Jun 23, 2019
John 20:19-23

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A few years ago Rasmussen released a comprehensive report that found nearly 1 in 5 American Christians — 19% — not only questioned the resurrection of Jesus as a fact of history, but rejected the resurrection as being a central tenet of the Christian faith. In today’s culture many people want to believe in Jesus without actually believing Jesus.

Let me say this as clearly as I possibly can — You can refuse to believe Jesus rose from the dead, but you cannot consider yourself to also be a Christian! John MacArthur agrees writing, “The resurrection of Jesus is the single greatest event in the history of the world. It is so foundational to Christianity that no one who denies it can be a true Christian.”

To this point it’s worth noting that since the formation of Christianity every major Christian creed has affirmed the resurrection of Jesus as an essential core belief. The original Apostles Creed states, “Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again.” The Nicene Creed formed during the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD stated, “Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again…” 

The Westminster Confession of Faith formed in 1646 articulated clearly, “The Lord Jesus was crucified, and died, was buried, and remained under the power of death, yet saw no corruption. On the third day He arose from the dead, with the same body in which He suffered…” Even the Catechism of the Catholic Church formed in 1992 by Pope John Paul II stresses the irrevocable importance of the risen Lord presenting “the Resurrection of Jesus” as being “the crowning truth of our faith in Christ…”

The simple reality is this position shared by 19% of Christians that the resurrection of Jesus is not necessary to the Christian faith is simply intellectually inconsistent. Theologian and Jesuit Priest Gerald O’Collins once wrote, “Christianity without the resurrection is not simply Christianity without its final chapter. It’s not Christianity at all.” I couldn’t agree more!

In fact the Bible agrees! In 1 Corinthians 15 the Apostle Paul affirmed how vain our faith in Jesus would be apart from the resurrection when he wrote to the believers in Corinth, “If Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty.”

Though I am willing to concede the claim Jesus rose from the dead after predicting He would rise on three separate occasions is radical — case in point no other religious or moral leader has ever dared make such an assertion or claim — the evidence is overwhelming! 

As one example… Extrapolate out a logical explanation for how the skeptics of Jesus’ resurrection ended up becoming proponents? Apart from an actual resurrection, explain how the disciples go from being pitiful cowards to bold proclaimers in a span of only a few short days  proclaimers who would lay down their lives over their refusal to recant! 

You see the Scriptures are clear these disciples did not expect Jesus to die, yet alone rise from the dead on the third day! In line with traditional Jewish thinking, these men were convinced Jesus was going to triumphantly defeat the Romans and usher in a new kingdom. 

Even before Jesus was crucified, as He’s being arrested in the garden, everyone of them but John — disappointed their dreams and aspirations had been totally dashed — immediately abandoned Jesus, went into hiding, deserted the faith, and became skeptics. Not one of these men had any belief Jesus would actually rise from the dead three days later!

And yet… Something so monumental occurred during the 50 days between Passover and Pentecost it not only changed their lives forever but totally revolutionized their perspectives. Anglican Cleric John R.W. Stott has argued that “the transformation of the disciples of Jesus” might very well be “the greatest evidence of all for the resurrection.” 

Also consider… If the resurrection of Jesus never occurred, how do you explain the transformation of men like James the half-brother of Jesus or Saul of Tarsus? Over night each of these men would go from being harden enemies of Christ to faithful followers.

You see the fact remains something miraculous had to of taken place in order to explain what happened in the weeks following Jesus’ crucifixion. History records that thousands of people end up in just five weeks leaving Judaism in order to become followers of Jesus!

They stopped offering animal sacrifices to atone for sins. They abandoned a strict adherence of the Mosaic Laws. They changed their observance of the Sabbath and worshipped God on Sunday instead of Saturday. They moved from monotheism to a trinitarian view of God — Father, Son, Holy Spirit. They even adopted a new view of the mission of the Messiah. How do you explain such a revolutionary shift in religious thinking apart from the resurrection?

It’s incredible to think, but Christianity would not only peacefully triumph over competing ideologies, but would spread so rapidly that over the span of 20 years it had even reached Caesar’s palace in Roman. I’ve heard it observed, “Christianity's lasting impact was so successful that today we name our children Peter and Paul and our dogs Caesar and Nero.”

In his book “Contemporary Scholarship and the Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ” scholar 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.”

As a fact of history, beginning with Mary Magdalene in the garden and progressing down throughout the centuries to today, an innumerable amount of people from all types of ethnicities and walks of life across the globe have claimed to have personally encounter the resurrected Jesus. It’s been observed, “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.” 

As you mull these things over please remember Christianity did not form in a vacuum. Every event that contributed to the development of your faith occurred in the public arena! After a three year public ministry Jesus was crucified in a public place — Golgotha, placed in a public tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea, protected by public guards… And upon rising, Jesus presented Himself to the public on at least ten separate occasions! 

In truth the number of eyewitnesses of the resurrected Jesus is legally overwhelming. Aside from the Gospel narratives, according to the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, “Jesus was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 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.”

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.”

Following Jesus’ first appearance in the garden to Mary Magdalene recorded in the first 18 verses of John 20, the Gospel’s note how Jesus appeared almost immediately afterwards to a group of women who’d been given news of His resurrection just a few minutes earlier. 

The harmonizing of the records indicates Mary Magdalene likely catches up with these ladies and together they come and share with nine of the disciples the news of His resurrection. It would appear Peter (who’s considering things) and John (who’s already convinced) are absent for their report because we’re told in Mark 16:11, “They did not believe” and again in Luke 24:11, “Their words seemed to them like idle tales, and they did not believe them.”

Between John 20 verses 18 and 19, the narrative continued in Luke 24 indicates that following His first appearing to Mary and His second appearance to these women Jesus will then appear to two disciples on the road to Emmaus as well as have a private meeting with Peter in Jerusalem. Sadly, we have no specific details recorded of this particular moment.

In Luke 24:33-34 we read how after Jesus revealed Himself to these two men on the road to Emmaus they immediately “rose up that very hour and returned to Jerusalem, found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together, saying, ‘The Lord is risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!’” Sadly, even with their witness, the ladies earlier, John, and now Simon Peter, Mark 16:13 indicates nine of the disciples still “did not believe.”

John 20:19, “Then, the same day at evening (of the resurrection), being the first day of the week (Sunday), when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews (though not mentioned Thomas has gotten up and left the upper room), Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’” 

The way John describes this scene indicates the gathering was far from accidental. In fact he writes, “The disciples were assembled.” This Greek word we have translated as “assembled” is synagō — the root by which we get the word synagogue. The idea John is conveying is that this particular gathering had been planned. It was official. A formal meeting was called!

By this point in time — some 12 hours or so following Jesus’ resurrection earlier that morning — Mary Magdalene, a group of women, two unnamed disciples, John, and Peter are believers. Personally, I believe it was likely Peter and John who end up calling this meeting when they heard how the other nine disciples were still skeptical of the resurrection.

While we can imagine the singular item on the agenda was discussing the events of that day, John adds “the doors were shut… for fear of the Jews.” In the Greek this verb translated as “shut” implies “the doors” were shackled or totally obstructed. They were on lock down!

What were these men so afraid of that they had to take this type of precaution? In Matthew 28 we read following the earthquake at the tomb that morning, the appearance of the angel, and his pronouncement Jesus had risen from the dead “some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all the things that had happened.” 

Three days earlier these religious leaders — who’d conspired to have Jesus crucified — had been granted permission from Pilate to place “the guard” outside the tomb with the stone officially sealed. Their fundamental fear was Jesus’ followers attempting to steal His body and creating a resurrection hoax. These men even attest to Pilate that they knew Jesus had predicted He would rise from the dead after three days in the grave. 

As you would expect the report these soldiers bring back was totally disconcerting. Word was spreading on the Jerusalem street that not only was Jesus’ body missing from the tomb, but that He’d risen from the dead! Note: Only “some of the guard came and reported” leaving another contingent of these eyewitnesses free to tell people what they’d seen!

Desperate to combat these rumors with a believable spin of their own Matthew continues, “When they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, saying, ‘Tell them, 'His disciples came at night and stole Him away while we slept.’ And if this comes to the governor's ears, we will appease him and make you secure.’ So they took the money and did as they were instructed; and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day.”

The reason the 10 disciples are afraid and have this room on lock-down is that they’d likely heard they were now being accused by the religious establishment of stealing the body of Jesus! Sure, these men knew they were innocent and there was no evidence of their guilt, but they were equally aware innocence doesn’t matter when a coverup is afoot.

Well, as these men are brainstorming their next moves, John recounts how “Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’” This word “came” is interesting for it can literally mean to come into being. While there are some who have Jesus walking through a wall or the locked door, the idea is that Jesus simply materialized in the room. 

What must that moment have been like when they finally realize Jesus was “standing in the midst?” The construct of John’s description is that Jesus appeared amongst them — in the middle. How long did it take for them to notice an unexpected guest was in their midst? How long did it take to compute what it was they were seeing? Could that really be Jesus?

There are some skeptics of the resurrection who speculate that in their collective grief and anguish the disciples and all those present in this room experienced a hallucination that convinced them Jesus had truly risen from the dead and was standing in their midst.

The problems with this theory are obvious… First, the psychological make up of the disciples was not conducive to a hallucination as they were fearful, doubtful, and in despair after the crucifixion. Hallucinations need a fertile mind of expectancy or anticipation.

Second, biologically hallucinations are always linked to an individual's subconscious — to a person’s past beliefs and experiences which makes it impossible for two or more people to have the same hallucination at the same time. Finally, the disciples eventually claim to have touched Jesus and eaten with him. Again, not characteristic of a hallucination in any way.

Jesus’ first recorded words to this group of men and women was “peace be with you!” This makes sense as in Luke 24:37-38 we are told their initial reaction to His appearing was one of “terror and fright!” They were convinced they were seeing “a spirit” or a ghost. So in response to this Jesus asks, “Why are you troubled? Why do doubts arise in your hearts?”

John 20:20-23, “When Jesus had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. So Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.’ And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’”

In this moment Jesus does several important things in the lives of these men and women that will have far-reaching effects. First, Jesus assures them He had in fact physically risen from the dead. John records how Jesus “showed them His hands and His side.” 

In Luke’s account of this event (Luke 24:39) we read how Jesus also instructed them to “behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.” Luke then adds, “But while they still did not believe for joy, and marveled, Jesus said to them, ‘Have you any food here?’ So they gave Him a piece of a broiled fish and some honeycomb. And He took it and ate in their presence.” 

To be fair these men and women are witnessing something that has never happened in the history of humanity! I mean name on one hand the number of people who’d been dead for three days then rose to life on their own? A measure of skepticism was understandable.

And yet, what I love about this passage is that Jesus has zero problems meeting their doubts with ample evidence. He didn’t rebuke their skepticism. Instead, He met them where they were. “Guys, it’s really me! I know it’s crazy — even hard to believe. But seriously, here I am! Touch me. In fact, give me something to eat so I can prove to you I’m not a spirit or a ghost.”

It’s important you realize the profound nature of the resurrection of Jesus — its implications as well as application for our lives — is not founded some keen new idea, philosophy, advanced theology, fresh moral framework, code to live by, or cool idea. The power of the resurrection is ultimately found in the revelation of a person — Jesus the Christ! 

Don’t miss this… The resurrection revealed Jesus was no longer dead! It was proof He’d crossed that grand divide successfully. His return validating this important reality. Friend, you can be sure there is an afterlife because Jesus existed after-death! The resurrection affords you the confidence He hears your prayers and is interceding on your behalf in heaven. 

You can know when you breathe your last you will not be alone. Jesus will be there waiting. A relationship with Jesus today is only possible because He rose so many years ago!

I love the fact Jesus’ first word to these men and women — no doubt freaked out by His presence — was “Peace!” Keep in mind, nine of the men in this room had not only abandoned Jesus in the Garden, but had remained skeptical of the report they’d been given of His resurrection. I’m sure they’re expecting to be rebuked or at least called to account.

How amazing it must have been for these guys in that moment when their eyes connected with a risen Jesus to hear, “Shalom Y’all!” Contrary to the position of the legalist Jesus didn’t rise from the dead to condemn the world of sin, but to save the world from sin! 

Jesus didn’t victoriously conquer the grave only to then bury humanity under the weight of condemnation. Jesus has risen to yield peace in the lives of those navigating this storm called life! Jesus rose to provide mankind peace with his Creator — not conflict. I love the fact the very first message Jesus had for the masses was one of “grace and peace!”

Also notice those who’ve encountered the resurrected Jesus are then given a mission. Jesus says, “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you!” What’s interesting about this statement is that we have two different Greek words for sent Me” and send you.” 

The first is “apostellō” which describes a literal sending out. The second “pempō” means to send by being thrust into another. The idea Jesus is articulating is that He was sent, bumps into us, and we in reaction continue forward the motion. What this means is that our mission is the continuation of His mission deriving its power and authority from His original sending. 

In 2 Corinthians 5:20 Paul will describe us as “ambassadors for Christ.” Jesus is the King of a spiritual kingdom of which we are all presently citizens! That being said… Currently, we find ourselves living in foreign lands, but for a purpose. As ambassadors on foreign soil we have no authority in and of ourselves. Our job is to simply articulate the wishes of our King.

In this world you and I exist to operate as extensions of Jesus. We’ve been commissioned by our King to continue forward the mission He originally began before handing it over to us. As such we act as His representatives, we speak His Word, under His heavenly authority. 

With this in mind, knowing we’d need supernatural power to continue forward a mission that originated in the supernatural John tell us, “When Jesus had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’” 

This word translated “breathed on them” is fascinating to say the least. First, it’s the only time this Greek word is used in the entire New Testament! In fact, in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament we find this particular word being used in only one other place. In Genesis 2:7 we read, “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” 

I believe John was very intentional with his use of this specific word, because he’s wanting to connect this event back to the creation narrative in order to illustrate what Jesus was actually doing in the moment. In much the same way as God originally breathed physical life into Adam, in this upper room Jesus was breathing spiritual life into His disciples.

Most scholars believe this was likely the moment of their regeneration — the actual point in time when these men and women were born again. As Jesus “breathed on them” the Holy Spirit came into them bringing to life the very thing that had been dead since birth because of sin. In that moment a supernatural change occurred within their very being.

When Jesus “breathed on them” only to then command they “receive the Holy Spirit” He’s illustrating how the very life within Himself was now being place within them. You see the power to fulfill the mission of Christ is only found in the indwelling Spirit of Jesus. Today, the very Spirit that resided within Jesus is presently indwelling you!

Admittedly, this line “if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” has been the subject of great debate and controversy over the years. In fact, this verse has been specifically twisted by the Roman Catholic Church to give the power of salvation, forgiveness, and ultimately condemnation to the Pope and priests.

The initial problem originates within the misconception that Jesus spoke these things to only the Apostles. Again in Luke 24 we’re told the room was filled with a multitude of others aside from just the eleven. Biblically, we are assured that Jesus is speaking these important words to a group of Christians and therefore by extension every Christian.

Beyond this, in the original Greek grammar the meaning of the verse gains a whole new level of clarity. Literally, Jesus is saying, “If you forgive the sins of any — that have already been forgiven, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any — that have already been retained, they are retained.” Because we are sent in the authority of Jesus — in His power as His representatives — it is our right to speak His truth into a person’s life when warranted.

Practically speaking, we have the right to pronounce the forgiveness of sins or to warn of a future condemnation for sins. If a person accepts Jesus we can declare with confidence they are forgiven or we can point out a continued rejection of Jesus will result in damnation.

It’s a shame that today most Christians shy away from making such proclamations fearing the secular mob. The truth is that we live in a cultural environment where it’s ok for people to condemn our Biblical beliefs about sexuality, gender, and life — but it’s totally prejudicial for a Christian to question any of the tenants of this new progressive moralism. 

Such declarations like “an active homosexual lifestyle is sinful in the eyes of God” — “human life begins at conception and to abort that life is wrong” — “God made humanity male and female and that gender distinctions intend to complement one another in matrimony” — or “whether you go to heaven or hell is completely based upon whether you accept Jesus as your Savior” will be perceived as being so unacceptable you’ll be ostracized from society.

The problem with Christians acquiescing to this secular mob by allowing ourselves to be silenced concerning moral matters (no one likes being called racist, sexist, hateful, bigoted, prejudicial, or phobic) is that in doing so we ultimately neuter the very Gospel message we have been called and commissioned by Jesus to proclaim to the world. 

The truth is the power of forgiveness can only exist in the life of a person who first senses a need to be forgiven. Salvation from sin and the redemption of a fallen nature means nothing to a person who fundamentally rejects the very idea their behavior is sinful and not as God intended! How can the Gospel be relevant to a person who takes pride in their sin?

Now don’t get me wrong… I’m not advocating calling people out concerning their sin should be the core of our message (as the Apostle Paul reminds us in Romans 2:4 it is the “goodness (or grace) of God that leads a man to repentance”), but if we aren’t willing to call sin sin out of fear I’m afraid we have no message at all for our lost culture! 

Christian, as apostles of Jesus sent into this world under His authority and filled with His Spirit, we need to be bold as well as willing to lovingly tell people the truth of their sin and the warped nature of their behaviors even if tangible consequences are to follow.

In closing, I want you to know 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 — 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.”


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