Consider the following passages (all from the N.K.J.V.):
- From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day. (Matthew 16:21)
- Now as they came down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying, “Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead” (Matthew 17:9)
- Now while they were staying in Galilee. Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is about to be betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him, and the third day He will be raised up.” And they were all exceedingly sorrowful. (Matthew 17:22-23)
- Now Jesus, going up to Jerusalem, took the twelve disciples aside on the road and said to them, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death, and deliver Him to the Gentiles to mock and to scourge and to crucify. And the third day He will rise again.” (Matthew 20:17-19)
- Then Jesus said to them, “All of you will be made to stumble because of Me this night, for it is written: ‘I will strike the Shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ But after I have been raised, I will go before you to Galilee” (Matthew 26:31-32)
- And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He spoke this word openly…. (Mark 8:31-32)
- Then they departed from there and passed through Galilee, and He did not want anyone to know it. For He taught His disciples and said to them, “The Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him. And after He is killed, He will rise the third day.” (Mark 9:30-31)
- And He strictly warned and commanded them to tell this to no one, saying, “The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day.” (Luke 9:21-22)
- Then He took the twelve aside and said to them, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man will be accomplished. For He will be delivered to the Gentiles and will be mocked and insulted and spit upon. They will scourge Him and kill Him. And the third day He will rise again.” (Luke 18:31-33)
- Jesus answered and said to them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (John 2:19)
As we read these passages, it’s hard to understand why the apostles didn’t expect Jesus to resurrect. Even if they didn’t believe His predictions when they first heard them, shouldn’t they have expected Him to rise again once they knew He had been betrayed, arrested, condemned, scourged, and crucified? I mean, once everything else He had predicted had come to pass right on schedule, the only item left on the “to do” list was to rise again on the third day.
Don’t get me wrong. I can understand why none of the apostles were camped out at Christ’s tomb awaiting His resurrection. After all, they were living in fear of being arrested and crucified as Jesus had been and weren’t about to show themselves to any Roman soldiers. But how was it possible that even when they heard that Christ’s tomb was empty they still didn’t believe He could have resurrected?
According to Luke 24:11, the words of the women “seemed to them like idle tales, and they did not believe them.” Peter and John, upon hearing the women’s report, didn’t say, “He must have arisen; let’s go find Him.” Instead, they ran out to the tomb in an attempt to figure out what had happened (John 20:1-9). Checking out the scene is not the same thing as belief.
Later that day, when the resurrected Jesus appeared to the apostles, the group was terrified and thought they were seeing a ghost. It wasn’t until Jesus showed them His hands and feet and ate with them that they believed it was actually Him (Luke 24:36-43). Unfortunately for Thomas, he wasn’t present for that appearance, but when he heard about it, he said, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). As we know, Jesus obliged him a week later, but Thomas’ attitude certainly characterized the fundamental unbelief that all the apostles had concerning Christ’s promise to rise again.
What makes their unbelief all the worse is the fact that even Christ’s enemies understood that He had promised to resurrect. As a matter of fact, the chief priests and Pharisees went to Pontius Pilate and asked that Roman guards be placed at the tomb until the third day had passed (Matthew 27:62-66). No, these religious leaders didn’t believe that Jesus would resurrect, but they were suspicious that some of His disciples would steal the body and tell everybody that Jesus had arisen. The point is that those leaders knew enough to at least keep a watchful eye on the tomb.
I really can’t say why the apostles had so much trouble believing that Jesus would resurrect. All I know is that their unbelief arrived early and stayed late. In Mark’s gospel, the first time that Jesus tells them that He is going to be killed and rise again three days later, Peter immediately rebukes Him for saying such a thing (Mark 8:31-32). Jesus, in turn, rebukes Peter by saying, “Get behind Me, Satan! For you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men” (Mark 8:33).
You would think that hearing Peter called “Satan” would have alerted the apostles that Jesus was serious when He said that He was going to be put to death and rise again, but just one chapter later (Mark 9:31), when He tells them again, they still can’t buy it. Mark 9:32 tells us that they didn’t understand Christ’s words but were afraid to ask Him for clarification. No doubt they didn’t want to be called “Satan” like Peter had been when he had disputed Jesus on the same subject matter.
In the end, of course, all the apostles (except Judas Iscariot obviously) not only believed that Jesus had arisen but went out and changed the world with that truth. We are left to wonder, though, what would have become of them if they hadn’t been able to literally see the risen, glorified Jesus with their eyes. You and I have never had that privilege, have we? And yet we are called to believe every bit as much as they were. That can be too tall an order for some people. But for those of us who have stepped out in faith and believed in not only the resurrection of Christ but, more importantly, the resurrected Christ, we know that our belief is well placed because Jesus fellowships with us each day, not just Easter Sunday.