By Harris Franklin Rall
We have finished the story of Jesus' life and work. We have seen that his death counted for more than any deed wrought during his life. We have seen how large space the Gospels give to these last days of his passion, how the reports become full and detailed which had been but fragments before; the last week was the crown and consummation of his life. And yet even this last week does not complete the story. All this does not yet account for the early church and for Christianity. If we stopped with the cross and then began with the church, we should have an insoluble puzzle. We have still to consider the story of the resurrection. The cross is the center of apostolic preaching, but it is not the cross of a dead hero, but of a living Saviour. It is a living Christ that fills the pages of Paul, and not the mere memory of a past, however glorious. And that is true of those others that knew Jesus in the flesh. They remembered lovingly and they studied earnestly the story of Jesus of Nazareth; they preserved for us the record of his gracious words and wonderful deeds. But all the time, in the midst of these stories of humble service and shameful death, they are looking forward and thinking, *'This is our living Lord." Strictly the story of these appearances of the risen Christ and of the faith they awakened belongs to the history of the early church. We need, however, to include them here also in order to set forth the full fact of Christ in its meaning for the development of the kingdom of God upon earth.
From Despair to Confidence
Apparent Failure.—There is no chapter in Christianity more interesting than that which tells of the great change that took place in the days that followed the death of Jesus. What was there to show for his work in that dark hour of the cross when Jesus cried, "It is finished"? We should have seen but little had we stood there that day. We have seen how Jesus centered his work more and more upon the twelve. He had tried to show them two things: first, the nature of the Kingdom; second, the nature of his own work as one of service and suffering that was to end on the cross. Jesus had failed to win the nation; he had succeeded only in part with the twelve. The dream of earthly power and glory had lingered till the end. They could not grasp the fact or the meaning of his death. They realized that there was danger, and they had two swords with them on the night of the arrest; but they had expected no such end. When Jesus was seized they fled. Most of them remained in hiding. They were overwhelmed and apparently without hope. Jesus was just then a glorious and precious memory, but that was all: "We hoped that it was he who should redeem Israel."
The Change. —Then came the change. These fearful men come out of their hiding and stand forth boldly in the very presence of those who slew their Master. Their despondency has given place to a joy such as they had not known even in the days that Jesus was with them. They have a message and cannot be silent, a hope that fills them with confident rejoicing, a courage that nothing can shake. And all this stands the test of time; it is not the enthusiasm of a moment. Persecution does not abate it, the years do not lessen it. It becomes a new movement of life and power. It spreads through the Roman world. It lives on when at length the old Roman empire passes, until at last it comes to our own day. Only one thing can explain all this: the disciples knew beyond a doubt that Jesus lived, that his death was not a defeat, and that his final victory was sure.
The Gospel Records
Some Discrepancies. —When we turn to the Gospel records, we meet at once some perplexing questions. The Gospel stories do not agree in various points. Take the visit of the women to the tomb. Was it Mary Magdalene alone (John 20. 1), the two Marys (Matt. 28. 1), the two Marys and Salome (Mark 16. 1), or a still larger number (Luke 24. 10)? When was this visit made, and for what purpose? Did they see one angel or two? Where did they see the angel, and what did the women do? Other differences appear as we compare the further stories.
The Fundamental Agreement. —In times past scholars tried to reconcile all these differences, believing that any error of any kind must make the whole Bible untrustworthy. We do not think so now. These records were composed a generation or more after the event. The writers have preserved for us the accounts current at the time of their writing. What we are concerned about is to know whether they agree in the central facts. And here there is no difference. The tomb is empty. The Lord appears to his disciples: to Peter, to the twelve, to the women. It is no mere vision, but a real appearance; Jesus speaks to them. And yet all agree that it is no return to the old life of physical intercourse.
Stories of the Resurrection and the Appearances
Mark's Story: The Interment. —Keeping in mind that we cannot lay too much stress upon details, we turn to some of the resurrection stories, and first to that of Mark. The death of Jesus was on Friday afternoon, and little time was left to care for the body, since sunset brought the Sabbath. The disciples, fearful and scattered, could be of no service now. In this emergency Joseph of Arimathsea comes forward. A member of the Sanhedrin, he had nevertheless sympathized with Jesus, and was probably present at Jesus' death. Hurrying to Pilate, fearing neither danger from the governor nor the hatred of his associates, he asks for the body of Jesus. In a new tomb, hewn out of the rock and situated in a garden near by, he gives it honorable burial.
The Women. —Very early on the morning after the Sabbath, Mark tells us, the women came to the tomb to anoint the body. The body had been in the tomb but a little over a day and a half, although it was the third day according to the Jewish mode of counting. They had no thought but that they should find the body, their only question being as to who should roll away the stone that was before the tomb. There is no suggestion in Mark that a Roman watch was present. Arrived at the tomb, they saw it open. Within was no body, but instead a young man robed in white, who said, "He is risen; he is not here: behold the place where they laid him;" and; "tell his disciples and Peter, He goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see him, as he said unto you." Thereupon they fled in fear and astonishment, but said nothing to anyone. Such is Mark's story (Mark 15. 42-47; 16. 1-8).
Luke: the Walk to Emmaus. —One of the most beautiful of this group of stories is that of the walk to Emmaus, found in Luke alone and told in Luke's matchless fashion. It is a picture of the mood of the disciples after Jesus' death: their sorrow over the friend that is gone, the thought of great hopes now shattered, and then the memory of the wonderful days to which they turn back again and again. Cleopas and another disciple, neither of them being of the twelve, are joined on their way to Emmaus by a stranger. As they pour out their hearts, their companion points out to them from the Scriptures how it was needful for the Christ to suffer all these things. It is a picture not only of the first discouragement, but of what the disciples began at once to do as soon as they knew that Jesus lived: to study the Old Testament and to recall words of Jesus but half understood before, all pointing to this way of suffering and death (Luke 24. 13-31).
The Easter Faith
The Easter faith is the faith in the living Christ. We cannot set forth its full meaning in a few words, for it is at the heart of all Christian believing. The Easter faith means, first of all, that Jesus was the one sent of God. It is God's voice saying to men, "This is my beloved Son, hear ye him." We read Jesus' words and say, "This is God's word to us." We look at Jesus' life and say, "This is God showing us what we should be." We hear his words of invitation and his promise of mercy and life, and we do not say, "How beautiful if it were only true!" We say, "God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself."
The Easter faith gives to the cross its real meaning. Without Easter day the cross would have been a tragedy, for our day a long-forgotten one. At most men might have said, "How wonderfully this Jesus of Nazareth loved, and with what courage he died." Now, though the blackness of man's sin still remains in that awful deed, the cross itself has become the center of light. We see in it the plan and purpose of God, the glory of his righteousness, the wonder of his love. It is this faith that makes the cross the sign in which we conquer.
The Easter faith means that Christ through the Holy Spirit is a power in this world to-day, a living presence and not a mere memory. It was this thought that stirred Luther in one of the darkest hours of the Reformation, when he seized a crayon and wrote all over floor and wainscoting of that room which is shown still to-day: Dominus vivit! Dominus vivit! (The Lord liveth! the Lord liveth!)
The Easter faith is the assurance of the triumph of Christ. That was the conviction that filled with joy the hearts of those first disciples. True, their hope was not fulfilled as they expected, for they supposed he would come visibly and in their lifetime. But the manner in which his rule shall come is secondary, and men differ about it still. The heart of our faith is this: Christ is the revelation of God's purpose for the world, and some time the spirit of Christ shall rule all the life of men. We rejoice to-day that his rule has been growing through the ages.
And finally, the living Christ means that we who trust in him shall live with him. The Christian argument for immortality is not taken from science or philosophy, much less from supposed spirit messages from another world. We believe in immortality because we believe in Christ, and in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who raised him from the dead. If the God of heaven and earth be such an one as Jesus showed men, then we may confidently say; "He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him freely give us all things?"
Directions for Study
Read 1 Corinthians 15. 3-8; Mark 15. 42-47; 16. 1-8; Luke 24. 13-31; Acts 1. 1-11.
Consider first the change with the disciples themselves. Review the last day of Jesus' life from the standpoint of the disciples, beginning with the Last Supper. Try to realize their feelings upon the dark Sabbath (the day after the crucifixion), and then when they were assured that Jesus lived.
As far as you can, compare the Gospel stories, their differences, their agreement. Note the one joyous conviction that runs through them all.
Read Paul's account and see what this conviction meant in the early church, and how the hope of the early church rested upon it.
Consider what the Easter faith means for us to-day. Take the five suggestions made in the discussion one by one: Christ as the true Word of God to men; the cross as God's deed, and not an accident; Christ as a present power, the assurance of Christ's triumph, the assurance of our own life to come. In each case ask yourself the question. What difference would it make in this matter if Christ had not been raised? Should not each of these questions then lead us to a prayer of thanksgiving to Him who raised Jesus from the grave?