Why were the Disciples so wrong about Jesus’ Prophecies?

Two prophecies the Disciples got wrong and what we should learn from their mistakes.

The Bible tells us that the Disciples of Jesus misunderstood His prophecies about His own death and resurrection. We also see that they thought His literal earthly Kingdom would be coming very soon. They were wrong about both. Is the cause of this  ‘blindness’ something we can discover and protect ourselves from?  

’Now He took the twelve aside and said to them, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all the things that have been written through the prophets about the Son of Man will be accomplished. 32 For He will be handed over to the Gentiles, and will be ridiculed, and abused, and spit upon, 33 and after they have flogged Him, they will kill Him; and on the third day He will rise.” 34 The disciples understood none of these things, and the meaning of this statement was hidden from them, and they did not comprehend the things that were said.’ Luke 18:31-34 NASB

Why were the disciples unable to understand Jesus’s repeated prophecies concerning His coming death?

Premise:    The experience of John 6 left the Disciples convinced that Jesus was speaking ‘spiritually’ when He foretold His crucifixion.

Jesus was about to travel through the jurisdiction of King Antipas, who had recently killed John the Baptist. The thousands of men who were literally following Him around Galilee

were becoming a mob that wanted to make Him king by force. Not only was this against Jesus’ intentions, but if they made a move to do so, many of them would die, and He might end up like John. He already knew a lot about how He would die, and what it would accomplish, and could not allow God’s plan to be ruined by His premature death in the wrong context. He had to delay His death until the right situation. I know that sounds odd, but it is the best explanation for what He did in John 6.

The Pharisees were trying to provoke Jesus into giving some demonstration of power that they could use against Him. If He refused, they hoped to embarrass Him by showing that He did not have any real power to give a major prophetic sign, exposing Him as a false prophet. They would have been happy either way. They said “Moses gave them manna in the wilderness. What can You do?”  Jesus corrected them and said it wasn’t Moses, but God who gave the manna. Then Jesus took them all in a different direction which no one could have anticipated. He said, “I am the bread of Heaven, come from God. Unless you eat My flesh and drink My blood you cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” Everyone who heard this was stunned. Everything about this was wrong! Jews have always been totally against cannibalism. Then Jesus repeated and expounded on this, and His language was completely literal. It was so effective that Jesus lost nearly all His followers that day, which some think was the reason for Jesus doing this. In a matter of minutes, Jesus got rid of everyone who wanted a political or military revolution. The Disciples were so confused that there was a question of their continuing with Jesus.

When one of them, in the presence of the others, questioned Jesus about this, He acted surprised. He chastised them for thinking, like the others, that He was talking literal cannibalism. He said, “I am not talking about literal flesh and blood. I am talking about spiritual things.”  They must have been relieved, yet amazed that He had destroyed His tremendous popularity and wiped out all most of His personal support this way.  I believe this is when the Disciples developed a mental block that prevented them from understanding anything Jesus said about His upcoming Crucifixion and Resurrection.

Although it made no sense to them, they were now conditioned to think that anything Jesus said about being crucified and rising from the dead was ‘spiritual’. They clearly heard Him say things like this, the harmonized Gospels record 3 different occasions when He plainly described His death and resurrection, and He even did so publicly to the Pharisees as a rebuke. He said to them that they were so wicked that they would not be given any sign, except that of Jonah. Jesus publicly stated that He would be dead 3 days and 3 nights, and that He would not stay dead. The Pharisees remembered these comments from Jesus, and that is why they were concerned that Jesus’ disciples would steal His body and proclaim the He was risen from the dead. If they had succeeding in doing so, it would create a very dangerous situation for Jewish leaders in Jerusalem.

But the disciples did not believe that Jesus was literally going to die and come back to life. It is true that the at least one of the Disciples, thought that Jesus was going to get Himself killed by the way He was talking, and said so to all the others: “Let’s go to Jerusalem and die with Him”. But this was sarcasm not faith. They stayed with Jesus because He had repeatedly proven His miraculous powers and prophetic abilities to them. When He calmed the storms on the Sea of Galilee, they became so in awe of Him that they could not walk away, no matter how bad things got.

I think they had listened to all of this thinking that Jesus was describing a conflict with the Jewish religious establishment, in which they ‘spiritually’ kill him by rejection and condemnation, then He would turn the tables on them and they would see that He was still ‘spiritually’ alive, undefeated and moving forward with the establishment of the Kingdom of God.

Premise: Jesus foretold the coming of two different kinds of Kingdoms, and the confusion was caused by the Disciples’ same inability to separate literal from spiritual.

Why were the Disciples expecting the Kingdom of God to come literally and do so in a few days? Why were they wrong?

Jesus had talked, publicly and privately, almost non-stop about the coming Kingdom of God for the entire duration of the 3-plus years that the Disciples had been accompanying Him.  It is widely thought that that in the average first century Jewish mind, this was always literal, and always about political and religious freedom from Roman domination. The disciples were no different in this. Everything the rabbis had taught about the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah and the sons of David, was leading to a future literal ‘Son of David’ who would restore the whole 12 tribes and unite them into a lasting independent superpower, free from any ‘gentile’ domination. 

This is what was meant by the term ‘Nazarene’.  Saying Jesus was a Nazarene is not just a statement that He was from Nazareth. It meant that He was a ‘son of David’ and a supporter of the movement which anticipated the rise of a new Davidic Kingdom. Several of Jesus’ statements demonstrated His knowledge of the Son of David. It would have been known to at least some of the Disciples that Jesus was a literal Son of David.

Here is the most interesting set of opposites. While the Disciples were solid in their errant belief that Jesus had been foretelling a ‘spiritual’ death and resurrection, they were just as solid in their errant belief that His coming Kingdom was literal.

Now while they were listening to these things, Jesus went on to tell a parable, because He was near Jerusalem, and they thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear immediately.  Luke 19:11 NASB

There is so much information in the Gospels about the Kingdom of God, Kingdom of Heaven, etc. that I had to separate it from my Olivet Discourse studies. Jesus, in the Olivet Discourse did end up mentioning the coming Kingdom, and that was discussed, but I did not include the relevant precursor material. That study will have to be done later.

Jesus did make several clear statements that the Kingdom Of God was either already here, or about to appear. Here’s the catch. He also made it clear that it was not going to be a literal earthly kingdom.  He even said to Pilate that His kingdom was not literal. The disciples were wrong to expect the Kingdom of Heaven to be a real human kingdom. Jesus was prophesying about Pentecost. This is when the Kingdom came in power, but it was purely spiritual power, not political or military. We know today that there will be a future literal Kingdom of Heaven, the one the Old Testament Prophets foretold, the Kingdom the Disciples were expecting. But they did not distinguish between the two.

’Now He was questioned by the Pharisees as to when the kingdom of God was coming, and He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs that can be observed; 21 nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst.”  Luke 17:20 NASB

This may seem obvious to us, but only because we know about Pentecost. In Luke’s account of Jesus saying this, these words are followed by the longest discussion about the literal ‘Second Coming/ Kingdom of Heaven’ that exists in the gospels outside of the Olivet Discourse.

I believe that if any of us had been one of Jesus’ original disciples, we would have had the same misunderstandings. The question now is, what prophecies are we wrong about today? This question is what motivates my study of the Olivet Discourse.

When we read the prophecies about the ‘coming’ kingdom, Kingdom of God, or Kingdom of Heaven, we need to reverse engineer it. We should study to identify the fulfilled prophecies of the coming of the ‘spiritual’ kingdom of God at Pentecost, and separate them from the unfulfilled prophecies about Jesus’ literal return and the coming “Messianic Kingdom”.

Another subject that needs to be dissected is the coming wrath.  The New Testament prophecies seem to describe 3 distinct kinds of wrath.

First is the wrath against the Jewish people. This grew throughout the first century, exploded after AD 66, got even worse after AD 135, and has continued through the last 2000 years in pogroms, expulsions, slaughters, many kinds of persecution, and the Holocaust. Today, it continues in the Islamic terrorism and numerous wars experience by modern Israel. To me, this is the ‘time of Jacob’s trouble, and is the real meaning of the term ‘great tribulation’. This presents a conflict with the definition of the ‘Great Tribulation’ as a 7 year period of time, but I consider it more likely to be Biblically correct.  

Second, is the wrath of Satan.

‘For this reason, rejoice, you heavens and you who dwell in them. Woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has come down to you with great wrath, knowing that he has only a short time.’ Revelation 12:12 NASB

Revelation 12 and 13, describe Satan and satanic activities during a future period of time, usually described as 3.5 years, and being the focus of 7th Trumpet of Revelation. It is Satan’s intent to erase Israel from existence and kill all of the Jews. Today, during the Gaza War, as we watch the 200+ radicalized protests at American universities and the numerous violent protests in other nations, all expressing Satan’s stated goals, we should not be so surprised. We were told nearly 2,000 years ago such times of wrath against the Jews would come. It’s only been 78 years since the Holocaust ended. How could it return so fast, and be so nearly global?

But there is a huge twist in the story. This time, when a man, inspired (possessed) by Satan tries to set the whole world against Israel, they have a safe place in the wilderness. A place where they can repel his genocidal rage. Sounds a lot like the modern state of Israel, but I think there is still a more literal fulfillment of this prophecy in the years to come.

It is in this context that the wrath of Satan is turned away from Israel, in great frustration. He will redirect all his rage at those who helped the Jews, and prevented his ‘final solution’, the replacement of Israel with its Hellenistic namesake, ‘Palestine’. Today, those who are helping the Jews avoid being the victims of global genocide are nearly all Christians, most likely evangelical Protestants, and mostly Americans. So, for a few short years, the wrath of Satan is directed to those who hold to the ‘testimony of Jesus’. You may have noticed that there is no place here for any supernatural rescue of Christians from the wrath of Satan. This is why we are told that perseverance is so important. The Harvest, the Rapture, the Rescue, whatever you call it, is not to save us from the wrath of Satan. It is to save us from the Wrath of God, which comes afterwards.

The Wrath of God is the third kind of wrath prophesied in detail. It is the content of the 7 Vials of Wrath in Revelation 16. This is what the Rapture saves us from, not the Antichrist. The New Testament calls this ‘the wrath to come’ and the ‘Day of the Lord’. But there are other ‘Day of the Lord’ events that were prophesied and fulfilled in the Old Testament. The destruction of Jerusalem in AD70 can be called a “Day of the Lord”. If we do not understand the difference between fulfilled and unfulfilled prophecies, we will deceive ourselves just as the Disciples did. There is still a future literal “Day of the Lord”.

‘Then I heard a loud voice from the temple, saying to the seven angels, “Go and pour out on the earth the seven bowls of the wrath of God.”’  Revelation 16:1 NASB

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead, he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. 2 Peter 8-10a NASB

There is nothing simple or easy here. We all find it hard to ‘rightly divide the word of truth’. These are the kinds of ‘divisions’ we need to be learning. We must accurately separate the spiritual from the natural, the fulfilled from the pending, and the literal from the symbolic… My prayer is that we will do better this better than the Disciples.