Through a variety of tragic circumstances, Becky Greer lost all four of her children. The grieving mother shared how God’s presence brought her comfort in that painful time.
‘When the blooms die, plant it outside, Mom! That’s exactly what the lady at the florist said to do, and it will come back next year,’ exclaimed my 9-year-old daughter, Kami, as she proudly presented me with a beautiful potted Stargazer lily for Mother’s Day. I told Kami I didn’t believe the lily would come back. ‘But Mom, the lady said it would!’ When the blooms faded and died, Kami kept reminding me to plant the lily outside, and I kept putting her off by saying I just didn’t believe the lily would come back. Kami remained persistent and insistent until I finally relented, and together we went outside to plant the lily in the backyard. Winter came and the lily died. Kami and two of her brothers also died that winter. My world became totally dark.
The following spring when the lily sprouted and grew to produce 27 fragrant pink blooms, I became filled with inexpressible joy. Joy in my darkness! How could that be? Without my children I believed I could never feel joy or happiness again. What a beautiful gift! Kami, an innocent child, had no trouble believing that the lily would live again. Jesus said we are to have the faith of a child. God can resurrect even those things which we believe can’t be resurrected. I did not believe the lily could survive the darkness of winter, and I did not believe that I could survive the darkness of my grief and suffering after losing all four of my children. God was working on the lily in the darkness of the earth, and he was working on me in the darkness of my grief. I just didn’t know it. Just because we don’t always experience God’s presence doesn’t mean he isn’t there.[i]
Death stalks all of our lives. How can we have hope in the times of our greatest grief? How can we keep going, when we feel most like giving up? Life’s darkest hours can only be understood from someone who has walked in that place and come to the other side. The most powerful truths of God are often told in story form. When God wanted to communicate the greatest truth about life and death, He gave us the most powerful example, the death and resurrection of Jesus. After the cruelty of the cross, and the powerful sense of loss experienced by the early disciples, we are told of the dawning of a new day. That Sunday after crucifixion Friday is really the exclamation point of our faith. Christ’s victory over death means He can promise us life. That is the most glorious message that has ever been told. Jesus Christ has come and conquered death.
As we turn our attention to that wonderful day, nearly two thousand years ago, let’s embrace God’s assurances in the hour of our greatest darkness. In the hour when death has robbed us of our greatest loves. There is hope beyond the grave.
When you are young, you think you are immortal, and that death is a long way off. Death is something that our culture tries to ignore and avoid. We try not to think about it, but it comes to each of us in one way or another. It is painful when we are confronted by it. It reminds us of our own mortality. The fact is we will experience physical death unless, Christ returns first. Maybe the issue of our own death, or the loss of someone we love is too difficult for us to handle. But when death strikes, we need God’s comfort. It generally comes through the lives of supportive people, but that is not enough. We also need to understand how God dealt with death on our behalf. The question that often arises from children is, what happens when people die? That is the real issue that prepares each of us, not only for life but also for death. And as one writer put it, “Unless we are prepared to die; we will never be prepared to live…”
Our response to the fact of who Jesus Christ is and what He has done on our behalf actually addresses this issue. It gives us confidence to face our own mortality. It cheers us with the assurance that death is not a permanent separation from those we love. Our positive response to what Jesus achieved on our behalf gives us a source of hope and encouragement to go on. To know that death is not the final end, as many people believe today. The Christian hope is not built on false hope, rather it is built on a solid historical fact. One of the eyewitnesses to Christ’s resurrection, John, the beloved disciple of Jesus gave us two compelling evidences that Jesus Christ is alive from the dead and therefore capable of giving to us the greatest gift, eternal life.
THE FIRST EVIDENCE OF THE REALITY OF THE RESURRECTION OF JESUS CHRIST IS AN ABSENT BODY FROM THE TOMB
The most celebrated fact of the uniqueness of Christ is that He conquered death. His body did not remain in the tomb to experience corruption and decay. Unlike the founders of other religions, Jesus’ tomb is empty. A sealed, guarded tomb could not stop Jesus from leaving. The huge stone that was rolled over the entrance of the tomb had been rolled away in order for the first disciples to realize this truth. Angels were waiting to tell the message to the women who came that first Easter morning.
A. What most of us need to realize is that these first followers of Jesus were not anticipating what happened that first Easter Sunday.
They were stunned by the death of Jesus. Their lives were shattered. They were all experiencing deep grief. The biblical texts tell us that certain women were going to the tomb to finalize the preparation of the body of Jesus for burial. In John 20, John chooses to give us Mary’s response to the empty tomb.
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance.
So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him![ii]
The rolled stone and empty tomb brought an immediate assumption on the part of Mary, that somebody had stolen the body. Can you hear the anguish in her voice, in her mind, thinking that the body had been stolen, or at least removed without anyone’s knowledge? In the other gospels, we discover that Mary was just one of a number of women that had come to the tomb that morning to continue the burial preparations. Here in John’s gospel it states, “we” don’t know where they have put him. Mary, is the spokesperson.
The question that arises in my mind is, why did Jesus choose her to first reveal Himself as a risen Lord? Why Mary? Why Jesus chose to reveal Himself first to her would be strictly conjecture on our part. I mean, Mary’s credibility had to be suspect. She was a woman who had been delivered from seven demons. Can you imagine the bizarre behavior of this woman before she was set free? Yet, we know from Scripture that Mary was devoted to Jesus. God revealed Himself to her. There is something wonderful about these women coming out of sheer love and devotion to Christ. They come without any expectation of something in return. They come to give by finishing the preparation of the body for burial. Out of that kind of love and devotion, Christ reveals Himself to them. I believe that this same attitude on our part receives similar startling responses of blessings from God. When we come solely to worship Him, to serve Him, Jesus surprises us, and blesses us beyond anything that we could have ever imagined.
In our self-focused generation, we usually do what we do, in order to gain or get something in return. We even evaluate what we get out of a church service. We come expecting to receive. There is a place and time for that. It is a time when we come expecting to receive. Yet, there is something delightful, and powerful when we come to bless, to worship, to give, to serve, without any expectation on our part to receive anything. People who come with this attitude are genuinely surprised when they are, in turn, blessed. It is delightful and enriching and totally unexpected. When we come with no agenda, God is now free to fulfill His purposes.
Have you ever wondered why the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, totally missed the fact that Jesus was the Messiah? They had a preconceived idea and false expectations. They missed the hour of God’s visitation to them. I sometimes wonder how much we miss because we are disappointed that our agenda, our preconception of things blind us from what God is actually doing.
B. Peter and John’s response to the empty tomb was significant.
When Mary first came and told Peter and the other disciples that the body was missing, Peter and John ran to the tomb. John outran Peter and looked into the tomb, but he did not enter. What John saw impacted him immediately. He saw the graveclothes in the form of the body. John is recalling the words of Jesus regarding this event. Jesus predicted that He would rise from the dead. Grave robbers in that hour would not have stripped clothes off the body, they would have just been looking for articles of value buried with the body. We read that the burial cloth around Jesus’ head was folded. What grave robber would take the time to fold grave cloths?
When Peter arrived, characteristic of his nature, he burst through the opening of the tomb and entered the small room cut into the side of the hillside. John then follows Peter inside.
So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb.
Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.
He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in.
Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen.
Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed.[iii]
Here we have a significant statement by John. When John saw what was there, he says, “He saw and believed.”
In general, it is true that the ‘early Christians did not believe in the resurrection of Christ because they could not find his dead body; they believed because they did find a living Christ.’ But there was one exception: the beloved disciple [John] believed in his resurrection before he saw him alive again – not indeed because he saw the empty tomb but because the disposition of the graveclothes suddenly made the truth clear to him.[iv]
He believed what? That Christ had risen from the dead. This belief was based on the evidence on hand, as well as the words of Jesus foretelling of his resurrection. Jesus had clearly stated that he would rise from the dead. Even the religious leaders remember that statement of Jesus’ and had set a guard to prevent someone from robbing his body from the tomb. Matthew fills us in. The day after the crucifixion, the Sabbath, the leaders came to Pilate to secure the tomb.
The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate.
“Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’
So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.”
“Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.”
So they went and made the tomb secure by putting seal on the stone and posting the guard.”[v]
Matthew goes on to tell us what becomes of the guards.
After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.
There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it.
His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white like snow.
The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.”
While they were on their way some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened.[vi]
If the antagonistic crowd of unbelieving leaders knew what Jesus had foretold, it is equally true that the disciples knew as well. This gaze at the tomb convinced John, but as a study of this event reveals there were other elements that sustained his conviction. The reality of Christ’s resurrection was so life-changing that the rest of the apostles gave their lives for this testimony. Why? Because beyond Easter Sunday, Jesus appeared to them at different times for forty days.
After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.[vii]
1. Jesus appeared to them at different times and in various geographical locations. We see that first Easter evening, Jesus appearing to some of the disciples in the upper room in Jerusalem, and later by the sea of Galilee.
2. Jesus Himself explains the Scriptures that foretold this event and its significance to the human family (cf. Luke 24:27, 44—45).
But at this moment, John tells us that they did not understand the Scriptural significance. “(They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.)”[viii]
THE SECOND EVIDENCE OF THE REALITY OF THE RESURRECTION IS CHRIST’S APPEARANCES TO HIS FOLLOWERS
An empty tomb is not enough to sustain the idea of his resurrection. The fact that Jesus appeared to his disciples over and over again for forty days after his crucifixion sealed this truth forever in their hearts.
A. Jesus appeared to Mary.
Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.
Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.
They asked her, Woman, why are you crying? They have taken my Lord away, she said, and I don’t know where they have put him.
At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.[ix]
The angels ask, why the tears and who is she looking for? Quickly she responds that someone had removed the Lord’s body. Hearing someone else she turns around, and with tearful vision sees someone. Unrecognizable because of her blurred vision, or her shaken frame of mind, Jesus is nearby and asks the question, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?”
Too often in our pain and tragedy we feel that God has abandoned us. We can’t seem to find Him, yet like this passage He is always near. The Scriptures promise us that that He will never leave us, nor forsake us (cf. Hebrews 13:5).
Mary now makes another assumption. “Thinking he was the gardener, she said, ‘Sir if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.’”[x]
So often we interpret the events in our lives incorrectly. We can misinterpret what people are doing far too frequently. Ultimately, we can miss what God is doing and trying to communicate to us. Mary was looking for was a dead body, but God was revealing to her a living Lord. Upon discovering an empty tomb, she assumes someone has taken the body, and now when the very person she is looking for is talking to her, she assumes he is the gardener. Can you imagine the music to her ears when this misidentified “stranger” calls her name? “Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’[xi]
When God calls our name, it is a call to worship. It is a call to trust Him. It is a call meant to evaporate our fears, our doubts, our disappointments and our sins. So often when God calls our name, we have made false assumptions about the events of our lives. God calls our names when we are experiencing sorrow and are blinded to the truth. God calls our name when we are groping our way through grief and losses so real that it has numbed us to the pleasures of life. God calls our name to lead us out of our blindness, to His identity. At the sound of her name, Mary knew who this man was: It was Jesus. The One she had been searching for. What joy not to find a dead friend, a dead teacher, but a living Lord.
What is Jesus to you? Have you discovered the resurrected Lord? If not, you are groping through life blinded to the truth. Making all kinds of assumptions, coming to the wrong conclusions. Like Mary you are searching, but not finding. He is calling your name. How are you going to respond? Notice Mary’s response was one of joy.
Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.[xii]
People who encounter Jesus are people who are excited! Mary could hardly wait to share the good news with others.
B. Not only did Jesus appear to Mary but also to ten disciples.
Where were the disciples after the crucifixion? After the resurrection? They were hiding, living in fear. They were wondering about their own future. How could they go on after this loss? Jesus comes to them through locked doors to break down their fears.
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”
After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”[xiii]
The first peace is the ordinary greeting of the day. The second expression is the communication of the peace that Christ’s sacrificial death brings to the pardoned sinner. It is out of this new relationship with God that the disciples are sent with the ministry of reconciliation.
What locked doors does Jesus have to penetrate in your life? What fears keep you hiding and afraid of what others will think? Oh! To have Jesus come and bring peace to our troubled hearts, to address fears. He comes to us in order to release us to become what God intends for us to become.
It only happens as we are reconciled to God. We too, like these early disciples, share in that ministry where the words of reconciliation are extended to others through us.
C. Jesus finally appears to Thomas.
When Jesus initially came to his disciples, there was one missing. Thomas, upon hearing from the others that Jesus arose, struggled with the issue of belief. He had witnessed his death, and to hear that Jesus was alive was too difficult for him to believe. He needed tangible evidence that Christ had indeed arose.
Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came.
So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord!’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.’[xiv]
Right here we could easily talk about the importance of gathering with other believers. Too often we get into the pattern of thinking that it doesn’t matter if I come or not. But how often we miss a meeting with Jesus. A meeting that can transform our unbelief into faith, our discouragements into encouragements, our cowardice into courage because Jesus comes on the scene and speaks our name. He speaks into our souls.
Where was Thomas? Who knows, but fortunately, he rejoined the ten. The problem is that this believer is struggling with unbelief. Jesus was alive but he just couldn’t believe the testimony of the others. And then Jesus appears and speaks to Thomas. Jesus calls Thomas by name, and challenges his unbelief.
Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” [xv]
When Jesus calls you by name, it’s definitely a challenge to stop doubting and start believing. Are we to believe only what we see? Jesus promises a blessing to those who believed without seeing.
The time would come that neither sight nor touch would be possible, for Jesus would have completed his return to his Father beyond the range of physical senses. Yet He will still be visible to the eyes of faith.[xvi]
“Then Jesus told him, “because you have seen me and have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”[xvii]
What is the point that John is trying to drive home? It is particularly true in this chapter, but it is the reason he wrote his gospel. “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”[xviii]
How do you respond to the resurrection of Christ? Deny it? Don’t think about it? The religious leaders of Jesus day lied about it and fabricated another story, which could not be substantiated.
They didn’t want to surrender to the implications that this historical event meant. Simply stated, Jesus Christ is who He said He is, God in the flesh. When the significance of this event is understood and embraced, it transforms our lives! It helps us deal with our own mortality. We know that life will not come to an end but rather when we physically die, we, like Christ, are brought into the very presence of the Father. The message of Christ’s resurrection is paramount to our own resurrection from the dead. To ignore the fact that Jesus is alive, is done to our own peril!
Humanity’s ultimate problem is not that we are sinners, but the realization that we refuse to come to the only source of help and deliverance which is the ultimate tragedy of life. To decide to live independently of God is the great sin of humanity. It is done to our own demise and destruction. For the Christian, Christ’s resurrection is a signal that He has conquered death. The last enemy, death, is defeated. For the believer, to die is just a change of residences, from earth to heaven; from seeing darkly to seeing clearly; from spiritual conflicts to the place of ultimate peace and rest; from hope to reality. Jesus is here! He is calling your name! How will you respond? In faith or doubt?
[i] Leadership, Vol. 5, no. 1.
[ii] John 20:1-2, The New International Version of the Bible, 2011.
[iii] John 20:3-8.
[iv] F. F. Bruce, “The Gospel of John”, Eerdmans Publishing Co.: Grand Rapids, MI. 1983. 386.
[v] Matthew 23:62-66.
[vi] Matthew 28:1-4,11.
[vii] Acts 1:3.
[viii] John 20:9.
[ix] John 20:10-14.
[x] John 20:15b.
[xi] John 20:16.
[xii] John 20:18.
[xiii] John 20:19-21.
[xiv] John 20:24-25.
[xv] John 20:27.
[xvi] R.V. Tasker, “John” TNTC, Eerdmans Publishing Co.: Grand Rapids, MI. 1960. 223.
[xvii] John 20:29.
[xviii] John 20:31.