Today we begin a new series leading up to Easter that we are calling Resurrection… and it only makes sense that we would spend some time in the weeks before Easter talking about the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection and what that event means for us today. We know that churches the world over will also be joining us in talking about these things in these weeks leading up to Easter… however, what we have found is that a good number of people have a fuzzy or incomplete understanding of just what is means when we say that Jesus was ‘resurrected.’ We’ve also found that many have a fuzzy understanding of how Jesus’ resurrection is directly connected to their lives in today’s world… and so we felt it was important to take some time to talk about Jesus’ resurrection in the hope of clearing up some of this fuzziness. Thus, this series… a series in which we’ll dig deeply into the scripture looking for the answers to some hugely important questions such as, “What actually happened on Easter morning?” “What will our own resurrection be like?” And “How should we live differently now because of all of this?” And so, today I am going to get right after it and begin this important series by answering this question, ‘What actually happened on Easter morning?’ But before we do, two things: first, my normal tendency is to do a deep dive into one passage, but today’s topic necessitates that I look at a number of scripture passages and that is just different for me… and secondly, much of finding answers to the question, ‘What actually happened on Easter morning?’ involves being clear about why what we believe about the resurrection is true, or as it is sometimes referred to as ‘apologetics.’ And for me to do apologetics in a weekend service is also unusual for me, though I am comfortable in this role. I simply wanted everyone to be forewarned a bit as to what I would be talking about this morning. But before we jump into answering the question ‘What actually happened on Easter morning?’ I want to pray.
To get to the answer of today’s question I want to begin by saying that all 4 of the New Testament books we call the Gospels, the books that tell us about the life and ministry of Jesus, and that would be Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, all four of these books, each in its own way, describes the end of Jesus’ life on earth by talking about 3 major events: The first event is that Jesus was crucified and he died on the cross. The second event is that after Jesus died, Jesus was buried in a tomb, a cave-like space carved into the face of a cliff. And the third and final event is that Three days after Jesus died and was buried, he was resurrected from the dead. I want to begin by telling you that there is almost no argument that Jesus was crucified. Numerous secular sources outside of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell us that Jesus was crucified by the Roman authorities. It’s important to keep in mind that if this were not the case there would have been absolutely no reason to make up a story about Jesus being crucified by the Romans. Crucifixion was the most humiliating and terrible way for a person to die during that time and it was especially shameful and demeaning to the Jews for any number of reasons. If anyone was going to make up a story about the death of a man who was thought to be the Jewish Messiah, having him killed off by the Romans through crucifixion was the last way they would have gone about making up an end to his life. Crucifixion was a despised, disgusting, horrific death and there is no way that the story of a Jewish teacher and healer who was thought by many to be the Messiah would have ended in crucifixion… that is, unless his life actually ended in crucifixion.
There have been some, though, who question whether Jesus actually died. Some people say that Jesus simply fainted, and he was mistaken for dead… he just passed out, came to later and got better quickly. This idea, though, implies that ancient people couldn’t tell if a person was dead. I know that there are stories around of people that were thought to be dead but were surprisingly found to still be alive… but this is really rare! The truth is ancient people knew when someone was dead… and it’s condescending for so-called modern people to think that ancient people were too primitive to know if someone was dead or not. And one other thing, if it had been true that Jesus, after having been whipped severely with a cat-of-nine-tails, then crucified and finally having a sword thrust in his side to make sure he was dead, if Jesus had lived through all of that and then come out of a stupor that was so deep that everyone thought he was dead and found himself inside of a tomb, there wouldn’t have been any way that he could have rolled away the huge stone covering the entrance to his tomb and then walked away. But let’s just for a second say he wasn’t dead, but had only passed out, the response to him showing up where the disciples were hiding wouldn’t have been the sort of fearful welcoming we read about in the gospels… no, it would have been something like, ‘Yikes, Jesus! You look terrible! Let’s get you to a doctor!’ I’m just saying. All four gospels and every ancient source we have available to us today says that Jesus died on a cross from the terrible injuries he’d suffered at the hands of the Romans.
There is also some argument as to whether Jesus was actually buried. It is true that the Romans tended to leave criminals on their crosses until their bodies rotted away… the Romans often treated those they’d crucified like long-term billboards that said, ‘Don’t you dare do what this person did!’ Plus, the Romans were well-aware of the fact that in almost all cultures of the ancient world it was a great offence to not allow someone to be buried…so they would often leave bodies on crosses to fall apart and be eaten by wild dogs as a way of showing disrespect to the accused criminal and his family. This may surprise you but, a couple of years ago, I actually had someone attending here at Grace, after I had given a sermon on the Easter story, say to me, ‘You don’t really believe that stuff about Jesus and the empty tomb, do you? Everyone knows that Jesus’ body was left on the cross and eventually eaten by dogs.’ So, it’s out there… But what those that hold this position are missing is the vast amount of non-Biblical, historical evidence that the Romans specifically allowed the Jews to take dead bodies off their crosses and bury them on the day of the crucified person’s death. You see, burial on the day of death was a huge spiritual and cultural issue for the Jews… even for crucified criminals. And what history tells us is that during times of peace the Romans didn’t want to give the easily-riled-up Jews any reasons for getting riled up… and so, they almost always allowed criminal’s crucified bodies to be taken down before sunset on the day of death and buried. It is true that the Romans didn’t allow this when they wanted to humiliate and discourage the Jews during times of open rebellion, but Jesus died during a time of peace…and so the request that Joseph of Arimathea made to Pilate, the Roman ruler who had commanded that Jesus be crucified, a request that we read about in all four gospels, by the way, Joseph of Arimathea’s request to take Jesus’ body down off of the cross and bury it in a tomb fits in perfectly with the vast amount of evidence we have concerning Roman and Jewish practices at the time. I feel we can say with great certainty that Jesus was buried, as John’s Gospel tells us, in a new, never used tomb that was carved into a rock face in a garden near the place of Jesus’ crucifixion.
So, we’ve covered the first two events from the end of Jesus’ life: Jesus died and then he was buried. The third event is that Jesus was resurrected three days after his death and burial. Now, first we need to be on the same page as to what is meant in the Bible, and, in particular, during the First Century, by the term ‘resurrection.’ Resurrection, the Greek word an-a-sta-sis, () meant Anastasis: a dead person, after having been dead for a good while, comes back to life and rises up in a new, transformed body. Just to be certain, the Greeks and the Romans did not believe that resurrection was possible at all. They believed that when you died you then spent eternity as a hazy spirit of some sort in a very shadowy, dark, undefined, not-so- good place called Hades… a place that offered no hope of escape. Death was a one-way street and the idea of Resurrection, the possibility of dead people coming back to life in new physical bodies, wasn’t in the cards. Also, the various pagan cultures of the time did not believe in the possibility of resurrection, either. They had multiple ideas about some sort of after life, but it never involved the resurrection of the dead into new, physical bodies. Now, the truth is that most Jews of that time did believe that eventually all Jews who weren’t reprobate … as in weren’t traitors or tax-collector… would be resurrected, but, and this is a really important detail, this resurrection wasn’t to take place until what they called ‘The Last Day’ meaning the day the Messiah established God’s everlasting kingdom. Then and only then, on that one day, would Everyone who was to be a part of God’s everlasting kingdom be raised from the dead… all at the same time! The Resurrection of the dead was thought to be a coming, one-time-for-everyone event. This explains Jesus’ friend Martha’s response to Jesus in John 11:14. Jesus had said to Martha that her brother Lazarus, who had died a good number of days earlier, would rise again, and Martha’s response was, ‘Yes, he will rise when everyone else rises at the last day.’ (John 11:14) She believed, like most Jews, that there was a ‘last day’ coming when all Jews would be resurrected, but when that day would come was anybody’s guess. So, while not all Jews believed in this one-time-for-all resurrection of the dead, most Jews thought we died, we ‘rested’ a while in some way and then we would be summoned out of the grave and resurrected into new physical, eternal bodies. The idea that Jesus, just one man, would be resurrected… that Jesus would rise up out of the grave in a new, transformed eternal body on his own… while the rest of humanity continued on just as always, wasn’t something that anyone, Roman, Greek, pagan or Jew, believed could or would ever happen. So, just to be clear, when we read in the Bible that Jesus was ‘resurrected’ that he was ‘an-a-sta-sis-ed,’ it is not saying that Jesus became some sort of disembodied, ghost- like spirit… or that he became an angel… or some sort of spiritual force cycling around out in the cosmos… no, When the gospels say that the tomb where Jesus was buried was suddenly empty and that Jesus was resurrected, they are saying that on a specific day in history Jesus was given new life, in a new body that couldn’t be defeated in any way by death again… for eternity. That is what the gospels say happened on the first Easter.
I do want to step back a moment and point out that Jesus had clearly predicted that he would be killed and rise from the dead! Well, here, listen to what Jesus said in the gospel of Mark, not one or twice but three different times. ‘Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of his enemies. He will be killed, but three days later he will rise from the dead.” (Mark 9:31). It seems pretty plan to me that he knew what was coming but listen to what the very next verse in Mark tells us, ‘The disciples didn’t understand what he was saying, however, and they were afraid to ask him what he meant.’ And they certainly didn’t know that this was what was happening on the first Easter morning! With all these forewarnings you might think that on the first Easter morning the disciples were anxiously waiting to see Jesus alive again, but that isn’t what we are told in any of the 4 gospels. Matthew and Mark use words like terrified, shocked, trembling and bewildered to describe the disciple’s responses to finding out that the tomb was empty, and that Jesus had reportedly been seen alive… and not just alive, but resurrected! Luke tells us that 2 angels practically quoted the words Jesus had said to his disciples that I read earlier to Mary Magdalene and a group of women who’d come to Jesus’ tomb to put spices on his dead body… the angels said, “Why are you looking among the dead for someone who is alive? He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead! Remember what he told you back in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be betrayed into the hands of sinful men and be crucified, and that he would rise again on the third day.” And Luke goes on to tell us that Mary Magdalene ran as fast as she could and ‘found the disciples and told them that the tomb was empty. She exclaimed, “I have seen the Lord!’ The disciple’s response, though, wasn’t, ‘That makes perfect sense! That’s just what he said would happen three days after his death!’ No, Luke tells us in verse 11 of chapter 24 that ‘The story sounded like nonsense to the men, so they didn’t believe it.’ (Luke 24:11) And Luke goes on to tell us in the next verse, ‘However, Peter jumped up and ran to the tomb to look. Stooping, he peered in and saw the empty linen wrappings; then he went home again, wondering what had happened.’ (Luke 24:12). And even when Jesus finally did appear to all of his disciples, well, here let me read what happened… this appearance happened right after the risen Jesus had spent some time walking with two of his disciples on a road that ran from Jerusalem to the town of Emmaus… and then we read this: ‘Then the two from Emmaus told their story of how Jesus had appeared to them as they were walking along the road, and how they had recognized him as he was breaking the bread. And just as they were telling about it, Jesus himself was suddenly standing there among the disciples. “Peace be with you,” he said. But the whole group was startled and frightened, thinking they were seeing a ghost! “Why are you frightened?” he asked. “Why are your hearts filled with doubt? Look at my hands. Look at my feet. You can see that it’s really me. Touch me and make sure that I am not a ghost, because ghosts don’t have bodies, as you see that I do.” As he spoke, he showed them his hands and his feet. Still, they stood there in disbelief, filled with joy and wonder. Then he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he ate it as they watched. Luke 24:35-43. By the way, ancient people believed that ghosts couldn’t eat food… that’s why Jesus ate some fish… to prove he was a resurrected person… not a ghost or anything like that! But the bigger point is that the disciples were totally confused and uncertain and yet somehow joyous about what they were seeing! And John’s gospel is even more explicit. Keep in mind that John was one of the disciples that had been with Jesus from the beginning… he’d heard and seen just about everything Jesus had said and done. Yet even he reports that Jesus’ resurrection caught everyone, including him, off guard. So much so, that one of the disciples, Thomas, went 8 days thinking the rest of the disciple’s claim that they’d seen Jesus alive was crazy talk, that is until he, too, had not just seen Jesus, but touched the wounds on Jesus’ hands and side. The gospel writers all tell us that the initial response to the message that Jesus had been resurrected, that he was alive in a new, physical body, was confusion, shock, and disbelief. They’d all initially concluded that their thoughts about Jesus had been mistaken… he wasn’t the Messiah… and everything they had given their lives to over the past 3 years had been a waste of time. That is until they saw Jesus and spoke with and Jesus and ate with the resurrected Jesus. Then everything changed!
Now, let’s be honest. Many say that Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead. They say that what really happened was that after a few days of living with the reality of Jesus’ death and getting over their shock and grief, the disciples all felt an overwhelming sense of the spirit and the presence of Jesus in their hearts, and they decided to carry on his ministry… this business of Jesus being risen from the dead was just a myth that developed later. That sounds nice, but the problem is that pretty much all that the disciples did from day one, once they claimed to have seen Jesus alive was proclaim to the entire world that Jesus had been resurrected… he’d been raised from the dead and was alive! And they went to their graves… actually most of them were martyred, because they refused to back track on their confidence that Jesus was indeed the Messiah and that they had seen Jesus alive… that he’d been ‘an-a-sta-sis-ed;’ he’d been resurrected! They never once said anything like, ‘We can feel the spirit of Jesus in our hearts, and we want to continue on spreading his message of love.’ No, they said, ‘Jesus, the one who was killed, is alive!’ And can I just say one more time that there was nothing in the Jewish understanding of the coming Messiah that included a Messiah who’d be crucified and killed by the Romans, who then rose up from the dead. The Messiah was supposed to kill the Romans, for heaven’s sake. Truth is, that if the disciples weren’t convinced that the tomb where Jesus was buried was literally empty of his dead body and Jesus had been resurrected, they would never have made up this story! This story would have been about as preposterous as a story could be and yet, it is the story that all four gospel writers claim is true… historically and factually true. There is never a ‘get-this-wink-wink’ in anything that the gospel writers say… and, as I said earlier, what we know from the traditions of the early church, all but one of the 11 disciples died at the hands of people who couldn’t accept the message that Jesus had been raised from the dead. And one other thing you may hear out there. Some claim that no one actually saw Jesus alive after his crucifixion. They say that in the disciple’s worked-up, emotional state they all had an hallucination of a living Jesus. There is just one problem with that idea: the Bible claims that besides the disciples and those who were gathered with them in the upper room, about 500 other people claimed to have seen Jesus in the flesh after his crucifixion… and, let’s be honest, no two people, let alone over 500 people, could possibly all have had the same hallucination. Again, I’m just saying. These more than 500 people must have seen something… no, SOMEBODY that they were willing to go to their graves claiming was Jesus… and he was alive and well!
Now it is true that the details that the 4 gospels give us of what happened on that first Easter morning are all somewhat different… but this is very common. People who experience a highly unusual event tend to remember the details differently especially when they are retelling the story of that highly unusual event some 30 years after the event. But even though in one version only one person runs to see the empty tomb while in another 2 people run to the tomb, or in one version there is one angel while in another there are 2, and yes, it is a bit difficult to pin down exactly what happened on that first Easter morning, all four records of the death of Jesus end with real people in real time meeting and interacting with a real Jesus who was alive!
And this is the message of Easter, that Jesus is alive and that his resurrection, his return from the grave is the beginning of God’s new age where new life in all its possibilities is a reality! Jesus’ resurrection says that God’s creation and all his purposes for his creation are not lost due to mankind’s rebellion. Jesus’ new life proclaims to the universe that we are not doomed by sin to a hopeless, unending cycle of short lives followed perpetual death, nor are we destined to some sort of eternal life as spirits without bodies floating in some sort of rapturous state void of the wonder and the beauty of God’s amazing creation. Jesus’ resurrection, his return to life as a fully-formed, physical man, able to walk and talk and eat and cook and enjoy the presence of others and experience the goodness of God’s wonderful world should give us the hope that by placing our faith in him, we, too, will also be resurrected into new bodies that will never experience decay or pain or death again. Barry will be talking deeply about these topics and the hope Jesus resurrection should be to all of those who have chosen to follow Jesus over the next couple of weeks leading up to Easter, but in the meantime, to answer the question, ‘What really happened on Easter?’ Well, I can’t explain exactly what happened in perfect detail, as we’ve seen even the gospel writers reported a few of the details differently, but the ultimate answer to that question is this: Jesus, a man who had lived a life in perfect harmony with all that God desires for mankind, a man who had been falsely accused of crimes he did not commit and then was killed at the hands of the Romans, Jesus rose up out of death in a new body… a body that was then, and is now, free from all of the ravages of our fallen world for eternity. And because Jesus has conquered the curse of death, we, too, can live now in the hope that someday we will join Jesus in resurrected, wondrous new bodies that will never decay or yield to anything other than the deepest blessings of God. That is what happened on the first Easter morning and that is worth celebrating!