Scripture Reference: Matthew 28
Come And See His Empty TombDr. Erwin W. Lutzer | April 11, 2004
Selected highlights from this sermon
Many have tried, but you cannot keep God in the tomb.
Matthew 28 opens with the interesting story of women who go to the tomb intending to find the body of Jesus. Aren’t you glad that they didn’t find what they hoped to find? They found something much better – not the body of Jesus – but they discovered that Jesus was alive.
And some of you maybe have come here today because you wanted an inspiring worship service, and we’ve certainly had that. But I hope that you actually find something even better than that in these moments, and that is that you personally are confronted with the reality of the living Christ.
It’s an interesting story in Matthew 28 because in the preceding chapter the priests and Pharisees go to Pilate and they say, “Pilate, Jesus predicted that He would rise again. To make sure that the disciples don’t steal the body and pretend that He fulfilled His word, make sure that the tomb is sealed.” So Pilate says to them in Matthew 27:65, “You have a guard of soldiers. Go, make it as secure as you can.” So they went away and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard.
I’m amused by the phrase, “Make it as secure as you can.” Try to keep God in the tomb. That’s like speaking to the sun and telling it, “Don’t shine anymore,” or speaking to the oceans and saying, “No longer be wet.”
How are you going to keep God in the tomb? Well, the Bible says in Matthew 28:2-5, “An angel descended from heaven and came and rolled the stone away and sat on it. His appearance was like lightening and his clothing white as snow. And for fear of Him the guards trembled and became like dead men.” I would think so. But I want you to know that the angel didn’t roll the stone away to let Jesus out. Jesus was already out because the molecular structure of His body was such that He was not limited by stones and by mortar. Jesus Christ had already arisen. The stone was pulled aside so that the people could look in and see that the tomb was empty. That’s why the angel did that.
And the angel gives them two commands. First of all he says, “Don’t be afraid.” He says, “I know that you are seeking Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for He is risen, just as He said.” And then the second command is this. “Come and see where the Lord lay.” Come and believe. The tomb is empty.
Now many people don’t like the empty tomb. It started right here in the New Testament. If we took the time to read Matthew 28:11 we’d learn that when they discovered that Jesus was alive, the chief priests and the Pharisees were upset, and they paid money to the guards, and they said, “Say that His disciples came and stole His body.” That was the first lie that was told about the Resurrection, but how absurd! How would His disciples be able to overcome the guards, push the stone away and steal His body and get away with it? Furthermore, they would not later on preach the Resurrection and be willing to die for it if in point of fact they knew that Jesus was still dead.
So some unbelievers have said, “Well, the disciples wouldn’t have stolen the body, but maybe His enemies stole it.” Well, what would they do with the body, and furthermore, when the disciples preached the Resurrection they would have produced the body, and they’d have said, “You are liars because here He is and He’s dead.”
Others, using their fertile imaginations have said, “Well, you know what really happened is that Jesus didn’t really die completely. He just swooned on the cross, and then after three days in the cool tomb He finally arose.” I want to say here, “Get a life!” First of all, are you telling me that the Romans would have put Him in the tomb without Him being dead? Number one, they made sure He was dead. Number two, a man who was lacerated like Jesus was in the tomb three days pushed away the stone and the tomb is empty? He’d have to be in the hospital for six months just to recover to be able to walk, much less inspire disciples to go about and change the world.
The Apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15 that 500 people saw Jesus and many of them are still living. We’re not talking about hallucinations. We’re not talking about the Spirit of Jesus somehow arising. We’re talking about the physical body of Christ, whom later on in this passage, the people touched, and they said they held His feet. We’re talking about a literal physical bodily resurrection.
Alice Meynell wrote, “No planet knows that this our wayside planet … Bears, as chief treasure, one forsaken grave.” That is the chief treasure on Planet Earth - one forsaken grave.
So the angel said, “Come, see the place where He lay.” And then the angel said in verse 7, “Then go quickly (first, come and see and then go) and tell his disciples that He has risen.” “Tell the disciples that death is defeated. Tell His disciples that the sting has been taken out just like a bee that can only sting you once, and then after it has stung you, it no longer has a stinger. It can only threaten. In the very same way, the sting of death has been taken out and later on we discover in the New Testament that because He lives we shall live also, and we shall be like Him for we shall see Him as He is.
You want to know what kind of a resurrection body you are going to have? I want you to know that I’ve already preached once this morning at a sunrise service at a church here in the city. And in the message I pointed out a friend of mine, and I asked everybody to look at him, and because it was a small church you could see him. I said, “Just look at the body he brought with him today. That’s the body that’s going to be changed. It’s the body that is going to be like Jesus.” The Bible says it is sown in corruption, and we’re all in the process of corrupting, but it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in weakness. You go to a funeral and that body is not only weak. It’s dead. It’s sown in weakness but it is raised in strength. It is sown a natural body. It is raised a spiritual body. But there will be continuity and similarity because we will know one another in heaven. You and I will be remade, but the continuity will enable us to know each other. Remember you are the same person after you die as you were before with some substantial changes, but you are the same person.
And so what the angel said is, “Go tell His disciples it’s not the end. Jesus has arisen.” And then I love these words of the angel in verse 7. He says, “He has risen from the dead, and behold, He is going before you to Galilee.” Someone has said that Jesus is the go-ahead God. He goes before us and He does that all the time. There’s no place where God ever asks us to go but that He has already been there.
Someday we are all going to go to our tomb, but when we think of that tomb we need not fear it because someone else has already been in the tomb and the One in whom we have believed has triumphed over the tomb. And because of that we participate in His triumph.
In the Old Testament days you remember when God led Israel through the desert. The Scripture says that there was a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day. God says, “There’s nowhere that you are going but that I haven’t gone before you.” There is no dark room that God is asking you to go into but that it is a room into which He Himself has gone. Your fears of tomorrow, your anxiety for the future, God has been there and God is there. Jesus is our forerunner. In fact it says in the book of Hebrews that He rose from the dead and that He ascended on high and He went into the presence of God into the very Holy of Holies, there awaiting us.
And the imagery of a forerunner is that when a vessel was coming into a harbor in ancient times the forerunner would hop off the ship and swim to shore with a rope that was on the ship. He would tie that rope onto a very strong rock – a big rock, and then by means of a winch that vessel was brought into shore. And in the very same way, the winds may try to blow us off course. Your vessel and mine, the sails may be tattered. It may well be that the boards begin to creek, and the weakness begins to set in, and all of our diseases and our handicaps eventually get the better of us, and even if that doesn’t happen, we shall die. But every single day Jesus brings us one notch closer to the shore. He brings us where He is already in heaven. And He says, “I’ve crossed that river. I’ve gone behind that curtain, and here I am inviting you and leading you to be with Me.” He is the go-ahead God.
In fact, it’s the whole matter of death that separated the early church from the pagans. You know that when plagues came to the early church and all throughout the land thousands of people died, and there were cartloads of bodies that were pulled off, a man by the name of Cyprian (a leader of the Church), in effect said, “These plagues are good.”
I read of one historian who said that Christianity would never have expanded as it did were it not for those plagues. Why? It gave the Christians an opportunity to prove that they died differently than the pagans. And Cyprian even said that we should not mourn for our brethren. He said that our brethren should not be mourned. Now I don’t totally agree with that, because Jesus even wept at the tomb of Lazarus. But I want you to know the point that he’s making. He says, “Let’s not weep for our brethren, and since they are not lost but sent before, departing they lead the way, travelers to another country. Let not the pagans see us mourn because we know that they exist on the other side, and we shall be with them.”
That’s why the pagans said of the Christians, “They carry their dead as if in triumph. They know that it is not the end because they believe in a Savior that has proven that He has power over death.”
We sometimes sing,
Because He lives I can face tomorrow,
Because He lives all fear is gone,
For I know who holds tomorrow,
And life is worth the living just because He lives.
Pilate said to the guards, “Make the tomb as secure as you can.” You know, there may be somebody here today who wants to make that tomb secure. Maybe there’s someone here who would prefer a dead Christ to a living Christ, because if He is dead you don’t have to deal with Him. You can ignore Him and try to live without Him. Make it as secure as you can.
Philosophically David Hume came up with an argument to try to disprove miracles and he thought that if his argument held water that Jesus would have to stay in the tomb. Well, his argument did not hold water. Then I think, for example, of people like Darwin who thought that he would have scientific evidence that we could do away with Christ and the miracles of the Bible, and that we did not need Jesus, and we could keep Him in the tomb. Freud took the stone of psychology and rolled it in front of the tomb and said that we could explain human behavior apart from God and apart from Christ. Voltaire took the stone of culture. He thought that man had progressed educationally in such a way that you no longer needed a Christ to intervene to save you. But those men had been of no greater success than those guards who rolled that stone in front of the tomb, and who set that watch, because you can’t keep God in a tomb. (applause)
And there may be some of you here today who keep Jesus in the tomb, and by that I mean at a distance for other reasons. You may never have worried yourself about Him or thought much about Him, maybe because of anger in your heart. You’ve been hurt by God. You believe that God has not come through for you and you’ve been hurt by some of God’s children, and so in your heart today you are resistant to the possibility of meeting the risen Christ, and you just prefer that He be in the tomb.
Some of you because of pride think that you can stand before God on your own and you don’t need Jesus, because you are so healthy and so well. And you think that even when death comes, somehow you will manage. Like a man on a plane to whom I spoke, who said, “When I stand before God I’m going to stand on the basis of my own record.” Wow! Be blown away in a moment in the presence of a Holy God on the basis of your own record! Another man told me, “I’m going to do okay on my own.” No, you’re not going to do okay on your own.
And then maybe even religion keeps Jesus in the tomb. This past flu season was pretty bad, and I eventually did get a flu shot. You know, what getting inoculated means is that they give you a little bit of it to keep you from the real thing. That’s the idea. There are some people who have enough religion to keep them from the real thing. They say to themselves, “I’ve heard it all. I’ve understood it all. I’ve gone through all the rituals. I know the story.” And yet because of that, they are kept from confronting the risen Christ and coming to know Him personally. And I’m saying today, “Roll that stone of religion away and get to Jesus.” (applause) Would you do that? And then maybe for others there is the stone of indifference – just putting it off. “I don’t need Him. Someday maybe!” No, this is the appointed hour.
Now I want to tell you that when Jesus died on the cross His death was a sacrifice for sinners, and He died so that you and I might not have to die an eternal death. And the Bible makes it very clear that only those who believe in Him, only those who embrace Him (As many as received Him to those He gives the power to become the sons of God, even to those who believe in His name.) participate in His resurrection.
The Bible says there is a resurrection to life, and there is the resurrection to eternal death. And the dividing line is what you personally do with Jesus. And right now in the balcony there are some of you who are listening who have never responded to Jesus personally. Take all the stones away and say, “Today I receive Him as my Savior.” And those on the lower floor, and those who may be listening by radio or the Internet, this is your moment to reach out and say, “Jesus, be mine. I receive You.”
In a few moments we are going to be singing a song, which if you were to sing in sincerity would be the expression of your heart. You’d be embracing Christ as your Savior.
Take all the stones away. Why? It’s because He lives. That’s why. Kingdoms come and kingdoms go, but Christ lives. Centuries come and centuries go, and Christ lives. Skeptics live and skeptics die, but Christ lives. Stars shine and then stars cease their shining, but Christ lives.
Lifted up was He to die;
“It is finished!” was His cry;
Now in heav’n exalted high.
Hallelujah! What a Savior!