Someone once asked the philosopher and broadcaster, Professor Joad, this question: 'Who, of all the figures 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. The most important question being this: 'Did you or did you not rise from the dead?'
The professor was right to say that that is the most important question in the world. For, as the Apostle Paul implies in 1 Corinthians 15, if the answer is that Christ has not been raised then we might as well pack up the service now, go home and never come back. Paul writes:
If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith…And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men…If the dead are not raised [our philosophy of life might as well be] 'Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die'. (1 Corinthians 15:14-19,32)
"But", continues Paul with one of the most emphatic 'buts' in all of history, "Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who fallen asleep." (1 Cor 15:20) Meaning that Christ, who has been raised from the dead, is the guarantee of the resurrection of all of God's redeemed people. Yes in Christ we have a sure and certain hope. Yes we can trust Jesus with our death because of his death and resurrection. The Apostle Paul had met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus and his life had been totally turned round. Paul the persecutor of the church became Paul the preacher and church planter. The eleven remaining disciples of Jesus met the risen Lord and were commissioned to go and make disciples of all nations. And Matthew here in chapter 28 wants his readers, wants us to see, believe, have a personal life changing encounter with the risen Jesus, know and go.
In the undertones of this chapter of Matthew's Gospel you can almost hear the debate going on that Matthew was addressing about whether Jesus had been raised. In a moment we'll have a look at the evidence for the resurrection in more detail from Matthew's Gospel but first let's look at the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ and its significance.
First, THE RESURRECTION
Look at v1. At dawn on the first Easter Sunday morning Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (the wife of Clopas and the sister of the mother of Jesus) went to look at the tomb. Mark and Luke tell us that they were going to anoint Jesus' body with spices. In fact Mark also tells us that they wondered how they would move the huge stone that blocked the entrance to the tomb. (Mark 16:3) They thought Jesus would still be dead. They did not expect to find an empty tomb and to meet the risen Jesus. They knew that Jesus had died and had been buried – they'd watched him die on the cross from a distance (Mt 27:55) and they'd seen Joseph of Arimathea place Jesus' body in his own new tomb and roll a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb (Mt 27:61). But on the third day there was no expectation on their part that Jesus would have been raised from the dead, even though many were aware that Jesus had predicted it thre times in Matthew's Gospel. They had come to look at the tomb, to pay their last respects to Jesus, to the man whom they had followed from Galilee to care for his needs (Mt 27:55) and to now care for his dead body.
And perhaps there are some here this evening who have come to look without any true comprehension of what happened to Jesus and why. Please do keep coming. There may be others who come and are devoted to coming and who say they love Jesus but they have no expectations of him. To all intents and purposes, as far as they are concerned, Jesus is still in his tomb or at most shut up in his church. Each Sunday they, in effect, politely pay Jesus their respects. They need to understand who Jesus is, what he's done, what he's doing now and what he will do. Having no expectations of Jesus and lacking understanding is something we can all be guilty of at times. Paul understood that as he prayed for the Ephesians in Ephesians 1. He prayed 'that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know…his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead' (Eph 1:18-20). We need to understand that Christ's resurrection power is not buried in some time capsule, but is available to us today. Paul said in Philippians 3:10-11:
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.
Do we? Then humbly trust him, looking to him rather than just looking at him. Jesus said in John 6:40:
Everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.
In v1 the women thought Jesus was dead. Today the world believes that Jesus died but, even though the gospel has made a major impact, most of the world does not believe that he is risen, especially in Western Europe. Even certain church leaders do not believe the reality of it, such as the former Bishop of Edinburgh who led the Good Friday meditation on BBC 1. But Matthew's Gospel along with the others is crystal clear that the tomb was empty of Jesus' body and that he is risen. As Matthew records the angel saying to the women in v6:
He is not here; he has risen, just as he said.
And here in Matthew 28 we are told of the huge significance of the resurrection of Jesus and of the huge impact it has made, continues to make and will make in the world. When Jesus died on the cross taking the punishment we deserved for our sins Matthew records that 'the earth shook and the rocks split' (Mt 27:51). When Jesus rose from the dead, 'there was a violent [or literally mega] earthquake' (v2). Nature itself testified to the earth shattering nature of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
This violent earthquake, says one writer, 'is a great symbol of the effect that the resurrection of Jesus has had on the world stage'. For although the tremors of this particular earthquake may have been localised, the tremors of the aftershock of the resurrection are of the greatest magnitude and continue to reverberate. In a sense the very foundations of the world were rocked on that first Easter Day and the world has never been the same. For the resurrection of Jesus was no one-off feat; rather, its repercussions are there for all who look to him to experience. Furthermore the seismic repercussions of the resurrection are life creating and hope inducing. For, in rising from the dead, Jesus broke death's defences once and for all. He has overcome death and he has overcome 'he who holds the power of death – that is, the devil' (Heb 2:14). He has won the victory over sin, the death and the devil. 'Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.' (1 Cor 15:57) The claim of Jesus to be the resurrection and the life is vindicated. Jesus said in John 11:25:
"I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die." Do you believe this?
Perhaps there's someone here who needs to believe it for the first time. Why not turn to him this evening and believe it. He is alive.
The resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ is the crowning proof that he has paid the debt which he undertook to pay on our behalf, won the battle which he fought to deliver us from hell, and is accepted as our surety and our substitute by our Father in heaven. Thanks be to God, the Lord Jesus rose again for our justification (Ro 4:25). The resurrection also proves that Jesus is God's Son. In John 10:17-18 Jesus stated that he had authority to lay down his life and to take it up again. The resurrection verifies the truth of Scripture. Jesus' resurrection is clearly taught in both the Old and New Testaments, eg Psalms 16 and 110.
As I've already hinted the resurrection assures our own future resurrection. Because Jesus died and rose again, if we are Christians we shall one day be raised to be like him (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 & 1 Cor 15). It is also proof of a future judgement. Acts 17:30-31 says that:
Now God commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.
Who needs to repent and believe this evening and be rescued?
It is also the basis for Christ's heavenly priesthood. Because he lives by the power of an endless life, he is able to save us 'to the uttermost' (Heb 7:23-28). He lives to intercede for us. It also gives power for Christian living and assures our future inheritance. We cannot live for God by our own strength. It is only as his resurrection power works in and through us that we can do his will and glorify his name. And because we have a living hope, we can experience hopeful living.
At the start of that first Easter Day there was discouragement, defeat and fear. But all those feelings began to change when the women were told by the angel that Jesus is risen and to go quickly and tell the disciples that he will see them in Galilee and they were filled with joy says v8. In John 20:20 the disciples were simply overjoyed to see the Lord. At this stage they had not grasped all the implications of the resurrection. But the resurrection does bring great joy. When the implications had sunk in for Peter he wrote: "You believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy" (1 Peter 1:8). William Tyndale was right when he described the Christian gospel as 'good, merry, glad and joyful tidings, that makes a man's heart glad and makes him sing, dance and leap for joy'.
The two Mary's were filled with joy and in his presence they worshipped him. Look at v9. When Jesus suddenly met the women they came to him, clasped his feet and worshipped him. They then went and told the good news to the brothers just as Jesus had commanded (v10). What is our response to the risen Jesus? To worship him and obey him as we should?
But still some of you might be asking is it really true? Well that leads on to my second and much briefer point:
Secondly, THE EVIDENCE
One US Supreme Court Judge once said that there was more evidence for the truth of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead than there is for the guilt or innocence of most of those brought to trial day by day in the USA. Matthew 28 wants us to come and see the place where Jesus lay, to know that the tomb was empty and that Jesus is risen. And there are at least six statements of evidence here.
First – the first witnesses of Jesus' resurrection are women! Astounding! For at that time women were not allowed to bear witness in a court of law. If anyone was going to fabricate the account of the resurrection, would they have made the witnesses women? Of course not!
Second – the empty tomb v2-6. Despite the stone and the guard the tomb was empty on the first Easter Day. The sense of v2 is that there had been an earthquake. The earthquake was accompanied by an angel. An angel is God's messenger. His words ad his action of sitting on the rolled away stone conveys the triumph of Jesus over death. By the way there is no need to assume that the stone was rolled away for the benefit of Jesus. Neither stones nor locked doors prevented the risen Jesus from leaving or entering. The stone was rolled away so that people could see that the tomb was empty.
Third – the resurrection appearances v9&16-20: first to the two Mary's, and then to the eleven disciples in Galilee. Some of the eleven doubted or could hardly believe it when they saw Jesus alive which gives this account an authenticity. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul tells us that Jesus appeared to Peter, then to the Twelve, then to more than 500 of the brothers at once. Some have claimed that the disciples were hallucinating when they saw Jesus. Surely 500 people could not hallucinate about the same person at the same time!
Fourth - the transformed lives of Jesus' followers (v8-9&17): the 2 Mary's and the eleven. They worshipped Jesus. Yes some doubted but the word for doubt here does not mean unbelief but rather hesitant. And they all go on to serve him. The eleven would no longer be a frightened rabble; they would become an apostolic task force!
Fifth – the fulfilled predictions (v6). Jesus had predicted his death and his resurrection three times in this Gospel and this chapter shows their fulfilment. Linked to that is the story that the chief priests tried to put around before and after the resurrection that the disciples had stolen the body. Look at Mt 27:64
So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first."
Then in 28:11-15 the chief priests paid a large sum of money to the guards to put about a story that the disciples stole the body while the guards were asleep. It was a story that was obviously still circulating when Matthew was writing (v15). But if the disciples stole the body why were they willing to die for a lie? No-one in their right mind tells lies to get into trouble! Pascal the French philosopher said, 'I readily believe those witnesses who get their throats cut!' As one Jewish scholar admitted, 'Surely the 2000 year faith of millions is not founded on deception'.
Sixth – world mission (v18-20). The Easter faith launched the church on its mission. By the time Matthew was writing the gospel had gone out into the known world and the church was growing. Something had happened to those Jews and Gentiles. And today the church is still growing all over the world, people's lives are still being changed by the risen Christ. Almost a third of the world's population claims some sort of allegiance to Christ. But two thirds do not which leads us on to my final and even briefer point:
Thirdly, THE GREAT COMMISSION
Look at v18-20:
Then Jesus came to them and said, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age'.
In virtue of his death and resurrection 'all authority in heaven and on earth has been given' to the risen and soon to be exalted Lord. And because he was invested with such universal authority Jesus could now say, 'Therefore go and make disciples of all nations'. Here we have the Great Commission, or as The Duke of Wellington called it, 'the marching orders of the church'.
Jesus commands us to go and make disciples of all nations. We are to obey. There is good news to proclaim of Christ crucified and risen. First we are to 'go'. It is only as we go that we can hope to make disciples. If we are to win the world for Jesus, we must first go into the world and encounter people where they are. We are to go and take the gospel into our places of work, schools (where many children do not look at the most important question in the world that I started with this evening), universities, our neighbourhoods. Obedience to Christ for some of us will mean going overseas. Perhaps God is calling some of us here to go to another country to make disciples. And notice Jesus calls us not to make converts but disciples, teaching them to obey everything Jesus has commanded. All this is not easy but as we go we are not on our own – Jesus promises to be with us always.
Martin Luther King used to say 'Keep the faith'. We are to keep the faith just as Paul exhorted the Corinthians to do at the start of 1 Cor 15 – to hold firmly to the truth of the gospel, the good news of Jesus' death and resurrection. But we are not just to keep the faith, we are also to share it!