Matthew’s account of Jesus’s resurrection is filled with sarcasm, culminating in the order Pontius Pilate gave: “Take a guard. Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how” (Matt 27:65). How did that work out for you, governor? Jesus rose from the dead, and the guards had no power to stop it.
But Pilate’s order represents what most people are trying to accomplish these days—making things as secure as they can. We lock our doors, buckle our seatbelts, password-protect our computers, wear helmets while biking, go through TSA stations at the airport, and purchase all kinds of warranties and insurance policies. But the resurrection account reminds us that real security is found in the risen Savior.
That’s the point of Matthew’s sarcasm. Sarcasm in this context means a holy defiance against the lies and pretense of this world, and humanity’s vain attempts to destroy the work of God. It’s a sacred sneering at all the obstacles and injustice in our society that keep people from flourishing as God wants them to flourish. It’s an attitude that faces the difficulties and challenges of life and says, “Bring it on.”
Why? Because the empty tomb means believers can’t lose in the end. Indeed, our own impending resurrection gives us a holy defiance against our fears and final enemy, death itself. Therefore, we can have a healthy suspicion of all our own attempts to keep ourselves secure, and a bold embrace of God’s incredible adventure for our lives—whatever that may entail. Make the tomb as secure as you can? You might as well try to kill an elephant with spitballs. Jesus Christ—risen from the dead—is Lord of all.
The post-resurrection appearances of Jesus can come across as elusive or even mysterious at times. Over the span of 40 days, the risen Christ shows up for a brief period, and then he’s gone without a trace. He appears in the flesh momentarily, but then he suddenly disappears. This dynamic raises the question, “Why does he linger?” We have 11 or 12 unique postmortem episodes recorded in the New Testament, but establishing a pattern or rationale for these “peek-a-boo” appearances can be a challenge. Their fleeting nature seems odd. Yet, upon closer examination, there are some clear indications of what Jesus may have been up to on this side of the empty tomb.
First, he appears to his friends, not his enemies. With the resurrection being the greatest “I told you so” in history, the rest of us may have been tempted to gloat in the presence of our enemies. Jesus’ character, however, does not allow for such a self-serving spectacle to take place. Second, he engages in conversation not just proclamation. With the resurrection being the greatest display of authority in history, we may have been inclined to do all the talking. Jesus certainly does some instruction, be he also gets other people talking, mostly about their hopes, fears, expectations, and disappointments. Indeed, he functions as a “Wonderful Counselor” (cf. Isa 9:6) after the resurrection. Third, he does what is needed on a case-by-case basis to help his friends believe in him. With the resurrection being the greatest display of power in history, we may have been predisposed toward belittling unbelief, but Jesus is “merciful to those who doubt” (Jude 22).
In Luke 24:36-49, Jesus labors to persuade his disciples that he really is back from the dead. He demonstrates that he is both a physical and a hyperphysical human being in his resurrection state. That is, there is both continuity and discontinuity between the body that went into the tomb and the body that came out. It really is Jesus, but now he’s a glorified Jesus. To convince the disciples of these realities, he eats in their presence and shows them his crucifixion wounds—something a spirit, ghost, or phantom would never be able to do. In his resurrected body, Jesus was scarred but healed, which provides an inspiring and hopeful lesson for us today: Like Jesus, believers can use their scars to advance the gospel. Because of the risen Christ, our mess can become our message, and our misery can become our ministry. Even our wounds can become trophies of his grace. In short, Jesus lingers because of love.
Jesus’ empty tomb sends people running on that first Easter Sunday. Everyone is dashing through the cemetery, but why? They’re running to find answers to their questions and help with their confusion. They don’t know why Jesus’ body is not where they had put it the day before. The confusion is understandable. If I were to go to the gravesite of my parents, and I saw nothing but a big hole in the ground with no vaults or caskets, I’d be asking questions, too.
So, the disciples are running around confused. Most of them are slow to believe in the resurrection—despite the fact that Jesus had said repeatedly it would happen. But here is the good news for them (and us): every time the risen Christ meets people after the resurrection, he helps them to believe in him. That’s amazing because the last time Jesus saw these guys in action, they were blowing it big time. They were denying and deserting him. But when Jesus finally appears to them face-to-face, there’s not a word of rebuke on his lips. Correction, yes, but not rebuke. Quite the opposite. He helps them believe.
In fact, the risen Christ deals with all of his followers personally and uniquely—according to their own needs, experiences, weaknesses, and hard-wiring. The attentiveness of Jesus to everyone in this story is remarkable. And what was true 2,000 years ago is still true today: Jesus gives people time and space to wrestle with—and then plenty of reasons to rest in—his resurrection from the dead. Consider the figures mentioned in John 20, and how Jesus interacts with them—both before and after his resurrection:
JOHN is the portrait of an EASY-COMING faith. His personal struggle seems to be, “I need significance in my life.” And John discovers that the risen Christ gives his people a new identity and purpose. PETER is the portrait of a GUILT-RIDDEN faith. His personal struggle seems to be, “I need forgiveness for my sins.” And Peter discovers that the risen Christ gives his people a new freedom and power.
MARY MAGDALENE is the portrait of a GRIEF-STRICKEN faith. Her personal struggle seems to be, “I need comfort for my despair.” And Mary discovers that the risen Christ gives his people a new intimacy and hope. THOMAS is the portrait of a SHOW-ME faith. His personal struggle seems to be, “I need irrefutable evidence to believe.” And Thomas discovers that the risen Christ gives his people a new assurance and confidence.
Because of his humility, Jesus does not coerce faith, but because of his authority, he deserves it. The risen Christ still gives open-minded and tender-hearted people what they need to believe in him. What is it that you still need to believe?
You have kept track of my every toss and turn; You have collected my tears in your wineskin. You have recorded each one in your ledger. Psalm 56:8
Many more tears will wash my face,
But each one a promise that God is mine;
For only the breakable heart can break,
And show forth the gold of image divine.
Love is exalted in grief-stained loss,
And hope brought near to vanquish the pain;
In weakness a Lamb has led the assault
On darkness of soul to Paradise gained.
Dreaming of Eden, longing for home, Screaming for comfort and striving alone. Then in breaks the angel of Easter surprise, And suffering must kneel at the Savior’s throne.
Heroes indeed are my wisest friends
Who embrace their wounds as sovereignty’s call;
Fighting for courage when the mind is bent
By bitter trials where God seems small.
Yet true faith is strong, a resilient force,
Which anguish of soul lacks power to kill;
On earth, even now, every scar and thorn
Is scoffed by a Tomb lying empty still.
Dreaming of Eden, longing for home, Screaming for comfort and striving alone. Then in breaks the angel of Easter surprise, And suffering must grieve at the Savior’s throne.
Soon we’ll see Him face to face.
Soon we’ll we understand the grace
That led us on a path of loss—
A path that vindicates our cross.
Dreaming of Eden, longing for home, Screaming for comfort and striving alone. Then in breaks the angel of Easter surprise, And suffering must die at the Savior’s throne.
Many more tears will wash my face,
But numbered tears only can have their place.
Numbered tears only can have their place.
An Exegetical Note
Psalm 56:8 presents a translational challenge in the original Hebrew. My own resolution to the difficulty is as follows:
“You have kept count of my tossings (nôḏ)” = (1) moving back and forth, wandering, as of an aimless fugitive; or (2) lamenting, mourning. The first sense yields the translation “my tossings” (ESV, NRSV) and “my wanderings” (NASB); the second sense yields the translation “my sorrows” (JB, NLT) or “my lament” (NIV). Both senses can fit the larger context of Psalm 56, though the first seems more likely
“List (śîm) my tears on your scroll (nōʾḏ)” = set, put, place, install; set down, arrange. But where are the tears “placed” or “set down”? The word nōʾḏ usually refers to a leather bottle (i.e., a wineskin or waterskin), hence the NIV footnote and other translations: “Put (śîm) my tears in your wineskin (nōʾḏ).” But some have suggested that in this occurrence, nōʾḏ should be translated “scroll” or “leather scroll” because: (1) there is a documentation/record keeping motif in the three lines of this verse, with the word “scroll” being a corresponding element to the word “book” in the next line of the parallelism; and (2) there is no record from the ancient biblical world of a practice of keeping tears in a bottle.
To these objections one could reply: (1) the word nōʾḏ is translated as “scroll” nowhere else in the Old Testament; (2) there is a poetic quality to the image of “tears in a bottle” that would need no literal attestation for it to be valid; (3) recording tears on a scroll would be just as poetic as putting tears in a bottle—“tears” being a metonymy for all kinds of negative personal thoughts and feelings that God records; indeed, tears are poetically “in the book/record” in the next line of the parallelism; and (4) HALOT cites a later use of “the little vase for tears mentioned in fairy-stories, Meuli Romanica Helvetica 20 (1943):763ff.”
The psalmist is asking God to transform his situation in the first verse of the center section of the chiasm (i.e., v. 7). Might he not also be asking God to transform his thoughts and/or emotions in the second verse of the center section (i.e., v. 8)—just as liquid is transformed into wine inside a wineskin? Various translations go in this direction:
“Put my tears in your bottle.” (ESV)
“Put my tears in Your bottle.” (NASB)
“You have collected all my tears in your bottle.” (NLT)
“Collect my tears in your wineskin.” (JB)
The JB captures it well, I think, and the implications are devotionally rich. Not only does God notice his people tears, he collects them and transforms them (over time) into new wine. By trusting in God, then, life can go from salty to sweet, from fear to freedom, from anxiety to joy. David experienced these transformations firsthand. So can we.