And He said to them, “Why are you troubled? And why do doubts arise in your hearts?” (Luke 24:38).
This is one of the first statements of the risen Lord Jesus. It’s a question (really two questions). He said this to His disciples on the evening of the day He rose from the dead.
This came after the women returned from the empty tomb, and as they walked, they were met by Jesus, who spoke to them (Matthew 28:9). This came after the women spoke the angels’ message that “He is risen!” to the disciples, who wouldn’t believe yet (Mark 16:11). This came after John and Peter ran to the tomb and saw that it was empty (John 20:3-7). This came after Jesus showed Himself to Mary Magdalene (John 20:14-17). This came after Jesus appeared to Peter alone (1 Corinthians 15:5; Luke 24:34). This came after Jesus had appeared to two disciples (followers of Jesus who weren’t part of the Twelve, one named Cleopas and another disciple) on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35), when Jesus revealed Himself as the risen Jesus, the perfect fulfillment of all the Old Testament promises in which they hoped.
When Jesus says this, He has suddenly appeared in the room where the frightened disciples were assembled. When they see Him, they aren’t yet glad. They’re frightened. They aren’t sure He is Jesus, true Man and true God. They wonder if He’s a ghost. His ability to be present anywhere easily proves to them that He is true God. So Jesus sets about proving to them that He is also true Man, the same Jesus they’ve known. He eats some food in front of them, He shows them His wounds, and then they are glad.
But before Jesus does any of that, He asks them these questions: “Why are you troubled? And why do doubts arise in your hearts?” This seems like an obvious answer. It’s because they know He died and was buried, and their minds can’t grasp the truth of His bodily resurrection yet.
But, knowing Jesus, this isn’t about an obvious answer. There’s a reason He asks these questions before providing the evidence that He is risen. It isn’t as if the evidence for a risen Jesus takes away all the doubts and fears. The devil will always make sure there are new doubts and fears. But especially what Jesus is doing here is acting as the Great Physician – diagnosing what’s underneath. Luke, who was a physician himself, includes these questions so that Jesus can ask every person who reads this gospel these diagnostic questions: “Why are you troubled? What doubts are in your heart?”
The testimony of Jesus’ resurrection is so important. It’s important to know the truth, to show that there is eyewitness evidence for Jesus’ resurrection and therefore, our religion is true. But we must not imagine that this is simply a matter of reasoning with people, and once somebody accepts these facts, then the hardest part is over. Often the hard part is just beginning.
If a person has been skeptical, been an unbeliever, or doubted the truth of God’s Word, then after coming to faith in Jesus Christ, the attacks really begin. The devil introduces doubt that God can forgive a person who thought that way or acted as an enemy of Christ at one time. Or the devil introduces doubt that a person will keep believing. Or the devil introduces fears that you will be led to give up the faith or into temptations that are too hard to resist.
Jesus’ diagnostic questions really are about the conscience. If a person has doubted the truth of God’s Word, that’s a hardened conscience. But when a person does believe, when the Holy Spirit changes his hard heart and gives him a new heart softened by God’s love in the Gospel, when a person lives by daily repentance and knows his sinful weakness, then the devil exploits the tender conscience so that you’re troubled by everything and find it hard to believe that God loves you and forgives you.
So Jesus’ questions, “Why are you troubled? And why do doubts arise in your hearts?” are not questions meant to condemn you or make you feel that you’re now unworthy of Him. They are identifying where your conscience is in need of being properly formed by His Word.
In other words, these are questions whose answers are only found in Him, who is not only the risen Lord, but the merciful Lord. The risen Lord Jesus appears among His own in the divine service, bringing His gift in Word and Sacrament of the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. His resurrection is proof that God forgives you – proof that God the Father accepted Jesus’ death as full payment for all your sins.
Whatever troubles you, whatever doubts you may have, pray to Jesus about them and bring them to Him. Bring your sin and guilt, doubts and fears, to Jesus. All the risen Lord Jesus does is absolve you, pronounce you accepted and worthy in God’s sight, and lacking nothing for His sake. The Gospel is for troubled consciences, to heal them. The Gospel is for those who doubt, to give faith and to strengthen your faith.
His word is sure, here is thy stay,
Though doubts may plague thee on thy way,
Count not thyself forsaken.
(ELH #227 v. 12)
Rev. Jerry Gernander
Bethany Lutheran Church