By Donald S. Tingle
I wasn’t there 2,000 years ago when Jesus’ followers claimed he rose from the dead. What should I make of the story?
At first glance it seems preposterous—even impossible—that someone could rise from the dead, never to die again. And yet followers of Christ throughout the world claim that is exactly what happened. Are they deluded, or have they stumbled upon a reality that affects their lives in a fundamental way?
Mary Magdalene’s Claim
Let’s look at the story once again in John 20:1-29. Mary Magdalene and some other women came to the tomb to finish burial preparations for Jesus. It was still dark when Mary left home, but by the time she arrived at the tomb, morning rays from the sun revealed that the grave had been disturbed. The stone was rolled from the door. Guards who had been posted at the tomb (mentioned in Matthew) were nowhere to be found.
Mary immediately rushed to tell Peter and John what she saw. The tomb was empty. Somebody moved the body, but where? She didn’t know. Who did it? She didn’t know that, either.
Peter and John ran to the tomb to see for themselves. Outside things were in disarray, tossed about by an earthquake and the hasty retreat of the guards. John arrived first, stooped down, and looked inside. He could see grave clothes that had wrapped the body, but where was the body? Peter rushed past him. Everything in the tomb was orderly—nothing out of place. The grave clothes that had been wrapped around Jesus’ body lay neatly on the ledge. And the cloth that had covered Jesus’ face lay neatly where the head would have been.
John says he entered the tomb and believed. But what did he believe? That Mary had been telling the truth when she said the tomb was empty? Or that Jesus had become a ghost? Based on verse 9, “For as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead” (New American Standard Bible), whatever he believed was probably quite limited.
Peter and John went home perplexed. Mary, who had followed them, chose to stay. She grieved for her beloved teacher who had died and now had disappeared. She began to weep. Through her tears she noticed two men in white inside the tomb, one at either end of the grave clothes. Did she recognize them as angels, or had her tears and grief obscured her vision?
They asked, “Why are you weeping?”
“Because they have taken my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
She sensed someone was behind her and turned around to see who it was. Thinking it was the local gardener, she pleaded, “Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away.”
He called to her, “Mary.” The gardener wouldn’t have known her name. The voice was unmistakable. Her eyes met his. Immediately she recognized Jesus, threw her arms around him, and cried out, “Rabboni (My Teacher)!”
She didn’t want to let go, but Jesus gently 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.’” Since Jesus gave her good news to deliver, she let go. She sought out the disciples and said to them, “I have seen the Lord”—not his dead body, but a living Jesus who stood before her and spoke to her.
The Disciples’ Claim
That night the disciples huddled together behind closed doors, talking about the strange events of the day. They were frightened. Jewish leaders had already paid the soldiers who had guarded the tomb to circulate a story that Jesus’ disciples came at night and stole his body (Matthew 28:11-15). Perhaps they might arrest the disciples for tomb robbing.
Then Jesus appeared in the middle of the group and greeted them, “Peace be with you.” He showed them his hands and side. This was his body. He was not just a spirit. They could see the nail marks in his wrists from the crucifixion and the gaping hole where the spear pierced his side, and yet he was alive, full of vitality beyond their imagination. He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” At that moment they shared something of his vitality, a supernatural strength and comfort that was a new experience for each of them.
Thomas had been elsewhere. When the disciples told him about Jesus’ appearance, he said he would never believe them—not until he touched Jesus’ nail-scarred hands and thrust his hand in Jesus’ spear-pierced side. Eight days later, Jesus reappeared to the group and singled out Thomas and invited him to touch and see for himself. Thomas, overcome with wonder in the presence of an indestructible life, uttered the simple praise, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus then said something meant for all who would come later, including us: “Because you have seen me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.”
Jesus’ spoke this for my benefit too. I was not there 2,000 years ago, but I believe the testimony that Jesus conquered death. Even though I was not a witness to his resurrection, I have been blessed because I believe.
It comforts me when I say goodbye to those I love. In October 2011, I held my wife Linda’s hand as she breathed her last, losing a battle with cancer. We had been married 42 years, serving the Lord together. Because of what Jesus did, I firmly believe death is not the end of her story. I believe that since Jesus conquered death, he will come back for her and the rest of us someday and conquer death for us too.
Jesus showed his union with all of his disciples when he said, “I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.” He is the great link between frail humanity and God who is the source of all life.
Why Should We Believe?
What evidence do we have that the Gospel story is true? On the surface it sounds so fantastic. There are many evidences, but I find one most compelling.
When you look at the Gospel story, consider who believed in Jesus’ resurrection first and who believed in it last. The first to believe were the guards at the tomb, mentioned in Matthew 28. They told the Jewish religious leaders what happened. The next to believe were the Jewish religious leaders. They believed the soldiers so completely that they gave the soldiers a large sum of money to fabricate a story about the disciples stealing Jesus’ body at night while they slept (an absurd notion considering that a soldier asleep at his post could face execution).
Then Mary and some other women believed. Only after that did the apostles believe, and it took a second appearance to Thomas to get them all to accept it.
If I were an apostle or disciple writing the story, I would want to make myself look good and list myself among the first to believe. Yet Jesus’ enemies are listed first, and after that some women. It seems to me the eyewitness writers of the Gospels had to swallow a great deal of pride to confess that it took so long to convince them of Jesus’ resurrection.
What Jesus did 2,000 years ago has direct bearing on us today. We have hope. Death is not the end of it all. We will rise again, not to an existence of endless drudgery, but to a full life. It was good news back then, and it is good news today. When Jesus appeared behind closed doors to his disciples, he commissioned them to go and tell people this good news. He said, “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you” (John 20:21). We continue to be sent with the message of life to friends, family, and the remote regions of the world, until the day of resurrection for us all.
Donald S. Tingle is the Executive Director of COMENSERV, a ministry to Muslims, and lives most of the year in Kosovo. Read more of his writings at www.writingsbytingle.com.
Skepticism and the Resurrection
Good Questions on Belief & Doubt
(Standard Publishing, 2011)
The Case for Christ’s Resurrection
by David W. Balsiger, Michael Minor
(Bridge-Logos Foundation, 2007)
Risen: 50 Reasons Why the Resurrection Changed Everything
by Steven D. Mathewson
(Baker Publishing Group, 2012)
Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, The Resurrection, and The Mission of the Church
by N.T. Wright
(Harper Collins, 2008)