Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Empty Tomb (John 20:1-10)

Were it not for Easter, we would not be here today. It is almost unimaginable to consider what a sad state the entire world would be in today had it not been for that first Easter, nearly 2,000 years ago. There would have been no Christian Church. While some in our society today may enjoy the thought of that, think of what the world would look like apart from the presence of the Christian Church through the centuries. Though we have had our share of historical mistakes, the Christian Church has done more to advance the cause of education, healthcare, social justice, and personal liberty than any movement in the history of the world. Anyone who would deny or argue that point is only demonstrating their own ignorance. But imagine with me for a moment that on that Sunday morning so long ago, the followers of Jesus had come to His tomb and found what they fully expected to find: His lifeless body still enshrouded in His burial cloths and sealed inside the tomb. Their final memory of the One whom they had called Lord and entrusted with all their faith, hope, and love, would have been seeing His bloody, battered body suspended from a cruel implement of death, the Roman cross.

The hours that had elapsed since just before sundown on Friday and sunrise on Sunday must have passed at an agonizingly slow pace. Faith defeated, hope dashed, and disillusionment beyond comprehension must have engulfed the hearts and minds of every follower of Jesus during those hours. Our text says that Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb while it was still dark. Mary had come to finish what the Sabbath regulations had prevented on Friday evening. She had come to complete the burial preparations by anointing the corpse of her beloved Friend and Master with spices as customs dictated. But Mary found something she did not expect to find, and did not find something she did expect to find. The stone was moved away from the tomb, and the tomb was empty. That discovery set into motion several actions that are unfolded for us in our text today, and which are as applicable to us all on Easter Sunday of 2016 as they were to those who came to the tomb on that first Easter Sunday.

I. The empty tomb beckons us to run!

Many years ago, I learned a valuable lesson about urgency from an unlikely source. It was Christmastime, and a delivery person brought a package to my office. I said, “I bet things are really stressful for you right now!” He said, “No, not at all. I get on my truck first thing in the morning, and I say to the boxes, ‘If any of you have to get off the truck today, speak up now!’” He said, “If they don’t speak up, I figure it is okay if they don’t get delivered today, and if any of them do speak up, I make sure to deliver those first!” In all of our lives, there are many important things going on, and many important decisions that have to be made on a daily basis. But there are a few things which are more than important – they are urgent and must be dealt with immediately! And the discovery of an empty tomb that was supposed to contain a dead body would qualify as an urgent matter!

The Bible says here that upon finding the stone already moved away, Mary ran! She ran to tell Peter and John (who refers to himself often as “the disciple whom Jesus loved”). They needed to know what she had discovered as soon as possible! Now, what she told them was not merely what she observed, but also her own theory and assumption. She said, “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.” Who are “they”? The text doesn’t specify, but there are only a few options. Perhaps she thought that the religious or political leaders had ordered Jesus’ body to be removed from the tomb. Perhaps she thought that the disciples had taken His body. Or, she may have thought that His grave had been pillaged by grave-robbers. That was such a common occurrence in that day that we have evidence of the Roman Empire declaring it a capital offense within a few decades of this incident.

Still today, there are those who suggest that the reason Jesus’ grave was empty that morning was because someone had stolen the body. It seems impossible to reconcile the notion that Jesus’ own followers took the body with the events that follow. Had they taken the body (for whatever reason), they could have simply told Mary. They certainly hadn’t tried to fake a resurrection, since they weren’t even expecting Him to rise from the dead. It makes even less sense to suggest that the authorities had stolen the body. If they had the body of Jesus, surely it would have been to their advantage to display it in order to silence those who were proclaiming that He was risen! But they never did. Might it have been a rogue band of grave-robbers simply looking for treasure buried with the dead? We will come back to this idea in a moment. But for Mary, the best she could do to make sense of what she had discovered was to assume that His body had been stolen. This was an emergency. It was urgent, and so she ran to tell.

Upon hearing her report, Peter and John found this matter urgent as well, and so we are told that they set out running! Verses 3 and 4 describe them going forth to the tomb, “running together.” John doesn’t mind letting us know that he outran Peter. He says that “the other disciple” (namely, himself) “ran ahead faster than Peter and came to the tomb first. So urgent was this situation of the empty tomb that these two apostles of the Lord broke into an all-out sprint to get to the tomb to examine it for themselves.

Friends, the undeniable fact of history is that the tomb of Jesus Christ was empty on the first Easter Sunday morning. That fact ought to instill every one of us with a sense of urgency! No one should hear this information and respond with a yawn and a shrug. We should run! Run to find out how this tomb became empty! Run to investigate and examine the situation for yourself! Run to tell others that there is an empty tomb! Whatever else this story may be, it cannot be unimportant to anyone! If the Christian account of the resurrection of Christ is true, then this story must be told to the world with great urgency! And if it is untrue, then it is urgent that some satisfactory alternative be presented as to how the tomb once occupied by His dead body is now empty. This empty tomb should send us all running!

II. The empty tomb invites us to see!

The stone that had sealed shut the opening of the tomb of Jesus was rolled back. John’s wording here could imply that it was lifted out of the track and laid aside. Nothing was standing in the way now to prevent anyone who came to the tomb from looking inside. John doesn’t say that Mary looked inside, but she must have, for she knew that the body of Jesus was not there. And when Peter and John came running to the tomb, John makes a special point to note that they saw certain things. In verse 4, John says that he himself saw something. In verse 6, he says that Peter saw something. In verse 8, John again says that he saw something. It is significant that, in the Greek language in which the New Testament was originally written, three different Greek words for “seeing” are used in these three verses.

In verse 4, John tells us that he stooped and looked in. This phrase translates a single Greek word that originally meant simply to “bend over,” but which had come to convey the idea of “peeking” into something. John peeked in, and he saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. The Greek word for saw here is a very simple word that means essentially to observe, or to take notice of. It would be equal to us saying very simply that we “see” something. It has passed before our eyes, or come into our field of vision. Standing outside, stooped down and peeking in, John saw that the linen wrappings that had covered Jesus’ body were still present in the tomb, but His body was not. It is significant that John was bent over and outside the tomb when he saw this. I suggest to you that we should come to see the empty tomb in the same posture – one of humility. Set aside what you think you know, all your preconceived notions and engrained assumptions. Humble yourself and consider that there may be explanations as to how this tomb came to be empty that you have not considered before. Until you adopt that kind of posture of humility, you will not see anything. But if you will bend in humility and peek in, you may see something quite remarkable. So, the empty tomb invites us to see with humble posture.

Now comes Peter. He doesn’t even pause to catch his breath. In typical fashion, consistent with all we know of his nature, he barges right through the entrance to the tomb. John says (v6) that he saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the face-cloth which had been on His head, not lying with the linen wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself. Here the Greek word that is used to describe Peter’s “seeing” is different. It does not mean merely to take notice of something, but rather to study it, to investigate it, to examine it carefully. Peter was surveying the surroundings and trying to determine what to make of it all. The empty tomb invited him, as it still invites us, to see with careful investigation.

As we do that, let us return to the notion of the invasion of the body-snatchers. Grave-robbing, as we said, was common enough to be a plausible explanation. But, grave-robbing would have been done with great haste. It would have been faster, and frankly much easier, to take the body still wrapped than to unwrap it. Besides this, the linen and spices alone would have been valuable enough to take with them. But the wrappings were there. The wording here could indicate that they were neatly folded and set in orderly array, or that they were still in the folds of their wrapping, as they had been when Jesus’ body was prepared for burial. In the latter case, it would have been comparable to finding a cocoon from which the butterfly had already emerged. But in either case, what is significant is that the cloths were there, and that they were not scattered about hastily. No grave-robber would have taken the time to carefully unwrap the linen cloths and set them neatly back in place or situate them as they had been wrapped around the body. As Peter investigated carefully, he was taking all this in. Stolen body? Not likely.  

Another commonly heard theory is that the women and the disciples had come to the wrong tomb. Well, that is highly unlikely, since Matthew makes it clear that Mary Magdalene and others had been present to see Jesus buried. But suppose it were true. Had they come to the wrong tomb, it would not have taken long for the report to travel to Joseph of Arimathea. He actually owned the tomb, and could have easily shown them to the proper tomb, if it were not this one. Not only this, but at the first whisper of reports of an empty tomb, the authorities could (and would) have quickly gone to the right tomb and said, “No, this is the right tomb and you see the body is still there!” But that never happened. Moreover, if this were the wrong tomb, then there was an entirely different issue with which someone would have to deal! Some other tomb was empty, with the grave clothes left behind, meaning that some other person had perhaps risen from the dead! Talk about a plot twist! But no one has ever suggested that, nor will they. We have come to expect that dead people stay dead, and we don’t go around claiming that this or that one did not. The one notable exception to this is Jesus, whom countless multitudes in fact do believe and proclaim that He did not stay dead! Whether or not any of this had crossed Peter’s mind, it should not escape our careful investigation. We have been invited to consider all the possibilities, to examine the matter thoroughly, to see with careful investigation!

And then we come to verse 8, wherein we read that John finally entered the tomb himself. When he did, he says that he “saw and believed.” Here again, there is yet a different Greek word used for “seeing.” This one means something like when we say, “Oh, I see!” It means to understand or to realize. Having come to see with a humble posture, and examined everything with careful investigation, the truth of the matter has dawned at last on the Apostle John and he is able to say, “I see!” And what he “saw,” what he understood and realized, was something marvelous that instantaneously compelled him to believe that Jesus was in fact, risen from the dead.

Friends, come and see. Humble yourself and be open to considering the possibilities. Investigate the matter carefully, and come to an intelligent understanding. The stone has been rolled away! Why? To let Jesus out? Goodness, no! He who needed no aid to remove Himself from the linen wrappings would need no more aid to escape a sealed tomb! The stone was not rolled away to let Him out, but to let the world in, so that we may see for ourselves that Christ is risen, and believe! That brings us to the final “action” of our text, to which the empty bids us. It beckons us to run, it invites us to see, and …

III. The empty tomb compels us to believe!

John saw, and he believed! The scoffers will say, “Of course he did! It was nothing more than wish fulfillment. He wanted to believe on the basis of his preconceived notions of what would occur, and his imagination connected the dots in his own predetermined way.” Friends, this suggestion ignores the very honest and at times embarrassing confessions that John and the other Gospel writers make of themselves.

The reaction of all those who first encountered the empty tomb reveal that they did not expect it to happen. They should have, but they didn’t. They should have known that Jesus would rise, because the Scriptures had foretold it. In Psalm 16:10, David spoke prophetically of his descendant, the Messiah, who would be able to say to God the Father, “You will not abandon My soul to Sheol; nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay.” Isaiah 53, after describing the suffering and death of the Messiah speaks of His days being prolonged. In these and many other passages, the rising of the Savior following His suffering and death was foretold. But John says in verse 9, “as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead.” John is admitting candidly, “We should have known this! But we didn’t because we didn’t understand our own Scriptures!”

Not only had the Scriptures foretold it, but Jesus Himself had foretold it. Over and over again, He told His followers what would happen in Jerusalem. He would be betrayed, He would be killed, and He would rise. In Mark 9:31-32, Jesus said to His disciples quite plainly, “The Son of Man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and when He has been killed, He will rise three days later.” And Mark says, “But they did not understand this statement, and they were afraid to ask Him.” Luke puts it even more bluntly: “The disciples understood none of these things, and the meaning of this statement was hidden from them, and they did not comprehend the things that were said” (Lk 18:34). In John 16:16, Jesus told the disciples on the very night He was going to be betrayed, “A little while, and you will no longer see Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me.” But then John says that the disciples were saying to themselves, “What is this thing He is telling us …? … What is this that He says …? … We do not know what He is talking about?”

So much for preconceived notions! They did not believe in the resurrection of Christ because they wanted to or expected Him to rise. John says here that he believed because He understood that it was the only viable explanation for all of the things that he saw in the empty tomb. Now, perhaps you might say, “Well, seeing is believing, and I haven’t seen, so I don’t believe!” Consider what Jesus will say to Thomas when He appears to Him: “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed” (Jn 21:29). The Risen Lord Jesus calls upon us to believe upon Him by faith. When He prayed to His Father in John 17, He prayed for His disciples, and for those who would believe on Him through their word. We have the testimony of those who beheld the evidence and concluded that Jesus was risen. We have the testimonies of the eyewitnesses who encountered Him after His resurrection. We have the Scriptures which foretold of His rising, and His own words that foretold it. Christ is risen from the dead! And the empty tomb compels us to believe!

Because He lives, we have the confidence that sin and death are defeated for all who trust in Him. He took our sins upon Himself in His death and triumphed over them by His resurrection! We have been set free from the guilt and power of sin, and set free from fear of death, because we know the One who has passed through death unto life everlasting  and invites us to follow after Him by faith. Because He lives, we have hope in an otherwise hopeless world. The outworkings of sin have broken down our bodies and filled our world with suffering, tragedy, and grief. But Christ promises us a life beyond this one – a life that will never end, a life that will not be marred by pain and grief, a life that will be lived in the glorious environment of heaven where no sin or suffering will ever be experienced. Most wondrously, it will be a life lived with Him.  

Earlier, I invited you to consider what it might have been like if Jesus had not risen from the dead. That dreary prospect gripped the heart of Mary, of John, and of Peter at first on that Sunday morning so long ago. Their Master, the One whom they considered to be God in human form, had died having been ruthlessly murdered. Sorrow unbounded, grief overwhelming, and the dark hopelessness of an impenetrable despair consumed them. Perhaps it was of this Sunday morning that the Psalmist wrote better than he knew, “Weeping may last for the night, but a shout of joy comes in the morning” (Psa 30:5). The night is passed, the morning has come, and its light breaks over an empty tomb that invites us to see, that compels us to believe, and that beckons us to run, making this glorious news known in shout of joy that must be heard by every nation on earth. Jesus Christ is alive forevermore!

Monday, March 21, 2016

Evidences of the Resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-10)


I will never forget where I was and what I was doing when the story broke almost sixteen years ago. I was sitting in my office at the church I was serving at the time, preparing a sermon, when I saw online one of the most amazing news stories I had ever seen. It was September 21, 2000 – I know because I printed the article and saved it. The BBC headline read, “French Mayor Bans Death.” The mayor of a small village on the French Riviera issued a decree which said (and I quote), “It is forbidden for any person not in possession of a family vault to die on the village’s territory.” It seems that a court of law had blocked plans to build a new cemetery in the village, and since the old cemetery was full, the mayor had no other choice but to outlaw death. The day after the decree was issued, the mayor was asked about it, and he said, “No one has died since then, and I hope it stays that way.”

That story has stuck with me all these years because, to my knowledge at least, no other civil government has ever outlawed dying. However, as we come to the celebration of Easter, we are reminded that, if Jesus really did what the Bible says that He did when He died for our sins and rose from the dead, then for all practical purposes, death has been rendered invalid and impotent forever to those who trust in Him. The claim is bold, and the consequences are infinite and eternal for those who believe or reject it. So, is there sufficient evidence to believe such a claim – to believe that Jesus actually died for our sins and rose from the dead? As we explore our text today, I hope you will agree with me that there really is!

In Romans 1:16, the Apostle Paul wrote, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” What is the gospel? The word means “good news,” and here in the first five verses of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul says,

Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which you also stand, by which you are also saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believe 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, and that He appeared ….

So, the Gospel, which Paul says is of first importance, is summarized here as the message that Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose from the dead. Paul says that this is the message that he preached, and the message that they believed, and the message which has the power to save. And notice that the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is essential to this good news. Remove the resurrection, and there is no good news – no gospel at all! And if there is no gospel, there is no salvation from sin, and no hope of eternal life! Remove the resurrection, and the message is that Jesus died and was buried. That makes Jesus no different from any other person who has ever lived or ever will. But Paul says that it is essential that we believe that death was not the end for Jesus Christ, but that He triumphed over sin and death and the grave by His bodily resurrection on the third day. Thus, in Romans 10:9, he writes, “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.”

No less than 104 times in the New Testament we find reference to the resurrection of Jesus. Kenneth Scott Latourette wrote in his History of the Expansion of Christianity, “It was the conviction of the resurrection of Jesus which lifted his followers out of the despair into which his death had cast them and which led to the perpetuation of the movement begun by Him. But for their profound belief that the crucified had risen from the dead and they had seen him and talked with him, the death of Jesus and even Jesus himself would probably have been all but forgotten.”

Similarly, H.D.A. Major has written in his book The Mission and Message of Jesus, “Had the crucifixion of Jesus ended his disciples’ experience of Him, it is hard to see how the Christian Church could have come into existence. That Church was founded on faith in the Messiahship of Jesus. A crucified Messiah was no Messiah at all. … It was the resurrection of Jesus, as St. Paul declares in Romans 1:4, which proclaimed Him to be the Son of God with power.”

Now, Paul does not simply throw the resurrection on the table and say, “Believe it because I said so.” Nor do I. Belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ is very much rational and warranted by the evidence that supports the claim. The evidence for the resurrection of Christ is as strong or stronger than the evidence for any event of history. And though that evidence consists of more than what we find in our text today, the evidence that is contained here in our text is profound and sufficient to persuade us that the resurrection of Jesus Christ really did happen, that He is who He says He is, and that He has done what He said He would do. So let us begin to examine this evidence carefully.

I. Exhibit A: The Evidence of Scripture (vv3-4)

Notice, if you will, the repetition of the phrase, “according to the Scriptures” in verses 3 and 4. “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.”

In Luke 24:44-48 we read that, after the resurrection, Jesus appeared to His disciples and said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Luke continues, “Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.’”

In referring to the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms, Jesus is speaking of the entire Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament. The Hebrew Bible is known as the Tanakh, which is actually an acrostic formed by the first Hebrew letter of each of its three sections: the Torah (the Law); the Nevi’im (the prophets); and the Kethuvim (the writings, of which the Psalms is the largest portion). Jesus was telling His followers that His death and resurrection had been foretold throughout the entire Old Testament, for centuries before it took place.

Consider this example from the Kethuvim, the writings. On the day of Pentecost, as Peter preached, he comes to the resurrection of Jesus, and puts the point forward by referencing Psalm 16. Peter says,

… God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power. For David says of Him, “I saw the Lord always in My presence; for He is at my right hand, so that I will not be shaken. Therefore my heart was glad and my tongue exulted; moreover my flesh also will live in hope; because You will not abandon my soul to Hades, nor allow Your Holy One to undergo decay. You have made known to me the ways of life; You will make me full of gladness with your presence.” Brethren, I may confidently say to you regarding the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. And so, because he was a prophet and knew that God had “sworn to him with an oath to seat” one “of his descendants on His throne,” he looked ahead and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that He was neither “abandoned to Hades, nor did His flesh suffer decay. This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses. (Acts 2:24-32)

When Jesus was asked by the scribes and Pharisees for a sign to prove Himself, He responded with this reference to the Nevi’im, the prophets. “An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign shall be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt 12:39-40).

In the book of Hebrews, Chapter 11, the writer points us back to Abraham and the account recorded in Genesis 22 (in the Law, the Torah), concerning the sacrifice of Isaac. We read in Hebrews 11:17 that Abraham “offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son.” The promises that Abraham had received included the promise that “in Isaac your descendants shall be called.” In other words, Isaac would be the father of Abraham’s grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and so on. And Abraham was offering him on the altar of God in obedient faith, for, as the writer of Hebrews says, “He considered that God is able to raise people even from the dead, from which he also received him back as a type.” A “type” is a symbol, a visible prophecy if you will. So, when the angel of the Lord stayed Abraham’s hand, sparing the life of Isaac, and the Lord provided a ram as a substitute sacrifice, this was a foreshadowing, a symbolic picture, of the fact that God Himself would offer His only begotten Son as a sacrifice, and would raise Him from the dead.

As we survey the New Testament, we find Jesus, Peter, and Paul all making reference to various Old Testament scriptures as they set forth the fact of Jesus’ resurrection. So, from these examples, we can see that the Scriptures are an evidence of the resurrection, for the resurrection is not only reported as a fact in the New Testament, it was prophesied in advance in the Old Testament.

II. Exhibit B: The evidence of the eyewitnesses (vv5-7)

Most of us are familiar with a disciple named Thomas. We have even given him a nickname: Doubting Thomas. When it was told to him that Jesus rose from the dead, he did not believe the report initially and demanded some proof. I think if we are honest with ourselves, we would admit that we have perhaps judged Thomas too harshly. Think of it: if one of your friends had died, and three days later, you were told that he or she had risen from the dead, you would not be likely to believe it either! We would want proof, just as Thomas demanded. But there was proof. Luke says in Acts 1:3 that Jesus “presented Himself alive, after His suffering, by many convincing proofs.” Thomas received that proof because the Lord Jesus appeared to him. In fact, He appeared to many people. And these eyewitnesses of the resurrection of Jesus are powerful evidence that He is risen indeed.

Consider the abundance of eyewitnesses. In Deuteronomy 19:15, a principle of jurisprudence is set forth which says that the testimony of a single witness should not be considered credible, but “on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed.” Well, if that is so, then how much more certain is a matter which has no less than 640 eyewitnesses?

In verses 5-8, we find a listing of at least 514 eyewitnesses: Cephas (aka Peter); the twelve; more than 500 brethren at one time; James (the half-brother of Jesus); and Paul himself, in the encounter on the Damascus Road. Elsewhere in the New Testament, we find at least 126 other eyewitnesses. They include Mary Magdalene (Jn 20); Joanna and Mary (Lk 24); Annas and Cleopas (Lk 24); 120 different people (Ac 1); and Stephen (Ac 7).

Now, supposing that you were on a jury, and the defense attorney said, “We will now bring the witnesses up one at a time to give their testimony.” After how many would you say, “Okay, we have heard enough”? I don’t know of any case that would require 640 eyewitness testimonies. Now, perhaps you say, “But we cannot bring these eyewitnesses in to testify, because they all died two millennia ago!” But the next statement Paul makes ensures us that many of these eyewitnesses were still alive when he wrote these words, and could have been questioned at that time about the matter. The eyewitnesses were not only abundant, they were available! He says, “many of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep.” So, some of them had already died, but many of them could still be consulted about the resurrection of Jesus.

So, we have the evidence of Scripture, and the evidence of the eyewitnesses. But Paul goes on to present another piece of evidence here.

III. Exhibit C: The evidence of transformed lives (vv8-10)
Paul says, “Last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.” Paul is referring to the incident in which he encountered the risen Lord on the road to Damascus. That incident changed his life! We first encounter Paul, or Saul (his Hebrew name) in Acts 7:58. There he is present at the martyrdom of Stephen. Acts 8:1 says that he was “in hearty agreement with putting him to death.” So enraged was Saul over what he considered to be blasphemy on the part of the Christians, that he “began ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women” and putting them in prison (Ac 8:3). Acts 9:1 says that he was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” But as he set out for Damascus to track down Christians there, he was confronted by the risen Lord.

That encounter so radically changed his life, that after just a few days with the disciples in Damascus, the Bible says, “immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God’” (Ac 9:20). The people were amazed (9:21) and confounded (9:22) at his transformation. Here in 1 Corinthians 15:9-10, Paul puts the matter succinctly: “I persecuted the church. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me.”

We could point to countless others. C. S. Lewis was an atheist who despised the notion of God. But after he met Christ in a profound way, he devoted the rest of his life to making Christ known through his writings. Only in heaven will we discover how many people have come to faith in Christ through reading his book Mere Christianity. I could name several of them myself. The same is true of Josh McDowell, one of the most widely known defenders of the Christian faith alive today. He set out to disprove the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but soon found that he couldn’t, and became a follower of Jesus. His little book More than a Carpenter has influenced thousands to come to faith in Jesus, and his big book Evidence that Demands a Verdict has equipped many Christians to defend the faith with cold, hard facts.

Like Paul, I could point lastly to myself. In high school, I was an atheist. I argued with Christians who tried to witness to me, and frankly, I think I won most of the arguments. I had a close friend with whom I engaged in all sorts of sin and destructive behavior. After graduation, he and I parted ways, and I began to associate with a different group of people. They happened to be Christians, but they didn’t seem to mind that I wasn’t one. They loved me as I was. And as I watched their lives, I saw that they had something I lacked. They had a peace and joy about them, and a love that I found impossible to manufacture. As they invited me to church and Christian gatherings, almost daring me to read the Bible, God began to open my heart until that moment that I could no longer deny His existence. The awareness of his existence was terribly frightening to me, for I knew the depth of my own sinfulness. But when I heard the good news of Jesus Christ and how He could save me from my sins because of His death on the cross and His resurrection, before I even knew what was happening, my eyes were filled with tears and my mouth was uttering words of confession and faith in Him! And my life was changed!

A few years ago, my old friend that I used to run around in sin with came back into my life through social media. He posted something on Facebook to this effect: “God moved as I preached in the prison last night, and dozens were saved.” I sent him a message: “I think you and I need to get together.” And we met for lunch that week and shared about how each of us had come to know Jesus and how he had radically changed our lives! Both of us were amazed and astounded at how the Living Lord Jesus is still in the business of transforming lives today. He changed Paul’s life. He changed my life! He changed my friend’s life! He can change your life too!

Sir Edward Clarke, a once prominent English attorney for King’s Court said, “As a lawyer, I have made a prolonged study of the evidences for the events of the first Easter day. For me the evidence is conclusive, and over and over again in the high court I have secured the verdict on evidence not nearly so compelling.”

Historian Thomas Arnold said, “The evidence for our Lord’s life and death and resurrection may be and often has been shown to be satisfactory. It is good according to the common rules for distinguishing good evidence from bad. Thousands and tens of thousands of persons have gone through it piece by piece as carefully as every judge summing up on an important case. … I know of no one fact in the history of mankind which is better proved by fuller evidence than the great sign that God has given us that Christ died and rose again from the dead.”

In John 11:25-26, Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die.” And after that statement, He asked a very important question: “Do you believe this?” Do you? If not, why not? I suggest that if you do not believe it, it is not because of the evidence, but rather in spite of it.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Knowing the Christ of Easter (Philippians 3:10)

To paraphrase a popular song of the Christmas season, “It’s beginning to look a lot like … Easter.” On a recent trip to a store, I saw all the usual signs: bunnies and eggs, baskets and candy, flowers and lots of pastel things. These are the things that represent “Easter” to our culture. However, to the child of God, the real significance ought to so dwarf those cultural expressions that they become virtually insignificant. Easter for the Christian should be a time of reflection, of meditation, of prayer, and devotion, wherein we contemplate the amazing triumph and glory of our risen Lord Jesus Christ. Easter, for us, is a celebration of all that He accomplished on our behalf. He lived a completely sinless life, satisfying the righteous standard of God that we could not. He died on Calvary’s cross in our place, for our sins, to bear the wrath that we deserve. He rose from the dead, conquering sin and death for us, and making His righteousness available to us through faith. Easter ought to bring all this realities rushing over us like a tumultuous wave, shaking us from our complacency, our indifference, and our spiritual anemia.

Easter should be for Christians an annual wake-up call which says, “If Christ did all this for me, then the only appropriate response I can offer is to live every moment of my life for Him.” That is not a decision you can make one time, years ago at a church altar. It is a decision that must be made moment-by-moment every day of our lives. It is a great time of year to revisit our commitment to Christ, and rededicate ourselves to Him afresh. In fact, so significant is the resurrection of Jesus Christ that the early church did not consider it worthy of celebrating just once a year. One of the primary reasons that Christians have traditionally made Sunday our day of worship is so that we could commemorate His victory over sin and death every week! Every Sunday, we have our own “Easter” service together all year long.

The annual observance of Easter is also a great time to give your life to Him for the very first time. There is never a bad time to do that, but at Easter, we are reminded anew of all that Christ has accomplished for us. Because of this, Easter presents Christians with a very natural opportunity to share our faith with others. I was reading something recently which said that an overwhelming number of people who do not attend church would accept an invitation to attend church with a friend or family member. Easter is a good occasion to invite someone to attend with you. I also read that every year at Easter, somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of those who call themselves atheists or agnostics will attend church. So, I want to encourage you to invite your friends and family members who are lost and unchurched to our Good Friday and Easter Sunday services, but you don’t have to wait until then. Anytime is a good time to invite someone to church or to share your faith in Christ with them.

As we move rapidly toward Easter Sunday over the next few weeks, I want to leave our study of the Gospel According to John temporarily and focus on a passage in Philippians today in order to prepare our hearts for the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. I am calling this message, “Knowing the Christ of Easter.”

The Apostle Paul was writing these words near the end of his life. It is believed that he was born between the year 0 and 5 AD, and that he was in his mid-thirties when he became a follower of Christ. At the time this letter was written, he had been serving Christ for twenty to thirty years. And after that many years, the cry of his heart was still expressed with these words, “I want to know Christ.” So what does this mean?

Well, for one thing, we need to differentiate between knowing Christ and knowing about Christ. Paul is not saying, “I wish I could acquire more information about Jesus. I wish I could enroll in some higher level academic courses where I could learn about the theological controversies and dilemmas.” It is possible for a person to know much about Christ without really knowing Christ. I am an avid fan of ice hockey. When I have the time, I enjoy going to games and watch them on TV. I read about it as often as I can and study the game. I guess I could say that I know a lot about hockey. But here is the really embarrassing truth—I can just barely stand up on ice skates, and I have never played ice hockey in my life. So I know a lot about it, but I have never known ice hockey in a way that I can say I have experienced it. I know a lot about the game’s greatest players and can tell you more than you care to know about them. But I have never met them personally. I don’t know them. If you were in an airport and saw Wayne Gretzky, and said, “Hey I heard about you from Russ Reaves.” He would say, “Who is Russ Reaves? I don’t know him and he doesn’t know me.”

When Paul says, “I want to know Christ,” he doesn’t mean that he wants to know about Christ. He means he wants to know Him. It is true that a person “knows Christ,” once he or she is saved. We even use that terminology, and I think it is appropriate, to say, “I came to know the Lord.” It was July 31, 1992 on the grounds of Fort Caswell, when I came to know the Lord. Before that day, I didn’t know him at all. For Paul it was on a journey to Damascus, as he set out to persecute Christians. Acts 9 tells the story of his miraculous encounter with the risen Jesus, and instantly, Paul came to know the Lord. For some of you, you can remember a time and a place. Others maybe cannot remember a time and place, but you know it happened. Others perhaps, have not yet come to know him. It could be that you would come to know Him today even. But at the point that a person comes to know the Lord, a relationship has begun, which will deepen and develop over the course of a lifetime of walking with Him by faith. In Christ, there is as F. F. Bruce says, “an inexhaustible fullness.” So, Christians can say that we have come to know Him, we are coming to know Him more and better, and we will one day know Him even as we are known to Him.

I met my wife in July of 1994. We have known each other now nearly 22 years, and have been married nearly 19. But she would agree with me in saying that we know each other much more deeply today than ever before, and that our knowledge of one another grows daily. Many of you have been married longer than I have been alive, and you would agree that as time goes by, you just come to know one another more and more with each passing day. So it is in our relationship with Christ. I came to know Him nearly 24 years ago, but I know Him much more deeply today, after 24 years of walking with Him than I ever have. You grow in your relationship with Him, in your knowledge of Him, as you daily experience His presence and power in your life. For Paul, after more than 20 years of walking with Christ, his greatest desire was still to come to know Christ more fully until the ultimate moment when we stand before Him face to face. So, how can we know this Christ of Easter in our daily lives?

Paul says that as he goes through the days of his life, he deeply desires to know two specific things in his walk with Christ: the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His suffering.

I. The Power of His Resurrection

When Paul says he wants to know Christ and the power of His resurrection, he is not just referring to an end of life experience in which he hopes that He will be resurrected. While surely he does hope for that, and expresses it in the next verse, here, his focus is on the daily experience of the power of God that raised Christ from the dead. This Christ who conquered death has come to dwell within us in the person of the Holy Spirit. And that means that we have unlimited supernatural power available to us here and now. This power enables us to rise above our natural desires, weaknesses, tendencies, and habits. The opportunity is available for the Christian to yield to God and say, “Lord, I am incapable of handling this in the power of my own flesh, so in this very moment, I want to know the power that conquered even death, that Christ might deliver me right now.” Knowing the resurrection power of Christ means that there is nothing that this day will bring us that God cannot handle. There is no challenge, no obstacle, no trial, no temptation, in which God cannot give us victory.

So, why is it that we are often overwhelmed by these things in our daily lives? It is because none of us have exhausted the fullness of this knowledge yet. None of us have mastered it. After two dozen years of walking with Christ, Paul still said, “This is what I want to know.” I don’t know it well enough yet. As I learn to depend upon Christ and His resurrection power in my time of need, I begin to experience victory in all these things. And every time I experience defeat, I am reminded of how desperately I need to know Him and the power of His resurrection. How are you going to overcome that besetting sin that continues to plague you? Resurrection power. How are you going to handle that antagonistic person who ridicules you for your faith? Resurrection power. How are you going to handle the discouragement that sets in when wave upon wave of bad news overwhelms you? Resurrection power. So here is Paul, writing from prison in Rome, not knowing if he is going to live or die. How is he going to handle that? I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection. If Christ conquered death through that power, then there is nothing that I cannot have victory over as well, if I will yield to Him in that moment.

But to know the Christ of Easter in life is not just about resurrection power. The very fact that we need this resurrection power in our lives is a testimony to the other aspect in which Paul desires to know Christ.

II. The Fellowship of His Suffering

See, if there weren’t any opportunities for suffering, there would be no need for resurrection power. If there was no cross of Christ, there would be no empty tomb. So, we are tempted to hear Paul saying, “I want to know Christ,” and we smile and close our eyes, and say, “Yes, Jesus.” And he says, “and the power of his resurrection,” and we say, “Hallelujah! Amen.” And he says, “And the fellowship of His suffering,” and we say, “Wait, what? I didn’t sign up for any suffering.” You didn’t have to. Paul says in Philippians 1:29 that God has given you to opportunity to suffer as a gift of His grace. He says there that “to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake.” Wow. We might say, “Thanks but no thanks, God.” But you see, you can’t really know Christ apart from suffering. Suffering is part of life in this fallen world and these corruptible bodies. We are all going to suffer, so there is suffering-free way to come to follow Christ. But the good news is that God can use our suffering for our good and His glory. That is what makes Christian suffering different from all other suffering. That is why Paul desires the resurrection power first – so that he can endure the suffering, when it comes (and it surely will). There are several reasons why suffering draws us into a deeper knowledge of Christ:

            A. Suffering enables us to know Christ more deeply because it drives us to depend all the more on Him.

As I read about the state of Christianity around the world, I read about declining churches and thriving churches. But the surprising thing is that by and large, the places where the church is declining are the places where there is freedom, prosperity, and ease. Areas where the church is thriving are the places where Christians are persecuted, where there is virtually no religious freedom, where churches have to meet in secret, etc. Why is that? How do we explain that? I have a theory, and I don’t know if one could do enough research to confirm it, but my theory is that liberty and affluence and influence lull the church into slumber. Christians become lazy when they don’t have to depend on the Lord for survival every moment of every day. We get very comfortable with our status, and our income, and our position, and our social acceptability, and we depend less and less on the power of God. However, in those other areas – the hard places where the church is thriving – there is no false sense of security in things of this world. There is, however a rock-solid confidence in the power of God, as they experience Him daily in their suffering.

Therefore, though we do not rejoice to see the cultural climate changing in America and Christianity becoming less and less tolerable in our society, we have to appreciate that God is sovereign over this and is able to use it for His own glory. As we are awakened to the difficult realities that Christians have experienced in other places throughout history, we join Christ in the fellowship of His sufferings, and find occasion to rest in His resurrection power. Suffering kicks the crutches out from under us and helps us to see that the only real security we have in this life comes from knowing God and experiencing His presence and power in our daily lives. So, first of all, knowing the fellowship of His suffering enables us to know the Christ of Easter more deeply because it drives us to depend on Him all the more.

B. Suffering enables us to know Christ more deeply because it gives us a platform to witness for Him.

The world is not interested in a Christianity that keeps us smiling when life is good, and the money is good, and everything is going to suit us. You can believe in magic rocks and enchanted trees when life is good. No big deal. But when the Christian suffers, and still demonstrates the peace of Christ in the midst of that suffering, it is an attractive testimony to the unbeliever. The Bible does not offer us a religion which exempts us from the trials and tribulations of this world. In fact, the way I understand the New Testament, you better expect trials and tribulations as you follow Christ. But in the midst of them, you can still know the peace of God that surpasses all understanding and display Jesus Christ through your suffering to all those who are watching your life. His resurrection power is made more visible through your fellowship in Christ’s suffering. The Jesus who is worth suffering with and suffering for is a Jesus that the world desires to see and know.

C. Suffering enables us to know Christ more deeply because through it we enter into a special fellowship with Christ.

Jesus was prophesied in Isaiah 53 to be a man of sorrows and acquainted with our griefs. So, as we suffer, if we are suffering for Him, there is a depth of fellowship that we enter into with Christ. He suffered for us, and in Him we have been considered worthy to suffer for Him. So, we are never alone. He is with us as we suffer. We are in fellowship with Him and have a share in His sufferings, and He has a share in ours. Paul asks in Romans 8, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” No, he says in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Christ. And he concludes by saying that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” [Romans 8:35-39].

Let me ask you something: have you come to know Christ? He died for your sins and conquered death for you in the resurrection, and offers you forgiveness if you will turn to Him and place your faith and trust in Him as Lord and Savior. Many of you have done that. But like Paul perhaps, now 20, 30 years later, maybe more or less, you say, “I don’t know Him nearly as deeply as I would like to. I want to know this Risen Christ of Easter!” So, today, why not say to Him, “Lord Jesus, I want to know You! I am tired of just barely getting by. I want to fully live the life You died to give me. I want to know you more deeply than I ever have before. I want to know You in the power of Your resurrection. And I want to know you in the fellowship of Your sufferings.” I believe this is a prayer that God will always be faithful to answer. If you long to know Christ more intimately, and are willing to embrace the fellowship of His suffering in order that you might experience the power of His resurrection, you will find that He never disappoints.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

No More Secrets! (John 19:38-42)


A popular theme in literature and movies is that of the person with a secret identity. Clark Kent is the unassuming journalist, until a crisis arises and he whisks into a phone booth to become Superman. By day, Bruce Wayne is an eccentric billionaire; but by night he is Batman, the clandestine warrior for justice. Other examples abound, and I am sure we could all name plenty. The secret identity, however, is not limited to realms of fantasy and fiction. All around us everyday, we are unknowingly surrounded by some who maintain their secret identity at great lengths. Unlike many in our stories of crime-fighting heroes, however, these never let down the masquerade and show off their true identity. We can respect those like Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne who rise to the occasion and demonstrate great ability in a moment of crisis. But what of those who never rise to the occasion? What would we think of Clark Kent if Superman never showed up to save the day? What would we think of Bruce Wayne if he turned a blind eye to injustice? Yet, this is exactly how many of the real-life examples of those with secret identities conduct themselves. In a world that is perishing in sin and shame, there are far too many Christians who are content to keep their identity as followers of Jesus a secret and never step up to be a voice and agent of God in a world gone haywire. Maybe you know some of them. Maybe you are one of them. We meet two such individuals in our text today.

Joseph of Arimathea is mentioned in all four Gospels. In all four Gospels, he is mentioned only in connection with the burial of Jesus. From the information that is imparted in the four Gospels, we know this much about him: he was from the Jewish city of Arimathea (Lk 23:51), but the exact location of that city is not certain); he was rich (Mt 27:57); he was a prominent member of the Council, that is, the Jewish Sanhedrin – the ruling body of Israel (Mk 15:43). In addition to these details, Luke tells us that he was a good and righteous man (23:50). These words likely mean that, contrary to many of his colleagues among the religious leadership of Israel, Joseph’s faith in God was genuine, and his piety was heartfelt, exceeding the ritualistic external charade of others. It is probably for that reason that Luke tells us that he had not consented to the plan and action of the Pharisees regarding the crucifixion of Jesus (Lk 23:50). Luke and Mark tell us that he “was waiting for the kingdom of God” (Lk 23:51; Mk 15:43). There were those in Israel who rightly understood the prophecies and promises of the Old Testament and who were eagerly awaiting the salvation that the Lord God had promised to bring. Joseph of Arimathea was one of them.

Concerning Nicodemus, outside of the Gospel According to John, nothing more is known of him. He must have made quite an impression upon John, for he mentions him three times. We meet him in John 3 when he came to Jesus by night to converse with Him. There, Nicodemus is described as “a man of the Pharisees,” and “a ruler of the Jews” (3:1). Jesus called him “the teacher of Israel” (3:9). Jesus spoke at length with him of the need to be born again. All of the ritualistic religiosity of his traditions could not bring him one step closer to heaven. If one were to see and enter the Kingdom of God, a new birth by the Spirit is necessary (3:3-8). That new birth, Jesus said, would come about through the gift of God’s only begotten Son (3:16), who must be lifted up even as Moses had lifted up the serpent in the wilderness (3:14). Jesus assured Nicodemus that those who believed in God’s Son by faith would be saved and have eternal life (3:15-18). Nothing is recorded of Nicodemus’s response to Jesus’ words on that night, but we know that Nicodemus remained somewhat intrigued by Him. In John 7:50, we find him offering something of a defense of Jesus against the unjust plan of the Pharisees to apprehend Jesus, albeit an unpersuasive one. He emerges for the final time here in our text today, where John reminds us that he is the same one who had come to Jesus by night.

What is most surprising here in the moments following our Lord’s death on the cross is that these two men emerge from the shadows to reveal that they had somehow, and at some time, become believers in Jesus. Of Joseph it is said specifically; of Nicodemus it is merely implied, but the implication is almost unmistakable. Perhaps Joseph had heard Jesus speak and heard reports, perhaps seeing with his own eyes, the marvelous works that Jesus had done. Here was One who accorded perfectly with the Redeemer that the Lord had promised. If ever One had come from heaven to earth to establish the Kingdom for which Joseph had been longing, surely it must be this Jesus. For Nicodemus, perhaps it was the sight of Jesus hanging on the cross that brought his memory back to that night when he spoke at length with Him and heard Him speak of being lifted up as the serpent was lifted up in the wilderness. Whenever and however it was, they had decided to become followers of Jesus. But John tells us concerning Joseph, and by extension and implication, perhaps concerning Nicodemus as well, that their relationship with and faith in Jesus was something that they had kept secret until that point.

So, from our text today, we want to examine the “secret discipleship” of Joseph and Nicodemus – the cause of it, the test of it, and the disclosure of it – even as we consider ourselves in this regard. Some of us perhaps are like them – secret disciples of Jesus, who believe well enough in Him, but who are afraid or intimidated to be known publicly as His followers. Surely the temptation is ever present for us all. So why are we prone to keep our identity as followers of Jesus a secret? How is that secret challenged? And how can the secret be broken so that there would be no more secrets?

I. Fear is the most common hindrance to declaring our faith publicly!

Joseph of Arimathea is not the first “secret disciple” we encounter in the Gospel of John. In John 12:42-43, he writes that “many even of the rulers believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they were not confessing Him, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the approval of men rather than the approval of God.” Perhaps Joseph was one of these, but he was not the only one apparently. Notice that it was fear that hindered them. They feared that they would lose the approval and esteem of their peers, and that they may become socially outcast. Being put out of the synagogue would mean complete ostracism in that society. For the Jewish religious leaders, it would mean a loss of position, stature, security and reputation. Notice there in John 12 that this fear was a serious problem. They believed, but fear kept them from confessing Christ and their faith in Him. That’s a bigger problem than one might realize. After all, confessing Christians are the only kind of Christians there are. Paul said, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved” (Rom 10:9). That’s both/and, believe and confess, not either/or. There is no genuine unconfessed belief in Christ. So fear was actually keeping them from eternal life!

Joseph had also fallen prey to this same kind of fear. John says that he was secretive about his discipleship “for fear of the Jews.” It may also have been this kind of fear that prompted Nicodemus to come to Jesus “by night,” when no one would notice him fraternizing with Him. And it is this same kind of fear that threatens to silence so many of us from publicly declaring our faith in Jesus. We are prone to fear what others will think of us, or how others will treat us. Increasingly in our society, we may fear that identifying as a follower of Jesus will limit our opportunities or present challenges in our jobs, our communities, or even our families. Isn’t it ironic? Once upon a time in America, there was a social pressure to identify as a Christian even if a person was not a Christian. There was a fear to be considered something other than a Christian. And today, the table has turned completely to the point where genuine Christians are intimidated and fearful to make their faith known.

In addition to the fears already mentioned, there are other fears that tempt us to bite our tongues rather than openly acknowledging our faith in Christ or sharing the good news of Jesus with others. We may fear not knowing what to say or how to broach the subject with someone. We may fear being asked a question we don’t know how to answer. And so we battle the temptation to remain secret disciples, just as Joseph and Nicodemus did. Fear is the most common hindrance to declaring our faith. We see it in our text, and in our lives.

From this we move on to see how …

II. Crises present an opportunity for the proving of our faith.

Considering how John spoke of so-called “secret believers” in Chapter 12, it is a wonder he included anything about Joseph or Nicodemus at all here in this passage, much less the fact that they had been secret disciples. But John was in a unique position to observe something commendable about these men. Remember that when Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Gospels record that all of His disciples abandoned Him (Mt 26:56; Mk 14:50). Peter followed from a distance until he denied the Lord in the courtyard of Caiaphas. But when it came time for Jesus to die, only John had returned to the scene. John could not help noticing that, in this critical moment, as Jesus’ lifeless body hung on the cross, when no one else would step forward to do anything for Him, Joseph and Nicodemus did.

In that day and time, the remains of executed criminals were typically given to the next of kin. In the case of those who had been crucified for charges of sedition, as Jesus was, it was different however. Their bodies were left on their crosses, exposed as a warning to all passers-by. To increase the shame and humiliation of their earthly fate, they were left for vultures and other carrion birds and wild beasts to devour, until at last whatever was left of them would be thrown into a common pit with other criminals outside the city. In some rare instances, the family or friends of a crucified man may buy back the body in order to provide a decent burial. But even still, it would have been considered taboo to bury a crucified person in a family tomb, so other arrangements would have been necessary. Jesus’ family would not likely have had the means to acquire His body, nor would they have been likely to gain an audience with Pilate to do so. As for His friends, they had all forsaken Him.

Well, then, I guess the body of Jesus will just be left to the buzzards and heaved into the pit then, right? God forbid. And I mean literally, God forbid! For God had declared two very specific things in the prophecies of the Old Testament regarding the body of the crucified Savior. First, in Psalm 16:10, David speaks in a way that foreshadows his Messianic offspring, saying, “My flesh also will dwell securely. For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol; nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay.” The phrase “undergo decay” could be translated as “see corruption” or “the pit.” Had Jesus’ body been left to the scavenger beasts and carrion birds, and then thrown to the pit, this promise would have failed. But God has never uttered a promise that failed and so He made a provision for the care and handling of the body of His Son. That provision came in fulfillment of another Old Testament prophecy. In Isaiah 53:9, the prophet says of the Messiah, “His grave was assigned with wicked men, yet He was with a rich man in His death.” Indeed, Jesus died between two criminals and otherwise fulfilled every other aspect of Isaiah’s rich imagery of His sacrificial death. But where was this rich man to be found? God raised up Joseph of Arimathea, described by Matthew as a rich man, to come and beseech Pilate for the body of Jesus in order that it would not undergo decay.

In this critical moment, when the very promises of God were at stake and all the faithful had forsaken the Lord, the previously secret faith of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus was proven as they step out of the shadows of secrecy and into the spotlight of public scrutiny, unable to hide their allegiance to Christ any longer. The crisis of the moment was a proving ground for their faith. And my friends, though you may have been ensnared by fear and intimidated to voice your allegiance to Christ in the past, the current cultural climate is critical enough to call you forward. Calvin astutely comments here, “Not that all fear, by which believers guard against tyrants and enemies of the church, is faulty, but … weakness of faith is manifested whenever the confession of faith is withheld through fear.”[1] If the crises of our present day, when it seems that everyone else is unafraid and unashamed to come out of the closet and boldly announce their sin, do not compel us to come out of hiding and boldly proclaim the Savior, we have to wonder what crises ever will compel us to do so? If you have been waiting for the “right time” to tell the world you are a follower of Christ, then I suggest that the right time is “such a time as this.”

So, we have seen that fear is the most common hindrance to declaring our faith, and that crises are opportunities for proving our faith. But now we move on to consider what it was that prompted such a demonstration of faith from Joseph and Nicodemus here in our text.

III. The death of Jesus compels us to bold action for His sake.

When the sun rose on the morning of Good Friday, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus seemed content to keep their true identity as followers of Jesus a secret from the world. But before sundown, something had happened to embolden them to forsake all fears and step out of the shadows and into the spotlight, unashamed to be known as His disciples. That “something” was the death of Jesus. Calvin says of their otherwise inexplicable transformation, “It is therefore certain that this was carried out by a heavenly impulse, so that they who were afraid to give Him due honor while He was alive now run to His dead body as if they had become new men.”[2] And indeed, they had. The death of Jesus enables us all to become new men and new women. It was by this death, in which the Son of God was lifted up like Moses’ serpent in the wilderness, that the new birth which Jesus had spoken of to Nicodemus was made possible as He bore our sins under the flood of God’s judgment that we might be saved. One look to the Savior on the cross, and these men were transformed. Notice how radical the change was.

They made an audacious request. Joseph had the audacity to approach Pilate – surely it was not an easy thing to do. As a member of the Sanhedrin, he was probably the last person Pilate wanted to see at that moment. And then to ask for the body that his very council had demanded the execution of? But Mark says that Joseph “gathered up courage and went in before Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.”

They took a courageous action. Not only were they unashamed to be known before Pilate as followers of this Crucified One, they also were willing to bear the reproach of their peers, their colleagues, indeed their entire nation as they bore the body of Jesus to its burial place.

They made a costly sacrifice. And by costly, I mean here, literally. It likely required a price to be paid to Pilate, and one could suspect a significant one, in order to secure the body of Jesus. Not only this, but there were the spices that Nicodemus brought. A mixture of myrrh and aloes weighing about a hundred pounds (literally a hundred litrai, which would be about 65 pounds on our standard). Mark tells us that Joseph bought a linen cloth in order to wrap Jesus. This was, of course, in keeping with Jewish burial customs as John says in verse 40, but it exceeded what was customary. The amount of spices brought was fit for a king. And it was a tribute to their king. Jesus had spoken to Nicodemus about the kingdom of God, and Joseph was described as waiting for the kingdom of God. It seems that they found in the crucified Savior the King of this everlasting kingdom and paid tribute to Him with the costliness of these materials. Not only this, but Joseph made an additional sacrifice. John says that nearby was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. The rapidly approaching sunset, which would initiate the Sabbath necessitated that Jesus be buried quickly, and in God’s providence there was a tomb nearby. But Matthew tells us that it was Joseph’s own tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock. He was willing to give up his final earthly possession for Jesus. 

They spared no expense. They regarded no other concern. They went to great lengths. Why? Because they had beheld with their eyes and with the eye of faith the One who died, and died for them and their salvation! This same Jesus endured the cross, despising the shame for our sake as well. Therefore, like Joseph and Nicodemus, we must be bold in our appeals. The Apostle Paul said that we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us. And that appeal is this, in Paul’s words: “We beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor 5:20-21). We must make this appeal boldly to the world around us. You may say, “They don’t want to hear it!” Friends, the world never has wanted to hear this message. In Acts 4 (vv19, 29-31), we read of how they threatened the early church to cease speaking in the name of Jesus, and what did those Christians do? They replied, “We cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard!” And then they went to the Lord in prayer and said, “And now, Lord, take note of their threats, and grant that Your bond-servants may speak Your word with all confidence.” And after they had prayed, the Bible says that they began to speak the word of God with boldness! We most be bold in our appeal to a lost and dying world!

And because Jesus has died for us, we must be courageous as we identify publicly with Him. There has been much clamor in our society about how people “identify.” People want to “identify” as a different gender or different ethnicity, and so on. It is time for us to be courageous and identify to a different nature of who we are and have become in relationship to Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “[E]veryone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven” (Mt 10:32-33). Are you willing to be known publicly as a disciple of Jesus? Jesus warns us that if we do not recognize ourselves as such, neither will He. It will require courage, but it always has.

Because Jesus has died for us, we must make great sacrifices for His cause. Innumerable billions are perishing in our world apart from access to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And what is happening to change that? Our International Mission Board, for the first time in its history, has had to decrease the size of our missionary force! Over the last five months, more than 1,100 Southern Baptist international missionaries have had to leave their work. Why? Because there are not enough funds to support the work! This is not the time for reducing the work of Christ in the world! This is the time to make great sacrifices so that more laborers can be thrust forth into the harvest field! This is the time to reexamine our church budgets and our personal giving so that more and more resources can be devoted to reaching lost people! And this must not be done begrudgingly! Paul says in 2 Corinthians 9:6-7, “he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” With confidence in the God who is able to meet our every need, we must joyfully give of our own resources to ensure that no one steps from this life into eternity without an opportunity to hear about the Christ who died for them.

And because He has died for us, we must act urgently. A Chinese Christian in the 20th Century said, “When small men begin to cast big shadows, it means that the sun is about to set.” I don’t know that we could find any statement more descriptive of our day. The sun is setting on this fallen world. Our eternal Sabbath rest approaches. But before the sun goes down and no more work can be done, we must act with urgent haste to serve our Lord while it is day, testifying openly of Him and His power to save. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the cure for this world’s ills, but the world will perish if we keep that message and the testimony of our faith in Him a secret. It is far too late in the day for us to be secret disciples anymore. There must be no more secrets! Because He has died for us, we must live for Him.

Let me conclude finally by again quoting Calvin. Speaking of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus as we find them in our text, he writes, “We must learn from their example what duty we owe to Christ. Those two men, as a testimony of their faith, not only took Christ down from the cross in great danger, but boldly carried him to the grave. Our slothfulness will be base and shameful if, now that He reigns in the heavenly glory, we withhold from Him the confession of our faith.” He speaks of those who try to continue on as secret disciples, comparing themselves with men like Nicodemus who kept their faith in Christ a secret. Calvin says, “In one thing, I admit, they resemble him, that they endeavor, as far as lies in their power, to bury Christ; but the time for burying is past, since He has ascended to the Father’s right hand, that he may reign gloriously over angels and men and that every tongue may proclaim His dominion.”[3]

The hour is late. The sun is setting. The Sabbath draws near. Christ does not now need burial. He has risen! Now is the time for every knee to bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Php 2:9-11). For Christ’s sake, let there be no more secrets!

[1] John Calvin, John (Crossway Classic Commentaries; Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1994), 439.
[2] Calvin, 438.
[3] Calvin, 438.