Monday, April 25, 2016

From Unbelief to Belief (John 20:24-31)


We worship and serve a risen Lord! Death could not hold Him down and on Easter Sunday, He triumphed over the tomb! In fact, as Christians we do not celebrate Easter once every year, but once every week, for our Sunday worship services commemorate Sunday as the day in which Christ defeated death for Himself and for all who follow Him by faith! In a sense, every day for the Christian is both Christmas and Easter, for every day we live in perpetual celebration that our God stepped into this world as one of us, and took our sins upon Himself and bore them under the outpouring of divine wrath to save us through His death and resurrection! He who has power over sin and death has the power to, not only grant us eternal life beyond the grave, but to transform our lives here and now. In this very chapter of Scripture, verses 11-18, we saw how the Risen Jesus transformed Mary Madgalene from despair to delight. In verses 19-23, we saw how He transformed the disciples from fear to joy. And here in our text today, we see Him do it again, as the Risen Christ transforms Thomas from unbelief to belief.

Thomas is one of the most well known disciples of Jesus, primarily due to this one incident. Aside from this, the information we have in the Bible about Thomas is quite scant. In the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), we find only his name mentioned when the disciples are listed. In John we find more glimpses of him as a follower of Christ. In Chapter 11, when Jesus goes to Bethany following the death of Lazarus, knowing that the leaders of the Jews were intent on killing Jesus, it was Thomas who said, “Let us also go, so that we may die with Him.” The only other time we encounter him is in the upper room on the night of Jesus’ betrayal in John 14. As Jesus prepares His disciples for His imminent departure, He tells them, “You know the way where I am going.” It was Thomas who spoke what every other disciple was likely thinking: “Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?” So, we find in these passages that Thomas is brutally honest, if pessimistic, but also a deeply committed follower of Jesus who is willing to face death with Him if need be. But it is this passage in John 20 that so often defines the man. From this text we have come to know him by his rather unflattering nickname: “Doubting Thomas.”

If we take Thomas’s earlier appearances in John’s Gospel, we find him acting true to his nature in this passage. It is not that he is a perpetual doubter. He is brutally honest, if a tinge pessimistic. He knows that Jesus has died, and based on all previous knowledge he has to work from, dead people tend to stay that way. He had seen Jesus raise others from the dead, and even heard Jesus say that He would rise from the dead. But, like the others, he did not understand what Jesus was talking about, and therefore did not expect a resurrection. And in the cases where Jesus had raised others from the dead, it seemed to Thomas that Jesus had a distinct advantage in those cases. He was alive! But what can a dead man do to help himself out of his predicament? Thomas had committed his life to Jesus before, and had been disillusioned and disappointed by His death. Now that reports are swirling around that Jesus is really alive, Thomas makes it clear that he is not willing to be duped by gullibly believing something he finds absolutely unbelievable. Is he doubting? Not really. It is more like he has fallen into skeptical unbelief, and now finds himself refusing to believe what all the rest of his friends have so easily believed.

This is a dangerous place to find oneself. Thomas, who had been a devout believer in the Lord Jesus, finds himself losing his grip on belief and sliding into unbelief. We have seen it happen to many we have known, and some of us may admit to experiencing it ourselves. So the issue is painfully relevant for us all as we wrestle with belief and unbelief, and as we help others do the same. As we observe how the Risen Lord Jesus transforms Thomas from unbelief to belief, we are not merely doing so as students of biblical history. We are personally invested in this transformation, for we may find ourselves or others whom we care about it in need of this transformation as well. Therefore, let us dive into our text and explore how the Risen Jesus transforms one of his followers from unbelief to belief.

I. The Necessity of Christian Fellowship (vv24-26)

Small causes can have large effects. There is a scientific theory called “the butterfly effect” which is based on a metaphor that says a butterfly flapping its wings in West Africa can set wind currents moving in such a way that a hurricane can develop affecting the East Coast of the United States. That may not be the case in meteorology, but it is certainly the case in much of life. The slide from belief to unbelief does not happen in an instant. It is the result of numerous decisions, some of which seem insignificant, but accumulate over time to create dramatic results. Take for example, a simple decision to not attend church next Sunday. Certainly, there may be good reasons for not attending, and we don’t mean to suggest otherwise. But, what if you knew that attending church next Sunday would affect the course of your entire week? What if an hour spent with fellow believers under the teaching of the Word of God would enable you to better face the circumstances that would arise in your life over the days that followed? I suggest to you that this is exactly the situation in which Thomas found himself as our text begins.

A week before the events of our text, the disciples were gathered together in a locked room, cowering in fear that the same authorities who had murdered Jesus would move upon His followers next. But, for reasons unknown to us, Thomas was not present at that gathering. John says in verse 24, “Thomas … was not with them.” Of course, we know what happened on that Sunday evening. The Lord Jesus miraculously came into the locked room and transformed the disciples there from fear to joy by His appearance and His words. Thomas, as a result of his decision to not be present with them, did not experience that. Already disillusioned by the death of the One in whom he had placed all of his faith and hope, Thomas withdrew from the fellowship of other followers of Jesus. He didn’t get to see the Risen Jesus on that night. He didn’t get to celebrate with the others the victory of Jesus over sin and death. And he didn’t believe them when they told him what had happened. So, a week of his life was wasted battling his own tormented soul in unbelief and doubt. And it wasn’t until he was gathered back with the other believers on the following Sunday that the fog of unbelief began to lift.

Friends, it is not for no reason that the writer of Hebrews admonishes us to not forsake “our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Heb 10:25). There are no “Lone Ranger” Christians. We need one another. We need this gathering together on a regular basis. Everything in this world is waging war against us and our common faith in the Lord Jesus. Even our own deceitful hearts and minds are susceptible to paralyzing doubts and unbelief. We need to come together on a regular basis to encourage and be encouraged by one another and to again have the promises of God poured out into our souls from His Word. People will say, “I don’t have to go to church to be a Christian.” This is only half-way true. You certainly do not have to come to a church building to become a Christian. But once you have become a follower of Jesus, you become part of His church, and as such, there is a great need for us to gather together with other believers in fellowship, worship, and service. You never know but that one Sunday that you decide to slack off, it could be the beginning of an avalanche of bad decisions that lead down a slippery slope. It could be the one Sunday when you would have been equipped and encouraged to face the battles of the week ahead in the strength of the Lord. Thomas found out the hard way, and we need to learn from his example. The way out from unbelief to belief begins with the ongoing need for Christian fellowship in our lives.

II. The Necessity of Honest Skepticism (v25)

I can remember it like it was yesterday – though it was about nine years ago. I was at Tate Street Coffee Shop talking to some young people about the Bible, and as I got up to leave, another young man asked me to sit down with him. He said he had overheard our conversation, and he had one question for me. He said, “What evidence can you give me that would make me believe in God or in Jesus?” I said, “Well, we could spend hours talking about various evidences, but before we do, let me know what you would consider sufficient evidence.” He looked puzzled, so I said, “What would I have to prove to you in order for you to believe?” He said, “I don’t think there is anything you can say to convince me to believe.” I said, “OK, have a good night,” and I stood up to walk away. He said, “Are you just going to walk away?” I said, “Well sure. Listen, I could give you literally hundreds of evidences, but you have already said you aren’t willing to believe on the basis of any evidence, so why should I waste my time? Besides that, Jesus said that no one comes to Him unless the Father is drawing them, so if He isn’t drawing you, you aren’t going to come even with the best evidence, and if He is, you will come with or without evidence.” We had a little more exchange before parting ways, as I promised to pray for him.

That young man in the coffee shop that night was not like Thomas. His mind was already made up, and he refused to believe on the basis of any evidence whatsoever. He was a dishonest skeptic. Under the pretense of wanting evidence, he really just wanted an argument. But that is not how we find Thomas. It is not that Thomas is unwilling to believe at all. He is willing to believe, but he is honest about his skepticism and the conditions on which he will believe. Disillusioned by the death of the One he believed in, he wants to be sure to avoid being gullible to fall for something that may have been a hallucination or subjective spiritual experience of his friends.

Thomas says, “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” Now, listen, these are the words of an honest skeptic. He is not asking for his own special manifestation of the miraculous. I used to do that when I was an unbeliever and Christians would try to witness to me. I would say, “If God wants me to believe in Him, tell Him to make that tree fall down over there.” I said that kind of think like God owed me some special revelation, or like I was so important that I deserved my own private message from God. But that is not what Thomas is saying. What he is asking for is specifically tied to the faith that he has already placed in Jesus in the past. He wants to be certain that this One whom his friends are claiming to have seen alive after death is really the same Jesus in Whom he had trusted. Jesus had a unique set of death wounds. He should have scars in His hands from the nails, and a wound in His side from the spear. If He doesn’t have those marks on His body, then He is not the same Jesus in whom Thomas had believed. Is he skeptical? Yes, and frankly most of us would be, and should be, if someone claimed that one of our friends who had died was suddenly alive again! But Thomas was honest about his skepticism and unbelief. He wanted to make sure that this Jesus whom they claimed was alive was the same Jesus that he knew had died.

Friends, if you are here today and not a believer in Christ, let me ask you: are you honest about your unbelief? Are you willing to say, “It would take THIS to make me believe?”, whatever THIS might be. Is your skepticism actually a determined refusal to believe, or is it a hesitance that wants to be sure you aren’t being carried away by myths and fairy tales? God hasn’t called us to believe the unbelievable or to be gullible. There are good and sound reasons that warrant us to believe that this Jesus who died has, in fact, risen again and is alive and able to transform lives today. So, if you are willing to believe, but yet unconvinced, why not just be honest about it and say what it is that you need to persuade you to believe?

Here is a reality that may be comforting or unsettling to you. God already knows. Notice that when Thomas uttered his skepticism, Jesus was not physically present with the disciples. That conversation took place sometime in the week following the Sunday appearance of the Lord to the rest of the disciples and the Sunday that followed. But on that following Sunday, when they were all together, including Thomas, Jesus came again into their presence in spite of their locked doors. Again Jesus greeted them with a word of peace, and notice what He immediately says to Thomas in verse 27: “Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing.” He already knew the words of Thomas’s mouth and the meditations of his heart, and He met him with a ready response to Thomas’s honest confession of doubt and unbelief. Notice that there is no hint of condemnation or judgment in any of Jesus’ words to Thomas. “A bruised reed He will not break and a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish” (Isa 42:3). In tender mercy, He meets Thomas where he is and satisfies the questions of his heart and mind.  

Friends, the road from unbelief to belief requires us to be honest about our unbelief and doubt. Jesus already knows, so there is no sense in hiding it behind some pretense of intellectualism or rationality. I am not here suggesting that you can demand your own miracles and expect to receive them. What I am suggesting is that those things are rarely what are holding a person back from faith. Fear, guilt, shame, pride, disappointment, disillusionment, pain, hurt, regret – things like this are far more often the hindrances. Sometimes there is an honest and unanswered question. Bring those matters into the gathering of God’s people as Thomas did. Bring them to the Christ who lives and already knows. Bring them before the open pages of His word. Can you expect that Jesus will come and invite you to touch His wounds? No, but you can expect to find that you are not the first to hold those reservations, and that there is information and evidence available if you have a willingness to believe. He will not turn you away or condemn you for asking honest questions. If Jesus is who we claim Him to be, then He is big enough to handle your questions. Through His Word and through His people, Jesus will meet you in the honest confession of your doubts and unbelief and assure you that the One who died is the One who lives again, and He ever lives to save you if you will trust in Him.

This brings us to the next point …

III. The Necessity of Personal Confession (v28) 

The third commandment is one of the most commonly understood laws God has given to humanity. “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes his name in vain.” To take the name of the Lord in vain is to use His name in an empty or meaningless way. It is for this reason that I almost cannot bear to watch reality television programs. Take any number of “home makeover” shows for example. At the end of the show, there has been this spectacular renovation to the home, and they bring in the homeowner, and almost invariably the first words out of their mouths are always the same: “Oh my God!” I just cringe when I hear that. People do not realize the severity with which God deals with such flippant handling of His matchless name! We think of how people use the name of Jesus or God as an exclamation or stand-in for profanity, or how people use God’s name in conjunction with a profanity. We abbreviate for decorum, “G.D.” I was on the golf course once with a guy who kept saying that over and over again. At one point he caught himself and said, “I’m sorry, preacher, I shouldn’t say that in front of you.” I said, “Well, it is not me you have to worry about, because God always hears you, and He is the one who says He will not leave you unpunished for taking His name in vain.” That guy never wanted to play golf with me again, and I can’t figure out why!

Well, I bring all this up because this is how some people approach Thomas’s response to Jesus in verse 28. When Thomas says, “My Lord and my God!”, there are those who claim that this is just an exclamation, you know, like they say on the home makeover shows. There are actually two reasons why this simply cannot be. First, as a devout Jew, Thomas would have had the Commandments instilled in him from birth. It is simply unfathomable to think than any self-respecting Jew of the first century would handle God’s name in this way. This is the culture which refused to utter the divine name YHWH when they encountered it in their Scriptures, and which even altered the spelling of it in the Masoretic text of Hebrew Scripture to ensure that they did not take God’s name in vain. Would we dare suggest that Thomas, upon seeing the Risen Jesus face-to-face, would have immediately used the name of the Lord God in such a blasphemous way? And if he had, is it imaginable that the God who said He would not leave such a one unpunished, this same God who had become flesh in Jesus Christ and stood before Thomas, could have just let that slide without a word of rebuke or correction?

No, Thomas was not using the Lord’s name in vain. He was making a personal confession of faith in this Risen Jesus and declaring Him to be Lord and God. But he was not merely declaring Him to be Lord and God, as if that were not enough; he was declaring that this Risen Jesus was HIS Lord and HIS God. In the transformation from unbelief to belief, it is not sufficient to merely recognize that Jesus is a divine being – that He is Lord and God. James 2:19 says, “You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.” Mere intellectual knowledge that God exists, or that Jesus is God, will not save anyone. A volitional commitment to Christ by faith is what is called for. And that is what Thomas does here. That Christ is his God is a personal confession of faith. That Christ is his Lord is a personal commitment to live by faith in Him.

A personal commitment and confession is necessary because there is no such thing as an impersonal one. No one else can believe for you. The Bible says that those who believe upon Christ receive the right to be called the sons of God. God only has adopted children; He does not have grandchildren. The other disciples had come to believe upon the Risen Christ already, but they could not believe for Thomas. Thomas had to believe for himself. And the same is true for each of us. Your parents, grandparents, or friends cannot believe for you, and you cannot for them. Each of us must come to that moment of decision in which we declare for ourselves that Jesus is my Lord and my God!  We must make a choice that Jesus is the God whom we worship, and the Lord whom we serve.

Thus, it would seem, we have come to the end of the transformation from unbelief to belief. It was so for Thomas, anyway. But there is a final word of Jesus that we must deal with here, which applies specifically to us in a way that did not apply to Thomas so long ago.

IV. The Necessity of God’s Word (vv30-31)

We may find this passage utterly irrelevant to ourselves today on the basis that we do not expect to have a physical, bodily encounter with the Risen Lord Jesus to confirm all our doubts and push us off the fence of belief and unbelief. But, Jesus speaks here specifically to those who would come to know Him by faith following His ascension into heaven. He tells Thomas, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.”

Contrary to popular belief on this passage, these words are not intended to be a rebuke to Thomas. He is in fact affirming that Thomas has believed on the basis of what he has seen. The old saying is “seeing is believing,” and Thomas has seen and believed! That is a good thing, and Jesus does not condemn him here for believing on the basis of what he has seen. But in addition to affirming the faith of Thomas, Jesus goes on to promise a blessing to those who would come later, who would believe without seeing. This blessing applies to you and me and countless others who have come to Christ by faith since the time at which He ascended into heaven.

How does believing happen in an era without the opportunity of seeing? Is it blind faith? Is it a gullible leap into a dark chasm hoping to find something solid on which to land? By no means! The Bible never calls us to that kind of faith. Our faith is anchored in something real and reliable: the Word of God. Notice how immediately following the words of Jesus here in verse 29, John says, “Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book.” Our curiosity is raised: “Ooh! I wonder what those were?” They aren’t recorded for us. Not in John, not in Matthew, Mark, Luke, or Acts. John will say in the next chapter, “There are many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written” (21:25). But John tells us here in verse 31 that these – the things which Jesus said and did that he did record for us – “have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.”

You say, “I need to see signs in order to believe, just like Thomas did.” John says, as he writes under the inspiration of God the Holy Spirit, “No you don’t. What I have written is enough for you to believe.” We see, as it were, with our ears. Paul says in Romans 10:17, “Faith comes by hearing (not seeing), and hearing by the Word of Christ.” The Bible is God’s message to us all. He has inspired it, and as we read it with open minds and hearts, He presents Himself to us. Through the written Word, He invites us, as it were, to examine the wounds that He bore for our sins and to behold Him in resurrected victory over our sin and death. Every word beckons us to turn to Him in faith and trust and recognize Jesus Christ by faith as “my Lord,” and “my God.” The blessing that is promised us is life in His name. It is a life that death itself cannot destroy, and to which no other way of living here and now can compare. It is life abundant and life eternal, and it is only found through His matchless name. Wherever you are today on the journey from unbelief to belief, God’s word stands written, inviting whosoever will to cast themselves on the mercy of Jesus – the One who died for you and rose again for you; the One whose wounds are the assurance of your peace with God. And that word is enough for the Risen Lord Jesus to transform you from unbelief to belief!

Monday, April 11, 2016

From Fear to Joy (John 20:19-23)


The Living Lord Jesus Christ, who demonstrated His power over life and death by laying down His life on the cross and taking it up again in His resurrection, has the power to transform lives. Some of you know that from personal experience. You can sing of His amazing grace – how sweet the sound! – that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see! We see it over and over again in Scripture as well. The Risen Christ changes people’s lives! We saw it happen with Mary Magdalene in our text last Sunday. She was transformed from despair to delight by her encounter with the Living Lord. We see it again today in our text, as the disciples of Christ are transformed from fear to joy when they meet Him.

The Christian life is not always a happy life. Nowhere in Scripture is perpetual happiness promised to the follower of Christ in this fallen world. Happiness is a condition of heart and mind that is to a large degree dependent on our ever-changing circumstances. Because this world and the human race have been radically corrupted by the deadly and destructive effects of sin, our happiness in this world is always somewhat fleeting and often punctuated with grief, suffering, and sorrow. There is coming a day for the child of God when there will be no more tears, death, mourning, crying, or pain, but that day is not now. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:19, “If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.” In other words, if the best that we have to look forward to are conditions here and now, then our faith and our hopes are hollow and bankrupt. There must be something better to come later – a happiness that is permanent and indestructible – but it is not here, and it is not now.

Though happiness may often elude us in this life, there is something better which is promised to the follower of Christ here and now. We have the offer and promise of joy. Whereas happiness is dependent upon our ever-changing circumstances, joy is anchored in the unchangeable reality of our personal relationship with God through faith in Jesus. It is that deep-seated assurance that, in spite of our circumstances and every outlying external variable, within our hearts and souls, all is well. We can have unshakable joy even when life is not going as we had planned, or when sin, suffering, or sorrow break in and wreak havoc on our happiness. All is well because we rest contentedly in our relationship with God-in-Christ.

If joy is the assurance that all is well, then it’s opposite is not (as some would suppose) sorrow, grief, or sadness. The unsettled suspicion that all is not well is something we call fear. Fear in a Christian’s life causes us to lose sight of the fact that we are inseparably tethered to God by faith in Christ, and that He has promised us victory, comfort, and joy. We can lose sight of the joy that is ours in the Lord when we are overcome by fear, and that is what makes fear so dangerous within the life of the Christian. It has happened to most of us, I suppose, at one time or another. And it happened to the disciples of Jesus after His crucifixion. That is how we find them in our text. Having walked with Jesus in the fullness of joy for three-plus years, their Lord and Master had been taken from them, nailed to a cross, and buried in a tomb. Three days later, we find His followers huddled together behind locked doors. Why? The Bible says, “for fear of the Jews” (v19).

Why this fear? The authorities had seized and killed Jesus, so they could not help thinking that the crosshairs would fall upon Jesus’ followers next. Besides this, a story had already begun to circulate that the disciples had stolen Jesus’ body (Mt 28:11-15). It is understandable that they would fear repercussions from the authorities, and that fear had put them behind multiple locked doors in isolation from the world. The Bible says that the fear of man brings a snare (Prov 29:25), and here we find these disciples trapped on the inside of a prison of their own making. The Psalmist said, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” (Psa 27:1). But with their Lord dead and buried, fear cast its dark shadow over them, imprisoning them behind locked doors.

If we are honest, we know how it feels. We have been paralyzed by fear and locked in its fortress. Fear leaves us feeling weak and defeated, but the Bible says that joy of the Lord is our strength (Neh 8:10). So how do we turn from fear to joy? Let us see how an encounter with the Living Lord Jesus transformed His disciples from fear to joy, and ask Him to do the same for us.

I. We must recognize the Lord’s presence (v19)

Fear can keep us isolated from a lot of things, but it cannot keep the Lord away from us. That is what the disciples discovered behind their locked doors. In an effort to seal themselves off from anyone and everyone else, they found that locked doors were ineffective at keeping the Risen Lord Jesus away. The Bible says here that while they were shut in behind those locked doors, “Jesus came and stood in their midst.”

This brief statement has given rise to all sorts of speculative theories about how this happened. Did He just walk through the walls or doors? Did He miraculously pick the lock? Did He just appear? We have to confess that we do not know, and the detail must not be important, for we are not told. But His coming to them, in whatever manner it happened, was definitely miraculous. There is no natural explanation for how He came into their midst. However it happened, it was supernatural. The simple fact is that no matter how hard we try to lock ourselves away in the isolation of fear, we cannot keep the Lord out.

That is an important thing for us to recognize. In our fear, He is with us nonetheless. And if He is with us, then we have no reason to fear anything that man might do to us or that may befall us in this world. Early in Church History, one of the heroic defenders of the Christian faith was Athanasius of Alexandria. During Athanasius’ lifetime, a heresy known as Arianism was sweeping across the Roman Empire. Arianism derived its name from Arius, who taught that Jesus was not fully God. Even though Arius was declared a heretic and sent into exile following the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, his teachings continued to hold sway, at times threatening to eclipse every church in the Empire. But Athanasius continued to hold fast to the Word of God and declare its truth about the divine nature of Jesus Christ, at times almost singlehandedly. One of his colleagues once said to him, out of genuine concern, “The whole world is against you!” Athanasius famously replied, “Then it is Athanasius contra mundum,” or “Athanasius against the world.” Athanasius took courage from his recognition that, even if the whole world was against him, the Lord was with him. And anytime we are on the side of the Lord, it does not matter how many antagonists we have or how fierce our opposition may be.

Friends, there are unsettling trends at work in the world today. The pressure is on the Church of Jesus Christ to radically redefine our faith, which was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3). We are being bullied and intimidated to comply with the ways of the world or else. It would be a terrifying position in which to find ourselves, were it not for the presence of the Lord Jesus with us. It is being said of Evangelical Christianity today that we are on the wrong side of history. Dr. Russell Moore, the president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission, has said repeatedly that the Church of Jesus Christ has never been on the right side of history. In a tweet that went viral after the Supreme Court’s marriage ruling last year, Moore said, “On the wrong side of history? We started on the wrong side of history—a Roman Empire and a cross. Rome’s dead and Jesus is fine.”[1] Even when we are contra mundum – against the whole world (or as the case may be, the whole world being against us) – we need not fear, for this Risen Lord is with us!

If we would move from fear to joy, we must recognize that our Lord is with us, even when we find ourselves reeling against the world’s pressures and tempted to lock ourselves away in fearful isolation. We need not do that, and we need not be fearful. We need to recognize the Lord’s presence.

Now secondly, as we move from fear to joy …

II. We must receive the Lord’s peace (vv19, 21).

In many parts of the world today, it is customary to greet another with a message of peace. The origins of that practice are quite ancient. In Hebrew, the customary greeting is Shalom Alechem. It means “Peace to all.” And the response is Alechem Shalom, “to all, peace.” That is how Jesus addressed the disciples when He came into their midst. He says, “Peace be with you.” In fact, He says it twice (vv19, 21). But Jesus wasn’t just exchanging customary pleasantries. This was a specific message to a group of terrified disciples in effort to bring them out of the hiding place of fear and into the fullness of joy.

It may have been a surprising salutation, considering the events that had preceded it. They may have well expected a word of rebuke instead of a word of peace! After all, they had all abandoned and forsaken Him following His arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. But there was no rebuke. Instead, it is an offer of peace. The Christ who died for man’s sins had already put their past failures behind them. The offer of His peace was an invitation to put fear aside and to rise above it in Him.

And this is how He comes to us in our times of paralyzing fear as well. He comes speaking peace. Previously, He had said, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful” (14:27). His peace is the remedy for the fear that would otherwise grip the hearts of His followers.

Remember that occasion in Mark 4, when the bewildered disciples were frightened as their boat encountered a terrifying storm on the Sea of Galilee. The Bible says that Jesus rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace, be still” (Mk 4:39, KJV). At the speaking of His peace, the storm subsided immediately, and a great calm came over the sea. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Lord Jesus always spoke peace to the storms that come our way and cause us to fear? But He does not always speak peace to the storm. More often, in fact, He speaks to us rather than to our circumstances. And what He says to us is the same: “Peace, be still.” And at the sound of His word, a calm comes across us, even if the storm continues to rage on.

If we would move from fear to joy, we must recognize that the Lord is with us in our bewildering circumstances, and we must receive His peace. The speaking of peace to His disciples in the upper room did not make all opposition and intimidation disappear. Rather, in time, that opposition only intensified, and eventually cost these disciples their very lives. But even in the face of those fiery trials, the disciples of Christ stood steadfast by faith in Him, because in their hearts, they had received His peace which overcame their fears. He will do the same for us if we will but receive His peace.

Now, we find here a third step on the journey from fear to joy.

III. We must realize the Lord’s power (v20).

Repeatedly over the course of three years the disciples had witnessed the unparalleled power of Jesus Christ. Through His miracles, He had demonstrated power over nature, power over sickness, power over demons, power over sin, and even power over death. But when He Himself died, they felt that His power had been defeated fully and finally. While He was alive, they did not fear as long as He was with them. But now that He was gone, they retreated in fear. If their all-powerful Lord and Master could be executed in such a shameful and humiliating way, what hope could they have against the same forces of evil in the world? They had seen Him raise others from death, but at this moment, they had seemingly forgotten that He had said often that He would rise even from death.

When Jesus appeared in their midst, it is hard to know what they imagined to be happening. When He came to them walking upon the stormy sea, they had thought they were seeing a ghost of some kind. Did they even recognize Him now? It was often the case that when people saw Jesus after the resurrection, they did not know it was Him. We saw that in the account of Mary Magdalene in the previous passage. She supposed Him to be the gardener. We don’t know if the disciples recognized Him here and now or not, but even if they had, how could they explain that One who had been dead was now alive and in their midst?

Jesus, sensing their confusion and dismay, “showed them both His hands and His side.” He showed them the places where the nails had been and where the spear had been thrust into His side. In what may be a parallel account in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says to the disciples, “See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Lk 24:39). It was really Him, alive after being dead! This could only mean one thing! Jesus has overcome! He has rendered death powerless and risen in victory over it! The sin that He had borne in His death had been conquered and its penalty defeated for all who trust in Him. What else is there to fear on the earth, if sin and death have been overcome by the power of Jesus? If the tomb could not hold the unstoppable power of Jesus, then why should those who walk by faith in Him bar themselves behind locked doors?

Friends, there would be much to fear in this world if it were not for the fact that the greatest dangers have been defeated by the power of Jesus! Will we fear a culture that is bent on distorting our message or defying our values? Will we fear governing authorities who seek to legislate us into silence? Will we fear those who commit acts of terror in the name of false gods and false prophets? We serve a risen Savior who stands in victorious power, demonstrating the wounds He bore for our redemption! What can man do to us? The worst thing that can happen to us in this world is death, and our Redeemer has power even over death. The writer of Hebrews declares that He has rendered powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, that He might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives (Heb 2:15). We stand in the promise of His victory, that we are more than conquerors through Him, over tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril or sword. We have the assurance 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 (Rom 8:35-39). Where in that equation does fear enter in?

The Bible says that when Jesus showed them His hands and His side, “the disciples then rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” Jesus had told them, “you will grieve, but your grief will be turned to joy” (Jn 16:20). Like the disciples of Jesus, when we behold the fact that Christ has conquered death on our behalf, and stands in victory over it, and we realize His unstoppable, undefeatable power, we will move from fear to joy!  

The journey from fear to joy was almost complete for them. They had recognized His presence and received His peace. They had realized His power. And one thing remained for the journey to be complete.

IV. We must resume the Lord’s purpose (vv21-23)

The Lord Jesus came into the world for a specific purpose and to engage in a specific mission. He says that He has come to call sinners to repentance (Mk 2:17). He says that He came to seek and to save that which is lost (Lk 19:10). He says that He came to give His life as a ransom for many (Mt 20:28). When He laid down His life as that ransom on the cross, He said with a dying breath, “It is finished.” He had accomplished all that He came to do. But in His resurrection appearances to His disciples, Jesus commissioned those who follow Him by faith to pick up His mission and resume it until all nations to the ends of the earth have heard the Good News of what He has done for the human race and had the opportunity to repent and believe. Our mission – the mission of the church of Jesus Christ – is to carry out His mission of salvation to the ends of the earth and to the end of the age when He returns.

We call it the Great Commission. He said it over and over again, as the accounts of the Gospels and Acts indicate. On this occasion, when He appeared in the midst of His disciples, He said to them, “As the Father has sent Me, I also send You.” The commission applies to every believer in Christ. We are commissioned to carry out and continue His mission of redemption in the world. But surely that is too daunting a task for us! How unfair of Jesus to bring His disciples from fear to joy, only to fill them with fear again! Ah, but there is no need to fear, for He promises us His resources for His mission.

Verse 22 says that after He had commissioned them, He “breathed on them.” It is important to note that the words “on them” do not occur in the Greek New Testament. Quite literally, He breathed out. And as He breathed out, He said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Now, was He imparting the Holy Spirit upon them here at that moment? If so, why did they again need to receive the Holy Spirit fifty days later at Pentecost? No, Jesus was not breathing the Holy Spirit into them. Rather, He was symbolizing what the Holy Spirit would do when He came. He would come upon the disciples as the very life-giving breath of God, giving them a power that is not their own – the very power of God – to infill them and enable them to carry out the mission of Christ. Interestingly, in both Hebrew and Greek (the original languages of the Old and New Testament, respectively), the word is the same for Spirit, wind, and breath. So Jesus is saying that the Holy Spirit will come upon them even as God Himself had breathed life into Adam at creation, and even as the wind had blown across the skeletons in Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, bringing them to life. So, later, when Jesus ascended into heaven, He would remind them again of the coming of the Spirit. He said, “You will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now. … You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth” (Ac 1:4-8).

As His witnesses, we go into all the world fearlessly and with great joy, making known to the world how the greatest problem that any person could ever have has been remedied in Jesus Christ. He says, “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.”  We have to understand that only God can forgive sins. Jesus isn’t calling us to go out just picking and choosing who can be forgiven and who cannot. Rather, as we witness to Him, empowered by the Holy Spirit, the gospel of Jesus Christ goes forth into the world inviting all who hear it to turn to Him that their sins may be forgiven. The sharing of the Gospel is the announcement that all that was necessary for our sins to be washed away and for us to be reconciled to God has been done for us by Jesus Christ through His sinless life, His sacrificial death, and His victorious resurrection! We are not the ones who forgive sin, but who announce to the world that their sins can be forgiven if they will but turn to Him and trust in Him! Thus Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5 that the God who reconciled us to Himself through Christ has given us the ministry of reconciliation, “namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18-19).

The most unstoppable force in the world today is the power of the Holy Spirit moving upon the hearts of men and women as the Gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed through the mouths of His people. And that mission and message has been entrusted to us who live and walk by faith in Him. Therefore, our lives are not meaningless or insignificant. Rather, as Paul says, “We are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us.” And that appeal is this: “We beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God!” We can, because 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).

When we proclaim that message in joy and without fear, it is as though the Lord Jesus holds forth His nail-pierced hands through our words, reaching with outstretched love toward a world that is lost and perishing in sin, inviting them to come to Him and be forgiven. And there is no greater joy to be found in this world than the joy of being used by the Lord to bear that message to a world that desperately needs to hear it!

Christian, are you living in fear? Has the fear of your life’s circumstances or the conditions of this fallen world caused you to retreat behind locked doors? That fear is robbing you of the joy that is freely yours through Jesus Christ. If you will but recognize His presence, receive His peace, realize His power, and resume His purpose, that fear will be swallowed up by the overwhelming joy that will flood your life as you walk with Him and yield yourself to the indwelling power of His indwelling Holy Spirit. The joy of the Lord will be your strength that pushes you beyond the barricades of fear and sends you forth into the world on mission for Him.

The Bible says that splendor and majesty are before Him, strength and joy are in His place (1 Chron 16:27). If you do not know Him, though you may experience momentary happiness in the midst of the world’s sorrows and life’s frustrations, you can never know the strength and joy of Jesus until you come to Him by repentance of your sins and faith that He is the Lord who can save you. In exchange for your fears of life and death, He offers you joy. Find joy in Him, for you can find it nowhere else.  

[1] Accessed April 6, 2016. 

Monday, April 04, 2016

From Despair to Delight (John 20:11-18)

Despair. It is an ugly word that describes an even uglier predicament. It refers to the complete loss of all hope. Hope is the fuel of life. Hope enables us to endure difficult days, prolonged pain, and sorrowful suffering. When all hope is extinguished, despair sets in with all of its dark anguish. Despair is set like a trapper’s snare before us, ready to lay hold of any who wander the path of hopelessness. Its temptation is ever before us, and none of us are immune to falling prey to it. In this fallen world, so infected and corrupted by sin and the effects of its curse, it is no surprise that so many find themselves in despair. It is, rather, surprising that more do not. Our bodies are falling apart from the moment of conception. Our first step is a step toward the grave. And along the way, we are surrounded by suffering. Were it not for hope, despair would be our only alternative. And true hope is found nowhere else but in Jesus Christ.

Mary Magdalene had found that hope, and it lifted her from her despair. Luke 8:2 records it for us in a brief economy of words. “Mary who was called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out.” That is how we are introduced to her in Scripture. “Magdalene” refers to her hometown, Magdala. Prior to meeting Jesus Christ, Mary’s entire existence was a literal hell on earth. She was possessed, not by a demon, but by seven demons. All of her bodily faculties were controlled and conducted by the forces of Satan. In John 10:10, Jesus describes the work of Satan as “to steal, kill, and destroy.” Her life had been stolen; her personality, emotions, and mind had been killed; her life was being destroyed moment by moment, over and over again every day of her life. But Jesus also said that He had come to give life, and that abundantly. Mary met the Lord of life, and He delivered her from her hellish bondage and gave her life, more abundant than she had ever known before. From that day on, she began to follow and serve Him. She and a handful of others began supporting the work of Jesus and his disciples from their own resources (Lk 8:3). She was present at the cross when He died, and when His lifeless body was wrapped in cloths and placed in the tomb (Mt 27:56, 61). It was her love for Jesus that brought her to the tomb to help the others finish the burial preparations. It was her love that gave flight to her feet to go and report to the disciples that His body was missing. It was her love that kept her there when all the others had gone. But love was all she had left. Jesus had been the object of her faith, her hope, and her love. Faith had been put to death, and hope had been sealed into a cold, dark grave. All that was left on that Sunday morning was love. And, as William Cowper (the great hymnwriter who wrestled with despair his entire life) once said, “Absence from whom we love is worse than death, and frustrates hope severer than despair.”[1]

And so it is that we find Mary Magdalene in the garden. She is in despair. But in her despair she is met by the risen Jesus and she moves from despair to delight. I wonder if any here today are in despair? I need not wonder if any have ever been, or may yet be. But if you find yourself there at some point, or if someone you love is there, I suggest to you that (like Mary Magdalene) the Living Lord Jesus is able to transform you from despair to delight as you encounter Him. Let’s see how He does that for her, and how He may do it for us, as we explore our text.

I. The Living Lord Jesus confronts us in the confusion of despair (vv11-15).

We find Mary in our text standing outside the tomb weeping. The Greek word used here for “weeping” indicates a loud and demonstrative wailing of sorts, not the quiet tears of reserved mourning. It is the word used to describe Peter’s bitter weeping after he denied the Lord (Mt 26:75). In another passage, it is used to describe a scene surrounding the death of a synagogue official’s daughter, where there was “a commotion, and people loudly weeping and wailing” (Mk 5:38-39). These are the kinds of contexts in which we find this word that here describes Mary’s weeping. Her grief is unrestrained.

If you have ever grieved, and who among us has not, you know that grief can have a disorienting or stupefying effect on you. It did on Mary. She looked into the tomb as she wept. Had she looked in before? Perhaps; we do not know for sure. But when she looked in this time, she saw something other than the burial cloths which Peter and John had seen. She saw two angels.[2] But, I don’t think Mary understood what she was seeing. I say that because almost always in Scripture, when humans encounter angels, their immediate response is fear. That is why most angelic messages in Scripture begin with, “Fear not,” or “Do not be afraid.” But in the confusion of her despair, Mary apparently did not perceive that she was entertaining angels there in the tomb.

With a hint of tenderness, the angels ask, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Have you ever noticed how often heavenly messages come in the form of questions? It is not as though God or His angels have need of information. Rather, the questions are invitations for the individuals in these encounters to open their hearts and disclose themselves willingly. These angels know full well why Mary is weeping. They know it is because of the compounded hopelessness of the death of her Lord and the disappearance of His body. They want her to say it. And she does: “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.” Either she was not present when Peter and John inspected the tomb and concluded that the body was not stolen and that Jesus had risen, or the despair was so deeply engulfing that she could not believe it.

Something caused Mary to turn away from the angels at this moment. Was it a shift in the direction of their gaze, the sound of footsteps approaching, or that numinous sense that often arises when we feel that someone is watching us? We do not know, but turning around, she saw someone else standing there. John tells us that it was Jesus, but Mary did not know that. She certainly did not expect to see Jesus there. Some have speculated that tears had clouded her vision. That may be a bit too sentimental. Besides this, we know that on multiple occasions He was not recognized by His disciples after the resurrection. Certainly we can say that the confusion of her despair caused her to be unaware of the Lord’s presence with her. Again He asks, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” And again, of course He already knew. But He wants her to put words to her despair and say that her hopes have been dashed, her faith has been shattered, and that above all else she wants once more to set eyes upon her beloved Lord.

Mary supposed Him to be the gardener. Who else would be out in the garden at this time of morning? Perhaps the gardener moved the body somewhere for safekeeping. Whatever the case, Mary makes a preposterous offer. “Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away.” She gave no thought to the physical impossibility of single-handedly carrying the body of Jesus along with the hundred pounds of spices that had been bound into the linen wrappings. So strong was her love and so deep was her despair that she was willing to do whatever it took to set things right. Little did she know that things were already set more right than they had been since Adam and Eve walked in the Garden. Did she suppose Him to be the gardener? She was more right than she knew, for He had come to rid the world of the curse of sin that had evicted mankind from the paradise of Eden.

When we find ourselves in the confusion of despair, we need to remember Mary. She was not alone in her despair, though she felt alone. Neither was she rebuked for her despair. Instead, the questions invited her to open her heart and her mouth to disclose the secrets of her grief and sorrow. There in that place of death, the Living Lord confronted her in the confusion of despair. She did not recognize Him or the heavenly messengers He had sent. The Psalmist said, “Where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there. If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there” (Psa 139:7-8). Mary had encamped in Sheol, the place of the dead, not knowing that the Living Lord was right by her side. Friends, when we are in despair, it is hard to remember that we are never alone. When we find ourselves weeping in life’s desolate places, it is hard to recognize the messengers that God sends to us for our encouragement. But even there we find the sandaled feet of the Gardener, beckoning us to give voice to our pain and grief. He already knows. He wants to be welcomed into it that He may lift us from the confusion of despair.

Martin Luther is regarded as a spiritual giant and a hero of the Christian faith. But Luther was often perplexed with depression and despair. On one occasion, when he was particularly downcast, his wife put on a black dress. Luther asked, “Are you going to a funeral?” His wife replied, “No, but since you act like God is dead, I wanted to join you in your mourning.”[3] Mary Magdalene was not acting. Her God had died! Is there a deeper despair than that? But like Brother Martin, in despair we often act as though God had died, and in that moment, we find a companion coming to join us in our mourning. It is the Living Lord Himself who confronts us in the confusion of our despair. That is what He did for Mary, and that is what He desires to do for each of us. And when the Living Lord confronts us in the confusion of despair, if we will but recognize His presence and open our hearts to Him, a transformation begins to occur.

II. The Living Lord Jesus comes to us with the comfort of delight (vv16-18).

Despair does not set in immediately. It is a long, slow, downward spiral. But the journey out of despair does not always have to be equally long and slow. It often is, but it doesn’t have to be. Mary Magdalene is an example of that. Instantaneously, the darkness lifts and the joy of delight breaks forth. Can it happen for us in our despair? And if so, how? We may discover it as we examine how it happened for Mary in our text.

First comes the realization, not only that she is not alone, but that the Lord whom she seeks, whose absence she dreads, is actually present with her. He had been for some time, but she could not detect it. But then comes this moment of tender intimacy when Jesus calls her by name. “Mary!” is all that He said. There is no time spent wondering how in the world the gardener knows her name. All it takes is the sound of her name crossing His lips to make her realize that the One who was dead is alive again.

Jesus said in John 10:27, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.” He knows all those who are His by faith in a special way. He knows us, and calls to us by name. At the hearing of her name, Mary recognized a familiarity in His voice, and suddenly all is different in her disposition! In our moments of despair, it helps us to know that the Lord has not forgotten about us. The Lord says through Isaiah the prophet, “Can a woman forget her nursing child and have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you. Behold, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands” (Isa 49:15-16). Those palms have been pierced with nails out of love for you. The Lord Jesus endured all that was inflicted upon Him as He laid down His life in a demonstration of His unparalleled love for you. Look to the cross! Look to the empty tomb! Look to the Risen Lord and behold His wounds! His wounds are ever before Him as tokens of His affection for you. Open your Bible and read it as if it were written specifically for you, because it was! Insert your name into all the precious promises of God’s Word and hear those things spoken with a Galilean dialect as the Lord’s own comforting assurance that He has never left you nor forsaken you.

Mary responds abruptly, “Rabboni!” It is a Hebrew and Aramaic expression, and John translates it for us. It means “teacher.” But it means something even more intimate than this. It means, “My Teacher!” This is the One whom she had loved, in whom she had trusted, and in whom she had placed all of her hopes for this life and the life to come! And she did more than just speak His title, she became physically demonstrative. We may infer from the text that she threw herself upon Him. Why else would Jesus need to say in verse 17, “Stop clinging to Me!” Before we attempt to understand that statement, we need to pause long enough to consider what Mary has done here, that we may emulate her example in our journey from despair to delight! She renewed her faith and hope in Him, and she cast herself upon Him as the object of her utmost joy! From the depths of despair, when all the things of this world have been shaken beneath our feet, we must come to the place where we call upon Him and cast ourselves upon Him. Surely the words of the Psalmist are coming to life in her heart: “Whom have I in heaven but You? And besides You, I desire nothing on earth” (Psa 73:25). When we come to that place where we realize that all we have is Christ, it is a blessed place, for there we discover that all we need is Christ. And we return to faith, hope, love and joy in Him knowing that no matter how we have felt, the truth of the matter is that He has never left us, never forsaken us, and never forgotten us!

Jesus says, “Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” I have to confess, this has always been a very puzzling statement for me to grasp. As I sat down to study in preparation for this message, I turned to one of my most trustworthy commentaries for an explanation and found these unsettling words: “This verse belongs to a handful of the most difficult passages in the New Testament.”[4] That was simultaneously both alarmingly uncomfortable and ironically comforting. If the greatest Biblical scholars have had trouble with the passage, no wonder that my mind cannot grasp it. And yet, I think I have come to appreciate something of what the Lord means here. For Mary, clinging to Jesus was a way of expressing, “Do not ever leave me again, or else take me with you!” Jesus’ statement expresses two equally important truths to her. First of all, there was no need for her to cling to Him now, because, as He says, “I have not yet ascended to the Father.” For forty days, He would continue to be present among the disciples, teaching them of “the things concerning the kingdom of God” (Ac 1:3). In a sense He is saying to her, “I’m not going anywhere right now.”

But in another sense He is saying, “I will be going somewhere soon, and where I am going you cannot come at this time.” He is preparing her to loosen her physical grasp on Him. The day will come, six weeks from this point, when He will ascend to the Father. No longer will she be able to touch Him with her hands or see Him with the eye of flesh. She must learn to see Him with the eye of faith. He will still be present with those who are His, but He will be present in the person of His Holy Spirit. Jesus had told His disciples in John 16:7, “It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you.” And Jesus is saying that this is better. How could it be better to have the Holy Spirit instead of the physical presence of Christ? Because He will be in you, able to direct your life from within as you walk by faith with Christ. He will be wherever His people are. In His flesh, if you want to be with Jesus, you would have to go to wherever He is. But by the ministry of His Spirit, He has come to us, to be with us wherever we are. Jesus is saying to Mary, “If you desire to keep Me here, then I cannot be anywhere else. But if I ascend to the Father, then I will always be present with you, and within you, and not only you, but in all of those who trust in Me by faith.” So, in a unique sense that is not applicable to us, Jesus is saying, firstly, “I’m not going anywhere yet, so you don’t have to cling to Me.” But in a sense that is entirely applicable to us, He is saying, “I am going away physically, so that I will never depart from any of My sheep spiritually.” And friends, that is a precious gift from God. The moment we come to faith in Christ, His Spirit comes upon us to dwell within us, and He never leaves. When we find ourselves in despair, wondering where Jesus is in the midst of our difficulties, we need only to remember that He has ascended to the Father, where He is seated at His right hand making intercession for us, and from whence He has deployed His Holy Spirit to be evermore with us in a way that He could not in His physical body. God is with you, and in you, awaiting you to recognize His presence and rely on His power even when we are at our weakest.

Now finally, as Mary journeys from despair to delight, Jesus says to her, “Go to my brethren and say to them, “I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.” It is at once a comfort and a commission. It is a comfort, for we are told that our relationship with the God of the universe is not distant and strange. It is intimate and precious. He is not merely “God,” but “my God.” The same God that Jesus calls His own is also ours. We belong to Him and He to us. But even more intimately, the One whom Jesus had eternally called His Father has become “my Father.” By His saving work on the cross, Jesus has reconciled us to His Father even while we were once in rebellion to Him. He is the Father of the prodigal who runs to meet His wayward children as we take the first step toward home in response to His beckoning grace. Jesus says, “The One I go to – my God and your God – is My Father, and your Father!” God is not merely present with us, He is intimately affectionate toward us, loving us as sons and daughters through our faith in the Christ who has saved us from our sinful rebellion. What a comfort to know that when all others in this world fail us, we have a Father in heaven who will never fail us, and will always be faithful to us! He is my God and my Father. That is a comfort.

But here is also a commission. “Go and say,” Jesus tells her. Go and tell the others that He lives, that He who died is risen, and that He is going to the Father to be our Great High Priest, bearing our very names in the wounds of His flesh. It may surprise you to know that I have been no stranger to discouragement, depression, and even despair. Is it scandalous for me to admit it? I am not bothered by that. But I will tell you that when that fog sets in, I have found no faster remedy than to retreat to my commission to make known the good news of the Living Lord Jesus to others – be they my brothers and sisters in the faith or those who have yet to come to know Him. In the very telling of this good news of Jesus, the fog lifts and daylight breaks the darkness! And Mary found this to be true as well. She immediately obeyed the commission and came to the other disciples and announced to them, “I have seen the Lord,” and she told them all that He had said to her.

George MacDonald, an intellectual influence of C. S. Lewis, wrote long ago concerning the believer who “art in the dark and hast no light”: “Fold the arms of thy faith, and wait in the quietness until light goes up in thy darkness. Fold the arms of thy Faith I say, but not of thy Action: bethink thee of something that thou oughtest to do, and go to do it, if it be but the sweeping of a room, or the preparing of a meal, or a visit to a friend. Heed not thy feelings: Do thy work.” Similarly, three centuries earlier, the Puritan Richard Baxter wrote, “I have known grievous despairing melancholy cured and turned into a life of godly cheerfulness, principally by setting upon constancy and diligence in the business of families and callings.”[5] In other words, get active! Give yourself to the duty of serving the Lord and making Him known, as He has called and commissioned us all. Mary did this in glad obedience to the commission of the Lord, and thus her journey was complete. She had been transported, and transformed, from the confusion of despair to the comfort of delight as the Living Lord Jesus came to her and confronted her.

Listen! Even now, the Gardener approaches. He is whispering your name. His sheep hear His voice, and they follow Him. His footsteps lead us through the valley of the shadow of death, but we do not fear, for He is with us, and will lead us through to the other side with His goodness and mercy following us all the days of our lives. He gives beauty for ashes; the oil of joy for mourning; a garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness. He transforms us from despair to delight.

[1] Accessed March 31, 2016.
[2] Time does not permit us here to explore the suggestion made by some commentators concerning the position of these angels, “one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain” (v12). I believe there is something significant here that should be considered further. The position of these angels is reminiscent of the placement of the cherubim upon the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant (see Exodus 25:1-22; Leviticus 16). The mercy seat was the place where God declared, “I will meet with you; and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim … I will speak to you….” This was also the place where the blood for the atonement of sin was to be sprinkled by the High Priest. I cannot help but wonder if the position of these angels in the tomb of Jesus depict for us in a symbolic way the truth that Christ, by virtue of His death and resurrection, is the fulfillment of all these promises. It is through the Risen Lord Jesus (and Him alone) that we meet with God, that He speaks to us, and that our sins are fully atoned.
[3] Rudolf K. Markwald and Marilynn Morris Markwald, Katharina Von Bora: A Reformation Life (St. Louis: Concordia, 2002), 139-140.
[4] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 641-642.
[5] Both quotes cited in John Piper, When the Darkness Will Not Lift (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2006), 46-47.