FOUNDATIONS OF THE EASTER MESSAGE
R. A. Finlayson
Festus, the Roman Governor, put the case for Christianity in simple terms when he told Herod that it was a matter of “one Jesus who was dead, whom Paul affirmed to be alive.” That was the issue then: it is the issue now. On the fact of the resurrection, Christianity as a supernatural religion stands or falls. Paul himself recognized this more clearly than most. He knew full well, and taught the Corinthian church, that if the resurrection were disproved, the entire edifice of Christianity would collapse. For if Christ were not risen, the supernatural would be eliminated from the Christian religion, and it would be powerless to deal with the vital issues of sin and salvation.
This is not clearly recognized today. Both within and outside the church every attempt is made to disparage the resurrection as a historical fact. Even when the term is retained, it is merely as a symbol for some mystic experience, not as a fact of history, or as something which history can prove or disprove. Yet few narratives .in the Bible bear on their face the authentic marks of historical happenings so impressively as do the resurrection narratives. They are so clearly the evidence of eye-witnesses or the record of those who received it from eye-witnesses that only prejudice against the supernatural can blind men to the fact.
The Easter faith is a fact, an experience, and a message; and in that order. Lacking the historicity of the fact, there can be no valid experience, and no authoritative message.
In considering the fact of the resurrection we can at present look at one line of evidence only, as we enquire if the attestation of the
first witnesses is valid for us today. It is, we think, the self-consistency of the narrative as dealing with something that was so unexpected and so completely beyond the comprehension of those who were witnesses to it, that makes the deepest impression on the reader who approaches it with an open mind.
These witnesses were obviously out of their depth. There was so much about it they could not understand or explain; and it is a tribute to their integrity and trustworthiness that they did not attempt to embellish it, or add to it the element of the spectacular. The fact is, they were not scientists, or philosophers, or psychologists, trying to build up a case: they were just witnesses, and they rarely allowed themselves a simple comment. But, wittingly or unwittingly, they shed revealing light on several things we want to know.
They indicate to us, first, a spiritual body’s relation to the law of matter.
The first time the narrative ventures a comment suggesting something out of the ordinary – and it is stated as a matter of observation – is when John writes, “Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst” (John 20.19). It is evident that John means us to understand that the door was still shut, bolted from within, when Jesus had appeared. He means us to gather that no one had opened the doors – as they would indeed be very unlikely to do in those days to an unknown stranger or an unidentified visitor.
That is the account, and no explanation is offered. We are left to draw our own conclusion, which is the only possible one, that the risen Lord came in through the shut doors. There is no attempt then or afterwards to give any special significance to this phenomenon: it is merely stated in its proper place as a fact.
To us, however, it is the break in the narrative, the point of departure from the natural to what we would call the Â•’supernatural.” In its light we can see more clearly the significance of some other things that are said or left unsaid. There is, for example, the stone at the mouth of the grave. If the risen body of the Lord could come in through the shut doors, why was it necessary for the stone at the mouth of the grave to be removed to let Him out? But it is never said that this was necessary. The evidence from silence would seem to point to another reason for the removal of the stone; not to let Christ out, but to let the witnesses in. It is therefore legitimate to draw the conclusion that the risen Lord left the tomb with the stone still at its mouth.
Then there is the matter of the grave clothes. What Peter saw when he entered the tomb was sufficiently noteworthy for John to give this report: “Then cometh Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulchre, and seeth the linen clothes lie, and the napkin that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself (John 20.6, 7). What can that mean but that the shroud that wrapped the body was lying in its natural folds where the body had been, and the head-napkin where the head had been? The body simply rose and the linen fell back in its empty folds, unruffled and undisturbed.
Is that not a remarkably consistent pattern of events for eyewitnesses to give? But it bears the marks of credibility on its face today more even than it did then. It conveys to us the information that our Lord’s resurrection body was not subject to the laws of matter as commonly understood. It found no obstacle to its movements in what is usually called solid matter. That would seem a quality of the resurrection body that is somewhat unintelligible to us in thinking of a body, but not at all as unintelligible as it was to the disciples in their day.
Since their day we have learned that matter is not as “solid” as it seems. The molecular theory of matter indicates that the solidity of matter is more apparent than real; that matter adheres by the internal force of molecular energy, and that it is possible to disrupt that adherence by superior energy. It is therefore not irrational to suppose that a spiritual body could make way for itself by overcoming the law that governs molecular energy. This our Lord’s body appears to have done in the case of the grave-clothes, of the stone, and of the doors in the upper room.
This that John records is unique in New Testament narratives. When the apostles were delivered from prison by the intervention of an angel, we read: “But the angel of the Lord by night opened the prison doors and brought them forth” (Act 5.19). Similarly when Peter was delivered from prison by the angel, the iron gates of the city opened of their own accord to let him out. But, soon after, he was left standing at an outer door knocking, while Rhoda was reporting to those within!
What I am trying to say is that in this behaviour of the risen body we are not necessarily in the presence of the supernatural as such, far less in the presence of the irrational, certainly not in the presence of the supernatural as ordinarily understood as a temporary suspension of natural law: we are in the presence of behaviour that is proper and perfectly natural in the case of a spiritual body, a body emancipated from the law of matter.
Relation to Time
Next, we learn something of a spiritual body in its relation to time and space.
We note that our Lord’s risen body was not, it would appear, subject to the law of time as ordinarily understood. It is quite clear that the risen Lord had appeared to several witnesses at Jerusalem, at Emmaus, and elsewhere, without the necessary passage of time for travel. Even on the first resurrection day the number of appearances given – to Mary alone, then perhaps to a number of women together, to Simon, to the two going to Emmaus occupying several hours, to the assembled disciples – could not well be fitted into one day, allowing for ordinary travel on foot.
On the other hand, the Lord’s risen body was subject to the law of space to the extent that He did not seem to have been in more than one place at a given time. He was not omnipresent: that is to say, if He was at Emmaus, He was not at Jerusalem.
This too becomes dimly intelligible to us. Time, for example, is largely an artificial standard of measurement for use in the time-space universe, but not relevant in the eternal sphere. But the category of space presents a different character, inasmuch as we cannot conceive of a real body being in more than one place at one time. A body, in virtue of being a body, is located, and its locus, is definite and measurable. Our Lord’s risen body, though spiritual, was still a real body, as He Himself was at pains to show. He had “flesh and bones” as no mere spirit has; that is, the human structure of the body was intact. (It is interesting that there is no mention of “blood”, since that would entail living under earthly conditions).
We can believe, therefore, that our Lord’s body is eternally located; and that, for this reason, it requires the agency of the Spirit to bring the Lord’s presence to His church everywhere. It was, therefore, “expedient” that He should go away in order to bring the ever-abiding Presence to earth. Thus, we conclude that our Lord in His body is located in heaven, that heaven is a locality, and that His body is still human. This is what the eminent Scottish divine, “Rabbi” John Duncan, had in mind when he exclaimed, “See the dust of the earth is on the throne of the universe.”
What we are stressing here is the accuracy of the narrative by whatever standard it is assessed. These early disciples were not writing as physicists, for they were not physicists. They were writing as eye-witnesses, and yet their evidence is not contradicted by any known law of physics. That itself is surely proof that the evidence was not fabricated by simple and credulous men. To credit them with this creative skill, would be to credit them with a miracle stranger by far than that of the resurrection they narrated so faithfully.
The Same, Yet Different
There is also the further fact that the appearance of the spiritual body was the same, yet different.
Two things seem clear; the risen Lord was the same, yet so very different. He was the same, for the disciples were conscious that they were in the presence of their Master. His words, His actions, above all His character, proclaimed His identity. There was a recognizable continuity between the resurrection life and “the days of His flesh.” And yet acquaintance with Him in the days before His death afforded no qualification for recognizing Him in His resurrection body. While it is significant that He did not appear to any after His resurrection but to His own believing people – unless ‘James the Lord’s brother” be a possible exception – it is even more significant that His own did not recognize Him until He first summoned their faith into recognition.
Even Mary supposed Him to be the gardener! The two to Emmaus had Him in their company for several hours – two or three at least – and they had very unusual experiences in the way, yet they did not recognize Him until as in a flash, He “made himself known to them in the breaking of bread.” The disciples on the lake saw Him in the dim light of the morning on the shore. He spoke to them, and gave them directions which they seemed very willing to accept, yet even John did not recognize Him till he saw the draught of fishes.
John, it will be recalled, had a similar experience of the Master very early in his life of discipleship when he received his calling to be a fisher of men. This experience on the lake recalled that early experience, and the identity was now unmistakable, for we read:
“Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved saith unto Peter, It is the Lord.” Faith it must be, but faith uses means and draws upon experience.
What can we make of this incapacity to recognize the risen Lord even on the part of His most intimate friends? It is clear that faith was involved. In the days of His humiliation, there were some who said of Him, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James and Joses, and of Juda and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us? And they were offended at him.” That is, they saw Him only in His earthly relationships. But Simon saw Him in His heavenly relationships as the Son of the living God.
If in the days of His flesh the vision was not given except to faith, how much more must this be true in His resurrection, with these earthly relationships laid aside! It is, therefore, not at all surprising that only believers could see Him in His risen presence. What is surprising is that even in their case faith had to be summoned into
recognition by the Lord Himself. So it was in the case of Mary. But even when the joy of recognition had come, Mary had to be trained to live by faith, as is indicated by the unexpected rebuke: “Touch me not,” or perhaps, “Do not keep clinging to me.” Thus was she directed to the mode of spiritual living which was to be hers henceforward.
Even when He accommodated Himself to the weak faith of Thomas, He gave the doubting disciple the gentle rebuke: “Because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed,” and then He turned to look upon us who were coming after, and said: “Blessed are they who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Thus it is only to faith, and to the faith of His people in its highest reaches; that the recognition is given which is equivalent to sight, and then only for a moment, as the two to Emmaus found when He suddenly was known of them, and as suddenly “He vanished out of their sight”! It is life by faith He was training them for, but faith that does not always rejoice in sight.
How much more must this be true of the glorified body of our Lord! It is quite evident that the body of His resurrection was quite different from the body of His humiliation, now that He had emerged on the other side of death and the grave, in possession of a life over which death had no longer power. It is also clear that the glorified body of our Lord was as different from the body of His resurrection as the body of His resurrection was from that of His humiliation.
It is therefore clear that when the ascension came, there was a further transfiguration of the body of Christ. The last cords with earth were broken, and Christ entered the sphere to which He now completely belonged. Heaven was His natural habitat, and earth could hold Him no longer. It is perhaps significant, in this connection, that when the disciples gazed after their ascending Lord, “a cloud received Him out of their sight.” Was this, we ask reverently, the shekinah cloud, the symbol of the divine presence, that enveloped the glorified Lord, indicating that He was now being seated on the right hand of the Majesty on high, “throned face to face in equal deity,” as Milton expressed it?
Is it then to be wondered at that, lacking faith, men can see no glory and no certitude in the fact of the resurrection? To us who believe, the narrative, in its beautiful simplicity and consistency, is so full of the glory of the Lord that we are sure it is the penmanship of the Holy Ghost we meet there. Never man wrote like these men!