The resurrection of Jesus Christ has always challenged the greatest minds in the world. The mocking laughter of the Athenian philosophers two thousand years ago has been echoed regularly down through the centuries by expressions of disbelief, even of contempt.
In the face of such scorn we respond with the question Paul asked King Agrippa: ‘Why should it be thought incredible by you that God raises the dead?’1 It is true that a group of women, some of them from Galilee, went to the tomb early in the morning on the day we now call Sunday for the purpose of anointing the dead body of the Lord Jesus. They not only found the tomb empty, but there were other, worldly messengers present who spoke to them, saying, ‘Why do you seek the living among the dead. He is not here, but is risen!’ With far less reason than had the women who went to the empty tomb that wonderful morning, some of the greatest, most influential minds have persisted down through the centuries to look for Jesus in the graveyard of world history. God sent angelic heralds to tell the whole world through those devoted women: He is risen!
The story of Lazarus is placed in John’s Gospel as a preview to what was about to happen in Jerusalem. Before the miracle, the Lord Jesus groaned and was troubled in His spirit. Why did He groan? What troubled Him? Some affirm that it was the expression of sorrow that Mary and Martha, who believed He could heal, had not yet understood that He had power over death. Leon Morris notes: ‘John brings out the point that nobody expected an act of resurrection’.2 Others see the groan as a strong expression of dislike for the ‘wailing’ of Mary and her Jewish friends from Jerusalem. A loud, noisy, unrestrained wailing was the expected way to express deep sorrow. Still other scholars believe there was a deeper motive that led the Lord Jesus to groan and to be troubled in His spirit.
This can be noted in some modern translations. ‘When Jesus saw her (Mary) weeping and saw the other people wailing with her, he was moved with indignation and was deeply troubled’.3 It has been suggested that the groaning and the troubling expressed by the Lord Jesus is not expressed against Mary, one of His closest friends, or against the friends who were mourning the loss of a respected and beloved friend. Rather, the groaning and the troubling expressed by the Lord Jesus is a deep, personal recognition that the tragedy of death is not what God intended for human beings.
One hundred years ago, the American Presbyterian theologian and educator B. B. Warfield (1851-1920) expanded powerfully on the indignation expressed so forcefully by the Lord Jesus. He wrote: ‘It is death that is the object of His wrath, and behind death him who has the power of death, and whom He has come into the world to destroy. Tears of sympathy may fill His eyes, but this is incidental. His soul is held by (holy4) rage: and He advances to the tomb, in Calvin’s words, ‘as a champion who prepares for conflict’. The raising of Lazarus thus becomes, not an isolated marvel, but – as indeed it is presented throughout the whole narrative – a decisive instance and open symbol of Jesus’ conquest of death and hell. What John does for us in this particular statement is to uncover to us the heart of Jesus, as He wins for us our salvation. Not in cold unconcern, but in flaming wrath against the foe, Jesus smites on our behalf’.5
By His death and resurrection, the Lord Jesus vanquished death. This was not just for Himself, but for all members of the human race who believe in Him. The raising of Lazarus is a vibrant viewing beforehand of the great act of emancipation for human beings made possible by His death and resurrection. Paul speaks of ‘the working of God, who raised Him (the Lord Jesus) from the dead. And you, being dead in your trespasses … He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses’. Death has been dealt the mortal blow once and for all.
By resurrection the Lord Jesus moved beyond death. His body in resurrection was now part of the eternal realm. The Bible differentiates between the visible and the invisible, earth and heaven, this age and the age to come, mortality and immortality. In resurrection, the body of the Lord Jesus belongs to the invisible realm, to heaven, to the age to come, to immortality.
How did the Lord Jesus appear to His friends after the resurrection? From that spiritual realm of eternity, it has been suggested that the Lord Jesus passed through the veil that separates heaven from earth, the invisible from the visible, the coming age from this age, immortality from mortality and appeared to the disciples in ways with which they were familiar.
When the angelic messengers, who also passed through that veil, appeared at the empty tomb Luke says they were dressed in ‘shining garments’, that is, surrounded by light they projected a dazzling effect on those who saw them. Mark writes of one dressed ‘in a long white robe’. We should not think of this as a white summer suit, for those who saw him, in the words of J. B. Phillips, were ‘simply astonished’, that is, they were amazed, dismayed, galvanized! Matthew describes the apparel as ‘clothing as white as snow’, a glistening whiteness. He also states that the countenance was ‘like lightning’ that he was, the source of flashes of light that moved outward from his person. Had the Lord Jesus appeared in that way to His friends, would they not have been even more confused?
Instead, the Lord Jesus appeared in more ordinary ways with which they could easily identify. They saw Him sitting at a fire on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Significant is the following comment: ‘Ghosts, apparitions and various psychological hallucinations may do a lot of things, but they don’t fire up the charcoal grill and cook fish for breakfast’.6
On the first occasion He was like a gardener in a cemetery. We wonder why Mary did not recognize Him. Some suggest that she was supernaturally restrained from knowing who He was. Others wonder if she was so overcome with grief that she never recognized Him through her tears. This may be true. It is also possible that He appeared in such an ordinary way that Mary did not look at Him twice and failed to recognize who He was! As a traveller He joined two individuals who were walking to their home in Emmaus. In these ordinary ways, He stepped back into the world the disciples understood, walking with them, eating and drinking with them and talking with them. When Peter met Cornelius in Caesarea, he declared: ‘Him (the Lord Jesus) God raised up on the third day, and showed Him openly, not to all the people, but to witnesses chosen before by God, even to us who ate and drank with Him after He rose from the dead’.
After the ascension, He appears surrounded by transcendent glory. Paul’s experience outside Damascus is an example. From the outside we watch this event as it is recorded three times in Acts. A great light from heaven, brighter than the sun at noon, shone around Paul and his companions. Years later, Paul defines the inward meaning of this experience when he writes to his friends in Corinth, ‘For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’. The experience was so overwhelming that Paul and his companions fell to the ground. Paul, who received the full impact of this resplendent glory, was blinded. On Patmos, the Lord Jesus appeared to John in stunning glory. John tells us about it. ‘Then I turned to see the voice that spoke with me. And having turned I saw One like the Son of Man’ The description of this person is closely linked to ‘One like the Son of Man’ who, in Daniel chapter 7, appears enveloped in divine glory. This awesome individual enters unimpeded right into the presence of God, the Ancient of Days. He is not an intruder, rather He is escorted by great angelic beings.
John describes the person he saw in apocalyptic language. This type of description, written under the guidance of God’s Spirit, can ignite the imagination in a way not really possible in ordinary writing styles. In this case, the Lord Jesus in his present glory is the subject, a matter we are incapable of fully understanding at the present time in our usual language.
John writes: he was ‘clothed with a garment down to the feet and girded about the chest with a golden band. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and His eyes like a flame of fire; His feet were like fine brass, as if refined in a furnace, and His voice as the sound of many waters; He had in His right hand seven stars, out of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword, and His countenance was like the sun shining in its strength’.
Bible teachers suggest special significance to each item mentioned in this description of the Lord Jesus in glory. But it is the effect of the overall accumulation of details that project to the reader a display of majesty, authority, stature, exaltation, and transcendence. This is the Lord of glory at home in the eternal realm. No wonder John, still locked into this world and a prisoner on the bleak island of Patmos, states, ‘And when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as dead’. The contrast between John’s limited, frustrating world and the sphere to which the Lord now belongs is truly mind-boggling.
The Lord Jesus displayed genuine kindness and surpassing grace by the way He appeared to His friends immediately after His resurrection. Coming back into their world in situations they could understand, He convinced the disciples that He really had risen from the dead!
There is no doubt that eventually the followers of the Lord Jesus were absolutely convinced that He had risen from the dead. Peter’s statement on Pentecost sums up the universal belief of His followers. ‘Him (Jesus of Nazareth) God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it. Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ’, Acts 2. 24, 36.
The resurrection of the Lord Jesus is something to get excited about. It fills you with wonder, joy and hope! Some of the paintings by the great masters depict the risen Christ as standing, stationary, hands held out in blessing, passive almost to the point of being incapable of movement. In contrast, the genius Michelangelo in his Study in black chalk7 sketched the risen Saviour literally jumping from the grave, Conqueror over death and its environment, and, with energy and purpose, leaping into a new realm of unending life and immortal glory.
Among the disciples of the Lord Jesus, there was nothing academic about their initial reaction to the resurrection. These men were not seasoned theologians. The initial shock together with the very real fear of the unknown profoundly alarmed them. Yet the evidence provided by the Lord Jesus was so overwhelming that they soon knew He had indeed risen from the dead. The joy that then filled their minds and hearts dispelled immediately and permanently the fear and uncertainty they initially experienced when He appeared among them. He had risen from the dead! He had conquered death! He was gloriously alive!
In that same spirit, John Wesley wrote:
Jesus is risen!
He shall the world restore!
Awake, ye dead!
Dull sinners, sleep no more!8
John Wesley (1703 - 1791) in Draper’s book of Quotations for the Christian World, Edythe Draper, (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.), No. 9692.