Good Friday, March 21
The Suffering Servant: When did the early Christians go to the Old Testament, and specifically, to the Book of Isaiah, to interpret and understand the significance of Jesus’ sufferings and death?
Although St. Peter’s sermon on the first Pentecost affirmed that Jesus had been delivered to His enemies "by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God" (Acts 2:23), he did not cite any specific Scriptures to demonstrate this purpose and foreknowledge. This fact seems particularly worthy of note, because Peter did on that occasion cite biblical prophecy with respect to our Lord’s resurrection (2:25-36).
Not until Philip do we find our earliest recorded example of recourse to the Old Testament to interpret the theology of Jesus’ sufferings and death (8:28-35). Surely this was not Philip’s own idea.
Jesus Himself had dropped more than one hint on the subject. He avowed, for example, that He suffered in fulfillment of Holy Scripture (Matthew 26:54), a declaration later prompting His disciples to search the Old Testament under that perspective.
Moreover, Jesus also spoke of the soteriological significance of His death by declaring that His blood was "shed for many for the remission of sins" (Matthew 26:28), thus introducing the Old Testament liturgical category of the "sin offering" to interpret what He accomplished on the cross.
Finally, Jesus described Himself as a servant, who came to give His "life as a ransom for many" (20:28). The Old Testament source for this assertion left no room for doubt. Jesus was clearly identifying Himself as the Servant of the Lord portrayed in the Book of Isaiah, that Servant who "poured out His soul unto death," who "bore the sin of many,/ and made intercession for the transgressors." In the suffering Jesus believers would recognize the One who "was led as a lamb to the slaughter," who was "wounded for our transgressions, . . . bruised for our iniquities," who "has borne our griefs/ and carried our sorrows."
The early Christians, employing the event of the Cross as the interpretive key of the Holy Scriptures, recognized in these and other lines of Isaiah the earliest account of the Lord’s sufferings and death. They beheld portrayed on the very pages of the Old Testament what they themselves had witnessed on Good Friday. It was as though the prophet had beheld the entire drama as vividly as they had. It was as though Isaiah had stood in the courtyard of Caiaphas on the night of the Lord’s trial, had gone in the morning to the judgment hall of Pilate, had followed along the way of the Cross, and had taken his place with the holy women on Golgotha to see that "it pleased the Lord to bruise Him."
Furthermore, in the Book of Isaiah these Christians found, not only a graphic depiction of the Lord’s sufferings, but also the true theological significance of those sufferings. They not only discovered there an account of Jesus’ scourging at the pillar, but also the assertion that "by His stripes we are healed." Not only did the ancient prophet describe the wounds that the Savior endured, but he also affirmed that He was "wounded for our transgressions." When the Roman soldiers mocked and beat Jesus, these Christians learned from Isaiah that "the Lord laid on Him the iniquity of us all." When Jesus died, according to such texts, it was because God made "His soul an offering for sin."
Centuries before the four Evangelists told the moving story of Jesus’ sufferings and death, then, the Book of Isaiah had already provided, not only an earlier account of that event, but also the first theological treatise on its meaning. Long before the Apostle Paul went forth to preach Christ and Him crucified, the Old Testament prophet had done the same in the mystic light of prophetic vision.
Indeed, one might imagine that Isaiah’s prophetic vision had beheld the Lord’s passion even more vividly than did the witnesses cited by the Evangelists. The prophet’s description is certainly more vivid and detailed. Whereas the four Gospels are fairly restrained in their accounts of the Lord’s sufferings, not so the Book of Isaiah, where every bruise on the sacred flesh of "the Man of sorrows" is noted, every stripe of His scourging is recorded. The description of Isaiah lingers in loving contemplation on each wound that Jesus endured "for us men and for our salvation." It is a fact that in all of Holy Scripture no writer surpasses Isaiah in the vividness of his account of what our Lord suffered, and why.
Holy Saturday, March 22
The Book of Jonah: The Book of Jonah is a story full of paradox and irony, characteristics that mark both the person of the prophet and his career. Commanded by the Lord to go and preach repentance to the Ninevites, he proceeds in the very opposite direction, boarding a ship at the port of Joppa, headed to Tarshish (Cadiz, beyond the Straits of Gibraltar) at the other end of the Mediterranean Sea.
While other biblical prophets, such as Moses and Jeremiah, showed themselves reluctant to comply with their prophetic call, Jonah seems to be the only one whose reluctance was inspired by the fear of being successful! It is an important feature of this story that Jonah did not want the Ninevites to be converted; he wanted them justly punished, not spared. The original account of Jonah’s call does not tell us this fact; we learn it only at the end of the book: “Ah, Lord, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness, One who relents from doing harm” (4:2).
Then, in his very flight Jonah discovers another paradox of the Lord’s mercy, its uncanny capacity for bringing good out of evil. Thus, the prophet’s very infidelity to God’s call is turned into the means by which the pagan sailors come to know and worship the true God (1:16). Thus, Jonah’s prophetic ministry, precisely because of his attempted disobedience to it, is enhanced by the conversion of two sets of people.
Next, because of Jonah’s disobedience, God shifts to what may be called “Plan W” in His project to save the Ninevites. A great whale or sea monster swallows the prophet, but then, in the belly of this beast,
Jonah proceeds to sing a hymn of praise for God’s salvation (2:9). This too is paradoxical, because the salvation celebrated in this book is manifold. It is God’s twofold liberation of Jonah, both the deliverance from his own infidelity by the sending of the whale and his coming rescue from the whale itself; it is the Lord’s care for the pagan sailors; and, finally, it is the mercy shown to the Ninevites.
The three days spent by Jonah in the whale’s belly comprise half of his active ministry; his next three days are spent walking through Nineveh (3:3). After those six days, of course, it is time for the Sabbath rest, and Jonah plans to spend his Sabbath reclining under the shade of a vine. Like murderous Cain going to the land of Nod (cf. Genesis 4:16), he proceeds to the east of the city (Jonah 4:5).
Jonah reflects on what has happened. Complying with the barest literal sense of the Lord’s command, he had simply announced the city’s destruction, with not a single word about repentance nor the faintest ray of hope. Indeed, his entire prophetic message took only half a verse of the story’s text (3:4).
Alas, Jonah saw, his half verse of apparently unfulfilled prophecy bore more immediate fruit than any other preaching recorded in the Bible! It was enough to make the vindictive prophet wish for death (4:3, 8). This detail, reminiscent of the identical wish of Elijah (1 Kings 19:4), is ironic by reason of the sharp contrast between the two men. The final chapter portrays our poor vindictive prophet lamenting the loss of his sheltering vine, feeling the sun and hot wind beating on his head, and arguing with the God who endeavors to bring him to repentance. Will Jonah too repent, as did the Ninevites, and be converted? It is most significant that the Book of Jonah ends with this question put to the prophet himself.
Moreover, the very presence of Jonah within the biblical canon is itself a point of paradox. As we have seen, the burden of the story is that God spared sinful Nineveh because its citizens repented at Jonah’s preaching. Yet the rabbinical authorities who placed this book into the canon were well aware that Nineveh, spared for its repentance in Jonah’s century, was finally punished for its sins during the century of Jeremiah and Nahum. They had to realize that Jonah’s desire for Nineveh’s destruction, while it certainly casts no credit on the prophet in the book that bears his name, was somehow vindicated by subsequent history.
Indeed, in the Book of Nahum we seem to find raised to canonical dignity those identical sentiments for which Jonah, in his book, was divinely reprimanded. It is a sort of canonical irony that Jonah and Nahum stand only a few pages from one another in the Sacred Text.
Finally, there is the sharper irony in Our Lord’s appeal to reluctant, vindictive Jonah as a type even of Himself: “For as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so also the Son of Man will be to this generation. . . .
The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here” (Luke 11:30, 32).
Easter Sunday, March 23
Luke 24:13-35: The story of the two disciples walking to Emmaus on the afternoon of the day of the Lord’s Resurrection (Luke 24:13–35) is of great importance to biblical exegesis and the structure of Christian worship.
First, with respect to biblical exegesis, it may be said that the conversation of the risen Christ, as He walked with Cleopas and his unnamed companion and interpreted the Holy Scriptures for them, was the Church’s first formal course in the proper Christian interpretation of the Sacred Scriptures. From time to time, as we know, Jesus had interpreted individual passages of Moses, Isaiah, David, and other Old Testament writers, normally in reference to Himself. In that discourse on the road to Emmaus, however, Jesus devoted the entire effort and time to this theme, laying the foundation for the proper Christian understanding of the Bible. It may be said that all orthodox Christian exegesis goes back to that conversation, and we are surely correct in going to the writers of the New Testament as illustrating the interpretive patterns put forward in that conversation.
The “allegory” (Galatians 4:21–31) or “spiritual sense” (1 Corinthians 2:6–16; 2 Corinthians 3:18) of God’s holy Word is that Word’s underlying Christological reference, its relationship to the Incarnate Lord who brings it to historical and theological fulfillment. Clothed in the literary forms of history, parable, and poetry, the Bible’s deeper doctrinal message is ever its reference to the Mystery of Christ, who is at once God’s only path to us and our only path to God. Thus, every line of the Bible, every symbol and every story, every prophecy, proverb, and prayer bears its deeper significance in Christ, its meaning conveyed in the catechesis of the Church and the Christian Sacraments. It is this more profound Christological “sense” of Holy Scripture that separates the Christian from the Jew.
We may also say, in this respect, that all of Christian doctrine is rooted in our Lord’s paschal discourse to the two disciples on the way to Emmaus. The timing of that discourse is likewise significant, for it took place on the very day of His rising from the dead; on that day “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David,” demonstrated that He “was worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals.” He was worthy to do this because He was slain and had redeemed us to God by His blood (Revelation 5:5, 9). Jesus interprets Holy Scripture—indeed, He is the very interpretation of Holy Scripture—because He “fulfills” Holy Scripture by the historical and theological events of His death and Resurrection. His blood-redemption of the world is the formal principle of biblical interpretation.
Second, in the paschal experience of those two disciples we have the initial paradigm of proper Sunday worship as the Apostles handed it down to us. The experience of those men, hearing and understanding
God’s Word while their hearts burned within them, led to their recognition of Him in the breaking of the Bread. Holy Church has always understood this intricate combination of Word and Sacrament to indicate the structure of correct Sunday worship. This is the format we find in the New Testament (Acts 20:7–11) and in the earliest explicit description of Christian Sunday worship left us from the second century (St. Justin Martyr, First Apology 67).
In the Orthodox East this binary principle of Word and Sacrament is expressed in the two Entrances. The Little Entrance, which takes place after the litanies and psalmody at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy, gives prominence of place to the Gospel book, which the deacon carries high in the procession. This procession may be regarded as the walk to
Emmaus, for it introduces the public reading of God’s Word. Or, in the words of Justin, “the memoirs of the Apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the Presider verbally instructs and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.”
With the Great Entrance, in which the bread and wine are borne solemnly into the sanctuary, we arrive in the inn at Emmaus, taking our place at “the Lord’s table” (1 Corinthians 10:21), that we may know Him in the Breaking of the Bread. The Scriptures are interpreted by the sacramental context of their proclamation, while the knowledge of the risen Christ thus proclaimed reaches its proper fulfillment in the Holy Communion, the mystic reception of the risen, glorified Body and Blood of the Lion of Judah. “Lord, abide with us,” we say, “for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.”
(From P, H. Reardon, Christ in His Saints)
Easter Monday, March 24
The Resurrection Accounts: The Gospel stories of the Lord’s Resurrection, viewed from an historical perspective, are difficult to reconcile with one another. Indeed, the differences in detail among them are perhaps more extensive than in any other stories in the Gospels. Matthew and Mark, for instance, seem familiar with no apparitions of the risen Jesus to the apostles except in Galilee, while Luke and John describe such apparitions taking place in Jerusalem. Likewise, just how may angels were there are at the empty tomb? And how many times did Jesus appear to Mary Magdalene? Discrepancies on such matters are both numerous and perplexing.
I believe, however, that this inconsistency among the Resurrection reports, far from being an argument against their historicity, tends rather to favor it. That is to say, the jumble and disarray of the post-Resurrection accounts would be even more difficult to explain if those stories were deliberately fabricated to support a fraud. Fraudulent conspiracies are normally better organized. The tangled details in these stories are more readily explained, rather, as the varied responses we might expect among the friends of a man who rose from the dead one morning and came back to tell them about it. The narrative confusion itself indicates an underlying event of bewilderment and disorientation
These same Resurrection stories, analyzed from a literary and theological perspective, appear to fall into two categories that it is useful to examine more closely.
The first category may be called kerygmatic. That is to say, some of the Resurrection accounts seem to have been part of the Church’s apologetic witness to the world. In these stories there is a great deal of emphasis on the reliability of eyewitness testimony, much as there might be in a courtroom. Such stories stress the perceived physical reality of the Resurrection in documentable terms. This testimony has to be clear and unmistakable, emphasizing the identity of the risen Jesus beyond doubt.
Indeed, before any of the Gospels were composed there was already an official list of qualified witnesses well known among the early Christians: "I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received . . . that He rose again according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, and then by the twelve; after that He was seen by more than 500 brethren at once. . . . After that He was seen by James, then by all the Apostles. And last of all He was seen by me" (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). One notes here the heavy emphasis on apostolic authority; in the main, the people listed here were official spokesmen for the Church. They were the established witnesses, to the world, of the Lord’s Resurrection (cf. also Acts 1:21-22).
We find exactly this eye-witness kind of emphasis in a couple of the Gospel accounts (Luke 24:36-43; John 21:24-29). This is rare, nonetheless, and in the Gospels the apologetic interest is rather muted. For example, none of the evangelists describes the apparition of the risen Lord to either Peter or James alone, or to the "more than 500 brethren at once."
There is a second kind of post-Resurrection story in the Gospels, however, in which the emphasis is very different. To appreciate this difference, one may begin by noting just who is absent in that first type of story. Who was not named in Paul’s list of the Resurrection’s official witnesses? The women! But when we turn to the Gospels themselves, it is the myrrh-bearing women who are most prominent in the Resurrection stories. They are the first to see the risen Lord, and the apostles, whom Paul lists as the official witnesses, are described as skeptical of the women’s report (Matthew 28:11; Mark 16:9-11; Luke 24:11,22-24).
We read, for instance, "Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene" (Mark 16:9). In the official list in 1 Corinthians 15, Mary Magdalene is not even mentioned. On the contrary, Paul says that the risen Jesus first "was seen by Cephas" (1 Corinthians 15:5). The contrast is striking.
That is to say, the interest and concern of the four Gospels seems to be less apologetic and more theological and devotional. What we have in the Gospels are the Church’s cherished memories of that first Paschal morning and the delirious ensuing days of the new spring. We learn of Mary Magdalene’s sentient recognition of Jesus’ voice speaking her own name, the mysterious experience of the two disciples along the road and at the inn, and that morning encounter at the lakeside. We behold the Lord’s feet embraced by those lying prostrate in His worship. We see that trembling finger extended to touch the wounded hand. These are the stories of believers meeting their risen Lord in the intimacy of worship and the sacraments.
Easter Tuesday, March 25
The Feast of the Incarnation: On this day, at the announcement of the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary, she conceived God’s eternal Word as a new human being in her womb, by descent of the Holy Spirit and the overshadowing of the Most High. This day falls exactly nine months before Christmas, the human birthday of that divine Word.
At the beginning of his ministry Ezekiel was shown a scroll, on which he beheld writing "on the inside and on the outside" (2:10). The prophet was commanded to eat the scroll, which was, of course, God’s Word of revelation.
Now God’s Word, according to St. John Chrysostom, "is ever eaten yet never consumed," so the scroll of Ezekiel was not destroyed when he ate it. Indeed, John the Seer later described his own memorable encounter with that same document (Revelation 5:1).
I suggest that we look more closely at that revelatory scroll and inquire, more specifically, why it is written on both sides and what this means.
Since the Scroll is God’s Word, the inside of it, if I am not deceived, is the Father’s eternal Logos written from within. The Father writes inasmuch as He begets the Word, God from God, light from light. Also, not to be taken for Arians, let us surely and promptly insist that at no point did God begin to write this Word; He is, rather, the unbegotten Scribe, ho grammateus anarchos, who pens His Composition in the grammar of eternity. As for the Scroll, it is the eternal inscription of the Father, His only begotten Son, having neither beginning of days nor end of life. Indeed, according to the Creed, the Scroll is of one essence (homoousios) with the Scribe. The written message, therefore, is absolutely complete and sufficient, though no one but God can read it.
For reasons having to do with goodness and love, however, the Father is not satisfied with keeping this eternal Word on the inside, all to Himself, as it were. He determines, rather, for the Scroll also to be written ad extra, on the outside, so that the goodness and love of the Scribe and the Scroll may be shared with a multitude of readers–that the love with which the Father loves the Son may be in them, and He in them.
Therefore, with the willing (but necessary) cooperation of a second writer, a young Galilean woman, the Scroll is inscribed on a second side, when the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us. The Scroll remains, nonetheless, one and the same, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation. It is a single Scroll inscribed on two faces, positioned in the two directions that constitute history, homo Deo, Deus homini.
These two directions–man to God and God to man–indicate that the Scroll is the medium of a transmission–and not the medium only, but also the Mediator, the single link between God and all that is not God. Those on the outside have no access to the inside except through that Scroll, for the simple reason that the Father has no dealings with any creature, not even in Creation, except through His Son.
The Scroll, moreover, is wonderfully translucent, so the glory that shines through it is "as the glory of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth." It is truly luminous, a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path. Man was created, in fact, for no other purpose than for the enjoyment of this Scroll.
Nor was the Incarnation a kind of divine afterthought. Indeed, the first lineaments on the Scroll’s second side were already penciled-in, as it were, in Creation itself, when man was formed capax Dei. This expression (for which, I apologize, there is no real English equivalent) means, not only that human nature was so constructed as to capable of elevation to the divine nature by grace; it also means that man’s nature was so formed, in the act of its Creation, as to be capable of assumption by God’s Word. Humanity was designed with a view to the Hypostatic Union.
Moreover, truly to affirm the Incarnation we should say, with all the reverence we can muster, not only that man is capax Dei, but also that God must in some sense be capax hominis. There is something about God’s eternal Scroll that makes it capable of receiving an inscription on a second side. The translucency of the Incarnation thus teaches us something also about the inner life of the Scroll–just enough, in fact, for trembling.
It is to this Scroll that we turn our gaze at all times. Our only source of the knowledge of both God and man is the place where they two are joined forever, that Parchment penned on both sides. This is the Scroll that Ezekiel, rapt in mystic vision, was told to take and eat. We too, sitting by the Chebar of our exile, are told to do the same–to take the Word into ourselves, making it our food and inwardly digesting it.
Matthew 28:1-10: “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary” preserve the continuity with the Passion story. As they were witnesses to Jesus’ death (27:56) and burial (27:61), so now they will be witnesses to His empty tomb (verse 1).
The reason for their coming to the tomb (Mark 16:1) is omitted by Matthew, who seems eager to press on with the rest of the story. To him, this detail would be nearly a distraction. Thus, he also omits the ladies’ discussion about how to open the tomb (Mark 16:3).
They find the tomb already opened, not to let Jesus out, but to let visitors in. This angel—if it is not irreverent to think of him as a “gentleman”—knows to open the door for ladies. Meanwhile, he sits down on the stone to wait for them. This seems to be our only instance of an angel seated, something not easy to do, one suspects, with long wings.
The myrrh-bearing women, perhaps already startled by the earthquake (an image favored by Matthew—see 8:24; 27:54), approach the tomb. The impressive appearance of the angel probably does nothing to reassure them (verse 3), and it certainly had its effect on the soldiers guarding the tomb (verse 4). These soldiers will later claim to have slept on guard (verse 13), which is a bit of an understatement.
As often in prophetic literature (Daniel, Zechariah, Revelation), the angel explains what is happening (verses 5-7). Indeed, this empty tomb requires an explanation. When Matthew’s Gospel ends, moreover, the difference between Jew and Christian will be their differing explanations for the empty tomb.
The announcing angel, having reassured these frightened women, reminds them that Jesus had already predicted this day and this event (verse 6; 16:21-23; 17:22-23; 20:18-19). In fact, Jesus had also promised to meet His disciples in Galilee (verse 7; 26:32; c. Mark 16:7).
Learning the news of the resurrection, the women disciples go rushing out, to be the first human heralds of the event that changed the world (verse 8). The brief scene of their sudden meeting with Jesus (verses 9-10) may record the same incident of which St. John provides such a theologically rich account (John 20:11-18—Note that in both accounts Jesus refers to the disciples as “my brothers.”)
In a manner typical of Matthew’s narrative, these women “adore” Jesus (cf. 2:2,8,11; 8:2; 9:18; 14:33; 15:25; 20:20; 28:17).
Easter Thursday, March 27
Matthew 28:11-20: In this final section of Matthew, Judaism and the Church go their separate ways, divided by their differing interpretations of the identical piece of evidence—the empty tomb.
First, Judaism. Matthew narrates Judaism’s explanation of the empty tomb, an explanation, he says some half century later, “commonly reported among the Jews to this day” (verse 15).
The use of the Latin word for “guard” (custodia) may suggest that those guarding the tomb were a group of Roman legionnaires put at the disposal of the Sanhedrin (verse 11; 27:65). In any case, it was to the Sanhedrin members that they made their report. The Sanhedrin, for its part, continued its “plot” (symboulion) (verse 12; 12:14; 22:15; 27:7), and the soldiers were paid handsomely to say that they were asleep while on guard (verse 13), an offense for which the Roman army, like most armies, punished by death.
If the soldiers were truly asleep when the body of Jesus was removed, however, it is reasonable to question their merit as witnesses of what transpired! Anyway, their story became the official line, and evidently Pilate did not inquire too closely. Governments tend to get upset when someone rises from the dead; it messes up the bookkeeping over at the Bureau of Vital Statistics.
The explanation of the soldiers with respect to the empty tomb was a common one, it would seem (cf. Justin Martyr, The Dialogue With Trypho 108), and, if someone insists on not believing in miracles, it is the most plausible one. After all, some of those first Christians seemed to have entertained the notion (cf. John 20:15).
Second, the Church’s interpretation of the empty tomb. The remaining Eleven, instructed by the women who had visited the tomb, go to the Galilean mountain where Jesus had directed them (verse 16). The Great Commission, with which Matthew closes, was given specifically to these eleven men, the first Apostles. It was not a general mandate given to all Christians, even though all Christians, under the pastoral leadership of those men and their successors, are needed to fulfill it. The Commission itself, however, was specific to those men, who were officially charged with the ministry of Word and Sacrament.
Those same men, although some of them were still weak in faith, adored the risen Christ (verse 17). In this respect we notice that Matthew, who tells of only two post-resurrection appearances of Christ, mentions the adoration of the Church in both instances.
The Great Commission itself is rooted in Jesus’ fulfillment of prophecy, specifically that of Daniel (verse 18; Daniel 7:14). Its mandate is directed to all the nations and not only to the Jews (verse 19).
Jesus’ presence “with us” (verse 20) forms an inclusio with that same theme at the beginning of Matthew (1:22-23).
Easter Friday, March 28
The Resurrection and Apologetics: Inasmuch as Jesus “was raised again for our justification” (Romans 4:25), it is entirely proper to study and ponder the mystery of the Lord’s Resurrection as part of theology in the strict sense. Specifically, such study pertains to soteriology, the theology of salvation. In addition, however, the Resurrection of Jesus is a proper theme of Christian apologetics, that theological discipline which defends the faith and supports its proclamation to the world.
An inspection of the New Testament, moreover, shows that the apologetic approach to the Resurrection came first; the early believers proclaimed the fact of it before they reflected on its soteriological meaning. In the earliest Christian preaching, the Resurrection was emphasized as probative before it was pondered as redemptive.
St. Peter’s first sermon demonstrates this point. With respect to the Resurrection, Peter stressed two points: the historical fact that God raised Jesus from the dead and the fulfillment of biblical prophecy by that fact (Acts 2:24-31). In that sermon the apostle said not a word about the redemptive meaning of the Resurrection. He concentrated entirely on the historical fact itself, “of which,” he said, “we are all witnesses” (2:32).
The apostolic writings likewise record that the Resurrection was the point at which the first enemies of the Gospel directed their attack. In order to explain Jesus’ empty tomb, those responsible for His murder “gave a large sum of money to the soldiers,” bribing them to claim that Jesus’ disciples came, while the guard was sleeping, to take away His corpse. This explanation of the empty tomb, Matthew wrote, “is commonly reported among the Jews until this day” (Matthew 28:12-15).
Early Christian apologists recognized, of course, that the empty tomb itself proved nothing. So much was this the case that the first Christian to find the tomb empty presumed, not that Jesus had risen, but that His body had been stolen (John 20:1-2,13-15). Common sense testifies that this was a normal assessment; if we find a grave empty, it is not our first thought that the dead person arose. We suppose, rather, that someone took away the body. Hence, Jesus’ empty tomb by itself had no probative value, which is why it receives relatively little attention in the New Testament.
Alas, there are modern critics that draw a completely skewed inference from the New Testament’s comparative lack of interest in the empty tomb. The empty tomb is not emphasized, these critics claim, because it was not important to the early Christians. Nor, they often enough go on to assert, should the empty tomb be important for us. It is not uncommon for such critics to avow, in fact, that the “essence” of the Christian faith is quite compatible with the tomb’s not being empty!
It should be obvious that suggestions like this are incompatible with the proclamation of the apostles. In fact, these assertions are a kind of delirium. Even the earliest enemies of the Gospel did not dispute that the tomb was empty. If the New Testament lays no special stress on the empty tomb, therefore, the reason must be sought elsewhere. And the reason surely has to do with the fact that an empty tomb doesn’t prove anything to anybody. It not only has no theological significance; it also has no apologetic weight. It doesn’t explain anything. On the contrary, it must be explained.
The correct explanation for Jesus’ empty tomb came through the physical experience of those who testified that Jesus, risen from the dead, had been seen (1 Corinthians 15:4-8; Mark 1:9,14) and touched (Matthew 1:9; Luke 24:39; John 20:27) by them. Far from being hallucinations brought on by wishful thinking, these physical manifestations of Jesus went directly contrary to the common-sense expectations of those who saw Him. The most important thing to observe about that evidence is that it was conveyed to–indeed, it overwhelmingly forced itself upon–those deeply reluctant to believe it. To a man, the first witnesses of the risen Jesus were at first skeptical of their experience. They could be convinced only when the risen Jesus “presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs” (Acts 1:3). They came to believe in the Resurrection, only when the undeniable evidence coerced their assent.