Looking at the Light through John - Chapter 20

The Resurrection

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the core distinguishing mark of Christianity. Even at His death, there were two others on crosses, so the crucifixion itself would not make Christianity unique. But the raising of Jesus from the dead, never to die again, sets the Christian religion apart as something very different from any other claimants to revelation sent from God.

One of the key ingredients in establishing the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the testimony of reliable witnesses. These witnesses would be limited to those who knew Him so well during the days of His flesh that they could not possibly be mistaken as to the identity of the One standing before them. They would have to identify positively the One resurrected as the same One they saw crucified. Thus the gospel accounts record the stories of some of those who saw Jesus after He was raised. The stories are interesting and show that, while Jesus’ earlier comments on His resurrection were heard by the Sadducees and Pharisees, they went over the heads of the disciples.

The Lord God is the perfect communicator, and sets things up so that the message He wants to come through is as clear as can possibly be to befuddled man. The Lord was allowing the earliest reports of the empty tomb to come to the disciples with the sense that the body of Jesus had been stolen from the grave. That Mary Magdalene believed in that the corpse was missing, and that Peter and John joined her in that misapprehension, are necessary ingredients in establishing the truth of their later testimony that the Christ had indeed been resurrected. The scriptures record the confusion, and continue in all respects to have the solid ring of truth.

Peter, John, and the Empty Tomb

One of Jesus’ last acts while on the cross was to turn the care of His mother over to the apostle John. This fixed the Lord’s death as inevitable, and the disciples from that point on undoubtedly experienced great grief and great loss of purpose in knowing that the one they perceived to be the Messiah was dead. Their mentor, their friend, and their hopes were all gone in His death. In their minds, therefore, there was no concept that He would be back within three days, even though He had told them earlier that He would. Reports, then, of an empty tomb would not conjure up thoughts of a resurrection in their minds.

What John "believed" was not that Jesus had risen from the dead, but he "believed" Mary’s report that the body had been taken away. Further discouragement for these men with already broken dreams. "So the disciples went away to their own homes" (John 20:10).

Encounter with the Risen Christ

Mark recorded this about Mary Magdalene in his account: "Now after He had risen early on the first day of the week, He first appeared to Mary Magdalene, from whom He had cast out seven demons" (Mark 16:9). This is a key point in working out the chronology of the events connected with Jesus’ resurrection. Mary Magdalene went first to the tomb, then went and got Peter and John who ran to the tomb. They checked out the empty tomb and returned to their homes. Jesus then appeared to Mary at the tomb, but she was gone by the time the other women arrived with their spices.

What an emotional roller-coaster this woman must have been on that day! Not only knowing that her Master has been crucified, she goes to the tomb, finding that the body is gone and assuming that it is stolen. Peter and John are no help; they return to their homes. Then, at the tomb while she searches, she actually encounters the risen Christ. He’s alive! And what a reversal of emotions for her!

A Teaching Moment

One of the names for Jesus in the scriptures is "the Teacher." As the great Teacher sent from heaven, the Lord used every situation as a "teaching moment," laying the foundation in His students’ minds for structures to be built in the future. One of His objectives, then, was to prepare His disciples for the next step. And because the next step would be something in the spiritual realm or of a spiritual nature, the disciples generally had a hard time grasping what was being communicated. But those lessons and the eventual execution of the spiritual event are written for our benefit, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Thus the character of our Teacher is revealed, and the principles of those lessons communicate to us that He is still teaching us in the same way, if we will only follow.

It is understandable that the disciples were having a difficult time believing the first report by Mary Magdalene that Jesus was alive. They had already resigned themselves to His passing, and their minds were not going to allow them to engage in false hopes. But Jesus had already begun to prepare them for the stage following His appearances on earth: His ascension to glory. "Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and He was buried, and He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve" (I I Corinthians 15:3-5). Then He appeared to more than five hundred, then to James, then to all the apostles. Then He ascended! Then He appeared to Paul on the Damascus Road.

The Ascension

When Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene, He told her, "Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to My brethren, and say to them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God,’ " (John 20:17). Because this passage is often translated using the word "touch" instead of "clinging," some have drawn the conclusion that as soon as Jesus finished speaking with Mary, He ascended to the Father. Then He could reappear and be "touched" by other witnesses. In Matthew’s account, for example, the other women who came to the tomb and who spoke to the angel, left the tomb "with fear and great joy and ran to report it to the disciples. And behold, Jesus met them and greeted them. And they came up and took hold of His feet and worshiped Him" (Matthew 28:8,9). Thus Jesus, from this perspective, would have ascended to glory, and then made multiple returns in a "flesh and bones" form before His final ascension as recorded in Acts chapter one.

Mark’s account is very succinct: "So then, when the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God" (Mark 16:19). After that He never appeared again on earth in "flesh and bones."

Appearing to the Apostles

While the apostles really did not hear Jesus’ statements that He would rise again on the third day, His enemies did. Referring to Himself in the third person, the Lord noted, "And after they have scourged Him, they will kill Him; and the third day He will rise again" (Luke 18:33). Although the statements are plain, Luke adds this insertion: "And they understood none of these things, and this saying was hidden from them, and they did not comprehend the things that were said" (Luke 18:34). The chief priests and the Pharisees, however, had heard and understood those words, and persuaded Pilate to set a guard around the tomb so that no one could steal the body and claim that a resurrection had occurred. When the guarded tomb turned up empty, the chief priests were so intent on preventing any message of hope concerning Jesus from getting out that they bribed the soldiers to say that the body had been stolen while said soldiers were sleeping. For the apostles, then, the political climate was volatile!

This was the first appearance by Jesus to the bulk of the apostles. In a stepwise fashion, He had orchestrated earlier appearances to others on a more individual basis before He demonstrated His resurrection to the group of the apostles. In this way, the witnesses were a little more prepared for His dramatic entrance to the locked room, and their later testimony would be more reliable.

Preparation for the coming Spirit

The Lord was not only Master, but He was also Teacher. Good teachers have a knack for sowing the seeds for and setting the stage for future lesson, and in this also Jesus was the superb example. As He had begun to prepare Mary Magdalene for His upcoming ascension, so He now was preparing the apostles for the coming Holy Spirit.

The gospel account of John is loaded with references to the Holy Spirit, both direct and indirect. It was advantageous for Jesus to return to glory, noted the Lord, adverting "If I go, I will send [the Spirit] to you" (John 16:7). "That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit" was another of His more direct presagements (John 3:6). Whether He was speaking of rivers of living water or of the bread of life, the Christ was looking to the coming of the Spirit in the age of the New Covenant. None of this was understandable at the time Jesus was speaking from earth, but those things were spoken and recorded so that those who have the rest of the new covenant writings have the ability to look back and understand the importance that Jesus was placing on the Spirit.

Jesus was working on a definite plan. He, of course, had known all along that He would be crucified, raised from the dead, and returned to heaven. He had known that the plan was to send the Holy Spirit to reveal to the apostles the substance of Jesus’ coronation in glory. His challenge was to bring these disciples "up to speed," and His breathing on them was how He chose to begin the process.

Forgiveness and Retention of Sins

Because of His sacrifice on behalf of men, Jesus received "all authority." The combined voice of the myriads of the heavenly host proclaim, "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power …" (Revelation 5:12). And because He is worthy, He has received the concomitant authority as the ultimate Judge. "For not even the Father judges anyone," were the words of the Son of God, "but He has given all judgment to the Son" (John 5:22). God, was the attestation of Paul, "has fixed a day in which He will judge the world through a Man whom He has appointed," that Man being Jesus (Acts 17:31). Exalted to God’s right hand, Jesus has authority to "grant repentance [first] to Israel [then later, to the Gentiles], and forgiveness of sins" (Acts 5:31). Knowing His exaltation was on its way, the Lord spoke to the apostles concerning the forgiveness of sins in conjunction with the coming Holy Spirit.

The mercy of God is most evident in His willingness to tender forgiveness of sins to lost and dying man. To release man from his bondage first required the death of Jesus Christ, a graphic and horrible death which communicates the severity of man’s sin problem, and how much it took God to open the pathway out from such abject slavery. Then the terms of forgiveness were announced by the apostles, terms that have never changed: "Repent, and let each of you be immersed in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38). Hear, and obey!

Thomas the Truth-seeker

While men exercise their free will, God somehow manages to have the right people in the right place at the right time. Thus, by the apostle Thomas’ choice and by the hand of God, Thomas was not present with the rest of the apostles when Jesus appeared to them in the shut-up house. This absence is a key component in making it clear, for example, that the apostles did not receive the indwelling Spirit when Jesus breathed on them; the Lord would not have had ten apostles "born again" while leaving one out, because they were early on to operate as a unit. But Thomas’ absence also set the stage for how resistant he personally was to any apparently nonsensical talk about Jesus’ being raised from the dead.

Thomas had legitimate concerns about the veracity of the others’ account of Jesus’ resurrection. The Lord would honor those concerns by appearing to Thomas, The Lord would also honor the legitimate concerns of those in the following centuries by providing the accounts of the eyewitnesses, by recording the attesting miracles, and by supplying the Old Testament prophecies — enough to convince any honest skeptic!

My Lord and My God

The Lord’s plan from all eternity was for a small number of witnesses to be able to testify that Jesus’ resurrection was an actual event. Hence the appearances of the Lord to chosen disciples were orchestrated events, although the people involved were still operating under their own free will. In contemplating such a scope of events, apostle Paul exclaimed, quoting the Old Testament: "For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor!" (Romans 11:34). Thus it was that the eleven minus Thomas assembled behind closed doors on the day of Jesus’ resurrection, and He then appeared to them. And thus it was, a week later, that Thomas was with the others, behind closed doors again.

The reflective Thomas was going to have to be certain that Jesus was indeed raised from the dead, because for him the implications of that resurrection were shattering. He had concluded that if Jesus were resurrected, He was not only his Lord, but was his God! It seems as if the Almighty held the appearance of the resurrected Christ to Thomas in abeyance; Thomas was going to draw a conclusion that the rest of them had not yet come to. When that worthy disciple exclaimed that Jesus was God, the rest of them — because a week had passed since they had seen Him — were now ready for this further revelation. Greatly and truly blessed are those who believe without seeing, but upon hearing the testimony of these events!

The Signs

Many, such as Thomas Jefferson, couldn’t believe in Jesus, they said, because they couldn’t believe the Bible’s record of the miracles that Jesus performed. But those who think along those lines simply haven’t clearly thought the entire issue through. Put yourself in Jesus’ place. Imagine that you have drawn your inner circle near to yourself, and you say to them, "You have come to know me well. Now it is time for me to let you in on a little secret: I am God!" Do you think your close circle of friends are going to draw nearer in excited belief in you, or do you think they will be making a hasty retreat? Jesus was human; He put His sandals on one foot at a time. He looked human; anyone looking at Him could see that He was human; so how could He possibly be God? The Lord’s approach would have to be one in which He did some things so that the observers would draw the appropriate conclusion. Early on in Jesus’ ministry, when He participated in the Passover following His immersion, He cleansed the temple, and then went the next step. John recorded: "Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name, beholding the signs which He was doing" (John 2:23). The signs and wonders were necessary and logical, not unbelievable as the skeptic and the deist would claim.

The great God is the great Communicator. He has, through the written record, given sufficient evidence that, when collected and contemplated, constitutes proof that Jesus is who He said He is, and that the Bible is indeed God’s word. At the same time the presentation is so delicately balanced that if a person wants to disbelieve, he can, like Thomas Jefferson and others, discount the record of the signs as being patently unbelievable from the start. "He who comes to God," said the author of Hebrews, "must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him" (Hebrews 11:6).

The Christ, the Son of God

"You are the Christ," said Peter, "the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16:16). This was the first time "the good confession" was made in its fullness. Earlier, the Samaritan woman had been told by Jesus personally that He was the Christ, and she invited the Samaritans to come and see the Christ, but the full confession admits not only Jesus as the Christ but also His Lordship as the Son of God. Peter was the first to make the full connection and was therefore commended by the Lord as the one to receive the keys to the kingdom. The gospel according the John, then, is a carefully crafted account of the life of Jesus on earth, filling in the gaps of the synoptic gospels, and building the believable case that Jesus is indeed the Christ, the Son of God!

"These have been written," was the affirmative thrust of John the aged apostle, "that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name" (John 20:31). Fellowship with the Father — which is the same as "life," for the name of that loss of fellowship is "death" — is found only in the name of Jesus Christ. "This is eternal life," Jesus Himself had reiterated to the Father, "that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent" (John 17:3). Make the confession that Jesus is the Christ with the mouth, and follow that with a lifestyle that verifies your belief in that confession!