To the thoughtful mind, the greatest argument for the resurrection of Christ must always be the fact that Christianity rose with its founder. Nothing but resurrection can explain the transformation of the men we saw running in panic from Gethsemane into the fearless evangelists of the Acts of the Apostles.
These cowed, despondent men stood forth in the city they dreaded and faced rulers and people alike, indicting them for slaying their Lord, announcing his resurrection, and baptising thousands of repentant Jews who trembled at their words. Before, they had been in mortal fear of arrest; now, they were to go forth boldly, facing imprisonment, persecution and death, and they were to go forth gloriously, counting it joy to suffer shame for his sake.
The source of that transformation lies in the events which followed this first day of the week. When the women brought the message, the disciples dismissed it as an idle tale. Even the priests were less skeptical; they bribed the guards to keep the true facts to themselves and spread the story that the disciples had stolen the body of Jesus.
But that afternoon, the cycle of events continued which brought the final conviction. Two disciples had left the western gate of Jerusalem and were walking along the road which led to the village of Emmaus, seven miles away. One of them was Cleopas, the other we do not know. They walked slowly because their hearts were heavy; their sad faces reflected the subject of their conversation as they left the bare limestone hills to descend into the verdant valley towards the village. It may have been at the crossroads that they first saw the stranger drawing near, travelling in their direction. It was Jesus but they did not recognise him. And how often does Jesus walk with us, unrecognised, when our hearts are full?
“What are you discussing together as you walk along?” – Luke 24:17, NLT
It seemed impossible to the disciples that even a pilgrim in Jerusalem could not know of the terrible events of the past two days. But he questioned them further, and there was something about him that encouraged them to unburden their hearts. They told him of Jesus, of his mighty words and works, and of his ignominious death at the hands of the rulers. They explained that it was the third day since these things happened, and significance lay in the tidings of certain women that the sepulchre was empty, since they remembered some words of Jesus about rising the third day. They added:
“But we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” – Luke 24:21, NIV
The stranger had listened patiently. Now he turned to chide them for their lack of discernment. In the tragic happenings of the last days, they had completely lost their perspective. But there was encouragement in his rebuke:
“You foolish people! You find it so hard to believe all that the prophets wrote in the Scriptures. Wasn’t it clearly predicted that the Messiah would have to suffer all these things before entering his glory?” – Luke 24:25-26, NLT
And he began with Moses, and showed them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. In growing wonder, those disciples watched the features of the Messiah of Israel emerge from the pages of the Scripture they thought they knew.
With glowing hearts and eyes, they drank in his words, and before they realised it, they had reached Emmaus. He made as though he would have continued his journey and indeed would have done so, had not their earnest desire for him to remain constrained him. They found good reason to keep him in their midst. “Stay the night with us“, they said, “since it is getting late.”
As they sat at the table with him, he took and blessed the bread and gave it to them. And in the breaking of bread, he was made known to them. With their recognition, he had gone, disappearing from their sight, and they were alone, learning the lesson Jesus had taught Mary Magdelene in the garden. While he would not be with them in bodily form to which they could cling to, as before, he would always be with them.
In spite of the lateness of the hour and the dangers of the road, the two disciples returned that same hour to Jerusalem to tell the disciples the wondrous news. They found them assembled together, full of awe and excitement. Jesus had appeared to Peter. He had come to him alone. A moving, personal crisis lies hidden behind that simple record.
They were discussing these amazing events behind locked doors because they were in danger of arrest. It was impossible to guess at the next steps the priests would take, but it was reasonable to expect that the disciples would be involved in it.
Suddenly, they were aware of Jesus in their midst. His familiar voice was soothing to their tremulous hearts. But they were not easily calmed: the mode of his appearance encouraged their belief that it was a spirit. To convince them that though he was no longer confined to the limitations of mortal life, he was indeed the Christ, he showed them the marks of the nails in his hands and his feet, inviting them to handle him and assure themselves of his reality. He demonstrated the relationship that remained between them by eating fish and honey. John shows, by his understatement, the inability of words to describe the feelings of the apostles:
“Then were the disciples glad when they saw the Lord.” – John 20:20, ESV
Having fully convinced them, he delivered to them their commission.
“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” John 20:21, NLT
From their joy of heart at the revelation that their Lord was alive to die no more was to flow their apostolic ministry. “He that believes on me“, Jesus had said before his death, “the works that I do will he do also: and greater works than these will he do, because I go to my Father.“
Their work was to be greater in scope and in time than his could be, but it was only effective because it issued from his indefinitely greater work of redemption. So it was that, breathing upon them the Holy Spirit, an earnest of the Pentecostal fire, they were able, by their divine commission, to remit or retain the sins of men. The prerogative must always remain with God, but the call to forgiveness and salvation would come from the Spirit-energised work of the Apostles.
Jesus appeared again to the eleven on a mountain in Galilee and on another occasion, Paul tells us that more than five hundred met him. He commissioned the Apostles to go forth in his name, teaching all nations and baptising those who believed. Though they would not see him, he would be with them in their labours.
Finally, the day came when they saw their Lord for the last time. He led them out as he had so often done before to the Mount of Olives. They climbed over the brow of the hill until the city was lost to view and Bethany lay before them across the valley. He commanded them to wait in Jerusalem until they should be endued with power from on high. He lifted up his hands and blessed them.
And as he blessed them, he was taken up from them until a cloud received him from their sight. They watched, fascinated, his words of blessing still in their ears. And then two angels stood by them in glistening garments.
“Men of Galilee,” they said, “why are you standing here staring into heaven? Jesus has been taken from you into heaven, but someday he will return from heaven in the same way you saw him go!” – Acts 1:11
They had learned their lesson; they knew that although the heavens had received him, he was with them still. With great joy in their hearts,they returned to Jerusalem to offer their lives to his service.
“He included everyone in his death so that everyone could also be included in his life, a resurrection life, a far better life than people ever lived on their own.” – 2 Corinthians 5:15, MSG
Two thousand years later, we find ourselves in their place. The world has changed strangely since their time, but the Gospel has not changed, nor has the commission. As throughout their troubled lives, they looked beyond to the final glory, so we echo their words, “Even so, come Lord Jesus.” And while we work and watch and pray, we hear, as they did, the words of the Lord,
“I will be with you always, even until the end of the world.”, Matthew 28:20, CEV