It is obvious that this is the same appearance that is also recorded in John 20:19-23. John adds the detail, important as we shall see, that the disciples had locked the doors for fear of the Jews.
Our primary interest in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, of course, is that it happened! That it happened means so much for our faith, for its historical credibility, and for its nature as the good news of deliverance from the power of death. Because our first and greatest interest in the resurrection is that it happened, we tend to stress — and understandably so — the fact that it was the self-same Jesus of Nazareth who died on the cross and then, on the third day, rose from the dead. That is the key fact: the same body that was lifeless on Friday afternoon, was brimming with life — human life — the following Sunday. The early Christians, we read in Acts, proclaimed “in Jesus the resurrection of the dead.” The resurrection was the burden of early Christian preaching in part because they knew that it had happened and that fact changed the world, and in part because it was their message in a nutshell: the resurrection was the good news!
“Every sermon preached by every Christian in the New Testament centers on the resurrection. The gospel or ‘good news’ means essentially the news of Christ’s resurrection. The message that flashed across the ancient world, set hearts on fire, changed lives and turned the world upside down was not ‘love your neighbor.’ Every morally sane person already knew that; it was not news. The news was that a man who claimed to be the Son of God and the Savior of the world had risen from the dead.” [P. Kreeft and R.K. Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics, 176]
The resurrection changed everything. It changed the way men thought about God. It was the resurrection that explained how devout Jews, monotheists to the bone, could confess Jesus Christ as God without in any way compromising their belief in the one God. [R. Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, 90-93]
A real human being, like you and like me, actually died and then was actually fully, wonderfully, vitally alive a few days later. No wonder the apologetic thrust and the theological thrust of the New Testament’s account of the resurrection made so much of the fact that it was the self-same Jesus who died and rose again.
- The appearances were, as the Bible is at pains to emphasize, the appearances of Jesus, the Jesus with whom the disciples were intimately acquainted, the Jesus with whom they had shared a meal the night before his crucifixion, the very Jesus that Peter had betrayed, the Jesus who was known by sight and sound to the five hundred disciples in Galilee who were to see him before he left the world, and, supremely, the Jesus who still bore in his body the marks of his crucifixion, which he challenged Thomas to touch, the Jesus who convinced his own siblings that he had risen from the dead. There could be no doubt that it was the same Jesus who had been crucified that was now standing before them alive and well.
- Emphasis falls as well on the fact that the resurrection happened just as Jesus himself had said it would. He had said repeatedly that he would be put to death in Jerusalem and that he would rise on the third day. Even the Jewish authorities were worried that Jesus had said, as that great theologian Arnold Schwarzenegger once memorably put it: “I’ll be back.”
- And, of course, the significance of the resurrection as the “first fruits” of those who sleep depends absolutely on the identity between the dead and the living. What does the resurrection mean for us? It means that after we die, we will live again. Not some emanation of our lives, not some principle that lived in us and will live on in human life, but we ourselves, the actual people that we are; with our actual past, our personal history; after we die, after our bodies are laid in the grave, they will live again; we will live again; the self-same people who sit in these pews tonight. We must die but we will live again someday. Surely that is the central focus of the New Testament’s teaching about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. As Jesus said beforehand to his disciples, “Because I live you will live also.”
We have those same emphases here in Luke 24. In the account of the Lord’s appearance to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, a section we didn’t read, we read in v.16 that the only reason the two men didn’t recognize Jesus as the one they knew so well was because “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” Further, after they recognized him, there was no doubt in their minds that they had seen Jesus. They scurried back to Jerusalem to tell the disciples, “We have seen the Lord!” And in the text we did read we heard him telling the disciples to examine his hands and feet. It was Jesus, the very same Jesus who had died on the cross the Friday afternoon before.
As an aside, may I mention again the fact that it was precisely for this reason that Christians have never — until these last few years — cremated their dead. The dead body was still the actual and self-same person and that body would live again. Christians understood that the resurrection meant that cremation was not the destruction by fire of what used to be a human being, but of what continued to be a human being.
But, my point tonight is that all of this attention on the identity of the risen Christ with the crucified Christ, all of this evidence that it was the very same Jesus who died and who rose again, all of the apologetic importance of the evidence for this fact that is presented in the New Testament, can obscure, can hide from our view, the evidence, of which there is a good deal, that though it was the same Jesus who rose again, he did not rise again in every way the same man. He was the same Jesus, but, at the same time, he was different; quite different. His was a new order of human life; indeed he was the very first human being to advance to this higher order of human life.
We have this too in our brief reading tonight. The disciples were huddled in the Upper Room, no doubt comparing notes, peppering the two disciples from Emmaus as to what they had seen and heard, hearing again from Peter of his encounter with the Lord earlier in the day; perhaps again from Mary about hers while still in the garden. And suddenly the Lord was among them. The text of v. 36 does not suggest that Jesus knocked on the door and walked into the room. Indeed, John’s account records the detail that the doors of the room were locked for fear of the Jews. But even this text suggests that that the Lord simply appeared among them. Remember, at the end of the previous episode, as we read in v. 31, the Lord had vanished from the sight of the two disciples at the moment their eyes were opened and they recognized him.
There is a magnificent painting by one of the Dutch masters, Jan Steen (1626-1679), entitled in Dutch “De Emmausgangers,” “The Emmaus travelers,” but which is usually entitled in English “The Meal at Emmaus.” It hangs in the National Museum in Amsterdam. The painting captures in the gorgeous manner of that Dutch school of which Rembrandt and Vermeer are the most famous representatives, the exact moment of the Lord’s departure. You stare at that painting and wonder how the great artist was able to do this. Rembrandt, Velazquez, Caravaggio and other masters paint the scene of the meal in Emmaus, but only Steen paints the scene at the moment of the Lord’s disappearance. The bread he had broken lies on the table before them, there are two servant girls, one in the foreground and one in the background, the faces of the two disciples reveal a mixture of weariness, confusion, wonder, and regret. But Christ’s shadow is still visible. He is disappearing, but he has not yet completely disappeared. You see just his shadow. The simple point is that the Lord was able to move from place to place by a method and in a manner utterly unlike our experience of human life; utterly unlike even his experience of human life up to that point.
In this sense the resurrection is different from both the birth of Jesus — an event and, at least for the participants, an experience like any other human birth — and the death of Jesus, a perfectly human experience in physical terms, like that of untold thousands of others who were crucified in those days. The resurrection is a new experience, the entrance into a new kind of life that no human being had ever or has ever since experienced.
And so it was that he appeared suddenly in the midst of the assembled disciples. In other words, he materialized before them. He was not there and suddenly he was among them. He was able to pass through walls, even though he was also able to eat food. That thought comforted me as I watched the heavy concrete lid being lowered to enclose my mother’s casket on her grave in St. Louis, my father encased in wood and concrete beneath her. What will wood and concrete be to them at the resurrection? Nothing at all! Verse 37 may further suggest that there was something different about his appearance that made it easier for the disciples to think that there was something unusual about this man who stood before them. Perhaps some of their confusion was simply the result of the shock, but there is other evidence in the resurrection narratives to suggest that there was something significantly different about the Lord’s appearance upon his resurrection. He is not simply Lazarus, alive again, or the son of the widow of Nain alive again, entirely as they had been before, still mortal, still sharing every aspect of human life with everyone around them, still looking exactly as they always had looked.
Again, the text is not explicit, but the account of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the Lord near the tomb that we are given in John 20 seems to suggest that there was something about him that made it harder for her to recognize him immediately. She heard his voice and actually saw him and had a conversation with him, but did not recognize who it was with whom she was speaking. Now perhaps her eyes were prevented as in the case of the disciples on the road to Emmaus and perhaps the grief and the shock ill-prepared her for such an unexpected encounter. And, to be sure, like the disciples in Emmaus, once she recognized him she knew him immediately to be Jesus. Still, does it not seem that there was something about the risen Lord that was not the same? In his resurrection life the natural and the supernatural have converged.
This is a new order of existence. He is the self-same Jesus; he is a true human being — as here eating food, with the scars of the crucifixion remaining on his body (he is flesh and bones as he himself says) — he is not a spirit, but the same psycho-physical being that we know human beings to be and that he himself had been for the years of his life. The appearances were very definitely not mystical experiences, as if they encountered Jesus only in their minds, in a vision, or by some inner recognition. They met him as human beings meet one another, from without as it were, physically, sensibly, visibly. Still, while these were historical events in the ordinary sense, they also transcended the ordinary dimensions of history. The Lord’s resurrection was a radical leap forward to a new dimension of life, of human existence. [J. Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, 273-274] The life of a human being, after resurrection from the dead, has been fitted for heaven and for eternity. Both aspects of the resurrection — the identity of the risen Lord with the crucified Lord and the difference between them — are thoroughly and emphatically present in the Gospel narratives. Indeed, in v. 44, which we didn’t read, the Lord says to his disciples on this occasion,
“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you…”
The Lord himself seems to suggest that he is not with them now in the same sense in which he had been with them before.
Now, I fully realize that this material opens up a set of questions that we are unable to answer. Jesus, returning to life as the self-same man, was obviously a male human being after the resurrection as he had been before. He is referred to in the text with masculine pronouns and the disciples’ recognition of him, once past their confusion and disbelief, was that of the man they had known before. It was a man’s hands and feet through which the nails had been driven and a man’s hands and feet which still betrayed the scars from those wounds. Presumably, men will remain men and women will remain women after their resurrection, even if, as the Savior taught us, there will be great differences in how men and women will relate to one another in the next life. Who can explain any of this? I certainly cannot. What does it mean, apart from the proof it provides that masculinity and femininity are good things that God has made, so good that they will continue forever.
Or consider this: a point is made that Jesus’ appearance after his resurrection was sufficiently similar to his appearance beforehand that the disciples knew it was the self-same Jesus. On the other hand, there were the differences, whatever they were and however much they amounted to. We obviously don’t have a before and after photograph. But Jesus, we are told in Isaiah 53:2:
“…he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.”
In the context that statement explains why no one believed what he said or recognized him to be the Servant of the Lord. People dismissed him in part because he was nothing much to look at. The sense of the verse in English is that he was not noticeably “well built…impressive… [or] handsome.” [Motyer, Isaiah, 428] But did that continue to be true of him upon his resurrection, or was his appearance, while the same, more impressive in some way? Was he a more attractive specimen of human manhood after the resurrection?
I think most of us imagine, or at least hope, that upon our resurrection we will be the handsome men or beautiful women we always wanted to be. I’ve never myself known what it is like to be a heartthrob. I think I would enjoy it! I wouldn’t mind, I suppose, if all the other men were heartthrobs too, just so long as I was! And I suppose most of you women would, in a similar way, like to be a classic beauty; considering the fact that you are going to live forever you might as well look like someone you enjoy seeing in the mirror every morning. In heaven, of course, no one would be vain about her good looks and no one would have to diet to preserve them. The best of all worlds!
But the information we are given about the one resurrection that has so far happened doesn’t suggest any of this, really. What we are given, instead, is just enough information to know that the life into which we will enter upon our resurrection to eternal life — that is, that believers of Jesus Christ will enter — will be a higher form of existence, a new dimension of human potential, something that, however much the same as our lives now, will be wonderfully superior at the same time.
Remember, the Lord’s resurrection was the first fruits of our own. What happened to him will happen to us. His life was authentically our life before — except for sin — and our lives will be like his life when we have risen from the dead. Paul makes that point at length in 1 Corinthians 15, the text from which we read this morning.
This is the grist for endless conversation, meditation, imagination, and celebration. Our Savior’s accomplishment for us is greater even than returning us to Eden, wonderful as that would be. Ours, Paul later said, is now a physical body, but someday it will be a spiritual body. Our heavenly body will not be the same as our earthly body; and it will be more glorious by far. This body of ours is mortal, that shall be immortal. This is fit only for this earth; that will be fit for heaven itself. Our present bodies are marked by all manner of weakness; our heavenly bodies will be raised “in power.” [1 Cor. 15:43]
Paul’s whole point is that what was true of Christ’s resurrection body will be true of our resurrection bodies. Our union with Christ guarantees that identity. It will be the self-same body, as Christ’s was; and it will be a much more glorious body, as his was as well.
For you scientifically inclined folk, a contemporary theologian makes the point this way.
“…our resurrection bodies will be like Christ’s resurrection body, since our resurrection and his are effectively the same reality, separated by indefinite time. There is something of a parallel in this to the Einstein-Podorsky-Bell theory. Einstein postulated that the parts of a sub-atomic particle, such as a prion, separated by infinite space would behave identically. His theory was confirmed empirically by the Bell experiment in 1964. Here the parts of the resurrection, separated by indefinite time, behave identically.” [Letham, Union with Christ, 136]
Paul adds the further thought in Romans 8:11 that, since it is the same Holy Spirit who raised Jesus and who will raise us on the great day, the same life will be given to our mortal bodies as was given to Christ’s.
So, our bodies, only they will be much, much more! There is something to ponder this Easter Sunday. We have been delivered from the threat of divine wrath on account of our sins. That would be great enough if that were all that God had given to us in Jesus Christ; great beyond words! But, so much more, we have been granted in due time entrance into a new dimension of human life, better in every way — passing through walls—what’s that going to be like? Going from place to place it seems virtually in an instant. A life fit for that sort of life we will live in heaven that will require and make use of a whole set of new powers and new possibilities. Amazing! We will have been made fit for life that never ends, life with all manner of new possibilities and powers. Amazing! How unbelievably good the Lord is, and how impossibly generous he has been to us; and all of this simply because we trust in him.