Really good news can be hard to believe, especially in the moment. If I were to say that by coming here today, you each will receive ten million dollars at the close of this service, it would take you a couple of minutes to process that, wouldn’t it? You might not even believe it at first, assuming that you didn’t hear it right or I would just be messing with you. Even after you realized that such a thing was true, perhaps once you saw the check in your hand, it would still likely take a couple of days for you to process fully the implications of receiving that level of money. As the hours went on, you would realize all the things you could finish at the house, the debts you could be free from, and the people that you could help now that you have this sum.
Now, if that is the expectation for us when it comes to a sum of money, imagine what it would be like if I told you that a relative of yours who had passed away returned from the dead? Well, that would take even longer to process through! While ten million dollars is a lot of money, you can wrap your head around the possibility of receiving money like that. Receiving a gift like that doesn’t bend the laws of nature, but rising from the dead is a whole other matter.
With that in mind, I think we can be a little bit more understanding of the disciples. Yes, we can judge them for being slow to believe until they actually saw Jesus. Yes, Jesus told them many, many times that He was going to die and rise again. Yes, they had seen Him do amazing miracles, indeed, miracles that raised other people from the dead! But it must be realized that the prophets of old had done that, too. They showed the Israelites signs and wonders (though admittedly, not nearly as many as Jesus did) including raising people from the dead. But none of those wonder-workers saved themselves from death. No one had ever conquered the grave on their own before. This is new! If anything, the disciples had a view of the world that saw death as more permanent than we do. We have so many technologies and healthcare advancements that we are beginning to debate when someone is actually dead. They had no such hope like that. We need to cut the disciples some slack, and instead spend more time wondering why Jesus’ resurrection hasn’t affected us more deeply. This passage confronts us with two important realities: Jesus has conquered death and Jesus can give you eternal life.
The chapter opens with Mary coming up to the tomb to prepare the body (While other gospel accounts mention two other ladies with her that day, John just focuses on her). She didn’t have time to do this the day He died because Sabbath was about to start. Now that the time of rest is over, she comes back to the tomb to finish the work of putting spices and perfumes on Jesus’ body to mask the smell of decay. This would have been a costly venture, so we can see that Mary is fully convinced that Jesus is dead and is going to stay dead. With that thought in mind, it is no small wonder that when she sees the stone rolled back, her first thought is not “Oh! Jesus actually did it!” It is, “Someone took Jesus’ body!” In a superstitious time, much like our own, I could imagine someone thinking that Jesus’ body was still powerful and decide to take it. After all, Elijah’s bones did that (2 Kings 13:21), so why couldn’t Jesus’? In any case, she runs back to tell the disciples that someone stole the body.
Peter and John race to the tomb to confirm. John, a natural sprinter, it seems, beats Peter to the tomb and looks inside, but doesn’t go in. Why the hesitation? Well, something that profound would be a little scary to encounter. It may also be that John thought the women were mistaken, and if the body was still in there and John touches it, he would be unclean for a week, and unable to go to the temple (Numbers 19:11-13). Peter, impetuous man that he is, runs straight in to see. Sure enough, it’s empty! One commentator makes an important point here, “It is important to note the emphasis John and other NT writers place upon the importance of the empty tomb. For them the resurrection of Jesus was certainly not just ‘spiritual’ survival after death; it involved a real resurrection of the body.” (Kruse, Tyndale).
It would appear at this moment that John is the only one who believes that Jesus has risen—the other disciples are going to be a bit slower to understand (Kruse). Mary stands there and continues to weep when suddenly Jesus appears behind her. She does not recognize Him until He reveals Himself. She is overwhelmed with joy, and is sent to go inform the other disciples that Jesus has risen again. Let’s take a brief look at what Jesus says to Mary here, because there is a lot of confusion as to what Jesus’ words mean. According to scholars, the word used here is not prohibiting her from touching Him or holding Him but to stop holding Him. She could well have reacted in her emotion to grab onto Him to not let Him go lest she lose Him again. Jesus’ words would then mean something like this: “Stop clinging to Me. I have not yet ascended to My Father, it is true. But I shall certainly do so. Tell this to my brothers.” (Morris, 841). In other words, Jesus is tell her not to worry. He is going to ascend, but not right now. In the meantime, go and let the disciples know what has happened. (Bruce, 389). It is worth noting here who He first appears to. He doesn’t appear to Peter or some major figure. He appears to Mary, someone whom society at that time wouldn’t have thought much about at all. But Jesus does (Morris, 836).
As we are about to see, Jesus isn’t going to be making just this one appearance, but will in fact make multiple appearances in the coming hours and days. He first appears to 10 of the disciples (Judas was dead, and Thomas was absent) in the midst of their gathering. He does this a second time when Thomas is present. It is worth noting how physical this particular encounter is. Thomas is poking at Jesus and seeing the marks that crucifixion has left on Jesus. This whole thing is emphasizing a physical resurrection. It wouldn’t do to have Jesus simply “rise from the dead” as something just spiritual or metaphorical. If Jesus doesn’t literally rise physically from the dead, then the whole Bible is nothing short of just some fantasy tale or some sort of moral teaching about the importance of self-sacrifice. It is important to note that the disciples really weren’t expecting this. They didn’t understand the Scriptures about this, so they are hardly making something up to fit with a preconceived narrative (Morris, 835). In fact, Morris puts it this way: ““Moreover, as Thomas makes abundantly clear, the appearances were not at first welcomed. They were resisted as idle talk, and those who have not actually seen Christ for themselves refused point blank to accept the stories. Only the plainest of evidence could have convinced a skeptic like Thomas. But convinced he was, which shows us that the evidence was incontrovertible.” (851) Another commentator put it this way, “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.” (Bruce, 386)
So why does the story go to all the trouble to establish this fact? What does the physical resurrection prove to us that a mere “spiritual” resurrection does not?
Well, theologically, if Jesus didn’t physically rise, then our sins weren’t paid for. Paul makes this point exactly in 1 Corinthians 15:17. What does He mean by this? Well, in Romans, Paul says that the wages of sin is death. Wages are something you earn. What do you earn when you work? What is your wage? Money! What do you earn when you sin? What is your wage for sin? Death. Now, we can pay for that on our own, but it will take all of forever. There is no amount of time that will pass for you to be able to pay for all of your sin. You will be dead forever without Christ. But with Jesus, when He died, He paid for all your sin. How do you know He paid all of it? He rose from the dead! How do you know when a jail sentence is up for someone? They are free! They are out of their cell. In the same way, we know that all the death has been paid for by Jesus by the fact that He isn’t dead anymore! Death no longer has to be permanent.
Now you may be thinking, “Wait a minute. Christians still die. I thought you said Jesus has paid off all the death debt.” It is worth mentioning here that what Jesus has done is not prevent people from dying but changing what that death means. Death used to be a permanent state for everyone physically and spiritually. Now, as Jesus shows us, death isn’t permanent. At some point in the future, there will be a resurrection for all who are in Christ to new life! Just like Jesus’ physical body rose from the grave, so will ours (1 Thess. 4:13-18)! Paul mentions in that famous 1 Corinthians 15:55 that death no longer has a sting. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist (although one day that is coming!), but it just doesn’t sting like it used to. It isn’t permanent! That, quite simply, folks, changes everything!
Jesus’ resurrection proves He is someone quite different. If He doesn’t rise from the dead, then He is just another teacher giving us a philosophy for life. Everyone else who had a theory about how life works eventually died and is still dead. But because Jesus rose from the dead as a real fact of history, it means that we have to take what He says extremely seriously. Why? I’ve thought of a few implications for His resurrection.
Since Jesus rises from the dead, it means that He is the Lord over the one certainty of life. You can avoid taxes if you want. You’ll go to jail, but then you don’t have to pay taxes there either! But you cannot avoid death. Everything and everyone eventually dies because we have all sinned. What’s worse, is sin has brought its death-dealing effects to the rest of creation. The sun in the sky is eventually going to die unless Jesus comes back first. But here, Jesus shows that He holds power over this. Death can’t hold Jesus. That means that Jesus is in charge over death, which means He has charge over life, too. I read in an article a couple weeks ago that one futurist believes that we will achieve immortality in the next decade. Advances in nanotechnology will allow internal repairs of our bodies, leading to a sort of eternal life. Even if such a thing is possible (which given how I still struggle to get my bluetooth headphones to connect to my phone consistently, I seriously doubt), it doesn’t give any hope to those who have already died. And as I mentioned earlier, the sun is going to burn out, so even if we can buy ourselves a billion more years, we can’t outrun death forever. But since Jesus has risen from the dead, we don’t have to run away. That enemy is defeated. It doesn’t mean we run towards it, but it does mean we don’t have to be afraid of it anymore if we are in Christ. A second implication is that if life after death is real, then that is the most important life we need to be concerned about. It will obviously last a lot longer than our lives here!
Of course, thirdly, if Jesus has defeated death, then our final implication is that He truly is Lord and God as Thomas has so memorably put it. We do well to learn how we can know Him better.
Jesus can give you eternal life.
As we draw to a close, we can see what John mentions at the end of our chapter. Why does John tell us all these things? These things are written so that we may believe in Jesus and have life in His name. What does this mean?
For the answer to this question, one commentator Leon Morris was particularly helpful. I commend him to you. He put it this way: “Faith, for John, is an activity which takes man right out of themselves and makes them one with Christ.” (336) Morris continues in another place, “John does not think of faith as a vague trust, but it's something with content… Faith means believing that –. Here he singles out two things in faith's content. The one is that Jesus is the Christ, i.e. the Messiah, the long expected One. The other is that he is the Son of God.” (856).
Hear what He is saying. Faith isn’t just some undefined feeling. True faith is in someone. It’s not just agreeing to facts but it is a full trust in Christ. Hear one last time from Leon Morris: “The name in some way express the whole person. To believe “on the name” of the Word, then, means to trust the person of the word. It is to believe in Him as he is. It is to believe that God is the God we see revealed in the Word and to put our trust in that God. This is more than simple credence. It is not believing that what He says it's true, but trusting Him as a person. It is believing “in” or “on” Him.” (99)
Is that where you are today? Do you trust in Jesus? Have you believed on Him? Have you placed the entire weight of your future in His hands? If you have, then things are going to look different in your life. God doesn’t bring someone to faith and then leaves them the same as they were. Slowly but surely you will see a change in your life as well. This is called repentance, and it starts as soon as you are united to Christ. You don’t try to fix yourself before you come to Jesus. Come to Jesus, and He will make you whole.
If you haven’t, I urge you to come to Him today. There is no better time than the present. Christ offers eternal life, so don’t stay in your sins and choose eternal death. There is eternal suffering down that path. You don’t have to go down it. “But Pastor, you don’t understand how many times I’ve tried to be better, but I just keep failing.” Well, then, come to Jesus. He is looking for tired and weary souls, and He promises to give them rest. “But Pastor, I’m still skeptical. I’ve got more questions. Well, as one commentator mentioned, remember Thomas! Jesus was able to handle Him. He can handle your honest questions as well (Hamilton, ESV Commentary, 301). Be found by Jesus. He loves you so much.