Sermon 04-04-2021: “The Meaning of Easter”

April 5, 2021

Scripture: John 20: 1-18

If you remember the movie Back to the Future, you remember the DeLorean that Doc Brown converted into a time machine. Once the DeLorean reached a speed of 88 miles per hour, and the flux capacitor reached 1.21 gigawatts of power—or “jigga”-watts, as Doc Brown insists on pronouncing it—the DeLorean would disappear in a flash of light and travel either into the future or back into the past… at a preset date that you would enter on the dashboard.

And I was always amused by that scene in which Doc Brown is showing off the time machine to Marty McFly. He says, “We can travel back in time to when Jesus Christ was born.” And he enters the date, “December 25, 0-0-0-0,” on the dashboard display. This, of course, is wrong in two important ways: First, there is no year zero. Our calendar goes from the year 1 B.C. to the year A.D. 1. From one to one.

Second, Jesus wasn’t born on December 25… Or I should say, there’s only about a one-in-365 chance that he was born on that day. The ancient church didn’t know the date, so it chose December 25.

Be that as it may… I appreciate that the filmmakers were trying to say that the birth of Jesus Christ was one of the most important days in history. But they missed the most important day by about 33 years… because the most important day in history was not the beginning of Christ’s earthly life, but the beginning of his resurrected life. In other words, the most important day was Easter Sunday, not Christmas. 

If not for Easter, literally no one living today would know or care about Christmas.

Because the resurrection of Jesus Christ changes everything!

In the last month or so, I’ve been sharing with Sunday school classes and my Bible study the historical evidence for the resurrection—historical reasons why the resurrection happened. In my presentations, I point out that nearly all well-credentialed modern historians teaching at universities and publishing peer-reviewed articles—whether they’re believers or not—accept several important facts about Easter weekend, including that Jesus was crucified, that three days later, his tomb was found empty, and that many—even hundreds—of his followers genuinely believed that they had encountered the resurrected Lord—in the flesh—including former skeptics and opponents like James, the half-brother of Jesus, and Saul of Tarsus, otherwise known as the apostle Paul.

N.T. Wright, an ancient historian and New Testament scholar, has said that the evidence for the resurrection is so strong, that the only reason modern historians won’t go ahead and say that Jesus was resurrected is because—well—human beings don’t get resurrected. 

And I’ll admit that about 99.9999999 percent of the time these historians are exactly right.

But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? Resurrections don’t happen; they didn’t “happen” in Jesus’ day, ether! With one important exception. Which is why the events of that first Easter Sunday are so incredibly unusual that people like us, Jesus’ disciples, are celebrating it two-thousand years later!

So let’s begin by talking about what’s going on in John’s account of Easter Sunday, and then, more importantly, let’s talk about what it means for us

John writes in verse 1: “Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb.” It wasn’t just Mary; we know from the other gospels that other women went with her. And they went because they had hoped to properly prepare Jesus body for burial according to Jewish custom. This involved wrapping the body in linen strips—almost like a mummy—and anointing it with spices and perfumes.

This is because ancient Jewish burials were a two step process. A year after the person was buried in the tomb, after their body decomposed, family members would re-enter the tomb, collect the bones, and store them in a “bone box” or ossuary. Not to be gross, but it was important to prepare the body this way, with heavy spices and perfume, so that when you went back in the tomb, it wouldn’t smell so bad!

The women didn’t know that a couple of male disciples—Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus—had already prepared Jesus’ body for burial on Friday afternoon, before the Sabbath started. You can read about their preparations at the end of chapter 19

Regardless Mary and the women didn’t go to the tomb hoping to see that Jesus had been resurrected. No… despite what Jesus told his disciples—that he would be crucified and resurrected—none of them believed him or understood what he was saying; maybe they thought he was speaking in parables, I don’t know. But it’s clear that none of them expected Jesus to be resurrected. 

And why would they? Faithful, orthodox Jews living in the first century—people like Jesus’ own disciples—they believed in the resurrection of the dead, but they believed that resurrection was something that happened to everyone at the end of history, not to one individual person, namely Jesus, in the middle of history. 

In fact, the only thing that would make these disciples revise their deeply held religious beliefs was their firm conviction that the resurrection really happened… to Jesus! And we know from history that they believed in it so strongly that eleven of the twelve disciples—including Matthias, the man who replaced Judas—including James, the brother of Jesus, and including, last but not least, the apostle Paul—all of them laid down their lives because they believed so strongly that they had encountered the resurrected Lord in the flesh.

But that’s not where they are on this first Easter Sunday morning. None of these disciples had “resurrection faith” yet. The first one to “get there,” by the way, the first one to believe in the resurrection is John, the author of this gospel. (By the way, John always refers to himself as the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” or words to that effect.)

So both John and Peter, when the women report that the tomb is empty, went to investigate. They both went inside the tomb. What did John see, or what did he notice, or what did he piece together, about what he saw that Peter didn’t see or notice or piece together? They both saw the same things, after all—the linen cloths in which Jesus’ body was wrapped… and the face cloth… 

First, let’s notice that verses 5 and 6 indicate that John and Peter saw the grave cloths “lying there,” and many commentators believe that this description indicates they were lying exactly where Jesus’ body had lain, seemingly unmoved or untouched, perhaps still in the shape of Jesus’ body, as if Jesus didn’t even need to unwrap them… as if somehow he passed through them.

Does this mean that Jesus was a ghost? Not at all!

Remember: While Jesus’ resurrected body was physical… in today’s scripture Mary Magdalene embraces Jesus. Elsewhere we see him eating and drinking. Later in this same chapter, Jesus offers to let Thomas feel the scars in his hands and side. But his resurrected body is more than physical… He’s able to pass through a locked door. He’s able to disappear and reappear at will—like he did with the two disciples on the road to Emmaeus. This is the Bible’s way of showing us that Jesus’ glorified, resurrected body was different from his body before; it had changed.

And here is our first important clue about the meaning of Easter. When John saw Jesus’ grave clothes, he surely remembered an event that happened about two weeks earlier… when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Jesus tells him to come out of the tomb. If you have your Bibles—and you should—I invite you to look at this verse: John 11:44:

The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”1

Unbind him and let him go? When Lazarus was raised from the dead, he comes staggering out, still bound by the linen cloths that his body was wrapped in, still wearing the cloth that covered his face. He could not remove them himself; he needed help. 

Jesus, meanwhile, had no trouble removing his grave clothes—whether he passed through them or not. Jesus even neatly folded the cloth that was over his face! What a strange detail! 

But I believe this is John’s way of contrasting Jesus’ resurrection with Lazarus’s.

When Lazarus was raised from the dead, two weeks earlier, his dead body was merely resuscitated. He was still weak, still frail, still mortal. Maybe, for all we know, Lazarus went on to live another 20 or 30 years. But we know for sure he was raised only to die again in the future.

But Jesus’ resurrection is not like that at all! Indeed, his glorified body was made to last forever!

Why? Because while Lazarus escaped death for a few more years, Jesus conquered death!

And the Bible even says, in 1 Corinthians 15, that what Christ’s glorified body is, ours one day will be… after the Second Coming, when we’re resurrected into a renewed, redeemed, restored world where heaven and earth become one, according to Revelation 21. We’ll have bodies like Jesus2… ones that aren’t frail, that don’t get sick or disabled or diseased… ones that last forever!

I can’t help but think about my own father, who died of cancer 26 years ago. The last couple of months of his life, he was very frail, very sick. He was pale and emaciated. He was mostly bedridden. He had an IV bag and a catheter. He had a feeding tube in his stomach. We all learned to feed him that way with liquid Ensure… And not long before his death, I would inject morphine into this tube, per the doctor’s instruction. I’m grateful for those last two months, but it was difficult… to see someone so full of life yet whose body was failing him… fast…

But shortly after Dad died, I had a series of dreams about him. And these dreams were so vivid. Dad was as real and lifelike to me as any of you sitting on the front pew there. And in these dreams, when I saw him, I always said the same thing: “Dad, what are you doing out of bed? You should get back in bed. Conserve your energy. Rest up.” Yet he was moving around just fine. His color looked good! He wasn’t nearly as thin. And where was his IV? Where was his catheter? Where was his feeding tube?

He looked well. He looked healthy. He looked whole

And I think that God gave me the gift of these beautiful dreams to tell me two things: First, that Dad was okay; that he was with Jesus. And second, to show me a glimpse of Dad’s future: one in which he would receive a new body—the same kind of body that God gave Jesus—one incapable of suffering from diseases like cancer and other infirmities. 

For those of us in Christ, that is our future:

And many preachers would just stop there: “For those who are in Christ, Easter means heaven the moment when you die. And it means bodily resurrection in the future!”

And that’s a great and true message, by all means! But why does Easter mean that?

Frankly, I don’t think the vast majority of people—at least people outside of church—have any clue! And this breaks my heart, and I want it to break yours!

It breaks the heart of a brother in Christ whom I love and respect—an evangelist from New Zealand named Ray Comfort. He ministers in southern California. He does open-air preaching and street evangelism—just like John Wesley used to do. You can see him in action on his YouTube channel.

When he talks to people about Jesus, his experience in southern California is surprisingly similar to my experience in Toccoa, Georgia: most people he encounters believe in God and are counting on “going to heaven” when they die… except few of them feel any great confidence about it… and nearly all are counting on the fact that they are “good people”—or so they think—and on that basis God will somehow give them eternal life. 

This is a false hope! And I hope you see this is contrary to the gospel!

But I’ve talked to dozens of strangers in Toccoa who have this same false hope!

But Comfort often asks people he interviews to imagine that he were an eye doctor who needed two healthy eyes for research purposes, and he was willing to pay millions of dollars for their eyes. The trade-off is that they would be blind. How much money would they take in exchange for their eyes? And they always answer, “No amount of money!” No one who has healthy eyes is willing to live without their eyesight if they can help it.3

Yet Jesus warns us that, as valuable as our eyes are, if our eye causes us to sin, “tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.”4 And he says, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?”5

Does our heart break at the thought that so many people in Toccoa, so many of our neighbors, our coworkers, our fellow students, our friends risk dying and losing their souls… because they don’t know this good news of what Christ accomplished for them at Easter? By all means, they’ve heard something about heaven, something about eternal life, maybe something about resurrection, but they don’t know what’s required to inherit these things!

And fewer and fewer are even hearing about it! 

A couple of weeks ago, the Gallup organization published a depressing poll that showed for the first in America’s history, a majority of the population—53 percent—have no affiliation with a church or religious organization. 

How can that not fill us with a sense of urgency to let people know what this good news of Easter is all about… while they still have time… while we still have time? 

Look at verse 17: Jesus tells Mary Magdalene, “Do not cling to me… but go to my brothers and tell them this good news.” There’s no time to spare!

It’s as if Jesus were saying, “I’ll always be with you, Mary, because I’m sending you my Holy Spirit. But you can’t cling to me… you can’t keep me to yourself… because you have work to do. You must go and tell.”

Are we at Toccoa First trying to cling to Jesus—are we trying to keep him to ourselves—while ignoring the work that he’s given us to do… ignoring the Great Commission he’s given us to fulfill?

The good news of Easter is not supposed to be some kind of well-kept secret!

And the stakes couldn’t be higher… People we know are living and dying and going to hell in part because the 67 churches in Stephens County are “clinging to Jesus,” keeping him to themselves, rather than placing a priority on doing what Jesus commissions us to do: to go and tell… to go and make disciples… to go and share this good news of Easter.

How can we be satisfied knowing that we’re saved without doing our part to save others? Is there anything more urgent?

Dear God, help us to change, because one important meaning of Easter is mission

And that mission is to share with people the most important meaning of Easter: that Christ accomplished everything he set out to accomplish on Good Friday! 

Look at verse 17 again: Jesus said to Mary, “Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 

If we weren’t so familiar with the story, this ought to surprise us… shock us, even!

After all, if Jesus were like us, what might Jesus have told Mary to say to these disciples? 

Considering how most of them abandoned Jesus in his hour of greatest need;6 considering how they fell asleep on him when he was sweating drops of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane; considering how one of them—his closest disciple—even denied knowing Jesus three times; considering how none of his disciples believed him when he told them that he would be crucified and resurrected; considering how they were nowhere to be seen while he was suffering on the cross; considering how, even now, when they should be celebrating Easter Sunday, they’re instead cowering in fear in the upper room behind a locked door… 

Considering all these things, we might expect Jesus to say to Mary, “I want you to go to those no-good, lousy, sinful, lying, cowardly bunch of  traitors who call themselves my disciples, and I want you to warn them that I’m giving them one more chance not to mess things up! One more chance and then I’m through with them!”

That’s what he might have said… That’s what they deserved to hear. But no… Instead, he talks about the change in status that has happened as a result of his death and resurrection: “Go to my brothers,” he says. “Tell them I’m going see my Father and your Father.”

There’s no anger toward these disciples. No threats… No punishment… Only acceptance… only love without condition… only grace. Do you see that? 

Our sweet little dog Ringo turned two years old last week. As a family we were reminiscing about when we picked him out and picked him and brought him home for the first time. And one of my kids said, “Dad, you didn’t even want to get a new dog! You didn’t think it was a great idea!” And I said, “That’s true, but I’ve more than made up for it, because it’s obvious that I love Ringo the most in this family!”

And they’re like, “No, you don’t! We all love him equally.”

Maybe so… What I know for sure is, I could not love this creature more than I do. I couldn’t love him more even when it’s pouring rain and he goes outside and rolls around in the mud and then comes in and jumps on the couches before I can stop him… Doesn’t matter… He’s perfect! I couldn’t love him more! 

I couldn’t love him more even when the silly thing eats things he shouldn’t, like sticks or twigs, and suddenly he can’t keep food down, and he’s desperately sick, and has to go to veterinary hospital on the weekend, where he racks up a small fortune in vet bills! Doesn’t matter… He’s perfect… I couldn’t love him more!

I couldn’t love him more even when he wants to play fetch, but doesn’t realize he needs to actually bring the ball to you… or even when it’s 10:30 at night, his “witching hour,” and he’s a hyperactive maniac… or even when I’m running with him on a leash, and we’re on the sidewalk next to Bill and Susan Turner’s house. And suddenly Ringo gets spooked by their little pooch—who couldn’t hurt a fly—and out of fear Ringo decides to dart in front of my legs and trip me up and I skid across the sidewalk. Doesn’t matter… He’s perfect… I couldn’t love him more.

The resurrection means—get this!—the resurrection means that the One whom Jesus called “my Father” invites you into the same loving relationship with his Father that Jesus enjoys. It means his Father loves you exactly as much, and in exactly the same way, as he loves his only begotten Son. It means his Father feels the same feelings toward you that he feels toward his Son Jesus. See John 17:23 and 26. Because his Father… Jesus’ Father… is now our Father.

The resurrection means this: If you’re in Christ, God our Father looks at you, even you—with all your sin, with all your failures, with all your mistakes—and he says, “It doesn’t matter what you do. You’re perfect. I couldn’t love you more!” If you’re in Christ, the resurrection means that God is not mad at you; he’s not disappointed in you; he’s not wishing you were someone else; he’s not holding a grudge against you.

I mean, I hope you won’t be offended that I’m comparing us to dogs, but I know the love I feel in my heart for Ringo… My heart melts when I look at him… Imagine that God loves us like that, except even infinitely more! You’re his son… You’re his daughter… Can you even imagine?

The resurrection means that “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”7

Now, brothers and sisters, I’m going to give you your Easter challenge… Are you ready? Because this is hard… Please go out and enjoy everything that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has accomplished for you and made available to you from Good Friday through Easter Sunday! Amen?

  1. John 11:44 ESV
  2. See Romans 6:4-5.
  3. Ray Comfort, “I Don’t Care What Happens to Me after I Die,”, 3 August 2020. Accessed 3 April 2021.
  4.  Matthew 5:29 ESV
  5. Matthew 16:26 ESV
  6. John 16:32
  7. Romans 8:38-39

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