By Tom Thomas
uppose I returned to Spring Hill cemetery several days after burying my father? I reach his plot. I noticed the grave was disturbed; the marker overturned, and the clay dirt scattered around the sides. Inspecting closer, I saw the casket opened. The body was missing. What would I conclude? What would you conclude?
Suppose you were among those who went to pay your respects to Jesus? Upon reaching the tomb, you saw the gravestone rolled back; the tomb disturbed, and the buried body missing. Do you, like the disciples, have grave difficulty with the empty tomb? Have you thought about Jesus’ bodily appearances? Is your heart slow to believe? You can identify with the disciples. You can surpass their difficulty. Let me consider the resurrection narrative.
It was the first day of the week, Sunday, at early dawn. A group of women walked in twilight to Jesus’ tomb. Go back three days to Friday. Some of these accompanied the priest, Joseph of Arimathea, to bury Jesus’ body. To leave a person without a burial shows gross disrespect. I officiated in Long Beach, CA at the funeral of a man who had no one to bury him. Joseph of Arimathea would see Jesus buried. Joseph was a wealthy member of the Jewish Council. He was also a secret disciple of Jesus.
The Roman governor Pilate gave Joseph Jesus’ body. So Joseph removed Jesus’ body from the cross. He would inter Jesus in his own never-before-used tomb carved out of rock. Would you let Jesus use your tomb? It would be a good deal. Jesus only used it three days but its value rose thereafter.
Joseph and another priest, Nicodemus, wrapped the body. They use an expensive, linen shroud with spices of myrrh and precious aloes. They hurried to complete the work before sundown and the beginning of the Sabbath. A handful of men rolled the huge, flat stone over the tomb’s entrance. This kept thieves and animals out. Later, Pilate ordered the tomb sealed and cordoned off. He placed a guard of soldiers at the grave. The tomb was now a site under state control.
At early dawn, Mary Magdalen; Joanna, the wife of King Herod’s manager; Mary the mother of James the apostle, and other women walked to the tomb. They wanted to finish embalming Jesus’ corpse. The women had not been thinking too clearly. How would they get into the tomb? They couldn’t move the massive stone. Going a little further, they looked up and saw the stone already rolled back. Maybe Joseph of Arimathea had already arrived. They ventured in the tomb’s darkness but saw no body – not even Jesus’ corpse. They stood there perplexed, at a loss for answers.
Had the gardener moved him? Had the authorities removed him? Suddenly, from out of nowhere, two strangers appeared beside them. The strangers’ clothing gleamed brilliantly – like the whiteness of lightening. The dazzling intensity spoke for itself. The frightened women could only bow their faces to the ground.
The angels searchingly asked the women, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” That is, ‘Why are you seeking the living one among the dead ones?” The question was a gentle rebuff to the women’s accepted philosophy of reality. Is it a rebuff to yours?
Imbedded in the angel’s question is the mark of history – not fiction. The women went to the tomb thinking as I would to my dad’s grave. One out of every one dies…and never returns. Absolute fact. The women went to the tomb knowing Jesus died. They thought as you think – He’s gone forever – never to return.
Ever wondered where we get this philosophy? From common, human experience. Could there ever be a specific case, sometime, somewhere, that is different from what is generally thought to be the case? An anomaly, an exception to the rule? Suppose a scientist did an exhaustive investigation. The scientist observed 30 kinds of flies, ten kinds of beetles, four kinds of wasps, and six kinds of grasshoppers. The scientist generalized, ‘All insects have three pairs of legs’. The next day a caterpillar sauntered by. It has all the properties of an insect. Except it doesn’t have three pair of legs – it’s all legs! An exception to the rule. Now the scientist goes back and revises his conception.
Many modern intellectuals – among them many theologians – say there is no example of a literal resurrection happening in common human experience. So a bodily resurrection can’t be. Isn’t Jesus’ resurrection such an exception to common human experience? But it can’t be, they say, that He rose from the dead. There are no examples of such things in common experience! This is circular reasoning. It assumes as valid what one is trying to prove. It won’t allow what doesn’t fit with what you have already determined to be the case.
It’s like our insect scientist saying he/she has already determined what insects are. A caterpillar can’t be one. It doesn’t fit his/her preconceived notion of what an insect is.
The angels gently reproach the women. The women are surprised to hear Jesus is alive. How about you? Does God reproach you for looking for the Living among the dead? Many still consign Jesus to the dead. He’s a great religious figure; an inspired prophet; a great example; and one in whom divine consciousness lived. Nonetheless, He’s gone the way of all other great religious teachers and philosophers.
A missionary was speaking in Northern India. A Muslim came up to him afterwards and said, “You must admit, we have one thing that you do not – and it is better than anything you have.” The missionary was interested to hear more. Muslim said, “When we go to our Mecca, we find at least a coffin. But when you Christians go to Jerusalem, you find nothing but an empty grave.” The missionary replied, “That’s just the difference. Mohammed is in his coffin. Jesus Christ is risen!”
Pam and I were on vacation in the California Gold Rush country. We visited Sutter Creek’s cemetery. We read the epitaphs on the tombstones. One grave had a pillar – like the Washington Monument rising out of a block of granite. At the top of the pillar was a clinched fist with the index finger pointing upward to the sky. The deceased was saying to me, “Don’t look here, look up.” Don’t look for Christ in the grave. ‘He is not here.’
The women flee out of the tomb. They tremble in fear and astonishment. They run to tell the giants of the faith, the eleven apostles, the news. If anybody would believe, these guys would. They watched Jesus do miracles for three years.
The woman relayed to the disciples their experience at the tomb – every last detail. A woman’s testimony in a Jewish court was questionable. Here is a group of women, having come from a resurrection, hysterical, trembling, pale from fear, unable to contain themselves as to all they had seen and heard. They reported the news. The disciples took it like the Editor of the New York Times: ‘Uhh, huh – Sure!’ The men summed up the women’s words: “an idle tale.” “Idle tale” is a medical term used for wild delirium. They’re on drugs! Rubbish! Fantasy!
So some have thought ever since. Paul preached Jesus’ resurrection. “Some of them sneered”. (Acts 17:32) Martin Luther spoke of the resurrection. Luther noted the reaction, “To this day there are many who laugh all the more at this article, consider it a fable ….” An ‘idle tale’ thought Jesus’ disciples: a resurrected Jesus did not fit their framework of reality. Jesus could break out of a rock tomb. He couldn’t break out of the disciples’ rock hearts and rock minds!
Later that same day, two were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Emmaus was a village about seven miles west of Jerusalem. The two were absorbed in conversation about the women’s report of the empty tomb and angels. While they were discussing this, a man overtook them. He fell into their stride. He said to them, “What is that you are talking about?” They stopped still in the road. They were full of the tragedy of Friday. Cleopas answered, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days. The stranger asked, “What things?”
Cleopas said, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a mighty prophet in words and actions. How he was condemned and crucified. We were hoping that he was the one to redeem Israel.” They went on. “Yes, this is the third day, and some women of our company amazed us. Earlier they went to the tomb and didn’t find his body. They came back saying they had seen a vision of angels who said Jesus was alive. Peter and John went to see for themselves. They found the tomb just as the women said. But they didn’t see him.” I can almost hear Cleopas voice trailing off when he said, “They didn’t see him.” There’s the catch – whether 30 AD or 2017 – ‘they didn’t see him.’ Neither empty tomb nor women’s report convinced them.
“O foolish men!” the stranger upbraided them with strong emotion. You are ‘slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Wasn’t it necessary that Christ should suffer and enter into his glory?” the stranger asked. Didn’t they have the words of the prophets from the Old Testament? And didn’t they have the words of Jesus prophesying he would rise again? Now they heard first hand testimony of the women …and angels…yet they didn’t believe. You’ve got all that. Do you believe? The stranger called them “unintelligent and dull of belief” – that is, slow in believing. The stranger then explained how the Old Testament applied to the Messiah. They liked what they heard. They begged the stranger to stay and eat. He took the bread, broke it, and gave thanks. They suddenly recognized him! He was Jesus whom they knew. Then “he became invisible from them.”
They recalled to each other, “Didn’t our hearts burn within us when he explained the scriptures?’ Believers through history have testified to burning hearts. I have felt a burning chest the night I gave myself to God.
Preacher John Wesley put it in classic words. He was in a fellowship/study group. There he felt Jesus Christ. Wesley said, “I felt my heart strangely warmed … I felt I did trust Christ.” You don’t have to see Him to feel Him. Your eyes may be closed, but you feel the warmth of the sun.
What it took to get the disciples to believe! I can hear people say, ‘If it was hard for them, how much harder for us? At least they got to see him’. This is Cleopas’ attitude which Jesus reprimanded: ‘But they didn’t see him’ Cleopas said. ‘O people slow to believe!’ You now have the testimony of the Old Testament; the testimony of Jesus; the testimony of the women and the disciples, the evidence and testimony of Paul; and the experience of hundreds of years of burning hearts!
In some ways, we have more than the disciples had that first Easter morn. The risen Jesus has been established by sight, by voice, by touch, by reasoning argument, by historical evidence from genuine and moral men and women, and by centuries of ‘warm hearts’.
Why are some of you still troubled by Him? Why do some question? Why do you dispute Him in your hearts?’ Jesus says, ‘Stop doubting and believe’. (John 20:27)