- The Explore the Bible lesson for March 27 focuses on Luke 24:1-12
Historian David McCullough wrote: “The hardest, most important thing to convey in writing history is nothing had to turn out as it did. Those people who risked so much had no guarantee that they were going to succeed.” McCullough wrote those lines in reference to the patriots who worked for American independence. The thought applies equally well to the followers of Jesus.
Luke’s Gospel powerfully conveys what happened when the women came to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body. In that moment, they still believed Jesus had failed. They came to honor him in his death and remember what he had meant to them. Their hearts were broken and their hopes shattered. The Eleven—a number with the sting of betrayal still in it—were in hiding, with no idea what to do next.
We have become accustomed to the miracle of Easter. But for those women, an empty tomb was the absolute last thing they expected to see that day, and an angelic announcement of his resurrection the last thing they expected to hear. In the shock and fear that only the sudden appearance of heralds from heaven could bring, they are told: “He is not here. He has risen!” Then they remembered his words—words for which they had no reference point at the time.
This unprecedented event had another angle. The first witnesses were women. It is unfortunate, but factual, that the ancient world held women to be less than men, and their testimony was believed to be less trustworthy. God had other ideas. The universal testimony of the Gospels that the first witnesses were women also testifies to the truth of the story. If the story of the resurrection were made up to justify the church’s belief to an unbelieving world, it would not have been made up in that way.
The shock of the event continues from the testimony of the women to the disciples. “They did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense” (Luke 24:11). Peter ran to see for himself and finds the scene as they reported it. Even then, his response is “wondering to himself what had happened” (Luke 24:12).
We wonder how those who heard Jesus say he would rise from dead did not understand what he meant, because our reference point is Easter. They had no similar point of reference. Even Jesus’ raising others from the dead could not prepare them for this. Those events would have confirmed Jesus as a prophet in the mode of Elijah and Elisha who had brought back the dead (1 Kings 17, 2 Kings 4). But even the great prophets had not come back themselves! When they died, they stayed dead, and even those they raised eventually died again. (We should distinguish more carefully between those events and Jesus’ resurrection. Lazarus, the widow’s son, etc. were “raised” but not transformed into deathless physicality as Jesus was. We might say they were “resuscitated.”)
The Jews of Jesus’ day who believed in the resurrection believed the righteous would be resurrected together to inherit God’s new age. They did not expect one person—even the Messiah—to precede everyone else.
Later, Jesus appeared to his followers in person, driving away all doubt. In the place of doubt, he brought forth faith and the life of witness that springs from it. The resurrection meant many things, of which two are important for the ongoing idea of witness that Luke highlights in Acts:
- The resurrection is a verdict overturned. In his trials before the Sanhedrin, Herod and Pilate and before an angry mob, Jesus had been judged guilty of blasphemy on the one hand, or of being a dangerous revolutionary on the other. He was condemned to die, and he did. It was a miscarriage of justice. In the resurrection, God won the case on appeal, anyway. When he came alive out of the tomb, Jesus Christ was proved Son of God, Messiah, King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He was indeed a revolutionary, but his revolution was to overthrow the pretenders and put the true King back on the throne.
- The resurrection is new creation. The further record of the risen Jesus’ interactions in Luke and the other Gospels show there was both something familiar and something radically different about the risen Jesus. He is the first citizen of the new creation, the confirmation of the promise of God there will be a new heavens and new earth. There is no analogy for the resurrection—no other event in history that redefines the meaning of all history itself. The only thing that comes close is the first creation, when God made all there is. The resurrection of Jesus is the beginning of God remaking and redeeming all there is.
The first witnesses did not live out the rest of their lives venerating a fallen martyr. They served a living Lord. We who have believed their witness down through the centuries carry the same responsibility. God’s verdict in the resurrection is that Jesus is the way, the truth, the life and the only way to come to the Father (John 14:6).
The first witnesses did not close up shop, content that God would work it all out as he had worked out Jesus’ resurrection. They were entrusted by their Lord to boldly proclaim the good news to the people who stood where they once stood on Easter Sunday—to the unbelieving and to those who were wondering what it all might mean.
They built a new community based on God’s purposes for the new creation. They sought to do his will on earth as it is in heaven, anticipating the day when heaven and earth would be recreated and brought together for eternity. The body of Christ came out of the tomb alive, never to die again. The Body of Christ that is the church is called to live as witnesses of his Lordship now and forever.