Some years ago I was in the library of the biggest Protestant theological college in the world. It had a total of 123,000 books on the shelves. However, only a few hundred were on the Resurrection of Jesus – the most important of all events in all history.
Somehow it is all too easy to forget the Resurrection. On one occasion the apostle Paul wrote to his young friend Timothy saying: “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead” (2 Tim 2.8). So this morning I want us to think about how Matthew reminds us about the Resurrection. And my headings are first, THE MEANING OF THE FACTS; secondly, THE DENIAL BY CHRIST’S ENEMIES; and, thirdly, THE CHALLENGE TO THE CHURCH.
First, then, THE MEANING OF THE FACTS:
The ancient Jewish courts required two or three witnesses to establish the truth. However, you have four accounts in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John to establish the truth of that first Easter morning. So we are now going to look at one of those four, Matthew 28.1-9:
“Now after the Sabbath, towards the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.” So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. And behold, Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.” (Matthew 28.1-10)
What does all this mean?
Well, it means at least three things, one, about objective reality; two, about the good news of Jesus; and three about Jesus himself.
So, first, the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus, if true, is that it is an objective historical fact and not a poetic myth! Christ’s Apostles made it clear, as Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 later summarised it, that “Christ died …, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day … and that he appeared [to various disciples].”
The words “on the third day” (or Matthew’s on “the first day of the week” – the third day from the crucifixion by inclusive reckoning) – those words tell you that the resurrection of Jesus Christ happened in dateable history. In the same way the words “under Pontius Pilate” in the Creed tell you of the historic reality of Christ’s suffering and death. Also the resurrection of Christ involved his body. The Christ who died was buried, and it was that which was buried (Christ’s body) that was raised on the third day.
But – and this is the big but – what appeared to various disciples was not a resuscitated Jesus Christ, only to die again quietly in old age. No! His resurrection body was continuous with the body that died, such that Christ’s tomb was empty. However, it was transformed into a glorious state never to die again. So, yes, the Resurrection interfaces with eternity, as the angelic presence makes clear. But it is still an objective historical fact, and that is a fundamental meaning.
A second meaning of the resurrection of Jesus is the good news it brings to men and women in respect of their past, their present and their future. For it means you can now be assured that your past sins are truly forgiven. It says the Cross, far from being a place of failure, as the disciples were beginning to think, was the great atonement for the sin of the world – the sinless Christ dying in our place bearing not his but our punishment.
That is why 1 Corinthians 15.17-20 can say:
“if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins … But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead”. (1 Corinthians 15.17-20)
So the resurrection of Christ is good news for the past.
It then means power to live in the present as God intended you to live and for human flourishing. Listen to this New Testament prayer. It is a prayer that people should experience (I quote):
“the immeasurable greatness of God’s power towards us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead“ (Eph 1.19-20).
So trust God for his resurrecting power then obey him with that power.
And with regard to the future, the resurrection of Jesus with death conquered certainly means good news. As relatives and friends of a member of JPC who has recently died will be reminding themselves in this church this coming Friday at their funeral, there is a glorious hope of a transformed future existence, for those who trust in Christ as their Saviour and Lord.
Before his resurrection, Jesus himself had said to Martha, when mourning the death of her brother Lazarus (John 11.25-26):
“ I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” (John 11.25-26)
But then Jesus added a question, and a question that comes to everyone down the centuries and so needs to be answered this morning – “Do you believe this?” Martha said “Yes”.
So what do you believe?
The resurrection of Jesus, then, is objective fact and it relates to your past, present and future.
But it, thirdly, has meaning with regard to Jesus Christ himself, where, of course, it means his claims and teaching are true and his miracles believable.
M. Lepaux, one of the leaders of the French Revolution, proposed a new religion, called “theo-philanthropy”, to supplant Christianity which he hated. But this was quite unsuccessful. So he talked to his friend Talleyrand who replied: “There is one plan you might at least try. Why not be crucified and then rise again on the third day?”
The resurrection of Jesus, therefore, confirms that he is the Son of God, the second person of the divine Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As Romans 1.4 says, Jesus Christ our Lord…
“… was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead.” (Romans 1.4)
So how do you respond to those meanings? If the resurrection of Jesus happened, they all can be ignored - but only to your eternal peri,, for Paul told the Athenians in Acts 17 that Jesus’ resurrection proves God’s ultimate judgment one day. And that bring us …
… secondly, to THE DENIAL BY CHRIST’S ENEMIES
The folly of some people today is not that they just ignore the resurrection of Christ. But they positively deny it. However, such denials are nothing new. Look at Matthew 28.11-15:
“While they [the women] were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ And if this comes to the governor's ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day.” (Matthew 28.11-15)
So, don’t be surprised if in some Sunday Paper or on the Radio or TV there is some journalistic charlatan repeating centuries old theories that deny the Resurrection. What he or she won’t tell you is that, over the centuries, these have been repeatedly refuted.
As at that first Easter, one or more of three things often are involved somewhere along the line in these denials.
One, money – for people get big money for such an article in a national Sunday Paper. For heresy is more newsworthy than orthodoxy and so sells more papers. These guards, then, were the first, but not the last to make money out of denying the Resurrection.
Then, two, religious leaders are often involved. Certainly, we have had in recent years a Bishop of Durham who publicly doubted Apostolic teaching on the resurrection of Jesus and shockingly spoke about “conjuring tricks with bones.”
And, three, immorality is often involved. Here there was straight lying. But also you can have sexual immorality involved. In his older age the non-believing Aldous Huxley famously confessed:
“I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently assume that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption … For myself the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation, sexual and political.”
But what can you then say about this attempt by the Chief priests to deny the Resurrection, apart from its being the first of many? Answer: three things - it proved that the tomb was empty and the Jewish authorities themselves had not removed the body. Otherwise, they could have produced the body to end this alleged deception. And had it all been a great deception, the apostles and Jesus’ followers would never have accepted the persecution and dreadful; martyrdoms they suffered.
Secondly, the chief priests lying denial that ignored the evidence, confirms the basic anthropology of the Bible. And that is that what the heart desires, the will chooses and the mind the rationalises. So when the early Apostles preached about Jesus and the Resurrection, they knew they needed more than rational witness and arguments. In Acts 5.32 you read that they said:
“We are witnesses to these things and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” (Acts 5.32)
They knew they needed two sorts of witness – their verbal witness, that you now have in the four New Testament accounts. But also they knew they needed the witness of the Holy Spirit to soften hard hearts and open blind minds. That is so important for today. For, yes, you need those Resurrection narratives in the four Gospels. Yes, you need rational arguments using sensible critical methods with regard to historical texts. Yes, you need to explain how these show you must believe what the apostles said to their Jewish opponents, as reported in Acts 5.30, namely that “the God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree.” It was then, in verse 32, the apostles said: “And we are witnesses to these things and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him.”
So today you need preaching to tell the facts and prayer for the Holy Spirit to work in hearts and minds to counter denials based not on genuine human reason but on other factors. Well, so much for the denial by Christ’s enemies. We must now move on to our …
… third and final heading, THE breath-taking (for such it is) CHALLENGE TO THE CHURCH
Look at verses 16-20 –
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshipped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28.16-20)
This Resurrection challenge contains three things – Jesus’ claim, Jesus’ commission and Jesus’ promise.
So first note Jesus’ claim, where he says, verse 18: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”
Billy Graham once wrote about a meeting he had with the great Konrad Adenauer, the Chancellor of Germany. Adenauer was a remarkable man who took office, aged 73, in 1949 and remained Chancellor until he stood down, aged 87, in 1963. During that time he led Germany from terrible post-war ruin to prosperity, democracy, stability and international respect. But Graham says of his meeting with the Chancellor:
“I expected to meet a tall, stiff, formal man who might even be embarrassed if I brought up the subject of religion. [But] after the greeting, the chancellor suddenly turned to me and said, ‘Mr Graham, what is the most important thing in this world?” Before I could answer, he answered his own question. He said, ‘The resurrection of Jesus Christ. If Jesus Christ is alive, then there is hope for the world. If Jesus Christ is in the grave, then I don’t see the slightest glimmer of hope on the horizon.””
Adenauer knew that the resurrection of Christ has political and global consequences. As our Queen was told in her Coronation, Adenauer also knew, that, I quote, “the whole world is subject to the power and empire of Christ our redeemer.” Adenauer knew that the Resurrection has inaugurated the new kingly rule of the risen Christ, who now has all authority in heaven and on earth given to him, as verse 18 says.
What is being claimed is staggering. For here is someone making a claim not just to power or might as Adenauer or our Queen might claim, but a universal “authority”. And it is over everything over which rule and dominion can be exercised. For it is all authority. And it is not just all authority on earth, which is unimaginable, but all authority in heaven, which is even more so. This, of course, is the fulfilment of that vision in Daniel 7.9-14. Jesus Christ, the risen and reigning Lord, therefore, has all authority over the church, yes, but also over our entire secular life and world, both private and public. That is why Christians must be involved as salt and light in the life of this too often decaying and dark world.
So, secondly, this universal claim is the basis for Christ’s universal commission of verses 19-20b, where he says:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (v19-20b)
In the Old Testament there was a vision of pilgrims from all over the world coming to Jerusalem. But with the Resurrection that direction is reversed. The nations are not to come to the church. Rather the church is to go out to the world, making disciples, by helping people publicly commit themselves to Christ through baptism (or confirmation) and then, importantly, teaching them not only Christian doctrine but also Christian ethics - “to observe all that I have commanded you”. So the challenge of the Resurrection to the church is to make disciples. That is why at this church we are praying, and starting to plan, to grow to 2000 over the next five years. It is because of Jesus charge here and because of the desperate needs of the world around – with 100,000s on Tyneside without knowledge of the risen Christ.
Then, thirdly, there is Christ’s promise. After his great claim and great commission you have his great promise, in the second half of verse 20:
“behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (v20)
This is not so much “a cosy reassurance as a necessary equipment for mission”, to quote one commentator. However, it certainly is a wonderful promise and encouragement to make disciples.
I must conclude. I do so with two questions. One, are you in a position to experience the reality of that promise of Christ’s presence? The risen and reigning Lord Jesus, we are told in the book of Revelation, is asking to be allowed to be present. He does not impose his presence. For he says:
“ Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Rev 3.20).
Who needs to open the door of their lives to him this morning to experience his real presence? What could be a more appropriate day to do that than on Easter Day 2013? And, the second question is this. If Christ has come into your life, will you obey his command to make disciples? So will you pray and give and work for that in the days that lie ahead, as we seek in this church together to “observe all that Christ has commanded us”? If so, be confident that he is, indeed, “with us always, to the end of the age.”