Sermon Text: Matthew 28:1-20
As this sermon shows, the resurrection of Jesus Christ rests on a solid historical foundation. But what does it mean for for our lives and world?
The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.
In the early morning hours of December 3, 1999—it was around 4:00 a.m.—I was awake, studying all night for a “radio frequency”engineering exam at Georgia Tech the next morning. I was downstairs in the living room. My wife, Lisa, who was eight months pregnant, was upstairs asleep, or so I thought. Then I heard her footsteps upstairs. I could tell she was moving around quickly. Something was up. She came down and told me that her water broke. “We have to go to the hospital,”she said.
I had been nervously anticipating this moment for months, and it was exciting, although one of my first thoughts upon hearing Lisa’s news was, “Why couldn’t you have told me this before I stayed up all night studying for this test?!”
Listen: I don’t remember a single thing about that engineering exam, which I took a few days later. But I’ll never forget many specific details related to the birth of my first-born child. The entire experience was pure joy for me. Lisa might disagree about the experience being pure joy—she was a little busier than me, after all. But it was also an event that changed my world; it was an event that loudly announced to me: “Brent, your life—your world—will never be the same.”
And so it is with the events associated with Easter morning that are described in today’s scripture. Because of Easter, our lives and our world would never be the same.
Some women went to the Jesus’ tomb early that Sunday morning. They were there for two reasons: to wrap Jesus’ body with spices and perfume—a job that they were unable to do properly on Friday evening before sundown, when Sabbath began. And I’m sure they also went there to mourn the death of their beloved friend and teacher.
One thing’s for sure: they didn’t go there expecting to find the tomb empty and Jesus resurrected. It’s clear that no one expected Jesus to be resurrected. While it’s true that Jesus had told the disciples that this would happen, they clearly didn’t understand what he meant until after it happened. Even Matthew’s embarrassing detail in verse 17 that some disciples “doubted”at first, after seeing the risen Lord, offers further evidence that no one expected the resurrection.
I say this because we often hear skeptics and atheists say that the resurrection was nothing more than wish-fulfillment—that Jesus’disciples wanted so desperately to believe that their Lord had been resurrected that they hallucinated, they imagined seeing the Lord after he died. I heard an interview with one celebrity atheist, Richard Dawkins, who explained the resurrection by saying, “Oh, in the ancient world, when charismatic leaders died, their followers often believed that their leader came back from the dead.”While Dawkins may know biology, he doesn’t know ancient history: in fact, most secular historians see no parallels between the New Testament’s reports of Jesus’resurrection and any ancient myth or legend about a charismatic leader dying. Besides, myths and legends take decades or more to develop. We know for sure that the disciples believed in the resurrection from the very beginning.
And consider this: in the first century, there were literally dozens of charismatic Jewish leaders hailed as “messiahs”by their followers—heroic men who led revolts against the Roman Empire and worked to free Israel from Roman domination. And, like Jesus, these would-be messiahs died martyrs’deaths. And yet, not one of these dozens of other charismatic leaders, before or after Jesus, had their followers claim that their leader had been resurrected. Something was obviously different about Jesus.
Besides, Dawkins and other skeptics are exhibiting what C.S. Lewis calls “chronological snobbery”: they believe that we’re so much smarter than those naive and gullible people who lived 2,000 years ago. And while it’s true that our science is more sophisticated, and we know more about our natural world than the ancients did, the ancients did know one thing about the world that was as obviously true 2,000 years ago as it is today: they knew the cold hard fact that when people died, they stayed dead.
Another very important reason they weren’t expecting the resurrection was because, as pious Jews, they believed that the resurrection of the dead was something that happened to everyone at the end of history; no Jew ever believed, prior to Jesus, that the resurrection was something that would happen to one person in the middle of history.
And you might object,“Well what about Lazarus or Jairus’s daughter in the Gospels? Weren’t they resurrected?”
No, they were resuscitated, not resurrected. Lazarus and Jairus’s daughter merely resumed living the same life they lived before. They were raised to life only to die again later. This isn’t what happened to Jesus: his body was transformed into a different kind of body. It was still physical: Notice in verse 9 that the women “took hold of his feet.”And elsewhere in the Gospels, we see Jesus eating and drinking, handling objects, being embraced by others. He was no ghost. But the resurrected Lord was also more than physical as we understand it. He had the ability to walk through locked doors and disappear and reappear at will. This transformed body is one that lasts for eternity, the way the apostle Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 15. Jesus is the “first fruits”of resurrection; what Jesus is in resurrection, we will become in our own future resurrection.
So what caused these faithful Jews to revise and redefine their understanding of resurrection and believe that, at this one time in the middle of history, resurrection happened to this one person, Jesus? The only thing that accounts for it is that they believed wholeheartedly that Jesus had been resurrected.
I’ve heard some skeptics say, “Well, aren’t there hundreds of people who’ve claimed to have seen Elvis walking around after death?”Well, no…Because those hundreds of people believe that Elvis Presley didn’t really die in the first place—not that he was resurrected. Everyone knows that people who die stay dead.
The idea that the disciples of Jesus were hallucinating because they wanted so badly to believe that Jesus was resurrected is also implausible because Jesus didn’t just appear to individuals: he appeared to groups of people. People don’t have mass hallucinations in which each person experiences the exact same hallucination at the same time. Besides, one eyewitness of the resurrection, Paul, reports that Jesus appeared to more than 500 people at one time, most of whom, Paul says, are still alive—the implication being, “If you don’t believe what I say about the resurrection, you can ask these hundreds of other people.”
Another thing that we know for sure—which nearly all secular historians agree on—is that the tomb was really empty on Easter morning. That’s why Matthew reports the conspiracy theory between the chief priests and the guards at the tomb. He says that the “story has been spread among Jews to this day”—by which he means about 30 years later. He wouldn’t have gotten away with saying that unless this rumor was widely known.
But even to this day, some skeptics believe that the disciples stole the body and made up the resurrection story. But let’s think about that for a moment…We know for sure that most of the apostles suffered persecution, torture, and death because they went around the Roman Empire proclaiming that Jesus had been resurrected. Would they suffer and die for something that they knew wasn’t true—a story that they concocted when they stole the body? It’s preposterous.
Especially when two of those apostles who suffered persecution, torture, and death were men who had previously rejected faith in Jesus—who either didn’t believe that he was the Messiah or were outright enemies of Jesus…They were what we would call today “hostile witnesses,”which makes their testimony more credible: I’m speaking of Saul of Tarsus, who would change his name to Paul and become the church’s greatest missionary, and Jesus’own brother James. What accounts for their drastic change in belief, such that both of them would suffer and die for that belief? Nothing other than the fact that they genuinely believed the resurrection happened. And James, who grew up with Jesus, would know better than anyone whether this man claiming to be the resurrected Lord was his brother!
Also, I mentioned earlier that Matthew reports that some of the disciples didn’t believe at first—and I said that this was an embarrassing detail. My point is, if you were making up the story of Jesus’resurrection, this is a detail that you wouldn’t include. Why? Because it doesn’t help your cause. Just as crucially, if you were making the story up, you wouldn’t include another detail that all four Gospels agree on: that women were the first eyewitnesses of the resurrection, and that women were commissioned by Jesus to go and tell the other male disciples. In ancient Palestine the testimony of women wasn’t considered reliable in a court of law. No, you’d want the “important”disciples like Peter, James, and John to be the first eyewitnesses. The only reason you’d include this embarrassing detail about the women reporting the empty tomb and Jesus’resurrection is because, well…this embarrassing detail also happened to be true.
All that to say, the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ rests on solid historical evidence. So we can be confident the resurrection happened. But remember what I said several weeks ago during our James sermon series: even the demons could recite the Apostles’Creed. The demons believe the resurrection happened, but it doesn’t change who they are. It doesn’t save them from hell.
No…This knowledge has to move from up here [point to head] to in here [point to heart]. The resurrection happened… But what does it mean and what does it change for us?
First, it means that Jesus is the king and he’s reigning over our world right now. This is what Jesus means in verse 18 when he says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”All authority. Before the resurrection happened, Jesus could tell someone like the rich young ruler that he needs to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor, and the rich young ruler could rightly say, “Well, I’ll take that under advisement. But I’m not completely sure I should listen to you.”But now that Jesus has been resurrected, guess what? End of discussion! No debating, no second-guessing. We do what he says! The resurrection proves that Jesus knows what he’s talking about! That he is who he said he was! And that we need to obey him!
But here’s some good news: whatever Jesus commands us to do, wherever he leads us, wherever he calls us to go, whatever he calls us to do, individually or as a church, we can be confident that we have the power to do it and be successful. Why? Because the very same Spirit of him who raised Christ Jesus from the dead also dwells within us—we have access to that same power that raised Jesus from the dead! The same power that burst open the tomb and rolled away the stone! The same power that enabled a dozen average, ordinary people to turn the world upside down with the gospel of Jesus Christ! Think about that! Here at Hampton United Methodist Church we’ve got quite a few more than a dozen above-average and extraordinary people! What can’t we do for God’s kingdom? What can’t we accomplish? What can’t we overcome? Amen?
I’ve heard plenty of preachers say preach that the resurrection means heaven when we die. Well, yes…there is heaven when we die. But the resurrection means that in heaven we won’t be angels floating on clouds playing harps. We’ll have bodies, not the bodies we have now—but the bodies we probably always wanted to have. [Maybe ? will even have hair!] And heaven isn’t some place far away, beyond the stars: heaven is going to be in this world, a world which—like our resurrected bodies—will also receive an extreme makeover.
Paul writes about these ideas throughout his letters. But he writes the most about resurrection—both Christ’s resurrection and our future resurrection, in 1 Corinthians 15. We often read from this chapter at funerals, including those stirring words, “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” And we read that as if that’s the end of the chapter. But it’s not. There’s one more verse, and it includes one of Paul’s great “therefores.”“Therefore, my beloved brothers…”In other words, because of everything I’ve just gotten through saying about resurrection, here’s what I want you to do and here’s how I want you to be: “be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord”—and why do we do this? He says, “Because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”
In the Lord your labor is not in vain. Paul is saying something remarkable here: All the good work that we do for God’s kingdom in the here and now—in this world—will somehow be carried forward into the world to come. The great English theologian N.T. Wright describes this work that we do “in the Lord” as follows:
You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire. You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site. You are—strange though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself—accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world. Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world—all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make.
He continues: “I don’t know what musical instruments we shall have to play Bach in God’s new world, though I’m sure Bach’s music will be there.” Resurrection means that you and I can make an eternal difference in our world right now. Resurrection means that we don’t lose all the good stuff that’s within our present world.
Which of course means, finally, that we also don’t lose each other—not those of us who are in Christ.
My father died back in 1995. He had cancer, and we knew for about a year that his cancer was terminal. Before the end, he was very frail, as you can imagine: he had a feeding tube in his stomach. He had a catheter bag. He was mostly confined to his bed. And for months after he died I would have these recurring dreams in which I saw Dad and spoke to him. I mean, he seemed as real and vivid and alive as any of you are. And it never failed that when I saw Dad he would walking around; his color was good; he looked well; he was smiling. And in my dream I always said the same thing to him: I said, “Dad, what are you doing up? You should be in bed! Where’s your catheter bag? Where’s your feeding tube?”
Brothers and sisters, I honestly believe that God was reminding me that this is who Dad will be in resurrection. I will get my dad back, except he won’t have cancer; he won’t be frail or weak or bedridden. He’ll be the person he was, only better: he’ll be more fully himself, more fully alive, than he was able to be in this world of sin and death, in this tragic vale of tears that so often characterizes life in this present world. In the new world that Christ’s resurrection makes possible, Dad will be the person God created him to be, that God always wanted him to be.
Because of the victory our Lord Jesus won through his suffering, death, and resurrection, I will one day join my father in this new world. And if you’ve placed your faith in Jesus, I’m going to join you, as well.
When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
 N.T. Wright, Surprised By Hope (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 208.
 Ibid., 209.
 1 Corinthians 15:54-55, 57