Eyewitness Accounts

Heritage Presbyterian Church https://heritagepresbyterian.org

April 12, 2020
Easter Sunday
Scripture readings – Matthew 28:1-10, Mark 16:1-8, Luke 24:1-12, &
John 20: 1-18

Any police officer will tell you that eyewitness accounts can be extremely unreliable.  If something occurs that is significant, even a handful of reliable people can see the same event very differently.  Some may see details that are significant – but not agreed upon by everyone.  Others may see the whole picture and agree on the major details, while at the same time, leaving some doubt as to exactly what they thought about that event.  In any case, eyewitness accounts can differ and distract those who are seeking the common truth.

I have stated often that it is highly significant when all four Gospel writers tell the same account of any event in the ministry of Jesus Christ.  When all four “tighten up” on their stories, I always encourage listeners and students of the Bible to pay close attention to those particular accounts. 

In the Gospels, all four writers tell of John the Baptist and when he baptized Jesus in the Jordan River.

In the Gospels, all four writers describe in exquisite detail Jesus healing the sick and casting out demons…although they tend to tell differing accounts and differing healings.

In all the Gospels, all four writers describe Simon Peter as something less than the strong, clear-minded, well-spoken leader of the early church that he became after he hung out with Jesus for three years.

In the Gospels, all four writers tell of the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

In the Gospels, all four writers tell of Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, trial, condemnation by Pilate, death on the cross, and hurried burial in a nearby tomb.

All four Gospels do this and do it well.  But on Easter morning, we get slightly different accounts that can trouble any careful reader of Scripture.

In Matthew’s account, we have two women early in the morning who went to see the tomb.  We have an earthquake, an angel who rolled the stone away, terrified guards who passed out cold, the angel telling the women that Jesus had risen from the dead, and finally – to go and tell his brothers he would meet them in Galilee where it all started.

In Mark’s account, we have three women who went to the tomb very early in the morning to anoint Jesus’ body.  As they walked, they realized that they were going to have to roll that heavy stone away from the tomb, and they could not do it.  They arrive at the tomb and find the stone has already been rolled away, and the tomb is empty.  When they enter, they saw an angel who told them Jesus was not there, he had risen from the dead, and they should go and tell Peter and the disciples to meet him in Galilee.  Then we are told that the women were amazed – and terrified, and so they ran away and didn’t tell anyone.  We also know this last detail is not true; if those women didn’t tell anyone, then how do we know this story today?

Next, we have the account from Luke, the storyteller of the Gospel writers.  Luke tells us that the women went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body, and we are also told that the group of women numbered at least 4 or 5.  Those women encountered two angels in the tomb who told them Jesus was not there – he had risen from the dead.  The women hurried to tell the disciples who thought their story was “an idle tale” or just hysterical nonsense.  But then…Peter gets up and runs to the tomb.  He looks inside and sees the linen burial cloths off to the side by themselves.  He goes home “amazed at what had happened.”

Finally, we get John’s version.  John’s entire Gospel doesn’t line up well with the other three, but then those Gospels are referred to as the Synoptic Gospels; this means they all seem to come from the same story or synopsis.  But not John’s Gospel.  His is filled with long, long discourses that Jesus gives during his ministry.  Yet even John’s Gospel describes much of that same event on Easter morning.  This time, though, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb alone, probably to mourn.  She finds it open and empty, so she runs to tell Peter and John.  Both of them run to the tomb and find what she told them was true.  Both disciples look inside, John believes Jesus has risen from the dead (we are not told Peter’s reaction), and then both return home. 

But that’s not where John’s account ends.  Now we are left with Mary Magdalene crying alone at the tomb.  She sees two angels, one of whom asks her why she is crying.  Mary is now completely overcome…she doesn’t even realize that Jesus also has come up to her and asked the same question: “Woman, why are you weeping?”  Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus until he says her name.  Then she comes to her senses and goes to hold him.  He tells her not to hold on because he has not yet ascended to the Father.  He tells her to go and tell the apostles.  And the story ends.

So, we are left with four accounts of what happened on Easter morning.  Only one of those Gospel writers was actually there, John, but even John’s Gospel doesn’t tell us the same story as the other three.  The details cover the same basic outline, but they also leave us with questions:

  • How many angels were there?
  • Which women were there?
  • Did Peter and John both go to the tomb, or was it just Peter?
  • Was Jesus actually there or did they only see him later?
  • Exactly how did that pesky, heavy stone get rolled away from the tomb’s entrance?

You see what I mean?  Uncertainty every place we turn.  But that’s what happens when eyewitness accounts are revealed.  Too much uncertainty, it would seem.

And yet…doesn’t a certain level of uncertainty leave room for faith to fill in the blanks?  Doesn’t the basic outline of events make sense when you consider that the four Gospels were originally written over a span of at least 50 years, and that they were translated and retranslated and copied and recopied over and over before the established and accepted Gospels were in print?  Do readers and believers give more credibility to Matthew’s account and John’s account because they were actual Apostles?  Do Luke’s and Mark’s accounts get taken less seriously because they were originally second-hand stories told to them by someone else?

What are we to make of all this?

Perhaps this year’s Easter Sunday is the perfect time to ask these troubling questions about uncertainty.  We literally have uncertainty existing all around us in virtually every aspect of our daily lives.  When will the social distancing end?  When can we gather for church again in person?  How long before it’s safe for the kids to return to school again?  How long before we can safely shake hands – or give hearty hugs again to those we haven’t seen for a while?

Uncertainty…with lots of room for faith to fill in the answers for all of us.  

Perhaps instead of seeking solid, undeniable, unquestionable facts in the four Gospel accounts, we should instead delight and use our imagination and faith to fill in the blanks wherever we see them.

In doing so, we point out to the world that our faith cannot be moved by any uncertainty.  Instead, it is exactly our faith that helps us encounter and deal with uncertainty of any sort.

Believe, Christians.  The tomb is empty…because He is risen.

He is risen indeed!

Alleluia!  Amen!