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The Vanishing Power Of Death

Jesus Raised For Us

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | April 12, 2009

Selected highlights from this sermon

Mary Magdalene had been afflicted by demons, but was rescued after meeting Jesus. Yet at the cross, her Savior died before her very eyes. At His tomb, she wept when she couldn’t find the body of her Lord. Then, Jesus appeared to her—He was risen.

There is a fable that circulates in the Middle East about a Bagdad merchant who wanted to send his servant to the marketplace one morning for an errand. And when the servant was there he came around the corner and he was met by Lady Death. And he was so startled when he saw her, and she had such a look on her face. He hurried back to his master and he said, “I met Lady Death in the marketplace today, and she had such a fearful look. I want your fastest horse so I can ride all the way to Samara tonight, to get away from her.” So on his way, he went.

That afternoon the merchant himself went to the marketplace, and met Lady Death and said, “Why did you startle my servant the way you did this morning?” She said, “Well, I didn’t intend to.” She said, “It was I that was startled.” She said, “I don’t know what he was doing here in the marketplace in Baghdad this morning because I have an appointment with him in Samara tonight.” [laughter

One way or another death is going to come to us. We don’t know the time. We don’t know the date. It might be much earlier than many of ever suspect, but come it will. And at a time like that, what we will need is a Savior to save us from our sins, someone who has redeemed us, and brings us into the presence of a Holy God, and only Jesus qualifies. 

Today as we think of the resurrection story I want us to think of a woman who was prominent in the life of Jesus. Her name is Mary Magdalene. Now I know she got a lot of press during the days of the da Vinci Code, but no, she was not married to Jesus, but yes, she was a very devoted follower of Jesus and loved Him with all of her heart. She is indeed a remarkable woman because the first time we meet her in the New Testament is in the Gospel of Luke. It says she was part of a delegation of women that actually followed Jesus and helped support Him in His ministry. And then it includes her and it says, “Mary Magdalene, out of whom Jesus cast seven demons.”

Now there are some people who look at that text and they think, “Well, surely this is seven psychological scars.” No, in the New Testament, you discover these are actually demons. Demons do exist. They are created beings but fallen beings. They are evil beings. They are deceitful spirits, and sometimes they like to harass people, and sometimes they even indwell individuals if they have specific permission. These are foul spirits. They are called, in the Bible, unclean spirits.

We don’t know how it is that Mary Magdalene had these spirits. We have no idea. Was it because she was into occultism, which sometimes leads to that kind of invasion of spirits? Was it because she lived a life of unrestrained immorality? We’re not sure of that. Sometimes she has been called a prostitute, but we do not know she was a prostitute. Whatever it was, there it is in the text, “Mary Magdalene, one out of whom Jesus cast seven demons.”

Can’t you just imagine what it was like for this woman to finally be clean, Jesus speaks the Word and the demons leave? Her sin which had harassed her also is gone. The voices of self-condemnation and self-hatred left her, and for the first time in her life, she sensed a cleanness, a wholeness, an ability to be able to relate to this world with joy. Jesus gave that to her.

I suspect Jesus was probably the only man she ever met whom she could possibly trust. He was a man with impeccable purity, a man who was able to minister with such a sense, without manipulation, without false motives. She never had to hear a suggestive remark from His lips, and because of the deliverance she experienced, she loved Him and loved Him deeply.

The next time we see Mary Magdalene is at the cross. Now, I have to tell you the cross and the crucifixion site was no place for a woman to be, really no place for any person to be. And yet the Bible says even though the disciples forsook Him and fled, Mary Magdalene and a number of other women (We don’t know how many.) hung around the cross. God bless them because they loved Jesus.

Very interestingly, in Mark’s Gospel, it says after everyone had gone, Mary Magdalene and another Mary—there are actually six or seven Marys in the New Testament because it was a very common name. Mary Magdalene and another Mary were around until the body of Jesus was taken down from the cross, and they went and they saw the tomb, and they saw where His body was laid. What a remarkable story.

And that leads us to a few comments I want to make from the 20th chapter of John’s Gospel. If you have a Bible before you, John, chapter 20. If you are using the Bible that is available to you there in the pew, you will find it there. John, chapter 20, and I thought I had a marker in the text and didn’t but I know where the Gospel of John is. [laughter] I’ve come that far. [more laughter.]

Now, if you have a Bible that is in the pew, it is on page 906. What happens we read in John 20:1, “Now on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb.” God bless her. The last woman at the cross, the first woman at the tomb after the Sabbath. She comes while it is still dark. The other women come later (The Bible says at sunrise.) but Mary Magdalene is there first. She comes and she notices the stone, the large stone had been taken away from the tomb. What is she thinking? She is thinking grave robbers. She’s thinking the enemies of Jesus have now not only killed Him, but now they want to desecrate His body. Now they want to take Him and do something else with Him so the disciples don’t know where He is laid. So she is distressed, and the Bible says in John 20:2, “She ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, (We know that is John, the disciple.) and she said to them, ‘They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb and I do not know where they have laid Him.’” 

Well, these two now are in distress too. It says, “Peter went out with the other disciple and they were going toward the tomb, and both of them were running together but the other disciple outran Peter (That is, John outran Peter.) and reached the tomb first. And stooping to look in he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he didn’t go in.” (John 20:3-5).

Trust Simon who was always somewhat impetuous, somewhat always having his foot forward. “Simon (The Bible says) came, and followed him and went into the tomb and he saw the linen clothes lying there, and the face cloth which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen clothes but folded up in a place by itself.” (John 20:6-7). 

Then John goes in after Peter does, and he goes in and he sees and he believes. Wow, because the disciples didn’t understand the resurrection was coming. Jesus had told them but they didn’t get it. And there they are in the tomb and why is it the napkin that was about His head was folded nicely off by itself?

There is a tradition that says there were servants and masters, of course, in those days, the servant would always watch the master to know whether he was done eating, because if he wasn’t finished you didn’t want to go and begin to clean up the table. And if the master took his nap cloth and simply took it and threw it on the table, and it was all bundled up, then you knew he was finished, but if he left it folded, that was a hint he was returning again. Maybe it was that. Maybe it was just the orderliness of the tomb. John goes in and says, “This is not the work of robbers. This is not the work of enemies. They’d have come and in they’d have desecrated the place. Jesus was raised from the dead.” John believes.

Now, get the picture. These disciples, the Bible says, go home. Mary Magdalene then comes, because after all they had run, and apparently they do not meet, and now we have Mary Magdalene before the tomb alone before anyone else gets there. John 20:11, “But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb, and she saw two angels in white, sitting there where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said, ‘They’ve taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’”

Why is it that she wasn’t startled with the angels? We read this story and we think we’re moderns. Do angels exist? Yes, angels exist. Angels were very much connected with the Christmas story, and whenever God does something great in history we sometimes have angel stories as recorded in the Scriptures. And you have to remember also angels oftentimes appear simply as men. In fact, they’re described that way in other Gospels, so she is weeping. She is not interested in whom she is speaking. All she can do is to say, “My Lord is gone. Where can I find His dead body?” Has any woman ever wept like this woman? Has any woman ever loved like this woman? Has anyone ever cared as deeply as this woman did? And so she is in despair.

Now, the Bible says she was standing next to Jesus and didn’t know it. John 20:14, “Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know it was Jesus. And Jesus said to her, just as the angels had, ‘Why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?’ Supposing Him to be the gardener she said to Him, ‘Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will come and take Him away.’”

Mary is standing beside Jesus. In her gloom and in her despair she does not recognize Him. She thinks He is the gardener. Isn’t it wonderful that Mary didn’t find what she was looking for? She was looking for the dead body of Jesus. Tragic if she had found what she was looking for. God had something else in mind for her, namely not a dead Christ, but a resurrected one. And you here today may not find what you were here looking for. You may be looking for simply a sermon that inspires you, or beautiful music that inspires you, and you didn’t know God brought you to this moment, to this hour, to the seat in which you are seated to give you something much better than you thought you would ever get, and that is to connect with the risen Lord Jesus Christ.

Why was it Mary didn’t recognize Him? Well, she didn’t recognize Him because she was so overcome with her grief, and so overcome with her gloom she couldn’t see Jesus, though He was beside her. It’s very interesting she tells Jesus, “Tell me where You have laid Him and I will come and take Him away.” I mean, Mary, get real. Really? You’re going to take Him away? Honestly? Did she actually think she had the physical power to be able to take the dead body of Jesus?

My friends, this is love being optimistic. This is love saying, “I love Him so much I can do the impossible,” and so she wants to ask the gardener, “Where did you put Him?” Right then Jesus says to her, “Mary.” “Oh, the voice! It is Him. I remember Him. It is Jesus,” and the Bible says Mary takes and puts her arms around His legs and will not let Him go because she has found the Savior. Interestingly, she said to the gardener, when she thought He was only a gardener, “They have taken away my Lord.” She still called Him Lord at that time, though He was dead, God bless her. But now He’s alive, and she says, “Rabboni,” which is to say Master. It’s a strengthened form of the word Rabbi, and she holds him there.

It’s interesting Jesus says to her, “Mary, stop clinging to Me because I have not yet ascended to My Father.” (John 20:17). What Jesus was really saying is, “Mary, you need to understand something. You need to realize I’m still going to be here because I haven’t ascended to My Father.” Jesus knew He was going to do that in forty days’ time, so what He’s saying is, “You simply realize you’ll have an opportunity to see Me, but Mary, there’s something else you have to learn, and what you need to learn is our relationship is going to change. No longer are you going to think of Me as an earthly person. You’re going to have to think about Me as a heavenly person.”

So, I would say, first of all, this experience for Mary was a learning experience. She had to realize something, when Jesus would ascend into heaven to be with His Father, He would then send forth the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit would give us the same intimacy with Jesus that Mary had when she was here on earth. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit of God, to bring the reality of Jesus not to just one person but to people scattered all over the world, whether in China or India or the continent of Europe or South America. Wherever they are found, if they believe in Jesus and trust Him they can have the same kind of fellowship Mary had. “So Mary, you have to realize here that our relationship is beginning to change.” It was a learning experience.

But let me tell you it was also a very affirming experience. This ought to bless anyone. Notice what Jesus said. He said, “Woman, first of all, stop clinging to Me. (John 20:17) I have not yet ascended to the Father, go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God.’” Wow. I mean, talk about affirmation. 

What He’s saying is, “Mary, I want you to be the first witness really to the resurrection. I want you to tell my brothers, that is to say, My disciples, that I am raised from the dead. I want you to tell them what I’ve just told you, that I’m going to be ascending to My Father who is in heaven.” 

Jesus was so radically counter-cultural when it came to women. In those days the testimony of a woman was not even accepted in court, of all things. They were definitely second-class citizens, and here Jesus says, “I am entrusting to a woman the most important message the church will ever hear, namely of My resurrection.” Now, of course, later on the disciples met Jesus for themselves, but at this point it was given to Mary, a woman, and not just any woman, a woman who had been very troubled, a very troubled woman at one point in her life. Can you imagine the affirmation? But it doesn’t end there. Jesus said, “Go tell My brothers that I’m ascending to your Father and My Father.”

Now, if you and I share fathers, if we have the same father, we are brothers, and what Jesus was saying to her is, “Yes, my disciples are My brothers, most assuredly, but you now, Mary, are My sister. You’re My sister because I am ascending to your Father and My Father.” 

I don’t know whether or not Mary Magdalene had a family. The Bible doesn’t indicate she was married. I don’t know whether or not she had siblings. I don’t know whether or not her parents were alive, and even if they were, whether she was living with them, but at this moment that didn’t matter much because she had become a part of a more important family, the family of God. And she would be a sister to the Lord Jesus Christ and a daughter of the Living God.

Obviously, it is also a very redeeming experience, wasn’t it? It was redeeming. We have to back off for just a moment and ask ourselves, “How did Mary Magdalene get from point A to point B? How does a woman who is inhabited and struggles with voices and darkness and evil spirits, how does she get from point A to point B, being a daughter of God and being used by God? How does that process work?”  

I’d like to suggest there are some elements that are very important because we need to know how the process works because we’re in the same predicament. Oh, our details may change but we need to know, too, how we can be reconciled to God.

First of all, her relationship with God was a very honest relationship. She knew who she was. She knew there was no way she could cure herself, no way to get rid of the demons, no way to have her conscience cleansed from her sins, no way to have the self-condemnation and the self-hate stop. She would need help. She would need a Savior. And I’m speaking to you very candidly today. If you and I think we do not need a Savior, if we have learned to manage our sins, and if we are content with the way we are, then Jesus is of no value to us because we bear our sin on our own, and it becomes a messy, ugly experience. So she was very honest. She knew she had a need. No question about it.

Secondly, I would say their relationship was very personal. Don’t you love it, that Jesus spoke her name? Jesus said, “Mary.” Talk about a personal relationship. And I need to tell you today if your relationship with Jesus is not that personal, you will not be saved. Oh, we don’t hear our names. I’ve never heard my name spoken by Jesus, but I know through the study of the Word and my own fellowship with God that Jesus and I are intimate and there are hundreds and hundreds of you who can say the very same thing.

You see, people don’t get saved in bundles. It’s not something you grow into. It’s not something you are baptized into. You must personally receive Christ as Savior as an individual, understanding what you are doing. That’s the way in which we are saved.

One day a man came to me and said, “You know, my father’s dying in a nursing home. He is in hospice care. He’s gone to church all of his life. He’s listened to sermons. He’s sung songs. And now when it comes to die he’s terrified and doesn’t think he’s ready to meet God. How can I give him comfort? I’m trying to comfort him.” And I said, “You know, maybe one of the worst things you could do is to give him comfort because it might be a false comfort.” Whenever somebody has doubts as to whether or not they are ready to die, always take those doubts seriously because there may be a reason why they’re doubting. They’re doubting because they have good reason to doubt because they aren’t ready.

What you do with somebody like that is to help him to understand no matter what has happened in the past, if he now embraces Christ as Savior, if he is saved and receives Jesus as his sin-bearer, he can have assurance right now no matter where he is in his path of spiritual experience.

Christianity, by the way, is just, bottom line, it has to do with the possessive pronoun. Think for a moment about the phrase, “Jesus is a Savior.” I would think the majority of people who are listening, whether you are listening here or by way of Internet or radio, I would think the majority of you would say, “I agree with that. Jesus is a Savior.” But I do need to remind you even the devil can agree with that too. He can say, “Jesus is a Savior.” But think of how different it becomes when we say, “Jesus is my Savior because I’ve received Him as my sin-bearer and will participate in His victory.” Think of how different that statement is.

So it was a personal relationship she had. It was also a God-given relationship. It was a God-given experience. You see, only God can really show us the truth of what I am preaching here today, and only God can open our hearts because when we receive Christ as Savior, it is not just that our sins are forgiven and our consciences are clear. Thank God for that. But it’s even better than that. God does a work within our hearts and changes us so we begin to love God. 

We can’t turn love for God on and off like a faucet. You can’t wake up and say, “Well, today I’m going to love God.” What happens is when we receive Christ as Savior, that love is birthed in our hearts as God changes our desires. Something else happens, and that is Mary might not have fully understood, but it’s clear in the later pages of the New Testament, that what God has to do is to supply us with the kind of righteousness God accepts so we can stand spotless in God’s sight. And only that can be given to us by Jesus. There’s nobody else out there, no other teacher, no other guru, no other prophet, no other leader. Jesus stands alone. He’s the only Savior this world has. Whether it’s east or west or north or south, there is nobody else out there with the qualifications to be a Savior.

Now, I’ve told this story, and some of you have heard it before, but I need to tell it again. It’s a true story. A number of years ago when I was in Washington, D.C. with two of my daughters (Rebecca could not be with me at that time.) we were in a church. And I was speaking at a church, and a secret service agent was there and asked me later, “Would you like to go to see the President’s Oval Office on Monday?” It was at a time when the first President Bush was president, so it was a time when security perhaps was not as heightened as it would be today.

Well, you know when he gave that invitation to see the Oval Office I never even prayed about it because there are some things that are so clear, you don’t even have to mess with it. You just say, “Yes, we’ll be there.”

That day we went there, and as you know, the little huts where the Secret Service agents are—they saw us, and then they saw we were with this agent, and they, in effect, said, “Okay, well if you’re with him you can go on in.” When you get to the door of the White House there are more agents, and there there were some agents who looked at us, and they saw we were with the Secret Service agent and they recognized him, and they said, “Okay if you’re with him you can go in.”

Inside the White House in the halls of the White House, there were more agents. And they looked at us, and then they looked at him, and they said, “Okay, go in.” When you get to the Oval Office, standing right at the door of the Oval Office there was one more agent standing at attention. But he did glance at us, and he glanced at the agent whom he knew, and so he said, “You can go in,” but we could not go to the president’s desk. We could only put our foot into the Oval Office.

What I’d like you to do is to use your imagination for a few moments. Let us suppose, all of us were to die together, and that’s easier to understand after 9/11. And let us suppose we were to find ourselves on the other side of the curtain and there on the other side of the curtain the resurrected, triumphant Jesus meets us to take us all the way to the Father’s house. After all, the Bible says, He alone can do that. He is the way to the Father.

So there we are, and I want you to also visualize that along the way there are sentries. There are groups of angels positioned to guard the path to the heavenly city. And I can imagine we are now with Jesus, and the angels look at us, and then they see Jesus. And they say, “Oh, you’re with Him.” You know, ‘Go on in.”

And then we get to another group of angels, and they say to us, “Oh, you’re with Him? Just go on in.” And then in the distance, we begin to see God. Now, God exists everywhere but there He is localized. In the Bible, it says “unapproachable light,” we see God as we have never seen Him with such clarity and beauty and holiness. We can scarcely imagine it, and when we see how holy God is we say to ourselves, “We can’t go in,” and we begin to have flashbacks because among us there are some men who have committed crimes and sexual sins that are horrid. Among us there are women who have aborted their preborn infants.

And those of us who perhaps have been spared such sins, when we think of our thought life, we discover we, too, are unworthy to go in. And as we begin to think about our past, prior to accepting Christ as Savior—as we begin to think about our past we say to ourselves, “We just can’t, we can’t go in.” We just can’t go in because God is so holy as we are reminded of our sins.

But there’s an angel there who looks at us and says, “Well, you’re with Him. Go on in.” And there we find ourselves in the presence of the living and the holy God, and the Son says to the Father, “Thank you so much. These oh Father, are your sons and your daughters, and I am their brother.” And I can imagine the Father saying to the Son, “Thank you so much for dying for them, for redeeming them, and thank you for bringing them to me because I love them. And I Have thoroughly inspected them, and I find no fault in them. I see no sin in them.”

You see, that’s why we as Christians sing, “Clothed in His righteousness alone, faultless to stand before the throne.” God says, “In the place of their uncleanness, I accept the beauty and the holiness of Jesus. In the place of their deceit, I accept the truth and the voracity of Jesus. And in the place of all of their sins, I accept the sacrifice of Jesus. And in the place of their death, which they should die eternally, I accept the resurrection of Jesus, saved by His grace, on His behalf.”

But it’s not automatic. You don’t grow into it. You don’t kind of drift into it. You receive Christ by faith. “As many as received Him, to those He gives the authority to become the children of God, even to those who believe in His name.” (John 1:12).

Mary Magdalene did that. You can do that too to be brought from darkness to light, from gloom to hope in the presence of the resurrected Jesus who died for sinners just like you and me.

Let us pray.

Before I pray I want you to bow your head. If you are here today and you’ve never received Christ as Savior, wherever you are, if the Holy Spirit has spoken to you and you know that you are a sinner and you stand in need of a Savior, say, “Jesus, save me.” Tell Him that. It has to be personal. It has to be honest that you are accepting what He did for you. You tell Him that right now where you are seated, or wherever you are listening.

Father, we love you because you first loved us. We love you because your Son died for us. We love you because we will belong to you forever as we participate in His triumph. We ask that the Holy Spirit would work mightily and many people today will believe and be saved, Amen.


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