Triumph over Darkness
A couple weeks ago, I asked the question: “What is real?” We talked about how different cultures around the world and through the ages of history have tried to answer this question. I mentioned belief systems like Animism or Materialism, and how the answers they give to this question are so very different from the Christian’s answer. I postulated to you that, for the Christian, the ultimate reality of the universe is the reality of God’s love—the kind of love described in John 3:16—the love of a Father who was willing to give even His Only Begotten Son to save mankind!
I proposed to you that the best way to embrace this Christian reality is not just through theory, information, or argument, but to have an experience – an encounter – with this loving God. To allow Him to love you. To experience His love in a way like never before—a way that you can never forget.
Last week, we delved into the depths of this intimate and mysterious relationship between God the Father and Jesus – His Only Begotten Son. We talked about the depth of the sacrifice that the Father made, in allowing Jesus to give up His very life—His very existence—to become the Redeemer of this world. We’ve talked about what it means to “believe” in His—to enter into that experience of mutual loving relationship with the Father and Son—to allow His life to flow into us and transform us!
So today I want to explore the last phrase of this verse—to plumb the depths of meaning in these beautiful words: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
I’ve titled my message today, “Triumph over Darkness.” Today we will celebrate the triumphant conclusion of Jesus’ sacrifice. Not a sacrifice that ended, like last week’s story, before the knife could plunge through the beating heart of the son—no, this sacrifice was carried out to the end—to death. Today we will explore the end of this story—a story of a death, and even a tomb—but praise God—even more to come!
The night could not have been darker, as the cold blackness of despair crept its way over the hearts of his beloved followers. There were no tears now, just the numbness of shock as the memories of the last day’s events played over again through their minds. His anguished prayer in the garden. The sudden arrest. The shameful mockery of a trial. The angry mob shouting “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” His staggering form, lacerated and bleeding from the flogging, collapsing under the weight of the cross as he was driven through the gate and up to hill to his place of execution. The sound of the hammer as the nails pierced his hands and feet. His loving prayer for his enemies: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” His anguished cry, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” The last words, “It Is Finished! Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.”
The shuddered as they relived that moment, as the One in whom their hopes were centered breathed his final breath—as they saw his lifeless body hang limp from the cross. They had seen the blackness. They had felt the earthquake. And now it was all over. There was nothing left to do, but to barricade themselves in the upper room, for the malice of the Jewish leaders that had crucified their Lord would surely not stop until they all, likewise, perished. It seemed as though the blackness of an eternal night had settled upon their lives.
Actually, there was one thing left to do. You see, it was late Friday afternoon before Jesus’ body could be taken down from the cross. If there was one glimmer of hope, it was in the kindness of Joseph of Arimathaea. He had managed to get Pilot to give him the body of Jesus, and not only that, but had allowed Him to be buried in his own new tomb. It had all worked out, and they were able to wrap his body quickly and lay it in the tomb before the Sabbath. But now, as soon as it was Sundown, the woman already had plans to get back to work, to finish the job of embalming His body. It was the least they could do, after all, to pay their last respects. And then, what? The thought was too much. The emptiness. The loneliness. The blackness. It was too much to bear.
It was early in the morning before the women were able to make the trek back to the tomb. On the way, they were talking together: “How are we ever going to open the tomb? The huge stone is far to big for us to roll back.” Little did they know that, all night, the tomb had been guarded by a hundred roman soldiers, hired by the priests to prevent any of the disciples from tampering with the body of Jesus. Even now, if they could see, they would have seen the devil himself and every fallen angel guarding that tomb—trying in vain to insure that Christ would never again come forth. But inside that cold tomb was One who is stronger than wicked men or armies or the hosts of fallen angels—yes One Who is stronger than death.
If those women could have seen past their tears, they would have remembered Jesus’ words just a few short days before, there by the tomb of Lazarus, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live.” (John 11:25). They would have remembered His words in John 10:17-18, “Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father.”
They would have remembered His words, spoken time and again, that he would be betrayed, beaten, and killed, and on the third day rise again (See Matthew 17:23, 20:19, Mark 9:31, 10:34, Luke 18:33). Even his enemies remembered these words. Even now, the hired soldiers guarded the tomb against the eventuality that his disciples would remember Jesus words and steal his body, but no, they had forgotten, and even the grieving women had forgotten.
They could have come triumphant—expectant—looking for a risen Savior! But no, they come, weeping, looking for his lifeless body.
Suddenly, they hear a sound. A crash—a rumble! The earth is shaking. A light pierces the darkness! Not far away, at the tomb, a mighty angel appears, and the the soldiers fall back as dead men! The guard watches helplessly as the angel rolls back the stone, like it was nothing but a pebble. I love Matthew’s remark—that he “sat on it.” (Matthew 28:2) It seems as though he were saying, “Nothing can get in the way of Jesus’ coming back. That stone you were so worried about? It’s nothing at all!”
Picture this description of that mighty angle in Matthew 28:3-8
His countenance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow. And the guards shook for fear of him, and became like dead men.
But the angel answered and said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for He is risen, as He said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. And go quickly and tell His disciples that He is risen from the dead, and indeed He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him. Behold, I have told you.”
So they went out quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to bring His disciples word.
I love the way the gospel of John tells the story. As word gets back to the disciples that the tomb is empty, Peter and John race to the tomb to investigate. John looked in and saw the graveclothes. Then Peter came, and went inside, noting how the grave clothes were neatly folded–just as Jesus would have done!
In the meantime, Mary stood outside the tomb, weeping. She saw the angels. She heard them speaking to her. But her eyes were blinded by tears, and she turned away from their comforting words. As she turned away from the angels, who should she meet but Jesus Himself! Still, she is blinded by grief. Still, she doesn’t recognize him–until he speaks her name! Then in that instant, her heart leaps for joy! She bounds forward and falls at his feet, only to hear his tender voice again.
“Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God.’” (John 20:17)
Their reality changed in an instant. The tiny band of disciples had gone from their worst hour, to the greatest triumph of their lives. It took them a little while to believe it, but as that day progressed, slowly the light dawned upon their minds. The day went from the darkest, to being the brightest day of their lives! The difference? The Lord is Alive! Friends, we serve a living Savior! Unlike so many others, we do not go to honor the tomb of a dead prophet. We can worship a living Lord!
Many people ask, “How do we know that the story of Jesus is true?” We can talk about it, sing about it, etc, but is it really real? How can we believe?
Well, the historical facts about Jesus life–the fact that He lived, the subjects of His teaching, and the particulars of His death–all these are undisputed facts of history. The one incident that is questioned by secular historians is this account of the resurrection. On this question hangs the truthfulness of His claim to who He truly is. He claimed to be the Son of God. He claimed that he would die and rise again. But did He? If He truly did rise from the dead, as He said He would, it would be irrefutable proof that everything He claimed is true. If not, then He would be no better than any other prophet, and at worst, an imposter.
In the particular details surrounding the gospel account of the resurrection, we find compelling evidence that this story is, in fact, a historical truth. The fact the He died on the cross was undisputed. His side was pierced by a spear, which would have insured certain death, had He not already been dead. The fact that he was laid in a certain tomb was well known–many had witnessed his burial. The fact that a roman guard was stationed at the tomb at the time of the resurrection was undisputed. And the fact that the tomb, which had so recently held his remains, now stood open and empty, was clearly visible to everyone!
The claim that His body had been stolen away by the disciples, right under the nose of the Roman guard, is preposterous at best. The Roman guard were professional soldiers. They were used to guarding places all night. To sleep on duty was punishable by death! The disciples could not have overpowered them, nor did they have the means even to bribe the guard (as the priests did). Even if they did, the gospel tells us that they had lost all hope! They were barricaded in the upper room.
And who were the first witnesses to the resurrection scene? The women! If anyone of that time and culture had wanted to write a fictional story about a resurrection, it wouldn’t have involved women as the first eyewitnesses. Why are the women in the story, then? Because the story is true.
And if the story is true, then we must go back and re-read the entire gospel account–read it not as the story of a man, but this time, as the account of God–the Son of God, who came to this world, who lived in human form, and who died and rose again for us, because of His love! In the words of the famous verse that has become the theme of our exploration: For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)
I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades and of Death. (Revelation 1:18)
Jesus, as he lived on this earth, one day sat down by a dusty well, in the country of Samaria. There, he spoke to a woman, and told her the secret of eternal life.
John 4:13-14 Jesus answered and said to her, “Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.”
By His sinless life, His substitutionary death on the cross, and His glorious resurrection, Jesus has opened a fountain of grace and mercy to everyone who believes. The only question now is this: will you accept Him? Will you drink of this fountain of grace and mercy, offered to you in love at such infinite cost?
And the Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” And let him who thirsts come. Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely. (Revelation 22:17)