The Church Is Not a Building

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.

Why Did Jesus Have to Die on the Cross?

Topical Scripture: Acts 10:38–41

Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks told a capacity crowd at the American Airlines Center last Wednesday night that he is retiring the NBA.

Nowitzki was undoubtedly one of the greatest players in NBA history: a league champion and Finals MVP, league MVP, fourteen-time all-star, and the sixth-leading scorer of all time. He played twenty-one years with the same franchise, which is a record as well.

But the adulation he has received in Dallas and across basketball is about much more than what he did on the court.

While Dirk’s salary was lucrative, he took pay cuts so his team could try to sign other players. He cared about the locker room attendants wherever the Mavericks played. His many unpublicized hospital trips to visit children (who called him “Uncle Dirk”) were just part of his commitment to his community.

At his last home game, five of his basketball heroes came to Dallas to pay him homage. The standing-room-only crowd showered him with ovation after ovation. Owner Mark Cuban promised him a job for life and a huge statue in front of the arena.

For all he has meant to basketball and to our community, we hope he will never wonder if the community loves him in return.

Today is Palm Sunday. We’re one week from Easter. Each week we’ve been asking the “whys” of this season. Why was Jesus born as a baby rather than merely coming to earth as an adult? Why did he have to die for us? Next week we’ll ask, why did he have to be raised from the dead?

Our question today is: Why did Jesus have to die on the cross? Of all the ways he could have died for our sins, why the cruelest, most horrible form of torture ever devised?

When we understand the answer, no matter who we are and what we’ve done, we’ll never again need to wonder if God loves us.

Why did Jesus have to die?

Let’s begin by remembering why he had to die at all.

Last week, we learned that because God is holy and heaven is perfect, the debt of our sins must be paid before we can enter his paradise. Since sin removes us from God, the only source of eternal life, the consequence of sin is death. Thus, someone must die to pay our debt.

But since we’re all sinners, we cannot pay each other’s debt. Only a sinless person could do that. And Jesus is the only sinless person who has ever lived (Hebrews 4:15).

Thus, he had to die to pay the debt we owed in order for us to be forgiven and given eternal life with God. As the chorus says, “He paid a debt he did not owe; I owed a debt I could not pay.”

But why did Jesus have to die in the way he did? The Jews executed by stoning, as we see with Stephen; the Romans executed their citizens by beheading, as with Paul.

Why did Jesus have to suffer the cruelest, most horrific form of death ever devised?

Jesus’ death fulfilled prophecy

The word of God predicted the manner of Jesus’ death a thousand years before it happened.

In Psalm 22, David wrote these words: “Dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet” (Psalm 22:16). Note that he made this statement five centuries before the Persians invented crucifixion.

So, Jesus died on the cross to fulfill prophecy. But why did the Spirit author this prophecy?

Why did the Father decide that his Son must die in this way? If he simply needed to die for our sins, the Lord could have predicted his death by stoning, beheading, or any number of other means. Why this?

The nature of crucifixion

Research has revealed much about the manner of Jesus’ death.

We know that he was scourged, a whipping that tore flesh from bones and caused many victims to die.

The victim was then taken to the place of crucifixion. This was intended to shame the victim as he was paraded through the streets, stripped of most of his clothes, and executed in such a public and violent way.

Victims were typically nailed to the cross through their wrists, as nails through the hands could not support the weight of the victim. For instance, in 1968, archaeologists discovered the remains of one Johanan, a victim of Roman crucifixion during the Jewish uprisings of AD 70. A nail seven inches long was still embedded in his heel bones.

If the Romans wanted the person to suffer longer, they could tie the arms to the crossbeam with ropes. They would then nail the hands to the cross, as the ropes would support the body’s weight.

Since Passover was coming, the Jews wanted Jesus to die as quickly as possible. Thus, spikes were driven through his wrists into the cross and through his heels. The body weight of the victim crushed his lungs, forcing him to pull himself up on his crucified wrists to breathe. Eventually, he lost use of his arms and had to push upon his crucified heels.

The Romans would then break the legs of the victim, who would die shortly of suffocation. But Jesus chose to die before the Romans took his life from him.

Crucifixion is so horrific that it has been outlawed in nearly every country on earth. Why did Jesus die in this way? Any death would have paid the debt for our sins. He needed to die publicly so the world would know what he did for us, but stoning or beheading could have been just as public.

If there was an easier, less horrible way to die, don’t you think he would have chosen it? Don’t you think his Father would have chosen it for him?

If you could choose between lethal injection and crucifixion for your child, which would you choose?

Why Jesus chose the cross

I can think of only one reason why the Father and the Son chose the cross: to show us their solidarity with our most horrific, indescribable pain and shame.

There is no physical pain we can feel that is worse than his. No pain from disease or disaster, war or criminal attack or accident. The worst that can happen to us is no worse than what happened to him.

There is no shame we can feel that is worse than his. We know the shame of our individual sins; he took the shame of the entire human race on himself. Then he demonstrated that fact by dying in the most shameful manner possible—paraded through the streets, stripped to all but a loincloth, and executed before his mother, his best friend, and his enemies.

None of this was necessary for Jesus to understand our pain and shame. He was and is omniscient. He did not learn something about us at Calvary that he did not know beforehand.

But we learned something about him at Calvary we did not know beforehand. We now know that the God of the universe is not a Zeus atop Mt. Olympus, impervious to our needs; he is not an Allah, removed from our sufferings; he is not an impersonal force like the Hindu Brahman; he is not simply a judge of right and wrong as some in Judaism picture him.

The Son felt the worst we can feel. His Father watched his Son suffer in such pain and shame, proving that he understands all we feel for those we love.

The bottom line: Jesus chose the cross to show us that he will help us bear our cross, whatever it is.


Name your suffering or shame. Bring it to Calvary. Know that Jesus died to pay your debt, to forgive your sin, to bear your cross. Trust your need to his grace, your pain to his love. On this Palm Sunday, know that he came to the Holy City to die for you. And that he would do it all again, just for you.

One of my favorite stories of the year is about a mother who heard a commotion in her back yard. She rushed outside to find a cougar attacking her son. She started “crying out the Lord,” she says, as she grabbed the wild animal and tried to pry its mouth open.

“Three sentences into me praying, it released and it ran away,” she said later. Her son is expected to make a full recovery.

That mother’s love, as powerful as it is, cannot compare to your Father’s love. He proved it on the cross and is ready to prove it again in this chapel.

Who or what is attacking you today?

Why Did Jesus Have to Die?

Topical Scripture: Romans 5:6–11

Kyle Froelich needed a kidney. None of his family or close friends was a match. A woman named Chelsea heard about Kyle from a mutual friend and agreed to be tested. They were a match. She donated a kidney to Kyle in 2010.

The two started dating after the transplant was complete. Kyle’s health returned, and they got married three years later.

Now they are back in the news: the kidney Chelsea donated is failing. If Kyle doesn’t get a new one within the next year, he says, he’ll be forced to go on dialysis.

More than 100,000 Americans are in need of kidneys, so the wait time for Kyle is between three and six years—time he doesn’t have. Imagine a scenario by which Chelsea donated her other kidney to him. Now he could live, but she would die.

If she did that, would Kyle ever have reason to doubt her love for him?

The “whys” of Easter

We know the “whats” and the “whos” of Easter. We’re familiar with Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Resurrection Sunday. We know about Pilate, Caiaphas, Judas, and the rest.

So we’re traveling toward Easter this year by asking the “whys.” Last week: why was Jesus born? Next week: why did he have to die on a cross? On Easter: why did he have to be raised from the dead?

Today, our question is: Why did Jesus have to die? We know he died for our sins, but why did he have to do so? Why couldn’t God simply forgive us the way we can forgive each other? The answer offers a profound message of hope and joy every one of us needs today.

Why did Jesus die?

Think of the last sin you committed. Why should a holy God be so gracious to such a sinner as you?

For this reason: “While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (v. 6). “At the right time” points to the specific moment in history when Jesus came. Everything was ready for his appearance (cf. Galatians 4:4): there was a universal hunger for truth, a universal language (koine or “common” Greek) to communicate God’s answer to that hunger, a universal peace to make possible the global expansion of Christianity, and universal roads to carry the first missionaries across the known world.

But it was “at the right time” in another sense as well. Just before we died, Christ died for us. Just before it was too late, when we had no hope of forgiveness and salvation, “Christ died for the ungodly.”

All the ungodly, with no specifications or conditions. All sinners and all sins are included. You have been “died for.” Jesus went to your cross, taking your punishment, bearing your pain, paying your debt, earning your salvation.

Only rarely will someone die for a good man (v. 7), as when a Secret Service agent dies to protect the president or a soldier dies to save the soldier at his side. But we deserved no such consideration: “God shows us love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (v. 8).

“Shows” (sunistesin) means “to bring together, to marshal the evidence.” As lawyers used their evidence to prove their case, so God uses the death of his Son to prove his love for us. “While we were still sinners,” this happened. All of us have sinned and come short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). All of us deserved death (Romans 6:23). All of us have instead been granted peace with God through Christ.

We are now “justified” by his blood (v. 9a), declared righteous in his sight as a criminal whose record is wiped clean. If God has done this for us in the past, “how much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (v. 9b). The rabbis were fond of the “lesser to greater” argument: if A is true, how much more is B the case. Jesus used this teaching technique often, as with the parable of the persistent widow: if an unjust judge would grant her request, how much more will God answer our prayers (Luke 18:1-8).

In the same way, Paul reasons that if Jesus has already saved us from the sins of our past, how much more will he save us from God’s wrath in the future. Before Jesus’ atonement, we were “God’s enemies”; now that we have been reconciled with him, “much more . . . shall we be saved by his life” (v. 10, italics added). And so “we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (v. 11).

Paul’s thesis is simple: we are at peace with God and can be at peace with each other and with ourselves. Why? Because we have been given access to the Father by the Son.

Since Jesus’ death has paid for our past sins, he guarantees our future reward. Now the Spirit redeems our present sufferings by using them to produce persevering character which gives us hope that we will continue to be victorious in the days to come. We can be at peace with our past, our present, and our future.

Why did Jesus have to die?

So, we know that Jesus died to pay for our sins so that we could be made right with God. Here’s the question behind the text: Why did he have to do so? Why couldn’t God simply have declared us forgiven? Why did his Son have to die for us?

If I hit your car while leaving the parking lot after chapel, I assume you can forgive me without someone having to die in my place. I have forgiven people for things they have done to me without requiring someone to die first.

If “God is love” (1 John 4:8), why couldn’t he do the same?

Here’s the problem: God is also “holy, holy, holy” (Isaiah 6:3). As Scripture declares, “There is none holy like the LORD” (1 Samuel 2:2). His heaven is perfect, a place where “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

For us to be granted entrance into God’s perfect presence, our sins must first be removed. The debt we owe for them must be paid.

However, the punishment for sin is death: “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23); “The soul who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:20). This is because death separates us from the holy God who is the source of life. It’s like cutting off a flower at the roots. It may look healthy, but it is dying and will soon be dead.

The consequence of sin is death. That’s why the payment for sin must be death. That’s why sinners are separated from God for all eternity in hell, a place of living death.

And it’s why we cannot pay this debt for each other. Because I have committed sins, I cannot die for yours. It’s as if I owe the hundred dollars in my pocket to the bank; I cannot use it to pay your debt and mine.

The only person who could pay the debt of our sins would be someone who never committed sins of his own. And only one person in all of human history has lived a sinless life. Not Muhammad, or Confucius, or Buddha, or anyone else. Only Jesus.

That’s why Jesus could die on the cross for our sins. It’s why he had to die on the cross for us to be forgiven for our sins.

Visited by the Prince of Peace

What does his death for us mean for us?

First, it means that we can be forgiven and granted eternal life if we will receive the gift of salvation he offers. A gift must be opened. We must receive by faith the gift he offers by grace.

Second, it means that we should value ourselves as he values us. Our Father decided that we were worth the death of his Son. No greater valuation could be placed on us than that.

Third, it means that we should serve him in gratitude for such grace. Not so he will love us, but because he already does.

We are taking the Lord’s Supper today, a meal first shared by Jesus and his disciples in the upper room. A thousand years ago, the Crusaders constructed a space in the vicinity of the first upper room to commemorate that event. We take our group there whenever we visit Israel.

One reason the Crusaders located the structure where they did is that they found a first-century sculpture in the immediate vicinity. It depicts two baby pelicans eating from their mother’s body. The tradition in the day was that in times of extreme drought and famine, the mother would allow her babies to eat her flesh and drink her blood. This became one of the first symbols for the Lord’s Supper and Jesus’ offer of the bread and cup to symbolize his body and blood given for us.

This sculpture is displayed by the exit of the Upper Room to remind visitors of the significance of the place. As we take the Supper of our Lord today, let’s return to the cross it signifies. Let’s remember his death for us. And let’s receive and share his grace with gratitude for such love.

Where do you need his grace most today?