Scripture Reading: Matthew 28; Mark 16; Luke 24; John 20-21
Significant Moments in The Story:
The women find the tomb empty – Matthew 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-12; John 20:1-10
Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene – Matthew 28:9-10; John 20:11-18
Jesus appears to two disciples on the road to Emmaus – Luke 24:13-35
Jesus appears to all of the disciples except Thomas – Luke 24:36-49; John 20:19-23
Jesus appears again to the disciples and to Thomas – John 20:26-29
Jesus’ commission – Matthew 28:16-20; Luke 24:44-49; John 21:15-19
“He is not here, he is risen”
Christianity is recognized by our crosses. We place them on top of and in our sanctuaries, we wear them around our necks, we magnetize them to our cars. Yet, the cross is not the defining moment of our faith. It is true, as we discussed last week, that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ carries great meaning and significance in our understanding of our relationship with God. However, there are many men and women throughout history who suffered unjustly, who died as martyrs, who hung on crosses. The resurrection is the distinct and defining proclamation of the Christian faith. It is through the lens of resurrection that we are able to understand the person of Jesus Christ and the significance of his life and his death. The resurrection is the reason why we have hope, and it is the event that transformed a group of frightened disciples into the missional movement they became as the early church.
Even in the midst of the gospel accounts of this miraculous and amazing event of resurrection, a very familiar theme rings out: God is inviting creation to join Him in the work that He is doing to restore mankind to a right relationship with Him. The gospel accounts (except perhaps Mark, which we will discuss later) all include the risen Lord inviting his disciples to take up the ministry he had begun and now fulfilled – proclaim salvation, offer forgiveness, tangibly love a hurting world. Compare the commissions of Matthew 28 and Luke 24 with God’s calling of Abraham in Genesis 12. Do you see any correlation between these messages?
The testimony of the women
Though all the gospels agree that it was women who first discovered the empty tomb, the identity and number of these women differs in each account. All 4 universally account for the presence of Mary Magdalene, but John has her coming alone, Matthew says she was accompanied by “the other Mary” (identified in Mark and Luke as the mother of James) and Mark and Luke mention other women present.
The reason why the women have come is to anoint the body for burial, part of the traditional burial ritual. It was customary that such a task would not be done on the Sabbath, which would have begun at sundown on Friday and concluded at sundown on Saturday. Thus, the women have come early in the morning on Sunday to complete what was customary.
Luke tells us that the disciples did not originally believe the news the women brought. Though it is sometimes assumed that this was because the testimony of women was not generally accepted, this does not seem to be the case in this particular moment. Instead, the reason for the disciples’ disbelief has more to do with their not understanding what Jesus had meant when he said he would rise again and their inability to comprehend such a miracle.
Leonard Sweet shared the following comment on Facebook this week which should give us pause as we consider the role of the women in the announcement of Christ’s resurrection: “How can a church silence the voices of women when you can’t tell the story of Holy Week without hearing the voices of women?”
Much like the number and identity of the women, the gospels have a slightly different accounting for the messenger who declared the news that Jesus had risen from the dead. Mark’s gospel says a “young man dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side (inside the tomb)” told the women what had happened. Though the white robe can be a symbol of purity, Mark does not directly ascribe any kind of other-wordly characteristic to the messenger.
Luke also avoids using the word “angel” in his account. Instead, Luke says the women heard the news from “two men in dazzling clothes” who appeared beside them in the tomb.
Matthew says that an angel descended from heaven and sat on the stone that had been in front of the tomb and announced to the women that the tomb was empty. John also describes two angels, sitting where Jesus’ body had been lying. However, they do not appear until after Peter and the “other disciple” have come and found the tomb empty.
One or two? Men or angels? Before, during, or after the women and others entered the tomb? There really is no way to harmonize these details from the gospel accounts. However, based on the fact that all four gospels came to be of significance in the early church, it seems that the discrepancy in these details across the accounts was of no concern. Instead, the focus for the early church was on the point that all four gospels agree upon – the announcement that Christ had risen from the dead and that his disciples should get ready to see him.
The “other disciple” in John
In the Passion and resurrection narratives of John, we are introduced to the disciple “whom Jesus loved” (John 13:21-30, John 20:1-10, John 21:20-25). This disciple is given no name anywhere in the text. Based on John 21:24-25, this “beloved disciple” has traditionally been associated with John and the author of the gospel. However, a closer reading of John 21:24-25 shows us that, though the gospel is said to be based on the testimony of this disciple, the gospel was not written by him. John 21:20-23 seems to suggest that a false rumor had circulated at some point that Christ would return before the death of this disciple.
Some Questions that Might Come Up
Where does Mark’s gospel end?
One of the great Biblical mysteries is how the gospel of Mark ends. Some of the most ancient manuscripts of Mark conclude the gospel with Mark 16:8, with no record of any resurrection appearances by Jesus. Other manuscripts, including some ancient ones, include Mark 16:9-20 as the conclusion of the gospel, though most scholars feel that there is evidence in the text and style of these verses that indicates it was not written by the same author as the rest of the gospel and was probably a later addition, though not much later.
If the shorter ending is accepted as the original ending, it certainly should not suggest that Mark did not believe in any post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. In Mark 14:28, Jesus tells the disciples, “But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” The young man echoes these words when he tells the women, “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you” (Mark 16:7).
Verses 9-20, particularly 17-18, have been pivotal verses in some charismatic and pentecostal Christian movements which have focused on snake-handling and drinking poison as part of the worship of the church. It should be noted that there are no exact New Testament parallels to believers picking up snakes or drinking poison without harm. The closest one might come is Acts 28:3-6, when Paul is accidentally bitten by a snake and suffers no harm.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the shorter ending of Mark is that the women are seen fleeing from the tomb in terror. “… and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid”(Mark 16:8b). This seems a somewhat discouraging note upon which to end the gospel. However, it could also be an intentional bit of suspense, for if this gospel has been written and the events learned about by the gospel writer, then obviously the women told someone what they found! In some ways, the shorter ending would fit well with the “Messianic secret” theme of Mark’s gospel. Throughout the gospel, Jesus is heard telling his disciples and those who he exorcised and healed not to tell anyone who he was. Yet, with all these instructions, the word could not be stopped. Perhaps the shorter ending was the original ending to convey a similar truth.