Monday, April 6, 2015

Risen: An Unbelievable Story

An Easter sermon

Text: Matthew 28:1-20




But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay” (Matt. 28:5-6). 


Unbelievable? 

In my opinion, one word that is overused is “unbelievable.” Nowadays everything is unbelievable. Today, many Easter dinners will be described as “unbelievable.” People don’t seem to know what “unbelievable” means. According to one dictionary, the word “unbelievable” means “difficult or impossible to believe.”

On this Easter Sunday, Christians are celebrating something that really is unbelievable: the resurrection of Jesus.


An Unbelievable Story

Usually, if something really is unbelievable, there’s a good chance that it’s not true (like alligators living in the New York City sewers).

We must acknowledge that the resurrection is a story that’s hard to believe.

We’re so familiar with the story of the resurrection that we don’t appreciate how unbelievable it is. The angel said to the women, “You seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen” (28:4-5).

The story of the resurrection is hard to believe for two reasons. First, it’s hard to believe that a crucified man could be a Saviour. To the people of the first century, “the message of the cross [was] foolishness” (1 Cor. 1:18, NKJV).

Second, it’s hard to believe that a crucified man could rise from the dead. If you were told that [dead celebrity] had risen from the dead, you wouldn’t believe it. Dead people stay dead.


Why Should We Believe It's True?

If the story of the resurrection is hard to believe, why should we believe it’s true? What if a non-Christian friend were to ask you this question. How would you answer? You could say, “My parents taught me it’s true,” but your friend would say, “How do you know your parents weren’t wrong?” You could say, “The Bible says it’s true,” but your friend would say, “How do you know the Bible is right about the resurrection?” [1]

It’s reasonable to believe that the resurrection is true because it’s the best explanation of the “minimal facts”—facts that are accepted by the majority of scholars, whether Christian or secular. [2]

1. Jesus was crucified. 

The crucifixion of Jesus was a public event and is mentioned in secular history books. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote that Christ “suffered the extreme penalty [i.e., crucifixion] during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate.” [3]

2. The tomb was empty. 

If the tomb of Jesus had not been empty, the story of his resurrection would have easily been disproven. The enemies of Jesus didn’t dispute the fact that the tomb was empty. Instead, they invented a lie to explain why the tomb was empty: “[Jesus’] disciples came by night and stole him away while [the guards] were asleep” (28:13). [4]

3. The disciples really believed that they had seen the risen Jesus. 

The followers of Jesus didn’t act like people who had stolen his body. [5] They were willing to endure persecution and even martyrdom to spread the story of the resurrection. Liars make poor martyrs.

4. A notorious enemy of Christianity was converted. 

The apostle Paul had been a persecutor of the church, but he claimed that the risen Jesus appeared to him (1 Cor. 15:8). Skeptics will argue that the disciples wanted to believe in the resurrection, but the same can’t be said of Paul.

Yes, the story of the resurrection of a crucified man is an unbelievable story. But what about the fact that the tomb was empty? What about the fact that the disciples really believed they had seen the risen Jesus? What about the conversion of Paul? How do we explain these facts if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead?


What If It's True? 

The Gospel of Matthew begins with Joseph in fear. An angel says to him in a dream, “Do not fear” (1:20). And Matthew comments that the baby born to Mary would be called “Immanuel,” which means “God with us” (1:23). The Gospel of Matthew ends with the women at the tomb in fear. An angel says to them, “Do not be afraid” (28:5). [6] And he tells them that Jesus is risen.

If the resurrection is true, it means that the risen Jesus is God with us. 

Before he ascended to heaven, Jesus promised his followers, “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (28:20). Jesus is not dead. He’s alive. And the risen Jesus is with us to calm all our fears.

If you fear sharing the gospel, the risen Jesus is with you, and he gives you courage. [7] If you fear death, the risen Jesus is with, and he gives hope.

Because He lives, I can face tomorrow,
Because He Lives, all fear is gone; 
Because I know He holds the future, 
And life is worth the living just because He lives! [8]


[1] I am not casting doubt on the truthfulness of the Bible. However, we should not be under no illusion that a non-Christian will accept what the Bible says as fact.
[2] A good presentation of the minimal facts approach can be found in The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona.
[3] Tacitus, Annals 15.44 (c. A.D. 115).
[4] In the second century, Justin Martyr wrote that this lie was still being circulated in his day (Dialogue with Trypho).
[5] It’s significant that Matthew says that women were the first witnesses of the resurrection. This detail adds to the genuineness of the account since in that culture the testimony of women wasn’t valued.
[6] Jesus later appears to the women and says, “Do not be afraid” (v. 10).
[7] Before the risen Jesus appeared to the disciples, they were hiding in fear (John 20:19). But after they saw Jesus, they courageously shared the gospel in Jerusalem.
[8] Bill Gaither, “Because He Lives.”