In this lesson, Jesus reveals himself as the resurrected Lord and teaches the disciples the plan and purpose of the Atonement.
“Now upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, [the women] came unto the sepulchre, bringing the spices which they had prepared. . . . And they found the stone rolled away from the sepulchre. And they entered in, and found not the body of the Lord Jesus.”(1)
Thus began the apparently slow realization of the disciples that the tomb of Jesus was indeed empty, that “he is not here, but is risen.” Those who had walked with him for years and heard him teach and even predict in plain terms that he must be crucified and rise with him–those disciples still found it difficult to understand what had actually taken place, so foreign to human experience is the idea of resurrection from the dead. The world still stumbles at it, the realization is still slow among many, but the reality of victory over death both physical and spiritual is plainly taught in these chapters of the New Testament.
Significance of Resurrection
What is the significance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ?
Elder Marion G. Romney explains: “When we speak of Jesus being resurrected, we mean that his premortal spirit, which animated his mortal body from his birth in the manger until he died on the cross, reentered that body; and the two, his spirit body and his physical body, inseparably welded together, arose from the tomb an immortal soul. Our belief is, and we so testify, that Jesus not only conquered death for himself and brought forth his own glorious resurrected body, but that in so doing he also brought about a universal resurrection. This was the end and purpose of the mission for which he was set apart and ordained in the great council in heaven, when he was chosen to be our Savior and Redeemer.”(2)
But what is the significance of this universal resurrection to each of us? What is universal is also intensely personal, as Mary Magdalene discovered. After the other disciples left the empty tomb, “Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping.” Then, alone in the garden, she was the first mortal to encounter the risen Lord: “Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him Rabboni; which is to say, Master.”(3)
It is hard to overstate the significance of this moment to each of us, for each of the faithful followers of Christ will someday have this identical experience: Jesus will call each of us by name, we will meet him face to face, and we will recognize him as our Master. This is what is meant by Atonement, to come into the loving presence of the Lord, to have him know us for our faithfulness, and to know him for whom he is. For this moment, the faithful Saint lives and gives everything.
Gently, he asked her to refrain from embracing him just yet. “Touch me not, for I am not yet ascended to my Father.” Joseph Smith indicated that “touch me not” should be rendered “hold me not,”(4) which agrees with scholars’ interpretation of the Greek word haptou originally given here. “The verb hapto does not mean to touch with the tip of a finger to test whether an object is real or not but to ‘clutch’ or ‘grip.'”(5) Evidently, the resurrected Lord’s first embrace was reserved for his Father.
Nevertheless, within hours, the Lord manifested himself to the eleven disciples and to others, inviting them to “handle me, and see.” To Thomas, he said, “Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side.”(6) Among the Nephites, he made the same invitation to each individual: “Arise and come forth unto me, that ye may thrust your hands into my side, and also that ye may feel the prints of the nails in my hands and in my feet, that ye may know that I am the God of Israel, and the God of the whole earth, and have been slain for the sins of the world. And it came to pass that the multitude went forth, and thrust their hands into his side and did feel the prints of the nails in his hands and in his feet, and this they did do, going forth one by one until they had all gone forth.”(7) Undoubtedly, each responded as did Nephi, who “arose and went forth, and bowed himself before the Lord and did kiss his feet,” or as Thomas did: “My Lord and my God.”
The Atonement a Profundly Personal Act of Love
In so doing, each individual experiences the Atonement of Christ not solely as a means of universal salvation but also as a profoundly personal act of love. To embrace the Lord, to hold him and feel his wounds with one’s own hands–this is the essence of being “at one” with him. In the embrace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Atonement becomes a personal reality for each of us, as Elder Russell M. Nelson says:
“References to that embrace are evident in the Book of Mormon. One states that ‘the Lord hath redeemed my soul . . . . I beheld his glory, and I am encircled about eternally in the arms of his love.’ Another proffers the glorious hope of our being ‘clasped in the arms of Jesus.’ I weep for joy when I contemplate the significance of it all. To be redeemed is to be atoned—received in the close embrace of God with an expression not only of His forgiveness, but of our oneness of heart and mind. What a privilege!”(8)
Isn’t this privilege worth all we can give, all we can sacrifice? What is more meaningful than this privilege of the embrace of the Lord and his approving blessing, “Well done, good and faithful servant”?
Meaning and Conversion
The Lord spent the next forty days among his followers expounding to them the meaning of what had just taken place. He gave them a higher understanding of the Atonement and the ordinances of the Gospel, and instructed them to teach others, indeed, “all nations,” the significance of the Atonement.
His mission during these forty days was literally to “convert” his followers, to turn them away from fear and toward faith, away from escape and toward commitment, away from doubt and toward testimony.
In one instance, he found Cleopas and another disciple journeying away from Jerusalem–away from the temple and thus the scene of the Atonement–toward Emmaus. “Jesus himself drew near, and went with them” and “their eyes were holden that they should not know him.” After he asked them why they were sad, they explained the events of the crucifixion and the reports of resurrection, apparently in a tone of despair and disbelief. He chastised them for being “slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken” concerning Christ.
Then he explained in full the doctrine of the Atonement to them: “beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” To expound Moses and the prophets meant to explain the Creation; the Fall of Adam; the covenants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and the law of Moses in every detail as a foreshadowing of the Atonement.
It surely meant a careful explanation of the Psalms and the messianic prophecies of Isaiah. It meant also a point-by-point explanation of the temple and its ordinances.
Thus the Lord laid out for the two disciples the grand sweep of the doctrine of Atonement, and then administered to them the Sacrament, the covenant to take upon them his name and always to remember him. As a result of this sacred teaching and ordinance, the Holy Ghost fell on them: “Did not our heart burn within us?” The conversion of these men was complete: “they rose up the same hour, and returned to Jerusalem . . . saying, The Lord is risen indeed.”(9)
During this brief post-resurrection ministry, the Lord followed this same pattern with many. “Throughout the forty days following His resurrection,” James E. Talmage observes, “the Lord manifested Himself at intervals to the apostles . . . and instructed them in ‘the things pertaining to the kingdom of God’. . . . as to the purport of the Lord’s instruction during this period there exists no cause for doubt.”
“In his divine presence their understanding was quickened and enlarged so that they comprehended as never before the scriptures–the law of Moses, the books of the prophets, and the psalms–concerning Him.”(10)
They may have received higher ordinances as well. John observes, “And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.”(11) For centuries, this verse has tantalized the world: What signs did Jesus do that were so important that he returned as a resurrected being to perform them, but that John found impermissible to report?
Intriguing hints of the “signs” Jesus did during this period are found in long-lost records called “apocrypha” which are not included in the scriptures. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism explains:
“Over forty accounts outside scripture claim to tell what Jesus said and did during his forty-day ministry . . . . These accounts report the following: Jesus teaches the apostles the gospel they should preach to the world. He tells of a premortal life and the creation of the world, adding that this life is a probationary state of choosing between good and evil, and that those who choose good might return to the glory of God. He foretells events of the last days, including the return of Elijah. He also tells the disciples that the primitive church will be perverted after one generation, and teaches them to prepare for tribulation.
These apocryphal accounts state that Christ’s resurrection gives his followers hope for their own resurrection in glory. Besides salvation for the living, salvation of the dead is a major theme, as are the ordinances: baptism, the sacrament or Eucharist, ordination of the apostles to authority, their being blessed one by one, and an initiation or Endowment (cf. Luke 24:49; usually called ‘mysteries’), with an emphasis on garments, marriage, and prayer circles. These accounts, usually called secret (Greek, apokryphon; Coptic, hep), are often connected somehow to the temple.”(12)
Even in the midst of all this preparation, the disciples apparently lacked faith in themselves and their ability to carry out the Lord’s commission to “preach repentance and remission of sins in his name among all nations.” Sometime during this period, Peter and six others of the eleven left Jerusalem and went up to Galilee. “I go a fishing,” said Peter. Whether he and the others were postponing or procrastinating their mission, no one can say; but the context seems to indicate so. At any rate, they went back to their old lives, took a fishing boat onto the lake, rowed into the darkness, “and that night they caught nothing.”
“But when the morning was now come, Jesus stood on the shore: but the disciples knew not that it was Jesus. Then Jesus saith unto them, Children, have ye any meat? They answered him, No. And he said unto them, 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.”(13)
Called as we are with a special calling–to share the Gospel with our families, neighbors, and all nations–we must understood that to do this work fruitfully, we cannot do it without the direction of the Lord himself. Whether we are missionaries, home and visiting teachers, parents striving to teach our families, we cannot float in the darkness without seeking and receiving the Lord’s guidance. “Without me, ye can do nothing,” he plainly taught the disciples. But, “if ye abide in me . . . ye [shall] bear much fruit.”(14) In the daylight of the Lord’s guidance, we can cast the net confidently and gather abundantly. It is up to us to seek the Lord’s help in doing his work.
Finally, our missions must be motivated by love. The Atonement of Christ is the greatest act of love; and we are called to be saviors ourselves, to sacrifice whatever we must to bring life and salvation to his “sheep,” our brothers and sisters. On that beach by the sea of Galilee, Jesus took Peter aside and asked him not once, twice, but three times, “Lovest thou me?” Elder Talmage reflects, “Peter was pained and grieved at this reiteration, thinking perhaps that the Lord mistrusted him; but as the man had three times denied, so now was he given opportunity for a triple confession.”(15) “Yea, Lord, thou knowest that I love thee.” Then Jesus made a solemn request of him, again three times: “Feed my sheep.”(16) Soon thereafter, Peter and the others returned to Jerusalem to bid farewell to the Savior and to begin their mission.
To “feed the sheep” was Peter’s highest calling. As president of the Lord’s church, he remained forever after faithful to that calling, as does the Lord’s prophet today. We are each called to assist him in our own callings to “feed the sheep.” There is no doubt of that, as the Lord made clear in his last, greatest request of us all before his ascension: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.”(17)
Thus the Lord laid out the calling of a disciple. We must not be “slow of heart” to believe. We must take seriously the calling we all have to share the truths of the Atonement, to testify by the Spirit, to enlarge our own and others’ understanding of “the things concerning himself.” We must remember that we can do none of this effectively without his guidance and without a deep love for one another. We must not find ourselves, like the discouraged disciples, wandering despairingly away from Jerusalem. Let us become converted and do as they did once they became converted–rise up in the same hour and get back on the road toward Jerusalem, the holy city of Zion, to testify as they did, “The Lord is risen indeed.”
1 Luke 24:1-3
2 Romney, Marion G. “The Resurrection of Jesus,” Ensign, April 1985, p. 3.
3 John 20:11, 16
4 John 20:17a
5 “The Gospel of John” in Expositor’s Bible Commentary Frank E. Gaebelein. ed.
Vol. 9 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), p.192.
6 Luke 24:39; John 20:27-28
7 3 Nephi 11:14-15, 19
8 Nelson, Russell M. “The Atonement.” Ensign, November 1996, p. 33.
9 Luke 24:13-33
10 Talmage, James E. Jesus the Christ. Deseret Book, 1970, pp. 688-689, 695
11 John 20:30
12 “Forty Day Ministry,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 2:735.
13 John 21:3-6
14 John 15:5, 7-8
15 Talmage, p. 693
16 John 21:15-17
17 Matthew 28:19-20