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  • Dr. Bob Phillips, Pastor

The Greatest Story Ever Told

The ordeal was over - the agony in the Garden where he sweated great drops of blood while his closest friends fell asleep on watch; betrayal with a kiss by one to whom he had entrusted the little band's small resources; his abandonment by those who only a few hours before had pledged to him so boldly their very lives.

Also past was the travesty of his trial - the mocking and scorn from the religious authorities, the brutal physical abuse at the hands of the soldiers, and torture by the Romans, who were experts in the art of pain.

The final ordeal was the Cross, where his agony and humiliation continued openly and unrestrained in the sight of God and men.

The worst of all, however, was the darkness that enveloped his soul as he felt not only rejected by earth, but abandoned by heaven, suspended between the two and belonging to neither, leading him to cry out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

In those dark hours he suffered so much, more than men could ever know, offering an infinite redemption to provide an infinite salvation for an unworthy race of creatures.

When his work there was finally and fully accomplished, he breathed his last and let go. The work was finished; there was nothing more to add.

Understand this, however - his life was not taken from him. He gave it up. He once said, "No one takes my life from me; I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and I have authority to take it up again."

Afterward, his battered and torn body lay at rest in the cool of a borrowed tomb, quickly but lovingly placed by grieving friends who finally came out of the shadows.

But the third day brought amazing developments. Jesus' body mysteriously went missing and things began to happen in a cascade of confusion and emotion.

As dawn began to break on that Sunday morning, some of the women who had followed Jesus were on their way to finish the burial process at the tomb.

Did they all go together or did different groups plan to meet there? We don't know. But Scripture tells us mostly who was involved - Mary Magdalene (who played a major role in that morning's events), Mary the mother of James, Salome, Joanna, and still others whose names remain unknown.

As they approached the gravesite the women realized they faced a rather large obstacle - the stone that sealed the tomb - and wondered among themselves who would be able to roll it aside so they could enter and finish their heavy-hearted labor of love.

And this is where details become a little confused and confusing.

But think of it in these terms: Have you ever heard a group of excited people describe a heart-stopping event which all had experienced together? Each tells the story from his or her own perspective and all accounts will differ in details, but all will agree on the major facts of what happened.

In the end the core is solid. Jesus, lived, died, and lived again. Or as Paul wrote years later to his Corinthian friends, "Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, was buried, and was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures."

We today need to understand that the Gospel writers were not writing history, news, or biography as we think of or define it. They were writing to tell people the Good News about Jesus to encourage them to trust in him as God's Son and our Redeemer.

And just as the reality of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection had transformed their lives, giving them eternal hope, so it continues to give life and hope to countless multitudes, as it has for over two thousand years.

There is no suggestion the Gospel writers wrote anything that was false, but they were less concerned about chronology and agreement in every little detail (except perhaps Luke) than in telling the great story of God's intervention in history to save a lost and dying race of men. In that matter, they were all in agreement on the main facts presented. And any questions you or I may have will be resolved by the Lord himself when we get to ask him.

The stone was certainly rolled away that day, not so much that Jesus could get out as that witnesses could get in and see things for themselves.

And just as a host of angels heralded Jesus' birth, angelic beings were actively involved in the events of this, the greatest day in the history of the world, clothed in dazzling white raiment and startling all who encountered them.

So what did these heavenly beings have to say to these first awestruck witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth? In its simplest form they said, "Jesus is risen. Now go and tell the others."

I do like Luke's account of their message, though: "Why do you seek the living among the dead?" I can almost sense a bit of angelic humor in the question, as if they were somewhat amused at these mortals who seem not to have been paying attention to Jesus at times, even though he had plainly told them beforehand. The angels continued, "He is risen as he said. Don't you remember how he told you all of this?"

And how did the women respond? Probably as you and I would have: They ran in a combination of fear and joy to tell the others. Somewhere along the way a few encountered Jesus himself and fell before him in wonder and worship.

Mary Magdalene raced to get Peter and John, telling them the body was gone and that she had no idea where it had been taken or by whom.

The guards ran, too - straight to the chief priests where they all cooked up a story of how Jesus' disciples stole the body during the night as they slept, a tale which continues even to this day.

And how did the disciples receive this momentous and wonderful news? Not very well initially; they didn't believe the women. But after hearing Mary Magdalene, Peter and John raced to the tomb, John arriving first, but only looking in. Upon his arrival Peter barged in, John in tow, where together they gazed upon the burial shroud and the face cloth folded neatly by itself.

As Peter and John returned home, Mary lingered, weeping at the tomb. Stooping down to look inside she encountered two angels in white, one sitting at the head and the other at the foot of the place where Jesus' body had rested.

They asked her, "Why are you weeping?" To which she replied, "They have taken away my Lord and I don't know where." She then turned and saw Jesus, but she didn't recognize him.

People question, "How could she possibly not have recognized Jesus?" There are a number of possibilities, actually.

He may have been standing in the long shadows of the morning and not easily recognizable. Perhaps Mary's tears had so clouded her vision that she was unable to see clearly. Maybe it was that women of that time would not look a strange man directly in the face. The same holds true in many Middle Eastern cultures to this day.

Or, just as in other cases that day, Jesus was not recognized until he did something so familiar - such as breaking bread for a meal, telling fishermen where to cast their nets, or simply speaking someone's name in a familiar manner. It may be one of these, it may be none of these. But it really doesn't matter, does it?

Jesus asked, "Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?"

She thinks he's the gardener, so she says to him, "If you took him, please tell me where and I'll take him away."

I'm not quite sure how Mary thought she would carry the corpse of Jesus away, but her determination showed the depth of her devotion.

Then Jesus spoke her name in a way she must have heard countless times: "Mary."

She suddenly realizes who he is and cries with overwhelming joy, "Teacher!"

Jesus then tells her, "Go, and tell my brothers."

Now stop and think about that for a moment: "Go and tell my brothers." Brothers. How measureless Jesus' love for his disciples that he would call them his "brothers." At one time he may have referred to them as his "servants." On the night he was arrested he called them "friends." But on this, the day of his triumph, he called them "my brothers."

Overcome with joy Mary runs to tell the eleven, "I have seen the Lord!"

Luke records another appearance of Jesus that day, one of my personal favorites. It happened to two travelers on the road to Emmaus as they were journeying home. Sad and perplexed, they were walking along discussing the events of the past few days when Jesus joins them, traveling incognito.

He asked them why they seem so sad and they tell him of the recent happenings in Jerusalem, of their dashed hopes in the crucifixion of the one they believed was the Messiah, and of the strange accounts of an empty tomb, angelic encounters, and reports that the one in whom they had placed their hopes was yet alive.

As they journeyed, Jesus told them this was all necessary and began to expound the Scriptures to them. Upon their arrival in Emmaus the travelers invited Jesus to stay the night with them and as they sat down to dine, he took the bread and blessed it, upon which they suddenly recognized him.

Then he vanished.

They said to each other, "Did our hearts not burn within us as he talked with us along the way and as he opened to us the Scriptures?" Forgetting their hunger they raced back to Jerusalem where they found the disciples exclaiming, "The Lord has really risen and appeared to Peter!"

Then Jesus showed up.

The doors were locked and the windows were closed because the disciples were in hiding from the authorities who were determined to wipe out this troublesome threat to the status quo.

And then he was just - there.

As if he had never been away he simply said, "Shalom." Peace be to you. Seeing their astonishment he said, "It really is me. Handle me; see for yourselves. A spirit doesn't have flesh and bones as I do."

He then showed them the wounds in his hands and side to demonstrate that he was no apparition. Asking for something to eat he consumed it in their presence while he expounded the Scriptures to them as he did for the travelers to Emmaus.

Luke writes, "He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, 'Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.'"

But not everyone was present. When Thomas, who had not been there for Jesus' appearance, was told about the resurrection, he asserted he would not believe until he himself saw the wounds and put his own hands on them. Eight days later Jesus accommodated him.

It must have been for these disciples as if they were drinking from a firehose; there was so much to absorb. Perhaps as a relief, Peter, James, and John took the others on an overnight fishing expedition where they caught nothing until Jesus showed up on shore and told them where to cast. Then he met them on land and served up a breakfast he himself had prepared for them.

Not everyone was convinced however. On a mountain in Galilee he met with The Eleven. Perhaps this was where Paul told us that Jesus was seen by over 500 at once, though we really don't know. Regardless, some people worshiped and some doubted. Just like today.

Throughout his post-resurrection appearances Jesus instructed his followers to go and tell others about him and what he had done - what we call The Great Commission.

After forty days it was time for him to return to the place from whence he had come. So he led his followers as far as Bethany on the Mount of Olives where the disciples asked him if the kingdom was about to arrive. He told them this was all in the Father's hands and that their task was to be his witnesses from Jerusalem to the farthest reaches of the earth.

With that, he ascended into the heavens and disappeared into the clouds. As the disciples stood there in amazement, two men in white said to them, "Men of Galilee, why are you standing here staring up into heaven? This same Jesus whom you have seen go into heaven will return in the same way you saw him go."

And, as they say, the rest is history.

So, what does this all mean for us? Actually, a lot of things, but we'll focus on only a few.

First, none of this is myth. These are actual historical events. Jesus was a real human being who lived, died, and lived again. Don't get your information from the Discovery Channel, the History Channel, or even the National Geographic Channel. They often get things wrong and sometimes purposely so.

Dr. Sam Lamerson of Knox Theological Seminary once said, "Christianity is based on historical events that can be verified, archaeologically and literarily."

Paul Maier, professor emeritus of ancient history at Western Michigan University, has said that historians cannot prove things like Jesus' resurrection from the dead (How can you prove a miracle?), but they can validate the facts that point to it . . . Even sources hostile to the message of Jesus and the resurrection testify that his heavily-guarded tomb was empty that morning.

Simon Greenleaf, a former professor at Harvard Law School literally wrote the book on legal evidence, which set the standard for decades and was re-printed through sixteen editions. After applying those legal principles to the Gospels he wrote a book - The Testimony of the Evangelists: The Gospel Examined by the Rules of Evidence. Based upon those rules of evidence he found the Gospel accounts to be reliable.

The Apostle Peter himself wrote: "We did not follow cleverly disguised myths . . . but we were eyewitnesses."

Second, this was all God's plan to rescue us from our sins and their deadly consequences. Jesus himself said it was "necessary."

But why was it necessary? It was necessary because he alone could bear all our sin, all our guilt, all our shame, and take it away. He alone could endure the fury of divine judgment to rescue us from that judgment.

And the work he accomplished is full and complete; we can add nothing of any kind to it. We can only receive it as the free gift it is. And the living Christ offers eternal life and hope to all who will come to him in repentance and faith. None will be refused.

Third, the purpose of the Gospel accounts is that men hear them, read them, and be saved. In fact, that's exactly what John says about his Gospel account: "These [things] are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name."

And what has been written isn't even all that could have been written. Again, going back to John, who would later write, "That . . . which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands . . . that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you," this same John also wrote near the end of his Gospel account, "Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book."

Someday we'll get to hear those stories, too.

Fourth, Jesus the risen Lord is coming back one day to gather his redeemed and judge his enemies and the enemies of his followers.

At his ascension, as already noted, the two men in white told the disciples, "This same Jesus whom you have seen go into heaven will return in the same way you saw him go."

With a cry of command, the voice of an archangel, and the sound of the trumpet of God, graves will burst open, the dead in Christ will arise, and those believers who are alive will be caught up together with them to meet the Lord in the air, to live with him forever in his eternal kingdom.

The remainder of mankind, those who have refused the remedy for sin and death which he obtained at terrible cost, will be cast into outer darkness. There they will exist - not live - in unending conscious suffering, weeping and wailing and gnashing their teeth.

It would be wise to be prepared. Are you ready?

Finally, Jesus is risen. Now go tell others. Their very lives depend

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