God, to know who God is. The living Christ is my strength and my hope with which and on which I seek to build my faith.
“And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
1N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope (New York: HarperOne, 2008): 40.
2N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003): 557.
3N. T. Wright, Simply Christian (New York: HarperOne, 2006): 106.
4Wright, Resurrection: 558.
5Wright, Simply: 106.
6Wright, Resurrection: 560.