The Easter account found in Luke 24:1-12 is surprisingly subdued. It portrays the women who first visited the empty tomb as “perplexed” and “terrified” before being convinced by angels that Jesus had risen. The male disciples reacted to their news with considerable skepticism, accusing the women of speaking nonsense. When Peter ran to witness the empty tomb for himself, he did not return shouting victory, but flabbergasted, stunned, “amazed” by the puzzle of Jesus’ disappearance.
The gospels make it clear that even Jesus’ closest disciples did not expect him to rise again, contemporary folk are little different. Modern, rational, enlightened people don’t like being perplexed, or terrified, or befuddled at the thought of Jesus’ resurrection. A few weeks ago, a Barna survey found that just 42% of American adults, in response to an open-ended question, connected the meaning of Easter with the resurrection of Christ. Many would prefer to just explain it away, or hide it behind a curtain of bunnies, eggs, and plastic grass, but others find good reasons to believe.
It’s hard for me to believe the early church could have come into existence as it did if there had been no resurrection. I cannot imagine that Paul and other early believers would have followed Christ to the point of dying for the sake of a story they had made up.
For another thing, if you were going to make up a story about Jesus’ resurrection, wouldn’t you paint the disciples in a better light? Instead of showing them as perplexed and astonished and doubting, wouldn’t you have them accept the joyous news immediately and celebrate in triumph and sing “Christ the Lord is risen today, a-a-a-lle-lu-u-ia”?
If you were making this story up, you would never portray such forgetful disciples greeting Jesus with such ambivalence. No, you’d have the disciples confidently expecting Jesus to rise, lining up outside the tomb like Apple fans waiting for the store to open so they could purchase an iPad. Once the stone rolled itself out of the way, you’d have the gathered throng to greet him and to sing hosannas as he walked from the tomb! But that’s not the story we have. The gospels suggest that Jesus’ closest friends were as shocked as anybody. Jesus had to appear to them over and over just to pound it into their skulls and their spirits that he really was alive.
But when Jesus convinced them, they stayed convinced. They came out of hiding and into the light. They changed their speech from shameful denial to courageous confession. The same disciples who are so defeated in Luke 24 become the ones of whom Luke later says “With great power the apostles gave witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all” (Acts 4:33).
Great grace. Amazing grace. Resurrection grace. Life-changing grace.
[Travelers from Campbell University Divinity School visit the “Garden Tomb” in Jerusalem.]
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.