Sermon for April 16, 2017 (Easter)
Acts 10:34-43 or Jer. 31:1-6; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24;
Col. 3:1-4 or Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18 or Matt. 28:1-10
THE DAWNING OF THE NEW DAY (John 20:1-18)
By Ted Johnston (drawing on commentary by Michael Card)
Biographies usually end with the subject’s death. But John’s recounting of the story of Jesus is not merely a biography of Jesus. Rather, it’s gospel—the proclamation of the good news of Jesus’ life, death, burial and resurrection. Its purpose is to help us believe—to help us place our trust in Jesus as God’s Son. A central focus of John’s Gospel is the reality of Jesus’ resurrection, which is the principal evidence that Jesus is indeed God’s Son, the promised Messiah, and that his atoning work on the cross is complete and fully effective. The empty cross and empty tomb are God’s receipts affirming that our debt has been paid, that Jesus is truly alive, and that we are alive in him.
Jesus’ enemies tried from the beginning to deny the historic fact of his resurrection. Jewish leaders claimed that his body had been stolen from the tomb. But if that is true, how did it happen? The tomb was guarded by Roman soldiers and the stone sealed by an official Roman seal.
Furthermore, Jesus’ disciples did not believe that he was to be raised from the dead; it was his enemies who remembered his words (Matt. 27:62–66). These enemies certainly would not have taken Jesus’ body. The last thing they wanted was anyone believing that Jesus had risen from the dead. If his friends could not steal the body, and his enemies would not, then who took it?
Others claim that Jesus’ disciples had visions of the risen Lord and interpreted them as evidence for the resurrection. But this theory does not hold up—his disciples did not expect to see him, and that is not the kind of psychological preparation from which hallucinations are made. Moreover, how could 500+ people have the same hallucination at the same time? (see 1 Cor. 15:6).
Others claim that Jesus did not die, but only swooned and was later revived. But this argument does not hold up either—many witnesses testified that Jesus was dead when his body was taken from the cross. Later, he was seen alive by dependable witnesses. The only logical conclusion is that he kept his promise and rose from the dead.
The glorious truth of Jesus’ resurrection was not understood immediately, even by his closest followers. It gradually dawned on these grieving people that their Master was not dead, but alive! And what a difference it made when the full realization took hold of them! For most of them it meant going from fear to courage (John 20:19–23). In the case of Mary Magdalene it meant a three-stage journey of unfolding faith: faith eclipsed; faith dawning; faith shining. Let’s travel this journey with Mary. It’s one that involves John and Peter as well.
1. Faith eclipsed (John 20:1–2)
Mary Magdalene and several other women agreed to go to the tomb early Sunday morning, so that they might show their love for Christ in completing the burial preparations. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus had been forced by circumstances to prepare his body hastily, and the women wanted to finish the task. Their great concern was how to get into the tomb. Perhaps the Roman soldiers would take pity on them and give them a hand.
What they did not know was that an earthquake had occurred and the stone had already been rolled back by an angel. It seems that Mary Magdalene went ahead of the other women and got to the tomb first. When she saw the stone rolled away from the door of the tomb, she concluded that somebody had broken into the tomb and stolen the body of her Lord. We may criticize Mary for jumping to conclusions; but when you consider the circumstances, it is difficult to see how she would have reached any other conclusion. It was still dark, she was alone, and, like the other followers of Jesus, she did not believe that he would return from the dead.
She ran to give the news to Peter and John, who must have been staying at a place known to the others. Perhaps it was the Upper Room where they had met with Jesus Thursday evening. Mary’s use of the pronoun “we” is interesting, for it included the other women who at that moment were discovering that Jesus was alive (Mark 16:1–8 and Luke 24:1–8). The women left the tomb and carried the angels’ message to the other disciples.
It is significant that the first witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection were women. Among the Jews in that day, the testimony of women was not held in high regard. “It is better that the words of the Law be burned,” said the rabbis, “than be delivered to a woman.” But these women had a greater message than that of the Law, for they knew that their Savior, the fulfillment of the Law, was alive.
Mary’s faith was not extinguished here; it was only eclipsed. The light was still there, but it was covered. Peter and John were in the same spiritual condition, but soon all three would move out of the shadows and into the light.
2. Faith dawning (John 20:3–10)
John 20:3 suggests that Peter started off first to run to the tomb, but verse 4 reports that John got there first. Both deserve credit for having the courage to run into enemy territory, not knowing what lay before them. The whole thing could have been a clever trap to catch the disciples.
When John arrived at the tomb, he cautiously remained outside and looked in. Perhaps he wanted Peter to be with him when he went into the burial chamber. What did John see? The grave clothes lying on the stone shelf without any evidence of violence or crime. But the grave clothes were empty!
Peter arrived and impulsively went in, just as we would expect him to do. He also saw the linen clothes lying there empty and the cloth for the head carefully rolled and lying by itself. Grave robbers do not carefully unwrap the corpse and then leave the grave clothes neatly behind. In fact, with the presence of spices in the folds of the clothes, it would be almost impossible to unwrap a corpse without damaging the wrappings. The only way those linen clothes could be left in that condition would be if Jesus passed through them as he rose from the dead.
John then entered the tomb and looked at the evidence. “He saw, and believed.” When John wrote this paragraph, he used three different Greek words that all mean seeing. In verse 5 the word translated “look in” means to glace. In John 20:6, the word translated “saw” means to look carefully. In verse 8 the world translated “saw” means “to perceive with intelligent comprehension.” Here is a progression of understanding—their resurrection faith was dawning!
It seems incredible that the followers of Jesus did not expect him to come out of the tomb alive. After all, he had told them many times that he would be raised from the dead. Early in his ministry Jesus had said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). After his resurrection, the disciples remembered that he had said this (John 2:22), and his enemies remembered it too (Matt. 27:40, 63–64).
Jesus compared himself to Jonah (Matt. 12:40), and on two occasions clearly announced his resurrection after three days (Matt. 16:21; 20:19). On Maundy Thursday of his last week of ministry, Jesus again promised to be raised up and meet them in Galilee (Matt. 26:32, Luke 24:6–7).
What kind of faith did Peter and John have at that stage in their spiritual experience? They had faith based on evidence. They could see the grave clothes; they knew that the body of Jesus was not there. However, as good as evidence is to convince the mind, it can never change the life. Those of us who live centuries later cannot examine the evidence, for the material evidence (the tomb, the grave clothes) is no longer there for us to inspect. But we have the record in the Word of God (John 20:9) and that record is true (John 19:35; 21:24).
After his resurrection, Jesus did not reveal himself to everyone, but only to selected witnesses who would share the good news with others (Acts 10:39–43). This witness is now found in the New Testament Scriptures; and both the Old and New Testaments agree in this witness. The Law, the Psalms, the Prophets, and the Apostles together bear witness that Jesus Christ is truly alive!
Peter and John saw the evidence and believed. Later, the Holy Spirit confirmed their faith through the Old Testament Scriptures. That evening, they would meet the Master personally! Faith that was eclipsed has now started to dawn, and the light will get even brighter.
3. Faith shining (John 20:11–18)
Mary deeply loved Jesus and came early to the garden to express that love. Peter and John had gone home by the time Mary got back to the tomb, so they did not convey to her what conclusion they had reached from the evidence they had examined. Mary still thought that Jesus was dead and her weeping at the tomb was the loud lamentation characteristic of Jewish people when they express sorrow (John 11:31, 33).
When Mary looked into the sepulcher, she saw two men in white. Their position at either end of the shelf where the body had been lying makes us think of the cherubim on the mercy seat (Ex. 25:17–19). It is as though God is saying, “There is now a new mercy seat! My Son has paid the price for sin, and the way is open into the presence of God!” Mary apparently was not disturbed at seeing these men, and there is no evidence that she knew they were angels. The brief conversation neither dried her tears nor quieted her mind. She was determined to find the body of Jesus.
Why did Mary turn back and not continue her conversation with the two strangers? Did she hear a sound behind her? Or did the angels stand and recognize the presence of their Lord? In any case she now knew that the Lord’s body was not in the tomb, so why linger there any longer?
Why did she not recognize the one for whom she was so earnestly searching? Jesus may have deliberately concealed himself from her, as he would later do when he walked with the disciples to Emmaus (Luke 24:13–32). It was still early and perhaps dark in that part of the garden. Her vision was probably blurred by her tears as well.
Jesus asked her the same question that the angels had asked, “Why are you crying?” And he added, “Who is it you are looking for?” (He had asked the mob the same question in the Garden—John 18:4.) The Savior knew that Mary’s heart was broken and that her mind was confused. He did not rebuke her; tenderly, he revealed himself to her.
All he had to do was speak her name, and Mary immediately recognized him. Jesus’ sheep hear (recognize) his voice and he calls them by name (John 10:3). Apparently Mary had turned away from Jesus, for when he spoke her name, she had to turn back to look at him again. What a blessed surprise it was to see the face of her beloved Master!
All she could say was, “Rabboni—my Master, my Teacher.” “Rabbi” and “Rabboni” were equivalent terms of respect. Mary not only spoke to him, but she grasped his feet and held on to him. This was a natural gesture: now that she had found him, she did not want to lose him. She and the other believers still had a great deal to learn about his new state of glory; they still wanted to relate to him as they had done during the years of his ministry before the cross.
Jesus permitted the other women to hold his feet (Matt. 28:9), and he did not forbid them. So why did he say to Mary, “Do not hold on to me”? One reason was that she would see him again because he had not yet ascended to the Father. He remained on earth for 40 days after his resurrection and often appeared to the believers to teach them (Acts 1:1–9). Mary had no need to panic; this was not her last and final meeting with the Lord. A second reason is that she had a job to do—to go tell Jesus “brothers” that he was indeed alive and would ascend to the Father (see Psalm 22:22). Jesus had called his followers servants (John 13:16) and friends (John 15:15), but now he called them brothers. This meant that they shared his resurrection power and glory. He reminded Mary and the other believers that God was their Father and that he would be with the Father in heaven after his ascension. In his upper room message, he had taught them that he would return to the Father so that the Spirit might come to them.
It would have been selfish and disobedient for Mary to have clung to Jesus and kept him to herself. She arose and went to where the other disciples were gathered and gave them the good news that she had seen Jesus alive. “I have seen the Lord!” (Note John 20:14, 18, 20, 25, 29.) Mark reports that these believers were mourning and weeping—and that they would not believe her (Mark 16:9–11). Mary herself had been weeping, and Jesus had turned her sorrow into joy. If they had believed, their sorrow would also have turned to joy. Unbelief has a terribly deadening effect on a person (see Heb. 3:12).
Mary not only shared the fact of Jesus’ resurrection and that she had seen him personally, but she also reported the words that he had spoken to her. Again, we see the importance of the Word of God. Mary could not transfer her experience over to them, but she could share the Word; and it is the Word that generates faith (Rom. 10:17). The living Christ shared his living Word (1 Peter 1:23–25).
What a blessing it is to learn of the Living Word of God in the written Word (Scripture). But it is one thing to accept a teaching; it is something else to have a personal encounter with the Risen Lord. Peter and John believed the testimony that Jesus was alive, but it was not until they encountered Jesus personally that true and lasting faith emerged.
Faith based on historical evidence says, “Christ lives!” Saving faith based on a personal encounter with the Risen Lord says, “Christ lives in me!” May we encounter Jesus personally and may that encounter change us forever. Amen.