Acts 2: 1 – 13 The Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost

Acts 2: 1 – 13 The Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: ‘Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs – we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!’ Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, ‘What does this mean?’

Some, however, made fun of them and said, ‘They have had too much wine.’

*       *       *

What a dramatic event Pentecost was! A rushing wind, tongues of fire, and miraculous speech in other tongues! The disciples were so filled with the Holy Spirit that they dashed into the streets, telling everyone who would listen about the wonders of God they had witnessed. The passers-by were utterly amazed, because each of them heard the testimony in their own language.

Nowadays we don’t always expect to experience such miracles, but they still happen. I, and some of my friends, pray in tongues. We’re not members of a Pentecostal church, just run-of-the-mill Methodists who have asked God to let the Holy Spirit work in us. It’s a source of inner peace and joy. I find it’s particularly helpful when I face something that challenges my faith. Surprisingly, despite speaking words that I don’t understand consciously, I often find that after such prayer I have a clearer idea of what I need to do.

St Paul describes the spiritual gifts that may be manifested in 1 Corinthians 12: 4 – 11. All of these gifts are active today just as they were in Apostolic times. (‘Nine o’clock in the Morning’ by Dennis J Bennett describes a twentieth century experience of the Holy Spirit’s power in a mainstream denomination). All of these gifts are relevant today.

The outcome of the use of spiritual gifts is that the church grows, both in numbers and in faith. Individual members of the church show evidence of the fruits of the Spirit (But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5: 23 – 23)).

The Holy Spirit dwells in each and every Christian. He can speak and act through any of us, when we let him. From my own experience I would encourage every Christian to ask God to work through them in whatever way he chooses.

God loves it when we ask to serve him; he loves to equip us with the gifts we need. But most wonderful of all, he just loves us for who we are.

Thank you, Lord, for loving me!

Prayer

Dear Heavenly Father

Thank you for loving me.

Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee.

In Jesus name, Amen

Acts 1: 12 – 26 Matthias chosen to replace Judas

Acts 1: 12 – 26 Matthias chosen to replace Judas

Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city. When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.

In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) and said, ‘Brothers and sisters, the Scripture had to be fulfilled in which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus. He was one of our number and shared in our ministry.’

(With the payment he received for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.)

‘For,’ said Peter, ‘it is written in the Book of Psalms:

‘ “May his place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in it,” and,

‘ “May another take his place of leadership.”

‘Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.’

So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. Then they prayed, ‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.’  Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles.

*       *       *

Before doing anything else, let’s consider the big inconsistency in this passage. With the payment he received for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood. (Acts 1: 18 – 19)

But St Matthew’s gospel also has an account of Judas’ fate, and that is that he returned the money to the priests and then hanged himself. It was the priests who used the money to buy the field as a burial ground for Gentiles. (Matthew 27: 3 – 10)

I have read all sorts of rationalisations for the discrepancies and, for me at least, none of them ring true. The two accounts are different.

But my faith isn’t based on the bible being inerrant; it’s based on the core messages of the bible, supplemented by what I’ve experienced of Jesus in my own life and what I’ve seen of Jesus in the lives of others. I’m going to learn from one of yesterday’s conclusions; we only need concern ourselves with what God wants us to know to do his will.

But let’s continue with the core message of this passage, which is about prayer.

This passage is set before Pentecost, which is to say, before the gift of the Holy Spirit was experienced in all its fulness. A hundred and twenty disciples, women as well as men, met together in a large upper room; it must have been thirty feet by forty feet, so perhaps a community building rather than a private dwelling.

The disciples “joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.”

That’s a wonderful example to all of us. The disciples were praying because, having lived with Jesus, having been used to his guidance, they desperately wanted to know what to do next. The resurrection had convinced them that Jesus was still alive, and still able to teach and guide them. They wanted his day to day guidance, and they believed he would give it to them through prayer.

Prayer is how Jesus can talk to us – provided we listen as well as talk.

The answer to some of their prayer was given by Peter. Judas, who had betrayed Jesus, needed to be replaced as an apostle by someone else. Peter spelled out some conditions that ensured whoever was chosen would have the qualifications to witness to the resurrection of Jesus, and they finished with a shortlist of two.

They prayed, and cast lots – and the lot fell to Matthias; “so he was added to the eleven apostles.”

I once went to a bible study on this passage, and our study guide said something like “Of course, now we would be democratic and vote for the replacement”, in a manner that suggested how much better a democratic decision would have been.

Really?

I think the important part of the procedure wasn’t the way Matthias was chosen but the prayer that preceded the choice. And if there’s one important lesson for me to learn from today’s reading, it is that God can and will answer prayers for guidance. And, wonderfully, the more we ask for guidance, the more we listen, the closer we will come to Jesus.

Prayer

Heavenly Father

Thank you that through Jesus I can approach you in prayer. Please help me to listen more than I speak, and to take to heart what you tell me.

In Jesus’ name, Amen

Acts 1: 1 – 11 Jesus taken up into heaven

Acts 1: 1 – 11 Jesus taken up into heaven

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: ‘Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.’

Then they gathered round him and asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’

He said to them: ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’

*       *       *

Acts, or “The Acts of the Apostles”, is written by the author of St Luke’s gospel, and forms a continuation of the narrative and theological teaching of it. Here is a link to the blog post I wrote at the beginning of my study of that gospel.

Introduction to St Luke and his gospel

The eleven introductory verses of Acts pick up the threads of the gospel narrative, overlapping Luke 24: 50 – 53 which describes the ascension of Jesus into heaven.

The first thing that struck me was the phrase “all that Jesus began to do and to teach”. This seems to be saying that Jesus only began his work during his earthly life. My Greek is poor, so I can’t be sure whether this just reflects a grammatical construction or whether it’s significant. If it‘s significant, St Luke seems to be very firmly identifying the actions of the apostles as the direct continuation of those of Jesus.

That may mean we have to read carefully to avoid error, in case St Luke has presented fallible human thinking as having the same authority as the teaching of Jesus. There were, after all, conflicts of doctrine within the early church. I shall try to read carefully, but without stifling the voice of the Holy Spirit within me.

St Luke then says, “After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive.” When I looked at the resurrection narratives last week, I was surprised at the strength and coherence of the case they made for Jesus rising from the dead.

The resurrection of Jesus – a consistent record

Acts 1: 5 records Jesus prophesying that the Apostles would receive the Holy Spirit within a few days. The Apostles were curious, and still – even at this piont – they seem to expect an earthly kingdom. “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

As he did several times during his ministry, Jesus refuses to give them times and dates. However, he says, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

This is actually very clear and important teaching. If God has given us the privilege of doing something for him, we don’t need to know anything beyond that. The Holy Spirit will give us what we need to carry out the task. The apostles are told that they will witness for Jesus throughout the whole world – and, astonishingly given that they were just humble Galileans, they did exactly that!

Then this introduction closes with the ascension of Jesus into heaven, and the appearance of two men dressed in white, who say to the apostles “ ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’”

This message from the men in white provides a narrative springboard for the rest of the text. Jesus is coming back. All the actions narrated in Acts, and all the urgency shown by the apostles, springs from the belief that Jesus will return.

MARANATHA – COME, LORD JESUS!

Prayer

Heavenly Father

Thank you for the beautiful world in which we live. Help me to use my life here to do your will.

In Jesus’ name, Amen

The resurrection of Jesus – Part 5 – A consistent record

The resurrection of Jesus – Part 5 – A consistent record

It is well known that each of the gospels was written for a different group of Christians, and with a different emphasis. In particular, St John’s gospel stresses the divinity of Jesus, while the synoptic gospels focus more on his humanity. It’s also worth remembering that St John’s gospel is the only one written by an eye witness (I’m accepting that although St John’s gospel took its final form at the end of the first century AD, much of it was written by St John in about 70 AD).

I’ve prepared a timeline to compare the accounts. When I started, I fully expected to find significant differences between the gospels, and I’ve been surprised at what I’ve found. There are certainly differences, but they’re much fewer than I expected, and there are no contradictions. There are many details where the gospels are in complete agreement.

So here’s how it looks.

The Day of Preparation

Jesus dies on the cross.

All four gospels say that Joseph of Arimathea goes to Pilate and asks for Jesus’ body. St Mark adds the detail that Pilate is surprised at Jesus early death, and questions the centurion before releasing the body to Joseph.

All four gospels say that Joseph takes Jesus’ body. In St John’s account, he is helped by Nicodemus. They wrap the body in linen strips. (St Matthew says the linen cloth is clean. St John says Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen.)

The synoptic gospels all say that the burial was witnessed by some of the women who had supported Jesus in his ministry. For example, St Luke says “The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it. (Luke 23: 55). St John’s account doesn’t mention the presence of the women, but it says nothing to contradict it either.

The Sabbath

The women. ‘Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.’ (Luke 23: 56)

Although Luke is the only writer who says explicitly that the women observed the Sabbath, it is implicit in the other accounts.

The chief priests. The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. ‘Sir,’ they said, ‘we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, “After three days I will rise again.” So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.’

‘Take a guard,’ Pilate answered. ‘Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.’ So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.(Matthew 27: 62 – 66)

Matthew is the only writer who speaks of a guard on the tomb; however, the other gospels don’t contradict this. Yesterday’s post discusses whether such a guard was set.

I don’t know whether the actions of the chief priests and Pharisees were technically breaking the Sabbath, but by comparison with the women, resting obediently, they seem mighty busy!

The first day of the week – angels and an empty tomb

All the gospel writers agree that Mary Magdalene and other women were at the tomb early in the morning; Matthew says at dawn, Mark says just after sunrise, Luke says very early in the morning and John says while it was still dark. The synoptics are explicit that Mary Magdalene had companions; in John’s account, it is implicit in the plural pronoun and verb, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!’

The synoptics say that the women saw an angel (Matthew 28: 2 – 3); a young man dressed in white (Mark 16: 5); two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning (Luke 24: 4). John says that Mary saw the stone had been rolled away and told Simon Peter and the disciple Jesus loved. (Using the phrase ‘the disciple Jesus loved’ is a way of saying that the author of the gospel, St John, was present).

Thus, there is disagreement between the gospels on the matter of the presence of angels on the occasion of Mary’s first visit to the tomb.

However, St John’s gospel then tells us this:

Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

They asked her, ‘Woman, why are you crying?’

‘They have taken my Lord away,’ she said, ‘and I don’t know where they have put him.’ At this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realise that it was Jesus.

He asked her, ‘Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?’

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.’

Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’

She turned towards him and cried out in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means ‘Teacher’).

Jesus said, ‘Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’

Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: ‘I have seen the Lord!’ And she told them that he had said these things to her.

St John places this immediately after his account of the visit to the tomb made by Simon Peter and the disciple Jesus loved. It is still early morning, and here we have two angels speaking to Mary Magdalene. This resolves the conflict between the gospels as to the presence or otherwise of angels.

The first day of the week – the risen Lord

St Matthew tells us that the first appearance of the risen Jesus was to Mary and the other women. They met him as they were going to the disciples in response to the command of the angel. The women worshipped him. He told them not to be afraid but to tell his brothers to go to Galilee, where they would see him. This is very much in line with St John’s account that we’ve just read.

St Luke tells the story obliquely. Having had Simon Peter see the empty tomb, he gives us an account of two disciples walking to Emmaus, and how Jesus walked with them, explaining the Scriptures about himself. They didn’t recognise him until he broke bread at table, when the familiar gesture opened their eyes. On rushing back to Jerusalem they found that Jesus had appeared to Peter.

St Luke and St John continue the narrative of that first day. In both their accounts, Jesus appears suddenly in the room in which the disciples are talking.

St Luke describes how they are frightened by Jesus’ sudden appearance, wondering whether he is a ghost. They need to see, hear, and touch him before they are convinced, and even then Jesus needs to eat a piece of broiled fish to reassure them of his corporeal nature. He explains the Scriptures about himself to them, and commands them to remain in Jerusalem until they have been clothed with power from on high.

St John’s account is shorter, and emphasizes the disciples’ joy. Jesus symbolically gives them the Holy Spirit, and gives them the authority to forgive – or retain – people’s sins.

A detailed comparison of St Matthew’s account with St Luke’s throws up a discrepancy as to where the disciples were to meet Jesus. St Matthew says they were to meet him in Galilee, while St Luke says they were to remain in Jerusalem until they were clothed with power from on high.

It seems to me, though, that the commands may simply refer to two separate but significant events. St Luke’s is clearly a reference to the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. St Matthew’s may refer to the occasion described in St John’s gospel when Jesus forgives Peter.

Two loose ends

There are two important additional matters.

The first is the mystery of Mark 16: 9 – 20. A note in the NIV says “The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have verses 9 – 20”.

The verses are a collection of snippets of narrative, some of them confirming resurrection accounts from other gospels, others being more about the manifestation of spiritual gifts in the early church. They don’t seem to belong, but if you remove them the gospel finishes with the women trembling and bewildered and telling no one about what they had seen. I have no easy explanation for this.

The second is the forgiveness of Simon Peter. St John writes about a resurrection appearance in Galilee. Jesus forgives Simon Peter for his denial. Simon Peter was obviously racked with guilt over the betrayal, and Jesus takes great care to ensure that Peter can really experience his forgiveness. Jesus sets the scene in Galilee, by the lake, where Peter had been raised and plied his trade as a fisherman. He prepares breakfast on the beach. He even goes so far as to repeat the miracle of the great catch of fish. All of this is saying emotionally to Peter ‘This is you, Peter, and I’m here with you, like we used to be. And I am your Lord, and you are my friend, and I want you to nurture my chosen ones. Will you do this?’ Three times he asks Peter whether he loves him, and three times Peter affirms that he does. Of course he does. Lord, yes, of course I love you! And with the three-fold repentance, Peter is freed of his feelings of guilt, and he is fit to take on the task that Jesus has set for him.

But, you know, although Peter’s love for Jesus was very great, Jesus’ love for Peter was even greater. And Jesus’ love is not restricted to Peter, or to the heroes of faith, it extends to  all of us, and is greater than we can possibly imagine.

Praise the Lord!

Prayer

Heavenly Father

Thank you for your great love for all of us. Thank you for the care and thoughtfulness you spend on each and every one of us.

In Jesus name, Amen.

The resurrection of Jesus – part 4 – The guard on the tomb

The resurrection of Jesus – part 4 – The guard on the tomb

There is one detail of the resurrection story that we find only in St Matthew’s gospel, and that is the posting of a guard on the tomb. This is how it reads in the NIV translation.

Matthew 27: 62 – 66 The guard at the tomb

The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. ‘Sir,’ they said, ‘we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, “After three days I will rise again.” So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.’

‘Take a guard,’ Pilate answered. ‘Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.’ So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.

Matthew 28: 1 – 10 Jesus has risen

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.

There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.

The angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: “He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.” Now I have told you.’

So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. ‘Greetings,’ he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’

Matthew 28: 11 – 15 The guards’ report

While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, ‘You are to say, “His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.” If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’ So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.

*       *       *

If this story is true, the chief priests hadn’t handled matters very well. The next day was a special Sabbath, and they didn’t want the bodies of executed criminals on display. They asked Pilate to have them finished off and the bodies taken down.

What did they think would happen to the bodies? Pilate’s agreement to allow Joseph to take Jesus’ body for burial seems to have completely wrong-footed them. By the time they realised that Joseph had interred Jesus, it was the Sabbath. They rushed to Pilate in a panic, and asked for a guard on the tomb.

Pilate allowed them to take a guard, and do what they deemed necessary to make the tomb secure.

The guard would probably have been Roman soldiers rather than temple police. They would have been a disciplined force, and most unlikely to fall asleep while on guard.

The question we need to answer is whether St Matthew’s story is factual, or invented to counter rumours that the disciples stole Jesus’ body. St Matthew himself tells us that such rumours circulated in Jerusalem in the early years of the church.

The first question in my mind is why does this story only appear in St Matthew’s gospel? The other three gospels all record that the women went to the tomb very early, and found the stone rolled away/angels/the empty tomb. None of the other gospels says that the women saw any guards.

Perhaps, though, there were no guards to be seen? If the earthquake happened as the women were still some distance from the tomb, and the guards fled at the sight of the angel, then the women might not have seen them. St Matthew could have learned of the guards via a source among the Jewish Council, like Joseph of Arimathea or Nicodemus.

Or the women may have seen the guards and approached anyway. I confess that, as a writer, I don’t think that’s very likely. If they saw the guards, why not say so? It would make the story more believable.

If the guards had fled just before the women arrived, there is no conflict with the other gospels, because St Matthew may have consulted a source in the Council that the other gospel writers didn’t consult.

That doesn’t, however, mean that the story of the guards is necessarily true.

Both the Jewish leaders and the disciples are saying that the tomb is empty, they differ in explaining why it’s empty.

Suppose the chief priests’ version of the story is the correct one. Let’s tell the story from the point of view of a group of disciples, not the Eleven, setting out to steal the body.

First off, how would they have known which was the right tomb? It was the women who witnessed Jesus’ interment. However, we’ll assume they found out.

They approach the tomb cautiously, in the middle of the night. What do they find? Six Roman soldiers, that’s what. Asleep, when they’re supposed to be on guard? Well, it’s not impossible, but the Roman army had a reputation for good discipline.

Ok. We’ll assume they were asleep.

The disciples are confronted by a large stone which has been sealed to the rock of the hillside. They have to move it – without waking the guards. Possible? I suppose so, but what a risk! They move the stone, remove the body and creep away into the night.

The guards wake up. If nothing happens, no angel, no earthquake, why would they run? Surely they would stay put? Which would mean they were there when the women arrived. If the disciples had managed to move the stone, the guards would probably have been looking into the tomb. All the gospels would have said so. And, of one thing I’m quite certain; they wouldn’t have allowed the women anywhere near.

As far as I can see, if a guard of soldiers really was posted, the only way it makes any sense is exactly as St Matthew says. An angel rolled away the stone, the guards were terrified and ran away. Anything else would have been recorded in the other gospels.

And although St Matthew might have invented the whole story, why on earth would he?

My personal conclusion is that the story is essentially true; a guard of soldiers was posted, an angel terrified them and they ran away. Subsequently, the chief priests, with a combination of bribery and intimidation, persuaded them to say that their experience had been a dream.

However, the evidence is not conclusive. I cannot prove with historical evidence that this is what happened. But as a person of faith I see that the evidence does not contradict other biblical testimony and therefore I accept that this story is true.

Prayer

Heavenly Father

Thank you that you raised Jesus from the dead. Thank you that you are drawing me closer day by day. Please help me to follow Jesus ever more faithfully.

In Jesus name, Amen

The resurrection of Jesus – part 3 – unimportant people

The resurrection of Jesus – part 3 – unimportant people

Jesus had been crucified, and hung dead on the cross. The women who came with him from Galilee were still there, watching. They intended to prepare Jesus’ body for burial in accordance with Jewish Law. They didn’t know what was going to happen to the body, but one thing they knew; if they weren’t there when the body was taken down it could finish up anywhere.

Where were the eleven disciples? Nowhere to be seen.

But Jesus had other disciples, even among members of the Jewish Council. Joseph of Arimathea was one of them. He was an important man, a man of substance, a man with access to Pilate. St Luke tells us this: Now there was a man named Joseph, a member of the Council, a good and upright man, who had not consented to their decision and action. He came from the Judean town of Arimathea, and he himself was waiting for the kingdom of God. (Luke 23: 50 – 51)

All four gospels tell us that it was Joseph who went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. Mark also tells us that Pilate was surprised that Jesus had already died; so surprised in fact that he summoned the centurion and asked if it were true, only releasing the body after hearing the centurion’s confirmation of death.

Joseph and (according to St John) Nicodemus (another member of the council who had sought teaching from Jesus, see John 3: 1 – 21), took down Jesus’ body, wrapped it in linen and laid it in a new tomb cut in the rock. St Matthew tells us it had been prepared for Joseph himself. There is a minor discrepancy between St John’s gospel and the synoptic gospels, in that St John says that Joseph anointed Jesus’ body with myrrh and aloes as well as wrapping it in linen.

And who’s there watching the interment? Why, the women of course. All three of the synoptic gospels agree that some of the women who had accompanied Jesus from Galilee were present. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph were both there, and possibly others. They are our principal witnesses that Jesus was dead and laid in a tomb.

The chosen disciples have fled. They have despaired. Their faith has crumbled.

But Jesus can’t be abandoned even in death; that would be unthinkable! He must be buried with the proper observances. The women don’t know what will happen afterwards, but that doesn’t matter; they will do the right thing for him.

Once again it is the humble, those who are prepared to continue walking with God one step at a time, who are the means of great blessing to the world.

Prayer

Heavenly Father

Thank you for all people who trust you and are obedient to your will. Thank you especially for the women who accompanied Jesus, and stayed with him after death, giving us a record of Jesus resurrection.

In Jesus’ name, Amen

The resurrection of Jesus – study day 2

The resurrection of Jesus – study day 2

I have collated all the resurrection appearances, and started to consider them carefully. This will take some time. In the meantime, this post that I made when I was studying St John’s gospel prompted me to pray and listen to Jesus about this study of the resurrection.

John 21: 1 – 14 Jesus and the miraculous catch of fish

Afterwards Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee. It happened this way: Simon Peter, Thomas (also known as Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. ‘I’m going out to fish,’ Simon Peter told them, and they said, ‘We’ll go with you.’ So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realise that it was Jesus.

He called out to them, ‘Friends, haven’t you any fish?’

‘No,’ they answered.

He said, ‘Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.’ When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.

Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, ‘It is the Lord,’ he wrapped his outer garment round him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred metres. When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.

Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish you have just caught.’ So Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ None of the disciples dared ask him, ‘Who are you?’ They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.

*       *       *

It was no ghost that the disciples saw, no vision conjured up by grief and shock. This was a person cooking fish over a fire on the beach, a man who served bread and fish to the disciples. They saw him, they heard him, they felt and tasted the food that he handed to them. He was real and they recognised him as their Lord.

This episode has lessons we can learn.

  • If we start an enterprise without Jesus, it’s not going to accomplish God’s work. We need to know what he wants us to be doing.
  • We can work as hard as we like, but without Jesus’ directions we won’t accomplish God’s work. We need to know how Jesus wants us to be working.
  • Jesus’ voice is often soft. It can be hard to recognise. We need to practise listening, in prayer and in obedience. We need to allow what we think Jesus is saying to actually directly affect what we do. We have to trust him to show us whether it’s right or wrong.   

If we listen faithfully, pray and act on what we are told, God can work miracles through us.

Prayer

Heavenly Father

Thank you for your love. Thank you for Jesus, who guides us through your Holy Spirit. Please help me to follow him faithfully.

In Jesus name, Amen

The resurrection of Jesus

The resurrection of Jesus

The resurrection of Jesus is the absolute keystone of my faith. If the resurrection didn’t happen, I would have great difficulty in believing.

I want to experience being close to Jesus. When I prayed for this, it seemed to me that I received the answer, “You need to spend time with me if you want to feel close.” I also felt that I was being called to write a blog about what I read daily in the bible, and that this blog was to take priority over all my other writing. In other words, I was being called on to be obedient and to put my faith in Jesus first.

I’ve done that, working through St John’s gospel and St Luke’s gospel. It has been easier to talk to people about Jesus, which is a change in me that goes beyond merely being familiar with the bible. To that extent my prayer is being answered. Thank you, God!

I feel called now to spend some time looking at the resurrection of Jesus, so here goes!

Methodology

The key to understanding a phenomenon or an event is to examine the evidence. There are several different kinds of evidence.

Scientific evidence

I was trained as a scientist, and worked in technological role throughout my career. The sort of evidence with which I am most familiar is evidence that is reproducible, in other words if you do the same thing the same way you get the same answer, Additionally, if you are trying to understand something properly, you have to challenge your way of thinking to see if you can pick holes in it.

Legal evidence

Legal evidence is based on the testimony of witnesses. This may be a report of what someone saw or heard. Sometimes it may seem more ‘factual’ than that, but in the UK at least it comes back to the testimony of witnesses. If we look at DNA profiling, for example, a human witness has to declare how the sample was obtained, demonstrate that it could not have been contaminated before testing (‘chain of custody’), and explain its significance in terms that the court can understand.

Almost always there are conflicts between the evidence of different witnesses. It is the job of the court to weigh the different witness statements and come to a conclusion. The law recognises that mistakes can occur, and provides an appeal process to mitigate against that happening.

Historical evidence

Historical evidence admits just about any sort of information, on the basis that even when a story is plainly a legend, it can shed light on the nature of the subject. Whereas legal evidence rarely permits hearsay, historical evidence welcomes it. (What, after all, is documentary evidence other than a form of hearsay?). Historical evidence requires critical scrutiny by experts who are looking largely for consistency between different sources.

Conclusion

Most of the evidence I will consider is historical. Some of it may approach the standard of legal evidence in the form of testimonies from people who believe they have experienced the risen Jesus. None of the evidence will be scientific; the question to be answered does not lend itself to reproducibility! Note that I am not a historian. My conclusions will be flawed to a greater or lesser extent by that lack. I shall probably read commentaries by experts as part of my study.

I am going to start by collating all the bible passages that deal with Jesus being active in the physical world after his crucifixion.

Prayer

Heavenly Father

I feel you are calling me to look more deeply at the resurrection of Jesus. I don’t know where this will lead, and I’m apprehensive. Please guide me and help me in my study.

In Jesus’ name, Amen

Luke 24: 50 – 53 The ascension of Jesus

Luke 24: 50 – 53 The ascension of Jesus

When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up to heaven. Then they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.

*       *       *

St Luke wrote another account of Jesus’ ascension into heaven in Acts.

After he said this, he was taken up before heir very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

They were looking intently into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’

Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city. (Acts 1: 9 – 12)

*        *        *

The account in St Luke’s gospel says: ‘When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany…’

The account in Acts says: ‘Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city.’

The Mount of Olives was on the route between Bethany and Jerusalem, and it was a short journey, so the two accounts are in agreement as to where the event took place.

We need to remember that St Luke was not an eye-witness of these events. These accounts are composites, a combination of what eye-witnesses remembered and told St Luke many years after the events had happened, and oral/written accounts circulating in the early church before our canonical scriptures were agreed.

*       *       *

St Matthew also has an account of Jesus’ ascension.

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commended you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’ (Matthew 28: 16 – 20)

St Matthew’s account says: ‘When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.’ I wonder whether St Matthew was one of those who doubted?

*      *       *

Because of the paramount importance of the resurrection, I’m going to spend several days studying it next week. Today, I shall limit myself to the passage from St Luke’s gospel.

When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them.

The last act of the risen Jesus in his human form was to bless his disciples. It was a formal blessing; he lifted up his hands; it was a priestly blessing. That blessing extends to us, too.

While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up to heaven.

The Greek is a little different from the NIV translation. It doesn’t mention heaven, rather it says ‘He withdrew from them’.

Then they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.

Whatever the apostles experienced on the Mount of Olives, it was enough to convince them that Jesus was to be worshipped. They fully believed that he was the Son of God, and believing that, they worshipped him and experienced great joy.

And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.

Once back in Jerusalem, they were obedient to Jesus’ command to ‘Stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’ But they didn’t spend their time in the upper room where they had hidden in the days before the ascension. Instead, they spent their time in the temple, praising God.

Prayer

Heavenly Father,

Thank you for the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Please help me to study the bible so that I may grow closer to him.

In Jesus’ name, Amen

Luke 24: 36 – 49 Jesus appears to the disciple

Luke 24: 36 – 49 Jesus appears to the disciples

While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’

They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, ‘Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.’

When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, ‘Do you have anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.

He said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’

Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, ‘This is what is written: the Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’

*       *       *

The risen Jesus had already appeared to Simon, and to the two disciples from Emmaus. The disciples from Emmaus hurried back to Jerusalem and found the Eleven apostles, and ‘those with them’ – probably the women who had seen the empty tomb. There were over a dozen people in the room, excited, talking over their remarkable experiences.

Suddenly, Jesus was there with them.

What must that have been like? It was late in the evening; it had been dark for at least three hours (two of those present had set off from Emmaus at nightfall, and walked seven miles). Three of them had seen the risen Jesus, but most had not. Their last sight of him would have been his lifeless body on the cross, or in the case of the women, laid in the tomb. St Luke reports that they were frightened, thinking they saw a ghost.

Simon and the two disciples from Emmaus had already seen the risen Jesus. Did they step forward and try to convince the others of the reality of the experience? St Luke doesn’t say so. Had their experiences been lacking in some way? Or was it all just so hard to believe?

Jesus said ‘Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself!’

Although St Luke doesn’t say so, the invitation to look at his hands and feet strongly suggests that the wounds of crucifixion were visible.

Jesus invites them to touch him. ‘Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see I have,’ he says.

And yet St Luke says: “…they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement…”

In a final attempt to convince them of the physical reality of his presence “…he asked them, ‘Do you have anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.

Despite this, St Luke doesn’t write that the disciples were convinced that Jesus was really there with them. What he does tell us is that Jesus opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.

St Luke has been scrupulous in how he has recorded the resurrection. He has told us what people saw and what they felt (men in clothes that gleamed like lightning; Jesus was recognised by them when he broke the bread; …they still did not believe it…). He has not made any unequivocal statement that Jesus was physically raised from the dead. Indeed, his narrative suggests that there was something different about the risen Jesus. The disciples had lived very close to Jesus, and they found something unnerving about his resurrection appearances.

Prayer

Heavenly Father

Thank you for Jesus. Please help me to understand better how he is alive today, and how I can draw closer to him.

In Jesus’ name, Amen