Summer 2005

Religion and Spirituality

The Gospels for the 21st Century, Part 22

Full Circle

David Hulme

The accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ continue to reach out with profound relevance to us, who desperately need the Gospels for the 21st century. In this final installment in the series, we focus on Jesus’ resurrection and His subsequent appearances to His disciples.

At the moment of Jesus’ death, miraculous events took place in and around Jerusalem. In the temple, the curtain that separated the Holy of Holies was torn in two from top to bottom. An earthquake opened the tombs of some of the people of God, and they were brought back to physical life. 

The soldiers guarding Jesus were terrified at the earthquake and all that was happening. The centurion, who heard Jesus’ final cry and saw how He died, said, “Surely he was the Son of God” (Matthew 27:51–54). 

Those followers of Jesus who were present stood at a distance to see what would happen next. Among them were many women, including Mary Magdalene; Mary, the mother of James and Joses; and Salome. When Jesus was teaching in Galilee, these were some of the women who took care of Him. 

The day of Jesus’ death, a Wednesday, was a time of preparation for the first holy day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Mark 15:42; John 19:31; see also Leviticus 23:4–8). The religious leaders didn’t want the three condemned men hanging on crucifixes on the holy day, referred to in John’s Gospel as “a special Sabbath.” They went to Pilate, the Roman governor, and asked that the legs of the victims be broken so that they would die more quickly. Unable to support their own weight, the crucified men would soon suffocate. The soldiers came and broke the legs of the two robbers, but when they saw that Jesus was already dead, they left Him alone. The fact is that earlier, while Jesus was still alive, one of the soldiers had rammed a spear into His side, causing a rush of blood and water. Jesus had died from that sudden loss of blood. John records that he himself saw these things and that he is telling the truth (John 19:31–35). 

As evening approached, a wealthy man—Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Jewish Council and a follower of Jesus—came to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. Of course, Joseph had not been party to the Council’s plot against his Teacher. Pilate was surprised that Jesus was already dead and asked the centurion whether it was true. When it was confirmed, Pilate gave the body to Joseph, who took it and placed it in his own new tomb in a garden nearby Golgotha. 

Another man, Nicodemus, who was also a member of the Sanhedrin and had visited Jesus by night early in His ministry, joined Joseph. Together they prepared Jesus’ body for immediate burial with myrrh and aloes and wrapped it with strips of linen. Then they rolled a stone across the entrance to the tomb. 

Never on a Sunday

All of this had been watched by some of the women from Galilee. As the evening came they went home, because it was the beginning of the high holy day (verses 38–42; Luke 23:50–56). 

On the holy day, which was a Thursday, the chief priests and Pharisees went to Pilate and requested that a guard be placed at the tomb so that no one could steal Jesus’ body. They said that Jesus had claimed He would be resurrected after three days. Pilate granted their request. The religious leaders set the soldiers at the site and put a seal on the large stone covering the tomb. 

Luke records that the women from Galilee prepared spices and perfumes for further treatment of the body. They would not have done so on the holy day, so they must have done it on Friday (Mark 16:1). Luke tells us that they rested on the Sabbath according to the command (Luke 23:56). That would have been Saturday. 

Luke continues the account by saying that “on the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb” (Luke 24:1). What did they find there? Well, they had wondered who would move the large stone for them so they could enter the tomb. When they arrived, to their surprise it was already rolled out of the way. Inside, Jesus’ body was nowhere to be seen. Then two angelic beings appeared and explained that Jesus had risen from the dead, and that He was going ahead to Galilee. The women were told to go and tell this to the disciples. All of this occurred on Sunday morning. 

But the reality is that counting forward three days and three nights from Wednesday afternoon or early evening brings us to late Saturday afternoon or early evening. Jesus’ resurrection took place not at the traditionally accepted time of Sunday morning but hours earlier. 

At the time He was resurrected there was another earthquake, and an angel rolled back the stone from the tomb’s entrance. He then sat on the stone, and the sight of him terrified the guards so that they ran away. The women did not discover Jesus’ resurrection until Sunday, very early in the morning, at which time the angels told them, “He has risen” (verse 6). 

When you come up against tradition, it’s often almost impossible to dislodge false ideas from the mind.

This has been a source of confusion for a long time. There have been those who have known that the resurrection was not on Sunday, but when you come up against tradition, it’s often almost impossible to dislodge false ideas from the mind. 

The Resurrection Is Real

When the women returned and told the disciples what had happened, the men thought they were talking nonsense. But Peter and John ran to the tomb to check their story. John, arriving first, looked in and saw the linen grave wrappings lying there. He wondered what it could mean. When Peter arrived, he went into the tomb and saw the strips of linen and the cloth that had been wrapped around the head of the dead body neatly folded nearby. John records that he went inside himself and was then convinced that Jesus was alive. But he also says that the disciples did not yet understand from Scripture that Jesus would be resurrected. 

Perhaps this is why they returned home, leaving Mary Magdalene weeping at the tomb. When she looked into the sepulcher, she saw two angels sitting at the head and foot of the place where Jesus’ body had lain. They asked her why she was crying. She replied that Jesus had been taken away and she did not know where His body was. Then she turned around and saw a man. He, too, asked why she was crying and for whom she was looking. Thinking he was a gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him” (John 20:1–15). 

It was, of course, Jesus. He said simply, “Mary.” She turned and said in recognition, “Rabboni!” which means “My Teacher” in Aramaic. Jesus told her not to hold on to Him, saying that He had not yet returned to His Father. He said that she must go back to the disciples and tell them that He said, “I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (verses 16–17). 

This was one of at least 10 postresurrection appearances that Jesus was to make over the next several weeks. Another was to the other women who had been at the tomb. Jesus came to them after they had left the empty tomb. He told them to tell the disciples that they should go to Galilee, where He would meet them. 

At this point in the narrative we read that some of the guards who had been frightened away from the tomb went to the chief priests and told them what had happened. The religious authorities decided to concoct a story to offset what would happen when people heard that Jesus’ body had disappeared. They paid the soldiers a large sum to say that the disciples had stolen the body. This, they said, would calm the governor, Pontius Pilate, if he found out that Jesus’ body was no longer in the tomb (Matthew 28:11–14). The story was widely circulated and became the account that many people believed. 

One Man’s Doubts

Toward the end of that first day of the week, after His resurrection, Jesus also appeared to two disciples who were returning to Emmaus, seven miles outside Jerusalem. They were prevented from recognizing Jesus as He walked alongside them on the road. He asked what they were discussing. They were obviously depressed. One of the two, Cleopas, asked whether the stranger had been in Jerusalem in the past few days. Surely he knew what had happened to Jesus of Nazareth. 

They mentioned how the authorities had put Him to death, but that now His tomb was found empty and reports had come back that He had been resurrected. 

Jesus said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” From there He opened their minds to understand all that had been written about Him by Moses and the prophets. He showed that His life, death, and resurrection had fulfilled many of the prophecies (Luke 24:13–27). 

When they arrived at the village, Jesus made as if He were going on further. They insisted that He stay with them, because it was getting dark. That evening they sat down for a meal together. It was only when He took bread, gave thanks and broke it and gave it to them that they recognized Him. He then disappeared. They agreed that they had sensed something unusual as He talked with them on the road, but they hadn’t known what it was. 

As a result of this experience they returned to Jerusalem immediately and found the disciples excitedly saying that Jesus was alive and had appeared to Peter. The two disciples from Emmaus then recounted what had happened to them. 

At this point Jesus Himself appeared in the midst of them. They were all terrified, thinking they had seen a ghost. He told them not to be troubled, that He was real, that He had flesh and bones. 

He invited them to examine the wounds in His hands, feet and side. Then He shared some food with them, demonstrating that He wasn’t a ghost. He told them again that they would receive the Holy Spirit to help them in carrying out the work ahead. 

Thomas was a doubtful disciple. He was not present when Jesus came among them, so when the others told him what they had seen, he said that he would not believe unless Jesus met some stringent tests. Thomas wanted to see the crucifixion nail prints in His hands and the wound in His side before he would believe that Jesus was alive (John 20:24–25). 

A week later Jesus appeared among the disciples again. This time Thomas was there. Now Jesus invited Thomas to free himself of his doubts by doing exactly what he had demanded. He put his finger into the nail holes and reached his hand into Jesus’ wounded side. Now he was convinced, but Jesus said those who believed without such direct evidence would be blessed. Nevertheless, as a result of what he saw, Thomas gave the strongest confirmation of Jesus’ identity. He said, “My Lord and my God!” (verse 28). It was the first time anyone had made such a confession, naming Jesus as God. 

As a result of what he saw, Thomas gave the strongest confirmation of Jesus’ identity. He said, “My Lord and my God!”

John mentions that Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of His disciples, but that many are not recorded. The few that are set down, he writes, should be proof enough that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah, through whom eternal life becomes possible (verses 30–31). 

More Evidence

The next two appearances Jesus made were in Galilee. First He came to seven of the disciples as they were fishing. They had worked all night and caught nothing. Now, early in the morning, a figure stood on the shore and asked whether they had netted anything. They had to say no. He then told them to cast to the right. When they did, they caught so many fish that they couldn’t haul in the net. It was reminiscent of the time He had performed a similar miracle and then called some of them to be His disciples (John 21:1–6; see also Luke 5:1–11). 

John was the first to recognize the stranger standing at the side of the lake. He said, “It is the Lord!” (John 21:7). As soon as Peter heard it, he jumped into the water. By the time the others reached the shore about a hundred yards away, they saw a fire burning, with fish and bread ready to eat. Jesus asked them to bring some more fish to cook. 

When they had finished their meal, Jesus asked Peter three times whether he loved Him more than his other companions. Peter reassured Jesus that he did. But Jesus was anxious to coax out of Peter a genuine commitment to care for the people of God. He warned him that he, too, would die an ignominious death. Then He said to Peter, “Follow me” (verses 15–19). 

Peter was curious as to what would happen to John in the future. Jesus replied that it was not for Peter to know. John ends his Gospel at this point in the history of Christ’s life by assuring us that many other things could have been written about Him, but that these are the necessary facts. 

Jesus is recorded as having appeared four more times to His followers. One was at a mountain location in Galilee where the 11 were present. Some of them were still doubtful. Here Jesus gave them a commission to go into the world and teach those God would call to obey the things that He, Christ, had commanded. He promised that He would be with His people through the end of this present age of man (Matthew 28:16–20). 

On another occasion He appeared to 500 disciples at the same time. When the apostle Paul recorded this, perhaps 20 years later, he said that most of the people who had seen Him were still alive. Jesus also appeared to His own half brother James, who later became leader of the Jerusalem church (1 Corinthians 15:6–7). 

The Promise of Return

Over the course of several weeks following His resurrection, Jesus’ disciples saw Him many times. He instructed them to stay in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit came (Acts 1:3–5). That occurred very soon afterward, on Pentecost. 

His final appearance to the disciples took place just before He left them to return to the Father. He explained that they would be witnesses to all that had happened during the three and a half years they had been together with Him. Some wanted to know whether He would immediately set up the kingdom of God on the earth. He told them that the Father would bring that about according to His own time frame, not theirs (verses 6­–8). 

This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

Acts 1:11, New International Version

At the end of 40 days, while they were all together on the Mount of Olives, He was taken up from them and disappeared from sight into a cloud. For Jesus, the wheel had come full circle. Now He would be reunited as a spirit being with His Father in heaven. But He was also to return. As the disciples stared into the heavens, two angels spoke to them and gave an enduring promise. They said, in appropriate conclusion to the account of Jesus’ life as a human being: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (verses 9–11). 

This was the very promise that Jesus Himself had given weeks earlier on the same Mount of Olives, when He had explained to His disciples the prophetic sequence that would precede His return (see Matthew 24:3, 30). The four separate Gospel accounts end with the commissioning of the disciples to go out into the world carrying Christ’s message of the coming kingdom of God; with His return to His Father; and with His promised second coming. 

Despite the intervening 20 centuries since the life of Jesus of Nazareth and the events the Gospels describe, the accounts have as much if not more relevance to our age, because we need the truths they impart in order to live successfully in a far more complex world. The accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ continue to reach out with profound relevance to us, who desperately need the Gospels for the 21st century.