by Pastor Mike Stine
Little Philip, born with Down’s syndrome, attended a third-grade Sunday School class with several eight-year-old boys and girls. Typical of that age, the children did not readily accept Philip with his differences, according to an article in leadership magazine. But because of a creative teacher, they began to care about Philip and accept him as part of the group, though not fully.
The Sunday after Easter the teacher brought L’eggs pantyhose containers, the kind that look like large eggs. Each receiving one, the children were told to go outside on that lovely spring day, find some symbol for new life, and put it in the egg-like container. Back in the classroom, they would share their new-life symbols, opening the containers one by one in surprise fashion. After running about the church property in wild confusion, the students returned to the classroom and placed the containers on the table. Surrounded by the children, the teacher began to open them one by one. After each one, whether a flower, butterfly, or leaf, the class would ooh and ahh.
Then one was opened, revealing nothing inside. The children exclaimed, That’s stupid. That’s not fair. Somebody didn’t do their assignment.”
Philip spoke up, “That’s mine.”
“Philip, you don’t ever do things right!” the student retorted. “There’s nothing there!”
“I did so do it,” Philip insisted. “I did do it. It’s empty. the tomb was empty!”
Silence followed. From then on Philip became a full member of the class. He died not long afterward from an infection most normal children would have shrugged off. At the funeral this class of eight-year-olds marched up to the altar not with flowers, but with their Sunday school teacher, each to lay on it an empty pantyhose egg.
The empty tomb is the greatest picture of new life that we have. Every spring the world blossoms into color once again out of a drab winter season. The transformation is often rapid and always amazing to watch as the trees begin to bud and flowers spring up once again.
The new life that came into Jesus’ followers after his resurrection is far more amazing than all of this however. They are transformed from cowering men who don’t understand God’s plan into ones who will stand up at Pentecost and announce that the Jews had crucified their Messiah. This change was aided by the coming of the Holy Spirit but we can study its beginning as the word of Jesus’ resurrection is passed on to his followers.
The week leading up to Jesus’ death consistently records that the disciples had no idea what was going to happen and even when Jesus told them flat out what would happen, they did not understand it.
In John 14:4 Jesus says referring to his death: “You know the way to the place I am going.” Thomas (and the other disciples as well) did not understand at all though. He said, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
Peter, just before this, loudly boasted that he was willing to die in order to defend Jesus. At that moment he understood that Jesus said he was going to die. In a few verses though, Thomas expressed the disciples’ confusion. Could it be that in such a small time, they had forgotten that Jesus implied that he was going to die? This is hardly likely.
The disciples misunderstood Jesus’ mission while here on earth and couldn’t fathom the resurrection. They had witnessed Jesus raise others from the dead but could not foresee Jesus doing that himself. Jesus would be going to the Father in due time. His disciples could only see Jesus’ death as a failure in his ministry on earth however. This would finally change in the days following his resurrection.
The day of Jesus’ resurrection surely found Jesus’ followers in the pit of despair. These men had given up everything they had to follow Jesus. They had left their families, their jobs, their friends, and all that they had. They believed that they were following the Messiah who would overthrow Rome and rule from the throne of David. With his death came the death of their hopes and dreams. They had lost everything for a dream that appeared to have faded like mist. It was as Paul said in 1 Cor 15:19 of those who did not believe in the resurrection of the dead: “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.” These men who now had nothing as far as they could tell, should have been pitied above all men if the cross was the end to their dreams of a Messiah. Fortunately, they are to be proven wrong!
This Sunday morning begins with three women going to anoint the body of Jesus. They had in fact been waiting since late Friday afternoon with spices and perfumes but could not do so because the Sabbath would begin soon and they chose to follow the Sabbath. They left for the tomb “very early in the morning.” To me, very early in the morning would be 9 AM , but these ladies were gone, as Mark records, just after sunrise to do their task. On their way to the tomb, they wondered who would be there to roll away the stone because it was too large for them to handle. When they arrived, they discovered that the stone was rolled away from the tomb.
The women are greeted by an angel who tells them that Jesus was not there but instead he had risen from the dead just as he had told them he would. The angel proclaims, “He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee : ‘The Son of Man must be delivered in the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’”
It is at this point that the women remembered his words but they still do not understand what he meant by them or even the angel’s words. The women return to tell the disciples what had been told them but they did not believe the women’s words, thinking them to be nonsense. John records that the women said that “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” Peter and John however went to inspect the tomb to see if there was any truth behind the seemingly very foolish talk.
Upon reaching the tomb the two disciples discover strips of linen and the burial cloth that had been around Jesus head. They believe the report but still do not understand it. John records that “They still did not understand from scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.”
Perhaps because there was still nothing they could do, the disciples return to their homes leaving Mary Magdalene crying outside of the tomb. An apparent second appearance of two angels come to her. She does not appear to be shocked at all by their appearance. Perhaps, though they were dressed in white, she did not recognize them for angels. They ask her why she is crying and she replies that “They have taken my Lord away and I don’t know where they have put him.”
At this point, Mary turns around and sees Jesus but mistakes him for a gardener. He asks her why she is crying and who it is that she’s looking for. She replies by saying, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
It is at this point that Jesus says but one word, “Mary.” This one word most likely carries all the comfort Jesus could give in his voice to one who was so frantic and distraught. It is with this that Mary recognizes who she is speaking with. She probably lunged forward to hug him but Jesus says not to hold on to him. He had not yet returned to the Father. Instead Mary was to go to his followers and tell them the news. She went and said that she had seen the Lord.
Later on that same day Jesus appeared once again to two of his followers while they walked on the road to Emmaus. We do not know the identity of these two aside from that one was named Cleopas. They were both followers of Jesus however and were apparently close to the disciples because they mention that some of their companions went to the tomb and were also familiar with what the women told the disciples when they returned.
Jesus approached these two men and asked what they were discussing. Cleopas responded by saying, “Are you only a visitor to Jerusalem and do not know the things that have happened there in these days?” They then describe how Jesus had been sentenced to death but they had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel .
These men, just like so many who were following Jesus, had expected Jesus to redeem Israel from the Roman oppression that they were under. Because they expected this only, they totally missed the fact that Jesus had freed them from the oppression of sin! Jesus has sharp words for his two followers but also a loving heart. After telling them how they missed the point of scripture totally, he spent the afternoon telling them how the Old Testament predicted his coming and what he had done through his death and resurrection.
They reached the village of Emmaus shortly before evening and the men invited Jesus, still having no idea who he really was, to join them. When Jesus broke bread and gave thanks for it, the men’s eyes were opened and they suddenly realized who he was. At this point he disappeared from their sight.
The two men are so excited about what they had just seen, they walk the seven miles back up to Jerusalem to inform the disciples about this. When they arrive, the disciples are already abuzz. Jesus had appeared to Peter as well, probably after he left the two men in Emmaus. The men begin to tell the disciples the amazing story of the afternoon they spent with Jesus.
While they were still talking, Jesus appeared in the room among them. It amazes me how these men believed and yet they really didn’t believe. I believe that often in our own lives we say that we believe something, and may in fact really believe that, and yet we still are amazed when we see what we believed God could do actually happen.
The disciples are startled and frightened thinking that they saw a ghost. Jesus has to show them his hands and feet in order to convince them of who he is.
The question needs to be raised as to why the disciples and those closest to Jesus didn’t recognize him. One possible explanation- and this certainly has something to do with it- is the fact that nobody expected to see it happen. No one expected to see Jesus walking about. Just as if we saw pigs fly, we would rub our eyes, do a double take, and probably rub our eyes again. Even if we plainly see something, we need some other thing to prod us to believe that we really saw it.
Second, Jesus is not in the same fleshly form that he was in. Flesh as we know it does not appear and disappear at will. Although not the same, this should not have made him unrecognizable. On the Mount of Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah are recognized by the inner three even though they would have never seen them alive.
We need to remember the punishment that Jesus went through in the hours before his death. When he was flogged, his back would have been mutilated. When the crown of thorns was placed on his head, it did not simply rest there, but was beaten into his brow. Before he was even arrested he was exhausted and sweat ran down his face like drops of blood. His beard was plucked out. Then there was the crucifixion itself and what that would have done to him. He did not appear to even be human as he hung on the cross.
We don’t know how much Jesus would have looked like what they had known him as. It’s simply speculation to say what had been “fixed” and what hadn’t. Jesus obviously looked more human than the last anyone would have seen him. The scars on his hands and his side were apparently still on him though as evidenced by his appearance to Thomas.
Perhaps, Jesus simply hid who he was from his followers at first. Why, I can’t be sure but I’d venture that it was because of their unbelief. It’s difficult to say why Jesus would not appear to all of his followers right away. Why would he show himself to ten disciples that first evening but not appear to Thomas until the next week? I believe that it was as a test for his disciple.
Thomas must have thought the other ten were crazy when they found him after the first night. They came to him proclaiming, “We have seen the Lord!” Thomas was as skeptical as all of them had been when they first heard the news. But he was the one to open his mouth and proclaim that he would not believe unless his conditions were met. The others, while having trouble swallowing the idea, did not shut the door on it in the same way that Thomas had.
We would think that once seeing actual proof that Jesus had risen from the dead that the disciples would be out proclaiming it to all of Jerusalem (and maybe rubbing it in the faces of the Jewish leaders). This isn’t the case however. In John 21, some time has passed, we don’t know how much, but seven of the disciples are out fishing, lead by Peter.
At this point, it has been suggested that Peter was going fishing because he was no longer a disciple in his mind, having denied knowing Jesus on the night he was betrayed. It is possible that Peter had returned to his old job because it was all he had to do then. Maybe it was a hobby for him and he did it to relax. Possibly he just didn’t know what to do because he had been following Jesus for the past years and suddenly Jesus appeared and disappeared as he felt like it and didn’t offer them any instruction as what to do. No matter what the situation is, Peter has taken half a dozen disciples fishing with him.
Upon having no luck all night, they are ready to call it quits. Jesus from the shore instructs them to cast their net on the other side of the boat. Sure enough, a distance of possibly ten feet fills the net to the point that the seven could haul it in. It is interesting to note that John takes the time to count the fish, 153, and notes that not only was there an abundance, they were large fish. Also, the nets do not break as they had before.
This account directly parallels the calling of Jesus’ first disciples. In Luke 5 Jesus instructs the fishers and they catch an incredible amount. Then however, Peter falls at Jesus’ knees and says, “Go away from me Lord; I am a sinful man.” This time the reaction is opposite. Peter, upon realizing it was Jesus, jumps out of the boat and takes off running through the water.
I see this as Jesus’ recalling his disciples. Perhaps they were confused as what they should be doing. Perhaps, although he had appeared to them twice before, they still had difficulty in believing that Jesus was indeed risen. This is a recommissioning of the disciples and with Peter’s reinstatement, he would be their leader.
It is on this shore that Peter is “forgiven” of his denials. Three times Jesus asks him if Peter loves him. Three times he responds that he does. Jesus responds by saying that Peter is to feed his sheep. This is Peter’s new job as he is recommissioned. He is to feed the sheep of the world, Jesus’ sheep.
There is still time before Jesus ascends into heaven and the coming of the Holy Spirit but the stage is set for the disciples work. They worked with Jesus for more than three years even though they often had no idea what they were actually doing.
With the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the disciples’ training is complete. They are new creatures. The old has passed away. Just as in spring, the blossoms do not appear overnight. The disciples need to take some time in order to have things sorted out after Jesus’ resurrection. Rest assured though, the blossoms do appear, the caterpillar comes out of its cocoon, and the robin eggs hatch. But most importantly, the tomb is empty! The greatest sign of a new creation.