SUNDAY MORNING. ANOTHER DAY.
The last dregs of shock had given way to sorrow, heaviness, hopelessness. He had gone. He had left them. They, his disciples, were here, and he was—where? It didn’t matter; he wasn’t here.
Messiah? He had been crucified. Defeated. Dishonoured. The religious leaders had gone all-out to get him, and they had got him. Now there was talk of a crackdown. Why had there been no miracle on the cross? Why had Jesus not shown them who he was? Had he cast them aside for some greater good? Nothing felt right anymore; nothing made sense. Their Lord had died, bequeathing to them a yearning sadness, a tangle of questions, a casket of disintegrated dreams.
And, of course, a body—the only tangible evidence of him remaining. The women had their spices and perfumes at the ready, even if the Eleven were trembling behind a bolted door. The Sabbath was gone; the first day of the week had come. There was work to be done.
To the tomb
Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James,1 and Salome the mother of James and John hastened along the trail toward the tomb. Conversation was sparse; their task was sombre and they felt an urgency to complete it. They wanted, needed, to honour their Lord according to custom. Doing so would be a meaningful outlet for their grief. They had waited all Sabbath for this chance to say goodbye.
As they neared their destination, they realised they had overlooked an important detail: ‘Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?’ Then they looked up and saw—Shock!—that the stone had already been rolled away! What does this mean? They walked tentatively toward the tomb, Mary Magdalene first, and nervously stepped inside. They had seen how Jesus’ body was laid on Friday evening, so they knew precisely what they wanted to see now.
But they didn’t see it.
He is not here
The place where Jesus’ body had been laid was empty! except for the strips of linen that had been wrapped around him. How can this be? Has the body been stolen? moved? Who has taken him? Where have they put him?
All of a sudden, two men as bright as lightning were standing right beside them. Immediately, the women plunged face-first to the ground. The men asked them earnestly, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead?’ The frightened women lifted their foreheads off the earthen floor, their raised eyebrows just visible. The two men were both still standing there, radiating brilliance as from the sun. ‘He is not here,’ they said excitedly; ‘he is risen!’2
Risen? Huh? Only two days earlier, they had watched Jesus suffer in vain hope of a miracle, and then, when he died, descended into a pit of misery. Now they had come here to this place of decay to give proper expression to their sadness—and they were being told a miracle had occurred. What were they to do with that? They were already grieving; what further trauma awaited them if they believed what they had heard and then found it to be untrue?
The men carried on speaking, carefully emphasising their words to help the women understand: ‘Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: “The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.”’ Then it came back to them. Yes, Jesus did say that—several times, actually. ‘Go, tell his disciples and Peter,’ the men urged them. ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’
Frightened and confused, the women fled from the tomb and began rushing back toward the city. Can it be? they wondered. The voice of reason said, There must be some other explanation. Jesus was crucified. The voice of emotion said, Not only have we lost our Lord, we’ve lost his body too. How are we supposed to mourn for him now? But the two men in the tomb had said he was risen. It at least took account of what they had seen: a body wrapped in linen on Friday evening; linen but no body on Sunday morning. Could it be true?
The two Marys and Salome were half-walking, half-running toward Jerusalem. They had to tell the disciples. As they rounded a bend, they came across a man standing just ahead of them. ‘Greetings,’ he said, smiling the smile they knew so well. They shrieked with delight. ‘JESUS!’ They were overwhelmed with joy. ‘It’s YOU! Jesus, it’s really you!’ Without a moment’s hesitation, they ran straight toward him. And why wouldn’t they? They loved him so much; they thought they had lost him forever and here he was! It helped that he wasn’t shining like the two men in the tomb; he was as human as they were. Yet as they closed in on him, it dawned on them who he really was. In that instant, while continuing to adore him, they were filled with reverence and awe. They fell facedown in front of him, clasped their hands onto his ankles, and worshipped him. He was quick to reassure them: ‘Do not be afraid.’ Then, brimming with joy, he said, ‘Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’
The women got back to the place in Jerusalem where the disciples were lying low. They blurted out everything they had seen and heard, jumping up and down with glee. The disciples, who were immersed in grief, thought they were speaking nonsense. ‘What do you mean you’ve seen the Lord? He was crucified. We all saw it. Don’t waste our time!’ Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves. Then he headed back, wondering to himself what had happened. Could the testimony of the women possibly be true?
That very day, while two disciples were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, a stranger came up beside them. He walked with them for a few hours, teaching them everything in the Scriptures pointing to the Messiah. When they got to Emmaus, he broke bread with them and their eyes were dramatically opened: he was the Messiah himself. At that moment, he disappeared from their sight. ‘Were not our hearts burning within us,’ they gushed to one another, ‘while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?’ They got up right away and scooted back to where the disciples were staying in Jerusalem. They rapped exuberantly on the door, busting to share their wonderful news—and were surprised to find the disciples already rejoicing: Peter had had his own face-to-face encounter with the resurrected Lord Jesus the same day ‘It’s true!’ they were all shouting. ‘HE’S ALIVE! Jesus is back with us again!’
In the ensuing days, Jesus appeared to his disciples on no less than three occasions.3 The first of these occurred inside a locked house in Jerusalem. He appeared among them while they were eating and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ They were startled and thought he was a ghost, but he reassured them: ‘Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.’ Then he asked them casually, ‘Do you have anything here to eat?’ They watched in amazement as he ate a piece of broiled fish, proving beyond doubt that he was no ghost.
The only member of the Eleven absent from that encounter was Thomas. When the disciples told him what he’d missed out on, he avowed, ‘Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.’ A week later, Jesus appeared to the disciples a second time—in the same house, behind locked doors once again—and this time Thomas was present. He said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.’ Thomas did so, and his reaction belies his reputation as ‘doubting Thomas.’ He declared to Jesus, ‘My Lord and my God!’
Jesus’ third appearance to his disciples happened early one morning on a beach beside the Sea of Galilee. Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, James and John were out in a boat, trying in vain to catch some fish. Jesus appeared on the shore and directed Peter to put the net out on the other side of the boat. The result was a miraculously large catch of fish—so large that they could barely haul it into the boat. As this point, John recognised the man standing on the shore and shouted, ‘It is the Lord!’ Peter immediately dove into the water, so eager was he to reach him. The five of them enjoyed breakfast on the beach with their resurrected Lord.
In the forty days following Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, he ‘gave many convincing proofs that he was alive.’ Wouldn’t you have loved to be in the congregation of five hundred believers to whom Jesus appeared, all at the same time? Imagine the eruption of joy and praise. And what do you think was happening for James, the firstborn son of Joseph and Mary,4 when his crucified brother Jesus, whom he didn’t believe in, appeared to him in person? Do you think he believed in him then? He later became the head of the church in Jerusalem. Jesus’ death had been absolutely real: the disciples had witnessed it. And yet his resurrection from the dead was just as real: the disciples were witnessing that too. After Jesus ascended into heaven, they continued witnessing to his resurrection with boldness and courage, overcoming their fear of the Jewish leaders and of the persecution that would come their way. Before Jesus’ death, Peter had sworn to Jesus that he would follow him to death if that’s what it took to go where his Lord was going. Peter did exactly that: he was crucified in Rome by Emperor Nero. All of the disciples, in fact (with the possible exception of John), gave up their lives for their faith in Jesus Christ. They will be resurrected to eternal life one day, along with all of us who belong to him.
Death and life
What a journey. On Friday, the disciples lost their Lord and plummeted into grief—a place of darkness and hopelessness. Then on Sunday, they were lifted out of their despair and deposited on a new plateau of joy by the reality of Jesus among them. Their joy was magnified because their grief had been so deeply felt. They didn’t have answers to all their questions, their thinking about God wasn’t one hundred percent right, and they hadn’t (yet) demonstrated perfect faithfulness. But here’s what stands out for me: On a human level, they really prized Jesus. When he suffered, they suffered with him. When he died, something within them died with him. When he reappeared in their midst, they were overjoyed—and he with them. No half-measures, no indifference.
I think I’ve discovered how to live in the closer relationship with Jesus that I have been seeking. And I think the Good Friday/Easter Sunday journey is the key. In Christ, there is a profound connection between death and life. Normally, we put these opposites in the reverse order: ‘Life and death.’ But that’s not how it must work for us as Christians. Death comes first—and then life. The apostle Paul got it right: ‘We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.’
If we want to live in the reality of Easter Sunday—really live in that place of resurrection joy—we only get there via the route of Good Friday. The joy of the resurrection—both Christ’s and our own—will only be complete if, like Jesus, we first die to self and do the will of him who sent us. ‘I want to know Christ,’ wrote Paul, ‘yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.’
- Mary the mother of James may also have been the mother of Jesus, since the oldest of Jesus’ brothers was called James (Matthew 13:55).
- Luke 24:6. The NIV2011, which I have used throughout this blog post, actually says ‘He has risen.’ However, I have said ‘He is risen’ for the sake of tradition.
- Jesus’ three appearances to the disciples are as follows: (1) Mark 16:14; Luke 24:36; John 20:19-23; (2) John 20:24-29; (3) John 21:1-22.
- The James mentioned by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:7 was probably Jesus’ brother, but we cannot be certain.