“The one named Cleopas answered him, ‘Are you the only visitor in Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that happened there in these days?’ ‘What things?’ he asked them. So they said to him, ‘The things concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet powerful in action and speech before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him. But we were hoping that he was the one who was about to redeem Israel. Besides all this, it’s the third day since these things happened. Moreover, some women from our group astounded us. They arrived early at the tomb, and when they didn’t find his body, they came and reported that they had seen a vision of angels who said he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they didn’t see him.'” (CSB – Read the chapter)
On the third day, Jesus rose. In three days, should our Lord tarry, we will celebrate that great truth with joy and gladness. Should He not tarry, we’ll celebrate His great return which will be even better. Yet the day it happened, nobody expected it. Nobody. Not a single person. Even the people who were witnesses to the risen Lord at first couldn’t recognize Him because they didn’t even have a category for His being alive. As we prepare to celebrate the best news of all, let’s reflect on one of the more humorous scenes after the resurrection.
One of the things about the various stories of Jesus’ resurrection that has long been the funniest to me is also one of the things that lends all the stories the most credibility. To repeat the point: no one thought it was going to happen. One of the charges that sometimes gets levied against the Christian faith is that it is really just the work of enterprising followers of Jesus capitalizing on the vulnerabilities of people who thought Jesus could be the Messiah, but were simply sorely disappointed by His crucifixion. From being on the inside of Jesus’ movement for so long, these guys all saw the opportunity to make a power play that would set them up for life. All it would take was a little deception at the start and the whole thing would fairly well run itself.
If they were going to do this kind of thing, though, it was going to be important for them to set themselves up in the founding myths they created as the heroes of the story. They needed for the people to see them as wise and good and even more than that powerful. If the people didn’t see them as worth following, they weren’t going to be able to get the power for themselves they were seeking. They would quickly lose control of the movement and it could easily turn and eat them up.
Well, given that the most foundational myth was that Jesus rose from the dead, the best way to firm up their position in the minds and hearts of the people they were hoping to attract to their movement was to present themselves as having always known it was going to happen. They needed to position themselves in the story as there waiting when Jesus came walking out of His tomb to give them the power and authority to continue His movement before going back to the Father where no one else could see Him (because if He didn’t immediately go away, they would have eventually had to produce a body which would have really complicated their efforts).
And yet, this is exactly what we don’t find in any of the stories. Instead, they were clueless. No one was waiting outside the tomb with a countdown ready to go. When He started to reveal Himself to them they either didn’t recognize Him at all or else freaked out because they thought they were seeing a ghost. They didn’t for a second believe any of the initial reports the women brought about the tomb’s being empty. In this particular case, they patiently explained to Jesus why His whole movement was a failure because of His death and that even the crazy stories from the women about an empty tomb weren’t going to change that.
Put yourself in this story for just a second. Imagine walking with Cleopas and the other disciple as Jesus walks up and asks why you’re all looking so glum. Awash in your grief over Jesus’ tragic and violent demise at the hands of the religious authorities and the Romans and shocked that this odd stranger had not heard about all the commotion surrounding His very public death, you don’t recognize Him at all. Something about Him draws the truth out of you and you all out yourselves as His followers—something the rest of the group has been pretty cautious of keeping under wraps for fear Rome might do what they often did after crucifying the leader of a movement and seek to round up all of His followers to crucify them too.
You go on to tell Him how you were all hopeful that He really was the Messiah, but that His death had put the kibosh on that. And, yes, the women had returned from their trip to finish the embalming process on His dead body raving about an empty tomb and an angel proclaiming He was alive, but when some of the men who were much more reliable checked out their story, while they found the tomb was in fact empty, they didn’t see any evidence He was alive.
For His part, Jesus chides them for not properly understanding the Scriptures. He goes on to give them a full review of the Hebrew Scriptures with an eye toward seeing how they prove the Messiah not only had to die, but that He was going to be resurrected (wouldn’t you like to have been able to hear that lesson?!?). During all of this exchange, they still don’t recognize Him. They don’t recognize Him when they invite Him to join them for dinner. They don’t recognize Him, in fact, until He breaks bread before them and blesses it. Then He vanishes before their eyes. If these guys were blind enough not to recognize Jesus when He was standing right in front of them, how could they be trusted to lead a movement in His name?
No, the truly unavoidable conclusion from reading all of these stories is that all of these guys were presenting what they sincerely believed was the truth about what happened on Sunday morning and in the days that followed. They were simply giving the facts without any thought of how those facts were going to make them look. As long as people heard those facts and turned to Jesus, they didn’t care what they thought about them. Their goal was to point people to Jesus and nothing else. What happened from there would be led by the Spirit. He might work through them, or He might not, but they were going to point people to Jesus all the same. Because He was alive after having been dead and that made Him someone worth following.
Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is a fact of history. There’s simply not a rational way to avoid that when you take in all the evidence. All theories and ideas to the contrary have been decisively shown to be myths and fabrications aimed at deceiving people. How ironic it is that the story often lampooned as being an intentional deception wrought by clever religious hucksters is the one story that is actually true. And now the question you have to address is what you are going to do about it.
If Jesus really rose from the dead, what are you going to do about it? You can try to live your life like it didn’t happen or that it doesn’t matter, but to do so is to walk a path of irrationality. If Jesus is alive, that has implications for how you should live your life. What are you going to do about those? There’s only one answer that makes any sense: accept Him as Lord and commit to doing life His way as one of His followers. This Easter, as Jesus followers the world over celebrate His resurrection, I invite you to join them perhaps for the first time as one who has received this most important of all truths and is going to do something about it.