It was fitting that the first person to meet the Lord after his resurrection was Mary Magdalene, who had shown him so much devotion previously, and who had risked arrest and death by sticking so close to him during his trials, crucifixion and at the tomb. She arrived at the tomb at the first available moment, as the sun was coming up on the first non-Sabbath of the week. Her plan was to assist the other women in anointing Jesus’ body – a final act of adoration and respect. (Had she forgotten that she had already done this in John 12:1-8?) Arriving early, she saw two angels, where others had only seen one; then she met the man himself – Jesus ‘Not the Gardener’! He was risen, yet in a physical body, looking pretty much like he always had, and yet somehow very different. Later, his disciples thought the same, as they worshiped their master and their friend.
John, the only male eyewitness to both the death and resurrection, again itemises carefully the evidence for Jesus having risen from the dead. John seems to indicate that the ‘cocoon’ of heavy, saturated embalming linen was still in place (but collapsed in the absence of the body) and the head covering was also exactly where it had been. It would have been impossible for anyone to remove the body and leave that evidence. The dead body had to have been removed by God, at the same time as Jesus was resurrected miraculously. In John’s eyes, such was the power of this evidence that “He saw and believed”.
For a while, the Eleven had to rely on Mary Magdalene’s account of seeing the risen Christ. (We also rely upon eye-witnesses.) But then Jesus appeared later that evening (despite the locked doors!) and revealed himself personally to them all. His newly resurrected body still carried the marks of crucifixion as a badge of honour. These ‘body piercings’ would last for all eternity and save the lives of billions! He breathed life-giving breath into everyone present, anticipating the events of Pentecost 50 days later.
Thomas was not especially cynical or prone to doubting; it was simply that they had seen him, and he had not. He was probably very annoyed to have missed this amazing meeting. Perhaps slightly stubbornly he declared that he wouldn’t believe until he had had the same experience. A week later, Jesus obliged him. The result: “My Lord and my God!”. (And that is the essence of a true believer’s confession.) Jesus pointed out to Thomas that he had had the opportunity to gain greater spiritual blessing by choosing to believe before he had seen – rather like our situation, then. How blessed are we!
It is possible that John chapter 21 (in tomorrow’s reading) was originally an afterthought in the mind of the Beloved Apostle – but not in the mind of God! Certainly the chapter 20:30-31 reads as if it were the original ending, and is perhaps a more fitting ‘bookend’ to the gospel since it mirrors John 1:1-5. John ends this chapter with the key statement: 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
1 SAMUEL 28, 29, 30 and 31
Meanwhile, back to the Samuel, Saul, David, and the Philistines story! David had impressed his Philistine host, Achish, so highly that he and his men were invited to be Achish’s bodyguard from then on. Achish was totally unaware of David’s other battle exploits that were not against Israel.
Samuel’s death meant that King Saul had no means of hearing from God – not that it really mattered, since God was not inclined to speak to Saul anyway. Saul suddenly became aware of the Philistine army and was petrified and became desperate for reassurance. So he did a very strange and wicked thing: he enquired of a medium (one of a group that he had previously expelled from Israel, on the grounds that contacting the dead in any way was forbidden by the Lord) and asked for the spirit of Samuel to be consulted and brought up from the grave. Whichever way you look at this action, it was evil, and Saul knew better than this – but his fear of the Philistines and his grief over Samuel’s death probably combined to tempt him to go against God’s commands and to dabble in the occult.
Theologians debate what really went on here; my own view is that is really was Samuel’s spirit and that he really did speak to Saul – and God permitted it. Prior to the death and resurrection of Christ, it seems that anyone who died was obviously separated from their body, but also went to Sheol, a place of unconscious ‘sleeping’ for the spirit, ready to be awakened at the Final Judgment. When Jesus died and rose from the dead, those same righteous men and women were awakened and taken into heaven to be with him; those who now die in the faith of Christ go to be with Him in heaven instantly. On the Last Day (of this age) he will return with all the Faithful Departed to meet those who are still alive. We will all receive new bodies fit for eternity. Those who died in their sin (the unrighteous) will remain ‘asleep’ until the Great Day of Judgment. (Sceptics might want to see a few bible verses to prove this series of events – and rightly so. But that is for a future posting!)
So Samuel’s spirit was temporarily awakened by Saul, but it did Saul no good at all. All Samuel said was to reiterate what he had prophesied to Saul whilst alive, adding: “…and tomorrow, you and your sons will be with me” (i.e. dead)! This turned out to be true. The next day the Philistines gathered a huge force of men and began their attack against Israel and Saul. David’s presence became extremely uncomfortable for the Philistine commanders (who probably remembered that ‘Goliath’ incident!) and they were concerned that David might double-cross them in order to reconcile himself to Saul. David himself was probably in a dilemma about what side to fight on in the battle, and so he was grateful that the Philistine commanders insisted that he be sent away – so therefore he didn’t have to choose!
Instead, he returned to base camp to discover that his family and his men’s families had been kidnapped and they had been robbed. “David found strength in the Lord his God” – some great words! They pursued and caught their kidnappers and put them to the sword, rescuing their wives, children, and possessions – all fully intact. Clearly God had given them the victory, which is why David insisted that every man had an equal share of the spoils – since every man belonged to the Lord equally.
On the other side of the battle lines, the inevitable happened: Saul and his sons perished in their battle with the Philistines, along with most of Israel’s army. The rest ran away. Saul took his own life to avert the final shame of being captured. So ended a sad life that began so promisingly and ended in fear, jealousy, and defeat. Failure to obey God and a lack of trust in him seem to be the pitfalls that Saul always found. He was Israel’s first failure as a king.