The Resurrection of Jesus
Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, John 20-21, I Corinthians 15:1-8
“The Third Day He rose again from the dead”
You have heard the rumours that Elvis has been sighted in various doughnut shops around the world. Do you think that could be true? Is it possible that Elvis is still alive? Is it possible that he never really died? Or if he died, he has returned from the dead? Do you think it’s possible? Do you think it’s probable? What would it take for you to believe it? Is there enough evidence that could you cause you to believe? You look at bit sceptical!
What if someone you really trusted said, “I saw Elvis in Tim Horton’s in Calgary just last week. Honest!” would that help? For me I’m afraid it wouldn’t help much. I would find some other explanation for my friend’s unusual belief. I’d say, “I wonder what kind of medication he’s on? Perhaps he saw one of the 10 million Elvis impersonators that are out there.” But I would be sceptical. I do not and cannot believe Elvis is still out there.
If we have trouble with Elvis, the friends of Jesus had similar trouble believing that Jesus was risen from the dead. Enough people had seen him die. The Roman soldiers were good at their trade. The spear into the chest cavity made sure the coup de grace was delivered. He was dead and buried. And dead men do not really rise from the dead. And Jesus had died.
The Gospel Accounts of Doubt
It is interesting to note that when four Gospels tell the story of the first Easter morning, even though their accounts differ in several places, the language of doubt pervades every account.
These same gospels had described Jesus informing his followers in the months prior to his crucifixion of his impending death and his subsequent resurrection, but they had not believed him then, though they were prepared to believe everything else he told them. And now that he was dead they could believe his words about resurrection even less. Listen to the litany of words about the unbelievability of his resurrection.
- John 20:11 – Mary did not believe until Jesus appeared personally to her.
- Mark 16:11 – The disciples did not believe Mary Magdalene when she brought a report that she had seen him.
- Luke 24:22 – The two people on the Emmaus road could not believe, though they had heard the report of the women from the tomb – until Jesus broke bread in their presence.
- Mark 16: 13 – The disciples did not believe the two on the road when they said they had seen him.
- Luke 24: 36-41 – Even though the 11 have heard of his resurrection from several people, when Jesus appears before them they are startled and terrified as though they were seeing a ghost. Jesus says to them “Why are you frightened and why do doubts arise in your hearts. Look at my hands and my feet, see it is me! Touch me. And then Luke says, “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said “do you have anything to eat.” and he ate in front of them to prove that he was not a ghost.
- John 20:24ff – Then of course there is the story of Doubting Thomas who will not believe, cannot believe. He cannot trump up enough credulity to believe, and only when he has no choice left does he believe.
- John 21:4 You would think by this time all the disciples would be beyond doubt. But we see them a few days later on the Beach. And they do not recognize him and are surprised by his appearance.
The people who wrote the story of the resurrection were honest writers. They record unanimously that no one really believed he was coming back. It was too good to be true. After the resurrection, they refused to believe each others words. Even after the disciples had met the resurrected Jesus, they quickly lose their belief, so that on each reappearance they are caught by surprise.
But it is Matthew’s’ account that is surprising. Jesus has been appearing to the disciples for 40 days, in a variety of encounters. It is probable that Jesus has stayed with them for 40 days to leave no doubt in their minds. After 40 days they should know that His resurrection was not an idle rumour, it was fact. It was not an hallucination due to grief and stress. Forty days is a lot of time and they finally are sure. But on the day of ascension Matthew closes his account with the words, “When they saw him they worshipped, though some doubted.” Even among the 500 that were gathered to see him ascend to His Father, they were some still saying, “This can’t be him. It must be an hallucination. It must be our wishful thinking.”
During the years that followed, the resurrected presence of Jesus was the church’s greatest strength. But, the story of the resurrection was one of the church’s greatest liabilities.
Paul will have no trouble offering to the Greek and Roman world, “Jesus the teacher” or “Jesus the martyr”. But let him use the word “Resurrected” and people laugh him to scorn. And yet Paul knew, that in spite of the unbelievability of it all, it was that fact that had created the church, and transformed Jesus into more than teacher and martyr, but announced Him to be the everlasting Lord.
The Critical Mind
Why was the resurrection so hard to believe for those early disciples? Because everyone of them was a sceptic. Everyone of them was as hard headed as Thomas is reputed to be. These were not gullible men who believed easily anything told them. They had listened to enough fishermen’s stories over the years to have developed a critical mind. These men had minds that worked well! They knew that you can want a thing so bad, that you can believe it too easily. They were suspicious of their own perceptions.
They were also honest men. They couldn’t pretend to themselves that they believed when they didn’t. They were aware of smoke and mirrors and sleight of hand. They knew of conjurers and pseudo-magicians who could make things appear and disappear. They were not prepared to suspend reason for the sake of belief. They couldn’t believe just because they wanted to. And even after they has received evidence, they were prepared to question that to make sure it was authentic.
They doubted because the doubting mind is a gift from God. A mind that is critical is not an affront to God. Jesus is not offended by their disinclination to believe. We are not supposed to check our brains with our hats at the door of religion. Gullibility and naiveté are not Christian virtues. God gave us brains with which to weigh everything we encounter in life. We are even to test the spirits to see if they are of God.
Three kinds of doubt
Let me, however, give a word of caution. There is doubt and then there is doubt.
There is Intellectual Doubt. This says the mind cannot accept as fact what is being suggested, because it doesn’t make sense. Some people cannot believe in God or the resurrection because it doesn’t ring true. It sounds too good to be true. It is the doubt of an open and questioning mind. Much intellectual doubt comes from a healthy mind. The disciples were right to pause and question.
Then there is Emotional Doubt. This is doubt that is distressing to the doubter. They want to believe, wish they could believe, but assurance is not there. Emotional doubt is often about “am I really a Christian?” Or it arises when we see a human tragedy and ask, “How can God allow that if He is all-powerful and all-loving?” Sometimes it is painful to doubt. This kind of doubt is not chosen, it has come on its own and often come to stay. Emotional doubters are not quite sure they can trust God with their lives. The disciples suffered from emotional doubt. They had had their hopes dashed already on good Friday. They did not want a repeat performance and have their hopes smashed once more. It was normal to feel distrust.
There is a third kind of doubt, however, that is in a very different kind of category. It is Wilful Doubt. It comes from a desire not to believe. It is not an inability to believe, but a refusal to believe. It is resistance to what is seen to be true, and a refusal to accept it, in spite of the evidence. It is not scepticism which can be healthy. It is cynicism which is always unhealthy. It is a will to reject what appears to be true. It is a predetermined set of the mind that refuses all evidence that is contrary to what I already believe. It is the avoidance of evidence. It debunks even the possibility. None of the disciples had pitched their tent there. Even Thomas wants to believe, but cannot, until the evidence is irrefutable. But upon seeing the evidence, he kneels before Jesus with the declaration, “My Lord and my God.” Sceptical, yes? Cynical? no! Disbelief? yes! Unbelief? No!
Those early disciples had emotional doubt. They had intellectual doubt. But when the evidence was presented, they believed because they had seen enough to tip the scales.
They worshipped him, but some doubted.
Saint Matthew is honest with us. He concludes his gospel with this commentary of the early disciples, “They worshipped him, but some doubted.”
This passage, however, can be read two ways. It can be understood to mean, “Some of the spectators worshipped while other spectators doubted,” meaning there were two kind of people that day watching the ascension. Those who believed in the resurrection of Jesus, the convinced Christians, and those who did not believe in his resurrection, the non-yet-Christians.
But the words of Matthew should probably be read this way, “They worshipped him, but some of them who worshipped still had their doubts.” Christians? yes! Believers? yes! But still doubting? For some, yes! They were honest people with a commitment to Jesus Christ, but still wrestling with the questions.
Highly Selective Appearances
But let me now suggest that God himself is largely responsible for the doubt that occurred in that very first century.
After Jesus arose from the dead the New Testament tells us that Jesus appeared several times to various people. But those people were very few. Until the day he ascended probably no more than 20 different people saw Jesus. On the day of his ascension more than 500 followers were there. But until that day, only a handful were there to witness the presence of the Risen Christ. And the question must be asked, “Why?” Why did not Jesus show himself to the thousands in Jerusalem. Why did Jesus not show himself to the crowds that were there to celebrate the Passover and had seen his death.
In fact why did not Jesus show himself alive to the Roman Soldiers, Pilate, Herod, Annas & Caiphas. These people thought they had silenced the Nazarene for good. What better way to show them that the best laid plans of mice and men “gang oft aglay”. Why not appear to these leaders and show them that evil does not triumph over good.
- The High Priests, Annas & Caiphas
When Jesus had stood before Annas & Caiphas, the two high priests, Jesus had said “You shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven.” And they had struck him in the mouth and charged him with blasphemy. What a turning of the tables it would have been for Jesus to appear before them!
But would they have accepted him if he had? They would have been wonder struck! They would have been stunned. But would they have accepted him as their Lord? Never! They were not concerned with truth. It was these two men that had bribed the soldiers to tell a false tale. If they had been honest men they would not have sought to suppress truth by bribes. But they were not concerned with what was true. They were concerned with keeping power in their own hands.
- King Herod
But there is King Herod. Perhaps Jesus should have appeared to him? Jesus had appeared before Herod during his trial. Perhaps Herod would have a change of mind if he saw Jesus now, risen from the dead. Herod had had some admiration for Jesus up until that week. Perhaps the resurrection would make a convert out of a king?
But I doubt it. When Jesus stood before Herod, that evil king had known of his miracles. He had heard of his teaching. But when he has Jesus before him all he is concerned about is that Jesus put on a good show for him. Listen to the words in Luke “When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had been wanting to see him for a long time, because he had heard about him and was hoping to see him perform some miracle.”
He wanted Jesus to say some clever things for him, not to utter life changing words. He wanted Jesus to do some bizarre trick to cater to his gargantuan appetite for pleasure. His desire was to have a better court jester.
Had Jesus appeared to him what good would it have done? He would just have applauded it as a clever trick. He was not ready to acknowledge that there was a King greater than he. He has not willing to look at life as a serious endeavour. It would have been a mere tedious waste to have appeared before so-called-King-Herod.
- The Governor. Pontius Pilate
But there is Pilate. He is different than Annas, Caiphas and Herod He was a man that had been caught in that struggle between right and wrong. He had lost that struggle. But so had Peter. So had other disciples. We hold out a hope for Pilate.
But look at that scene in Pilate’s Hall. If Pilate had to make that same decision with the Risen Christ would it have come out any different? Before he had sent Jesus to the cross He had declared over and over that He was innocent. He had even then suspected that Jesus was the Son of God. His wife had pressured him to release Jesus. It appeared that the evidence was overwhelming for his innocence. But Pilate was a man unwilling to pay the price of justice. When it came to keeping his position as Governor or doing the truth, his mind was made up.
And if Jesus were to appear to Pilate, and Pilate would have had to side with that early church and face the ridicule of men, do you think for a moment he would have? To this very day Pilate would still be washing his hands trying to put off making any decision. He would still be asking the question, “What is truth” even when it was staring him in the face.
Those to Whom He Does Appear
He did however appear to some. These were not perfect people either. They too were sinful men and women, but with a difference.
- There was a Mary Magdalene who came to the tomb with a broken heart. She had found forgiveness at His feet. And now with aching emotions she comes to the tomb. Jesus had said earlier in his ministry. “He hath sent me to heal the broken hearted” and Mary is encountered by the Risen Christ.
- There is Peter. Riddled with guilt. Scarred from that three fold denial and burnt by his scalding tears. But watch Jesus as they walk by the sea shore. With healing words he restores that man made of weak shifting sand to become solid rock once more.
- There are the two men on the Emmaus Road. Their heads are down. Their hopes are crushed. They had hoped that Jesus was the Messiah. But he was dead. Then a stranger draws near. It is the resurrected Jesus Himself who draws close to them on that road, and shares with them the breaking of bread. And Hope is restored.
- He comes to Thomas, that perennial doubter, and ministers in kindness to that man. Thomas wanted to believe. And Jesus goes that second mile to give that man the needed assurance.
- He appears to those 11 disciples and puts to rest their bewilderment.
- He appears to his brother James and draws him into the fellowship of his church.
To those who sense their own failure, he did appear
He is Risen Indeed!
On that ancient Easter morning those early disciples assure us,
- in spite of our doubts,
- in spite of our hesitancy,
- God raised Jesus from the dead.
The facts were true, even if they were unbelievable.
- It was too good to be true, but it was true anyway.
- It was beyond our wildest dreams, but on that day the dream became reality.
- Our brains said, “It can’t happen.” History said, “But it did.”
But the early followers went one step further. He was not only raised from the grave one day a long time ago, but the early disciples cascaded across the face of the Roman Empire carrying the unbelievable message “He is alive!” “He is risen from the dead and lives forevermore!” They told Jew and Gentile that even now He lives His life in companionship with all those who claim his name. And that message led to the transformation of life for the millions. They had encountered in personal experience the Living God of the Old Testament and the Living Christ of the New Testament.
We may be more sceptical and more prone to cynicism than our predecessors have ever been. Perhaps it is more necessary because of the incessant inundation of information that has to be sifted and sorted. But if the ancient church could get its primary message into our minds it would repeat the words of St. Paul that he writes to the Corinthian Christians,
I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received,
That Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,
and that he was buried,
and that he was raised on the third day …
and that he appeared to Peter, then to the twelve,
then he appeared to more than 500.
Even today, the resurrected presence of Jesus is the church’s greatest strength. But, the story of the resurrection will always be one of the church’s greatest liabilities. The important thing will not be “can we prove he was raised?” but “do we demonstrate by our faith and life that He is alive even today?”