Pastor Mark's Short Papers

Disciples in the Grip of Fear

by Mark Koonz on April 23, 2014
   A mother whose son fell through the ice and drowned does not soon write a song.  She does not smile sweetly at a surviving child when her soul is racked with grief.  She may reach for her other child’s hand, but she is not pretending a strength she does not own.  A man whose wife died of pneumonia cannot sing at her funeral.  Grief empties one of strength. Those who attempt a façade of indifference or wear a mask of normalcy seem broken and futile to those who observe them.

            There are some jaded people who cannot face the reality and devastation of death, who must pretend that their son or daughter, husband or wife is still alive.  Only away on a trip, we are told, but will return.  And these people, once so normal, so capable, so good, seem now so pathetic to us that after a while we lose sympathy. 
            There is nothing redeeming about people who cannot live in the real world.   We cannot sympathize with mental collapse.  It is just too unnerving to our peace of mind and too off-course for their personal welfare.
            What impression, then, could the disciples of Jesus have made on the people of Jerusalem?  Fear had filled their hearts and they ran during the arrest.  Some followed the arresting mob, slinking in shadows, but not daring to speak on his behalf.  No heroes here. 
Some watched with Jesus’ mother as he was crucified, but only one man dared comfort her.  The other male disciples merged with the crowd in safe anonymity, careful not to draw attention to themselves.
            After Jesus’ burial, these men stayed out of the streets, grief stricken and fearful, in a house with the door barricaded.  It was more than the death of a friend that shook them.  It was more than the brutality of crucifixion.  The events of that day signaled God’s abandonment of Jesus and the death of their deepest hope.  
            Like all their people, they had yearned for the coming of God’s anointed one, called the Messiah (“Christ” in Greek).  They had been sure Jesus of Nazareth was the one.  They set everything aside to work for him, be with him, receive and learn from him.  And they had anticipated a bright future.  All those hopes were smashed within twenty four hours.
            Not only were they filled with despair, they did not even know if they could escape from Jerusalem alive.  Would they be hunted and arrested next?
            This was certainly not a recipe for brave action in the face of danger.  These men had been let down by Jesus.  They probably felt let down by God.  Their disappointment drained their strength away.  People do not think creatively in such circumstances.
            They had no incentive to steal the body and pretend a non-existent miracle.  Had they even wanted to do something crazy out of spite, it would have been extremely dangerous to their personal safety.  Not only because the Jewish authorities would have been angry with them, but because the Romans punished grave robbing or stealing bodies with a painful death sentence. 
            And where do you hide a corpse quickly in the rocky soil around Jerusalem?  How do you sneak it through the streets without detection?  After you’ve overcome the guards placed at the tomb!  
             How do you keep the dogs away?  How do you keep them from scenting the trail and leading the authorities to the new burial site?
            Their psychological condition did not promote thinking in that direction.  They were men weary with grief and self-reproach.
            Contrast that state of despair with Peter’s bold proclamation 40 days later in the dangerous streets of Jerusalem.  He faced down hundreds of the same men who had promoted Jesus’s death.  What had made the difference? 
            Peter declared that on the third day God had raised Jesus from the dead!  He was indeed the Messiah who triumphed over evil and death!
            Peter and his companions claimed that they were eyewitnesses who saw Jesus alive on more than one occasion.  These were more than visions. They had touched him and talked with him. Nothing less than this stupendous re-creation of life could account for their new boldness in the face of deadly hostility.
            Within a couple of years one of these disciples, James, the son of Zebedee, was put to death in Jerusalem.  In the end, nearly every male disciple of Jesus died a violent death, because they preached that God’s Son came to earth and lived among us, then was crucified and raised from the dead.
If the resurrection was a hoax, a lie perpetrated by the disciples, then why was every one of them willing to die for a lie?  They were each in a position to know it was a lie.  It goes against human nature that not one of them would have cracked under pressure.  Those who die for a lie usually think it is the truth; they are deluded. 
            These men were not deluded.  They knew Jesus had died.  They knew a Roman death squad had verified Jesus' death.  They knew he had been buried.  They knew a guard had been placed by the sealed tomb.
            They also knew what came next:  they saw, heard, and touched the risen Jesus, verifying his victory over death.   Two men opposed to Jesus were granted the same privilege.  They could not have been deluded about these experiences because there was cross-checking with other eye-witnesses.  There were multiple encounters with the risen Jesus, many happening in front of several witnesses.  One was in front of more than 500, and some had to get close because they could hardly believe their eyes.  So the chances of the disciples being deluded and risking their lives for a lie is very slim to nonexistent.
             These changed men risked everything to tell the world about Jesus’ triumph.  In so doing they changed the history of the world. 
             We have inherited their testimony and the hope of forgiveness and immortality that goes with it.   Though we die once, death is robbed of its ultimate terror.  Jesus lives to give us a resurrection body like his in the age to come.