When our Lord was incarnate, He stripped down for His time on earth (Phil.2:6-8). The first station of that journey was in heaven and the last ended on the hill of Calvary. The journey was over. But the destination was not Calvary itself. It was a round-trip. All the stations on earth were just stopovers. There was one more station to reach. The journey would end only when He would get back to the starting point. In board games such as Monopoly, every time a player goes through start, he or she collects a fresh supply of stuff to keep him/her in the game. Like the transmigration of the soul the player gets a fresh lease of life. But the Incarnation was a one-time event as all history is. When Jesus would get back to start His all-powerful, eternally significant effort would be over.
Just as Jesus stripped down to descend to earth, He had to dress up to return to heaven. That is the significance of His resurrection from the dead:
As to His divine holiness, He was shown with great power to be the Son of God by being raised from death (Rom.1:4, GNB).The Lord Jesus came back to life and walked around among old acquaintances before going back to heaven. The biblical description of Christ’s resurrection is clearly not saying that Jesus “lives on” in some unreal, mystical sort of way in the way “Gandhi amar hai” (Gandhi is undying). Everyone knows that isn’t true. While the movie Lage Raho Munna Bhai popularized Gandhigiri (acting like Gandhi), it was not only an admission that Gandhi’s ideals have been forgotten, but there is a casual admission that Gandhi no longer lives. Whereas the gangster Munna Bhai imagined that Gandhi visited him and told him what to do, a psychiatrist explained it as hallucinations that he suffered after he had already read something about Gandhi.
Nor is the Resurrection a mythical story that has some spiritual meaning. Those who regard science as a sacred cow imagine that all proof has to be scientific. The methodology of science involves experimentation based on the notion that if someone gets a certain result from an experiment, if true, other scientists should be able to repeat the experiment and get the same results. History does not lend itself to experiments. Historical events happen at a certain time and they are not and cannot be repeated. Thus it is that we do not have any scientific proof that India won its independence on August 15th 1947. We cannot prove that it was won without a bloody war to defeat and throw out foreign rulers but was won through Satyagraha and ahimsa. That cannot be proved by experiment.
As a historical event, the Resurrection can be proved by examining the historical documents pertaining to it:
- Literary evidence: the four gospels read like four news reports. It is obvious there was no “Passover Plot” (as one writer suggested). The gospel writers didn’t doctor their reports to make the story fit. They told it the way they saw it or remembered it.
- Psychological evidence: no one depicts himself/herself in an entirely negative way in a personal anecdote. Yet the gospel writers tell their story in such a way that they themselves are seen as selfish and cowardly. It was their preoccupation with the big story that made them realize that the truth itself mattered more than their own reputations.
- Sociological evidence: the gospel writers were the children of their age. Generally people observe prevalent cultural norms. According to the values of their time, women were second to men, never regarded as equal to men, nor treated favourably. But in the story of the Resurrection, women come through with flying colours. They are shown to have been brave enough to linger at the cross while the men were the deserters, and it was because of their devotion to their dead leader that women were the first to see the Risen Jesus. If it was a made-up story, the men would have had stellar roles.
- Historical evidence: If a government wants to stop a movement, it simply isolates or kills the leader. With the Crucifixion, Christ’s disciples were a defeated lot. They were timid and fearful, people who met behind closed doors after dark. Men, who had deserted their Master when He needed them the most, suddenly became brave enough to publicly confess their allegiance to Jesus. Whence the courage, unless they derived it from having seen Jesus alive, and experiencing the dynamic of the Spirit of the Risen Jesus, imparting the power to go on with the Lord’s mission?
During their vacations people have to live out of suitcases, but tire of it soon and just want to get back to their own home and be able to expand their space for living. Having worked hard for three years and completed His mission, why didn’t Jesus rush back home to His Father? He stayed on to rebuild the faith of His discouraged disciples.
During the forty days after his crucifixion, He appeared to the apostles from time to time, and He proved to them in many ways that He was actually alive. And He talked to them about the Kingdom of God. Once when He was eating with them, He commanded them, “Do not leave Jerusalem until the Father sends you the gift He promised, as I told you before” (Acts 1:3-4, NLT).While the women had remained loyal and devoted throughout the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, they were without faith. They didn’t think that Jesus would come back to life. They were fearful. All they had left was a devotion to a beloved, dead leader. They needed to be encouraged and strengthened so that they would serve as witnesses to Jesus being alive.
All of the disciples had deserted Jesus when He was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus had to restore the deserters to discipleship and ministry if His mission was to go on.
The first time Jesus appeared among the disciples, Thomas was not present. When the others told him that they had seen Jesus, he refused to believe their story. He expressed doubt and laid down conditions for him to come to belief. While lots of people claim to have honest doubts that prevent belief, they don’t do what Thomas did. He waited for Jesus to make a second appearance. He kept on waiting for eight days (Jn.20:24-29). It would appear that in the midst of doubt, he nurtured a longing and willingness to believe. That’s what an honest doubter is like. He is neither a skeptic, nor a rebel. He honestly has doubts, and because he is honest, he wants to find answers to his doubts.
Of all the disciples, Peter probably felt the most agony and shame. He had been the most bombastic about being loyal to Jesus. He had sworn boastfully and vehemently that he would remain faithful even if all the others ran away (Mk.14:27-31). The Lord not only prayed for his endurance (Lk.22:31-32), but warned him and the others of their need to get their strength for the battle through prayer (Mk.13:33-37; Lk.22:40). Peter could have turned his back on Jesus permanently, like Judas. After all, it was about denying Him that Jesus said, “Whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven” (Matt.10:33, NRSV). When the Lord turned and looked into his eyes, he cried bitterly. Even though the Greek text says that Peter recalled what the Lord had said, the King James Version draws attention to the fact by repeating the idea that Peter reflected on what he had done and that was what made him cry:
And Peter called to mind the word that Jesus said unto him, Before the cock crow twice, thou shalt deny me thrice. And when he thought thereon, he wept (Mk.14:72).Peter could have easily descended into hopeless despair. But the Lord made it a point to specify that Peter was to be personally informed that He had risen (Mk. 16:7). Peter hung around with the other disciples. The Lord met with him privately (1 Cor.15:5) and in the end, Jesus gave him an opportunity to reverse his three denials with three public affirmations of love for Jesus, and the Lord in turn charged him thrice with the care of His flock (Jn.21:15-21).
The people the Lord restored to faith were just like us: the devoted, the deserters, the doubter, and the denier. The Lord is the Lord of the Second Chance (and the third, and the fourth...). He promised that He wouldn’t cast out anyone who comes to Him (Jn. 6:37), because He won’t break the bruised reed or snuff out the smouldering wick (Matt. 12:20). Those are very precious promises that I cling to. They assure me again and again of grace abundant and hope eternal though I am such a lousy follower of Christ.
Delegating the Ongoing Mission
After the Resurrection, Jesus began handing over His mission to His disciples. He had inaugurated and financed it by paying the cost of saving people. His part was over. But the mission would be incomplete if those He had already transformed would not be able to function like Him in communicating the message of salvation till the whole world would be reached with the good news.
With this in view, the Paraclete was imparted to empower forgiveness:
Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven” (Jn.20:19-23)Many Christians think that the Holy Spirit came into the world only on the day of Pentecost. That’s not true. The Holy Spirit has been active in the world from the beginning. Genesis 1:2 says that God’s Spirit was brooding over the earth [like a mother bird]. In Noah’s days God came to the decision that His Spirit would not struggle with humankind (6:2). Every prophet and psalmist had been inspired by God’s Spirit. Jesus Himself had earlier talked of the Holy Spirit being already with the disciples, though not in them (Jn.14:17).
God had breathed into Adam and Eve, and they became spiritual beings with the likeness of God (Gen.2:7). When Jesus breathed on His disciples, He was duplicating what God had done at creation. Jesus was inaugurating His new creation. If the Spirit was not received on that occasion, then we imply that Jesus merely pretended to give them the Holy Spirit, and a hypocrite Jesus was not.
Being born anew or becoming a Christian begins with being reconciled to God. Receiving God’s forgiveness is integral to reconciliation with God. But according to Jesus receiving God’s forgiveness is tied to our being people who forgive (Matt.6:12,14-15; 18:22-35).
By nature we are vengeful. We want to hit back. That is instinctive. But to forgive we need help. The Pharisees who were critical of Jesus were right: only God can forgive (Mk.2:7). Jesus imparted that power straightaway after His Resurrection. He wanted His disciples to be a forgiving people even before they became preachers who proclaimed the forgiveness of God. He wanted them to demonstrate by their lives that the gospel had the power to do what it proclaimed. And so Jesus breathed on them, gave them the Holy Spirit and told them that they had the authority to forgive from then on. When they forgave people, it would be recorded in heaven. If their forgiveness was not received, that too would stand recorded in heaven.
The second task Jesus handed over to His disciple was that of preserving the flock. That is what Peter was commissioned to do when he was restored. Each time Peter said that he loved the Lord, he was told to feed the Lord’s sheep. But the task was not exclusive to Peter. He was representative of all the other disciples. (See this aspect in the case of the Lord saying that sins forgiven by disciples would stand forgiven in heaven: Matt.16:19 with Jn.20:23).
There had to be a community of faith not only exemplifying the gospel’s power and effect, but also to enfold the newcomer in the love and care of the community so that they grow strong enough to accept the baton as it was passed on from disciple to disciple.
A community needs leadership (shepherding) and nurture (feeding and care). The stronger brothers and sisters (elders of the community, “not a recent convert”—1 Ti.3:6) are to provide such pastoral care.
The third task was to proclaim the gospel to all fellow-humans. That charge was given by Jesus prior to His ascension though they could start the work only after the Holy Spirit would come to empower them to be witnesses of Christ (Acts 1:5-8).
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Mt 28:18-20, NRSV).Jesus delegated the responsibility of making disciples for Him to people who were disciples. Disciple-making was Christ’s mission and at the end He handed that over to His followers. People were to be drawn to Jesus to make them His followers through initiation and instruction.
When John the Baptist started his ministry, he announced that the Kingdom of God was near (3:2). When Jesus started His work, He too announced the Kingdom (v.17). Later when He sent His disciples on a mission trip, He told them also to preach the same message about the Kingdom (10:7). In common usage the word “kingdom” refers to the area that a king reigns over. But in the gospels it is used in the sense of a king’s rule or sovereignty.
People in rebellion are to be brought under God’s rule. That is what Jesus came to do, and that is what Jesus wanted His disciples to carry on doing until God’s rule is accepted by all people. And that is the final station: being under God.