The Truth of Resurrection
Matthew relates that the day after the crucifixion of Jesus, The chief priests and the Pharisees gathered together with Pilate, and said, ‘Sir, we remember that when He was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I am to rise again.’ Therefore, give orders for the grave to be made secure until the third day, otherwise His disciples may come and steal Him away and say to the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last deception will be worse than the first’ (Matt. 27:62-64).
Pilate said to them, ‘You have a guard; go, make it as secure as you know how’ (27:65). The tomb was secured by a large stone, which being quite heavy, ran on a track and fit into the mouth of the tomb. They also set a seal on the stone (the word seal refers to an official insignia attesting that this tomb was under Roman jurisdiction). In addition, they set a guard. They made the grave secure. So it would seem: officially sealed and guarded. But not secure against the purposes of God.
The soldiers were huddled together in the pre-dawn chill. Suddenly, the stillness of the garden was shattered as the ground shook in the powerful grip of an earthquake. An angel appeared, shining with the dazzling, blinding brightness of God’s glory. The guards were transfixed as the angel rolled the massive stone away from the mouth of the tomb with a mighty, rumbling sound.
The guards shook with fear (28:4). The word shook derives from the same root as the word earthquake. The guards were experiencing their own personal seismic event. They also became like dead men. Tough, combat hardened veterans fainted, so great was their terror. This is not an imaginary event. The soldiers truly collapsed and when they recovered, they could see that the tomb was empty.
Let’s make sure we understand — the angel did not roll away the stone to let Jesus out. It was to let others in, so they could attest to the reality of the resurrection. Jesus was already risen.
The Roman soldiers realized they were facing a potentially fatal problem — they could be executed for dereliction of duty. They hurried back to Jerusalem and reported to the Jewish authorities who, after consulting together, paid the soldiers a large sum of money to spread the lie that Jesus’ disciples had come by night and stolen the body while the guardians of the tomb slept (Matt. 28:11-15).
Notice how immediately Satan began to attack the truth of the resurrection. The lies began that first Easter morning and have continued to this present day. But each assault on the empty tomb creates more problems of credibility for the doubters and critics. The primary problem is this: who had any motive or opportunity to steal the body?
1. Grave robbers? But if they had entered the tomb, why would they take the body, which was of no value to them, and leave behind the linen cloths and spices which could have been sold for a considerable sum of money? And how would they have gotten past the soldiers? Further, if the soldiers had been asleep, how would the robbers have moved the stone without waking them?
2. Some have theorized that the Jewish leaders stole the body but why would they validate the claims of Christ, that He would rise from the dead? And if they had stolen it, surely they would have produced it as soon as the church began to proclaim a resurrection.
3. Did the Roman soldiers steal the body? But they had no motive and a very good reason to prevent its theft. They could have been punished severely, and possibly executed, for failure to perform their duty. Remember also that they did not originally report that the body of Jesus had been stolen by the disciples while they slept. They were paid by the Jewish authorities to say that. And finally, if they had been asleep, how would they have known who stole the body?
4. Did the disciples steal the body? The Jewish authorities paid the soldiers to say that they did. But the disciples had no concept of a Messiah who would die; much less could they conceive of a Messiah who would rise from the dead. How could they counterfeit something which they had never imagined? Furthermore, they were completely demoralized by the death of Jesus and terrified of further persecution. As the resurrection took place, they were hiding behind locked doors, fearful of their own impending arrest. They were in no way prepared to fabricate a resurrection. They did not believe that such an event was even remotely possible.
As terrified, discouraged and grief-stricken as the apostles were, would they have left their hiding places and turned the world upside down with the message of a risen Savior, if, in fact, they knew that message was a lie? How could men who did not have the courage to stand beside Jesus when He was alive suddenly find courage to preach His resurrection now that He was dead, if they knew that He did not really rise from the dead?
Further, the apostles could not have stolen the body of Jesus out from under the Roman guards. Some of the soldiers may have slept in the night but not all. And even if they had been asleep, as with the grave robbers, so with the disciples — how could a heavy stone have been moved without waking the guards? The soldiers would have responded rapidly and violently to any human attempt to gain entrance to the tomb.
The authorities never denied that the tomb was empty. There was no question or controversy concerning that. The question was simply, how did it become empty? There is no other explanation than this: Jesus rose from the dead.
Christians down through the ages have based their life, their hope and their eternal destiny on the foundational truth that the death of Jesus Christ was not the last word in His life and ministry, but that He arose triumphant over death. Throughout the centuries, the courageous procession of disciples have stood on Christ’s cornerstone promise, Because I live, you will live also (John 14:19). The resurrection of Jesus guarantees the certainty of our resurrection.
Encountering the risen Christ, terrified, discouraged, heart-broken followers of a crucified rabbi were transformed into courageous witnesses. The resurrection of Jesus gave birth to the fellowship of saints that became the church triumphant. The world could ridicule them, imprison them, beat them, even kill them but could never make them deny the reality of the resurrection.
In the ancient Nicene Creed, we confess,
“We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God, … For us and for our salvation
He came down from heaven …
He became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary,
For our sake He was crucified ...
He suffered death and was buried.
On the third day He rose again
In accordance with the Scriptures.”
For centuries this has been the confession of the church,
The cornerstone of our faith.
It remains our confession and cornerstone today.
Jesus rose victorious over death, hell and the grave.
We serve a risen Savior.
He is as alive in your life and your circumstances
as He was in Nazareth, Jerusalem or Capernaum.
We serve a risen Savior.
After Jesus ate a final meal with His disciples, they moved from the upper room to the Mount of Olives. Along the way, Jesus prophesied that He would be struck down and they would all abandon Him before the night was over. Then He said, But after I have been raised, I will go ahead of you to Galilee (Matthew 26:32). In the hours before His death, Jesus had no doubt that the Father would raise Him from the dead.
In fact, it was impossible that Jesus, by whom, through and for whom all things were created (Colossians 1:16), would be held captive by death. It was impossible that Jesus, in whom all things hold together (Col. 1:17), who upholds the universe by His word of power (Hebrews 1:3), would be consumed by death.
It is impossible that death could contain the One of whom it is said, All things came into being through Him and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life (John 1:3,4). How could the tomb hold Him? The stones of that tomb consisted, at their molecular level, by the sovereign expression of God’s purpose in Christ. It was impossible that mere stones would hold captive their Creator.
The tomb failed to imprison. The lie failed to convince.
The truth prevailed in the heart of all to whom God granted salvation.
If the Easter stories are false, invented by early Christians, they would match in every detail. If a group of people are lying, they want to make sure their lies agree. But these stories do not agree in every detail. Instead, they provide the perspective of different witnesses, each Gospel writer including a rich variety of details based on his own information interpreted as the Holy Spirit inspired him. No one tries to fit it all together in a false or contrived way.
Furthermore, how could the early church have invented a resurrection story? It was beyond their comprehension. The disciples neither expected nor understood the death of Jesus. How much less did they expect or understand the possibility of His resurrection.
If they did not believe Jesus would die, they could not possibly have imagined that He would rise from the dead. On the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus had stood before Peter, James and John, transfigured in glory, speaking with Elijah and Moses. The shekinah glory of God had overshadowed them all. Afterwards, Jesus directed the apostles not to tell anyone of this experience until He rose from the dead. The three disciples, Seized upon that statement, discussing with one another what rising from the dead meant (Mark 9:9,10).
Hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus, David the Psalmist wrote, For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol; nor will you allow your Holy One to undergo decay (Psalm 16:10). Peter, preaching on the day of Pentecost only fifty days after the death of Jesus (Acts 2:26-30) and the Apostle Paul, several years later (in Acts 13:25), both interpret this Scripture as prophetically referring to Jesus.
Yet on the night Jesus was arrested, Peter had denied that he even knew the Lord. Broken by his failure of courage, crushed by the death of his Lord, how could he stand and preach with such boldness only seven weeks later? Paul, a violent persecutor of the followers of Jesus, attempting in his rage to destroy every trace of the church, became the great apostle of the gospel.
Why would they have preached with such courage and passion a message that they knew to be false? Why would they have poured out their lives and died for a gospel which they knew to be a lie? There is only one possible answer: the witnesses are many, the testimony is certain — Jesus rose from the dead.
When we combine the four Gospel accounts of the resurrection, we see this narrative:
Mary Magdalene and a small group of women came to the tomb early Sunday morning with burial spices to anoint the body of Jesus. The sun was just beginning to rise over the Judean hills and the women were wondering, Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb? (Mark 16:3). They had no idea that a guard had been posted. But they courageously pressed on, intent on honoring Jesus. They were expecting only to minister to a lifeless body. There was no expectation of a resurrection.
They arrived at the tomb to discover that, A severe earthquake had occurred and an angel of the Lord had rolled the stone away from the mouth of the tomb (Matt. 28:2). The past tense verb, had occurred, makes it sound as if the earthquake and the moving of the stone happened prior to the arrival of the women. Evidently the soldiers had already fled.
Magdalen must have left immediately, returning to Jerusalem to tell the apostles. As the remaining women came close, they saw an angel sitting on the stone and his appearance was like lightning and his clothing as white as snow (Matt. 28:3). The angel radiated the glory of God, having just come from the presence of God.
The women were astonished but how much greater their wonder when this messenger spoke. Do not be afraid; for I know that you are looking for Jesus who has been crucified. He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said. Come, see the place where He was lying (Matt. 28:5,6). The tomb was empty. Furthermore, it was not empty because someone stole the body. It was empty because He was not dead — He had risen.
The angel then commands the women to go and tell the disciples that Jesus has risen (Matt. 28:7). As they made their way back to the city, Jesus met them (Matt. 28:9). They recognized Him and fell down to worship Him for now they knew with certainty that the Lord had risen.
From John’s account, we know that Mary Magdalen left as soon as she saw the stone rolled away but before she heard the announcement of the angel. She ran back to Jerusalem, hurrying to tell Peter and John that the body of Jesus has been stolen, as she assumed (John 20:1,2). The other women stayed at the tomb, at which point they encountered the angelic messengers (Luke tells us there were two, 24:4; later Mary also saw two — Jn. 20:12).
Mary mentions only the empty tomb since she did not see the angel or hear him say that Jesus had risen. Having received the news from Mary that the tomb was empty, Peter and John ran to the tomb (John 20:3). John arrived first and stooped to look in. He saw only the linen wrappings. Peter arrived and true to his bold nature, burst into the tomb, finding the linen wrappings and the face cloth rolled up in a place by itself.
Mary returned to the tomb but because she must have been exhausted by now and because she moved more slowly than Peter and John, they were gone when she arrived (John 20:11…). We’ll talk about her encounter in another lesson. But there were three more extraordinary encounters with Jesus before the day was over.
The Lord appeared to Simon Peter, though we know nothing of this, only that it happened (Luke 24:34). Paul validates this encounter (I Cor. 15:5). To understand the significance and poignancy of this event, we need to remember the background. Peter had abandoned Jesus and then denied that he even knew his Lord. Fallen and ashamed, he needed reassurance that his unfaithfulness had not destroyed his relationship with the Lord, that he was still included in God’s kingdom purpose, that Christ still loved him. Jesus did this privately and no one has ever been privy to the details. No one else was there. There is no record of their conversation.
Do you hear the tenderness of Jesus in this encounter? Though Peter would later be restored publicly as a leader of the apostles at the Sea of Galilee, this private meeting was for the restoration of personal friendship between Jesus and Peter. What a marvelous outpouring of grace that must have been.
That afternoon, Jesus met two disciples on the road to a little village called Emmaus (Luke 24:13…). In the evening He met a gathering of followers, possibly in the Upper Room (Luke 24:36… John 20:19…). He simply stepped through the walls and the locked doors. A week later He appeared to the disciples and Thomas was with them (Jn. 20:26).
Some time later, Jesus met a group of disciples beside the Sea of Galilee and fed them breakfast (Jn. 21:1…). There He also restored Peter to his position of leadership. Jesus later appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time (I Corinthians 15:6). Many commentators suggest that this is the occasion referred to in Matthew 28:16-20, known as the Great Commission.
Jesus also appeared to someone named James whom we assume to be the half-brother of Jesus, who later became a pillar of the Jerusalem church (I Cor. 15:7). The Lord appeared to His disciples for forty days, convincing them of the reality of His resurrection and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God (Acts 1:3). He then led His disciples to Bethany, a small village on the east side of the Mount of Olives, only two miles from Jerusalem. After commissioning them again (Acts 1:8), He then lifted up His hands and blessed them. While He was blessing them, He parted from them and was carried up into heaven (Luke 24:50). In Luke’s parallel account in Acts, Jesus was lifted up in a cloud, no doubt the shekinah glory of God (Acts 1:9).
Some years after this, Jesus appeared to a man named Saul who then became Paul, the great Apostle to the gentiles (I Corinthians 15:8).
My question is this — how could the early church have invented such a detailed list of encounters involving so many people? The very idea of resurrection was beyond their comprehension. The disciples neither expected nor understood the death of Jesus. How much less did they expect or understand the possibility of His resurrection.
Though Christ had often spoken to them about His death and resurrection, the disciples had not believed Him or grasped His meaning (see Mark 9:31,32 for a typical example). They could not equate death with what they knew to be true about Him. They correctly believed Jesus to be the Messiah and the Son of God. It was incomprehensible to them that He would be arrested and killed. While Jesus was setting His course to go to Jerusalem, preparing His soul for the cross, His disciples were competing for positions in what they assumed would be the soon inauguration of the kingdom of God. In fact, at the table of the last meal with Jesus, after Jesus had instituted Holy Communion, Luke reports, And there arose also a dispute among them as to which one of them was regarded to be greatest (Luke 22:24). They assumed, even at thiat late hour, that the kingdom of God was about to break into history and they each wanted to insure they had the best seat.
If they did not believe Jesus would die, they could not possibly have imagined that He would rise from the dead. The disciples were crushed when Jesus died. They had fled for their lives and were entirely disillusioned, terrified and grief-struck. All they believed had been destroyed. The idea that the resurrection of Jesus was invented by the church is absurd. They were not capable of inventing something that was beyond the realm of their faith and imagination. Only a literal, physical resurrection could have broken through their depression, fear and unbelief.
How could they have preached with such courage and passion a message if they knew it was false? Why would they have poured out their lives and died for a gospel which they knew to be a lie? What accounts for the transformation of those first few men and women and the millions since then who have proclaimed Christ at such a cost to their own lives? Only a truly risen Lord can inspire generations of self-sacrificing messengers and martyrs.
The witnesses are many, the testimony is certain. Jesus Christ rose from the dead.
As Jesus said to John, so he says to each of us,
Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living One;
and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore,
and I have the keys of death and of Hades (Rev. 1:16,17)
And we are assured of His promise,
Because I live, you will live also (John 14:19).
1. The disciples were completely demoralized after the death of Jesus. How do you account for their transformation into dynamic, self-sacrificing messengers of Good News?
2. Did the religious authorities ever deny that the tomb was empty?