By Gregg Bing
(Continued from Jan-Feb 2014 issue)
After Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, He “presented Himself alive … by many infallible proofs” (Acts 1:3). One of these proofs was eyewitness testimony, “being seen by them during forty days” (Acts 1:3). Eyewitness testimony is one of the fundamental elements of legal and historical evidence. Under Jewish law the testimony of witnesses was crucial. “One witness shall not rise against a man concerning any iniquity or any sin that he commits; by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established” (Deut. 19:15). Eyewitness testimony was the means by which the truth of a matter was established.
The Apostle Paul verified the truth of Jesus’ resurrection by identifying eyewitnesses who saw Him after He came forth from the grave (1 Cor. 15:5-8). God “showed Him openly,” but “not to all the people …” (Acts 10:40-41). Why didn’t Jesus show himself to everyone? Why didn’t He appear publicly in the city of Jerusalem? Wouldn’t seeing Jesus alive again have led the people of Israel, including their religious rulers, to believe that He was the Christ, the Son of God? Sadly, the answer is “No.”
Jesus of Nazareth, during His three-year ministry, was “a Man attested by God” to the people of Israel “by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him” in their midst; He performed amazing works that the Jews could not deny (Acts 2:22). Nevertheless, “although He had done so many signs before them, they did not believe in Him” (John 12:37).
The scribes and Pharisees demanded more evidence, saying, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.” Jesus told them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:38-39). When Jesus came forth after three days and nights in the grave, these hard-hearted men still refused to believe in Him.
In Luke 16, Jesus gave an account of the deaths of a beggar named Lazarus and a rich man. Lazarus died and “was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom,” a place of comfort. The rich man also died and was buried, and being “in torments in Hades,” he asked Abraham to send Lazarus back to testify to his five brothers, “lest they also come to this place of torment.” Abraham said, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.” The rich man insisted, “No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” But Abraham said, “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead” (Luke 16:19-31).
The truth of Abraham’s statement was borne out in Israel’s response to the resurrection of Jesus. The evidence of His empty tomb and the testimony of those who saw Jesus alive had little effect upon the nation of Israel. Their religious leaders rejected Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah and Lord almost from the beginning of His ministry, in spite of the powerful evidence of who He was; they continued in that rejection even after He rose from the dead. There were several thousand in Jerusalem and Judea who did repent and believe that Jesus arose (Acts 2:41; 4:4), but the majority of the Jews followed the lead of the chief priests, scribes, and Pharisees and continued to reject Him.
This is why Jesus presented Himself alive “to witnesses chosen before by God,” even those “who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead” (Acts 10:40-41). They were chosen by God to see the risen Savior themselves and then to testify to the people that God had raised Him from the dead, that whoever believes in Him might receive forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:32; 3:15; 5:30-32; 10:40-43).
The First Witnesses
The first witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection were women. They were the ones who found Jesus’ empty tomb and heard the angel’s message that He was risen (Luke 24:1-9). They were also the first ones Jesus appeared to after He came forth from the grave (Mark 16:9, Matt. 28:8-10).
Some Bible critics contend that the four gospel accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are not historical records, but only a “story” the writers wanted people to believe. If this were the case, these men would not have identified women as the first eyewitnesses of Jesus’ resurrection.
To begin with, acknowledging that the women were the first to see the risen Savior would have been an embarrassment to the gospel writers. Matthew and John were apostles of Jesus, and Mark was closely associated with Peter, the leader of the Twelve. If they were fabricating a story about Jesus, why would they record that the women had the courage to attend Jesus’ crucifixion, to watch His burial, to bring spices to anoint His body, thus leading them to discover the empty tomb, to hear the angel’s message of Christ’s resurrection, and then to see their risen Savior, all while the eleven apostles remained in hiding for fear of the Jews? They would not have made up details that reflected so poorly on themselves.
In addition, women were viewed as inferior citizens by many 1st century Jews. This attitude is reflected in the opinions of some Jewish rabbis recorded in the Talmud: “Blessed are you, Lord our God, ruler of the universe, who has not created me a Gentile, a slave, or a woman” (Berachos 60b); “Happy is he whose children are male, but unhappy is he whose children are female!” (Kiddushin 82b); and “Sooner let the words of the Law be burnt than delivered to women” (Sotah 19a).
As a result of this attitude, women were not considered credible witnesses in Jewish courts of law. The Jewish historian Josephus, describing the requirements for admissible testimony, wrote “But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex …” (Antiquities of the Jews, IV.8.15).
If the gospel writers wanted people to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was Israel’s Messiah and the Son of God, that He was crucified and then three days later arose from the dead, they would not have recorded that women were the first witnesses. Nevertheless, all four gospel accounts do just that. These men didn’t fabricate the story of Jesus’ resurrection; they faithfully recorded what actually happened.
Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene (John 20:10-18)
The first person to see Jesus after He was risen was Mary Magdalene, “out of whom Jesus had cast seven demons” (Mark 16:9). When Peter and John ran to see the empty tomb, Mary followed them. After the disciples went back into the city, “Mary stood outside the tomb weeping” (John 20:10-11).
As she stooped down and looked into the tomb, she saw two angels sitting inside, “one at the head and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain” (John 20:10-12). The angels asked her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him” (John 20:13).
When Mary turned around, she saw a Man standing behind her, but she “did not know that it was Jesus.” He said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Thinking He was the gardener, Mary said, “Sir, if You have carried Him away, tell me where You have laid Him, and I will take Him away” (John 20:13-15). Mary had not heard the angels’ statement to the women that Jesus had risen from the dead (Luke 24:1-6), so she assumed that someone had “taken the Lord out of the tomb” (John 20:2).
Jesus then spoke a single word to her, her name, “Mary.” As she turned, she looked at Him and recognized Jesus, calling Him, “Rabboni! (which is to say, Teacher)” (John 20:16). The Psalmist wrote, “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psa. 30:5). After three days and nights of weeping, Mary’s sorrow was immediately turned to joy.
Jesus told her, “Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God'” (John 20:17).
What did Jesus mean, “Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father”? The King James Version has the word “touch” instead of “cling.” Some believe Jesus was telling Mary not to touch Him at all until He ascended to the Father. But, shortly afterward, when Jesus appeared to the other women, they “held Him by the feet” (Matt. 28:9), and later that day, Jesus told His disciples, “Handle Me” (Luke 24:39). If Mary couldn’t touch Him, but the other women and the disciples could, some conclude that Jesus must have ascended to heaven between His appearance to Mary Magdalene and His later appearances. However, there is no record in Scripture of Jesus ascending to heaven until forty days after His resurrection (Acts 1:1-11).
The word translated “touch” in the King James Version has the meaning found in the New King James translation, to “cling to.” Calling Jesus “Rabboni” or “Teacher” indicates Mary wanted to hold onto Jesus in the same relationship she had with Him before His death. Jesus is telling her that, because of His death and resurrection, their relationship has changed. He could not continue as her Teacher here on earth for He must soon ascend back into heaven, and now He was much more than just her Teacher; He was her Savior, though she didn’t understand this at that time.
Mary listened and obeyed Jesus’ words, going to His disciples and telling them “she had seen the Lord, and that He had spoken these things to her” (John 20:18).
Jesus Appears to the Women (Matthew 28:1-10)
After Mary Magdalene ran to tell Peter and John about the empty tomb, the other women, who came with her to anoint Jesus’ body with spices, went inside the tomb and heard the angels announce that Jesus was risen.
The women departed quickly, filled “with fear and great joy and ran to bring His disciples word” (Matt. 28:8). Initially, they “said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid,” (Mark 16:8), but, as they were going, Jesus appeared to them and said, “Rejoice!” They fell down before Him and “held Him by the feet and worshiped Him” (Matt. 28:9). Jesus calmed their fears and said to them, “Go and tell My brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see Me” (Matt. 28:10).
When the women returned and reported to the eleven apostles that Jesus’ tomb was empty and that He had appeared to them, “their words seemed to them like idle tales” (Luke 24:9-11). The expression “idle tales” means silly talk or nonsense; it is a medical term for the wild talk of one who is delirious, therefore, the apostles “did not believe them.”
Jesus Appears to the Emmaus Disciples (Luke 24:13-32)
After His appearance to the women, Jesus appeared to two of His disciples as they traveled to Emmaus, a village about seven miles from Jerusalem (Luke 24:13). While the two men were walking along discussing what had recently happened in Jerusalem, Jesus “drew near and went with them,” however, “their eyes were restrained” and they did not recognize Him (Luke 24:14-16).
When Jesus asked the two men what they were talking about and why there were so sad, they answered, “The things concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a Prophet mighty in deed and words before God and all the people” (Luke 24:19); the one “we were hoping was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). Their use of the past tense shows that they felt this hope was now gone, seeing that three days ago the chief priests and rulers of Israel had condemned Jesus and crucified Him (Luke 24:20). “Today,” they continued “certain women of our company, who arrived at the tomb early, astonished us. When they did not find His body, they came saying that they had also seen a vision of angels who said He was alive” (Luke 24:22-24).
Jesus admonished them for their lack of faith, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken!” (Luke 24:25). These men didn’t understand that the prophets gave two different pictures of Israel’s promised Messiah: (1) a powerful King who would deliver them from their enemies and (2) a rejected and suffering Savior who would die for their sins (1 Pet. 1:11).
When these disciples spoke of Jesus being the One to “redeem Israel,” they were thinking only of the first picture, hoping He would be the One to free them from bondage to the Romans. They did not yet understand that Jesus had to shed His precious blood on the cross, and that, in doing so, He would provide an even greater redemption, freeing them from bondage to their sins (1 Pet. 1:18-19).
Jesus told them that the Christ had to suffer and die before He could “enter into His glory.” Then, “He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself,” explaining the testimony of the Law of Moses and the Prophets concerning the Christ. (Luke 24:26-27).
As they neared the village, Jesus indicated He was going farther, but the disciples insisted He stay the night with them. As He broke bread with them at the table, blessed and gave it to them, “their eyes were opened” and they knew it was Jesus, but then He “vanished from their sight” (Luke 24:28-31).
The two men said to one another, “Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us?” Amazed as they were by Jesus’ miraculous disappearance, what really touched their hearts, warming and enlightening them, was the power of God’s Word—the words that Jesus Himself spoke as well as the words of Scripture that He explained to them.
They could not wait to tell the other disciples, so they rose up that very hour, though it was already evening, and returned to Jerusalem.
Jesus Appears to the Apostles — Thomas Absent (Luke 24:33-45)
That same night, the Emmaus disciples found the apostles assembled behind closed doors for fear of the Jews (John 20:19). The two men exclaimed, “The Lord is risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” They proceeded to tell the apostles everything that had happened to them on the road to Emmaus: what Jesus had taught them as they traveled and “how He was known to them in the breaking of bread” (Luke 24:33-36).
“As they said these things, suddenly Jesus Himself stood in the midst of them, and said, ‘Peace to you.’ He knew what these men were feeling: fear for their lives, discouragement at His death, and guilt at having forsaken their Lord. They needed peace, a peace that only He could give, but, in spite of His words of comfort, the apostles were still “terrified and frightened, and supposed they had seen a spirit” (Luke 24:37). Luke used two strong words for fear: “terrified” to indicate they were outwardly startled, and the word “frightened” to express their inner fear.
Some theologians contend that Jesus was raised only as a spirit. It might seem so when you consider that He vanished from the sight of the Emmaus disciples and later appeared in the presense of the apostles, the doors being shut. Nevertheless, Jesus’ first appearance to His apostles provided powerful evidence that He was not merely raised a spirit but was bodily raised from the dead.
Jesus asked, “Why are you troubled? And why do doubts arise in your hearts?” (Luke 24:38). He knew they were disturbed about what they had just seen and were filled with doubts and questions, so He sought to reassure them.
“Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have” (Luke 24:39). They could see the nail prints in His hands and feet, proof that it was, indeed, the body of Jesus of Nazareth. When they touched Him, they could see that He had a body of flesh and bones.
After all this, the apostles “still did not believe for joy, and marveled” (Luke 24:41). Their kingdom hopes had crumbled with Jesus’ death, yet here He was, standing before them. They were filled with joy, but the thought that Jesus was actually alive was amazing; it seemed too good to be true.
To convince them, Jesus asked, “Have you any food here?” They “gave Him a piece of a broiled fish and some honeycomb,” and Jesus took it and “ate in their presence” (Luke 24:41-43).
Here was decisive proof of His bodily resurrection. Jesus was not just a spirit; He had a resurrection body. The resurrection body is certainly a different kind of body. Jesus could appear and disappear without the use of doors or windows. He could conceal His identity if He wished, as He initially did with Mary and the Emmaus disciples. Paul describes the resurrection body with these words: “It is sown a natural (Gr. psuche ‘soulish’) body; it is raised a spiritual (Gr. pneuma) body” (1 Cor. 15:44a). We tend to associate the word “spiritual” with a spirit, something that does not have a body, but Paul assures us: “There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body” (1 Cor. 15:44b).
Jesus had a spiritual body, yet it had both flesh and bones; the women and His apostles touched Him. His resurrection body even bore the marks of His crucifixion: the nail prints in His hands and feet as well as the wound in His side. He was recognizable to those who knew Him before His death. One day, when Jesus Christ returns to this earth, all Israel will “look on Him whom they pierced” and will “mourn for Him” (Zech. 12:10). When they see the nail prints in His hands and feet and the wound in His side, they will mourn as they realize they rejected and crucified their Messiah and Lord. They will all know Him, and He will forgive their sins (Jer. 31:34).
Jesus Appears to the Apostles — Thomas Present (John 20:24-29)
The first time Jesus appeared to His apostles, “Thomas, called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them” (John 20:24). When the other apostles told him, “We have seen the Lord,” Thomas said, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe” (John 20:25).
Because of this statement, he is known as “Doubting Thomas,” but, as we have seen, the other apostles also had similar doubts. They did not believe the evidence of the empty tomb. They did not believe that Mary Magdalene and the other women had seen Jesus. They did not believe the report of the Emmaus disciples. Even after they had seen Jesus with their own eyes, “doubts arose in their hearts” (Luke 24:38).
Eight days later, the apostles were together again, but this time Thomas was present. As before, “Jesus came, the doors still being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, ‘Peace to you!'” (John 20:26). Jesus, knowing Thomas’ conditions for belief, said to him, “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing” (John 20:27).
Thomas, without hesitation, and without even reaching out to touch Jesus, said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). Jesus responded, “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).
In this present age, we don’t have the opportunity to see Jesus with our own eyes or to touch Him with our hands, but that does not mean there is no proof for Jesus’ resurrection. We have the powerful testimony of the Scriptures, the inspired Word of God (2 Tim. 3:16). Hearing God’s Word is the basis for our faith (Rom. 10:17), and this type of faith is “the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1).
To bolster the faith of the Emmaus disciples, Jesus pointed them to the Scriptures, the Word of God. At that time, all that was available to them was the Old Testament, which does testify of the Christ, including His death for our sins (Isa. 53:6) and His resurrection from the dead (Psa. 16:10). Today, we also have the New Testament Scriptures which include the written testimony of men who were eyewitnesses of the majesty and glory of Christ (2 Pet. 1:16, John 1:14,18), men who saw, talked with, and handled the risen Savior (1 John 1:1-3).
Some critics, who reject the resurrection of Christ, suggest that these supposed eyewitnesses were hallucinating. People with significant psychological problems certainly can have hallucinations, but hallucinations are never experienced by groups, only by individuals, and even if multiple people have hallucinations, they will not share the same hallucination.
Jesus did appear to some people individually, such as Mary Magdalene and Peter, but most of His appearances were before groups of people: the other women, the Emmaus disciples, the eleven apostles, and on one occasion, to over 500 brethren at the same time, many of whom were still alive when Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 15:6).
Jesus made multiple appearances to His apostles, spread out over a forty day period (Acts 1:3), and occurring at different places: inside a house in Jerusalem (Luke 24), by the Sea of Galilee (John 21), on a mountain in Galilee (Matt. 28), and on the Mount of Olives (Acts 1). These men didn’t just see Jesus, they talked with Him, touched Him, and even ate with Him. These appearances cannot be explained as merely hallucinations.
The testimony of these eyewitnesses is more than just a historical record, it is also good news: “that Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day, according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). God’s Word assures us that whoever hears and believes this gospel message is saved. This salvation is provided by God’s grace; it is His gift to us of eternal life (Rom. 6:23). We cannot earn it by our own works, no matter how worthy they may seem to the world (Tit. 3:5). We can only receive the gift of eternal life by faith, trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ and His finished work alone to save us from our sins (Eph. 2:8-9).
If you are not saved, or if you are not sure of your salvation, listen with an open heart and mind to the truth of God’s Word. Consider the testimony of those who were eyewitnesses to the fact that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, but that God raised Him from the dead, proving Him to be “both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:32-36). His death on the cross paid the penalty for your sins; His resurrection from the dead made it possible for you to have eternal life. Trust Him as your Savior today—He will give you life.
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