“As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. They kept this word to themselves questioning what ‘rising from the dead’ meant.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Has anyone ever entrusted you with a secret? That’s always a powerful feeling. You know something that most of the people around you do not know. You have an up on them. Whatever else happens, you’re starting things with the playing field tilted just a bit in your direction. At least, that works if you understand what the secret means. Has someone ever asked you to keep a secret, but you didn’t have any idea what it meant? That’s the position Jesus put the disciples in as they were coming down from their mountaintop experience with Him. Let’s talk about what that means for us.
You’ve got to know the disciples’ heads were spinning as they walked down the mountain with Jesus. They kept trying to make sense of everything they had just seen and heard, but it simply wasn’t connecting. Jesus had started glowing, then two guys who had been dead for hundreds of years were suddenly standing with Him. The trio started talking about Jesus’ coming departure. Then Peter ran his mouth, God’s presence came down in a cloud, and He told them all to shut up and listen. Needless to say, they’d experienced a whole lot in a short time.
I can imagine they were as eager as can be to tell the other guys what had happened. For one, they probably wanted to boast a bit about the fact that they got to see the actual Moses and Elijah (not that any of the the other guys would have believed them having not seen it for themselves). More than that, though, they wanted helping making sense of it. By their minds combined, maybe – just maybe – they could devise some sort of explanation of what happened.
But then Jesus told them to keep it entirely to themselves until “the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” Why on earth would He do that? Wouldn’t this be something He wanted shared so more people would begin to recognize Him for who He really was? He would have if He was thinking about His mission the way you or I would have been thinking about it. Jesus, though, wasn’t looking to increase His name recognition. He was trying to attract followers, but not like we do today. He wasn’t trying to promote His brand. Jesus was simply seeking to be faithful to the Father’s plans for Him. In order to do that, though, He actually needed for people to not start thinking about Him as the Messiah until the time was right.
The trouble for Jesus was that the hopes among the Jewish people for the Messiah in the first century were intense. They were intense and rather specific. The people were hoping and looking for a Messiah who would be a political and military leader. He was going to reveal himself, raise an army, and overthrow Rome once and for all. He would lead the people into another glorious golden age as they had known under David and Solomon. These hopes were so potent that many false messiahs had revealed themselves in the past. Charismatic men would begin attracting followers, proclaim or be proclaimed Messiah, and lead an army against Rome, who would ruthlessly smash the movements into smithereens. Over and over this pattern repeated. You would think the people would have learned along the way, but when a whole people catches a vision for a certain thing happening, evidence to the contrary is rarely as persuasive as it should have been. Jesus knew that if the people began thinking of Him as Messiah, they would try and rise up against Rome and Rome would do just what they always did.
This is why Jesus told Peter, James, and John not to tell anyone about what they had seen and heard until after He had risen from the dead. It is why He consistently told people who recognized Him for who He really was to keep it to themselves in the first part of all the Gospels. Jesus was going to act when the time was right. Until then, He was content to be in the background.
There’s something else, though, I want to make sure we see in these couple of verses. When Jesus told the trio of disciples to keep what they had experienced to themselves until the Son of Man had risen from the dead, they didn’t have any idea what He meant. Don’t miss that. Jesus kept talking about rising from the dead with the disciples and over and over again they didn’t understand Him. At all.
But how? How could they not get this? I mean, it seems to me Jesus was as clear as He could have been. I see this reaction on their part and think, “What did you not understand?” Jesus was going to die and then He was going to rise from the dead. He shouldn’t have even needed to pause for questions. This was easy. Except they didn’t have a category for it like we do. That is what makes us different from them. We have a category for resurrection because it has already happened. They didn’t because it hadn’t. They knew about resuscitation. They had seen Jesus do that. Lazarus would be a resurrection, but that hadn’t happened yet. There was a general Jewish belief in resurrection too, but this was something that would happen at the end of time when all of God’s people (i.e. them) would be raised to live in a great golden age under the rule of the Messiah. But the idea of one guy coming back from the dead on His own? There was no category for that.
Okay, but why does this matter for us that I would go out of my way to draw your attention to this? Because you can’t make up something you can’t imagine. Think about it. One of the charges often leveled against the idea of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is that the disciples just made it up. They came up with a really compelling story that would attract a following and grow a movement so they could have power for themselves. But how do you make up something you can’t imagine? The simplest explanation is that you don’t. You don’t.
The reason the disciples began reporting that Jesus had risen from the dead was because He did. There’s nothing else. Nothing else makes sense. That’s the only rational explanation for it. They didn’t make it up because they didn’t have a category for it. Jesus tried to prepare them for the idea. He told them pretty directly again and again what was going to happen. But they never got their minds around it – even after He died on the cross – until He was standing before them risen from the dead. The simple truth is that Jesus rose from the dead. That sounds like something worth celebrating. And wouldn’t you know it, this is a pretty good week for that. Thanks be to God.