Wednesday – May 8, 2019

First Witnesses…! 

A popular view in the culture today is that Christianity denigrates women. When we hear such views expressed it’s worth having a creative response at our fingertips – such as sensitively opening a way to take our interlocutors to the biblical narrative.

Significantly, all four Gospel records inform us that women were the first witnesses to the empty tomb. Consider Dr Luke’s account. He reports that some women who were close to Jesus had gone to his tomb on the first day of the new week to give his body a formal Jewish burial. But arriving there, they were astonished to find that the tomb was not only open, but that the body was gone. The tomb was empty.

Well, not quite. Two dazzling figures were there and spoke to the women. ‘Don’t you remember what Jesus had said?’ they asked. ‘If you had thought about what he had foreshadowed, you would not have been puzzled by his death; you would not be stricken with grief; and you would not be in this place today’ (Luke 24:5b-7).

Two witnesses. The fact that there were two dazzling figures is consistent with the requirement in Deuteronomy (19:15) that for a statement to be treated as reliable and true there needs to be more than one witness – something the Bible consistently provides. Indeed, unlike other revealed religions, we have the written records of four Gospel writers concerning Jesus and within their statements we consistently find more than one witness to critical events – not least Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

 Here the two figures testify to three women that Jesus’ body is not in the tomb because he has been raised to life. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 Paul the Apostle speaks of Peter and the disciples who saw him physically alive. He adds that more than 500 had the same experience, including himself.

Yes, the women did remember Jesus’ words. And what a difference it made when they were reminded of them. Suddenly filled with joy they were re-energized and rushed off to tell their friends in Jerusalem the breaking news.

And here it is also worth noting that Dr Luke, the very careful historian, wants to underline the point that the witness of the women that day is true. It’s one of the reasons he identifies them by name: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James (Luke 24:10). These women were perfectly sane and sensible people, people of integrity. They had names. They could be identified. ‘In fact,’ Luke was implying, ‘if you want to find out for yourself, go and talk to them’.

Nonsense? But look at the response they received in Jerusalem: No-one believed them!  They thought it was an idle tale or ‘nonsense’ (24:11). The word nonsense was a medical term for the wild, confused talk of people in a state of delirium. Luke, the writer, was a doctor! The report of the women was regarded as nothing more than the wild talk of delirious people. To speak of seeing angels and of Jesus risen from the dead was nonsense!

The disciples’ dismissive reaction may well reflect the culture of the day. In Judaism for example, a woman’s testimony in court was treated at best as secondary, at worst as unreliable. Yet significantly, in God’s purposes, it is women who are the first witnesses of the empty tomb. To them, first of all, comes the reminder of Jesus’ words that these events had to happen.

However, there was at least one person who was keen to find out if the women were telling the truth: Peter. He was the man who had three times denied knowing Jesus. And now, more than anything else he wanted to sort out that broken relationship. His guilt burdened him.

As a Christian minister I meet with many people in all stages of their lives. I also see the grief and sorrow in times of bereavement. Very few people I meet want to say that death is the end.

Did you know that the first Christian sermon was preached was only a few miles from Jesus’ tomb? Nobody was in a better position to have tested the truth of this resurrection story than those who heard Peter’s testimony. 

Yet when Peter on the Day of Pentecost insisted that Jesus was risen from the dead, we don’t find three thousand sceptics or cynics, but three thousand converts.  They were not deluded. Hundreds saw Jesus alive, physically risen from the dead. No-one has proved otherwise. 

The dream of life beyond the grave can be a reality. Joylessness can turn into joy. The cross and the resurrection of Christ are the keys. This is what we celebrate at Easter.

Witnesses to the truth. These are the great truths that God revealed to the women. It was their witness that first spoke to the world of God’s personal intervention when he reversed the events of Eden (Genesis 3). God alone could do this. And he has done it!

© John G. Mason 

Note 1: Material for today’s ‘Word’ is adapted from my commentary, Luke: An Unexpected God (Aquila: 2019, 2nd Edition).