When the disciples began to follow Christ, they had not been thinking in terms of some revolutionary movement. If that would have been the case, the death of the leader would mean only that they would have to choose another to take the reins of leadership. But Jesus was not merely a leader of a movement. He was their Master, their Messiah, their Savior. Jesus was God! And now he was dead!
Of course, as we look now back on those days and with the advantage of knowing how Jesus would be resurrected back to life, we can easily criticize the disciples for their lack of faith. After all, had not Jesus told them that he was going to be crucified? Had they not understood the teachings of Jesus and the prophecies that told that the Messiah would be raised from the dead?
These things were true, but it is difficult for us to imagine what the followers of Jesus were going through at that time. If the Romans had killed Jesus, certainly the disciples were also in danger; especially since the high priest and all of the Jewish leadership were on somewhat of a vendetta to exterminate all of the disciples and even all memory of Jesus.
The disciples feared for their own lives. They went into hiding. They did not know what to do.
The Women at the Tomb
The first ones to realize something very unusual had
occurred was a group of women. Among
this group were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Joanna and Salome; but
there were others in the group as well. (Mark 16:1; Luke 24:10). Very early on
the morning that Jesus had risen from the dead, this group of ladies made their
way through the semi-light of the dawn to go to the tomb.
|The Holy Women at the Tomb - Bouguereau|
They had not planned on going to see a risen Christ; rather, they were going to mourn. They brought with them some aromatic spices to anoint the body of Jesus. This was a custom of the day to reduce the smell of a decomposing corpse, and the women were planning on doing this as a sign of devotion to Jesus. They knew him to be dead.
But they had not completely thought out their plan. On the way to the tomb, it occurred to them that the sepulcher had been sealed shut by a large stone. They were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” (Mark 16:3).
As it turned out, they needn’t have worried. When they arrived at the tomb, they saw that the stone had already been removed from the entrance. What had happened was that sometime during the very early hours, an angel with the appearance of lightning and dressed in a bright white garment had come to roll the stone away (Matthew 28:2-3). The women had not seen this angel, so they were surprised that the stone had been removed and even more surprised when they entered the tomb and could not see the body of Jesus (Luke 24:4).
As they stood there, wondering what to do next, two men suddenly appeared – two men dressed in “dazzling apparel.” One of them said to the women, “Do not be afraid; for I know that you are looking for Jesus who has been crucified. He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said. Come, see the place where He was lying. Go quickly and tell His disciples that He has risen from the dead; and behold, He is going before you into Galilee, there you will see Him; behold, I have told you” (Matthew 28:5-7).
This is what the women decided to do. They began to run back to tell the disciples, feeling both joy at the news, but also fear, because this was something that they could not comprehend. They had a difficult time grasping what had occurred.
It was all too much for them to take in at once. As they were running back, Jesus met them and greeted them, and he said, “Do not be afraid; go and take word to My brethren to leave for Galilee, and there they shall see Me” (Matthew 28:10).
Matthew tells us that at this time, the women even came to Jesus, took hold of his feet and worshiped him. However, it seems that they still were not convinced that Jesus had actually risen from the dead. It all just seemed too incredible. By the time that they came to the disciples, they may have even been unsure if what they had seen was real, or if it had been a vision (Luke 24:23-24).
The News Comes to the Disciples
Certainly, when the women told their story to the disciples, they must not have sounded very convincing. In fact, to the disciples, their words sounded like nonsense (Luke 24:7). Perhaps some emotional wishful thinking by some distraught women.
But if the disciples thought that the women were having a difficult time dealing with this turn of events, they were having their own difficulties. It was not they who had ventured to the tomb. Out of fear of the Jews, the disciples preferred to stay out of sight, behind closed doors (John 20:19).
Peter and John Running to the Tomb - Eugene Burnand
Peter earlier, out of fear, had actually denied three times that he even knew Jesus. But now, with the report of Mary Magdalene, the two men literally ran to the tomb. John arrived first, but he hesitated at the door. He peered in from the outside and saw the grave clothes lying inside the tomb, but did not go in. When Peter caught up, no doubt out of breath, he entered the tomb immediately, seeing the linens and the head cloth, rolled up and lying apart from the other grave clothes (John 20:3-10).
These two men were beginning to realize what had happened. They still may not of understood completely what Jesus had told him about the fulfillment of the prophecies concerning his resurrection (John 20:9), but some light was beginning to dawn in their minds. With new-found courage in a Lord who seemed to have risen from the dead, Peter and John returned not to where most of the disciples were huddled in fear, but instead to their own homes (John 20:10). They were beginning to believe.
Mary Magdalene at the Tomb
(John 20: 11-17) Mary Magdalene had returned to the tomb with Peter and John, but she apparently arrived a bit later, since the two disciples had run there. Mary was not there when the two entered the tomb. However, she arrived at the place and stayed even after the two disciples had left, still not knowing what to make of all that had happened. She first remained outside, weeping over a Jesus that she still assumed dead.
Calling up some courage, she stooped down to look into the tomb. What she saw instead of the body of Jesus were two angels sitting, one at the head, and one at the foot of where the body of Jesus had been lying.
“Woman, why are you weeping?” They asked her.
“Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him,” she answered.
Turning to leave, she suddenly came almost face-to-face with Jesus. He asked her the same thing as did the angels. “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?”
Mary did not recognize him. She thought that he was the gardener, so she asked him, “Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away.”
Jesus then spoke to her again. It was actually the voice of Jesus that caused her to recognize him. Jesus said to her, “Mary!”
She turned then and said to Him in Hebrew, “Rabboni!” (Which means, Teacher). Mary had come to completely and unreservedly believe that Jesus was alive. She had seen Jesus.
On the Road to Emmaus
|Way to Emmaus - Robert Zünd|
As they walked, Jesus approached them and began walking with them, but they did not recognize him. As they continued to discuss the matters, Jesus asked them what they were talking about.
“Are you the only one in Jerusalem who does not know what has happened?” they asked incredulously. They began to explain to him about the crucifixion of Jesus, but also of the recent reports of him being seen alive.
Jesus responded, “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?”
Jesus then began to explain to them the Old Testament prophecies that had been written about this very event. When they reached Emmaus, Jesus acted like he intended to continue further on the road, but the two men convinced him to stay, since it was getting to be evening. Jesus consented. At the meal time, he took the bread, blessed it and began to hand it to the two disciples.
|Supper at Emmaus - Caravaggio|
So excited were they, that instead of staying in Emmaus as they had planned, they returned to Jerusalem that very hour. They went to where the disciples and followers of Jesus were gathered and told them what had happened. They had seen Jesus!
At some point during the day, Peter had also reported seeing Jesus (Luke 24:53, 1 Corinthians 15:5). The two men on the Emmaus road knew now that this was true, because they had also seen him. They now believed that Jesus was alive!
Jesus in the Room with the Disciples
As they were speaking, Jesus appeared and stood in their midst. His presence startled those in the room. Even with all that the disciples had heard, they still did not understand. They were startled and frightened and thought that they were seeing a spirit.
But Jesus said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:13-39).
Jesus told them, “Peace be with you.”
They needed peace. They had been huddled in fear, trying to figure out what to do next. Jesus showed them the wounds of the nails in his hands and from the spear that had been thrust into his side. They believed. They had seen Jesus.
Jesus Appears to Thomas
One of the disciples was not there at that moment. This was Thomas. When he did come, Jesus had already left, but the others told him about seeing Jesus.
“Unless I shall see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe,” was all that Thomas could say.
Eight days later, his disciples were inside once again, and once again behind shut doors. And again, as before, Jesus suddenly stood in their midst and gave them a greeting of peace.
|Incredulity of Saint Thomas - Caravaggio|
Then He said to Thomas, “Reach here your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand, and put it into My side; and be not unbelieving, but believing.”
Thomas saw and believed. He said to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:19-28)
Jesus Appears to Paul
Much later, after Jesus had ascended into heaven, another man had an encounter with the risen Christ. This man was Saul, the persecutor of the Christians. After his encounter with the Lord, his name would be changed to Paul.
In telling about his experience, Paul summarizes the appearances of the risen Christ. “He appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time…then He appeared to James, then to all of the apostles. Last of all, as it were to one untimely born, He appeared to me also” (1 Corinthians 15:5-8).
His appearance to Paul was when Paul (at that time Saul) was still persecuting the church. Saul was approaching the town of Damascus, when he was struck to the ground by a bright light, also temporarily blinding him.
A voice came out of heaven, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?”
|The Conversion of St. Paul - Caravaggio|
“Who are you,” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, who you are persecuting. Enter the city and it shall be told you what you must do” (Acts 9:3-6). It was this event of seeing Jesus that led Paul to finally believe, even though he was first adamantly opposed to it.
Encounters with Christ
These are all reports of those who had encounters with the risen and living Christ. These people all had to be convinced that Jesus had risen from the dead. It was their encounters with Jesus that made them believe.
After Jesus had risen from the dead, he remained on earth, walking around, making appearances, eating and talking with many people and convincing everyone that he was indeed alive. He did this for forty days.
At the end of this relatively short period, Jesus brought many of his disciples together in one place, and as they looked on, he began to ascend into the skies. As Jesus rose in the air, a cloud engulfed him and he was hidden from their sight.
Since that time, no person living on earth has seen Jesus as did the women and the disciples in those early days. We have not seen him in flesh. Yet many of us believe that he is alive. I do. I have placed all of my trust and all of my purpose for living in this one fact.
The first Apostles were given a weighty responsibility. Realizing that they would be the last people on earth to see the Savior in flesh and blood form until he returns sometime in the future, and having been given the task by Jesus to tell others what they had seen and had heard, they did what they could to preserve for future generations all that had happened. That is why the Apostle John wrote:
What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled, concerning the Word of Life – and the life was manifested, and we have seen and bear witness and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us. What we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, that you may have fellowship with us; and indeed, our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:1-3 NAS)
When Jesus came to Thomas and told him to feel the wounds in his hands and side, he said to Thomas, “Do not be unbelieving, but believe.”
“My Lord and my God,” said Thomas when he realized that it truly was Jesus.
It was then that Jesus said something that I find very interesting. “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.
This is why the Apostle Peter could say of those who had come to believe because of his testimony to them:
…The proof of your faith, being more precious that gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ; and though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls.” (1 Peter 1:7-9 NAS)
All who believe in Jesus Christ do so because, in some way, they have had an encounter with him. It may not be so easily defined as it was for the believers in the forty days after Christ rose from the dead and was still on earth. I have never met anyone who has come to believe because they were temporarily blinded by a bright light from heaven. Nor have these been my experiences.
But even if we have not seen, we have had encounters with Jesus, even though we do not often put it in that way. But that actually is what it is. When we sense a deep feeling or a realization in our innermost being that we need to reconcile ourselves with God, it is the Holy Spirit that is prompting us to do so. Sometimes this is a highly emotionally charged event, but I think that more often it is not.
Most often, I believe it is rather a gradual coming to realize that Christ is alive, just as it was for the women and the first disciples after Jesus rose from the dead. They did not immediately believe, but had to be convinced in the minds, as well as their hearts.
At least, this is the way it was with me. I have come to believe. This is why I love the words of Jesus, “Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.”
With me, it took a number of encounters with Christ to be convinced that he is alive. It was a realization that grew with my experiences in life.
The important thing is that we do not ignore the encounters that we have. If we sense God is speaking to us in some way, we need to answer. Do we have doubts? Then express them. Thomas did. Even the other disciples did. They said the testimony of the women coming back from the tomb sounded like nonsense.
If we have doubts but are sincerely seeking answers, Christ will respond. This was the experience of the disciples and it has also been my experience. The important thing is that as Jesus responds to our doubts, we must also respond.
“Reach here your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand, and put it into My side; and be not unbelieving, but believing.” (John 20:27 NAS)
“Though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls.” (1 Peter 1:8-9 NAS)
In the words of Paul, “For God who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened” (2 Corinthians 4:6; Ephesians 1:18a NAS).