John 20:1-18; 1 Corinthians 15:1-8
Welcome Happy Morning, age to age shall say. Hell today is vanquished, Heaven is won today. Lo! The dead is living, God forevermore; Him, their true Creator, all His works adore. Come then, true and faithful, Now fulfill Thy Word! Tis Thine own third morning, Rise O Buried Lord! Show Thy face in brightness. Bid the nations see. Bring again our daylight; Day returns with Thee. Welcome happy morning, age to age shall say; Hell today is vanquished. Heaven is won today. Amen.
The lyrics of this hymn I just shared with you were written in the sixth century by Venantius Fortunatus – truly from age to age it is the same. We do welcome that happy morning when Jesus Christ rose from the dead. Jesus was acknowledged then as Conqueror of Sin, Death and Satan as He is today, as He always will be. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. He is the risen Lord, eternal Lord.
You know it really surprises me that so many people spend so much time and effort and energy chasing after the temporary, pondering the inconsequential. In truth, much of the world focuses its attention on the fleeting while putting off thoughts of eternal destiny — ultimate consequences — when really the first priority of our thinking ought to be eternity and how eternity informs the momentary. We’re here for just a blinking of an eye and then something happens to us. Death and eternity. We can’t avoid death any more than we can avoid eternity – they don’t go away simply because we choose not to think about them. We need to plan ahead and not go so willy nilly about life. Eternity is a long time. So let me ask you a question this morning: How and where will you be spending eternity? If you truly are a Christian, can you be certain – are you certain that you have put your faith in a reliable place, in a reliable person?
The Bible tells us that everyone has sinned and has fallen short of the glory of God and that the wages of sin – what is earned through sin – is death. If there is no atonement for sin, what is earned is an eternity of separation from God.
The perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ is the only basis on which we can come into a saving relationship with the living God. There is no other way for Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” By Jesus.
Suppose the entire human race lined up on the West Coast with one objective – to get to Hawaii. We’ll equate their goal with God’s standard of righteousness. The gun is fired and all the swimmers jump in. As we look out over the ocean, we see the most moral one of all – an individual always doing his best, trying to adhere to the highest moral standards – yet he would be the first to admit his imperfection and sinfulness. But he’s out there in the water 75 miles from shore. Next we see a college student. She does cheat on her exams a little and goes on a binge every now and then but she’s not a complete reprobate. She’s gotten about 10 miles out. The mass murderer is drowning a few yards off shore. Scattered about in the water between the two extremes of the spectrum, we see the rest of the human race. As we look from the mass murderer to the tremendously moral man, we can see the difference. It’s an enormous difference. But what’s the difference in terms of Hawaii. Everyone will drown.
A set of swimming instructions won’t help at this point. We need somebody to take us to Hawaii. This is where Jesus comes in. If you can live a life that is absolutely perfect in thought, word and deed, you can make it to heaven on your own steam. But no mere human being has ever done or ever will do this. All the other religions of the world are essentially sets of swimming instructions, suggested codes of ethics, patterns for living. But humankind’s basic problem is not a matter of knowing how we ought to live; it’s lacking the power to live as we ought. The good news of Christianity is that Jesus Christ does for us what we cannot possibly do for ourselves. Through Him alone are we reconciled with God, given His righteousness and enabled to have a personal relationship with Him in His very presence.
And how did He accomplish all of this? By going to the cross and taking upon Himself the punishment for sins that was rightfully due to us. And how do we appropriate His righteousness? By admitting and repenting of our sin, accepting Christ’s sacrifice in our place and living lives of service and gratitude for what the Lord has done.
But how do we know that Jesus – who claimed to be the Messiah, the Savior, God enfleshed – how do we know that He wasn’t some lunatic or that He wasn’t a liar? The crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension are either elements in the world’s greatest hoax –or the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension are the most important events ever for humankind.
So what do we have for proof of the claims of Jesus?
Well, first there are the prophecies all fulfilled in Jesus – written hundreds of years before Jesus appeared on earth, prophecies recorded for us in, what we call, the Old Testament. Detailed prophecies referring to the place and time of His birth in – specifically – Bethlehem. His birth by a virgin. His ministry in Galilee. His roles as prophet, priest and king. His triumphal entry into Jerusalem astride a donkey. His betrayal by a friend. We have to the penny the amount of money for which He would be betrayed. We have the prophecies that the money would be returned for a potters’ field, that false witnesses would come forward to accuse the Messiah. We have accountings, hundreds of years before they occurred, of all the incidents surrounding His death – that He would be mocked and spat upon; that His hands and feet would be pierced; that He would be given gall and vinegar to drink; that soldiers would cast lots for His clothes; that Jesus would pray for those who were crucifying Him; that not a bone of His would be broken; that He would be buried with the rich; that He would rise from the dead and ascend into heaven.
Then we have the witnesses to the resurrected Jesus: from 1st Corinthians 15 and elsewhere, we learn that Jesus, after His resurrection, appeared to Mary Magdalene, to Peter, to several women as they ran from the tomb, to two disciples on the Emmaus Road, to 10 disciples in the Upper Room, to seven men at the Sea of Galilee, to 11 disciples on a mountain, to more than 500 people at one time
And then there are the details surrounding the crucifixion: Jesus was sentenced to death by the Roman Empire. Death by crucifixion, the most horrific, painful means of execution ever devised. But first, as I noted last week, Pontius Pilate had Him scourged. And, as you’ll recall, in this form of punishment, the prisoner was tied to a post with his back bent and a whip with long leather straps studded with sharp pieces of bone, rocks, lead pellets and glass was used on Him. With each lash, the whip would wrap around the body, stripping off pieces of flesh. Roman beatings could be so severe that bones and organs were left exposed. By the time they got through beating Him, Jesus’ body may well have been barely recognizable.
They jammed on His head a crown of thorns and then beat Him on the head repeatedly with a staff. Then they led Him away to be crucified. John tells us that Jesus – battered, whipped, dehydrated, exhausted from a sleepless night — carried His own cross as they headed out of Jerusalem. But, with His condition weakened by the torture, the soldiers took a man from the crowd and had him carry the cross for the remaining steps to the place of crucifixion.
Then on the skull-shaped hill, Golgotha, Jesus, naked and already in unimaginable pain, was nailed to a cross through His ankle and heel bones. And He remained on that cross for six hours.
The following events at the site of the crucifixion help verify that Jesus was dead:
- The Roman soldiers did not break Jesus’ legs, because they “saw that He was already dead” (Jn. 19:33).
- The soldiers plunged a spear into Jesus’ side, and from it came both water and blood (Jn. 19:34). Medical experts say that if He were not already dead, this in itself would have killed Him. Others have concluded that the pouring out of water and blood from His side was proof that Jesus was no longer alive.
- When Joseph of Arimathea asked for the body of Christ so he and Nicodemus could bury Him, Pontius Pilate ordered a centurion to verify that Jesus was dead (Mk. 15:43-45). The Roman governor would not release the body to Joseph until the centurion was certain that all signs of life were gone. You can be sure that an officer in the Roman army would not make a mistake about an important matter like this in his report to such a high official as Pilate.
- Joseph and Nicodemus prepared the body for burial according to Jewish custom. This included wrapping it “in a clean linen cloth” (Mt. 27:59), anointing the body with “a mixture of myrrh and aloes” (Jn. 19:39), and placing it “in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock” (Mk. 15:46). It seems obvious that any sign of life would have been detected by these bereaved friends. Surely they would not have buried a breathing Jesus.
- The Pharisees and chief priests met with Pilate to discuss what had occurred. They made such remarks as “while He was still alive” (Mt. 27:63). Soldiers were ordered to secure the grave with a seal. In addition, guards were placed on duty to prevent the disciples from coming to “steal Him away” (v.64). The Jewish leaders and the Roman authorities knew beyond doubt that Jesus was dead.
After His body was wrapped, it was placed in a rock cave before which a huge stone was rolled. Geologists from Georgia Tech went to Jerusalem some years ago to study just how large this stone had to have been to cover the four and a half to five foot doorway that would have been standard at the time. The stone, they estimated, would have weighted 1 ½ to 2 tons. This stone would have been sealed with clay and stamped with the Roman signet. To mess with a Roman seal was punishable by death, by crucifixion. The tomb was heavily guarded – remember, this was the Roman Empire – the most well-trained fighting machine that has ever walked the earth. Because of the stature of Jesus, the controversy surrounding Him, we can surmise there would have been a pretty substantial detail guarding Him. Again, well-armed, well-trained. And they themselves would have been beaten, set afire, or executed if they failed in their duty.
Could the disciples have eluded the guards – the well-trained fighting machine who would faced death for this? Could the guards have slept through or allowed the disciples to remove the two ton stone, unwrap the 100 pounds of graveclothes, fold them up neatly, lift the body and carry it away? Come on!
And then there is the witness of the disciples. They had dedicated the better part of three years to following Jesus. In the hours after Jesus’ death, they were probably asking themselves if they all hadn’t made just a huge mistake. Even though Jesus had told them He would die, they’d just never gotten it. They hadn’t understood; they hadn’t bargained on the cross. And so they were in hiding, fearing for their lives. But, then something happened to change them overnight into bold, fearless proclaimers of the name Jesus. So bold, so fearless, so determined to spread the word, that we’re here today to talk about what they did, what they saw 2,000 years ago. So bold, so fearless, so changed – that they were willing to give their own lives so that we might know their Jesus.
They had been so afraid they had been cowering behind doors but then – on the third day after the crucifixion – John tells us one of the women who had followed Jesus made her way to the tomb. Mary Magdalene had left behind her life of sin for a new life as a disciple of Jesus. She believed Him. She loved Him. And then He died on the cross.
Mary witnessed His death and she was there when His lifeless body was taken down and placed in the tomb. And so she returned to the tomb early in the morning on the third day and found, to her amazement and fear, that the stone had been rolled away.
She responded by running to tell the disciples. Her announcement to Peter and John was like a pistol shot that started the race to the tomb. And so the proud, impulsive fisherman and the one known as the beloved disciple, made for the tomb. From the outside, one could see the body was not there. Mary had probably seen that. But from the inside of the tomb, a person might be able to receive a great insight. That insight is the key in all of this: the realization that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead.
Understand that Mary didn’t know that in those initial moments outside the tomb. What she said was: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb.” When she said, “they,” she probably meant the Romans had taken the body.
But, as we’ve noted, that was an incorrect assumption. After all that had occurred, the last thing the authorities wanted was to see a missing Jesus whose disappearance would be certain to stir up the people again. And Mary knew the disciples hadn’t taken Him. They’d been in hiding, afraid to show their faces. And a simply human Jesus couldn’t have emerged from the tomb on His own. Remember what He had endured.
So, if the authorities hadn’t done it and the disciples hadn’t done it, and a merely human Jesus hadn’t done it, how had the stone been moved, the guard foiled and a dead Jesus come out of the tomb? Well, let’s see.
Verse 4 in John’s gospel tells us that John reached the tomb. Imagine the scene: He and Peter had been running and have arrived huffing and puffing. But John stops short – he peeks into the tomb but he doesn’t cross the line. Instead, he squints to try to see inside.
We can sympathize with him. There is something about walking into a tomb – we avert our eyes, we pull back. It’s a region to which we defer and give respect. But, while John hesitated, Peter crossed the line. He went right into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there as had John from the outside.
This gospel writer, John, now uses four Greek words all translated “saw.” Mary and John “saw” at a glance (the word used for their seeing is blephei). Peter “saw” (the-o-rei), carefully examining the details, theorizing.
Peter noted that the cloth that had wrapped Jesus’ head was separate from the other grave clothes. It even had a rolled-up appearance. The Greek word suggests it was coiled or rolled as though the head around which it was wrapped had suddenly dematerialized and vanished. Peter saw all this like a detective, examining the details, looking for clues. He was trying to figure out what “they” had done with the body when “they” had taken it. He was puzzled that they would leave the grave clothes.
Then John went into the tomb. Again, he “saw” but this time the Greek word used is eiden, a physical seeing, a mental understanding, a spiritual knowing. While Mary and John had initially just looked, while Peter was theorizing, John now had a flash of insight.
Verse 8 says John saw and believed. What did he believe? He believed that Jesus rose from the dead. He understood that Jesus was not carried away by some weird soldiers who had taken the trouble to unwind and rewind the grave clothes. John had crossed the line. Faith is going across the line, seeing, believing, and then acting on that belief. John believed what he believed based on what he saw in the tomb. Only later did the disciples come to understand from scripture why Jesus had to follow this route. The point here is that they didn’t make up a story of resurrection to fit a preconceived understanding of scriptural prophecy. Jesus had been explaining to them that these prophecies had to be fulfilled in Him but, as scripture tells us again and again and, as we’re reminded in our passage from John, the disciples were slow to understand.
It is interesting to note how each of these words about seeing has moved into the English language. Blephei is found in words particularly relating to the eyelids, that which covers the eyes. Theorei lends it base to words that speak about speculations, untested assumptions, abstract reasoning. And eidon has made its way into the language in words such as eidetic, defined as that which is marked by extraordinarily detailed and vivid recall of visual images.
It’s clear that all of the disciples came to this eidetic way of seeing because nothing less — no fictional story, no hoax — could possibly account for the changes that occurred within them.
Take, for instance, the transformation of Thomas. Of all the disciples, he seemed the least likely to be convinced. His pessimism was first revealed earlier, when Jesus mentioned His plans to go to Bethany where Lazarus had just died. Thomas had suggested to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him” (Jn. 11:16). Although this statement suggests a degree of courage, it also implies that Thomas was resigned to martyrdom. If that was his typical response, it is no wonder he responded to the disciples’ claim that they had seen Jesus after His death by saying, “Unless I see . . . I will not believe” (Jn. 20:25). Does this sound like someone who is willing to rekindle the anger of the Roman officials by claiming that Jesus was alive if He really wasn’t?
Now look at Thomas a week after the crucifixion. In the upper room, surrounded by his 10 friends who had already seen Jesus, he saw the Savior face to face. Finally, Thomas was convinced. His statement, “My Lord and my God!” (Jn. 20:28) is the ultimate proclamation of belief in Jesus’ resurrection. Here was victory that could be won only through hard evidence. It’s the only thing that could have changed this skeptic into a believer.
No, the disciples were not the type of men who could have lived a lie as far-reaching as one that claimed a dead man wasn’t dead anymore. They might have misunderstood Jesus on occasion, but they were basically honest men. They had no reason to devise such a scheme, and they didn’t have the courage it would take to defend such a bald-faced lie. Peter would never have been hanged upside down for a trumped-up story. Mark would not have been dragged through the streets to his death if he had been defending fiction. James would not have been beheaded for a falsehood. Thomas wouldn’t have been pierced with a lance for a lie. Yet history tells us that these men each died in these horrific ways. What a testimony to the truth of their claims! They were willing to die for the One who overcame death for them–and for us!
So this day we celebrate – this happy morning – calls us to the tomb to confront the reality of death and to make a decision about what kind of relationship we want to have with death. We are asked to decide whether we will allow eternal death to have a grip on us or whether we will, instead, embrace the eternal life that is offered to us only by the resurrected Jesus Christ.
Finally, let us walk once more by the tomb. John and Peter have gone off to ponder the questions and Mary remains at the tomb sobbing and sobbing. But, as she looks into the tomb again, she sees two angels now seated where Jesus’ body had been.
And they ask her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Her reply was the same she had given to Peter and John just moments earlier, “They have taken my Lord away and I don’t know where they have put Him.”
Then she sensed someone else near her. She turned and saw a man whom she assumed was the gardener. And He asked her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?”
Perhaps she couldn’t see clearly through her tears, perhaps her grief and fear kept her from seeing, but, initially, we’re told she failed to recognize that the one to whom she was speaking was the risen Jesus. Finally, He called her by name as He does each of His disciples and she felt a pull on her heart. She knew this was Jesus, alive and standing before her.
Then Jesus said a surprising thing: “Do not hold onto me for I have not yet returned (or ascended to the Father). Perhaps this was Jesus’ way of telling Mary that her life could never return to what it was. Mary would have to let go of the incarnated Jesus so that He might complete His work and send the Comforter, the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Mary would also have to let go of death, of sin, of all that bound her. She would have to truly trust the risen Lord. That’s something we all need to remember on this Resurrection Sunday. There are some things we just can’t hold on to. Many of us have perhaps remained entombed for years, wearing death and sin like graveclothes – bound by regrets, anger, unresolved guilt, fears. These must be stripped away in order for us to fully display the light that will draw others unto Jesus.
We who have welcomed Jesus as Savior can leave the tomb; we can let it go to claim the abundant life that Jesus has for us now. Jesus Christ is alive and new life is available to everyone who calls on His name.
While tears of joy were streaming down Mary’s face, Jesus told, “Go to my brothers and say to them ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary left the tomb to share the good news. “I have seen (in the Greek, e-o-raka) the Lord,” she said. This fourth Greek word for seeing has a similar meaning to another – eureka – which has come directly into the English language and is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as the word “used to express triumph upon the discovery of something.” In the case of Mary, the something was not a something, but a someone. Mary had discovered the risen Lord Jesus Christ. And because this risen Lord had conquered death, Mary had discovered new hope, new meaning, new life. Well, more accurately, these had been given to her for salvation is the gift of God. We receive not of our own efforts so that no one can boast. My most fervent prayer this morning is that we all might see as Mary saw on that first Resurrection morning.
That we might really see – not a simple blephei kind of seeing (at a glance); not a theorei kind of seeing (speculation) and not even an eiden kind of seeing (identification) but that we might be filled with the full triumph of discovery as the eyes of our hearts comprehend that in this day we have been confronted with the reality of death and it’s alright because Jesus has conquered death. Jesus has risen from the dead and that makes a difference for us now.
And all God’s people said Amen!
NOTE: I composed this from notes compiled over a number of years. Attributions may not be complete. Sources include: Paul E. Little’s How to Give Away Your Faith.
Featured image: Easter Procession by Illarion Pryanishnikov, 1893.