Christ in the Crucible: The Victorious Christ

Sermon by David Strain on April 4

John 20:1-31

Well do keep your Bibles open and turn this time to the New Testament scriptures and to John chapter 20; John chapter 20. And while you’re turning there, let me add my own word of welcome to you, especially if you are joining today as a visitor. Perhaps you are here visiting friends or family for Easter; we are really delighted to have you with us. We’re also very glad if you’re joining us at home online. For some of you, this may well be the first time you’ve come to church in person in months. Most of us have only recently begun to return to in-person worship, so this Easter is a big deal, isn’t it? In fact, all over the country people are only now, and still only quite tentatively, getting back to normal. COVID-19, let’s be clear, has turned our lives upside down. And look, it’s been a tough year, hasn’t it? Some of us have lost loved ones. Some of us have been terribly unwell. Some of us are still feeling the psychological losses of isolation and distance. I was reading comments from people reflecting on their experience of the pandemic, recovering from the pandemic, and several of them spoke about getting over the virus was like being a new lease on life – “Learning to live again,” was their phrase. There was lots of praise, understandably, justly, of course, for the heroic efforts of our healthcare professionals. “They saved my life,” was a common realization.

What I want you to see as we turn to John chapter 20 is that in many ways that actually is the message of Easter. As one preacher I heard has put it, “Easter is about saving your life.” Easter is about saving your life. If you take your Bibles in hand, turn to John 20 – you can find it on page 906 of the New Testament portion of the church Bibles. For now, if you have them open before you, I want you to look down at verses 30 and 31, right at the end of the chapter. John, the author of the gospel, is summing up the whole narrative, the whole reason for his writing. Here is why John wrote his gospel – “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that” – Okay, so here it is; here is John’s purpose, his reason for writing – “these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” John is writing that by believing in Jesus you may have life in His name. John is writing this gospel to save your life. And that message is particularly to the fore here in John chapter 20 as the apostle reminds us what took place that first Easter Sunday morning.

As we look at the chapter, I want to think about two very simple themes with you. First, we’re going to notice the fact of the resurrection. The fact. And then secondly, the fruit of the resurrection. Or if you prefer, we’re asking two basic questions – “Did it happen?” and “Why does it matter?” “Did it happen?” and “Why does it matter?” The salvation that John offers really is bound up with these two questions, the answer to these two questions. Before we read the chapter, let’s pause once more and pray together and then we’ll read the Scriptures and consider their message. Let us pray.

O Lord, would You now come and open our eyes that we may behold marvelous things out of Your Law, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

John chapter 20, beginning at the first verse. This is the Word of God:

“Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples went back to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’ She turned and said to him in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’ – and that he had said these things to her.

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.’

Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.’

Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken to us in His holy, inerrant Word.

The Fact of the Resurrection

First of all, then, the fact of the resurrection. The fact of it – “Did it happen?” Last week I came across an article with a title that caught my eye, given the focus of our reflection this morning. It was entitled, “Fifteen Celebrities Who Were Resurrected with CGI.” The tagline read, “With new cutting edge technology, movies are bringing celebrities back from the dead.” Did you know that Peter Cushing, Oliver Reed, Audrey Hepburn, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, Bruce Lee, Fred Astaire and a whole galaxy of others have all enjoyed a new lease on digital life this way? Interestingly, when CGI was used to include Peter Cushing in “Rogue One,” one of the Star Wars prequels, “This return to the franchise sparked an industry wide debate about the morality of bringing the deceased back to life.” Isn’t that fascinating and just a little bit weird? They are debating the morality of bringing the deceased back to life. You want to sort of raise your hand and say, “Um, fellas, sorry to burst your bubble but it’s all just smoke in mirrors, right? You’re not bringing anyone back to life. Let’s be clear. All this talk of resurrection here is really just a metaphor.”

And maybe for you this Easter that’s all you’re really willing to affirm, even about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. “If it’s anything, it’s just a metaphor, a fantasy, no more real, no more substantial than animators recreating Philip Seymour Hoffman’s likeness on a computer someplace for a scene in a movie.” But I want you to notice that for the apostle John who wrote this chapter, nothing could be further from the truth. He reports the events that first Easter in an extraordinary manner. You will notice, first of all, in verses 1 through 10, the rather comical portrayal of Peter and “the other disciple whom Jesus loved.” That’s a reference to John himself, the author of the gospel. And they are racing each other to Jesus’ tomb. Now understand, Jewish men in those days who wanted to preserve even a shred of their own dignity, did not run. But here they are, they are sprinting to the tomb to see what has happened when Mary has reported to them that the body is gone.

Now John is quite a bit younger than Simon Peter, and so, verse 4, he reaches the tomb first and looks in to see the linen grave clothes that Jesus had been wrapped in, lying there, just as if He had taken them off, which of course He had. And then however many minutes later, you know, poor old Peter finally crawls into view – red faced, panting, sweaty, trying to catch his breath – and he actually goes into the tomb to take stock of everything. John says they both leave that day quite convinced that Jesus is gone, but not that He has been raised from the dead. Verse 9, “As yet, they did not understand the Scriptures that He must rise from the dead.” To be frank, it’s an odd story and it makes both Peter and John look ridiculous. Jesus had told them often enough, if you’ve read through the gospel up to this point you would have heard Him say to them again and again, “On the third day, I will rise again.” And they see the empty tomb, they see the grave clothes, and still they don’t get it.

Now just think about it for a moment. If you were inventing this tale, simply fabricating a false resurrection story in service of your own agenda, you’re not likely to make yourself look quite this foolish. Are you? You’re going to make sure you come out of this story looking rather good. But the fact is, Peter and John, the two disciples who were closest to Jesus, they are the inner circle, are just as reluctant on the first day of the week that morning to credit the idea that Jesus is alive than some of us are.

Then notice verses 11 through 18. When Peter and John go back to their homes, Mary remains behind. She is understandably devastated at what she assumes is this latest outrage – the desecration of Jesus’ remains. But while she is weeping over it all, she meets Jesus Himself, although with yet another comic turn – she thinks He is the gardener! It’s a delightful moment that really is meant to make us smile. After all, if Jesus is alive, it’s worth smiling about. Isn’t it? It’s not till Jesus speaks Mary’s name that she suddenly realizes who is addressing her, and instantly she wants to cling to Him. She wants to hug Him. She wants to hold His hand. She wants to make sure He never leaves her side again. She loves Him, you see. But Jesus tells her essentially He can’t stay. “You can’t keep Me here. Instead, I want you to go back and tell the others that I am ascending to glory.” And so she dutifully obeys. Verse 18, Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and that He had said these things to her.

And here again we have to understand that in those very patriarchal days women were not considered credible witnesses. They were not even allowed to give legal testimony in a court of law. So if John was falsifying his account, seeking to persuade you of something that is not actually true, he would never, never have made the very first witness of the resurrection Mary Magdalene. He just wouldn’t do it; not unless Mary was in fact the first witness of the resurrection.

And then notice what happens when Jesus appears to the disciples in 19 through 23 and especially when He meets Thomas and the others in 24 through 29. He presents to them the physical evidence. Do you see it? Now we know Jesus really died; that’s not in any real dispute. John 19:32-33 records the grim business of breaking the legs of crucified victims in order to speed their demise. The Roman death squad – these men are experts in their brutal trade. They know exactly what they are doing. And so when they come to Jesus, we’re told they saw He was already dead. They are not mistaken. They know what they are about. And just to make sure, John tells us they pierce His heart up under His rib cage with a spear. Jesus is well and truly, unambiguously dead. He’s dead.

And so now when this same Jesus, who died on that cross, comes and stands in the disciples’ midst alive again, you’ll notice He does two things to reassure them. In verses 19 and 20 – do you see them in verses 19 and 20? First He says, “Peace be with you.” They need peace in this moment. And then He shows them His hands and His side. He shows them the nail marks and the wound where the spear had punctured His heart. Now Thomas wasn’t there that day and he was so insistent on empirical evidence that he declared, “Unless I see His hands and the mark of the nails and place my finger into the mark of the nails and put my hand into His side, I will never believe.” Maybe you can relate to that. You want the data; you’re skeptical.

Well now look how Jesus deals with Thomas. A week later on the following Sunday, Jesus came among them again and said to them once more, “Peace be with you.” And then with amazing tenderness and with remarkable patience for this man who is determined not to be duped by fairy tales and delusions, He invites Thomas to do what He believed would be the only persuasive thing – “Put your finger here and see My hands. Put out your hand and place it into My side. Do not disbelieve, but believe,” He said. And now even at this point, Thomas, skeptical Thomas, is convinced. He moves instantly from unbelief to adoration and says to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”

So look, John 20 is not an invitation to a blind leap in the dark. Is it? It is not an invitation to make-believe. John doesn’t want you to suspend rationality. John is saying that this is an account of what we really saw and touched and heard. This is eyewitness testimony that rings with the crystal clear notes of historical fact. Jesus is not dead! He lives! He lives!

The Fruit of the Resurrection

Well okay. So what? If we’ve established the fact of the resurrection, what about the fruit of it. “What difference does it make?” Ron Sider did a PhD under one of the greatest historians of the second half of the 20th century, Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan. “When he died,” wrote Sider, “the Yale History Department devoted a full page to the vast array of honors Dr. Pelikan received. But after all those honors, the story ended with the last of Dr. Pelikan’s many aphorisms spoken as he was dying of cancer – ‘If Jesus is not risen, nothing else matters. If Jesus is risen, nothing else matters.’” If Jesus is not risen, nothing else matters. If Jesus is risen, nothing else matters. Sider went on to explain Pelikan’s point. “If Jesus is not risen, then Bertrand Russell was right – ‘We die and rot and this is the end.’” If Jesus is not risen, nothing else matters. Life is a meaningless fluke, a tiny flame that soon burns itself out, a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. If Jesus is not risen, nothing else matters. But then if Jesus is risen, nothing else matters. That is, if He is alive, that is the great truth, the great fact. Nothing else – none of the many honors that adorned Dr. Pelikan’s life, none of them matter. Not really. Not in comparison to the hope of eternal life that Jesus now offers.

The Resurrection Brings Peace

And John really wants us to get that. You’ll notice He says four things essentially to the disciples in verses 19 through 23 to drive home His point. First of all, He offers them peace in verse 19. Actually three times over in this chapter – verse 19, verse 21, verse 26 – Jesus offers peace to the disciples. Now to be sure, peace, shalom, was the customary greeting amongst Jewish people in those days. When you met one another you said, “Shalom.” It is lifted from the blessing God gave to the high priest to pronounce over the Jewish people all the way back in Numbers chapter 6. “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. The Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.” And so when Jewish people met one another they were repeating that promise from God, that prayer wish – “May the peace of God be with you.” John wants us to understand that now that Jesus has risen from the dead, He is the perfect, final High Priest. His death has dealt with sin forever. Like the symbolic sacrifice of the lamb to make atonement for the sin of the people on the altar in the temple, because Jesus has died, our alienation, our enmity against God, has been removed. We are reconciled to Him. He has made peace, and so He can give peace.

Peace has to be one of the most precious commodities of our time, surely. We’ve faced race riots and police brutality. We’ve had an incredibly divisive general election. We’ve been quarantined and distanced. We need peace. We need it! And not just peace with each other. We need peace not just within ourselves. We need to start with peace with God. You may be surprised to learn that you are not naturally at peace with God, but that’s true. Sin has alienated us from Him. God is your enemy. He’s angry at sin apart from Jesus Christ. But Jesus has died and risen to secure peace with God for everyone who seeks it. Out of the peace that He has secured, now we can find peace within ourselves – peace of mind. And we can pursue peace with one another, forgiving each other, standing together, fighting for instead of against one another. Jesus brings peace because He lives. The resurrection brings you peace.

The Resurrection Brings Purpose

Secondly, notice the resurrection brings purpose. Look at verse 21. “As the Father has sent Me, even so I am sending you.” Jesus has been sent on a mission to save us from the holy and righteous wrath of God by bearing the wrath of God in our place on the cross. And now, having risen again, He brings us peace, reconciling us to God. And having been reconciled to God, He sends us in turn on a mission of our own. When a person becomes a Christian, they do not become passengers, you see. They’re not spectators, at least they’re not supposed to be. They’re called to be missionaries. The resurrection brings peace and gives us a new purpose. We are sent by the risen Christ.

The Resurrection Brings Power

Thirdly, the resurrection brings power. Verse 22, “And when He said this He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” Breathing on them was a dramatic way to communicate what He really offers. When God made Adam back in Genesis 1, He breathed life into him. The resurrection of Jesus means the breath of God, the Holy Spirit, has been sent to us by the Lord Jesus Christ. In the upper room, on the night when Jesus was betrayed, Jesus had been teaching the disciples that He was going to leave them. He would die and rise again and ascend to heaven and another Comforter would come; the Holy Spirit who would dwell in their hearts to empower them to fulfill the mission He was going to give them. That’s what this is about. It’s a kind of enacted promise that would do more than simply give them this new purpose – a mission to fulfill. It would also equip them with new power in order to fulfill it.

When you become a Christian, something more is happening than the embrace of a new set of convictions. It’s not just that you join a church or adopt a stricter moral code. No, Jesus – this is extraordinary, isn’t it – He breathes the Holy Spirit into you. The Holy Spirit transforms you and empowers you at the very core of your being so that through the Holy Spirit you can know the living, risen Christ for yourself. And knowing Him, you gladly go to make Him known. The resurrection brings peace and purpose and power.

The Resurrection Brings Proclamation

Finally, it also fills our mouths with words to proclaim. It brings proclamation. Look at verse 23 again. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them. If you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” Now there is a lot of confusion about what Jesus means here but it is very clear, isn’t it, that He is not bestowing upon the disciples a quasi-magical ability to absolve people of guilt at will. “No one can forgive sins,” Jesus said, “but God alone.” And remember verse 31 – how do you get life in Jesus’ name? Not by means of a priest or a pastor absolving your guilt, but by faith alone, John says. You get it by believing Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.

So what does verse 23 mean? Well I think Jesus is telling the disciples what their preaching of the message of the resurrection will accomplish. In the Gospel, we get to tell the world there is forgiveness available for anyone who wants it through faith alone in the risen Christ alone. We get to tell them, “When you believe this message you are forgiven. Reject this message and your sin and guilt remains.” “God will never alter this rule of judgment nor vary from it,” says Matthew Henry. “Those whom the Gospel acquits shall be acquitted and those whom the Gospel condemns shall be condemned.” In other words, what does the resurrection offer? What does it bring? It offers pardon. That’s our message. That’s where peace comes from – pardon. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and receive the forgiveness of your sin. The living Jesus will bring you peace because He will reconcile you to God by taking your sin away. Reject Him and understand, as David read in the 109th psalm, the terrible cost of enduring the wrath and judgment of God.

Well this is an all too brief survey of this chapter, isn’t it, but I hope you’re beginning to see something of the difference the fact of the resurrection really can make. Pelikan was right after all, wasn’t he? If Jesus is not risen, then nothing else matters. But if Jesus is risen, nothing else matters! It is the most important fact of history. It is the most important reality with which you or I will ever be called to deal. Easter really is – do you see – it really is about saving your life. It is about life in His name, the living Lord. You get it by believing. Jesus lives, and for everyone who will entrust themselves entirely to Him, He gives new peace, new purpose, new power, and a message to proclaim – peace, pardon, mercy, grace for the whole world.

So let me ask you, “Do you know, do you know the risen Christ for yourself? Have you met Him? He invites you to come and meet with Him today, simply by believing His message. Perhaps you’d like to know more about meeting Jesus for yourself. There will be a pastor down front under the pulpit here after the service and David and I will be at the rear. We really would love to talk to you if you’d like to know more. But the fact of the resurrection is clear. I hope that you can see it. It’s not CGI make-believe. No, Jesus really did rise from the dead. And the fruit of the resurrection – you have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. And because of Him, now you can have peace of mind, the peace that passes understanding, to guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. You have a new purpose, a mission. Having been reconciled to God, He wants to send you to the world. Who, after all, could keep their mouths shut at so glorious a message? He lives, and so will all who believe in Him. And you have power to do it. You’re not on your own. He is with you by the Holy Spirit dwelling in your heart. And you have this great message to preach – pardon, sin washed away. Because Jesus lives, brothers and sisters, nothing can ever be the same again. Nothing. And I pray you’ll discover that for yourself. Let’s pray together.

Lord Jesus, we are so grateful that You live, that You are the Conqueror of the grave. Help us to embrace, to believe, not like Thomas to disbelieve but rather, as he came to, to believe and to say, “My Lord and my God!” to You. We pray for any who hear this message, who watch it at home, for any visitor, friend, even church member here that is still a stranger to the risen Christ. Lord Jesus, would You come and take hold of their hearts, their consciences, and draw them to Yourself by the mighty power of Your own Holy Spirit. For we ask this in Your name, amen.

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