Sermon preached on John 20:1-23 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 4/5/2015 in Novato, CA.
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“Came to the Tomb”
We are here again celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. This is something the Christian church confesses. And we confess it, because we believe it. It’s our faith. And we have this faith for good reason. And it’s faith that we will think about again today as we reflect on the resurrection of Jesus. And so our message for this morning will think first about “Faith and fulfillment.” Second, we’ll think about “Faith and prophecy.” Third, we’ll think about “Faith and its response.”
Let’s begin first with faith and fulfillment. We find this particularly in verse 8 with the words “He saw and believed.” Here, the Apostle John enters the empty tomb of Jesus and it says that he saw and believed. What did he see and believe? Well, he saw the empty tomb. He saw the grave clothes laid aside. And he surely believed the Jesus was risen from the dead. That he was alive!
Just remember some of the context here. We read the immediate context here about Mary Magdalene. She had come to the tomb early on that Sunday morning, and she found it empty. She at once runs and tells Peter and John about this. They race off to the tomb. John beats Peter in the race and gets to the tomb first, but doesn’t go inside. He can see the grave clothes lying there, even by looking into the tomb from the outside. But then Peter arrives, and in typical Peter fashion, he charges right into the tomb. And he finds it empty. He too sees the grave clothes, and even the wrap that had been around his head. Some have appealed to this passage, by the way, that they think it describes the shroud as still bearing the shape of Jesus’ face, but that requires quite a bit of reading into the language to arrive at such an interpretation. But at any rate, John then follows Peter into the tomb. He sees what Peter had seen. And so I love verse 8. He sees, and then he believes.
Surely, John recognizes that if someone had just moved Jesus’ body, that there would be no reason to take off the grave clothes and leave them there. And surely by this point John remembered how Jesus had repeatedly told them he would rise from the dead. Surely all the miracles Jesus had done in front of John, including raising others from the dead, also was part of the context that helped John rightly interpret this evidence that was before him with the empty tomb and the grave clothes. And as we’ll see in the second point in a moment, that John had finally started to at least begin to understand how the Scriptures had foretold this. And so the dots started to connect for John. And so he saw, and he believed.
And so my first point for today is to emphasize the fact that John’s faith in the resurrection is based on historical and material evidence. He sees what he sees and the other details that he knew already suddenly make sense. He’ll yet get more material evidence when Jesus himself will appear to them that very night. That’s told starting in verse 19. The disciple Thomas wasn’t there, and so he’ll had to wait until the next week to find that material evidence for himself, as we read about starting in verse 24. But by this point, John had enough material evidence, along with everything else he already knew, that he could believe. And so the text emphasizes that what he saw at that empty tomb put him over the edge from thinking Jesus was dead, to believing that he was alive.
Why do I make this first point then? Because as we come now approximately two thousand years later, I want us to acknowledge that the resurrection is based on a historical reality. I titled this point faith and fulfillment because it’s when John is an eye witness to the fulfillment of all the predictions that the Messiah would rise from the dead, then he believes. Then he has faith. His faith is intimately connected here with the fulfillment — a fulfillment which was a historical reality. John’s faith was rooted in a historical event that happened in time and space. That the tomb was empty. That the grave clothes had been cast aside. That Jesus really was raised! So then, our faith too is based on this fulfillment. The Christian faith is founded upon this. If Jesus didn’t actually rise from the dead, then our faith would be a fraud. Some people who feel funny in this modern age believing in miracles want to try to redefine the faith. They talk about faith in terms of believing in the spirit of resurrection. That Jesus’ ideals lived on, and that sort of thing. But such people don’t believe that Jesus actually rose from the dead. Well, such people might call themselves Christians, but that is not the Christian faith. The Christian faith of the Bible is that Jesus really did rise from the dead; that the tomb was empty and the grave clothes laid aside because Jesus took back up his life and rose from the dead on the third day, just as he had predicted. That is what our faith celebrates today.
This leads us to our second point for today, to consider faith and prophecy. What should have contributed to John’s faith is all the prophecy found in Scripture. Look at verse 9. We are told there that this is why he had a struggle of faith at first. In other words, look at verse 9. “For as yet they did not know the Scripture, that he must rise again from the dead.” And so the idea here is that after John saw and believed, the text explains why he hadn’t believed before. Because up to that point, he hadn’t yet understood the Scriptures. Now, it’s not entirely clear here in verse 9 if that has begun to change for John or not. Some translations understand the subtle nuance of the Greek here that this was an ongoing condition for him; that even though he believed now in light of the empty tomb, that he still didn’t understand this as something demanded by the Scriptures. Other translations, on the other hand, think this is word such a way as to imply that things were beginning to change for John. That’s my preference, because of the previous verse. That before they hadn’t believed, but now seeing the tomb, John and presumably Peter as well had begun to believe. They hadn’t up to this point believed because they hadn’t understood the Scripture, but likely it is implying that they are finally starting to figure things out. In other words, now faced with the material evidence of the empty tomb, like we talked about in our first point, they are likely beginning to have some degree of understanding with regard to the Scriptures.
In other words, the reason why John and Peter hadn’t believed up to this point, was because they didn’t understand the prophecies from Scripture. But when confronted with the fulfillment of the prophecies, it says that John comes to believe. Surely Peter did too, but John only explicitly reports this about himself here. But, the idea is that John recounts how things finally started to “click” for him. This is a sort of spiritual light bulb going on in his heads.
To clarify, the tone of verse 9 is written almost as a bit of chastisement. The sense you get as you read verse 9 is that Peter and John and the other disciples had been slow to understand all that the law and the prophets and the Psalms had written about the Christ. The sense you get is that they should have already expected this. It should not have come as some wonderful surprise. The Scriptures had foretold the sufferings of Christ and his subsequent glories. Jesus himself had foretold this. How could they be so slow in getting it?
And yet, we can sympathize. Some teachings in Scripture are really, really, clear. Some are a little more complex, and require some meditation and reflection, not to mention the Spirit of God to illumine our minds to understand them. And so it seems that the Spirit had begun to help them make sense of things. Surely, the Spirit was beginning to grant them insight here to understand how the present circumstances of history were connected with the Scriptures. That this resurrection was actually predicted repeatedly long before in the Bible.
The chapter doesn’t offer for us here what Bible passages John has in mind. Elsewhere in the New Testament we see some important ones referenced and we are told that they speak of Christ. Some clearly bring out his resurrection. Like Psalm 16:10 that talks of the Lord’s Holy One not being abandoned to Sheol or seeing corruption. Or Isaiah 53 talks about how the Lord’s suffering servant would bear the sins of God’s people in dying for them, but then it turns to talk about how the Lord will prolong his days. Or then you have so very many passages in the Old Testament that talk about how the Messiah will reign forever, Psalm 110 is just one of many such examples. How could the Messiah reign forever over an everlasting kingdom, if he didn’t raise from the dead. So, that’s just a few references that speak of the Messiah and how he must rise from the dead.
As we are thinking about how the Scriptures show the necessity of Christ rising from the dead, I think it would be a blessing to point out further why that was so necessary. Why did the Messiah had to die and then rise again? Why was that so necessary according to the Scriptures? Well, let me put it this way. Since Jesus as the Messiah is going to reign over an eternal kingdom, he wouldn’t have anyone to reign over if he didn’t first go to the cross. The Bible reveals how every human has sinned against God in many ways. We are all guilty sinners. We are all condemned by our record, and worthy of God’s judgment and eternal damnation. The Bible teaches about such judgment and we refer to that as “hell”. If Jesus came as the Messiah King, and didn’t first provide a way for sinners to be saved from this judgment, then Jesus as that king would come only to conquer and judge every single human. But God had a better plan. And so he sent Jesus in his first coming to achieve a mighty atonement for God’s people. That whosoever believes in him, shall not perish, but have eternal life. That’s why Jesus had to die. And that’s why he had to rise again. On the cross, he paid for the punishment for the sins of all who would believe upon him. For those who turn to him in faith, you can be assured that on the cross he paid completely for all your transgressions. In faith, you receive that forgiveness as a gift. And you are then saved from hell.
But Jesus didn’t just stay dead. He rose again and ascended up into heaven. In his resurrection, he shows the hope held out for all his people. That we too will rise from the dead. And ultimately, at his return, we will live in his glorified kingdom forever. Those who persist in their rejection of God and do not find grace and forgiveness in Christ, they will know God’s judgment in the full when Jesus Christ returns. But for us who are in Christ by faith, that will be a wonderful day of realized victory.
And so for those who are visiting today and have up to this point not understood about Jesus, today you are called to believe in him. In our first point, we saw that the Christian faith is a faith based in the historical reality of Jesus’ being raised from the dead. And in our second point, we have seen how the Bible taught in advance about this. Our faith is strengthened by the awesome reality that this was all predicted ahead of time. And not only that, but our faith is also strengthened by the Scriptures explaining to us the significance of why Jesus had to die and rise again. And so if you came here today already believing in Jesus and the resurrection, be encouraged and strengthened all the more by the Scriptures today; and by the reminder of the historicity of Christ’s resurrection. And if you came here today not yet understanding the Bible, and not yet believing in the reality of Christ’s resurrection, it’s my call to you today to believe. See and believe. See the record of the historicity of Jesus rising from the dead. See the Scriptures that foretold it and explained it. See and believe.
That leads us then to our third point for today. Let’s think now about faith and its response. Verse 10 always strikes me as a bit interesting. Here at a minimum we are told that John “got it”. Surely Peter had begun too as well. And yet verse 10 seems a bit anti-climactic for me. It says that after this eye opening experience, that they went back to their homes. That strikes me at this point as a bit of a reserved, underwhelming, response. Now true, presumably when John goes back to his home, he will see Mary, the mother of Jesus. Recall that Jesus had John take his mother Mary into his home. Surely, this will be news for John to tell Mary! And yes, we saw as we read on in this chapter, that this very evening the disciples will be together and be overjoyed to receive a visit from the risen Lord Jesus. And yet verse 10 seems so reserved at this point. It simply says they went back to their homes!
And so I point to this, to ask, how ought one to respond to such newfound faith that the Lord is risen? I love how the text goes on. Mary Magdalene, not yet even really believing Jesus is risen, still stuck in her grief, sticks around that empty tomb a little longer, and gets to see Jesus. And I love how after Jesus meets with his disciples they’ll be transitioned by Jesus from being primarily students aka disciples, to being messengers, aka apostles. Jesus will commission and send them into the world, with his Spirit and the truth of his resurrection and the gospel. And the world will be turned upside down.
We have evidence right before us today of how Jesus used them to turn the world upside down. Because here we are here some two thousand years later, gathered together in a room to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Praise the Lord! And so again, I ask the question. For those of us who have seen and believed, what will you do with this faith? How will you respond? Let us have our faith then move forward as both students and messengers. Let us as students of Christ keep learning from him from his Word. The Scriptures were given for them and for us, to equip us for how to live out our faith. And let us then tell the world around us about this truth: that the Lord Jesus Christ is risen indeed. And he has given his church the message of the gospel. That every human is a sinner and under condemnation from sin apart from Jesus Christ. But by repenting of our sins and turning to Christ in faith, we can be forgiven of our sins, and adopted in God’s family, and become a part of his people.
And of course, another central part of how our faith should respond, is in worship. That’s why we come together each week on the day that the Lord was raised from the dead. We call it the Lord’s Day for a reason. And so we come to each week to celebrate his resurrection. And we come each week to worship God, thanking him for our salvation, and looking to glorify him, and learn how we are to live each day as a Christian. Each week we come to this time of celebration and praise, in devotion to our King who calls us to assemble together in such worship.
So then, that is what we are doing today. Rejoice, oh saints of God, in the resurrection. We affirm this again today. That we believe in Jesus Christ crucified and risen, just as it was written. We believe in Jesus Christ crucified
and risen, as it was promised long ago. We believe in Jesus Christ crucified
and risen, as those promises were fulfilled. We believe that Jesus Christ has now ascended to the Father, and has given us of his Spirit, to await for his return. And that he now he is always with us by his Spirit. And we believe that he is coming again to judge the living and the dead. For those who have been forgiven in him, we do not fear that day. Rather, we can’t wait! Let us keep celebrating the resurrection and living out our faith each day as we look forward to his coming. Amen.
Copyright © 2014 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.