How many witnesses were there to the resurrection of Christ? If your mind immediately goes back to last Sunday night’s message then – I’ve got you! Last week I tried to harmonize Christ Jesus’ post resurrection appearances. There were the ladies, but how many of them? There were the ten disciples and eventually Thomas. There were the two on the road to Emmaus, and eventually one on the road to Damascus. We might throw in the guards who were commissioned to keep the Lord’s body in the tomb and to keep the disciples out. And finally there were more than five hundred whose names we are not given. But these people don’t answer my first question – How many observed the resurrection? These are all important witnesses to the fact that Christ came out of that tomb. But how many actually saw the resurrection? The answer is – “none” – no one witnessed Jesus emerging from His temporary grave.
And yet, the resurrection is one of the most important events in human history – in eternal history. It was planned before the creation of the first human being. It was decreed by God, as a part of salvation, before man ever sinned and needed a Saviour. In the Book of Acts and in the Epistles, the resurrection of Christ is highlighted in florescent red. Christ was “delivered for our offenses, and was raised again for our justification.” So “Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures, Opening and alleging, that Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead; and that this Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is Christ.”
I have entitled tonight’s message – “Three Unimportant Questions” – ending in three questions marks. The question marks are meant to imply that perhaps these are not unimportant questions at all. But the Lord didn’t raise them, so perhaps they are, indeed, unimportant. And then there is the fact that there are no definitive answers, so again, is it important to ask them? On the other hand, if in our pondering these things, our Saviour is glorified, then there is nothing wrong with our probe. Our responsibility – yours and mine – is to make sure that our Saviour is glorified.
Our first question is – Why were there no witnesses to one of the most important events in history?
I believe that Jesus arose from the grave at the end of the Jewish sabbath at sundown on Saturday. That fits perfectly well with His death on Wednesday afternoon followed by three days and three nights in the heart of the earth – as He declared. So at the conclusion of the final day of rest during one of the most important weeks on the Jewish calendar, Christ emerged from the grave. There was no time for the conscientious Jew to fully keep the Sabbath at home and then get to Joseph’s garden tomb to witness the resurrection. Jewish custom provide for “a Sabbath day’s journey” which would have enabled the disciples or the ladies to be there, but apparently none of them took advantage of that. The ladies waited until the first day of the week – either after sundown on Saturday, or more likely at sunrise on Sunday morning. “In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre.” “When the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene” and other brought sweet spices that they might come and anoint him.” “Now upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came unto the sepulchre, bringin the spices when they had prepared…” Christ arose in the darkness, or semi-darkness, of Saturday night, and there was no one there to observe except perhaps the Roman guards. One answer to the question must be that there were no witnesses because such were the circumstances – that was the way that it was. And besides, it may not have been something spectacular in the opinion of men. There may not have been any angelic fanfare or Heavenly hoopla. The Lord may have simply passed through the tomb into the evening air and gone about His business. Even if people like the guards had been present, they many not have realized that it occurred.
Why were there no witnesses? Because although human presence would have been helpful to US, they were not necessary at the time. I don’t believe that Jesus needed anyone to roll the stone away from the doorway. Just as He appeared to the disciples while they hid from the authorities behind locked doors, Jesus had the ability to pass through stone walls and other materials. Don’t ask me to explain the physics of this, because I can’t, and I don’t think that it’s important. It was miraculous – or shall I say – it was a part of the nature of divinity. All that I know is that Christ could appear and disappear at will, as you would expect deity to be able to do. The door was opened early on Sunday morning for the benefit of the Christians who went to the site. Perhaps this is an illustration that man has absolutely nothing to contribute to his salvation. There was not a single part of our redemption that required the sinner’s input or help. Repentance, faith, baptism, worship, service and everything else are only evidences of what Christ has wrought in saving us.
There have been a great many things since man’s creation, which has been too holy and divinely personal to permit man’s inclusion. That tomb, in which the physical presence of Christ was placed, was more holy than the ground around the burning bush in the desert. Moses was ordered to take off his dirty shoes before the holiness of God. It might be argued that he should have put on holy booties to cover his stinky feet, but God made His point. After what Christ accomplished on the cross, in a sense, there was a new relationship between the Father and the Son – so joyful, so thrilling, so holy – that none but the God-head should have had a part. When Moses, Isaiah and perhaps others, had the privilege of seeing God in His perfections, the occasions were extra special and were declared to be so. This was an extra extra-special occasion.
And besides – name one person who was worthy of that great privilege? Certainly not the disciples as a group. They even denied the ladies testimony about meeting the risen Christ. One of them may be called “Doubting Thomas,” but he was not the only faithless one. John may have been the exception, and he was present at the crucifixion. Perhaps the love of Mary and some of the other ladies, might be claimed as qualifications to become witnesses, but their faith was less than perfect. There is not a disciple or a Christian who is the least bit worthy of the smallest blessings of God. And to have been present at the resurrection would have be listed as one of the great blessings.
And even further, what pride might that unique privilege have incited in that person’s heart? It was one thing to have seen the Saviour later, and it was wonderful to witness His ascension. But to be the first to see Him emerge might have created a monster in someone’s heart. A group of witnesses might have been more of a problem than a blessing.
A second question might be raised in regard to the earthquake.
Matthew is the only evangelist to tell us about the earthquake. Does that mean we should doubt whether or not a quake actually took place? Of course not! It simply means that the Holy Spirit chose not to put it into the hearts of the other penmen. And perhaps that suggests this is not an important question. Perhaps it isn’t important, but it still exists – at least in my mind.
Earlier in Matthew 24, Jesus was warning Israel about the Tribulation and events leading into the Tribulation. “Take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many. And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places. All these are the beginning of sorrows.” It should not be a surprise to hear of more and more earthquakes as God makes His presence and His wrath more and more obvious in this Jehovah-denying world. It also doesn’t surprise us that of all the books of the Bible, the word “earthquake” is found in Revelation more than any other.
But it is interesting that in the rest of the scripture, whenever there is an earthquake, the Lord is doing something momentous. For example, at the giving of the law, Sinai was shaking like an aspen leaf. It may have been a personal revelation, but when Elijah ran to Sinai, the Lord shook that mountain, getting the man’s attention. In the days of King Uzziah the Lord sent an earthquake. God could have released Paul and Silas from the jail in Philippi the same way He release Peter and Peter and John, but no, on that occasion He terrified the city with an earthquake. And then, of course, at the death of Christ Israel was shaken by another quake. Seismologists would probably say that the earthquake this Sunday morning was an aftershock to the one on Wednesday which rocked Jerusalem. But neither one was a mere act of nature – the timing of neither one was coincidental.
Go back to the emotional edginess in which the city was engulfed that week. There were thousands of visitors from all over the world celebrating the Passover and putting pressure on the accommodations and resources of the city. There was Pilate, whose job was to maintain order in the city, but he was plagued by the words of his wife. There were the priests, who had just murdered the man many people claimed was the Messiah. And just three days earlier there was an earthquake which may have toppled buildings and taken lives. People may have been living in the streets, afraid to stay in their crumbling homes, and sleeping with one eye or ear open. There may have been children who were terrified to go to sleep that night. And then early in the morning, before sunrise, there was another “great earthquake.” Where on the Richter scale does the word “great” usually fall? Was it a 5, or a 6 – maybe a 7? There may not have been any witnesses to the actual resurrection, but the Lord wanted to Israel to notice that something momentous was taking place.
Do I believe that the earthquake was necessary to open the doorway of the tomb? Not in the slightest. The quake didn’t do anything but to announce that God was pouring some of His power out upon the earth. There was no more earthquake in opening the tomb, than in closing it. The ladies may not have had the ability to roll that stone back, but to an angel of God it was child’s play.
And that raises my third question – what was the purpose of the angel and his friend?
“And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it. His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow:” “And entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment.” “It came to pass, as they were much perplexed thereafter, behold two men stood by them in shining garments.” I can’t describe exactly what the ladies saw and in what order, but that certainly doesn’t disturb my faith. There were two of these heavenly beings, but one was the spokesman. They looked basically like human beings, except for their clothing and their countenance – which were as bright as lightning on fresh snow. Probably initially, the spokesman was sitting, but then stood and entered the tomb with the women.
What was their commission? What was this angel sent to do? As I think about it, if he had not been there, the end result would have been the same. The ladies would have discovered the emptiness of the tomb, and they would have run to find the disciples. But they were also mildly rebuked by these messengers from Heaven. They were told not to be afraid, but their fear was primarily because of the angels themselves. Then they heard, “Why seek ye the living among the dead?” “Come see the place where the Lord lay.” “He is not here, but is risen; remember how he spake unto you when he was yet in Galilee, Saying, the Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again?” “Go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee.”
It might say more about me than anything else, but I can’t think of any specific reason for the angels’ ministry Especially in the light of the fact that “as they went to tell his disciples, behold Jesus met them, saying, Be not afraid: go tell my brethren that they go into Galilee, and there shall they see me.” I know that it’s foolish of me, but I can’t help think about Ahimaaz after the defeat and death of Absalom. The young man wanted so badly to run to tell David the good news, but Joab knew that it would be best if he sent Cushi who was not so close to the family. Cushi was dispatched with the message, but Ahimaaz was so persistent that he was eventually permitted to run. And then he outran the official messenger, but he didn’t really have anything to report. It’s not the same thing, but my imagination says that the Lord’s angels were so full of excitement that they yearned for some small part to play in the story, and thus they were sent. Certainly for those women, the ministry of the angel was never to be forgotten. What a privilege to speak with an angel of the Lord!
On the other hand, as the Lord later said to Thomas, “You have seen my wounds and it has strengthened your faith. Much more highly blessed are those who simply hear the testimony and believe.” What a privilege to speak with an angel of God. What a privilege to believe God’s word.
So in summary – what was the purpose of the earthquake and the ministry of the angel? I can’t give you a definite answer. But I am thankful that we have a record of both.