A. The Cross and Easter
The cross is the most recognizable religious symbol on earth. It appears as jewelry, in logos, on buildings, in cemeteries, and in countless other places. Some churches often use a cross with Jesus included, called a crucifix. Other churches prefer an empty cross, symbolizing that Jesus’ work on the cross is finished. Still other churches favor another symbol: an image of the risen Christ over the cross. This reflects an understanding that while Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on the cross is essential to our salvation, it is His resurrection that validates that work and completes His mission on earth.
This week’s lesson is for Resurrection Sunday(Easter). This has been celebrated by the church since her earliest days as the central event in all of human history. We will explore what it means to be a witness to the risen Christ and how such witnesses have continuing significance for us today.
B. Lesson Background
After His resurrection, Jesus appeared to some people but not to others. Why was that? We may not understand this completely, but the New Testament does give us some clues. First, we can see that Jesus appeared only to believers. There was no appearance to Pontius Pilate, to Cai-aphas, or to the Roman emperor, as dramatic and powerful as such appearances might have been. He did appear to large groups, one group estimated by Paul to have been over 500 in number. But Paul calls these people brethren, meaning “fellow believers” (1 Corinthians 15:6). There-fore, the required condition to receive a visit from the risen Christ was faith.
The one possible exception to this first item(the condition of faith) was Jesus’ startling appearance to Saul (later called Paul) on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). Yet the occasion was clear: Jesus had decided that this was the proper time to call this man of zeal to His service. Paul was a “chosen vessel” for the Lord (Acts 9:15).
Second, we see that Christ alone determined the occasions for His appearances. There was never a sense of Christ appearing at someone’s command, like conjuring up a demon or a genie. Third, the general purpose for Christ’s appearances is also clear: He made himself known to those whom
He wanted to be witnesses for Him. His parting words to the gathered disciples be-fore His ascension served to commission them as “witnesses unto me” (Acts 1:8), meaning able to testify that Jesus was truly risen from the dead. A necessary qualification for replacing Judas as one of the 12 apostles was that the candidate be “a witness with us of his resurrection” (Acts 1:22).A central person in today’s lesson is Mary Mag-dalene. After her early morning encounter with the risen Lord, she went “and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord” (John 20:18). The many such witnesses to the resurrection are what give us confidence that Jesus really did rise from the grave and that He has the power to save us from death.
John’s account of the events of the Sunday morning of the resurrection of Jesus is full of unique details. One of these distinctive aspects is John’s interest in the role of Mary Magdalene on that glorious morning. Luke records that Mary was an early follower of Jesus, having been delivered by Him from demon possession (Luke 8:2).
In John, she is first introduced as one of several women who maintained a vigil at the cross (John19:25). We can appreciate her great love for the one who freed her from spiritual bondage. We sympathize with her extreme anguish in seeing His suffering and death on a Roman cross. The commitment of Mary to her Lord can be seen in that she was not just one of the last at the cross but also the first at the tomb. When most of the male disciples abandoned Jesus, Mary and the other women kept the deathwatch without regard to personal danger. While others slept on Sunday morning, Mary arose before daybreak to go to the tomb and finish the proper preparations of Jesus’ corpse.
Upon arrival, Mary found the tomb open and empty, and she ran to Peter to report this. John makes it clear that she believed someone had re-moved Jesus’ body (John 20:1, 2, 13, 14). As we study today’s lesson, we experience Mary’s crushing agony upon tier discovery of the empty tomb and her mighty joy when she encounters her risen Lord. We share her emotions on this great day.
I. Death Is Unlocked (Revelation 1:12a, 17, 18)
The book of Revelation is made up of a series of visions experienced by the apostle John while exiled on the prison island of Patmos. John signals to the reader the beginning of a new vision by writing that he is “in the Spirit” (Revelation1:10; also 4:2; 17:3; 21:10). His first vision is of the risen Christ, whom he hears before he sees(1:10-12). This vision includes a description of the Lord that is both awe-inspiring and full of allusions to the Old Testament.
A. Paralyzing Fear of Death (vv. 12a, 17)
12a, 17. And I turned to see the voice that spake with me…. And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead. And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the first and the last.
We can easily understand the reaction of John. He is experiencing Jesus in all His heavenly glory. This includes a trumpet-like voice (Revelation 1:10). He sees eyes that bum like fire (1:14)and Jesus’ countenance glowing like the sun(1:16). John is understandably filled with fear. Jesus taught that this fear is completely justified, for God is the one with ultimate power over a person’s eternal destiny (Matthew 10:28). Fear of God is expected of everyone (Revelation 15:4).John undoubtedly remembers a similar experience of over 60 years earlier, when he was one of three disciples allowed to witness the transfiguration of Jesus. The disciples had fallen down in fear (Matthew 17:6). At that time of deadly terror, Jesus’ words had been, “Be not afraid” (Matthew17:7). Here again, Jesus lays a comforting hand on the cowering John and tells him, “Fear not!” His life is not in danger. ‘See quest ion Se 1 page 280
B. Encouraging Freedom from Death (v. 18)
18.I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.
Jesus gives John three powerful reasons not to fear. punctuating them with an amen (meaning “this is true”). First, Jesus reminds John of the event that changed history: Jesus’ resurrection. John was likely one of those who helped takedown Jesus’ body from the cross. John was standing right there when the soldier pierced Jesus’ side (John 19:34, 35). John knew, beyond any shadow of doubt, that Jesus’ body had been de-void of all life. Yet he had also witnessed Jesus alive again. Jesus was dead. but God did nota bandon Hint in the grave (Acts 2:31, 32).Second, Jesus was raised to eternal life. The Bible tells of several people who were brought back to life after dying (example: Lazarus in John11). We assume, however, that all of these people eventually died a natural death again. Jesus’ resurrection is quite different! He was truly dead, His body lying inert in the grave for days. When He came back to life, it was to be alive for ever-more. (See question #2. page 281,1
Third, Jesus tells John that He has the keys to unlock the strongholds of death. The word hell as used in this verse does not necessarily refer to the place of ultimate punishment, the lake of fire(Revelation 20:10, 14). It is probably a general reference to the place of the dead, called bodesby Greeks and sheol by Jews. To have the keys of death means that Jesus is able to lead us from death to life eternal. In this Jesus is the “captain” or pioneer of our salvation (Hebrews 2:10; 12:2),the one who has blazed the trail from death to life that we may follow.
When we as believers read these words, we should rejoice. Death has no power over us. We have been rescued from death and from the fear of death by Jesus, our Savior (Hebrews 2:15).Truly, we can sing with the apostle Paul, “Death is swallowed up in victory!” (1 Corinthians15:54). I See question #3, page 280.1
NOT A NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCE, BUT A . . .Near-death experiences have been reported by many people. One devout Christian woman relates two such experiences. In both cases she had suffered a deep vein thrombosis that required emergency medical treatment to save her life. She tells of entering into a brilliant room where everything was intensely peaceful and where she was immersed in heavenly music.
These kinds of stories share similar themes. The book 90 Minutes in Heaven is the story of a Christian minister who was the victim of a horrendous, head-on crash with a semitrailer truck. Rescue personnel found no pulse and declared him dead. Another minister arrived on the scene and prayed for him. Ninety minutes after the crash, the “dead” man showed signs of life and eventually recovered. During those 90 minutes, he as himself at the gates of Heaven, surrounded by friends and relatives welcoming him home, but he was turned assay before he could enter!
Do these stories reveal what actually happened, or do they merely describe the vivid imaginings of oxygen-starved brain cells? Regardless of what we make of these stories, they testify to the faith of Christians. Their faith is in the Lord who had not a near-death experience but a through-death experience. Our Lord is now alive forever. Death could not hold Him, and He has the keys to our death as well
II. Christ Is Risen(John 20:11-16)
The second Scripture for this week’s lesson also comes from the apostle John. But this one is from his Gospel account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. These verses focus on that momentous morning that inaugurated a new era for God’s people.
A. Weeping Without Christ (vv. 11-13)
11.But Mary stood without at the sepulcher weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre.
Mary had visited the tomb before dawn, found the tomb empty, returned to tell Peter, and then came back to the sepulchre herself. This is a moving, emotional time for Mary. Her grief brings tears and sobs. She is weeping because the shock of Jesus’ missing body has rekindled all of the sorrow she felt at His death. It appears that she even has been denied the opportunity to do a final service to her Lord: full preparation of His body for its final rest.
12.And seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain.
This type of tomb is not like the graves that we find in our cemeteries today. This one is a small room carved into the limestone hillside. In this cave-like room, there probably are several helves or niches to lay newly deceased bodies. After a body is deposited, such a tomb is sealed with a large stone that has been shaped to fit the entrance snugly. The Gospels tell us that this particular tomb belongs to Joseph of Arimathea (Matthew 27:57-60) and that it has never been used for burial.
Looking inside, Mary sees something she does not expect: two angels. These visitors have just appeared because Peter and John found nothing in the tomb but empty grave linens, and then they went home (John 20:3-10). The appearance of these two angels thus is specially designed for Mary’s benefit.
13. And they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? She saith unto them, Because they have taken away my Lord. and I know not where they have laid him.
The angels know what Mary doesn’t: that this is a time for rejoicing, not weeping. Mary weeps because the great crush of events has over-whelmed her. Her master has been disgraced and executed as a common criminal. And now the final insult has come: His body has been taken away.
Mary’s sorrow is so deep that she cannot even marvel at an angel manifestation. She can think only of one thing: find the missing body of her dead Lord, Jesus, and rescue it from those who would desecrate it.
B. Meeting the Risen Christ (vv. 14, 15)
And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus.
Getting no answer from the angels (or perhaps not caring even to wait for an answer), Mary turns away from the entrance of the tomb. She is determined to find Jesus’ body. Yet in the dim: fight of the dawn, she encounters another per-son. She finds Jesus’ body but not in the way she expects.
15.Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where than Nast laid him, and I will take him away.
The combination of Mary’s extreme grief, tears that cloud her eyesight, and the scant light of early morning combine to prevent her from recognizing Jesus. He repeats the question of the an-gels, why weepest thou?
Mary, supposing him to be the gardener, asks the only question that seems reasonable at the time. Perhaps Jesus’ body has been stolen. Or perhaps this gardener has moved it for some good reason. But neither idea is correct.
C. Recognizing the Risen Christ (v. 16)
16. Jesus with unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master.
Knowing that Mary has not recognized Him, Jesus speaks her name in a personal, revealing way. It all comes to her in a rush: Jesus is not dead! This is her Lard, her Master speaking to her. The realization of a split second changes her life forever.
Notice that Mary does not find the living Christ because of her seeking (remember: she is looking for a dead Christ). Rather, the living Christ finds her! This has huge significance for us today. The risen Jesus is alive still and is still seeking disciples. Jesus said He came to “seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). If we make ourselves available, call on His name, and follow the biblical plan of salvation, Jesus finds us and changes us.
We will never be the same when this hap-pens. We can be transformed from death to life(John 5:24). Our great fear of death no longer paralyzes us, for “now is Christ risen from the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:20) and “its Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). Even if we die, we will be raised to eternal life and “so shall we ever be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians4:17).
III. Faith Brings Life(John 20:30, 31)
Have you ever wondered why the Gospels were written? The apostle John now gives his readers a clear statement of his purpose in writing: his purpose is evangelistic.
A. Signs of Jesus (v. 30)
30. And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.
In John signs are the miracles of Jesus (see John 2:23; 4:48). The miracle accounts in John tend to be more extensive and detailed than in the other Gospels. John admits that he has been necessarily selective in choosing which miracles to recount (see John 21:25). How wonderful it would be to learns of some of those unrecorded miracles! Jesus’ earthly life was not one of care-fully chosen good deeds for a public-relations campaign. Rather, it was a pattern of healing and helping wherever He went.
B. Faith in Jesus (v. 31)
31. But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.
In fact, John does indeed tell as why he selects certain miracles and why he writes in general: he does this so that believing ye naught have life through lais notate. John thinks his account of Jesus is adequate to make his case. The careful reader will see in Jesus the one who is God’s Son, sent to redeem humanity (John 3:16). Such a reader will see the Lamb of God who takes away the world’s sin (1:29). Such a reader will see God’s chosen Messiah, who brings living water(4:14). Such a reader will see life and resurrection from the dead (11:25).
The one who believes in Jesus need not fear death, for He has conquered death. Those who believe are called to be faithful, even unto death, for they will receive a crown of life (Revelation2:10). ‘See question #6, page 280.)
BELIEVING THE EVIDENCE
Juan Catalan was charged with the murder of a teenage girl in May 2003. He claimed that he had been with his daughter at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles at the time of the murder, about 20miles from the scene of the crime. Police did not believe him. Catalan had ticket stubs to the game, and family members testified to his innocence. But police had a witness placing Catalanat the murder site. Catalan’s attorney obtained an official Dodger videotape of the game, but Cata-lan couldn’t be identified.
Then the attorney discovered that HBO had also filmed a program at the stadium that evening. In footage that had been cut from the program, one scene clearly showed Catalan and his daughter eating hot dogs. The time codes on the tape were evidence that he had been at the stadium at the time of the murder. Cellphone records placed him near the stadium as well. Nearly six months after Catalan seas jailed, the court threw his case out. Catalan was a free man.
Evidence is important! John wrote his Gospel to offer us evidence about Jesus. John says the evidence establishes the fact, without ambiguity,
A. Seeking a Dead Christ
Some years ago there was a series of documentary programs produced for television entitled The Long Search. The shows examined the origins and beliefs of the world’s great religions, including several varieties of Christianity. The premise of the series was that religion consists of the human search for God. This search turns out differently for different searchers, thus producing diverging faiths. In this way of thinking, religion is largely the product of human imagination and experience.
Biblical faith, at its core, is decidedly different. The Bible is not the record of humanity’s search for God. It is much more the story of God’s search to redeem His lost children. Yet there are those who, like Mary, still search for a dead Christ. Some seek Him as only a historical figure from 2,000 years ago. They find an enigmatic figure, a person very difficult to explain using the standard criteria of history.
Others seek Christ only in the pages of tradition. They see Him as the originator of a great system of ethical teaching: selflessness and ser-vice. Still others seek a Christ that fits their pre-determined needs. They want a Savior according to their expectations, not according to His terms and demands. Therefore they seem to serve a dead Christ. He makes no impact on what they do, how they behave, or their future plans. The great news of Resurrection Sunday is that we serve a risen Savior. He was alive on that morning when Mary visited the tomb. He is alive today and still seeking those who would serve Him, love Him, and be His disciples. As believers we can walk daily with the confidence of Jesus’ presence in our lives. He is not dead! Hallelujah, He is risen indeed!
God, our loving Father, we trust in Your promise that just as You did not abandon Son, Jesus, to the grave, so You will raise us to he with Him on the last day. May You take your natural fear of death and replace it with timely confidence of those who serve a risen Lord. Err pray this in the name of the resurrected Christ-.amen.
C. Thought to Remember