John 20 – The Resurrection
Plan: Intro – anti-supernaturalism
The Testimony – women
- Fear and joy - distractions
- Seeing is believing (Thomas)
God and the Supernatural
I’ve just started looking at the life of Jesus with my year seven classes at school. We’re watching bits of the Jesus video and answering some questions. The first question on the page is this: “How did Mary become pregnant with Jesus”. Probably a fairly dangerous question when asking 12 year old boys, but nevertheless, that’s the question. One of the more capable girls said to me the other day, “how can a virgin become pregnant – it’s impossible!” I agreed with her and said, yes, normally it is. But in this case God did something miraculous. When I uttered the word “miracle” she scoffed. Not in a deliberately offensive way, but in the way many modernist westerners do, those who think they’ve advanced well beyond such superstition. “But that just can’t happen, sir,” she replied. It’s an assumption that seems to grip much of western thinking, including many people in churches who call themselves Christians, and it’s often referred to as anti-supernaturalism. It’s an assumption that goes beyond healthy scepticism to a complete refusal to believe in the miraculous whatever the testimony and whatever the evidence.
It’s not a particularly logical approach. In that very same year seven class, another girl asked me a question about Adam and Eve. It wasn’t really a question, it was more of a statement with the underlying tone being “I think I’ve got you on that one, haven’t I sir.” She said, “how could Adam and Eve have understood the one rule that God gave them? They wouldn’t have had any language just after God created them, that takes time to develop. It’s impossible for language to appear overnight. They wouldn’t have been able to communicate, so they can’t be blamed for eating the apple!” I replied to her, “If God was able to create this whole universe from nothing, then surely he would be able to give Adam and Eve the ability to communicate.”
And there’s the strange, illogical thing. Most of the people who hold to the anti-supernaturalist assumption also claim to believe in God. And yet somehow, God can never work outside of the natural laws which he created.
But what does this have to do with John 20? Many of you saw the production of Jesus on Trial about a month ago where put the question of whether Jesus really did rise from the dead through the rigours of a courtroom analysis. I played the lawyer who was arguing against the resurrection, and let me just read to you what was said as a closing statement:
Modern medicine tells us that if someone has been dead for three days, they’re not coming back. Their brain has been deprived of oxygen for so long that even if we stuck a new heart in them and got them going again, there is absolutely no hope. Mr Brooks can stand up here all day and tell us fairy tales but it doesn’t change the facts. No one in this room. No in this country. No one in this world, has ever seen someone who is genuinely and completely dead rise again. It’s an impossibility. It doesn’t happen. With all due respect for the millions of people worldwide who still hold on to this belief, it defies rational thought, it defies reasoning, it defies science. It defies everything we have in the modern world that sets us apart from those people who originally fell for this trick two thousand years ago.
That is the anti-supernaturalist position when it comes to Jesus rising from the dead. And the troubling thing is, that many so-called Christians, in their effort to give modern listeners exactly what their itching ears want to hear, have compromised and perverted the gospel so that Jesus no longer genuinely, physically rose from the dead. In doing so, they are actually saying that the Bible is wrong, they know better and, ultimately, that it is ridiculous to believe that the creator of the whole universe could raise someone from the dead. That the God whom they say they worship has no more power over death than the rest of us. That’s their message.
Well, let’s look at the testimony about the resurrection that John gives us. There is a purpose behind John’s testimony and we can see it in the last verse of the chapter: 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. John isn’t merely writing a nice story or an interesting biography. He is writing so that people might believe that Jesus is the saviour and king of the world. He’s not a writer who tries to hide behind a façade neutrality when really he has an axe to grind. He’s up-front – he’s writing this so that people will believe and be saved. And it’s no accident that he puts this little author’s note directly after his testimony about the resurrection. He’s written all of this to show that Jesus is the Christ and the fact that he rose from the dead is the ultimate evidence.
If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, he isn’t the Christ. If he didn’t rise from the dead he’s a liar or a madman. He went around predicting he would die and then rise on the third day. If, when he died, he stayed dead then Jesus is an imposter of the worst kind. But if he did rise from the dead, then Jesus is the eternal king who will sit on David’s throne and rule forever and ever. That’s how important the resurrection is. The healings, the walking on water and all the other miraculous signs we’ve read about in John are just lead up work to the main event – they’re just the support act. The resurrection is what will finally, ultimately, unequivocally demonstrate that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.
Back to John’s testimony, then. John, of course, is the only one of the twelve recorded as actually being present at Jesus’ crucifixion. He’s seen Jesus die close up, seen the spear go into his side, seen the limp and lifeless body being cut down off the cross. He knows Jesus is dead and he, along with the rest of the apostles, have been hiding together in fear since the tragic event on the Friday.
The first surprise we get in John 20 is that the first to see the empty tomb and the risen Lord is a woman – and, even worse, a prostitute. If you wanted someone to back you up at a trial, you wouldn’t pick Mary Magdalene, but here she is. She goes down to the tomb early Sunday morning and discovers the stone rolled away. So she races back to the disciples and Peter and John come down to look for themselves, and they, too, see the empty tomb. The men run off to tell everyone but Mary remains behind, crying. And then the Lord appears to her. She doesn’t know who he is at first but very soon he reveals himself to her, and she knows it is Jesus.
Now to those who claim that these accounts of the resurrection are stories fabricated by early Christians, consider this: no one in their right might would make up a tale where a woman, a prostitute, was the first witness of the risen Jesus. No one in first century Palestine would write that – unless it’s what actually happened.
The message that Jesus has for Mary is an important one. As you’d expect, Mary wants to cling on to Jesus, to make sure he’s not going anywhere again – like when a parent thinks they’ve lost their child, when they find them they just want to hug them and hold onto them and never let go again. But Jesus warns Mary in vs. 17: "Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, `I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ " Jesus hasn’t risen to simply return to the life he had been living for the past thirty years. His task on earth was complete. He had taken the punishment of sin on the cross, had defeated death and sin and had risen from the grave. So, just as he warned his disciples at the Last Supper in chapter 16, so he tells them again – I am returning to the Father.
That’s why the gospels record only a series of appearances from Jesus before he ascends into heaven – he’s not back living with the disciples like before. His task is complete – he waits to bear witness to his resurrection and then to return to the Father.
One thing you’ll notice from Mary, Peter and John – none of them understand that Jesus would rise. As John describes his own lack of knowledge there’s almost a feeling of exasperation with himself - 9 (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) After all this time, all these prophecies from Jesus that the Son of Man would suffer and die and rise on the third day, they still did not understand from Scripture. Mary thinks the tomb has been robbed and sits down to cry because the body of Jesus has been stolen. Peter, John and the other disciples are waiting in fear, they’re waiting in the expectation that Jesus will rise again.
Scripture – and in this context that refers to the Old Testament - itself testifies to the fact that Jesus is the Christ and had to rise from the dead. Think back to chapter 19 last week. All throughout Jesus trial and his crucifixion, there are constant references to fulfilled prophecy. The soldiers dice for his clothes, he is offered wine to drink, his legs are not broken, his side is pierced. All these incidents point to the fact that Jesus is the Christ. And then we have the final, great marker – that he has defeated death, defeated the power of sin and will reign forever.
The change in the disciples is testimony also to the resurrection. Before they finally see him, they have locked themselves in a room for fear of the Jews. Probably not an unreasonable fear, either. But when Jesus appears among them they are overjoyed, they are transformed.
In my job it is absolutely critical that I trust that God can change people, that God is powerful. I come across so many kids who are hard to the gospel and it’s hard a lot of the time to keep reminding yourself that God can save them. But God does transform people, his gospel is powerful. I remember in year 8 and 9 spending countless hours, countless bus trips debating with Chris Box about Christianity. Back then he was not the meek and mild musician you see before you today – he was a passionate, hellbound atheist. And I was a particularly inadequate witness for God. But God is powerful and by the power of his Spirit he transformed Chris, just like he transformed me a few years earlier and just the resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit transforms the disciples when they see their risen Lord.
Instead of cowering together, Jesus sends them out: "Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven." Just as he promised, Jesus gives them the Spirit, the counselor who will guide them, grant them courage and wisdom. They are yet to receive the full power of the Spirit – that comes at Pentecost in Acts 2. But here they know that they are not along, Jesus has not abandoned them. In fact, he has empowered them to go forth and preach the gospel. That’s what he’s sending them to do.
Vs. 23 has created misunderstandings for centuries, but it is simply part of Jesus instruction to preach the message of repentance and forgiveness. The Roman Catholic church uses this verse to justify the sacrament of confession and the absolution by the priest. That is why, according to the Romish church, you need to go to confession at certain regular intervals to be forgiven your sin. Unless a romish priest forgives you, your salvation is in danger. And you can understand how they might get such an idea by taking this verse out of context. But the context is Jesus sending his disciples out to preach to the world. I have it on good authority that the verb “forgive” in the Greek is passive which suggests that it’s not the disciples doing the actual forgiving, it’s God. However, Jesus says this because it is the work of preaching the gospel that brings forgiveness to people. The message of Jesus proclaims forgiveness. And if we don’t preach that message to them, then forgiveness is withheld. As Paul says in Romans 10:14: how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?
Thomas is absent from all this. We’re not told why, so it can’t be important. What is important is his reaction, his refusal to believe. His fellow disciples testify – we have seen Jesus. But he refuses to believe. Thomas is the ultimate sceptic – and he’s been with Jesus for three years and has seen him perform countless miraculous signs and wonders. Perhaps calling Thomas a sceptic is unfair to sceptics – his is not a reasoned response, it’s a blind refusal to believe simply because he hasn’t seen it with his own eyes. He sounds like a lot of teenagers I know – “No matter what everyone else says, I know everything and I’m right!”
Well, we read what happens to “doubting Thomas”. He gets the proof he demands. Jesus appears to him and invites him to touch the wounds in his hands and in his side. Thomas responds in the only appropriate way – “my Lord and my God”. Thomas didn’t trust Jesus when he said he’d rise. He didn’t trust the disciples when they reported they had seen Jesus alive. He said he would only trust himself, only trust what his eyes saw, what his fingers could touch.
Of course, it’s very easy to criticise – I expect if everyone here said that a bunch of aliens had come to visit or that they’d seen Elvis at Chivers Hill shops you’d probably say “I’ll believe it when I see it”, too. But the difference here is that we have the testimony of God’s chosen apostles, we have the witness of the very Word of God testifying that Jesus rose from the dead. We have witness more than worthy of our trust.
Thomas sees and believes but Jesus declares that those who believe without seeing are truly blessed. Why? Because they trust God and his Word, not just their own eyes. Is that the sort of believer you are? Do you respond to the promises of the Lord with genuine faith? Do you know that God is powerful enough to do anything?
Make no mistake about it, Jesus physically rose from the dead. Thomas and the other disciples physically touch his wounds. He eats with them. He’s not a ghost, it’s not just some spiritual symbol.
Thomas Jefferson was a famous American president, but he rejected the notion of miracles. When he approached the scriptures he could not tolerate those passages which dealt with the supernatural. So what did he do? He wrote his own bible. In the Thomas Jefferson Bible you will find only the moral teachings and historical events of Jesus’ life. No virgin birth. No healing of Jairus’ daughter. No walking on water. And, no resurrection. Here is how the his bible ends: "There laid they Jesus and rolled a great stone at the mouth of the sepulcher and departed."
It is very easy to rewrite history. To say, "that did not happen." But the story remains that the disciples were witnesses to these events. Thomas Jefferson is in essence calling the disciples liars and that they continued throughout the first century, for 70 years to propagate those lies. Furthermore, Jefferson’s Bible has been robbed of its power.
More than that, God himself has been robbed of his power. If God couldn’t raise Jesus from the dead, then why are we bothering to worship him? Peter Carnley, the head of the Anglican Church in Australia has in the past been decidedly equivocal and lukewarm when it comes to Jesus’ actual resurrection from the dead. The message from Scripture is clear, however. If you don’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead, don’t bother being a Christian, because you are following a dead Lord and a religion that offers no hope of eternal life and no hope of forgiveness.
We must not pander to the anti-supernaturalist prejudice like some so-called Christian leaders are doing. The LORD is a God of the natural and the supernatural. He created man from dust so why can’t he raise Jesus from the dead? John writes so that we might believe that Jesus is the Christ – and here is the ultimate evidence. A Jesus who is broken and bloodied and dead on the cross. And then a Jesus who is risen from the grave, risen in glorious victory over death and sin.
The Purpose of the Testimony (vss. 30-31)
Mary (vss. 1-2, 11-18)
Scripture (vs. 9)
Transformation (vss. 19-23)
Fear to Joy
The Holy Spirit (vs. 22)
Preaching and Forgiveness (vs. 23)
Thomas (vss. 24-29)
God of the Supernatural