Matthew 28:1-9, “Now after the Sabbath, as the first day of the week began to dawn, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat on it. His countenance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow. And the guards shook for fear of him, and became like dead men.”
“But the angel answered and said to the women, "Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for He is risen, as He said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. And go quickly and tell His disciples that He is risen from the dead, and indeed He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him. Behold, I have told you.”
“So they went out quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to bring His disciples word. And as they went to tell His disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, "Rejoice!" So they came and held Him by the feet and worshiped Him.”
Easter tends to be the most unique Sunday of all 52 because of an interesting and strange similarity found in a rather diverse crowd. You know one made up of regulars who haven’t gone away on Spring Break, those who only irregularly attend a handful of services a year, and a collection of first-timers who were invited to church by a friend or family member.
According to research conducted by the Barna Group among non-churchgoing, American adults only 46% view the meaning of Easter as being religious. And while this number isn’t all that surprising things become weird when you add churchgoers to the mix.
When Barna polled non-specified Americans the number of those who view the meaning of Easter as being religious actually declined 4 points to 42%! Barna concludes that “while a majority of Americans indicated some type of spiritual connection with Easter, research showed that a minority of adults linked Easter to the Christian belief in the resurrection of Christ.” Hard to reconcile a creepy bunny who hides eggs with religion!
A study released last April by the “Rasmussen Reports Polling Firm” may provide an explanation for why this may be the case. Of those polled only 64% of Americans believe Jesus rose from the dead. What makes this number alarming is that the same poll conducted in 2012 had the number at 77%. In just two years we have seen a significant decline (13 points) in the number of Americans who believe in the resurrection of Jesus.
And if this isn’t shocking in and of itself, the same Rasmussen Report found that nearly 1 in 5 American Christians (19%) not only rejected the resurrection as a fact of history, but also rejected resurrection as being a central tenet of the Christian faith. Note: This number has risen an astounding 12 percentage points since 2012 (up from 7%).
It would seem a significant portion of your typical Easter congregation is actually skeptical of the very event Easter was instituted to celebrate - The resurrection!
Let me say unequivocally… If you do not believe Jesus rose from the dead, you are not a Christian! Every major Christian creed has affirmed this to be an essential Christian belief.
In 2001 a movie starring Antonio Banderas titled “The Body” explored the potential ramifications discovering the body of Jesus would have for Christianity. Banderas, playing the character of Father Gutierrez, is assigned by the Vatican to investigate an archeologist claiming to have discovered the body of Jesus. Though Father Gutierrez initially sets out to challenge and discredit the claim, as more and more supporting evidence mounts his faith begins to waver. No longer able to suppress the truth, Father Gutierrez comes to the stark realization it is the Catholic Church he’s actually protecting and not the Christian faith. While in the end the bones are not those of Jesus, Father Gutierrez decides to resign from the priesthood anyway concluding… “I thought I had lost my faith in Christ, in God, my savior, my friend. But I didn't. I've lost my faith in serving men... Who use God to justify their material agendas. That's why I now choose to serve God in my own personal way.”
And yet, please understand at best this position (one shared by 19% of Christians) is intellectually inconsistent for without the resurrection there can be no Christian faith.
Though the resurrection of Jesus is essential to our Christian faith I will concede the claim itself is rather radical. I mean there is a reason no other religion or moral leader has ever dared make such an assertion. Being skeptical of the resurrection is only reasonable. As Ravi Zacharias put it, “What I believe in my heart must make sense in my mind.”
And yet, understand while the resurrection of Jesus might be the most extreme claim of history, it is also one of the more reliable. While the Bible concedes the reality that no one actually saw Jesus resurrect from the dead (the rolling back of the stone did not intend to let Jesus out, but rather to allow humanity to peer in) there is also no debate something occurred following the death of Jesus that changed the course of human history!
First, as a fact of history, the body of Jesus has always been missing. Not only did Jesus’ followers claim to discover the tomb empty, but even His most ardent enemies conceded the reality His body had mysteriously vanish. Note: The disciples had zero opportunity to steal the body and they lacked any incentive to fabricate a lie.
As a simple and undisputed fact of history, Jesus’ body has never been recovered when there has always been great incentive to do so! To this point William Lane Craig correctly reasons that “if the tomb were not empty, it would be impossible for a movement founded on the belief in the resurrection to have come into existence in the same city where this man had been publicly executed and buried.”
Secondly, as a fact of history, beginning with these women in the garden and progressing down through the centuries, a massive number of people of all ethnicities and walks of life have claimed to personally encounter the resurrected Jesus.
It’s been observed that “the issue with Jesus isn’t that He was nowhere to be seen, it’s that He was seen, alive; He was seen, dead; and He was seen alive, once more.”
The eyewitnesses support for the resurrected Jesus is legally overwhelming. According to Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, “Jesus was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.”
Keep in mind, Christianity did not form in a vacuum. Every event that fostered its development took place in the public arena - out in the open! After a 3 year public ministry Christ was crucified in a public place, placed in a public tomb, protected by public guards… And upon rising, Jesus presented Himself to the public on ten separate occasions.
In a famous debate concerning the resurrection New Testament scholar Dr. Gary Habermas closed his argument by saying, “Here’s how I look at the evidence for the resurrection: First, did Jesus die on the cross? And second, did he appear later to people? If you can establish those two things, you’ve made your case, because dead people don’t normally do that.”
Even today one of the most powerful evidences of the resurrection are the rational people who point to an encounter with the resurrected Jesus as being the singular reason their life has changed for the best. Think about the person who brought you to church this morning… How do you explain the transformation of their life (the one from sin to righteousness) apart from a supernatural encounter with a living Jesus?
English columnist A.N. Wilson wrote, “My belief in the resurrection has come about in large measure because of the lives and examples of people I have known - not the famous, not saints, but friends and relations who have lived, and faced death, in the light of the Resurrection story, or in the quiet acceptance that they have a future after they die.”
Finally, apart from all of this, it is also a fact of history that even skeptics of the resurrection had something take place in their lives so palpable and real that it transformed them into stanch proponents almost overnight.
Think about it… If the resurrection didn’t occur, how do you explain how the disciples go from being pitiful cowards to bold proclaimers in a matter of only a few days? Proclaimers, it should be pointed out, who would lay down their lives over their refusal to recant.
Don’t forget... The disciples did not expect Jesus to die yet alone rise from the dead three days later. In line with the current Jewish thought of the day, they were convinced Jesus was going to triumphantly defeat the Romans and usher in a new kingdom.
Even before Jesus was crucified as He was being arrested everyone of them but John, disappointed their dreams and aspirations had been dashed, immediately abandoned Jesus, went into hiding, deserted the faith, and became skeptics and doubters. And yet… Something so substantial occurred during the 50 days between Passover and Pentecost that it not only changed their lives but revolutionized their perspectives.
With this in mind, Anglican Cleric John R.W. Stott has aptly pointed to “the transformation of the disciples of Jesus as being the greatest evidence of all for the resurrection.”
Jewish historian and theologian Pinchas Lapide added that “if the defeated and depressed group of disciples overnight could change into a victorious movement of faith, based only on autosuggestion or self-deception - without a fundamental faith experience - then this would be a much greater miracle than the resurrection.”
Other examples of this transformation: James, the brother of Jesus and Saul of Tarsus.
In his book “Contemporary Scholarship and the Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ” William Lane Craig reaches this conclusion, “These three great facts - the resurrection appearances, the empty tomb, and the origin of the Christian faith - all point to one unavoidable conclusion: The resurrection of Jesus. Today the rational man can hardly be blamed if he believes that on that first Easter morning a divine miracle occurred.”
When it comes to the resurrection of Jesus, because this event is of such critical importance to our Christian faith, it can either be flatly rejected or gloriously accepted.
Jesus either remains dead or He rose and is alive. The Empty Tomb is either emblematic of the greatest con ever devised or it’s evidence of the greatest event of human history! Either you’re missing out on the most revolutionary occurrence to have ever taken place on this planet or your friends are senile or at best disillusioned and misguided (they’re claiming to have encountered and interact with a dead man). Either / Or!
Coming to a personal conclusion concerning this all important topic is of critical importance for your beliefs either against or for the resurrection of Jesus carry with them significant and radically different implications!
Consider… If Jesus didn’t rise on the 3rd day and has always been dead, the reality is that He would be nothing but a proven liar, His claim to be God would have been utter lunacy, and we would have no hope of salvation yet alone a future resurrection.
Keep in mind that on three separate occasions Jesus foretold His coming resurrection:
Because Jesus intentionally and deliberately placed the validity of everything He said and everything He claimed to be on His physical resurrection following three days in a tomb, failing to rise from the dead would have had tremendous consequences!
It’s been said, “The resurrection is the proof of Jesus’ triumph over sin and death. It’s the foreshadowing of the resurrection of his followers. It’s the basis of Christian hope. If Jesus did not rise, we have no assurance of resurrection.”
Your beliefs concerning the resurrection matter for as Theologian B.B. Warfield said, “Christ Himself deliberately staked His whole claim to the credit of men upon His resurrection. When asked for a sign He pointed to this sign as His single and most sufficient credential.”
In his book “Mere Christianity” C.S. Lewis wrote, “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic - on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg - or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. It seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God."
Keep in mind… There is no room for a third option concerning the resurrection of Jesus. Either He’s dead and completely discredited or He’s alive and completely validated!
In his book “The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism” Timothy Keller put it this way, “If Jesus rose from the dead, then you have to accept all that he said; if he didn't rise from the dead, then why worry about any of what he said? The issue on which everything hangs is not whether or not you like his teaching but whether or not he rose from the dead.”
And while we have examined the implications if He had failed to rise from the dead, consider the incredible personal implications if He indeed had risen!
In conclusion… I’d like to point out from our text something amazing - especially for the skeptic! After declaring to this group of women that “He is risen” the angel invites them to “come and see” for themselves “the place where the Lord lay.”
I find this to be encouraging for after making such an incredible claim the angel immediately addresses their natural skepticism (doesn’t avoid it or rebuke it) by inviting them to see for themselves before they went and told others.
But notice what happens next… Once they had shown faith enough to look for themselves Jesus responded to their faith by providing the most persuasive evidence of all… He personally appeared to them! “And as they went to tell His disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, "Rejoice!" So they came and held Him by the feet and worshiped Him.”
Let me say, “Jesus is risen!” Now despite all of your inherent hesitations and understandable skepticism knowing full well the implications of either rejecting or believing this claim… Are you at least willing to “come and see?” I am convinced anyone willing to except the invite to examine the Empty Tomb for themselves will emerge to discover the resurrected Jesus!