Date: 16 Apr 2017 (Easter Day)
Text: Matthew 28:1-15
So here we are on that glorious day when we celebrate and give thanks to God for the resurrection of His Son, our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. It truly is a day to celebrate as we think about the power of God at work in this amazing event.
As we celebrate today we have reached the culmination of a tumultuous week; a week that started in triumph and ended in tragedy. Throughout the week we have seen the power of the people at work. On Palm Sunday it was the people who acclaimed Jesus as the long awaited Messiah. On Good Friday we saw those self same people baying for His crucifixion. An amazing turn of events that showed both the power of the people and the fickleness of those same people. In just a few short days the events in the light of Palm Sunday with the acclamation of Jesus were turned into the darkness of the events of Good Friday and the demands for Jesus to die that cruel death on the cross of Calvary. What a turnaround! In between those two distinctly different days Jesus spent His time performing miracles and teaching the people about the coming Kingdom of God. They heard Him and saw Him but still wanted Him to die!
Who was Jesus?
On Palm Sunday Jesus was acclaimed by the people as the Messiah. The question is though, how did they know that He was indeed the Messiah? We are fortunate in that we have the Bible and can read the story of the birth of Jesus and all that He did. Whilst there are numerous verses throughout the Gospels where Jesus refers to Himself as the Son of Man I have only find a handful of verses which talk of the Messiah and link Jesus with being the Messiah. In John 1:41 we see a reference to “Messiah” when Andrew tells his brother Peter that “we have found the Messiah (that is, the Christ)” When talking to Martha in John 11:27 she identifies Him as the Messiah whilst Jesus makes no comment. Rather interestingly it is a Samaritan woman who knew about the Messiah and told Jesus that “I know that Messiah (called Christ) is coming” (John 4:25), to which Jesus replied, “I, the one speaking to you – I am he” (John 4:26). When Jesus stood before the Sanhedrin at His trial, the High Priest challenged Jesus and said to Him, “Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God” (Matthew 26:63b). I find it fascinating that Jesus’ reply in the next verse seems a bit non-committal when He replied, “You have said so”. Despite that, there seems no doubt whatsoever that Jesus was the Messiah, the One Who had come to save the world. We are fortunate to be able to read these verses and learn about Jesus and confirm that view. However, I somehow doubt that the general population at the time were privy to that knowledge even though Jesus had told that Samaritan woman Who He was. There may well have been rumours floating around which could be what prompted Jesus to ask His disciples Who the people thought He was. Jesus and His disciples had been working in the region and when they reached Caesarea Philippi and Jesus asked, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (Matthew 16:13). After they had offered a few suggestions, Jesus asked the disciples who they thought He was. As you might expect, it was Peter who answered and he said to Jesus, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." (Matthew 16:16). Perhaps rather interestingly Jesus told His disciples not to say anything before going on to explain that He would soon die but rise again on third day. Matthew writes these words, “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” (Matthew 16:21). I’m not really sure if the disciples either understood or believed what Jesus had just told them. They had, however, been with Him when He raised Lazarus from the dead and so they at least had some idea of the power at His command.
Regardless of how they learnt just Who Jesus was, it was the people on Palm Sunday who hailed Jesus as the Messiah. Did they deduce that from all that He had been doing and saying or were they told? No matter what happened on that day; by the end of the week Jesus stood condemned as an ordinary criminal even though He was totally innocent.
Where was God?
All of that leads us into the sad events late on Thursday evening and early on the first Good Friday. Whilst these events were taking place I have to ask the important question: where was God in all this. Was He perhaps standing back but keeping a watchful eye on events? On that Thursday evening after they had shared bread and wine, Jesus went with His disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray and ask that His Father take this cup from Him. The “cup” that Jesus is talking about in His prayers is a metaphor for suffering. Isaiah talks of the hand of God being the cup of his wrath (Isaiah 51:17). The prophet Ezekiel talks of the cup of scorn and derision and the cup of ruin and desolation (Ezekiel 23:32-33). Not exactly something to look forward to! Jesus was utterly repelled at the suffering that He knew He was about to face hence asking His Father to take this “cup” from Him. In Jesus’ case this was the cup of suffering that would lead to His death and it was that that awaited Him the next day. Even though Jesus knew all along that He was destined to die He still felt the need to pray to His Father and ask Him to take away the dreadful ordeal that faced Him. Jesus prayed for the same thing on three separate occasions and asked His Father, “... if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as You will.” (Matthew 26:39). Notice that, even when facing His imminent demise Jesus still wanted to obey His Father’s will; I wonder if we could be so faithful. Matthew doesn’t mention anything about God answering that prayer so we are left to work things out for ourselves. It could be that God didn’t answer at all and had abandoned His Son. It could be that He did answer in the negative but Matthew failed to record the fact. Either way, Jesus knew that He had to go through with His Father’s will to be tortured and killed.
Following that short time in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was betrayed by Judas and arrested by the Temple guards. After a perfunctory and rigged trial Jesus was taken before Pilate who famously washed his hands of the situation. Having acceded to the people’s demands, Pilate then handed Jesus over to be crucified.
On The Cross
Crucifixion is not pretty and is not only a form of execution but also a form of torture. Before He was nailed to that cross Jesus was cruelly treated in that He was beaten and whipped, spat at, ridiculed and had that crown of thorns rammed tightly onto His head. All of this was in accordance with that famous prophecy made by Isaiah when he wrote, “...he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him” (Isaiah 53:5). It was only after that dreadful treatment that He was hung on the cross to die. Whilst He must have been in utter agony as He hung there dying on the cross, He was still able to cry out “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me.” (Matthew 27:46b). It seems that God had abandoned Him and left Him to die. Despite the physical pain, for Jesus, being abandoned by His Father was probably more cruel and painful than anything that had gone before. Shortly after croaking those words Jesus breathed His last.
Painful though all that was, it wasn’t quite the end; there was more to come. At the very moment Jesus died, we learn of a number of things happening. Matthew tells us that the curtain in the Temple that separated the Holy of Holies from the ordinary people was torn asunder; the earth shook and the rocks split. Matthew adds “...tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.” (27:52). None of those things happened by accident or coincidence; God was there all the time and this was God’s power at work!
Off The Cross
Having died sooner than most victims of crucifixion, Jesus was taken down to be buried before sunset in accordance with Jewish custom. He was carefully placed in a freshly hewn grave after which the grave was sealed and guarded.
It is now that we really see the power of God at work. On the third day following the crucifixion Jesus rose again. Even though Jesus had truly died, thanks to the power of God at work, He came back to life again and was able to leave His own tomb and in doing that Jesus had fulfilled His own promises.
One of those who provided false evidence against Him had claimed that Jesus had said, “I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.” (Matthew 26:61). Those who heard this evidence were not only astounded at such a claim but I can almost hear them laughing at the very suggestion. Don’t forget that it took Solomon a lot of effort and a great deal of time and money to build this Temple in the first place; and yet here was this itinerant preacher claiming that He could rebuild it in three days – preposterous. What they failed to understand was that Jesus was talking about Himself as the Temple and not that Temple of Solomon. We have similar problems today in that many people seem to think that the church is the building in which believers gather week by week. It isn’t, the church is made up of the believers in Jesus Christ; we are the bricks of that building.
Only God has the power over life and death and only He can raise someone from the dead. You may recall that Jesus raised His friend Lazarus from his death bed proving that He was God in human form. However, at some time later Lazarus would sadly go on to die again. Jesus will never die again because of the power of God!
It may have seemed that God had abandoned His Son and almost given up on Him. However, that was very far from the truth since God was there the whole time. God is our heavenly Father and the Creator of the universe and everything in it and yet I can imagine the pain that He must have felt at the time that His Son hung there suffering such a painful death. I don’t believe that God took this step lightly; He knew what He was doing because He had the big picture in mind. By His great power God knew that by offering His own Son as a Passover sacrifice those who accepted Him as their Saviour would never ever need to make a sacrifice of repentance again; Jesus was that once and for all glorious sacrifice.
As a result of that and the great power of God we are heading not for a cross but for a crown. Jesus may have had a crown of thorns rammed onto His head but He is now wearing a crown of glory. His Father may have appeared to have abandoned His Son but God had a plan for Jesus all along, a plan that would bring glory not only to Jesus as Lord and Saviour but also glory to all those who believe in Him.
There have been numerous cases in recent times of people “dying” in an accident or as a result of a stroke or heart attack and being revived by Doctors. Some of them, such as that former footballer Fabrice Muamba, have even been “dead” for 45 minutes or so. Such incidents though pale into insignificance when compared with Jesus. Jesus was dead, He was placed in His tomb and left. On the third day, that is many hours, after His death it was the power of God that revived Jesus and brought Him to life; Jesus rose up from the grave in glory. There were no Doctors in sight only God exercising His great power. Praise God for His power.
What a week! A week full of hope and excitement; full of pain and tragedy; full of power. On two separate occasions we saw the power of the people at work. And then on the third day after the tragedy of Jesus’ death we saw a different kind of power at work, the power of God. God’s power overruled the power of the people and then some! The people had called for Jesus’ death but God knew that His power would win in the end as He raised His beloved Son from the grave.
Praise God for His power and for giving us His Son as the sacrifice to pay the price for our sins.