A clear conscience

The Mosaic Law and its corresponding religious system which was put in place when the Israelites were delivered from bondage in Egypt were only meant to be an example of God’s forgiveness of sins. They were a foreshadowing of things that were to take place in the future. The writer of the book of Hebrews pointed out that a physical system of sacrifice was flawed because it could not permanently remove the effects of sin (Hebrews 8:7-9). He explained, “Now when these things were thus ordained, the priests went always into the first tabernacle, accomplishing the service of God. But into the second went the high priest alone once every year, not without blood, which he offered for himself, and for the errors of the people: the Holy Ghost this signifying, that the way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest, while as the first tabernacle was yet standing: which was a figure for the time then present, in which were offered both gifts and sacrifices, that could not make him that did the service perfect, as pertaining to the conscience” (Hebrews 9:6-9)

The ultimate goal of God’s plan of salvation was the perfecting of the human conscience. The Greek word translated conscience in Hebrews 9:9 is suneidesis (soon-i’-day-sis). “Suneidesis literally means ‘a-knowing,’ a co-knowledge with one’s self, the witness borne to one’s conduct by conscience, that faculty by which we apprehend the will of God, as that which is designed to govern our lives. The word is stressing that we receive input from our surroundings [temptations, decision-making events, etc.] and we are driven to make a decision. We compare what we know with our conscience [con — ‘with’ , science — ‘knowledge’], our knowledge base about this input. If we follow our conscience we act according to what we know to be true about the situation and the consequences/blessings of our decision. We can violate our conscience by overriding that knowledge” (G4893). The reason why the New Covenant was a better covenant was because God said that he would “put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts” (Hebrews 8:10). When we are born again, God gives us the ability to discern his will and through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the power to do what our conscience tells us to.

The effect of Jesus’ death on the cross was a complete cleansing or purging of guilt from every believer’s heart. The writer of Hebrews explained that the blood of Jesus was able to do what the blood of animal sacrifices could not. He said, “For if the blood of bulls and goats, and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Hebrews 9:13-14). Jesus’ sacrifice of himself was able to “remove sin’s defilement from the very core of our beings” (note on Hebrews 9:14). The key to accomplishing this was Jesus’ entrance into heaven and appearance before God as the intercessor for all mankind. It says in Hebrews 9:26-28, “But now once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgement: so Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation.”

So much better

The writer of the book of Hebrews began his discourse with a comparison of Jesus to the angels in Heaven. He said:

God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they. (Hebrews 1:1-4, NKJV)

Although Jesus existed before he was born on Earth, it says in Hebrews 1:5 that he was begotten or conceived by God through physical means. The writer of Hebrews distinguished Jesus from angels by stating “For to which of the angels did God ever say, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you’?” (Hebrews 1:5, ESV). Jesus’ unique nature as both God and man set him apart from any other created being.

Another distinction the writer of Hebrews made between Jesus and the angels was his position of authority at God’s right hand. In Hebrews 1:13 he asked the question, “And to which of the angels has he ever said, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet’?” (Hebrews 1:13, ESV) and then responded, “Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?” (Hebrews 1:14). It is evident from these statements that one of the things that made Jesus so much better than the angels was his physical state. God had to take on the form of his human creatures in order to save them from the destruction that was associated with sin.

God’s plan of salvation included the necessity for a savior to die for the sins of the world. God couldn’t have fulfilled this requirement through the death of anyone other than a human being. It was Jesus’ dual nature as both God and man that uniquely qualified him to be the sacrifice that takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). It says in Hebrews 2:9, “But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” Jesus’ experience with death consisted primarily of the separation of his physical body from his spirit which lasted only three days until he was physically resurrected.

Some people believe that humans become angels when they die. This belief might be founded on the erroneous idea that humans cannot exist without bodies. Revelation 6:9-10 makes it clear that our souls consist of matter that can be seen in the spiritual realm. It says, “And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held: and they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?” Perhaps the single most important reason Jesus’ death and resurrection made him so much better than the angels was that it made it possible for the physical and spiritual realms to be united. Even though it might seem nice to become an angel when we die, wouldn’t it be so much better to have a body like Jesus’ that can exist in both the physical and spiritual realms?

A divine appointment

In the midst of his success in Samaria, Philip was unexpectedly called to go to the middle of the desert and wait for further instructions. It says in Acts 8:27-31:

And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. (ESV)

Luke’s description of the man that Philip encountered in the middle of the desert provides a clearer understanding of what was going on when these two strangers met. First, it’s very unlikely that the Ethiopian was Jewish or had any contact with the temple in Jerusalem. As a foreigner and a man that had been castrated (G2135), the Ethiopian was excluded from being a member of the Jewish congregation (Deuteronomy 23:1). The Ethiopian’s intent when he went to Jerusalem to worship was probably to obtain the ancient scroll that he was reading when Philip joined him in his chariot. It could have been a personal quest that led the Ethiopian to seek out knowledge about God or an assignment from the queen that caused him to travel hundreds of miles to Jerusalem. The Ethiopian’s identification as a man of great authority who had the charge of all the queen’s treasure meant that he was both intelligent as well as financially secure. It’s likely that the Ethiopian’s wealth enabled him to obtain the scroll of Isaiah which probably cost him a substantial amount of money.

It says in Acts 8:32-33 that the place of the scripture which the Ethiopian eunuch read was this, “He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and like a lamb dumb before his shearer; so opened he not his mouth: in his humiliation his judgment was taken away: and who shall declare his generation? for his life is taken from the earth.” The Ethiopian eunuch seemed to have stumbled upon a passage of scripture that was very relevant to the day in which he lived. With Jesus’ death and resurrection still fresh in everyone’s mind, it seems almost ironic that the Ethiopian left Jerusalem with an ancient prophecy that was directly related to their current circumstances.

After Philip explained to him how he could be saved, the Ethiopian wanted Philip to immediately baptize him (Acts 8:36). Even though they were in the middle of the desert, Luke indicated “they came unto a certain water” (Acts 8:36) and after confirming the Ethiopians decision, Philip complied with his request. Luke stated, “And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart , thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him” (Acts 8:37-38).

Going home

Jesus’ ascension into heaven is only mentioned briefly in two of the gospels, and again in the book of Acts. Mark stated, “So then after the Lord had spoken unto them, he was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God” (Mark 16:19). The Greek word Mark used to describe what happened, analambano suggested that heaven was opened up as if there was a door that Jesus simply had to walk through. The prefix ana (an-ah´) is properly translated as up, but by extension it can be used distributively to mean severally, or locally at (G303). Luke used two different words in his account of Jesus’ ascension which is recorded in both Luke 24:50-53 and Acts 1:6-9. Luke stated in his gospel that Jesus was “carried up” (Luke 24:51) anaphero (an-af-er´-o). Luke’s use of this word to describe Christ’s departure likely meant that Jesus didn’t want to leave Earth, but it was time for him to go, somewhat like a child that is having fun playing outdoors being called by his parent to come home for dinner (G303/G5342). Luke said “a cloud received him out of their sight” (Luke 1:9). In other words, a cloud blocked their view of Jesus. Piecing together Mark and Luke’s stories, you can almost imagine Jesus hearing his Father’s voice telling him, “It’s time to come home Son,” and Jesus obediently walking through a door to Heaven and suddenly disappearing.

Luke used the phrase “taken up” (Acts 1:9) epairo (ep-ahee´-ro) in the account of Jesus’ ascension that is recorded in the book of Acts. The reason Luke used the word epairo in Acts instead of anaphero may have something to do with Jesus’ position as opposed to his location. In the book of Acts, Luke was probably referring to Jesus taking his position at the right hand of God. The two Greek words that are combined to form the word epairo, epi (ep-ee´) and airo (ah´-ee-ro) have to do with Christ taking upon himself the sin of the world (G1909/G142). The right hand of God is “a position of authority second only to God’s” (note on Mark 16:19). As a result of his death on the cross, Jesus was exalted to the highest position a man could attain. Peter explained this transaction in the sermon he preached on the day of Pentecost. He said, “This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses. Therefore being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, he hath shed forth this, which ye now see and hear. For David is not ascended into the heavens: but he saith himself, The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, until I make thy foes thy footstool. Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:32-36).

A chain reaction

The events that occurred on the day Jesus was resurrected from the dead formed what could be described as a chain reaction. It began before sunset when Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and discovered that the giant stone that blocked its entrance had been taken away (John 20:1). According to John’s gospel, “Then she runneth, and cometh to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and saith to them, They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulcher, and we know not where they have laid him” (John 20:2). John, who referred to himself as “the other disciple, whom Jesus loved” reported that he believed Jesus had risen from the dead when he went inside the empty tomb and saw “the linen clothes lie, and the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself” (John 20:6-7, 8). Afterward, Jesus appeared to Mary and told her, “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father; but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father, and to my God, and your God” (John 20:17). As a result of this experience, John said, “Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that he had spoken these things to her” (John 20:18).

The Apostle Peter’s reaction to the empty tomb was not the same as John’s. Luke stated that when he saw the linen clothes lying by themselves, he “departed, wondering in himself at that which was come to pass” (Luke 24:12). Luke indicated that two of the men that heard Mary say she had seen Jesus and did not believe her (Luke 24:11), left the city and headed for a distant village, perhaps to escape the pressure of the situation (Luke 24:13-14). Luke didn’t identify the person traveling with Cleopas to Emmaus, but it’s possible that his companion who was a man named Simon, was actually Peter. After their encounter with Jesus on the road to Emmaus and the meal in which his identity was revealed to them, Luke reported, “they rose up the same hour, and returned to Jerusalem, and found the eleven gathered together, and them that were with them, saying, The Lord is risen indeed, and hath appeared to Simon” (Luke 24:33-34). The Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Corinthians that Jesus was first seen by Cephas, the Greek surname of Peter (G2786), and then by the rest of the twelve apostles (1 Corinthians 15:5 and note).

The tipping point in the twelve apostles acceptance of the news that Jesus had returned from the dead came when they were listening to the report of what had happened to the two men traveling to Emmaus. Luke stated, “And they told what things were done in the way, and how he was known of them in breaking of bread. And as they thus spake, Jesus himself stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they had seen a spirit. And he said unto them, Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts? Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have. And when he had thus spoken, he shewed them his hands and feet. And while they yet believed not for joy, and wondered, he said unto them, Have ye here any meat? And they gave him a piece of broiled fish, and of a honeycomb. And he took it, and did eat before them” (Luke 24:35-43).

Jesus’ demonstration of his human capability of eating was probably meant to be taken as convincing proof that he was indeed alive, not just a resemblance of his former self. The experience of watching their risen savior eat appears to have been the final spark in the chain reaction that ignited the apostles faith. Unfortunately, there was one apostle that wasn’t present when it happened. John reported, “But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the Lord. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). Jesus indicated the cause of Thomas’ doubt was a lack of trust (John 20:27). Thomas wasn’t convinced that his friends were telling him the truth. Therefore, Jesus gave Thomas the opportunity to see for himself that his Lord and his God was truly alive (John 20:27-28), but afterward, Jesus rebuked him stating, “Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed” (John 20:29).

A stranger

Jesus’ resurrected body had different capabilities than the one he had before he died. While she was at his tomb looking for his missing body, Jesus appeared to Mary, but she didn’t recognize him (John 20:15). It wasn’t until he spoke her name that Mary was able to comprehend that the man speaking to her was actually Jesus (John 20:16). Afterward, Jesus instructed Mary “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father” (John 20:17). Later that day, Luke’s gospel tells us that Jesus appeared to two travelers that were on their way to a village called Emmaus (Luke 24:13). Somewhere along their 7.5 mile journey, Jesus joined Cleopas and his companion. Luke stated, “But their eyes were holden that they should not know him” (Luke 24:16). The Greek word translated holden, krateo is derived from the word kratos. “Kratos, ‘force, strength, might,’ more especially ‘manifested power,’ is derived from a root which means ‘to perfect, to complete’; ‘creator’ is probably connected. It signifies ‘dominion,’ and is so rendered frequently in doxologies” (G2904).

Apparently, one of the capabilities Jesus had after he was resurrected was to keep his identity a secret. After Jesus began talking to Cleopas and his companion, Luke recorded, “And the one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answering said unto him, Art thou only a stranger in Jerusalem, and hast not known the things which are come to pass there in these days?” (Luke 24:18). Cleopas’ identification of him as stranger meant Jesus no longer resembled the man he once was. Cleopas who was a follower of Christ (Luke 24:13) should have been able to recognize Jesus if he looked the same. It’s likely that Jesus’ clothes and mannerisms were unlike the people around him, but even though Jesus’ appearance had changed, he still looked human. Mary mistook him for the gardener (John 20:15) and Cleopas and his companion merely thought Jesus was from a foreign country (G3939).

The irony of Jesus’ mistaken identity was that Cleopas and his companion began telling him what had happened concerning “Jesus of Nazarath”, how he had been condemned to death and crucified (Luke 24:19-20). They even told Jesus about Mary’s discovery that his tomb was empty and her testimony to the apostles that he was alive. In his account of this incident, Luke went on to say that Jesus rebuked Cleopas and his traveling companion, “And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). In other words, Jesus preached the gospel to them so that they could see they didn’t really know what they were talking about. Luke went on to say:

And it came to pass, as he sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them. And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight. And they said one to another, Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures? (Luke 24:30-32).

The Greek words translated vanished in Luke 24:31, ginomai (ghin´-om-ahee) aphantos (af´-an-tos) mean that Jesus became invisible to them (G1096, G855), he was still there, but they could no longer see him. It’s possible, the reason Jesus first appeared to Cleopas and his companion as a stranger was because they didn’t truly understand who he was from a scriptural standpoint. Once their eyes were opened, meaning Cleopas and his companion had sufficient spiritual discernment to understand what was happening, Jesus’ physically manifestation was no longer necessary.

Personal testimony

Each of the four gospels; Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John includes a record of the resurrection of Jesus. It’s not surprising that each of these accounts was different considering that the authors experienced this event at different times and in different situations. What appears to be consistent about Jesus’ return from death was that everyone that saw his resurrected body talked about it through a process of giving their own personal testimony. In other words, each person shared their experience by stating, this is what I saw with my own eyes, not what someone else has told me about it. The exception to this rule was the personal testimony of the women that first encountered Jesus on what is now known as Easter morning. In the time period when Jesus’ death and resurrection happened, a woman’s testimony wasn’t considered valid. Therefore, it’s no wonder they didn’t believe Mary when she came and told Jesus’ eleven apostles that she had seen him and he was alive (Mark 16:11).

Luke’s gospel indicated there were several women that testified to Jesus’ resurrection as a result of their own personal experience. He said, “It was Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and other women that were with them, which told these things to the apostles. And their words seemed to them as idle tales, and they believed them not” (Luke 24:10-11). The Greek word that is translated idle tales, leros (lay´-ros) means “twaddle, i.e. an incredible story…Leros denotes an incredible tale in that it is foolish talk, nonsense, lacking credibility” (G3026). The reason why the apostles didn’t believe the women may have been because they were hysterical, but it is possible that these women were both calm and coherent when they relayed the details of what happened and yet, for some reason, the apostles refused to believe them.

Perhaps, the best explanation for why the apostles didn’t believe Mary when she told them Jesus was alive can be found in Luke’s concluding statement, “and they believed them not” (Luke 24:11). The Greek words Luke used, apisteo autos suggested that it was actually unbelief or more specifically, the apostles own unwillingness to trust in God that made them reject the news that Jesus had been resurrected. Two of the apostles, Peter and John, went to the tomb to investigate Mary’s story and found that the tomb was indeed empty just like she had told them, but they still refused to believe that Jesus was alive (Luke 24:36-41). That might explain why Jesus appeared to the women first, rather than his own apostles. Even though their testimony didn’t carry much weight, at least Mary and the other women were willing to believe that what they had seen and heard when they went to Jesus’ tomb was real, not a mere fantasy or wishful thinking.