On Easter Sunday, all attention is rightly on Jesus, risen from the dead. “Christ is risen”, we greet each other, with the expected reply, “he is risen indeed”. Risen, to new life; risen, as a sign of the future life we are promised; risen, soon to ascend, to be “seated at the right hand of the Father” in heaven. Alleluias are rightly sung on this Easter day, and in this Easter season!
So our attention is, in effect, directed away from here, on earth, towards the heavenly realm. Indeed, the Gospel for Easter Sunday this year appears to point us in that direction, as Jesus speaks to Mary Magdalene in the garden: “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’”(John 20:17).
The same orientation is found in the story of the walk to Emmaus, where Jesus says to those walking on the road with him, “was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:26). “Going to glory”, of course, is a popular euphemism for dying—going to heaven; even in biblical usage, entering into glory is to be in the direct presence of God (Exod 40:35; 2 Chron 7:2; Isa 2:10, 19–21; 1 Cor 15:42–43; 2 Cor 3:7–18). And that is where Jesus goes.
A popular (mis)understanding of Christianity is that it is about using this life as preparation for the life to come in the future. Faith, in this view, is about repentance now and obedience in all we do on this earth, so that when we die, our souls will rise to heaven, we will be commended as a “good and faithful servant”, and invited to “enter the kingdom of God”—or, in the common popular perception, step through the pearly gates into a heaven filled with angels, playing their harps and singing their songs of eternal praise and adoration.
That’s the popular view; and some small part of this rests on some verses found in scripture. But most of it is romanticised populist thinking, far away from Christian doctrine. Sure, there are the apocalyptic sections in the Bible that look to the coming of a new creation—but if you understand them in the way that I believe they were intended, they are actually providing encouragement to believers about the present, rather than predicting what the future will be. And they are not about the new heavens and new earth of the future, up in the sky somewhere, but rather about “the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God”, onto earth (see Rev 21:2).
See my discussion of the function of biblical apocalyptic passages at
So the question stands, during this Easter moment—and throughout the Easter season that stretches ahead of us: where do we focus our attention? Three Gospels provide a very clear answer as they recount the appearances of the risen Jesus. In Luke’s story about the appearance of the risen Jesus to his followers in Jerusalem, he says to them, “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” (Luke 24:39). The physicality of Jesus is to the fore.
In John’s account of that scene, there is also a physicality in the encounter—with an emphasis on the fact that Jesus shows them “the mark of the nails in his hands and … the mark of the nails … in his side” (John 20:25). Not only the physicality, but the carrying of the wounds of the cross into the next phase of life, is to the fore for John.
And then, when Matthew recounts the first appearance of Jesus, to the women fleeing the tomb in the early morning (and this encounter is told only in Matthew’s Gospel), he makes a point of noting that the (presumably prostrate) women “took hold of his feet and worshipped him” (Matt 28:9). All three Gospels focus on the material present rather than an imagined heavenly future.
Not only that, but each of the three Gospels that narrate appearances of the risen Jesus orient the stories to the future in the known realm of the earth, rather than the future in some heavenly realm. In John’s Gospel, Jesus commissions the disciples, gathered in the room behind locked doors, for the task of bearing witness to him: “as the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:2). This is language that is used often in this Gospel for the mission that Jesus is undertaking: he is sent by the Father, God is “the one who sent me” (4:34; 5:24, 30, 37; 6:38–39, 44; 7:33; 8:16–18, 26, 29; 9:4; 12:44–45, 49; 13:20; 14:24; 15:21; 16:5); and so he now sends his followers in similar fashion. This is language that is very focussed on this earth, this life.
That task of witnessing is also articulated in the clear declaration placed on the lips of the risen Jesus in Luke’s Gospel: “you are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:48). This turns into a fully-fledged evangelistic manifesto when the scene is recounted again in Acts: “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Both Luke and John connect this charge to the disciples with the giving of the Spirit: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1:8); “receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). There is no mention of Spirit in the final scene reported in Matthew’s Gospel (Matt 28:16–20); however, there is a clear commission in this narrative—the famous “Great Commission”. The emphasis here, as in the other two Gospels, is on the work to be done by the followers of Jesus in the period after he has left them. It is a this-worldly emphasis in these narratives.
The words used in the Great Commission in Matthew’s Gospel (28:19–20) need to be read carefully. There are four key verbs (doing words) in these two verses: go, teach, baptise, teach. In strict syntactical analysis, the main verb is the one in the imperative (expressing a command): “make disciples”. Subsidiary to that are the other three verbs, each of which is in a participial form (indicating an action that is related to, or consequent from, that main verb). So making disciples is the key factor in this commission.
The act of making disciples is directed towards “the nations”—that is, to anyone with whom the followers of Jesus come into contact. It is to be expressed through two activities: baptising, and teaching. The act of making disciples is also to take place “as you are going”, that is, as followers of Jesus are making their way through the world in the days ahead.
Teaching orients the focus of the disciples back to the time that they spent with Jesus; they are to teach the people of the nations “to obey everything that I have commanded you”. As Matthew has taken great care to compile and collate the teachings of Jesus into five clear sections of his Gospel (chs. 5–7, 10, 13, 18, 23–25), the guidelines provided by Jesus are evident. What he has taught in his time with the disciples is to be passed on (in good rabbinic style) to those whom they then instruct. Teaching is an activity for life in this world, very clearly.
Baptising orients the focus of the disciples to the life of the church in the future. Belonging to Jesus involves submitting to the ritual of immersion into water, signalling the new life that is taken on through faith. The formula used in Matt 28:19 is, in fact, something that emerges only later in the life of the church (probably not until the time of Constantine, as far as we can tell from other Christian literature). Once again, life in community on this earth is the focus. There is no sense of being baptised (“christened” in the old language) in order to “get into heaven”.
So the accounts of Jesus departing from his disciples offer no sense of, “I am going away, you will join me soon, we shall see each other in heaven”. Rather, the focus is on what the disciples need to do in the earthly life that stretches ahead of them: bear witness, make disciples, teach and baptise, continue out amongst “the nations” the mission that Jesus has been undertaking amongst “the lost sheep of the house of Israel”.
(The resurrection appearances at the end of Mark’s Gospel are in endings that were added centuries after the original was written, to bring it into consistency with the others, so they don’t figure in my discussion at this point.)
Two other factors point in the same direction, oriented to life on this earth, and not to a heavenly realm beyond. First, the Revised Common Lectionary (admittedly a creation from many centuries after Jesus!) offers stories from the life of those early followers—the church in Jerusalem and beyond—in passages from Acts during the season of Easter. That is to say, the structure of the lectionary reminds us that, after the resurrection of Jesus, the life of faithful followers is lived and worked out in amongst the other people of this earth. It is a grounded discipleship that is to the fore.
Finally, going right back to the lips of Jesus himself in the first century, in the words of the Lord’s Prayer, we are instructed to pray “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven” (Matt 6:10). That final phrase is central to all that Jesus proclaimed in his teachings and parables: what God is willing “in heaven” is to be made manifest here in our midst, “on earth”.
That is the immanent, present, realised, immediate vision that Jesus has for his followers; and that is what the resurrection narratives point us to, time and again. The resurrection calls us to pay attention to this life.