Moderator’s Reflection – Easter 2023


Peter Phillips, Moderator

April 2023

We observe Good Friday in the light of the resurrection of Jesus – and so we find it difficult to empathise with Jesus disciples’ despair. As Cleopas and his companion told the unrecognised risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus, ‘we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel’[1] – but he had been betrayed, condemned, crucified, dead and buried – and buried with him was their hope of the fulfilment of the promises of God to his people through him.

We can only imagine their heartache – and yet it need not have been as severe as it was, for God had given them seeds of hope, if only they had been alert to them. Jesus had told them that he would die and rise again: ‘And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly [2] – but they didn’t understand him at the time or remember his words later. And even at Jesus’ death there was a sign of hope, that his death was different, for when he yielded up his spirit, ‘the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.’ [3]

We are curious, and we would like to know more – but as Matthew Henry puts it ‘This matter is not related so fully as our curiosity would wish; for the scripture was not intended to gratify that.’ We would like to know who these saints were, that did arise, and what they did between Jesus’ death and resurrection, and whether afterwards they returned to their graves again. But all these things are beside the point and to search after them is to distract us from the main point, which is that the death of Jesus was no ordinary death; rather, his death gives life to his people. When he died the earth shook, the rocks were split, the tombs were opened, and many saints who had died were raised to life – and the scripture says, ‘When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” [4]

Those who were keeping watch over Jesus saw what happened, and believed in Jesus – but what of his disciples? Surely if they had been keeping watch they too would have seen what had happened and would have been encouraged to believe that he was no mere man and that his death was no ordinary death, so as to have had some light even when it seemed that their hope ‘that he was the one to redeem Israel’ was in doubt. The gospel writers tell us that there were many women there, who had followed Jesus from Galilee – but they were looking on from a distance; perhaps they were too far away to see what had happened.  Whatever the answers to such questions, the facts of the matter are that while God in his goodness had provided Jesus’ disciples with some light, some reason to hope even in the midst of an unimaginable catastrophe, the condemnation and crucifixion of the one they had hoped would redeem Israel, their hope died with him.

However, it need not have – and so one thing we can learn from these events is that God never leaves us without some gleams of light even in our darkest days – some word of hope, some encouraging circumstance, if only we will believe his word and rest upon his promises and look to him with the eye of faith to be kept from despair unto life-giving and sustaining hope. In such times it is good to remember that even if it does not look like it, God, who loved us and gave his Son to the death of the cross for us and who called us to saving faith in him, to forgiveness of sins, peace of conscience and joy in the Holy Spirit, loves us still; as the apostle Paul puts it, ‘I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ [5]

George Matheson’s hymn ‘O love that wilt not let me go’ testifies to the comfort and encouragement we may have from such assurance in times of deep darkness. Although he had lost his sight at the age of 18 he passed a brilliant course at the University of Edinburgh, where he graduated M.A. in 1862. After completing his theological training he was ordained into the ministry of the Church of Scotland in 1866, serving with distinction at St Bernard’s Church, Edinburgh. But the lady he hoped to marry told him that she felt his blindness was a barrier, and broke off their engagement. Matheson wrote, ‘Something happened to me which was known only to myself and which caused me the most severe mental suffering. The hymn was the fruit of that suffering.’

1 O Love that will not let me go,     
I rest my weary soul in thee.     
I give thee back the life I owe,     
that in thine ocean depths its flow   
may richer, fuller be.  
3 O Joy that seekest me through pain,    
I cannot close my heart to thee.    
I trace the rainbow through the rain,  
and feel the promise is not vain,    
that morn shall tearless be.  
2 O Light that followest all my way,     
I yield my flickering torch to thee.     
My heart restores its borrowed ray,     
that in thy sunshine’s blaze its day     
may brighter, fairer be.  
4 O Cross that liftest up my head,    
I dare not ask to fly from thee.    
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,    
and from the ground there blossoms red,    
life that shall endless be.

The prophet Isaiah asks ‘Who among you fears the LORD and obeys the voice of his servant? Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the LORD and rely on his God.’ [6] The darkness that shrouded the disciples between the death and resurrection of Jesus was no doubt such darkness, darkness without light. We may well pray that we should never be called to walk in like darkness – but if we should walk in darkness and think that we have no light, then let us remember that the call to trust in the name of the Lord and to rely on our God is not irrational or unreasonable. Let us remember that the darkness that shrouded the disciples was darker than it need have been, for they neglected both God’s word of promise and his works of power. Let us remember that God has given us his promises to sustain us and his Spirit to help us call his promises to mind and to rest upon them – and let us call upon him in our time of trouble, confident even in darkness that times of darkness are not forever, for ‘the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day.’ [7]

[1] Luke 24:21

[2] Mark 8:31-32

[3] Matthew 27:50-53

[4] Matthew 27:54

[5] Romans 8:38-39

[6] Isaiah 50:10

[7] Proverbs 4:18

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