Last Easter a BBC Poll discovered that 61% of people in the North East (and the highest percentage in the whole of Britain) would say, "I do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead." So this morning I want to be fairly straightforward and look at the passage we had from the Bible for our New Testament reading, Matthew 28, which is on the resurrection of Jesus. And my headings are first, The Reality of the Resurrection of Jesus; secondly, The Reasons for Believing the Biblical Accounts; and, thirdly, The Response to the Resurrection of Jesus.
1. The Reality of the Resurrection of Jesus
According to Matthew's Gospel, after Jesus' entry to Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday, he had made his presence felt in no uncertain terms in the great Temple in Jerusalem. That was followed by some forthright teaching that included even denouncing religious leaders, who preach but do not practice. The religious leaders then secured his arrest, false conviction, and death by horrific crucifixion on the first Good Friday. However, unlike most crucified corpses which were left unburied, his body had been buried in a nearby tomb. What next? Well, we were told in our reading this morning, Matthew 28.1-10…
"…after the Sabbath, towards the dawn of the first day of the week [the first Easter Day], 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."
But do you believe that really happened? So much hangs on your answer. For example, the Apostle Paul believed it really happened, after meeting the risen Jesus himself. And that proved for him, as he wrote to the Christians in Rome, that the man Jesus Christ was not just the carpenter of Nazareth, but God the Son, come in human flesh. For Paul writes, he…
"…was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by the resurrection from the dead." (Romans 1.4)
So the stakes are enormous when you say those words in the Apostle Creed, "I believe … he … was crucified, died and was buried" and "on the third day he [Jesus] rose again," and you believe that is fact and not fiction. For to quote Paul again,
"if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain." (1 Corinthians 15.14)
But the Bible reports that the crucifixion of Jesus, his burial in the borrowed tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, and his bodily Resurrection are historical events all in exactly the same sense. So the Resurrection is a reality. And it claims that Jesus' body, transformed into a (we have to use the word) "glorified" body, was also hard fact. For, on one hand, the women we just read about in verse 9 could touch Jesus' feet. And Luke's Gospel says the risen Jesus ate with his disciples; and John's Gospel says that Thomas could put his hand in the wounds that were still on Jesus' hands and side. But, on the other hand, his body was radically different and not bound, as we are, by space and time. And the risen Jesus sometimes took time to be recognised by the disciples. But these appearances of the risen Jesus are all reported as hard facts that happened in space and time. And it all ties in, of course, with Matthew 28.6 (and the similar reports in the other Gospel writers). For we read there that the Angel said to the women:
"He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay."
The point was Jesus' body was no longer lying there in the tomb. For he had risen with a transformed body. So the tomb was empty. And that definitely was reported as an historical fact – that the tomb was empty. So, it seems, was the meeting with, and the greeting by, Jesus that the women experienced and reported in Matthew 28.9.
However, sadly, for a range of reasons some people have got the wrong idea that there is a midway between truth and falsehood. Some think that the Resurrection was not a fact (as the Crucifixion was a fact and the burial was a fact). But it was something more than a fiction. For it gave rise, they say, to thoughts about the triumph of love over hate or some other conviction. But the early Christians were clear. The Resurrection of Jesus was a dateable event not just an idea in their heads. For it was on "the third day". So Paul can write to the Corinthians:
"For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins … that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day." (1 Corinthians 15.3-4)
C. H. Dodd, a famous 20th century scholar and not a conservative scholar by any means, wrote memorably about that verse. I quote:
"the natural implication would be that the Resurrection was (so to speak) the reversal of the entombment."
And he adds:
"When they (the early Christians) said: 'He rose from the dead,' they took it for granted that his body was no longer in the tomb; if the tomb had been visited it would have been found empty. The Gospels supplement this by saying, it was visited and it was found empty."
2. The Reasons for Believing the Biblical Accounts are not Fiction
First, we have two Marys as the first witnesses. But if the Resurrection was a fabrication or fiction, no Jew would have made women the first witnesses. For a female witness was discounted in Jewish courts.
Secondly, the best that Jesus' enemies could come up with to invalidate the empty tomb and suggest the Resurrection is a fiction is in verses 11-15 of our reading:
"While they [the women] were going [to tell the others], 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."
If the guards were asleep, of course, they couldn't know what had happened. And it is a simple thing and said down the centuries in every generation, you can't just get rid of a body. The authorities had power and time to find it. But they never did. That would have proved the claims were fictitious, once and for all.
And, thirdly, had the Resurrection been a hoax the disciples would never have been willing to sacrifice their lives as martyrs, as they did, for a lie. And their transformed lives, following their meetings with the risen Jesus, were evidence that something real had happened. From forsaking Jesus at his trial – and Peter especially - they were preaching fearlessly to crowds, even 1000s, in a few weeks.
Then, fourthly, yes, it is true the Resurrection narratives are different in the four Gospels. But that shows they were not colluding. However, you have four different witnesses whose gist is the same. And for Jewish courts you only needed two or three for good evidence. But you have four witnesses in the four Gospels to establish the facts. Of course, the basic difference in the Gospels lies in the accounts of the appearances of Jesus to the disciples. But it is to be expected different Apostles reported different appearances that were on different occasions. However, it is quite remarkable how similar the accounts of the empty tomb are in the four Gospels. The three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) all agree on three things.
- That some women, including Mary Magdalene, went to the tomb of Jesus on the first day of the week and found the stone rolled away from the tomb's entrance.
- That a young angelic presence explained what had happened: "He is not here, for he has risen" (Matthew 28.6).
- That the women were frightened and left the tomb. Then, when we look at John 20.1-2 we find that too fits in with this outline. The only difference there is that the angelic interpreter has not been mentioned. But two angels are mentioned in verses 11-13 when Mary is back at the tomb.
And remember - Mark's Gospel is generally reckoned to be written in the sixties of the first century. But the information, he (and others) drew on, was preached, remembered and probably recorded much earlier. Even if not, as late as AD 56, when Paul was writing 1 Corinthians, he tells us that many of the disciples who had seen Jesus after the Resurrection "are still alive". Such eye-witnesses would have never allowed an Empty Tomb and an Appearance tradition to develop so uniformly, if it was fiction.
The fifth reason for believing that the biblical accounts are not fiction, is the power of the Resurrection to bring hope to individuals, when believed, and despair when scorned. Here is Bertrand Russell, a famous 20th century atheist, philosopher and mathematician who had no time for the Bible and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Listen to him in his autobiography before he died:
"The mental night that has descended upon me is less brief and promises no awakening after sleep. Formerly the cruelty, the meanness, the dusty fretful passion of human life seemed to me a little thing, set, like some resolved discord in music, amid the splendour of the stars and the stately procession of geological ages. What if the universe was to end in universal death; it was none the less unruffled and magnificent. But now all this has shrunk to be no more than my own reflection in the windows of the soul, through which I look out upon the night of nothingness."
And there is Stephen Hawking, a 21st century atheist physicist and mathematician. (I have written about him in the Vicar's Note you have with your current Newsletter.) He died two weeks ago believing, I quote, "the universe is governed by the laws of science" and "there is no heaven or afterlife … that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark." How different all that is to Paul, who believed the risen Jesus was certainly no fairy story. He says this writing to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 15.51-57):
"Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
'Death is swallowed up in victory.'
'O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?'
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ".
Certainly there are good reasons for believing in the biblical account of the Resurrection of Jesus.
3. The Response to the Resurrection of Jesus
Look at verses 16-17:
"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."
Notice that here the first response is twofold. On the one hand, there were the eleven disciples, verse 17, who "when they saw him they worshipped him." They knew he was God the Son, and he had borne the sin of the world, and a new way to the Father was opened, to those who trusted in him. So he was worthy of their worship. But, on the other hand, "some doubted". After what the eleven had gone through in recent days the doubters probably were not among the eleven but among other followers of Jesus. These had joined the eleven at this well known meeting spot on the mountain.
And there will be people like that here this morning who doubt. You are not yet clear what to think about all I've been saying. You've still questions. Can I say we always have such folk like that in our services. You are always welcome. But if you are like that, do take one of the 'Why Jesus?' booklets from the racks at the end of the service. Or ask John Teasdale or Ramzi Adcock about our Christianity Explored groups, which are for folk with questions and doubts.
However, Jesus then addressed the believers and the doubters together. He wanted everyone to hear what he wanted to say as some last words before his Ascension. So look now at verse 18:
"And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.""
Jesus is, first, saying he is Lord of heaven, over any and every spiritual power. But also he is King of Kings and Lord of Lords on earth – over Mrs May and Donald Trump and Putin and all earthly leaders in whatever sphere. So how we should all be working, peacefully, for our public life to be in accordance with the will of the risen Christ who has "all authority in heaven and on earth."
But a necessary way to get our public life in accordance with his will, is to obey his commission in verses 19-20, where he says:
"Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising 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."
Jesus is saying that his disciples and the others are not to keep their knowledge about him to themselves. But they are to tell others, and all over the world. That means to tell people of every class, colour and country. And this command is still in force. And it is clear that making disciples involves three things.
- First, it requires "going". That means at least taking initiatives to talk to people about Christ.
- Secondly, there is to be "baptising". People need to make a public profession of their faith in Jesus Christ, formally through baptism or confirmation, but informally by telling friends what they believe. You must not be ashamed of being Christians. Jesus in Mark 8.38 warns: "whoever is ashamed of me … of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."
- And, thirdly, making disciples involves "teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." That involves Jesus' command to repent and believe – to repent of your sin and believe that Jesus bore it on the Cross that first Good Friday. But then faith has to prove itself by works. So you obey Christ and his standards of behaviour both for private and public life. And you obey him because he loves you and will only command what is good for you and for others.
But you say, 'all that is so daunting'. Well, never forget that wonderful final promise of Jesus. Look at the second half of verse 20:
"And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age."
Jesus is risen and reigning and by his Holy Spirit is present with you always if you have opened your life to him. Jesus really did rise from the dead and is alive for evermore. For there is every reason to believe the biblical accounts. So respond to Christ's commission as you can and as is appropriate to you, but trusting his promise:
"behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age,"
and then for all eternity.