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.
The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”
He is not here, said the angel. He has risen. Just as He said.
The first Easter Sunday started in the most incredible way. This man, Jesus, had claimed that after three days He would rise again. And as these two faithful friends went to the tomb early on Sunday morning, they were met with the shock of the empty tomb. But this was no trick or deception, like the Pharisees had feared on the Sabbath. This was supernatural. The earth shook, and a godly figure descended, rolling away the stone – far too heavy a stone for any one man to move – and sitting upon it. The guards, this crack team of Roman soldiers, ‘shook and became like dead men.’
In fear, Jesus’ friends approach this shining man, and he utters some of the most miraculous words in the Bible. “He is not here; He has risen.” This Christ, who promised that the grave could not hold Him, who promised that death would be defeated, had done exactly that.
The incredible events of this first Easter morning changed the Roman world more than anything else. As the story of this God who died and rose again spread around the Mediterranean, thousands, millions, came to trust in Him. It all started on this morning with the empty tomb.
‘god’ is Dead.
The notion that a god could die was a painful reality in the ancient world. Indeed, new gods rose up frequently, and almost all inevitably died quickly. Emperors from Augustus onwards (the Emperor when Jesus was born) encouraged an ‘Emperor-cult’ – a revering of the Roman Emperor as a divine figure. These emperors, these gods, died. People accepted that these men became gods, but they also saw them die.
This notion of divine death was common place in the ancient world. Plutarch, the Greek writer who died less than a century after Christ rose from the dead, told of a discussion of divine mortality. In it the story of the Greek god Pan is recounted. Plutarch tells of a traveller named Epitherses who witnessed a stunning scene. As Epitherses and his companions sailed on their way, a voice was heard calling from the shore.
When you are arrived at Palodes, take care to make it known that the great God Pan is dead.
Plutarch, De defec. Orac., 17.
The passengers on this ship witnessed the announcement: the god had died.
Take even the supposed king of the gods, Zeus, the Roman Jupiter. Clement of Alexandria, a second century Christian apologist, quotes the Greek poet Callimachus as he says:
Search for your Zeus. Scour no heaven, but earth. Callimachus the Cretan, in whose land he lies buried, will tell you in his hymns:
“for a tomb, O prince, did the Cretans fashion for you.“
Yes, Zeus is dead.
Clement of Alexandria, Protr., 2 (quoting Call. Hymn to Zeus 8-9)
Even Zeus, the great king of the gods, could die. (Though Clement doesn’t quote Callimachus too fairly!) So the death of the divine was no alien notion to the Roman audience as Christian believers began sharing the news of their Saviour. If a bunch of provincial Jews has one more god to throw into the mix, that would have been of little consequence in a world of many gods, living and dead.
God is not Dead.
But that wasn’t quite what these new Christ followers began to say. Because they believed in a God who was different for two reasons. The first was a scandal, the second was a miracle.
Their God, this Jesus Christ, was not another ‘god’ to toss into the ring. He doesn’t ask to be worshipped alongside Apollo, Zeus or Mithras. He made a sole claim to divinity, one repeated by His followers for millenia. “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus was not an extra god in a crowded pantheon, He was God. End of story.
But alongside this bold claim, came the news at the heart of this new religious movement. The followers of this Christ claimed that their God had died. And that He had risen again.
Pan had died and stayed dead. Augustus, founder of the mighty empire, was buried in Rome. Zeus, a myth slowly rotting on Crete. But Jesus? Death could not hold this true Son of God. There was no lonely voice calling out His death across the sea. No funerary hymn for Christ. He was dead, and now He is alive.
This is the stunning truth at the heart of the Christian faith. That 2000 years ago, God walked on Earth. He came down, lived and walked among men and women for 33 years. He was killed as He hung on a Roman cross. He was buried in a rock tomb. And He rose to life on that first Easter Sunday, gloriously defeating death, shouldering the punishment our sins deserved, and displaying to the world that surely, truly, this man was the Son of God.
The message of the Early Church as they spread around the Roman world was not that they had a new god on offer. It was that they worshipped the True God, who had defeated death, conquered the grave, and now offered the chance of a relationship with the Creator of the Universe. God is not dead, the grave could not hold Him.
A Different kind of Life.
Jesus told His followers that “I have come so that you may have life and have it to the full.” His resurrection shows that this was no mere self-help claim. This wasn’t a feel good statement, or a few reassuring words. Christ has come, so that we might have life, to the full. Real life. True life. Eternal life.
The Early Christians believed that with a fervent joy. As they took the news of the miraculously empty tomb to the nations, they preached a good news of joy and of life. As we reflect on this Easter story, millenia later, locked down in the grips of a global pandemic, these words still ring true.
He came that we might have life to the full. He died, and rose again, so that we too may have life to the full.
This Easter, if you know and love Jesus for yourself, rejoice and praise God that this life is yours.
But if you don’t know Jesus yet, if you’re not sure who He really is, then this lockdown Easter, why not explore His story? Open up (or Google) a Bible and start at John Chapter 1. Read the story of Jesus for yourself. Explore for yourself this God who died and is risen. Consider His offer of life to the full. Because as the tomb is empty, as the risen Lord Jesus reigns on high, Easter truly does mean hope for you.