I wonder if you ever played those 'lateral thinking' puzzles? Where one person describes a scene and the rest of you have to try to guess what's happened. For example: 'A man lies dead in the middle of a ploughed field, with an unopened package beside him.' What happened? So, you start puzzling and asking questions: 'Was he murdered?' - 'No.' 'Did he kill himself?' - 'No.' 'Was it an accident?' - 'Yes.' 'Was anyone else involved?' - 'No.' 'Did he walk into the field?' - 'No.' Is it significant how he got into the field?' - 'Yes.' And so on, until you finally twig (in my case well after all the others). 'Was he a parachutist whose parachute failed to open?' - 'Yes!' 'A man lies dead in the middle of a ploughed field, with an unopened package beside him.' At first, it's a puzzle. But once you've 'seen it', it all makes sense.
Well, nearly 2000 years ago, on the first Easter Sunday, Jesus' followers faced a similar puzzle. It went like this: 'The man you've followed for 3 years has been crucified for his claim to be God's Son. He's been buried in a tomb (that was Friday). Three days later, his body is missing, and the first people to discover that are saying he could be alive.' What happened?
The answer those first disciples gave may not seem immediately believable to you. But it fits all the facts with great simplicity. Their answer was: 'God raised Jesus from the dead.' And Luke 24 contains the evidence which brought them to that conviction. If the events of Luke 24 hadn't happened, there would have been no Christian message, no Christians and no church. And almost certainly, none of us would ever have heard of a person called Jesus of Nazareth.
And yet we have heard of him. And an estimated 2000 million people in the world today profess some kind of commitment to him. And the latest in a long line of films about him is showing in the cinemas now. And the reason is: the events recorded in Luke 24. And this evening, I'd like to take us through those events under three headings:
The cross was apparently the end of Jesus The cross was actually the reason Jesus came The cross was only the beginning of what Jesus came to do
First, THE CROSS WAS APPARENTLY THE END OF JESUS
Luke 23 records the crucifixion of Jesus. And whatever faith in him the disciples had up to that point, the crucifixion shattered it. Whatever they'd begun to believe about Jesus, the cross was apparently the end of him. Jesus was publicly executed (Luke 23.32-49). And a sympathetic leading figure of the day gave him a decent burial (Luke 23.50-54). Luke 23.55-56:
The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it. Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.
NB: Jesus was crucified on Friday; the Jewish Sabbath was Saturday, and 'the first day of the week' was Sunday. So, chapter 24 is about that first Easter Sunday. 24.1:
On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb.
These, as one wit put it, were the original Spice Girls. They were going to Jesus' tomb with spices to finish embalming his body. Ie, they were fully expecting to find a dead body. And I find that very encouraging. It means these first witnesses were not the kind of people who'd believe in a resurrection at the drop of a hat. They were not the gullible, pre-scientific dupes they're sometimes made out to be. They were as cautious - even sceptical - as you and me. Verse 2-3:
They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.
Some modern bishops and theologians tell us that when the Bible talks about the resurrection of Jesus, it doesn't mean it literally. It means (so they say) that 'Jesus lived on in the disciples' hearts' - much as Elvis Presley fans would say, 'Elvis lives on'. But that is simply not what Luke says. He says quite literally that a body was missing. The resurrection was not something that happened in peoples' wishful thinking, to their minds. The resurrection was something that happened in the tomb, to Jesus' body. That's what Luke says. That may be true or false. But let's not come up with a third option of 'not taking him literally'. That's just a subtle form of unbelief. Verse 4:
While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: `The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.'" Then they remembered his words.
When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened. (Luke 24.4-12)
Notice that no-one has come to faith by v12. There is just 'wondering' - in verses 4 and 12. There's certainly the sense that something strange is going on; something needs explanation. But at this point, no-one's reaching for the explanation that God raised Jesus from the dead. At this point, v11, that explanation is put in the 'nonsense' category. So, these first witnesses were just as cautious as you and me.
But being cautious is different from having a closed mind. A closed mind says, 'A resurrection cannot have happened. It is outside my experience. It doesn't fit my view of the world. I cannot believe in a resurrection.' Whereas a cautious mind is open, but critical. It says, 'A resurrection might have happened. The question is: what's the evidence? Is it enough to believe on?'
Well, we've seen the first piece of evidence for the resurrection: the empty tomb. The body was missing. Go to Medina, and you'll find the tomb of Muhammad, with the remains inside. Now go to Jerusalem. Not only are there no remains of Jesus there. No-one's even sure which tomb he was in. There are several contenders that'll charge you money to have a look. But no-one knows which one it really was.
The second piece of evidence for the resurrection is: the series of appearances of Jesus, alive from the dead. Verse 13-16:
Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. 15As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; 16but they were kept from recognising him.
Which of verses 15 and 16 do you find more extraordinary? Verse 15 - where Jesus appears (so Luke claims) alive from the dead? Or verse 16 - where God, for some reason, prevents these two disciples from realising that it was Jesus alive from the dead? I find v16 pretty extraordinary, myself. After all, isn't proof of Jesus' resurrection what they need above all else? Surely you'd have expected Jesus to appear saying, 'Look! It's me! I really have risen!' But these verses say otherwise. These verses show that these disciples' greatest need is not proof of Jesus' resurrection. Because the resurrection is not the stumbling block to faith. The real stumbling block to faith is the cross. And our greatest need in coming to faith is to understand why Jesus was crucified. Above all else, we need to understand what his death on the cross says about us and what it says about him. So:
Secondly, THE CROSS WAS ACTUALLY THE REASON JESUS CAME INTO THE WORLD
He asked them, "What are you discussing together as you walk along?" They stood still, their faces downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, "Are you only a visitor to Jerusalem and do not know the things that have happened there in these days?" "What things?" he asked. "About Jesus of Nazareth," they replied.
And what comes next is a summary of what they believed about Jesus at that point. Verse 19b-21a:
He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.
But that's actually less than they had believed about him earlier. At least, one of them had begun to believe much more than that about Jesus. Back in Luke 9 it says:
Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him, he asked them, "Who do the crowds say I am?" They replied, "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life." "But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?" Peter answered, "The Christ of God." (Luke 9.18-20)
So, one of them, at least, had begun to believe that Jesus was more than just a prophet. Peter had begun to believe that Jesus was 'the Christ' - the person to whom the prophets all pointed forward.
The prophets were basically ordinary people, like you and me, whom God chose to use - to speak through. Whereas 'the Christ' was in a totally different league. The Christ was not going to be 'one of us'. The Christ was to be someone sent from God's side, to put right what's gone wrong in the world.
I wonder what you'd say was the root problem with the world? I don't know if you've seen those 'Far Side' cartoons by Gary Larson. There's one which pictures an old man with a long white beard - that's God. And God is cooking in his kitchen. He's just taking a cake out of the oven -and it's a globe-shaped cake. In fact, it's the Earth - you can make out the shapes of Europe and Africa and so on. And the caption underneath? 'Half-baked.' Ie, the root problem with the world is God (if he exists): he didn't make it properly in the first place. That's Larson's diagnosis.
But it's not the Bible's. The Bible's diagnosis is that God made it good - and made us good - but that we've messed it up. According to the Bible, we were made to live with God at the centre of life, with God as King, with God telling us what life's about, what's right, what's wrong. But according to the Bible, we've rebelled against that state of affairs in favour of living as we please - each living by our own definition of what matters, what's right and what's wrong. And just two human beings trying to live like that in the same space is a recipe for collision. Let alone the 6000 million of us trying to do it at the same time on the same planet.
Well, the prophets of the Old Testament (OT) all pointed forward to the time when God would sort out the mess by stopping the rebellion against him. And just as a king might share his monarchy with his son, the prophets spoke of God sharing his rule with his Son - and that it would be his Son who came into the world as 'the Christ', to stop the rebellion.
Now certain words have certain associations. Eg, Fish? - chips. Salt? - vinegar. North? - cold. If you'd said to Jesus' first followers the word 'Christ', it would have had immediate associations: power, glory, the overthrow of everything that stands against God; the setting up of God's rule, unopposed by anyone or anything. That's why the crucifixion of Jesus was such a stumbling block. If Jesus was God's Son, the Christ, come to set everything right, how come things (apparently) went so horribly wrong? If Jesus came to overthrow evil, how come he (apparently) was overthrown by evil men himself? That's the great puzzle in v20-21a:
The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.
'We had hoped,' they say. But now they've had second thoughts. Because 'Christ crucified' made no sense at all. It was like saying, 'Manchester United relegated' or 'the Queen camping'. 'Christ' and 'crucified' could not go together. So if Jesus was crucified (which he was), he couldn't be the Christ. Or could he? Verse 21, again:
And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn't find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see." (Luke 24.21b-24)
And at this point, Jesus begins to put them right. Verse 25-27:
He said to them, "How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?" And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
Notice that word 'all' in verses 25 and 27. It's not that what they believed about the Christ was plain wrong. It was just half the story. And a half-truth quickly becomes an untruth. They'd got the second half of v26 - the bit about glory (power, the overthrow of evil, etc). But they'd missed the first half of v26 - 'Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?'
Because the OT points forward not just to a Christ who'll come to judge and overthrow all that's against God. It points forward to a Christ who'll suffer so that rebellious people like us can be forgiven and put right with God before it's too late. Just imagine that God had sent his Son to stop the rebellion against him - with no warning, with no chance to be forgiven and change sides. Imagine he'd just sent him to sweep from the scene anything and anyone that was in any way against God. How many of us would be left on the scene?
You see, we like to think that there are two groups in the world. Those who are really evil - whom God needs to judge. And the rest of us, who are basically OK. Not perfect, but basically OK. But it's just not true. 'Not perfect' means not OK. 'Not perfect' means I've rebelled against God's perfect standards. And what kind of rebel I am - from terrorist rebel to decent, middle class rebel - makes no real difference. A rebel is a rebel. So that none of us is OK with God as we are. So if God had simply sent is Son to judge, we'd have all been sent down. Instead, he sent his Son ahead of judgement, to suffer for us. And in v27 where it says, 'he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures [ie the OT] concerning himself,' it's almost certain that he took them back to what the prophet Isaiah had said. Listen to Isaiah, describing and explaining the death of Jesus on the cross, 700 years before the actual event:
Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53.4-6)
You couldn't do much better for a summary of the Christian message than Isaiah 53.6: 'We, all, like sheep have gone astray; each of us has tuned to his own way [ie rebellion against God and his ways]; and the Lord [God the Father] has laid on him [Jesus, his Son] the iniquity of us all [he took the judgement due to our sins when he died on the cross.]' As John's gospel puts it:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3.16-17)
No wonder, v32, they looked back on hearing the cross explained and,
They asked each other, 'Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?'
John Wesley had a similar experience when he first understood the cross. On 24th May 1738, he went to a Christian meeting in Aldersgate Street in London. Someone was reading the preface to Luther's commentary on Paul's letter to the Romans. Wesley wrote in his diary, "I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death."
What these disciples most needed was to understand the cross. The same is true of us. Because the cross is actually the reason Jesus came into the world. The cross was apparently the end of Jesus. The cross was actually the reason Jesus came. Then,
Thirdly, THE CROSS WAS ONLY THE BEGINNING OF WHAT JESUS CAME TO DO
Sporting careers seem to be over earlier and earlier these days. Snooker players seem to be peaking in their 20's. Footballers maybe go on to 35 - 40 plus for some of the goalies, especially if they play for Scotland. Golfers last longer - a bit of middle-aged spread is fine, so long as it doesn't impede your swing. But even if you can carry on your line of work right into old age, death is always the end. No-one's career lasts beyond that.
Except Jesus. In one sense, that's when his began. The cross was only the beginning of what he came to do. And what he had to do next was to ensure that the benefits won by the cross would actually reach us. If you like, having paid for the gift of our forgiveness, he had to ensure that the gift would be delivered and accepted by countless individuals across the world and down the years. And to do that, Jesus had to do two things.
First, he had to reveal himself alive from the dead to those original eye-witnesses. He had to show them he was alive from the dead, so that they could witness that fact for the rest of us who weren't there. Which is how the New Testament (NT), and Luke's Gospel in particular (see Luke 1.1-4), came to be written. And v30-44 is a record of what they witnessed:
When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognised him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?"
They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together and saying, "It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon." Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognised by them when he broke the bread.
While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you."
They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, "Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have."
When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, "Do you have anything here to eat?" They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.
He said to them, "This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms." (Luke 24.30-44)
Notice, again, that Luke says it was a bodily resurrection. Not wishful thinking in the minds of the disciples (v36). Not a ghost (v37-39). But a resurrected body - recognisable as the Jesus they'd known (v39-40), but clearly no mere resuscitation. This was a body that now properly belonged in heaven.
Did you notice in v44 how Jesus says 'This is what I told you while I was still with you'? Implication: he is no longer with them. His time on earth as a man is over. He now belongs back in heaven. He's gone through the door of death. And he's exhausted the judgement due to the sins of the world that lies at that door. So that those of us who trust and follow him need have nothing to fear when we ourselves push the door of death.
I don't know whether you ever played the trick of balancing some object on the top of a door so that when someone went through, it fell on them. Probably my 'best hit' was a four volume Encyclopaedia on my brother. (His, I think, was a bucket of water on me.) The point is that once the first person through has pushed the door, and the object has fallen on them, anyone else going through after them is safe.
Well, Luke 23 and 24 tell us that Jesus has pushed the door of death; the judgement due to the sins of the world has fallen on him, in our place. So that if we trust and follow him, we will be forgiven this side of death, and when we ourselves go through the door of death, there will be no condemnation to face. There will be a welcome home into our Father's house.
Or take another illustration. I once saw TV footage of a giant dam bursting. To begin with, just a small spray of water came through. Then cracks appeared and chunks gave way and huge spumes of water shot out. And then the whole lot gave way in a tide of foam. The point is that at some stage, the very first drop came through. One single drop - which pulled after it every drop with which it was in contact.
Well, Luke 23 and 24 tell us that Jesus is the first 'drop' through the barrier of death - the 'firstborn from among the dead' as the Bible calls him elsewhere (Colossians 1.18; see also Romans 8.29, 1 Corinthians 15.20-23). Perhaps the events of Luke 24 hardly seem world-scale - perhaps to you they look slightly domestic: the risen Jesus with a few of his followers. But he is the first 'drop' who will pull after him, through the death-barrier, all those countless people who are in contact with him - who've trusted and followed him in this life. The final results of his resurrection from the dead will be massive. Heaven will be vastly populated. So, Jesus had to reveal himself alive from the dead to those original eye-witnesses. But ever since then, he's had to reveal himself to individuals through the message of those first eye-witnesses. Verse 47: having explained that, 'the Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day,' Jesus continues:
and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. (Luke 24.47)
Well, that's what's happening right now: repentance and forgiveness of sins are being preached 'in his name'. The risen Lord Jesus is not here visibly. He could be, if he chose to be. But that's not necessary. He's revealed himself alive from the dead to those original eye-witnesses. He's explained to them what his life and death and resurrection mean. And he still speaks to us through that message today. I'm speaking it, 'in his name' - on his behalf. This is what the risen Jesus is saying to us. And he has two things to say.
One thing the risen Lord Jesus is saying is: 'repentance'. Literally, 'change of mind'. The risen Lord Jesus is calling on us to change our minds. Will you admit you're in the wrong to be living life without God at the centre of it? Will you change your mind, recognise Jesus as your rightful Lord, and start living your life for him? That's what he's calling on us to do.
The other thing the risen Lord Jesus is saying is: 'forgiveness of sins'. The moment you do see and admit that you're in the wrong, the most pressing question in the world becomes this: 'Will God forgive me if I do admit I'm wrong and turn back to him?' And the good news is: the answer is, 'Yes'. That God should send his Son to die for us says loud and clear, 'I want to forgive you. And I will forgive you, if you come to me.'
Will you admit you are in the wrong? Will you change your mind about Jesus and accept him as the rightful Lord of your life? He will certainly forgive and have you back the moment you do. And that message is to be preached 'to all nations' (v47). The risen Lord Jesus says that to you whoever you are - whatever you're like, whatever you've done, whatever your race, religion or creed.
I must end. You may be wondering, 'Is this stuff really true? Really trustworthy?' Well, please do take away the copies of Luke's Gospel in your hands, and read them. Ultimately, only you can answer that question as you look at the evidence and decide whether you find it compelling.
Or maybe you're a little further on. You basically trust the facts. But you wouldn't say you trusted Jesus. You couldn't say what John Wesley said about his heart being warmed, and trusting Christ. It's not become personal in that way, yet. Well, do keep reading the Gospels. Do keep coming to hear the message of the Bible explained.
And can I remind you of what the Lord Jesus said in v25? We are by nature 'foolish [ie spiritually 'dense', unreceptive]… and slow of heart to believe.' It doesn't come naturally to us to see God as he really is and ourselves as we really are. We don't naturally own up to being wrong, or humble ourselves to change and ask for forgiveness - not with fellow-humans, let alone with God. So, can I also say - as you read, as you listen: pray. Even if, at the moment, you only half believe these things, ask God to help you believe. Because it doesn't come naturally. It ultimately comes from him showing himself to us in a personal way.