Dr. Charles F. “Chuck” DeVane, Jr., Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
MARCH 27, 2016
1 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.
— Matthew 28:1-15, ESV
During an election year or anytime a big news story happens, I like to watch the coverage on both CNN and FOX News. Though they both claim to be unbiased, it is amazing what a partisan point of view can do. While focusing on the same speech or set of facts, totally different conclusions are made. When agendas are more important than the facts, one event can be spun into two completely different story lines.
Into a partisan world, Jesus came. It was a spectacular event, to be sure. He lived, He loved, He died, these are the facts. Of course, there is another important fact. On the third day after He died, the grave in which He was placed was revealed to be empty. There was no body, there were no bones, and, at first, there was nobody there who could explain it.
All parties involved attested to the fact of the empty tomb. But in response to this singular event, two very divergent stories emerged. Four women told one story. A cadre of guards, priests, and government officials told another. Who are you going to believe?
The big news event before us today is something we simply call the good news, or the gospel. The gospel is the person and work of Jesus Christ. God became a man, lived a sinlessly perfect life, sacrificially laid down that life upon the cross, and rose again from the dead on the third day. In the gospel there are many dramatic moments, some call them miracles and some call them myths. But is the Jesus story fact or fiction?
The gospel cannot be mere mythology, for there is more historical evidence for Jesus of Nazareth than any other human being who ever lived. Whether you believe or not in the virgin birth, the sinless life, the miracles, the crucifixion, and resurrection depends upon your point of view. But the fact that the man lived and died is virtually beyond dispute. And no one can call into question that on the third day, the tomb was empty.
How did it get that way? What happened to the body of Jesus? Two stories emerged.
Most people then, and now, could not believe the first story that came out. It claims, after some initial confusion, that Jesus bodily arose from the grave and appeared to many of His followers, beginning with the first to testify. These first witnessed were rural, uneducated women: “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (mother of James the Less).” The other Gospels tell us that Salome (Zebedee, James the Great’s and John the Beloved’s mother) and a woman named Joanna were also at the cemetery, a fearsome foursome.
The fact they were all women made their testimony unauthorized and unreliable in Jesus’ day. The fact they were unsophisticated makes their testimony somewhat unbelievable in our day. Women of the first century were chattel in a chauvinistic culture, had few if any civil rights, and could not even testify in a legal proceeding. These particular women were simple, hardscrabble, working people, of whom it is said tend to cling to guns and religion during difficult times.
Mary, Mary, Salome, and Joanna didn’t have any guns. But, they had religion. More than that, they had a deep devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ. So, a story of faith came flying out of the tomb. But most folks, then and especially now, cannot accept things on faith.
Therefore, another story had to materialize. But was it based on fact? Remember, this fact is the same in both stories: the tomb is empty. The women fold a faith-based story. The men of the guard, the Jewish priesthood, and the Roman authorities, however, told the opposite. The opposite of a faith-based story is not necessarily a fact-based story, for in this important case the men involved told a lie-based story. With evidence to the country, they concocted a tale that told of men slipping past the guards and the heavy stone to steal the body of Jesus away by night. And as the text tells us, “This story has been spread … to this day.”
One event, two stories. Why such a divergence? It all depends upon your point of view.
Two Points of View
Admittedly, these women were predisposed to believe the gospel. They had walked and talked with Jesus for three years or more. Mary Magdalene, prone to addiction and dealing with demons, was delivered by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. The other Mary and Salome had sons who were among The Twelve, and Salome probably had the pleasure of watching Jesus grow up. Joanna had ties to Herod Antipas, who tied himself to John the Baptist, who had told everyone that Jesus is the Messiah. They came to the tomb that day as believers, albeit imperfect ones.
The women had miscalculated, however, that the gospel ended with crucifixion. They had in their hands embalming spices, to finish a job that women can do better than men (like most jobs). They were as shocked as the rest of the world that Jesus’ body was gone from the tomb, and did not fully believe until, according to their eye-witness report, angels from Heaven and the Lord Jesus Himself proved the resurrection to them. Then they went and told Peter, John, and the other disciples, and for the next forty days, Jesus would verify His bodily resurrection to many members of His fledgling church.
Why did the believers believe? Because they were simple? No, men and women with high IQ’s have followed Jesus since the beginning. Because they were bought off? No, true Christianity does not make that kind of earthly bargain. They believed because God had given them a certain and sure revelation of Himself to them. For some it was the miracles, from water turning into wine to the bodily resurrection from the dead. For some it was the love in His eyes, the truth of His voice, the healing in His hands. For some it was the perfect fulfillment of the prophetic word spoken from the Old Testament prophets to John the Baptist to Jesus Himself. For some it was the appearance of the angels, or the resurrected Christ. Belief requires revelation, and the entire revelation of the gospel and the word of God is consummated in the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Why did the guards and the Jewish priests and the Roman authorities not believe? Why do most people in the modern world not believe? It is because they are predisposed, too. They are predisposed to sin, which makes faith impossible. They are predisposed to self-interest, valuing money and bribes more than brave truth-telling. They are predisposed to independence, preferring to govern their own lives on their own terms rather than submitting to a risen King of kings and Lord of lords. Their exercise of their God-given gift of free choice has freely chosen to be self-serving, and the lack of grace in their lives causes a heartening of the heart that no cardio-vascular surgeon can cure. Unbelievers unbelief is due to their deliberate choice to look away from the facts, to ignore the biblical revelation, and to live out lifestyles which they think are better than a life committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
So, who are you going to believe?
As the father of four daughters, I’m going with the four women! I believe them, I believe in Jesus, I believe in God’s word and the gospel. God gave me this revelation, He gave it to me through the witness of other believers, and I believe that Christ is risen, He is risen indeed!
But I understand the pressure on the guards, the pride of the religious establishment in Jerusalem, and the pure greed of the Roman government. A commitment to the risen Christ would have cost them everything. Even for most people today, this is just too much to pay.
The guards couldn’t believe or it would have cost them their bribe, and dollars were hard to come by in that day. Besides, guards of escaped prisoners were generally sentenced to the same fate as the escapee, and they didn't want that. So, they turned away in unbelief from the gospel, even though they of all people knew that it was true, in exchange for money and an easier life.
The Jewish religious rulers couldn’t believe or it would have cost them their control over other people, which they loved. It also would have cost them their pride, to admit they were wrong about religion in general and the gospel in particular. When truth and pride collide, the former is almost always sacrificed for the latter, in cultures old and new.
The governor couldn’t believe or it would have cost him his position, power, and prestige. Those who seek to successfully climb the social ladder cannot be slowed down by the gospel or the Christian faith. Faith is not compatible with runaway riches, unfettered sex, and pleasure at the expense of principle.
Today, you face this same set of facts about Jesus, this same fork in the road of your life. The tomb is empty, that’s a fact. But when, how, and why does it matter. It matters, ultimately, in this life and the next. So, who are you going to believe?