The Lord’s Day Morning
January 1, 2012
“Perplexed. Frightened. Incredulous…Marveling!”
The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to the gospel of Luke, the twenty-fourth chapter. Today, on the first Lord’s Day of the new year, we come to the last chapter of the gospel of Luke. We’ve been in Luke for a couple of years now and now for a few more weeks we’ll be in this gospel. And it’s so encouraging to be thinking with Luke about the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ on the first day of a new year. I want you to be on the lookout for a number of things in the reading as we look at Luke 24:1-12.
First of all, notice how Luke draws your attention to the reaction of the women and the apostles to the events surrounding the resurrection. If you look at verse 4, when the women get to the tomb and don’t find Jesus’ body there, they’re perplexed. And Luke tells you about that perplexity. In verse 5 when the angels show up, they’re frightened and bow down in prostration before these holy, supernatural beings. In verse 11 when they go back to tell the apostles what they’ve seen, or rather what they’ve not seen, the apostles are incredulous. They do not believe the reports of the women. And then when Peter goes, verse 12, to see for himself if the report of the women is true, he comes back marveling. So Luke is interested in showing you the reaction of people around the events of the resurrection. And by the way, this is one of the ways that Luke testifies to you that he’s a true historian. You know, if you were making this up, all of the original disciples, all of the women initially in contact with the events of the resurrection, and you were a Christian and you were making this up, what would they all do? They would all immediately believe and have no doubts; there would be no questions; there would be instantaneous worship. And Luke records for you the surprising reactions. Why? Because that’s the way it happened.
But then I want you to note who’s not here. This is the beginning of Luke’s resurrection and account and who’s not here? Jesus is not here! In Luke’s record, here in the first twelve verses, Jesus does not appear to anyone. Now there are other gospel resurrection accounts that tell stories and give details that Luke does not tell. He deliberately focuses our attention on certain things. But it’s very interesting that Jesus’ appearances are not recorded here. And it actually is a part of the point that Luke is making to you and to me, because the center of his passage is not about an appearance of Jesus; it is about a word from an angel. Look with me in verse 6. The centerpiece of this passage is an exhortation from the angel to the women who were at the tomb. And the response of the women at the tomb echoes that exhortation in verse 8. It is that that is the center point of the passage. Luke has something that he wants to teach us about the words of Jesus for our growth in grace and walking by faith. And so he draws our attention to the interaction between the angels and the women at the tomb.
Well before we read God’s Word, let’s pray and ask His help and blessing.
Heavenly Father, we thank You for this Word. We know that we do not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from Your mouth. We know that Lord, and yet so often we don’t live that way. For these few moments, help us know that with an intensity that never ever ends. Open our eyes to behold wonderful things in Your Word. We pray in Jesus’ name, amen.
Hear the Word of God beginning in Luke 24 verse 1:
“But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, ‘Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how He told you, while He was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.’ And they remembered His words, and returning from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, but these words seemed to them as idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home marveling at what had happened.”
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
This passage is about the battle of faith. Are we going to believe? Are we going to trust God’s Word? Or are we going to succumb to unbelief? Jesus Himself does not appear to anyone in the record of the story that Luke has recorded here. This is significant because Luke is pointing our attention to something else that is faith producing, and that is, the Word of God; the words of Christ.
THE BATTLE OF FAITH
It was about 6 a.m.; it was the crack of dawn on what we call Sunday. You remember when Jesus was crucified, when He was removed from the cross, it was so near to the beginning of the Sabbath that the disciples only had time to hurriedly prepare His body. Some spices were applied, but not the kind of full treatment that would be accorded a loved one was given, and so these women, who loved Jesus and who were devoted to Him, as soon as the dawn was about to break they were on their way to the tomb with an appropriate selection of spices to fully and properly complete the preparation of Jesus’ body. Mark tells us in Mark 16:3 that one of the things they talked about on the way was their concern about the fact that none of them would be able to roll the stone away from the tomb. They were worried about that. “How are we going to do that when we get there?” Apparently they had not heard that the tomb had been sealed and a guard had been placed in front of the tomb. They were just concerned about what to do with the stone. But when they get there, the stone has already been rolled away. And when they look inside, Jesus’ body is not there and Luke records for us what their reaction was — “they were perplexed.” They were almost undone. They were beside themselves.
Now in what I’m about to say, I do not in any way want to diminish the love and devotion of these women for Jesus, but you understand what Luke is telling you and me here? He’s telling us that whatever else motivated those women to go to the tomb, part of their journey, part of their mission, was based in their unbelief. They were perplexed at Jesus not being in that tomb, at least in part, because they had not listened to what Jesus said! He’d already told them He was not going to be in that tomb, and the very fact that they went to that tomb expecting Him to be there is an indication that they didn’t believe what He said! And Luke makes that clear that that’s an issue in this passage, because when the angel begins so speak, what does the angel say? “Why are you looking for the living among the dead?” Jesus had told them that He wasn’t going to stay dead. He was going to be crucified, dead, buried, and He was going to rise on the third day. And so the very first words of the angel is an indication that there was a faith problem here. They hadn’t listened to Jesus.
And so listen to the exhortation and look at it in verse 7, verse 6. The exhortation is, “Remember how He told you while He was still in Galilee that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” The exhortation is, “Remember Jesus’ words! You will not be able to make sense of any of this unless you remember Jesus’ words. The way for you to understand this event, the way for you to understand the resurrection is to go back to Jesus’ words and remember them.” And then Luke, just in case we missed it, tells us in verse 8 that the women remembered His words. And by the way, in this passage they will be the examples of the proper response to the exhortation from the angels, not the apostles and not even Peter, who Luke will not tell us came away from the tomb believing, but marveling. There was still more work to be done in Peter’s heart, but the women respond to the exhortation by remembering Jesus’ words.
THE WORD INTERPRETS LIFE
Now this is huge and it is the point that Luke is driving home to us here. The way we live the Christian life, the way we grow in grace, is by believing the Word of God. And the exhortation to remember Jesus’ words is the angel’s direction of faith to these women explaining to them that they will not be able to understand these events apart from Jesus’ words. They do not understand Jesus’ words in light of the event; they understand the event in light of Jesus’ words. You know, that’s how it is in the whole of the Christian life. We don’t understand life apart from the Word of God. We don’t read the Word of God through the light of our life; we read our lives through the light of the Word of God. The Word interprets the events, the situations, the circumstances of our lives. We read God’s providence in our lives through the lens of Scripture. It is the Word of God that frames our understanding of everything that happens in life. And that’s vital in the Christian life and it’s so often a challenge, isn’t it?
Have you ever had a situation in your life, a circumstance, a loss, a tragedy, something that is perplexing that you can’t get your head around; you can’t figure it out? And you believe the Word of God. It’s not that you reject the Word of God, or that you disbelieve the Word of God. You believe the Word of God but you wrestle. You may wrestle for three hours, for three days, for three weeks, for three months, or for three years. And what are you trying to do? You’re trying to get to that point where once again you know that you are in your heart the way you’re supposed to be before the Lord. Do you remember what we just sang? Take your hymnals out and look back at song number 642 in your hymnals. There’s so many phrases in this hymn that express this. Here’s one of them in the verse first stanza — “Thou my best thought by day or by night.” I know that I am where I’m supposed to be and that I’m doing what I’m supposed to do when that is the true statement of my heart, that He is my best thought by day or by night. But have you ever been in circumstances where that’s just not how you feel? It’s not that you’ve rejected the faith, it’s not that you’re rejecting the Word of God, it’s just that you’re laboring to put one foot in front of the other and you’re trying to get your equilibrium again because of this circumstance. It may be that something has happened that you didn’t want to happen and you’re trying to figure out, “Lord, what in the world are You doing in my life?” Or it may be something that you want that you don’t have and that you can’t have and maybe that you know that you’ll never have and you’re trying to get your equilibrium again. You’re trying to get back to where you can say, “Yes Lord, it’s true. You are my best thought by day or by night.” The angel is saying you will not get there until you remember Jesus’ words because Jesus’ words, God’s words, are life-giving and faith-producing.
Have you ever had that experience where finally what pushes you over the edge, what finally gives you the equilibrium again is suddenly a resting in the knowledge of what God says in His Word? And you say, “Yes Lord.” It’s not that you understand everything about your situation; it’s that you rest in God’s Word. And it may be a passage that you’ve read a thousand times and could quote by heart, but it is as if Luke wrote it five minutes ago and handed it to you. And what’s happened? The Word of God has interpreted your life back to you and suddenly you’re able to rest in God’s providence because God’s Word interprets the events of our lives, not the other way around. If we allowed the events of our lives to dictate what we thought about God, that would be a very interesting systematic theology.
But the angel is saying to these women, “If you’re going to respond to the resurrection the right way, the way to begin is in remembering Jesus’ words.” And the women remember. And everything they do in the rest of this passage has all the marks of faith. They go running back to the apostles and they say, “Let us tell you what we saw and what we didn’t see and what the angels said to us!” And even when the apostles, blow them off, they persist in their bedrock belief in what they’ve been told and what they’ve seen. They’re the example of how to respond to this exhortation in this passage.
THE RESSURECTION IS AT THE ROOT OF OUR HOPE
Now why is that so important? Well it’s important, my friends, because the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ is at the root of our hope. You know, one thing you need at the beginning of a new year is hope, but you don’t need unsubstantiated hope. You don’t need airy-fairy, pie in the sky by and by hope. You don’t need the kind of hope people promise you from the earth; you need real hope and that hope comes from the resurrection. The resurrection is the very ground of your assurance of forgiveness of sins. Do you understand that in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, God is publicly revealing that He has accepted the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for sins? And He is vindicating Jesus’ person. And so He is saying to everyone who believes on Him as He is offered in the Gospel, “Your sins have been forgiven by the work of Jesus Christ on the cross, in the tomb, and in the resurrection.” It’s the very ground of our assurance of forgiveness of sins. And let me tell you one thing you need in the new year is forgiveness of sins. There is nothing you will need more in 2012 than forgiveness of sin and the resurrection is the ground of it. It’s where that hope comes from. That’s why we need to remember the words of Jesus.
But the resurrection also reminds us that we love and serve and worship a living Savior. The angels said it, didn’t they? “Why are you looking for the living among the dead?” He’s a living Savior. That means you can talk to Him. It means that He is interceding for you. It means that He comforts you and that He comes and dwells in the midst of His people whenever two or three are gathered in His name. It means that He is a Good Shepherd who walks with you in the valley of the shadow of death. And it’s important that we understand the resurrection because our ultimate hope is that our bodies one day too will be raised from the dead. You know the Christian hope is not that we will go off in the spirit world to some fairy land; it’s that one day our bodies will be raised out of the tomb and glorified and perfected and united with our souls and we will live with God forever. And if you’ve buried someone in 2011, and there are many of you have, or if you bury someone in 2012, and there will be many of us here who will bury someone in 2012, then you need the hope that only comes from Jesus’ resurrection, and that’s why you need to remember Jesus’ words.
But the angel is saying this because it is a first principle of the Christian life, that the Word of God interprets our life. And it is the Word of God that produces the faith that we need to live the Christian life. God is the proper object of faith; Jesus is the proper object of faith, but it is always God’s Word and Jesus’ Word that are part and parcel of our trust in God and in Jesus. You cannot say, “I trust Jesus but not His Word.” You know there are all sorts of people out there, right in our own city, ministers of the Gospel, trying to tell Christians how to live the Christian life apart from belief in the Word of God. It can’t be done! It cannot be done! The way to live the Christian life is to remember Jesus’ words. It goes back to the Word. Until you really believe those words, that’s when the lights will come on. That’s when you’ll say, “Oh I’ve known that for twenty years but it’s like I just learned it and I believe it right now and now You’re my best treasure by day and by night, no matter what’s happening in my life right now.”
Luke is so kind to us in this passage to focus on our response to the Word of God. And by the way, it’s not going to stop. In the next story Jesus Himself is going to be walking along a road on the way to Emmaus with two disciples and what is He going to do in order to get them over their despair at His own death? He’s going to teach them a Bible study and get them to believe what the Word of God says about Him. That’s how He’s going to set them on the road to the Christian life. And Luke is telling us that for that very reason in this passage.
I can’t imagine a better response to this for us than to say to be determined that this year we’re going to be in the Word individually and as a congregation like never before. It’s not that by faithfully doing your devotions each day this month all the problems of life are solved, but very often the day to day preparation work that you’re doing by being in the Word is what God’s Spirit uses when you need it, when the time of trials come, when the questions overwhelm your mind, because it is remembering what Jesus said that not only gives us equilibrium but produces faith and life in the Christian life. May God bless His Word at the beginning of this new year.
O Lord, Your Word is truth and it is powerful and effective and sharper than any two-edged sword. I pray today that You would bring that very, very simple truth home to our hearts in a way that we uniquely need it. You know the needs of every individual in this room. In a specific and powerful way, bring that truth home so that we so honor and love and treasure up Your Word in our hearts that You are ready to speak to us in a way that we will listen when we need it the most. Thank You for this Word, O God, and thank You for the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We ask these prayers in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Now would you take your hymnals and turn with me to number 277, noticing that the final stanza of this hymn on the top of the next page, and let’s sing to God’s praise.
Because of the resurrection, receive God’s blessing. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.