Jesus predicted a number of times that He would have to die and then be resurrected, but the disciples never seemed to grasp the significance of what He was telling them. “And He began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. And He said this plainly. And Peter took Him, and began to rebuke Him. But turning and seeing His disciples, He rebuked Peter, and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men.” Mark 8:31-33 Later in Mark Jesus tries to get the reality of His coming death and resurrection through to the disciples once again. “For He was teaching His disciples, saying to them, ‘the Son of Man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and when He is killed, after three days He will rise.’ But they did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to ask Him.” Mark 9:31, 32
Even when the tomb where Jesus was buried was discovered empty on Sunday morning the disciples thought someone had stolen the body. “Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. 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 20:1, 2 John and Peter then rushed to the tomb and confirmed Mary’s observation. “Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not know the scripture, that He must rise from the dead.” John 20:8, 9 The other disciple mentioned in the text was John and when it said he believed, it was referring to Mary’s observation that the body was missing.
In Luke 24 we have the wonderful revelation of the resurrection revealed when four women go to the tomb to prepare Jesus body for interment. But when they arrived they encountered two angels by the empty tomb. The angels reminded them of Jesus words that He must die and be resurrected. The women fled back to the eleven disciples and reported what they had just experienced. The disciple’s response was less than reassuring to the women. “But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” John 20:11 And even after Jesus appeared to the disciples Thomas refused to believe unless he could touch the wound on Jesus side and the nail scared hands. (See John 20:20-31
So why have I taken the time to write about the lack of faith surrounding the people who were closest to Jesus? One of the principles that are used by Bible scholars for understanding Scripture is the principle of embarrassment. It is the simple observation that when people are lying about things they tend to keep negative facts out of the story and focus upon the positive. It is highly unlikely that the disciples and early church leaders would create a story about the resurrection of Jesus that in hindsight cast the disciples in such bad light for originally not believing Jesus words and the facts before them.
But the fact that today we have the Gospels shows that the disciples, after their encounter with the risen Christ, became firm believers and spent the rest of their life proclaiming the authenticity of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. In fact they all, with the exception of John, would die cruel deaths at the hands of skeptics and haters for their beliefs. Do we really think these men would allow themselves to die such hideous torturous deaths for a made up story about the resurrection? There was nothing to gain for them by wandering the country, facing opposition, poverty and ridicule because of their beliefs.
What motivated the disciples was that they had experienced the resurrection. They hadn’t understood Jesus predictions of the resurrection and they somehow couldn’t equate Lazarus’ resurrection with Jesus resurrection power to rise from the grave, and then they doubted when they saw the empty tomb. But now that they were spiritually alive and had encountered the risen Savior, they proclaimed the good news throughout the world.
Ignatius, who knew the disciples, wrote that they were so encouraged by seeing and touching the risen Jesus they were unaffected by the fear of martyrdom. Clement of Rome, another contemporary of the disciples, records the suffering and death of both Peter and Paul for their faith. Polycarp who was a disciple of the disciples attests to the suffering and death of the disciples for their belief in the resurrection. I’m not saying that their sincerity validates their beliefs, but it does demonstrate that they were not lying because liars make poor martyrs.
The disciples originally thought the body was taken by the Jewish leaders or the Romans and hidden in a different place. But when the Jewish leaders said the Christians had stolen it in order to explain the empty tomb, it was an admission they didn’t have it. When the disciples began preaching the resurrection, the authorities could have quickly brought it to a halt by producing the body. The Christians couldn’t have stolen the body because of the seal on the tomb and the Roman guards who had authority to stop anyone from going into the tomb. Old theories like the swoon theory that Jesus was given drugs on the cross that made him seem dead, and then in the cool of the tomb, recovered and made His way out of the tomb and hid from the public have long been vanished by modern medical evidences against such a possibility.
Tomorrow is Good Friday, the day of the crucifixion and a very important day in the calendar for Christians. It is a time for us to slow down and remember the sacrifice Jesus made on our behalf at Calvary’s cross. But for Christians the cross means nothing if there is no Sunday morning and the resurrection. Jesus could have died for us but if there were no resurrection He would have simply been another death on a cross. The resurrection is the assurance that the Father accepted Jesus sacrifice on our behalf, and that all those who believe in Christ will have eternal life.
A great deal of the information I presented in this study can be found in Gary Habermas book, “The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus.”