An extra podcast to celebrate Easter: four retellings of the Resurrection from various perspectives, drawn from all four gospels.
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The most important event in scripture can’t be told through just one set of eyes—and so the gospel writers seemed to think, also. Each gospel gives a slightly different angle, which might seem contradictory at first on some minor details, but which I believe all harmonize. Matthew says two women went to the tomb, Mary Magdalene and Mary the wife of Cleophas, and there was only one angel. This was the first encounter with the resurrected Christ. Mark concurs that they were both there, but adds a third woman, Salome—and in his version, they saw only one angel, and not Jesus himself yet. Luke includes Joanna among the women as well, and says there were an unspecified number of women, so it’s possible there were more besides. His version includes two angels, and there too, the women did not see Jesus, but only the angels. In John’s version, only Mary Magdalene went to the tomb, and she goes twice. The first time, she sees the empty tomb, then tells Peter and John, who return with her to see the empty tomb as well, and then leave. It’s after that that Mary sees both the angels, and then encounters Jesus himself.
With help from Andrew Wommack’s Living Commentary, here’s how I’m synthesizing all this: Mary and the other women (who, in my retellings, I just list as Mary wife of Cleophas, Joanna, and Salome) all planned to meet at the tomb, which was why Mary was alone, but also why she was listed with the others according to some gospels. If she went first, saw the empty tomb, went and got Peter and John (in Luke only Peter is mentioned), and then lingered after they left, she still could be the first and only one to see the resurrected Jesus. The other women could have arrived before or after this. I’m assuming when Matthew says the women saw Jesus, he was again lumping them all together—Mark tells us the other women did not see Jesus, and John tells us that Mary Magdalene did. So in my retelling, I err on the side of the writers who are most specific, assuming the omissions are merely less detailed. Likewise, it’s possible that the two angels versus one is really just a matter of detail. Only one angel spoke, even though there were two, so perhaps because of that, Matthew and Mark only bothered to mention one.
Only in Matthew’s gospel do we get the specifics about the guard that was set to watch over Jesus’ tomb. Jesus had told the disciples plainly on a number of occasions that he would die and then rise again (Matthew 12:40, 16:21, 17:22-23, 20:19; Mark 8:30-31, 9:31-32, 10:33-34; Luke 9:22, and 18:31-33). Apparently he’d done it in the hearing of the chief priests, Pharisees, and Sadducees too—and they were the only ones who seemed to be expecting at least something to happen on the third day! A Roman guard included fifty soldiers, and typically four of them at a time worked four hour shifts. So there would have been four guards watching the tomb at the time of the Resurrection. Also, the stone sealing the tomb was “very large,” according to Mark—yet in Matthew 27:66 we’re told that the Romans actually sealed the stone in place, too. (This reminds me of Elijah on Mount Carmel, telling the spectators to pour as much water on the sacrifice as they please; it won’t make a bit of difference!)
Only Matthew records the earthquake before the angel descends and rolls the stone away from the tomb. There’s an earthquake the moment Jesus dies, during which the curtain in the Holy of Holies is torn from top to bottom (a woven curtain which was 8 cm thick—that’s a thick curtain!—and 30 feet high, Matthew 27:51), there’s an eclipse, and tombs split open. A bunch of saints who had died are seen walking around the city right after this (Matthew 27:52-53). This is never really explained, but I assume these were the saints who had died and were waiting in Abraham’s bosom (only really mentioned in the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man in Luke 16, as a subdivision of Sheol) to be taken to heaven as soon as Jesus paid the price to “set the captives free” (Isaiah 61:1). Presumably they were on their way to heaven and just stopped over on earth briefly, like Jesus did when Mary encountered him “before he had ascended to the Father” (John 20:17)?
Then, when Jesus rises from the dead, there’s another earthquake. I imagine this much like Paul describes in Romans 8:22: the earth itself groaning (and quaking) at two unnatural events. How can its Creator die? Yet it happens, and the earth cries out in protest (Luke 19:40). And then again, as the Curse from the Garden is reversed, the earth cannot keep silent! This reminds me of Aslan’s resurrection in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” which C.S. Lewis describes as “even deeper magic from before the dawn of time”—and the stone table where he was sacrificed splits right down the middle. So, so awesome!
Luke’s gospel is the one that tells the story of two disciples on the road to Emmaus, though Mark also alludes to it. Luke names one of the two disciples as Cleopas. I’m just assuming this is the same person as Cleophas, the husband of Mary, though the spelling is slightly different so it’s possible it’s someone else. The other disciple is not named, but Cleopas and the other disciple rush back to tell the rest of the disciples that they have seen the Lord. They announce, “The Lord has indeed risen, and has appeared to Simon!” This seems a strange thing to say right then, unless the other disciple was named Simon. I’d assume that means Simon Peter, since we don’t know of another Simon, though why suddenly call him Simon rather than Peter? Also, if Peter wasn’t the other disciple on the road to Emmaus, then he must have encountered Jesus another time that day, and it just wasn’t recorded. I doubt this, only because it isn’t until John 21, when Peter is surrounded by other disciples, that Jesus specifically restores him after his denial. Seems to me that if Jesus had encountered Peter alone and earlier, he’d have done it then. On the flip side, when the two disciples return from Emmaus, it says they “found the eleven and those who were with them” gathered. Peter was one of the eleven, so if he was the other disciple, shouldn’t it have said they found the other ten gathered? I’m not sure how to harmonize this. I’ve heard another speculation that the other disciple on the way to Emmaus was actually Cleopas’s wife Mary, but that doesn’t make sense to me either, because Cleopas tells the stranger “some of the women of our company were at the tomb”… Mary would have been like, “Hello, I’m right here!” Anyway, for the purposes of my retelling, I found it more poignant to make the second disciple Peter. This also makes sense to me, because Jesus spent quite a few hours opening the scriptures to those two disciples (and unfortunately Luke doesn’t record what he said, so I inserted my own theological understanding in Jesus’ mouth there). Peter then turns around and presumably gives the same sermon on Pentecost in Acts 2, just after the Holy Spirit falls.
While Jesus prophesied his death and resurrection many times, in my opinion the disciples can be forgiven for not understanding that he meant this literally. He so often spoke in metaphor, and Jesus knew that their worldview was that the Messiah would come as an earthly king. This was patently obvious when James and John asked to sit on his right and his left when he came in to his kingdom (Mark 10:37), and when they argued about which of them was the greatest (Matthew 18:1-4, Mark 9:33-36, Luke 9:46-47). Why did he not disabuse them of this notion then? Why, when he predicted his death and resurrection, did he not open the scriptures to explain why it was necessary beforehand? All I can figure is that Jesus knew they would not receive it in advance (John 16:12); perhaps they would not have understood. If he told them what he knew they would not receive, perhaps he would have been subject to more opposition from them, similar to Peter’s attempt to dissuade him from the cross (Matthew 16:23). I suspect this was a temptation to Jesus—of course! He knew what he was in for, and desperately did not want to have to go through it if there was any other way (Matthew 26:39). If all his disciples understood that he really meant to die, how much more opposition might he have had to endure? He was God, but he was also man, subject to like temptations as we are (Hebrews 2:18). Another possibility is that Jesus knew that Satan and all the kingdom of darkness was also listening. Had they truly understood his mission, they would never have crucified the King of Glory (1 Corinthians 2:8). If Jesus really spelled it all out for the disciples, maybe Satan never would have enticed Judas to betray him. So instead Jesus spoke in parables, so that “they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand” (Mark 4:12).
I wonder how many truths in my own life are like that: staring me in the face, but awaiting the moment when my worldview “blinders” are removed, so that I can at last see, hear, and understand them. Wish I knew how to speed up this process!
Consistently post-resurrection, those who knew Jesus best did not recognize him at first. He must have looked very different somehow. I am assuming in my retellings that this is because the scarring, which evidently was still present in his hands, feet, and side (as he specifically shows these to the disciples to convince them it’s him), is also still present on his face. Jesus was brutalized before he was crucified, for us—“by his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5, 2 Peter 2:24). Almost certainly his face was not spared. He could have healed his scars too (!), but he chose to keep at least those mentioned above. Was this to serve as a reminder of what he had suffered for us?
Another possibility is that, even pre-resurrection, Jesus could blend in to a crowd without being noticed, even a crowd that specifically sought to kill him (Luke 4:28-30, John 8:59). Perhaps he merely allowed a veil over the eyes of those who saw him until it suited him to remove it.
Finally, I want to point out one very strange statement Jesus makes in John 20:22. He breathes on the disciples and says “Receive the Holy Spirit.” What? They don’t receive the Holy Spirit until Pentecost, forty days later (Acts 2). One interpretation here is that, as in Luke 24:49, Jesus is telling them to wait in Jerusalem until Pentecost, when they will receive the Holy Spirit. But the way John writes this, that he breathed on them, seems more significant. God breathed life into the first Adam; Jesus now breathes life back on his disciples the very first time he appears to them post-resurrection. Is this the born again experience: the moment when the Holy Spirit first dwells within them (Ezekiel 36:27), as distinct from the baptism of the Holy Spirit in power that they receive in Acts 2? After all, Jesus himself was God, so he had the Holy Spirit from birth, if ever anyone did! Yet he still required the baptism of the Holy Spirit after his water baptism in the Jordan River, prior to beginning his ministry (Luke 3:22). This seems to me a good argument for the idea that the two experiences of being born again and the baptism of the Holy Spirit are separate.
I do what I’m told; that’s all. I don’t have opinions.
I was present at the brief trial of this man Jesus. I had heard of the so-called miracles he had performed, and I watched eagerly as the soldiers tried to goad him into performing one for their benefit before they crucified him, but was not surprised when he refused. I suspected it had all been hearsay anyway. I knew that the chief priests had him killed out of jealousy, though why they would have been jealous of a fraud, I did not know. Religious politics were not my area of interest.
I did not personally drive in the nails or administer the whipping. It is a grotesque way to die, but I had seen enough gruesome deaths in my time as a soldier that mere gore had ceased to move me. I will say this, though: there was something about the man Jesus that unnerved me. The way he spoke, the way he bore the taunts, the way he endured such unimaginable suffering was unnatural. I even heard his whisper through cracked and bloody lips, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
That statement. It would haunt me all my life.
I sat at the foot of the cross with the other soldiers and gambled for his clothing as he gasped for breath above me, his lungs collapsing under his own weight. When I lost the roll, I got away from there as fast as I could, never looking directly at him.
I was with fellow soldiers in Pilate’s halls, joking and laughing and pretending my thoughts were not still back at the cross where that innocent man hung dying, when all at once the sky went dark. The ground beneath us trembled so violently that I thought the marble beneath our feet might split apart. All the laughter stopped. I caught the fearful looks of my fellow soldiers before they could wipe them away. I knew then that all of them thought what I thought, and felt what I felt.
What if he truly was the Son of God?
The ensuing hour was filled with strange reports: the earthquake and eclipse had both coincided with Jesus’ final breath. The quake had indeed split open both rocks and tombs. There were absurd rumors of the long dead seen walking around in Jerusalem. A wealthy religious man named Joseph of Arimathea came and requested the body for burial. Pilate granted his request, and ordered that the body be taken down and given to him.
I went home that night, shaken. It was not my job to have opinions, or feelings. I did what I was told. But all night long, I heard those words echo in my mind: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
He was praying for me.
The next day I got the order. The chief priests and Pharisees were apparently not satisfied with the brutal murder of their adversary. While Jesus was alive, apparently he had said in their hearing that three days after his death, he would rise again. I was to be one of fifty soldiers on four-hour shifts outside the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea until the third day—so that his disciples would not steal his body and claim he had done it.
So, though I very much wanted nothing more to do with Jesus of Nazareth, I went for my shift on the last watch of the night on the third day, I and three others: Antonius, Decimus, and Marcus. I found that the stone had been sealed, too, though I did not see why that was necessary. No ragtag group of Jewish disciples were going to get past four armed Roman soldiers, even if they could have budged such a stone. They had to seal it shut, too?
Normally it was impossible to get Decimus to shut up. He cracked jokes nearly as often as he took a breath. Marcus was always his sidekick, laughing and egging him on. But tonight, all four of us were strangely subdued. Decimus tried for a few jokes, but they fell flat, so he gave up. I wondered if they all felt the hairs on the backs of their necks standing on end, as I did.
“I’ll be glad when all this nonsense is behind us,” muttered Antonius in the deepest darkness just before the dawn. I nodded my hearty agreement, and was just about to reply when the ground beneath our feet began to tremble.
“What is with all these earthquakes lately?” shouted Decimus, as it knocked all four of us to the ground. He was trying to make light of it, but his voice cracked, betraying him. Behind us, I heard the sound of the tomb’s seal breaking.
And then, a glowing man descended from the sky—bright as lightning and all dressed in white.
He took his time. He wasn’t hiding. In fact, he did not seem to mind or notice us at all. I lay motionless where I had fallen, too terrified to move, as the man’s feet touched the ground. He walked to the tomb, casually rolling the stone away from the entrance. Then he hopped up lightly and sat on top of the stone, as if waiting for something. But he couldn’t sit still. He bounced a little, and his legs swung in anticipation, an enormous grin on his face. Was he actually humming to himself? Either that, or he might have been laughing very softly, or perhaps a combination of both.
I dared not move. All four of us stared at the entrance of the tomb. When nothing more happened for a long moment, I looked back at the stone and found that the man had vanished.
“All right,” murmured Antonius at last, though his voice trembled. “One of us has to do it.” He got to his feet very, very slowly, and crept to the mouth of the tomb to peer inside.
“Well?” called Decimus behind him anxiously.
Antonius did not move, but he shook his head. “There’s no one here.”
“What do you mean, there’s no one there?” I asked sharply, now leaping to my feet and running to his side. “How can there be no one there?”
When I reached the mouth of the tomb beside him, though, I answered my own question. I indeed saw where the body should have lain—and two sets of linen even lay neatly folded, one for the face and one for the shroud. It looked very much the way napkins are folded at the end of a meal, as if to say, “Thanks, but I’ve had enough!” But there was no body.
I felt lightheaded. I reached for the stone wall to steady me.
“We have to tell them,” Antonius murmured to me. “Pilate and the chief priests. We have to go and tell them what happened right away, or they will think we failed to secure the tomb.”
“We did fail to secure the tomb!” I almost shouted back, the sound of my voice echoing back to me. “They’re going to kill us!”
Marcus and Decimus finally joined us, and Marcus put a hand on my back.
“Not if all four of us tell the same story,” he murmured.
“What story?” I pressed. “What just happened, exactly?”
None of them had an answer. We all looked at each other, shook our heads, and set off to give the unwelcome report to the chief priests. If they didn’t kill us, I knew that Pilate and the chief priests would spin a tale to explain away the missing body, and we would be forced to spread it far and wide. No one but the four of us would ever really know what had happened here tonight.
No. That isn’t true, I thought, my heart burning within me. Everyone will know. Even if they deny it, deep down, everyone will know the truth. Just as I do.
And the truth was, the tomb was empty.
Ever since Passover, I could hardly breathe for grief. I’d wept until I was numb, until I thought I would never feel anything again. Then a fresh wave of despair crashed over me, and I did it all over again.
All my hopes were in the tomb with him. Nothing made sense anymore. He’d delivered me from what I later found out were seven demons, and gave me my life back. After all his miracles, after the way he silenced his accusers, the grace and wisdom and power of his words—he wasn’t the Messiah? How was that possible? How could the true Messiah have done more great works than he had done? How could he have spoken with greater authority than Jesus? Even the way Jesus died—oh! A sob choked me at the very thought. The image of him hanging on the cross, so mangled he scarcely looked human anymore, let alone like himself, was seared into my memory like a hot iron. But that very last moment when he died! He said, “It is finished,” and I watched as the breath left him. In that second, the sky went dark, and the earth beneath us quaked. I later heard that in the same moment, the curtain in the temple that separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies tore from top to bottom. There were also rumors that the dead were seen walking around in Jerusalem, but who knew if that was true. All these stories landed in my brain but did not take root, because I had no place to put them anymore, no worldview to make any sense of them. What did any of it matter? What could possibly ever matter again, now that Jesus was dead?
If I slept at all on Passover Night, it was accidental. On the Sabbath I periodically slipped into blessed unconsciousness, though I only realized it when I awoke again with that dreadful feeling of oppression hanging over me that something awful had happened, but for a few blessed seconds, I could not quite remember what it was.
Sometime on the evening of the Sabbath, I slept my way into determination. On the first day of the week, I would go to the tomb. I would anoint my Lord’s body with precious spices. He deserved that much, and there was nothing more that I could do for him. Besides, I needed a plan—any plan. I forced myself to rise and go to see my sisters who had also followed the Lord’s ministry with me: Mary the wife of Cleophas, Joanna who, like me, had been delivered of evil spirits by the Lord, and Salome. I found each of them much like me: heartbroken, numb, and in desperate need of a plan of how to move forward in this new, dreadful reality. Each of them agreed to accompany me at dawn. I lived a distance away from the three of them, so it would be easier for them to walk together and meet me at the tomb.
I rose at that darkest part of the night, just before dawn appears. My heart was heavy, but I had no tears left. I simply put one foot in front of the other. On the way, suddenly it occurred to me: how were we going to get to Jesus’ body to do what we intended to do? There was an enormous stone sealing the mouth of the tomb, far heavier than anything I could budge. Even with the help of my three friends, I doubted we could manage it.
As I was thinking this, I arrived at the tomb before my sisters. I blinked. The stone had been rolled away, and the mouth of it stood wide open. Without thinking, I ran to the mouth of the tomb to peer inside, heart pounding.
There was no body. I saw the linen cloths, but… but… where was Jesus?
My feet got the message before my heart did. The next thing I knew, I was running, but I did not know where I was going until I arrived at Simon Peter’s home. I pounded on the door, frantic, though I could not explain why.
Peter opened the door wearing a haggard expression, the dark circles under his eyes attesting to his own grief. But I had the impression I had not awakened him. He did look mildly surprised to see me so early, though.
“They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him!” I burst out.
I saw John emerge behind Peter at the sound of my voice. He and Peter exchanged a look, and without a word, each took an outer garment in a rush. They followed me outside, but then they took off running, leaving me in the dust behind them.
“Wait!” I cried out, panting, my basket of spices jostling on my arm as I pounded after them to no avail. “Wait for—” But then I gave up—they were already out of earshot. John was fast, I suddenly marveled. He’d well outstripped even Peter.
I arrived well after the two disciples. John waited outside the tomb and met my eyes, his face shining. Peter emerged from inside the tomb, his expression unreadable. I burst into tears at the sight of him, and covered my face.
John approached and put a comforting hand on my shoulder. “What if?” he whispered, his voice thick with emotion. “I mean, remember what he said, on the third day? That’s today! What if…?” But he clearly could not finish the thought, and I didn’t want him to. I couldn’t bear it.
Peter and John eventually went home again while I wept on, as their footsteps trailed away. I went to look into the tomb one more time now that the first streaks of sun had begun to appear–just in case I had somehow missed some indication of where they had taken his body.
When I peered inside, I started. I saw the linen cloths I had seen before, but now there were also two young men inside, all dressed in very bright white, sitting at what would have been the head and feet of the nearly folded linen cloths.
“Woman, why are you weeping?” one of them asked me.
I realized that while the tears still streamed down my face, I had momentarily forgotten to weep at the shock of seeing two live, glowing men inside the tomb. Surely their brightness was due to the sun streaming through the mouth of the tomb… even though it wasn’t.
I found my voice again. “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
It did not occur to me to ask these men where the body had gone; I was afraid of them, and just wanted to get away. I turned from the mouth of the tomb and saw another man standing behind me. I gasped again.
This man also said, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?”
At least this one was not glowing like the others. Then suddenly it occurred to me: perhaps he was the one who took the body! Perhaps he was a gardener or something. I blurted, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
The man dipped his chin so that he could look directly into my eyes. His face was heavily scarred for one so young. I could hardly imagine the trauma that must have caused such scars. Along his forehead I saw a pattern of circular scars that might have been puncture wounds… like from a crown of vicious thorns…
“Mary,” he said.
I let out a startled cry. It was him! It was his voice, it was his eyes… “Rabboni!” I cried out, falling at his feet.
He laughed, and the sound was so full and rich and deep, it was as if it contained all the joy in the whole world. His hand—oh, that beautiful, scarred, tortured hand!—stroked my hair as he said, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
I did not want to let go of him, and I did not understand what he meant. But then, what of this did I understand? All I knew was that hideous cross, and yet here he stood, alive!
Mary, wife of Cleopas:
As much as I dreaded this awful task, at the same time, I was so grateful to Mary Magdalene for suggesting it. We should have anointed Jesus’ body for burial when Joseph of Arimathea laid his body in the tomb on Passover—but none of us were thinking straight. This was now the morning of the third day; it was possible that there might already be a smell. I had no desire to see the mangled body that I loved so much in such a state, but I comforted myself that at least it could look no worse than when I had last seen it. Bloodless and white could only be an improvement. Besides, it was not about me. This was the last act of love that I could perform for my Lord.
“What about the stone?” Joanna asked suddenly, breaking our silence.
“Oh,” I said. I had forgotten all about the stone. All my logic had left me three days ago.
“Who will roll the stone away for us?” Joanna persisted.
“Perhaps all four of us can combine our strength?” Salome suggested, meaning Mary Magdalene as our fourth, when she joined us at the tomb. But she did not sound very convinced, and for good reason. We all knew that such a boulder was beyond our combined strength to budge. We faltered in our steps, wondering now if there was any point in going on.
“We promised to meet Mary,” Joanna reminded us. “We should at least go to the tomb to meet her, then, and we can discuss bringing some of the other disciples back to roll away the stone later in the day, perhaps.”
We were already almost there, anyway. Salome, a slightly faster walker than the two of us, rounded the corner and stopped in her tracks.
“What is it?” Joanna called.
“The stone,” Salome said, in a very strange voice. “It’s been rolled away already.”
“Someone has already been here?” I concluded, perplexed. “Perhaps other disciples have done what we intended to do?”
“On the Sabbath?” Joanna countered, and I took her meaning. It was against Jewish law to work on the Sabbath, let alone to touch a dead body.
Together, the three of us approached the now open entrance to the tomb. I prepared myself yet again for the shock of seeing Jesus’ corpse.
I was shocked, but not for the reason I expected. Inside the tomb were two young men, both glowing white and very much alive. One sat where Jesus’ head should have been, and the other at his feet—but on the slab beside him were folded linen garments. No body. They seemed to be waiting for us.
“Do not be alarmed,” said one young man, because clearly, we were alarmed. “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.”
“He has risen?” Joanna echoed, as Salome backed away from the mouth of the tomb, grabbing on to my garments and tugging me with her. I realized when my legs began to move again that I was trembling.
We overtook Mary Magdalene, heading in the same direction. Her face was glowing and she wept freely—but, it seemed, for joy. She did not seem to be afraid.
“Did you see him too?” she gasped, wiping her face.
“The—the angels?” I managed.
She blinked at me, and her face split into a wide grin. “The Lord!”
Her words tumbled out over themselves: how she had seen the empty tomb, told Peter and John who had already seen it as well, and then as she lingered at the tomb alone after they left, saw Jesus. He told her he was ascending to the Father when she saw him, that she had caught him in transit—though from where to where and doing what, we did not quite understand. But he promised to return in Galilee! We would all see him! Her enthusiasm was infectious, and our fear at the strange appearance of the men in the tomb melted away. Soon all of us were laughing and crying in a muddled blend of amazement and joy. We now had three witnesses: the angel who spoke to us, Mary, and as the angel reminded us, Jesus himself had prophesied that he would die and rise again on the third day. It was true! He was alive!
We were at Simon Peter’s house by the time she finished her story, without discussing beforehand where we would find the rest of the disciples. The guess was correct: all eleven of the remaining disciples gathered there now. Peter and John had apparently called them together after they had found the tomb empty that morning.
“I have seen the Lord!” Mary declared, and described her encounter again. We let her have the floor, but then when it was our turn, we talked over one another to describe our encounter with the angels. We barely noticed that the expressions of the disciples ranged from astonished to skeptical.
“Remember how he told us he would rise on the third day!” I insisted. “Today is the third day!”
Of the eleven, only John’s face reflected the joy we felt. He believed us. Peter wanted to, I could tell, but I understood why the others hesitated. Hope was a very vulnerable thing. After the utter and complete devastation of Passover, dared they ever hope again?
I didn’t know what to think. Or perhaps more truthfully, I knew what to think; I just didn’t know what to feel.
I no longer knew who I was. Down was up and up was down. Before Jesus died, before that hideous night of his arrest, I knew it all. I was one of his “Sons of Thunder”: one minute commended for my revelation and told he would build his church upon it, and the next minute rebuked as Satan’s mouthpiece. My convictions, right or wrong, were bedrock, hence the new name he gave me: Peter. I swore I would die with him. If everyone else abandoned him, I surely never should!
Then I denied him. Three times. They crucified my Lord, and I was not even there to see it.
The last three days I can hardly describe. They were a jumble of every possible negative emotion, so intertwined that I could not separate one from another. Sometimes self-loathing would dominate. Sometimes devastation and grief, worse than anything I ever imagined possible. Sometimes hopelessness. Sometimes fear. Sometimes hatred—of Judas, primarily, though that had subsided into an ugly sort of satisfaction after his suicide. Then occasionally the overwhelm grew so great that I felt nothing at all, and sat for hours simply staring at the shuttered doors against the anger of the Jews.
John had taken Mary, Jesus’ mother, into his home, after—well. After. He split his time between comforting her and comforting me. She had finally fallen asleep on the morning of the first day of the week, when he came to see me before dawn. That was why he was with me when Mary Magdalene came.
Then I saw the empty tomb. My heart burned within me, but I could draw no conclusions from that alone. I dared not. Yet apparently I did, because I immediately called together the rest of the disciples to tell them what John and I had seen.
Then Mary came back with the other women who had gone with her to the tomb. The other women had seen angels, who declared he was alive. Mary had seen the Lord himself.
It was as if I were at war within myself at this news. My heart burned as before, telling me something, but I did not know what it was, and I did not want to know. My mind shut it down. I couldn’t bear it.
Later that day, Cleopas, wife of the other Mary who had gone to the tomb that morning, came to my home. He had an errand in Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. He invited me to walk with him, as he had some things he would like to discuss with me. I knew what they were: he had heard Mary’s story and wished to know what I thought.
If only I knew.
I gratefully accepted, though, as I needed to get out; I’d been shuttered indoors for three days, except for the brief run this morning to the empty tomb. Fresh air and a listening ear would do me good. Perhaps I might be able to get my head on straight.
“Mary believes he lives,” Cleopas told me, shaking his head. “She is utterly convinced of it, though she herself did not see him.”
“What do you believe?” I asked him, once we were outside the city.
He opened his mouth, shut it again, then replied, “I—don’t know what to believe. We all watched him die. It was no trick. He could not have survived it.”
His sadness irked me. I did not want him to be sad. I suddenly realized that I wanted him to convince me that his wife was right. “But then, we’ve seen the dead raised,” I argued. “He was the one who raised them!”
“Yes, but who was there to raise him?” Cleopas countered.
I shrugged. “Himself? The Father? Would he need another, if he was who he claimed to be?”
Silence fell between us at this, as my question hung in the air. If he was who he claimed to be. That was the question, wasn’t it?
“But why?” I responded to my own question, surprising myself with my sudden vehemence. “If he intended to raise himself from the dead, why let himself be crucified in the first place? He said in Gethsemene that he could have called twelve legions of angels to deliver him if he chose to, and he didn’t do it. Why not? What was the point?”
“What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?”
Both Cleopas and I started at the third voice, and turned to look at the stranger we had not seen approach. He smiled, and seemed friendly enough. Heavily scarred in face, I noted, and wondered what had happened to him. Cleopas and I exchanged a look, and Cleopas answered him, somewhat guarded.
“Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”
“What things?” the stranger prompted, still wearing that strange smile.
I almost felt exasperated. The man had no right to be so pleasant in such dark times as this. I said, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”
“Yes, and besides all this,” Cleopas cut in, “it is now the third day since these things happened. Moreover, some women of our company, my wife among them, amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive.”
“I and one of my brothers went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said,” I continued, “but him we did not see.”
The stranger’s expression—what was it about that face?—took on what felt an oddly familiar combination of compassion and exasperation. “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” was his startling reply. “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”
I blinked, and my mouth hung open. I probably should have been affronted. I’d been one of the man’s closest disciples. Who was this stranger to presume to instruct me about the Christ? And yet, the burning in my heart held my tongue. I wanted to hear more.
“From the beginning, the Father gave authority on the earth to men. Men obeyed Satan in the Garden rather than God, making Satan the god of this world, for a time. The Father then gave progressive covenants with men who chose to obey Him, giving Him authority to bless them in accordance with His will: first to Noah, to never again destroy the earth for its wickedness in a flood. Then to Abraham: God blessed him for his faith, and all his seed after him, what became the nation of Israel. The Mosaic covenant formalized the idea that man was subject to the god he chose to obey. When he obeyed the Lord God, he was sheltered under the shadow of His wings, with all the blessings and abundance that the Lord always longed to bestow upon His children. When he sinned and obeyed Satan, that protection lifted, by man’s own choice, giving Satan access to steal, kill, and destroy. These were the curses of Deuteronomy. Inevitably, the children of Israel sinned, and the wages of sin is death. To restore Israel to the right side of the covenant, yearly blood sacrifices were necessary–of that which was sinless, spotless, and perfect.
“Yet these animal sacrifices in themselves carried no power to remit sins; they were only a type and a shadow of the True Sacrifice which was to come. This meant that except for those few who were true children of Abraham, those who looked forward to the Messiah and understood that they were already justified through Him, there was no real fellowship with the Father. As David wrote, ‘He revealed His ways to Moses, yet only His deeds to the people of Israel.’ Fellowship was the Father’s desire: to restore what had been lost in the Garden all those generations ago. But there can be no communion between light and darkness. The darkness had to first be swallowed up, once and for all time, for all who would accept it.
“So, for generations, the Father sent prophets to speak of the coming Messiah. You have understood him to be a great king, the King of Kings, and so he is and shall be. But first, he had to become the sacrificial Lamb of God—as he was identified by John the Baptist, that last and greatest of the prophets. For this to occur, a few criteria had to be met: he had to be a Son of Man, that he might die as a representative sacrifice. He had to be guiltless of his own sin, so that he could bear the iniquities and transgressions of others, as Isaiah wrote. He had to lay down his life willingly—‘like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.’ Finally, he had to be eternal: God himself, that He might cover all sin that ever was and ever will be, in one single sacrifice: as Isaiah wrote, ‘the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.’
“Yet the Father ‘would not abandon his soul to Sheol, or let his Holy One see decay.’ Death could not hold the King of Glory, the Creator of life itself! And so it shall be for all who believe. Just as the first Adam introduced death, so the second Adam introduced life from the grave.
“And now, the payment is made!” declared the stranger. “There is no more curse for the true children of Abraham. There is no more curtain to shield the Holy of Holies. Those who believe may now, at last, go boldly into the Throne of Grace before the Father, for He Himself loves them who have believed in His son—His Lamb—His Messiah!”
We had reached Emmaus, and I had not even realized it. Was I even breathing, as this stranger opened the scriptures to us?
Cleopas turned toward the village where he intended to rest for the night, but the stranger did not follow us: he stayed on the main road, as if he intended to go farther.
“Stay with us,” I blurted to the stranger—begged him, really, “for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” The stranger met my eyes with that piercing gaze of his. It was as if he could see clear through to my soul. He smiled, nodded his assent, and followed us inside.
We climbed to the upper room of an inn, and the owner brought us bread, wine, and meat for supper. This stranger was clearly the authority in the room, so Cleopas asked if he would break bread and bless it for us. His eyes twinkled with—amusement? Was that the expression?—but he agreed, and reached across the table to the bread in the basket.
Then I saw his hands. I saw where they had been pierced.
I looked up sharply to his face as he broke the bread and said a prayer of thanks to the Father. He passed half to Cleopas and half to me.
It was him.
He grinned at me, so full of mirth that he could hardly contain himself. Then he vanished.
I dropped the bread. Cleopas shoved back his chair and jumped to his feet. I think both of us exclaimed loudly, but I’m not really sure.
“How did we not know?” I shouted at some point between the dinner table and the road, as we gathered our cloaks. “How did we not recognize him?” There was no question that we had to go straight back to Jerusalem and tell everyone else.
“Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while opened to us the Scriptures?” Cleopas exclaimed.
I probably should have grabbed some of the bread for the road—fourteen miles round trip with no food was not the best idea I ever had—but I suddenly had more energy than I’d ever had in my life. I could have run the whole way back. I did run as much of it as Cleopas allowed.
We found the rest of the disciples still in my home as they had been that morning. Cleopas burst out before I had the chance, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!”
“And you!” I cried, and we hurried to get our story out. The disciples all watched us with a look of amazement and skepticism, and I suddenly realized how frustrated the women must have been that morning at our reception of their tidings. I wanted to shake them. This is the best news in the history of the world! What is wrong with you?
Then I noticed that none of them were looking at us anymore. They had all suddenly turned to look at something behind us. Many had turned white. I turned around.
There he was.
“Peace to you!” Jesus declared, looking at each of the faces in the room. His eyes met mine with warmth—yet, suddenly, I was ashamed. I had not been before, as I had not known him until the very last moment. Now I knew it was him, and he knew I knew. My betrayal stood between us; he knew of that too. He had prophesied it. I had failed him, in the most despicable way. I dropped my eyes.
Jesus said to the rest, all of whom looked frightened except for John, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet,” he spread them out for all to see—those hands that had tipped me off at last. “See that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.”
James the Less and Bartholomew were the courageous ones. They went forward, very tentatively, as if to see for themselves that his words were true. He watched them with tender amusement, as one might watch a small child. Then he added, “Have you anything here to eat?”
Matthew ran to fetch something left over from their supper that night: a piece of broiled fish. He handed it to Jesus, still wary. Jesus picked it up with his fingers, ate it, and swallowed it. In silence, the group stared at him, as if half expecting to see the flaky white flesh fall straight through him. When it did not, the disbelief grew tentatively to joy.
“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”
John sat at the Lord’s feet as he opened the Scriptures to my brothers as well, as he had done with Cleopas and me on the road. “Thus it is written,” he concluded, “that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you, the Holy Spirit. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”
I wished, and yet did not wish for a moment alone with the Lord that night. I wanted to fall at his feet and beg his forgiveness. I knew this was absurd; I knew he forgave me, but I wanted to ask for it anyway. I simultaneously never wanted to discuss my failure, ever again. Yet it hung between us: an insurmountable wall of shame between me and the one I loved most.
When the sermon finished, he vanished again, just as he had appeared. I did not get my moment that night, for which I was both relieved and disappointed.
I did love him, didn’t I? He had said just before the cross that “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” My love for him, clearly, was not so great as that. It was not the agape he had for me, however much I wished it might be. I had only phileo for my Lord and Master, and could claim no more; my actions had shown the truth of it.
“Peter?” John approached me, placing a hand on my shoulder as the others shouted and toasted and celebrated behind us. “Are you not rejoicing?”
It was a gentle admonishment, but it hit me like a blow, shocking me out of my selfishness. Who cared about my little failure? Jesus was alive!
“Yes, brother,” I declared, “Yes of course!”
I accepted a glass, joining the celebration. Yet once again, I did not sleep that night, my mind awhirl with both joy and questions. I pondered the things Jesus had said on the road, and with the other disciples that night. I wondered what it would mean to be His witnesses in all nations. I wondered what it would feel like to be clothed with power from on high, and how we would know when it had happened. I remembered when Jesus had said, “Those who believe may now, at last, go boldly into the Throne of Grace before the Father, for He Himself loves them who have believed in His son—His Lamb—His Messiah!”
I opened my mouth and whispered into the night one tentative word. “Father?” I swallowed, cringing for a moment, as if waiting to be struck down for my insolence in using the same word for Him that Jesus himself had used. When it did not come, I went on, “I don’t know how much longer Your Son will be with us physically. So before he returns to You for good, please… give me a chance to make it right.” Tears slipped down my cheeks as I spoke.
For I knew that He heard me. He was my Father now, too.