In the Gospel of Luke we see tension growing between Jesus and the whole range of religious sects that were either the Jewish government or close to it: groups that were often enemies, coming together for the sole purpose of destroying a new teacher who was unraveling the complicated charade that they had built around God’s law and moreover one who claimed to be the son of Yahweh himself.
They came to believe that they had triumphed, forced the Roman governor to take the responsibility of having Jesus put to death, even though Pilate had repeatedly claimed that he found Jesus to be innocent.
I want to take a few moments this morning to look at what Luke, and perhaps other gospel writers, tell us of the turmoil of thoughts going on in the minds of Jesus’ followers. The end of Luke 23 tells of the incredibly brave action of Joseph, himself a member of the Sanhedrin, taking the action that none of the eleven could have achieved, to have access to Pilate’s troubled presence and beg the body of the man the Romans had been forced to crucify against his own judgment and the strict advice of his wife. John’s gospel adds the information that Nicodemus, another counselor, joined Joseph in preparing the body of Jesus and placing it in the rock tomb.
Now what I want you to focus on is what they were all doing: Joseph, Nicodemus, the two Marys, and Salome. They were concerned with preparing a body for permanent burial. They do not appear to have had any expectation that they would see Jesus alive once again!
Look at what happens when the startled women enter the tomb (Luke 24:3-8). They have to be reminded by the angels of Jesus’ promise made to the disciples (Luke 9:22, 44). This was spoken to the twelve apostles but it was not the only time Jesus had given that warning. He had repeated it many times. On one occasion Jesus even used the example of Jonah who was in the great fish three days, but then was miraculously expelled onto dry land as a way of preparing his disciples for what was going to happen to him.
How curious that none of these warnings had sunk in, had made sense, had given the apostles hope that Jesus’ death would not be the end, so that ,as they watched the dreadful scene on Golgotha, they could say with certainty: ‘Just wait three days and our Lord will be back with us you’ll see’. Curiously, the one group that had listened and remembered his words were his enemies. Remember what they said to Pilate after the crucifixion?
So what of the women, then, standing by the tomb? (Mark 16:8) They were afraid, not joyful, no realization that the tomb being empty meant only one thing: that Jesus was alive again!
What of the disciples gathered back in the city in sadness and despair? (Luke 24:11). They believed not; even though the words of the angels had been added to Jesus’ warnings. Matthew 28 tells us that the women saw Jesus himself, and Mark as well, as John recorded the special meeting between Mary Magdalene and Jesus where Mary was still thinking that Jesus’ body had been stolen by his enemies. The message to the disciples would have carried so much convincing information, and still they did not believe.
Two enemies, doubt and disappointment, were at work here in the minds of the disciples, almost building a fence against belief and understanding of God’s purpose. Even Peter, when he had seen for himself that Jesus was not in the tomb, did not jump for joy, but “wondered” (Luke 24:12).
Disappointment can be seen in the two disciples on their way back to Emmaus. They already knew the message of the women, remember. They were on their sad way home and still unable to say it to the one who joins them on the journey in Luke 24:20-24. What did their faces look like as Jesus joined them? Were they hopeful eager faces? No, verse 17 says they were sad!
As Jesus begins to teach them, he starts by upbraiding them for not believing (not for not believing his words) but those of all the prophets beginning from Moses. The teaching that then followed must have been a great revelation to those two for it showed without doubt that the key to understanding the scriptures lay in the fact that Jesus himself was the subject of many of those writings.
Later, at their home, their eyes were opened and they saw the Lord in the breaking of bread. Now they did understand why it was that the words spoken to them on the journey had caused their “hearts to burn within them” (v. 32).
Fired with this realization, they set off immediately back to Jerusalem to tell the news to the apostles. Luke does not say this but Mark does (Mark 16:12-13). This message, written later I believe at Peter’s dictation, shows that there was an almost resolute refusal to accept the evidence, no matter how powerful it was. In verse 14 we read Jesus words as he miraculously appeared in their midst, “hardness of heart”. Hebrews 3:8-9 tells of the time when the nation God had saved from Egypt turned their collective face against him with the same hardness of heart.
Why was it that Israel the nation, and later the disciples and apostles of Jesus, found it impossible to totally accept first their God’s and then his Son’s promises and teachings? Always there was the doubt, always the disappointment, always the hedging of the bets… “better have a few idols around to pray to just in case”.
What do you think the disciples were talking about in the locked room when Jesus suddenly appeared in their midst? Was it the wonder of the gospel they had been listening to for the last 3½ years, or was it where they were going to flee to in order to be safe? I suspect the latter, and the frightening reason why I think this is because, in the same situation, I may not have done any better!
Doubt and disappointment may well have turned the mind of Judas Iscariot; in John 6:67 Jesus turned to the little group saying, “Will you also go away?” Peter, as always, spoke up for the group but could not vouch for all the hearts, and so Jesus said in verse 70, “one of you is a devil”.
Why is it that, as we prepare to remember our Lord in bread and wine, I am looking so hard at this very negative subject of doubt and disappointment? Well, it is simply because I do believe that it is these two human emotions that give us the most serious problems in our own personal discipleship.
In the letter to Hebrews 12:6 Paul, with immense wisdom born of personal experience, says this, “who the Lord loves he chastens and scourges every son he receives; verse 11, “No chastening for the present seems to be joyous but grievous; nevertheless afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness”.
It is not easy to see it that way is it? Not easy to accept loss, injury, sickness and injustice as the chastening from our Father in heaven.
Both Paul and Peter had come to terms with suffering as they wrote exhortations to the ecclesias from their prison cells. I think that the two disciples trudging wearily back to Emmaus were disappointed that what had seemed so wonderful and promising had (in their eyes) come to nothing. I see that total refusal to accept all the reports that Jesus was alive as equal doubt and disappointment. Doubt has forever been attached to the name of Thomas.
What an exhortation for us who have in our day the whole word of God to guide us. We have all of this God-given evidence to learn from. I feel sure that the weaknesses and mistakes of those early disciples of Jesus are lovingly recorded for us so that we might do better.
Throughout the Bible there is a constant record of the fallibility of human beings to respond to God in the way that He wishes. Because of the decision taken by our first parents, we are flawed and dying humanity; however, the essential thing is that God is aware of this and, from the very beginning, has made provision for our Saviour who came to this world of mankind and died to bring about our salvation, and who, one day soon, will return to ultimately banish death and suffering from the earth. What God seeks and what our Lord Jesus seeks is our faith and trust in him, despite our weaknesses.
When that happens, it must be pleasing to Our Father in Heaven. When it happens, for us it is a triumph over all of our natural inclinations, our pain, our loss, our disappointment and our doubts.
When it happens, it reveals in us not only a better understanding of ourselves but, even more important, a better understanding of those of our brothers and sisters who journey with us to the Kingdom.
Jesus’ words to Thomas were, “because you have seen me you have believed”. How much better is it that he might say of us, “blessed are they who have not seen and yet have believed”.