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. 

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