Thursday, April 28, 2011

With Christ at the Empty Tomb (Matthew 27:57-28:15)

In one sense, Easter is a very special holiday for Christians because it is on this day that we celebrate the fact that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. In another sense, however, today is just another Sunday, and they are all very special for Christians. The earliest Christians began meeting on Sundays for worship in order to celebrate and observe the resurrection of Jesus, not once a year, but once a week. So, while today we gather to celebrate and proclaim that Christ is risen from the dead, in reality, we gather every Sunday to celebrate and proclaim this very same truth. It is not an annual event, but a daily reality for the followers of Jesus. We serve a death-proof king. The Apostle Paul, writing in 1 Corinthians 15, says,

I make known to you, brethren, the gospel (the good news) that I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word the which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.

This is the good news that we proclaim: Christ, the eternal God incarnate in human form, died for our sins, meaning that He became our substitute in death and bore the wrath of God that we deserve for our sin; He was buried, and our text today describes in brief detail the process of His burial; and He was raised on the third day. And all of this happened according to the Scriptures, in other words according to the promise-plan of God that had been prophesied for centuries. We do not proclaim the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus as a theory, or merely a treasured belief. Easter is not, for Christians, simply a tradition that has been carved out of the folklore of Western Civilization. No, we proclaim His death, burial and resurrection as a historical fact, a fact that is true for all people of all nations, and a fact that is eternally significant and which demands a response. We proclaim that Christ is risen from the dead. This is not a statement that should cause us to shrug our shoulders or nod our heads. This is a statement that forces us to take sides. We either believe this or we don’t. And if it is true, and we do not believe it, then we have abandoned the only hope that sinful human beings have of being made right before a perfectly holy God who is our creator and judge. Our text today presents three facts for our consideration. This is an eyewitness account from one who knew Jesus personally and witnessed the events that are described herein. So, as we present these three facts today, it is incumbent on every person to decide whether or not to believe these facts and how they will affect the rest of your life.

I. Fact #1 – Jesus Died and Was Buried

Obviously, in order to proclaim that Jesus is risen from the dead, we have to proclaim first that He actually died. Now, here in a Baptist Church on Easter Sunday morning, surrounded by
imagery of the Cross on which Jesus died, you may think, “Of course Jesus died. Why prolong this sermon, which you know is going to be long anyway, with a simple fact like this?” Well, you may be surprised to know that a large percentage of the world’s population does not believe that Jesus died. First of all, there are the over 3.5 billion people, over half the world’s population, who have never heard it because they have no access to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But in addition to those who have never heard, there are many who have heard, and yet do not believe. And, I am not talking about those who refuse to believe that He died for their sins, but rather those who do not believe that He died at all on that cross. Who might these be? First, there are a small group of people who believe that, on the cross, after He had been beaten, tortured, crucified with nails driven through His hands and feet, and pierced through the lungs and heart with a spear, He did not die, but just kind of passed out. He fainted. He swooned because of physical exhaustion and loss of blood. But, they believe that once He was placed in the cool damp confines of the rock-hewn tomb, He gathered His strength, unwrapped Himself from the mummy-like grave cloths, rolled a massive stone away and walked out of the tomb. And then, He went for a walk to Emmaus, which is how far away from Jerusalem, students? SEVEN MILES. And you would be surprised at the number of people who believe that. Then there are some 1.5 billion Muslims in the world who are taught that Jesus did not die on the cross. Based on a certain passage in the Quran, orthodox Muslims have traditionally believed that Jesus did not die on the cross but rather that God transformed someone else to look like Jesus and that person was put to death in Jesus’ place.

These are theories. What are the facts? The Bible says that Jesus was apprehended by a mob carrying swords and clubs, He was beaten, He was scourged (which means that He was whipped until the flesh was removed from His back), He had thorns driven into His brow, He was nailed (I repeat, NAILED!) to a cross, and then had a spear (A SPEAR!) thrust through His side piercing His lungs and heart so that blood and water ran from His side. He was dead! In fact, of the records we have today of thousands of people crucified under the Romans, we have no record of ANYONE ever surviving the ordeal. Then, after He died, notice that vv59-60 say that He was wrapped in a linen cloth and laid in a tomb. We get an idea of this custom from the story of Lazarus in John 11:44 – he was “bound hand and foot with wrappings, and his face was wrapped around with a cloth.” John also mentions this “face-cloth” in the wrappings of Jesus. This would keep the mouth bound tightly shut. John’s Gospel tells us that Nicodemus brought a mixture of oil and aloe to use in the burial preparations, which would have served as a kind of glue to keep the wrappings in tact. The 18th century scholar Samuel Chandler said, “Had there indeed been any remains of life in Him, when taken down from the cross, the pungent nature of the myrrh and aloes, their strong smell, their bitterness, their being wrapped around his body in linens with a roller, and over his head and face with a napkin, as was the custom of the Jews to bury, must have entirely extinguished them.”[1] So from the biblical account, we know this for a fact: On the cross, Jesus DIED, and He was buried.

II. Fact #2 – The Tomb Was Empty on Sunday Morning

This much everyone can agree on: the tomb that the women and the disciples went to on Sunday morning was empty. Now one very simple theory that has arisen to explain this fact is that they went to the wrong tomb. We all know how easy it is to get disoriented in a large cemetery where all the headstones look the same. I wandered around the cemetery of Old Salem for a couple of hours one afternoon trying to find my grandmother’s grave before I finally found it. But Jesus wasn’t buried in a cemetery like this. He was buried in a tomb that was cut out of a rock, like a cave. It wasn’t like there were dozens of them around to get confused about. Matthew tells us in v61 that some of the women were there watching them put Jesus in the tomb. They knew where it was, and there is no doubt that they went back to the right tomb. Even if they had gone to the wrong tomb, all the religious leaders of Jerusalem would have had to do was go to the right tomb and drag the carcass of Jesus out and say, “Here He is, people, you went to the wrong tomb!” But they never did that.

Of course, another theory that could be proposed is that they found the right tomb, but looked in the wrong place for Jesus’ body. Now, I don’t know anyone who ever proposed this theory, but it would be possible. These big tombs commonly held several corpses. After the bodies decomposed, the bones would be put into an ossuary (a bone box) and stored in the tombs. So, maybe they went into the right tomb and just overlooked Jesus in there. No way. Matthew tells us in v60 that this was a “new tomb.” Luke tells us that no one had ever been placed in this tomb before Jesus. His was the only body that was supposed to be there, and it wasn’t.

Interestingly, the oldest theory as to how the tomb became empty is still one of the most popular explanations today. Notice in vv63-64 that the Pharisees told Pilate, “We remember that when He was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I am to rise again.’” So, it was well known that He had said this, as even His enemies admitted. So they said to Pilate, “Give orders for the grave to be made secure until the third day, otherwise His disciples may come and steal Him away and say to the people, ‘He has risen from the dead.’” And Pilate sent guards to the tomb with orders to “make it as secure” as they could (v65). And v66 says that they “set a seal on the stone.” This seal was not a water-tight, air-tight kind of seal, but a legal one. A. T. Robertson suggests that it was likely a cord stretched across the stone with the “seal” or symbol of Roman authority stamped upon it, as if to say, “Anyone who opens this tomb is in violation of the law of Rome.”

Now, on Sunday morning, the tomb was empty. The disciples could not have stolen the body, because they would have had to fight off the guards or else pull this off undetected. They would have broken the law and been guilty of a serious crime, but no charges were ever pressed against the disciples for this crime. They couldn’t have done this in the middle of the night without the guards noticing. The stone that covered the mouth of that tomb was a massive thing that rolled along a groove in the ground before settling into a depression that held it in place. Moving it would require several strong men, and would have generated a lot of noise. Remember that the women were the first ones to the tomb on Sunday morning, and the other gospels say that they wondered who might roll away the stone for them. They knew that they could not do it. And by the way, if this story was being made up to support Christians’ belief in the resurrection, the first witnesses to the tomb would have been written into the story as men and not women. The testimony of women was not highly regarded in that patriarchal society, so it does not enhance believability to a first century audience to have women as the ones who find and report this empty tomb to their male fellow-believers. The only motivation the Gospel writers would have to include such a detail at all is that it was true.

Matthew tells us that there was an earthquake and an angelic being who came and rolled the stone away. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow. You know how you look at lightning in the sky, and the brightness of it blinds you temporarily? That is what this angel looked like. So, this is no mere human being. And his presence terrified the guards. Matthew says that they “shook for fear of him and became like dead men” (v4). These were big tough dudes, and they were frightened at this creature. All of the popular folklore about angelic encounters is nothing like what we see in the Bible. Usually when people in the Bible see angels, their first response is to freak out. And it is amazing how many times in Scripture the first words spoken by an angel to human beings are this: “Do not be afraid.” Why do they say this? Because the people are terrified by the sight of these things!

We gather from what is said in v11 that these terrified guards ran into the city to report what had happened. Now suppose that they had come in and said, “Hey, um, we left our post because, well, you know that body you sent us out to guard? Well, we fell asleep and while we were sleeping someone came and stole the body.” What do you think would have happened to them? They would have been rebuked, possibly terminated from their employment, maybe punished and possibly even killed. Certainly we can’t expect them to receive a pay-raise or a bonus. But they were not chastised for sleeping on the job, leaving their post or losing the body. Instead, they were paid off and ordered to tell a lie. The officials bribed the soldiers with “a large sum of money” (v12) and commanded them to say, “His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we were asleep.” This was blatantly a lie, and Matthew says in v15 that the lie was still being told when he wrote these words some 20 years later or more. And the lie that Jesus’ body was stolen is still being told by some unbelievers today.

Doesn’t it seem plausible that with all the holes that have been dug in the deserts of the Middle East that by now someone would have come across the body of Jesus if it had been stolen? And doesn’t it seem plausible that, at some point, one of the disciples would have cracked and told the truth? Yet, each of these men suffered and died for their belief that Jesus Christ was risen from the dead. People die for lies all the time, so that is no proof in and of itself, but people die for lies when they believe they are true. These men, if they had stolen the body, would have known that the story of the resurrection was a lie. And they died proclaiming that it was truth.

The tomb was empty. It was the right tomb. The only body in that tomb had disappeared. The disciples didn’t steal it. It would be foolish to suggest that anyone else could have stolen or hidden the body, because not only did they have no motive to steal or hide the body, they actually had a great motivation to produce the body once stories of the resurrection began to circulate. But they never did. What other explanations might there be? Could Jesus’ body have been consumed by a strain of mutant bacteria? Could aliens have abducted His body? Are those hypotheses any more believable than the alternative that Jesus actually rose from the dead? Are these supported by more evidence than the resurrection? If we have resorted to such games of fantasy in trying to explain the empty tomb, it is probable that we have already overlooked the most likely scenario of all. And that scenario is here presented as a fact.

III. Fact #3 – Jesus Christ is Risen From the Dead

It is undeniable that Jesus actually died on the cross and was buried. It is undeniable that the tomb was empty. How did it get to be that way? We’ve looked at several hypotheses. All of them fail to make sense of the evidence that we have. There is one, and only one, theory that satisfies all of the evidence. So precisely does it deal with all of the information that it is a very small step from calling it a theory of faith to calling it a fact of history. And that fact is that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. Now, there may be some here today who say, “No, dead people don’t rise, and therefore Jesus is not risen.” Or perhaps, “Miracles don’t happen, therefore Jesus could not have risen.” I want to challenge your thinking on that. As an intellectual, is it not best to suspend all presuppositions and biases that might affect how you interpret the evidence? Is it not best to draw your conclusions after all the facts are in, rather than having your mind made up before you ever consider the evidence? Rather than saying, “There is no God, therefore there are no miracles, therefore Christ is not risen,” could you not also say, intelligently and intellectually, “Christ is risen, therefore miracles do (or at least have occurred), therefore there is a God”?

When the women arrived at the tomb, this angel of the Lord was still present. He had rolled the stone away and sat upon it. I don’t know why I just love that detail: he sat on it. This angel says in v5, “Do not be afraid; for I know that you are looking for Jesus who has been crucified. He is not here, for He has risen just as He said. Come, see the place where He was lying.” So, the explanation given to the women is this: Jesus was dead (“Jesus who has been crucified”); the tomb is empty (“He is not here”; “Come, see”); remember that He said many times that He would die in this way AND that He would rise (“just as He said”); therefore, “He has risen!” Now if that is all we had, we might be prone to think that this angel-episode was a made up story. Even if it was true, what if the angel was lying? What if the angel had destroyed the body or stolen the body? Again, why resort to one explanation which is harder to believe in order to avoid another which is actually easier to believe? Do we have evidence of angelic body-snatchings? But, for argument’s sake, how do we know that the angel didn’t pull a fast one on the women? After all, Satan is a fallen angel and he deceived Eve in the garden. Here we are in a garden. Here are some women. Here is an angelic being. Is this a deception?
We know that it was not, because the angel said in v7, “you will see Him.” And in v9, notice, “Jesus met them and greeted them.” And He kept making appearances. He appeared, Paul says in 1 Cor 15:5-7, to Cephas (that is, Peter), then to the twelve, then to more than 500 brethren at one time, then to James, then to all the apostles. Of course there were other appearances as well, like to Mary Magdalene at the tomb, so well over 500 people saw the risen Lord Jesus. Now it is interesting that Paul says of these 500 that they all saw Him at the same time, and that many of them are still alive when Paul writes these words. In other words you can ask them about what they saw. And the fact that they all saw Him at one time means that this was not a dream, a vision, a hallucination, or a figment of their imaginations. Suppose I said to you, “Man, Wasn’t that a crazy dream I had last night. Don’t you remember it? You were there.” That worked in the movie Inception; it doesn’t work in real life. Dreams, visions, hallucinations, are all privatized experiences. We do not share them. But here 500 people saw the risen Jesus at one time. How did that happen? It happened because He was alive, risen from the dead and standing in their midst. Luke says in Acts 1:3 that “He … presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days.”
The facts are here presented. Jesus was dead. Jesus was buried. Jesus’ tomb was found to be empty on that Sunday morning long ago, because Jesus rose from the dead, appeared to His disciples, and ascended into heaven where He presently is seated at the right hand of God the Father, from whence He will return again to judge the living and the dead. Jesus claimed to be God incarnate, God in human form, and He claimed that His death was a sacrifice for our sins. He bore our sins and received the penalty that our sins require in His own body in His suffering, and He conquered sin and death through His glorious resurrection. Therefore, Paul says in 1 Cor 15:14, “If Christ has not been raise, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain.” He goes on to say in 1 Cor 15:17-18, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins,” and those believers who have already died have perished eternally. So, on the basis of His death and resurrection, we have the opportunity to be forgiven of our sins, to be covered in Christ’s righteousness, to be filled with the Holy Spirit, to receive eternal life, and to have the hope of the promise of a resurrection from the dead with Christ. Jesus said in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through Me.” There is no other hope for humanity to overcome our sins and to be reconciled to God except through the person and work of Jesus Christ.
So, on this Easter Sunday, I want to ask you: Have you placed your faith and trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of your life? He died for you; He is risen from the dead, and He will save you from sin and all its penalty, its power, and its punishment if you will turn from sin and trust in Him. Romans 10:9 says, “if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” This promise is for you. Have you placed your faith in Him? Faith is not something we opt for instead of reason; it is a reasonable response to the facts of who Christ is and what He has done. We present to you today a risen Savior, a deathproof King, who is your only hope of salvation and eternal life, in hopes that if you have not done so before, then this day you might turn to Him and believe. And if you believe, then His triumph over the tomb is worth celebrating, not just once a year; not even once a week; but every moment of every day, we who believe on Christ should celebrate and rejoice that death could not hold Him down. And because He has conquered death for us, we shall share in the triumph as well. This is a fact that should cause us to celebrate, to worship, and to boldly make this good news known to all people everywhere.

[1] Cited in McDowell, New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, 225.

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