The initial reaction of the Lord Jesus’ disciples and friends to His resurrection is somewhat surprising and disappointing. The following incidents are significant. When the ‘young man’ in the open tomb spoke to the three women ‘they went out quickly and fled from the tomb, for they trembled and were amazed. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid’. Later the women shared what they had seen with the disciples, ‘And their words seemed to them like idle tales, and they did not believe them’. When Mary Magdalene told the disciples that she had seen the Lord Jesus alive ‘they did not believe’. When the eleven disciples saw him in Galilee ‘they worshiped Him; but some doubted’. The two men who had met the Lord Jesus on the road to Emmaus returned to Jerusalem to tell the disciples that He was alive. ‘Now as they said these things (to them), Jesus Himself stood in the midst of them, and said to them, ‘Peace to you’. But they were terrified and frightened, and supposed they had seen a spirit’.
The disciples did not easily accept the fact of the resurrection. They did not grasp in any literal sense the Lord Jesus’ repeated announcements to them about his coming death and resurrection. On at least one occasion they questioned among themselves ‘what the rising from the dead meant’. After His death there is no indication that they entertained any thought of resurrection. Death by Roman crucifixion was final, beyond all hope. The disciples were frightened and apparently in hiding.
The angel’s message was not only concise, it was unmistakable, even startling – ‘He is not here’. The many theories to explain the empty tomb collapse in on themselves for lack of credible evidence. If we talk away the empty tomb simply because to the modern mind it is an untenable position, we permanently shut out any hope of life beyond death.
The sad, confused old man, King Lear, in Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, asks the question: ‘Is this the promised end?’ The promised end for those who know God is not old age, sickness and death! There is a victory over the ravishes of time, terminal illness and even over death itself! The struggle against death reached its climax at Calvary. There the Lord Jesus triumphed decisively over it. He came into the world so that ‘through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage’, Heb. 2. 14-15.
On a plaque fastened to a large stone just outside of Shotts’ church cemetery in Lanarkshire, Scotland, the following words are inscribed. First, there is a message from the Lord Jesus: ‘‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live’. This is followed by words from an unknown author: ‘With God suffering is never the final outcome’.
By rising from the dead, the Lord Jesus conquered death in the absolute sense. Incorporated into His victory over death is glorious resurrection for God’s people. The tomb is empty not because of some kind of resuscitation, but because God has done something magnificently and phenomenally new. The resurrection of the Lord Jesus marks the inauguration of a new creation to which, through Jesus Christ, the door is open for human beings to be what God always wanted them to be. Paul goes right to the subject: ‘if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation’. He also pointedly speaks to the issue of how to enter that door: ‘if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord’, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved’, Rom. 10. 9. This is a responsible, wholehearted confession that Jesus is not one lord among many lords. He is Lord in the exclusive sense, destined to be recognized universally as Lord of lords. Had men known, ‘they would not have crucified the Lord of glory’.
Besides this confession of who Jesus is there has also to be the belief with all one’s heart ‘that God raised Him from the dead’. For Paul and his Jewish contemporaries the word ‘heart’ picks up all that a human being is – intellect, emotions, even physical strength. To accept this historical fact with all that we are is to begin to grasp the greatness of what God, without any merit in us, is doing for human beings. John Stott has carefully stated: ‘Christianity is in its very essence a resurrection religion. The concept of resurrection lies at its heart. If you remove it, Christianity is destroyed’.
Paul has extraordinary insight into the release of divine energy that was displayed in the awesome resurrection of the Lord Jesus. We almost stand back in shock when the apostle writes: ‘and what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His mighty power (two nouns, ‘might’ and ‘strength’) which He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead’. Paul is not content with employing just one noun for strength. As he walks up and down in his small prison cell dictating this letter to the Ephesians, he draws from his mental dictionary four exceptional synonyms for energy.
Under normal conditions, this excessive use of terms might be considered overkill. But is it? The subject is the release of divine energy on a scale unparalleled in the Bible. In creation, ‘God said … and there was’, and ‘God said … and it was so’. From a human point of view, it appears that Paul is now speaking of a far greater release of divine might than anything previously revealed.
Surprisingly, Paul is not satisfied with the four nouns, powerful though they may be, as sufficient in themselves to describe God’s power. To emphasize the truth even further he employs a superb adjective with unusual force that throws the whole subject out into a far greater dimension of meaning. Only Paul uses this adjective which translators bring into English as ‘the exceeding, the incredible, the immeasurable, the surpassing, the unlimited greatness of God’s energy, even God’s power which is beyond measure!’
In view of this mind-boggling reference to God’s power, we stand back in awe only to be stunned further when we read that this extraordinary release of divine energy is ‘toward us who believe’. A modern translation clarifies the thought: ‘I pray that you will begin to understand the incredible greatness of his power for us who believe him. This is the same mighty power that raised Christ from the dead’, Eph. 2. 19-20. The energy required to raise the Lord Jesus from the dead in no way exhausts God’s formidable power! But it does, in a sense, measure the incalculable resources within this energy.
Before the crucifixion the Lord Jesus was flogged with devastating effects on the body. A crown of thorns was crushed into His head. The crucifixion itself was the most intense form of cruelty delivering a prolonged and agonizing death. Finally, a lance was thrust through the vital organs of His body. After all the horrific suffering He endured, and of His own volition, scripture informs us that, ‘He gave up His spirit’. The body of the Lord Jesus was now without life. He had truly died.
It is against this background that we focus on Christ’s resurrection. His resurrection is not only a picture of what will happen to God’s people in the future, it is a pledge assuring us that there will be resurrection. God’s people are the intended objects of this overwhelming display of strength regardless of the effects produced by death. That power is already present within us as new life and, in a coming day, there will be resurrection leading to a destiny of unimaginable dignity and glory for human beings in Christ!
The resurrection of the Lord Jesus is the only window through which we may contemplate our own resurrection. Looking back to His resurrection, we look forward to our own resurrection and/or transformation. John is dogmatic: ‘we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is’, 1 John 3. 2.
Paul highlights the importance of Christ’s resurrection in his forceful comments to the Corinthians. ‘if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And … your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!. But now Christ is risen from the dead’. In other words, the tomb is empty! The resurrection of Christ may tax our understanding, but it is an incontrovertible fact of history, absolutely true.
Thomas, a thoughtful man, understood what was at stake at the news of the resurrection appearances. He wanted to be sure that the person who had died by crucifixion was the same person his companions claimed was now gloriously alive. Most of us have little insight into the horror of a Roman crucifixion and how it brutalizes the human body. For that reason Thomas stated: ‘Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe’.
When Thomas personally saw the Lord Jesus and was invited by Him to examine the marks of His crucifixion, he was fully convinced. Perhaps to Thomas a more important thing than the resurrection itself was the issue of who is this person? Who could possibly die in this horrendous way and a few days later be gloriously alive? Thomas may well be the first of the disciples to clearly discern who the Lord Jesus is. His announcement is bold, electrifying, ‘My Lord and my God!’ To many scholars this statement appears to be the climax of John’s Gospel.
Paul affirms that the resurrection of Christ is directly linked to the resurrection of Christians. ‘But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep’. As previously mentioned the only window through which we can see and understand something about the resurrection of God’s people is through the resurrection of Christ.
To the Christians in Thessalonica Paul states, ‘For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus’. Any doubt about His resurrection precludes any possible insight into our own resurrection should we not be alive and remain when the Lord comes.
To the church in Corinth, Paul writes a remarkable exposition on the theme of resurrection that leads right up to the state of incorruption and immortality for God’s people. He begins with the death and resurrection of Christ, ‘that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the scriptures, and that He was seen’. The chapter ends with the eternal glory that awaits Christ’s followers; ‘So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory"’, 1 Cor. 15. 54.
We cannot have the latter blessing without accepting the foundation on which it is built. There is no glory for God’s people apart from Christ’s resurrection. Firmly based on that historical event, Paul leads us to a new and different realm of glory beyond death.
In view of physical and mental deterioration, of unexpected accidents and the certainty of death if the Lord doesn’t return before hand, we can either sit with King Lear and ask: ‘Is this the promised end?’ or we can quietly, yet confidently, assert that we have a sure and certain hope of life beyond death.
The tomb was definitely empty.
More important, the Lord Jesus was not there.
Of utmost importance is that He is alive! And the only responsible explanation for the empty tomb and the fact the Lord Jesus’ body was not there, is resurrection.