This evening we're looking at the first Easter Day - that dramatic and momentous day, the day death died. We're looking at John 20. So first, by way of introduction, the empty tomb.
First, THE EMPTY TOMB
Bishop Michael Ingham in his Easter message to the Anglican Church in Canada refers to the resurrection of Jesus as being part of the Easter story, but he does not use the words historical event. He describes the God who raised Jesus from the dead as "a life force" and the Lord Jesus as merely someone who had "something qualitatively different which we traditionally call divinity". Other bishops in the past have stated that the resurrection of Jesus was only a spiritual resurrection. This morning on Radio 4 two theologians were arguing that the tomb was not empty. But the resurrection of Jesus as we can see from this chapter of John and from 1 Corinthians 15 was a physical, bodily resurrection and an historical event. The tomb was and is empty.
Indeed according to Romans 4:25 the whole of Christianity hinges on two facts: that Christ died for our sins and rose again for our justification.
[For] if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is our faith…our faith is futile and we are still in our sins. (1 Cor. 15:17)
But Jesus did die on the cross which John makes clear in chapter 19:33-34, he was buried (John 19:38-42) and on the third day he rose again. The Apostle Paul passes this on to us in 1 Corinthians 15 as of first importance as he reminds his readers of the gospel and then goes on to state the certainty of Christ's bodily resurrection a further 6 times in that chapter. That also reminds us of the strategic importance of the empty tomb for history and theology.
Historically, the preaching and the rapid growth of the early church are both inexplicable apart from an empty tomb…Theologically, the empty tomb rules out any reinterpretation of resurrection that makes it indistinguishable from mere immortality. The empty tomb establishes that there was continuity between Jesus' pre-death body and his post-resurrection body. Much that is said in 1 Cor 15 etc about the Christian's ultimate hope is incoherent if this point is not absorbed. (Carson) So as is clearly stated in 1 Corinthians 15:20, "Christ has indeed been raised from the dead". The resurrection is historical and that fact is evident from John's account of it.
Look at the details of vv.1-9. The resurrection is set on the first day of the week. That the women were the first to discover the empty tomb must be authentic, as in Jesus' day women were not even allowed to give testimony in court. The fact that the race to the tomb is mentioned at all is simply because it happened. Peter and John, John being the disciple Jesus loved, saw the grave clothes lying as if they were still enfolding Jesus' body. 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 would not have been possible. Now 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 during the successful apostolic mission. The tomb was and is empty because on the third day Jesus rose again from the dead.
Furthermore in John there are the appearances of the risen Jesus to Mary and the disciples. Surely not all the first Christians were dupes or hallucinating enthusiasts! 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 without disturbing them. 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. V.8:
"He saw the tomb and the grave clothes and believed"
And so may we! And that faith then needs to grow to understand from the whole of Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead (v.9). The disciple saw and believed. Many of us here have heard and read and seen and believed. John's purpose in writing this Gospel is that we too might believe. Maybe some of us here tonight still have not seen and believed. Mary Magdalene still had not which brings us on to my next heading:
Secondly, THE RISEN JESUS APPEARS TO MARY MAGDALENE
"The disciples", v.10, "then went back to their homes, but Mary", v.11, "stood outside the tomb crying." 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" (v.13). Perhaps she stood outside the tomb hoping to find out who had taken the body and where they had put it (v.13). "As she wept", vv.11&12, "she bent over to look into the tomb (perhaps for the first time) and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus' body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot." Angels are also mentioned in the other Gospel accounts of the resurrection. Here they are evidence that God himself has been at work, that God raised Jesus from the dead (Acts 2:24). The empty tomb is not empty because of grave robbers but because of the power of God (cf Eph 1:20).
But Mary, although she was last at Jesus' cross and first at his grave and loved her Lord, still didn't realise what had happened and why there was no need for her to be crying tears of sorrow. The angels question, "Woman, why are you crying?" is really a gentle reproof - why are you crying - for there's no need. Even when she turned round and saw Jesus standing there she did not realise that it was Jesus.
She wasn't the only one to not immediately recognise the risen Jesus in the Gospels. The couple on the Emmaus Road were kept from recognising him (Lk 24:16) and the disciples in the boat on the Lake of Tiberias did not recognise him on the shore (Jn 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. Certainly her view of who she was looking for was still too small despite her great devotion to him and her first hand knowledge of him driving seven demons out of her (Lk 8:2; Mk 16:15).
What kind of Messiah was she expecting? This is what is behind Jesus' question in v.15: "Who is it you are looking for?" What is our view? Is our estimate of him still far too small? Who are we looking for if we haven't yet put our faith in Christ? In her distressed state she thought he was the gardener but her blindness was removed by Jesus uttering just one word, "Mary". As John has recorded 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 is happening and what will happen. All she knows is that he's alive and doesn't want him to go.
So Jesus says to her, v.17, "Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, 'I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God'". In other words, "Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father. I am not yet in the ascended state, so you don't have to hang on to me as if I were about to disappear. This is a time for joy and sharing the good news, not for clutching me as if I were some jealously guarded private dream come true. Go and tell my disciples that I am in the process of ascending to my Father and your Father". (Carson)
So here is the life transforming appearance of Jesus to Mary by the tomb. She was burdened and bereaved and fearful of the future. But Christ was there for her and his appearing banished her fear. And we today can meet Jesus through the Spirit and by faith. He is alive forever. He can change our lives. Perhaps we are like Mary. Well, he still comes to transform broken, sorrowing and fearful lives with the sheer uninhibited gladness of discovering him, alive and with us. (Milne)
Mary is then sent by Jesus to tell the disciples the good news and what he had told her. "I have seen the Lord" she tells them which leads us to our next heading and the commissioning of the disciples by Jesus in vv.19-23. 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 tribe, people and nation. So next…
Thirdly, THE RISEN JESUS APPEARS TO THE TEN DISCIPLES
Look at vv.19&20
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you!" 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
Here seeing the risen Lord and hearing him say, "Peace be with you" turns the disciples fear to joy. 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". Do not be afraid. I have risen - sin and death have been defeated, peace with God is now possible and the peace of God will be with you as you go in my name. And Jesus further reassures his disciples then and now that it was really him - risen and alive and not a ghost in v.20 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. As with Mary Magdalene, the risen Jesus' coming banished their fear and confusion. He began to transform their fear into courage, their confusion into conviction and bestow true peace. And he can transform our fear into courage and give us peace. He is alive and with us as we go. "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me , I am sending you." And Jesus says to his disciples today - to his disciples here tonight: "As the Father has sent me, I am sending you".
What a commission! Just think about Jesus' words again - "As the Father has sent me, I am sending you". Well this commissioning or sending by Jesus tells us four things about the mission of the church. Firstly it 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 and for the church as it had for Jesus. Does it? And if God is a missionary God and we are to be like him then the extent to which we and the church are committed to proclaiming the gospel will be a measure of how godly we are. How godly are we? Do we see the crowds as Jesus does - harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd? When in this new millennium a recent survey tells us that half the UK population do not know what Easter means and when the supermarket chain Somerfield are selling hot noughts and crosses buns!
Secondly this key statement of Jesus helps us to understand the character of mission. There is no double mission here. It's not Jesus' mission first and then our mission afterwards. No. Rather the one mission of God has two phases - that of the Son on earth and that of the Son in his risen life through his people. He is with us when we go and we partake of his authority. As the sent ones of Jesus we speak with his authority.
Thirdly Jesus here tells us the cost of mission. As the Father has sent me. For Jesus this meant self-sacrifice to the hell of Calvary, to death on a cross. In principle it means the same for us.
Fourthly Jesus here also points to the resources of mission. One is Jesus himself. He will continue to be the leader of the disciples. We go out under his leadership, with the inspiration of his living presence and the support of his prayers. The other major resource of mission is the Holy Spirit.
So in v.22, Jesus says: "Receive the Holy Spirit". In spite of their many failures and their denial and desertion of Jesus the disciples were being entrusted with his Word and his work, which must be an encouragement for us today. Without the filling of the Spirit they could not go forth and witness effectively. Here the receiving of the Spirit at Pentecost is anticipated. The words 'on them' are not there in the original. The Spirit had dwelt with them in the person of Christ, but now the Spirit would be in them. If we're Christians then the Spirit is in us. Without him we can't evangelise. We need to keep on being filled with the Spirit. He empowers us to go to people here and to the ends of the earth with the gospel.
Which leads us on to verse 23. This verse does not mean that Jesus gave the right to his disciples to forgive sins and let people into heaven. No the disciples did not provide forgiveness; they proclaimed forgiveness on the basis of the message of the gospel. "Who can forgive sins but God alone?" (Mk 2:7) All Christians can do is announce the message of forgiveness; God performs the miracle of forgiveness. If sinners will believe on Jesus Christ, we can then authoritatively declare to them that their sins have been forgiven; but we are not the ones who provide the forgiveness. So we are to go forth in the name and with the authority of the risen Lord Jesus and preach the gospel. The Holy Spirit does the rest. Which brings us to the appearance of the risen Jesus to Thomas, vv.24-29.
Fourthly, THE RISEN JESUS APPEARS TO THOMAS
The disciples soon discover that not everyone will immediately believe their apostolic witness to the risen Jesus. Thomas received the apostolic witness, which we now have today in the form of the New Testament and which is the basis for faith (vv.30-31), 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. He hadn't been with the other disciples when Jesus came. So when they saw him they told him, v.25, "We have seen the Lord!" But he said to them, 'Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.'
So the first Easter Day ends with one of the disciples still doubting that Jesus is risen. Perhaps someone here this evening at the end of Easter Day 2000 is still doubting.
Well a week 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, v.27, 'Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe'. By referring back to Thomas' challenge Jesus proves here that he hears his disciples even when he's not physically present and he removes all possible grounds for unbelief. Is he saying to anyone here tonight stop doubting and believe? Thomas is so overcome with awe and reverence that he replies, "My Lord and My God".
What is our response to the risen Jesus even though we have not seen him physically? Look at what Jesus says to Thomas in v.29:
'Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed'.
Blessed are those who can't share Thomas' experience but who, partly because they read of Thomas' experience, come to share his faith in Christ as Lord and God. For us today faith comes not by sight but by what is heard or read, and what is heard comes by the word of Christ (Rom.10:17). Which is why John has written this Gospel. Those who haven't seen the risen Christ and yet have believed are blessed; therefore, John concludes in the following 2 verses, this book has been written, to the end that you may believe which is my conclusion too.
So finally in vv.30&31 John invites us to respond. Those who have not seen the risen Jesus in person. His purpose in writing his Gospel is that we may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and that by believing we may have life in his name. So in the light of John's presentation of Jesus' life and ministry, teaching and claims, death and resurrection, where do we stand? Do we believe? Do we believe but have not yet committed ourselves to Christ because we're not sure we want him to be Lord of our lives? Well we can't sit on the fence forever. John invites us to respond by believing, that is by committing ourselves to Jesus Christ as our Lord and God. The result John says will be life in his name. Eternal life.