Even by my old, earthly standards, the room was stuffy, dingy and crammed with people. To be blunt: the stench of sweat mixed with cooking odors and burning lamps was uncomfortably strong. How so many people managed to pack into one room bordered on the ingenious. I was reminded of the way large families in parts of Asia manage to ride on one motorcycle. I recognized a few of those in the room from the crowd listening to the Jesus’ teaching, and some from the crowd at his crucifixion. Most, however, were new to me.|
“I’m telling you, Jesus is dead. D-E-A-D,” a man spelt out, “and dead men stay dead.”
“Oh, Thomas, you’re not still going on about this are you?” replied someone rather impatiently.
“Yes, I’m going on about it! It’s a full week since you claim you last saw Jesus. Isn’t it about time you all came to your senses? And especially you, taxman. John floats around with his head in the clouds and Peter’s got a mouth big enough to swallow anything, but I expected more of you, Matthew. I always thought of you as a hard-nosed facts and figures man, and here I am, still waiting for you to ditch your ghost story and snap back to reality.”
“Thomas, these eyes saw him,” said Matthew, pointing to his eyes. “With my own ears I heard him as we spoke with him for perhaps thirty unforgettable minutes!”
“Oh, sure! He walked right through a locked door!”
What this place lacked in breathable air, it made up for in tension.
“That’s a breeze compared to opening that tomb from the inside. No human could do that.”
Thomas looked at Matthew hopefully. “Now you’re talking, taxman! At last you agree that we’re talking impossibilities here. I tell you, I was really worried about you!”
“Thomas! The body’s gone – despite all those guards. How – and why – would anyone steal his body?”
Another man spoke, “And the grave clothes were removed and left behind, neatly bundled up. Who in their right mind would take such care – with the guards there and everything?”
“We’ve seen him, Tom,” said another, “and we spoke with him – in this very room.”
“An apparition – a vision!” Thomas snapped back.
“We all simultaneously had the same hallucination?” asked Matthew incredulously.
“Well . . . mass hysteria!”
One of them, chest out, moved closer and stuck his big brown nose in Thomas’ face, “Oh, I’m emotionally unstable am I!” His voice was raised. “I’m a blubbering nut-case?”
Thomas, seemed a little nervous about this man’s aggression. “Well, not exactly hysteria, James – sort of auto-suggestion.”
James, prodding Thomas on the chest with his finger, said, “I’ve got a suggestion for you, egghead!”
Was James one of the Sons of Thunder? I wondered. Part of me wanted to rush off and bury myself in a Bible for a few moments to find out, but I was too enthralled to dare blink an eyelid, much less look in a book, even if I had one.
“Cool it, James,” ordered Matthew, “it does sound incredible.” A few moments later he added, “But Thomas, it’s not just us who saw Jesus, some of the women –”
“Women! Those emotional wrecks couldn’t see for tears!”
One of the women, hands on hips, moved closer, and in an indignant tone said, “Well, thank you!” She was short, plump and fiery. Each word oozed sarcasm like a sponge soaked in lemon juice. Thomas seemed taken aback.
“They touched him, Tom.” Matthew was calm. “They held his feet.”
“Yeah? Did you touch him?”
“N . . . no – but I saw his wounds.”
“He breathed on me,” said another man.
Matthew’s eyes lit up. “Yes, that’s right. I felt his breath. He told us about God’s Spirit and breathed on us. Hallucinations don’t breathe.”
“What about when he walked with Cleopas and his friend to their house in Emmaus?” an older woman said.
“Sure! Walked seven miles on feet that had had nails driven right through them!”
A couple of the people groaned. Matthew shook his head. “But Jesus is healed,” said another. “He’s risen!”
“Rubbish!” said Thomas.
“Jesus broke bread with them,” said a young voice. With eyes that had been adjusting to the dim light, I peered into a dark corner. In response to the crush of people, a teenaged girl was perched on someone’s knees. In her arms was what I presumed to be a baby sister.
“And he ate with us,” added Matthew.
“Look, you can talk till you’re blue in the face –”
Matthew, looking around the room, said, “Where’s Peter? He’s unusually quiet!” There were occasional other conversations going on in the crowded room but this one was certainly the most animated and held center stage. Matthew beckoned to the burly man I remembered seeing on my first visit to this era, “Hey, Mouth!” The man began squeezing past others and slowly made his way toward us. He was going bald, making his large head look even bigger. Matthew put his hand on Peter’s shoulder. “Set this guy straight, will ya? Explain the new understanding of the Scriptures Jesus has given us.”
“Hey, before you do,” said a man, “new thoughts have been spinning round my head lately. Can I try them out on Thommo?”
“Go for it, John!” said Peter. His dark bushy beard made his teeth seem whiter as he grinned.
“The way I see it, the whole sacrificial system instituted by God has death and resurrection built into it.”
“Eh?” said Thomas.
“Well, take the Day of Atonement,” continued John. “Two goats are chosen. They’re innocent. They have done nothing to contribute to human sin, yet one is slaughtered for our sin and afterwards the other is presented alive before the Lord for our atonement. We need a substitute who will die in our place, but after that sacrificial death we need a living substitute to complete our cleansing from sin.”
“Then there’s the ceremonial cleansing of a leper. Two clean birds are taken. One dies and its blood is poured out. The living bird is dipped in this blood and then released, bearing the marks of recent death upon its wings. Is it just me? That sounds like death and resurrection to me. And only after both the death of the bird and the release of the living one can the now-cleansed leper join God’s people.”
Thomas looked at Matthew. “What’s he raving about?”
“The sacrificial system foreshadows Jesus because Jesus is the final – the ultimate – sacrifice,” said Peter.
“How dare . . .” Thomas was getting flustered, “that’s blasphemy! Human sacrifice! Scripture categorically forbids it. It’s an abomination to God!”
“That’s because anything worthy of sacrifice must be without blemish. Except for Jesus, all humans are defiled by sin and so their sacrifice would be a senseless waste of human life and an insult to the holiness of God. But Jesus was unlike any other human – perfectly sinless. A normal human sacrifice –”
“A normal human sacrifice! I can’t believe I’m hearing this! Ghost stories are one thing, now you’re talking like pagans!”
“Scripture over and over shows that human sacrifice is a concept close to the heart of God,” continued Peter.
“Oh, come on!”
“Who asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac? Satan? Pagans? It was God’s idea.”
“You can’t bring that up! The Lord planned all along to stop Abraham from going through with it. He intervened and Isaac lived.”
“And after Jesus’ death,” said Peter, “God intervened and Jesus lives.”
“Oh!” uttered Thomas in disgust – or perhaps frustration.
“You can squirm as much as you like, Thomas, that whole episode in Abraham’s life was initiated by God. And what’s circumcision if it isn’t the shedding of human blood to seal a divine covenant?” said John.
“This principle is woven into the very fabric of creation,” added the feisty plump woman. Even she, however, seemed a little embarrassed as she continued. “Our Creator made us so that the binding covenant of marriage is sealed through the shedding of virgin blood.”
“And the new covenant the Master spoke about during the supper we had just a few days ago could only be sealed by the shedding of innocent human blood,” said Matthew.
“What about God’s ruling on anyone guilty of manslaughter?” Peter asked. “They are confined to the city of refuge, unable to leave year after year, until the high priest dies. Nothing but the physical death of the high priest can secure their pardon.”
“And Jesus is our high priest, whose death –” the woman began.
“You’ve flipped!” said Thomas. The woman fumed. Her head covering slipped a little, revealing graying hair. She seemed a little young to be going gray. If they had any way of blackening hair back then I guess it was less common among the poor.
“Don’t let him get to you, Mary,” said a female voice I could not locate.
So she’s Mary. It was such a common name among Jesus’ followers, however, that the name did not tell me nearly as much as I had hoped.
“What about in Elisha’s day when Moab was attacked?” There was excitement in his voice. Peter clearly loved telling a good story. He quickly had everyone’s attention and reveled in it. “The king of Moab knew there was no escape. He was surrounded, hopelessly outnumbered and the invading army was closing in for the kill. In desperation that pagan king grabbed his firstborn son,” Peter seized one of the disciples and acted it out, “and slaughtered the lad before the eyes of the enemy, then used that boy’s carcass as a sacrificial offering. Suddenly, all the invading soldiers lost interest in fighting and left in peace. The Moabites were saved.”
Thomas retorted, “The army withdrew in disgust, horrified at such a godless act.”
“Maybe so, but it worked. Countless lives were saved because of a ritual human sacrifice.”
“Oh . . !” said Thomas, with obvious disgust.
“Haven’t you ever puzzled over why the Lord recorded that incident in Holy Scripture? Was it because he planned to one day sacrifice his own Son so that multitudes would be saved?
“And remember how Jesus spoke about the sign of Jonah and applied it to himself. When Jonah was in the fish’s belly, Scripture speaks of him being in hell, and after three days he emerged alive and because of that thousands of people were saved from God’s judgment. That’s just like Jesus rising from the grave after three days and saving from God’s judgment all who believe in him.
“And then there’s Isaiah’s ‘Man of Sorrows,’ wounded for our transgressions; made an offering for sin.”
“That’s referring to our nation!” protested Thomas.
Others groaned. Some shook their heads. “But it says this ‘Man of Sorrows’ was righteous!” said one.
“Isaiah said there was no deceit in him,” said another.
“Israel wasn’t innocent!” added the first.
“Even if Isaiah were referring to Israel,” continued Peter, “– surprisingly innocent Israel – it’s still human suffering and death as an offering for sin.”
“And the ‘Man of Sorrows’ definitely dies!” said John. “Isaiah says he was cut off out of the land of the living. He poured out his soul unto death. He made a grave with the wicked, it says, and with the rich in his death. But then it says he shall prolong his days.
“If that’s not death and resurrection of a sinless human for the forgiveness and salvation of God’s people, I don’t know what it is!”
“Yes, Tom, explain that!” said James.
“And then there’s that marvelous Scripture –” said Peter.
“Ah! I’ve had all I can stomach, Rockhead! Scripture calls human sacrifice an abomination and that’s the end of the matter.”
One of the women raised her voice, “Thomas Didymus, you’re stubborn, conceited –”
“And have the brains of a mud brick!” added John.
The others cheered.
James, with his index finger less than an inch from his thumb, put them under Thomas’s nose. “And you’ve been about this close to having your head –”
“James!” chided a woman.
“How could the death of animals remove our guilt?” asked Peter. “Sure, we desperately need a substitute, but it’s humanity that’s sinned. It’s humanity that faces the death penalty. And no one who himself is under the death sentence could bear the penalty for someone else. Earth needs a sinlessly holy human, willing to trade places with sinners. How could anyone or anything be an effective intermediary between God and man except Jesus, the sinless sacrifice?”
The others cheered and clapped. “Good on ya, Rock!” said one.
“You tell him, Mouth!” said another.
“What’s happened to you lately?” pleaded Thomas, scanning faces, hoping for some sort of support. “We used to be on the same wavelength. Now you’ve suddenly become know-alls.” There was silence for a few moments. “Look, you’ve been under a lot of stress, you had your hopes –”
“So we’re all grief-stricken fools then?” said James. “We’ve cracked? Is that it?”
“We can’t tell the difference between a ghost and a real person?” added another.
“Or in three days we forgot what Jesus looks like, and confused him with someone else – someone who not only looks exactly like him and has his voice, but someone with his wisdom and gentleness and mannerisms?” said Matthew.
Peter said, “Or we’d been on a drinking binge when we thought we saw Jesus?”
“Yeah, Thommo,” James was getting worked up again, “just what are you accusing us of?”
“Look! I told you before and I’ll tell you again,” his brown eyes glared stubbornly, “unless I hold him with these arms, put my finger in the holes in his hands and put this fist in his wounded side, I’ll never believe!”
Suddenly, Jesus was in the room. There was no sound or movement; no opening of doors or crashing through walls; no gradual materialization. One moment that part of the room had a little space; the next blink Jesus was there. My heart pounded in shock, and yet there was something about it that seemed almost natural. Maybe it was my flitting from place to place – all over the universe for all I know – that created this sense of it being natural for someone to instantly appear. Thomas had been standing fairly close to the wall, facing inward, in eye contact with the others. Jesus had appeared behind, and just to the right of him. Thomas continued talking, oblivious to what had just happened. “I’m not into distorting the holy Word of God. I’m not into superstition. I’m not into emotionalism. I’m not into making a fool of myself –”
Most of the rest were as wide-eyed as me, staring straight at Jesus. A couple motioned to some others, speechlessly drawing the attention of those who had not been quite looking in Jesus’ direction. The place grew as quiet as death. Thomas, mystified by their behavior, turned to see what everyone was staring at. For a long couple of seconds he was expressionless. Then, reaching over, he gingerly touched Jesus.
“It’s . . .” But that is all he could get out. He fell in worship at Jesus’ feet. The others giggled.
“Thomas,” Jesus placed his hands in front of Thomas’s face, “put your finger in these holes. Put your hand in my side.”
“Jesus, my Lord and God!” gasped Thomas.
There was a reverent awe for several minutes, then Jesus, a big grin on his face said, “Let’s have something to eat!”
Everyone suddenly came alive. Some laughed. Some cheered. Some come up to Jesus and joyfully embraced him. Some shook his hand. Others slapped his back.
Jesus took some food, had a bite and with the remainder still in hand said, “You’ve heard my teaching. You’ve seen my miracles. You’re witnesses to my victory over death. I now appoint you to go to the ends of the earth, telling everyone, so that they, too, may believe and have eternal life.”
Then to my astonishment, Jesus began to – well we would call it rap.
“As the Father sent me, I’m sending you.
As the Father helped me, I’m helping you.
As the Father loves me, I’m loving you.