Do you remember when you were young and excited by Christmas? How you couldn’t wait for those last few days to pass before Santa’s visit? And how your anticipation peaked on Christmas Eve as you listened for sleigh bells and dreamt of shiny presents just for you? So do I.
Why do you suppose we weren’t ever as eager for Easter?
Believe it or not, Matthew gives us a hint in the verse above which describes the confusion of the disciples upon seeing the resurrected Jesus. What follows are perhaps the most famous words in the gospel, including, “Go ye therefore and teach all nations…” It seems the context for the Great Commission is not the glow of revival fire but the shiver of uncertainty.
About this doubt, the other gospels give us more detail. Mark tells us that, upon appearing to the eleven, Jesus rebuked them for their stubborn refusal to believe. Luke’s last chapter relates two stories: that of the two mourners returning to Emmaus and another one about the disciples—both of them studies in spiritual myopia. But John’s account is the most incriminating of all. He devotes his final two chapters to post-resurrection appearances and the pathology of unbelief. The cases of blindness, alas, far outnumber the instances of recognition. And these weren’t people who had never known Jesus. They were His companions. Compared to these others, then, Matthew is the diplomat, sparing us the sorry details with his summary remark, “but some doubted.”
Doubted what? Obviously the very existence of Jesus, so soon after witnessing His agonizing execution and the burial of their hopes along with His body. Or perhaps they doubted that He was really there, in body, before them, instead of just an apparition. Or if He was before them in body, then maybe He had never really died, though they had heard Him give up His ghost, or did He?
But whatever their doubts, that’s not our problem, is it? Today’s Christian, safe within the fortress of tradition, of course believes that Jesus was raised from the dead, ascended, and awaits His time to return. To doubt that is to deny the faith, after all. Then is our text just an historical account of the ignorance of Jesus’ generation, or is there anything that should matter to us? So what if His disciples doubted the facts as long as we don’t? And what does it have to do with being eager for Easter?
For the answer, we first consider the only other time Matthew used that same word for doubt. It is found on the lips of Jesus when He gently rebuked Peter, who had stepped out of the boat, but looking around, began to sink. After raising him up, Jesus asked, “Why did you doubt?” Not, “Why did you fear?” but, “Why did you doubt?” The issue wasn’t the stormy surroundings but the identity of Jesus. “Why did you doubt [it was I who was calling you]?” Fear happens. Doubt hurts. Fear comes from our circumstances. Doubt from our self. Now we’re getting to the heart of the matter.
Paul’s magisterial exposition of resurrection found in I Corinthians 15 paints a glorious picture of our future: Christ has died and was raised, so we shall die and one day be raised. Of the many other points he makes, this one may be the most unappreciated: The resurrection of your glorified body won’t occur until your natural body has first been buried, for the simple reason that, as Paul says, “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.” The precondition for bodily resurrection, therefore, is bodily death. Seems logical enough. Yes, but the logic is life-changing, for the same principle applies to the realm of the spirit.
While the transformation of the body from natural to glorified occurs only later, at death, the transformation of the spirit can take place now. It did for Paul on the Damascus road. “I am crucified with Christ,” he declared to the Galatians, “nevertheless I live.” But, just as the glorified body won’t exist until the natural body is first buried, so one cannot experience the wonder of a glorified life until the natural life is buried. That is, we won’t have resurrected thinking, for example, until the old thinking is put to death. We won’t have resurrected feelings until the old feelings are slain. “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.” Could the reason that we have never enjoyed much of the thrill of victory in our Christian walk be this obvious: We have never died? Died daily to our attempts to save ourselves. Died finally to our will. Died forever to our doubts. As Peter doubted Christ on the sea, we doubt Christ on the land, in our homes, at our jobs. We’ve not buried the old and therefore cannot experience the new. We are suspended, instead, in the lukewarm limbo of doubt, between two types of existence. “Is that really God speaking?” “Must I stop that habit?” “Does it really matter if I pray?”
Many of us would feel right at home with those disciples in Matthew’s account: Part of us wants to worship, but part of us still doubts. Consequently, we win some and lose some spiritually. Funny, but “you win some, you lose some” is not in my concordance. Nor is it in the will of God. In Christ, rather, you always win by losing (i.e., dying)—losing to your spouse, your friend, your God. Until you roll the stone in front of the grave of your life and cover it, God can’t roll it away and set you free, for what you sow does not come to life unless it dies.
Admit it, you were as excited as I was at Christmas when we were young and believed in Santa. But our lives were changed and that thrill would wane once we learned the awful truth: There is no Santa Claus. That was the beginning of the end of childhood. But the good news, the thrilling news, is that adulthood awaits, and it’s even better. There is a risen Christ and His life can be ours today! No doubt about it.