Understanding the Disciples' Confusion About Jesus' Resurrection

This past week we explored Mark 9:2-13, the story of Jesus’ 'transfiguration.' In the story, Jesus is demonstrated as the supreme Lord of Glory—as the one who wears light as a garment (see Psalm 104:1-2 and Mark 9:3).

In Mark’s account, Jesus is quite cryptic in his explanation of the event: he essentially says that, in the same way that John the Baptist suffered, and even died, so also will Jesus, the Son of Man. 

What’s remarkable is that Jesus seems to be saying that His suffering and death will perfectly showcase his true glory. That is, Jesus' glorification will not be the result of his taking an earthly throne; but rather, it will be the result of His utter humiliation—his death on a cross, in fact.

Other New Testament authors affirm this.

In chapter 6, verses 32-33, John writes that Jesus answered His disciples, saying, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.

In Chapter 2, verses 7-11, Paul, in His epistle to the church in Philippi, wrote:

Jesus made himself nothing, taking the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every other name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the God the Father.

Taking cues from Jesus Himself, both John and Paul recycle language from Isaiah 52:13, communicating that the ultimate exaltation of God’s Son will be through His excruciating death, not His becoming an earthly king—as the Jews believed about the coming Messiah.

Jesus’ death, and its consequences, are affirmed—vindicated—by His resurrection. Jesus will not only demonstrate mastery over Satan, but mastery over death itself, when He rises on the third day (see Mark 8:31; 9:9; 9:31; and 10:34).

But, what’s really important for us today, and what I hope to accomplish via this post, is to explain the problem of Mark 9:9-10.

As believers, we’re used to hearing about Jesus’ death and resurrection. But remember, Jesus’ followers in the Gospel of Mark are hearing these kinds of things for the very first time. Naturally, they struggled with grasping it.

In this passage, Jesus' disciples are having a tough time wrapping their minds not just around Jesus’ voluntary death, but His supernatural resurrection thereafter. As verse 10 explains, Jesus’ disciples don’t fully comprehend what Jesus is talking about regarding “this rising from the dead.”

But what’s keeping Peter, James and John from being able to understand and believe Jesus’ prophecy of His coming resurrection?

As 1st Century Jews, they most assuredly believe in the resurrection of human bodies. As God-fearing Jews, they no doubt believe the covenant that God made with his people since the beginning cannot be broken. 

As one of my favorite authors, Tom Wright, explains:

The vision… of [God’s] promises and his faithfulness to them; his purposes for Israel…this vision of the creator and covenant God underlies the ancient belief in the national hope, the emerging belief that the relationship with God would be unbreakable even by death, and the eventual belief that God would raise the dead. — The Resurrection of the Son of God (pg. 127)

Though they had some differing nuances, The Jews in Jesus’ time believed in the eternal promises of God to raise the righteous from the dead. And they had biblical precedence for it:

  • "Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead." — Isaiah 26:19
  • "Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people…And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land." — Ezekiel 37:12, 14
  • "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

The Jews had reasons to believe in a bodily resurrection; though it isn’t everywhere in the Old Testament, when it shows up, it’s pretty clear and simple. What matters is when they thought this resurrection would take place. And as you can probably imagine, they thought it would come at the end of time.

It would be at the end of the world that God would raise his faithful people “to shine like the brightness of the sky above” (Daniel 12:3), and make the world right forever. It would be at the end of time that God would restore all things, including us—humanity.

So again, what’s the problem? If Jesus is talking about resurrection, something his disciples believe in, why are they having trouble understanding? 

Here it is:

If Jesus was, in fact, going to rise from the dead, His resurrection should happen at the end of time; but, in Mark 9, He’s talking as if He will be raised in the middle of history, where ‘life as it is’ will continue.

In a Jew’s mind, Jesus believes he will be resurrected at the wrong time! Given context, Peter, James and John’s confusion in Mark 9:9-10 actually makes sense. It’s entirely new to them and they do not yet see the significance of Jesus’ resurrection for theirs and our salvation.

They don’t understand that Jesus’ resurrection would be his Father’s acknowledgement and approval of Jesus’ death—that His sacrifice for His people would be good enough. The disciples don’t see that Jesus has not come as a general to take Jerusalem and Rome by force, but as a savior to take sin and death to the grave.

Paul says in Romans 5, “Sin reigns in death,” but what if what Jesus has done changes things? What if, rather shockingly, Christ’s death defeats sin and death because he rises from the dead

That is what Jesus is beginning to articulate in Mark 9; and it's a theological truth that He will continue to reveal to the apostles as they grow in their understanding of the significance of Jesus’ words and actions.

Hopefully this attempt of an explanation clarifies a few things. Again, the intent of this post is to explore why the disciples were so confused by Jesus’ revelation of His coming resurrection.

I sincerely hope the above has successfully done just that, with clarity. 

Please, do not hesitate to direct any questions you may have to either Pastor David or myself. We’d love to do this in even greater depth with you.

Wishing God’s blessings and grace upon you,

Pastor Josh