What difference does one day make? It all depends on the day. A wedding day changes the trajectory of two peoples’ lives. Another day that made all the difference in the way our world has gone was the resurrection of Jesus Christ, almost two thousand years ago. The key to experiencing the resurrection power is that it must be applied in our lives. Lew Wallace, Governor of Alabama over a century ago, wrote these words:
‘After six years given to the impartial investigation of Christianity as to its truth or falsity, I have come to the deliberate conclusion that Jesus Christ is the Messiah of the Jews, the Savior of the world, and my personal Savior.’ Wallace had started out to write a book against Jesus Christ and in the process was converted to Christianity. He told a friend how it happened.
‘I had always been an agnostic and denied Christianity. Robert C. Ingersoll, a famous agnostic, was one of my most intimate friends. He once suggested, “See here, Wallace, you are a learned man and a thinker. Why don’t you gather material and write a book to prove the falsity concerning Jesus Christ, that no such man has ever lived, much less the author of the teachings found in the New Testament. Such a book would make you famous. It would be a masterpiece, and a way of putting an end to the foolishness about the so-called Christ.”
The thought made a deep impression on me, and we discussed the possibility of such a book. I went to Indianapolis, my home, and told my wife what I intended. She was a member of the Methodist Church and naturally did not like my plan. But I decided to do it and began to collect material in libraries here and in the old world. I gathered everything over that period in which Jesus Christ, according to legend, should have lived.
Several years were spent in this work. I had written nearly four chapters when it became clear to me that Jesus Christ was just as real a personality as Socrates, Plato, or Caesar. The conviction became a certainty. I knew that Jesus Christ had lived because of the facts connected with the period in which he lived.
I was in an uncomfortable position. I had begun to write a book to prove that Jesus Christ had never lived on earth. Now I was face to face with the fact that he was just as historic a personage as Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Virgil, Dante, and a host of other men who had lived in olden days. I asked myself candidly, “If he was a real person (and there was no doubt), was he not then also the Son of God and the Savior of the world?” Gradually the consciousness grew that, since Jesus Christ was a real person, he probably was the one he claimed to be. I fell on my knees to pray for the first time in my life, and I asked God to reveal himself to me, forgive my sins, and help me to become a follower of Christ. Towards morning the light broke into my soul. I went into my bedroom, woke my wife, and told her that I had received Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.
“O Lew,” she said, “I have prayed for this ever since you told me of your purpose to write this book, that you would find him while you wrote it!”’
Lew Wallace did write a very famous book. …I wonder how many who have seen Ben Hur, with its moving references to Jesus, know it was written by a man who wanted to disprove that Jesus ever existed, and instead became convinced that he was the greatest man who ever lived![i]
What is it about Jesus Christ that has such a transforming impact in the lives of people? How can a man who lived twenty centuries ago, still impact people’s lives today? The resurrection is the reason. Jesus is alive. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the single most important facet of His story. Apart from the resurrection, Christianity would be like any other religion, with a moral leader, and good ethical teachings. What makes Christianity unique is the resurrection message.
Matthew in writing his gospel retells the story in such a way as to refute the rumored story that the resurrection was a hoax, a fabricated story in order to deceive people. Matthew helps people overcome barriers to faith in Christ. What were some of the barriers of faith that the early disciples had to overcome that first Easter morning, barriers that people struggle with today?
THE FIRST BARRIER TO FAITH IS PRECONCEIVED IDEAS
For many people, the objections to a saving faith in Christ are usually unfounded. Even as Lew Wallace discovered, he had a preconceived bias against the gospel. We are all a product of the culture, family, education, and experiences that have shaped our thinking. Sociologists realize that there are cognitive biases in our lives. Things like confirmation bias, which simply means that we tend to gather and rely on information that supports our existing views and downplay information that challenges our existing views. Fortunately for people like Lew Wallace who are intellectually honest, when they are confronted with the facts, they are willing to admit it. Other people have also tried to disprove Christianity and the message of the resurrection. Law student, Josh McDowell and newspaper journalist, Lee Strobel were two such examples of people who tried but were honest enough to surrender their lives to Christ when confronted with the truth.
In our text today, we see women coming to the tomb that first Easter morning in order finish preparing Jesus’ body. They were worried about the large stone that sealed the tomb. What happened when they arrived was the discovery of an empty tomb. The stone had been rolled away by an angel. The preconceived barrier or hindrance from them coming to minister had already been removed.
Like these women, God wants to remove our preconceived problems to have a vital faith in Him. In Matthew’s gospel, he focuses on the supernatural events surrounding the resurrection: the earthquake, the angel, and the guards being overwhelmed by the heavenly visitation.
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 as snow.
The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.
The angel said to the women, ‘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.
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.’
So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples.
Suddenly Jesus met them. ‘Greetings,’ he said. They came to him and 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.[ii]
While the women were coming to the tomb to finish the burial preparations, they were absorbed by sorrow and distracted by the practical task at hand. Mark records for us their thoughts.
Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, ‘Who will roll the stone away from the entrance to the tomb?’[iii]
These women were locked into the moment and the challenges of their present reality. They were trying to express loving service in the midst of a painful reality, the death of Jesus. They had failed to understand the words of Jesus’ foretelling that He would rise again. We are not here to chide them. How often do we find ourselves in a similar situation? Overwhelmed with our own problems and pressures in this life, we also fail to connect with God’s word, His precious promises. Many times we are absorbed with unnecessary sorrow and discouragement, when His word is filled with precious and encouraging promises. God uses the seemingly impossible situations in our lives, not to quench faith, but to strengthen it. God knew that the stone needed to be rolled away. Not for the sake of being able to prepare Christ’s body for burial, but rather to reveal to his followers that He was alive! God has a greater purpose in many of the challenges of our lives. Too often we allow the temporary pressures and challenges of life to impair our vision of a loving, caring God who is well able to provide for our greater good. There are moments in our lives, when we behave as if Christ was dead, that He is still in the grave, But He is alive! He is able to roll the barriers that impedes our coming to the realization that He is a risen savior.
We are all faced with innumerable opportunities brilliantly disguised as impossible situations.[iv]
What stone impedes you today? What challenges are you struggling with that is impeding your vision of a risen and able Lord? He is able to roll away the stone and reveal His miracle working power. He is able to reveal a greater purpose in the trial. The reason the stone was rolled away was a declaration of an empty tomb. God sent angelic messengers to declare His victory over death and the grave. But even an empty tomb did not suffice to remove all the barriers of faith.
THE SECOND BARRIER TO FAITH IS OUR PREOCCUPATION WITH OUR PRESENT PROBLEMS
Notice as the women were struggling with how to remove the stone, it wasn’t even an issue. The stone had already been rolled away. God had already made a provision. This immediately led to a more pressing problem – the body was missing. The early disciples were struggling and preoccupied with the fact that the body was not in the tomb. While some accepted the information as an aid to faith, such as John, others like Mary Magdalene were consumed with ‘Who took the body, or relocated the body elsewhere?’ John records that when Mary Magdalene said that the stone had been removed, she came to Peter and John:
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!’[v]
After Peter and John raced to the scene and formulated their conclusions, Mary returned to the empty tomb, disturbed that the body had been taken. Here we have a more detailed picture of Mary’s meeting with Jesus.
but 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.
‘Woman,’ he said, ‘why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?’ 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.’
Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’ She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means Teacher).’[vi]
Mary was totally absorbed with the missing body and was unable to recognize the presence of Jesus. Isn’t that also true in our lives? We become so engrossed with our problems we fail to see that Jesus is with us.
A. We are often preoccupied in life with our present problems.
The majority of people are consumed with the present difficulties in life. They do not understand the significance of the empty tomb declaring a new reality. It is delightful news. Jesus is risen and faith in a risen Savior literally transforms our lives and gives us a new basis from which to deal with life’s challenges. We will always have difficulties in this life, but having Christ gives us the strength, wisdom, and grace to address whatever is thrown our way.
B. We are generally tied to the physical world at the expense of spiritual reality.
Mary was focused on a physical problem, asking, ‘Where is the body?’ Far too often as God’s people we become emotionally tied to that which we see, the physical props of life. To Mary, the missing body meant someone had removed it. Her interpretation, her perception of reality, was wrong. She could not see beyond the state of her emotional upheaval. She could not remember the wonderful promises of God. Jesus had told them all that he would be crucified but would rise again three days later. Rather than focusing on the hope, she, along with others, were trapped in despair.
Are there moments in your life, where your emotions get the best of you? Maybe today, your present problems seem greater than your vision of what Christ can do, and will do. Maybe your present behavior reflects more of the conviction that Christ is dead, rather than being alive. What is your present problem or dilemma? I want to declare to you today that Christ is risen! He is alive! He is present! His willingness to die on Calvary’s cross declares His love for each of us. As you and I turn over our confusion, our doubts, our struggles to Him, He can take our heartache, our dilemmas and handle them. The Scriptures declare that He is even now interceding for us (cf. Hebrews 7:25).
THE THIRD BARRIER TO FAITH IS THE MANY FALSE PREMISES
How many people have a wrong understanding about Christianity? Mark Twain once wrote, “A lie can go around the world while truth is still lacing up her boots.”[vii] Matthew records for us how misinformation can come about. When people have a vested interest in suppressing the truth, they will embrace lies.
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.[viii]
A number of truths emerge from this misinformation. The guards collaborate that Jesus was dead, that the body was missing from the tomb, and that some unusual activity occurred, namely the earthquake, the angelic visitation, and the stone rolling away from the mouth of the tomb.
Why did these guards report to the chief priests? If they were Roman guards, which most commentators believe that they were, falling asleep during duty meant that their very lives were in jeopardy. They had failed in their assignment, and the penalty would be death.
However, the chief priests were concerned about this matter. They had an important investment in making sure that a plan was devised to discredit the resurrection story. A large sum of money was given to the guards to falsify what transpired and perpetuate a lie. The offer of immunity from punishment was also given. But like all lies, the story has some weaknesses. It would be hard to identify the grave robbers while you are claiming to be asleep. Since that time, some have tried to pin the missing body to the religious leaders, but why would they steal the body? Or better yet, if they had, why wouldn’t they restore the missing body to discredit the claims of the disciples regarding the resurrection message? For those who believe that the disciples stole the body, why would these men lay down their lives for a lie?
Satan is described as the father of lies. He will perpetuate a lie in order to keep people from coming to the truth, a truth that liberates from sin and death. If you are not a believer, what keeps you from acknowledging that Christ rose from the dead? What keeps you from experiencing His life-giving power? Too often people embrace a lie so that they don’t have to respond to the truth. These religious leaders were challenged by the truth, which would mean that they were terribly wrong. It would mean that their lives would have to change, and they did not want to change. This is one of the basic reasons why people do not accept Christ. If Jesus is alive, then He is who He says He is – God in the flesh, and we are accountable to Him. We cannot just live a self-directed life. We now must live a life that He has planned for us. How tragic to resist such life-given change.
THE FINAL BARRIER OF FAITH IS SEEN IN OUR SILENCE
If we overcome barriers to our own personal faith, then the next and more relevant barrier that believers face is to overcome our silence. Why do we not share our faith with others? How will others come to life-giving faith if they never hear? If the devil cannot keep you and me from believing in the resurrection, the next best thing is to keep us quiet about the message.
It takes faith to preach the gospel, to tell the story of Christ’s resurrection. Some may laugh, others may taunt and torment. Read the story of the early church in the book of Acts, and once again you will find the story of people passionately communicating the message under pressure and persecution.
In Matthew’s resurrection account, the focus is on the meeting with the disciples in Galilee.
Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go.
When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.[ix]
R. T. France explains what is meant by this expression that some doubted.
This famous phrase should not be taken as implying that some of the eleven ultimately refused to believe, but that some (like Thomas in John 20:24-28) took longer to accept the reality of the resurrection than others. The verb distazo does not denote a settled unbelief, but a state of uncertainty and hesitation.[x]
There are a lot of believers who live in this state of uncertainty and hesitation. It is not surprising that the resurrection event shook the early disciples. Yet, like them, we too experience hesitancy and uncertainty, especially when it comes to sharing this message. Yet, this message is meant to be communicated. Notice in verse seven that the angel told the women to tell the disciples. Then in verse ten, Jesus tells the women to tell his brothers. Notice that Jesus didn’t call them his disciples, but his brothers, a term of intimacy. In spite of their failures, Jesus expresses his love and forgiveness.
A. We are often silenced in our witness because of our failures.
Listen again to the words of Christ. He calls us his brothers, his family. He wants to summon us to meet with Him. He has a significant, life-transforming message he wants to commission us to bring to the nations, the peoples of our world. Unless we are personally convinced that Jesus is alive, we will not convince others. The barrier of faith is reflected in our silence. Jesus commands us to go and make disciples. This is something that will come as a result of experiencing the life-transforming power of the gospel personally.
The Samaritan woman that Jesus met at the well of Sychar was so impacted that she brought the message to her entire community (cf. John 4:4-42).
Listen again to the familiar mandate of Christ at the conclusion of Matthew’s gospel.
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.’[xi]
In Jesus’ wilderness temptation, Satan comes to tempt Him by inviting Him to worship the devil and makes a promise to give to Jesus the kingdoms of this world. Jesus refuses and then we see that Jesus’ complete obedience to His father brings about the result – that the kingdoms of this world now belongs to Him. He has authority over all the earth, but we also see that He has authority over heaven as well. All authority belongs to him.
B. What hinders us from fulfilling this commission of Christ?
Often we allow fear of others and personal insecurities keep us from sharing our faith. Jesus said that he would be with us right to the end of the age. This is not just a cozy reassurance, but that we might be empowered to effectively share our faith with others. R. T. France puts it this way: “it is necessary equipment for mission.”[xii]
We cannot do it without Him. So, how are we doing in fulfilling Christ’s mission in our lives? Are we sharing the good news about Jesus with others? Are we too distracted with this life, that we fail to fulfill what God is calling us to do? The early church was effective because they were empowered by God’s Spirit as seen in Acts 2. One of the primary reasons God’s Spirit lives in us is to help us to be a witness of the reality of His resurrected life.
So, what barriers in our faith are we struggling with today? What barriers do you and I need God to remove in our lives? Is it the barrier of preconceived ideas? God wants to remove those preconceived difficulties much like the removal of that gravestone for the women on that first Easter Sunday. Or is it the barrier of our preoccupation with our own pain and problems? The early disciples were battling shattered dreams and grief that first Easter morning. It was one of the reasons that kept Mary Magdalene from recognizing Jesus’ presence with her. Our issues often keep us from recognizing Jesus’ presence in our own lives. Or maybe it’s the barrier of misinformation or lies perpetrated by the enemy of our souls. Are you willing, like the chief priests, to forfeit God’s present and eternal blessings by fabricating and believing a lie in order to hang onto earthly, temporary position and securities? We need to ask ourselves, how has the resurrection affected our lives? Are we silent in proclaiming the gospel in a hostile world? What is stopping us from having a transformed life?
[ii] Matthew 28:1-10 The New International Version of the Bible, Zondervan, 2011.
[iii] Mark 16:2-3.
[iv] Bob Record, Forged by Fire: How God Shapes Those He Loves, (Broadman & Holman, 2000), 118.
[v] John 20:2.
[vi] John 20:11-16.
[vii] Mark Twain, as quoted in Warren Wiersbe, Meet Your King, Wheaton, Il: Victor Books, 1980), 213.
[viii] Matthew 28:11-15.
[ix] Matthew 28:16-17.
[x] R. T. France, Matthew, T.N.T.C. (Grand Rapids, Mi: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1985), 412.
[xi] Matthew 28:18-20.
[xii] R. T. France, Matthew, 416.