[March 31, 2013] Easter Sunday. Luke’s account of Jesus’ death is noticeably different than that of Matthew, Mark and John. When they were crucifying Him, Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” There is that exchange between the two men who were crucified with Him and Jesus’ words to one of them, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” Then, after the three hours of darkness between noon and three, Jesus cries out, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit,” and breathes His last. The centurion witnessing all this says, “Certainly this man was innocent.” Unlike Matthew and Mark, Jesus is not shown to be abandoned by God (He was, but this is not the “angle” Luke takes), bearing all the weight of God’s judgment against human sin. John’s more “internal” account focuses on the Lord’s death as the means (or process) by which He releases His life to us (Jesus entrusts His disciple John to His mother and her to him; He thirsts; and in the end declares, “It is finished.” In Luke’s account, Jesus is the righteous One Who intercedes for sinners, Who entrusts Himself to the Father’s hands and Who rests in the Father’s care when His work is completed. As throughout Luke’s gospel, Jesus is our exemplar, particularly in His apostolate which He entrusts to the church.
The other gospels take a leap from preparing and laying Jesus’ body in the grave on Friday to the morning of the resurrection itself, skipping over the Sabbath; but Luke—who always pays more attention to women and the experience of woman, than either Matthew or Mark—tells us that, after the women “prepared spices and perfumes” on that Friday, “on the Sabbath the [women] rested according to the commandment.” The men had distanced themselves; they were sad and downcast, having hoped “that it was He who was going to redeem Israel.” In other words, for them their adventure was all over; they had no idea how to make sense of it or what to do next. The women, however, rested, for they still intended to attend to the body of Jesus when the Sabbath was over. Their devotion to Jesus had not yet run its course.
Jesus Himself, having committed His spirit to the Father, rested in Paradise (in Hades). As He taught throughout Luke’s gospel, one must not ever discount the Father’s presence and providence—as if the assumptions of this world (for example, that reality is circumscribed entirely by what can be seen and manipulated) were valid—but live (and die) always before Him, entrusting ourselves to His care and judgment. Reality is not this one-sided thing that we are fixated on but is always the presence of heaven with earth. The Sabbath speaks of God’s satisfaction in all God’s works. God rested on the original Sabbath because all God’s works were complete and satisfying (“very good”). Now Jesus’ work—as the One sent by the Father—was finished and the Father was satisfied with Him. Jesus rested in the Father’s satiety.
“But on the first day of the week, at early dawn,” that is, without sleeping in or waiting, the women came immediately to the tomb bringing the spices that they had prepared on Friday. The first day of the week bespeaks a new beginning. The work of the new creation was finished, God was satisfied, and the Spring of the new creation begins. Luke barely hints at all that is here. Jesus has risen as the firstborn of the creation, as the token for the creation of its reality in Him, of its future fulfillment in what He now is. Paul and John spell this out for us—it is only suggested here—how the self-emptying (kenosis) of the Lord’s divinity in His human flesh (Philippians 2:7) is over, how His human nature is divinized, and how He Himself has become communicable to creation for the unending process of its glorification.
How many women? There were Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and others (verse 10; Salome in Mark 16:1), so at least five. They come to the tomb carrying the spices they had prepared, and they find the stone rolled away from the tomb. When they entered, they do not find the body of the Lord Jesus. (The linen wrappings were still there, verse 12.) No one saw Jesus rise. What they find is an empty tomb and the stone rolled away. Did Jesus physically walk out of the tomb? It was not necessary. He could disappear (verse 31) and appear behind locked doors (verse 36; John 20:19).
The fact of the empty tomb is attested by all four evangelists. It is not contested by His enemies, either in Matthew or in Acts. Explanations for it are sought (the body was removed), but the fact of the tomb being empty is not. Unless the body was removed, which Christians do not believe, the body is physically not there, which it would be if the resurrection of Jesus was only a vision. If Paul only had a vision of the resurrected Christ, the body would still be in the tomb. This is even truer of the eyewitness accounts that we have in the gospels. If their experience was only a hallucination or a fantasy inspired by Jesus’ continued “spiritual” presence, or by the reality of His indwelling, the tomb would not have to be empty. Yet it was. Jesus physically rose from death (“from among the dead” in Hades). Granted, He now has no ordinary body, for it could appear and disappear at will, yet the physical disappearance of His dead body indicates that the body He now has is just as substantial, if not more so. Luke in fact stresses this. “They gave Him a piece of a broiled fish and He took it and ate it before them” (verses 42-43). As apostolic thought will discover, His very human body now shares the “properties” of His divinity, that is, it is ubiquitous (omnipresent) and eternal, yet—as we see—not separated from or uninvolved in time and space (just not bound by them).
The stone, moreover, was rolled away. Probably Jesus did not roll this stone away Himself. Matthew tells us there was an earthquake “for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled away the stone” (28:2). Luke does not tell us this. However, what is clear from the Acts of the Apostles is that God raised Jesus up from the dead, of which the rolling aside of the stone is an indication and sign. In John’s gospel Jesus raises Himself from the dead (John 2:19; 10:18) by virtue of the eternal life that is in Him. Paul also tells us that He was raised by the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:11). They are correct, but what Luke emphasizes (in Acts) is that God (that is, His Father) raised Him from the dead (Acts 2:24, 32; 3:15; 4:10; 5:30; 10:40; 13:30, 33-34, 37; 17:31 and 26:8).
One of the things this indicates is the Father’s approval of Jesus. If He had stayed in the tomb, especially after enduring the humility of the cross, we would not have proof that the Father approved of Him, that He was indeed faithful and obedient to the end. In the psalms, the righteous suffer and cry out for vindication from God. If all ends in apparent failure—as the male disciples were already feeling—where is God’s vindication? Surely it can be seen in the fruit of a person’s work. But if, as Jesus did, one were to bear the judgment of God, without personal vindication, one might conclude that that was it. Jesus thought He bore the wrath of God for others, as an intercession on their behalf, but we do not know whether God accepted that offer, or answered that intercession. For our sake, there needs to be a concrete response to the offer of His life for us indicating its acceptance, not just an assertion that it is so. Jesus gave His life for others; but did the Father accept this as an offering for sin on their behalf? That God raised Him from the dead says yes. It is the Father vindicating the Son. If the Father raised Jesus from the dead, we know that His death was atoning—that the sins of His believers are forgiven.
This, however, speaks more on the emphasis of Matthew and Mark (for in them, God had abandoned Jesus on the cross), though it is not entirely absent from Luke. In Luke too there is forgiveness through His death. However, in Luke’s gospel it is the entire apostolate of Jesus that is vindicated by the Father raising Him from the dead. The word apostle means “sent one” (from apostellō, to send). An apostolate is the mission of the sent one. In Luke Jesus is the Apostle par excellence, the Model of the church’s apostolate. He is anointed as Christ (the Anointed One) to fulfill the roles of prophet, priest and king. When He proclaimed the Gospel He was proclaiming Himself—His coming is the “glad tidings,” the good story (good-spell). In Luke’s gospel He proclaimed the Jubilee, and Himself as the Agent of it; He released people and set them free from whatever had bound them. He presented Himself as the Savior, the Friend of Sinners. All this is vindicated by the Father raising Him from the dead.
Not only did His resurrection vindicate His claims with respect to His Person and His work and passion, but it also becomes the hope of all who take on His apostolate in the church, of those who proclaim the Gospel, of those who serve others for no earthly reward, of those who suffer alone and in quiet while being faithful, of those who suffer persecution and are martyred or waste away in prison. As Paul insists, His resurrection means that we shall be resurrected. His vindication means that God will vindicate our fidelity to Him by resurrection. I do not mean just the resurrection, for all shall be resurrected, but by a resurrection like His. All shall be resurrected in Him, but most people will be resurrected to face condemnation. Once resurrected all will be judged, but some will be rewarded, some will be chastened, and some will be threatened with becoming “wandering stars, for whom the black darkness has been reserved forever” (Jude 13), perhaps eventual dissipation and extinction, depending I suppose on how they respond to the fire of awareness. For the believer, however, the Father’s vindication of the Son extends to them and their work for Him and faithfulness to Him.
This vindication is a good conclusion to Luke’s gospel as well as an adequate preparation for his Acts.
Of course the women were perplexed about the emptiness of the tomb, not seeing yet the two men in dazzling clothing. It was probably when they stepped into the tomb or stood at its entrance that they saw the two men. They had a supernatural appearance, having dazzling clothing. In verse 23 the (male) disciples report that the women had a “vision of angels.” In verse 4 however Luke calls them “men” (anēr, meaning grown up males). Gabriel who stands in the presence of God appeared to Zacharias and Mary in the beginning of Jesus’ story, the “angel of the Lord” appeared in Bethlehem with a multitude of the heavenly host, and an “angel from heaven” strengthened Jesus in Gethsemane. They are witnesses with God of our repentance now (15:10) and they carry poor Lazarus to the bosom of Abraham (Paradise) in 16:22. In 9:26 and 12:8-9 they also will appear in the judgment of believers. These are heavenly beings (20:36) as these men at the tomb also appear to be. But the word angel means messenger, even when that messenger is not heavenly but only a mail carrier. Contrary to popular belief and Christian usage, the dead are not in heaven but in Hades, nor is heaven a term for the afterlife, not even a blissful afterlife. (Heaven is the invisible side of visible reality, the side closest to the divine, the “other” side that is alongside and accompanies what is earthly. It is the “realm” of the spirit and what is spiritual. The resurrection, on the other hand, will be the coming together of the invisible and the visible, not only heavenly but also quite earthy.) There are apparently a few human beings who are in heaven now, whatever that might mean (are they “angelic”?). Enoch and Elijah never died but were “taken up” in bodily form. Jewish tradition has it that Moses was assumed into heaven (sort of the way some people believe with respect to the mother of the Lord; see Jude 9). Both Moses and Elijah appeared to Jesus on the mount of the Transfiguration. Perhaps this pair, after speaking to Jesus about His “exodus” which He was about to accomplish in Jerusalem (Luke 9:31), came to witness and bear witness to the resurrection. Perhaps, but I am being speculative.
“The women were terrified (emphobos) and bowed their faces to the ground.” No doubt this has to do with the dazzling appearance of the two men. Some commentators have suggested that they are terrified of the resurrection, an idea which can give fodder for sermons, but there is no indication in the text that the reality of what happened has yet occurred to them.
“Why do you seek the living One among the dead? He is not here, but He has risen.” The men reveal to the women the truth of the matter. Jesus is no longer among the dead; He has risen; He is the living One. The men ask them why they are seeking for Him among the dead. Jesus reveals Himself as the living One to those who seek Him. But apart from divine revelation we seek Him among the dead. That is, we seek Him within the world that we know. The world as created by the human mind, the world that we perceive, is not identical to the creation. We filter and edit and organize and summarize everything we see according to our interpretations and expectations. We do not see reality but rather a construction of our own, a construction that we share with others more or less (this is called culture). The women seek Jesus among the dead. We all seek Him in our own minds, on the basis of our own resources, and this is seeking Him among the dead. The heavenly men see what is actually there, and for them, Jesus is not among the dead. He has risen; He is living. And because of the heart with which the women seek Him, these heavenly men reveal this fact to the women.
“’Remember how He spoke to you while He was still in Galilee, saying that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.’ And they remembered.” Apparently when Jesus spoke to the “disciples” in 9:18-22 (the other predictions are 9:43-44 and 18:31-33) this included the women. In Luke’s gospel “disciples” does not refer to the select group of the Twelve but to a much broader group (for example, see 19:37).
“Remember” they say to the women, and the women “remembered.” The word “remember” (mimnē(i)skomai) is used by Luke in 1:54, 72; 16:25; 23:42; 24:6, 8; Acts 10:31; and 11:16. 22:19 uses the noun anamnēsis. In the Lord’s Supper Jesus says to do this (literally) “into the remembrance of Me.” This ambivalent form is used so that the memorial can be understood as both a bringing of the death of Christ to God’s remembrance and a bringing of Christ to our own remembrance. Here in chapter 24 the women are asked to remember. This in fact is the purpose of the written gospels—to bring Christ to our remembrance by the reading of them. We read them publicly so that we might remember and we celebrate the Lord’s Supper to bring Christ before the Father for His remembrance. This does not imply that God is forgetful. The idea is similar to the rainbow in Genesis 9:14-16—“When the bow is in the cloud, then I will look upon it, to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” (See also Luke 1:54 and 72.) The Lord’s Supper places before God the finished work of Christ that God may apply its benefits to us—namely our union with Him and His union with us. When Christ presents His blood before the Father (His perpetual wounds) it is to intercede for us on the grounds of our justification accomplished thereby. The gospels were written as Scripture (1 Timothy 5:18) to be read by the churches both in the presence of God to “remind” God but also that we might “remember” Christ so that He can be present to us in that remembrance. He is always with us, but our remembrance of Him makes that presence accessible and available and even communicable to us. That remembrance depends on His testimony, the eye-witness testimony of the gospels and the witness of all the Scriptures. Before the church had written testimonies, it was dependent on eye-witnesses and the interpretation of the Old Testament.
The women reported these things to the eleven (the Twelve minus Judas) whom Luke calls apostles in verse 10. They dismiss the women’s report as nonsense (as the result of delirium), though Peter runs to the tomb to check it out (see John 20:2-9). He marvels at what has happened. Luke does not tell us that Jesus appeared to the women as Matthew does, or to Mary of Magdala by herself John does. But Luke does tell us that, by evening, probably before He met the two men on the road to Emmaus, Jesus did appear separately to Peter—before He appears to the others of the “Twelve” (verse 34), though we have no other account of this except 1 Corinthians 15:5.
Death is a reality in our lives; it is part of the reality of all living things, though we as human beings try very hard to be in denial of it. The finality of it is so painful that we cannot bear the discontinuation of our experience of the one we love. On the one hand, the women and the other disciples were trying to come to terms with Jesus’ death and the brutality of it which they had witnessed. There was no denying the fact of His death. By imagining that He rose from the dead, they could remain in denial and find the needed relief that they sought. It might be tempting to think that this is precisely what they did. But they did not. The stone was rolled away and the tomb was empty. When He appeared to His believers that day and in the days to come, He was no phantom or ghost, no hallucination or vision in the mind. He ate and drank with them in their presence. They touched and felt Him. He was the Jesus that they had known before, and yet He was possessed of an imperishable body that could manifest itself at will, a body that was about to be transfigured even further when He “ascended” into the heavens. It was—and is—a body that in fact is in all places at once, and that transcends the movement of time (not by distance but by the inclusion of all time in His present). Jesus, revealing Himself and revealed by the Father on the inside of us by the Holy Spirit, as the One who He is, the divine I AM having the absolute nature of the divine and also being completely human, without confusion or separation of these two natures, rose from the dead, being raised by the Father yet raising Himself through the Spirit. We need to hear this good news. Do we dismiss this idle tale as nonsense? Or do we hear it as more true than anything else, as our own truth, as the truth of the universe and the truth for us?
If you believe it is true, will you turn to Him and offer Him your life and your trust, your fidelity?
If you cannot, I ask you to listen to your deepest intuition and desire for authenticity and to respect what you feel. If you are certain that you do not believe, I am grateful for your company, that you read this far. I wish you peace.