This week we’ve been stepping through some of the major post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. We began on Monday with his meeting with Mary, then the Emmaus road encounter, followed by his appearances to the eleven and the shoreside breakfast encounter.
Formally, the last appearance of the risen Christ in the flesh would have been at his ascension. This image of the event was painted by John Singleton Copley in 1775. The event itself is mentioned in most of the Gospels and several epistles but the most detail is provided by Luke in Acts 1, where Luke also tells us that Jesus “appeared to the apostles from time to time,” during the 40 days following his resurrection. This is consistent with the impression one gets from a combined reading of the gospels, that not every post-resurrection appearance of Jesus is recorded. Paul records a further list in his correspondence to the Corinthians:
I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles. Last of all, as though I had been born at the wrong time, I also saw him.
Similarly in Acts 1, Luke takes care to point out that “he proved to [the disciples] in many ways that he was actually alive.” This is of course the crux of the matter, one of the major reasons for these appearances and their retelling. The resurrection itself is the single greatest proof of Jesus’ claims, the one matter on which the Christian faith stands or falls. Paul asserts that on one occasion, Jesus appeared to over 500 people. And how does Jesus spend the time? Luke tells us plainly, “[H]e talked to them about the Kingdom of God.” It must have taken a lot of conversation, for “they kept asking him, ‘Lord, has the time come for you to free Israel and restore our kingdom?'” Eventually they understood.
This last appearance contains some common elements with the ones we’ve already looked at this week. Significantly, it contains assurance, promise, instruction, and commission. It also features a pair of angels announcing that Jesus will return in the same way he had left. In fact, like the two angels who appeared to Mary at the tomb, these two pose a variant of the same question, “What are you looking for?” They don’t add, “Move along, there’s nothing to see here.” This is the appearance which leaves us with the answer to what happened to Jesus as well as his final instructions — as Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels recount the story, we have what we now refer to as “The Great Commission.”
I wonder what Jesus was thinking at the time… looking forward to time with his Father, naturally. But was he also surveying the eleven disciples and thinking, “Well, I’ve done about all I can with this bunch…”? By the time he was ready for his departure, he’d given all the teaching and example he could, and I wonder if they didn’t still seem a little green. But they’d been changed through their time together, and the Holy Spirit was soon to come. Somehow — and he had to have known — the disciples were soon to be changed further by the coming of the Spirit. They’d do just fine… and for the same reasons, so will we.