Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

The Miracle of the Resurrection

Posted by foryourfaith on April 2, 2010

 

“He was crucified in weakness,” wrote Paul concerning Jesus, “but live by the power of God” (2 Corinthians 13:4). In those opposing faces – weakness and power; crucifixion and resurrection – early Christians found the mystery and vitality of their faith. The crucifixion was a hard reality for both believers and nonbelievers. For Christians, however, the resurrection marked the point of Christ’s vindication, since God himself raised Jesus from the dead.

But what did the resurrection mean to the disciples? The Bible has many stories of the dead being brought back to life, whether by Elijah, Elisha, Jesus, or later, Peter and Paul. But the resurrection of Jesus was different; it was not simply a resuscitation, a coming back to life, but the beginning a new age which would culminate with the resurrection of the dead on Judgment Day. Paul described Jesus as the “first fruits” of the final resurrection.

The Christians asserted that in Jesus’ resurrection the victorious power of their faith had become a reality. Jesus promised that “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26).

In spite of the intense interest in Jesus’ resurrection, it is striking that no attempt was made in the New Testament to describe the moment of resurrection itself. In the Gospels, the resurrection narratives begin with women coming to an empty tomb. The resurrection itself occurred at some moment before Mary Magdalene arrived at dawn. The New Testament focuses instead on the appearances of the risen Christ to the disciples. These appearances had a profound effect upon Jesus’ disciples, renewing and strengthening their faith.

The earliest written testimony to such appearances comes from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. He presented a list of disciples who had seen the risen Christ: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas (Peter), then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”

From the first, Jesus’ resurrection was highly controversial. Scoffers could not produce Jesus’ corpse as evidence of his death. But neither could believers present the risen Jesus in a public, demonstrable way that would erase skepticism. Everything was left up to the testimony of the disciples. The narratives that occur at the end of each of the Gospels share a basic unity; all bear witness to the resurrection of Jesus on the first day of the week following his death.

However, they are remarkably diverse in the specifics of their reports. For example, when Matthew and Luke wrote about the initial discovery of the resurrection, they evidently had the text of the Gospel of Mark before them. They might easily have echoed Mark’s details: that three women (Mary Magdalene, another Mary, and Salome) went to the tomb and discovered that the huge stone in front of it had been removed. They entered the tomb, Mark said, and saw inside a young man dressed in white, and the youth told them of the resurrection.

Luke did not simply repeat the Gospel of Mark in his account; he revised some of the details. Luke indicated that more than three women entered the tomb, and when they did not find the body they were perplexed. At that point, “two men stood by them in dazzling apparel,” and spoke.

Matthew described only two women going to the tomb, which, he said, was being guarded. He seems to indicate that the women saw an angel of the Lord descend, roll back the stone, and sit upon it. The angel’s appearance was like lightning and immobilized the guards, but the angel reassured the women. “Do not be afraid; for I know you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay” (Matthew 28:5-6).

In John, only one woman, Mary Magdalene, was mentioned. She simply saw that the stone was rolled away and she ran to tell Peter and the Beloved Disciple. Her encounter with two angels came later.

Differences continue throughout the resurrection narratives. For the evangelists, faith in Jesus’ resurrection was not a matter of reconstructing a consistent story; rather, the narratives were themselves manifestations of the powerful and many-sided faith in Jesus that enlivened the church long before these accounts were written.

The shortest narrative, and certainly the most disconcerting one, was that in the Gospel of Mark. In its original form, the story evidently ended at Mark 16:8. Mark included no appearances of Jesus himself. The youth at the tomb told the women to tell the disciples that they would see Jesus in Galilee as he had promised. Like the faltering disciples earlier in the Gospel, the women fled, Mark said, “and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.” And there Mark’s Gospel ended, though whether more was intended is unknown.

Apparently, many in the early church were troubled by Mark’s abrupt ending, and attempts were made to round off the narrative. Verses 9-20, which were not in the most ancient manuscripts, are thought to have been added to Mark in the second century as a compilation of material intended as a summary.

Matthew resolved the troublesome reticence of Mark’s account. In Matthew’s Gospel, the women received the message about going back to Galilee both from the angel and from Jesus himself, and they hastened to convey the command. The eleven returned to Galilee, and it was there on a mountain that Jesus met them. Majestically, Jesus asserted that God had given him all authority in heaven and on earth. On that basis he sent them out to make disciples of all nations. Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit . . . and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matthew 20:18-20).

In the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, all the resurrection appearances occurred around Jerusalem. The women were not told to send the disciples to Galilee, but rather they bore witness to the disciples about the resurrection. Ironically, the disciples refused to believe their “idle tale.” The same day, however, two disciples encountered Jesus near Jerusalem on the road to Emmaus; he allowed them to recognize him only as he broke bread for them. When they had returned to the disciples in the city, Jesus again appeared and assured them all of his resurrection buy eating with them.

As Luke recounted, Jesus opened the minds of his disciples to understand the Scriptures, his suffering, and resurrection. He commissioned them as witnesses. They must, he said, stay in the city until they received “power from on high.” Acts tells that Jesus’ appearances continued in Jerusalem for 40 days.

John’s is the only Gospel that asserts that Jesus made appearances to the disciples both in Jerusalem and in Galilee. On the evening of the resurrection Jesus appeared suddenly within the Apostles’ closed room. He blessed them with peace, and commissioned them by breathing the Holy Spirit upon them. The Apostle Thomas was not present and refused to believe. Eight days later, Jesus again appeared. When Thomas saw the risen Jesus bearing the wounds of the Crucifixion, he exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

The final chapter of John tells of Jesus’ mysterious encounter with seven disciples fishing on the Sea of Galilee. A miraculous catch of fish led to the disciples’ recognition of the Lord. After again eating with them, Jesus challenged Peter to love him, to “feed my sheep,” and to follow him.

Precisely through their variety, the Gospels reveal the diverse ways in which the experience of Jesus’ resurrection transformed the lives of the disciples, helping them to grasp the mystery that “Death is swallowed up in victory.”

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