The resurrection was inconceivable for the first disciples, as impossible for them to believe, as it is for many of us today. Granted, their reasons would have been different from ours. The Greeks did not believe in resurrection; in the Greek worldview, the afterlife was liberation of the soul from the body.
For them resurrection would never be part of life after death. As for the Jews, some of them believed in a future general resurrection when the entire world would be renewed, but they had no concept of an individual rising from the dead. The people of Jesus’s day were not predisposed to believe in resurrection any more than we are.
New Ideas Don’t Go Down Easy: As I began to put down some thoughts on this most crucial of scripture passages, I couldn’t’ help but think of a quote by the twentieth century American physicist Howard Aiken, who once said, “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas, If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.” Yes, it’s a bit crude, but it gets the point across in a visceral way. As an early pioneer in computing, I can imagine the numerous times Aiken tried to explain what he did to those yet to discover the revolutionary power of the computer.
Of course, this passage is about a different kind of revolution, one that was slow to be understood even by Jesus’ closest followers.
This lack of understanding, this seeming incomprehensibility, describes well the reactions of the first witnesses of the empty tomb. First a group of women, then the disciples. Even after being told directly by Jesus (the angels in this text essentially quote Jesus’ (see Matt.16:21)) specific instructions of what is to come, they remain confused, and perhaps even a bit incredulous at the site of the empty tomb.
Skepticism Yesterday and Today: One of the largest gaps that exists between us moderns and the ancient world is the seemingly pervasive gap in both the belief and experience of the supernatural. We might assume that these women or the disciples would instantly believe that Jesus had risen from the dead the moment they saw him, or even heard another eyewitness testimony. But Luke 24 provides a quite different picture. They, like us, shared the same doubts and uncertainties that someone they saw die just a few days earlier had actually been raised from the dead.
Comment: The preacher may want to connect Jesus’ birth and the epiphany of the Magi to his death, as spices are explicitly mentioned in both passages. The beginning is about the end, so to speak, so when the Magi from the East come to bring presents to the Christ child, they are a premonition of his death.
In some ways their skepticism seems on the verge of credibility. How could they have doubted when, as the angels in the text make clear, Jesus had already said this was exactly what was going to happen! Perhaps the quotation at the beginning of this summary provides some sort of context for understanding why an empty tomb was so disorienting to these faithful women who had come to prepare Jesus’ body for burial.
The idea that Jesus would not only die (remember how Peter responded when Jesus made this announcement also (Matt.16)), but rise again was clearly outside of the ordinary for Jesus’ followers. No matter how many times Jesus said it, the idea that the messiah, the anointed one of Israel, the one who was supposed to kick out their foreign oppressors and restore the Davidic kingdom, would not only die, but be raised again three days later, was simply too much to take in. In effect, something this new and revolutionary would have to be right there in front of them to believe. With that said, let’s take a further look at what takes place when the women arrive at the tomb.
The women took the spices to the tomb: There are a number of interesting points to be made about the fact that it was women who first found out about the resurrection of Jesus.
Women were considered unreliable witnesses in that culture, which ironically is why modern day Christian apologists argue the resurrection really did occur. If the early followers of Christ were worried about covering up certain details regarding the historical accuracy of Jesus’ resurrection, they certainly would not have shared that it was a group of women that first experienced the empty tomb.
It seems to be significant that God, in His providence, did choose these women to be present at the tomb on the third day. They, like the rest of the disciples, were genuinely surprised both by the state of the emptiness of the tomb and the appearance of the “two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning.” While Luke does not use the typical word for angels (Angelos=Angel/Messenger), their description, along with the response by the women indicates these were no ordinary men, but rather angels, who had undoubtedly, the greatest message ever to give:
“He is not here”: The Angels then declare words: “He is not here, he has risen.” This is the cornerstone for all that we believe. The earliest churches in Greece and around the Mediterranean adapted these words into a liturgical formula many of us are aware of:
Christos Anesti!” (Christ is risen!) which is typically followed by
“Alithos Anesti!” (He has risen indeed!).
In these words lie the very heart of the Christian faith. Paul makes this clear in his first letter to the Corinthians:
For if the dead are not raised, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. (1 Cor. 15:17)
Christ’s resurrection is the historical foundation for all that we as Christians believe.
“They remembered his words”: Luke tells us that after the angels paraphrase Jesus, the women “remembered his words.” Again, this sounds odd to us, but Jesus’ teaching in general is quite cryptic, and we know from the various gospel accounts that the disciples themselves really still didn’t understand the heart of the gospel until after they experienced his death and resurrection.
Preaching Angle: In so many ways “remembering” is crucial to the Christian faith. When we remember what God has done for us in Jesus, there is a potential for transformation. For example, I remember listening to a book by a Christian pastor who was describing a woman in a small group complaining about how she was constantly looked over for a promotion at work, and she regularly focused on these perceived slights when the group met each week.
The pastor’s encouragement was this: why are you focusing so completely on your circumstances when the God of the universe has chosen you to be his child, his beloved, in whom he is well pleased.” Focus on that first, and everything else will be given to you. It’s an easy lesson to miss, but one we need constant reminders of. Interestingly enough, when the woman began to set her gaze first on Christ, it resulted in a completely different experience at work. She ended up serving and loving her colleagues better, and she ended up getting that promotion she so desperately wanted.
Help us remember: How can we remember the words of Jesus in such a way that we live a life of faith, hope, and love? Certainly it begins with the reminder that the God of the universe loves us so much he was willing to send his son to die a criminal’s death on a cross. He loves us that much, and our worth, and our vision ought to be centered firmly on Christ.
When it comes down to it, Luke 24:1-12 is a passage about the unexpected, the greatest surprise perhaps the world has ever known: that a messiah who at first was believed to be a political revolutionary was actually enacting a very different kind of revolution, which enters a new phase of its development with the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. This revolution was almost incomprehensible, even to those who dedicated their lives to following Jesus. The women’s incredulousness, and the disciples after them, is perhaps a metaphor for us as well. Do we believe that resurrection is possible in our own lives? Do we believe that God can change us, heal us, transform us more and more into his image? If so, this text is an excellent reminder of Paul’s words in Ephesians 3:20-21:
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
Stuart Strachan Jr. is an ordained Presbyterian Pastor as well as the founder and lead curator of the Pastor’s Workshop. His primary passion is equipping the saints for the ministry of the church (Ephesians 4). He loves preaching, teaching, and helping churches cast vision for what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st Century. He has served churches in a variety of capacities in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Washington.
Stu is married to Colleen, who currently serves as a spiritual formation lead at Compassion International in Colorado Springs. Stu and Colleen have two children (Jack and Emma) whom they love deeply.
In his free time, Stu enjoys gardening, golf, reading a good book, and watching baseball.
The evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is so strong that nobody would question it except for two things: First, it is a very unusual event. And second, if you believe it happened, you have to change the way you live.
Peregrinatio Pro Amore Dei
Here’s a true story, from the year 891, of those who cast off in an embodied journey to live “in a state of pilgrimage, for the love of God.” Three Irish pilgrims, Dubslane, Macbeth, and Maelinmun, made the dramatic decision to set out into the ocean from their homeland in a boat purposely “without oars.” Their destination was in God’s hands, or, more precisely, in God’s breath.
In Hebrew, wind, breath, and Spirit are all the same word. Their boat was made of two and a half hides, and they took provisions for seven days. On the seventh night they landed in Cornwall, in what today is the southwestern tip of England, convinced that they were precisely where they were meant to be. There’s a Latin term that captures both their purpose and experience and that of hundreds like them: “peregrinatio pro amore Dei,” or “wandering for the love of God.”
Many pilgrims from Ireland had gone before, departing without external destinations, but guided by interior journeys. Trying to explain their motivation, one author says they were “seeking the place of one’s resurrection.” Such pilgrims felt compelled to do so, often against all odds.