“Why do you seek the living among the dead?
He is not here, but has risen.”
Even for the women who had known Jesus well—who by now must have been accustomed to apparently tangential answers and statements from the lips of Jesus—I guess that on the scale of unexpected questions this would be about a nine.
The women who had come with him from Galilee (Luke 23:49, 55) had returned after the Sabbath to the tomb with spices and ointments to anoint Jesus’ body. They hadn’t come looking for “the living” at all.
Which you can understand. Jesus was dead, and everybody present at his crucifixion knew it—and that was no small number of people (Luke 23:48). He’d been executed as a criminal, and these same women accompanied Joseph of Arimathea as he took Jesus’ body and laid it in his tomb. Their lord was dead, and they had come to look after his body, and to mourn.
It’s hard for us to properly appreciate the surprise elements of this story, given how familiar we are with these events. But put yourself in the shoes of these women, just for a moment. They arrive at the tomb to find the stone rolled away, but there is no body anywhere. They were ‘perplexed’. I’ll say. Adding terror to their mix of confusion, grief, and probably paranoia, two men in dazzling apparel stand and ask them a very unexpected question: “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”
How would you react at this point? I think I’d probably stand with my mouth gaping open for a bit, while I waited for my brain to catch up and process what I’d just heard. If I managed to string some words together, it would be a less articulate version of this:
But I’m not seeking the living among the dead. Here, look, we’ve got spices for his body.
The angels tell these women that they’re doing the wrong thing in the wrong place. And to add some gentle chastisement to the confusion, they go on to say that the women really ought to have known better. Because despite the fact that they were not looking for a living Jesus, they should have been:
“He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” And they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. (Luke 24:6-9)
Anyone who had been listening carefully to Jesus would have realized that this was what he had been saying all along. (Lest we be too hard on these early witnesses of the resurrection, however, it’s probably reasonable that they didn’t totally understand what was happening, given that resurrections from the dead are few and far between.) Once reminded of Jesus’ words, the women recall the plan that Jesus had laid out for them, and what is happening around them starts to sink in.
Jesus wasn’t shy in speaking of what was to happen to him. He had outlined in some detail what was to occur, according to his set plan and foreknowledge. He allowed himself to be handed over to sinful men. With his permission, he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, crucified as king of the Jews. On his authority he laid his life down, and with the authority to take it up again was raised by the Father.
None of these events surprised Jesus. If they’d listened carefully, it wouldn’t have been a surprise to his followers either—and to the women’s credit, once they got over the initial shock of the situation, they returned to the eleven and the rest and told them everything that had happened. If we listen carefully to Jesus, we too can understand his resurrection as part of what he came to do.
There are all sorts of reasons why it is good and right for us to dwell on the cross of Jesus. Lots of big aspects of Jesus’ victory, our salvation, and the culmination of God’s plan revolve around his sin-bearing death. It’s fine to use ‘the cross’ as a shorthand for the whole set of events of Jesus’ death and resurrection (as Paul does in the opening chapters of 1 Corinthians). But if we’re only ever talking about the cross, and not sufficiently about the resurrection of Jesus as well, then we’re in effect looking for the wrong Jesus. We’re trying to follow a dead teacher, not the risen Messiah.
We too ought to be seeking the living one. He is not dead, but has risen.