I finished up a sermon series through the Gospel of Matthew this morning, Easter morning, with a look at chapter 28. The church I serve and I have walked together through Matthew and we’ve seen Jesus change everything. He changes our expectations of who God can use by having a family tree that would make most mobsters blush. He changes how we look at power and ethics and responsibility. He heals, he cleanses, he teaches. The people who should love him, the religious people, hate him. The people who should hate him, the sinners, love him. He’s a King who serves, and a servant who rules. He challenges everything and changes everything and promises the restoration of everything. And we killed him for it. Seriously, sin-sick, demon-ridden, weak-hearted, foolish humanity killed him. And if that was the end of the story, I wouldn’t have been preaching the series at all, because there would be nothing ultimately worth preaching. But it’s not the end. Because Matthew doesn’t stop writing at chapter 27. He carries on to chapter 28 and we did too. Because Jesus’ death is merely a prelude to the greatest miracle of all time: The Resurrection. And the resurrection changes everything!
Jesus’ Resurrection Changes Everything
I cannot overstate the importance of the Resurrection. As theologian Jaroslav Pelikan said:
“If the resurrection of Jesus is not true, then nothing in life really matters. However, if the resurrection of Jesus is true, then nothing else in life really matters.”
It should be no surprise then that establishing the truth of the resurrection is vital for those who follow Christ. It should also be no surprise that those who wish to deny Christ have focused a significant amount of attention on debunking the resurrection. In fact, in Matthew 28, we see both testimony to the truth of the resurrection and the first attempt by opponents to deny it. But Matthew 28 also reveals to us how we ought to respond to the Resurrection.
The Truth of the Resurrection – Matthew 28:1-10
The Truth of the Resurrection is established not just by Matthew, but by Mark, Luke, and John as well. One of the most amazing evidences for the truth of the account to me is that women are recorded as being the first to see Jesus alive. Women weren’t even allowed to testify in court because they were assumed to be unreliable witnesses. Surely, if the story were being made up, the writers could have had more culturally-acceptable witnesses be the first to see Jesus alive! Nonetheless, here it is. The women see him first and carry the good news to the disciples. And all the disciples believed Jesus rose from the dead for the rest of their lives, all of them were transformed by that belief, and everything changed because of the resurrection.
Well, not everything: there were still those who rejected Jesus and thus had to come up with something to explain the evidence that didn’t involve him rising from the dead. Because if Jesus rose from the dead, everything he said and did was vindicated and they couldn’t stand the thought. So they invented a tale, a story to tell everyone:
The Tale of the Opposition – Matthew 28:11-15
They said that the disciples stole the body. Ok. Let’s go with this for a second: the disciples did it. The same disciples who were so afraid on the night of his betrayal that they all abandoned Jesus in front of an amateur Jewish mob, admittedly intimidating, but no Roman soldiers, the most advanced military force the world had ever known. The one disciple who had enough nerve to fight back on the night of betrayal later couldn’t find the courage to admit to a servant girl that he was Jesus’ disciple. But yeah, it’s totally probable that this sniveling bunch of cowards would have been daring enough to risk taking on the first century equivalent of Seal Team Six because it’s totally probable that trained soldiers serving under a strict honor code and penalty of even death would have forgotten to set a guard and instead all fallen asleep at the same time. And then, these same soldiers would have totally probably slept through the disciples moving a multi-ton rock away from the entrance of the tomb because the disciples were totally probably ninjas with crazy, silent, rock-moving skills. And then, when they were threatened with death if they didn’t admit that Jesus wasn’t God’s Son, the Savior Messiah, every single one of them stuck with the lie. Ok. Consider this from Chuck Colson:
“I know the resurrection is a fact, and Watergate proved it to me. How? Because 12 men testified they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, then they proclaimed that truth for 40 years, never once denying it. Every one was beaten, tortured, stoned and put in prison. They would not have endured that if it weren’t true. Watergate embroiled 12 of the most powerful men in the world and they couldn’t keep a lie for three weeks. You’re telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie for 40 years? Absolutely impossible.”
Chuck Colson gets it and so should we: saying the disciples stole the body doesn’t explain the evidence in the least.
Other opponents of the gospel have realized this throughout history. So, many other theories have been proposed to explain it away. For example:
Jesus wasn’t really dead: Ok. A guy is so apparently dead that the soldiers attending his crucifixion, who had probably done this many times before and had also probably fought in battle many times and seen dead people there, they are convinced he is dead. Convinced enough to report “Mission Accomplished” to their commander. Then, Jesus stays unconscious long enough for himself to be wrapped in grave clothes and barricaded in the tomb. Somehow, the cool air of the tomb revives Jesus, who’d just been brutally beaten, nailed to a cross, suffered intense pain, lost a ton of blood, half-drowned by the effects of crucifixion, and been stabbed in the side for good measure, and he just shimmies out of his grave clothes, rolls the giant boulder away from his tomb from the inside, which makes the earth shake, strolls outside, terrifies the guards who fall down unconscious, and is recognized by these women who throw themselves at his feet and grab them, and Jesus manages to not cry out in pain and tells them to go quickly and tell the disciples he would meet them in Galilee. OK.
The disciples were just hallucinating: In this theory, the disciples didn’t really see Jesus alive. They just wanted him to be back with them so bad they all hallucinated that he was and, being convinced, they proceeded to die for this wish-fulfillment vision that they’d had. Trouble is hallucination is an individual thing. And yet we are introduced to large numbers of eyewitnesses who all saw Jesus in various places, settings, and times. And their reports are all in significant agreement regarding what they say. That’s not how hallucinations work. Then there’s the problem of the empty tomb. The hallucination theory can’t account for the fact that everyone living at the time agreed that the tomb was empty. The Jews, the Romans, and the disciples all said, “The tomb’s empty.” Hallucination is one thing, teleportation is entirely different.
Someone just impersonated Jesus: Because don’t we all rush to impersonate the last guy who was crucified for criminal rebellion? But assume the premise for a moment and we see that this theory falls flat as well. Again, we have the problem of the empty tomb: if someone was just claiming to be the resurrected Jesus, all the Jewish leaders had to do was produce the body of the real Jesus and all the trouble goes away. But beyond that, consider that whoever was acting the part would have had to have matching wounds, wounds realistic enough to fool disciples who were invited to touch them. The guy would have had to have been almost killed to approximate Jesus’ condition. See the problems with the “Jesus didn’t really die” theory above. Then there’s the issue of the locked room appearance. The disciples, still terrified of being identified with Jesus, are hiding in a locked room when, all of a sudden, there’s Jesus! Unless the imposter knew which room to hide in before the disciples got there, he couldn’t just pop through the wall with no trace. But a resurrected Jesus, whose body was no longer bound by the same laws as ours, could have. Finally, the disciples knew Jesus. Yes, they were occasionally prevented from recognizing him after his resurrection, but every time that prevention was lifted, there was no doubt in their minds that this was the guy that they had spent three years with.
The Wrong Tomb: “Where’s the tomb?”
“Oh, that’s the one with the rock sealed to the outside and a Roman guard standing in front of it, right? See, that’s going to be a problem: there’s hundreds of those. Not sure I can point you in the right direction”
No. For the following reasons:
- It’s Joseph of Arimathea’s personal tomb, he’s not going to lose it.
- The Romans knew where it was, they set a guard up in front of it.
- The Jewish leaders knew where it was, Joseph of Arimathea was one of them, and you can bet that since they were concerned about the disciples stealing the body, they were keeping a close eye on the tomb in addition to asking for the Roman guard.
- The disciples knew where it was. This was their Messiah, their friend, their teacher. They may have been scared, but they still loved Jesus. They knew where he was buried. Note that the women going to the tomb on Easter morning didn’t need to stop and ask for directions.
Evidence Isn’t Enough.
But all the refutation of the theories against the resurrection, all the evidence, everything I just covered above, isn’t ultimately enough because evidence isn’t enough. Because we can argue until we are blue in the face about did or didn’t. And the evidence points, quite clearly, to the empty tomb being explained by resurrection. As Sir Arthur Conan Doyle put it:
“Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”
All the proposed explanations are impossible to square with the evidence, except for resurrection. But the evidence isn’t ultimate: what matters most is how we respond to it.
If we refuse to believe the evidence for the resurrection, we aren’t just rejecting a set of bare facts: we are rejecting Christ. What he taught, what he did, who he was. And in that rejection we will miss out on the greatest privilege of all time: eternal life alongside the author of life. We will gain autonomy in this life. We will get to call your own shots, chart our own course, accountable to no one. But we will be called to account when this life ends. Are we willing to stake eternity on a shaky denial of the resurrection in the face of evidence? Are you?
But many people do claim to believe in the resurrection. Maybe you do. But that belief hasn’t changed one thing about your life. Let’s just call that what it is: crazy. The resurrection literally means that, for those who believe and follow Jesus, death is no longer anything but a minor annoyance on the path to immortality. It means that every word Jesus spoke and every deed he did, and every statement in this Bible are true and, more than true, are important for your life today. If you say you believe in the resurrection and you really do believe it, you will be transformed by that belief. You will live to let others know Jesus is alive, you will submit your decisions and desires to him, and you will seek to obey him. Because possibly the greatest evidence for the resurrection is the transformation of those who truly believe it.
The Transformation of Jesus’ Followers – Matthew 28:16-20
This is key. Jesus rises from the dead and he says, “Because I’m alive, here’s how you’re going to live: you’re going to go everywhere you go and tell people about me. Those who believe your message, you’re going to baptize them and teach them to obey everything I commanded just like you are doing. And those who do this, those who don’t just give lip service to my resurrection, my kingdom, my gospel, I’m going to be with those people until my plan for the world is completely finished.”
It’s not enough to acknowledge the intellectual evidence for the resurrection if it doesn’t change anything about how we live. Because, Jesus’ resurrection changes everything. Jesus changes everything. Jesus can change us. Jesus can change you. Paul, someone who persecuted those who believed in Jesus until he himself met the resurrected Lord and was transformed by the encounter, he told us how the resurrection can change us in his letter to the Roman Christians:
“If you will confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
And if you are saved, you will be changed. Because the resurrection of Jesus changes everything!