The Tomb Is Empty: Now What?
Babies are great. Having a baby is lot of fun, if that’s an appropriate adjective. It’s surreal; you wait and get pumped for one day, and then, boom, it’s over. You get ready for months. After our first child was born, after we went through all the months’ long preparations, I remember coming home from the hospital and having the sensation: “Well, now what do we do?” Well, the answer to that question is: Be a good father, for the rest of your life. In other words, live every future day in light of that one. Easter (last week) is one day. It’s an epoch-making cause for celebration. But like the birthday of a new child, although the day is magnificent, it’s just “another day” if it doesn’t change you permanently. You see where I’m going? We are called to live our lives in light of the resurrection. Not just to acknowledge it that the day is wonderful, but to let it alter the course of every day we exist.
And so, what I want to do this week and the next several Sundays is trace the Biblical, post-Easter implications for our lives. So we’re starting a new series today. It’s called, “The Tomb is Empty: Now What?” And the way we’ll focus today, if you want a title for today’s sermon, is: “Hold Your Faith Secure.”
How Do We Justify our Belief?
We often justify our spiritual beliefs, whether we admit it or not, in one of three ways. Maybe we can call them the three Fs: 1. Feelings. For example, you remember the song we sing occasionally: “You ask me how I know He lives: He lives, within my heart.” So, what the song is saying there is that the reason we believe Jesus is alive is because we feel it in our heart. Right? Is that how we boil down the most important aspect of Christianity? Sensation in our heart? 2. “Faith.” Some folks often talk as though we have to suspend reason in order to be Christians. I’ve heard one person say one time: “If I thought too much about it, I wouldn’t be a Christian. Religion isn’t about thinking. It’s about faith.” Being religious means you can’t be rational. Is that right? 3. Family. Some folks don’t really know much about why we believe what we believe. We just know it was good enough for momma and ‘em, so it’s good enough for me.
But look what Jesus is doing in John 20. Is he leaving the future of Christianity to feelings, faith, and family? No. There’s lots of reasons why, but let me preview a couple that I think are right. Jesus knows that you won’t take sin and holiness seriously, if He is a feeling in your heart. You won’t walk across the street to witness to Jesus with your neighbor, if you think that He is illogical. And you won’t care about Jesus at all the only reason you even think about him is b/c momma and daddy did.
Which is why 20:19-30 is happening. Jesus is proving (rationally, reasonably, intellectually, factually) to his disciples for why they should hold believe in him. Now, I’m going to do in our time for you what Jesus did in that time for them. I’m not going to preach this passage, necessarily, but I am hoping to make the same point as this passage, and answer the same question:
Why do we think that resurrection of Jesus is actually true?
- The Report and Number of the Eyewitnesses to His Death, Burial, and Resurrection.
The Reports: We know that He died. Remember, Jesus was surrendered to the Roman state as an enemy of the Roman state, and executed at the hands of Roman soldiers – professional executioners. Most historians and common sense-ians recognize at least this: Jesus was dead.
We also know that He was buried. Joseph of Arimathea / Nicodemus saw to it that he was buried. Now this was a complex process that took a good deal of time. If Jesus wasn’t dead at this point, the people wrapping his body in tight linens and burial spices were extremely unobservant. Moreover, the specific names provided in the gospels (Joseph/Nicodemus) are provided for a first century audience so that you could, at that time, interview them to verify. The Gospels give their readers their names so you can go and ask them, “Hey, did you really bury him?” Makes good sense, then, to agree that he wasn’t stolen, eaten by wild dogs, or mis-tombed. He was in fact, buried.
And the witnesses report that he rose from the dead. Now, we could examine each gospel account independently, but if you’re already suspicious of the witnesses, it won’t do a lot of good. So let me just highlight one aspect of the reports that enhances their believability, rather than try to defend the truthfulness of the four gospels in turn. Let’s consider a feature of the reports: the women at the tomb. It was considered at that time that women’s word was not as trustable as a man’s (Celerus). So what do we have in the gospels? Women are the first one’s at the tomb. What does that mean? Put it this way: If you’re trying to start a revolutionary movement on a lie about a dead man’s resurrection, you wouldn’t begin the tale with the kind of witnesses that people don’t believe are trustworthy. It’s too easy to just start with with a couple of men. Shoot, you’re making it up. The only reason you’d begin this way, is if it actually happened this way.
Here’s what I mean: when my girls fight, and I investigate by interviewing those involved, and one of them reports how she was innocent on all counts, I seriously doubt she’s telling the truth. But if she tells how she started the problem or had a hand in it, I tend to believe her. Because her story is vulnerable, and it “smells” true. The women’s report “smells” the same way. It’s vulnerable, which makes it believable.
Secondly, let’s consider the number. We have women, day laborers, Sadducees, recovering Pharisees, fishermen, former tax gatherers, Roman soldiers all saying the same thing independently of each other and basing their lives on that claim. The best explanation of that fact is that they’re giving an account of the same thing they believed actually happened. It’s much harder to say that they’re all colluding, secretly lying, especially when the number of witnesses is so expansive (cf. 1 Cor 15). If I asked this church to give a report in just a few hours on what I preached on today, you’d get a wide variety of accounts. You can imagine how hard it would be to get the story of the resurrection on point if it was a lie. What’s the best explanation for the accounts that we have? Concoction? Or is simply the report of what was seen first hand?
- The Uniqueness of the Message.
There is simply no precedent in Jewish or Greco-Roman life for the bodily death and bodily resurrection. It is a unique, unprecedented message.
Not Jewish. When Messianic figures appeared like Jesus (there were at least a dozen, and a couple mentioned in Acts 5), they died and the mission passed onto one of their family members or friends. In the case of Jesus’ mission, it should’ve gone to James, but the disciples didn’t do that. Because the Jews and disciples had no concept of bodily, pre-judgment, resurrection.
Not Greco-Roman. The surrounding pagan cultures had demigods who had a spiritual, but not bodily afterlife. The goal for the afterlife was not to come back to life. To escape the body was the heroic ideal. No one would’ve been hopeful about a bodily resurrection (cf. Acts 17).
It’s not Jewish. It’s not Roman. It’s not even a resuscitation (unlike Lazarus). It’s something utterly unexpected and unprecedented. If it was a mimic, it would smell “ratty.” We might suspect it was concocted. But it’s not. It’s entirely unique. Where did it come from? What’s the best explanation? Scheme? DaVinci Code. Or is it a clearer cohesion to the evidence that it actually happened.
- The Suffering of Its Witnesses.
Almost all of those who claimed to have been the original witnesses of the resurrected Christ (and many of the early Christians up until Christianity was legalized) were murdered, tortured, persecuted horrifically precisely because they claimed to have seen the resurrected Christ.
Now it’s very difficult to endure torture and death for a claim that you know is a lie. Can you imagine how this would work?
Roman: Did Jesus rise from the dead?
Roman: I’m going to kill you because you believe that.
Apostle: Well, ok, on second thought, maybe he didn’t.
A simple threat of death would deflate the momentum of Christianity, if it was based on overt fabrications. In other words, people don’t die for fairy tales that they know are fairy tales. Yet almost every apostle and early eyewitness were murdered for their beliefs in the resurrection.
Later followers could be deceived and might die for false beliefs, but they don’t know that their false belief. Example: Jihadists. But a variety of people from socio-economic backgrounds (rich, poor, Jewish, Roman, Greek, Ethiopian) enduring beatings and death for something they made up? No. What makes more sense? The resurrection happened.
- The Expansion of Christianity.
It’s very easy to stamp out a movement, particularly if it’s based on lies that are easily proven false. You know, you can’t prove Joseph Smith didn’t have a supernatural experience in the woods with secret glasses and golden plates. You can’t prove that Muhammad had a visionary experience with an angel in a cave. You can’t prove, as Atheism argues, that there was nothing at the beginning of time that exploded into everything. You can’t prove that there aren’t invisible aliens in the room right now. But you could’ve very easily proved that the resurrection didn’t happen. How? I could’ve done it pretty quickly. You produce the body, you get followers to confess to a conspiracy, you pull out counter-testimonies of first hand witnesses. Boom. Movement over. That fact that the opponents of Christianity couldn’t do that leads to the explosion of message of Christianity across the ancient world. What’s the best explanation for the rapid expanse of Christian message: Resurrection happened.
Now, you have to ask yourselves: what kind of theory has the better explanatory power of all these different facts? That they all lied, they were all deluded, they were all deceived, they were cooking a massive counter-cultural, unprecedented conspiracy that transcended class, was inter-ethnic, intergenerational, and international? Or is it much more sensical to recognize that they saw the actual resurrected, living Lord Jesus Christ?
It was Jesus’ evidencing his resurrection that reinforced the confidence of his disciples in John 20-21. And it’s that confidence that catapults the disciples to courage, witness, prayer, kindnesses, and generosity. They did not say, “Amen” and go home. It changed everything for them. “If he’s alive, I can lose my life, my popularity, my wealth. If he’s alive, I will and can witness to my community. I will pray. I will forgive. I will strive for holiness.” That’s why Acts is filled with incredible accounts of boldness and power. They saw, believed, and were sure of the risen Christ.
So…do you really believe in the resurrection? I wonder. The news of the resurrection, one of Paul’s accusers said, “turns the world upside down.” And it turns our lives upside down, too. Do we really believe in the resurrection? Or do we doubt? Do you know, believer, like the disciples saw, there are good reasons to believe that your faith isn’t blind, a feeling, or a family’s heritage. Your faith makes sense. And that, for me, is a very comforting thought, indeed.