By Mark Atteberry
During World War II, ordinary citizens were asked to make a contribution to the war effort in whatever way they could. Many bought bonds, saved and recycled raw materials, assisted friends and neighbors in need, and planted what came to be known as victory gardens. Urban and rural people alike planted fruits and vegetables, not only to provide for their own needs but also to ship to our troops around the world.
When people spoke of the “national war effort,” they were right on target. While many were fighting with guns and ammo, many more were fighting with seeds and fertilizer.
But the ultimate victory garden is the one Mary Magdalene entered with a heavy heart on the Sunday morning following Jesus’ crucifixion. She hadn’t just lost a friend or a loved one. She had witnessed the cruel murder of the one person who had done more for her than anyone else ever would . . . or could.
Jesus had cast seven demons out of her, he had treated her with dignity and respect, he had seen her potential and cultivated it, and he had defended her when others criticized.
Mary was a woman who’d grown accustomed to scorn and ridicule. At one time, she probably thought she’d never be treated with such love and kindness. And now, with Jesus dead and buried, she surely believed she never would receive such treatment again.
I’d love to know what she was thinking as she made her way along the garden path in the predawn darkness. Was she watching a movie in her mind, replaying the many unforgettable moments she’d shared with Jesus? Was she boiling with anger at the way he had been treated? Was she wondering what on earth she was going to do without her best friend?
Whatever she was thinking, we know she wasn’t entertaining the possibility that Jesus could be alive. Even when she saw the stone rolled away from the entrance to the tomb, not even a sprout of hope popped through the topsoil of her mind.
She automatically assumed someone had stolen his body. And why wouldn’t she make such an assumption? With all the other indignities Jesus had suffered, the theft of his body or the desecration of his grave would almost be expected.
Seeing the grave empty, she must have wondered who had turned grave robber . . . and why. Were Jesus’ killers so twisted they would want to put his body on display, perhaps to intimidate his followers or any other would-be messiahs? Or maybe the disciples took his body away to prevent such a scenario.
After reporting her discovery to Peter and John, Mary found herself standing outside the tomb, weeping. Suddenly, angels appeared and asked her why she was crying. Mary was answering them when she heard something behind her. Looking over her shoulder, she saw Jesus, but didn’t recognize him. More than a few Bible students have wondered how that could happen.
I’ve had plenty of similar incidents in my own life. For example, I remember once when I was in a Dillard’s department store, riffling through a rack of men’s dress shirts. Standing next to me was a woman I’d never seen before. Suddenly, she started talking to me as if I were her husband.
She held up a shirt and said, “Oh, I like this one. It’ll go with your new Dockers. But it looks a little small for a large. Do you think it’ll fit?”
I didn’t know what to say. I knew I wasn’t who she thought I was. Before I could answer, she turned and looked at me—and just about had a coronary. She apologized, slapped the shirt back onto the rack, and took off like someone fighting the effects of some bad Mexican food.
The point is, she saw me, but she didn’t really see me. And we were in a well-lit department store, not in a misty, shadowy garden early in the morning. So I have no trouble picturing this case of mistaken identity. Mary wasn’t expecting to see Jesus, so she didn’t.
Until he said her name.
That moment of recognition is, to me, one of the most stirring in Scripture. If the Bible had a musical soundtrack, you can bet the violins would be swirling in a majestic crescendo at that instant when Mary’s worst nightmare unexpectedly turned into her greatest joy. Many people believe (and a few manuscripts indicate) that she ran to Jesus and embraced him. I have no problem picturing that.
I can see him smiling as she buried her face in his robe and held on tight. I can even imagine tears welling up in his eyes. After all he’d been through, it had to feel great to be so loved and cherished.
I’m sure Mary couldn’t begin to fathom the repercussions of what she was experiencing. There’s no way she could have processed all the theological implications of a living, breathing Jesus in that brief, emotionally charged moment. Nor did she have any idea of the place in history she had instantly achieved.
All she knew—all she cared about—was that Jesus, her dearest friend and the kindest man she’d ever known, was alive. It wasn’t until later that she began to see the big picture and grasp the significance of what had happened.
If it’s been a while since you thought about Jesus’ victory over death, let me remind you of three faith-filling truths.
His Victory Was Complete
I think about a car crash victim from our area. His injuries were so extensive he was given little chance of surviving. However, some brilliant doctors did amazing work and managed to save his life. The problem is that he has some mild brain damage and will be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. So yes, in one sense, the doctors won a great victory. But they, the victim, and the victim’s family will tell you that they were hoping for more.
There are many times in life when a partial victory, though disappointing, is still better than no victory. But when it comes to any battle with death, a partial victory is not only unacceptable, it’s impossible. Death has to be defeated completely or not at all, and that’s what Jesus did. There are three ways in which Jesus’ victory was complete.
It rendered death thoroughly impotent—Paul said it this way: “Death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54*). I can’t read those words without thinking of a buddy of mine who has a pet snake. (Terrific guy, but he really needs prayer!)
Every so often he feeds his snake a live rat. (Really now, don’t snakes and rats deserve each other?)
The snake swallows the rat whole. Nothing restricts an animal’s potential like being swallowed whole by another animal. Likewise, when death was “swallowed up,” it was rendered thoroughly impotent.
It will never have to be won again—Most victories are only temporary. Whoever wins the Super Bowl or the World Series this year will have to go out and compete for the championship again next year. An artist who wins the Grammy for Song of the Year this year must try to outdo himself next year. The same is true for an actor who wins a coveted Oscar.
And every patient who is given a clean bill of health from his doctor today knows there will be illnesses he’ll have to face in the future. But never again will our Lord have to contend with sin and death. Romans 6:10 says, “He died once to break the power of sin. But now that he lives, he lives for the glory of God.”
Everyone can have access to it—So many things in this world are private or restricted. You can be turned away because you don’t have a ticket, a membership, a reservation, an important friend, a recognizable name, the proper clothing, or a couple of C-notes to bribe the doorman. But when it comes to our Lord’s victory over death, there are no goons standing at the door to keep people out. Hebrews 7:25 says, “He is able, once and forever, to save those who come to God through him.”
The second great faith-filling fact about our Lord’s victory over death is that it was accomplished openly, for all to see. His birth wasn’t. He came into the world quietly . . . so quietly that the people staying next door at the Bethlehem Bed & Breakfast had no idea what was happening. But his conquest of death was the centerpiece of his life’s work and was put on open display. Look at this telling passage from Paul:
I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died by now. Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles. Last of all, as though I had been born at the wrong time, I also saw him (1 Corinthians 15:3-8).
The key phrase there is “most of whom are still alive.” In essence, Paul was saying, “If you don’t believe me, go talk to the hundreds of people who saw him with their own eyes.” We might smell something fishy if all the supposed witnesses just happened to be dead. Or if there were only one or two witnesses, we might suspect some sort of bribe.
But it’s hard to imagine even the most resourceful person being able to enlist hundreds of people in a conspiracy.
Paul also points out that all the apostles were eyewitnesses of Christ’s resurrection. Our strongest evidence that Jesus’ followers weren’t just fabricating a juicy story is the fact that they were willing to be persecuted and, ultimately, to die for it.
Early church tradition says Mark died in Alexandria, Egypt, after being dragged by horses through the streets. It also suggests Luke was hanged in Greece and Peter was crucified upside down because he didn’t feel worthy to die the way Christ did.
As the rows of white crosses in any military cemetery would prove, lots of people are willing to die for their heartfelt convictions. But few, if any, would knowingly die for a hoax.
Several times in my life I’ve chosen to accept somebody’s word even though the person had no hard evidence to back up the claims. Usually, I’ve done this because of some emotional attachment to the person. In other words, I wanted to believe. But I’m forced to admit that at least half the time, my faith was misplaced and the person turned out to be less than honest.
I am deeply grateful to God that he accomplished the crowning work of his redemptive plan conspicuously . . . that he gave us lots of evidence, not just to bolster our faith, but to keep us from living with the gnawing fear that we’re being hoodwinked.
His Victory Is Conditional
The third great faith-filling truth about our Lord’s victory over death is that any of us can share in it on one condition. That condition is clearly stated in 1 John 5:11, 12: “This is what God has testified: He has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. So whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have God’s Son does not have life.”
Peter echoed the idea in Acts 4:12. Speaking of Jesus, he said, “There is salvation in no one else! God has given no other name under heaven by which we must be saved.”
Paul says in Romans 8:37 that “overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us.” The word overwhelming makes all the difference. It reminds me that the words barely, close call, or by the skin of your teeth do not apply to my victory in Christ. This is what enables me to relax and enjoy the ride.
So many Christians seem to be afraid that they’re going to squeak into Heaven under the wire, if at all. Just ask the next Christian you see if he’s going to Heaven.
There’s a good chance he’ll shrug and meekly say, “I hope so.”
I believe my victory is overwhelming.
But not because of me.
My victory is overwhelming because of Jesus, who he is and what he did. It’s all overwhelming.
So how could my victory in him be any less?
*All Scripture quotations are from the New Living Translation of the Bible.
Mark Atteberry is the preaching minister at Poinciana Christian Church, Kissimmee, Florida. This article is adapted from his book, Free Refill, published by Standard Publishing in 2007.