I heard the question raised this morning as to what Jesus’ followers were thinking the day after he was crucified. And the question got me to thinking about the biblical evidence that might give us insight as to how Jesus’ closest followers perceived his death at the hands of the Romans. None of the canonical gospels provide extensive information about the activity of the disciples the day between the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The gospels basically move from the burial of Jesus on Friday to the events surrounding his resurrection on Sunday. Luke indicates that after Jesus was buried, his friends rested on the Sabbath in accord with the commandment (26:56). Not much to go on there.
After the initial announcement of the resurrection to the women, Luke does tell us of two travelers on the road to Emmaus. Having heard reports of the resurrection but not knowing what to make of them, these two men were discussing the events surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus. We are then told that the resurrected, though incognito, Jesus came along and began to walk with these two men questioning them as to the events that had taken place in recent days. They were somewhat shocked that he was unaware of the goings on, but they proceeded to tell him about Jesus of Nazareth, about his trial, condemnation, and resurrection. Luke then records this telling statement, “We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel” (24:21). This brief comment provides a glimpse into the hopes of Jesus’ followers, which may also give us some insight into their response to his death.
The statement by the travelers to Emmaus confirms what we already know from other gospel texts: Jesus was thought by his followers to be Israel’s Messiah, that is, the one who liberate Israel from Roman oppression and reestablish them as a sovereign and autonomous nation indicating that the favor of God had returned to his people. Jesus was not the first Jewish man of his time to make Messianic claims about himself and to have others make similar claims about him. Jesus was crucified as a Messiah figure, and as the sentiments of the travelers on the road to Emmaus confirm, a crucified Messiah was a failed Messiah (probably to quote N T. Wright).
This gives some insight into the thoughts of Jesus’ followers the day after his death. Apart from the shock that their beloved friend and family member was brutally tortured to death by the Romans, their hope for national liberation was suddenly and violently torn from them. When Jesus died, their dream for freedom from foreign oppression died as well. Jesus was the one in whom all of their hope for rescue was focused, and when he breathed his last, their hope was extinguished. What occupied the thoughts of Jesus’ friends and followers the day after they laid him in the tomb? Not only were they focused on the shock of losing their beloved Jesus, they were crushed to discover that their hope for the dawning of the Messianic age and the return of the favor of God would not be realized as they had hoped. They may have had other thoughts as well, but the text of scripture points us, at least, to these conclusions.