I was struck the other day by a thought that should have occurred to me many years ago. After Jesus rose from the dead He appeared to His disciples several times over the course of 40 days, until He ascended to heaven. What never occurred to me until now, however, was that the disciples did not proclaim the resurrection of Christ until after His ascension.
I don’t know about you, but that strikes me as odd. Why would they wait? If you saw someone alive who had previously been dead, would you hesitate more than a few moments to proclaim it abroad? Add to this His celebrity, the public nature of His death (many saw Him die), the disciples’ close relationship with Him, and the fact that His resurrection would vindicate His messianic claims, and the disciples had every reason to instantly proclaim to everyone in Israel that they saw Jesus alive. So why did they wait?
N.T. Wright muses that certain unbelieving contemporaries of the disciples must have surely asked this question. It is certainly plausible to think unbelievers would have used this lapse of time between the resurrection of Christ and the disciples’ proclamation of His resurrection as an argument against the resurrection. They might have argued “Why, if you knew Jesus had risen from the dead on X date, did you wait until X+Y date to proclaim it?” Indeed, a delayed proclamation could have been interpreted as time borrowed to fabricate the resurrection story. The longer they waited to proclaim the resurrected Christ the less credible their claim would become.
Wright thinks Mark may have offered an explanation to those critics in his gospel in Mark 16:8: “And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulchre; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid.” This does not seem adequate, however, because the verse describes a time prior to the first resurrection appearance (this particular episode was after the angels’ resurrection announcement), and is limited to some women followers.
Did the disciples delay because they were afraid no one would believe them? Remember, Jesus only appeared to His followers and relatives. While His death was very public, His resurrection and resurrection appearances were not. He did not go the temple and show Himself alive to the chief priests or temple-gatherers. He did not walk the streets of Jerusalem showing the people the nail prints in his hands and feet. He only showed Himself to His close associates and relatives.
Did the disciples delay because they were waiting on Jesus to reveal Himself as Israel’s king? We know that right up to the day of His ascension the disciples were waiting for Jesus to restore Israel’s national sovereignty (Acts 1:6-7). With such an expectation, maybe they were waiting on Jesus to make the next move, fearing that any proclamation of their experience may hinder His plans.
Does anyone else have any suggestions for why the disciples might have delayed their proclamation? Does anyone have any suggestions to explain why Jesus chose to show Himself alive to believers and relatives rather than to unbelievers?
Post script: In my Blessed Are Those Who Believe Without Seeing post I argue that John 20:29 shows that the apostles did proclaim the resurrection to at least some individuals prior to Pentecost.