Practical lessons from the resurrection appearances of Jesus

He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. (Acts 1:3)

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the central event in world history. That’s a bold assertion the church has made over the course of two millennia. In today’s pluralistic climate, it may even seem brazen, yet it’s no less accurate for that.

The empty tomb testified that everything Jesus claimed about himself was true. He was indeed God in the flesh, with absolute authority over life and death and everything else in creation. He had the right and the power to forgive sin and grant eternal life to everyone who trusted in him. His resurrection proved that death had been conquered and the penalty for sin paid in full.

During the 40 days that followed, his various appearances demonstrated beyond any viable doubt that he had risen, indeed. But beyond even that, those appearances bore practical implications for believers in every generation, including our own.

Mary Magdalene at the tomb

Mary stood weeping outside the tomb . . . she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). (John 20:11, 14-16)

Skeptics often accuse Christianity of having a low regard for women and treating them, in effect, as second-class citizens. While there’s no denying that many professing believers, past and present, have been guilty of this to their shame, the view of Scripture is quite the opposite. Unique among all religions and philosophies with roots in the ancient world, the biblical world view presents both women and men as created in God’s image and thus equal in value and dignity.

This truth is most eloquently underscored outside the empty tomb on resurrection morning. Of all the people the risen Lord might have chosen to appear to first, he picked Mary Magdalene. Soon after, he also appeared to some of the other faithful women who had been part of his ministry team, including Mary the mother of James, Salome, Joanna and others (Matthew 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-12).

In other words, the first witnesses of the resurrection were not Peter or John or any of the apostles, but rather a group of women. The very first of these, Mary Magdalene, was a woman with a difficult past, out of whom Jesus had cast seven demons (Mark 16:9).

Such a thing would have been scandalous to the Jewish mind as well as to the surrounding Greco-Roman culture. Even the best women were regarded as unworthy and unreliable witnesses, their testimony inadmissible in a court of law.

Nevertheless, the Lord graciously and wisely chose these women as his first witnesses. Doing so accomplished two things: First, it emphasized the value Jesus places on women in his church and their importance to his ongoing mission. Second, it demonstrates the artless truth of the Gospel accounts. No Jew or Greek or Roman of the 1st century would ever invent a story like this and try to validate it by appealing to the testimony of women.

Two disciples on the road to Emmaus

That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. . . . And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:13-16, 25-27)

There’s much that could be drawn from this interaction between the risen Jesus and the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Like Mary and others who saw him, these two didn’t recognize the Lord at first. Was it because of their unbelief or their difficulty in assimilating the fact that he had truly risen? Did Jesus actively hide his identity from them or was his resurrected form radically different from before? Quite probably it was a combination of all of these factors.

Furthermore, it was as they sat down to eat that the disciples finally recognized Jesus “in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:35). If this was an allusion to the Last Supper, as is likely, then it also has implications for how we view the Lord’s Table today.

Most remarkable of all, from our perspective, is that Jesus used this trip to explain to these two men everything in the Old Testament that pertains to him. Later on, the Lord did something similar with the disciples gathered in Jerusalem. He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, everything that was written about him in the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms – in other words, in the entire span of the Old Testament (Luke 24:44-47).

If we’re honest, it’s probably not our first impulse to look for Christ in the OT. We view it rather as an ancient book filled with strange customs and ceremonies, or perhaps we search it for spiritual allegories and instructions on moral behaviour.

However, Jesus claims here and elsewhere that he himself is the grand subject of all Scripture. Consequently, we derive the greatest benefit when we read Scripture – both Old and New Testaments – through the lens of the Gospel, praying for the Holy Spirit to teach us what it says about Christ, his person and his work.

Thomas with the ten in the upper room

Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 
(John 20:26-28)

Here’s a case of a missed opportunity that God turned into a blessing, both for the person who missed it and for everyone else. When Jesus came through the locked doors of the upper room to meet the disciples on the evening of resurrection day, Thomas wasn’t with them. We don’t know where he was or what he was doing, but his absence was unusual.

Even more astounding was the vehemence of his unbelief when the other disciples told him they had seen the risen Lord. This went well beyond simple doubt or hesitation. He assured the others that unless he was given tangible physical evidence that Jesus was alive, he would never believe (John 20:24-25).

Most amazing of all, however, was Jesus’ gracious response a week later when Thomas had joined the others in the upper room. Rather than rebuke or condemn Thomas, the Lord invited him to touch his wounds, giving him all the evidence he needed. In response, Thomas exclaimed, “My Lord and my God,” one of the clearest acknowledgements of Christ’s deity in the New Testament.

The Gospels never try to whitewash the fluctuating faith of the disciples, even after the resurrection. Later on, when the eleven met with Jesus by appointment on a mountain in Galilee, the Scriptures record that they worshipped him, although some of them doubted (Matthew 28:16-17).

These accounts serve as a powerful encouragement to believers down to the present day. They don’t excuse or take lightly our lapses of faith. Instead they remind us that it’s not the strength or consistency of our faith that saves us, but rather its object: Jesus Christ crucified, risen and reigning.

Paul’s summary: Of first importance

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)

In his first letter to the Corinthian church, Paul offers this brief survey of Jesus’ appearances after his resurrection. He presents this, first and foremost, as incontrovertible proof that the resurrection did in fact occur. He cites a variety of individuals and groups who had seen the risen Lord in diverse situations, including a group of 500, most of whom were still living when Paul wrote, about 30 years after the fact.

For Paul, such a mountain of recent, accessible testimony placed the resurrection beyond any doubt. This is vital because as the Apostle points out, the death and resurrection of Christ – in short, the Gospel – is of first importance. It’s the core truth upon which our faith stands or falls. It’s the basis of our forgiveness and acceptance with God, of our ongoing growth in grace, and of our own resurrection to eternal life at the end of the age.

Surely this is the key practical implication of the Lord’s resurrection appearances. Taken together, they assure us that our faith doesn’t rest on myths or philosophical speculations, but on a historical event. Just as certainly as Jesus died and rose from the dead in an actual place and time, God will complete the good work he has begun in us on the day of his Son (Philippians 1:6).

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the central event in world history. But of course, it’s much more than that. It’s also the best news in all the world.

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2015 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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