By Chip Prehn
What were the disciples expecting to see on that third day? They had been carefully taught by their extraordinary rabbi. He had successfully opened their eyes to doctrines which had been obscured by the patina of long use in their sacred tradition. He guided them to recognize that some doctrines and hints of doctrines had been overlooked in the Torah, the Prophets, and the Psalms. The disciples were the first to hear the words we have from the Evangelists: “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him, and when he is killed, after three days he will rise” (Mark 9:31).
But how could Andrew, Peter, James, John, and the rest have possibly anticipated the altogether new thing they encountered three days after the crucifixion? If the disciples knew exactly what they were looking for, why did some of them throw themselves on the ground in fear and others simply take flight into the dark city? They were the faithful Eleven. For the Resurrection event they had been better prepared than anyone in the world. And yet they seem to have been utterly unprepared. I wonder what they thought they would see and experience.
The Master taught them that the Kingdom of God was at hand. The Father was determined to make a New Covenant in the blood of his only begotten Son. God made holy covenants with Adam and Eve, with Noah, with Abraham, and with Moses: In each case a wider group was included in the covenant. Now, through the free offering of his Son, the Father would make a covenant with anyone in the world who would accept Jesus Christ as the appointed Savior and Lord: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that through him the world might be saved” (John 3:16-17).
The Evangelists are at pains to tell us that the disciples of Jesus of Nazareth were good, solid citizens who were at work in field, shop, and on the water when the Rabbi called them away to the gospel mission. While the Twelve were not sophisticated members of the religious establishment and were certainly not theologians, they were well-instructed Jews. They knew the Scriptures and by God’s grace they possessed an uncanny intuition of what they were looking for. They knew in the heart but had not yet seen with the eyes. This is why they did not look back once Jesus tapped them for his team.
The Eleven knew all about the Mosaic and ached for the Kingdom of God. Such a kingdom was foreseen by Moses and the Prophets. The godly kingdoms of Israel and Judah were earthly adumbrations of a divine vision that would be realized in the fullness of time and would be global in scope. What was sketched in the Hebrew Bible was a deep cooperation between the Creator and Israel, the beginnings of a joint venture of monumental importance for the history of the human race. The plot thickened wonderfully at the Annunciation.
The disciples would have had a firm grasp of the basic story-doctrines of the Bible, especially the origin of the Passover, the flight from Egypt, the wandering in the wilderness, and the making of the Covenant at Sinai. This covenant was mediated by Moses, who explained God’s promises and the people’s responsibility, sealing it with blood at the foot of the mountain (Ex. 19-23).
Though, as we know, “No man has ever seen God” (John 1:18), yet God promised Moses that he would show himself as the sign that he meant business with this agreement. For this final ceremony of the covenant rite, God invited Moses to bring a few witnesses and climb up to the top of the mountain where God would reveal himself to their eyes (Ex. 19:16-17; 24:10-11).
They experienced a true theophany on the mountain. It is (and probably ought to be) a little unclear how close the other witnesses got. In any case, we know that, since only Moses came down from the mountain with the brightly shining face, he alone was invited into the mysterious cloud within the cloud on the mountain.
The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights (Exodus 24:16-18).
Surely the Eleven were only able to understand the New Covenant by way of images, metaphors, and concepts found in the old? It was the Mosaic Covenant which formed their religious imaginations. I submit that they expected a great theophany on the third day after the Crucifixion. They knew that the New Covenant was now made in his blood. Before the Crucifixion, they saw with their own eyes wonders more amazing than their ancestors. Now they awaited some sign that the New Covenant in the blood of the Christ was “sealed.” And here we are met with an event more amazing than the Lord’s mysterious appearance to Moses: they encountered the man, Jesus. Wow!
I believe our modern culture biases our reading of the resurrection appearances. We assume that the disciples were having a hard time with “ghosts.” That could not have been the case in their time and according to their world-view. Most everyone believed in gods, spirits, demons, and ghosts. (This is why Thomas would not believe Jesus had been raised unless he saw the marks of the Passion.) What actually astonished and even shocked the Eleven and many others close to Jesus; what drove them in fear to the pavement and made them take flight into the hidden places of Jerusalem; what gave them a joy that cannot be expressed, especially by the mind and in words, is what they saw with their eyes: their Rabbi Jesus, whom they instantly realized was God and Man and, as such, the very means of the New Covenant with God. They encountered their dear friend in all his glorified divine humanity. They conversed with him who was their brother, their King, Savior, and Lord.
Looking on the third day for something marvelous but understandably according to their conventional expectations, these devout Jews awaited a vision of the Lord walking away from them in some sort of sapphire radiance. What they got instead almost killed them with surprise.
We tend to think that the main thing is that the disciples saw the holy “ghost” of Jesus, but I suggest that, just when they had the faith to expect a theophany along the lines of Exodus 24, they got something much, much greater. This was something greater than Moses saw. The moment was all about the living and true God appearing in the flesh of his glorified body. As St. Ephrem of Edessa put it, “We give glory to You, O Lord, who put on the body of a single mortal man and made it the source of life for every other mortal man.” And this forever and at all times.
Chip Prehn is an Episcopal priest, an independent historian, a poet, and a director of The Living Church Foundation.