Today we're celebrating together the fact that Jesus has risen and Jesus is Lord. Those are my two headings. And I want us to look at that account of the resurrection in Matthew 28, so please have that open in front of you.
Something has struck me this Easter more than before. It's not that there have been fierce attacks on the truth of the resurrection. It's rather that there seems to be a largely unquestioned general assumption, not least in sections of the media, that the resurrection didn't happen.
Let me give you one example which I think indicates the general mood. You're probable aware of the BBC series 'Son of God' running at the moment. The presenter is Jeremy Bowen, a foreign correspondent. The Radio Times had a piece describing what a deep impact making these programmes had had on him. 'That sounds hopeful', I thought. I read on, and discovered what the impact had been. Jeremy Bowen's lack of belief in Jesus as the Son of God had not changed. But whereas before he didn't even believe that the man Jesus of Nazareth had ever existed, now he does. All that indicates is that he's never applied his mind to the subject before. His unthinking scepticism is typical. Then the following week's Radio Times praised the programme for being a thorough investigation which was careful not to cause offence – to unbelievers!
There is in the air that we breath a notion that people used to find it easy to believe in the resurrection, but modern people cannot possibly be expected to. As if rising from the dead used to be a regular event that people would have taken in their stride.
But that is nonsense. The whole point about the resurrection of Jesus is that it is a unique event. Those who saw Jesus alive were witnesses to a one-off event that had never happened before in history and will never happen again before the end of time. By its very nature it is an event that flatly contradicts the normal experience of humanity throughout the ages.
The whole atmosphere of the gospels is of a failure to believe that it was going to happen until the evidence that it had overwhelmed the disciples. There is always doubt in the air, not least at the time it all took place. So look at Matthew 28.16-17:
Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.
Do you see that? Even in the face of the resurrection appearances, there were some who hesitated to accept that it was true. And that's what you would expect because this was such an extraordinary event. But the facts overwhelmed the doubt of the disciples.
There is nothing new about people objecting to the Bible's claims about the resurrection. To do that has been fashionable – even profitable – since at least the 18th Century when David Hume was famously sceptical. The great writer Samuel Johnson was a contemporary of Hume. He was sceptical about the sceptic. He said to his friend Boswell:
"Hume, and other sceptical innovators, are vain men, and will gratify themselves at any expense. Truth will not afford sufficient food to their vanity; so they have betaken themselves to errour. Truth, Sir, is a cow which will yield such people no more milk, and so they are gone to milk the bull. If I could have allowed myself to gratify my vanity at the expence of truth, what fame might I have acquired. Every thing that Hume has advanced against Christianity had passed through my mind long before he wrote...
"'Scepticism comes cheap. Belief is costly. It requires us to rethink everything, including the whole of our lives. Raising difficulties is easy. But ultimately the truth cannot be shaken.'"
Samuel Johnson again:
"Always remember this, that after a system is well settled upon positive evidence, a few partial objections ought not to shake it. The human mind is so limited, that it cannot take in all parts of a subject, so that there may be objections raised against anything…"
So what do we say where there are doubts about the resurrection? Why believe that Jesus is risen? And what do we say where there is a complete failure to see the implications of the resurrection? I want to identify some of the answers that Matthew gives to those questions in this chapter. So first of all:
First, JESUS HAS RISEN
Why believe this? Matthew presents us with a series of events which he records in a restrained and sober way as historical, factual truth. He also makes it clear that from the first there were those with another agenda and an alternative version of events. On the one hand there is the account of the disciples. If what they say is true, then they face persecution and death. As Samuel Johnson, once more, puts it:
"Now the Christian Religion is a most beneficial system, as it gives us light and certainty where we were before in darkness and doubt. The miracles which prove it are attested by men who had no interest in deceiving us; but who, on the contrary, were told that they should suffer persecution, and did actually lay down their lives in confirmation of the truth of the facts which they asserted… "
On the other hand there is the account of the chief priests and elders. If they can demonstrate that what the disciples claim is false, then their own position of hostility to Jesus all along is vindicated and their own religious, social and economic position is protected. It was in everybody's short term interest for there to be no resurrection. But the truth could not be suppressed. It overwhelmed all attempts to deny it.
Here is the sequence of events that Matthew sets before us. Basically we have to decide who to believe. Who is lying here? That is the question. Is it the disciples who were putting their own lives in jeopardy? Or is those whose whole standing in their society was under threat?
One. Jesus had predicted that he would rise. 27.62-63:
The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. 'Sir,' they said, 'we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, "After three days I will rise again."'
What's particularly striking about that is that it is said not only by the enemies of Jesus but also before the resurrection took place. The authorities knew about Jesus' claim. They didn't believe it. What they were worried about was the body being stolen. But that Jesus had said he would rise from the dead was not in dispute. And indeed Jesus had been explicit, though the disciples didn't grasp what he was saying until later. For instance, here's Matthew 20.18-19. This is Jesus speaking:
'We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!'
Jesus predicted the resurrection.
Two. The Jewish and Roman authorities co-operated in securing the tomb. 27.64-66:
'So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.' 'Take a guard,' Pilate answered. 'Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.' So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.
So the tomb was both sealed and guarded.
Three. The stone was moved and the tomb empty. Again, those are facts that apparently were not disputed at the time by the enemies of Jesus and his followers. What became the issue was how the tomb became empty, not that it was.
Four. An angel announced to the women, before Jesus appeared, that he had risen; and he showed them the empty tomb. 28.5-6:
The angel said to the women, '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.'
Does the appearing of blazing white angels make the account harder to believe? Far from it. We're talking about someone rising from the dead here. If that happened, then there is indeed a whole supernatural realm that we don't normally encounter. But if ever angels are going to make themselves known, now is the time.
Five. The grief of the women was turned to joy. 28.8:
So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples.
Those desolate women had visited to tend to the dead body of a beloved friend and teacher in his early thirties, horribly and bloodily executed just the day before yesterday. That is not an occasion for joy. Not unless something astounding has happened. Like resurrection.
Six. The women saw Jesus risen from the dead. These words are unfailingly moving. 28.9-10:
Suddenly Jesus met them. 'Greetings,' he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshipped him. They Jesus said to them, 'Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.'
The testimony of women was considered to be worth little in first century Jewish society. But ironically that just makes this account all the more authentic and credible. Someone trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the Jewish world would not have gone about it in this way.
Seven. The religious authorities tried to suppress the news by bribery and deception. That's what's going on in verses 11-15. And it's an astonishingly cynical piece of attempted media manipulation. The guards came to the priests with the facts. The priests devise a damage limitation strategy which has one main casualty: the truth. They give the soldiers a fat cheque, indemnity against prosecution, and a story to tell the press which is a bare-faced lie. Verse 13:
'You are to say, "His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep."'
And verse 15:
So 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, if the chief priests were here this evening, they would tell you that it is Matthew who is lying, along with all the disciples who bear witness to the resurrection. Somebody is lying. I gladly stake my life on the assessment that Matthew is the one telling the truth.
Eight. The disciples saw Jesus risen from the dead. Verse 16:
Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshipped him…
That series of events adds up to compelling and convincing testimony to the central fact of the resurrection of Jesus. And that's just this passage in Matthew. There is plenty more elsewhere in the New Testament. And it's hard to imagine how the evidence for this unique event could be stronger. Samuel Johnson again:
"Supposing a miracle possible, as to which, in my opinion, there can be no doubt, we have as strong evidence for the miracles in support of Christianity, as the nature of the thing admits."
On this Easter evening it's good to be reminded that our faith is historical. It is fact. It is true. Jesus has risen.
What then are the implications of the resurrection? Once again we must limit ourselves to what Matthew records here. And it's all summed up in my second and last heading:
Secondly, JESUS IS LORD
Here then are five implications from these verses alone.
First, the word of Jesus is true. That's really the force of what the angel says in verse 6:
He is not here; he has risen, just as he said.
Jesus said he would rise, and he did. What Jesus says is to be believed. He could hardly have demonstrated that more completely. So that means everything Jesus said before his death – all that he claimed, all that he taught – and everything the risen Jesus says should be received as absolute truth. He has established his right to be believed.
Secondly, Jesus has the full authority of God. Verse 18:
Jesus came to them and said, 'All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…'
Now can you hear the echo of the Old Testament in what Jesus says there? Daniel 7.13-14 tells us what God showed Daniel. These are his words:
In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days [that is, God] and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshipped him.
Jesus used to call himself 'the son of man', and in the risen Jesus that vision of Daniel's is fulfilled. 'All authority has been given to me,' says Jesus. By whom? By his Father – the Ancient of Days, the Lord. The resurrection is not only the victory of Jesus over death. It is his accession to the throne of heaven.
But it's worth noting that this divine authority of Jesus is highlighted even further in another way in the reading from Revelation that we heard earlier. Listen first to how Daniel describes God himself in that same vision. This is Daniel 7.9:
As I looked, 'thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze. A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him.'
Then remember how John describes the vision that he has of the risen Jesus. Revelation 1.13-15:
… among the lampstands was someone 'like a son of man', dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash round his chest. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters.
Do you see the point? Not only does God give all authority to Jesus, the son of man. But the son of man and the Ancient of Days are one. But that is what Jesus said:
Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father (John 14.9).
Jesus has the full authority of God because he is God – God made flesh, God and man. Understand that, and any notion that there can be a way to God that bypasses Jesus simply becomes absurd. You cannot get to London by a route that bypasses London. The risen Jesus alone is the bridge between God and man.
So: first, the word of Jesus is true; secondly, Jesus has the full authority of God.
Then, thirdly, Jesus has authority over all people. Hence his command: 'go and make disciples of all nations.'
Fourthly, Jesus has cosmic authority. He rules not just on earth but in heaven as well. There are whole reaches of the cosmos and supernatural realms that we are at best dimly aware of. No doubt there is much out there that we havn't even begun to imagine. But we need not fear. Jesus is Lord of it all.
So fifthly and finally, everyone should believe in Jesus, accept his word, and submit to his rule. Baptism is the outward sign of that. Worshipping him, learning from him and obeying him make up the way of life. This is not a matter of preference. It is not a lifestyle choice. The resurrection means that Jesus makes absolute demands on everyone.
This of course means that if someone is an atheist, Jesus is his rightful King. He just doesn't see it yet. But he needs to. It also means that if someone follows a religious system that denies the divine authority of Jesus, then Jesus is still his King. He just doesn't see it yet.
And whether someone lives in a country that has had a Christian culture for centuries, or in a country that has been steeped in another religion for thousands of years makes no difference. Jesus is Lord. Everyone needs to know it.
There can be no biblical Christianity that is only for some people. The gospel must be communicated with sensitivity, respect, gentleness and humility. But it must be communicated to all the nations of the world. Because Jesus has authority over everyone. No exceptions. So the key task of those who do believe is to do all that they can to teach the rest of the world to believe as well. And that's exactly the job that Jesus gives his disciples:
'…go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.'
Is that beyond us? Alone – yes. But we are not alone.
'…surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.'
When Jesus is with you – Jesus who has risen from the dead, Jesus who is Lord – then you can do anything that he asks you to do. So let's rejoice once more in the implications of that first Easter Day. And lets get on with the job – for the glory of Jesus.