Christian Book Reviews, Author Interviews, Excerpts

Jesus: An Intimate Portrait

  • Leith Anderson Author
  • 2005 26 Mar
Jesus:  An Intimate Portrait

After days and nights of grief, the women awakened before dawn on Sunday with plans to go back to Jesus' grave. Hearts breaking with sorrow and minds full of questions, Salome and the two women named Mary bought burial spices and went to say their final good-byes.

"Who can we get to roll back that stone and let us into the tomb?" they asked one another as they walked. They were already anxious about moving the stone door, getting past the guards, and dealing with a body that had been dead for three days, but they never anticipated another earthquake. The ground shook like a stormy sea.

What the women hadn't seen was the angel that came to Jesus' tomb during the earthquake. So brilliantly bright, he looked like a sustained flash of lightning; his clothes were as white as snow. The guards nearly died from fright — shaking at first and then so paralyzed by fear they looked like stone statues. They watched in terrified awe as the angel easily rolled the stone back up its groove and stuck it back where it was positioned before Friday afternoon.

Soon after the earthquake settled, the women arrived at the tomb. Mary Magdalene arrived first. She paused in amazement when she saw that the guards had fled and the tomb was wide open. As soon as the other two women caught up, they all walked past the large stone and into the tomb entrance. They expected to see Jesus' body, but it wasn't there! Instead, the angel was to their right, sitting on the shelf where the body had been. They didn't realize at first that he was an angel. They thought he was just a young man dressed in a white robe. He stood up, and when he did they saw another man — actually a second angel. They seemed to glow brighter and brighter, like white lightning. The women had already had enough to be startled about that day, but the presence of these celestial beings surely was the most frightening so far. They couldn't look at the brightness of the angels. They bent over and looked down at the ground, shielding their faces.

The first angel said, "Don't be afraid! You are looking for the body of Jesus of Nazareth. Why would you look for the living in a tomb? He has risen! He is not here. Look for yourselves at the shelf where they laid his body. After you've taken a good look, run and tell his disciples and Peter, ‘Jesus has risen from the dead and is going to meet you in Galilee. You'll see him there, just as he told you.' "

The women were speechless and trembling with fear and wonder. They turned and ran from the tomb, headed straight to Peter and the other ten disciples. Mary Magdalene told the men, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don't know where they have put his body!" As Joanna, the other Mary, and the rest of the women arrived, they all gave the same report. All eleven men listened as they heard news about an earthquake, missing guards, brightly lighted men, an open tomb, and the missing body. The women were excited and searching for words to report these amazing events. None of the men believed much of what they were saying because it sounded like nonsense to them.

Peter eventually determined it was obvious that something amazing had happened, and he wanted to see for himself. "Come on, let's go to Golgotha and see what is going on," Peter told the ten men.

Peter got a head start, but John outran him and arrived first. John stopped at the tomb entrance and looked inside. He saw that the linen burial strips that had been wrapped around Jesus' body on Friday just before sunset were now lying flat on the shelf without being unwound. When Peter arrived, he went past John and walked straight in. Peter examined the linen strips that John had seen from a distance. Then John came inside and suddenly remembered all Jesus' predictions about coming back from the dead. John saw, remembered, and believed. He didn't fully understand all that the Scriptures had said about Jesus' resurrection or how this had happened, but he believed.

They left to report back to the other nine men and somehow missed Mary Magdalene, who was walking back to the tomb while they were leaving. When she arrived, she stood there and started to cry. She couldn't explain her tears or even what she was thinking — it was wonderful and awful and joyful and frightening all at once. After a while, between her sobs, she stepped closer to look into the tomb. The two angels in white were there again. One of them asked, "Why are you crying?"

The last time she had been too scared to speak, but this time she answered, "They took away my Lord, and I don't know where they have put him." And then Jesus himself appeared next to Mary outside the tomb entrance. She turned and saw him but didn't recognize who he was.

"Woman, why are you crying?" Jesus asked the same question that the angel had asked but added another: "Who is it you are looking for?"

He didn't look like the angels inside, so she guessed he must be the gardener. She stopped her weeping and told him, "Sir, if you've moved him somewhere, please tell me where he is. I want to get his body."

Then in a voice she could not mistake and with a smile she had studied a thousand times in the past, Jesus simply said, "Mary!"

She quickly turned and cried out, "Rabboni!" (Aramaic for "Teacher!") Then, throwing decorum to the wind, she reached out to hug him.

Again Jesus smiled and told her not to hold on too long or too tight. "You're going to have to let go of me so I can return to my Father. Here's what I want you to do: Go to my brothers and tell them I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God."

It's doubtful she had any idea what he meant about returning to the Father, and she certainly didn't want to let go of him easily or quickly. When she finally loosed her embrace, she took off running back to the safe house where she had left the others. Bursting with her incredible news, she went back to those who were still mourning and weeping and told them, "I have seen the Lord! He's alive. I saw him and heard him and touched him! Jesus is alive!" None of them believed her.

When the other women also returned to the Golgotha garden, they suddenly met Jesus just as Mary had. He simply greeted them, and they fell down to the ground, grabbed his feet, and worshipped him. The same array of emotions that Mary had felt only minutes earlier — fear, confusion, and joy all at once — now filled these women's faces. Jesus told them, "Don't be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to meet me in Galilee."

Many events were happening simultaneously. The guards went into the city to report to the chief priests what they had experienced: "We were on guard at the Golgotha garden tomb where Jesus of Nazareth was buried, and there was an earthquake! An angel rolled the stone from the tomb. We were terrified, but we didn't abandon our posts. We looked inside the tomb and it was empty. No one else came. We don't know how he got away, but we know that his body wasn't stolen. It must be true what he said about coming back to life again."

The chief priests and elders quickly convened a private meeting of all who were available. Facing growing evidence that Jesus was alive and the fact that they themselves had actually conspired against and arranged the death of God's Messiah, they now were frantically plotting to conceal the truth. They agreed to pay a large bribe to the guards and told them, "You all need to report the same story. Tell people that his disciples showed up in the middle of the night and stole his body while you were asleep. If the governor hears and wants to bring charges against you for sleeping on guard duty, we'll deal with him and keep you out of trouble."

The guards faced a difficult choice. Falling asleep on duty was a military crime that could have them executed. No amount of hush money was worth dying for. Yet they could be wealthy for life if charges weren't pressed. Maybe Pilate would never find out. Maybe these Jewish leaders could protect them. Maybe it would work. Knowing they were denying a supernatural act, they took the money and hoped to never again be asked about what had happened.

When stories of Jesus' resurrection began spreading through Jerusalem, the religious leaders insisted that his disciples had stolen his body. This explanation satisfied some, but others quickly poked holes in the explanation. "How did the disciples move a rock that weighed more than a ton without awakening the guards? Were they all such sound sleepers? And if the guards were deep in sleep, how do they know who stole the body?" Besides, the number of witnesses who personally had seen Jesus since his crucifixion was rapidly growing.

Two travelers from the village of Emmaus had spent the Sabbath in the overcrowded city of Jerusalem and were headed home, a westward journey of seven miles. The long walk was going quickly as they talked about all the news in Jerusalem. They barely heard the footsteps behind them over their own voices, but when they did, they invited the fellow traveler to walk along with them.

They didn't recognize this person, although they had seen and heard Jesus before. In their minds, Jesus was dead and the possibility of the man on the road being Jesus of Nazareth was beyond their thinking.

The man asked them what they were talking about. The two stopped, surprised that he didn't seem to know. They felt fresh sorrow as they began retelling all the recent events. One of them, a man named Cleopas, said, "You must be the only visitor to Jerusalem who hasn't yet heard the news!"

"News about what?"

"About Jesus of Nazareth," they answered. "He was a prophet — not only a great preacher but a miracle worker before God and crowds of people. The chief priests and other leaders had him sentenced to death and crucified. We were grief stricken because we had hoped he was going to save the nation of Israel. This was three days ago, and now some women we know are telling this amazing story. They went to Jesus' tomb early today and couldn't find his body. When they reported to us, they said they saw angels who claimed Jesus is alive again. When some men went to check out their story, they verified what the women said. His body was gone, but they never actually saw him alive."

They still didn't recognize Jesus when he started to give his analysis of the news. "You two are so foolish and your hearts are so slow to believe. Don't you know what the prophets predicted? Didn't you know that the Messiah had to suffer all these atrocities and then enter his glory?" As they walked the rest of the way to Emmaus, he gave them a lesson in Old Testament quotations and stories, beginning with Moses and ending with the latest prophets — all about the Messiah.

Reaching the village that was their destination, the two started into town, and Jesus kept on as if he were going all the way to Joppa. They had been mesmerized by his teaching and wanted to hear more, so they invited him to stay in Emmaus — not the usual courtesy invitation of hospitality but an impassioned plea to join them for dinner and spend the night. "Please stay at our home. It's almost dark," they urged. So Jesus went home with them to Emmaus.

When they washed and settled down for dinner, Jesus conducted himself like he was the host rather than the guest. He took the bread, broke it in pieces for everyone at the meal, and spoke a prayer of thanksgiving. When they heard him pray, they took another look and suddenly recognized that their guest was Jesus. He was indeed alive again! When he finally left and they discussed what had happened along the road, they asked each other, "Wasn't that amazing? The way he opened the Scriptures to us was wonderful. Our hearts nearly exploded with joy."

The more they talked, the more they wanted to tell Jesus' friends that they had been with Jesus and that he was fully alive — talking and walking and eating. They especially wished to tell Jesus' eleven disciples, but it was after dark and they faced a seven-mile walk back to Jerusalem.

The couple from Emmaus agreed that this couldn't wait until morning. They put their sandals back on and returned to Jerusalem in search of the eleven disciples. And they probably weren't all that easy to find. When the two finally found the right house, the eleven were all together. The pair from Emmaus thought they were going to have this wonderful news to report, but when they entered the house they were told, "It's true! The Lord has risen! Peter saw him!" All were trying to be the first to tell their own experiences. When the Emmaus pair got their turn, they gave a detailed account — from the teaching on the road to dinner and their recognition and realization that they were with Jesus.

Secondhand stories now were replaced with a firsthand encounter of their own for eight of the eleven who had not personally seen Jesus alive yet. While they were talking with the Emmaus couple, Jesus suddenly appeared to them in the house, even though the doors had been locked to protect them from the religious authorities. He warmly greeted them as he had so many times in the past: "Peace be with you!"

Even though they had been talking about Jesus being alive, they were still startled and anxious, as if they were seeing a ghost.

"What's your difficulty? Why do you still have doubts? Check out my hands and feet. It's me, all right! Look, touch, whatever it takes. I have skin and bones, and you know that ghosts don't have skin and bones."

He put out his hands, turning them back and forth for them to see. He lifted up his right foot and then his left for them to look at. Then he parted his tunic and exposed the scar on his abdomen. They watched with amazed incredulity. It was obviously Jesus, and they were over the top with joy, but it was still hard to believe.

Jesus offered one more piece of evidence that he truly was alive with a real body. He asked, "Do you have anything here to eat? I'm hungry!" They had already finished dinner, but they handed him some leftover broiled fish that he took in his hand and ate while they talked and laughed together.

It was a joyous reunion. Almost like the old days. Jesus told them, "Peace be with you! Just as the Father sent me, now I'm sending you." He exhaled a long steady breath that settled over them, and then he said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven."

Jesus said good-night and left them alone to talk over their encounter with the resurrected Messiah. Not much later Thomas the Twin returned to the house. When he rejoined his friends, they said, "You're not going to believe what happened while you were out." They were right. Even though they said, "We've seen the Lord!" and gave detailed reports, Thomas didn't believe them. Not that he was calling them liars, but he told them, "I'm just not going to believe he's really alive until I can see his nail scars and feel his abdomen scar for myself."

For the next seven days, everyone in the circle of about 120 disciples was ecstatic over Jesus' resurrection. Except Thomas. They tried to convince him, but he couldn't get past his inner doubts.

The next Sunday, one week after that first wonderful Easter, they were all locked in their safe house. This time Thomas was with them. Jesus entered the house without opening the doors and stood among them just as he had a week earlier. Again he said, "Peace be with you!" and smiled. Then he turned to Thomas as if he had come just to see him. "Thomas, give me your finger. Examine the nail scars for yourself. Give me your hand. Feel my side. It's time for you to quit doubting and start believing!"

Thomas became an instant open-mouthed believer. He said to Jesus, "My Lord and my God!"

"You believe because you've seen me," Jesus said. "Blessed are those who haven't seen me and believe anyway." Jesus wasn't going to give a private showing to every doubter in first-century Jerusalem or in future generations. This was a special appearance to help Thomas get past his doubts. He would help others with different evidence.

For more than three years, John had witnessed a lot of miracles by Jesus, but this resurrection topped them all. When John wrote an early biography of Jesus toward the end of the first century, he had to decide which miracles to include and which ones to omit. He read other biographies of Jesus and decided to focus on miracles not already published. But he could not leave out the resurrection, even though other biographers had documented it well. He made his selection in order to help people like Thomas who might have doubts. In John's own words, "Jesus did many more miracles witnessed by his disciples that I've not included in this book. I've recorded these so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that because of your belief you will have eternal life in his name."

Over the next month Jesus appeared to many people in many places. The first appearance outside of Judea was by Galilee Lake. Jesus had told them to meet him up north; besides, it was safer there away from the angry and bewildered religious leaders. The disciples were probably ready to go back home for a while. Seven of them were on the shore — Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, James, John, and two others. "I'm going out to fish," Peter told them. They all decided to go along and ended up staying on the boat all night — without catching one fish.

As they came near shore early the next morning, they saw a man standing on one of the rocks but couldn't see him well enough to recognize him. The man called out to them, "Friends, haven't you caught any fish?" As usual, his voice carried farther on the water than it would have on land. "No fish!" they responded.

"Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you'll find some," he called out to the fishermen. It seemed unlikely, but why not? While they were casting their net off the right side of the boat, John, Jesus' best friend, recognized who was standing on the shore and exclaimed, "It is the Lord!"

When Peter heard that it was Jesus, he grabbed his clothes, quickly wrapped them around him, and jumped overboard. They were only about a hundred yards out, so it wasn't very far or very deep. While Peter made his way to shore, the others realized the net was full of fish. They hauled in the fish and navigated the rest of the way to beach their boat. Everyone jumped out, leaving the fish wiggling in the net that had been pulled into the boat.

Jesus was waiting for them. He already had a fire burning and told them, "Bring some of those fish over to the fire." Peter climbed into the boat and grabbed the end of the net, yanking the net and fish out of the boat and onto the beach. They were businessmen with deeply entrenched habits, so they counted how many fish they had caught. There were so many fish it was cause for laughter and back-slapping congratulations. The grand total set a record. They had just caught 153 fish in a single haul without tearing the net.

Jesus interrupted the inventory with an invitation. "Come and have breakfast!"

Other times they had asked Jesus who he was even after they knew it was Jesus, just to make sure. They had now seen him enough times that they dared not ask one more time. They knew that he was Jesus. They were sure he was their Lord.

That breakfast was his third appearance to them since he rose from the dead. It was a different kind of joyful reunion — both special and common at the same time. Jesus had brought bread for breakfast that he broke and gave to them as he served the cooked fish.

The conversation after breakfast took an interesting turn, addressing a touchy topic; nothing had been said about Peter's multiple denials of Jesus that night before the crucifixion. Peter hoped for forgiveness and resolution, but there hadn't been a good time to ask.

Jesus said, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?"

"Yes, Lord," Peter answered, "you know that I love you."

Jesus said, "Feed my lambs."

Again Jesus asked, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me?"

"Yes, Lord, you know that I love you."

Jesus said, "Take care of my sheep."

Remembering how many times he had denied Jesus, it pained Peter when Jesus asked him a third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know everything, so you must know that I love you."

Jesus said, "Feed my sheep. The truth is, Peter, when you were young you dressed yourself and went wherever you pleased; but when you are old you will be forced to stretch out your hands and be dressed by someone else and led where you really don't want to go." Jesus was predicting that Peter was going to die as a martyr to glorify God. Then Jesus said to him, "Follow me!"

Not quite knowing what to say next, Peter pointed to John and asked, "Lord, what about him?"

"If I want John to live until I come back, that's up to me," Jesus said. "It's not your concern. You just follow me!" These words from Jesus about John later produced a rumor among Christians that John would never die. It is true that he outlived all the others before he died a death from natural causes, but John's death wasn't Jesus' point. It was just an illustration to teach Peter that John's time of death wasn't his concern, only God's.

Jesus' appearances over that month after Easter were varied in time and place. The next time after the lakeshore was on a mountain in Galilee district, where Jesus asked them to meet him. This meeting had a different kind of feel to it. No meal. No verbal banter. No laughter. They remembered that time when his glory was exposed to three of them on a similar mountain, and at this meeting they worshipped him in awe. For devout Jews to worship a man meant that they considered the man to be God himself. They had come to this conviction.

Years later when John wrote his biography of Jesus, he began by explaining that Jesus was more than human. He was divine. Before the beginning of time, before the universe was created, Jesus lived and was God. Then he was not yet human; he was only God. Although called the Son of God, he was all that God is — good, great, powerful, knowledgeable, and wise — he was the light. As God, he was the creator of everything in the universe, including earth and humanity.

When he was supernaturally conceived in Mary, there was an unprecedented joining together of deity and humanity. The eternal Son of God became human. He made his home on earth and gave the rest of humanity the opportunity to experience the presence, grace, and truth of God face to face.

In John's opening lines, he wrote that the eternal Son of God "became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, and it is the glory of the One and Only Son of God who came from God in heaven to us on earth. He is full of grace. He is full of truth. When he came to earth people didn't recognize him for who he was, even though he created the world and humankind. People refused to welcome him. But some did, and when they received him and believed on his name, he gave them the privilege to become eternal children of God."

True, there were still some wonderments and doubts among them with the worship of Jesus on the mountain that day in Galilee, but the longer they knew him, the more they worshipped him as someone far beyond an ordinary friend and teacher. He was their Messiah, Savior, and God.

Jesus had brought them up that mountain to commission them as his ambassadors. He wanted them to tell others about him and persuade them to believe and trust in him. He told the eleven disciples what he wanted them and others after them to do. "I have sovereign authority over heaven and earth. Therefore, I commission you to go and make disciples for me out of people from every nation in the world. Baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to obey everything I have commanded you. I promise that I will always be with you — right up to the end of time."

After that commissioning, they increasingly called each other apostles, which means "sent ones," since Jesus had sent them to tell the world about him. Others picked up on this and started referring to the apostle Peter, the apostle John, and the apostle James. In one of Jesus' last teaching times with these apostles, he reminded them, "This is what I was talking about back when we were together: Every prediction about me must come true, whether written in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, or the Psalms."

Jesus wanted their teaching to connect everything in the Hebrew Scriptures to him and his coming to bring salvation to humanity. He quoted Old Testament teachings and told them, "This is what was predicted: The Messiah will suffer, die, and rise from the dead on the third day. Repentance and forgiveness of sin will be preached in his name to every nation, starting in Jerusalem. You are witnesses of everything God has done. Now I'm going to send to you the fulfillment of my Father's great promise to you. Just stay put and wait in Jerusalem until you are covered with the power of God from heaven and receive my Father's promised gift to you. You remember the way John baptized with water? In a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit."

During the forty days after Easter he showed himself to more than five hundred different people from Jerusalem to Galilee and from Emmaus to the Mount of Olives. His final appearance was with the eleven disciples at their familiar meeting place on the Mount of Olives between Bethany and Jerusalem. As so often before, his apostles wanted a time line for fulfillment of Jesus' remaining predictions: "Lord, will you restore the kingdom to Israel today?"

Once again Jesus explained, "You're just not going to find out the time or date the Father has set. He has the authority, and he is the only one who knows when. But I can tell you this: You will receive supernatural power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and then you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and the rest of the world."

With his hands raised up in blessing over them, he rose up in front of their eyes until he was out of their sight in a cloud. As they looked skyward in new astonishment, two men dressed in white appeared next to them — angels. "You men from Galilee," they addressed the group, "why do you keep looking up into the sky? This exact same Jesus will come back down to earth the same way you've seen him go up to heaven."

So much more could be said about Jesus of Nazareth. The apostle John ended his first-century biography of Jesus explaining, "Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them was written down, I suppose that the whole world would not be big enough to hold all the books that would be written."

Jesus' biography ends like that of no one else who has ever lived. He was dead and became alive. He is gone but promises to return. The best is yet to be.

Excerpted from:  "Jesus: An Intimate Portrait of the Man, His Land, and His People" by Leith Anderson.   Copyright © 2005; ISBN 0764224794.  Published by Bethany House Publishers.  Used by permission.  Unauthorized duplication prohibited.

Leith Anderson, nationally recognized author, speaker, and educator, earned degrees at Bradley University, Denver Seminary, and his doctorate from Fuller Theological Seminary.  His careful research and study over many years has resulted in this powerful retelling of Jesus' story.