You might think from the amount of attention it gets that Christmas is the most important day on our calendar. But the real reason we celebrate the birth of Jesus is what happened after his death. If there were no Easter morning – no stone rolled away to reveal a grave with no corpse, no disciples running this way and that, confused and frightened, no Jesus appearing to different groups of them, to talk and eat with them – it’s unlikely his followers would have fanned out across the world, armed with nothing – except their faith that Jesus had conquered death’s power to destroy, their love for him and all those he’d died for, and their hope that the indestructible life he rose to will be given to everyone who trusts him – and in the end given to the whole creation. Christmas without Easter would merely mark the birth of yet another man long dead. It wouldn’t be a day of ‘good news of great joy for all people.’
I still remember something an elderly African lady once said: “If all the missionaries who ever came here stood up together and said, “It’s not true. Jesus didn’t rise from the dead!” – I wouldn’t believe them. I know for myself he’s alive!”
She was one of a very long line of women who’ve said the same, going right back to the first people to discover Jesus is alive. In one way, the fact they were women isn’t surprising. They’d attended to Jesus’ physical needs in his lifetime, so they wanted to attend to his body when he was dead – to make sure it was packed properly with the necessary spices. They’d seen the hurried way it was put to rest on the Friday afternoon.
What is strange is that the four men who eventually wrote down what happened relied on details supplied by those women. Back then, if you wanted to convince people Jesus had risen from the dead, you mightn’t want to rely on what women saw and heard, or at least not admit that you had. A woman’s testimony was not admissible in a court of law, so to say that women were the first to see inside the tomb, the only ones to hear what God’s messengers said, the first to speak with the risen Christ, was to invite disbelief.
Paul knew better than to include those women in the list of witnesses he wrote down, in his letter to the Christians in Corinth. So why do all four Gospel-writers tell us women were the first witnesses of the event, that would turn the world upside down when news of it spread? Was it because the women were the first witnesses? The Gospel-writers were, after all, committed to following Jesus, whose moral standards were the highest, so we can assume they were making an honest attempt to tell the world what actually happened – as remembered by the confused and frightened people, each on their own emotional roller-coaster, who were there when it happened.
It concerns some people that the four accounts we have of Jesus rising from the dead are different. For example, the number of women: Matthew speaks of two – Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James; Mark adds Salome, and Luke adds Joanna and others. John speaks only of Mary Magdalene, but anyone who’s lived in that part of the world knows how unlikely it is a woman would be by herself, in such a place at such a time. Certainly for Mary’s first trip to the tomb when it was till dark, at least one other would have been with her – whom John saw no need to mention. Another difference is that Luke and John speak of two angels at the tomb and Matthew and Mark of one.
Heightened emotions and the general confusion may have contributed to memories being different. But four writers will always vary – in what they take from their sources, in the way they present their material, in what they choose to highlight. In fact, the differences are rather reassuring. Witnesses who say exactly the same thing in the same way are usually considered unreliable.
The differences in the four accounts we have of Jesus’ resurrection pale in the light of what the writers agree on. All state it was very early in the morning on the first day of the week. Matthew, Mark and Luke tell us women went to the tomb, saw the stone was rolled back from its entrance, and saw the body was no longer in it. They were told by someone in gleaming white, “He’s not here. He’s risen!” They were sent off to tell the disciples.
John in his Gospel tells us Mary Magdalene went to the tomb, found the stone rolled away, and ran to tell Peter and John the body was gone. After they’d run to see for themselves, she looked into the tomb and saw two messengers. One asked her why she was crying. She turned away, to see a man, standing. She mistook him for the gardener – until he spoke her name.
To be granted a conversation with the newly risen Ruler of the universe! There could be no higher honour for anyone, let alone a woman – one whose life was in tatters when she’d first encountered Jesus. He had healed her – ‘casting out seven devils,’ Luke tells us.
Women – very early in the morning – huge stone rolled back – no corpse – messengers telling them he’d risen – off to tell the disciples. In all four Gospels the essentials remain the same, whatever the differences. But from the very beginning it wasn’t the differences that were the hindrance to belief in the resurrection. The problem was the ancients knew as well as we do that dead men don’t rise from the dead.
But wait – this is the man who’d said, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen God.” His teaching was stamped with God’s authority, as were his miracles. The official reason the authorities sought his death was that he’d made himself equal with God. He’d applied to himself the old prophecies about the Messiah, God’s Son and chosen King, who’ll reign over the universe forever.
What’s more, Mark tells us of four times Jesus predicted his resurrection on the third day after his death. Not resuscitation – not the resurrection many Jews believed in: resurrection on the Day of Judgement at the end of time – not the life-cycle of the gods of ancient myths. This was the resurrection of the body of a human being, changed to transcend the limits of human life. That’s a unique event, far beyond the realm of science, which observes patterns of events. It would happen only if the Creator of every pattern chose to overturn one. Jesus predicted he would – and the evidence is that he did. So began God’s reversal of the decay into which the world has fallen, the beginning of his new creation, this world restored to the unsullied goodness it was meant to enjoy, and merged into God’s eternity.
Many people believe in life after death, but Easter is about resurrection. The tomb was empty. Jesus himself met and spoke, first to the women, then to Peter, then to a couple mourning his death as they walked home to Emmaus, and again that evening to the disciples as they were eating. Later he met with them in Galilee, as he’d told the women he would. On one occasion five hundred people were present.
The consequences of those combined events were, to say the very least, enormous, and continue to this day. That’s because the resurrection established that Jesus was telling the truth – he is God’s Son and chosen Messiah, the Saviour of a world that’s lost its way. It confirmed Jesus’ repeated promise that he will raise up everyone who believes in him. As well as vindicating Jesus, and offering us the hope of indestructible life, the resurrection was God’s sign that he will one day do for the whole cosmos what he did for Jesus on that Easter morning. There will be a new heaven and earth, under his Lordship.
This is how Paul defined such good news:
The gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures, regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God, by his resurrection from the dead – that is, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Once Paul had met the risen Lord on the road to Damascus, he spent the rest of his life spreading that good news. He lived under the rule of Emperors who proclaimed themselves to be the divine Lords everyone must worship, on pain of death. But that didn’t stop Paul. He knew Jesus was the real Lord, because he’d met him, and his life had been completely turned round.
In our lives, the presence of the risen Jesus makes all the difference. The preacher F.B. Meyer once told how he met a rather sad-looking woman on a train. They got talking and she related her story. For years she’d cared for a crippled daughter. Although every morning she’d had to leave for work, every evening had been spent together. But the daughter had died, and the grieving mother was alone and miserable. Meyer said to her, “When you get home and put the key in the door, say aloud, ’Jesus, I know You are here!’ and be ready to greet Him directly. As you light the fire, tell Him what’s happened during the day; if anyone’s been kind, tell Him; if anyone’s been unkind, tell Him, just as you would have told your daughter. At night stretch out your hand in the darkness and say, ’Jesus, I know You are here!’”
Some time later, Meyer met the woman again. He didn’t recognize her, she looked so different, but she recognized him. “I did what you told me,” she said. “Knowing He’s with me has changed everything.”
Let me share with you a little of my own experience of the risen Christ, changing, not my situation, but me – through the Holy Spirit he’s given to every believer. In a way it’s a small experience, but nonetheless very real. One of my weekly tasks is teaching Scripture at our local school. I must admit that as the day approaches, I can think of other things I’d rather be doing. Each week as I sit down to prepare, the first thing I do is tell Jesus how I’m feeling, and every week, once I’ve unburdened myself to him, I feel differently. By the time I’ve read the truth from the Bible to be taught that week, I’m looking forward to sharing it – reassured that he’s with me. I can echo what the elderly African lady said, that if everyone else denied Jesus has risen, I would still know it’s true.
Thank you, Father, for the living Christ, present with us, just as he promised. All praise to you for the life-changing truth that he has risen. Amen.