“Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.” (C.S. Lewis)
We should ponder these words of C.S. Lewis — especially today on Easter Sunday, as we consider the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If it didn’t really happen, then it is of NO importance whatsoever; we are all just wasting our time. If it DID happen, then it is of infinite importance; then there is nothing in your life more important than following Jesus. The only thing it must not be is of “medium” importance in our lives — and unfortunately, that is JUST the place that I fear many of us try to give it! We try to fit Jesus in somewhere between baseball and your next hair appointment — and that is just where He can NOT be: He must either be of no importance, or of infinite importance — and each of us needs to ask ourselves today, which will it be for me?
Our passage this morning, Matthew 28, describes the people and circumstances around the resurrection of Jesus. As you look at it, you can see that there is a real variety in the way that the people associated with Jesus’ resurrection here, responded to Him. Some totally blew it off — it was evidently of no importance to them. But others took it seriously, and committed their lives to Him. Let’s look at how these different people responded to Jesus — and how WE should.
I. The Worldly Response
First of all, you have the soldiers who were guarding the tomb of Jesus. These men were virtual eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Christ. They had been put there as guards by the order of Pilate. If you look at the end of Matthew 27 it tells us that after Jesus died, the Jewish leaders came to Pilate and said to him: “Sir, we remember that when He will still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I am to rise again.’ Therefore give orders for the grave to be made secure until the third day, otherwise His disciples may come and steal Him away and say to the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last deception will be worse than the first.” Verse 65 then says that Pilate said to them: “You have a guard; go make it as secure as you know how.” And verse 66 says “And they went and made the grave secure, and along with the guard they set a seal on the stone.”
So these soldiers came by the orders of Pilate, under the instruction of the Jewish leaders, for the specific purpose of making sure that no one messed with that body in the grave.
(By the way, this is one of the greatest evidences for the Resurrection of Jesus: His enemies KNEW in advance what He said He was going to do; they put a seal on the tomb that no one was to disturb but by penalty of death; they put a guard and made it, in Pilate’s words, “as secure as you know how” — it was strongly guarded! They did NOT want anyone to come and take that body and claim that He rose from the dead when He didn’t. But despite all their precautions, and everything they could do humanly to stop it, NOTHING could stop Him, and on the third day, Jesus rose from the dead!
And the Bible tells us here in Matthew 28 that when He rose from the dead, a severe earthquake occurred, and an angel from heaven came and rolled away the stone from the grave (evidently he was not afraid of the Roman seal!) and he sat on it — humiliating it!
And :4 says “the guards shook for fear of him and became like dead men.” These hardened soldiers were petrified with fear at the sight of the angel of the Lord rolling that stone away and basically passed out!
The Bible says that Jesus then appeared to the women, and then :11 says “Now while they were on their way, some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all that had happened. And when they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, and said, ‘You are to say, “His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we were asleep.” And if this should come to the governor’s ears, we will win him over and keep you out of trouble.”
And :15 says: “And they took the money and did as they had been instructed; and this story was widely spread among the Jews, and is to this day.”
The story of these soldiers is a very intriguing one. These men all but saw the resurrection of Jesus: they saw the angel roll the stone away; they KNEW that something amazing had happened — but what was their response? They went and told the corrupt Jewish officials. They took money and told a lie about what had happened. And think about it: they put their trust in these Jewish officials to cover their backs. They were actually going to “tell a lie on themselves”, that they had fallen asleep — which typically brings a death sentence to a soldier — and the Jewish leaders said if Pilate hears about it, “We will win him over and keep you out of trouble.” In other words, “we’ll take care of you.” They put money ahead of truth, and they put their trust in these MEN, instead of in the amazing thing that GOD did that day.
And how many people are like this today: God has obviously done something amazing in Jesus, but many people just choose to ignore it, like those soldiers did, and live for money, and the popularity of MEN instead of the truth of God.
The sad thing is: those soldiers who compromised themselves that day undoubtedly ended up paying a big price for what they did. One day that money was gone. And I guarantee you, I know what happened when the story got back to Pilate: those Jewish leaders did NOT stand up for those guys; they let them take the fall, and they were executed. Because that’s what always happens when we fall for the lies of Satan. Just like we saw last week in the temptations of Jesus in Matthew 4, Satan promises to do all this stuff for us: to make us happy, and get us out of the problem, and give us all this stuff, if we will just compromise what God told us to do — but when we take him up on it, he lets the hammer come down on us, and he laughs because he’s fooled another one! Compromising God’s truth for money on temporary popularity is a foolish trade.
One of my very favorite books, one I have read 3-4 times, is Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad, in which Twain tells the real story of a steamship cruise that he and a number of other passengers took to Europe and the Holy Land just after the Civil War. The book is hilarious for the most part, as Twain just mocks everyone and everything he sees on the trip. But every so often in the book he becomes very reverent. One of those places was at the Cathedral of Milan, Italy, which Twain adored. I’ve shared before about how he just gazed at the outward beauty of that Cathedral. But the story also tells how Twain and his traveling companions also toured inside the Cathedral, and they were brought to the tomb of St. Charles Borromeo, Bishop of Milan. The guide opened the sarcophagus, and Twain wrote: “Within lay the body, robed in costly (garments) covered with gold embroidery and starred with scintillating gems. The decaying head was black with age, the dry skin was drawn tight to the bones, the eyes were gone, there was a hole in the temple and another in the cheek, and the skinny lips were parted as in a ghastly smile! Over this dreadful face, its dust and decay, and its mocking grin, hung a crown sown thick with flashing (jewels); and upon the breast lay crosses … of solid gold that were splendid with emeralds and diamonds. How poor, and cheap, and trivial the (trinkets) seemed in presence of the solemnity … the awful majesty of Death! … Dead Borromeo preached his … sermon: You that worship the vanities of earth – you that long for worldly honour, worldly wealth, worldly fame — behold their worth!” (p. 152-3)
Bishop Borromeo’s rotting corpse reminded Mark Twain and all those with him the real eternal value of money and possessions and popularity. And yet how many of us today are basically selling our souls for these things that won’t even adorn our rotting skeletons? Don’t buy into the lies that Satan promises you. He won’t deliver. Don’t turn your back on what God has done in Jesus Christ, and sell your eternal soul for the temporary treasures, or the fleeting approval of men.
II. The Self-Willed Response
THEN we see the response of the Jewish leaders themselves. These men KNEW so much about what was going on with Jesus. As we saw a moment ago, none of this caught them by surprise; they KNEW what was going to happen. They had heard Jesus. It’s so ironic; often times the enemies of Jesus listened to Him better than His own disciples did. Jesus told His disciples about how He was going to die and then on the 3rd day rise again, and they Bible says the disciples argued among themselves: what does “rising from the dead” mean? (Mark 9:10) But the Jewish leaders got it. They were the ones who went to Pilate after Jesus died and told him that He had said while He was still alive: “After three days I am to rise again.” They KNEW this. They KNEW that He claimed to be the Son of God: when Jesus called God His Father in John 5, they KNEW He was claiming to be “equal with God”; when He said “I and the Father are one” in John 10, they knew He was claiming to be God. They knew all this; some of them may have been among the very ones that King Herod had asked in Matthew 2 where the King of the Jews was to be born, and they were able to tell him: “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it has been written …”. They KNEW all this — and then can you imagine as they listened to the testimony of the guards: “We were sitting there guarding the tomb like you told us to and suddenly there was this great light, and an angel came down from heaven and rolled that stone away …”. But what did they do? With all they knew; with all they’d heard; they STILL didn’t believe. They were still all about: How can we cover this up? How can we make it like this didn’t happen? They were only concerned with keeping their “position” and their power and their own agenda.
And how many people today are like that too? It’s not that they don’t KNOW anything about the resurrection of Jesus; it’s just that they have a personal agenda that is more important to them than the truth about Jesus. They don’t want to give up control of their lives to Him.
Not long ago I was listening to a scientist who was being interviewed on the Eric Metaxas show, and he was talking about the scientific evidence for God. He said there are SO many proofs in our world of a Creator — including the complexity in our DNA that more and more scientists are looking at and saying this could NOT have just “happened”; Someone must have programmed this into us. But he said so MANY scientists just will not admit to the possibility of a Creator — and Metaxas asked him why, and he said it is because they don’t want to have to submit to Him. If there is a God, they would be obligated to follow Him, and to change their lives morally, and they aren’t willing to do that, so they refuse to consider the possibility that He might really exist.
I tell you, these modern scientists are the spiritual heirs of the Jewish religious leaders we find here in the Book of Matthew. These men had SO many of the facts about Jesus, right in front of their own eyes — including the eyewitness testimony of the guards they themselves commissioned — but they just were not willing to submit their lives to God’s Messiah Jesus.
And how many people are just like them. Their rejection of Jesus is not based on any “evidence”. The evidence is there. There is a great movie out right now, “The Case For Christ”, that is based on the true story of the legal editor of the Chicago Tribune, Lee Strobel, whose wife became a Christian. He didn’t like that, so he set out to disprove the resurrection of Jesus to her. Strobel had been told that Christianity stand or falls with the resurrection of Jesus; just disprove that, and you will have her beat. He thought it would take a quick weekend of research, but after two years of journalistic-style investigation he wrote a book: The Case For Christ, which details how he discovered that a serious examination of the evidence points conclusively to the reality of the resurrection of Jesus — and how he himself then gave his life to Jesus as his Lord & Savior too! That’s not just movie; that is true story!
No, those who reject Christ don’t do it because there is no evidence. They do it because like those religious leaders, they are unwilling to submit their lives to the claims of God upon them. They choose to ignore the evidence that is right before their eyes, to keep their self-willed control over their own lives.
III. The Disciples’ Response
But there is a third set of people here in Matthew 28, the genuine disciples of Jesus: both the two women who first went out to the tomb, and those they ran and told. The Bible says these people really responded positively to the resurrection of Jesus:
— when the two woman saw Jesus, it says they came up and took hold of His feet and worshiped Him — and having been given the good news of His resurrection, they RAN to go tell the other disciples, and they did.
— and :16 says that having been informed, the disciples then obeyed the word that Jesus had given them, by going out to the mountain in Galilee which Jesus had designated.
— significantly, when these disciples saw Jesus alive, they worshiped Him too
— and when He had given them the command to go and make disciples of all the nations, they DID. In the succeeding days they took the gospel to the city and the desert and to Syria and Turkey and Europe and Rome and India.
These people all LEFT whatever it was that they were doing, to follow Jesus, because He was alive. They had other places they could be; other things they could be doing. But if Jesus was really alive, nothing else really mattered; it called for their total commitment to Him.
— If Jesus was alive, there was no more important place they could go.
— If Jesus was alive there was no more important person for them to see
— If Jesus was alive, there was nothing more important they needed to do.
These disciples were totally committed to Jesus — and if He really rose from the dead, they were right. If He really rose from the dead, then there is no one and nothing more important to be committed to. And history tells us that almost every one of these disciples went to their deaths, testifying that they had seen Jesus alive — and even under torture, there is not a single record of any ONE of them denying it — one of the strongest arguments for the truth of the resurrection of Christ. He was alive — and it made a huge impact on the lives of His disciples.
All of which should challenge us today too. If Jesus is really alive, then it should make a huge impact on the way you live.
— For starters, if Jesus is really alive, then you need to follow Him. You need to commit your life to Him. C.S. Lewis wrote in his book Mere Christianity that you have to realize: Jesus did not claim merely to be a good man or a great teacher; He claimed to be GOD; risen from the dead. He said you’ve either got to shut Him up as a lunatic, drive Him away as a demon — or you need to fall at His feet and call Him your Lord & God. There is no in between. If the resurrection of Jesus is real, you need to repent of your rebellion against God today and turn to follow Jesus from this day forward as your Lord & Savior.
— But then if you do claim to be a follower of Christ, you show in so many areas of your life, whether you really believe He is alive. If Jesus is alive, then just like the Bible repeatedly says the disciples did, you are going to worship Him. You are going to spend time with Him every day in your own personal worship time, and you will make time to come and worship Him with other believers too.
— One of the most telling things ways you show whether you really believe in the resurrection of Jesus is by your attitude towards death. How do you face death? How do you face the loss of loved ones who knew the Lord? If Jesus is “the resurrection and the life” like we say we believe He is, then it should make a difference in the way we face death.
I Thessalonians 4:13 says of Christians who have had loved ones pass away: “We do not grieve like those who have no hope.” If we really believe in the resurrection of Jesus, then although we surely grieve because we will miss them, yet “we don’t grieve like those who have no hope” — we know because of the resurrection of Christ that we will see them again. Do we act like that — or do we act more like those who have no hope?
John Chrysostom of Syria, who lived in the 300’s A.D. is considered to be one of the greatest preachers who had ever lived. One of his most famous sermons was entitled: “On Excessive Grief at the Death of Friends.” In it he chastised the members of his congregation for the way they acted at funerals of Christian loved ones:
“Believe me, I am ashamed and blush to see unbecoming groups of women pass along the mart, tearing their hair, cutting their arms and cheeks — and all this under the eyes of the Greeks. For what will they not say? What will they not declare concerning us? ‘Are these the men who reason about a resurrection? Indeed! How poorly their actions agree with their opinions! In words, they reason about a resurrection; but they act just like those who do NOT acknowledge a resurrection. If they fully believed in a resurrection they would not act thus; if they had really persuaded themselves that a deceased friend had departed to a better state, they would not thus mourn.’ These things and more than these, the unbelievers say when they hear these lamentations.”
Those words of John Chrysostom are convicting: “How poorly their actions agree with their opinions! In WORDS they reason about a resurrection; but they ACT just like those who do NOT acknowledge a resurrection.” Of how many of us today could the very same thing be said, that in so many ways, We SAY we believe in the resurrection of Christ; but we don’t ACT like it!
— We SAY we believe that Jesus rose from the dead and is the Living Savior, King of Kings and Lord of Lords — but we ACT like He’s not any more important than any of the other activities we have going in our lives — and sometimes LESS. How many times do we put sports, and politics, and business, and everything else under the sun ahead of our worship and service of the One we SAY we believe rose from the dead and reigns as King of Kings?!
— We SAY we believe that Jesus rose from the dead, to forgive our sins and give us fellowship with Him — but then we don’t actually rise up from our beds in the morning to spend time with Him!
— We SAY we believe that Jesus rose from the dead, and that whoever follows Him will have eternal life — but then we never TELL anyone about it!
— We SAY we believe that Jesus rose from the dead with power to forgive the sins of those who follow Him, and to Judge the sins of the world — but we live like Jesus doesn’t care whether we sin or not, and just continue on thoughtlessly in the same sins.
— We SAY we believe Jesus rose from the dead, and that we will live with Him eternally in His Kingdom in Heaven, and this world and everything in it is just temporary and is passing way — but then we live like it’s all about money and homes and cars and clothes, and “whoever has the most toys wins” here on earth, instead of investing our resources in the eternity we SAY we believe in.
What do you really believe about the resurrection of Jesus? You don’t have to tell me this morning. You don’t have to pass along some post on Facebook, or Twitter, to show me what you really believe about Jesus:
— Your LIFE shows what you really believe
— Your CHECKBOOK shows what you really believe
— Your SCHEDULE shows what you really believe
What does YOUR life say about what you really believe about the resurrection of Jesus?
Dikkon Eberhart is the author of the book I mentioned last week: The Time Mom Met Hitler, Frost Came To Dinner, and I Heard The Greatest Story Ever Told. In it he tells how he grew up in a home with a father who was the Poet Laureate of the United States right after Robert Frost, and he describes his own life-long journey towards faith, from basically being agnostic in his upbringing, to first becoming a liberal Reformed Jew, and then a more conservative Orthodox Jew. Never really finding the forgiveness of sin he was looking for in all these places, he started attending a little Baptist church across the street from where he lived in Maine. One day he was walking on the beach, and he was talking to his Jewish daughter about what God was doing in his life.. She was upset that he might even be considering following Jesus, but he was trying to tell her just how serious the implications of Jesus were for him and others. He said: “I’m thinking that maybe Christ really existed. If He did, then I can’t just say, ‘Oh well, what’s for dinner?’ I have to say, ‘What does that mean?'” (p. 278)
And folks, every one of us here today needs to do the same thing. We can’t just come up here on Easter Sunday morning, and say we believe that Jesus is alive — and then go home and say “What’s for dinner?” Like Mr. Eberhart, we have to ask ourselves: is this really true? Did Jesus really rise from dead? And if He did, then what does it mean? What SHOULD it mean — for you, and for the way you live your life? How should you respond to the resurrection of Jesus?