Mark 16:14; Luke 24:36-43; John 20:19-31
So That You May Believe
John plainly tells us the purpose of his Gospel: “But these [things] are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:31). Indeed, this is the purpose for which Jesus came, to die for the sins of those who would repent and believe, and rise again for their justification (Romans 4:25).
But it was this part about believing that was so hard for the disciples to come by. All four Gospels testify that the eleven men who had spent three years of their lives with Jesus, who had been taught of him, and expressly told that he would die and rise again – these did not believe. It was not until Jesus showed himself to all the disciples at one time (minus Thomas) that they finally would believe. And what was it that they would not believe? Put simply, that a man could rise from the dead, that Jesus could rise from the dead. And so what did Jesus do to convince them? Well for starters, he just appeared in their midst without going through the door. Because of this, they assumed that he was a spirit. But then Jesus showed them his hands and his feet, and invited them to touch him and see that he had flesh and bones. He even ate a piece of broiled fish in their presence.
Now this is important. The Bible explicitly tells us and the Church has always taught that our Lord rose bodily from the grave. Granted, that body had special properties as it could just appear out of thin air, but it was still that body that was on the cross and that body that was in the tomb which then came out of it. To say that Jesus rose spiritually from the dead is to say nothing; I mean, certainly he did, but we say that about everybody. But Jesus is the only one who has ever risen bodily from the grave. (Matthew 27:52-53 mentions some who rose from the dead and appeared to many after Jesus’ resurrection, probably Old Testament saints who looked forward to the promise of the resurrection. But their resurrection was made possible by Christ’s, just as ours will be.) It is this non-negotiable doctrine of the Christian faith that the disciples, turned apostles, preached to the ancient, pagan world, the good news for which Paul was laughed at (Acts 17:22-34) and the Church persecuted. After all, pagans already believed in the immortality of the soul; it was the resurrection of the body that scandalized them. And it was the resurrection that proved Jesus is God; just ask Thomas.
Our Lord was born of woman, and lived, died, and rose a man from the grave. And he did all of this for us that we may live, die, and rise with him.
I fear this devotion may go too long but there are other matters from this passage which simply cannot be overlooked. I will enumerate them.
1) Luke says that the risen Lord “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” After he did that, he explained to them from Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms how the Christ should suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and that “repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all the nations.” His disciples, who would soon be his apostles (Greek for, “sent ones”), would be his witnesses to these things. Is it not significant that he first “opened their minds” before he explained all of this to them? It was this whole thing about the Christ suffering and rising from the dead that they could not grasp. It was this that Jesus enabled them to understand. And the important point for us is that we too would neither understand nor believe had not Jesus through his Holy Spirit opened our minds that we may do so.
2) John mentions that Jesus “breathed on them,” saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” As the event which Luke and John describe is the same event, I believe that Luke’s, “opening their minds” and John’s “breathing on them to receive the Spirit” are the same thing. But whereas Luke connects Christ’s opening their minds with understanding the Scriptures, John connects breathing on them the Spirit with a church’s authority to forgive or withhold forgiveness of sins from her members. Now what does this mean? May a church do this arbitrarily? Of course not. It is God who forgives. But the local church is required as the body of Christ to hold the members of her body accountable through the sincere application of God’s word. To put this another way, a church cannot withhold forgiveness from one who repents, but neither can she forgive one who persists in sin. Ultimately, a church only pronounces from God’s word what God has already revealed about repentance and forgiveness. Thus, a church remains faithful to God’s word by holding her members accountable. It’s not an option.
3) Finally, John writes that when Jesus breathed on them, he said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” But we ask, “Then what happened on the Day of Pentecost? I thought that was the day the disciples received the Spirit.” As I have already said, it seems reasonable to me that Luke’s “opened their minds” and John’s, “breathed on them” are equivalent expressions (but I’ve been wrong before). In other words, I believe that Christ breathed on them so that the Spirit would open their minds to understand the Scriptures – which is the Holy Spirit’s task – and rightly apply them for church discipline. So the disciples’ receiving of the Spirit that evening was not the same as the fullness and baptism of the Spirit they experienced some fifty days later.