“The Meaning of Christ’s Resurrection for Us”
April 17, 2022 (Easter Sunday)
Faith Presbyterian Church – Morning Service
The Reading of the Word
It is Easter Sunday. And now we come to one of the accounts of Jesus’s resurrection, as we turn to Matthew 28.
At this point in Matthew’s account, Jesus has been crucified. He has died and been buried. And now we come to the events of that first Easter Sunday and what follows.
With that said, please do listen carefully, for this is God’s word for us this morning.
Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.” 8 So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 And behold, Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”
11 While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. 12 And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers 13 and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day.
16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God.)
“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” [1 Peter 1:24-25]
Let’s pray …
Prayer of Illumination
Lord, as we come to your word this morning.
Give us eyes to see it and ears to hear it,
minds to understand it and hearts to accept it.
Do this, we ask, for your glory and for our good.
We pray in Jesus’s name. Amen.
We have just heard Matthew’s account of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
And as we consider it, our focus this morning will be on what this account tells us about the resurrection of Jesus, and why it matters for us today – why we’re still talking about it two thousand years later.
To answer those questions, I want to focus on three themes from our text, as we consider what the resurrection of Jesus tells us about Jesus’s power, his authority, and his presence. [This approach is based on John Frame’s Lordship attributes of control, authority, and presence.]
Those are the three things we’ll focus on this morning, and as we do, I believe they will tell us about why Jesus’s resurrection still matters for us today.
So we begin with the first theme: What does the resurrection of Jesus tell us about his power?
A comparison might be a good place to start. Consider the angel of the Lord, who shows up in verse two of this passage. He descends from heaven, his arrival is marked by an earthquake, his appearance is like lightning, and the very sight of him causes professional soldiers to tremble for fear and to become like dead men. Now that is a display of power.
And yet, in how he tells the events, Matthew makes it very clear here that among those in our text, the angelic being’s power is a distant second, when compared to the superior power of Jesus. Jesus is so powerful, that this angel shows up, and there’s not actually that much for him to do.
As one commentator puts it, he functions mainly as a messenger and a traffic director: telling people what Jesus has already done, and where Jesus wants them to go next. [Leithart, 329] Sure, the angel rolls away the stone – but even that he does, not to let Jesus out, but to let the women in, so they can see what Jesus has done, in rising from the dead. [Brown, 117; Green, 313]
This angel, who brings earthquakes and appears like lightning, is there, actually, to point to a power much greater than his own. He is there to point the people to the power of Jesus.
And Jesus displayed his power in rising from the dead. To get the full impact of that, it helps to consider the different forces that worked together to put Jesus on the cross and in the tomb. It was the religious leaders, so powerful within Israel, who had conspired to condemn him. It was the forces of Rome – the superpower of their day – who had carried out his execution. And it was death itself that had taken him on the cross. All the world’s powers had come together to defeat Jesus. And so, when we read in verse six that Jesus is risen, we are not merely hearing about an extraordinary occurrence. We are hearing about a proclamation of power. In his resurrection, Jesus overthrows the greatest powers of the earth. [Leithart, 331-332]
And most shocking among those powers that he overcomes is death. And to appreciate that, we need to recognize what Jesus’s resurrection was.
First, it was not merely the appearance of his spirit. His actual physical body was raised. What happened was a physical overcoming of death – not a spiritual manifestation brought about after death.
But then second, Jesus was not merely resuscitated. He was resurrected. His body did not just return to its previous health. But it rose in a new mode of being. It was his actual body, but forever transformed, never to die again. What went into the tomb was perishable, what came out of it imperishable. What was buried as a mortal body, was raised as an immortal body. [1 Corinthians 15:42-44; Keller, 208-209]
Jesus did not just postpone his death – he did not rise in order to die again later. He rose to overcome death – so that he would never be subject to death again. He defeated death. That was the shocking greatness of his power.
And it was quickly recognized by those who knew him that this was power beyond what any mere human could do. This was power that made the magnificent angel who shows up look weak by comparison. This could only be the power of God.
And confronted with such power, those in our text each follow one of two possible responses.
The first possible response is denial – to simply deny and disregard the power that has been revealed in the facts at hand.
And we see two variations of that in verses eleven through fifteen.
The first is the response of the Jewish leaders themselves. And this is, perhaps, the most shocking. These men are given reliable first-hand information about what happened, from soldiers who had no reason to lie about it. This information should stop them dead in their tracks and lead them to rethink everything they have done so far in our story. But instead, amazingly, they simply brush this information aside. [Leithart, 335] They demonstrate a naked and overt form of willful blindness, and rebellion against what God is doing in and through Jesus.
The second form of denial comes in those who will receive the false report that is invented by the religious leaders, referred to in the second half of verse fifteen.
Now, those who accept this false report might seem very different from the leaders, who knew so much more. But it seems like Matthew wants us to see that they are not that different. Sure, they don’t get to hear the first-hand report of the soldiers. And yet, Matthew makes it clear to us that they still choose to willfully accept an alternative story that is obviously self-contradictory.
The story claims, simultaneously, that the soldiers were asleep, and that while they were asleep, they witnessed what happened and who did it. They were asleep, but they can serve as witnesses that Jesus’s body was stolen, and it was his disciples who did it. The report doesn’t make sense. [Green, 317-318; Kapolyo, 1195; Leithart, 226] Which is a reminder that when people are looking for a reason not to believe, they rarely examine with a critical eye the alternative explanation that will allow them to go about their lives comfortably, as before. And it’s clear from Matthew’s comment in verse fifteen that this alternative story, despite its inherent contradiction, continued to find favor among many, even as Matthew was writing.
And so it has been for two thousand years. [Leithart, 337] Many alternative explanations have been offered that would allow us to go on comfortably with our lives, disregarding Jesus. But just like the first alternative explanation offered so long ago, none of them really hold up to critical consideration.
We don’t have time this morning to get into every alternative explanation that has been offered in the last two thousand years, of course – though others have pursued that sort of work. But let’s note just a few things this morning.
First of all, such alternative explanations must assert, on some level, that the account before us – the story we’ve just read together – is a fabrication. It was made to support early Christianity, but it is not itself a true accounting of what really happened that first Easter morning.
The problem though, is that the account before us would have been far too problematic for its original audience for it to be an even halfway competent fabrication. [Keller, 203-212]
Let me give a couple examples.
For one thing, if you’re going to fabricate a story in the first century, you don’t make the first witnesses women! Women, in this time and place, were regarded as unreliable – so much so that they could not testify in court. And so, presenting women as your first witnesses did not bolster your case, with the Jews or with the Romans. It would only make a first-century skeptic even more skeptical. [Green, 313-314; Kapolyo, 1195; Keller, 205] There’s no rational reason for Matthew to include such an element in his story … unless it was true – unless his goal was not to present a convincing fabrication, but a faithful historical account.
Second, Matthew includes the fact that even as they saw Jesus, risen from the dead, some of the disciples – some of the men who were, in Matthew’s day the leaders of the Church – some of them, even then still doubted what they saw. That’s what Matthew tells us in verse seventeen. [Green, 315; Wright, 206]
What an admission. Such a statement did not bolster the reputation of the Church’s apostolic leadership, but much like the rest of the gospel accounts, it makes them look weak and unreliable. Why would anyone trying to invent a story that would lend credibility to the apostles teaching include something like this? Why would anyone who supported the apostolic Church included it at all … unless they felt compelled to because it was true?
A third historical point against taking this account as being a fabrication is that virtually all of these early witnesses suffered and died for their testimony that Jesus had risen from the dead.
People lie. People lie when they see a worldly benefit that they might receive for sticking with that lie. And it’s true that the day would come where being a leader in the Church would have social advantages. But that came centuries after the first witnesses to the resurrection lived and died. In their day there were no worldly benefits – socially or economically – for testifying that they had seen the risen Lord. There were only earthly costs. [Wright, 204] And that was so much the case that “virtually all the apostles and early Christian leaders died for their faith” – for their testimony to the resurrection of Jesus. Is it really a historically sound argument to claim that they all gave their lives for a hoax? [Keller, 210]
As Blaise Pascal put it, our tendency should be to believe “those witnesses that get their throats cut” for their testimony. [Quoted in Keller, 210]
A fourth mark against this account being a fabrication, is that it tells a story that no one was expecting.
As historians have demonstrated in great detail, people in the ancient world did not believe that resurrection occurred – at least not in the middle of history. The pagans believed the material world was bad, and that a spirit, freed of the body, would never want to be put back into its body. And the Jews believed in a resurrection only at the end of history. And yet, all at once, dozens, and soon thousands, of first Jews and then pagans began radically changing their minds. And they did it not because of a new philosophical argument they had considered, but because of an event they could not refute: the resurrection of Jesus. [For more on this see Keller, The Reason for God, chapter 13, and (for a very in-depth treatment) see N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God. Also: Green, 311-312]
As one scholar sums it up, it is not the Christian account, but the alternative accounts, that at a certain point “stop doing history” and depart instead into “fantasy” [N.T. Wright quoted in Keller, 211] – into embracing a story that, like the one told by the religious leaders in verse thirteen, doesn’t actually make much sense if you really think about it … but it’s a story we prefer, because it allows us to cast aside the claims of the resurrection of Christ, and all its implications.
That scholar goes on – he writes: “In fact, what the Jewish leaders did in this story is not very different from what generations of sceptics have done ever since. Don’t be fooled by the idea that modern science has disproved the resurrection of Jesus. Modern science has done no such thing. Everybody in the ancient world, just like everybody in the modern world, knew perfectly well that dead people don’t get resurrected. It didn’t take Copernicus or Newton, or Einstein for that matter, to prove that; just universal observation of universal facts. The Christian belief is not that some people sometimes get raised from the dead, and Jesus happens to be one of them. It is precisely that people don’t ever get raised from the dead, and that something new has happened in and through Jesus which has blown a hole through previous observations. The Christian thus agrees with scientists ancient and modern: yes, dead people don’t rise. But the Christian goes on to say that something new and different has now occurred in the case of Jesus. This isn’t because there was an odd glitch in the cosmos, or something peculiar about Jesus’ biochemistry, but because the God who made the world […] was at work in and through Jesus.” [Wright, 202]
And so, rather than simply casting the account aside, the other possible response – the response that Matthew, and the angel, and the early witnesses urge us to, is to accept that what we have displayed here, in these events, is the presence and power of God in Jesus.
And that unique presence of God in the person of Jesus is what the first witnesses of the resurrection recognize in our text.
In verse nine and then again in verse seventeen, first the women, and then the men, all first-century Jews, respond to the resurrection by worshiping Jesus. [Green, 319]
And we need to recognize how shocking that is.
If there was one thing that was set in the mind of a first-century Jew, it was strict monotheism: there was one God, and only he was to be worshiped. Surrounded by powerful pagans, this had become such a tenant of faith that devout first-century Jews were willing to die for it. But here we see them worshiping Jesus. How could that be? [Keller, 209-210]
Well … they worshiped him because, as one author puts it, they recognized that “the one true God” had now been “astonishingly, revealed in and as Jesus himself.” [Wright, 206; see also Kapolyo, 1195]
This was not some sort of “divine spark” that was present in Jesus just a bit more than the rest of us. It wasn’t the recognition that Jesus was a great man who had achieved something extraordinary. Rather, these devout Jews recognized that in Jesus Christ, God himself had come among them. Jesus was God incarnate. For only God’s power could do what Jesus had done. Only he had power over death. And in his resurrection, he brought that power to bear, defeating death for all who would trust in him, and overcoming all earthly powers that would oppose God’s good intentions for his people and his world.
And that changes everything. As one writer puts it, the resurrection of Jesus “had not only changed the women’s hearts but had torn a hole in normal history. This event had changed the world forever. It announced, not as a theory but as a fact, that God’s kingdom had come.” [Wright, 200]
That is the power of Jesus, and that is the first thing we see that the resurrection of Jesus tells us about him, and about his relationship to us: he is powerful.
The second element we see is what the resurrection of Jesus tells us about his authority.
Now, before we get into that, we need to explain what the distinction is between Jesus’s authority and Jesus’s power. Because we often use those words interchangeably.
But they’re not the same thing. As one writer puts it, the difference between them is the difference between might and right. Power means you have the ability to make something happen, or to force someone to do something. Authority means you have the right to do something or to command something. [Frame, 22] Both a police officer and a vigilante may have power due to the weapon they carry. But only the police officer has been given a measure of rightful authority.
Jesus, we see in our text, not only has power, but he also has authority. This comes up in verse eighteen – Jesus says to the disciples: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” “All authority in heaven and on earth.”
For one thing, that means that Jesus has authority over all of creation: he has both the power to make what he wills happen, as well as the right to do so.
But along with that, it also means that Jesus has authority over us. He not only is stronger than we are, but he has a right – he has a rightful authority – to tell us what to do and how to live. We see that in verse twenty: Jesus commissions his disciples to teach all people to observe everything that he has commanded, because he has authority over them – he has the authority to tell them how they should live their lives. [Green, 321; Frame, 28]
We each face questions of how we should order our lives: of what our priorities should be, of what is right and what is wrong, of what we owe to others, and how we should treat them. And we live in a world with competing visions of what it means to be a good person, and competing claims for what we should do and what we should not do – what we should care about and what we should disregard.
But if Jesus has risen from the dead – if Jesus has power over the universe – if all authority in heaven and on earth (including authority over us) has been given to him, then that means that ethics, and morality, and values – these things are not primarily about abstract, debatable principles, but they are primarily about a person: they’re primarily about Jesus. [Frame, 877] Because Jesus has rightful authority over us … for several reasons.
First, Jesus has rightful authority over us because he made us. If he is God, as his power reveals, then he made us, and he has rights over us as our Creator, to call on us to live as he intended for us to live.
Second, Jesus has rightful authority over us because he alone has the power to save us. He has power over death. And we do not. None of us do. And death lies ahead of each one of us. And so, if we want to live, we must turn to him, and offer ourselves to him.
There is a moment in the gospel accounts when Jesus says something very difficult. And many who had been following him up to that point decide to walk away – they decide to no longer listen to him. And at that moment, Jesus turns to his closest disciples, and he says to them “Do you want to go away as well?” And Peter, one of the twelve, says to him: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” [John 6]
Jesus alone has the words and the power of eternal life. To whom else would we go – to whom else would we submit ourselves to, besides him.
But then, third, Jesus also has rightful authority over us because he alone is worthy of that authority. Among all options, he alone has the character that is worthy of having such authority over us.
What do I mean by that?
Well, consider what Jesus has done. Jesus, we said, is God himself. He has the power to do whatever he pleases. He used that power to make this universe. And when he did, he made humanity in his image. But then humanity rebelled against him – we rejected his rightful place over us as our Maker. And when we did, he had the power to undo us. He had the power to wipe us away and start over.
But instead, he chose to come to this world that we had marred with sin and selfishness. He chose to come as one of us, in humility – to come and save us from the sin and guilt and death that we had brought into the world. He chose to use his great power to take our sin and guilt onto himself, and die on the cross in our place. That is how great his love is. That is how great his character is. That is how worthy he is. That is how good he is.
He used his power and his rights in order to love us, even when it cost him so greatly. Who else is more worthy of the authority to tell us what is right and what is wrong – who else would be more appropriate to give us a vision of the good life?
The resurrection means that Jesus has rightful authority over us.
And the validity of his authority hangs on his resurrection. One pastor put it like this – he said: “Sometimes people approach me and say, ‘I really struggle with this aspect of Christian teaching. I like this part of Christian belief, but I don’t think I can accept that part.’ I usually respond: ‘If Jesus rose from the dead, then you have to accept all he said; if he didn’t rise from the dead, then why worry about any of what he said? The issue on which everything hangs is not whether or not you like his teaching but whether or not he rose from the dead.’ That is how the first hearers felt who heard reports of the resurrection. They knew that if it was true, it meant we can’t live our lives any way we want.” [Keller, 202]
That is the authority of Jesus, and that is the second thing that his resurrection tells us about him, and his relationship to us: he has rightful authority over us.
The third, and final thing we will consider this morning is what the resurrection of Jesus tells us about his presence.
And this is the last promise of Jesus that Matthew records for us, in verse twenty.
Jesus, after his resurrection, visited his disciples for forty days. And then he ascended, bodily, into heaven. He didn’t die again, but he ascended to heaven in his physical, resurrected form. But while his body would reside in heaven, he assured them that by the Holy Spirit, he would truly be with all his people – with all who trusted in him – at all times and at all places.
And so, in verse twenty he says to them: “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Which means that if you follow Jesus – if you are his disciple – then he will always be with you. You will never be alone. Because he will be personally present with you. [Frame, 29]
He promises to be with you now, in this life. Whatever trials may come, whoever in this life might leave you or forsake you, he will never leave you nor forsake you. But he will always be by your side.
He promises to be with you when you face death. When you depart from this world, if you trust in Jesus, you need not fear, because he has promised that while your body may be buried in the earth, he will take your soul into his presence in heaven, where you will not be alone, but you will dwell with him.
And he promises as well, to be with you for all eternity. At the last day, Jesus will return to the earth. And when he does, he will raise from the dead all who have trusted in him: he will give us new, resurrected bodies like his, that can never die again; he will unite our souls with our bodies; he will make all things new; and he will wipe away every tear, and “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, not crying, no pain anymore.” And he will dwell with us, in a new heavens and a new earth, in glory and joy forever. [Revelation 21]
That is the presence of Jesus, in this life and in the next, that is promised to all who trust in him, and that is proved in his resurrection from the dead.
The resurrection of Jesus tells us who Jesus is. It tells us of his power. It tells us of his rightful authority over our lives. It tells us of the special presence he will have with us, now and always, if we place our trust in him. All this we see in the resurrection of Jesus.
And so the most important for our lives and for our future, is how we will respond to the resurrection of Jesus: Will we acknowledge his power, will we accept his authority, will we seek his presence?
Jesus calls us this morning to do all three, and in doing so to become his disciples.
After all, to whom else shall we go? For he alone has the words of eternal life.
This sermon draws on material from:
Brown, Michael Joseph. “The Gospel of Matthew” in True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary. Edited by Brian K. Blount. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007.
Frame, John. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013.
Green, Michael. The Message of Matthew. The Bible Speaks Today. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000.
Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York, NY: Dutton, 2008.
Kapolyo, Joe. “Matthew” in African Bible Commentary. Edited by Tokunboh Adeyemo. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006.
Leithart, Peter J. The Gospel of Matthew Through New Eyes: Volume Two: Jesus as Israel. West Monroe, LA: Athanasius press, 2018.
Wright, N.T. Matthew for Everyone: Part 2: Chapters 16-28. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.
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