What a traumatic three days Jesus’ disciples must have had! On Holy Thursday, they heard Jesus predict his death at the Last Supper.
Then at Gethsemane, they fled in fear when Jesus was arrested. Later that night, Peter denied that he even knew Jesus and ended up weeping bitterly over his cowardice. Then came Good Friday, when Jesus was beaten, tortured, and crucified.
Everything they had hoped for was destroyed. In the face of all these horrors, the “kingdom of God” that Jesus had spoken of seemed little more than a pipe dream. By the time Saturday had come around, all the disciples could do was hide and hope that the authorities wouldn’t come for them as well.
The Triumph of Death. How did it ever come to this? All the signs told them that God was with Jesus. He had been so successful: preaching about God’s love and salvation, performing miracles, and offering mercy to everyone who came to him. So why did God abandon him at the hour of his deepest need? From the day they first met him, Jesus seemed to be in control of every situation. But now he ended up powerless. Maybe Jesus wasn’t who he had claimed to be after all.
It’s not hard to imagine the disciples thinking that Jesus might have been a misguided would-be savior. Living in an occupied land, the people of Israel were subject to a corrupt and violent regime. And whenever there is such oppression, saviors and messiahs spring up promising a brighter future. The Book of Acts tells us about a self-proclaimed prophet named Theudas and how “about four hundred men joined him, but he was killed, and all those who were loyal to him were disbanded and came to nothing.” Then there was “Judas the Galilean,” another supposed savior. “He also drew people after him, but he too perished and all who were loyal to him were scattered” (Acts 5:36, 37).
Maybe the disciples had simply fallen for something similar to these two false messiahs. Maybe they had allowed themselves to get caught up in another man’s impossible dreams, only to have their hopes dashed in the end. Sin and death always seemed to win out over goodness and purity. Maybe they even believed the scoffers at Calvary who called out, “He saved others; he cannot save himself” (Matthew 27:42).
Jesus: Freed from Death. But then came Easter Sunday, when Jesus burst through the disciples’ gloom and depression. He was alive! And not just alive, but he was transformed. He still bore the marks of his crucifixion, but he was miraculously free from all the ways death smothers life. He could still perform wonders like the miraculous catch of fish. He could still impart God’s mercy as he did for Peter on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. He could still imbue bread and wine with his presence, as he did for the disciples in Emmaus. Death didn’t have the last word after all: Jesus had risen to a new and glorious life!
Sin didn’t have the last word, either. While he was alive, Jesus was the most sinned-against man in the world. But no matter how much he suffered at the hands of other people, he never retaliated. There was never a hint of resentment in him against those who hated him or plotted to kill him. Not once did he let his enemies’ threats dissuade him from his mission. He didn’t even let the disciples’ infighting or lack of faith weigh him down or make him regret his choice. As he hung on the cross, Jesus offered nothing but forgiveness for those who had crucified him. Not even Judas’ betrayal or Peter’s denial could darken his heart.
So while it seemed that sin and death won out on Good Friday, that illusion didn’t last very long. Just three days later, Jesus was standing before his disciples once again, speaking words of forgiveness and mission and love: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21).
The Apostles: Changed by the Resurrection. Christ is risen! This is the message of Easter Sunday. Jesus has defeated death along with all the forces that lead to death and keep us in its grip. Rising to a new and glorious life, Jesus showed that mercy, faithfulness, and love had the final word, not the violence, hatred, and jealousy that had led his enemies to kill him. So when we celebrate Easter, we are celebrating something much bigger than Jesus’ coming back to life. We are celebrating the fact that death has been defeated—once and for all!
Over and over in the Book of Acts, we see how the disciples experienced the same victory that Jesus knew. We see them proclaiming that the resurrection is a promise for everyone who believes. We see them moving out into the world filled with confidence and courage, sharing the gospel with everyone they meet. Even when the authorities beat them and imprisoned them, they continued to preach the good news—because they were no longer afraid of death.
We also see sin’s grip on the disciples begin to loosen. When they were persecuted and treated harshly, they didn’t give in to vengeance. Rather, they tried to forgive, dusted themselves off, and kept their eyes focused on building the Church (Acts 14:19-20). Even when the threat of division loomed within the Church, they didn’t let themselves break into warring camps. Instead, they prayed together, listened to each other with respect and humility, and asked the Lord for guidance and protection (15:1-2). Rather than let pride or fear for their reputation lead them to sin, they sought to treat each other with the same love that Jesus had for them.
Of course, they didn’t always get it right. Sometimes the divisions took some time to get resolved, but they kept working at it. Sometimes the mistreatment by outside forces was very harsh, but they persisted. And God kept on blessing their efforts.
The Promise Is for You. What a witness for us! All too often, we measure our spiritual condition based on our performance. If we have kept the commandments, we feel good about ourselves. If we have failed, we either become defensive or get lost in guilt. We can think this way about the people around us as well, placing them in camps of “sinful” or “righteous.” But thoughts like these don’t lead us closer to the Lord. More often than not, they lead us away from him and the love he wants to give us.
Of course we should try our best to keep the commandments. Of course we should examine our consciences. Of course we should be discerning with regards to other people. But we also need to remember that Jesus has made all things new. He offers all of us—even our enemies—a second and a third and a fourth chance. He doesn’t condemn; he saves. This is how we should think as well. We all need to pray for the grace and the power to forgive, to let go, to resolve differences, and to find peace with everyone, even those who do not like us.
Every challenging situation—an illness at home, a setback at work, an insult from a neighbor—can feel like a “little death” that threatens our peace, no matter how well things are going overall. But as we become more convinced that Jesus has triumphed, all these deaths can lose their sting. Our confidence in Jesus grows. And that confidence teaches us to walk through every situation at peace, with our heads held high. “I am a child of the resurrection! Death has no hold over me!”
On Pentecost Sunday, Peter told the crowd, “The promise is made to you and to your children and to all those far off, whomever the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:39). This promise of freedom through the Holy Spirit is a generous gift from a generous God. He wants to heal us and help us so that we can experience the freedom that comes when death and all of its trappings are disarmed.
Sharing in the Victory. Jesus has defeated death. We will face challenges, and there’s no guarantee that every struggle will end well. But God never promised us a string of happy endings. He promised us the grace and strength to move through each challenge with confidence and trust.
Keep this promise in the forefront of your mind. Every day during this Easter season, tell yourself that Jesus has conquered sin and death. Remind yourself that he has drained death, in all its forms, of its power over you. Fix your eyes on the risen Lord, and tell him that you believe in his victory. As you do, you’ll find a deeper joy taking hold of your heart.