Our subject this morning is Jesus: Risen Lord. And we are going to be thinking about life and God’s new order for creation. But let me begin by asking a question about death. Thousands of years ago Job in the Old Testament asked, "If a man dies, will he live again?"
Today there is great confusion about death among those who reject Jesus Christ. For without him there always has been, and always will be, confusion about death. A young person expressed it like this:
"I lie awake worrying what it will be like to be dead. I lie awake worrying how dark will the coffin be. I lie awake and feel how cold my life will be. It makes no sense the end of life being death."
But why do people worry about, and fear, death? For some it is fear of the unknown. For some it is fear of utter loneliness as everything and everyone is left behind. For some it is fear not that death is the end but that it might not be the end. They are tormented by guilt for things already done in this life. So what is the answer to the age-long questions about death?
Atheism and secular philosophies have no real answer. For example, the famous atheist, Bertrand Russell, typically wrote:
"There is darkness without and when I die there is darkness within."
Nor do other religions have a real answer. The bones of the Buddha are in India; the bones of Confucius are in China; the bones of Mohammed are in Medina. Only in Jerusalem is there an empty tomb as we are remembering this morning. None of those other religious leaders, for all the wisdom they may have had, for all the truth they may have had - none of them has overcome death.
The great message of Easter Day, however, is that on that first Easter Morning, 2000 years ago, Jesus Christ: ...
... destroyed death and ... brought life and immortality to light through the gospel (as we read in the Bible, in 2 Timothy 1:10).
And that life he brought is not just for after death. It begins now. The Bible teaches that what God did that first Easter he intends to do for his whole creation one day, us included if we trust him. But is Jesus really the risen Lord?
Well, to answer that - our subject for this morning - will you now turn to Matthew chapter 28. We have now reached the end of Matthew's Gospel. Can I say for any visitors that over a number of years in the Autumn we have been systematically going through Matthew's Gospel. And it seemed right to complete the Gospel not next Autumn but over this Easter period. That is why we are especially focusing on Matthew's account of the Resurrection this morning. And as we look together at this passage I want to have three headings: first, THE FACT; secondly, THE EXPERIENCE; and thirdly, THE RESULT [of the Resurrection of Jesus].
First, THE FACT
We are talking about a fact - and a fact of history. Look at verse 1:
After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.
Certainly the earliest Christians believed the Resurrection was a fact of history. That is why in their creeds - and we recited one of them today - they timed the Resurrection as on "the third day" (counting inclusively as the ancients did from the day when Jesus was "crucified under Pontius Pilate" in about AD 30). It was on a precise day in Jerusalem that Jesus came alive with his body transformed for a new order of existence, leaving his tomb empty.
But, to repeat the question, is Jesus really the risen Lord? Can we be sure? The answer is a resounding "Yes". Let me explain.
First, the tomb was empty. Look at verses 5 and 6 where an angel of the Lord addresses the women, after the stone has been rolled back:
Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.
It is unassailable that the tomb was empty. The evidence is so clear. All the Gospel narratives are in agreement over the tomb. Some argue that the differences in the narratives of the four Gospels should make us doubt them. No! That does not follow.
Yes, it is true that there are differences in the four Resurrection accounts. But if they were totally uniform, we might have thought they had agreed among themselves to make up a story. However, they are all independent. And the basic difference lies in the accounts of the appearances of Jesus to his disciples, not in how women and others found the tomb of Jesus empty. Nor is it odd that there are different accounts of those appearances of the risen Jesus. Different apostles were reporting different appearances on different occasions. What is quite remarkable is how similar are all the accounts of people finding the empty tomb. Matthew, Mark and Luke (all having different sources) agree on three things.
One, some women, including Mary Magdalene, went to the tomb of Jesus on the first day of the week. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb's entrance. Two, one or two angels (seemingly youthful) explained to them what had happened: "He is not here; he has risen." And, three, the women were frightened and left the tomb. And when we look at the fourth Gospel, John's Gospel, chapter 20 and verses 1-2, we find this same outline. The only difference there is that the angelic interpreter has not been mentioned. But two angels are mentioned in verses 11-13 of John 20 when Mary is back at the tomb.
Yes, the tomb was empty and nobody from then on could produce the dead body of Jesus. That is a significant fact. Matthew makes it clear that the Jewish leaders certainly couldn't produce Jesus' body. They had to bribe the guards to give an explanation as to why, one, the tomb was empty; and, two, they themselves could not produce the body. Look at verses 11-15:
11some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. 12When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, 13telling them, "You are to say, 'His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.' 14If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble." 15So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.
Of course, this was foolish. The disciples would never have endured, as they later did, ridicule, persecution and even death for what they knew to be a falsehood or a lie. And, of course, the disciples did not believe Jesus was raised from the dead just because the tomb was empty, or because they trusted the word of an angel. No! It was because they also met the risen Jesus. Look at verses 8-10:
8So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9Suddenly Jesus met them. 'Greetings,' he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshipped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, 'Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.'
Nor were these appearances reported in the Gospels hallucinations or mere visionary experiences. The accounts highlight that Jesus could be touched or (verse 9 of our chapter) "clasped". His was a new, transformed and glorified body. These were no hallucinations of the sort critics of Christianity refer to. Such hallucinations are triggered off by visual signals. You see one thing and are convinced it is something else. But in the New Testament record of the resurrection appearances you get the very opposite.
Mary in John did not see the gardener near the tomb and think he was Jesus. She saw Jesus and thought he was the gardener. The two on the road to Emmaus in Luke did not see a stranger and think he was Jesus. They saw Jesus and thought he was a stranger. The apostles in the upper room did not see a ghost and think it was Jesus. They saw Jesus and thought they had seen a ghost.
Nor were the disciples unhinged personalities. A number were tough fishermen. And the women followers of Jesus who were the first to see Jesus alive again were undoubtedly worldly-wise. None of them were expecting a resurrection of the sort that happened to Jesus. So it is much easier to believe that we are dealing with fact not fiction; and history not myth.
Let's move on ...
Secondly, to THE EXPERIENCE
How was the Resurrection experienced? Well, the guards were (verse 4) ...
... so afraid of him [the angel of the Lord whose 'appearance was like lightning, and his clothes as white as snow' (v 3) ... they were so afraid of him ] that they shook and became like dead men.
Then there was the experience of the women and the experience of the religious authorities. These were two different reactions and show the resurrection of Jesus is a great divider. You can go one of two ways. You can be like the women, as reported in verse 8, who were "afraid, yet filled with joy." And then they wanted to be obedient to God's word, through the angel, to "go quickly and tell his disciples, 'He is risen from the dead'." So, they, verse 8, "ran to tell the disciples."
Or you can be like these religious leaders of verses 11 and 12, "the chief priests" and "elders" together with some (not all) of the guards. These were doing all they could to discredit Jesus and the truth of the Resurrection. And that still happens today. Last Monday The Times published a piece by a former lecturer at Newcastle University and a Jewish scholar trying to explain away what he calls "the Resurrection Conundrum". He does this by spiritualizing the resurrection of Jesus. He argues that "the idea of resurrection" was concocted by some men (mistaken for angels) at the tomb. And it was somehow reinforced by spiritual experiences on the day of Pentecost! The Resurrection appearances, he claims, were merely "apparitions". In terms of common sense, this is a tortuous explanation of the known facts.
Thankfully The Times redressed the balance yesterday with a piece by the current Bishop of Durham, himself a New Testament scholar. One of his arguments is that remarkably early Christianity got going with the early Christians hailing Jesus as the Messiah. But he hadn’t done any of the things the Messiah should have done – defeat paganism, rebuild the Temple and bring justice and peace to the world. So the bishop, Tom Wright, says (I quote):
The only explanation that will fit the evidence is the one the early Christians insisted upon – he really had been raised from the dead.
You see, two things are always at work in people trying to make up their minds about the evidence for the Resurrection. One is that an explanation has to be the best of all in regard to the known facts. But two, and this is a big but, it has to fit in with the person's, I quote another scholar, "[their] own deepest understanding and experience of life." So an actual experience of a believer of the risen Jesus now, will make one explanation seem more plausible or reasonable.
Similarly, an absence of such an experience will make that very same explanation seem implausible or unreasonable to another person who is not a believer. At the heart of the Christian faith is a personal relationship with the risen Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour – the Lord of your life and the Saviour from your sin, for which he died on Good Friday in your place.
The Old Testament shows how people are to relate to God personally and are to be able to say "The Lord is my shepherd" or "The Lord is my light and my salvation", (and so on to quote the Psalmist). In the New Testament we learn that there can be, and should be, a similar relationship with Jesus Christ. He is now revealed, through his resurrection, as the divine Son. So Peter says:
Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy. (1 Pet 1:8)
As Christ not only died, but rose again, he is now alive for ever - reigning at God's right hand. By the Holy Spirit he can be present with us, always and everywhere. In this Jesus is, again, unique. The Buddhist does not claim to know the Buddha, nor the Confucianist Confucius, nor the Muslim Mohammed. People respect the founders of other religions as past teachers. And Christ was also a teacher. But he is much more - he is the risen living Lord and Saviour. You can come to him daily for forgiveness for sin and for guidance for life. As an old chorus puts it: "he walks with me and talks with me along life's narrow way."
So when that relationship with Christ is a real experience in your own life, what will seem a good explanation of the facts will be so different to what seems a good explanation if you live a Christ-rejecting life.
But many academics who write about these things seem to be living like that – without Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. Certainly that was the case with these Jewish academics in Matthew 20 - the chief priests and elders (with some of the guards at the tomb).
So the first challenge of Easter is this. Have you, or have you not, experienced the risen Jesus Christ as your Lord? That is what it means to be a Christian. The Bible says:
if you confess with you lips that ‘Jesus is Lord’, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Romans 10:9).
Who, as yet, has never confessed Christ as the risen Lord? Why not do so this morning, on Easter Day 2009?
And now to our final and
third heading, THE RESULT of the Resurrection.
Look at verses 16-20:
16Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. 18Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’
People didn't stay in Jerusalem after the Festival of Passover (which was when Christ was crucified and then rose). Going up to Jerusalem for a festival was, for us, like going down to London for a weekend treat. It was OK for a short time, but expensive if you stayed too long. And half the time you would have had to camp. Such were the crowds at the festivals and the non-availability of lodgings.
And, remember, Palestine is a tiny country. Going from Jerusalem to Galilee is much less than going from Newcastle to London. It was only about 70 miles. The disciples were, of course, back south in Jerusalem before Pentecost. (Too many critics ignore all this, when they note that some Gospels talk about Galilee while other talk about Jerusalem.) But now the disciples are up north in Galilee. And Jesus is commissioning the disciples. And this commission is so important.
This is a great turning point in world history. The Old Testament teaches us that God, the God of the Bible, is the God of all. All nations are to worship him. He is the only true God. We heard about that in our Old Testament reading from Isaiah. And the prophetic vision of the last days is when "all nations will stream to the Mountain of the Lord’s temple" or Jerusalem (Isaiah 2:1-3).
But in the New Testament there is a new vision and a new mission before all are gathered before the Lord at Christ’s return. Instead of getting others to “stream to” the Holy City, God's people are now to go out to the nations where they are. So with Easter a new age of mission has begun.
Christ is now risen and exalted; and look at what he says in verse 18: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me." And "therefore", verse 19, he says to his followers, and that includes all 21st century followers:
Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything [not just something - but everything - we need biblically balanced teaching - everything] I have commanded you.
That is the second Easter challenge – for all those who do have a relationship with Jesus Christ. The promise of Jesus in verse 20 – “surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age" - makes it clear that the command is similarly for all generations “to the very end of the age”. It is not just for the 1st century and the 12 Apostles. So may we all trust that promise and obey that command this Easter and throughout 2009. May we all tell our neighbours and friends (as we can) about Jesus and the Resurrection and all that that means for life now and death, one day, if he first does not return. For if we trust Christ, as the Bible says:
so we will be with the Lord for ever. Therefore, encourage each other with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4:17).