"For until then they had not understood the Scripture, that he was to rise from the dead."

In this article, we analyze the Gospel passage Jn 20:9: "For until then they had not understood the Scripture, that he would rise from the dead".

Rafael Sanz Carrera-April 9, 2024-Reading time: 9 minutes

Stained glass window depicting the empty tomb of Christ ©OSV

After recounting the events related to the resurrection (John 20:1-9), John feels compelled to apologize for his unbelief, and concludes with an explanation: "For until then they had not understood the scripture, that he would rise from the dead" (Jn 20:9). With these words the evangelist explains why, only now, in view of the empty tomb and the folded linen cloths, both disciples ("had": in plural: Peter and John), believe in the resurrection of Jesus. This notion was already anticipated in Jn 2:22: "When he rose from the dead, the disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken."

The idea is not exclusive to John, as we see from Jesus' words to the disciples at Emmaus: "Then he said to them, 'How foolish and dull you are to believe what the prophets said! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer this and so enter his glory?' And beginning with Moses and going on through all the prophets, he explained to them what was referred to him in all the Scriptures [...]. And he said to them, 'This is what I told you while I was with you, that everything written in the Law of Moses and in the Prophets and Psalms about me must be fulfilled.' Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.. And he said to them, 'Thus it is written: the Messiah will suffer, he will rise from the dead on the third day'..." (Luke 24:25-27, 44-46).

The same need to understand the Scriptures in order to properly interpret the death and resurrection of Christ is found in Paul: "For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the Scriptures" (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).

However, in John's Gospel there is no mention of any passage of Scripture from which we can deduce that the Lord was to rise from the dead. So we have to look for such references in the other passages that speak of the resurrection in the New Testament. Thus we find:

  • Psalm 2:7 quoted in Acts 13:32-37: on the Resurrection and the eternal reign of David. In the exegesis of these two texts, Jesus emerges as the promised messianic king, the Son of God, whose resurrection fulfills the divine promises, especially with regard to the eternal and universal reign of his Son.
  • Psalm 16, 10 quoted in Acts 2, 27ff and Acts 13, 35: on the incorruptibility of the resurrected body. These passages are interconnected to relate the resurrection of Jesus with the incorruptibility of the body of the Messiah.
  • Psalm 110, 1.4 mentioned in Hebrews 6, 20: about the resurrection and the eternal priesthood of Melchizedek. Both biblical passages are related to the resurrection of Jesus and his role as eternal High Priest according to the order of Melchizedek.
  • In Isaiah 53, 10-12 referred to in Romans 4, 25: on the Resurrection of Jesus and its universal salvific significance. These passages from Isaiah 53 and Romans 4 are related in the Christian understanding of the resurrection of Jesus and its significance for the salvation of mankind.
  • In Matthew 16, 21; 17, 23; 20, 19 (and par.) we find the predictions of Jesus about his resurrection. These are the predictions that Jesus himself made about his death and resurrection.

Before beginning to study each passage in detail, it is relevant to highlight two crucial aspects of these Old Testament texts in relation to the resurrection of Jesus.

1º Scarcity and obscurity of quotations. We find few Old Testament references that support the resurrection of Jesus in the New Testament. These passages, besides not being abundant, are obscure and do not seem to be related to the resurrection at first sight. In fact, for dr. William Lane CraigIt was this very difficulty that led many scholars to reject the nineteenth-century view that the disciples came to believe that Jesus had risen by reading such Old Testament passages. In reality the disciples' journey was the other way around: from the evidence of the resurrection to a deeper understanding of the Scriptures.

2nd Innovative perspective. However, an interesting paradox presents itself here: before believing in the resurrection of Jesus, no one would have interpreted these Old Testament texts in this way. It was only after verifying the authenticity of the resurrection that the disciples turned to the Old Testament for supporting texts. This involved reading the passages in an innovative way, with a perspective that they would not have considered legitimate without the conviction that Jesus had risen. Thus, the resurrection of Jesus transformed the interpretation of the ancient texts: it became the hermeneutical key that illuminates the entire Old Testament.

One last important clarification: although the Scriptural references to the resurrection of Jesus Christ are scarce and unclear, the four main themes they address-the eternal reign of David, incorruptibility and victory over death, the eternal priesthood of Melchizedek, and justification through his sacrifice-provide us with a hermeneutical key to understanding all of Scripture. These four themes, in a way, function as interpretative tools for hundreds of Old Testament passages. Let us look at them briefly.

The Resurrection and eternal reign of David

On the one hand we have Psalm 2, where the anointing of a messianic king, that is, destined to reign over the nations, is drawn. In this context, verse 7 says: "I will proclaim the decree of the Lord; he has said to me, 'You are my son; today I have begotten you.'" The coronation and anointing of a king in Israel was a solemn and significant event, for his investiture established divine recognition of his authority.

Two great messianic promises are present in Psalm 2: the universal kingship and the divine filiation that sustains it. These promises, although they refer to the dynasty of David, will only reach their fulfillment through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the understanding of Paul and Barnabas, who in their preaching in Antioch link Psalm 2 with Jesus Christ and his resurrection: "We proclaim to you the good news that the promise God made to our fathers, he has fulfilled to us, his children, by raising Jesus from the dead. Thus it is written in the second Psalm: 'You are my Son; this day have I begotten you. And that he raised him from the dead, never to return to corruption, he has expressed it thus: 'I will fulfill to you the holy and sure promises made to David' [Is 55:3]. That is why he says in another place: 'You will not let your holy one experience corruption' [Ps 16:10]. David ... experienced corruption. But he whom God raised up did not experience corruption" (Acts 13:32-37). They argue that Jesus' resurrection represents the fulfillment of God's promises to David to give him a throne forever (Acts 13:36-37). And so, as these promises are fulfilled in Jesus, he stands as the true heir to David's throne; the true King, Son of God, of Psalm 2.

The divine promises to bestow a perpetual lineage on King David are found in many places in the Old Testament Thus we see how the resurrection of Jesus is an event that connects the Old and New Testaments, revealing God's faithfulness to his promises and his redemptive plan for humanity through Jesus Christ.

The incorruptibility of the resurrected body

The passages from Psalm 16 and Acts 2 and 13 are interconnected to highlight how the resurrection fulfills the prophecies about the non-corruption of the Messiah's body.

Psalm 16, 10 proclaims, "For thou wilt not forsake me in the region of the dead, neither wilt thou suffer thy faithful to see corruption." This verse is quoted twice in Acts 2:27,31, to emphasize that God will not allow his Holy One to experience corruption: "For you will not abandon me to the place of the dead, nor will you let your Holy One experience corruption. You have taught me paths of life, you will fill me with joy with your face. Brethren, let me speak frankly to you: the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is among us to this day. But since he was a prophet and knew that God had sworn to him with an oath to set on his throne one of his descendants, foreseeing it, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah when he said that he would not leave him in the place of the dead and that his flesh would not experience corruption" (Acts 2 ,27-31). Peter concludes that -like the patriarch David, died and was buried-, the psalm is prophesying about the resurrection of the Messiah.

It is important to note that, although the Psalm itself is not about resurrection but about avoiding death, Peter gives the Psalm a novel interpretation by saying that it prophesied the resurrection of the Messiah. This innovative interpretation is only possible after the event of the resurrection; before that it would not have been legitimate.

There is also another reference to Psalm 16, 10 in Acts 13, 35-37, -we have already seen it- where a similar argument is made for the resurrection as a requirement for the non-corruption of the body. In short, the incorruptibility of Jesus' body and his victory over death is intrinsically linked to his resurrection.

Resurrection and the eternal priesthood of Melchizedek

Both Psalm 110 and Hebrews 6 are related to the figure of Jesus and his role as High Priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

Psalm 110 begins with a divine invitation: "The Lord has spoken to my Lord: 'Sit at my right hand, and I will make your enemies a footstool for your feet'". Here, the Lord (God the Father) invites the Messiah (Christ) to occupy a place of honor and authority at his right hand. This position symbolizes the exaltation and power of the Messiah over all things. It is therefore a royal and messianic Psalm.

Later in v. 4 he says, "The Lord has sworn and does not repent: 'You are an everlasting priest, according to the rite of Melchizedek." He has just spoken of the Messiah's authority as King (v. 1) and now of his role as priest. The combination of both functions is significant, for he affirms that the Messiah will be an "eternal priest according to the rite of Melchizedek," a mysterious personage, whom the Old Testament describes as priest of the Most High God and king of Salem (Jerusalem). This reference is crucial because he exercised priestly functions before the institution of the Levitical priesthood.

Hebrews 6:20 refers to Jesus as the eternal High Priest after the order of Melchizedek. This has profound implications. When Jesus is resurrected and ascends to heaven, he enters the heavenly sanctuary not made by human hands. He carries with him his own blood as a sacrifice for sin, similar to the role of the high priest in the Old Testament during the Day of Atonement. The mention of the "rite of Melchizedek" indicates that Jesus, upon His resurrection, exercises His priesthood in a superior and eternal way, transcending the Levitical system. His sacrifice is perfect and complete. Both in his authority as King and in his priestly function according to the order of Melchizedek his divinity is displayed and his central role in the redemption of humanity is revealed.

The Resurrection of Jesus and its universal salvific significance

Isaiah 53:10-12 says: "The Lord willed to crush him with suffering, and to give his life as an atonement: he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his years, what the Lord wills shall prosper by his hand. By the labors of his soul he shall see the light, the righteous shall be satisfied with knowledge. My servant shall justify many, because he bore their crimes. I will give him a multitude for his portion, and he shall have a multitude for his spoil. Because he exposed his life to death and was numbered among sinners, he took the sin of many and interceded for sinners." In this passage we discover two things. On the one hand, Isaiah prophesies here about the Suffering Servant, a messianic figure -who was immediately associated with Jesus-, and who will suffer and give his life as atonement for the sins of the people. And on the other hand, the powerful idea that in spite of exposing his life to death and being counted among sinners, he will be exalted: "He will see the light... he will prolong his years": this symbolizes the resurrection as a triumph over death and the guarantee of eternal life.

Romans 4:24-25 says: "We who believe in him who was raised from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, who was delivered up for our sins and was raised again for our justification". Here the apostle Paul masterfully connects the resurrection of Jesus with our justification. Jesus was delivered for our sins, but was raised for our justification. That is, his resurrection corroborates his redemptive work and his role as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

The relationship between the two passages lies in the fact that both speak of the suffering, death and exaltation of the Servant (Jesus). The resurrection of Jesus not only validates his identity as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, but is also a confirmation of the fulfillment of his saving mission. Indeed, the offering of Jesus, as eternal High Priest, has been accepted by the Father as the perfect sacrifice for our sins.

Jesus' predictions about his resurrection

Matthew, in particular, provides us with three crucial moments in which Jesus announced his destiny and resurrection, and how the disciples reacted to these predictions.

In Matthew 16, 21, Jesus begins to unveil -on the way to Jerusalem-who will face suffering, execution and resurrection on the third day. This first prediction, although clear in its terms, seems to have confused the disciples, for the idea of suffering and resurrection fails to make its way into their minds.

The confusion persists even after the second prediction, narrated in Matthew 17, 23. After the wonderful revelatory event on the mount of Transfiguration, Jesus repeats his imminent destiny, but despite being more familiar with the idea, not even the three closest to him understand it.

In the third prediction-Matthew 20:19-Jesus adds specific details about his delivery to the Gentiles and his destiny on the cross. However, even with this additional clarification, the disciples still do not understand the reality of what Jesus is announcing to them.

Therefore, John tells us: "For until then they had not understood the Scriptures, that he would rise from the dead" (Jn 20:9). Indeed, the disciples did not understand the Scriptures or Jesus' predictions of his resurrection until after the events of the resurrection itself. Despite Jesus' clear predictions, the disciples did not come to fully understand their meaning until after the resurrection. Only then did they begin to understand how Scripture was aligned with Jesus' predictions of the resurrection.


The resurrection of Jesus becomes the hermeneutical key that illuminates all of Scripture. This innovative interpretative perspective emerges after the event of the resurrection, which led the disciples to search for Scripture texts that would support it. Moreover, although references to the resurrection are scarce, the themes they deal with-the eternal reign of David, incorruptibility, the eternal priesthood of Melchizedek and justification-provide interpretative tools, so that they act as keys to understanding numerous Old Testament passages.

The authorRafael Sanz Carrera

Doctor of Canon Law

Read more
La Brújula Newsletter Leave us your email and receive every week the latest news curated with a catholic point of view.