April / May 2015 - Vol. 79

Doubting Thomas by Caravaggio, 1571-1610

The Lord of Life and Death

the apostles’ fear and skepticism gave way to faith and joy 
when they recognized their Lord risen in glory

by Carlos Mantica

Christ triumphed over death
Christians celebrate Easter because they believe that Jesus came back from the tomb and returned to life. But many have difficulty seeing past the tragedy of Good Friday when Christ died on the cross. They miss the significance of what Christ accomplished for us when he went through death and returned to life. 

What was it like for Christ to return from the tomb? And how did his disciples react when they saw him again? Did he look the same as before, like someone who goes away on a journey, and then returns? Christ did not just come back in that sense. He went through death for our sake. And he returned not just as he was before, but now as the risen Lord who triumphed over death. That is why Christ’s resurrection is the greatest news that has ever been announced to mankind.

The significance of Easter is more than the celebration of Christ rising from the tomb. If the only thing that Christ did was simply return from the dead, then what is so remarkable about that? Other people have risen from the dead as well. We know from the Gospel of John, in chapter 11, that Lazarus rose from the dead, and the lifeless son of the widow of Nain was raised by Jesus as well (Luke 7:11-17). Peter also raised up Tabitha (Acts 9:36). Paul raised up a young boy in Troas named Eutychus, who fell asleep while stting in an open window because Paul’s preaching was so long, and then fell some three stories to the ground (Acts 20:7-12). And even before all these happened, we know of two ealier resurrection stories in the Old Testament—the son of the woman at Shunem was restored to life by the prophet Elisha (2 Kings 4:8-37). And the widow of Zarephath was raised by the prophet Elijah (1 Kings 17:17-24)).

In 1975 I personally heard the testimony of a Mexican Indian girl in Texas whom the Lord raised up from the dead, and the testimony of the physicians and nurses who had cared for her.

All of these people who were raised ended up dying again. And after a while, no one remembers them or celebrates their “resurrection”. But in Christ’s resurrection something far greater and more significant has taken place. The apostles had witnessed the resurrection of Lazarus, and they saw the lifeless son of the widow of Nain walking once again. But when they announced the resurrection of Christ, they spoke about something unusual, something that had never happened before, something not even conceived in a dream. 

When the apostles first heard the story told by the women who saw Jesus on Easter Sunday morning, they could not believe it was possible. Like most Jews, except for the Saducees who did not believe that the dead would rise again, the apostles did believe in the immortality of the soul. But the women’s story of seeing Jesus seemed more believable as the appearance of a ghost. Earlier, when Jesus had walked on the water and reached the apostles’ boat in the middle of the night, their first reaction was, “It’s a ghost!” (Matthew 14:26)

Put your hands in my wounds!
This same reaction happens after the resurrection of Christ, when Jesus has to persuade the disciples several times that they are not talking to a ghost or to an hallucination. “Come on, Thomas, put your hand in my wounds, touch me and see that I am no ghost!” (John 20:24-29)

That Christ could be a ghost was easy for them to believe, and they did believe it. What they could not believe was what they were actually seeing. Ghosts and apparitions do not eat roasted fish for breakfast on the beach, as Christ does by the Lake of Galilee after his resurrection (John 21). Nor do ghosts go about saying the kinds of things that the Lord Jesus said, such as: 

Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained (John 20:22-23).

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age (Matthew 28:18-20).

Supper at Emmaus, by Caravaggio, 1610

The Lord of Life and Death 
Christ is risen with his own whole body, but this body is not like the body of Lazarus, or the body of Tabitha, or the body of the son of the widow of Nain. It is not even like Christ’s body before being glorified. Something special has happened. When Mary Magdalen finds Jesus in the garden, she mistakes him for the gardener, even though a woman can tell the face of her beloved at a thousand yards’ distance (John 20:15). The same thing happens with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, who only recognize Jesus when he breaks bread with them (Luke 24:30-31).

Christ is the same, and yet he is different. If he were not the same but someone else, then he would not be Christ and we would be referring to a different person. But if he were just the same as before, we would be talking about Jesus of Nazareth but not about the Lord of Life and Death, whom God glorified and to whom he gave a name above every name, the Lord of everything and everyone that exists, and before whom every knee bows down in heaven and on earth and below the earth (Philippians 2:9-11).

It is the Lord!
Jesus is the same, and therefore the apostles are able to recognize him: “It is the Lord!” Peter says, when Peter sees him on the beach and swims towards him (John 21:7). His gestures are the same, and he lifts his eyes to heaven when he breaks bread the same way he did at the Last Supper. His character is the same. He continues to be discrete and respectful of one’s conscience. He is tender to all, and at the same time firm and strict. He continues to be a friend to all, but he preserves his circle of intimate friends.

He is the same, and yet he is also different. He can enter a room while the doors are closed, and he can appear and disappear at any place or time. He can take different appearances, so sometimes he looks like a gardener, sometimes a traveler going to Emmaus, or a young man strolling on the lake shore, but at the same time you can touch him and put your fingers in his wounds, and he can eat and drink with his friends. He appears as someone who has gone through time and space. He knows all about the past and the future.

We will be glorified too!
And this will happen to all of us. We will be the same, yet we will be different. We will have a glorified body, similar to Jesus’ glorified body. Not mere spirits, disembodied little souls, but flesh and bone like him. But not like Lazarus, who merely came back to life, to the same life as before; rather, as people who have received a new eternal life.

The Raising of Lazarus, by Giovanni Francesco Guercino, 1619 

The resurrection of Lazarus was a simple return to this life, which therefore left him subject to death. Jesus did not return from death, did not evade it, but instead triumphed over it, and his new life was found on the other side of death. And now he cannot die again. Christ inaugurates this new life and this nature. He is the first-born of the risen ones. He is the one who opened the way for all of us who also will live forever, with a body like his. Neither Christ, nor we after being raised by him, will ever die again, but will live forever. Paul explains that all will rise again with the body they now have, in the same way Christ did, but that this body will have been transformed into a glorious body.

But our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself (Philippians 3:20-21).

But some one will ask, How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come? You foolish man! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body which is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain....What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power....For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality (1 Corinthians 15).

[Carlos Mantica is a past president of The Sword of the Spirit and the founding leader of La Cuidad de Dios, a member community of The Sword of the Spirit in Managua. He is a national advisor of the Cursillo Movement in Nicaragua.  He is a prolific writer and noted author and member of the Nicaraguan Academy of Language. This article is adapted from his book, From Egghead to Birdhood: Hatch or Rot as a Christian, 2001. Used with permission.]
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