The philosopher and broadcaster, Cyril Joad, was asked: 'Who, of all in history, would you most like to meet and what question would you most like to ask that person?' He chose Jesus Christ and said he wanted to ask him the most important question in the world. 'Did you or did you not rise from the dead?'
He was right to say this is the most important question in the world. Why? Well as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, if the answer is that Christ hasn't been raised bodily from the dead then we might as well pack up the service now, go home and never come back. V14
... if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.… If the dead are not raised... [v32] 'Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die'. (v14-19)
"But”, Paul says, v20, with one of the most emphatic 'buts' in all of history, in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. Meaning Christ, who's been raised bodily from the dead, is the guarantee of the raising to eternal life of all Christians. Jesus was the first to rise from the dead, rising as our representative. His resurrection caused us to be raised spiritually (Romans 6:4), and at the same time guarantees that we'll be raised bodily. After Jesus' resurrection his disciples could recognise him, at least eventually, despite the differences in his new body. In the same way, Christians will recognise one another, and there'll be joyful reunions in heaven when the separations caused by death are ended. In 1 Thess 4 Paul assures those who were grieving that they'd see their Christian loved ones again.
Are you trusting the crucified and risen Jesus with your life and with your death? Do you know where you're going?
In January 2000, the town of Charlotte, North Carolina, invited their favourite son, Billy Graham, to a lunch. Billy hesitated to accept because he struggles with Parkinson's. But in the end he agreed. After lunch, he told the crowd, "I'm reminded today of Albert Einstein, the great physicist who was once travelling from Princeton on a train when the conductor came down the aisle. When he came to Einstein, Albert couldn't find his ticket. The conductor said, 'Dr. Einstein, I know who you are. We all know who you are. I'm sure you bought a ticket.' Einstein nodded appreciatively. As the conductor was ready to move to the next car, he turned and saw the great physicist down on his hands and knees looking under his seat for his ticket. The conductor rushed back and said, 'Dr. Einstein, don't worry. I know who you are. ' Einstein looked at him, 'Young man, I too know who I am. What I don't know is where I'm going.'"
Billy Graham continued, "See the suit I'm wearing? It's brand new. My family tell me I've got a little slovenly in my old age. So I went out and bought a new suit for this and one more occasion. You know what that occasion is? This is the suit in which I'll be buried. But when you hear I'm dead, I don't want you to immediately remember the suit I'm wearing. I want you to remember this: I not only know who I am, I also know where I'm going."
Billy Graham knows he's going to be with Jesus in heaven with an imperishable body. Not because of what he's done but because of Christ's death on the cross and physical resurrection from the dead. Jesus has won the victory over sin and death. Romans 4:25 says Christ died for our sins and rose again for our justification. So Jesus' resurrection guarantees the believer's present forgiveness and right relationship with God and it is the hope of eternal life in Christ.
Article 4 of the Church of England declares that:
Christ did truly rise again from death, and took again his body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of Man's nature; wherewith he ascended into Heaven, and there sitteth, until he return to judge all Men at the last day.
So let's look further at those truths of the resurrection of Christ from John 20.
First, THE EMPTY TOMB v1-10
One recent survey revealed that only 50% of Church of England clergy believe in the physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead. But the resurrection of Jesus, as we can see from John 20 was a physical, bodily resurrection and so an actual historical event. The tomb was empty. Some have argued that the tomb was empty because Jesus didn't die on the cross but merely swooned and was taken down alive. But John makes it very clear back in chapter 19:33-34 that Jesus did die on the cross, that he was buried (John 19:38-42) and that on the third day he rose again. Paul passes this on to us in 1 Corinthians 15 as of first importance as he reminds his readers of the gospel and then states the certainty of Christ's bodily resurrection a further 6 times in that chapter.
The preaching and the rapid growth of the early church are both inexplicable apart from an empty tomb. The empty tomb establishes that there was continuity between Jesus' pre-death body and his post-resurrection body. Much that is said in 1 Corinthians 15 about the Christian's ultimate hope is incoherent if this point isn't absorbed. The bodily resurrection of Jesus is historical and that fact is evident from John's account of it.
Look at just some of the details of v1-10. In Jesus' day women were not even allowed to give testimony in court so John wouldn't have been making up the fact that women were the first to discover Jesus' empty tomb. Peter and John, John being the disciple Jesus loved, saw the grave clothes lying in an orderly fashion. Not in disarray, as would have resulted from a grave robbery as Mary Magdalene thought (v2). The tomb was empty. If Jesus' body had remained in the grave then the successful witness to the truth of the resurrection by the apostles wouldn't have been possible. Mary Magdalene thought it was empty because someone had stolen or taken the body. But who? If the disciples had taken it why were they subsequently willing to suffer for their faith? If the authorities had been responsible why didn't they produce the body to counter the preaching of the apostles? The tomb was empty because on the third day Jesus rose again from the dead.
And as we consider these facts today in a sense we're in a position similar to John's as he stood in the empty tomb and saw the grave clothes which Jesus had left. Like the disciple Jesus loved, we can be assured, without meeting the risen Christ in person, that Jesus was truly raised on the basis of the historical evidence. V8: He saw [the empty tomb and the grave clothes] and believed.
John presents the evidence of the empty tomb that you might believe and have life and be strengthened in your faith. And that faith then needs to grow to understand from the whole of Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead (v9). But perhaps like Mary Magdalene you're still struggling to believe in or you're doubting Jesus' resurrection. So John now records for us some of the resurrection appearances of Jesus as his next block of evidence. Acts 1 tells us that Jesus appeared to people and taught over a period of 40 days before his ascension. 1 Corinthians 15 says that he appeared to more than 500 at the same time which rules out that they were just hallucinating! So
Secondly, THE RISEN JESUS APPEARS TO MARY MAGDALENE v11-18
"Mary", v11, "stood outside the tomb weeping." Now tears of anything but joy by the empty tomb on Easter morning do seem incongruous, but grief-stricken Mary still had not seen and believed. She still had no thought of resurrection even though she still referred to Jesus as "my Lord" (v13). Perhaps she stood outside the tomb hoping to find out who'd taken the body and where they'd put it (v13). As she wept, v11&12, she stooped to look into the tomb.2 And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. Here the angels are evidence that God himself has been at work, that God raised Jesus from the dead. The empty tomb is not empty because of grave robbers but because of the power of God.
The angels ask, "Woman, why are you weeping?" It's really a gentle reproof - for there's no need. Even when she turned round and saw Jesus standing there she didn't realise it was Jesus. She wasn't the only one not to immediately recognise the risen Jesus. The two on the Emmaus Road were kept from recognising him (Luke 24:16) and the disciples in the boat on the Lake of Tiberias did not recognise him on the shore (John 21:4). Perhaps Mary was partly blinded by her tears and her fears, perhaps she didn't initially recognise the resurrection body of Jesus - a body which can be touched, which bears his wounds, which eats fish, and yet a body which rose through the grave-clothes and appeared in a locked room. There is transformation and change involved in the resurrection of the body as well as continuity. Jesus' resurrection wasn't just a revival of the broken physical body that was taken down from the cross and buried. It was a transformation of Jesus' humanity that enabled him to appear, vanish and move unseen from one location to another. It was the creative renewing of his body to become the body that's now fully glorified and deathless. The Son of God in heaven lives in and through his body and will do so forever. We too, if we're trusting in Christ, will undergo a similar transformation.
Back to Mary. You see her view of who she was looking for was still too small. What kind of Messiah was she expecting? That's what's behind Jesus' question in v15: "Whom are you seeking?" What's your view? Is your estimate of him still far too small? In her distressed state she thought he was the gardener but her blindness was removed by Jesus uttering just one word, "Mary". As John records in 10:3-4, the good shepherd "calls his own sheep by name…and his sheep follow him because they know his voice". Mary cried out, "Rabboni" or Teacher. Mary has now seen, heard and believed. But she doesn't fully understand what's happening. All she knows is that he's alive and doesn't want him to go. So Jesus says to her, v17
“Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” (v17)
Why does Jesus say 'Do not cling to me'? Well he's reminding Mary that he's not merely recovered but resurrected. She needn't cling to Jesus as an earthly being who's been healed; rather she should recognise him as one whose resurrection marks him as Lord and Christ. He was going to ascend to his Father in heaven. What is Jesus' ascension? Well it wasn't a form of space travel but rather the next step following the resurrection, of Jesus' return from death to the height of glory. Jesus Christ is Lord of the universe. Isn't that a source of enormous encouragement to us as believers. To sit at the Father's right hand is to occupy the position of ruler on God the Father's behalf. In the heavenly sanctuary, Jesus is accessible to all who call on his name (Heb 4) and powerful to help them anywhere in the world. And he intercedes for us and so intervenes in our interest for his glory. Furthermore Jesus told his disciples he would ascend to his Father and send the Spirit, the Helper, back in John 16:7
... it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper [the Holy Spirit] will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgement... (John 16:7)
And we today can meet Jesus through the Spirit and by faith. He's alive forever. He still comes to transform broken, sorrowing and fearful lives with the sheer uninhibited gladness of discovering him, alive and with us.
Mary's then sent by Jesus to tell the disciples the good news. "I have seen the Lord" she tells them which leads to the commissioning of the disciples to tell this good news to the world in the power of the Spirit in v19-23. You see, the resurrection is the vindication of the life and death of Jesus as the one in whom God, in person, entered our world that salvation might be won for every nation, tribe, people, and tongue. So
Thirdly, THE RISEN JESUS APPEARS TO TEN DISCIPLES v19-23
As the risen Jesus comes through the locked doors and stands among them and then as he commissions them he says, "Peace be with you". Don't be afraid. I have risen - sin, death and the devil have been defeated. And Jesus further reassures his disciples then and now that it was really him - risen and alive and not a ghost in v20 by showing them his hands and his side, where the nails and the spear had been. How important it is for our needy and hurting generation that Jesus is recognised by his scars! How important it is that we preach Christ crucified and risen.
The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. He began to transform their fear into courage, their confusion into conviction. And he's alive and with us as we go with the message of his death and resurrection. "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you."
This tells us that mission is of vital importance. If Jesus sends us as the Father has sent him then mission must have the same importance for us as it had for Jesus. For Jesus is coming again as Judge of all on a day already set by God the Father. How do we know? Because Jesus is risen from the dead. Acts 17:31:
God has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead. (Acts 17:3)
Fourthly, THE RISEN JESUS APPEARS TO THOMAS v24-29
The disciples soon discover that not everyone will immediately believe their witness to the risen Jesus. Thomas, who hadn't been there when Jesus appeared to the rest of the disciples, received their witness as apostles, which we now have today in the form of the New Testament and which is the basis for faith (v30-31), but he failed to trust it. He wanted physical evidence to convince him that the risen Christ was the very Jesus he had known and who he knew had died. Well 8 days later the risen Jesus appeared to his disciples again and for the first time to Thomas, even though the doors were locked. He said to Thomas, v27
“Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” (v2)
By referring back to Thomas' challenge Jesus proves that he hears his disciples even when he's not physically present. Then he removes all possible grounds for unbelief. Thomas simply replies, "My Lord and My God". Jesus says, v29:
“Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (v29)
Blessed are those who can't share Thomas' experience but who, because they read of Thomas' experience, come to share his faith in Christ as Lord and God. Today faith comes not by sight but by hearing or reading the word of Christ (Romans 10:17). Which is why John wrote this Gospel. If you're trusting in the risen Lord Jesus Christ you are blessed. Who needs to be reminded of that?