LIFE SPRINGS FORTH: FROM DESPAIR TO HOPE!

Covid has changed the way we live. It has focused our attention on limitations, restrictions, and the reality of our mortality. Every day we hear of people whose lives have been taken by Covid. It has been a defining moment in the life of our planet, and for some its impact will alter their earthly life. Easter was also a defining moment in the life of our planet. The death and then the resurrection of Jesus not only changed lives 2,000 years ago but is still changing lives today. The apostle Paul tells us that ‘if Christ has not been raised your faith [our faith] is futile; you [we] are still in our sins (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:17), and death ends everything. But that is not the gospel: because Christ lives, we will also live, forever.

If we were to travel back to the crucifixion event, it was a defining moment that changed everything for the disciples, not just in their theological understanding, in which they now understood that their sins were forgiven through Christ’s sacrificial and substitutionary death, but initially it caused them much confusion and devastation. It seemed so unexpected, but once they discovered that Jesus had conquered death, it ultimately changed the trajectory of their entire futures. We could also say that other events in people’s lives are life-transforming; the loss of a spouse, the death of a child, a life changing accident, wars, famines, and pestilence can be added to that list of life altering moments changing our future trajectory or direction in life. What can we learn from the disciples in their experiences of despair, confusion, joy, and then the implications of Jesus’ resurrection?  What kind of lessons is God trying to initiate in our lives?

Historically, after times of incredible evil, people often go back to life as if nothing ever happened. I am sure for many Jewish people living during and after Christ’s resurrection, life continued with little or no change. In other words, these events were quickly dismissed, and nothing was learned from them.

In the past few weeks, I have been listening to a series of lectures on ‘Why Evil Exists.’ The instructor has tried to bring in various people and writings throughout human history to try and address the question. As I am nearing the end of the series and the discussion is centering in on the devastation of the holocaust as exposed at the end of WWII, one writer, addressing the nature of evil, is a French journalist by the name of Albert Camus, who developed a very humanistic approach to the issue of evil. Not that I agree with his thinking, but he did raise an interesting concern. While he was living in Paris during the Nazi occupation, he was part of the Resistance movement. He published an illegal paper called, Combat, written as four letters to a German friend explaining why resistance was necessary. In his novel, ‘The Plague,’ he uses the vehicle of a plague as an allegory of the ‘evil of Nazism.’ One of Camus’ concerns was that after such a time, people acknowledge that it was a very difficult time, but soon return to life without really addressing the issue of evil and the lessons that should be gleaned. This is often true in our own lives. Will we really learn from this time of Covid? What is it that God may be trying to say to us in a time where life has been put on hold in so many ways? Will we learn the lessons that were intended? What we are about to discover, here in Luke’s gospel, is something more wonderful that still has profound implications for us right now. Much more important is what the implications of Christ’s resurrection are on our lives moving forward. Can we, like the early disciples, experience a profound new beginning? The resurrection is designed to be ‘a new beginning’ in our lives.

What is amazing about the resurrection of Jesus is that it was foretold before it happened by both Jesus and the Scriptures. Here in the retelling of the event in the post resurrection moments prior to the day of Pentecost, the followers of Jesus were trying to make sense of what was transpiring. What difference did this event now make in their lives? What difference does it make in our lives? How should my life move forward in light of this reality? Initially, in the lives of these early disciples, we read that Peter and some of the disciples headed up to Galilee, because they were told to meet Jesus there. In John’s gospel we read that they decided to go fishing.

Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee. It happened this way: Simon Peter, Thomas (also known as Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together.

I’m going out to fish,’ Simon Peter told them, and they said, ‘We’ll go with you.’ So they went out and got into the boat but that night they caught nothing.[i]

Commentators are divided over what is transpiring here, and what is being communicated to us. Some commentators think that the disciples here are forsaking their mission, while others see this as nothing but occupying their time in order to provide something to eat. Yet the fact that this is mentioned means there must be something significant about it. New Testament scholar, D.A. Carson suggests something in between and states that there is a level of significance in the fact that they were still coming to terms of what the resurrection meant for their lives. I am in agreement with that assessment. Even though they had seen the resurrected Jesus, what did it mean for their lives moving forward? Possibly it created within them a sense of uncertainty.

But if Peter and his friends have neither apostatized nor sunk into despair, this fishing expedition and the dialogue that ensues do not read like the lives of men on a Spirit-empowered mission. It is impossible to imagine any of this taking place in Acts, after Pentecost. There is a certain eagerness for the risen Jesus, still strangely halting as the reality of Jesus’ resurrection is still sinking in. But most emphatically, this is not the portrait of believers who have received the promise of the Paraclete [Holy Spirit]. There is neither the joy or assurance, not to mention the sense of mission and the spirit of unity, that characterize the church when freshly endowed with the promised Spirit. …Although there is evidence that the nighttime was considered best for fishing on Galilee, one wonders if the Evangelist is not still employing one of his favourite symbols. They are coming to grips with the resurrection, but they still have not learned the profound truth that apart from Christ they can do nothing (15:5), and so that night they caught nothing (cf. Lk. 5:5).[ii]

Peter eerily had the same experience toiling all night fishing and catching nothing, when Jesus challenged him to try again, and he made an amazing catch. This expression of Jesus’ knowledge and goodness brought Peter to a state of repentance and acknowledgment of his own sinfulness. It was a defining moment in his life, where Peter turns to Jesus and wholly commits himself to following him. Turning to Luke 24, we discover three things we need to be reminded of and then understand their significance for our lives today which will impact our future.  Luke describes three post resurrection appearances which are designed to impact our future.

THE FIRST THING WE NEED TO BE REMINDED OF WHICH WILL IMPACT OUR FUTURE IS THE REALITY OF THE RESURRECTION

We need to remember that the early disciples were shattered by the crucifixion of Jesus. They had believed that he was the Messiah and their expectation of God’s kingdom being established was to have started. How do you pick up the pieces and move forward when your world comes crashing down? Yet, Luke tells us the amazing developments on that first Sunday morning after the crucifixion on that previous Friday afternoon. “On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb (Luke 24:1).”

There is no question that these women thought that Jesus was anything but dead. They had stood at the foot of the cross and saw him die. They had seen the soldier thrust his spear into Christ side to ensure that he was dead before removing his body from the cross.

Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down.

The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other.

But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs.

Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a flow of blood and water.[iii]

The bible leaves us no doubt that Jesus died on the cross. The burial preparations had been initiated upon Jesus being removed from the cross by Joseph of Arimathea, and Nicodemus.

Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away.

He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds.

Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen.

This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs.

At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid.

Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.[iv]

Notice that the tomb was in the garden where they had crucified Jesus. All the people in the city knew where the tomb was. Now, a day had elapsed, which was the Sabbath, the day of rest. Nothing had been done, but now on the following morning, the first day of the week, women hastily headed to the tomb to complete what had begun of the burial preparations. Other gospel writers point out that they were wondering how the stone could be removed (cf. Mark 16:3-Who will roll the stone away from the entrance to the tomb). However, upon arriving there, the stone had been rolled away.

They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.

While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them.[v]

Luke reveals to us that these were angels. The response of people to angelic appearances is generally one of fear. 

In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead?

He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee:

‘The Son of Man must be delivered up to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’ Then they remembered his words.[vi]

So far as their perplexity is concerned, it is not only the empty tomb which they cannot understand. To judge from what the angels say to them, they can make nothing of the betrayal of Jesus either, nor of his crucifixion, nor, it is implied, of all he has said about these things beforehand. Whatever has transpired at the tomb, they can see no meaning in the event, and it is just one of a whole series of events that are all equally meaningless.[vii]

Reminded, they remembered! Jesus had foretold the events just as they were now being played out. So, the women relay to the Eleven and the other disciples what they had just experienced.

When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others.

It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles.

But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.[viii]           

Throughout the retelling of the resurrection narrative what we see is the skepticism and doubt that the followers of Jesus struggle with. Darrell Bock reminds us of a significant element:

It takes repeated appearances to convince the disciples that Jesus had been raised. They are just as unprepared for this event as we would have been. …The resurrection was not created by the church; rather, the church was created by the resurrection.[ix]

One thing we learn is that resurrection is a reality that is at first difficult to believe, even as it was for those who walked with Jesus, saw his miracles, but when the ultimate miracle is being presented to them; they are filled with doubt. However, God has a way of making these wonderful realities known to us, just like he did with the early disciples. Luke moves from the women’s account to the two disciples who are traveling on the road to the village of Emmaus.

THE SECOND THING WE NEED TO BE REMINDED OF IS THE PROPHECIES REGARDING THE MISSION OF THE MESSIAH

Here we see Jesus appearing to two of his disciples who are trying to wrap their heads around what is happening on that first resurrection morning.

Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem.

They were talking with each other about everything that had happened.

As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognizing him.[x]

These men were probably headed home. The kingdom of God had not materialized as they had anticipated and even worse, Jesus was crucified. They had heard that Jesus’ body was missing and that the women were saying that Jesus was alive. It seems that their discussion was intense as the Greek word translated suggests. Why they did not recognize Jesus is a mystery. We know that Jesus has a body, but for some reason they were blinded, even as they were blinded to the truth of Jesus’ messaging in his ministry. Luke is certainly using a theological device to teach us an important truth. Cleverly Ford suggests, “we cannot see the risen Christ, although he may be walking with us, unless he wills to disclose himself.”[xi] We need our eyes opened to this truth. Even though Jesus is alive in our world, so much of our society is blind to the reality of His presence in their lives. Jesus is the one who sustains life for us all. The apostle Paul makes this powerful declaration about Jesus I the book of Colossians.

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn [preeminent] over all creation.

For in him all things were created; things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.

He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.[xii] 

As the old spiritual song goes, ‘He holds the whole world in his hands.” Jesus now asks these two disciples what they are talking about. “He asked them, ‘What are you discussing together as you walk along?’ They stood still, their faces downcast (Luke 24:17).” Here we can see the grief that they are experiencing and possibly the despair over an unrealized expectation.

One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, ‘Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?   

What things? he asked. ‘About Jesus of Nazareth, ‘they replied. ‘He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people.

The chief priest and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place.

In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vison of angels, who said he was alive.

Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.’[xiii]

So, they relate their understanding of what has transpired, but were perplexed at what it all meant.  They had hoped that Jesus was the Messiah, God’s anointed one who would free them from the Roman oppression. But Jesus explains to them that what has happened was explained in the Scriptures. No one had seen that the Messiah would suffer for the sins of humanity. Jesus explains the real mission of the Messiah. “He said to them, ‘How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken (Luke 24:25).” Here we see a mild rebuke for behaving as unbelievers when the Scriptures rightly explain what should have been clearly seen.

Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?

And beginning from Moses [the first five books of the Old Testament] and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.[xiv]

The ultimate teacher explaining the Old Testament messianic promises in their proper context. What a bible lesson!

As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther.

But they urged him strongly, ‘Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.’ So he went in to stay with them.

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them.[xv]

Jesus is present in the ‘breaking of bread.’ Now they are no longer blinded from who it is that is with them, teaching them.

Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappears from their sight.

They asked each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?[xvi]

This is what each of us need. God’s presence opening the Scriptures to us in order to understand and perceive the message. There is a thrill that comes from that experience. These two disciples now add to the women’s testimony.

They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together and saying, ‘It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.

Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.[xvii]

They were so excited that they couldn’t wait to tell others and therefore arose despite the lateness of the hour and hurried to tell of their encounter with the risen Jesus.

THE THIRD THING WE NEED TO BE REMINDED WHICH WILL IMPACT OUR FUTURE IS THE RESURRECTION’S IMPLICATIONS FOR OUR LIVES

In this lasts point we see that this has significant implication for their lives. Jesus has a commission for them to embrace and the need for them to be empowered to fulfill it.

Thus the resurrection serves as the basis for our being able to receive the many blessings of grace that God gives his children (cf. 1 Peter 1:3-6), notably, forgiveness of sins, the Holy Spirit, and eternal life.[xviii]

Here in Luke’s third post resurrection account, Jesus appears to the disciples in the upper room.

While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost.

He said to them, ‘Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have. When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, ‘Do you have anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.

He said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’

Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.

He told them, ‘This is what is written: the Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high’.[xix]

Getting beyond doubt and skepticism is critical and Jesus took the time to help them realized that He had truly risen bodily from the dead. Luke explains the struggle that these earlier followers of Jesus had apprehending the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. This helps us in our current context address our own skepticism and doubts. They saw the wounded hands and feet. Jesus ate with them and instructed them.

Now Jesus finishes by giving them very clear instructions as to what they are being commissioned to do. They are first of all to wait until they are filled or clothed with the Spirit of God and they are to be witnesses of what they had heard and seen. The message is one that is relevant for us all. We are to repent from our sins in order to receive God’s forgiveness. But it does not stop there. We are to go to others with the message in order for them to believe. Someone has to go. The implication of the resurrection for all of our lives as believers is that we have a commission. We are to go and make disciples (cf. Matthew 28:18-20). When the power and reality of Christ being alive strikes our hearts, it inflames us and the truth of a transformed life motivates us to share this hope with others.

One of the great tragedies is that we live as if this life is it. There is nothing more. We live for time, often only for ourselves or our families. We struggle with all the issues that life brings to us. Yet, there is a greater reason for being here at this time in human history. We who have experienced the resurrected Jesus in our lives, have a compelling message to share. Or are we confused like the early disciples, living in a fog of unrealized expectations? May we, like the women and these early disciples, have a fresh encounter with the other world, the spiritual world of angelic messengers declaring to us to stop looking for the living among the dead. Jesus is not dead! He is alive! And because He lives, we can also! Let us also run off and share this news with all who will listen.            

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[i]     John 21:1-3, The New International Version of the Bible, 2011.

[ii]     D. A. Carson, The Gospel According To John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 669-70.

[iii]    John 19:31-34.

[iv]    John 19:38-42.

[v]     Luke 24:2-4.

[vi]    Luke 24:5-8.

[vii]   Michael Wilcock, Savior Of The World: The Message of Luke’s Gospel, The Bible Speaks Today, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979), 206-207.

[viii]   Luke 24:9-11.

[ix]    Darrell Bock, Luke, The NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 606.

[x]     Luke 24:13-16.

[xi]    Cleverly Ford, A Reading of Saint Luke’s Gospel (Hodder and Stoughton, 1967) as quoted by Leon Morris, Luke, Revised Edition, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., reprinted 1989), 368.

[xii]   Colossians 1:15-17.

[xiii]   Luke 24:18-24.

[xiv]   Luke 24:26-27.

[xv]   Luke 24:28-30.

[xvi]   Luke 24:31-32.

[xvii] Luke 24:33-35.

[xviii] Darrell Bock, Luke, 617.

[xix]   Luke 24:36-49.

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