Jesus had been mistreated, wrongly condemned by corrupt processes and summarily executed. As Good Friday drew to a close the soldiers moved in. The next day was a special Sabbath and the Jews didn’t want dying men to be lingering on crosses. The soldiers’ task was to speed up death by breaking the legs of the crucified victims so that they would no longer be able to push themselves upwards to breathe. The soldiers knew about death and they knew when they came to Jesus that they didn’t need to break his legs for he was already dead. But to be on the safe side one of them plunged his spear into Jesus side –blood and water flowed from the wound. Yes, he was dead alright!
John’s interest in writing his gospel is to tell us about Jesus and he ended his records of that Good Friday was a description of how the dead body of Jesus came to be laid in a new tomb in the garden.
The next day, that special Sabbath, he passed over in silence but what a lot he had to impart when it came to describing the events of the first day of the new week! It was a day unlike any other for it was the day on which Jesus Christ rose from the dead. The same man who a matter of hours earlier had expired in such a bloody fashion was now alive and well with the power of an indestructible life. He had gone into death and come out victorious on the other side in a way that no one had ever done before. The early Christians understood this and would refer to Jesus as “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1Cor.15:20) or as “the firstborn from the dead” (Col.1:18) and this man having been raised from the dead will never die again (Rom.6:9).
Again and again the NT refers to the fact that Jesus Christ rose from the dead – indeed so vital is this truth that the Christianity of the Bible simply would not exist without it. And any religion that purports to be Christian is worthless if it is not in harmony with the Christianity of the Bible.
John Piper highlighted this when he wrote:
“The best news of the Christian gospel is that the supremely glorious Creator of the universe has acted in Jesus Christ's death and resurrection to remove every obstacle between us and himself so that we may find everlasting joy in seeing and savouring his infinite beauty.”
This being the case we should not be surprised that the fact of the resurrection is extremely well-attested despite the attempts of atheists like Richard Dawkins to maintain otherwise. Listen to these words of Harvard law Professor, Dr. Simon Greenleaf:
“According to the laws of legal evidence used in courts of law, there is more evidence for the historical fact of the resurrection of Jesus Christ than for just about any other event in history.”
This morning we’re going to look at some of this evidence as John described the way in which Jesus’ earliest followers came to believe in his resurrection. As John Piper has pointed out most of the early witnesses came to faith in Jesus as the resurrected Lord not because they could not find his corpse but because they found Christ alive. But the apostle John testified that he came to believe before he actually saw Jesus in resurrected form. And he took this step, not simply because the tomb was empty, but because the grave-clothes were still there.
In focusing our thoughts on Jn.20 we’re going to consider some of the different ways in which Jesus’ followers became convinced that he had conquered death and was alive. The followers we’ll look at are:
· Mary Magdalene
· Peter and John
· A larger group of disciples
Mary Magdalene Meets with Jesus
In each of the gospel narratives concerning the resurrection of Jesus Christ Mary is the first person named as being on the scene. She wasn’t alone in going at daybreak to the tomb, being accompanied by a number of other women, but she was the one who seems to have played the most active role that morning. John paints a picture that enables us to understand her state of mind.
Mary had set out with these other ladies while it was still dark. They wanted to prepare Jesus’ dead body for a proper burial. Events had happened so fast on Good Friday that there had simply been no time or occasion to honour their Master in the appropriate way and they wanted if possible to put that right.
It was a sorry business and suddenly it seemed to have become a whole lot worse. As they neared the tomb they became aware that it was not as they had left it just a couple of days before. The stone that sealed the entrance was no longer in place!
Jesus’ body was not there! For some more of the details you’ll have to read the various gospel accounts all John is interested in telling us is that Mary left the scene to go and tell Peter and John about it.
Mary was obviously distressed and in a hurry – she ran back to find Peter and John and tell them what she knew. The tomb was empty and Jesus’ body had gone adding that they had no idea where the body had been taken.
Mary had not been expecting a resurrection and wasn’t even now thinking along those lines when she had found the tomb open and the body gone!
Peter and John raced off to the garden and Mary evidently followed for in v.11 we find her back outside the tomb. It all was too much for her and she was emotionally distraught, weeping.
She stooped once more to look into the tomb – maybe she was still hoping to find what she hadn’t been able to find before – but this time she sees a couple of individuals sitting there. John tells us they were angels but Mary doesn’t seem perturbed by their appearance seeing them as potential witnesses who might be able to tell her what has been going on.
Mary hasn’t yet moved on in her assessment of the situation. Resurrection certainly isn’t on her mind. His body isn’t here and, in her mind, that means that someone must have removed it. So when the angels asked why she was weeping she pleaded with them to tell her where Jesus’ body had been taken.
Did she hear a noise behind her which made her turn round? I don’t know but she did turn around and there was someone else standing there. This person too asked what the matter was and why she was weeping. Once again Mary can only think in terms of corpses – maybe this person can tell her where his body is – so she asks him the same question. She is convinced that Jesus is dead and all she wants is to find his dead body.
And then in an instant her world is turned inside out and upside down for the person she thought to be the gardener was speaking again only this time she recognised his voice as he addressed her by name! This was Jesus! This was the dead man she was looking for only he wasn’t dead at all!!
It’s very hard to put ourselves in Mary’s position and to try to imagine the effect all this had upon her though perhaps we can understand her desire to cling on to the One who now stood before her.
From believing Jesus to be dead to knowing him to be alive took place rapidly for Mary. The error of her thinking gave way before the overwhelming evidence of the risen Lord standing in front of her. She believed now and was ready to carry out the first mission of the resurrection epoch – we’ll come back to this in a few minutes. But for now let’s just flag up the content of the message she had to pass on to his disciples:
“I have seen the Lord”
And for some of you coming to believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ may come in a similarly startling way – it did for the Saul on the road to Damascus and it has done for many others down through the years. What is important is not the speed by which this new conviction takes hold of you but the fact that it does! Do you believe that Jesus is risen from the dead?
Paul would later write words that are relevant to us all:
“if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom.10:9)
Peter and John
Let us now turn our thoughts to Peter and John. If they were together with the other disciples when Mary ran in with her breathless report, it seems as though it was only Peter and John who were genuinely affected by what she had to say. The others simply regarded her story as an idle tale (cf. Lk.24:2) but Peter and John were sufficiently moved to do something about it. They raced off together to the tomb to investigate for themselves and to check out what Mary had said. When they got to the garden they found things largely as Mary had led them to believe – the tomb was open and there was no sign of any corpse. But as they went in they saw those cloths that had been used to wrap up Jesus’ dead body. There was a linen shroud lying there and, carefully folded and put to one side, was the face cloth which had been wrapped round his head.
And that was all they saw. There was no one else present. There was no one else there who might be able to answer their questions. So the two of them left and went back to their homes.
But, you know, John didn’t need to see anything more – when he saw the evidence of the empty tomb and in particular the evidence of the linen cloths is that was enough for him (and maybe it was for Peter too). John believed.
Of course John was writing his gospel accounts many years later and as he reflected upon the events of that day he berated his own failure at that time to know, understand and trust God’s word, Scripture.
He and the others had heard Jesus teach about resurrection on several occasions especially as the end of his earthly ministry drew closer but he hadn’t understood then and had since forgotten what Jesus had said. He had also failed to understand Old Testament Scriptures such those concerning Jonah’s experience to which Jesus referred to Matthew 12:40. On the day of Pentecost Peter would preach on the resurrection of Jesus building upon truths taught in Psalm 16 but on that first Easter Sunday morning such truths had yet to be understood by these apostles. For the moment John would be convinced by the evidence he had seen, evidence that would later be corroborated by a series of encounters with the living Christ himself. During those encounters Jesus himself would give them some in-depth Bible study:
Lk.24:44-47 “Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
You might not yet see or understand everything as you ought to but you mustn’t let that stop you from believing in Christ now. Believe in Christ and you will come to a clearer deeper understanding too. And haven’t you already seen enough to believe in him? There is plenty of evidence to look at – take for example the evidence of the changed lives of Christians that you know. No, there is no shortage of evidence. As Martin Luther once said: “Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection, not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime.”
We’ve already briefly seen how Mary spoke to Jesus’ disciples about having seen him and that he had spoken to her. Now it is time for us to spend a little time with these men.
How kind the Lord is to his people! He doesn’t save those who are necessarily good people or even promising people. Here the disciples had shown themselves to be distinctly less than promising as they had heard the first reports of resurrection with a strong dose of scepticism and yet Jesus is his compassion meets with them and speaks words of peace to them.
And at last his graciousness has its effect in their lives – they are made glad! And Jesus reinforces his blessing by speaking peace to them again. He will even use these less-than-perfect men in his service. And here too he provides everything they can possibly need to serve him – their own strength and ability would inevitably prove to be insufficient but he doesn’t expect them to serve in their own strength relying upon their own innate capacity. No, he breaths his Holy Spirit onto them and entrusts them with the wonderful ministry of sharing the good news that sins can be forgiven.
I wonder if you feel that you have made such a mess of your life that Jesus will never want to save someone like you. Maybe you have dithered a long time, you’ve heard the truth, you’ve seen it working effectively in the lives of others but you have hesitated and dallied and not embraced it all personally for yourself. Perhaps you think that you’ve done this for so long that it’s too late to change now. Perhaps you think that you haven’t got what it takes.
Oh! folk can have so many reasons or excuses! Let me tell you that salvation is for sinners and that means that the salvation Jesus offers is for people just like you and me. If you find that hard to believe just think again about these poor disciples – there was hope and joy for them and there is for you too but you must believe in the Lord Jesus Christ risen from the dead!
There was of course one of Jesus’ disciples who was missing from that Sunday evening meeting and his name was Thomas. He has gone down in history as “doubting Thomas” and from what we know of him from the Bible record he seems to have been a bit of a pessimistic character too. If he was around today he’d probably like to see himself as a realist – he certainly wasn’t about to let the high spirits of others affect him in any way. Talk about being resistant, Thomas was amazing.
I wonder if any of you are like him.
All of his companions were telling him the same thing. They had all seen Jesus and how glad it had made them all but Thomas wasn’t having any of it:
“Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails,” he said “and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” Jn.20:25
And what did such an attitude bring him during the week that followed? It’s not easy to see those you know rejoicing and enjoying what you refuse to admit for yourself!
But the week came to an end and there was another evening gathering and this time Thomas was not absent. And this not-easy-to-convince man was about to be turned totally around. Signs, proofs and words abound and Thomas is won over!
The doors were again locked but how do you expect to keep out a man who can break the bonds of death itself! Jesus wasn’t hindered by locked doors this time any more than he had been the first time he had met with his disciples. Again words of peace were spoken and then wonderfully Jesus singled Thomas out. A week of stubborn resistance didn’t cause Jesus to pass Thomas by but it did serve to highlight the graciousness of the Lord Jesus. Why will you go on stubbornly resisting Jesus any longer? Will you not receive the peace his graciously offers you?
Thomas had laid down his terms a week earlier – he’d only believe if he could see those nail-pierced hands and touch that side wounded by a soldier’s spear – and Jesus knew what he had said. Graciously, Jesus invited Thomas to do what he said he wanted to do only he must stop disbelieving and believe.
And you know what? Thomas didn’t need to do what he said he had to do if he were ever going to believe. And nor do you need to see this or touch that or whatever it is you think necessary. Jesus is alive, risen from the dead, and you can come to him now, you can stop disbelieving now and you can start believing now. You can start a new life right now, a life which is characterised by peace and gladness – because although Thomas saw and believed Jesus went on to declare that it is possible to believe without having seen, indeed, he said, those who believe like that are the blessed people.
You don’t need to see everything with your own eyes before you can believe. We don’t even know about everything that Jesus did – he did so much more than has ever been recorded – but he showed his apostles these things so that they could confidently pass on the gospel message to you and that you could confidently receive it!
“these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may life in his name.” Jn.20:31
Dear friends, come to Jesus Christ, the living Lord Jesus Christ, and live and do so before it is too late.
And to God be the glory.