The following essay is by the Rev. Dr. Hywel Rees Jones, who has held many posts and spoken in churches and conferences across the globe. His most important vocation in the church, however, has been as minister of the Word, which office he has fulfilled since 1963, serving several congregations in Wales and England. He was co-chairman of the Westminster Fellowship of Ministers, succeeding Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. He later served as editorial director of the Banner of Truth Truth Trust. He became principal of the London Theological Seminary in 1985, where he lectured in Hebrew, Biblical Studies, Hermeneutics, and Homiletics. He was Professor of Practical Theology at Westminster Seminary California from 2000–09. He is now Professor Emeritus of Practical Theology at that same school. He has been married for more than 50 years to Nansi. They have been blessed with three children (one a minister in England) and three grandchildren. He is author of several volumes including commentaries on Exodus, Philippians, Hebrews, and Job. He is also author of For the Sake of the Gospel and Psalm 119 for Life; Gospel and Church; Unity in Truth; and Only One Way. He contributed two essays to Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry: Essays by the Faculty of Westminster Seminary California (2008). Aside from the many things deep spiritual truths I have learned from him—I divide my prayer life into the period before I the first time I heard him pray in chapel and after—he taught me the expression, “on a hiding to nowhere,” for which I shall always be grateful. Here is part 1 of the essay.
We look in faith to the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus as past events and saving truths but what about his disciples who were living at the time? How did they cope with what occurred? Jesus had told them on more than one occasion that he would die and rise again on the third day, e.g., Matt hew 16:21. The sobering fact is that not one of them seems to have been prepared for either. On Passover night in the upper room, he had told them he was about to leave them but that he would see them again and replace their sorrow with a joy that would remain (John 16:22). When they all left for the Mount of Olives he said to them, “You will all fall away, for it is written, I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered. But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee” (Mk 14:27-28; 50; Jn 16: 32). When he was arrested “they all left him and fled.”
After that dark and gloomy day on Golgotha there was only grief, fear, and perplexity among them whenever they met—even after the third day had dawned. Change only came when Jesus “showed himself alive after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). Barely 35 years later, the Apostle Paul could remind Corinthian believers that not only had Christ died, been buried and raised from the dead—all in accord with the Scriptures—but also “he appeared” to many. He listed some by name and mentioned that others saw him as well, most of whom were still living when he wrote (1 Cor 15:5–8).
The New Testament does not give us all the information that we like to have about these appearances but it gives some data about some of those wonderful incidents in terms of time and place. Questions still remain but some links can be made between them and taken together they are a formidable testimony to the fact that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, regathered his scattered flock, women and men, mother and brothers, apostles and disciples. As he had also said, he would build his church—and if ever the gates of hell could do their worst it was at Calvary.
We will therefore review the material we have and the encounters with the resurrected Jesus it portrays.
Whenever we think of Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene it is to that occasion when she thought he was the gardener that our minds instinctively turn. It is a memorable incident and it is wonderfully told by John, the disciple whom Jesus loved. Jesus had expelled such destructive demons from her life and she had subsequently followed him along with other women from Galilee, supporting him and his disciples from their own resources (Lk 8:1–4). She had been among the last at the Cross and, with another of the same name, saw how and where Jesus was buried. (Matt 27:5–61; Mk 15:40–47; Lk 23:49-56).
She was also one of the first two at the tomb. In the early dawn of the day following the Sabbath, they made their way there, bringing fragrant spices for the body of Jesus. As they did so they remembered that they had seen a large stone being rolled into place at the mouth of the cave and wondered how they could possibly move it (Mk 16:3). They were of course unaware that the tomb had also been sealed and a guard set (Matt 27:62–66) and also that an angelic visitation had shaken the location (Mk 16:2–4). But in the semi-darkness they could make out that the very large stone had already been moved and Mary was quick to see that there was no body there. She left her companion and ran to tell Peter and John who came to the tomb, entered it, saw the grave clothes and left in wonderment.
But with grief fueled by devotion, Mary remained there weeping. Then she looked inside the tomb and saw two bright angels were sitting where Jesus’ body had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. In answer to their request as to why she was weeping she said “They have taken away my Lord and I know not where they have laid him.” Sensing a presence behind her, she turned around and there was Jesus standing before her. But she did not recognize him. How can that be explained? Were her eyes so beclouded by tears or was there something different (or perhaps so ordinary) about him? Jesus repeated the angels’ question but added the perceptive words “Whom are you seeking?” Still thinking of him as Joseph’s gardener she asked him whether he has removed and relocated the body so that she can obtain it. The reply she hears changes everything! It is her name and it is HIS voice! The “gardener” knows her and now she knows who he is. It is her Lord and Master and she moves towards him.
Jesus responds with a statement that raises questions which we cannot fully consider here but what can, and should, be said is that he was not rejecting her devoted attachment to himself. Whether we read “do not touch” or “do not keep clinging to me,” Jesus is not forbidding physical contact with himself. A number of women clasped his feet as they met him and worshipped and they were not rebuked (Matt 16:8) and Thomas and the disciples were invited to touch him (Jn 20:27; Lk 24.39).
Jesus’ deterrent to Mary was not intended to terminate their relationship. It had a positive aim which was to point out that their relationship was to be enhanced by his ascension to the Father which would result in the coming of the Holy Spirit. The physical and the earthly would soon give way to the spiritual and heavenly. That would be so for his disciples too – and what is more Mary Magdalene is to be the one to go and to tell them about it! Jesus told her to say to them “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” This is a wonderful statement. Just as Jesus had been one with his God and the Father in his life on earth, so his disciple-brothers (herself included) are one with him and one with his God and Father too. Not only was she the first to be able to say “I have seen the Lord” but she was the first to speak of what is distinctively and uniquely Christian namely “fellowship with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” which is eternal life and a hallmark of the true Church. That is every Christian’s great privilege now and to come. He is our Great High-Priest and Guardian-King.
The Male Disciples
We must now take note of how the male disciples of the Lord reacted to the report of the women concerning the Empty Tomb and the Resurrection. In doing so we should underline the fact that it was women who broke that glorious news because Jesus appeared to them first. This is an example of how Christianity elevates womanhood in a unique way because Judaism was a male-dominated society.
Early on the first day of the week the men were told the tomb was empty. Luke records that the eleven apostles and others regarded the women’s words as “an idle tale” which they did not believe, in spite of the message they heard being in agreement with the Lord’s own words during his earthly life (Lk 24:11). Peter and John went to the tomb quickly, verified that it was indeed empty but neither drew the conclusion that Jesus had risen from the dead. What happened during that never to be forgotten day and late into that evening is recorded by Luke and John respectively. It began with their disbelieving because of lack of faith and ended with their “disbelieving for joy” (Lk 24:41). We will try to unfold the events as they are recorded by Luke and John.
The Emmaus road incident is as enthralling as the one which concerned Mary Magdalene in the garden. Early that morning Cleopas (not the same name as Clopas in John 19:25) leaves Jerusalem with a fellow disciple. Their minds are full of recent events but they do not know how to come to terms with them. Their conversation with each other only makes things worse. A stranger comes up beside them whom they do not recognize. He asks them for an explanation of their sad perplexity. It seems such a ridiculous request. It is as if he has not been in Jerusalem over the previous two days. But (as intended) it prompts them to explain what is causing them such sadness. As Jews, they believed that Jesus was God’s prophet and deliverer and they had built high hopes of glory days for Israel on his ministry. But they have all been dashed because Israel’s leaders turned against him, and crucified him. They are nonplussed and even refer to “the third day” as if it was over rather than begun. They are so dejected that, although they can acknowledge that they were not without some information from the women and apostles about the emptiness of the tomb, they end their doleful summary with the words “But him they did not see.”
Jesus’ diagnosis of their condition as “foolish . . . and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken” was to the point. He did not charge them with disbelieving what the prophets wrote, but with not believing all of it. He focused on the precise point of their ignorance which related to the suffering of the Messiah as the necessary prelude to his glorious reign. Like other Jews, they were taken up with the prospect of glory days for Israel in terms of power and grandeur with a successor of David as king who would judge Israel’s foes. It was therefore unthinkable that God’s Messiah would be crucified (see Matt 16:21–22). But as the true prophet of God which Cleopas and his companion had confessed him to be, he showed at length how the whole Old Testament spoke of suffering and reigning—but without disclosing his identity.
Arriving at their destination they persuade him to stay with them as daylight was fading. He consents to be their guest for the night. But around the table for the evening meal he assumes the role of the host. It was in that context of thankful worship of God and kindly provision for their need that they recognised him and he left them. Immediately, they realize how slow they had been to understand who he was and what he was saying to them. Without delay, perhaps leaving the meal unfinished and irrespective of the lateness of the hour, they return to Jerusalem and are met with the similar news to what they were bringing. “The Lord has risen indeed” was the shared certainty—and Peter was included in that believing joy.
One moment they were talking about what they now knew about Jesus, and the next he was among them! Such suddenness introduced them to another level of reality – from acknowledgment of a stupendous historical fact to an actual presence. No wonder they are frightened and overawed, even though he greeted them with “Peace be to you,” his last words to them in the Upper Room (Jn 16:33, 34). But is he real? That is the question now in their minds which he resolves by providing them with visible and physical proof. He shows them his hands and his feet, inviting them to touch flesh and feel bone, and then asks for any of the food which they have and he eats it before their eyes. He is as real as they are. He cannot be a disembodied spirit. So John writes, “Then were the disciples glad when they saw the Lord” (20:20).
The Lord’s resurrection from the dead is now a matter of joyful certainty. The Good Shepherd has regathered his scattered sheep with a view to building his church.
On that first Easter Sunday evening, the disciples of Jesus were gathered in the Upper Room. Thomas was absent, but he would be with them a week later. They were more than apprehensive about their own safety and so they had locked the doors (Jn 20:19, 26). But Jesus appeared, stood among them and greeted them with that “Peace” which results from his atoning death and is guaranteed by his triumphant resurrection. They were seeing and hearing what so many in previous generations had longed for. The Messiah had indeed come – Immanuel – and was with his people as he had promised. They were the true Israel of God in their day.
But they were also the embryo of the Christian Church that was soon to come! He had said to his Father “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (17:18), and now he says to them directly “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (20:21–23). He is telling them that there is a close link between his coming into the world and their going out to “all nations,” “beginning in Jerusalem” (Lk 24:44–49). Jesus came to bear witness to God as his Father who loves fallen mankind, and they are to go to bear witness of him as the Saviour of the World, the Son of the Father. His is “the Name” to be spoken about. He is all-sufficient: No supplement will ever be needed; no substitute should ever be permitted.
These passages in Luke and John contain significant differences but each complements the other. They speak about the same themes and we will just make a few observations about some of them.
▪ First, Jesus instructs the disciples on how they should understand their Scriptures.
Jews had a “Bible” which comprised Law, Prophets and Psalms (or Writings). In his earthly ministry Jesus had often contended with the scribes over their distortion of its meaning and he had taught its truth to the disciples who often failed to understand. Now that is about to change. He shows how each section spoke predictively of his death, resurrection and reign, giving them an understanding of it. The results of such “education” informed their preaching and teaching in the churches—and also their writing which resulted in our New Testament. The ministry of the Word of God in and by the church is therefore a matter of primary importance.
▪ Secondly, he assigns to them the duty and privilege of proclaiming repentance and remission of sin.
This ministry presumes and addresses the awful reality of Sin. It is individual and universal; odious and heinous. It is something against God and man and the only hope is for it to be removed by repentance on the part of the sinner and forgiveness on the part of the offended God. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, proclaimed in the gospel, both are freely available to people of all nations. It is an immense privilege to offer it to all.
▪ Thirdly he assures them of the promise of the Holy Spirit
There are many questions here and this is not the place to deal with them. But the main one is whether Jesus’ words and action mean that the Spirit was actually given in the Upper Room or whether this was a promise of what would shortly happen on the Day of Pentecost. Because John has already declared that the gift of the Spirit would follow on the glorification of Jesus (7:39) I regard his “breathing” as a prophetic sign of what is post-Ascension. The power of the Spirit will make the preached gospel effective bringing about repentance and forgiveness. (“Binding” and “loosing” refer to the declaration of a judge in condemning or absolving).
Nothing can effectively prevent its coming to full consummation – whatever failures and hindrances may arise. Not one of the sheep will be lost by the Good Shepherd and the gates of Hell will not prevail against the Builder of the Church.
When Jesus appeared to his disciples in the Upper Room on Easter evening, as recorded in John 20, Thomas was absent. But one of those who was present had already seen him namely Simon Peter. We have no account of that encounter in the Gospels and so we must set out the evidence for that claim. As soon as Peter received the news from Mary Magdalene and her companions that Jesus was alive, he ran to the tomb, noted the grave clothes but left wondering, perhaps as to why anyone would take the body and leave the grave clothes. (Lk 24:12) His reaction hardly amounts to a belief that Jesus had risen. But, when Cleopas and his companion arrived in Jerusalem that evening with their news, they were told “The Lord has risen indeed and has appeared to Simon.” The encounter with Peter had therefore already happened, sometime between Easter morning and evening, and of course well before the incident at the Sea of Galilee recorded in John 21.
It is intriguing that there is no account in the Gospels of that meeting. But it is not for us to speculate as to the reason for that. What we need to do is to call to mind the last exchange between them that is recorded namely Peter’s bitter tears when the Lord looked at him after his denial. When they met again—chastened disciple and triumphant Lord – that seems to be too sacred to record. Not all blessings are to be shared. But perhaps Peter told Paul something about that event when they met in Jerusalem (Gal 1:18) because Paul recorded it in a list of those who had met the Risen Lord (1 Cor 15:5) – and Paul had also seen him with devastating effect.
So we turn to the account of Thomas being met by Jesus one week later. As is well known it had a prelude. It contains the report which Thomas was given by his fellow disciples of what had happened in the Upper Room (Jn 21:25) to which he made his well-known reply for which he has become known as “Doubting Thomas.”
But “doubting” is surely an inaccurate description of his reaction because he voiced no uncertainty. He was his usual forthright self as on two other occasions when he spoke his mind plainly. First, when Jesus said he was going to Bethany after Lazarus’ death and in spite of the attempt made there to stone him, Thomas said to the other disciples “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (Jn 11:16). Second, when Jesus had said that the disciples knew the way to where he was going Thomas objected, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (Jn 14:5). Even though there was something cryptic in both statements of Jesus, Thomas was too outspoken in his replies. Just as Peter could be very brash, Thomas could be very blunt—but both loved Jesus.
In replying to the testimony of his fellow disciples he was adamant that he would not believe them unless specific conditions were met. His ‘doubt’ was not far from being a dismissal. But it might be that he thought, as they had, that they had seen a “spirit,” or that he wanted to see Jesus’ hands and side – as they had seen his hands and feet (Lk 24:40). In this case Thomas’ demands might be his grief talking. He had lost the one he loved and could not face being hurt again. Perhaps “Hurting Thomas” is therefore more to the point than “Doubting Thomas.” But whatever lay behind his words, they amount to a demand to be allowed to set his own terms for believing that Jesus had indeed risen – and that could not be allowed to stand.
A week passes and the disciples gather again and this time Thomas is with them. Jesus comes and speaks peace to all. He then singles out Thomas and, turning his words back on himself, challenges him to put his demands into effect but also to call an end to his disbelief. This is too, too much for Thomas to bear. His skepticism is exposed by Jesus’ knowledge of what he had said; his self-assertiveness collapses before Jesus’ authority. In utter self-abasement and total adoration, the “doubter” becomes the great confessor of the faith, saying to Jesus—“My Lord and My God.” Thomas was a Jew—and for him there could only be one Lord and God. In the Greek Old Testament “Lord” was the term used to translate the Divine Name in Hebrew, and so Thomas was identifying Jesus as Jehovah who was God. No other disciple, not even Peter at Caesarea Philippi, had done so!
Jesus’ reply “Because you have seen me you have believed” contains an element of reproof. It carries the implication that Thomas should not have needed physical sight to believe what his fellow disciples had seen and told him. Still his identification of Jesus was accepted by him as true faith. It is the “highest” confession in the Gospel of John. But it is not unique to Thomas because Jesus knows that it will be repeated by multitudes across the world and throughout the ages, including the present time. He declares that all who believe that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God”—without ever having seen him raised from the dead with their own eyes—are blessed indeed.
The Seven Apostles
The penultimate appearance of the Risen Christ occurred by the Sea of Galilee. It is recorded at some length and contains dramatic incidents and conversation and so much in the way of allusion and symbolism. All that can be done here is to point out some of its major emphases so that we do not “miss the wood for the trees” in our reading of it. By describing it as “the third time Jesus was revealed to the disciples” (v. 14), John connects it with the two in the Upper Room which he had just recorded. All three “revelations” are about the eleven disciples being sent out as Christ’s apostles into the world just as he was sent by the Father, so that people will believe that “he is the Christ, the Son of God” (see Jn 20:30, 31).
This incident and the conversation that follows it are so evidently under the Lord’s sovereign management and direction.
The Appearance (Jn 21:1–14)
This fishing trip seems ordinary enough. Peter, James and John had worked on Lake Gennesaret before (Sea of Tiberias is its Roman name), and the others with them were familiar with it as well. But there are now only seven disciples present and they are in Galilee and not Jerusalem. What is more they are going fishing. What has happened? Should they have been there at all? Opinions differ on this point but what should be remembered is that the Lord appeared to them there and he had a definite purpose in doing so. It is another instance of the Shepherd gathering his flock.
John’s account of this fishing trip is calculated to recall a similar event which occurred early in the Lord’s earthly ministry. James and John were with Peter at the lakeside after a night in which they had caught no fish. Jesus passed by and he used Peter’s boat as a pulpit from which to address a gathered crowd. In reluctant obedience to Jesus’ words, Peter let down the net again and a haul of fish was taken. That led to their being called to follow him and being given the assurance that they would “catch men” (Lk 5:1–11). Once again there has been an unproductive night’s fishing, and in the very early morning someone on the shore calls their attention to that fact. He then issues a directive which results in a large catch of huge fish, an unbroken net and provision of warmth and food. They are being pointedly reminded (and also rebuked?) that they had been called to be “fishers of men” and that without the Lord they can do nothing. But he is also assuring them that he will sustain them as they obey his call and provide them with success in the building of his church through the spreading of the Gospel.
The Conversation (Jn 21:15–25)
With the meal over, Jesus now addresses Simon Peter. At this point we must remember that they had met privately and fellowship has been restored between them and that his words in the Upper Room to the disciples about their being his sent ones included Peter. This conversation on the shore was not so much by way of public restoration to apostleship for Peter, but it was more intended to deepen his self-distrust and to increase self-sacrifice. This is done by the Lord in triplicate. It began at a charcoal fire (see 18:18)— a reminder of his denial—with Jesus addressing him not as “Peter” but as “Simon, Son of John.” He is challenged as to his claim to greater love than his fellow disciples (see Matt 26:33; Mk 14:29) and given a threefold charge to be an under-shepherd of sheep that belong to the Lord.
The point could not be made with greater solemnity—and it goes home. “Simon” is grieved to have to make a third reply but in it he goes beyond what he has said before. No longer does he just say “You know that I love you” but “You know everything” and included in that is an acknowledgment that what the Lord knows about him is more than what he thinks he knows about himself. This submission made in love to the Lord will lead him to a martyr’s death that will glorify God.
Peter now speaks to Jesus because he notices John’s presence. Though they differed in personality, one more given to action and the other to thought, they often were together for example running to the Tomb (John 20:2–4), finding out the identity of the traitor (John 13:23–26) and earlier, perhaps, in the courtyard of the high priest where the denial occurred (John 18:15, 16). Peter’s question “What about this man” is prompted by Jesus’ disclosure of his future sacrifice but Jesus’ reply makes it clear that John’s future is not to be a matter of concern for him.
Initially, Peter and John co-operated in the spread of the Gospel in Jerusalem and Judaea. Their paths subsequently diverged. Peter moved into Asia Minor and finally to Rome where some thirty years later he did not deny the Saviour even in death. John was based at Ephesus and later exiled to the island of Patmos. But by their Gospels (Mark is regarded as having been informed by Peter), their Epistles and the Apocalypse they have maintained authentic Christianity in the Church and to the world down through the years. Their teaching is still needed and valuable today.
After his Resurrection, Jesus was not with his disciples continually. He came to them and he left them. His visits were limited in duration but they were not infrequent and there were others besides those recorded in the Gospels. The Apostle Paul states that over 500 disciples saw him at one time, and so did his own brother, James, and it may have been that meeting which brought him to faith in Jesus as the Christ (Jn 7:5). Each appearance had a special purpose but there was something exceptional about the last because, instead of suddenly disappearing, the disciples saw him ascending to Heaven in the cloud of God’s presence and they were told of his Coming Again in glory (see Lk 24:50-51; Acts 1:9–11). Angels attended his Resurrection and Ascension—as they will at his Return. The appearances were a token of it in advance.
Although it is only Luke who gives an account of the event, there are numerous references to the Ascended Christ in the rest of the New Testament. Psalm 110 which speaks of the Messiah as King and Priest, is often quoted there. We will therefore give the Ascension a little thought here in terms of what it meant for Jesus and what it was to mean for the disciples (and us).
What It Meant For Him
Prior to his death, Jesus reproved his disciples for just thinking about his impending departure in terms of their loss and not of his gain. He said, “If you loved me you would have rejoiced because I said I am going to the Father because the Father is greater than I” (Jn 14:28). Of course his gain would be gain for them too, as we shall see, and for Christians down through the centuries. But what kind of “gain” could he obtain? It is prefigured in his transfiguration.
It was not that he would become more divine. By the words “greater than I” he did not mean that his Father was more divine than he himself was. He had said “I and the Father are one” (Jn 10:30) referring to their joint work of saving sinners which required condescension on his part. He had to “humble himself” by becoming human so as to represent them in obeying the law and enduring its curse. By “going to the Father” he was anticipating what would follow that self-sacrifice namely his personal return to “the glory that he had with the Father before the world was” (Jn 17:5). It would complete the transformation of his crucified body which was partly begun at the Resurrection and displayed in his Appearances and make it permanent. But also it would result in his being “seated at the right hand of God the Father” as King and Priest to rule effectively and to intercede sympathetically. The “right hand” is the place of authority—he is no longer a servant and never again will be a sacrifice. He is Lord of all. “The highest place that heaven affords is his, is his by right.”
And is that not something that Christian people should be glad about? He looked forward to it as part of “the joy set before him” (Heb 12: 2) and the disciples who witnessed it did too (Lk 24:52, 53). Should Christians today not rejoice that he is no longer on earth?
What It Meant For Them
The eleven disciples were together once more in the Upper Room. Jesus has reminded them that his ministry has fulfilled the Old Testament and that their consequent mission to the world is about to begin. The words of Jesus at the end of Matthew’s Gospel inaugurate that history which reaches to the present time. He said,
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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matt 28:18–20).
Luke’s words at the close of his Gospel emphasize that Jesus parted from his disciples in an act of blessing; in Acts his departure is linked with a promise of power to witness throughout the then known world (Acts 10:40–43). Those are the acts of a Priest and a King respectively and Jesus is both. As Priest, he provides the blessings secured by his once-for-all sacrifice and, remembering his own infirmity here below, makes continual intercession for each and every one of his people. As King, he directs and protects them, ruling over them and all their foes. This twofold ministry continues until he returns.
This is the story line of the Book of Acts—indeed of the rest of the New Testament. It has been continued in the history of the Church. In reading the Acts of the Apostles we should not so concentrate on the Spirit’s activity that we fail to see it as the rule of the Lord Jesus Christ over the nations for the good of his people and the spread of the Gospel. The Spirit is but his emissary and chief agent. It is Christ’s reign of grace and judgment that is the story of Acts—and of the Church in the world in subsequent ages. That story is continuing in our strange circumstances today.