Topical Scripture: Matthew 28:1–10
The world watched last week as the historic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris burned. Two-thirds of the structure was destroyed, though the iconic twin towers were saved. Priceless artifacts were rescued as well. More than $1 billion has been contributed so far to the rebuilding effort.
I have been to similar structures around the world. The Westminster Cathedral in London, the Sistine Chapel in Rome, the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem—each is an awe-inspiring experience.
But here’s the good news: each and every one of them could be destroyed and the church would still be the church. Every church building on the planet—including our beautiful chapel—could burn down and the church would remain.
That’s because the church is not a church. And a church is not a building.
It took three centuries for the church to gain the legal status to own buildings. That’s why the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, began in AD 327, is the world’s oldest church structure. If you had asked an early Christian, “Where is the church?” she would not have known how to answer your question. It would be like asking, “Where is the Republican Party?” or “Where is the pro-life movement?”
The church is not a building but a movement—not an institution but an army that marches on its knees to bring the kingdom to the world.
And it’s why the church did not begin in a cathedral but in a tomb—an empty tomb.
Today we celebrate the fact that Jesus is risen indeed. When we’re done with our study of God’s word, I believe you’ll see why that news is the best news the world has ever heard. And why it’s the news your soul needs today.
Come to the tomb
Let’s walk through our text verse by verse.
The narrative begins: “Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb” (v. 1). The “other Mary” was the mother of one of Jesus’ followers. On Good Friday they had watched as Jesus was buried and thus knew its location.
“And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and rolled back the stone and sat on it” (v. 2). This was a “mega” earthquake caused by the angel as he rolled back the massive stone that had been used by Pontius Pilate to seal the tomb. Then he “sat on it,” demonstrating his power over Rome’s power and authority.
“His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men” (vv. 3–4). These were battle-hardened guards who faced execution if they allowed the tomb to be unsealed. They clearly had never faced power like this. The ones assigned to guard a dead man appear to be dead while he is alive.
“But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay'” (vv. 5–6). Jesus had already risen from the grave. The angel did not roll aside the stone so he could leave the tomb, but so we could go in. So we could “come, see the place where he lay.”
“Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you into Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you” (v. 7). He is not only risen from the dead—he is still present with the living.
“So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples” (v. 8). Obedience is always the proper response to revelation. “And behold, Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him” (v. 9). Revelation leads to obedience, which leads to an encounter with Jesus, which leads to worship.
“Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me” (v. 10). His resurrection was for them and Jesus’ brothers and disciples, and through them, for the world.
So, here’s what we know: on Easter Sunday, Jesus tomb was empty, with no natural explanation. The grave was left clutching the clothes which had enshrouded his dead corpse, because he is alive.
The disciples did not overpower the battle-hardened guards, steal the body, then die for a lie. The women did not commit such a crime, either. They didn’t go to the wrong tomb—the Roman authorities would have pointed out the right tomb. The authorities didn’t steal the body, or they would have produced it as soon as Christians began preaching the resurrection.
His resurrection was not a hallucination—five hundred people saw him, and five hundred people do not have the same hallucination. Jesus didn’t fake his death, survive three days in a mummified, airtight shroud, shove aside the massive stone, overpower the Roman guards, appear through locked doors, then do the greatest high jump at the ascension.
There is literally no explanation for the empty grave except that he is risen indeed.
Why did he rise from the grave?
Here’s our question today: why? Why did Jesus have to rise from the dead?
Before he died on the cross, he told the thief at his right side, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). As he died, he told his Father, “Into your hands I commit my spirit!” (v. 46).
He came to die for our sins and accomplished that purpose when he died. In the moment of his death, he was in paradise with his Father. While his friends buried his corpse in Joseph’s tomb, he was in the presence of the King of glory.
Why, then, did he come back to earthly life? What happened at the empty tomb?
Jesus proved that he is God. We can visit the graves of Muhammad, Confucius, and other religious leaders around the world and find them occupied. When we visit the grave of Jesus, it is empty.
He proved that his word is true. If he is divine, his word is divinely inspired.
And he proved that because he won, we win.
At the empty tomb, Satan lost. John’s Gospel tells us that the devil inspired Judas Iscariot to betray Jesus (John 13:27). At the cross, he and his minions must have been rejoicing. They were certain that they had executed the Son of God and quashed his movement on earth. But on Easter Sunday, at the empty tomb, they lost and Jesus won.
The religious authorities lost. They were certain at the cross that they had arranged for the death of this would-be Messiah and stopped his movement that threatened their authority and prestige. But on Easter Sunday, at the empty tomb, they lost and Jesus won.
Rome lost. Pilate was certain that Jesus’ crucifixion would end his life and threat to Rome’s power and authority. But on Easter Sunday, at the empty tomb, the mightiest power the world had ever seen lost and Jesus won.
Because Jesus won, we win.
I was a missionary in East Malaysia on the island of Borneo while in college. In one of the churches, I watched a teenage girl being baptized. I noticed a set of threadbare luggage against the wall and asked my interpreter whose it was. He pointed to the girl and explained that her father told her if she was ever baptized as a Christian, she could never return home. So she brought her luggage.
In Singapore, I met a young boy whose father beat him whenever he came to church. The missionaries asked him why he stayed at home and he explained, “If I leave home, my father won’t hear about Jesus.”
I have been working for two decades with a pastor in Cuba who turned down the chance to be the starting third baseman on their national baseball team to become a Baptist pastor in a tiny town. That’s going from rock star status in Cuba to one of the most persecuted, despised jobs in the country. Last year, through its national ministries, his church shared the gospel with more than sixty-eight thousand people.
A dear friend of mine named Abraham Sarker came to America from Bangladesh as a Muslim, seeking to convert Americans to Islam. Through a dramatic conversion experience, he became a Christian. He risked prison and worse to return to Bangladesh, where he won his family to Christ and established a ministry. Last year, it led more than ten thousand Muslims to Christ.
What made the difference in each of their stories? An empty tomb.
If the empty tomb can defeat Satan and the greatest authorities of their day, it can defeat Satan and the greatest threats we face today. Bring your temptations to the empty tomb and find there the power to defeat Satan. Bring your challenges and find power. Bring your grief and find life. Bring your fears and find faith.
Let’s go to the empty tomb together. There we will find that Jesus “is risen indeed.”
This is the promise and the invitation of God.