In 1990, the movie ‘Ghost’ was a box office smash at theaters. The movie was a romantic thriller starring Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore, and Whoopi Goldberg. The plot revolved around a murdered bank teller who refused to go to the great beyond after he was killed. Instead, he remained close to his girlfriend until the mystery of his death was revealed.
Despite mixed reviews at the time, it went on to become the number one movie of the year and even won 2 Academy awards. At that time, it was the 3rd highest grossing film of all time. It’s claim to fame is, that it solidified how Americans see and believe in ghosts and evil spirits.
In a 2019 poll, 45% of Americans said they believe in ghosts. In a similar study, 91% of Christians said they believe in ghosts and evil spirits. In fact, over 80% say they would be terrified if they ever saw a ghost. That has gone up considerable since 1984, when most people laughed at the ghosts in ‘Ghostbusters’.
Since the beginning of time, tales of spirits who come back to haunt the living figured proximately in the folklore of most ancient cultures. Many scholars claim the Bible as the starting place for those stories. It comes from Genesis chapter 4. After Cain gets jealous and kills his brother Abel, the Bible records these words from God, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” (Genesis 4:10)
The most prominent ghost story in the Bible is found in 1 Samuel chapter 28. It is the story of Saul and the Witch of Endor. Saul had expelled the mediums and spiritualist from the land but was later haunted by bad dreams. So, he went to see a witch to have her bring back the prophet Samuel from beyond the grave.
Samuel’s spirit comes up as a floating apparition and predicts the death of Saul and his sons. His presence frightens both the witch and Saul and has left its mark on all those who have come after. (1 Samuel 28:1-25)
In the first century A.D., the great Roman author and statesman Pliny the Younger recorded one of the first notable ghost stories in one of his letters, which became famous for their vivid account of life during the heyday of the Roman Empire. Pliny reported that the specter of an old man with a long beard and rattling chains, was haunting his house in Athens.
In Jesus’ day, they were greatly influenced by Greek philosophy and belief in evil spirits and demons was taken very seriously. The word ‘ghost’ in Greek is phantasma, which means specter, spirit, or phantom. They believed that, in some cases, the dead appeared in physical form. In fact, it was also believed in their day, that the sight of an angel most often meant bad news.
Now, let’s set the stage for our scripture this morning. Just a few days before, the disciples had witnessed the worst think possible, the torture and death of their beloved teacher. They had heard the crowd shouting, “Crucify him!” They had seen the results of the horribly beating Jesus endured.
They had watched Jesus stagger down the crowded street, as he struggled to carry the cross beam. They saw the blood as it oozed from his head, back, arms and legs. They heard the crack of the mallet against the iron spikes, as they nailed his hands and feet to the cross. And then, they watched Jesus, in agony, take his last breath and die on the cross.
To be sure he was dead, a Roman soldier pushed a spear into Jesus’ side, all the way up to the flood sack around his heart. Blood and water came out. There was no need to break his legs, clearly Jesus was dead. The disciples were probably watching from a distance as they removed his body from the cross. And they may have followed and watched as he was placed in a tomb.
The mountain of empirical evidence confirmed that Jesus was DOA, dead on arrival at the tomb. They were disillusioned, crushed, and devastated by their teacher’s death. And they were in fear for their own safety. Barely able to sleep, their nightmares must have been horrible.
Then the news came from the women that Jesus’ body was missing from the tomb. How much worse could this get? Not believing, Peter and John went to see for themselves. It was true, the body of Jesus was missing. But the situation was confusing.
No grave robber unwrapped the body before they stole it. And stranger yet, it looked like Jesus’ body had just evaporated through the wrappings, as they still lay in the shape of a man. With the face coving lying separately above them. Scripture says John saw this and believed. But even if he believed, how could he explain this to others?
Frightened by this new information, the disciples gathered to discuss it in the upper room, the same room they had eaten the last supper in with Jesus. Because they were afraid that the Jewish leaders would come for them and arrest them, they locked the doors. (John 20:19)
In this room were 10 of the original disciples and some friends. Judas had already taken his own life and Thomas had not yet returned from his visit home. They were in a state of near hysteria and panic stricken. What did all this mean?
Out of nowhere, Jesus appeared and came and stood by them and said, “Peace be with you!” (Luke 24:36, John 20:19)
Luke’s Gospel says they were startled and frightened, thinking they were seeing a ghost. Let’s just stop there for a moment.
What were they supposed to think? No one had ever experienced a true resurrection from the dead. They had seen Jesus raise Lazarus and 2 others – but that was more like they were resuscitated.
We still struggle with what it means for Jesus to be truly resurrected. The same way we wonder, how could Jesus be Fully God and Fully Man; we wonder, how could Jesus have a body yet be a spirit. First off, they had no idea how he got into a locked room.
The entire scene makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. Like in the old Abbot and Costello movies, I can almost see them shaking and hear their teeth chatter.
As you might recall, this was not the first time the disciples thought they saw a ghost. In Matthew chapter 14, the disciples were out on the lake and Jesus came walking toward them on the water. When they saw him, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost!” they said, crying out in fear.
Let me just say, I saw a young woman get hit and killed by a car when I was in middle school. It was near dark and she ran across the road into the path of an oncoming car.
I often dreamt about what I saw and when driving late at night, sometimes re-lived the scene in my mind. It was frightening.
A few times, after someone in my family died, late at night before I dozed off, I could swear I saw that person, walk into the room. Or, on occasion, I heard that person’s voice. Did I see a ghost? Probably not, but sometimes our minds play tricks on us. Let me just be clear, I do believe in angels and spirits, just as the Bible speaks of them.
So, it is not surprising that the disciples thought they were seeing a ghost. They believed that people who died horribly could haunt the living. And let’s be honest, they abandon Jesus when things got tough.
Clearly Jesus understood what they were thinking, and he was not angry. He said to them,
“Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I, myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”
‘When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. “And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?”
They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.’ (Luke 24:37-43)
Everyone knows you can’t touch a ghost, right? And no ghost can eat, so, Jesus must be the real deal, — well, sort of. This still doesn’t explain how he appeared inside a locked door! This was amazing, in fact, too good to be believed. And nearly impossible to wrap your mind around. They rubbed their eyes and blinked, but he was still there.
Later, Thomas would arrive, and he believed the disciples were suffering from mass hysteria; that is, until he saw Jesus himself.
“Then Jesus spoke some words of assurance to the disciples, He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”
“Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
You are witnesses of these things.” (Luke 24:44-48)
It tells us something, when we think, it would have been easier for them to believe in Jesus as a ghost than as a resurrected man. How does one even talk about something so new and exciting? Who would believe them?
But my guess is that understanding the resurrection of Jesus took time to sink in. I imagine later they thought about, with fresh insight, the words Mary reported near the grave. Jesus said to her, “Don’t cling to me.” It was Jesus and he was alive!
Then they remembered the story of Jesus on the road to Emmaus walking with two disciples. How he talked and how he broke bread with them.
Finally, when some disciples went back to fishing, Jesus came to them on the beach and cooked some fish for them. They touched him and spent time with him. Over time, it must have been easier as it changed them.
One of the earliest heresies of the early church was called Docetism. It was the belief that Jesus only appeared to be present, and that he was just a spirit, not real. They believed he was an illusion. And that he never died on the cross.
But the physical touching of Jesus’ body, the marks, and scars and his being able to eat and drink, discounted those teachings. Over 500 people spoke to him, heard him, and saw Jesus in the flesh. Besides, who could argue with that and an empty grave?
The late United States Senate chaplain Peter Marshall wrote, “No tabloid will ever print the startling news that the mummified body of Jesus of Nazareth has been discovered in old Jerusalem. Christians have no carefully embalmed body enclosed in a glass case to worship.
Thank God, we have an empty tomb. The glorious fact that the empty tomb proclaims to us is, that life for us does not stop when death comes. Because death is not a wall, but a door.”
The words Jesus spoke, “Peace be with you” ring through to all generations. His words,
“I live, you also will live” give hope to all who trust in Jesus. (John 14:19)
Jesus did not deny the existence of ghosts, he simply said he wasn’t one. And Deuteronomy 18:10-12 warns us about communicating with the dead. So, do ghosts exist? I will leave you to ponder that, but the Bible leans towards no.
In 2 Corinthians 5:8 Paul writes, “We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body because when we are away from the body, we’re are at home with the Lord.”
In the end, there are many things we can believe, including believing in aliens or ghosts. But I prefer to believe in things where I have some real proof.
1 John 4:1 reads, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see ‘whether they are from God’, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
Don’t be gullible. Use everything God gave you to evaluate the facts.
Then, you WILL see the truth. I believe in the witnesses and the Word of God. I believe in the empty tomb. And I take Jesus at his word. I believe. He is alive! Glory be, Jesus is alive.
Your assignment is, to read the resurrection stories. Next Sunday we will discuss the Guard’s report. It is so important to know what the Bible says, so that you are not misled. Know the truth and the truth will set you free. (John 8:32)
May it be so.
“And all God’s People said, Amen”