Alfred Place Baptist Church

24:1-8 Why do you look for the Living Among the Dead?

Luke 24:1-8 “On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: “The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.”’ Then they remembered his words.”

The resurrection, and this whole chapter (which is virtually the same length as the chapter on the cross), has none of the marks of an epilogue tagged on to the first 23 chapters of Luke. It is not an afterthought, written later, to cheer up the readers after a tragic ending. It is as much a true history as what has gone on before, and it is locked into the previous narrative. Look at the pairs of markers that unite these two chapters, packed into the closing verses of chapter 23, and the opening verses of chapter 24, the earlier chapter about the day of Jesus’ death and the latter chapter when he rose.

i] The first marker is chronological; it is the marker of time. Before the resurrection was the last day of the week, the Sabbath, when the women rested (Lk.23:56), while the day of resurrection was “the first day of the week, very early in the morning” (v.1).

ii] The second marker is the personnel. Before his resurrection the people mentioned are his first disciples, “the women who had come with Jesus from Galilee” (Lk. 23:55). On the day of resurrection they appear again, “On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women . . .” (v.1) – these same women reappear.

iii] The third marker is the work. Before his resurrection they had “prepared spices and perfumes” (Lk. 23:56), and on the day of resurrection they “took the spices they had prepared,” (v.1).

iv] The fourth marker is the place. Before the resurrection they “saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it” (Lk.23:55), and then on the day of resurrection they “went to the tomb” (v.1). These are the moorings that link together the events each side of the dawn on the first day of the week. Here we have one integral narrative. I can see Dr. Luke writing it the same afternoon, dipping his pen in his ink and without a long pause, continuing on from describing the death of Jesus of Nazareth to describing his resurrection. Nothing before or after the death of Christ did any of these events take place in Heilige Schrift (so called ‘holy history’ which is not real space-time history. It is ‘religious history’.). No. All this is as much history as the death of Margaret Thatcher or what’s happened in your life in the last couple of weeks. One of the housebound women in our congregation having listened to recordings of the sermons on the death of Christ over the last months said to me last week, “I am looking forward now to your telling us about Jesus’ resurrection.” And Luke would have rejoiced that his gospel ended with this theme of triumph over death. “This Jesus who was cruelly killed by men and buried by those who loved him rose from the dead on the third day. Now let me tell you about this. I will begin by showing you that the same Jesus and the same people and the same places were involved.”

My point is this, that we are noticing some markers, some signifying days of suffering and death, but there are other markers which testify to days of resurrection and life. Labouring now, glory to follow. The groaning world now, the new heavens and earth then with God wiping away all tears from our eyes.

THE STONE WAS ROLLED AWAY.

It is Mark who reports the conversation of these women in the pre-dawn darkness went like this, “When we get there how are we going to anoint Jesus’ body as that great stone has rolled down the groove and dropped into its socket? It is preventing anyone getting into the tomb. How are we going to move it?” The women had obviously been so disoriented by the horrors of watching the crucifixion that they hadn’t prepared themselves for the practicalities of what they wanted to do. Confusion often dominates in times of crisis. The home in Llangeitho in which Martyn Lloyd-Jones lived as a little boy caught fire and soon there was a fierce blaze. He was just rescued in time, plucked as a brand from the burning. His neighbours worked away with buckets of water dousing the flames, and then the village blacksmith arrived with his sledge hammer and soon he was striking away at the central metal pillar around which the house was erected. He was making a bad job worse and men cried out to him to desist. “Well, something must be done,” he yelled. That was the spirit of these women, desperate, drowning in grief, choking in despair, their Lord crucified. At least they could do something, they could anoint his corpse. But they couldn’t. There was little they could do to remove the stone. It would be impossible for Jesus’ fishermen to do that, let alone the chain and the imperial seal that attached it to the rock face, as well as the presence of the four Roman guards making sure no one tampered with the grave. It was a fool’s errand, however loving in its intention. He had been crucified to death, and now he was buried behind a great stone, guarded by soldiers. Their covering his body with more spices and perfumes was not going to change those facts. Women, don’t be irrational! Please think, disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. You ought to be the most rational, thoughtful people in the world. Sometimes I think that I have lived in the most irrational of centuries. What could be more irrational that the mighty cultured German nation killing every Jew in its territories? Again, what of the American response to 9/11 in invading Iraq? I know little about politics but there was surely some costly irrationality behind that decision, a feeling that after the destruction of the Twin Towers “Something must be done.”

When they arrived at the tomb on this unnecessary mission that could not be completed – and never was – they made an astonishing discovery. “They found the stone rolled away from the tomb” (v.2). Who had moved the stone? It is the title of a famous book written over 80 years ago by the former sceptic Frank Morrison as he looks at the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection and in doing so comes to believe in the risen Christ. Who did move the stone? It seemed to them that it must have been either his friends or his enemies who had done it, but for what reason would someone from either group take away a dead corpse? The body of Jesus was not even clothed in the tomb. His clothes had been divided up amongst the soldiers of the execution squad, and his one decent robe was gambled over and won by a lucky soldier. He had nothing at all buried with him, not a ring on his finger. And there was no trade in cadavers at this time. So it seemed to them that either friends for puzzling good motives or enemies for puzzling bad motives would have moved the stone. What can we say?

i] The enemies of Jesus had no reason to move the stone. They were concerned that the body might be stolen by the apostles so that a theory of resurrection could be pawned off on the masses. We are told by Matthew, “Now on the next day, which is the one after the preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered together with Pilate, and said, ‘Sir, we remember that when he was 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, lest the disciples 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.’ Pilate said to them, ‘You have a guard; go, make it as secure as you know how.’ And they went and made the grave secure, and along with the guard they set a seal on the stone.” (Matthew 27:62-66). Roman guards were placed to prevent someone from moving the stone. Failure to achieve such a task would have cost them their lives. The theft of Jesus’ body by Jewish or Roman authorities doesn’t make sense. If the authorities had the body in their possession, or knew where it was, they could have produced Jesus’ corpse with the nail marks and the spear hole and that would have put an end to Christianity. But the enemies, both Jewish and Roman, didn’t do that because they didn’t have the body.

ii] The apostles could not have moved the stone. Even psychologically let alone physically they weren’t prepared to do such a thing. Jesus’ boys had run away in fear at the first sight of the soldiers coming to Gethsemane to arrest Jesus. Peter soon was vigorously denying that he ever had known our Lord, and then they went into hiding, living in fear of their own lives. We are given this little glimpse of their spirits that evening of the day the women had gone early to the garden, “it was evening, on that day, the first day of the week, and . . . the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews . . .” (John 20:19). There was no aggressive initiative there at all, no determination for revenge. Rather all was withdrawal, depression and bewilderment. Can you imagine these scared men on tip-toe passing the Roman guards and then seeking to move a 1½ ton stone without waking the sleeping soldiers to take away the body to bury it somewhere else? Incredible! They had neither conviction nor the leadership to quickly plan and launch a rescue mission for a corpse, and overcome battle-hardened soldiers – a watch who knew their lives would be forfeited if this body were taken from under their noses. Can you imagine these young fishermen, who had been told by Jesus to go the second mile and turn the other cheek and love their enemies, rolling the stone away and removing the body and hiding it away somewhere – for what purpose? A corpse was an unclean thing to them. It would be beginning to stink – so they would think.

And why would they have wanted to do this? What could be gained by stealing the body? Nothing at all. They were persecuted, tortured, and eventually killed as a reward for preaching the resurrection of Jesus, so there was no motive of glory and fame and riches for them to fabricate this lie. What’s more, even if the disciples would have wanted to maintain a conspiracy, they wouldn’t have been able to. It can’t be done on such a scale with such humble people. At Watergate President Nixon had about the same number of conspirators as our Lord had disciples. The Nixon administration was the most powerful group of men in the world at the time, hanging on to their jobs, facing imprisonment, and yet those super sophisticates couldn’t maintain their conspiracy for even a few weeks. They buckled under pressure and chose self-preservation over maintaining a lie to save their leader. Lance Armstrong, the Tour de France winner was a drugs cheat, but for years he and his accomplices kept it a secret until there was a falling out and a spilling of the beans and he was discredited and loathed. His victories were seen to be hollow, the result of taking drugs. But with these simple fishermen and Galilean women there was no trace of a conspiracy to create this falsehood of such universal proportions.

So here we have a group of the country women who’d followed Jesus, not city women, but those who came from Galilean farms, and they were on this hopeless mission in the early morning heading for the tomb. They arrived at the tomb where they had seen the body of Jesus being placed two days earlier and there they discovered that the protective stone had been rolled away. It was lying flat on its back in the garden. The entrance to the tomb was like an empty eye socket. Who’d removed the stone if it were neither his friends nor his enemies? I will tell you exactly who removed the stone. I can tell you because Matthew in the first book of the New Testament tells us. It is there in the opening verses of the last chapter of his gospel: “After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men” (Matt. 28:1-4). This is what had happened before the women arrived. Those hardened guards were shaken to the core of their beings. They were in the presence of God, almost scared to death and unconscious. When all the angels of God had gathered before the Lord that day to received their instructions and duties one of them had been given this extraordinary mission. “Go to the garden tomb where the body of your Master lies, and remove the stone from the entrance,” and immediately he did what God told him. I must say that I am looking forward to meeting that angel. When he appeared he arrived with an earthquake that made the garden rock and roll. The legionaries fell to the ground as dead men. The angel then walked across to the tomb and he rolled back the stone. Then he simply sat on it. Why? What was his purpose in sitting on this famous stone? Was he declaring God’s authority over this place, as also Jesus entered heaven and sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high? Was the angel there on guard protecting the coming disciples and his Lord who were to meet there in the next hours? Was he taking possession of that place in the name of Jehovah? There was nothing happening, and then the next thing the angel did was to get up and walk across to the empty tomb, the new cave, which the newly living Lord Jesus had meanwhile vacated while the angel had been sitting on the stone. Into the empty tomb the angel walked to await the arrival of the women. Then to that place God sent another angel because what they said had to be confirmed, though they were angels, by two of them bearing witness to it. That is where we have arrived in the narrative.

2. THE WOMEN MET THE MESSEGNERS FROM GOD.

So far, as long as we stick to this group of women, we’ve found ourselves able quite easily to identify with them. We all know what it’s like to be depressed, bewildered, not thinking straight, but anxious to help and do some good. Every followers of Jesus knows that, but then these women meet something unplanned and unwelcome. It takes them even further out of their comfort zone. They’d imagined that their future was going to be wrestling with this simple big problem looming up ahead of them, but there were, we reckon about five or so of them working in that wonderful camaraderie that women possess that we men can just look at in admiration. This immediate problem was the huge stone at the bottom of a ramp covering the entrance to Jesus’ body, thinking of moving it enough for one of them to squeeze into the cave and receive from the girls on the outside the bags of spices and do the anointing. They hoped that if they all worked together that as strong country women they might be able to do it.

However, that is not what happened at all, in fact it never happened, not for the rest of their lives, that they would go on meeting one crisis, and then another, sickness, death and heartaches, all by their own strength, understanding, wits and with the courage that their sisters and women friends would give them, barely surviving the worst of times, and just managing on the whole to cope. It was not going to be like that at all, because these women were disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. He loved them, and he promised to work everything they met to work for their good, even the very worst things – like being eye-witnesses of his crucifixion. He was keeping these women that day in their despair though they did not know it. He even had messengers he would send into their lives who had words to give them to keep them so that they would be able to do all things through Christ who strengthened them. They wouldn’t just get by, they would be more than conquerors. They wouldn’t have any problem with the stone because God would meet that need and even supply all their needs. Their eyes had not seen, nor had their ears heard the things that God was preparing for them. Their futures were going to be extraordinary, glorious and blessed, the happiest futures of any women in the whole world, and then glory! God could have said to them, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” But they had no idea at this time of any of this.

One of the remarkable preachers in Wales of the early 19th century was John Jones of Talsarn. He died 20 years before his wife Fanny, and she had said to him on his death bed how fearful she was of losing him. He’d said to her, “Now don’t break your heart, my girl, you’ll be coming to heaven to me.” She feared she wouldn’t be. She lacked assurance that she would get to glory and John knew it. She said to him, “I shan’t mind if our heavenly Father leaves me behind for twenty years, as long as I can come there after you, John bach.” “Oh, you will, you will,” he said, “don’t let the devil hurt you, Fanny bach.”

Well, twenty years passed and she had gone to visit her children – her son was a minister in Llandinam – and there she contracted a disease and began her final illness. So one night she called her daughter, and asked her, “What do you think of your mother’s faith?” “Oh, Mam” she assured her mother, “It’s real faith.” Her mother expressed her own comfort; “Hear me now? I have three rocks to rely on.” The first is this, (lifting up her right hand) ‘and I give unto them eternal life,” and the second is this (lifting up her left hand), ‘and they shall never perish’ “and the third,” she said, putting her hand on her heart), “is this ‘none shall pluck them out of Jesus’ hand.’ Blessed be God!” Then her preacher son entered the room and she said to him, “I was telling your sister that I have three rocks to rely on at the night,” and then she paused and said to him, “Glory ever for the might of the way of salvation.” Then she spoke directly to her son asking him “What do you think of your mother’s faith, David bach?” “It’s a splendid one,” he said to her with assurance and a smile of encouragement. And soon she went to sleep in Jesus. Her faith was a splendid faith, wasn’t it? She had fears of how she could live without her husband John, and yet she lived usefully for twenty years as a widow. She had little assurance that she was going to heaven, and yet at the end she had these three great foundations to die on, “and I give unto them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no man shall pluck them out of my hand.”

Now what we have in the passage before us is a typical example of the Christian combination. We have very ordinary events that we all meet, troubled people coming to do what their hearts have told them to do and unsure of how they are going to do it. Then something breathtakingly supernatural breaks into their lives. You see it in Jesus’ call of the disciples as they are mending their nets and then he comes along, or one day as a tax official Matthew is at work in his office the Saviour enters and summons him to follow him, or as a publican in Jericho climbs a tree for a better view of a procession and our Lord tells him he is coming to his home, or as arch persecutor Saul of Tarsus is walking along the road to Damascus to deal once and for all with fanaticism then the Lord meets him. Their lives were all perforated by the living God from heaven. Like this group of women they all encountered the risen one, and nothing was the same again. Now I am saying to you all that that is exactly how life is, a blend of the very ordinary and of the supernatural. Great obstacles and problems are removed by the help of God and we’ll also meet messengers with a new heavenly message who speak to us and everything changes. And I am saying that it is always like this. There is the ordinary Christian who is an extraordinary person in Christ; there is the blending in our lives of our ordinary doubts and struggles with wonderful events that we imagine happening to other people in other ages, but they’re happening to us, even to me!

So the women are no longer thinking about the stone. It is lying flat on the ground, and they never think of it again. They enter into the tomb – so it must have been very large. Five women we guess are standing erect in it and there they meet two messengers from God who also stand alongside them – it is a very spacious sepulchre. The women are no longer thinking of embalming the body of Jesus. They never had a thought of embalming that body again. That single-minded dominating concern of theirs was gone for ever immediately it was put alongside the fact that Jesus Christ had risen and was alive. How trivial a matter it was compared to him being with them, him in them, him helping them day by day – what are our light afflictions? The worst of them is but for a moment. The problems that dominated them disappeared. A matter that seemed so significant shrinks to nothing compared to what was confronting them now. Angels! Two messengers from God in clothes that gleamed like lightning who brought God’s word to them. They all fell on their faces before these seraphim. And that tells us that the cave was as wide as it was high.

THE MESSENGERS FROM GOD SPOKE TO THEM.

These angels weren’t translucent, hovering, floating clouds. They were two standing, sturdy, young men. That is the normal way in which angels appear in the Scriptures. They were dressed in white garments that shone – it must have been difficult to describe their clothing – clothing that was somehow incandescent. It gleamed and flashed not like the sun; there was no warmth coming from it; it was somehow like the light from a flash of lightning, quite intimidating. What is that? How poor our words to describe heaven and its inhabitants. But they were not spooks; not at all! They spoke to the women in their language, perfectly understandable Aramaic. They said two things.

i] They admonished them for the folly of their unbelieving quest. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” How foolish! I was in a service recently which was so tactile, in other words, there was a whole lot of huggin’ and kissin’ going on. There might be a place for that in other times and places, but it cannot and must not replace the priority of the words that speak to the mind, and then address such affections as fear and doubt and false zeal and so on and with truth replace them with love, joy and peace.

God believed that these women needed to be admonished and he did admonish them. Later in this chapter we see how the Lord Jesus deals with two other disciples who were equally as crestfallen and despairing. He didn’t say to them, “There, there . . .” and gave them a hug. What happened? “He said to them, ‘How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken’” (v.25). You say, “I didn’t think Jesus spoke like that.” I’m sorry to hear that. I really am. Who is the Jesus that you have had dealings with since you thought you became a Christian? Is he the Jesus of the Bible? Have you never ever done anything that requires him to say to you, “How foolish you are!”? Never once? Is it important to you that you would do those things and say those things each day that draws the approval of the Lord Jesus? Do you fear his rebuke? Do you pray, “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight O Lord, my strength and my redeemer?” Do you go to a church where the word of God is believed and preached? And why has God given us Scripture? What is it profitable for? It is “Useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,” (2 Tim.3:16). Do you arrive in church, sit and pray that you will be taught and rebuked and corrected and trained in righteousness that day? “Lord do it! That is why I am here. Please be here too and do your sanctifying work in my life.”

The women were looking for the living God in the wrong place, where the dead were. This is a characteristic of our age. With God out of their lives men have to face up to the vastness of the universe in which we are the only living things. There has to be someone out there to whom we can relate. There is, and he is our Creator and our Redeemer Jesus Christ who is greater than creation and mightier than death. But men have ruled him out of the picture and so where do they look? The latest places are to Kepler62e and Kepler 62f both twelve hundred light years away, two earth sized planets, spotted on the Kepler space telescope and reported to the world on April 22, six days ago. In other words, you travel at the speed of light for twelve hundred years and find out if there is any extraterrestrial life, and then travel back for another twelve hundred years and tell us yes or no. Why are we looking for the living among the dead? Because we don’t believe in the Creator who became created and conquered death all because he loved us and has made himself known to us in his Son Jesus Christ. And are there not other ways in which men seek to discover what they are and why they are in the world by examining dead rocks and fossils? I don’t scorn astronomy and archaeology and geology but I don’t say that by studying them men may find out who they are and what is their chief end in life. I am a creature made in the image of God, ruined by sin and restored by grace, and God has made himself known to us by his apostles and prophets and by his Son Jesus Christ. Then the messengers said something else . . .

ii] They spoke to them about the message of the Bible. “He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’” They declared the resurrection of Jesus to these women in unequivocal, utterly clear language, “He has risen!” One reason why we believe that Jesus conquered death is that two messengers came from heaven. They removed the stone that covered the man-made cave in which was lying the body of Jesus. They entered that empty tomb where Christ’s body had lain and told the world that Jesus had risen from the dead. It was totally supernatural.

But they did not simply say, “He is not here; he has risen,” but they also convicted these women of their sin, that they were ignoring what the Lord Christ had often made spectacularly clear to them. For example, Luke tells us that, “Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, ‘We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be turned over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again” (Lk. 18:31-34). Could he have made it any clearer? There will be trouble ahead, a desperate time, but it will be followed by the most wonderful news of all, that death does not have the last word. That word was spoken by the resurrected Jesus, but they disbelieved it. Did they say to one another afterwards, “He’s lovely, isn’t he? But I wish he wouldn’t say things like that”? They didn’t think about his words though they had seen Jairus’ daughter brought back to life, and Lazarus come out of the grave. They were selective in what they believed. They failed to treasure up all his words in their hearts. They were dismissive of the most glorious message that this world has ever heard, the news of Jesus Christ risen from the dead. That is why after his words of suffering and death were fulfilled they walked about like zombies devoid of hope.

Maybe you leave this church today and will quickly forget what you’ve heard, and then please know that each day you live is one less to the your life’s unavoidable destination. The Lord Jesus Christ alone conquered death. He lives. He is the resurrection and the life, and he has said, “Because I live you shall live also.” You face the most appaling future if you brush aside that word.

But if you believe the word of resurrection then what hope and reality you will find! The resurrection has begun! He is risen and become the first fruits of them that slept. Christ is the first begotten from the dead. The resurrection has begun, and it cannot possibly stop until all that belong to him and believe on his name have followed him in their glorious resurrection. O death where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

28th April 2013 GEOFF THOMAS