Easter morning found the apostles huddled together in despair. In fact, when the women brought initial reports of an empty tomb, the “words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (Luke 24:11). Jesus’ talk of “going away,” of “going back to his Father,” might also have been taken less literally, interpreted—not unreasonably— simply as the death Jesus had now suffered already, the period during which his body had lain in the tomb. His spirit had gone away, perhaps, and had now returned. And now, since he had died already, the apostles may well have been hoping he’d never be parted from them again. This is why his words to the weeping Mary Magdalen came, possibly, as an unwelcome surprise: “Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (John 20:17).
Before that Ascension, however, Jesus still had two bits of unfinished business with individual apostles: Thomas and Peter.
“Doubting Thomas” seems a rather unfair moniker for the disciple surnamed Didymus (a Greek word meaning “a twin”), given that the other ten had just called the Resurrection “an idle tale” in his absence! Yes, when Jesus made his first post-resurrection appearance to the apostolic band, Thomas was away licking his wounds someplace. And yes, when given his own secondhand report, he blurted forth some foolish words out of his hurt: “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). (Foolish indeed. Thomas, as one of the Twelve, had already seen at least three resurrections already: the raising of the widow’s son, the raising of Jairus’s daughter, and the raising of Lazarus.)
Nevertheless, “doubting” Thomas now owns the everlasting glory to have gone, in the space of about two and a half verses, from refusing to believe at all to having earned the distinction of being the only person in the Gospels to address our Savior simply as “God” (John 20:28). Thomas’s miracle, at any rate, may be profitably thought of as a bookend to that happy story with which we began our journey: Nathanael bar Tolmai’s similar confession.
Peter, too, needed rehabilitation prior to the Ascension, having denied the Lord not as Judas did, out of rage and frustration, but purely from cowardice—terrified by a couple of teenage girls (see Matt. 26:69-72)! And his subsequent shame was threatening to shipwreck God’s plan for him to be chief of Christ’s vicars on earth. So Jesus submits him to a recertification test, as it were—a round of grueling examination. The risen Christ asked the fisherman three times, “Do you love me?”—one query for each of his denials in Caiaphas’s courtyard, and each repetition more painful for Peter. With every rededication on Peter’s part—“Lord, you know that I love you!”—the Good Shepherd solemnly repeats “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17). Then the Lord walks away—like a baseball manager heading back to the dugout, having determined to leave his shaky starter on the hill at the conclusion of a spine-stiffening mound visit.
In the days leading up to the Ascension, all of the remaining Eleven received a round of recommissionings as well; and of all Gospel passages, these tell us the most about Christ’s special role for them in the new age to come. He had already “opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (Luke 24:45), at their initial reunion in the Upper Room, just as he had done for the Emmaus Road disciples. Already he had widened one of Peter’s prerogatives (but not, notably, the keys) to include the other ten: “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 18:18). This “binding and loosing” was a term that the Pharisees, “sitting in Moses’ seat,” used previously when commissioning legates of their own.
Finally, Jesus delegated the full authority of his own teaching office to the apostles. So that “repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47-48), he charged them with his great missionary mandate, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16). Once again, we see the dramatic necessity of an accompanying supernatural guarantee associated with their teaching: whoever does not accept the word of this small group of Galilean rustics . . . will be eternally lost!
Then Jesus added the “secret sauce” he had promised: “‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’” (John 20:21-23). Recall that this power to forgive sins on earth belonged to God alone. Now Jesus opens a conduit for this same power to these, his vicars, so that it might still be exercised among men during his absence. And the evidences of this new unction were to be striking: “And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover” (Matt. 16:17-18).
Finally, at the mount of the Ascension itself, “Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore . . . ” (Matt. 28-18-20).
Because I have all authority, that is, you may go—for Jesus has authority to give, authority that he is free to delegate, as had already done once before when “he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority” Matt. 10:1). Among his last words on earth, then, is a reiteration of a gift already given, as basis for the apostles’ global mission: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matt. 28:19-20).