Resurrection Reverberations

We have recently celebrated another Easter. Almost two thousand of them have come and gone since the first one. Yet, the ongoing impact of Jesus’ explosion of life continues to reverberate in this world of death. 

Since Jesus is still alive today and still actively bringing people to faith, let’s go back to the first Easter and see the pattern and progression of his work. John’s account is fascinating. It also gives us some incredibly intimate and personal moments of transformation and teaching as people met the risen Jesus. This same Jesus is alive today and still leads many through this same pattern and progression.

1. Hearing a report: Peter and John (John 20:1-2)

After the devastating spectacle of Jesus’ brutal death on the Roman cross, the Sunday morning began quietly. Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early. She longed to show her devotion to the one who had made such a difference in her life. But the tomb was open and empty. Not understanding the significance of this, but knowing something was not right, she ran to report the missing body. The empty tomb should still unsettle people today – in a world of death and sadness, and something does not fit.

2. Checking the empty tomb (John 20:3-10)

Peter and John ran to the tomb, to the place of death, with John out in front. The competitive lifelong friends were aware of each other as they tried to make sense of Jesus’ death. But the tomb was, indeed, empty. It did not look like a crime scene with body wrappings strewn around the floor. It felt organized, orderly, and obviously, something highly unusual had happened. John saw and believed. Throughout the gospel, this disciple had been especially close to Jesus. It was no surprise that he would respond quickly with faith. But what about others? What about nobodies, doubters, and failures? Keep reading.

3. Meeting the gracious risen Jesus: new faith and family (John 20:11-18)

Mary Magdalene was the last person you would expect to have the honour of meeting the Risen Christ first – especially in that culture. She was a woman of no significance with a cartload of baggage from life. It is beautiful to recognize that Jesus came first to a woman, and a woman with question marks all over her reputation. If we wrote the story of Jesus’ return from the dead, we might have him knocking on Pilate’s door – “Remember me?”  Or perhaps we’d have his silhouette darkening the door of a Sanhedrin council meeting – “I’m back!”  Or maybe we would be less dramatic and have him come to the key leaders of the soon-to-launch church movement. But we didn’t write the story; eyewitnesses did. And the facts were clear: Jesus chose to make this insignificant and baggage-laden woman the first eyewitness!

Please take note of what this passage tells us about Jesus. First, and of utmost importance, she looks for the body lying but instead sees Jesus standing: he is very much alive! Even if we have read this account a thousand times, let us never lose the wonder of this moment and this truth! Second, as we have already underlined, he chose to meet with Mary Magdalene. Perhaps he knew how her tender heart would be breaking at his death after all he had done for her. (Still today, Jesus loves to meet with nobodies burdened by the baggage of life and feeling desperately small in a world of death!)

Third, notice his sensitivity to her: “Why are you weeping?”  And then, fourth, observe his personal connection with her; he spoke her name. (How beautiful it is to see hurting people discover that not only is Jesus alive as a historical fact. More than that, he is sensitive and personal in his desire for connection with them – he knows my name!)  This personal connection leads us to the fifth observation, and a critical one: in v17, Jesus has created a new family and invites his followers to join. For the first time in the gospel, he calls his followers “my brothers.”  He overtly extends his special relationship to them for the first time, “my Father and your Father, my God and your God.”  And Mary is launched with the privilege of reporting this to the others. Not only had she seen him alive, but he had “said these things to her!”

4. Hearing Christ’s commission (John 20:19-23)

The scene shifts from the garden that morning to a behind-closed-doors gathering of the disciples in Jerusalem that evening. The reports were swirling in the conversations and the hearts of the disciples, but then Jesus joined them. Again, notice how his character is not seething and bent on revenge. There is a tenderness and a purposefulness about him. He speaks peace to these troubled hearts. He shows his hands and side – Jesus is far more willing to share evidence of his death and resurrection than most humans are willing to pursue it! He lays out their commission – just as His Father sent him, so now he would be sending them out to spread the news to others. And they would be empowered by the Spirit of God, with forgiveness at the heart of their activity and message.

5. Checking the living evidence: faith and worship (John 20:24-31)

The account continues in the same room, but eight days later. Now is the moment for Thomas to receive the unfortunate label that has stuck ever since. The rest had seen Jesus’ hands and side, but Thomas had declared that his belief would need the same evidence. Notice how the chapter began with disciples running to check the evidence of an empty tomb. It ends with another disciple seeking proof of the resurrection – our faith is founded on fact. 

So, Jesus joined them again, and his focus settled on Thomas. Notice that Jesus did not rebuke the doubter; instead, he offered evidence. And Thomas’ response has echoed down through the centuries, “My Lord and my God!”  (I am glad that Thomas got to speak the punchline of the whole Gospel of John!)

Jesus offered evidence to Thomas. And Jesus also gave hope to all who would not have the same direct opportunity to reach out and feel the wounds. It is possible, even blessed, to believe based on eyewitness testimony and the preponderance of historical evidence. Actually, the whole of John’s gospel was written to invite people to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and by believing, to have life!

6. Meeting the gracious risen Jesus: commission reminder – what kind of fishing? (John 21:1-14)

The final chapter of John continues the expanded presentation of the Great Commission. Already we have seen Matthew’s “All authority . . . given to me . . . Go!” (In John, that sounds like “As the Father has sent me, even so, I send you…”)  We have seen the “I am with you always . . .” (In John: “Receive the Holy Spirit…”). But what about the specifics of what disciple-making will look like – the bringing people in and then building them up element of Matthew’s Great Commission? Here comes John 21, with Jesus tenderly and graciously meeting his followers again. This time, by the Sea of Galilee.

This passage is filled with gentle reminders of their commissioning. The adrenaline of those weeks in Jerusalem had faded. Now seven disciples were out in a boat trying to catch fish again. Jesus gently reminded them of his first encounter with some of them, back at the beginning, in Luke 5. He had called them to fish, not for fish, but people.

As they came to shore, he gently reminded them of another earlier lesson. As they worked with Jesus, he could provide necessary provisions by the Sea of Galilee. He had done it before: bread and fish for thousands. Even today, we need these reminders. If we have met the Risen Christ, then there is a calling on our lives, a calling to fish for people and join Jesus in his mission to draw people to himself out of this dark world.

But there was another reminder there, too: the charcoal fire strategically placed to cook the breakfast and pull Peter’s heart back to that night in Jerusalem.

7. Commission clarification for Peter (& John): feeding family and following faithfully (John 21:15-25)

We know from the other Gospels that Peter had already met with Jesus alone on Easter Sunday. But his failure to follow Jesus during the trials may still have echoed in his hurting heart. Or perhaps the echo was in the estimation of the others. In chapter 20, we see Jesus come to the nobody and the doubter, but what about the failure? If we fail, are we finished? Another tender conversation follows, with Jesus offering three opportunities to Peter to declare his devotion and three affirmations of his commission to feed the flock. Peter had declared his loyalty even unto death, but he had not made it through the night in his own strength. But now, Jesus offered Peter the privilege for which he longed – the opportunity to live for Jesus and, eventually, to die for Jesus.

Peter and John walked along the beach and, ultimately, towards their deaths, with Peter out in front. The competitive lifelong friends were aware of each other as Peter tried to make sense of Jesus’ words about their deaths. One would face martyrdom for his master. The other would suffer the challenges of growing old and dying. We are all on one path or the other. Some of us will be killed for Jesus. Others of us will grow old and die following Jesus. Either way, the instruction Jesus gave still stands. For now, we are to fish for people and feed the flock. And how can we follow faithfully to the end? “Follow me.”  Simple. Keep your eyes on the risen Christ.

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That same pattern and progression are still at work today. In a world of death, something does not fit. As people hear about Jesus, they are invited to check the empty tomb. Hopefully, as they gather evidence, they will meet the risen Lord personally. He still loves to come to nobodies, doubters, and failures. And as we meet him, we discover life in the relational bonds of the Trinity and find the purpose for our lives in this world. We are here to fish for lost people and feed God’s people. And as we keep our eyes on the living Christ, we are empowered to live for Him and eventually die for Him – confident that death is not the end of the story!

Review – Acts: An Exegetical Commentary, vols 1&2

KeenerActsCraig Keener’s Acts: An Exegetical Commentary is a vast and incomplete piece of scholarship.  It is vast because in print form it is over 2100 pages.  It is incomplete because these two volumes only cover up to Acts 14:28.  For the purpose of this review, I am looking at the digital version on my Logos software.  I have not read every page, of course, so this is not a full scholarly review.

Keener is meticulous.  Anyone who has used his previous commentaries on Matthew, John and Revelation will know that.  This can be highly beneficial, or at times, frustrating.  Almost two-thirds of the complete first volume is introductory material covering such issues as genre (zeroing in on Acts as a work of ancient historiography), historical interpretation of Acts, Acts and Paul, the speeches, the author, audience, Luke’s perspective on women and gender, etc.

Once you get into the commentary proper, you start to see the fruit of his socio-historical approach.  The format and layout is relatively straightforward (i.e. no complicated internal structures that require skipping around to find what you need, but at the same time not much in the way of helpful textual layouts as some of the more modern commentaries are offering – such as Schnabel’s on Acts, for instance).  As well as relatively straightforward, it is also long.  Keener appears to have a meticulous tendency that leads to a massive project like this one.  Every detail is engaged and discussed.  Other scholarship is engaged and discussed.  At times it feels like everything is engaged and discussed.

This is where my having the works on Logos makes a difference to me.  Rather than flipping page after page and scanning tons of text, I can find what I want to access very quickly on Logos.  For instance, I can right click on the commentary and then select “search this resource.”  Then I can search in just this commentary with something as simple as “Stephen’s speech” and immediately have access to the 71 occasions Keener refers specifically to Stephen’s speech.

Equally, with a work of this magnitude, I find it helpful to have the table of contents showing on the screen.  Thus I can expand and contract sections to locate the specific section I want to see.  I can also get a sense of how long the section is before I just start reading (very useful in such a long piece of work).

I suggest that if you are preaching through a Bible book, then you should have access to a couple of the better commentaries on that book.  With Acts, I am putting Keener’s work into my top two or three resources to check (alongside Bock and Bruce, which are excellent and shorter!)

If you want to find out more, click here to go to the Logos page for this resource.

(Full disclosure: I am grateful to Logos Bible Software for providing the resource for this review.)

Rumors of Commentaries

When I get to listen to a sermon, I sometimes pick up on a commentary vibe.  That is, a sense that the preacher has been spending some time in the commentaries.  Sometimes it is overt references to “the commentators” or a specific commentary (I am describing what I hear, not affirming the practice of citing and quoting the commentaries).  Other times it is a series of background facts that feel like they’ve come from some time in the books.

On the positive side I am always glad to know the speaker has been working in preparation for the sermon.  I’d much rather have somebody who has prepared responsibly than someone who is “winging it” without humble reference to “experts” in the field.

On the negative side I sometimes get a feeling of concern.  It’s hard to pinpoint, but it’s a feeling of concern nonetheless.  I wonder whether the commentaries have been conversation partners in the personal study of the text, or crutches leant on to short-cut the process of exegesis.  I wonder whether the commentaries have simulated wrestling with the structure and flow of the text and consequently the sermon, or whether they have merely furnished a dissected structure on which to hang the broken pieces of a partial sermon.

I thank God for commentaries and good commentators.  We are so blessed today with access to these reference works.  I think it is either arrogance or stupidity that would lead us to ignore them in sermon preparation (provided we are blessed with access to them).  However, they are just one part of our preparation.  We have to wrestle with the text, with its flow of thought, its meaning, its purpose, its idea.  We have to wrestle with the sermon purpose, its idea, its strategy, its structure, its flow, etc.

Commentary study alone will provide a veritable pile of tidbits that can easily fill the sermon time.  But remember that as the preacher, our job is not to fill sermon time, but to prayerfully, carefully, and personally develop a sermon that faithfully explains and relevantly applies the text for our specific congregation.