It’s the most important question you’ll ever ask yourself.
Who is Jesus of Nazareth?
It’s a two-thousand-year-old question, and it started with the people of Israel when Jesus lived here on earth.
In those brief three years of Jesus’ public ministry, God led many to quickly recognize Jesus’ true identity. When Jesus came to the Jordan River to be baptized by John the Baptist, John said to the others there, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” (John 1:29), telling Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you” (Matt. 3:15). Nathaniel, one of Jesus’ original 12 disciples, when told that Jesus saw him under the fig tree in a completely different location, told Jesus, “You are the Son of God, you are the king of Israel” (John 1:49). Mary, Lazarus’ sister, just before Lazarus was raised from the dead, identified Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of God, who has come into the world” (John 11:27).
And then, there’s brash, bold Peter.
“But what about you?” Jesus asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
– Matthew 16:15-16
The Rock on which the church is built, indeed.
Even many of those who weren’t close to Jesus reached the same conclusion. A Samaritan woman, a member of a people group at odds with the Israelites, asked her own people after talking with Jesus at the well, “Could this be the Christ?” (John 4:29). The other Samaritans, after hearing Jesus speak, agreed with her: “We know that this man really is the Savior of the world” (John 4:42). At Jesus’ execution, one of the Roman guard, an unlikely person to recognize his deity, admitted: “Surely this man is the Son of God” (Mark 15.39). And one of the thieves beside Jesus on his cross asked the Creator of the Universe to remember him when He came into His Kingdom (Luke 23:42).
Others in the Gospels, when faced with the same choice, didn’t decide the same way. The Pharisees saw Jesus as a threat to their power and wanted him killed. Jesus explained to Pilate who he was, but when given the opportunity to discover the Truth, Pilate turned and walked away (John 18:38). And of course, the other thief mocked Jesus, as both were dying on cruel Roman crosses.
So what happened after Jesus’ Friday crucifixion?
Why did the disciples all but disappear Friday night and all day Saturday?
The disciples were only human, and in the confusion of Jesus’ arrest, trial, scourging, and crucifixion, they had forgotten, or failed to understand, what Jesus had told them about himself during the past three years.
Jesus taught the disciples three separate times that he must be killed, and on the third day raised to life. Unlike other stories in the Gospels, these accounts appear in three of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark & Luke), with accounts of these teachings found at Matthew 16:21, 17:22, and 20:19. But according to the Bible, the meaning of this teaching was hidden from them.
The disciples had lost their hope. It was easier to believe while they were with Jesus. It was a time of healings, of miraculous feeding of 5000 or more people, calming storms, and raising people from the dead. The sheer comfort of His presence was enough. All these things were shattered by the shock, horror and grief of the crucifixion.
Jesus’ death also brought great disappointment. Like the rest of Israel, the disciples had hoped that Jesus would redeem Israel and rescue it from its enemies (Luke 24:21).
They had to face the reality of his Resurrection before it all made sense.
On Resurrection Day, Jesus Christ put all arguments to rest. Any man can die on a cross. Only God can raise a man from the dead.
It wasn’t until after the angels reminded Mary, Mary Magdalene and the other women who came to the empty tomb that morning of what Jesus has said that “they remembered His words.”
What the miracles and signs were for the masses, the Resurrection was for His disciples, proof that Jesus was who he said he was. Not just for the time He was on Earth, but for all eternity.
And yet, even then, at least one disciple still wrestled with the question, “Who is Jesus”? Of course, that was Thomas. Thomas was a skeptic, but a courageous one – he wanted to believe. Thomas was the strong one, who said when Jesus wanted to return to Judea where the Jews wanted to stone him, “let us go in there and die with Him” (John 11:16). Hardly the statement of a committed doubter. That same Thomas said “I will not believe until I put my fingers into the place of the nails and put my hand into his side” (John 20:25). His response upon seeing the risen Lord, and Jesus inviting Thomas to touch His wounds: “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28) – the very first time a disciple referred to Jesus as God.
Almost 2000 years after the Resurrection, many of us call ourselves disciples of Christ. Like the original disciples, we also often forget what Jesus taught. We carry the same doubts Thomas had. But through God’s Word, each and every day of our lives, we can always return to Resurrection Day, and the days afterward —
- To the empty tomb
- To the undisturbed graveclothes
- To the angels asking why we are looking for the living among the dead
- To the Gardener who knows our name
- To the stranger on the road to Emmaus whose talk of the Scriptures burns within us
- To our risen Lord, appearing with wounds in his hands, feet and side, inviting us to explore the meaning of his suffering, death & resurrection, so that we might not be faithless, but believing
- To our Savior and King, asking us to cast our nets on the other side of the boat
- To the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, commissioning us to go and make disciples of all nations
Max Lucado, in his book Six Hours One Friday, tells the story of a missionary in Brazil who discovered a tribe of natives in a remote part of the jungle, near a large river. The tribe was in need of immediate medical attention.
A hospital was not far away. Just across the river, in fact. But the natives wouldn’t cross it because they believed it was inhabited by evil spirits. To enter the water would mean certain death. The missionary explained how he had crossed the river and was unharmed. The natives were not impressed. So the missionary took them to the riverbank and placed his hand in the water. They wouldn’t go in. He walked into the water up to his waist and splashed water on his face. It didn’t matter. They were still afraid to enter the river.
Finally, he dove into the river, swam beneath the surface, and emerged on the othe side. He punched a triumphant fist into the air. He had entered the water and escaped. It was then that the Indians broke out into a cheer and followed him across.
That’s exactly what Jesus did. He told the people of His day that they need not fear the river of death, but they wouldn’t believe. He touched a dead boy and called him back to life. They still didn’t believe. He whispered life into the body of a dead girl and got the same result. He let a dead man spend 4 days in a tomb and then called him out and the people still didn’t believe Him. Finally, He entered the river of death himself and came out on the other side.
No wonder we celebrate the Resurrection!
Like the disciples in Jesus’ day, the Resurrection helps us find meaning in great tragedy. This realization of who Jesus Christ is gave the disciples and gives us today the power to live for Him daily. To live our lives forgiven of sin, not to live in fear of death, and not to hoard our time for our own selfish interests because there is nothing else after death.
Let’s recapture the feeling that Mary and Mary Magdalene had, and that James and John had, when they found an empty tomb. When the light bulb finally comes on, when we finally remember the meaning of Jesus’ teachings.
When we, like Thomas, can exclaim to Jesus with with our whole hearts, “My Lord and my God!”
Note: This post is based on the message I gave at our church’s Sunsrise service on Resurrection Day 2004.