Resurrection Appearances in the Gospels and Acts

Pastor Ostella



Today I want to direct your attention to the Lord Jesus Christ by remembering Him as Sabbath king. And our point of departure for doing this is the resurrection. More specifically, we are going to consider the resurrection appearances of our Lord and from them draw two points: 1) The resurrection appearances reveal the Lord Jesus as our Sabbath king and 2) they reveal the Sabbath king as our loving Savior.

1A.The resurrection appearances reveal the Lord Jesus as our Sabbath king

1B. A rough and ready list

There are seven appearances (depending on how one counts them) that occurred between the resurrection and ascension, an eighth was to Paul after the ascension (1 Cor. 15:8; Acts 9, 22, 23). These seven are recorded appearances; there are other appearances that we are told took place but what transpired is not narrated (to Peter, to James, and to the five hundred, 1 Cor. 15:5-7). We have to speak of this as a rough and ready list because the time of occurrence of some of the events is undefined. The fact of specificity in contrast to the lack of it is an important part of the record and an important element in understanding the Gospels. I will list seven appearances. As I prepare to do so you might try to remember as many as you can. I will hint and pause as I outline them so you can try to anticipate. I will begin each with the phrase, "He appeared to" or "He presented Himself alive from the dead to." This will be roughly chronological.

1) We begin with the person that was first to see the risen Jesus. Hint: was this person a male or female? He appeared first to Mary Magdalene (Jn. 20:11-18) and to some other women with her (Matt. 28:1-10). It is unclear as to whether or not we have one event here or two.

2) Next we can cite His appearance to two men. This is recorded in the Gospel of Luke (24:13-35). He appeared to the two travelers on the road to Emmaus.

3) Once Jesus departed from the two travelers, they arose the same hour and went where and reported to whom? Who was conspicuously absent? He appeared to the apostles without Thomas present (Jn. 20:19-23).

4) What happened eight days later on the next Sunday? He appeared to the apostles with Thomas present (Jn. 20:24-29).

5) In the next appearance, it seems that the main characters have returned to their former fishing trade. He appeared to the apostles by the Sea of Tiberias (Jn. 21:1-23).

6) Without this appearance we would have no word from Jesus regarding Christian baptism. He appeared to the apostles on a mountain in Galilee and gave "The Great Commission" (Matt. 28:16-20).

7) The final recorded appearance is not found in the Gospels. In the account, we are told that the appearances of Jesus took place over a period of forty days. This appearance is near the end of those days. He appeared to the apostles in and about Jerusalem near the time of His ascension (Acts 1:1-11).

2B.Some rough and ready observations

1) Accent

Particular attention is given to the apostles. Even the appearances to Mary and the two travelers draw a direct line like an arrow to the apostles/brothers (cf. Acts 1:3; Jn 20:17; Matt. 28:10).

2) Style

Another obvious point that emerges from these narratives is the significant fact that the Gospel writers did not try to give us the kind of historical record that we might expect. Sometimes they give precise facts of time and place and at other times they are vague on such details. Thus when we try to "harmonize" the Gospels it turns out that we often have to outline things in a rough and ready fashion. The important lesson here is that the Gospel writers are selective; there were appearances of our Lord over a period of forty days and we have seven relatively brief accounts.

Being selective means that the writers had goals that were reached by including some things and omitting other things. They had theological goals that guided what they reported. Gospel history is theological history. Gospel narrative can be called theological narrative having (being) a literary genre all its own. This does not mean that the Gospels are theology and not history. Nor does it mean that historical fact and truth are compromised. It simply means that things are recorded the way they are recorded to drive the gospel message home to the reader with particular emphases. The writers "include this and omit that" leaving a definite element of ambiguity regarding details. To get their message we must not try to remove all ambiguity but work with it to see the impressions as on a sculpture that ambiguity helps to create (cf. how shaded areas created by depressions help give shape to the sculpture).

3) Bond of resurrection and ascension

In Luke, the distinct events are presented as taking place on the first day of the week though we know they are separated chronologically by forty days (from Luke in Acts 1:3). Luke is not being inconsistent; instead, he is being purposefully ambiguous. We get an important impression: the resurrection and ascension are a single theological unit or a single historical-redemptive event that happened on the first day of the week (24:1), the very day that Peter and others looked into the empty tomb and went away "marveling" (24:12-13). This is evident when we follow the flow of events. All that happens is forcefully presented as a continuation of the first Sunday by what is not said and by what is said in the use of a series of conjunctions (and, vs. 43, 46, 50) with an adverb of general time (next, vs. 45).

Thus, the passage (Lk. 24) starts out very precisely becoming more and more precise as events unfold (the first day of the week, v. 1,  that very day, v. 13, that same hour, v. 33, and as they were talking, v. 36) then it continues from that point forward with the narration of events one after another in quick and uninterrupted succession: and Jesus said to them (v. 38), and when he showed them His hands and His feet (v. 39), and while they still could not believe He took the fish and ate it before them (vs. 41-43), and He explained that the Law, Prophets, and Psalms are about Him (v. 44), next He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures and their task of proclamation to the nations (vs. 45-49), and He led them out as far as Bethany and he lifted up His hands and blessed them (v. 50), "and it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven (KJV, v. 51; the ESV has "While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven).

The impression is created that on resurrection Sunday all these things took place, including the ascension! This language does not teach that these things in fact took place on that first day of the week on which Jesus was raised. But it causes us to see all that Jesus did as part and parcel of His ascension glory (with the proclamation to the nations sandwiched between the resurrection and the ascension, 1 Tim. 3:16). Put another way, resurrection day is a day of ascension; it is Christís exaltation to glory in a now and not yet sense. His resurrection sealed and guaranteed His ascension; all that Christ has as ascended Lord He has from the day of the resurrection.

Not surprisingly then, NT writers speak of the resurrection of Christ as His exaltation to the throne on high. Thus Peter says that He became Lord and Christ and was exalted by God when God raised Him from the dead (Acts 2:36).

4) Sabbath kingship

Therefore, Sabbath Kingship is rooted in the "ambiguity" of the Gospels regarding our Lordís resurrection appearances (Sabbath kingship means He was given universal sovereign rule over all things and that rule was inaugurated on a day in history, a day that bears that mark on it for the rest of human history). This is simply another way of saying that Jesus was made Sabbath Lord by the resurrection. Indeed, He was already Sabbath king when He literally ascended from the earth into the heavens to the right hand of the throne on high.

Consider the appearance in Galilee (Matt. 28:16-20). The time is imprecise. The event flows out of resurrection day (tell them to goÖand they went, vs. 10, 16). They worshipped Him but some doubted. He gave the Great Commission (this is a good title but perhaps a much better title is "The Great Resurrection Proclamation"). Look more closely at verse 18. Jesus says that all authority has been given to Him. He has it. It is His. And notably, it has been given to Him. But if He is God the Son who was with God in the beginning then He always possessed divine prerogatives. He always had all authority. That being the case we must still seek to do justice to the statement here that all authority was "given" to Him.

This passage must be seen in the context of the incarnation. It is the man born of Mary, God the incarnate son that suffered in the days of His humiliation, that learned obedience through suffering, and that was exalted by the resurrection to be Sabbath Lord. That He was made Sabbath Lord is indicated here in this passage by the absolutely universal authority that was given to Him: all authority in heaven and all authority on earth have been given to Him (28:18).

The metaphor from the OT that comes to mind to illustrate the place that Christ came to occupy is the metaphor of the throne and footstool. After finishing the work of original creation in six days, the Lord sat down to rest with His feet elevated on a footstool. He sat down on the heavens as His throne with the earth as the footstool under His feet. That is the picture of universal sovereignty that shows that when God completed the work of creation He then took up the work of sovereign rule over all that He created and made. The seventh day was set apart because it was an inaugural day of Godís kingly rule. It became His holy day that man was to always remember and keep holy in honor to the Creator.

Likewise, after Jesus completed His work of redemption, He became both Lord and Christ by the resurrection (Acts 2:36). As a man He was appointed judge of all men by the resurrection (Acts 17:31), as the seed of David He was marked out (declared) to be the Son of God with power by the working of the Spirit in His resurrection (Rom. 1:3-4). In other words, on resurrection day Jesus entered into a royal rest. He ceased from the redemptive work of humiliation and began His redemptive rule of exaltation. He became head over all things to the church (head over all and head over the church). He became universal sovereign on that unique day in history. The first day of the week, Sunday, was set apart because it was an inaugural day of Christís kingly rule. It became His holy day (the Lordís Day) that man is to always remember and keep holy in honor to the risen Redeemer.

Resurrection and ascension are part of the same theological point (the historical-redemptive fact of His exaltation). That is why the ascension and resurrection are presented by Luke as if they took place on the same day. In principle they did take place on the same day. Resurrection day inaugurated the kingly reign of Christ over all things in the most comprehensive sense. He became "ascended" sovereign and Sabbath Lord seated on the throne of the universe by the resurrection. That rule was inaugurated on the first day of the week. That rule continues to the consummation: to the end of the age. Being our Sabbath king simply means that He was made head over all things to the church (Eph.1:20-23; Col. 1:15-20).

Colossians 1:15-20 shows Jesus to be Sabbath king who reconciles all things whether on earth or in heaven. He is head of the body the church by being firstborn from the dead.

Ephesians 1:20-23 likewise shows Him to be Sabbath king who was raised and seated at the right hand of God far above all and above every name that is named. All things have been put under His feet so He is head over all things to the church (v. 22).

Enough has been said to make the first major point: the resurrection appearances reveal the Lord Jesus as our Sabbath king. He is the true king David that has universal sovereignty in His headship over the church.

2A.The resurrection appearances reveal the Sabbath king as our loving Savior

It is an interesting, a comforting, and an inspiring experience to go one by one through the resurrection appearances in the light that is cast by the fact that Jesus is universal sovereign. We should read these accounts in full recognition that the one who acts and speaks is sovereign God and Sabbath Lord. The one we remember by means of these brief events with all their ambiguity is the one who had already been exalted above every name that is named (Phil. 2). He is to be recognized as Lord (Sabbath Lord/universal sovereign/king David, and King of kings). Most appropriately then, we are told that when the disciples saw Him "they worshipped Him."

So with a broad brush and from the materials of the Gospels, we can paint a picture of our exalted king. But when the brush hits the canvas what appears is not what we first expect. What we get is a wonderful, precious, marvelous, and awesome picture of not a king but a common man, a loving person. He is presented as our loving shepherd. I am not saying that this exhausts the picture of our Lord that emerges from the forty days. But if you remember the appearances what comes to mind? To me there are the following two striking things.

1) Jesus presents Himself in common terms.

I want to say ordinary but these are extraordinary events with some highly unusual elements (such as vanishing from before their eyes or transcending locked doors). But much is ordinary, routine, common, homey, warm and comfortable. Of course, the resurrection is a stupendous event and that fact forcefully surfaces. But look at the Lord Jesus in these accounts. He has no horse and chariot. No pomp and glory is evident. On one hand, He is thought to be a gardener. On the other hand, He is addressed as a stranger that is out of the loop of current events or a curious spectator on the shore wondering if fish were caught or not. Nevertheless, He shows down to earth hospitality inviting the disciples to breakfast (Jn. 21:9, 12, "they saw a charcoal fire in place with fish laid out on it, and breadÖJesus said to them, ĎCome and have breakfastí").

2) Jesus presents Himself in loving terms.

Consider His tenderness with Mary and the marvelous word to be given to the "brothers" and eventually to us (Jn. 20:15, 17). Consider how gently He opened the hearts of the two travelers despite their folly so their hearts burned within them (Lk. 24:25, 32). Consider what is going on at the seashore (Jn. 21). The disciples are being welcomed though they all forsook Him and fled. This is a marvelous example of hospitality (for us to follow)! And Peter is reinstated in a marvelous exchange about love and feeding the sheep.

Whose sheep are they? Jesus tells us that they are His sheep. The exalted sovereign, universal king, and Sabbath Lord of the universe is the great Shepherd of the sheep. In his epistle, Peter tells us that Jesus is the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls (1 Pet. 2:25; and our example, v. 21, for helper-ship and headship, 3:1-7, and for brotherly/sisterly love, 3:8). In other words, the Sabbath king is our loving shepherd. Jesus is patient and tender-hearted as Sabbath king and universal sovereign, as the man appointed to judge all people (Acts 17:31). I love this way of remembering Jesus: He is universal sovereign and loving shepherd. That is the greatest and best Savior that needy sinners could ever have. He is our very life for now and forevermore for in Him we have spiritual, eternal, and resurrection life!

What shall we then say to these things?

I need this Savior/Shepherd who is universal sovereign and final judge of all. I own Him as my priest and I own Him as my king (Lord what will you have me to do?). I own His brothers and sisters as my brothers and sisters to learn from Him how to be a loving friend showing patience, kindness, forgiveness, gentleness, and hospitality.