It is hard for us on Easter when we come together saying, Christ is Risen (Christ is Risen Indeed) to think about what it must have been like for Mary, Peter, John and the rest of Jesus’ disciples. They didn’t know the end of the story – they only knew what had happened in the past 72 hours. Jesus had been arrested and condemned to die by both the religious leaders and the Roman government. He was led out of the city carrying a cross and on a hill just outside Jerusalem Jesus was nailed to that cross and died.
His disciples had all failed him. Each one ran away when Jesus needed him the most. Personally, and as a band of followers, they had let Jesus down and they were all feeling defeated and demoralized and so when the sun rose on the first day of the week there wasn’t any hope or possibility. The sunrise wasn’t a sign of hope was the reminder that the disciples faced another day of defeat. When the women went to the tomb with spices it was to prepare the body of Jesus for its final burial. No one was feeling good that day. No one was celebrating and so it’s hard for us to imagine what it must have been like for them to see the tomb and realize that He was not there.
The truth is that many people that day had to wrestle with the reality of the message – He is not here – and think through what was going on. If Jesus wasn’t here –where is he? What happened to him? Before Jesus appeared to his disciples later in the day, the minds and imaginations of the disciples must have been spinning trying to make sense out of an empty tomb. Even after Mary said she had seen Jesus, they must have wondered if the impossible could be true and Jesus was alive, or was Mary just seeing things because she was in so much grief and pain. I can picture the disciples gathered together saying to themselves if he is not here, then where is he?
I can imagine the roman soldiers who were supposed to watch the tomb saying, he is not here. Then asking, where is he? I can imagine the religious leaders hearing the news of an empty tomb and asking one another –where is he? I can hear Pontius Pilate and Herod asking their attendants who brought them the news of an empty tomb – where is he? Throughout history people have been asking that very same question. If the tomb was empty and Jesus was not there, then where is he?
Maybe you have asked yourself that same question. If the tomb were Jesus was laid after he died was empty, did he really rise from the dead? Can we place our faith and trust in a Savior who died and then rose again? The truth is we can, and while faith and trust will always be a part of our believing in the resurrection of Jesus, there is a lot of evidence and sound reasoning that can undergird this faith. The year I graduated from HS, a great book was first published by Josh McDowell called The Resurrection Factor, and while the book might be a few years old (OK 34 years old!), the facts don’t change and the historical evidence still supports the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
I want to share with you some of the ideas Josh lays out because it is important for us to understand what we believe about Jesus and to know that our faith rests on sound evidence. The first thing we know beyond any doubt is that there was a man named Jesus who lived in Palestine about 2000 years ago and he died on a cross outside of Jerusalem. We know this because it is recorded in the historical records kept by Josephus who was not a Christian but a Roman-Jewish historian. Most scholars accept as historical fact his statements about Jesus the Messiah being a wise teacher who was crucified by Pilate. Josephus would have interviewed and spoken to eyewitnesses and so his information is reliable.
So we know there was a man named Jesus who was crucified by Pilate and we know from the records of his followers (which we call the New Testament) that the tomb Jesus was placed in after he died was found empty three days later, but what evidence do we have that Jesus rose from the dead? To answer that, let’s ask another question. If Jesus died and the tomb was empty, then where was Jesus? What happened to his body? The first theory that surfaced we actually find in the Bible. Look at Matthew 28:11-15.
From the very beginning there were those who believed Jesus had not risen from the dead and so explained the empty tomb in other ways, like the disciples stole Jesus’ body. Now if that were true, then everything the disciples said about Jesus rising from the dead and appearing to them several times and giving them his spirit and power was a lie. But why would the disciples lie if they knew their story could get them killed. If the Roman officials had crucified Jesus they could just as easily crucify his followers for proclaiming Jesus was alive and stirring up the crowds. The disciples put themselves in a very dangerous position and it doesn’t make any sense for them to take that chance and risk their lives for something they knew was a lie.
There is also no way the disciples could have stolen the body without the guards who were posted at the tomb knowing about it. The stones in front of the tombs don’t roll away easily, quickly or silently so even if the guard had fallen asleep or taken a break, there is no way they could have gotten into the tomb and taken the body without the guards noticing. So this theory just doesn’t hold up.
So the disciples stealing Jesus’ body doesn’t make sense, but what if the Roman authorities moved Jesus’ body. Perhaps Pilate was concerned about the followers of Jesus taking his body for some purpose so he had the body moved during the night. If that were true, it would have been easy for the Roman officials to produce the body of Jesus and stop the story of Jesus’ resurrection. Nothing would have stopped the news of his resurrection more powerfully than the body of Jesus wrapped in grave clothes. But the Roman officials never did that. For all the early years that the Christian church grew on the basis of Jesus’ resurrection and challenged Rome’s authority, the Roman officials never produced a body which tells us they didn’t have the body. They never moved it.
Another theory that surfaced was that the women went to the wrong tomb. Through all their grief and sorrow, maybe they had just made a mistake. While I always found this hard to believe, after being in Israel, I really find it hard to believe. While Jerusalem was a large city and it was filled with many people because of the Passover, it was not so large or congested that the women didn’t know which tomb Jesus was laid in. The women loved Jesus and they waited at the cross until he died and they watched Joseph of Arimathea take the body down and they followed to see where he was laid. There is no conceivable way that all the disciples went to the wrong tomb and even if they had, Joseph who owned the tomb or the Roman’s who were watching the tomb would have quickly sent them to the right tomb. But they never did. They all went to the right tomb and the stone had been rolled away and the body was not there.
Some people have also put forth the idea that Jesus wasn’t there because Jesus never really died. This theory says that Jesus was close to death when they took him off the cross but not really dead so after three days of cool temperatures and rest he was revived and from the inside of the tomb, rolled the stone away and walked away to live a quiet solitary life. You might already begin to see the problems with this theory. When we think of all Jesus suffered before his crucifixion and the weakened state of his body when taken off the cross, it is not possible to think that Jesus could have just gotten stronger on his own and then rolled a huge stone away from the opening of the grave from the inside.
Think of all Jesus had experienced leading up to his crucifixion. He had been flogged and beaten causing significant loss of blood and fluid. Nails had been driven into his hands and feet and his side had been pierced and when the water and blood out it tells us that they had pierced Jesus’ lungs. Experts on Roman crucifixion say there is no way Jesus could have simply passed out on the cross and then woken up in the tomb three days later and rolled the stone away. The Romans were too good at executions to allow this to happen.
So Jesus body wasn’t stolen or moved and he didn’t pass out on the cross and then wake up later 3 days later and walk away. Those theories just don’t hold up, but they also don’t give us any positive evidence that Jesus rose from the dead and is alive. Beyond the testimony of the eyewitnesses who shared what they saw with others, even under the threat of death, there is compelling evidence that Jesus did rise from the dead and is alive.
Let’s go back to the disciples. After Jesus died and was laid in the tomb they were humiliated and defeated. They not only lost their leader, they had failed him completely and were dealing with a lot of guilt and shame. After Jesus dead, the disciples were literally hiding from the Roman officials and religious leaders behind locked doors. They were terrified. To be known as a follower of Jesus in the religious and political climate of Jerusalem was suicide and so they hid, until they saw Jesus. The risen and living Jesus changed the disciples almost instantly and Jesus changed them forever.
The night Jesus was arrested, Peter had been so afraid of a servant girl that he lied to her and those around her and said he didn’t even know who Jesus was and then a few weeks later Peter was standing in the streets of Jerusalem preaching that Jesus had risen from the dead and was the Messiah. Ordinary fishermen were willing to sacrifice their lives and commit themselves to hardship and persecution to proclaim that Jesus had not only risen from dead but that they had seen him, eaten with him and felt his physical touch and presence after the resurrection. The evidence we have that Jesus is alive is that lives were changed by the risen and living Jesus.
But it wasn’t just lives in Jerusalem 2000 years ago that were changed, lives have been changing for 2000 years which tells us that Jesus has been alive and present in our world since that first Easter and lives today are still being changed by the risen Jesus which means that Jesus is still alive today. Now the reason I can say that lives today are still being changed is because my life was changed by the risen Jesus.
While I grew up in the church and always believed in God, when I was in college I began to think a lot more about Jesus and who he was and what he did and if he was alive and real and present in my life. Some doubts and struggles I had caused me to dig deeper and what I can say with certainty is that the risen Jesus made a difference in my life. Jesus changed me. Before Jesus I had no real direction and bounced around from major to another, one life path to another and then after the living Jesus entered my life I had a clearer sense of direction and purpose and it wasn’t to a major or career but to a calling to serve the risen Christ. I was changed.
After 20+ years of being impatient and throwing temper tantrums, Jesus gave me a sense of patience that to this day still doesn’t seem possible for me. Before Jesus I was timid and shy and would have never stood up in front of anyone to speak. In fact, in 5th grade I was too scared to stand up and say my line in the Christmas pageant at church and it was just two words – no room. Today you can’t get me to stop talking in church. Something changed me and as I look at my life I can say the change has been because of a living Jesus.
I have also seen Jesus change people and bring healing and hope to those who had been living in despair. I have seen people give up everything to follow a new path in life after coming to Jesus, I have seen people forgive and give in unbelievable ways after accepting Jesus. Jesus is making a difference in people’s lives today and that’s because he is alive. He was not there in the tomb because he is here today and Jesus is here do the very same thing he did on that first resurrection day. Jesus is here to offer forgiveness for our failures and give us a second or third or fourth chance. Jesus is here to heal our hearts and lives, restore relationships and give us hope for the future. Jesus is here to give us courage to live a new life He has for us and to help us embark on a new mission to change the world.
2000+ years ago the disciples stood in an empty tomb and said, He is not here so that today in a church in Bellefonte we could say, He IS here. And we know he is here because he has changed our lives and we are looking for him to change more lives. The evidence we have of the resurrection is not just the eyewitness testimonies that have stood up to scrutiny through the centuries, but the real change that can be found in our lives when we allow the living Christ to enter our hearts and our lives.
I want to invite you today to allow God to give you all the evidence you need to believe that Jesus is alive and that evidence is your changed life. Jesus is alive and here today with the same power that overcame sin, death and the grave and it is that power that can overcome doubt, fear and any hold that sin has upon us. Jesus is here to take the darkness of the cross and our graves and turn it into the beautiful color of life and hope and possibility. We can experience the power of the resurrection by asking Jesus to not just be here with us but to be here in us. Today let us ask the risen Jesus who is with us to change us and heal us and fill us with new life.
Today we want to give you a gift to remind you that the Jesus is alive and with you. It is a simple bookmark or ribbon full of color and life that reminds us that God transformed the dark and gloom of death on a cross into the color of resurrected life and eternal love. It’s our prayer that this gift will remind you to ask God each day to do a work of transformation in our own hearts and lives and that through you and through the church God will change, heal and transform our world into His Kingdom.
He Is Not Here
1. Read and compare the different stories of the Jesus’ resurrection found in the four gospels:
• Matthew 28:1-29
• Mark 16:1-20
• Luke 24:1-53
• John 20 and 21
What does each story reveal to us about the resurrection of Jesus? How are the similar and how are the different?
2. Think through for yourself how these theories of an empty tomb don’t make sense:
• The disciples stole Jesus’ body
• The Roman or religious authorizes move His body
• Jesus never died so after 3 days He just walked away
• The disciples went to the wrong tomb
3. The real evidence of the resurrection is a changed life. How has the risen Jesus changed your life? What changed lives have you seen that help you believe in the resurrection of Jesus?
4. How do you want the living Jesus to change your life? What change can Jesus bring to your family? Place of work? Our community and world?
5. Jesus is alive and with us. Ask Jesus into your heart and life this day and every day with a simple prayer like this:
Lord Jesus, thank you for loving me enough to defeat my sin and death by rising from the dead. I believe the empty tomb means that You are with me today to bring forgiveness and new life. May the power of Your resurrection change my life so that I might experience the peace, power and purpose that comes when You are with me. Step into my heart and life this day so I may live for You. AMEN