The Lord Jesus did not disappear. He was not buried alive and later, in the coolness of the tomb, revived and walked away. No one stole His body for who would have done this? Certainly not the disciples. In the darkness just before the light of the new day dawned, Mary Magdalene discovered that the tomb was empty. Running through the darkness she reached Peter and John and, no doubt panting, told them, ‘They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb’.1 It is inconceivable that Mary was thinking the disciples had removed His body. It is more possible that they were still asleep when she reached them. More likely Mary was wondering if the enemies of the Lord Jesus or even common grave-robbers had stolen the body.
While His enemies did not believe He would rise from the dead, they at least took more seriously than the disciples the Lord’s promise to ‘rise from the dead’ and for that reason posted guards at the tomb. The presence of the guards excludes the possibility of any activity by grave-robbers. James Stalker wrote, ‘There never was an enterprise in the world which seemed more completely at an end than did that of Jesus on the last Old Testament Sabbath … when He was buried, there was not a single human being that believed He would ever rise again before the day of the world’s doom’.2 No one could imagine any good, real or potential, that would come out of His death.
That the tomb was empty was a shock to everyone. That He was alive was a staggering reality that no one, friend or enemy, knew how to handle. And that He was seen repeatedly no one could deny!
The resurrection became the foundation stone of Christian truth
Aslater the apostle Paul begins to share with the church in Corinth his great exposition on the fact of resurrection, he sets the foundation on which it will rest by quoting a concise statement of Christian truth. Scholars detect in the following definition of the gospel a very early creedal declaration that circulated among the first Christians. It reads: ‘that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen’. It may well be the earliest written account of the fundamental elements of the Christian gospel – Christ’s death and resurrection.3
We remember that the New Testament was not yet written when the early church was witnessing to the world. Brief summaries of the Christian faith were taught and memorized by the early Christians. Other possible statements of this nature also appear elsewhere in the New Testament.4
The two fundamental truths in this brief summary of the gospel are the first and the third lines: ‘that Christ died for our sins … and that He rose again the third day’. Both historical events took place ‘according to the Scriptures’. Of great importance is the second line, ‘that He was buried,’ for it supports the truth that He truly died. The fourth line ‘that He was seen’. affirms the fact that He indeed rose from the dead.
There were many witnesses to the resurrection
Paul is also the author of the list of individuals, singly or in groups, who saw the Lord. The appearance of the risen Christ to James, His brother, is of special interest. James and his brothers did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah. We can only imagine what happened to him when he saw the Lord Jesus alive. One thing is certain: he was now convinced that the Lord Jesus was God’s Messiah and he threw himself wholeheartedly into the Christian cause, becoming one of the notable leaders in the new community in Jerusalem.
We definitely are intrigued by the news that five hundred saw the Lord Jesus ‘at once’, that is, at one time, at the same time, on the same occasion. This is a large meeting. In view of the initial reaction of the disciples to the resurrection, one would imagine that, in such a large gathering, there would be a few sceptics, some doubters and others who were confused. Yet there is no record of any dissent on the issue of Christ’s resurrection even though many of that group were still alive when Paul wrote these words. Without modern technology to aid it, to manipulate a small group, two thousand years ago, would be easier than a multitude in excess of five hundred individuals. They saw Him and they were convinced that He had risen from the dead.
Was it really resurrection or just a vision?
Paul adds himself to the list. If there was anyone who was dead set against any possibility of Jesus rising from the dead, it was this man. But he saw Him. Scholars remind us that by adding his name to the list of those who saw the Lord Jesus in resurrection, Paul is telling us that his experience belongs with, and is of the same nature as, those he has already mentioned in this list. Paul did not have a vision while others really saw him. The Lord Jesus appeared to Peter, to James, to five hundred men and women and to all the apostles and then, using the same verb, He appeared to Paul in the same way.
This probably is the meaning of the phrase ‘as by one born out of due time’. The Lord’s appearance to Paul may have taken place some time later, but as to the nature of the experience, he saw Him in a way just as real as those who saw Him after His resurrection. The resurrection appearances are not hallucinations. There is nothing ephemeral about them. They are not night dreams nor are they psychic visions. Paul saw the Lord Jesus in resurrection.
Bernard Ramm suggested that a careful look at the resurrection of the Lord Jesus reveals two important matters. There is continuity and there is difference in His body of resurrection.5 The new body is linked to the past, but it belongs to the future. The Person is the same, but His sphere of action is not now so limited to the earth.
There is undoubtedly continuity. The Lord Jesus said to His disciples: ‘Why are you troubled? And why do doubts arise in your hearts? Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have’. There is no contradiction between what the Lord Jesus said and Paul’s statement to the Corinthians: ‘flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God’. Paul’s argument is that the natural body does not of itself evolve into the new body apart from God’s power in resurrection and transformation.
Was it really Him in a real physical body?
After the resurrection, the Lord Jesus is assuring His disciples of His personal identity, ‘it is I myself’. He goes farther, adding: ‘Handle Me and see’. Years later John writes, ‘That which was from the beginning … our hands have handled’. John and Luke employ the same verb, ‘to handle’. Although John uses the verb in a much wider sense it would be difficult to exclude the post-resurrection scenes in which the Lord Jesus invited His friends to touch Him. He was not a ghost, not just an apparition. He did not appear to the disciples as existing in perception only. He was alive and was with them in bodily form.
There is mention of specific occasions when His followers touched Him. To the women in front of the empty tomb, the angel said, ‘go quickly and tell His disciples that He is risen from the dead’. The women left to tell them. ‘And as they went to tell His disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying Rejoice! So they (the women) came and held Him by the feet and worshipped Him’. To hold Him by the feet is a sign of respect and reverence. We are not visiting a seminary class. We are not looking at an investigative committee. Instead, we are watching women who display great surprise and are filled with joy. Their Lord is alive!
Mary Magdalene finally recognized the Lord by His voice when He said to her ‘Mary!’ He then added, ‘Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father’. There is a difficulty translating this term. Some suggest that it probably means: ‘Stop doing that,’ rather than, ‘Do not start something’.6 One translation reads, ‘Don’t hold on to me!’7 One leans to the impression that Mary, respectfully and reverently, was possibly holding Him by the feet as the other women had done.
Was the Lord Jesus different in resurrection?
On the other hand, there was definitely a difference about the Lord Jesus in resurrection. J. C. Ryle writes: ‘the condition of our Lord’s body was altogether different from that of His body before crucifixion’.8 This becomes immediately clear by the fact that the grave clothes were left in the tomb in an orderly way. Either in resurrection His body passed right through the grave clothes or He simply left them neatly in place. When John entered the tomb and saw this, he believed.9 Although the verbs ‘saw’ and ‘believed’ appear without objects, scholars10 suggest the objects may be supplied within the setting. Perhaps even more significant to John than the fact the tomb was empty, was to see the grave clothes left behind. He believed the Lord was certainly not there.
Did John make the contrast in his own mind between the raising of Lazarus and what he was seeing now? No doubt John and other disciples were present outside the tomb in Bethany. Restored to mortal life, Lazarus came out of the tomb ‘bound hand and foot with grave clothes, and his face was wrapped with a cloth’. John was witnessing now something very different. He believed, with the full force of that verb, that something special, unique had happened. This was such a totally unexpected event that John was not necessarily fully aware of what it meant, for he still had not made in his mind any connection with the Lord’s comments on the subject of resurrection prior to His death or with the Scriptures.
When the disciples were together, possibly hiding from those who had crucified their Master, they shut the doors in the sense they locked them. In that setting of fear, the Lord Jesus came and stood among them. No details are given as to how He entered. It seems clear enough that John wants us to understand that miraculously the Lord Jesus appeared among the disciples. In resurrection closed doors did not limit him. This type of action did not characterize His life prior to the resurrection.
Two downhearted, depressed individuals left Jerusalem to walk the seven miles to Emmaus where they lived. Recent high aspirations for change, for a new beginning, for a spiritual revival, for national rebirth were shattered overnight with the death of Jesus. Not only was their ‘king-to-be’ dead, but there was no possible replacement anywhere on the horizon.
As they travel, despondent and sad, a stranger, apparently from some distant place, joined them. Sharing with Him their utter disillusionment, they are surprised and then elated when He reminds them of Scriptures they had known all their lives and had never really understood. The stranger assured them that what happened to their leader was consistent with the message of the ancient prophets. Hope revives! Their step quickens and soon they stand at the door of their home.
The two individuals from Emmaus compelled the traveller to enter their home and together they sat down to share a simple meal. Perhaps because He was the honoured guest they asked Him to bless the meal. ‘Now it came to pass, as He sat at the table with them, that He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they knew Him; and He vanished from their sight’. Again, this type of action did not characterize the Lord Jesus prior to the resurrection. Besides continuity, there definitely is a difference in the body of the risen Lord.
Resurrection – vital to testimony and hope alike
How we need to remember the clear message of the New Testament. He is not here, the tomb is empty. He is risen, death has been conquered. He was seen, the witnesses are numerous. Although written almost a hundred and fifty years ago, the words of C. J. Ellicott are even more relevant today in our world filled with fear and uncertainty. ‘Present and future are alike bound up in our belief of our Master’s resurrection and ascension; and dreary indeed must this present be, and gloomy and clouded that future, if our belief in our risen and our ascended Lord be uncertain, partial, or precarious’.11