A few things stand out about the disciples, and they span the entirety of Jesus’ ministry: first, no matter how bluntly Jesus puts things, they consistently fail to understand; second, they fail to see how Jesus’ death could be related to their engrained Jewish ideas of the Messiah, so the idea of a crucified Messiah is inconceivable; third, after Jesus’ crucifixion, their disappointment that he wasn’t the Messiah enters center stage; finally, they fail to make the connection between a crucified Messiah and Israel’s God, YHWH. Here is some of the data in no particular order.
In Mark 4:35–41, Jesus gets in a boat with the disciples and as they cross to the other side, a fierce wind springs up, causing waves to pour into the boat. Having fallen asleep, the disciples wake Jesus and ask, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Jesus then gets up and rebukes the storm, and it becomes perfectly calm: “‘Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?’ They became very much afraid and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and sea obey Him?’” Something similar occurs two chapters later (6:45–52). Here Jesus sends the disciples on a boat without him while he disperses a crowd. As they struggle against the wind, he approaches them, walking on water. Seeing it, they’re terrified and think they see a ghost. Calming their fears, he says, “‘Take courage; it is I, do not be afraid.’ Then He got into the boat with them, and the wind stopped; and they were utterly astonished, for they had not gained any insight from the incident of the loaves, but their heart was hardened.”
The loaves incident refers to Jesus’ prior feeding of the five thousand from just five loaves and two fish (Mark 6:33ff.). Only two chapters later (8:14–21), again, Jesus chides them for not understanding.
Adding to the embarrassment, in Mark 10:35–45 James and John foolishly ask Jesus for the best seats in heaven, after which the remaining ten disciples are “indignant.” And typifying the other disciples, Peter is front and center with his inept suggestion of building three tabernacles in Mark 9:5–6 at Jesus’ transfiguration. None of them understand and have no idea what to do, and the account says that “they became terrified.” Separately, John the Baptist, after confessing of Jesus, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” then asks Jesus through his disciples if he should be looking for someone else, revealing his own fear and doubt (John 1:29; Matt. 11:2–6).
Time and again the disciples fail to understand Jesus’ prediction about his impending death (Mark 8:32–33; 9:32; 10:32–41). When Jesus predicts they’ll all flee and that Peter will deny him (Mark 14:27–31; Matt. 26:31–35), Peter protests that his loyalty to Jesus is greater than the others—who nevertheless all join Peter in determining to die rather than deny Jesus. Further, in Mark 8 Jesus asks the disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” to which Peter responds, “You are the Christ.” Jesus then bluntly tells them that he’ll suffer, be killed, and then rise again (Mark 8:29–33). Peter immediately rebukes him and protests, after which Jesus in turn rebukes Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan.” Even though Mark singles out Peter, it is clear that he is a representative of the group of disciples because Jesus’ rebuke is to all the disciples “turning and looking at his disciples.”
Painfully obvious is that Peter could not process Jesus’ prediction because of what none of them could then fathom: the crucifixion and resurrection of Israel’s God—an understanding that would not emerge until the shocking confrontation of the risen Jesus. All of them desert Jesus as he is taken into custody (Mark 14:50; Matt. 26:56): “Then all the disciples left Him and fled.” Soon after, Peter completely denies him (Mark 14:37–50, 66–72; Matt. 26:69–75). In his third denial “he began to curse and swear, ‘I do not know this man you are talking about!’” The extreme nature of Peter’s denial (Mark 14:71) implies that he invoked a curse on Jesus. His repudiation reached such an intensity he was willing to take an oath he did not know Jesus, the tragedy of which is starkly contrasted with his prior confession of Jesus as Messiah.
Their constant misunderstanding, fear, and inept questioning and their flight from Gethsemane demonstrate how removed Jesus was from their long-held expectations.
After the crucifixion, the disciples are terrified. Jesus was executed as a criminal and Messianic pretender, and they know that any association with him puts them in danger. Their hopes in him have been crushed. So they flee. Later on the road to Emmaus, Cleopas and another disciple lament, “But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel,” betraying their fixation on traditional Jewish Messianic expectations at the heart of their early education (Luke 24:13–42). Soon after this, Jesus appears in the midst of the disciples and the Gospels describe them as “startled and frightened,” resulting in Jesus’ acknowledgment of their fear and doubt. Even after he shows them his hands and feet, they still don’t believe “because of their joy and amazement.” Separately, John reports the disciples shut in a room with closed doors “for fear of the Jews” (John 20:19). Thomas, after being told by the others that Jesus had risen, refuses to believe: “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hands into His side, I will not believe” (John 20:24–25). Finally, Matthew reports that after Jesus had been raised the remaining eleven disciples went to Galilee and, “When they saw Him, they worshipped Him; but some were doubtful” (28:16). Such doubt in the face of overwhelming physical evidence is explicable only if they had no expectation of a risen Jesus, which is exactly what the data suggests.
We can summarize by saying that their constant misunderstanding, fear, and inept questioning and their flight from Gethsemane demonstrate how removed Jesus was from their long-held expectations. Even Jesus’ own family “went out to take custody of him; for they were saying, ‘He has lost His senses’” (Mark 3:21ff.). New Testament scholar Raymond Brown remarks that without the strengthening made possible through Jesus’ victory over crucifixion, even those closest to Jesus failed. It is only with the resurrection that they were brought back.
What the Disciples Knew
We have seen how people at Kodak and Blockbuster resisted change to the way they did business. Because they existed in a tight-knit culture, they resisted new thinking, and the hard part is that they had good reasons not to change. What they were doing worked— it had made them successful. They knew what to do and who they were because of their cultural habits; altering things seemed inconceivable. Change feels threatening, so they resisted. As we will see throughout this book, this is a fundamentally human characteristic not confined to any particular culture or period. In this respect Jesus’ disciples were no different. Living in a deeply ingrained first-century Jewish belief system, they were no less resistant to change. Evidence for this is abundant. Despite everything Jesus said or did, they continued, even days after the crucifixion, to interpret him within the constructs of their long-held Jewish beliefs. They too knew what to do and who they were. One thing they understood was that the Messiah would be victorious over foreign rule and deliver Israel and its temple from pagan corruption. No one believed he’d fail, let alone be executed as a blasphemer and enemy of the state. They knew all men would rise from the dead at the end of time. No one believed that one man would be raised from the dead before all were raised. And there is no hint of any expectation that the Messiah would be Israel’s God in human flesh. According to the standards of the time, the disciples could not pick a poorer and more offensive candidate for Messiahship, let alone deification.
No one believed that one man would be raised from the dead before all were raised.
Based on what we have now seen, what requires explanation is how the disciples connected three concepts that were virtually impossible to link at the time: crucifixion and Messiah, Messiah and one man’s resurrection from the dead, resurrected Messiah and his direct identification with Israel’s God, YHWH. Whatever theory is used to explain the appearances, it must account for the failure of the disciples and their big bang fusion of these separate concepts. It is too easy to say that they made the appearances up, or that they hallucinated en masse seeing Jesus eat and talk with groups over different periods. A good theory has to account for what we know of the disciples themselves and their cultural background. What we see in the record is what we’d expect after the horrifying crucifixion of their master. It is not pretty, but it shows that in no way did they expect to see the risen Jesus.