Images of the Savior (50 - His Appearances to his Followers)
We have followed our great Savior with tears and trembling to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he poured out his soul in unspeakable sorrow, we have wept in shame at the kiss of the betrayer, melted in horror at the perversion of justice which he encountered in all the courts of the land, cried out against the shame and mockery and cruel stripes that were laid upon him, seen him lifted up in our place as a curse and sin-bearer, and finally taken our stand at the empty tomb where the bitterness and agony give way to the unspeakable joy of everlasting victory in those most blessed of all utterances, â€œHe is risen, just as he saidâ€. What more then can we say? How can further reflection on the earthly life of our Savior and God be anything but an anti-climactic end to a story that has already concluded with the greatest news in history? And yet, upon further consideration, we are convinced that the very earth-shaking, eternity-shaping significance of Jesus' death and resurrection demands a final chapter. These events were too mighty to have an end in first-century Palestine: their monumental effects still reverberate throughout the world, and will continue to create in their beneficiaries the glorious fruit of sincere worship for all eternity. Just what the great effects of this greatest of all events should be has yet to be mentioned, as well as how they should come about. To this end, then, we follow our Redeemer for one last chapter, as he makes his post-resurrection appearances to his followers, and instructs them in light of his superlative accomplishment.
Let us reflect on some of the designs which Jesus had in his forty-day ministry to his followers, before he was taken up to heaven. We must notice, first of all, that this period of time had the effect of grounding the historical reality of Jesus' resurrection, that non-negotiable foundation of the Christian faith, in undeniable certainty. Our religion differs from all others in that, if this historical event had not occurred, we are utterly deprived of all hope, and of every reason to adhere to our faith. Mohammed and Buddha are right now rotting in their graves, and their death can little invalidate the moral precepts that they enjoined upon their followers. But our religion is of a different sort, and we have nothing left if our Savior did not rise again: every reward that we have been promised is a mockery, and every command that we have been given is an impossibility, inasmuch as its true fulfillment demands a new, resurrection life. Consider, then, how vital it was that Jesus leave behind many firm and reliable witnesses to his resurrection, beginning with Mary Magdalene, moving on first to the ten disciples, and then to Thomas, the eleventh, showing himself alive to above five hundred brothers at one time (I Corinthians 15:6), and finally appearing to the apostle Paul as well (I Corinthians 15:8). If Jesus had simply ascended to the Father forthwith, at his resurrection, we would have had the eloquent witness of the empty tomb, but the eye-witness reports of so many, that have succored our souls through every ravage of doubt, would have been lost upon us.
Second, we see that Jesus still had a very vital task to accomplish among his disciples, in instructing them in the true significance of what he had just undergone. Before his resurrection, they were not able to understand the deep truths of the gospel; and now that he had risen indeed, it was necessary that he should open their hearts to the things of the scriptures. Let us note, that this sudden change in the disciples' ability to understand was no mere happenstance. The natural man cannot receive the things of the Spirit of God (I Corinthians 2:14), but requires first a new, spiritual nature. But where does this nature come from? It is the work of the Spirit, quickening the dead hearts of men by uniting them to Christ in his death and raising them to new life in him. That the disciples could not understand the scriptures until the resurrection of Christ was a most notable type, instructing us that our case is quite the same.
And we must not overlook the various means through which Christ taught his first followers. We see that first of all he taught them didactically, showing them from the scriptures that the Christ had to suffer these things, and to rise again, and enter his glory; and likewise, that repentance for the forgiveness of sins must be proclaimed in his name among all the nations (Luke 24:25-27; 44-49). The great victory that Jesus had just won had been prophesied and foreshadowed in many countless ways in the Jewish scriptures; but they were locked away as deep mysteries, which could only be opened by the key of Christ's atoning work (see Romans 16:25-27). The very prophets and Old Testament saints who looked forward to the Messiah, resting their hopes in the true sacrifice that he should accomplish, and the resurrection from the dead by which he should seal its effectiveness (see John 8:56; Acts 2:30-31), longed to know in greater detail the things which our eyes, having been blessed beyond measure, are now able to see (I Peter 1:10-12). We have entered into the fruits of long millenia of laborious plowing, and those fruits which are ah, so sweet to the taste, Christ began that day to pluck from the scriptures, as he opened the treasures of his Word to the disciples and sent them out to proclaim that message to us.
But Christ also instructed his disciples through miraculous signs. For even as before, throughout his earthly ministry, he had revealed to them the truths of his redemptive work through miracles, so now he would work for them one last sign, after his resurrection, to symbolize the disciples' own work which they were about to undertake. Remember when Jesus first called the disciples, and promised to make them â€œfishers of menâ€ (Matthew 4:19)? Well now, in a final miracle (John 21:1-14), he is going to show them just what kind of men-fishers they would be. One who is fishing for men on the basis of his own strength and abilities will never be successful, no matter how knowledgeable he is; for a mere man can never open the heart of another man, no matter how he floods his ears with pleas and arguments. And so the disciples, experienced fishermen as they were, did not catch any fish all night, before Jesus came. However, this was not to be the end of the story; for Jesus did indeed come, and when he came, the miraculous results were astonishing indeed: at one cast of the net, the disciples caught such a number of fish that it should have been impossible to drag it to shore without its tearing apart from the weight â€“ one-hundred and fifty-three large fish in one small net. In this sign, we can foresee the amazing results of the disciples' ministry, when with one sermon, filled with foolishness in the world's eyes, Peter caught three thousand souls in one day, because the Spirit of Christ was empowering him. And this was only the beginning â€“ soon the foolishness of their message would turn the world upside-down, calling out from every kindred, tongue, people, and nation a multitude of souls redeemed by the blood of the Lamb and caught with the gospel-net of Christ's fishers of men. Let us take comfort in this sign, for it whispers in our ear that, no matter how impossible the task before us may seem, no matter how the lies of the devil and the discords in our midst rage against us, we will not fail to snag every wayward soul for whom Christ died from the seas of his sin and despair, because the success of the fishing is not in our own strength: it is in the almighty power of Christ, who, with a word, can bring one-hundred fifty-three fish to the shore and with a word can draw three thousand souls into his kingdom. This is the Christ we serve! Ministers of the gospel, take heart: you will finally triumph in Christ.
And furthermore, Christ prepared his disciples individually and personally, giving them just the words of encouragement that they needed to draw hope and strength for the task ahead of them. Peter was still bitter in heart over his deep failure, and ready to go back to a life of fishing; but Jesus ministered to him precisely according to his need, drawing from his lips a threefold confession of love and giving him a threefold commission to feed his flock, as if utterly to replace his threefold denial, and fit him for the ministry again. Ah, let us be grateful for this example, which assures our often-doubting souls that Christ can forgive the worst of sinners, and fit him for heavenly service. He can take a murderer and make him the apostle to the Gentiles, he can take a denier and make him the apostle to the Jews, and he can take us as well, wretched sinners though we be, and whisper his words of encouragement into our ears, through his Spirit, thereby fitting us for a peculiar place of service, designed for us from the foundation of the world.
But we must press on and observe, third, that Jesus was not only instructing, but likewise empowering his disciples for their task, in fulfillment of is promise. The nature of the gospel-commission is such that it cannot be accomplished by human efforts: but just as Jesus promised to send his Spirit, to teach the disciples the very words of Christ (John 14:16-17; 25-26; 15:26; 16:7-15), so he gave them a foretaste, before the Day of Pentecost when he would fulfill his promise in overflowing measure, when he breathed upon them and said, â€œReceive the Holy Spiritâ€ (John 20:22-23). How unspeakable a privilege and blessing it is to have the very Spirit of God now dwelling within us, and how necessary for our work! Our greatest efforts are a dung heap, unless the very Spirit of God is working in us and through us, empowering us to understand the deep things of Christ, to put to death our evil deeds and live to righteousness, and to bring the message of hope and forgiveness to others. And how impotent our message would be, as if one should pour cold water down the throat of a corpse, unless the words of the gospel which we proclaim are joined with the power of the Holy Spirit within us, so that our proclamation of forgiveness becomes true indeed, and powerful to effect that which it promises. Oh, let us be thankful that Christ did not just ascend to the Father, but that he ensured our wellbeing and final salvation, throughout our generations, by leaving another Comforter, who would dwell within us indeed.
And finally, we observe that Christ left his disciples with a great commission, to spread the news of his great accomplishment to the ends of the earth (e.g. Matthew 28:18-20). He had taught them just what this gospel message was and empowered them through the Holy Spirit to proclaim it with life-giving authority â€“ and now he was sending them out. The great work of Christ demands a great result, and some of the blood-bought throng of worshipers from every kindred, tongue, people, and nation remain to be snatched out of the kingdom of darkness and brought to the throne of the Lamb. Brothers and sisters, we have been taught the gospel by the illuminating ministry of the Spirit, we have been indwelt just as the apostles of old, and the great commission with which Jesus left them now rings out in our ears, calling us to labor until the task is complete! Why are we still waiting? Let us arise, cast off the shame of slothfulness, and bring the message of the ages to the nations of the world. Our great Savior deserves a great reward, a reward which falls nothing short of the allegiance and worship of men and women from every people group under heaven. Then let us labor as long as we have life in the fields of the world, for the outcome is sure and the harvest is great.