“When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, “You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.
“And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus…” – Acts 3:12-20
“While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.”
“Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you– that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” – Luke 24:36-48
He said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures…” (Luke 24:44-45)
The scriptures Jesus opened the disciples’ minds to were the ancient Jewish scriptures, what we now call the ‘Old Testament’, or the ‘book of the law’. These names are actually sort of misleading, because God’s promises to God’s people have always rested on faith and grace, not on law, even in ancient Israel. The law was given to lead God’s people to grace. But Luke’s point is: Jesus dug into the nation’s history.
There are times when understanding history is the only way to understand what is going on in the present.
And I’m not saying that just because I’m a history buff. I am… but I like history because it is the story of real people doing real things, and there’s always something to learn from that. For example, today is Native American Ministries Sunday in the United Methodist Church. Today we remember a part of our nation’s history that we’re not particularly proud of. I can’t help but wonder how different America would be if our ancestors had been wise enough to learn from Native Americans rather than pushing them away. If, for example, they had understood and appreciated the Native American belief in treating land and animals with dignity and respect, how much cleaner would our water and air be today? How many animals would not be threatened with extinction today? Native Americans understood – and still understand – what it means to be good stewards of God’s creation – which is something, quite honestly, Christians have not been very good at throughout history. But knowing what has happened in the past can, if we’re paying attention, improve the present and the future.
In our scripture for today Jesus likewise finds himself in a moment where knowing history is absolutely essential. Of all the lessons Jesus taught his disciples, this one is probably the biggest and most important.
To set the scene: it’s late afternoon on the day after Jesus’ resurrection. In the morning some of the women had gone to Jesus’ tomb and found it empty and guarded by an angel who told them to tell the disciples Jesus was alive and to meet him in Galilee.
The disciples didn’t believe them.
Later in the day a couple of Jesus’ followers walked to the town of Emmaus, about seven miles away, and bumped into Jesus on the road. They didn’t recognize him right away but they talked with him for a long time, and when Jesus broke bread with them they remembered the last supper and realized who he was… and they ran back to Jerusalem and told the other disciples Jesus was alive.
The disciples didn’t believe them.
But while they’re talking about all this, Jesus appears among them. He shows them his hands and feet. The disciples are terrified and can’t believe what they’re seeing. They think they’re seeing a ghost. Jesus says, “why are you afraid? Does a ghost have flesh and bones?” And then he asks if they have anything to eat… something a ghost would never ask!
After the disciples settle down and realize this is really happening, Jesus begins to explain from the scriptures – from the Old Testament – what has happened in the past three days. Luke tells us Jesus talked about “everything written about himself in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms”.
There are many, many references to the Messiah in the Old Testament, so this would have taken some time. I like to imagine all the disciples sitting down to a fish dinner while Jesus is teaching. Luke doesn’t tell us which passages Jesus pointed to, but we can take an educated guess as to what some of them would have been.
Jesus probably started with Genesis chapter three. After Adam and Eve ate the apple and were confronted by God for disobeying his command, God says to the serpent who deceived them:
“Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals… I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:14-15 edited)
Hidden within God’s judgement on the serpent is a promise: one of Eve’s offspring will crush the serpent’s head. Take a look at how one artist has rendered the spiritual reality behind this prophecy. (Credit: Sr. Grace Remington, OCSO)
On the left we see Eve, holding the apple in her hand, weeping. The snake is wrapped around her ankles, tripping her up as she tries to walk. On the right we see Mary, pregnant with Jesus, holding Eve’s hand to her belly so she can feel the baby inside her, while Mary’s foot is standing on the snake’s head.
Mary’s baby, Jesus, is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Adam and Eve that one of their children would defeat the serpent. Jesus is the one whose death on the cross pays the price for the human race’s addiction to sin.
Jesus probably also talked to the disciples about Abraham. The great Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Islam, and Christianity – all look to Abraham as their founder, the man who believed in one true and living God. Abraham predates Moses and therefore predates the law. God says to Abraham,
“I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and will give your descendants all these lands; and by your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 26:4)
God’s promise to Abraham is for all the nations. That includes the disciples, and that includes us. The apostle Paul points out in his letter to the Galatians that God said to Abraham “by your seed all the nations will be blessed” not “by your seeds (plural)” (Galatians 3:16) – indicating that the seed is one person, one savior who is to come from the line of Abraham.
Paul goes on to point out Abraham’s salvation was by faith in God’s promise, not through the law (because the law hadn’t been given yet); and likewise we are promised salvation through faith in Jesus, not through the law. Paul writes: “if the inheritance comes from the law, it no longer comes from (the) promise; but God granted it to Abraham through (the) promise.” (Galatians 3:18) So salvation comes through God’s promise, not through the law… in both the Old Testament and the New.
Having reminded the disciples of this, Jesus no doubt would then have gone on to talk about Israel’s experience with Moses. He would have talked about the Passover, how God told Pharaoh through Moses that the firstborn of everyone in Egypt would die if God’s people were not allowed to leave Egypt. Pharaoh threw Moses out. Then God told Moses to tell the people: every household is to take a lamb and cook it and eat it and put the blood over the doors of their homes, and when the angel of death comes that night and sees the blood he will ‘pass over’ that house. So the people paint the lamb’s blood over their doors using a plant called hyssop as a brush. That night the first-born of every living thing in Egypt dies, except in those houses where the blood is over the door. The people of Israel are set free and begin their journey toward the promised land.
The Passover points to Jesus – the ‘lamb of God’ – whose sacrifice and whose blood protects us from death and brings us into God’s promised land of eternal life.
Hyssop is also mentioned in the Psalms, in David’s prayer of confession, Psalm 51. David writes:
“Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean…” (Psalm 51:7)
David understands that it is the blood of the Lamb over a person’s heart that saves life, like the blood of the lamb over the door did in Egypt. In writing this, David is pointing to the Messiah.
David was not just King of Israel, he was also a prophet, and many of his psalms look forward to the Messiah. Jesus would certainly have reminded the disciples of Psalm 22, which includes a description of the crucifixion 1000 years before it happened. David writes:
“All who see me mock me; they hurl insults… I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted away within me. My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death. Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.” (Psalm 22:7,14-18)
David has not only predicted the Messiah’s death, but he describes crucifixion, a form of capital punishment that won’t be invented for another 500 years. And Jesus directs our attention to this Psalm from the cross when he says, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – which is the first line of the psalm.
Having reviewed the Psalms, Jesus then turned to the prophets. He might have pointed to Isaiah, who said this about the Messiah:
“Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning… fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.” (Isaiah 9:5-7)
Isaiah also predicts that the Messiah will suffer. He says in Isaiah 53:
“He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. […] He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death… After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied… For he bore the sin of many…” (Isaiah 53:5-6, 9, 11, 12b)
Isaiah predicted not only Jesus’ crucifixion, but also his burial in a rich man’s tomb, and that the suffering servant would ‘see the light of life’ after having borne the sins of his people.
Jesus probably also reminded the disciples of the parallel between the prophet Jonah – who was three days in the belly of a whale – and the Messiah, who was three days in the grave. He reminded them of the time the Pharisees confronted Jesus and demanded a sign, and Jesus told them:
“A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” (Matthew 12:39-40)
These, and many other passages, Jesus shared with his disciples that night.
And so it was that a few weeks later, Luke tells us Peter and John are in the Temple and they heal a lame man in Jesus’ name and then explain to the crowd what’s going on, quoting the history Jesus has taught them:
“The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate… you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know… God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord…” (Acts 3:13-20 edited)
Peter and John now understood the history behind the events of Holy Week, and they were able to speak from that history with authority. They could point to what was written down – God’s covenants, God’s promises – as the foundation of their personal testimonies.
Like Peter and John we are also called to make the good news of Jesus known. And like them, we do not rely on spoken word alone, but draw from the written history. God’s covenant has been written – in all ages, for all ages, starting from Abraham and Moses and moving forward.
Luke says Jesus called on ‘the law, the psalms and the prophets’, and so can we. May God add understanding to our minds and hearts through the power of the Holy Spirit as we learn our spiritual history from God’s word and share it with others. AMEN.
Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 4/19/15