10. Who Says

[We will be taking a week’s break before posting more meditations]

1 Cor 15:3-8   For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also.

If you don’t like reading Scripture, you don’t want to read this meditation today. Over the past week we have been considering the resurrection accounts of the four Gospels. The person who doesn’t know their Bible might be tempted to believe that this is the only source of references to Jesus’ resurrection. Nothing could be further from the truth.

From the very outset, after Jesus had ascended to heaven, the disciples, while they waited for the coming Holy Spirit, as instructed by Jesus, decided to appoint a twelfth apostle to replace the now deceased Judas. When considering who might be suitable, considering the possible candidates, the primary qualification was that whoever it was should have been a witness to all Jesus had done and especially, “one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.” (Acts 1:22)  One the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit fell on the believers, Peter got up and preached under the power of the Spirit and a key part of that message was the declaration that, “This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.” (Acts 2:23,24) and then later, “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact.” (Acts 2:32).

A while later when preaching after a spectacular healing, Peter again declared, “You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this.” (Acts 3:15). Subsequently it was recorded, “With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.” (Acts 4:33). Thus the declaration of the resurrection was a key part of the testimony of the early church again and again. When Peter was called to go and speak to the Gentiles in the house of Cornelius, he declared, “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen.” (Acts 10:39,40)

Later, when the apostle Paul was saved he continued the same approach:Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.” (Acts 17:18 – in Athens). This became a regular feature of Paul’s preaching and often found in his letters, e.g. “declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Rom 1:4) and “us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.” (Rom 4:24). Indeed he made the point that without the resurrection there was no point in their preaching and really no point in the existence of the church: “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”(1 Cor 15:14)

Not only did Peter preach it in the early days, when he came to write letters to the church he continued to declare, “he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”  (1 Pet 1:3). When John had his revelation on the island of Patmos, he encountered the Son of God who declared, “I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.” (Rev 1:18)

Thus we see the resurrection of Jesus Christ is testified to throughout the New Testament. We have cited but a few examples of that. This was the belief of the early church. Whereas they had been just a bunch of frightened men, hiding away behind locked doors, something happened that transformed them into fearless preachers, most of whom gave their lives as martyrs for this belief that they declared again and again: “He is risen!” There may be many other things that mark out the Christian faith as unique among world religions, but this one thing marks out Jesus Christ as the Son of God – he died and rose from the dead, a unique event in history. Read and believe, believe and be changed!

9. Mystery & Confirmation

Jn 20:25   So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe

Today we come to the final accounts of the resurrection in the Gospels, that we will be looking at in this brief series, and for those we go to John’s Gospel. This particular episode is about Thomas who is not mentioned by the other three Gospels. We have previously commented how it is probable that John wrote much later than the other three and the simple explanation for the inclusion of this episode here is that Thomas had probably passed away by the time of John’s writing and therefore it would not be embarrassing to him to have it included here. It is a very significant episode in that it pushes the evidence on one stage further.

Thomas had obviously been with the others initially, for we have reference in the other Gospels to ‘the eleven’, but he presumably slipped out just before Jesus arrived. By the time he had returned Jesus had gone. Now before we consider Thomas’s reactions, we do need to face up to a mystery, because for the second part of this episode to be played out we have to note that it was a week later! A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” (v.26). The mystery is what Jesus was doing during that time. We have no idea! It is an ongoing mystery because we are simply not told and we may speculate to our hearts content, but we still do not know! The Bible DOESN’T tell us everything we’d like to know, but it tells us SUFFICIENT for us to have faith and we need to learn to rest in that.

So Thomas comes back and the others tell him about Jesus’ visit. His response is very human and is one commonly found: unless I, me, personally, see the evidence I’m not going to believe you. Yesterday I spoke about the amount of evidence in the historical documents, in church history and in the lives or ordinary Christians today. Yet despite all this evidence there are still those who say I won’t believe until I see it myself! For those of us who do believe and have come to experience the risen Lord, it is difficult to understand. Non-believers, on the other hand, find it very difficult to cope with the certainty that Christians so often exhibit, a certainty that comes from knowing the tremendous wonder of having your life touched and transformed by God. The testimony of the blind man in John 9 is really frustrating for the unbeliever: “One thing I know. I was blind and now I can see.” (Jn 9:25). Thus when the Christian who has encountered God through Jesus Christ says, “All I know was that I was lost and now I am saved,” that is really frustrating to the Thomas’s of this world.

But the good news was that there was yet a further opportunity for Thomas to have his own encounter with Jesus for, as we saw above, Jesus came back to them a week later. For a week they have been huddling together, keeping out of sight of the authorities, then suddenly on this particular day, despite the fact that the door is locked, Jesus appears in the room.  It seems he comes specifically to help Thomas: “Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” (v.27) In these words Jesus goes further than with the other disciples for he realises and understands Thomas’s limitations and he is there to help him. When he says “see my hands” and “Reach out your hand and put it into my sidehe is saying, “See and feel the specific marks of my crucifixion. I am not a substitute, a look-alike, I am the one who you saw crucified and who died; it is me standing before your alive.”  This completely does away with any idea of there being a substitute. It also does away with those who said it wasn’t Jesus who actually hung on the Cross (yes, it has been said!). Oh no, in this encounter Jesus is challenging the doubter and is bringing together the one who died on the Cross – their Master – with the one who was now alive and before them.

Again and again, it almost seems inadvertently, the Gospels cover all the bases, all the questions of the doubters, the sceptics and the heretics. Don’t come up with any critical, derogatory noises about John; everything about his Gospel and his letters and the book of Revelation say here was a man of great integrity, a man who wrote with great clarity and with obvious love of his Master. There is both a gentleness and a goodness about his writing, and with indications that here was one who had been on the inside, who knew his Master well and had himself been transformed by him. He is quite open about his beliefs and concludes the chapter with, “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (v.31). That’s why he includes the Thomas episode, because Thomas had struggled to believe and had been helped to overcome. When Thomas saw Jesus and presumably touched him as instructed, we find, “Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” (v.28). Thomas understood as few of us do, the significance of who it was standing before him. If Jesus had died – and Thomas knew Jesus had died – and now is alive again, then that has the most profound of implications.

If you respond angrily (as some do) to these accounts, ask yourself why. Read again the meditations of this past week with their explanations, and ask yourself what is it in you that is so hostile to the reality of what is here, and be honest. If you are a wistful seeker (and I encounter them as well) and you say, “I’d like to believe, but just can’t,” then can I ask you to take one simple step. You can’t lose by doing this. If all I’ve said is make-believe, you won’t lose anything by doing this one thing: pretend!  Pretend there is a God and talk to Him and ask Him to help you come to a place of ‘seeing’. All I know is that whenever people have done this with me, one of two things happen. First, as they pray, they suddenly realise that there IS someone there that they are talking to; they do become aware of The Presence. Second, if that doesn’t happen, then some way along the walk of their lives, in ways that cannot be foreseen, they get their answers, that enable them to believe. There is nothing about make-believe in this; it is about encountering God who IS there. If you are hostile – goodbye!  If you are seeking, go on seeking and you WILL find.

These amazing accounts – amazing by what they say and how they say it, and by the fact that they exist – are basic evidence to help bring faith in the Son of God who came to earth, lived, died and rose again. We hope you’ll have found these nine meditations helpful. Oh, there is one more to come!

8. A Verifiable Jesus

Lk 24:36-39   While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”
 
One modern crusading atheist complained in his book that modern preachers have to spend so much time explaining that there must be something wrong if they have to go into such convoluted explanations. It is possible, if you have been reading these resurrection mediations (or studies) over the past week, that you might be feeling that this is exactly what I have been doing.  If that is so, let me explain. It is just because of these crusading atheists – who I believe have done us a favour by stirring up questions. It seems that, so often, they make shallow comments indicating that they have neither read the text nor, if they had read the Gospels, done their homework and looked into why it was so written and what the culture was behind it. For just those reasons I have written these particular studies, looking at the background or style and comparing the Gospel texts. I hope I have shown that when we do that intelligently we find we have little to be concerned about. Yes, there are lots of question marks over what happened because, as I have taken pains to show, there are big gaps where we wished there were none, but they don’t undermine the story, only add interest to it.
   
We arrive now at the point, late in the day, when the two disciples get back from Emmaus and meet with the others who are still gathered together in one house. They have been discussing what seems to have happened in the day. Yes, Peter had seen him, the women had seen him, Mary Magdalene had seen him, and now these other two disciples had seen him. But each of their encounters had been fleeting and so, at the end of a tiring day, their minds are wondering did they each dream it. Was it all just wishful thinking? Some questioners today ask, was it really a form of mass hysteria, was it something they all deep down so wanted to happen that they convinced themselves that it was Jesus they had seen. It was made worse by Mary confessing that at first she had thought he was simply the gardener, and then the two from Emmaus confessing that not until the end did they recognise him. There are doubts and possibilities flying around the room.
    
Perhaps those who didn’t want to doubt came up with the logical answers. It couldn’t have been mass hysteria because mostly they were alone or in small groups. Mass hysteria is something that is usually worked up, and none of them had just been through an experience where they had been emotionally worked up.  If anything they were emotionally drained. As for wishful thinking, they had been so certain that he was dead that there was no question of such a thing. In fact they had struggled in their minds to believe what their eyes and their ears were telling them. No, none of those explanations fitted the circumstances. Oh yes, doubts and questions were surely flying round the room. Why am I so sure of this? I’m sure of it because of what immediately followed.
  
Suddenly, without any warning, with no knock on the locked door, no sound of a door opening, Jesus is standing in their midst. Do they, after their experiences of the day, after their discussion or debate, welcome him with open arms and celebration? No they do not! They were scared silly because, despite all that has gone before, they think they are seeing a ghost – and yes, they are all seeing it!  They were clearly ‘troubled’ and they clearly ‘doubted’ and Jesus sees that and confronts it. In modern parlance he would say, “Guys, get cool, get real, it’s me, look at me, touch me, feel me! Ghosts can’t be touched and felt!” If we read the text, he then asks for something to eat and eats some fish in front of them. It is the most ordinary, down to earth action he could have done. Then he reminds them of what he had taught them previously, about how he would die and then come to life again to fulfil all the prophetic scriptures of the Old Testament. We’ll stop the account there because we have one more of these studies about the resurrection appearances to do tomorrow before we finish this mini-series.
  
But take note of what has happened. The disciples doubted all that had gone before and so Jesus came to them and stood in their midst and acted perfectly normally to convince them. You want your past experiences to be verified? That’s what  he basically asks them. Then touch me, encounter me, and you’ll know.
   
Now I keep finding sceptics saying, tell me what you believe, tell me what this evidence is you keep talking about, show me some means of verification to convince me! OK, we’ve been examining the evidence for this past week. Anyone who will examine the evidence of the Gospels with an open mind will be convinced. There are many people who said they were sceptics – until they read the Gospels. In the first meditation we referred to Frank Morison, a lawyer who started out to debunk the Gospel accounts of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and ended up being utterly convinced of the veracity of the story. A similar person was J.B.Phillips who started out in the middle of last century to produce a fresh translation of the New Testament. He ended up writing a book called Ring of Truth, because that is what he concluded the Gospel accounts had.  Examine the evidence as you would any other historical documents and you find there is more there than you ever believed before.
  
But what about today, my sceptical friend asks? Very well, I reply, put aside all your stereotypes of Christians that you have been fed, and come and meet the people of my church, and of many other churches that I know. Talk to these down to earth ordinary people, experience their love, acceptance and compassionate concern. Listen to their testimonies and you’ll find something unnervingly similar in all of them. They heard the good news about Jesus Christ and it seemed real to them. They responded to what they had been told and they prayed and asked God, on the basis of what they heard about Jesus, to forgive them and give them new lives. Without exception they will tell you about how their lives were transformed. They aren’t perfect but they have been mightily changed. Now they keep coming up with stories about how God has helped them or spoken to them and how their lives have been getting better and better.
   
This is normal Christian experience and it can be repeated millions of times over. You can test it against lots of other possibilities but none of them ring true for all the cases. The only one that satisfies is the one we’ve just put forward. Yes, it IS verifiable; you only have to come to the same place where you are willing to check out Jesus, seek God for forgiveness for your self-centred, godless life so far, ask for His power and direction to give you a new life – and watch out!  Why is it so difficult to believe? Why do we keep on looking for escape alternatives so we don’t do that? Think about it – and be honest. Jesus verified his reality to his disciples when he was still on earth. He still does it today by his Spirit and millions can verify that!
    

7. Where was Jesus?

Lk 24:13   Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem.
   
We have been following the events of that first Sunday morning after Jesus had risen, trying to find out who was doing what as we trace the activities of the disciples, but there is a far bigger question that arises, which we will only partially be able to answer: where was Jesus and what was he doing? Our answer is going to be only sketchy at the best because we are not told what he was doing, only in as far as we have specific encounters with specific people – which did not take up the whole day.
   
All we know so far in what we have studied, is that at some time early on Sunday morning he rose from the dead, shed the grave clothes, obtained other clothes from somewhere (because no one commented that he was naked when the various people met him) and was out of the tomb. Subsequently he met Peter and the women and Mary Magdalene (although even the order of those encounters is not very specific) and then he seems to go off our radar until we come to the encounter on the road to Emmaus which culminated late afternoon. Assuming the walk to Emmaus would naturally take about two to three hours, it would seem that, if there were no supernatural element about him getting there, he left Jerusalem early afternoon, unless he had some other goal or destination that we don’t know about,  and he had left to go somewhere else first, and thus left earlier.
 
What is clear, and what we rarely think about, is that we are mostly in the dark about what Jesus did in that day, simply because he has not told us. It is not surprising that there is often a lack of clarity or agreement in the accounts because this was without doubt the most confusing event of their lives. They had all been through a time of immense anguish and fear, a time of utter disappointment and loss, a time when their emotions had been harried to the nth degree. They had possibly hardly slept and were quite likely physically and emotional wrecks. Sunday must have appeared as a dream – or more likely a nightmare initially, and their minds struggled to cope with the wonder of what was being presented to them. It is no wonder, therefore, that they are not uniformly specific about what happened. In fact, the more we think about it, the more incredible it is that the Holy Spirit was able to bring even this order to their minds twenty or thirty years later when they wrote the first three Gospels.
     
Returning to what Jesus was doing, it is possible that if he continued to do some of the things he had done in his life previously, he was spending some of the time communing with his Father, in prayer. It is also possible, of course, that he may have gone and visited other people, but if so, they simply didn’t pass it on to the others. We are, however, left to speculate. Why also, we may wonder, did he bother to walk fourteen miles (because he also came back from Emmaus later) simply to have an encounter with these two men? Why didn’t he just go to the main group of disciples and explain it to them? We aren’t told and so all we can do is speculate or remain quiet. The best that my powers of speculation can come up with is that he was already visiting someone else in that direction (had he been out to Bethany to visit Mary, Martha and Lazarus?) and simply used this encounter to reveal something more of himself.
   
Consider basically what happened: the two disciples are some way on their journey to Emmaus when they encounter Jesus, although they don’t recognise him (Lk 24:15,16). They talk and he chides them for their lack of belief and then explains how all the Old Testament prophecies were fulfilled (Lk 24:25-27). When they arrive at their home in Emmaus, he appears to be going on but they prevail on him to stay and eat with them. It was only as he broke the bread that they recognised him – and then he disappeared! (Lk 24:28-31). Now two particular things stand out in this account, so far, which are naturally strange: first that they didn’t recognise him initially, and second, that he disappeared the moment that they did recognise him.   The fact that they didn’t recognise him could be explained by the fact that his head and face could have been largely covered against dust and wind, but mostly that they simply never expected to see him because, in their minds at least, he was dead. It is, of course, possible that the resurrected Jesus did look slightly different, because Mary Magdalene had had the same difficulty of recognising him initially. Mystery!  We might try and explain away his sudden disappearance as he slipped away while the other two became so excited, but as the whole of Jesus’ ministry had involved divinely supernatural abilities (e.g. walking on water) I’m not sure why we need to go to lengths to explain away his disappearance.
   
If we look at the basic principles that arise in this episode of resurrection appearances, we should include the following. First, we find again, as we have noted before, all these things involve people doing very ordinary things. These two disciples were simply walking and talking before Jesus arrived. The Christian faith stands out from other world faiths in a number of ways, but one of them is the way that God comes to ordinary people living ordinary lives. It is not about ecstatic experiences for they are far from that. These men are likely to be tired and dirty from their walk. They are far from the ‘cleansed’ devotees of some religions when they have their divine encounter, for that is what it is. 
    
Next, and following on from that, is that divine encounters sometimes take very ordinary forms. As we said, there is no ecstatic or rapturous experience here (not at first anyway), just a listening to an apparent human figure who brings revelation to them. The point we would wish to make is that so often God speaks into our lives in very ordinary ways, so ordinary in fact, that we sometimes don’t realise who it was speaking. And that, thirdly, is what happens here. These two disciples of Jesus don’t recognise him, for whatever reason. How many of God’s people don’t recognise God’s hand on their lives or God’s voice speaking to them?
  
The fourth thing to note here, surely, is that there is a blend of the mysterious with the ordinary and that ‘mysterious’ element cannot be explained. The requirement upon us to live by faith and not by sight (2 Cor 5:7) is simply because our minds are not big enough to comprehend God or His ways. This, of course, is the stumbling block for many of us who are so insecure that we feel we have to be in control and with full understanding all the time – though of course that never happens in reality! 
   
Can we take on board these ‘lessons’ that come out of this incident, or will our insecurity make us shy away and flee from God? The truth is that God’s love is there constantly seeking to reassure us and bring us into a place of security where we can trust Him completely, even if we do not understand everything. May that be your experience.
   

6. Who went where?

Lk 24:9   When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others.
   
We have just considered in the previous meditation, the existence of ‘free quotations’, the cultural characteristic that,  as far as the writers were concerned, when it required an accurate citation of another person or being, they needed to only include a correct representation of the content of what the person said and did not expect to cite each word exactly. That allows us to see recorded speech as accurate in meaning even though different words are used. But what about different reports of events; how do we deal with events that are recorded differently?  Here again our hearts are revealed. If we are cynical and simply out to destroy biblical credibility because of what we feel about life generally and spiritual life in particular, then we will take such varying accounts as opportunities to be critical with destructive judgment, often hastily given, without much thought. However, if our desire is to genuinely find the truth, then we will seek to see if it is possible to synthesise the varying accounts to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion that satisfies our intellectual integrity.
  
The resurrection chapters of the four Gospels are particularly important when it comes to this sort of approach because they mostly all record a specific twenty four hour period of history and there is no room for seeing the accounts as different incidents as so often happens in the earlier parts of the Gospels. Here, and let’s say it again, we are dealing with a very tight period of time, a specific set of events, yet we will find that perhaps more happened than we realised at first sight. It is only as we seek to synthesise the accounts that we see what was going on.
   
Luke, from whom we take today’s starter verse, clearly records that it was all the women who returned to tell the men about the empty tomb: “It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles.” (v.10) and to clarify when they returned he adds, “But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb.”  (v.11,12) So the women came back and as a result Peter took off to go and see for himself. Examining Luke’s Gospel suggests that one of Luke’s sources was probably Mary, the mother of Jesus, and she was an insider who related to the rest of the women and remembered their collective activity. Neither Matthew nor Mark say anything about the interaction between the women and the men back at the house. It is only Luke, in the three earlier Gospels, who has the female input who records this part.
     
But then we have John, who understands and realises things about the past that the others had not understood or realised. He almost certainly wrote many years later with a much wider perspective on what had happened in those three years, a wider perspective that came with the reflections of old age which so often sees the distant past so clearly and with the wisdom gained with the years as a major leader. John, as we have commented previously, sees Jesus as the Son of God who came to save the world. He focuses on salvation in a variety of ways, including through specific people. Mary Magdalene was a trophy of grace, having had a very murky background and being delivered of seven demons by Jesus (Lk 8:2) and so now in these end accounts she is a prominent figure. Thus it was John who recorded, “So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” (Jn 20:2). As John thinks back it is like it was yesterday and he remembers being there when Mary outran the other women and arrived back first with the news which was shortly confirmed by the others. But then we come to the men and the first encounters with Jesus. We have previously considered some of this part in the second meditation but it bears repeating here.
  
As we previously noted it was only Luke of the earlier three Gospels who covers this and quite simply records: “Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.” That’s all Luke gives us. It is short and succinct. John however had been involved and so it was especially vivid in his memory: “So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) Then the disciples went back to their homes.” (Jn 20:3-10) John was clearly the other disciple and so includes his own part in it. That deals with the men, but we are not finished with the women yet.
    
It seems fairly obvious that when the two leading men rushed off to the tomb, the women followed behind. They arrive in the grave area after the men and by now the men have seen it and are leaving. The women look again and then start back. It is at this point that Peter is presumably having the first encounter with Jesus that the Scriptures speak about. Having left Peter, Jesus then encounters the women a little way back from the tomb: “Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” (Mt 28:9,10). He sends them on their way and continues back into the immediate vicinity of the tomb where Mary Magdalene is still, pondering all that has gone on. It is there that John records her encounter with Jesus, in her confused anguish believing him to be the gardener at first (Jn 20:11-18). Finally she returns and tells the others that she has seen him.
   
Thus we have a very natural coming and going between the house and the tomb. First the women go to the tomb, and then they come back and tell the disciples. Peter and John race to the tomb, slowly followed by the women. The two men leave and most of the women start back, leaving Mary Magdalene there. Jesus meets first Peter, then the group of women and finally Mary on her own. Again, as we have previously commented, here we have a complete blend of the very ordinary born out of ordinary human reactions, mixed with the incredible supernatural – Jesus risen from the dead! Do you see the wonder of these events, and the ordinariness of them?  Have you known the experience of God turning up in your very ordinary events? That is what the Christian life is all about.
     

5. Who moved the Stone?

Mt 28:2   There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. I have been reading the Bible for over forty years and I am amazed that forty years on I still see things that I have never ‘seen’ before. For that reason I no longer get stressed when those looking to pull the Bible to pieces come out with silly comments which show that they have either never read the Bible or at least large parts of it, or that they have read it but only in a surface way and have not taken in the truth of what they have read.  The reason I say this about my own reading is that it has only been recently that I have noticed something about the earthquake and the women. What is it?
   
Simply that the earthquake did not coincide with the arrival of the women! It happened before they arrived. If you read this part of Matthew on a few verses you will see, “The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.” (v.4) In other words so far there is no mention of the women. It was only the guards who saw the angel and the stone being rolled away. It must have been they who told about the ‘earthquake’. This was an encounter that scared the life out of these men. According to how Matthew wrote it, the sense of an earthquake was because of the arrival of the messenger from heaven who came with such power that the very earth shook.
   
But note that it wasn’t the earthquake that rolled back the stone, it was the angel who went over to the stone and effortlessly rolled it away and then sat on it as if on guard or at least laying claim to it!  Put it like that, it seems as if God saw the women coming to the tomb, and saw them talking: “they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” (Mk 16:3). To save them the trouble He sends an angel to roll it back for them to see that Jesus has risen. Now later on we will find that it seems like Jesus had the ability to be ‘solid’ but also to pass through solid materials with his resurrected body. It would seem therefore, that the risen Jesus didn’t need the stone rolling away; he could pass through the rock. The removal of the stone was for the benefit of those coming to examine the tomb!
   
It was only once he had rolled it away that the women arrived. When they turn up they encounter the angel who seems to have put off some of his glory, presumably not to frighten them. He is now a simple messenger for the people of God. Mark tells us that he is now inside the tomb waiting for them and he is there to point out to them that this was where Jesus had been, but he’s now gone. Matthew’s account is much briefer; he simply tells of the angel speaking to them but doesn’t say where. Matthew we suggested was possibly used to using his own shorthand notes which by their very nature were brief. He tends sometimes to be very brief in his reporting, even though he may be using the same source sometimes as Mark. We clearly don’t have the exact words spoken here and one or  other of them must have put it in his own words. Matthew records the angel as saying, “Do not be afraid.” Mark has him saying, “Don’t be alarmed.” Different word, same meaning. In Mark the angel continues, “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here.”(Mk 16:6). Matthew is briefer omitting the words, the Nazarene, and reverses order of the last two sentences.
   
Now some may be wondering why we bother to dissect these passages like this and the answer is for the sake of those who do have questions about this. Surely say the intelligent critics, this can’t be inspired by God, these accounts are different, maybe not in substance but certainly in order of what actually happened. For those who like to think of God dictating to the Gospel writers what they should write, this becomes a major problem. The answer has got to be that when we speak about Scripture being inspired, we must mean that God motivated or energized these men to write, using (a) the resources that they had open to them, and (b) with the wisdom to decide what should be included and what should be omitted, and (c) within the cultural norms of the day. As we have already commented the culture of the day was concerned with truth but not so much with specific detail.When we look at the words of the angel as we have seen, the intent is identical but the words used to convey it are different. Now some of that may be down to the translators for of course it was not written in English, but it is actually that it was simply the different writers applying their own style to it. What also arises in this and many cases in the Synoptic Gospels is that either one copied the meaning from the other or they both used a common source, but what is significant in either case is that they come up with slightly different words. Why? For the reasons we’ve just given. As they copied it down, they put it into the form that flowed most naturally with them as an individual.
    
Let’s put this in a more formal way. Theologians refer to the inerrancy of Scripture which is usually taken to mean that Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact, i.e. the Bible always tells the truth about everything it talks about. About the nature of the verses we are considering, such a definition requires us to note that in the original Greek writing, quotation marks were never used and as far as the writers were concerned an accurate citation of another person or being needed to only include a correct representation of the content of what the person said and did not expect to cite each word exactly. We call this a ‘free quotation’ which, although it runs counter to our modern tendency to require exact wording, was very common at that time of writing.
   
So what have we seen?  A group of the women who had followed Jesus, now go out in the early morning to go to the tomb. Before they arrive the guards are shaken and almost scared out of their lives when an angel appears accompanied by what appears as an earthquake, a complete shaking of the earth. The angel goes over and rolls back the stone and simply sits on it as if on guard or taking possession, at which point the guards flee! When they have gone, the angel steps down and into the cave and awaits the arrival of the women. When they come and see the open cave, some of them at least step down into it and encounter the angel who seeks to put them at ease and shows them where Jesus had in fact laid, and points out that he has now gone. He is risen!
   
We have here, as so often in the Bible, a combination of very ordinary events – women coming to do what they hearts tell them to do – and supernatural events – an angel turning up. When we encounter God, that is exactly how life is, a blend of the very ordinary and the supernatural. In the way we have sought to consider this passage in this particular meditation we have sought to show that that is also how the Scriptures comes to be written.  Be confident in them, and be confident in what you believe.
   

4. Why Discrepancies?

Mk 16:1   When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. I am aware that I am, as an avid New Testament reader, often saying to sceptics that the Bible is not full of contradictions (and I’m sure it is true), but when we come to the accounts in the four Gospels of the resurrection appearances of Jesus, we are stretched to see how it all goes together, and I think therefore, that it behoves us (there’s a good old fashioned word!) to come to an understanding as Christians  and bring answers to those who are questioning. Anyone who lines up the four accounts, if they are going to be honest, has to say that some explanations are required.
  
So let’s start right at the beginning, here early on Sunday morning. Let’s look at what each of the accounts says. Matthew starts out: “After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.” (Mt 28:1). Comparing that with Mark’s account above we find he omits Salome who Mark included because she had received importance by being one of the women at the Cross (Mk 15:40). Matthew also says they just went to ‘look at the tomb’. Mark has them being much more purposeful but it is a negligible difference.  Matthew the ex-tax-collector-disciple is possibly going from his own notes – shorthand that tax collectors used. They would by necessity be brief. Mark, using Peter’s recollections, remembers an additional person, making three.
  
Luke recounts, “On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb” (Lk 24:1). No problem there because he is not being specific about numbers and names. However later on, when he is recording when all the women eventually came back and gathered with the men, he writes, “It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles” (Lk 24:10). Now whether that means that Salome was also known as Joanna (alternate names are not uncommon) or whether it means that Luke’s informants simply remember another of the women who Mark hadn’t bothered to mention, is unclear. In that Luke mentions Joanna elsewhere as a follower (Lk 8:3), the latter is more likely. The reference by Luke to others indicates that it was more likely that it was a whole group of women who went. It’s just that most of them aren’t named.John records, “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb” (Jn 20:1). Now the best we can say here is that John doesn’t say “only Mary Magdalene”. For whatever reason (what follows) he is focusing on Mary Magdalene. For John she was especially important as his Gospel is very clearly written to reveal the salvation that Jesus came to bring, and Mary M is a classic instance of a real sinner saved by him. It is probable that John has it in mind that she wasn’t alone because when he writes of her reporting back to the men, she says, “we don’t know where they have put him!”(Jn 20:2). Again an indication of a number of women.
  
What is important to realise as we try to get inside what really happened, is that these four writers were not approaching their tasks with the same mindset that we might do it in the twenty first century. We would know that we are going to be held accountable to others who will question our every detail. For us, details are vital. For the four Gospel writers, details are not vital, just the overall truth. Thus, for example, Matthew when he says, “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went,” he is not saying only they went and no one else. As we commented about John earlier, they were just the two names that stood out and which he then included. For them, in that culture, accuracy of detail was not the key issue. Ah, says our questioning sceptic, doesn’t that put everything in the Gospels in a dubious light then? Well no, because they were seeking to be accurate within their own parameters and within their own goals. Matthew clearly writes for a Jewish set of readers, Mark for a wider Gentile set of readers, Luke for the world showing both the humanity and divinity of Jesus, and John for the world revealing the Son of God bringing salvation to the world, revealing the greater significance behind many of Jesus’ more enigmatic sayings. Within each of these emphases the church has seen the inspiration of God, energising each of the writers to tell the story through their eyes and recollections or, in Luke’s case, the recollections of others who had been there, but with his understanding that came from travelling with the charismatic ministry of Paul.
 
It is important that we understand these things and see these Gospels within this framework or we will find ourselves making silly comments, or sufferer others making silly comments, that are born out of ignorance. It is often said that when we read Scripture we need to realise that this was a different point in history to our own, a different part of the world, a different culture with different customs and understandings. What is sad is that atheistic sceptics are often heard to deride such passages as we’ve been considering in this meditation and thus reveal their ignorance of the background to it. When we start to understand these things, we realise we haven’t got half the problems we thought we had.
   
What we also tend to forget, in considering these things, is the unity of the passages. Here in the opening verses of these four Gospels, we find all of them telling us that early on Sunday morning a group of women set out to go to the tomb where they were expecting Jesus to be. Historical fact! No dispute.
 
Here, we might reflect, was a group of women who were concerned enough, as we’ve noted previously, to ignore any risk to themselves from the authorities, to go and find the tomb and, if possible, ensure the body is properly embalmed. What this should scream at us is that they DIDN’T expect the body to be alive. Their mind set was totally established that he was dead. They saw him die and they know he is dead. The awfulness of what they have witnessed has pushed out of their mind any memory of Jesus having warned that this would happen exactly like this, that he would be killed and he would rise on the third day. The ordinariness of this scene, I believe, adds to the credibility of the account. An ordinary group of women, in anguish, believing that Jesus is dead, go to do what they feel they can. That’s just how life so often is with God – we get on with our lives, doing what we can, and then He turns up and does what only He can. That has been true throughout Christian history, and it’s still true today.