Tuesday, May 19, 2009

"He Has Risen!" (Mark 15:40-16:8)

This morning we are going to read why we are here this morning. Mark 15-16 explains why it is that after 14 centuries of setting aside the seventh day of the week as a special day holy to the Lord that God’s people suddenly chose to assemble on the first day of the week as the Lord’s day. It is because this is the day on which the Lord rose from the dead.

Mark’s account of the crucifixion is the bleakest and most foreboding of all the gospels. But just as the darkness that shrouded the death of Jesus gave way to the sunrise of the first day of the week, the gloom of the death of Jesus gives way to the glory of His resurrection. And the first witnesses of each critical juncture in this story are three women: Mary Magdalene, another Mary, and Salome.

One of the greatest travesties of The Da Vinci Code is the slanderous way it distorted the story of Mary Magdalene. Dan Brown and other like minded authors believe that biblical Christianity is fundamentally sexist and demeaning to women, and that their revisionist tales about Jesus are liberating to women.

This could not be further from the truth. In fact, one of the unique qualities of the biblical gospels is the high view of women found in them, and the consistent portrayal of Jesus as someone who went out of His way to care for women. Let’s take a moment to recall stories in Mark-
-One of Jesus’ first miracles in the gospel was healing of Simon’s mother-in-law (1:30-31). -In Mark 5, Jesus performed two miracles for women, healing the woman with the bleeding disease on the way to the house of Jairus to raise his daughter from the dead.
-In Mark 7, Jesus performed a miracle for a Gentile woman, whose daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit (a woman whose spiritual insight far surpassed that of any man in the gospel).
-During His final week, while teaching in the temple Jesus made a point to acknowledge the meager gift of the widow, who gave all that she could.
-And as a final example of the special relationship between women and Jesus, remember that when he was at the house of Simon the leper in Bethany, an unnamed woman anointed Jesus with very expensive perfume. Some of the disciples complained about what they considered an unnecessary extravagance, and Jesus not only defended her, He even said that she would be memorialized for her kindness.

14:9 And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.

What a ridiculous caricature to say that the Bible devalues women, and that the traditional gospel accounts are misogynistic in some way. The Jesus of the Bible took special pains to care for women, to show women the love and grace so often lacking in every day and age.

And no doubt because of His deep concern and kindness, women were drawn to Jesus, and played a critical role in His ministry, by providing hospitality and financial support.

Luke 8:1 Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him,
8:2 and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out,
8:3 and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.

But perhaps the best way to illustrate the deep regard for women the gospel record holds is to study the account of Jesus’ resurrection. The story of the resurrection, which is the climactic moment in the plan of redemption, is told from the perspective of three women. They were present when Jesus dies, they saw where He was buried, they were the first to see His empty tomb, and they were the first to see Him! The great privilege to be the first witnesses to the turning point of history went to these ladies!

Today we are going to study the first part of the resurrection, going from Jesus’ death and burial to the discovery of the empty tomb. And next week, Lord willing, we will study Jesus’ appearances. This morning, after we look at Mark 15:40-16:8, I want to then offer some basic reasons I believe the account of the empty tomb is true.

I. The Witness of the Women

The women mentioned here in Mark 15-16 witness three critical moments in the story of Jesus: His death, His burial, and His empty tomb.

A. His Death (15:40-41)

40a There were also women looking on from a distance

The phrase, “looking on from a distance,” may sound familiar to you. It is the same phrase Mark used to describe the way Peter shadowed Jesus during His trial before the high priest.

14:54 Peter had followed him at a distance

But here at the cross Peter doesn’t even choose to look on at a distance – he has disowned the Lord. All of the disciples fled, and except for John, who at some point does come to the cross according to the fourth gospel, the apostles are conspicuously absent from the scene.

But there are some disciples who do pay their respects. Not the familiar three disciples: Peter, James and John, but three other loyal followers:

40b Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. 41 When he was in Galilee, they followed him and ministered to him, and there were also many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem.

Despite all the attention she received in The Da Vinci Code, very little is actually said about Mary Magdalene in the Bible. The passage we read from Luke says that Jesus cast out seven demons from her, and no doubt her gratitude for such dramatic deliverance from the forces of evil led her to be the faithful disciple she became.

The other Mary mentioned here is not mentioned other than in the account of the resurrection (though that is still awesome!). And Salome may be the mother of the sons of Zebedee based on the parallel in Matthew’s gospel.

These women made the journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, and just as they ministered to Jesus in life they stood by Him in death.

B. His Burial (15:42-47)

Aside from the apostles, another group whose absence is shocking is Jesus’ brothers and sisters. If Jesus’ father Joseph was already dead, as I think must have been the case, then it should have been the brothers of Jesus taking care of His burial. But they are nowhere to be found.

Even John the Baptist’s disciples cared enough to give him a proper burial in 6:29. But there is no one among the twelve or even His family present to prepare a decent burial. The Son of Man had nowhere to lay His head in life, or in death.

But just as the centurion made an unexpected confession, a member of the Sanhedrin stepped forward to do what no one else would – claim the body of Jesus and bury Him.

42 And when evening had come, since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath, 43 Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the Council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.

Joseph was from Arimathea, a town in Judea, and according to the text was a “respected member” of the Sanhedrin. Given the spiteful and dishonest way the Sanhedrin condemned Jesus and abused Him, an obvious question is how could Joseph do what he does for Jesus here while being part of such a corrupt tribunal?

First, its possible that Joseph was not present at the actual hearing when Jesus was condemned. It took place in the middle of the night and was convened in a hurry, and my guess is that many members were not in attendance. And second, even if he was there, according to John 19:38 he “was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews.” Maybe he was led to vote for Jesus’ conviction because of fear, just as Peter denied the Lord.

And yet for some reason this once fearful follower of Jesus “took courage.” Was he moved by the way Jesus died like the centurion was? We don’t know what clicked within him to strengthen his resolve, but this man who was afraid to follow Jesus publicly while He was alive is bolstered in spirit and asked permission to take Jesus’ body for burial.

This is especially remarkable in light of the fact that Joseph was “looking for the kingdom of God,” and must have been bitterly disappointed that Jesus did not assume the throne of David as king in the way the Jews had expected. But as his fear gave way to courage, not even the regrets he may have felt about the seeming failure of Jesus’ kingdom kept him from giving Jesus an honorable burial.

To get permission to do this Joseph had to ask permission of Pilate, who

44a was surprised to hear that he should have already died.

Jesus died after only six hours on the cross, much more quickly than the typical victims of crucifixion. So Pilate double checked to make sure the Nazarene was indeed dead-

44b And summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he was already dead. 45 And when he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the corpse to Joseph.

In our day this would mean that Joseph called a funeral home and they would come and pick up the body and take care of the gruesome work of embalming the body and preparing it for burial. But that is not what Joseph did. He had to take the mangled corpse of Jesus and – presuming he followed Jewish custom – wash the hideously wounded body and prepare it for a tomb.

46 And Joseph bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud and laid him in a tomb that had been cut out of the rock. And he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb.

Excavations in Jerusalem have uncovered tombs like the one described here, cut out of the rocky hill on which the city stands. Since the Jews did not embalm their dead, the normal procedure was to wrap the deceased in linen strips packed with ointment and perfume to camouflage the smell of decomposition. The body would then be placed inside the tomb, which would be protected by a stone rolled into a groove.

Think of all the things the text says Joseph did.
-First, he had to ask permission to receive the body of a man condemned to death as a traitor and rebel! The authorities could have easily assumed Joseph was sympathetic to sedition and arrested Joseph, but despite the potential for personal danger Joseph boldly asked to bury Jesus.
-Second, he took the body, a grisly and unpleasant task.
-Third, he bought a linen shroud with his own money and prepared the body for burial.
-And then he laid Jesus in his own family tomb.

Joseph was courageous and generous, and there to witness it all were the devout women.

47 Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid.

It was important to these ladies to know where Jesus was buried because they intended to come and honor His body by anointing it with spices according to their tradition. They had no idea what a shocking discovery they would make in just a couple of days.

C. His Empty Tomb (16:1-8)

1 When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.

Remember that Jesus was anointed by a woman in Bethany at the start of the final week, something which Jesus interpreted in light of His death:

14:8 “She has anointed my body beforehand for burial.”

Now Mary Magdalene and the other Mary come to anoint Him after His burial, and they were so intent on doing it they came

2 very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen.

It was so early in fact that they realized there might be a problem trying to get access to Jesus’ body – the stone that was used to seal tombs like this could weigh several hundred pounds, and would be very difficult for a couple of women to shove out of the groove it was slotted in.

3 And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?”

But once they arrived, what they saw amazed them.

4 And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back— it was very large. 5 And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed.

Not only was the stone already rolled back, and not only was Jesus’ body nowhere to be found, but inside the tomb there sat a young man that to their mind could only be identified as an angelic messenger. Because of cartoons, when I think of angels I picture this little pudgy, rosy cheeked cherub strumming a harp. But if you think about it, very often in the Bible when angels came to visit people they were horrified. Daniel and Ezekiel fell face down like dead men when angels came to them. So these women are unsettled – the body of Jesus isn’t there, and an angel is.

But this angelic visit is not designed to cause alarm – but to deliver wonderful news.

6 And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him.

These women are the very first to get a glimpse of the evidence of the central miracle of the Bible – the empty tomb. They saw where Jesus was buried, and now that can see that He is no longer in the tomb.

The angel not only wants them to know that Jesus has risen – he wants the disciples to know, and he entrusts the women to give the message to the disciples.

7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.”

It is peculiar that he says, “tell his disciples and Peter.” Why distinguish Peter from the rest? Surely it is because Peter had failed in an even more spectacular way that the rest of the disciples in his three-fold denial, and the angel wants to make sure Peter knows that Jesus does indeed want to see him again.

And, this also brings us full circle with how this gospel began in 1:36-

“Simon and those who were with him”

We would probably expect the next verse to say that the women rejoiced and could not wait to share the wonderful news – but that isn’t at all what happened.

8 And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

How ironic! All through this gospel Jesus would tell people not to say anything about Him or His miracles and they would ignore Him and rush right out to spread the news. And now, the Lord finally wants the message to be proclaimed, and the women say nothing! They are afraid!

Why are they still afraid? Old beliefs deeply held for years do not change overnight. None of Jesus’ disciples understood what He meant when He explicitly told them three times that He was going to be killed and rise again. They believed in the concept of the resurrection, but no one believed that the Messiah would be crucified and then raised from the dead. If years of teaching by Jesus did not click, then one angelic visit is not going to change all that immediately. BUT it does get the process started.

In fact, their fear may not be the kind of fear that a little child has who is afraid of the dark and dreads turning off his light, but rather the fear we have of something like a huge thunderstorm, which we fear because we know the kind of awesome power packed into a storm. The reason I suggest this is that throughout the gospel, those who witnessed Jesus’ miracles often reacted with fear-

-When Jesus calmed the storm in Mark 4

4:41 And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

-Or in Mark 5 when Jesus cast out the Legion of demons from the Gerasene man-

5:15 And they came to Jesus and saw the demon-possessed man, the one who had had the legion, sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid.

- Or the women in Mark 5 who snuck up and touched Jesus’ robe to find healing from her bleeding-

5:33 But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling and fell down before him and told him the whole truth.

-Or in Mark 6 when the disciple saw Jesus walk on water-

6:50 for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”

-And the disciples with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration,

9:6 For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified.

So I would say that the fear of the women, like the fear in all these other accounts, is a fear generated by amazement at what has happened, and the realization that some divine power beyond anything they can grasp is at work.

It will not be until they see Him that they will fully understand. Like the blind man in 8:22-25 who was healed in two stages, who first saw men as trees but then clearly, their spiritual vision will be restored in stages.

II. Three Reasons I Believe The Tomb Was Empty

Of course, many people today believe this story is just a fairy tale, a myth generated by disappointed followers of Jesus of Nazareth. As we approach the season of Easter, you can expect magazine articles and documentaries on TV to challenge the truthfulness of the account of Jesus’ resurrection. So I want to offer three reason, based on history and reason, as to why I believe the tomb of Jesus was empty.

A. I believe Mark’s account of what the women saw is true because it is unlikely he would have made it up.

In the first century, the Jews did not place credibility in women. Their testimony was not accepted in court.

But let not a single witness be credited, but three, or two at the least, and those such whose testimony is confirmed by their good lives. But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex. - Josephus, Antiquities 4.15

Consequently, it is highly unlikely that a Jewish author like Mark would have made up a story in which the very first witnesses of Jesus’ tomb were not two or three men, but two or three women. The only reason he would have written this is because it is what happened, and his desire was to faithfully and accurately report the details, regardless of how politically incorrect they were for his day.

So I believe Mark’s account of what they women claimed to see. But what reason do we have to believe the women?

B. I believe the testimony of the women is true because it went against what they expected to see.

I would be suspicious if these women were just so sure Jesus would rise from the dead, that they so desperately wanted to see it happen that they just imagined His tomb was empty. But of course the exact opposite is the case.
-They came to the tomb to anoint a dead body.
-They were worried that they might not find someone to roll the heavy stone for them.
-When they saw the tomb was empty, their first reaction was not faith but fear.
-And even after an angel told them what had happened, they ran away, speechless and afraid.

All of this points to a completely and transparently honest appraisal of what they saw. If anything, these ladies were prejudiced not to believe what they reported, which adds fundamental credibility to their testimony.

C. And finally, I believe the tomb of Jesus was empty because no one ever produced the body of Jesus.

The astonishing claim that Jesus’ tomb was empty could have been easily disproved. All that had to happen was for someone to walk a few yards outside the city walls, roll the stone away, and haul out the decomposing corpse of a crucified man. But no one ever did this.

And so for these three reasons, not based on blind faith but on history and logic, I believe the tomb of Jesus was empty.

I think the most encouraging statement in the narrative we studied today is-

7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.

Jesus had indeed told the disciples He would meet them in Galilee after His resurrection–

14:28 But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.

The resurrection is the pinnacle of God’s eternal plan, but it is also an important practical reminder that when Jesus says something, when He makes a promise, He means it, and it will happen just as He said.

Right now with the economy what it is, I know that some of you have lost your jobs. Others of you are worried about losing yours, and some of you have seen large chunks of your retirement disappear overnight.

So Jesus’ promise in Matt. 6:33 means a lot right now.

33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

And sometimes when I feel so overwhelmed by the evil and hatred and suffering in this world, it is great to be reminded that God has promised that some day

1 Cor. 15:25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.

And of course, we all long for the day to come when we will see Him, just as He told us!

The message of the empty tomb is that Jesus’ promises are not empty, but full of meaning and truth and hope.

A moment ago I said that it is sad that Jesus’ own brothers and sisters did not care enough to be with Jesus when He died, or to provide for His burial. But actually, that is not the case. Do you remember what Jesus said in Mark 3 when His family came looking for Him?

3:33 And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.”

Jesus’ flesh and blood family was absent, but Jesus’ true sisters- Mary Magdalene, the other Mary, and Salome – were there at the cross; and Jesus’ true brother Joseph took care of His burial. And by His grace, we can be His brothers and sisters too, and we can share in His death and burial and resurrection as we are baptized into Him (Rom. 6:3-4).

Would you like to become part of the family?

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