“Witnesses of the Resurrected Christ”

(Luke 24:36-49 – Easter 3 – April 18, 2021)

Luke 24:36-49 – 36Now as they said these things, Jesus Himself stood in the midst of them, and said to them, “Peace to you.” 37But they were terrified and frightened, and supposed they had seen a spirit. 38And He said to them, “Why are you troubled? And why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.” 40When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet. 41But while they still did not believe for joy, and marveled, He said to them, “Have you any food here?” 42So they gave Him a piece of a broiled fish and some honeycomb. 43And He took it and ate in their presence. 44Then He said to them, “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.” 45And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures. 46Then He said to them, “Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, 47and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48And you are witnesses of these things. 49Behold, I send the Promise of My Father upon you; but tarry in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high.”

Dear Redeemed, in the name of our risen Savior Jesus Christ:

“Peace to you.” These were Jesus’ first words to His disciples as He appeared to them the evening of His resurrection. By these words, Jesus meant more than just a standard greeting, wishing peace on others. He spoke these words as the Savior of sinners, who had sacrificed His life on the cross for the sins of the world, and lives to give us His blood-bought peace forgiveness. He spoke these words as the Victor over Satan, who had crushed the head of the evil one, and lives to bring us His blessed Kingdom and peace. He spoke these words as the Lord of life, who had conquered death and the grave, and lives to give us eternal life in His heavenly glory.

“Peace to you.” What a relief it must have been for the disciples to hear those words. After Jesus’ death on the cross, they had been hiding behind locked doors in fear of enemies. But now in His glorified body, Jesus appeared among them, giving them His peace – peace which the world cannot give – giving them tangible proof of that peace in His resurrected body. It was in this context that Jesus said to His disciples: “You are witnesses of these things” (vs. 48). He did not want them to keep the good news to themselves. He wanted them to go into all the world, declaring what they had seen and heard, proclaiming His Gospel of peace and forgiveness to sinners. Let us consider what it means to be “Witnesses of the Resurrected Christ” in light of the 1) The historical evidence and 2) The evangelical message which Jesus gives us to share.

1) The historical evidence

When we think of witnessing for Christ, we think of sharing our faith. We testify to what God’s Word says and we believe. But it is good to remember that all the truths recorded in Scripture are set in a real historical context. They are true, not because we believe they are, but because they really happened. We share the truths of our salvation in Christ, backed by historical evidence.

It is in this sense that Jesus told His disciples that first Easter: “You are witnesses of these things.” The term “witness” comes from a courtroom setting, referring to those required to give testimony to what they have seen and heard. As eyewitnesses, the disciples presented historical evidence concerning the crucified and risen Savior. Thus they had a true and powerful Gospel to share, as they proclaimed the peace of His forgiveness and the joy of His eternal salvation.

When it comes to Christ’s resurrection, there have always been those who wish to discredit the eyewitness accounts. First, there was the false report of the Roman soldiers who had stood guard at Jesus’ tomb. After the angel had rolled away the stone from the empty tomb, the guards had told the Jewish leaders. From that time, the false report was spread that the soldiers had fallen asleep and the disciples had stolen the body. But Roman soldiers knew the penalty for sleeping on the job was death. And why would the disciples risk their lives by sneaking past the soldiers, and breaking the Roman governor’ seal on the tomb, just to steal a dead body? Why would many of the disciples give their lives as martyrs of the Gospel, testifying that Christ had risen, if it was all for a lie?

Another common theory of skeptics to this day is that the disciples merely thought they had seen and heard the resurrected Christ. But they were only hallucinating, having so fervently wished to see Him alive. But again, there are problems with this. People may hallucinate at times, but a group of people would not hallucinate at the same time with the same hallucination. People who hallucinate are psychologically unstable. But as we read the disciples’ eyewitness testimonies, it is clear from the way they spoke that they were very normal and rational.

And the way they reported the historic events was very realistic and honest. If a person sets out to defend a lie, usually they have something to gain by false testimony. If nothing else, they try to picture themselves in a good light, as bold heroes of a cause. But here again, we find the unexpected in the disciples’ own unflattering accounts. In the Gospels, they describe themselves at first as timid men, hiding in fear of Jesus’ enemies, afraid that they might be put to death too.

Again, speaking of skeptics of the resurrection, some of the leading ones that first Easter were the disciples themselves. That morning, some of the women visited Jesus’ tomb and found it empty; and then Jesus appeared to them alive. But when they brought this report back to the men who were hiding, Luke’s account says: “their words seemed to them like idle tales, and they did not believe them” (Luke 24:11). One of the most famous cases of a disciple refusing to believe the reports is “doubting Thomas.” Even after Jesus appeared to all rest, when Thomas heard their report he declared: “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe” (John 20:25).

All the disciples had been the same kind of doubting skeptics. That day, reports were coming in that Jesus appeared alive, not just to the women, but also to Peter, then to two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:34-35). Yet they still did not expect what happened, as reported in our text: “Now as they said these things, Jesus Himself stood in the midst of them, and said to them, ‘Peace to you.’ But they were terrified and frightened, and supposed they had seen a spirit. And He said to them, ‘Why are you troubled? And why do doubts arise in your hearts? Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have’ When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet. But while they still did not believe for joy, and marveled, He said to them, ‘Have you any food here?’ So they gave Him a piece of a broiled fish and some honeycomb. And He took it and ate in their presence” (vs. 36-43).

It was not a hallucination or wishful thinking. It was not a ghost or a figment of their collective imaginations. It was a historical reality, contrary to all expectations. The Lord Jesus, in His once crucified and now glorified body, was no longer bound by time and space. As God in our flesh, He is everywhere present. He was there to see and hear the disciples’ fears and doubts as they contemplated His death; He was there to comfort them with proofs of His resurrection.

There is a gentle rebuke in Jesus’ words: “Why are you troubled? And why do doubts arise in your hearts?” Why should they have doubted the honest reports of those who had seen Him alive? But most importantly, Jesus rebukes them for doubting His own words. At least a few times before His death, He had told them that He would be crucified; but that He would rise on the third day. Why had the disciples not taken His words to heart? Because talk of His death had not fit their own agendas and expectations, as they wanted Him only to bring a worldly kingdom and glory.

Are there times when we need a gentle rebuke too? Unlike those disciples, we have the benefit of hindsight. We can read the Scriptures, not only those given through the Old Testament prophets, but also those given through the New Testament apostles. We can hear all the prophecies Jesus has fulfilled, and all the promises He gives as our living Savior. But there is that doubting, skeptical side in us – that part of us that wants to trust our own experiences, sight, and feelings more than His Word and promises. As our glorified and ever-present Lord, how many times has Jesus seen us needlessly troubled as we doubted Him? How many times has He seen our lack of faith turn to sin, as we sought our own agendas and expectations for a worldly kingdom and glory?

Like the disciples, suddenly finding themselves in the presence of the glorified Lord, this might be a terrifying and frightening thought. After all, it is the crucified and risen Christ, the ever-present Lord, before whom all shall stand at last, giving account of our lives (Romans 14:10-12).

Yet, just as with His first disciples, as our glorified Lord comes among us today, His first words to us are: “Peace to you.” Our living Savior is not here to condemn us, but to forgive us. He is not here to increase our fears, but to strengthen our faith. He is here to assure us in His Word of promise that He has done everything to win our salvation and eternal life. It is that Gospel, which declares to us the peace of His forgiveness and reconciliation with God.

Here Jesus reminds His disciples of all He had been trying to teach them in His Word about the true purpose of His coming, the true salvation He was bringing sinners, and the true nature of His Kingdom. Jesus said: “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.’ And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures. Then He said to them, ‘Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (vs. 44-47).

Thus Jesus provided His disciple with historical evidence – not only in His resurrected body, but in His fulfillment of Scripture. He had fulfilled all God had been promising through history, as recorded in the testimony of His Prophets. All Scripture is Christ-centered. It had foretold His death for the sins of the world. It had spoken of His resurrection from the dead. And it had spoken of the Good News of His salvation being proclaimed to all the world.

2) The evangelical message

Now Jesus told His disciples: “You are witnesses of these things” (vs. 48). He focused them on the evangelical message He sent them to share. In the name of the risen Savior, they would do so. With a new boldness and zeal, they would share the good news of His Gospel with all the world.

But they would not do so by their own strength. They would not convert anyone by the strength of rational arguments and historical evidence. The fallen will of man is bent against God and does not want to hear His truth, no matter how convincing it is. There is only one way the heart is converted. It is by the power of the Gospel, and the Holy Spirit who accompanies the Gospel, bringing sinners to repent and believe in Jesus as their Savior. So as Jesus commissioned His disciples as witnesses, He referred to the promised Holy Spirit: “Behold, I send the Promise of My Father upon you; but tarry in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high” (vs. 49). From Pentecost, with the outpouring of the Spirit, Christ’s Church has been fulfilling His will that “repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations.”

Here is where you and I come in. Though we were not there with the first disciples to see and touch the risen Christ, yet we are His witnesses. As with the first disciples, Jesus has opened our understanding, that we might comprehend the Scriptures. By the work of the Spirit in our hearts, we have seen the inner testimony of His truth. As His Law reveals the truth of our sin, we repent. As His Gospel reveals the truth of our Savior, we cling to His forgiveness won on the cross.

And as Jesus once stood in the midst of His disciples saying, “Peace to you,” so as our resurrected and glorified Savior He comes among us, giving His peace in Word and Sacrament. In Baptism, He is present to apply His blood-bought cleansing to us. In His Holy Supper, He is present to give us His Body and Blood for the remission of our sins. As we daily repent of our sins, we confess them; and on the basis of His sacrifice on the cross, Jesus is present to give us His true peace of forgiveness. As we live in a world troubled by Satan’s schemes and temptations, we lift our hearts in prayer; and on the basis of His victory over Satan, Jesus is present to give us His peace as He rules all things for our good. As we pass through the valley of the shadow of death, we look to our living Savior; and on the basis of His having conquered death and the grave, Jesus is present to give us His peace as the one who will raise us to eternal joys in His heavenly glory.

Now we have seen that the Gospel of our living Savior is a powerful, life-changing message. It showed in the lives of Jesus’ first eyewitnesses, who boldly testified to His saving truth, backed by historical evidence. It shows in our lives as witnesses of His Gospel of blood-bought peace with God, salvation and everlasting life. We join the prophets and apostles, and believers through the ages saying: We also believe and therefore speak, knowing that He who raised up the Lord Jesus will also raise us up with Jesus, and will present us with you” (2 Corinthians 4:13-14).

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. Amen.