(From the French.)
Christian Friend, vol. 13, 1886, p. 113.
(We should have preferred as title "The First Lord's-day," but we have left it as written. E.D.)
It is worthy of notice, that neither the end of John 19, nor the beginning of chap. 20, makes any mention of the day intervening between the crucifixion and the resurrection of our blessed Saviour. It was, however, the sabbath-day, so important both to the Jews and to the disciples. Doubly solemn, too, on this occasion; for it was coincident with the feast of the passover, and it is said "that sabbath day was an high day." (John 19:31.)
The Jews, scrupulous observers of forms, even in putting the Son of God to death, had not been willing to enter the judgment-hall the night before, for fear of defiling themselves and thus being unable to eat the passover. (John 18:28.) Then, in the evening, after having got rid of the One who was the light of the world, and whom they had crucified in company with two criminals, they requested Pilate that the bodies might not remain on the cross during the sabbath, which began at six o'clock in the evening.* They would have liked to avoid putting the Lord to death during the feast, not because of their own consciences, but so that there should be no tumult among the people (see Matt. 26:3-5); for doubtless there was a vast assemblage from different places to celebrate the passover. But the rulers were unable to carry out their designs, because, unknown to themselves, they were accomplishing the purposes of God. And, alas! no one among the people raised a voice for Christ. On the contrary, the multitude, led on by their chiefs, chose that He should be crucified and Barabbas released. (Mark 15:11-14.)
*The chief priests and the Pharisees had not so many scruples about that day when they came together to Pilate to ask him to make the sepulchre sure, and when they themselves went to seal the stone and to set a watch. (Matt. 27:62-66.)
The Saviour then passed into the grave on this high day of a sabbath, without the Word making mention of this day in relation to Him. What a seal upon the reprobation of the Jews, for whom the sabbath was the sign of their alliance with God! The death of Jesus was the end of all that which had gone before, as His resurrection was the beginning of a new order of things. Someone has said, in speaking of the moment of the Saviour's death after crying with a loud voice, "All was over: the atonement, perfect as to God, the work of redemption, all prophetic circumstances had been accomplished, whether with regard to man or God. Then with a cry, showing both bodily strength unimpaired and perfect confidence in His Father, He gave up the ghost, at the moment when death had, but henceforth lost, all its terrors, at least for the believer. With this cry, which announced the termination of all human relationships with God, except in judgment, and the end of all the means which God could employ to re-establish such relationships with the children of Adam, Jesus died."
But the Scriptures also speak to us of the burial of the Lord Jesus. Paul mentions it in 1 Cor. 15:3, 4, and the gospels give details on this point which are in accordance with prophecy. The earth would receive the body of God's Son, but His sepulchre should be with the rich. "He made His grave with the wicked, and with the rich in His death." (Isa. 53:9.) He would doubtless have been interred in the public burying-place destined, according to Jewish custom, to criminals, and it is probably there that the bodies of the two thieves were thrown. But now that man had fully gratified his hatred, God takes care of the One who had glorified Him even unto death. At this solemn moment came Joseph of Arimathea, a counsellor, and a good man and just, who obtained permission from Pilate to take the body. Nicodemus came also; and these two men of high rank among heir nation, but who hitherto had been timid disciples, gave to the Lord an honourable resting-place. At all events, we may observe, that the sabbath day being at hand, the burial was of necessity only provisional, and was to be accomplished after the sabbath. This we learn from John 19:42: "There laid they Jesus therefore because of the Jews' preparation day; for the sepulchre was nigh at hand." The women who loved the Lord also prepared to embalm Him at a future moment. Mark tells us (Mark 16:1), "And when the sabbath was past" [after six o'clock in the evening], "Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint Him." The same thing is recorded in Luke 23:55, 56.
The disciples, really attached to the person of the Lord Jesus, at the same time, as faithful Jews, clave in heart and conscience to ordinances. This hindered them from completing the burial of their loved Master, which their affection for Him would have desired. Let us note what a revered servant of the Lord has said of the burying of the Lord Jesus: "In the invisible world Jesus was in paradise; as to this world, all that He had was an interrupted funeral. Sin, death, Satan, the judgment of God, had done all that one or the other could do; His earthly life was ended, and with it all connection with this world and man, as far as belonging to this world. Death reigned externally, even over God's Son; serious souls who were aware of it were confounded. But the world went on its way; the Passover was celebrated with its usual ceremonial; Jerusalem was what it had been before. Society, that had satisfied its selfishness, and been ridded of two thieves, cared little what had become of either of them, while the absence of another whose presence had embarrassed it was a further relief. But appearances are not always the truth. One of the thieves was in paradise with Christ; the other beyond hope; while the Lord Himself was in all the repose of perfect blessedness in the bosom of His Father. And as to the world, it had lost its Saviour, and was to see Him no more."
When the disciples had fulfilled the commandment in observing the sabbath, they hastened, at least the women devoted to the Lord, to come at dawn of the first day of the week to do honour to the body of their loved Master by finally embalming it. But they arrived too late; the power, righteousness, glory, and love of the Father had anticipated them in raising Christ from among the dead. What a glorious morning! The beginning of an eternal era for the redeemed.
As to the sabbath, it is the end and not the beginning of a thing. God had consecrated the seventh day, after having finished the work of creation. On that day He rested from all His work which He created to make. It is a type of the glorious millennial sabbath,* which will terminate the existence of the present earth and heavens. (Rev. 20.) Each time that Jehovah prescribed to Moses some new statute the sabbath was named. In Lev. 23 it even heads the solemn feasts of the Lord. Among the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20) its observance is pointed out in detail, and supported by motives. In Ex. 31:12-17 it is solemnly ratified. There and elsewhere it is called a sign between God and the children of Israel. But early in their history the Israelites had neglected and abandoned this holy ordinance, and they had borne the consequences of it (see Ezek. 20:12-24, Ezek. 22:8, 26, Ezek. 23:38); and if, when the Lord appeared among His people, they had begun again to keep it strictly, all was not the less in ruins. Tradition and a legal observance of ceremonies, carried out in minutiae, had taken the place of "the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith." Pride and hypocrisy characterized the leaders of the people; they did not wish to recognize Him who was Lord of the sabbath. Thus He could not recognize their sabbath, and He had to work in grace with His Father, even on the sabbath-day. (John 5:9-18, John 9:14; see also Matt. 12:1-15; Luke 13:10-17, Luke 14:16.)
* See, however, Heb. 4, and especially verse 9. - (ED.)
The body of our Saviour then remained in the grave during the solemn day of the sabbath, and He rose again "the first day of the week." The Jews, against their intentions, had been led into putting to death the Lord on the day of the feast of the passover, which this year fell on the day before the sabbath, in order that, in view of consequences precious to us, He should rise the first day of the week. This fact has consecrated this day as "the Lord's-day," the day of the resurrection, the commencement of an eternal era for us believers. It is thus that it has become the solemn day of Christianity; not as an imposed ordinance, but as a day of privilege which the conscience of a spiritual Christian recognizes. Christians delight to observe this day, not, I repeat, as an ordinance, but as being the Lord's day. (Rev. 1:10.) The spiritual Christian understands that he cannot dispose of this day according to his inclinations, for his own affairs, for journeys of pleasure or other amusements, because it is the Lord's day. The day when the Lord came out of the grave was not only the first of the week, in contrast with that which preceded it; but the fact of the resurrection set apart this day as "the first Sunday." Up to this moment, Sunday, the Lord's-day, had not existed.
What a glorious day was that of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus! It is for us the end of death, and the introduction to life eternal. For the Christian, eternal life has its starting-point in the Saviour's resurrection. His death is the end of our life in Adam; His resurrection is the end of death. He said, "I am the resurrection and the life," not "the life and the resurrection." He must deliver us from our first life, as well as from the death which characterized that life, and was its judicial end, in order, by His resurrection, to begin our new life in union with Him. The resurrection of Christ has then left behind it, for us, our Adam-life and death; and this new life which succeeds death is necessarily eternal life, but eternal life in resurrection, life "more abundantly." (John 10:10.) We possess life, life forever, in present enjoyment, and soon on high it will be life in glory. We have for "the end everlasting life."
It is easy to understand why, from the time of Paul, Christians chose the first day of the week, the day of the Lord's resurrection, to come together for the express purpose of the breaking of bread. (Acts 20:7.) No one besides had meetings on that day. The Gentiles knew nothing of it; the Jews, scattered everywhere, had their synagogues wherein to assemble on the sabbath-day, the day before Sunday. Paul took advantage of this day to preach Christ in the synagogues; but on the morrow, the day that only Christians knew and celebrated as that of the resurrection, he was found with them at the breaking of bread. By comparing John 20 with the accounts given in the other Gospels, we see that after the early morning of that remarkable day the risen Saviour had appeared to one and another of His own. In John we find recounted His interview with Mary Magdalene, so full of interest, whether on account of the touching way in which the Lord dissipates Mary's anxiety, or because of the message with which He charges her for His own, announcing that they were now in the same position as He is before God, and in the same relationship as He to His Father.
But on the evening of the same day we have something quite special. The occasions when the Lord had showed Himself during that day had had a character more or less individual; but in the evening we see the disciples gathered together. Whatever may have been the motive or character of their meeting - though doubtless they were occupied with what they had seen and heard - the fact remains that they were gathered together. How many things had occurred during the day! What words they had to recount to one another! John tells us (verse 19), "the same day at evening, being the first day of the week." Yes, the first Sunday. They had shut the doors for fear of the Jews. It was not well on that day to be openly on the side of the crucified One. The rulers of the Jews might well be exasperated against their colleagues, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, who had so boldly acted against them in going to beg of Pilate the body of Jesus for burial. It is pleasant to think that these two faithful and devoted men were among the gathered disciples on that night. The Jews had received from the guardians of the sepulchre the overwhelming news that the body of Jesus was no longer there, and they had listened to the recital of the marvellous circumstances that had occurred. (Matt. 28:11-15.) One can understand that their hatred was unmeasured, and that the timid disciples should have been together with closed doors.
When thus assembled "came Jesus" - in spite of closed doors "and stood in the midst." No longer now a manifestation to Mary, to Simon, to two disciples; it is His presence in the midst. It was the risen Saviour, ready to ascend to glory - "the glory that He had with the Father before the world was," but into which He was now going to enter as Man. He was in a body of resurrection, which was superior to matter, so that, whether eating fish and honey, or entering through closed doors, all alike were acts of power. He was no more a Man of sorrows, He was no longer "in the likeness of sinful flesh." (Rom. 8:3.) "The days of His flesh" were over. (Heb. 5: 7.) And He expresses this change when He says to His disciples, "These are the words which I spake unto you, while I vas yet with you." (Luke 24:44.) It is this risen Saviour that; the world neither can nor will see till He comes in glory, who is found in the midst of His gathered ones, sanctioning thus by His presence the first assembly of His own after His resurrection on that day - the first Sunday.
It was in their midst that He said, "Peace be unto you." What words to proceed from the mouth of the One who came from the cross, where He had made peace! Who came in all the power of resurrection, a proof of the full acceptance of His sacrifice by God; for when the disciples were yet in their sins, it could not be a question for them of peace with God. Then the Lord shows them in His resurrection body the marks of the death to which, in grace for them, He had subjected Himself.
Following this, let us remark an important statement - "Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord." The sight of the risen Lord in their midst is the subject of their joy. Thomas was not with them; and when the other disciples saw him, they gave him, in five words, a summary of that remarkable scene - "We have seen the Lord." The following Sunday - the second Sunday - the Lord is again in their midst. We cannot doubt but that during those intermediate days the Lord manifested Himself in some way to His own; but, at all events, on the evening of the second Sunday He was amongst them again when gathered.
How many principles are to be found in these verses! (John 20:19, 20.) What a beautiful type of our present gathering in the name of and around the person of the Lord! Let us remark four things which are unfolded successively here. First, the presence of the risen Lord in the midst of His own when assembled; second, the peace which He announces to them on His road from the cross by the way of the resurrection; third, the marks which He shows them in His resurrection body, and which witness to the fact that He has been down into death for them, but with that death now behind Him (see Rev. 1:17, 18); fourth, the result produced in the heart of His disciples after the unfolding of all these marvellous things, when they suddenly find themselves assembled around Him. "Then were they glad when they saw the Lord."
In our day, in spite of the evil which has come in, in spite of the ruin of the testimony of the church on the earth, in spite of the great weakness of those who by grace are gathered in His name on the ground and on the principles of the one body* (Matt. 18:15-20; 1 Cor. 10:17), we can, on this same footing, experience these four things which we have just considered.
*The one body is a truth which we do not find in John. The disciples, in the first meeting of which we have spoken, had not an idea of it, nor even in the early chapters of the Acts; but now that the one body is revealed, it is a principle most important to maintain in every assembly gathered to the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
What grace to us! When on Sunday we are gathered for the breaking of bread at the Lord's table, spread - need it be said! - on the ground of the one body, we have (may we realize it more! ) all that the disciples had when gathered that first Sunday. Yes, Jesus risen is personally present in our midst, although in a spiritual way. (Matt. 18:20.) We enjoy the peace He brings and has made. (Compare Rom. 5:1; Eph. 2:17.) We have before us the touching tokens which remind us of His death for us; i.e., the Lord's supper, which corresponds so well with the third thing which we have considered; viz., Jesus showing His disciples His pierced hands and side. And if we know and appreciate all this blessing, the result will be deep joy. We can rejoice in having the Lord in our midst. How desirable it would be to realize this presence, so that we might be able to say to any absentees, "We have seen the Lord;" and not, Such and such a brother spoke so well - useful and precious as such ministry may be when given to the Lord. The absent ones, on the other hand, would ask, Did you enjoy the Lord's presence? not, What brother spoke?
May the Lord Jesus so attach our hearts to Himself, that our gathering together, having Himself for motive or object, may become increasingly what it really is, the most precious thing in the world for us collectively. May we know how to appreciate the mercy which, in a time of ruin, gives us the possibility of having a special meeting, as in Acts 20:7, to remember our precious Saviour together, and to enjoy His presence in the midst. How sweet to the heart of the Christian who comprehends the thoughts of God on this subject! In going to the worship-meeting, we may have the privilege of thinking that we do not go there for ourselves, but as being invited thither by the Lord, to remember Him while waiting for Him, and by Him to worship our God and Father, to whom He has brought us. Therefore the intelligent Christian will not readily miss such a meeting, except for reasons which hold good before the Lord.
Yes, the Lord Jesus Himself is the motive and the end of our gathering together on the first day of the week, the day of the resurrection. The great thing is to be occupied with Him and not with ourselves; but if then our thoughts do turn to ourselves they should include all the members of the body of Christ on the earth, a body whose oneness is expressed at the Lord's table: "One bread, one body." (1 Cor. 10:17.) F. P.