Luke 24:6-12 “Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’ Then they remembered his words. When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.”
So we continue in this happy exercise of exploring the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ as it is recorded by one of the four gospel writers, namely Luke. I want to make two points by way of introduction to the passage before us.
i] If we had been part of some elaborate conspiracy seeking to deceive the world into believing this lie of ours – that our friend and teacher had actually risen from the dead on the third day after his crucifixion when in fact he had not – then we wouldn’t have composed our stories the way the gospel writers have written theirs. There would have been no loose ends, for example, if we had been putting together the whole choreography of this first day of the week, giving the identities of the people concerned, and the definitive order of events, and the number of the actual women who came to the tomb, and how many angels appeared, one or two, and whether it was Peter alone who ran to the tomb or Peter plus John. All that we would have sorted out in a lengthy committee meeting of the conspirators around the table covered with our manuscripts and pens and bottles of ink, scratching out and changing what we had written until everything agreed. Then we’d have written out our final edit of the four gospels and so launched the greatest deception the world has ever seen, and fooled mankind and made millions of people suckers for believing it. We’d first have had that long secret meeting and sorted out the story that we four were going to tell. We’d have ironed out all the apparent discrepancies and differences. We’d make sure we were telling the world one tightly constructed and uniform story, not what we have in these gospel narratives of the resurrection, this creative series of spontaneous observations and impressions (“the clothes of the young men were like . . . lightning”) and memories, and unique emphases. That is what these gospel writers have given to the world. But what do you think would be the most persuasive in 2000 years time to people in Iran and Argentina and New York, the tight narrative that you and your fellow conspirators had written, or what we have here in these gospels? What has the ring of truth about it?
ii] Then there is also this other factor, that if we had written the narrative of the resurrection would we have given that amount of significance to women as the prime witnesses of the empty tomb, and to Mary Magdalene in particular as being the first person to meet the risen Jesus in the garden, as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John do? Remember two facts about the place of women in middle eastern society.
A] Women occupied a low rung on the Jewish social ladder. There were rabbinic expressions like this, “Sooner let the words of the law be burnt than delivered to women.” Or again, “Happy is he whose children are boys, but woe to him whose children are female.” So the enemies of the Christian faith could hear the claims that Jesus was the Messiah and would protest, “And who do you think were the people who spread this story that he had risen from the dead, and that they had seen him alive? Women!”
B] The testimony of women was regarded as so worthless that they were not even permitted to serve as legal witnesses in a court of law. In light of these facts how remarkable must it seem that it was women who were the discoverers of Jesus’ empty tomb. If fifty years later, as legends ripened and the life of Jesus was embellished then a gang of conspirators would have chosen more impressive witnesses. For example, they could have had the centurion who saw Jesus die and said that he was a righteous man now bearing witness to the fact that he was the legionary on duty in the Garden, and that he saw Jesus rise from the dead. No, it was women who saw the tomb empty and met him outside the sepulchre.
So we draw your attention to these things, the fact of the four gospel writers as well as Paul in I Corinthians 15 providing very individual accounts of the resurrection appearances of Jesus, sometimes a little tricky to reconcile (but not impossible). Then also this fact, that it was women who were the ones to discover that the stone had been removed and the body was missing and his tomb was empty, and that to a woman Jesus first appeared. We are saying that this encourages us to believe that the gospel writers had naively and honestly and faithfully recorded what had happened. What we have here is truth. And that is the only reason any one of us ought to have for believing that Jesus Christ is alive today, because it’s true.
There have been fantasists and freaks who have described their version of the resurrection of Jesus. There is the apocryphal ‘Gospel of Peter’ written more than a hundred years later and in that narrative two men come down from heaven and the stone rolls away by itself and they enter the tomb and come out with a third man. The heads of the men reach up to heaven but the head of the third man swells up and up and it is greater and higher than the clouds. Then a talking cross comes out of the tomb. And there is also religious writing called the ‘Ascension of Isaiah’ in which Jesus comes out of the tomb on the shoulders of the archangels Michael and Gabriel. That is how legends operate. They embellish a story and bring in the preternatural and the fantastic to impress. They don’t write about despairing distressed women going to anoint the body early in the morning before dawn
But here we read this modest account of human frailty, that the women who watched Jesus die and were the last to leave Golgotha, only going away from the cross after the nails were extracted and his body had been taken down. They had walked behind his body to its burial place and noted its location, but they were also the first to be at that same tomb early in the morning on the third day. Notice that it was not one woman alone who saw the empty tomb and later met the risen Lord. It was about five women who were witnesses to these events.
Some of you remember that I was asked about five years ago to go to a council house near Aberystwyth to deal with a woman who had called me and told me that she had a ghost in her modern kitchen. It appeared near the refrigerator and could I help. I went there with one of the members and we spoke and prayed and we left this single, unemployed mother with some leaflets, and I returned to talk to her on a number of occasions for the next year or two but she never wanted my Saviour. She finally did acknowledge that she had been reading magazines about ghosts, and that her teenage daughter who lived with her had never seen this apparition, but she felt the cat had, and also she acknowledged that she was lonely. I believe that the ghost was not ‘out there’ but he was in her mind. I told her that after Christians die they go to heaven with Jesus and they don’t come back and sit on the top of refrigerators in the council houses of strangers for no reason, and when unbelievers die their spirits go to hell and they can’t come back to this world though they might long to do so. Most of you would agree with me. However, if one of us met five good and sensible women who told us modestly with the deepest earnestness and excitement that they had seen these events as they are described for us in the gospels, and that we could see that they were responsible people, and moral women, and had never said anything remotely like this in their lives before, and furthermore that their words were soon supported by many others, more than 500 of them on one occasion, who all said the same sort of thing, meeting with Jesus, talking to him, listening to him, eating and drinking with him, touching his body, then we would be forced to take these events very, very seriously indeed. “It sounds to me like Jesus rose from the dead,” and that has the most amazing consequences for me and my beliefs and my attitude to the future.
Then do you see that these were not anonymous women, like the centurion on duty at Calvary, and the criminals who were crucified who were all unnamed? No, these were women with names. “It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James,” (v.10) and, of course, some others whose names we are not given (who might have been maid-servants of one or two of those women). One of the reasons their names are given us is because they were still alive when the gospel writers wrote their gospels, and they were well known in the early church, like Peter and Paul and John, they were known to everyone. You could visit these women. You could sit next to them in church services. You could ask them questions afterwards, and they were more than willing to tell you all that they’d seen on that first day of the week when the stone was rolled away and Jesus rose. They never grew tired of repeating the events they’d all witnessed on that first of all the following Lord’s Days and that they continued to see him for the next forty days in the garden, walking down a road, at the side of a lake, in the Upper Room, on a mountain in Galilee. Such events in space-time history changed their lives.
WHAT THE WOMEN DID NEXT.
“When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others” (v.9). There are mornings we wake up and we’ve just had a dream, and it was not a dream we would like to repeat, or it was something that we laughed about and which causes some embarrassment. We called it ‘silly’ and shake our heads and we wonder aloud why in the world we’d had a dream like that. What could it mean? How quickly such dreams fade; our memories don’t retain them; a mere dream. This collective experience of the women was different. That huge lump of granite stone had been moved away from the entrance to the tomb, and inside the sepulchre two messengers from God were sitting and they actually engaged with them, speaking to them, mildly rebuking their apathy at words that Jesus had so clearly told them, and then the heard again the words of Jesus on the lips of angels. Not a dream; not a hallucination. The words linked them with better times, earlier wonderful days on the hills of Galilee when he taught them. What blessing they had known then. Sometimes they thought they were going to burst with delight as they heard him speaking to them. It all came back to them; “then they remembered his words” (v.8). How could they have forgotten anything he said? How foolish they were to have brushed them out of their minds. They’d never again forget those words and also the reminder they’d had from God via his shining messengers.
Then we are told what they did. They weren’t embarrassed at what they’d seen. They didn’t quarrel as they recalled that unforgettable hour. They didn’t giggle like young women and embellish the incident and say, “Now we are being silly.” Nothing at all like that! We read, “When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles” (vv. 9&10). Do you see the repetition of the word ‘told.’ They told all these things to the Eleven; they told this to the apostles. How can I turn this?
i] They must tell others about what they had witnessed. They could not keep this to themselves. If you have good news you go next door even in your slippers to tell them. This was an unforgettable event. Someone came to our house a week ago and said to us, “Have you heard the news?” “What news?” “There’s been a fire in the National Library.” One of the elders called me and I passed on the news to him, “Have you heard that the National Library is in flames.” There are striking events that occur and we can even remember the circumstances where we were when we heard them, when King George VI died in 1951 I was in the school yard, when President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, when Princess Diana was killed in Paris, when the planes flew into the Twin Towers in New York I know this day where I was. These women had seen an event more mind-blowing than any of those. The Jesus who had promised that he would rise again was no longer in the tomb. Angels from heaven had spoken to these women. The stone was absent and the body was missing. Your mouth goes dry, but you have to tell others about such sensational events.
ii] They spoke to the apostles as eye-witnesses of historic facts. That is our calling. If such an event in the life of Christ as his resurrection is removed, or disproved, or discredited then New Testament Christianity collapses. These women didn’t say, “Something’s happened and I’ve got tingles running up and down my spine . . . I’ve never felt so happy in all my life . . . we are all so excited today.” No, that was not what they said. Christian testimony is not a description of our feelings. It is not a philosophy. It is not a technique about meditating and so finding inner peace. Christianity is a total way of life grounded in awkward facts of history. Such facts as the cradle – Jesus was born of a virgin in Bethlehem’s stable. The Jordan river – Jesus began his public ministry by being baptized there by John. The daily life lived by Jesus and scrutinized by friends and opponents – it was without a single mean or unloving action or word. Filthy liars had to be bribed to speak of any wickedness in him. The cross – where he suffered and died as the Lamb of God to take away the sin of the world. The empty tomb – on the third day he rose again from the place his dead body had been lain, and he appeared on many occasions, for almost six weeks, meeting all 500 of his followers. That is exactly what we tell the world, of a risen, living Saviour. That is our testimony too these centuries later. We won’t be silent because we know the consequences of keeping wonderful news to ourselves. “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him” (I Cors. 15:17-23). Christian witnessing is not saying, “Listen to my fantastic experience. Just look at me! See how different I am from what I tell you I was before.” Rather it is saying, “Just look at this Christ, he lived a perfect life, he died a sacrificial death in the place of his people, he rose on the third day victorious over the grave. See what he promises those who trust in him.”
iii] These women were the first people to give the New Testament testimony to Jesus’ triumph over the grave, which testimony was to continue throughout the Acts of the Apostles and it has reached us today. I am mighty glad that someone told me that Jesus was alive. Has the fact ever struck you that the apostolic preaching centred not on the person of Christ or on his death so much as on Jesus’ resurrection? The gospel they preached was backwards. They started with his victory over death, and then they explained what light this cast on why he must die on Golgotha, and then they spoke of his miracles and signs. It was the resurrection that made sense of everything before and after. Think of how Peter at Pentecost climaxes his whole sermon with almost ten verses on Jesus’ resurrection: “You, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” (Acts 2:24). Again, eight verses later Peter quoted from the words of King David, “Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact” (Acts 2:31&32). Peter again preaches in Acts 3 and verse 15, “You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this.” And again in chapter 4 he says, “It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed.” And again later in that chapter Luke records the progress of the church like this, “With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all” (Acts 4:33). And again in the fifth chapter Peter says, “We must obey God rather than men! The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead – whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.” (Acts 5:29&30). And so on throughout the book of Acts.
What a transformation from what we see here, a frightened, broken, bewildered group of women staggering on to report to a frightened and unbelieving group of men. And those women began to give the declaration of what had happened early in the morning of the third day, which preaching of the conquest of death by the Lord Jesus will never end while life and thought and being lasts or immortality endures. The day began in the gloom before dawn with a hopeless quest of embalming his body, but it ended with the most amazing words they’d ever spoken. From such a scene of bafflement to something very different – seven weeks later to the day there were three thousand new Christians characterized by faith in Jesus’ resurrection returning home to their families and saying, “You know the Jesus they crucified at the Passover? He was resurrected three days later.” What spiritual vitality, what a readiness to lay down their lives for such a message, what earnestness, what growth we see in the early church. It throbbed with the conviction that Jesus had been raised the third day by God and was alive for evermore.
iv] The implications of the empty tomb took time to sink in.
If Jesus has come back from death then he is alive and with us today, never to die again.
If Jesus has come back from death then all he claimed is true today. He and his Father are one. He is the way, the truth and the life. He is the only way to God. He is the resurrection and the life. Before Abraham was he existed. He is going to judge the world. If men come to him they will have rest. These things are true.
If Jesus has come back from death then the grave is not the end. Our best hope is not that we could be finally annihilated. There is life after death. He lives and so we shall live also; we shall live where he is and with him. He was raised and so will we be.
If Jesus has come back from death then evil is not going to triumph in the world. Evil men are not going to do whatever they wish with impunity.
All those thoughts were little baby thoughts buzzing through the women’s minds as they promptly went to their leaders, to the apostles who had such authority, who yet were meeting behind a locked door fearful and depressed.
HOW THE APOSTLES RESPONDED TO THE TRUTH.
The first response was craven rejection of the women’s words. They considered them to be “like nonsense” (v.11). It was useless chatter. Think of all that these men, Peter, James and John had seen! They had seen the transfiguration of Jesus; they had seen him speaking to Moses and Elijah; they had heard the voice of God, “You are my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” They had seen Jesus raise three people from the dead and he had never failed to heal anyone even in the last stages of a deadly disease. They had heard him preach the Sermon on the Mount. They had sat with him in the Upper Room and heard that discourse. They had lived with him for three years watched him when he was most tired and most relaxed. They had heard him answer his critics. They had felt his love for them and been the recipients of his exquisite pastoral care. They had heard him warn them of his sufferings and cheer them by telling them that on the third day he would rise from the dead. These are the men who on this third day of the week hear these women standing soberly and earnestly before them telling them of all they’d just experienced, the stone rolled away and flat on the floor, the messengers from God in the tomb with words for them, and no body at all. It was gone!
You would expect them to dance for joy at the news and hug these women with a holy hug and cry “Hallelujah! The Lord has risen as he promised us! He has risen indeed!” Instead of that their faces are dark and they look at one another and this is what they mumbled, “What nonsense is this? What useless chatter!” They had had all these privileges, these sights of Jesus, and they had heard him preach, and witnessed his miracles, and received his promises, and discovered that now he had sent godly people to bring the truth of resurrection life to them – and still they did not believe. When people tell us that if they only had some more evidence for the existence of God that then they would believe then we say, it takes more than evidence and privileges. The apostles had had it first hand, from a daily experience of the incarnate God for three years to seeing him risen, yet still they didn’t believe that Jesus Christ was the God of the living and had broken the chains of death. He had told them he would rise. He had shown them he would. He had transformed their lives and given them life from heaven but it was so hard for them to believe that he had risen.
This shows us more than any verse in the Bible the truth of what Paul says to the Corinthians, that “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (I Cors. 2:14). Why aren’t we all Christians? We Christians can beat our bosoms and cry, “It’s all our fault. We are such poor Christians.” No, that is not the prime reason at all, and Peter, John and James were not confronted with ungodly Christians, they were confronted with the empty tomb and the Son of God himself. But until Pentecost they were men without the Spirit and they did not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God. They are foolishness to him like these words of these five chastened women. They could not understand what the women told them because they lacked spiritual discernment. So it is with you. My preaching alone will not create faith in you. The holy lives of the people surrounding you will not by itself do it. You must cry to God that he would give you the Spirit of God, that he would come into your heart and regenerate you, and illuminate you, and make you a new creation. Otherwise you will go on through life hearing any preacher and every preacher and judge it to be not for you, that you don’t need religion. For you it is useless chatter.
But there is a chink of hope in the next response by Peter. We are told, “Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened” (v.12). Remember what happened to some of you Christians? You had heard earnest women talking about Jesus. It had done nothing for you, and this was no different. You were just retreating into yourself, and into your darkness, and your unbelief, plodding along on the long day’s journey into night, and then suddenly there was a little chink . . . “What if . . .?” What if something they said were true? Shouldn’t I go and see? Shouldn’t I check up? What if . . .? What better time for me to see if this be so than now? Why should I put this off?” Some of you felt like that and maybe you feel like that today. Then never resist the promptings of God to think again about Jesus Christ.
Peter ran to the tomb, bent down and was struck not so much by the emptiness of the tomb but what was still there inside it, “strips of linen lying by themselves” (v.12). The simplest things can be used by God to create a living faith. The sight of a person bowing his head in a restaurant and saying grace. A pastor rubbing gently the head of a small boy. A throw-away remark in a sermon. Here Peter saw one thing clearly that no body snatcher would have removed the shroud unwrapping the linen from around Jesus, and then removing the head covering from the dead body of Jesus, and then folding these cloths neatly up in an orderly design, to run off carrying the naked body of Jesus through the streets of Jerusalem. Something powerful and divine and awesome had happened in that tomb that rocked the apostle and we are told, “he went away, wondering to himself what had happened” (v.12). He was no longer stubbornly insistent that the dead do not rise. What had happened? Could the Lord Christ have risen? That is what we ask for from you today? Don’t rubbish what we have said. Don’t hurry home so as not to miss the TV programme. If you have to go away then go away thinking and wondering what happened on this very first day of the week almost 2000 years ago and what it means for you and your life, and your death, and your coming to know the living Lord Jesus as you very own Saviour and God. And pray about it. Read this last chapter of Luke and ask God to show you what is true. Wonder to yourself what had happened, and come back next week, and discuss it with us, and don’t stop until you have knowledge. It didn’t come immediately to these five women, and it didn’t come straight away to Peter, but God was patient and merciful, and how glad we all are that he is.
5th May 2013 GEOFF THOMAS