Sermon 04-16-17: “For He Has Risen”

April 26, 2017

The angel in today’s scripture didn’t tell Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, “Jesus isn’t here. He is risen. Take my word for it.” He said, “Go and see!” And so we should rightly expect that if the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a real historical event—like any historical event that we know about—there should be evidence for it, which we can investigate. This sermon investigates some of that evidence before tackling the important question, “What does it mean?”

This is my last sermon in this series on Matthew. Enjoy!

Sermon Text: Matthew 28:1-20

About 25 years ago, I took a philosophy class at Georgia Tech. The subject of Christianity came up often in this class—and not in a positive way. The professor was very skeptical, at times hostile, to Christianity. At the end of the term, as he was handing out the class evaluation forms, he said, “I often get negative reviews from students who complain that I’m anti-Christian. I don’t understand this at all. I’m very sympathetic with Christianity. I mean, I don’t believe it’s true—or any more true than Buddhism or any other religion is true. But after all, how many of you Christians believe it’s literally true? I mean, how many of you literally believe Jesus rose from the dead?”

And I’m sitting there, looking around this class of about 30 or 40 students—and I’m sure I’m not the only Christian in the room. But no one said anything. No one raised a hand. No one spoke up. And God help me… neither did I.

I believed at the time that the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ was just something we’re supposed to take on faith—even in the absence of historical evidence. I hate to say it, but that’s what I believed back then. And I suspect some of you believe that today.

If so, I want us to notice some things about today’s scripture. First, notice what the angel tells the two Marys when they show up at the tomb of Jesus on Easter morning: He doesn’t say, “I know you’re looking for Jesus. He’s not here. He is risen. Take my word for it.” No, the angel says, “He’s not here. He is risen. Go and see the place where he lay.” In other words, “Don’t take my word for it. Go and check it out for yourself.” The angel wants the Thea women to know that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a real, historical event—and like any other historical event that we know about, there’s good evidence for it happening. The angel encourages the women to examine the evidence for themselves.

And so should we. It’s not just a matter of taking the Bible’s word for it. When I was sitting in that philosophy class, that’s what I thought we were supposed to do. And truthfully, I was afraid to do what the angel encourages the women to do—I was afraid to look at the evidence. Because I worried that there might not be any, and… maybe I’d lose my faith.

Needless to say, I no longer feel that way. And although I don’t have time to begin to present all the historical evidence, I do want to share a few things from this particular passage.

First, all four gospels tell us that the first eyewitnesses to the resurrection were women. This is a very inconvenient fact because in the ancient world, the testimony of women wasn’t considered reliable. In fact, in Jewish law courts, the testimony of women was inadmissible. An early Roman critic of Christianity named Celsus mocked the resurrection because it was based on the eyewitness testimony of an “hysterical woman.”

My point is, if the apostles wanted to “invent” a resurrection story, they wouldn’t invent this one. If they were making it up, they would have Peter, James, and John be the first eyewitnesses. Because their testimony would be far more credible. The only reason the gospel writers tell us that women were the first eyewitnesses is because it also happened to be true. Historians call this the “principle of embarrassment”—when ancient writers report things that are embarrassing to them or their cause, then it makes their report more credible.

So that’s one small piece of evidence here.

For that matter, where were all the male disciples, anyway—especially the eleven remaining apostles? They had heard Jesus predict his death and resurrection. Shouldn’t they have woken up on the third day after Jesus’ death and eagerly run to the tomb to see if Jesus’ prediction had come true?

Well, maybe they would have… if they believed him. But they didn’t. Or it was so far outside the realm of possibility to them that they couldn’t even make sense of what Jesus was telling them—and they misunderstood him. Why do I say that? Because according to ancient Jewish belief, the resurrection was something that happened to all righteous Jews all at once—at the end of history as we know it. It wasn’t something that happened to any one person in the middle of history.

If you don’t believe me—if you don’t believe how highly unlikely it was for Jesus’ disciples to believe in the resurrection—consider this fact, which Bible scholar and ancient historian N.T. Wright points out in his massive 900-plus-page book called The Resurrection of the Son of God. Jesus was not the only person around Palestine in the first century being hailed by his followers as “the Messiah.” Ancient Palestine was a hotbed for messianic movements. And there were dozens of would-be Messiahs within a hundred years before and after Jesus. Yet, when these would-be Messiahs got killed or crucified by the Romans, as they inevitably did, none of their followers claimed that their leader had been resurrected. Only followers of Jesus claimed that. Why? What was different about these followers of Jesus? What made them completely revise their understanding of what resurrection means in light of what happened on Easter Sunday?

What was different is, they obviously believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead.

Were they deluded? Maybe they had some kind of mass hallucination or vision. To that suggestion, N.T. Wright offers the following hypothetical situation involving one of these would-be Messiahs. He writes:

Suppose we go to Rome in AD 70 and there witness the flogging and execution of Simon bar Giora, the supposed king of the Jews… Suppose we imagine a few Jewish revolutionaries three days or three weeks later.

The first revolutionary says, “You know, I think Simon really was the Messiah—and he still is!”

The others would be puzzled. “Of course he isn’t; the Romans got him, as they always do. If you want a messiah, you’d better find another one.”

“Ah,” says the first, “but I believe he’s been raised from the dead.”

“What d’you mean?” his friends ask. “He’s dead and buried.”

“Oh no,” replies the first, “I believe he’s been exalted to heaven.”

The others look puzzled. “All the righteous martyrs are with God; everybody knows that. Their souls are in God’s hand, but that doesn’t mean they’ve already been raised from the dead. Anyway, the resurrection will happen to us all at the end of time, not to one person in the middle of continuing history.”

“No,” replies the first, anticipating the position of twentieth-century existentialist theology, “you don’t understand. I’ve had a strong sense of God’s love surrounding me. I have felt God forgiving me—forgiving us all. I’ve had my heart strangely warmed. What’s more, last night, I saw Simon; he was there with me….”

The others interrupt, now angry. “We can all have visions. Plenty of people dream about recently dead friends. Sometimes it’s very vivid. That doesn’t mean they’ve been raised from the dead. It certainly doesn’t mean that one of them is the Messiah. And if your heart has been warmed, then for goodness’s sake sing a psalm, but don’t make wild claims about Simon.”[1]

Finally, notice that Matthew says that Jewish opponents of Jesus were saying that the disciples stole the body because they wanted to fool everyone into thinking that Jesus was resurrected. Of course that assumes they got past the Roman guards, but let’s ignore that for the sake of argument. We know for sure, from evidence outside of scripture, that one of the early converts to Christianity was James, the half-brother of Jesus himself. We know for sure that he didn’t believe his brother was the Son of God. Until after he saw the resurrected Jesus. If Jesus’ disciples had been involved in a conspiracy, they wouldn’t have fooled James! And the same with Paul! We know for sure that Saul of Tarsus was very much opposed to the Christian movement. Yet he experienced something—or someone—on that road to Damascus that changed his mind. He certainly wouldn’t have been fooled by any conspiracy foisted upon him by the apostles.

Besides, this has been said many times, but it’s still true: We know for sure that most of the apostles were martyred for their faith. This conspiracy theory asks us to believe that they did so while at the same time knowing that Jesus wasn’t really resurrected. How likely is that? It’s true that there are plenty of martyrs today who practice all kinds of religions. But what they have in common is this: They all believe that their particular religion is true. They don’t know for sure that it’s false.

I could go on… The angel says to look at the evidence, so I’ve tried to show you some of the evidence. I’d be happy to talk with you offline about any other questions you have on this subject.

So… I believe from the bottom of my heart that the resurrection of Jesus happened. I believe there’s really good historical evidence for believing it. And… I believe I’ve encountered Jesus—not in the physical way described in today’s scripture—that won’t happen until the Second Coming—but I’ve encountered him through his Holy Spirit, which he’s given us as a gift.

So the resurrection happened. What difference does it make?

After all, I believe that the United States sent many astronauts to the moon as part of the Apollo space program, but I’m not aware that that makes any practical difference in my life whatsoever. Except… I use velcro occasionally, and I think velcro was invented as part of the space program… And maybe that Vitamin C drink Tang. I’ve had that before.

Needless to say, the resurrection of Jesus Christ couldn’t be more different from the moon landing or any other historical event. Because if the resurrection of Jesus happened—and it did—it was the most important historical event of all time. And if it happened—and it did—it ought to make all the difference in our lives.

Why?

I want to start with Jesus’ words to the two Marys in verse 10: “Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee.” My brothers. What an interesting word choice. John reports Jesus saying something very similar to Mary Magdalene in his gospel, in John 20: “go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” He doesn’t refer to any of his disciples directly as his “brothers” prior to the resurrection.

Now he’s saying that Mary Magdalene and the other disciples are his brothers and sisters—and his Father is their Father too.

What’s changed?

After all, the eleven disciples that Mary is supposed to go and talk to are the same bunch who literally abandoned Jesus in his hour of greatest need just two days before. Except for John, who was at the foot of the cross on Good Friday, all the others were hiding behind locked doors out of fear. And we all know about Peter—who, besides Judas, committed the worst sin against Jesus imaginable: He denied knowing Jesus, repeatedly—after telling Jesus he would never do such a thing! And even on this Easter Sunday morning, they’re nowhere to be found.

What a sorry bunch of disciples! And they’re the exact people on this Easter Sunday morning that they were on Good Friday, when they failed in such an extravagant way! Literally… nothing has happened yet to change them. Jesus didn’t call them brothers before, and now he does. Why? What’s changed?

What’s changed is… everything. When Jesus calls them his brothers (and calls Mary Magdalene in John chapter 20 his sister), he is implying that their sins are forgiven. First and foremost, the resurrection means that our sins are truly forgiven! Good Friday describes how forgiveness was made possible, through Jesus’ death on the cross, but Easter Sunday tells us that the cross was successful in accomplishing its purpose.

The apostle Paul’s longest discussion of the meaning of resurrection occurs in 1 Corinthians 15. There, he talks about what it means if Christ wasn’t resurrected. He writes, that if Christ has not been raised, “your faith is futile and you are…” what? Your faith is futile and you won’t go to heaven when you die? That’s what we might expect him to say, but he doesn’t. But no… He says, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you’re still in your sins.You’re still in your sins. In other words, you haven’t been forgiven and you are bound for hell. For Paul, that’s the main thing that’s at stake in the resurrection.

But the good news is that for those of us who’ve placed our faith in Christ, all of our sins—past, present, and future—have been nailed to the cross of Christ, which means that the debt that we owe to God because of our sins has been paid in full, which means that God made Christ, who knew no sin, to be sin for us, which means that Christ suffered the penalty that we deserved to suffer, including God-forsaken death and hell, which means that we’ve been “born again” into God’s family, which means that we are now God’s beloved sons and daughters!

More than anything, the resurrection of Jesus Christ means that his Cross was effective. His suffering and dying on it accomplished the eternal purpose for which it was intended!

Remember when Jesus was baptized, and he heard the voice from heaven, the voice of his Father, say, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased”? If you believe in Jesus, guess what? It’s as if God the Father were now saying that of you! You are my beloved son, you are my beloved daughter with whom I am well pleased. You say, “I’m a terrible sinner!” Not in God’s eyes you aren’t! In God’s eyes, your sins are gone! They’re wiped out! You are now perfectly righteous—not because of who you are but who Jesus is! He’s given to you, he’s imputed to you, his righteousness as a gift.

What else does the resurrection of Jesus mean? It means what Jesus says to the women in verse 10: “Do not be afraid,” is directed to us as well. Because of the resurrection, we don’t have to be afraid. Christ has conquered the scariest thing around. I promise you this past week, every morning when I woke up, I checked the New York Times on my smartphone to see if North Korea was still there—or South Korea. Or to see if the U.S. had been attacked by any of those intercontinental ballistic missiles their unstable leader had threatened to launch. Because there’s been a lot of scary saber rattling going on this past week, if you haven’t noticed. Because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ do we need to be afraid of North Korea? Of course not! What does Jesus say? “Don’t fear the one who can kill your body and do more. Rather, fear the One who can throw both body and soul into hell!” If we’ve accepted Christ as Savior and Lord we don’t have to be afraid of North Korea and anything they can do! “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!”[2]

Finally—and maybe this seems really obvious—but the resurrection means that death is not the end. My father died 22 years ago of cancer. During the last six weeks or so of his life he had an IV, a feeding tube, and a catheter, which limited his mobility. Then the last two weeks he was confined to his bed.

In the weeks following his death, I had incredibly vivid dreams of my father: I mean, he seemed as real to me as any of you sitting out there. Don’t misunderstand: I didn’t believe I saw a ghost or that Dad had come back from the dead; when I woke up, I knew I was dreaming. But these dreams were vivid.

And in every dream, the same thing happened: Dad was up and moving around. He didn’t have IVs or catheters. His color was good. And in every dream I said the same thing: “Dad, what are you doing out of bed? You need to conserve your strength. You need to get back in bed. You’re frail. You might fall.” But, of course, Dad didn’t need to get back in bed. He was O.K. He was whole. I believe that God was giving me these dreams to show me that Dad was O.K., and that on the other side of resurrection, he would once again have a body, only this one would be incapable of suffering terrible illnesses like cancer.

And so it is with you and your loved ones who are in Christ. Do you believe it? If so, will you say “Amen”?

1. N.T. Wright, Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues (New York: HarperCollins, 2014), 50-1.

2. 1 Corinthians 15:55, 57 ESV

2 Responses to “Sermon 04-16-17: “For He Has Risen””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    I agree with most of what you say, and it is certainly good news! However, I have some difficulty with the general idea that, as some people put it, “When God looks at you, he sees Jesus!” In my opinion, when God looks at anyone, he sees them–just as they are, sinner and all. Only, there is not the same penalty affixed thereto that there used to be. We are not cut off from fellowship with God and heaven like we would be without Christ’s death. What’s difference does it make? There are still some consequences to our being sinners, and not just “natural” consequences–punishments from God. What’s the basis for my thinking this? I think I could find a fairly good amount of scripture on the point, but just consider the letters Jesus wrote to the seven churches in Revelation. This is Jesus talking directly, after his death, resurrection, and ascension, after the foundation of the Church, after the giving of the Holy Spirit. And he is talking to Christians. What does he say? “Repent, lest I do such and so to you!” And serous stuff, too. So, I don’t think we should say that God does not see our sins or deal with us accordingly; just, the playing field has changed in a very substantial way that gives us great hope.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I see your point, but most Protestants (including me) believe that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us. This imputation is the basis on which we’re acceptable to God—obviously, the question of whether we can “backslide” is relevant here. But so long as we are in Christ, I can’t see how we’re not “perfect,” at least in terms of our eternal status as God’s beloved child. I believe in God’s discipline—and God will discipline us for our sin. But it doesn’t affect our standing. This was the context in which I preached those words.


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