Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Resurrection of Jesus

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared (Luke 24:1). 

Matthew tells us that all Jesus’ disciples who had accompanied him to the Garden of Gethsemane deserted him and fled upon his arrest. We don’t know what they were up to during the time between Jesus’ arrest in the garden and the time when they first received word of Jesus’ resurrection on Sunday morning. We only know that by Sunday morning they had all gathered together again. We are told only that Peter followed Jesus and the arrest party at a distance, monitoring the proceedings in the High Priest’s house as surreptitiously as possible from the courtyard. After Peter is reminded by the crowing of a rooster that Our Lord had said Peter would deny him, we are given no more account of Peter until Sunday morning. Mark gives us a detail unique to his Gospel account; that a young man, dressed in nothing but a linen cloth, followed Jesus to the Garden as well. Mark writes, “And a young man followed him with nothing but a linen cloth about his body. And they seized him, but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked” (Mark 14:51-52). Some commentators believe that this “young man” was Mark himself, though there is nothing in the text to support or refute this view. His departure from the scene of Jesus’ arrest, however, indicates the urgency of the situation and the haste with which Jesus’ friends abandoned him. The young man was so frightened and desperate to save himself that he ran away naked, leaving Jesus to his fate (Engelbrecht, et al., 2009). 

Evidently, however, a group of Jesus’ friends and disciples did gather some distance away to watch Jesus die. This group included John, Jesus’ mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee[1]. Joseph of Arimathea may have also been among the band of on-lookers as well. It was he who went to Pontius Pilate and requested Jesus’ body. Scripture tells us that Pilate was shocked to hear from Joseph of Arimathea that Jesus was already dead[2]. Joseph took the body of Jesus and laid him in the tomb while the two Marys – Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” – watched. They would have to come back the next day to carry out the burial customs of anointing the Jesus’ body as the Sabbath would begin shortly. It is here that Luke continues the story, on Sunday morning, with the same two Marys bringing the required supply of spices to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. 

And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb (Luke 24:2), 

Tombs were often cut into the rock of the hillside. Their entrances would have been blocked by a large, disk-shaped stone, rolled into a channel cut in the ground in front of the tomb. This stone disk would have been several feet in diameter, and would have required several men to move (Engelbrecht, et al., 2009). This was certainly in the thoughts of the women as they made their way to the tomb with their supplies[3]. When they arrive, however, they are greeted with an earthquake, at least one angel, and some very frightened guards. Matthew writes that there was an earthquake as an angel rolled the stone away from the grave’s entrance[4]. The guards posted at the tomb were frightened so badly that they fainted – they “became like dead men”[5]

but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise” (Luke 24:3-7). 

This is the heart of Easter, the climax of the story of mankind’s redemption. Jesus’ tomb was empty. He rose from the dead and left the grave. Immanuel, God with us, who had looked to his enemies so defeated on the cross the previous Friday afternoon had, in reality, defeated sin, death, and the devil. The grave could not hold him. St. Paul tells us that this fact is of supreme importance. He writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve[6].” 

Without Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday, we have nothing more than the tragic story of the murder of a Jewish teacher and philosopher who crossed the leaders of the religious establishment, and paid the ultimate price for his challenge to their authority. We have no forgiveness of sins, if we have no risen Jesus. St. Paul understood this as well. He continues in his first letter to the Corinthians, “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied[7].” 

To the dismay of Satan, however, Jesus’ tomb is empty. C.F.W. Walther put it this way, in his famous Easter hymn: “O, where is your sting, death? We fear you no more; Christ rose, and now open is fair Eden’s door. For all our transgressions His blood does atone; Redeemed and forgiven, we now are His own[8]” (The Commission on Worship of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, 2006). 

A common objection to the resurrection story made by many non-Christians is that Jesus’ body was simply stolen by Jesus’ followers so that it would look like he rose from the dead. This is, in fact, said by Matthew to be the case[9]. He writes that the Roman guards reported to the Chief Priests what had happened. The Chief Priests, in turn, told the guards to circulate the story that Jesus’ disciples stole his body while they slept on duty. Matthew says that the guards were paid a tidy sum and assured that the Chief Priests would smooth everything over with Pilate, should he ever get wind of their story. 

The story that someone removed Jesus’ body from the tomb, though, just doesn’t make sense to me. If the disciples took his body, they would all have known that the Gospel they were proclaiming was no Gospel at all. Being disappointed that Jesus was just another false messiah, the story goes, they were reluctant to undergo the public humiliation, ridicule, and persecution that was surely coming their way, so they stole Jesus’ body and claimed he rose from the dead, thus saving face. One might put some stock in that, if it were not for what happened to the disciples of Jesus next. 

All of the Apostles, with the exception of John, were martyred for their faith. That is, they went to their death rather than deny their risen Lord and Savior Jesus. If all they faced was ridicule and derision, I might give this thesis of the resurrection-deniers some more thought. The Apostles and other first generation disciples of Christ, however, faced not only ridicule, but death, and that in some of the most gruesome ways imaginable by man. I have not met the person who was willing to die for that which he knew to be a lie. Men have been willing to die for ideas in which they believed but only later found out were false; I have never heard of anyone who willingly submit to a horribly painful and humiliating death rather than renounce a belief or idea that they knew for a fact to be false. The apostles and early followers of Jesus were beheaded, crucified, stoned, burned alive, and fed to wild animals for the entertainment of bloodthirsty crowds, all because they refused to renounce their faith in Jesus. They stood steadfast in their faith because they knew it to be true first hand. 

And they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them (Luke 24:8-11). 

The women who went to the tomb, discovered it empty, and heard the first proclamation of the resurrection from the angels there went joyfully to inform the Apostles. The Apostles, however, were still mourning Jesus' death. The angels had reminded the women about how Jesus told them all beforehand how he would die for the sin of mankind at the hands of sinful men and rise again. At this Gospel proclamation their faith blossomed forth. when they told the men that Jesus had risen, their minds could not yet grasp it. They considered the women's account an "idle tale". After all, they were only lowly women. Their testimony was not even valid in a court of law. This is another reason that seems to lend more credibility to the Gospel story. If the Gospel writers wanted to make up a story, surely they would not have scripted it so as to have women discover the empty tomb. Their testimony would be considered unreliable in First century Israel (Packer & Tenney, 1980). Furthermore, the Gospel writers do not paint the Apostles in a particularly flattering light, especially in the resurrection accounts. They are disbelieving and even mock the women, being mired firmly in their mistaken belief that Jesus was a political messiah struggling to establish an earthly kingdom. 

Why would God choose to use these women, who were so despised by the culture in which they lived, to deliver the news of the resurrection to the Apostles? Surely he would choose some person more worthy and esteemed in the eyes of the world to carry such news, in order to make it more credible to the world. To the contrary, God was mocking the unbelieving world and its governing authorities, which subscribed to such nonsense as the inferiority of women. In using these women as the vehicles for bringing the news of Jesus’ resurrection to the Apostles, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”[10]

But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home marveling at what had happened (Luke 24:12). 

Peter reacts in his typical brash and impulsive fashion. Earlier in the garden of Gethsemane, when the temple guard came to arrest Jesus, Peter impulsively, and a little clumsily, attempted to stand and fight, cutting off the high priest's servant's ear with his sword[11]. He was going to meet force with force it seems, but Jesus stopped and rebuked him. He, like the others, did not understand that Jesus' kingdom was not of this world[12]. Peter, along with all the rest of the Apostles, felt defeated and were afraid of their religious/political adversaries who had murdered their leader. But when Peter heard the women's story, he reacted by running to the tomb to see what was going on for himself. John records that he also went with Peter. John says that he ran ahead of Peter, but only looked into the tomb upon his arrival, apparently too awestruck at what he found to enter[13]. Peter was the one who actually entered the empty tomb first. He saw the linen cloths that had been wrapped around Jesus' corpse, and the cloth that had been on Jesus head, folded neatly. This was no case of grave robbery. Why would grave robbers strip the corpse and take the time to fold the linen cloths they left behind? We know that the Apostles didn’t have Jesus’ body. Surely, if the Pharisees had taken Jesus’ corpse away, they would have produced it and put it on display when the Apostles began preaching that Jesus rose from the dead. 

After Peter went inside the tomb, John then also entered. John writes that he saw and believed[14]. They may not yet have understood but, by the power of God's Holy Spirit, faith was kindled in them they believed. During the following 40 days Jesus would show himself alive to his disciples, and equip them for their mission of spreading the Good News of Jesus' atonement for man's sin to the world. 

Jesus’ resurrection proves that he is the Christ, the Son of God, and that the things he taught were true. The sacrifice Jesus made on the cross was accepted by God the Father for the reconciliation of the world (Luther, 1991). The resurrection of Jesus is proof of this. Because of our sins we deserve nothing but God’s wrath, displeasure, death, and eternal damnation. Christ, by his holy precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death, redeemed mankind on the cross. His victory was confirmed by his resurrection from the dead, and we receive the forgiveness Christ won on the cross by faith in Him. Christ’s resurrection is the basis for the new life that Christians begin to experience now, and will receive fully on the Last Day (Engelbrecht, et al., 2009). Because Jesus lives, we who believe in him will live also[15]

Christ is risen, he is risen indeed! Alleluia! 

Works Cited 

Engelbrecht, E. A., Deterding, P. E., Ehlke, R. C., Joersz, J. C., Love, M. W., Mueller, S. P., et al. (Eds.). (2009). The Lutheran Study Bible. Saint Louis, Missouri, USA: Concordia Publishing House. 

Luther, M. (1991). Kleine Katechismus, English. (C. P. House, Trans.) Saint Louis, Missouri, USA: Concordia Publishing House. 

Packer, J. I., & Tenney, M. C. (Eds.). (1980). Illustrated Manners and Customs of the Bible. Nashville, TN, USA: Thomas Nelson Publishers. 

The Commission on Worship of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. (2006). Lutheran Service Book. St. Louis : Concordia Publishing House. 

End Notes

[1] Matthew 27:55-56 
[2] Mark 15:44 
[3] Mark 16:3 
[4] Matthew 28:2 
[5] Matthew 28:3 
[6] 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 
[7] 1 Corinthians 15:13-19 
[8] "He’s Risen, He’s Risen", LSB 480, Text: C.F.W. Walther, 1811-87, abr.; tr Anna M. Meyer, 1867-1941, alt. 
[9] Matthew 28:11-15 
[10] 1 Corinthians 1:27-29 
[11] Matthew 26:51; John 18:10 
[12] John 18:36 
[13] John 20:3-4 
[14] John 20:8 
[15] John 11:25-26; 14:19