The Lord rose early in the morning of the Sunday following the Friday on which he was crucified and buried. That is, he rose in the Jewish way of calculating on the third day. In the morning he appeared to Mary and some other women; in the afternoon, apparently, he found Peter and spoke to him. What a conversation that must have been, following so hard on Peter’s betrayal in the courtyard of the high priest the Thursday evening before. Then he appeared to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. And then, in the evening of that same day, he appeared to the eleven disciples, actually ten as Thomas was not there, and, as we read in v. 33, a number of others who were likewise his followers and had gathered with the eleven to discuss the extraordinary events of the day. As we know from John’s account of this same event, more happened than Luke has told us. Probably a good bit more was said and done than John and Luke together have told us, but what they did report is wonderful enough and obviously what was of supreme importance. Remember, as John reminds us, if they had reported every remarkable thing that happened during the years of the Lord’s ministry and everything that he had said, the whole world wouldn’t be large enough to contain the books that would have to have been written!
Picture the scene. The disciples from Emmaus have just burst into the room to tell the others how they had just been with Jesus himself and as they were blurting out their news others chimed in to tell them that others had also seen him and suddenly everyone was talking at once. And in the midst of that excited conversation, somehow the Lord materialized before them. He didn’t open the door and walk into the room, because John tells us the door was locked for fear of the authorities.
As we already gathered from his sudden disappearance before the two who were at table with him in Emmaus, the Lord’s resurrection body was not limited in the same way ours are. It has new powers, though too little is said about them to know what they are for sure.
Peace to you” was simply the normal greeting of the day. The understatement is almost funny. The Lord Christ, risen from the dead, suddenly appears before his disciples and says, “Hello.”
- As a great many in biblical history discovered, it is one thing to know that the supernatural is real; it is another thing altogether to encounter it yourself!
- As so often before as we have read through the Gospel of Luke, the Lord’s manner of instruction was to ask a question, a question he then proceeds to answer for them.
Almost certainly this was an invitation to look for the marks of the wounds made by the nails by which he was fixed to the cross. That would be proof, if proof were needed, that he was the self-same Jesus whom they had followed for those years and had seen put to death the previous Friday.
Touching him would put paid to any suspicion that he was some disembodied spirit.
- Sometimes doubt is only the difficulty of believing something so wonderful one fears it is too good to be true.
- Ghosts don’t eat; that’s the point.
From the beginning, both in Holy Scripture and in Christian preaching, it was regarded as a fact of capital importance that Jesus rose from the dead bodily. Virtually every sermon preached by every Christian of which we have a record in the New Testament made a point of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. It was the spear-point of proclamation of the good news. There is a very real sense in which the good news, or the gospel, is essentially the message of Christ’s resurrection. And, remember, resurrection literally means that a dead body came to life again. Even the original vocabulary was strikingly concrete. Anastasis sarkos or anastasis nekrōn mean the “standing up” or “getting up” of the flesh or the dead.Jesus was alive again physically, not just spiritually; he was and now continues to be a living body, not just a soul.
When Paul preached the gospel to the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers in Athens, they [may have thought] that he was preaching two new gods, Jesus and Anastasis (Greek for ‘resurrection’; Acts 17:18) — that’s how important the resurrection was and how fundamental to Paul’s message. (And that’s how muddled the philosophers and scholars were. Nothing changes.) [Kreeft and Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics, 176]
Well, you will have noticed that Jesus himself made a great emphasis of this when he appeared to his disciples that first Easter night. This is what he wanted to be sure the disciples understood – he was his former body alive again.
Imagine, for a moment, their state of mind as they gathered that evening, all but Thomas and Judas. They were reeling; they didn’t know what to think. Their Master’s arrest, mockery of a trial, and brutal execution on Friday had cast them into both despair and fear. No doubt all through Saturday and still on Sunday they were afraid that the same power that had crushed Jesus would now be turned against them. It is not difficult at all to imagine them on Friday night or Saturday night huddled together, perhaps in that same Jerusalem apartment, perhaps they were thinking sadly that this would be the last time they would all be together before they slunk back to their homes and picked up the shattered remnants of their former lives. There would have been a mixture of fear and sadness on every face. Knowing these men and women, as we have come to know them in the Gospel, it is not unlikely that there was some anger directed at one another, recriminations flowing back and forth. They felt guilty, their consciences were accusing them of having abandoned the Lord in his hour of need, and when people feel guilty, as we know, they often attempt to ameliorate their own sense of failure by pointing out the failures of others.
Their whole, grand, wonderful expectation of the future that Jesus was about to bring to pass now lay in ruins about their feet. How in the world had it come to this? Dazed, bewildered, they sat; unable to pray, too heart-broken to believe, supremely miserable as only people can be whose hopes climbed so high only to be utterly shattered. Too benumbed to lift their hearts to God, they huddled together through that Saturday miserable, confused, and utterly defeated.
But, then came the stunning events of Sunday morning: the women’s report of the empty tomb, the dash to the tomb by the disciples to check her story, the appearance of the Lord to Mary and then, later, to Peter. Now the room had an entirely different atmosphere: confusion still, of course, and fear and uncertainty, but hope also, and the stirrings of joy. Perhaps some of them were recalling out loud what the Lord had repeatedly said about his rising from the dead on the third day; perhaps it wasn’t a metaphor after all. And then, on top of everything else, the two from Emmaus had just burst into their meeting and given their report, followed, no doubt, by noisy conversation as questions were shouted to them from all sides at the same time.
And then, without warning, the Lord himself was among them. Though they had been prepared by the reports they had heard, perhaps Peter’s especially, and though perhaps Peter and the women and the two from Emmaus were not as startled or afraid as the others, having already seen the Lord, the rest, which would have been most of those in the room, were startled and afraid. But what followed is of immense importance.
At first sight they imagined that he was a ghost. Not because he was some shadowy, barely material figure, like we imagine ghosts to be. The rest of the account makes it plain he did not look like that. Mary had mistaken him for the gardener in the garden that morning. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus had no doubt that they were speaking to another ordinary human being. They thought he was a ghost because that was all they could imagine in the moment. They thought he must be a spirit with the appearance of a man. It didn’t take as much faith for them to believe that Jesus’ disembodied spirit had appeared to them. They believed, as we do, that the spirit continues to live on after the death of the body and they were well aware that spirits had, from time to time in Israel’s history, taken a human form for the sake of making an appearance to men.
But Jesus immediately took steps to disabuse them of that idea. It was obviously important to him that they knew that his body had risen from the dead. He called attention to the nail marks in his hands and feet. This obviously was the self-same body that had been crucified two days before. He invited them to touch him to assure them that he was a body – flesh and bones; “Go ahead, give me a pinch.” – and then, as a demonstration, he asked for some food and ate the piece of broiled fish they gave him. Ghosts don’t eat food, but human beings do. They eat food, they digest it. Their bodies require it. In other words, the Lord was at pains to convince his disciples that he was a body. His body might in some respects be different from what it was, but it was still a body, what everyone understands a body to be, flesh and bones and a digestive system.
Mortality may have had put on immortality, as Paul puts it. The body may have been made fit for eternal life in a way our bodies are not. But it was Jesus body, the same body, alive again. He may have looked somewhat different and that may account for the fact that he wasn’t immediately recognized by Mary Magdalene in the garden, though the Bible does not say this. In fact, the reason given why the disciples on the road to Emmaus did not recognize him was precisely that they were “kept from” recognizing him. The suggestion is clearly that otherwise they would have recognized him.
But, think about it. If your body were suddenly perfect, so that no aspect of your appearance was in any way, to any degree, any longer influenced by the process of aging or decay, or by any weakness or imperfection associated with life in this fallen world, I suspect you would expect to look somewhat different than you now do. Looking in the mirror and then out over this congregation I certainly hope that we will look noticeably different than we now do! You can, no doubt, think of any number of ways in which you wish your body were better than it is. Well it will be better, perfect indeed, while being, at the same time, your very own body. And, no doubt, as the disciples stared and as they grew more comfortable with the Lord’s presence, they all saw that this was the very same Jesus they had known over the previous three years. And then the realization dawned on them: eternity had cracked open and they were seeing the future with their own eyes!
And everywhere else in the New Testament this point is emphasized. Our hope of rising bodily from the dead is based upon Christ’s own bodily resurrection. For example, in Phil. 3:20-21 we read:
“…our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”
Or, again, in Rom. 8:11, Paul writes:
“And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies.”
Now, there are many reasons why this emphasis on the bodily resurrection is so fundamental to the message of the New Testament and the Christian faith. But I want to give you three of them this morning.
- First, the bodily resurrection is itself part of the evidence of the historicity of Christ’s resurrection. How would anyone know, how would anyone be able to prove that a soul had risen from the dead?
Fact is there are many aspects of the Gospels’ narrative of the resurrection that you would not expect to find in a contrived or fabricated or legendary account. But this is chief among them. No one in those days would have concocted a story with this feature if he had expected the story to be believed. It made the story much more difficult to believe. If one were to develop a religious message that would be hard to sell in the classical world of the first and second centuries, it would be hard to improve on a message that had as its cornerstone the resurrection of the body. If you remember, it was precisely this emphasis in Paul’s preaching in Athens that made so many in his audience sneer.
In the Roman world there was a complete disregard for the body in thinking about the world and the life to come. The physical dimension of life being regarded as inferior, the body had no place in the higher realm of the spirit into which one entered at death. In the second century, Roman criticisms of Christianity belabored its belief in the resurrection of the body.
More than one scholar of the ancient world has written that one of the most unlikely things that ever happened was that, in the context of ancient near eastern culture, Israel should have had a commandment forbidding the use of idols. Such a commandment, you see, offended every conventional assumption of that culture. That was why Israel herself found it so hard to avoid idolatry. Everyone else was doing it! I mean everyone else was doing it and they were doing it because their understanding of idolatry was woven into the warp and woof of their world view. Everyone’s worldview! Well similarly unlikely was the appearance of a great faith in the resurrection of the body in the first century, when the entire weight of the culture and of educated thought considered a man’s bodily existence an impediment to his true humanity. If the story were made up, it wouldn’t have been made up this way! It is true that the Jews had a doctrine of the resurrection of the body, but that was to happen at the end of the world and, in any case, such a resurrection was no part of their expectation for the Messiah! There is no credible way to account for the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus Christ apart from the fact that, against everyone’s expectation, that is what happened.
- Second, the bodily resurrection is the Bible’s final and complete affirmation of human personhood.
Today, for example, in the salvation, such as it is, that is taught in Hinduism and Buddhism, not only is the physical dimension of human existence lost, but individual personality as well. Each person, finally, becomes part of the single spirit or the nothingness at the heart of the universe. In Hindu mythology, Shiva, who is one of the manifestations of the Everything, came to earth and loved a woman. He put his arms around her and immediately she disappeared and he became neuter. And this is thought to be a good thing! The resurrection is the furthest thing from Nirvana or satori, a loss of personal identity and reabsorption into the One, or, more accurately, the fulfillment of the fact that one was always the One and never a distinct individual at all. Our individual personalities were simply a mirage. The resurrection is the grandest conceivable demonstration of personal individuality: Jesus in his renewed body was there standing among a group of other bodies in a room!
God created us psycho-physical beings, body and soul in mysterious and wonderful unity. The physical dimension of our lives is also from him and thus, as God created it, also very good. And every human being deep down knows full well that it is good; that it is good that he or she should have a body and have all that life becomes because he or she is a body. Both body and soul were ruined by the fall, to be sure, but, likewise, both body and soul are redeemed by Jesus Christ. Part of the means of that redemption, of course, and certainly the most climactic demonstration of it, is the Lord’s rising from the dead with a perfectly transformed, yet self-same body. His resurrection, the Bible teaches us, is the first-fruits of those who die believing in him. They will rise bodily as he did. It is not necessary for your entire personhood to be obliterated, or even minimized, for you to be saved. If you trust in him, you, as you know yourself to be, your entire self, Christ will take to heaven to be with him forever.
You don’t desire to be absorbed into the world spirit or personally obliterated in the nothingness at the heart of the universe. Of course you don’t. Nobody does. You don’t want to be delivered from your body. You want, as everyone wants, the true fulfillment of life as you know it, human life as body and soul. You want that life, your life to be made perfectly good. You want your own life, your own person to be brought up to heaven. You want eyes with which to see the glory of God, ears to hear his voice; you want to touch the tree of life, to smell its blossoms, and taste its fruit. You want to run and leap and laugh and dance and eat and drink and sing. You should want all of those things. God made you to do all those things. And in Christ he saves men and women, boys and girls, so that they can do those things and enjoy those things forever.
- Third, and last, the bodily resurrection is the supreme demonstration of the fact that salvation is of the Lord, it is his gift, his doing, and that we are incapable of saving ourselves.
Nobody thinks he can bring his own dead body back to life, still less does he think he can transform his body into higher, perfect, immortal existence. Only God, created our indescribably marvelous bodies, could do such a thing. As our bodies deteriorate, we find ourselves helpless to prevent what is nowadays politely referred to as “the aging process.” And when debilitation and disease begin to do their work, only some of the time and then only temporarily, can modern medicine stave off the eventual collapse.
The last time I saw my brother-in-law before he died at forty-two years of age, he was a shadow of his former self. He was a handsome man. He had played football in college; he was the picture of manly strength. But when at a General Assembly in Philadelphia years ago, I rented a car and met him at a restaurant in a town in eastern Pennsylvania where he had scheduled a meeting with a client. He had shrunk. His clothes were hanging on him. And he was stooped, walking as if he were an old man. His was a body, to be sure, but it had become a grotesque caricature of that body he once had. And believe me, they tried every medical therapy in the book to arrest the progress of his disease; but nothing worked.
Many of you saw, as Florence and I did up close and personal, the deterioration of my mother’s body over the last few years of her life. All the things her body once did so effortlessly now became difficult, if not impossible; just walking from place to place required planning and effort and increasingly help. She was always a woman who loved good food; she loved to cook and serve a table loaded with good food. Eating a meal had become high tragedy. She was an avid reader, but now would read the same paragraph over and over again, unable to remember what she had read. Her teeth began falling out. She had gradually become helpless, her body a mere shell of its former self. And the same will happen to us. You know that, don’t you? You know your body will wear out and will finally let you down completely.
By all means, eat healthy food, exercise, and when it becomes necessary take your doctor’s advice and avail yourself of the extraordinary advances in pharmacology and other medical therapies. Your body is God’s gift to you and you should be a good steward of that gift. I lost a lot of weight over the past several years precisely to stave off problems that are the predictable consequences of being overweight. But do what you will, be the most faithful steward of your body, it is going to wear out and there is nothing you or anyone else can do about that.
One thing you learn when you work in a mortuary, as I did for three years as a seminary student, is the irrevocable character of death. I told the high school students this story from time to time because I knew it would capture their interest. When one begins to work at a mortuary and especially when one is there alone at night as I often was, there is an inescapable sense of eeriness. It is a place of the dead, after all. But, one gets used to it faster than you might think. I remember realizing how completely I had gotten used to being in the presence of the dead one night in the morgue, standing on one side of a corpse while the embalmer stood on the other. The body between us had suffered an autopsy and the chest cavity was open to the backbone, its contents soaking nearby in a bucket of formaldehyde. The back half of the head had been removed in the autopsy as well. The embalmer had a doughnut and I had a doughnut and we were discussing the St. Louis Cardinals baseball game that had just ended. It suddenly dawned on me that I had grown very used to being in the presence of the dead. I no longer had that eerie feeling in the presence of a dead body. And in largest part, that was because when you are around dead bodies you grow quickly used to the deadness of them. They don’t look like they are living; they look very different. The color, the slackness are unmistakable marks of death. And no one who is around the dead for very long entertains any thought of them somehow coming back to life. Death is too final, too irrevocable.
That is how Christ’s body appeared an hour after his death. He was as irrevocably dead as any man or woman an hour after breath has left the body. But, now, two days later he was alive again and more perfectly alive, his body more vibrantly alive than it had ever been before. To invest his body with life and vitality and to transform it into a body capable of living forever, this was a work of God as the Bible is careful to say many times. And if it were miraculous, a work of supernatural, indeed divine power, to raise a body after just two days in the grave, what will it require to raise vast multitudes of bodies on the last day, bodies that have lain in graves or at the bottom of the sea for not a few days or a few years, but for millennia. Only God can do this. Only the one who created the body in the first place, can raise every human body to physical life again. And only God can invest our mortal bodies with immortality. Who can doubt that? Which is to say only God can save you. Only God can raise you up to everlasting life. Just as only God can take away your guilt, only God can renew your heart, and so, only God can complete your salvation by raising your body to everlasting life.
But the fact that he has already done it once, is the proof not only that he can but that he will, as he has promised, raise our bodies — the bodies of those who trust and love him — to new and everlasting life.
It is a wonderful hope that Christians have, that I have, as I look at all of you and think of what that day will bring when the dead in Christ shall rise and these very bodies be transformed, made perfect in health, in appearance, in strength, to walk again on the earth. What will life be for you and me then? How impossibly fine! How surprisingly satisfying and fulfilling in ways I am sure we have never imagined. And how we will love God and Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit then; how we will praise them; how we will sing and shout and dance; and with what joy we shall live before them? Tears of joy such as only a real body can produce!
The bones of Abraham, Zoroaster, Buddha, Confucius, and Muhammad are all still here on earth. So are the bones of Aristotle, Plato and every other human philosopher who has followed them. Only Jesus’ tomb is empty. On that fact hangs the entire tale!