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Cover image: “The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Sepulchre on the Morning of the Resurrection” by Eugène Burnand.
Traditional Christians often prepare for Easter by reenacting what Jesus’ followers did during the week before his resurrection. Today, Palm Sunday, they may carry palm fronds into their churches and shout “Hosanna,” just as “much people” did when Jesus rode triumphantly into Jerusalem (John 12:13). On Maundy Thursday, they may attend special Eucharist services and have their feet washed, similar to what Jesus’ closest disciples experienced during the Last Supper (13:5). And on Good Friday, they may participate in the Adoration of the Cross, pray the Stations of the Cross, or celebrate the Seven Last Words Jesus Uttered from the Cross, again, in solidarity with what Mary the mother of Jesus and others may have done long ago (19:25). However, on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter, there seems to be little for them to do but sit and wait.
The reasons for this relative inactivity are fairly obvious. The New Testament does not say much about what Jesus’ followers did while their master was in the tomb, and modern revelation does not significantly alter this situation. Certainly, the Doctrine and Covenants provides more detail as to what Jesus did when he “went and preached unto the spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3:19; D&C 138: 6-19, 27, 29-34); but neither the Book of Mormon nor the Doctrine and Covenants nor the Pearl of Great Price says anything about his followers’ activities. Nonetheless, there are some clues, and those clues suggest that their waiting was anything but passive—or unimportant.
According to the Gospel of John, Jesus died not on Passover but on the day before, during its “preparation day” (John 19: 42). It is probable, therefore, that Jesus’ disciples, as observant Jews, participated in a Passover Seder that evening, after sundown, the next “day,” just hours after Jesus had given up the ghost and died. And if that is so, how bitter must have been the bitter herbs that they ate; how harsh the unleavened bread of affliction they consumed; and how painful must have been their ritual recounting of Israel’s sufferings.
No one knows if the disciples saw the Roman soldiers scourge their master and mock him, placing a crown of thorns on his head and draping a purple robe over his bloody shoulders (19:1-3). We cannot be sure if they witnessed these soldiers nailing his weakened body to a cross and lifting it high for everyone to see. But if they did, how could they not have connected the tyranny they were experiencing at the hands of the Romans with that that their ancestors endured at the hands of the Egyptians—and amplified it.
After all, what hope had these disciples for a deliverer now? Where was their Moses? The righteous rescuer who had not just divided a sea but had walked on it? The great miracle-worker who had not just brought water out from a rock but had changed it into wine? The compassionate provider who had not simply summoned bread from heaven but had fed five thousand with a few loaves of barley? Calling upon images from the Passover story, Jesus had proclaimed himself “the bread of life” (6:35), “the true vine” (15: 1), “the Saviour of the world” (8:12). But where was he now? This powerful deliverer? Dead and buried, sealed solidly behind a stone in a tomb not his own.
And since Jesus’ disciples, again according to the Gospel of John, “knew not the scripture, that [Jesus] must rise again from the dead” (20:9), how devastating must his death have been for them, especially for Peter. Yes, Jesus had called him Cephas, a true and faithful “stone” (1:42), and Peter had indeed looked firm as granite, testifying boldly that Jesus was “that Christ, the Son of the living God” (6:69). However, “that Christ” for Peter, as well as for nearly every other Jew at that time, was a title that did not so much signify a divine being who would die to save humanity from sin as it suggested a very human hero, a flesh and blood champion who would live to liberate the world from injustice, war, poverty, and inequality.
That Messiah was a ruler, in other words, an earthly king whose kingdom would be unlike any kingdom that had previously existed. Under his direction, the mountain of the Lord’s house would be established in the top of the Judean mountains for everyone; all nations would flow unto it, and from there he, this divinely anointed monarch, would teach the world God’s ways; swords would be beaten into plowshares; spears would be transformed into pruninghooks; and no one—no one—would study war any more (Isa 2: 2-4).
Consequently, as Peter watched the soldiers assume their positions in front of Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb, standing guard before it, in ranks, their wooden shields raised, their iron spears at the ready, it must have been all too clear to him that Isaiah’s words had not been fulfilled, that peace had not prevailed, that violence and physical oppression had not been obliterated—that the promised Kingdom of God had not come.
And such a realization may have caused Peter to question himself and his most cherished beliefs. Was Jesus really not the Messiah? Had Jesus somehow lied or misled him, using peer pressure or some other psychological or cultural ploy? Or perhaps he, Peter, had done something wrong. Maybe he had misunderstood his master’s instructions when the soldiers came to take him in the garden. Maybe Jesus had actually wanted him to fight but was only testing him to see what he would do when faced with seemingly contradictory commandments: Love his Lord but sheath his sword.
After all, what would have happened if he, Peter, had not denied his master? How many times was it? Once? Twice? Surely not three times? Maybe if he had stood up for Jesus, there at the door of the palace of the high priest, and testified boldly of his master’s identity as he had once before, maybe, just maybe he could have turned Caiaphas’ attention away from Jesus and somehow caused him to seek his death, Peter’s, instead of Jesus’. Perhaps in this way he could have saved his master and made sense of this horrible mess.
Is it too much to think that Peter had thoughts like these and was tempted by them? Maybe. We cannot know for sure. However, we do know that although he was severely tried, almost crushed, by Jesus’ death, Peter was not ready to relinquish his faith—or his hope. Although Peter’s agony lasted for three days and three nights, he did not flee the city or abandon his fellow disciples. Instead Peter stayed where he was, in Jerusalem, with his friends, in a closed up house, most likely welcoming in the Sabbath, eating the Passover, singing hymns, discussing scriptures, doing all the seemingly small and simple things that are appropriate for this “high day” (19:31).
As I perceive him, Peter, despite doubts about himself and even his Lord, was faithful to what he knew to be good and true and right without dismissing his unanswered questions or diminishing his unresolved concerns. He continued therefore following his regular religious routine—praying his prayers, searching his scriptures, attending his “meetings,” performing all his usual charitable chores, confident that someday someone or something would come and teach him “all things,” just as Jesus had promised (14:26). Peter was willing to wait for messengers, in other words; he chose to remain where he was spiritually and intellectually, confident that someday emissaries from his Father in Heaven would come and provide him with the additional light and knowledge he so much desired. And, after three days, two came.
The first messenger, a woman, came early the next morning, the day after the Sabbath. At that time, Mary Magdalene banged on the disciples’ door and breathlessly announced that someone had taken Jesus’ body from its tomb. Peter and “the disciple whom Jesus loved” did not hesitate (20: 2). They ran to Joseph of Arimathea’s sepulcher and, finding the stone rolled away from it, entered. There, to the side, on a carved bench-like rock, were the linen wrappings and the cloth that had covered Jesus’ head, and then, according to the Gospel of John, Peter “saw and believed” (vv. 6-8).
Later that day, a second messenger showed up. Back in the “home” where the disciples had previously gathered, its doors and windows still shut (vv. 10, 19), Jesus himself appeared to them, suddenly, miraculously, unexpectedly. He greeted his friends as friends, wished them peace, and then showed them his resurrected hands and side. Subsequently, as the Gospel of John understatedly puts it, “were the disciples glad” (20:20). At last, Peter understood why Jesus had died and what his death had achieved. His decision to wait for messengers had been rewarded; his desire to remain where he was spiritually and physically despite severe personal pain and theological confusion had produced astounding results.
Weeks later, unsure as to what he was to do with this new understanding, Peter returned to Galilee with the other disciples, and there he continued to wait for messengers. As before, Peter remained faithful to what he knew to be good and true and right and again actively attempted to serve his community perhaps in the only way he knew how at that point—by fishing, by helping to feed his family, by giving his friends employment, by helping to meet the physical needs of his community, by providing stability, consistency, normalcy, and hope to those around him. And again Jesus, the ultimate messenger, came to him, this time, calling to him and the other disciples from the shore, helping them with their fishing, and feeding them, much as Peter had attempted to feed his community.
After this supper, Jesus spoke to Peter and expanded his vision of how he could help others. Three times Jesus asked Peter if he loved him, and three times Jesus told Peter to feed his sheep (21:15-17). Peter must have been stung by this numerical reminder of his previous failure, but Jesus’ thrice-uttered injunction assured him that his denials were not unforgiveable, that his doubts did not define him, that his master still loved him, valued him, and yet had a place for him in his kingdom. Once again, Peter’s faithful waiting had been richly rewarded. Now he was empowered not only with the ability to feed others physically, but he now could nourish them spiritually as well.
But when had Peter been taught this important principle and how had he learned to apply it to himself? Perhaps, like many Jews today, he and the other disciples recited Psalm 106 as part of their Passover service and recalled not only the “favour” that the Lord had shown unto his people as they wandered in the wilderness but also remembered how they “forgat [the Lord’s] works” and “waited not for his counsel” (Psalm 106: 4, 13; emphasis added).
Maybe, as part of their early morning Sabbath service, Jesus’ disciples sang Psalm 69, a kind of prayer that both gave voice to their agony as well as whispered what they should do about it. “I am weary of my crying,” it reads, “my throat is dried: mine eyes fail while I wait for my God” (Psalm 69:3; emphasis added). Or perhaps, as they ended their Sabbath observance and steeled themselves for the challenges of the coming week, these disciples chanted Psalm 27 and heard the psalmist advise them to “wait on the Lord” and listened as he admonished them to “be of good courage” for the Lord “shall strengthen [their hearts]” (v. 14: emphasis added).
No one knows for sure where Peter learned to wait in this way. I like to think that how he waited helped him understand why he waited, that these religious observances were themselves a kind of messenger, a medium through which God spoke to him. But this understanding could have come in other ways as well. Pondering the Scriptures, for instance, could have reminded him of how Sarah waited until she “had waxed old” to give birth to her promised son (Gen. 18:12), of how Joseph waited until he was nearly forty before he understood why he had been sold into Egypt and how his pain fit into God’s plan (Gen. 41:46-47; 45:4-8), and of how Moses waited forty years in Midian, keeping the flocks of Jethro, before the Lord called him to bring forth his “people the children of Israel out of Egypt” (Exo. 3: 1, 11). Fishing too, since it involves a great deal of active waiting—preparing and casting nets, pulling them in, cleaning them, and repeating this procedure again and again and again often without immediate results—might have also been instructive.
Regardless of where Peter learned this important principle, it is clear that not only did he master it but that we must master it as well. After all, faith crises are not limited to people in the Old and New Testaments. They strike us all. At least once in every believer’s life—often many times—some heartfelt prayer will appear unanswered, some seemingly righteous desire will fail to be realized, some new church policy will sound terribly wrong, some long-held doctrine will suddenly seem suspect, some ecclesiastical approach will look out of synch with the times, or perhaps some unexplained or unexplainable tragedy will befall us.
And when those times come, when we look at God and his Church and ourselves and find them all wanting, I hope that we will remember Peter and choose to emulate him. I hope we will hold fast to that which we know to be good and true and right and opt to patiently, faithfully, and actively wait for messengers from our Father in Heaven. And they will come, perhaps not in three days or three weeks or even three years, but at some point they will come, and, when they do, we will be glad, just as Jesus’ ancient disciples were on that first Easter Day so long ago.