The Struggle to Believe – Luke 24:9-12

By: Northern Seminary

I was eighteen, and I’d been a Christian for only a few months when I spent time at a spiritual retreat center. There were hundreds of other young people there from all over Europe, and we explored faith through each day, evening, and right into the night. It was fascinating, exhilarating, and challenging to be among so many people, united because they believed in Jesus.

On the last day I stood before a wall where someone had written “Pray for peace” and “Pray for the poor.” But it was the next thing he’d written that especially caught my attention: “Pray for those who can’t believe.”

That didn’t make sense to me. I was thrilled because I’d recently come to believe. I was excited because I’d been with other young adults who also believed. So I found it hard to understand a prayer for those “who can’t believe.” “Yes, they can believe,” I wanted to say.

But, with the wisdom of many years since then, I know now that many people don’t find belief that easy.

Luke 24:9-12
9 When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. 10 It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. 12 Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.

There are three sets of people in this short passage:

  • The women who had met with angels at the tomb and been told Jesus was alive.
  • A wider group, probably mostly men and they included the eleven remaining members of the apostles.
  • Peter, who acted differently from the others when he heard what the women said.

 

First, the women who knew and told those who didn’t know that Jesus was alive.

It seems obvious that they would share the news of what had happened less than an hour before, but they might not have. They had just gone through two traumatic experiences. The first was on the Friday as they had watched Jesus die by crucifixion. That death by torture had been bloody and barbaric, and it had happened to the Savior they had followed and in whom they had invested all their hopes.

The second experience was on that Sunday morning, going to the tomb in which Jesus’ body had been laid to anoint his body with spices. But the body wasn’t there, and instead two angels had scolded them for looking for the living among the dead. Jesus wouldn’t be there; he had risen.

Luke tells us the names of at least some of those women: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and then he adds that there were others, too (v. 10). These are interesting people. They had come from different backgrounds. They’d lived through different experiences. They were of different ages. They’d experienced life in its rawness and its richness. What they were not was stupid or naïve. Their rational minds told them what had just happened couldn’t be real. Talking with angels wasn’t something they did. Believing the man they’d watch die in weakness on a cross could now rise with power from the dead and walk out of his tomb wasn’t something they could believe.

Therefore they could have left the tomb and the garden in which it was set, and as they walked away begun to think carefully about what had just happened, and then to act sensibly with everything they said and did next.

“Surely,” they might have told each other, “these last days have overwhelmed us. Perhaps what we thought we saw and heard was a group hallucination.” And they could have concluded that everyone would think them mad if they told their story. Instead they’d keep quiet and tell no one.

But they didn’t say that and they didn’t do that. Probably they had not understood everything that happened by the tomb, but they knew the angels were real and the message that Jesus was alive was important, so they had to tell others. Whether everyone believed them or thought they were crazy, they were going to tell.

The first church where I was pastor had a great sense of mission, and half of the church members had been Christians for less than seven years. The best evangelists in that church were those brand new Christians.

At first that seemed very odd to me. They knew the least about their faith. They’d never been through training courses in how to share the gospel. But new people were being won to Christ through those baby Christians.

Then I realized two things.

One was that the new Christians had lots of friends who were not Christians. Many of those who were long-established in the faith no longer had non-Christian friends. All their close relationships were with believers, and so they had very few natural opportunities to witness. Not so with the new Christians in our church.

My second realization is that the new Christians weren’t held back by trying to learn or know correct doctrine. I don’t mean they had bad doctrine, but they weren’t inhibited by trying to ‘know enough’ or ‘master the gospel message.’ All they had was their personal experience of Christ and a changed life, so they told that to family and friends and often that was all others needed to draw them to Jesus too. The young Christians had had a wonderful experience; now they told everyone else; and people came to faith. It was marvelous.

Many of us have a real fear that people will ridicule us for what we say about God and the gospel. The women who left that tomb set their fear aside, and told what they knew to everyone else. They are an example to all of us.

 

Second, there were those who heard the women and who then would not or could not believe what they said.

We know that the women passed on their news “to the Eleven and to all the others” (v. 9). Who were these people? Clearly they were those who had believed in Jesus already. Judas, Jesus’ betrayer, had gone,[1] but the other eleven of Jesus’ inner circle were still together. The “others” must have included the two men Luke will describe in verses just after this – men who met with Jesus on the road to Emmaus – because they describe the women’s story during their walk (Luke 24:22-24). Later Luke puts the number of believers at 120, and very possibly many of them were with the apostles when the women returned (Acts 1:15). So it was no small gathering who listened to the women talk of angels and a risen Jesus.

But it was a disbelieving gathering. Luke’s description of their reaction is very blunt: “…they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense” (v. 11).

Down through the years skeptics have argued that the story of the resurrection had its origins in the wishful thinking of the disciples. Either they so hoped for it to be true or they so expected it to be true, soon it was being told as if it was true.

But there is nothing in the gospel records to support that idea. Maybe they should have expected the resurrection, but they clearly didn’t. Even when these women brought them evidence of an empty tomb and angels telling good news that Jesus had risen from the dead, they dismissed every word as “nonsense.” They thought their words were a folk myth or some kind of hallucination. They certainly did not believe them.

Why so faithless? Why not embrace the message the women brought? Why doesn’t everyone believe the gospel?

Treatises have been written to address that last question. For me, there are three basic answers to why people don’t believe. They can be summed up in three negative responses people make when presented with the good news.

Number one response to the gospel: I don’t believe because it can’t be true. What you are telling me is impossible. Maybe those who say ‘it can’t be true’ are unable to conceive of a supernatural being, or they can’t reconcile the idea of a loving God with suffering in the world, or the idea that God’s Son would die on a cross for them and then be raised back to life is bigger than anything they could imagine. The way their intellect works will not allow them to believe.

Number two response to the gospel: I can’t afford for it to be true for my whole life would have to change. For some, the barrier to faith doesn’t lie in the intellect but in the will. To accept the reality of a God who is Lord and Judge of all things would be life changing. To honor God would mean rethinking everything about their lives: every relationship, every action, every goal, and so on. And they’re not willing to do that.

Number three response to the gospel: It seems too good to be true, so I dare not believe it. Everything the gospel holds is marvelous. Who wouldn’t want forgiveness? Who wouldn’t want God with them? Who wouldn’t want eternal life? But – some say – I can’t believe something so wonderful could be for a person like me. Or, what if I try for such faith, and give my whole life to it, and then one day can’t keep it up. I couldn’t bear the pain of it not being true any more.

People can think like that. I remember counselling Jenny. Her relationship with Arthur was fabulous, beyond her greatest dreams. She so wanted to marry him. But then she hesitated. Maybe all this happiness wasn’t real, or even if it was real now it might not last and she’d lose it. Jenny told me: “I’m going to tell Arthur it’s all off. If I never take this love further, I can never lose it later.” As gently as I could, I helped Jenny see that fear was controlling her and we talked about faith and trust.

That conversation with Jenny was about twenty five years ago, and Jenny and Arthur have been married now for twenty three of those years and they are doing really well together. Their love has not only lasted, it’s grown. But it nearly never happened, because of the idea that something might be ‘too good to be true.’ That same line of thought can keep people from truly believing their sins can be forgiven and they will rise from the dead. That’s so good, some see it as too good to be true.

As I look at things, none of these reasons for unbelief stand hard examination. And any barrier people put up against faith in God is wrong. For example, choosing to rule your own life and live your own way rather than surrender to the living God is about the worst decision anyone could ever make. But though all reasons for shutting out God’s truth are sinful, those who can’t believe need our patience and our prayers. The day may yet come when they take a step towards real faith.

 

Third, there was one who at least wanted to explore whether the message he had heard could be true.

Peter listened to what the women said, and he had to check it out for himself. All around him were people saying this was nonsense, but “Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves” (v. 12).[2]

Those strips of linen had been wrapped round Jesus’ dead body. Now they’re just lying there. The body is gone. That didn’t prove the resurrection, but it was a powerful pointer in that direction.

Peter had done the most important thing he could. Instead of sitting and shaking his head at women telling idle tales, he’d gone looking. His search at the tomb didn’t give him instant answers, but his mind was now spinning with possibilities. Luke writes: “he went away, wondering to himself what had happened” (v. 12).

The word “wondering” Luke used is thaumuzōn in Greek, and it is neither positive nor negative. It doesn’t mean Peter now believed or now disbelieved. Peter simply ‘wondered’. He couldn’t bring all the facts together. He couldn’t resolve what had happened. He had no full understanding of the evidence before his eyes. So he went away, pondering what he’d seen, trying to make sense of it, working his way slowly towards a real understanding.

That’s how it has been for many of us. We’ve gone back and forth in our thinking. Sometimes we’ve moved towards faith and sometimes we’ve slipped back. For some it’s been an inner war, pulled this way and that, and feeling the pain of the fight.

The New Testament says there is a war, but hidden from human eyes. Paul writes: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12). Our comfort is that Jesus has prayed for protection for his disciples: “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one” (John 17:15). God’s arms are outstretched around his people.

Yet frail human beings will still struggle with faith, a struggle to understand, a struggle to surrender our lives, a struggle to relax into those outstretched arms of God with trust that he is good and his will for us is good.

There is no surprise about that, as there is no surprise that Peter walked away from the tomb wondering. God’s ways and God’s truth can’t be reduced to a simple formula or a memorable tag line. We will struggle when before us is truth so enormous, so life-changing, and so wonderful that it ‘blows our minds.’ It is truth beyond anything we have ever previously been told or experienced.

Peter left wondering, but ultimately wasn’t left wondering because his persistent God brought him to a place of great faith and ultimately great leadership among those first believers. We struggle too, but those who struggle in sincerity for the truth are rewarded with discoveries from God more wonderful than their wildest dreams. And they become servants for God in ways greater than their deepest longings. The struggle is certainly worth it.

 

[1] Luke explains Judas’ fate in Acts 1:18-19.

[2] John gives a similar account of that run to the tomb in his gospel: John 20:3-7.

April 14, 2015




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