When considering the Christian message, it is important to remember that the disciples of Jesus were totally surprised by the events that took place in Jerusalem. After the crucifixion of Jesus, the apostles rightfully believed that all was lost.
Though some have argued that the disciples merely refused to accept failure after Jesus’s death and made up the story of the resurrection, a crucified and risen Messiah simply did not fit into Jewish expectations for the One who was to come. Though there was no single understanding of what the Messiah would be like, there were common elements that every Jew would have assumed within their messianic expectations.
First, the Messiah was closely linked to Jewish beliefs regarding the place of worship. He was to institute a renewal of the temple in Jerusalem. It was also commonly understood that the Messiah would be a royal military leader who would overthrow Israel’s enemies and prove his lordship through conquest. Jesus clearly did neither of these things; rather, he came in peace and died in his youth like a criminal. Why, then, would his followers maintain that he was the Messiah? Why did they not just cut their losses after his death and move on?
New Testament scholar N.T. Wright explains:
“There were, to be sure, ways of coping with the death of a teacher, or even a leader. The picture of Socrates was available, in the wider world, as a model of unjust death nobly borne. The category of ‘martyr’ was available, within Judaism, for someone who stood up to pagans… The category of failed but still revered Messiah, however, did not exist. A Messiah who died at the hands of the pagans, instead of winning [God’s] battle against them, was a deceiver… Why then did people go on talking about Jesus of Nazareth, except as a remarkable but tragic memory? The obvious answer is that… Jesus was raised from the dead.”(1)
In this light of resurrection, the disciples had to go through a massive renewal of their thinking. Seeing the once-dead Jesus now standing before their eyes brought them to what was a radical new way of understanding the Messiah. Of course, this is in addition to the radical suspension of the well-understood laws of nature with which they also had to grapple. Despite the quick dismissal from modernity, no mind is so primitive so as to believe that all is usual when bodies rise from the dead.
The events of Holy Week remain similarly radical today. On the day that Jesus rose from the dead, he spoke of himself saying, “Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:26). As if resurrection was not hard enough to grasp, it is vastly difficult to see how there could be glory in suffering. Yet it is not hard to see that the death of Christ carries with it the force of something much more. The glory of the suffering Messiah lies in the magnitude of the love he showed on the cross.
It was this very point that Jesus’s disciples missed until his resurrection, and it is a point that many are still missing today. The Messiah’s glory was not shown through his power, though it easily could have been, nor was it shown in status or position. Instead, it was shown in his suffering and his love, which remains a far-reaching, albeit stymieing, gift to the world. He may not have been the Messiah all had hoped for, but he is indeed the Messiah of great hope.
Stuart McAllister is vice president of training and special projects at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 658.