The Servant King:
Jesus’s close friends and followers from Galilee had great difficulty in getting out of their heads the widespread Jewish conviction that God’s chosen leader when he came would establish some kind of national kingdom, with a king and government. They had grown up with this idea, as Jesus himself had done, and took it for granted. The Zealots thought of God’s chosen leader or ‘Messiah’ as a military ruler, establishing his power by military conquest. Many others who were not Zealots thought much like this, though some believed that God himself would defeat the Romans. But Jesus would have nothing to do with such ideas. He had not come to be that kind of leader or to establish that kind of rule. His friends must have thought Jesus’s talk about suffering utterly impossible to believe – how could God’s chosen leader suffer in any way or die at a foreigner’s hands?! But Jesus had not called them not just to be his individual friends, but also to be a new form of community. Anyone could be a member of this, whatever his race, education or background. This new community would not be founded on force but would continue as a caring community whose members were willing to be servants of the people because they were God’s servants. Their job was to become a ‘servant community’, as Jesus himself was the servant of both God and his people. ‘I didn’t come to have servants looking after me’, Jesus told them, but ‘to be a servant myself and to give myself to make everybody free’.
Alan T Dale pointed out in his (1979) Portrait of Jesus, that to understand the kind of man Jesus was, we must first sort out the evidence about him. There are many different stories about him – popular stories, stories that go back to eyewitnesses, preachers’ stories. Stories always grow in the telling and we have to remember that the first friends of Jesus shared the common love of the miraculous which was very strong in the first century. So the stories need sorting out and weighing up. We must also remember that Jesus was often thought of in Jewish and pagan circles, both at the time and in later years, as a magician, and he himself did not emphasise his healings or call attention to them. He thought of his healings as showing God’s power at work, but not as magical events, or as proof of who he was. Neither is what Jesus did and said so different and strange that we cannot comprehend his message two thousand years later. His character shines through all the reports we have of him; the fact that he put what he had to say in stories and poems has given the power to speak across the centuries, and across the great changes in human thought and culture. There are aspects of Jesus which we shall perhaps never quite understand and words of his whose meaning will always escape us. But his central message and his integrity are not in doubt, what Paul described as the light which was shining from the face of Jesus. Alongside these first-century words, Dale juxtaposes the words of a twentieth-century scientist and latter-day disciple of Jesus:
Once one has really looked at the Jesus of the Gospels and really seen him and the role he is taking and what is regarded as having happened to him, he is an inescapable element … in all one’s future thinking about both the … reality of God and the nature of man.A. R. Peacocke, Science and the Christian Experiment.
The turning point in Jesus’s public ministry seems to have been an incident in the Galilean hills when he met the men of the Jewish Resistance Movement, the ‘Zealots’. To the people of early first-century Judaea, the very name ‘Galilean’ meant something like ‘rebel’ or ‘anarchist’, even – in twenty-first-century language – ‘terrorist’. Galilee was seen as the home of these self-styled ‘freedom fighters’, and Galileans were viewed as ‘born fighters’. There were significant numbers in the crowd of men who went to meet Jesus at his base in the fishing village of Capernaum, which he had made his base with his fishermen friends. But he and his friends had ‘gone fishing’ and were just putting out into the lake. Their boat was making heavy weather, however, as a strong on-shore breeze blew up. As shown below in Trevor Stubley’s illustration of Dale’s text… The crowd – several thousand men – walking, pushing, running, made their way along the shore. The men in the boat saw what was happening; there would be no escape. They put the boat back to land.
As Jesus climbed out of the boat, he recognised many faces in the crowd: farmers from the hill villages as well as fishermen from the lakeside towns. He had grown up in Nazareth with some of them. But now, as grown men, while they were farmers and fishermen by day, they were also ‘freedom fighters’ whenever the chance came. As he looked at them he felt sorry for them, and some words from an old bible story came into his mind: like sheep without a shepherd to look after them. That was what they looked like to him; a leaderless mob, an army without a general. He went back up with them to the hills, to an isolated valley outside of sight and sound of the nearby Roman garrison. They asked him to be their ‘shepherd’, their leader, their ‘general’, but Jesus would have no part in their plans. The arguments went until late afternoon when he got them all to share a common meal together, during which he got them to affirm that they would live according to God’s will, not their own. The men, as if under command, sat down in companies of fifties and hundreds, rank by rank. After that, he sent his friends back to the boat, although they wanted to stay. Then he said goodbye to the companies of men, also sending them back to their villages. When they had left, he climbed the nearest hillside alone, to think things out in God’s presence. His road south, to Jerusalem, began there.
There must have been something strong and commanding about Jesus that made the Zealots think of him as their possible leader, the kind of man they thought could be their ‘king’ in Jerusalem. We can see how they came to think of him as they did. He had a note of authority and acted as though he believed he had been called to lead the Jewish people. His cause and motto were the same as theirs, ‘God’s Rule’ or the Kingdom of God. That day they spent with him in the hills brought matters to a head, however, as it became dramatically clear to both them and him that they were poles apart. He had no use for a ‘Holy War’ and all the bitter violence that it would bring. Jesus did not think of ‘foreigners’ as invaders and occupiers, as they did. When they realised this, most of them had no further use for him, except for two among the twelve who hoped he would change his mind when he arrived in Jerusalem and himself realised that he needed to call on armed support. But when it finally became obvious that he was resolute in following a different path, even his closest friends abandoned him. It seems as if he spent most of the last few months of his life almost alone. Even his fishermen friends, at the last dangerous moment in the orchard of Gethsemane, ran away. When he finally left Galilee on his way south, he did so at first alone, travelling incognito: He didn’t want anyone to recognise and accompany him, at least until he got near to Jerusalem.
The Journey South – Caesaria Philippi to Jordan & Jerusalem:
But first, he had to re-examine his Galilean ministry, which now seemed to even his most loyal disciples to have been a failure. A few weeks after, he met the Zealots in the hills around Lake Galilee, where he met up with his three closest friends in the north at Caesarea Philippi for a mountain climb. He came to the conclusion that there was no other way that his calling could be fulfilled. As he climbed with them to the snowline of Mount Hermon, they shared an exalted spiritual experience:
He took them into his confidence and opened his heart to them. He had lived in God’s way and called his fellow countrymen to live in God’s Way; that was all he could do, except to take up his work again in the only way he knew how. He, therefore, ‘set his face’ to go south to the Jewish capital to continue the same work he had been doing in Galilee. He knew the dangers he would face there, far greater than those posed by the outraged elders of the lakeside synagogues and the alienated Zealots of the hillside farms he was leaving behind. His journey south and his movements until that fateful last week in Jerusalem have been shrouded in mystery and obscurity since they occurred. T. W. Manson called our attention to the brief sentence in which Mark summarises it:
On leaving those parts (in the north), he came into the region of Judaea and Transjordan; and when a crowd gathered around him once again, he followed his usual practice and taught them.Mark 10: 1, NEB.
Judaea and Transjordan, the countryside east of the river, became the area of his southern campaigns, and the quoted words seem to imply a wider ministry than the account that follows seems to allow for. Perhaps he moved south in the late spring, passing down the eastern bank of the Jordan from its source on Mount Hermon, and came to Jerusalem at the beginning of that ‘last week’, such being the impression that the records give us. But we must remember that the account of Holy Week as we have inherited it had been used in the worship of the church where all events of ‘the Passion’ were celebrated together, in one week of worship, as they still are today in many churches. Perhaps the journey took longer, and Jesus may have spent much longer on the east bank (see the map below), as Mark’s brief words seem to suggest, than a simple and ‘straightforward’ journey south would permit.
It seems that Jesus had made up his mind to issue his challenge to the Jewish people as a whole during the Passover Festival when the temple would be crowded with Jewish pilgrims from all over Palestine and the then known world, but then he decided to arrive first in October during the Festival of Tabernacles (or ‘tents’) in order to teach in the Temple Courts, as was traditional for new teachers. Modern scholars suggest that it was then that Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey, dealt with the shopkeepers in the foreigners’ courts of the temple and engaged in open debate with the religious authorities. Following his telling of The Tenants of the Vineyard, we are told, they began to look for a way to arrest him, for they saw that the parable was aimed at them; but they were afraid of popular feeling, so they left him alone and went away (Mark 12: 1-12). During this autumn festival, the people lived in temporary tents, or ‘booths’ along the sides of the rocky, hilly road into the city from Jericho. It was a time for giving thanks for the harvest and a celebration of their long march to freedom through the desert from Egypt with Moses, a time for thinking about leadership and looking forward to the coming Messiah.
The Festival of ‘Tabernacles’ & the ‘Acted’ Parables:
As part of this, Jesus planned to use a dramatic method by using what are called ‘acted parables’. They were intended to make apparent in action, as his stories had in words, exactly what he stood for. The first of these happened on the road into the city itself, when Jesus and his friends joined the worshipping pilgrims who had come up the steep road from Jericho, singing hymns as they approached the gates. As the pilgrims came in sight of the city they began to recite the words of a hymn:
This is our prayer, O God:
give us victory!
Happy is he who comes in God’s name!
We send you happiness from God’s house!
Happy is he who comes in God’s name!
Happy is the kingdom of King David, our father!
A thousand times – Hurrah!Psalm 118: 25-26
Jesus used the occasion to bring home to his friends, fellow pilgrims from Galilee, who still shared many of the nationalistic aims of the Zealots, that he came in peace and not for war. They would, no doubt, have heard of how, centuries before, his great ancestor King David had ridden into the city at the head of his victorious army on his warhorse, after a great battle (II Sam. 19: 15-20.2). As he got nearer to the Mount of Olives on the road from Jericho, he sent two of his friends into a small village called Bethpage. He told them: … just as you go in you’ll find a donkey. It’ll be tied up, and it hasn’t been broken in yet. Untie it and bring it; and if anyone asks why you are doing this, tell them “The master needs it, and he’ll send it straight back” (Mark 11: 1-11). The fact that the disciples were challenged, but allowed to take the donkey away, shows that this was a planned action on Jesus’ part. From the birth narratives, as well as from the stories of the Judaean ministry, we know that he had many relatives and friends in the villages outside Jerusalem. They brought the donkey to Jesus and threw their cloaks on its back so that Jesus could sit on the unbroken colt. People then spread leafy branches from the orchards on the road. They then shouted more lines from the old Bible hymn (above). Jesus chose to ride into the capital city not on a warhorse but on an ordinary farm animal, borrowed from a friend. This was a small but important act of witness for his Galilean friends and not, as later church traditions framed it, as a triumphal march. When both the Sanhedrin and the Roman Governor were looking for any evidence that might convict him as a dangerous revolutionary worthy of execution, no suggestion was made of his ride into the city the previous autumn. He had ridden into Jerusalem to claim his right as God’s chosen leader, not as a warrior king like David but following the words of Zechariah’s poem:
Lo, your King comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on an ass,
on a colt the foal of an ass.Zech. 9: 9.
All he had said and done in his preceding ministry was symbolised in this act and, even if it was not the public claim to messiahship it was traditionally claimed by the Church, the significance of the ‘acted parable’ was quite clear to the friends and pilgrims accompanying him. The second ‘acted parable’, however, was a far less peaceful demonstration. It took place in the full glare of publicity in the Foreigners’ Court of the Temple. Both incidents are forms of proclamation that can be noticed in the stories of the prophets, especially Isaiah, Hosea and Jeremiah (Isa. 8: 1-4; Hos. 1: 2-9; Jer. 18: 1-12). In the church’s calendar of Holy Week, this second incident follows early in that week, but in Mark’s account, it also appears to take place during the autumn festival. This was one of several open courts, where sympathetic foreigners could share in Jewish worship. However, by Jesus’ time, it had become a marketplace and was used as a shortcut through the Temple – anything but a place of worship. It was as if nobody bothered whether people worshipped there or not. Jesus cleared the Court in an act of righteous indignation which took the stall-keepers and bankers by surprise. Foreigners, such as the Greeks he had met the previous day on the way into the city, had a place in God‘s worship; this was his message. Jesus made it plain that God’s care was for all peoples, Jews and Gentiles. He deliberately quoted some bitter words from two of the great Old Testament prophets:
Jesus walked into the city again and went into the Temple. In the great Foreigners’ Court, he drove out the shopkeepers who had their stalls there and the people who were buying. He upset the tables of the moneylenders and the chairs of the pigeon-sellers.
He wouldn’t let anybody take a short cut and carry goods through the Temple. ‘Doesn’t the Bible say,’ he said, ‘ “My House shall be called a House of Worship for all foreign people”? You have made it a bandits’ den.’ … The Jewish leaders made up their minds to arrest Jesus.Mark 11: 15-19
Jesus continued to challenge the central convictions of the religious ‘authorities’ in his teaching. He was no longer an inquisitive twelve-year-old carpenter’s son who some of them may have remembered from his previous visit to Jerusalem. Both his actions and criticisms were ‘savage’. He was making radical claims about the Jewish way of life and the leadership of the Jewish people. The clash between them was now becoming visceral and unrelenting. Jesus sensed that they were laying plans for his arrest, but he kept out of their reach and, not intending to have his hand forced by them, spent the winter in the countryside east of the Jordan River where they had no authority. The Gospel for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, the last before Palm Sunday and Holy Week, is taken from John 8: 58-9: ‘Jesus said, “before Abraham was born, I am”. They picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and left the Temple.’
This seems to lend support to Mark’s account. Although the Church has traditionally associated this event with Palm Sunday, these words come at the end of a long ‘dispute’ with the Jewish authorities in the Temple during the Festival in October. As Jesus spoke in the Temple Courts, John also records that it was at this point that the Jewish leaders saw the threat he posed to all that they stood for and decided to get rid of him. The next day the chief priests challenged him to tell them by what authority he had cleared the courts; “Who do you think you are?” they demanded of him angrily, in a battle to show who had the purest genealogy. Jesus refused to trace his ancestors for them, but simply said “I Am Who I Am”, words which could be interpreted as blasphemous, being close to the Hebrew name of God, ‘Yahweh’. He followed this up with the claim to be greater than Abraham, which meant that he was claiming to be greater than Judaism itself, as Abraham was its founder. In Mark’s account, it was at this point that Jesus told the parable of the Vineyard Tenants (Mark 12: 1-9).
The Bethany Sojourn & The ‘Last Supper’:
Jesus’s ‘Cleansing of the Temple’ was a declaration of the universality of the Good News. It was now clear that the Jewish leaders were going to stand no more nonsense. When Jesus returned in the spring, their plans were laid. He came back to the city just before the Passover Festival, a few days before he was arrested. It has always seemed that the elaborate preparations that were made to secure his secret arrest away from popular interference, to suborn one of his friends and to come to some agreement about all this with Pilate, would take far more than a few days. If we accept the timetable suggested by recent scholars, rather than following the Church calendar, there would have been time enough to lay the trap. When he returned, the authorities were waiting for him and knew that he was staying with relatives at Bethany, outside the city. It would not be difficult to arrest him and his friends along the road home to the village before the festival began.
But they couldn’t find a way to seize him in the Temple courts, because the people crowded around him, not wanting to miss a single word of his teaching. The ‘Chief Priests’ tried to provoke him into speaking out against Roman rule and taxes. When all this failed, they met secretly in the palace of Caiaphas, the High Priest, scared of the riots which might result from arresting him during the Festival, now only two days away. Their opportunity came the following day, on the eve of the first day of the Festival, when Judas Iscariot offered to hand Jesus over to them in the olive orchards, probably in return for a generous donation to the funds he was redirecting to the cause of the freedom fighters in his own territory nearby.
‘The Twelve’ and ‘the Four’:
Of Jesus’ twelve closest friends, or ‘disciples’, we know little about eight. Four come to life in the memories of those who contributed to the four gospels: James and John, whom he nicknamed ‘the Thunderers’; Judas Iscariot, ‘the man from Kerioth’ (a town either south of Hebron or in old Moabite country); and especially Peter, originally Simon ‘the Rock’ as Jesus nicknamed him when marking him out as the leader of the group. There are also ‘cameo’ appearances for Andrew, Philip and Thomas in John’s Gospel. All of the disciples were laymen, a significant fact in the light of the subsequent history of the Christian community. Four of them were fishermen and one was a customs officer. At least one of them was a member of the Resistance Movement, Simon the Zealot, and others may well have clear links, like Judas (in his case, to Judaean nationalist groups rather than the Galilean ‘freedom fighters’ whom Jesus had held talks with). This showed the risks that Jesus was willing to take, knowing that anything could happen in the close companionship of men of independent minds and diverse backgrounds. This dynamic yet risky strategy, in the light of Church history, is also startlingly significant. But it is Peter of Bethsaida (John 1: 44) whose rough but loyal heart speaks for the common man in whom Jesus, under God, put his trust for the future of humanity. In the stories told of Peter, he is painted as ‘warts and all’: his impulsiveness and dogged loyalty; his courage and its breaking; his qualities as a ‘Beloved Captain’ and his lack of imaginative insight (Gal. 2: 11-14); his slowness to understand (Mark 8: 27-33); his fearless quickness to act when the truth hit him (Acts 10: 1 – 11: 18); his enduring, tough, brotherly love for his Master (John 21: 15-19).
In Peter, we meet the kind of ‘apprentice’ Jesus wanted, and in Jesus’ handling of him, we see his greatness as a teacher, being prepared to commit the whole destiny of his work into Peter’s hands. But most of all, we see what love means when we come to the story of Jesus’ death. It was his love for men and women that brought him to that lonely hill – and his refusal to let any other way have any part of his decisions. It was precipitated by the treachery of one of his closest friends, but he stood his ground. The cross, for Christian and non-Christian alike, is the symbol of the supremacy and triumph of love. This is the heart of the story of Jesus and the point John makes when, at the very beginning of his book of the Passion (John 13: 1-9), the great conclusion of his dramatic presentation of the ministry of Jesus, he puts this story as the supremely characteristic story about Jesus:
The Great Feast of the Jewish people was near. Jesus was having supper with his friends. He got up from the table and took off his long robe. He picked up a towel and tied it round him like a belt. He poured water into a basin, and began to wash his friends’ feet. When he had washed their feet, he picked up his long robe, put it on and sat down again at table.
“I have shown you what you must do,” he said. “You must do what I have just done for you. Believe me –
‘A slave is not greater than his master, a messenger than the man who sent him.’
“I hope you understand all this. You will be happy men if you live as I have shown you.”
John’s divergence from the Synoptics is enormous, particularly in its accounts of the Judaean ministry and the Passion of Jesus. It begins with the raising of Lazarus at Bethany (John 11: 1-44). Where Synoptic miracles sometimes result in a chorus of approval from the crowd, John’s seven ‘signs’ characteristically lead into a long discourse by Jesus. One crucial event in the Synoptics, the ‘cleansing of the Temple’ as it is traditionally known and associated by the Church, as we have seen, with the early part of ‘Holy Week’, appears near the beginning of John’s Gospel. In addition, John’s passion narrative differs widely from the Synoptic accounts, beginning with ‘the Last Supper’ and continuing through the trials and execution of Jesus. There is no description of Jesus’s inauguration of the Eucharist; John’s Last Supper is focused on the foot-washing and makes no mention of the sharing of bread and wine, as all the Synoptics do, perhaps suggesting that in John’s church foot-washing was seen as more of a communal act than the Eucharist. John sees it as a sign of discipleship, as a reminder of the total cleansing of baptism (John 13: 10).
What happened in ‘the Upper Room’ on that ‘Thursday evening’ in the other accounts is best told in the words of the early Christian communities, used when week by week they remembered him in their worship. They used to meet ‘on the first day of the week’ (the day when Jesus was ‘raised from the dead’) and have supper together. At the end of the supper, they repeated what Jesus had done on the last night, the night when he was arrested: they passed the common cup round and shared the common loaf together. Our earliest account of what happened comes from Paul:
On the night when he was arrested, Jesus had supper with his friends. During supper, he picked up the loaf of bread, said Grace over it and broke it into pieces.
“This is my very self,” he said, “I am giving myself up for you. Do this to remember me by.”
When supper was over, he raised the cup in the same way.
“This cup,” he said, “means my death. I am dying to bring all men to God, as the Bible says, ‘from the least of them to the greatest.’ Whenever you drink it, remember me.”1 Corinthians 11: 23-25.
At some moment in their meeting, the story of how Jesus died was told. To his friends, the death of Jesus came to mean not so much a great miscarriage of justice over which to brood, but the celebration of God’s love. This was the length of God’s Way and calling his people to live in that Way took him to his death. He could have simply walked away from Bethany, or even escaped from imprisonment in Jerusalem, but he didn’t try to. So, at end of supper, he did something that he had never done before at any of their common meals. It was his fourth ‘acted parable’ and the second that night, after his act of washing the disciples’ feet at the beginning of the meal. He passed the loaf and the cup around for his friends to share. As he did so he quoted the words of Jeremiah. Nothing, for Jesus, symbolised more clearly than a supper, the meal of the day when people relax, talk and share one another’s thoughts most freely. Nothing gave a clearer picture of God’s family in the making.
Mark’s account, based on what he heard in Christian communities around the Mediterranean, also described what happened that night:
It happened two days before the Great Feast. The Jewish leaders were trying to find some way of getting hold of Jesus and killing him. They did not dare to do this openly, or when the Great Feast was on, for they were afraid of a riot.
They were delighted when they heard that one of the ‘Twelve’, Judas Iscariot, had come and offered to put Jesus into their hands. They promised to pay him, and Judas began to look out for the chance of doing it.
It was dark when Jesus and his friends came into the the city.
“I tell you,” said Jesus, when they were having supper together, “that one of you will betray me – one who is having supper with me now.”
His friends were hurt at this. “It can’t be me?” they each said to him. “It’s one of the ‘Twelve,’ said Jesus. “He is sharing this very meal with me. … What is going to happen is just what the Bible said would happen. But it will be a terrible thing for the man who betrays me; it would have been better for him if he had never lived.”
In John’s Gospel, we are given a ‘close-up’ of the disciple ‘whom Jesus loved’, thought to be the gospel writer himself. Sitting next to Jesus and leaning into him, he asks him, at Peter’s prompting, to quietly identify the traitor. Jesus answers with another sign, dipping some bread into the sauce and offering it to Judas, then urging Judas to leave and do what he ‘must’ (John 13: 23-30).
Additionally, John’s Gospel reports that when Judas goes outside, ‘it was night’, the Greek form being no mere indicator of time, but a reflection on the spiritual darkness which had surrounded Jesus (John 13: 27-30). Mark goes on to describe what happened at the end of the meal:
When supper was over, they sang a hymn; then they walked out to the Olive Hill outside the City, on the road to the village where he was staying. “You will all let me down,” said Jesus, as they walked along. “The Bible says: ‘I will strike the shepherd and the sheep will run away.’ But after I am ‘raised’, I will go to Galilee before you.”
“Everybody else may let you down,” said Peter, “but I won’t.”
“I tell you, Peter,” said Jesus, “that this very night, before dawn, you will say more than once that you’re no friend of mine.”
“Say I’m no friend of yours?” said Peter hotly, “I’ll die with you first!”
Everybody else said the same. They got as far as the Olive Orchard. Suddenly, Judas came with a gang armed with swords and clubs. They had been sent by the Jewish leaders. Judas had arranged a secret signal so that there should be no mistake.
“The man I kiss, that’s Jesus,’ he told them. ‘Get hold of him, and take him away under guard.” He went straight up to Jesus. “Sir,” he said, and kissed him, as if he was just meeting him. The men grabbed Jesus, and put him under guard, and took him to the High Court.
There is a stylistic echo of John’s Gospel in Luke when Jesus tells those about to arrest him, ‘this is your hour, and the power of darkness’ (Luke 22: 53).
The Passion Narratives:
As we continue to read Mark’s account we need to remember that this was not a piece of historical writing. It is part of an act of worship. Early Christians, as they heard it, were thinking of the greatness of God’s love which Jesus’s death had made real for them. It was never intended to be a detailed chronicle of what actually happened.
Also, the context in which the account was written down was a time when there was much misunderstanding and bitterness between the Jewish and Christian communities in the Mediterranean. The account, as we now have it, emphasises the Jewish leadership’s part in Jesus’s death, and underestimates the role of the Roman governor, Pilate. There is little doubt that it was he who took the decision to scourge and crucify the Galilean ‘rebel’. He could not have done otherwise. Any suggestion that there was a threat to Roman peace, especially in the crowded days of the High Festival, would force a Roman governor to act and act quickly and decisively. It was most probably the fact that Jesus’s friends carried weapons on the night of his arrest that forced him into action. Jesus was executed by the Roman governor as ‘The King of the Jews’, the words fastened to the cross which refused to alter or remove. Nevertheless, Mark’s account does contain a thread of Roman culpability:
Early in the morning, the Jewish Council talked over what they should do with Jesus. They handcuffed him and took him off and handed him over to Pilate, the Roman Governor. They brought charge after charge against him.
“Haven’t you got anything to say?” asked Pilate. “See the charges they are making against you.”
But Jesus had nothing more to say. Pilate was very surprised. He wanted to put the mob in a good mood, so he set Barabbas free and had Jesus flogged. Then he handed him over to the soldiers to be put do death on a cross.
John’s Jesus is not silent before Pontius Pilate but engages in a dialogue with him (John 18: 33-38; 19: 8-12), and gives the impression of being in control of events as they unfolded: in the garden of Gethsemane (John 18: 33-38) the soldiers fall to the ground when he utters the words, ‘I am’, which were probably meant as his self-identification with God, whose name is ‘I am’ in Exodus 3: 14. There are a number of other sayings throughout the Gospel which begin with ‘I am’: ‘I am the true vine,’ ‘I am the bread of life,’ ‘I am the good shepherd’. The synoptic gospels continue with the story of the journey of Jesus to Golgotha, or Calvary, and his crucifixion and death:
Simon, whose home was in North Africa, was coming into the city from the country at the time. The soldiers made him carry the wooden cross and marched Jesus to Skull Hill. They offered him drugs to deaden the pain, but he didn’t take them. They nailed him to the cross and tossed up for his clothes and shared them out among themselves.
The charge against Jesus was fastened on the cross, THE JEWISH KING. Passers-by shook their heads and swore at Jesus.
“Aha! You’d pull the Temple down and rebuild it just like that? You’d better look after yourself and get down from the cross!” It was now three o’ clock in the afternoon.
“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Jesus called out loudly. The words are the words of an old Bible hymn. Some of those standing near heard him call out, but they did not catch the words.
“See,” they said, “he’s calling for Elijah!” One of them ran and filled a sponge with sour wine and put it on the end of a cane and tried to make Jesus drink it. “Let’s see if Elijah comes to help him down!” they shouted to one another. Jesus gave a loud cry and died. The Roman officer in charge of the guard was standing facing Jesus and saw how he died. “This man was a real king!” he said.
Again, in John’s Gospel, we read an alternative account of these final scenes in which the dying Jesus does not utter the cry of despair that Mark records but the serene, ‘It is finished’ as his last words (John 19: 30). He also commends his mother to the care of the disciple ‘whom he loved’, traditionally identified as John, son of Zebedee, who is thought of as being the author of the fourth Gospel (vv 25-27).
Both Luke and John have Jesus appearing to the disciples in Jerusalem rather than in Galilee, as in Matthew, and both add the same details, like the ‘slave’ of the high priest losing his right ear in Gethsemane (Luke 22: 50, John 18: 10) or that the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea had not previously been used. It is possible therefore that Luke’s Gospel is later than John’s, which would put the former, together with Acts into the early second century, if we accept the usual date for John as circa A.D. 90. Mark’s Passion narrative concludes with a description of the removal of Jesus’ body from the cross at sunset, the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath:
It was now near sunset when the Holy Day of the Jews began, and all preparation of any kind of work had to be finished. There was a good man called Joseph, a well-known member of the Jewish Council, from the village of Arimathea. He was brave enough to go to Pilate and ask for the body of Jesus. Pilate was very surprised to hear that Jesus was was already dead. He ordered the Commanding Officer to bring him his report; when he heard the report from the officer, he gave the body to Joseph.
Joseph took the body of Jesus down from the cross and wrapped it in a linen sheet which he had brought. He put the body in a cave which had already been cut out of the rock and rolled a stone against the mouth.V. Taylor, The Gospel according to St Mark, 660-62.
The Human Tragedy & Puzzle of Jesus:
What an end! A slave’s death on a Roman cross, executed as a threat to the Roman peace! Or so it seemed. But the death of Jesus was not the end, but the beginning. Indeed, the stories we have been examining are not cold historical accounts – they were all written in the light of the amazing new experiences which followed his death. It is this that gives them their peculiar elusiveness: they are about events that really happened, but that had an original ‘strangeness’ that could not be expunged from any record of them if they were to be honestly reported; and more than that, events that were the prelude to the new shared experience which was at once awareness of God’s love shed abroad in their hearts and an inescapable sense of the risen Lord. Paul’s words give this experience its classic expression:
The life that I now live is not my life, but the life which Christ lives in me; and my present bodily life is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and sacrificed himself for me.Galatians 2: 20 (NEB).
The sudden and unexpected death of Jesus terrified his friends. They did not seem to have grasped the danger he was in, in spite of his own plain warnings; they seem to have been convinced that God would somehow come to his help. But they had been dreaming. The brutal and terrible reality now stared them in the face: Jesus was dead and God was silent. Two of his friends were reported to have said, He made us that he was the man to set our people free, but he wasn’t. That was how they felt. All the reports show how shaken and frightened they were. They deserted Jesus in the garden. Peter, when challenged by a girl in the court of the High Priest’s house, swore that he’d never set eyes on him. They either kept to themselves in the city with the door locked or went home. When the news was brought that the tomb had been found empty on Sunday morning, they didn’t believe a word of it. They thought it was a lot of humbug and nonsense. They were not cowards; they were bewildered people whose world had fallen in ruins about them and whose nerve had been broken.
We have been so often told of the story of Jesus as a story full of clear and obvious signs of what we call his ‘divinity’ that we forget how much of this way of talking about him only developed after the event. In his lifetime, as we have seen, all sorts of people, but especially his close friends, recognised that he was not just an ordinary sort of person. Exaggerated stories told about him were told in the villages and at the fairs. The leaders of the Resistance Movement in Galilee were so impressed by him that they wanted him to be their leader. When Jesus asked Peter what people were saying about him, Peter told him the common talk of the marketplace was that one of the great prophets – Elijah and John the Baptist were the names that came into their minds when they tried to sum him up. Peter and his friends believed he was the Chosen Leader, the ‘Messiah’ whom so many of his countrymen believed God would send to rescue them from foreign occupation and set them free. We also have a story about James and John who believed that he would establish his ‘kingdom’ and wanted to get him to promise them a place in his government. But, as Mark tells us plainly, Jesus would have none of this sort of talk.
There was something about Jesus that commanded the loyalty of his friends and their love, but he was a puzzle. From the bottom of their hearts, they did not know what to make of him. They thought of him in the conventional way they had been brought up to accept and even held on to this way of thinking of him to the end. Then it all collapsed. Judas may have been only an extreme example of how they all thought – some of them were carrying arms when Jesus was arrested in the orchard. He may have thought that Jesus, whatever he himself claimed or refused to claim, was indeed the national leader sent by God to deliver his people; that Judas only had to force his hand to make him act as he ought to act to free the Jewish people and overthrow Roman rule. God would give him the miraculous power to achieve this. So Judas betrayed him into the hands of the government, but nothing happened. Jesus accepted arrest, and when Judas realised what he had done, as the Gospel of Matthew tells us, he went out into the night and committed suicide. In his lifetime, there was nothing about the appearance of Jesus to demonstrate his authority, no outward signs to guarantee who he was. He had been passionately concerned with one thing only – what God was doing, summed up by him in the phrase, ‘God’s Way’ (‘the kingdom of God’).
In his Galilean ministry, Jesus had stood for something very different from the popular assumptions and the religious convictions of the rabbis and the sort of thing they preached in the meeting houses. In his Judaean ministry, Jesus went on to challenge some of the central convictions of the Jewish religion, and he challenged them in no uncertain manner. He faced down the religious leaders in public and finally in the central shrine of the national religion, the Temple in Jerusalem. The demands he was making on both religious leaders and people were radical and revolutionary. In their eyes, he was disloyal and irreligious. A clash between Jesus and the religious authorities was not to be avoided, and when it came the Sanhedrin made it clear what its issue would be. There was nothing to do but to get rid of him; he was a threat to all they stood for. Jesus stood, too, for something very different from the convictions his close friends seem to have held. At that last terrible moment when he died ‘with a loud cry and a gasp’, the world in which they had been living, with all its hopes and dreams became bleak and empty. There was nothing else to do but to go home to Galilee.
The Resurrection Narratives:
Then something happened that took the disciples quite by surprise. Hanging on a cross was the ultimate penalty for murderers, robbers, mischief-makers, and the typical punishment for disobedient slaves. Crucifixion was a horrible and cruel death, including flogging beforehand, following which the victim often carried the beam to the place of execution, where he was nailed to it with outstretched arms, raised up and seated on a wooden peg. Both slaves and ‘foreigners’ (non-citizens) in the Roman Empire knew that such a punishment, whether undertaken by the central authorities or by regional landholders, might one day be their fate. When Jesus spoke of being ready to ‘take up your cross,’ this was the fate he was thinking of. For Jewish people such a death had an added horror, a spiritual consequence about which the Jewish Law was unequivocal:
If a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is accursed by God; you shall not defile your land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance.Deuteronomy 21: 23.
How, then, could such a death be other than final? But something had happened beyond anything Jesus’s followers could have imagined and outside anything they could have thought possible. It took their breath away, and they were filled with surprise, fear and joy. We have several reports of what happened, both in the Gospels and the letters of Paul, who was writing in AD 55. Paul was therefore the first to write what all the Gospel writers later wrote, that it was not just the memory of Jesus that had changed his first followers, but that he was a real presence with them. Paul wrote:
I handed on to you, as the central fact of our Christian faith, the account I was given. … ‘He died and was buried. On the third day he was raised to life. He was seen by Peter; then by “The Twelve”. After that, he was seen by more than five hundred at once; most of them are still living, but some have since died. He was then seen by James, his brother; then by all his close friends.’1 Corinthians 15: 3-8.
This is our earliest evidence that something very unexpected had happened. Paul was writing to Christian friends who just twenty years after the execution of Jesus are finding it difficult to understand what was meant by his ‘resurrection from the dead.’ Whatever happened must always have been difficult to describe and explain. Moreover, Paul does not just write what he himself thought about the evidence, but that it was primary, first-hand evidence which was ‘handed on’ to him, probably at his baptism just two years after the events it described. This was therefore an authentic, authoritative account, given in an open, public manner, requiring further explanation. But Paul simply says himself, ‘On the third day, he was raised to life.’ To understand what actually happened, we have to refer to the various accounts that were circulating among the Christian communities of how on that morning the tomb was found empty. No description of the actual physical resurrection of Jesus was ever attempted; only his ‘appearances’ are described. The accounts differ among themselves on many matters; who was the first to ‘see’ Jesus, what the women did when they got to the tomb, where the first appearances of Jesus took place – in and around Jerusalem, or in Galilee. But all the witnesses agree that the tomb was found empty. Mark’s account runs like this:
When the Holy Day of the Jews was over, three women friends of Jesus – Mary of Magdala, Mary who was James’s mother, and Salome – brought sweet-smelling oils to anoint his body. They got to his grave very early on Sunday, just as the sun was rising.Mark 16: 1-8.
“Who will roll the stone away from the cave’s mouth for us?” they said to one another. It was a very big stone. They looked up and saw that it had already been rolled away. They went into the cave and they were amazed to see a young man in white clothes sitting on the right-hand side.
“Don’t be frightened,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth who was put to death. He has risen. You won’t find him here; you can see where they put his body. Go and tell his friends that he will be in Galilee before you and you will see him there, as he told you. And don’t forget Peter.”
They ran out of the cave trembling with terror. They were so frightened that they didn’t say a word to anyone.Mark 16: 1-8.
The account in the fourth Gospel is supposed by some scholars to be a criticism of too naive an understanding of what happened; it calls attention, as does Luke, to another fact – Peter and the ‘other disciple, whom Jesus loved’ were not deeply impressed by the women’s discovery. Many scholars identify the second disciple as John, who then also plays an important role in the resurrection stories, being the first of the disciples to arrive at the empty tomb after Mary Magdalene (John 20: 8). The Gospel tells us that, when they saw the graveclothes, this was the point at which they believed that Jesus had indeed risen. As yet, they did not know the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then they went back to their homes (John 20: 9f.). In Luke’s Gospel, The Story appeared to them to be nonsense (Luke 24: 11 NEB). It looks as if the first friends of Jesus had in their hands an early report which they did not know what to do with, but there was no reason to doubt that women friends of Jesus found the tomb empty and that they were certain that this was the tomb in which Jesus’ dead body had been put on the Friday evening. Additionally, if we read the subsequent reports of the resurrection in chronological order, an increasing emphasis on the materiality of the appearances emerges. But the most convincing evidence, as far as Paul was concerned, was the new experience of God that changed the whole way in which the first friends of Jesus lived and thought, and which made them new men and women.
We need to remember, however, that it was not the empty tomb that convinced his friends that Jesus had been ‘raised from death’ but the new experience of God that Jesus made possible. What they believed God had done was the ground of their conviction. It was not the reports of what had happened to a limited number of witnesses that changed people’s lives, but the event itself. The new experience of God was tied up with Jesus – his life and ministry in Galilee and Judaea, his dreadful death and what the storytellers called his appearances after his death. In this sense, the Gospel stories need to be read and understood as a whole, not as episodes. The Resurrection was the revealing climax that made complete sense of the entire story of Jesus, the reality that God raised him from death.
The debate among Christians as to what reportable resurrection events actually happened and what sort of events they were is obviously as old as our earliest records. It has, though, been an intense debate in recent centuries; the rise of scientific inquiry and the development of historical methods of research have brought it acutely before the minds of Christians and non-Christians alike. But we are dealing with an event which is not a purely historical event: It is closely involved in the reality of the Christian experience, not just another incident in an unfolding story. The evidence suggests that in the few weeks following the death of Jesus some of his friends had certain experiences of Jesus risen. Paul is careful to state that his own experience, which he lists at the end of his statement, fell outside the limited period of Jesus’ resurrected presence on earth.
The ‘special appearances’ ended with the ‘ascension’, traditionally forty days after ‘Easter Sunday’; the later experiences of the risen Christ, open to all who accepted him, were real but different. The Resurrection was a unique event, not like other reported ‘resurrections’ of people; this was the defeat of death itself. After the strictest historical scrutiny, the reports of Jesus’ resurrection do not strike us as fictitious accounts brought on by hallucinations or fashioned by human imaginations; they strike us as honest attempts to give some account of the real experiences that defied all efforts to give a coherent account of them. The early friends and followers of Jesus had no doubt about their authenticity. Their new experience of God, their new fellowship with one another, their new understanding of human life and history were not something they had struggled to achieve; they were ‘given’. After Pentecost, the Spirit of Jesus was with them; they were not just imitating him. Nor was ‘The Way’ a secretive sect: their new life and fellowship were always open to public scrutiny and sometimes to ridicule and persecution. It is a matter of dispute among scholars as to whether the small amount of material John has in common with the Synoptics is copied from them, and the question is probably unanswerable. There is a curious relationship with Luke in particular. Both have the story of the miraculous catch of fish, not found in Mark or Matthew, but in Luke, it occurs during the early Galilean ministry (Luke 5: 1-11), whereas in John it is one of the resurrection experiences (John 21: 1-14).
‘Christ, the Centre of Life’ – Teaching the Passion & Resurrection:
The story of Jesus needs to be understood as a whole: the witness of his remembered ministry, what he did and taught and how he died; the witness of his resurrection. The early Christian experience of God’s love rest upon this broad narrative of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called Christ … the centre of life. No survey of the whole ministry of Jesus – his life, death and resurrection – can be reduced to a mere historical inquiry. But for twenty-first-century Christians, as for first-century followers of ‘The Way’, it is essential to be sure that what we claim happened really happened. But we are not simply asking historical questions, and Jesus answers our questions with his challenge to his close friends, ‘who do you say I am?’ The story of Jesus forces us back to ask what kind of the world we really want and how we expect to make it. Jesus’ own account of his work comes to us through the minds of his friends, often in their language and circumscribed by their horizons. But what he was and what he had to say has a freshness and originality which transcends both human language and vision. Perhaps it is the experimental note in word and deed that has enabled belief in him to survive the great changes in human society in the last two thousand years since he began his ministry in Galilee.
When we consider the Passion Narratives, those of us involved in Religious Education need to ask ourselves whether it is good for children to dwell on the suffering of Jesus on the cross. Of course, the fact that most schools are not in session during the Easter Festival itself means that many schools do not have to confront the issues involved in teaching about Holy Week. But it is natural for children to ask questions, and we cannot ignore the fact that Jesus was executed, or edit out or gloss over a key part of the story of Jesus, for the reasons already given here. However, we need not dwell on the physiological details of the crucifixion in dealing with his suffering. What is more important is to teach younger primary children (aged 6-10) that soon afterwards, he was known to be alive in a different kind of way: the witness of the people who knew this to be so is what the whole of the Gospels are about. The whole purpose of studying them is to grapple with these mysteries. There is always a danger in using Bible stories, especially with young children, of answering questions that children have not yet asked. A skilful teacher, using story-telling techniques, can draw out questions from children that are already in them, waiting to be asked, showing how the Bible has provided answers to some of the biggest questions ever asked by humans.
As we have seen, the resurrection of Jesus was central to early Christian belief. It came to be associated with narratives of an empty tomb and of resurrection appearances. Older primary/ middle school pupils (aged 10-14) may be willing and able to discuss whether these stories are myth or history, symbolic or factual, fake or trustworthy. Students should be helped to recognise, however, that belief in the resurrection does not entirely depend on the answers to these controversial questions. They can also be helped to understand that the real evidence for belief in the resurrection lies both in the authenticity of the accounts and in the experiences of the disciples, drawing attention to their changed attitudes and to the growth of the universal church within the Roman Empire. Older secondary school pupils (aged 14-18) can be helped to understand the real substance of the resurrection faith. The followers of Jesus had seen in him a love which was free from all self-concern. In his death, they recognised the perfect expression of that love. His cross became a symbol of love which accepts the full consequence of self-centred human action. The empty tomb symbolised the power of that love to renew human life and it held the promise of a life made perfect beyond death (Col. 3: 3f.).
My former Westhill College Principal, Gordon Benfield, suggested that Junior School pupils should gradually learn to handle the full text of the original translations of the Bible, and in addition to the NEB, there are some excellent modern paraphrases of the NT, like those by Alan T Dale quoted above. There are also attractive Junior Bibles, usually with illustrations. There are times when the story is more important than the actual wording of the Bible, and the teacher’s own words or a well-written story based on the NT is valuable. The appended stories are good examples of these stories which bring the characters into dramatic focus and provide vital background clues to the Gospel accounts. In all these decisions, both the general literacy skills and the specific literary and cultural heritages of the children need to be borne in mind, in addition to their stages of religious development. Also, where they are reading in English as a second or foreign language, the children may need to be provided with bilingual ‘parallel’ texts or glossaries. But, above all, children of all ages and cultural backgrounds enjoy the Bible stories. The task of the teacher in the primary years is to give depth to this enjoyment by carefully matching material to the children’s stages of thinking, understanding and feeling, as well as to their total experience.
John Barton (2019), A History of the Bible: The Book and Its Faith. London: Allen Lane (Penguin/ Random House).
Robert C Walton (ed.), (1982), A Source Book of the Bible for Teachers. London: SCM Press.
Alan T Dale (1979), Portrait of Jesus. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Martin Manser (1999), Bible Stories. Bath: Parragon.
Appendix – The Passion and Resurrection Re-imagined – two adaptations, for dramatic readings:
I. Malchus’ Story, from David Kossoff’s (1971, 1982) ‘The Book of Witnesses’, Glasgow: Collins (Fount Paperbacks).: … ‘of betrayal, and of arrest at night, and of cowardice foreseen, and of a healed ear’:
(Malchus is about forty-five, rather bald. A pale, bony face. Light hair and eyes. A sharp nose and a rather pursed mouth. A precise way of speech.)
“It would be as well, I would suggest, for you to understand that in the matter of the recent arrest and death of the Galilean I had no personal animosity toward him at all. None at all. And neither have my colleagues toward the ill-advised followers of Jesus, against whom they are at present drafting regulations. We carry out orders. We are servants of the Temple, with civil authority and influence. Civil servants, if you like. We are bedrock; foundation. The leaders, the spokesmen, the ministers, change; governments change. We do not. It was ever so; it will be always so.
“Nothing personal. When my master, Caiaphas, said some time ago that it would be better for Jesus to die than the whole nation should suffer and be destroyed, he was speaking good sense as he saw it. He has a difficult job as a high priest – even with our help. Jesus is dead; the thing is done. Soon he will be forgotten, but there was nothing personal. When Caiaphas made that statement, I don’t think he’d ever met or seen Jesus. But miracle-workers and faith-healers and raisers-from-the-dead can be very disruptive and troublesome – and the Romans are touchy enough on the subject of what my master calls matters religious. Pilate hates all religion, all priests – high priests in particular. An impossible man, Pilate.
“Certainly I have reason to be grateful to the late Jesus. He attended to a head injury of mine that could have been most disfiguring. I would have liked to have repaid him in some way, but it was far too late in the day. … And what a day, too. I would have liked to have spared him at least the flogging, but that was by order of Pilate. A Roman touch; crucify, but the scourge-whips first. … I have on record the exact day that one of his closest friends, one of the so-called Twelve, came here to give him to us. I say ‘give’; to sell him to us. It’s always a money transaction; it’s allowed for. There’s a fund. Cash; unreceipted, in silver.
“We took Jesus in a garden, at night… a detail of the Temple Guard. Two officers, ten men, and the informer, to positively identify. We knew that he would be with others and we wanted no mistake. I went along really to see we got our money’s worth. Jesus, the leader. We were not interested in the Twelve. Our experience in such matters is that, once the ringleader is picked up, the ‘followers’ stop following and fade away. We were right. They are all in hiding.
“The big surprise was that one or two of them were armed. Most unexpected. It could have been fatal in my case. When the informer, Iscariot, had identified Jesus by touching, we went forward to make a formal arrest. At that moment one of the Twelve, a huge bearded man, stepped forward with a short sword and very nearly took my ear off. I was covered in blood. The blow had clubbed as well as cut me. I was dazed. I heard the guard rush forward and a lot of shouting, and then the Galilean’s voice, speaking quietly. Someone put a bandage around my head, almost holding the ear back in place. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Well, if you’re such a healer, do me.’
It was almost as though he heard me. He put his two hands up, over my two ears, and said, “It will heal, there will be no pain.” … Well, anyway, one of the soldiers took me back home to the palace of Caiaphas and I went to my room and changed my clothes and washed away the blood. I was going to change the bandage too but didn’t. Our reports said that Jesus had positively cured people by the laying on of hands, and he’d touched me. And certainly, the pain had gone. I felt fine … The ear is as new. Perfect. No scar, nothing.
II. From Paul White & Clifford Warne (1980), The Drama of Jesus. London: Hodder & Stoughton. Chapter 18: Man Finds Faith.:
Heavy clouds made the night even darker. Shadowy figures cautiously climbed the outside stairs to the large room on the roof. When the door opened to admit them the merest glow of light showed and the door was immediately shut. Finally, it was barred with a heavy beam.
On one side of the room, two men were arguing. “I tell you, Peter, I don’t want to listen.”
“But Thomas, you must. The Lord is not dead. He’s alive. It’s a fact and you have to realise it.”
Aggressively, Thomas burst out, “If Jesus is alive why are we coming here furtively and hiding behind locked doors? Are we scared that the Jewish leaders are going to arrest us for body-snatching? If He’s alive why doesn’t He show Himself to the world?” Even in the feeble light of the small lamp, they could see his face going red. “Why doesn’t He show himself to the authorities before they break that door down and throw us all into prison? If He’s alive why doesn’t He go and see Caiaphas and the Council? That would prove his claims.”
“So far, He’s only appeared to people who love Him,” said John quietly.
“I loved Him and He hasn’t appeared to me …” Thomas turned away. There was a break in his voice. John moved across the room towards him. “It wasn’t Jesus’ fault you weren’t here last week when He first came among us.” Thomas broke in, “But…”
“Surely man, you remember He told us what was going to happen that day on the road from Caesaria Phillipi. Not only then but on at least two other occasions He made it very clear. He said He would be handed over to the Gentiles to be mocked, insulted, flogged and crucified.” John spoke with deliberation, “He said, ‘Three days later I will rise to life.’ “
Impulsively, Peter broke in, “John’s right. He said it again and again; we all heard Him.” “Heard him, maybe,” growled Thomas, “but did you believe him?” “Believe him?” Peter put his hands to his head. “I didn’t even know what he was talking about! That’s why I said, ‘God forbid, it must never happen to you, Lord.’ I’ll never forget the look on His face when He said to me, ‘Out of my way, Satan. You stand in my path, Peter, when you look at things from man’s point of view and not from God’s.’ To me He was the Lord of life. I saw him heal sick people and bring back the dead to life: it was incredible to me that He should die, let alone come back to life as He promised. But die He did. And Thomas, you must believe it. He has come back from death.” Peter’s voice shook with emotion.
Thomas started to walk away. Peter gripped his friend by the shoulder, swung him around, and said tensely, “Don’t you turn away from me when I speak to you. Do you think we’re all imagining this? Do you think we’re lying?” Andrew stepped between them. “Simon let him be. Were you in a hurry to believe when you first heard the news but hadn’t seen the Lord?”
“Anyway,” said Peter gruffly, “when Mary brought the news that His body was gone John and I ran all the way to the tomb. Right, John?” “Right,” said John smiling, “but I arrived there quite some distance ahead of you.”
Peter was beginning to relax. There was a hint of a smile in his voice, “But you weren’t game enough to go into the tomb till I arrived.”
“What happened was this”, John said. “I looked in and saw the grave clothes lying there. But the Lord wasn’t in them. It was uncanny, Thomas. The lengths of cloth which had been wound round His body were there in their original position as though still moulded around Him. Nothing was undone or trailing around on the floor.”
Peter interrupted, “It was as though He’d evaporated. His body couldn’t have been removed and all that cloth not be pulled about. I didn’t know what to think but John understood what was happening.”
John almost shouted, “Up to that moment I didn’t realise that I was seeing, before my own eyes, what the scriptures foretold. Now Thomas, get this straight! We’re not saying that He’s alive merely because the tomb was empty. We’ve seen him outside the tomb. We’ve heard Him and touched Him; we’ve seen him eat food here in this room. Mary saw Him first. She was in the garden, crying. She thought he was the gardener and asked him where they had put the body; she said she’d take it away to someplace for safekeeping. When He spoke her name, in a flash she recognised Him. She was overwhelmed. He had to tell her to stop holding on to Him. Then he gently ordered her to go and tell us the magnificent news. After that He appeared to Peter, Cleopas and his friend on the way to Emmaus saw Him, talked with Him, and ate with Him. Then he appeared a week ago to all of us here.”
“But not to me.” There was a hard note in Thomas’ voice. Peter was defiant. “You think we’re imagining all this? You’re saying we’re lying?” Thomas stepped back and lifted his voice so that everyone in the room could hear. “Think what you like. Say what you like. But unless I see the scars the nails made in His hands and unless I put my fingers where those nails were and my hand into His side I will never believe.” …
An embarrassed hush settled on the whole room. A deep silence.
“Peace be unto you.” The voice startled them.
They looked up and saw Jesus. In a moment, they were all on their feet, their faces glowing. No one spoke. Instinctively they turned towards Thomas who stood there like a stone unable to believe his eyes. He stammered, “Lord, Lord, is it really you?”
Jesus came close to him and held out his hands. His tone was warm and strong, “Thomas, my friend, put your finger here. See my hands. See the nail wounds. And my side; take your hand and put it where the spear entered. Stop doubting and believe!”
Thomas slowly went down on his knees, his hands touching the wounded feet, “My Lord … and my God.” “Is it because you have seen me that you believe?” Jesus asked him, “How happy are those who believe without seeing.” And as suddenly as he appeared, he vanished. The disciples stood there amazed. Thomas looked up, overwhelmed. The room was full of excitement and laughter of a sort that comes from profound relief and deep joy.