What did Jesus’ resurrection mean to His original disciples—all of those who believed in Him during His lifetime on earth? And what does it mean to us today?
By the time Jesus shared the Last Supper with His followers, just hours before He was arrested, tried, and killed, they had come to understand that Jesus was the Messiah (Savior) that the Old Testament prophets had foretold. Their understanding of this, however, was different from ours today.
The Jewish people in first-century Palestine believed and expected that God would send a Messiah, but according to their interpretation of Scripture, this was going to be an earthly king who would free Israel from oppression and domination by other nations, from which it had suffered for centuries. As they saw it, the kingdom to come was going to be an earthly one.
The disciples’ understanding of Jesus as the Messiah up until the time of His death was still based on this interpretation. They were expecting that Jesus would be the anointed king of physical Israel. This would have been the motivation behind the request of the brothers James and John to be allowed to sit on Jesus’ right and left hand once He came into power.[ See Mark 10:35–38,41.] In other words, they wanted prominent positions when He would rule Israel. Even after His resurrection, they still asked Jesus when He was going to free Israel and restore the physical kingdom.[See Acts 1:6.]
Recent events had added to this anticipation. Seeing the large crowd of those who had come to Jerusalem for the Passover feast waving palm branches and hailing Jesus as king[See John 12:13.] must have been exhilarating for the disciples! When pilgrims who didn’t know who He was or what was going on asked about it, the crowds who were following said, “This is the prophet Jesus.”[See John 12:12–18; Matthew 21:6–11.] Throughout His ministry, Jesus had healed multitudes of sick people, had fed thousands miraculously, had spoken God’s word with authority, and He had just recently raised His friend Lazarus from the dead. His popularity was at its cusp, and it seems a lot of people had high expectations that He was the awaited Messiah.
However, to all appearances, everything soon went wrong. Within days, Jesus was unfairly accused and savagely executed in the most degrading manner. The Messiah was expected to bring the pagans to justice, not to suffer unjustly at their hands.
You can imagine how devastating this shocking turn of events must have been for the disciples! The teacher they followed, their beloved Master, who they were sure was the Messiah, was dead. They were confused and discouraged, as seen in the account of two of them who were walking to the village of Emmaus on the day of the resurrection. The risen Jesus drew near and started walking with them. In the course of telling the story of what had happened, they said: “We had hoped He was the one who would redeem Israel.” Those hopes had seemingly been dashed, and they were deeply saddened by His death.[See Luke 24:17–21.]
But then, the resurrection changed everything! God raised the so-called “failed” Messiah from the dead. There had been no Jewish expectation that the Messiah would be raised from the dead, so it wasn’t as if the disciples, or the Jewish people in general, were waiting to see whether Jesus would fulfill some prophecy in that respect.
A short time before this, the chief priests had come to the conclusion that Jesus must die, saying, “If we let Him go on like this, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.”[John 11:48 ESV]
During Jesus’ trial, the high priest asked Him if he was the Christ, and upon hearing Jesus’ affirmative answer, which included quotations from the book of Daniel about the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of God, the high priest and those with him accused Him of blasphemy, which by their law was punishable by death.[See Matthew 26:63–66.]
Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect, condemned Jesus to death on the basis of His claim of being a king. It seems Pilate didn’t genuinely consider Jesus a threat, but due to the insistence of the crowd and the Jewish authorities, he chose to have Him crucified under Roman anti-sedition laws.[See John 19:12.] The plaque that Pilate hung on the cross said, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”[Matthew 27:37 ESV]
Jesus was executed because the Jewish leaders rejected Him as the Messiah, and because the Romans said no unauthorized king could live. Yet the extraordinary and unexpected event of His resurrection reversed the verdicts of both the Jewish and Roman courts.
Despite Rome’s law that would-be kings must die, and the Jewish leaders’ belief that Jesus was not the Messiah, God Himself overturned their judgments, validating Jesus as both King and Messiah by raising Him from the dead.
This, in turn, validated all that Jesus had taught about His Father, the kingdom of God, and salvation. The resurrection, which proved that Jesus was, in fact, the Messiah, coupled with the coming of the Holy Spirit, established a new understanding about God. The significance of the resurrection in Jesus’ day was that it validated that Jesus was who He said He was.
Before the resurrection, the disciples hadn’t fully understood the things Jesus had told them about His death and resurrection. However, after He rose, during the 40 days before He ascended into heaven, He explained the Scriptures to them and they then understood.[See Acts 1:3; Luke 24:27,32.]
The realization that through Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection, salvation was available to all was the reason the apostles preached about the resurrected Christ throughout the book of Acts. It’s why the New Testament writers stated that the resurrection proved Jesus was the Son of God.
Fifty days after the resurrection, after Jesus had ascended, the Holy Spirit also entered the world in a new way by dwelling within believers. These events motivated the disciples and the early church to spread the news throughout the world of their day that through Jesus and His sacrifice on the cross, humanity could become reconciled with God.
For the disciples then, and for us now, Easter is the bedrock of Christian faith and hope. The early disciples, while initially faced with crushed hopes due to their expectations, soon came to see that because Jesus arose, what He had done, said, and promised was true. That carries down through history to us today. The risen Christ gave proof of His divinity and trustworthiness by dying for our sins and then rising from the dead.
Because of what He did, we know that all He said is true: that we have salvation and eternal life, that the Holy Spirit dwells within us, that we have the promise of answered prayer, that He will guide us when we ask Him to. The separation between us and God has been bridged. We are His children, who will live with Him forever.
Because of the resurrection, we have the assurance of salvation, the ability to lead a Christ-infused life today, and the honor to live with God forever.
Let’s rejoice in the significance of Easter—yesterday, today, and forever. Happy Easter!