In the first century there were variegated ideas about a coming messiah or messiahs. We may label some as being Davidic, expecting a king. Some were Aaronic, expecting a priest. Others more apocalyptic in nature, expecting some sort of heavenly judge. Now by all accounts Jesus of Nazareth was none of these. He didn't ascend to a thrown. He didn't take center stage in the temple. He did not come to set things in order ushering Israel and the rest of humanity into an utopian age. For these reasons I think it probable that Jesus was considered by some to be a messiah-figure during his life because one thing no one expected of a messiah was death by crucifixion. If Jesus' followers thought of him as a messiah—in whatever sense—it was likely a worldview that was crushed on Good Friday, yet someone reappeared after what we call Easter Sunday.
I find this important for the present. We worship as messiah a failed messiah. Why? While there have been large tomes written in an effort to provide an intellectually satisfying rational for why one should reasonably believe that God raised a failed messiah from the dead in order that he may become messiah in a completely new sense (e.g., N.T. Wright's The Resurrection of the Son of God; Michael Licona's The Resurrection of Jesus) it remains true that it isn't rational, ultimately. In fact, we Christians may misunderstand the nature of the event when we try to hard to argue this point. Sure, certain occurrences such as the continuation of the so-called "Jesus Movement" seem quite odd if Jesus remained dead and buried, but the truth of the matter is when we sit down to reason through something 99 of 100 times we will look at the report that a dead man's followers continued to believe he was alive as indefensible, yet we give Christianity a free pass, likely because we're all too familiar with the story. But maybe we shouldn't try too hard to make Easter comfortable in this sense? If God resurrected Jesus it was an apocalyptic event before any apocalypse. If God resurrected Jesus what was hoped for by many as a future event occurred unexpectedly and without warning for one person. If God resurrected Jesus from the dead it goes against everything known by ancients and moderns regarding physical life-after-death by a mortal (though no doubt there are closely analogous concepts of dying and raising, though not for Israel's messiah, not prior to any great resurrection). Christians proclaim an absurdity in the age of science: we know there is not tiered universe; we know it isn't "heaven up there and earth down here"; we know that dead people don't resuscitate to remain alive, forever, yet conveniently invisible to everyone but those who followed him prior to his death. Yet most of us Christians believe the proposition: he is risen!
Now let me clarify, I do believe, but it is belief, not knowledge. Furthermore, I hope, but it is not hope with a shrug as much as hope with desperation. I've stopped trying to make sense of the resurrection because even when some aspects of the story "make sense" the truth of the matter is that when I ponder Jesus' resurrection I am begging the question, I am offering exceptions that I wouldn't offer to any other claim about any other person in history. My hope is because I need my experience of the gospel to be true. If it could be proven that there is no reason to believe, no reason to hope, could I find meaning in life? Sure, I'd have to do something, but in a world that exists in the perpetual state of Holy Saturday's rotting death, Holy Saturday's stinky corpse, it is the hope of the gospel's truth that allows me to make some sense of our fragile existence. Maybe this is weak. Maybe this is a "crutch" as detractors call it. Maybe, but it is a weakness I must embrace. It is a crutch I use to keep moving forward each day in spite to the "fact" that we die and that's it.
The Apostle Paul resonates with me on Easter when I read his words to the Corinthians: if Jesus isn't alive, we are to be pitied more than all people (1 Cor.15.19). We have a short stint on this planet and we've chosen to live under the illusion of the hope of the resurrection of the dead. There may be consolation prizes, e.g., disembodied, conscientious existence, but it may be that we close our eyes then cease to "exist" in any meaningful sense other than as a corpse and hopefully a memory. Today is a day when we Christians celebrate and proclaim our hope. Personally, I can't pretend it is more than that. I can't pretend to know Jesus is alive. I can't pretend to be unwavering in my confidence that the resurrection occurred. I can hope and in this world of hopelessness a little hope goes a long way.
[Image source: http://www.theriteceremony.com.au]