AND NOW FOR THE HAPPIEST OF ENDINGS...
"Alexander the Great, king of Macedon, pupil of Aristotle, conqueror of most of the known world in his time, was one of the world's great young leaders. After years of exercising military pomp and prowess and after extending his kingdom from Macedonia to Egypt and from Cyprus to India, he wept when there seemed to be no more world to conquer. Then, as evidence of just how ephemeral such power is, Alexander caught a fever, and died at 33 years of age. The vast kingdom he had attained virtually died with him.
"Quite a different young leader also died at what seems such an untimely age of 33. He likewise was a king, a pupil, and a conqueror. Yet he received no honors from man, achieved no territorial conquests, rose to no political station. So far as we know, he never held a sword nor wore even a single piece of armor. But the Kingdom he established still flourishes some 2,000 years later. His power was not of this world" (Howard W. Hunter, "An Apostle's Witness of the Resurrection, April 1986 General Conference).
Last week we discussed the horrific circumstances of Christ's death. He was treated with such cruelty, such bitter disregard for the sanctity of the spirit of any man, let alone the Savior of the world. He was treated as the scum of the earth, and then he died. He exited this life in ignominy.
At the same time, he entered the next life crowned in greater glory than any human could have. In paradise and spirit prison, he taught the glorious truths of the gospel, unfettered by any opposition, to the adoration of many of the departed souls who had been waiting to hear it. (See 1 Peter 3:18-20; D&C 76:72-74; D&C 138.) He descended in glory from the heavens to the Nephite throng gathered round the temple, accompanied by angels and fire, preaching to a people who would believe it with all their hearts and change their lives accordingly as well as those of their descendants, a change that would last for 200 years. During this time, he also returned and ministered among his astonished disciples in Jerusalem, at a pre-appointed "solemn assembly" in Galilee, where he was able to teach with such power that the Church was established and enjoyed phenomenal growth after he left, despite persecution.
TURNING THINGS UPSIDE-DOWN
To quote Benson Y. Parkinson, an editor for CES, "An idea that comes up again and again in the scriptures is that sooner or later everything gets turned upside down." The rich young man must give away his possessions to gain treasure in heaven (Mark 10:21). The poor widow's mite is greater than the riches of the wealthy (Mark 12:43). When the rich guests in the parable refuse the king's banquet, the poor are gathered in their place (Luke 14:21). Brother Parkinson continues, "These reversals are regular enough to plan for. When the wheel turns, those on top will be on bottom. The only way to be on top later is to get on the bottom now." (Benson Y. Parkinson, "Gospel Doctrine Lesson 17," posted 7-24-99 on the old LDS World website, which is no longer available.)
Even the Hebrew social hierarchy was turned upside-down in the Kingdom of God on earth during Christ's ministry.
(Much of the following information on women in Greco-Roman and Hebrew culture and in the New Testament comes from my personal notes taken during a BYU Campus Education Week Lecture given August 21, 2003 by Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, BYU Professor of Church History and Doctrine, entitled, "The Last to Remain, to Return, and to Remember: Women as Witnesses." Notebook 7:40-44.)
Women were on the lowest rung of the ladder in both the Jewish and the Roman culture. Jewish women actually had it better than Roman women. To the Romans infant females were of so little value that they were often abandoned to die, to be picked up by someone wealthy who would raise them as slaves, or to be "rescued" by a pagan temple worker and raised to be temple prostitutes. The Jewish culture had no such heinous practices, but Hebrew women were definitely second-class citizens. A Jewish man would pray three times a day in gratitude that he was not 1) a gentile, 2) a slave, or 3) a woman. A woman was not allowed to be a witness in court, because women were not considered intelligent or trustworthy enough to give valid testimony. Women, by their very nature, were "unclean" for a week of every month because their menstrual cycles caused them to bleed. (This explains why the woman with the issue of blood did not dare to touch Christ, but only the hem of his garment--Matt. 9:20.) Hebrew women were vastly inferior to Hebrew men.
But once again, "while men were writing the histories, women were making history," and Christ gave women disciples the greatest of honors as they were doing the lowest of labors.
UNLIKELY WITNESSES OF THE RESURRECTION
Of the four gospels, Luke's is particularly cognizant of women. As a physician, he worked in one of the few careers in Hebrew society in which a man would daily come into contact with women, and especially in a position of serving women. (For more on the gospel writers, see a previous post.) As a Gentile convert, he geared his gospel for others like himself, who had come into the Kingdom of God from other cultures, especially the Greco-Roman culture.
We learn from Luke that the crowd who had followed Jesus from town to town was comprised of women as well as men. We even learn some of their names. "And it came to pass afterward, that he went throughout every city and village, preaching and shewing the glad tidings of the kingdom of God: and the twelve were with him, and certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils, and Joanna the wife of Chuza Herod's steward, and Susanna, and many others, which ministered unto him of their substance" (Luke 8:1-3). Notice the things we learn from this little scripture: there was a "certain" group of women who were close to Jesus, they were women who initially possessed debilitating weaknesses whom Jesus had healed (besides the "weakness" of simply being female), and they were women who supported him financially and/or fed him--they personally ministered to him. (Mary Magdalene was wealthy enough to have anointed Jesus with the very expensive spikenard, and Joanna, being the wife of a royal steward, certainly would have had money and means. No information is available about Susanna.)
Among these women were the elite group who were the first witnesses to four key events in the history of the world.
- They witnessed Christ's death on the cross.
- They witnessed his burial in the new sepulchre.
- They witnessed the empty tomb, guarded by two angels.
- They witnessed the resurrected Lord.
WITNESSES OF CHRIST'S DEATH
All three synoptic gospel writers (Matthew, Mark and Luke) record that women were among the last to remain at the cross. "There were also women looking on afar off: among whom was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome; (who also, when he was in Galilee, followed him, and ministered unto him;) and many other women which came up with him unto Jerusalem" (Mark 15:40-41). (Salome was the mother of James and John; see Matt. 20:20.)
WITNESSES OF CHRIST'S BURIAL
Joseph, the powerful Sanhedrin member who was secretly a Christian convert, went to Pilate in the evening, and begged the body of Christ, returned to Golgotha, took the body down off the cross, wrapped it in linen, and laid it in his own new sepulchre (Luke 23:50-53). Somewhere along the way, Nicodemus, also a secret Sanhedrin convert, joined him, bringing massive amounts of burial spices (John 19:38-40).
Matthew, Mark and Luke all record that the women were still there. Here is how Luke reports it: "And the women also, which came with him from Galilee, followed after [Joseph], and beheld the [location of] the sepulchre, and how his body was laid" (Luke 23:55). And they did not approve of "how his body was laid." It was not done properly, not finished--not necessarily because of neglect of Joseph and Nicodemus, but because of the hour and the coming Sabbath. But you know women and their Relief Society ways--tablecloths and flower arrangements and fridge magnets and meals. They were not going to let Jesus be buried in any halfway manner. So, these women "returned [to their lodging-places] and prepared spices and ointments; and rested the sabbath day according to the commandment.
WITNESSES OF THE RESURRECTION
From here on out, it gets confusing as to which women came when, since the different gospel writers were none of them eyewitnesses and were all of them writing much later in the century using second- and third-hand accounts, likely culled from interviews with different women. I like best the chronology provided in The New Testament with the Joseph Smith Translation, by Steven and Julie Hite (which I just bought today for $1 at a used book sale!), so I'm following theirs.
All four gospel writers make it clear that it was women who came to the sepulchre in the morning. Different writers mention by name different women, probably because of the reason noted above.
"Now upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came unto the sepulchre, bringing the spices which they had prepared, and certain others with them" (Luke 23:56-24:1). We can see from the italic print that the King James translators added the word "others" for clarification. Perhaps they could have better chosen the word "women," which would mean these were the elect "certain women" who had followed him through every village, been healed by him, and ministered to him daily as he ministered to everyone else. They were going to minister once again. And once again, they were going to give up certain privileges in society in order to do it, because touching the dead also made one "unclean".
"And they found the stone rolled away from the sepulchre..." (Mark records that they were wondering, as maybe you were, how they were going to roll that stone away.) "...and two angels standing by it in shining garments. And they entered into the sepulchre, and not finding the body of the Lord Jesus, they were much perplexed thereabout, and were affrighted, and bowed down their faces to the earth. But behold, the angels said unto them, Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen: remember how he spake unto you when he was yet in Galilee, saying, The Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again. And they remembered his words..." (Luke 23:2-8 JST in Bible Appendix, p. 807).
The words the angels were reminding them of are recorded by all three synoptic writers as having been given only to the disciples. (See Matt. 17:22-23; Mark 9:31-32; and Luke 9:43-44.) We often assume by "disciples" the writers mean "apostles." But these women were being told by angels to remember what Jesus spoke to them. The women were among the elect disciples who heard the prophecy. Luke records that all of the disciples present at the time "understood not this saying, and it was hid from them, that they perceived it not: and they feared to ask him of that saying" (Luke 9:45). So these women were the first to remember the prophecy, and the first to begin to comprehend what it really meant, although their understanding was still incomplete.
(By the way, the Joseph Smith Translation states in all four gospels that two angels were present, that they were sitting or standing outside the tomb, and that the women met them before they entered the empty tomb. The Joseph Smith Translation also reorders several passages, creating a better match in chronology. For more on the Joseph Smith Translation, see a previous post.)
THE WITNESS OF WOMEN
The women "returned from the sepulchre, and told all these things unto the eleven, and to all the rest...And their words seemed to them as idle tales, and they believed them not" (Luke 24:9,11; also Mark 16:11). (See also Matt. 28:8; Mark 16:7-8; John 20:2.) Why not? Because women were not valid witnesses.
But Peter and John were either just curious or they had learned at least a little bit about the Savior's trust in women after spending three years with him. They felt a little hope, and were energized by that hope enough to run. "So they ran both together: and the other disciple did outrun Peter, and came first to the sepulchre. And he stooping down, and looking in, saw the linen clothes lying; yet went he not in. Then cometh Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulchre, and seeth the linen clothes lie, and the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself. Then went in also that other disciple, which came first to the sepulchre, and he saw, and believed" (John 20:3-8). (See also Luke 24:12, which only mentions Peter. I am assuming Luke interviewed Peter, and John, writing later, filled in his own role. Some Bible commentators feel that other disciples might have accompanied them.)
Mark and John record that Mary Magdalene returned to the sepulchre, and only John (writing a more in-depth text to Church members) tells of Mary's encounter with the Lord there (Mark 16:9; John 20:11-17). The two angels were still there and asked why she was weeping. She didn't yet fully understand the true fulfillment of the prophecy, probably thinking it just meant that Jesus was risen in heaven in some ethereal way, and she still sought the body he left behind. Turning, she saw a man who asked why she was weeping. He did not identify himself, but when he spoke her name, the truth dawned upon her, and she recognized her Lord and Savior. She was commanded not to touch him, since he had not yet ascended to his Father.
It must have been after this, then, that the women again, "went to tell his disciples, [and] behold, Jesus met them, saying, All hail. And they came and held him by the feet, and worshipped him" (Matt. 28:9). (Knowing the difference in the passage of time between our world and heaven's this might have not been a very long time later.)
In all four accounts, the women witnessed what they had seen to the disciples, in three of the accounts being expressing commanded to witness, and to deliver the message that the Lord would meet the disciples in Galilee (Matt.28:7, 10; Mark 16:7; Luke 24:9; John 20:2, 17). But the disciples did not believe.
Mark and Luke report of the appearance of the resurrected Lord to two disciples walking the road to Emmaus. (Who knows? One may have been a woman, the wife of the other. Brother Holzapfel thinks it likely, since they lodged together.) He did not introduce himself. He waited for them to recognize him. And when did they finally recognize him? "And it came to pass, as he sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them. And their eyes were opened, and they knew him" (Luke 24:30-31; see also Mark 16:12). It was when he blessed the sacrament for them, an experience they had shared with him during his mortal life that recognition dawned upon them.
When they reported to the other disciples, the report was again met with unbelief (Mark 16:13).
We use the phrase "doubting Thomas" because Thomas did not believe the report of the other apostles when they shared with him next marvelous appearance of the risen Lord, when he met with them in the closed room where they dined (Mark 16:14; Luke 24:36-48; John 20:24-28), but it really is unfair. We could just as well say "doubting apostle" because every one of the apostles doubted the witness the women were commanded to bear. Mark states that Jesus "upbraided them [all] with their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they believed not them who had seen him after he was risen" (Mark 16:14). Thomas was just the last, and received the valuable counsel, "Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed; blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed" (John 20:29).
MEETING THE LORD AGAIN
It is touching to read John's report of what is possibly the sixth time the resurrected Christ appeared among his disciples. Seven of the apostles were at the Sea of Galilee. Peter decided to go fishing and the others offered to accompany him. They were out, of course, in the dark hours of the morning, as fisherman would be, but as the light began to come, a man came and stood upon the shore. He called to them, asking if they had caught anything. They said they had not. Then he said, just as he had done when first he had met them and adjured them to follow him (see Luke 5), "Cast the net on the right side of the ship, and ye shall find. They cast therefore, and now they were not able to draw it for the multitude of fishes. Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved saith unto Peter, It is the Lord" (John 21:6).
Jesus revealed himself to them by choosing this sweet reminiscence of the fateful day at the beginning of his ministry when he made them fishers of men. Perhaps he wanted them to have the joy of a dawning on their minds, as the dawn of the day was coming, that he was back. Perhaps he wanted to remind them that their important call to be fishers of men did not end with his death; that they were to cast in their nets and fish for souls until the Church burgeoned out so much that it was a strain to preside over it. In any interpretation, it was a poignant occurrence--something that one friend might share with another affectionately at a reunion.
Jesus also revealed himself to the disciples he met on the road to Emmaus by a shared memory, the blessing of the sacrament. And he revealed himself to Mary Magdalene by calling her name, as he had done many times in the past.
Is this the sort of thing that might happen to us when we meet Christ again? Will we have had personal experiences with him that he could recall to us? Will we recognize his voice because of the times he spoke to us "before"? Will we have memories of traversing our life's journey with Christ, so that what he says and what he does to greet us will ring with a joyous familiarity as recognition dawns upon us?
In order to recognize Christ there, we need to learn to know him here. For "this is life eternal" (John 17:3). We need to study his word, listen to his guiding Spirit, and recognize the workings of the Lord in our daily lives, for the last verse of the gospel of John is still happening all over the world and in every individual's life who will see it today: "And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written." (John 21:25)
THE CHANGE CHRIST WROUGHT AMONG THE SAINTS
The letter to the Galatians written by Paul shows the immense change that Christ made in the culture within the Church by his treatment of women during his life, and by his design for them to be witnesses of his resurrection. Paul was a Jewish Pharisee, and a Roman (see Bible Dictionary and Acts 23:27): not exactly a set-up for tolerance of others. But he received the gospel whole-heartedly upon his conversion, and by the time he wrote to the Galatians, he had completely reversed the thrice-daily prayer of the Jewish man. Rather than praying in "holier-than-thou" gratitude for not being Gentile, not being a slave and not being a woman, he counseled the church, "for ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one [and equals] in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:26-28).
We may be no better than the early disciples in some of our personal doubts, incomplete understandings of the gospel, and prejudices towards others. We must be open, as was Paul, to allowing the Savior to change our perspectives, and even sometimes to completely turn them upside-down, that we may be found in the resurrection at the top with Christ where all people are equal and all doctrines and purposes are clear.