Following the confession of Peter concerning the identity of Christ as the Son of God (cf. Mark 8:29), Jesus began to plainly teach His apostles, “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 (Mark 8:31).” Thereafter, following His transfiguration on the mountain (cf. Mark 9:2-8), as they were coming down from the mountain, we read: “he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead (Mark 9:9b; ESV).”
But this command puzzled the three apostles, Peter, James and John, who had been with Him during the transfiguration. Mark records in the next verse, “So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead might mean (Mark 9:10; ESV).”
We should understand that it was not the idea of a resurrection in general which so puzzled the apostles. The doctrine of a general resurrection was a main stay of the doctrine of the Pharisees, and Jesus Himself taught concerning the truth of the supposition that there would be a resurrection of all mankind on the last day. For instance, He said, “Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment (John 5:28-29; ESV).”
The words of Jesus were a paraphrasing of the prophet Daniel, who had written hundreds of years earlier: “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt (Daniel 12:2; ESV).” This was not an unknown passage to the Jews.
Elsewhen, prior to His raising His friend Lazarus from the dead, Jesus told Lazarus’ sister, Martha “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day (John 11:23-24; ESV).”
Martha’s statement evidenced the understanding which would have been prevalent amongst the followers of Jesus, not a few of whom likely were drawn from the sect of the Pharisees, that there would be a general resurrection of mankind, and that it was in anticipation of this event that men needed to prepare themselves spiritually.
If then, the resurrection itself was understood, what was it that so puzzled the three apostles? The ESV helpfully translates Mark’s exact phrase as, “this resurrection.” It was not the resurrection in general that they questioned, but the statement of Jesus that He Himself would rise from the dead and that subsequently they could share what they had seen. They did not understand how Jesus could rise from the dead before the general resurrection on the last day, because they did not believe Him when He said that He was going to be killed. So offensive was the idea to them, that Peter had previously, likely with the backing of the other apostles, rebuked Jesus for even suggesting such a thing (cf. Mark 8:32).
The problem, we can deduce, was that the apostles, whilst they accepted the idea of the resurrection as a general proposition, could not so easily accept the idea of a martyred Christ. They were ingrained with the cultural image of a triumphant Messiah, sitting on the throne of David, but they anticipated Jesus accomplishing such a goal by triumphing in the manner of the world: via political and military victories. The idea of triumphing through suffering was contrary to what they believed and what they wanted to believe, and thus it puzzled and mystified them.
But God, in His wisdom had a different plan from that expected by the Jews and by the apostles. A more powerful plan by which to accomplish His will. Today, with hindsight, we can more readily accept the death, burial and resurrection of Christ for the wise necessity that it was.
Yet, there are still times when we, like the apostles, are mystified by the plans and commands of God. This is especially true of those times when what God is telling us runs contrary to what we are expecting or wanting. But, just as the apostles were to learn and accept the wisdom of suffering (cf. 1 Peter 4:1-2), and just as Christ was triumphant over the cross, so too, we should have faith in the plan of God for us. If God’s word is puzzling to us, presenting something of a mystery, there is good chance it is because we have at some point accepted as truth something that is not so, and the problem is not so much with what God said, as it is with our reluctance to conform to what God has said.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.