Easter praise - Matthew 28:1-20
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
The story is told of an Australian family who were on holiday in Israel when tragedy struck. The granny of the party died suddenly, and the son in law had to take charge of the funeral arrangements. As you can imagine, a death in a foreign country made the arrangements particularly complicated, but the Israeli officials did their best to help. The Israeli mortuary official explained to the man that basically he had two options. Either his mother in law could be flown back to Australia, but it would be very expensive. $AUS 10,000 to be exact. And the travel insurance they had didn’t cover it. Or they could bury the woman in an Israeli cemetery for just $AUS 200, a bargain all things considered. The son-in-law pondered his options, but then quickly decided that he would prefer to have his mother in law flown back home to Australia. The mortuary official was puzzled. “Of course, we’ll do that for you, sir, but are you sure. I mean it is very expensive.” The man looked at him and sighed. “Yes, I know, he said. But 2000 years ago they buried a guy here and three days later he rose from the dead. I just can't take that chance with my mother in law!”
Well today is a fantastic day to be a Christian because today we celebrate the wonderful news that Jesus rose physically from the grave and is alive again. It’s a day when every true follower of Christ should be rejoicing especially loudly! But of course for many up and down our land, today is just another Sunday and this weekend just another bank holiday weekend. Because the vast majority in our land are totally ignorant of the glorious truth of Easter and see no point in considering the Easter message. This week I came across a poll taken by Mori a few years ago which surveyed people’s thinking on Easter. Of those asked, just 14% said that they would be going to church on Easter Sunday, with most seeing friends and family or doing DIY. When it came to the significance of Easter, a healthy half thought that there was some significance to it, but still that meant the other half saw no significance in it at all. But perhaps most depressing was the statistic that 45% of those questioned had no idea what happened on Easter Day. Ignorance of the things of God, you see, is rife.
And therefore it’s no surprise to discover that people’s thinking about what happens after death is very vague and uncertain at best. And as I deal with mostly younger people of student age, very few have any firm notion of what will happen to them when they die. At best it’s a vague wish of something better, but at worse, it’s a realisation that death renders all things meaningless. Some go so far as to echo the words of the author Mark Twain shortly before his death: “A myriad of men are born; they labour and sweat and struggle;…they squabble and scold and fight; they scramble for little mean advantages over each other; age creeps upon them; infirmities follow;…those they love are taken from them, and the joy of life is turned to aching grief. [Death] comes at last- the only unpoisoned gift earth ever had for them- and they vanish from a world where they were of no consequence,...a world which will lament them a day and then forget them forever.”
And the trouble is that you and I live and breath in a culture that is fundamentally non Christian in its beliefs and values. Our culture it’s slowly but surely giving up it’s Christian heritage, consigning centuries of Christian thinking and morality to the dustbin of history. And therefore it is no surprise to see that Christians are finding it increasingly hard to maintain their Christian convictions. We are finding it increasingly tough to maintain a distinctive Christian witness without being thought of as crackpots and extremists, when even a few decades ago, such views were the norm. And so as society moves away from its Christian heritage, so Christians are in danger of moving with it. So let me tell you about another survey I came across a while ago. This one surveyed ministers in the Church of England, and it makes for disturbing reading. To the question do you believe in the literal resurrection? Y 240, N 175, NS 36. Will there be a second coming? Y 204, N 183, NS 73. And is there a tangible place called heaven? Y 178, N 228, NS 55!
And that is why again and again, you and I need to reflect on this wonderful Easter hope that Jesus gives us. Because for one it is an historically reliable message which has withstood two thousand years of ridicule and scepticism. And nothing has come close to condemning or rubbishing the Christian message. And second the Easter hope is precisely what our country so desperately needs, in all it’s depravity and lostness. Contrary to what our politicians tell us, it is the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ that will turn this country around under God. And it’s those two things that are precisely Matthew’s concern as he concludes his gospel. Because as he describes the risen Lord appearing to the women and his disciples, he shows us that we can be confident of the certainty of the message, and we must be courageous in our spreading of the message with all the authority of the risen Jesus. So let’s look at this chapter under those two themes, as we find two challenges for us this evening.
1) The Confidence We Have (Vv 1-15)
2) The Command We Obey (Vv 16-20)
1) The Confidence We Have (Vv 1-15)
So first of all, then, let’s look at the confidence we have in verses 1-15. And the fact is that Matthew gives us plenty of evidence to help us see that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is an historical event that really did happen. And as such, it has massive implications for you and me. Matthew gives us three pieces of evidence in this passage to show us it is true.
a) The Empty Tomb- First there is the empty tomb. Now Matthew tells us in verse 1 that it’s the first day of the week, Sunday morning, and two women go to the tomb. They know where it is because Matthew tells us at the end of the last chapter in verse 61 that they watched where Jesus was buried. So there’s no chance of getting the wrong tomb. Now tombs in those days were cut into the rock and then sealed with a huge stone rolled in front. So what do they find? They find an angel who has appeared and rolled the stone away! And he says to them in verse 5: “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.” Now notice that the angel rolls the stone away, not to let Jesus out. He could walk through doors and appear at will where he wanted. Rather it was to let the witnesses in! “Come and see the place where he lay,” says the angel. “He is not here.” So where is he? Why is the tomb empty?
Well lots of theories have been advanced, and Matthew tells us one of those theories in verses 11-15: “While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, "You are to say, 'His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.' If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble." So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.” Can you see what’s going on? The authorities are spreading the rumour that the disciples came and stole the body, and they pay the soldiers off to keep quiet. But the story’s got more holes in it than a fishing net. For a start what kind of soldier would admit he was sleeping on the job, when if he did, he’d be severely reprimanded and even killed. And even if they had been sleeping, surely they would have heard a whole band of disciples coming, moving a huge rock and stealing a body. And there’s no reason to believe the disciples would ever dream of doing such a thing anyway. They were devastated after Jesus’ death, stricken with guilt for their betrayal and in fear of their lives from the authorities. And if they had stolen the body, then why did almost all the disciples face horrific deaths saying Jesus was alive. Surely if the whole thing was a hoax, if Jesus was buried under Peter’s patio in Capernaum, then one of the would have given the game away under pain of death. But they didn’t! So it can’t have been the disciples. Nor would the authorities have moved the body, because the moment the resurrection began to be preached they would have produced the body to quash the whole thing. But they didn’t.
But maybe Jesus didn’t actually die. That’s what many people believe today. Some think he didn’t die on the cross. He merely fainted and then was revived by the cool of the tomb. But the Romans were experts in killing. Jesus had been ruthlessly tortured for hours, he’d lost pints of blood and then his heart had been pierced by a spear. The one thing everyone agreed on at the time was that Jesus was dead. But maybe the Da Vinci Code is right? Dan Brown’s theory is becoming very popular today, that Jesus had a substitute on the cross, then he himself appeared to his disciples and then moved to the South of France to live happily ever after with Mary Magdalene! But there’s as much evidence for that as me saying that Sven Goran Erickson rang me last week to ask if I would take Wayne Rooney’s place in the England squad for this summer’s World Cup! I’d love it to be true, but it’s not. It’s total fabrication and speculation. Not one shred of historical evidence. No, there is no other option. The empty tomb is a stubborn fact. And there is no other way to account for it apart from to say that Jesus is alive. “He’s not here, says the angel. He’s risen.”
b) The First Witnesses- But notice Matthew’s second piece of evidence. And that is the first witnesses. Matthew is very clear that these witnesses physically see Jesus. Notice how many times in this passage Matthew uses the word “see”. Verse 6: “He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.” Then the angel gives the women a command in verse 7: “Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.' Now I have told you.’” And then what happens in verse 17: “When they saw him, they worshipped him.” There is a heavy emphasis on what the witnesses actually see with their own eyes. And it’s Jesus that the women meet in verse 9: “Suddenly
Jesus met them. "Greetings," he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’” And again and again we’re faced with people in the gospels who see with their own eyes the risen Lord Jesus at different times and at different places, sometimes in ones or twos, and once 500 people saw him together. It was definitely Jesus, it was no ghost, or hallucination, and many can testify. And there is one other very strange detail about Matthew’s account. And that is that it is women who first see the risen Lord. It’s women who first get the job of telling the rest of Jesus’ disciples that he has risen. Why is that odd? Because in a Jewish court of law, women’s testimonies were not thought reliable. Their testimonies were dismissed. So why on earth would you build your new faith on the witnesses of people who weren’t thought reliable? Well only if that was the way it happened.
c) The Changed Lives- But there’s one final piece of evidence that Matthew hints at here in his account and that is the changed lives. Because notice how these women leave the scene of the empty tomb in verse 8: “So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples.” They’d come to mourn the loss of a dear friend. They come in tears, but left in joy. And though they are afraid, perhaps not fully understanding the situation, yet both the angel in verse 5 and Jesus in verse 10 tells them not to be afraid. There is no place for fear any more. Rather triumphant and joyful celebration. Jesus is alive! And as we read the other gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, we discover that all Jesus’ disciples move from being fear filled cowards, to passion filled evangelists willing to give their lives for this message. And what is the only thing that can account for such a transformation? Wishful thinking? The knowledge that, like Elvis, Jesus is alive in our hearts? No, nothing of the sort. The only thing that accounts for the change is they met the risen Lord Jesus Christ, physically resurrected from the grave. And of course, millions down the centuries can say the same thing, that they know Jesus Christ personally. So consider a man called Sir Lionel Luckhoo. You may have never heard of Sir Lionel Luckhoo but he’s in the record books as the most successful trial lawyer ever - he had 245 successful murder defences in a row! Yet despite his fame, success, and wealth he felt empty inside. The older he got the more meaningless life appeared. Then at 63 he turned his analytical skills to the claim that Jesus rose from the dead. He found that the message of Jesus' resurrection satisfied his personal needs and his intellectual questioning. "I have spent more than forty-two years as a defence trial lawyer in many parts of the world." he later wrote. "I say unequivocally the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ is so overwhelming that it compels acceptance by proof which leaves absolutely no room for doubt!" Yes, there are plenty queuing up to try and give alternative explanations to the resurrection, but none fit the facts. He is risen!
But before we move to our second lesson in Matthew 28, I want us to take a moment to think about one implication for us of this staggering fact. And that is that through Jesus Christ we have the victory over sin and death. And that means that none of us here need fear death or its consequences. So what is the worst that can happen to us? Well the worst is that we lose our lives, but in losing them we gain, because we are with Christ. We have the victory over the greatest enemy of all. And that’s why many Christians over the centuries have faced their deaths with confidence and courage. For example a man like Henry Lyte. Now not many of us will have heard of Lyte, but all of us will know one of his most famous hymns: “Abide with Me.” Unfortunately it’s now associated with funerals and often stirs memories of sadness, but actually Lyte wrote that hymn as a hymn of victory. Now when Lyte penned that hymn, he himself was within months of his death. He had serious chest complaints and knew his time was short. And one day, as he pondered Luke 24 where the risen Jesus appears to the two on the road to Emmaus, he began to write down his thoughts in verse: “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide; the darkness deepens, Lord with me abide. When other helpers fail and comforts flee, help of the helpless, O abide with me.” For much of his life, Henry Lyte had feared death, but shortly before his death, he received a new confidence because of a deeper appreciation of Christ’s resurrection. So he was able to write: “I fear no foe, with thee at hand to bless, ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness; Where is death’s sting, where grave, thy victory? I triumph still, if thou abide with me!” His last words before he saw the Saviour face to face were, “joy….peace.” Do not let your confidence be shaken that Jesus is risen. Because truly he is. And because of him, we need not fear the last enemy. We have the victory in Christ. That’s the confidence we have.
2) The Command We Obey (Vv 16-20)
But let’s move on more briefly to our second lesson, and that is the command we obey. Because our confidence that the message is true leads on to courage in getting the message out. And the very last thing the Lord commanded his church to do was to get this message out to all nations before he comes again. Verse 16: “Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’” Now notice that again Matthew says that Jesus’ disciples saw Jesus, and they worshipped him. Their sight of him risen and alive caused them to worship him. But notice what we’re told next. “But some doubted”. Literally some were hesitant. Some were still not sure what to make of all this. And again it’s another pointer to the historical reality of the situation. If I were Matthew I would have left it out, because it seems to undermine his case. But actually it rings true. Even in the face of the evidence standing before them, some were still unsure. Do you remember Jesus’ words in Luke 16: “They will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” But to those willing to worship him, Jesus gives this final command. And we can sum it up by looking at the four “alls”.
a) All Authority- First Jesus says he has “all authority”. Verse 18: “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.” Now it’s not that Jesus didn’t have authority before. Matthew has shown all the way through the gospel that Jesus is one with authority. But now through his death and resurrection he has been given all authority in heaven and earth. There is nothing that now falls outside Jesus’ supreme power. As Paul says in Romans 1, through the resurrection Jesus has been declared with power to be the Son of God. Or as Paul puts it in Philippians 2, “therefore, [because of Jesus’ death on the cross] God has exalted Jesus to the highest place, that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.” Jesus is the supreme Lord. And he’s the commander of all the universe who commands us in verse 19 to go. So have you ever wondered why God doesn’t just zap Christians straight to heaven. It would be a lot easier wouldn’t it! But actually at least part of the answer is that we have a job to do. The people of God have been given the task of proclaiming the gospel to this needy world. And do you ever wonder what right we have to do that? I mean what right do we have to tell our Moslem friends or our Hindu neighbour that they must bow the knee to Jesus? What right do we have to tell our atheist friends that they must become Christians? What right do we have to go into schools and universities and tell young people that Jesus is the only way to God? What right do we have? Well we have the authority of the king of kings. We’re on the King’s business, and we are his ambassadors. We have the supreme right as God’s people because the commander in chief has all authority. And in a country increasingly obsessed with political correctness and relativism, it is absolutely vital that we as Christ’s people keep in mind this great commission. That we have Christ’s authority to go and proclaim Christ to all regardless of creed, colour or background! Yes, of course, graciously and humbly. But at the end of the day we must not lose our nerve, because our city and our land desperately needs to hear this gospel. Don’t be duped into thinking we don’t have the right. Because we have a divine right, indeed a divine command.
b) All Nations- But notice secondly where we are to go. All nations. Verse 19: “Therefore, in the light of the universal authority of Jesus, go and make disciples of all nations.” In other words there is not a tribe or people group in the whole world who do not need this message about Jesus. It is a challenge to every Christian here to be engaged in world mission, to have a heart for the whole world. It begins here in Hull with so many coming from overseas to us. Through the international work of the Globe we’ve been able to reach many this year with the gospel, people who come from lands which are sometimes very hard to get into. We support our mission partners all over the world from Hull to Sydney. But each of us needs to be taking a part in God’s worldwide mission- through our prayers, through our giving, through our words, and maybe even through our personal going. It’s our prayer here at St. John’s that we be a sending church, sending men and women into the harvest field which is so needy. Perhaps there are some here who should consider going to the nations. Why not? What stops you? Is not the risen Christ commanding us to go to all the nations?
c) All things- But what are we to do? We’re to teach all things. Verse 20: “Teaching them to obey everything, literally “all things”, I have commanded you.” We’re not to change the gospel according to the latest fads. We’re not to water it down according to what we like and dislike. We’re not to cow tow to those who would wish to silence us on certain issues where the Bible is clear. No, authentic witness to Jesus means tell the whole word to the whole world.
d) Always- And how will we survive? I mean the task seems impossibly large! How can we do it? Because of the final all- Verse 20: “And surely I am with you always, literally for all the days, to the very end of the age.” This commander in chief is not one who will leave us or forsake as we carry out his command in this hostile world. Because by his Spirit he is with us here now. We are never alone. And it’s this risen Lord who commands us with all the authority of heaven and earth to go in his strength to all the nations with this glorious gospel of victory and new life. We can be confident in the message of the risen Lord and we can go in courage to all nations because we go in the authority of the risen King.So as we finish, let me tell you about one woman who had confidence in the Easter message and who carried out the Lord’s command all her days. Her name was Fanny Crosby and she was a hymn writer who lived during the nineteenth century to the great age of 95 and who wrote more than 6,000 gospel songs and hymns, including “To God be the Glory” and “Blessed Assurance”. Although blinded by an illness as a young infant, she never became bitter. One time a preacher sympathetically remarked, “I think it is a great pity that the Master did not give you sight when He showered so many other gifts upon you.” She replied quickly, “Do you know that if at birth I had been able to make one petition, it would have been that I should be born blind?” “Why?” asked the surprised clergyman. “Because when I get to heaven, the first face that shall ever gladden my sight will be that of my Saviour!” Well one of Fanny Crosby’s hymns was so personal that for years she kept it to herself. But one day at a Bible conference run by the famous evangelist D L Moody, Fanny Crosby was asked by Moody to give a personal testimony. At first she hesitated, then quietly she rose and said, “There is one hymn I have written which has never been published. I call it my soul’s poem. Sometimes when I am troubled, I repeat it to myself, for it brings comfort to my heart.” She then recited this poem to the audience whilst many of them wept. ‘Someday the silver cord will break, and I no more as now shall sing; but oh, the joy when I shall wake within the palace of the King! And I shall see Him face to face, and tell the story- saved by grace!’”
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