The Good News of Easter: is it true?

Over the Easter Weekend we ran a short series exploring the message at the heart of Easter. That Jesus Christ died, was buried and rose again. We looked at the Cross, the Tomb and the Risen God. Below our links to all three blogs, in case it would be helpful to revisit them.

Good Friday: The Shame of the Cross

Easter Saturday: The Dark of the Tomb

Easter Sunday: A God Rises to Life

If this is all true: it really matters. A while ago I reviewed Brian Edwards’ short tract on this question. It’s well worth a read, as is this short online article by Patrick Zukeran.

If it’s true: it could change your life. If you already know this wonderful news to be true, then don’t keep it quiet.

Easter Sunday: a God rises to life.

Empty Tomb Of Jesus Pictures | Jesus tomb, Empty tomb

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.”

Matthew 28:1-7

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. 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.

Easter Saturday: The Dark of the Tomb

Mark: An Illustrated Commentary: Mark 16:1-8-- The Unsatisfying End

Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph. So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph saw where he was laid.

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body.

Mark 15:43-16:1

After the events and horror of Good Friday, Saturday brings silence. Joseph, the fearful but faithful follower of Jesus asks Pilate for his body late on Friday. Surprised to learn that He is already dead, Pilate grants this request. Joseph generously but quickly prepares the body, and seals it in the tomb.

This man who claimed to be the King of the World, the Son of God Himself, now lies, stiff and cold, in a dark rock tomb.

Mark skips straight over the Sabbath in his account of this first Easter weekend. The tomb is sealed late on Friday, and the next line takes us straight to Sunday morning. John likewise omits the Sabbath day from his record of events. Luke’s eyewitness account tells us only that “the women who had come with Jesus…went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rest on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.” It is only Matthew’s Gospel which gives us a hint of the action, or lack thereof, on this Easter Sabbath day.

The Dark of the Tomb

Each one of the four Gospel accounts is at pains to tell its readers that Jesus was buried, sealed in a rock hewn tomb. Their accounts match up perfectly, and are clear in the chain of events. Jesus dies on that dark Friday afternoon. The diligence of the Roman executioners is evident across the Gospel accounts, even piercing the body with a spear when they are called to check on their work. Again, Mark stresses that Pilate sent soldiers to confirm the death before the body is released to Joseph. As mentioned yesterday, the Roman historian Tacitus likewise confirms that “Christus… was put to death by Pontius Pilate.” He is buried quickly and simply, the tomb is sealed, and the disciples scatter. The German scholar Rudolf Bultmann called the burial of Jesus “a historical account which creates no impression of being a legend.” This man died and was buried, we can be confident of that.

And so we are left with a tomb. A dead body in a cold rock tomb. As Christ’s head dropped to His chest on that cross, hope seemed lost. The Messiah was dead, defeated, gone. The darkness of Friday lingered into the Sabbath. The disciples sheltered in their dark upper room, other followers of Jesus scattered. It was over. The hints that Jesus Himself had offered: that He had to die, but that after three days He would rise, had been long forgotten. What hope did such words really hold now?

The Fear of the Pharisees

One Gospel account tells us that these words were not totally forgotten. Matthew gives us a small detail of the events of that Sabbath. As the day began, the chief priests and Pharisees went to Pilate…

The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. “Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.”

“Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.

Matthew 27:62-65

The Pharisees, the very group that had condemned Jesus to death, remembered His words. His promises had not been totally forgotten, and so, in order to counter any hoax or trick that the disciples could somehow pull off, the tomb is made even more secure. A crack team of Roman soldiers is stationed there. The greatest army in the world in the first century, and part of it guarded the tomb of this so-called Messiah. No one was getting in or out, especially a disheartened band of fishermen and tax collectors from Galilee. Matthew includes this detail for two reasons. It shows the situation for what it was. Humanly speaking, all hope was gone. The tomb was made as secure as the soldiers of the Roman Empire knew how. There was no human hope of a trick or deception here. But secondly, Matthew reminds us, the reader, of these words of Jesus. Christ Himself made it abundantly clear that He came to die, and that He would rise again.

John’s Gospel tells us some words of Jesus to one Jewish leader. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His one and only Son. That whoever believes in Him, shall not perish, but have eternal life.” Jesus taught that mankind was headed for death, and we all know that to be true. But Jesus taught that mankind embrace sin – the evil that we do, that we love and enjoy – and so God’s punishment for sin was on us all: eternal separation from God and His goodness. Separation from the very God that gives goodness and life. Eternal death and punishment. But Jesus taught that He, the perfect Son of Man, would give His life as a ransom for us all. He would die, and rise, defeating death, and offering His life once and for all for ours. All you must do, is believe in this wonderful Son of God.

Jesus had taught this message for all His earthly ministry. He had repeated the claim that He would die and rise again over and over. Yet still the disciples missed the point. Only the Pharisees remembered those words, and not out of faith, but rather fear that the body would become a political tool.

But other than Matthew’s Gospel – which reminds us of these words of Jesus – Easter Saturday is quickly passed over. As seen with Mark above, the account moves from Friday to Sunday. Because this isn’t a story about Jesus being dead. This is the story about how He conquered death. How He died and rose again, taking the guilt and punishment that mankind deserve. So the Gospel accounts move quickly to the first day of the week. The dark of the tomb isn’t the end of the story.

Early in the Morning...

Because as each Gospel account tells us, the story continues on Sunday morning.

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week…

Matthew 28:1

Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise…

Mark 16:2

On the first day of the week, very early in the morning…

Luke 24:1

On the first day of the week, while it was still dark…

John 20:1

As that first Easter Sunday dawns, the dark of the tomb is forgotten, as something of earth-shattering proportions was about to unfold…

Because Easter Means Hope.

Good Friday: The Shame of the Cross

So the soldiers took charge of Jesus. Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). There they crucified him, and with him two others—one on each side and Jesus in the middle.

John 19:16b-18.

In agony, the body hangs off the cross. Blood pours out of a series of brutally inflicted wounds. From a back that has been torn by the vicious lashes of a three lined whip, one woven through with pieces of lead or bone (designed to rip open the skin, and tear off chunks of the body). From hands and feet that have been pierced through by rough and jagged nails. From a brow crowned with thorns only a short while before, sweat mixing with blood as it pours down a face that cannot be wiped.

Breathing is quickly sharp and jagged. A body wracked with pain, agony in every breath. Hung from a wooden cross, the weight of the body pulls down on the lungs. Slowly, suffocation closes in. The heart becomes weaker as blood pours out of the wounds. Only pain remains, from a body damaged beyond belief. Humanity is stripped away as the naked body hangs, skin in tatters, life fading fast.

This was the horror of the Roman crucifixion. Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, called it “the most wretched of deaths.” Cicero, the Republican orator and polymath, labelled it the “most cruel and terrible punishment.” As Christ hung upon that wooden cross, on the darkest day we know as Good Friday, He hung as a broken, humiliated criminal.

Tacitus, the Roman historian who was born just a few decades after the death of Jesus, gave a simple and methodical account of Jesus’ death.

Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.

Tacitus, Annals, 15.44.

Lacking the details of the Gospel accounts, Tacitus nonetheless confirms the horrifying truth at the heart of the Christian faith. Their founder and Messiah had died upon a cross like a common criminal. The same fate handed out to runaway slaves was inflicted upon the one they thought would be their Saviour. The Cross was a horrifying way to die. And in the Roman world, it was a shame without equal.

The Horror of the Death

Crucifixion is a horrific form of execution, and the suffering inflicted upon the victim is immense. A reading of any one of the four Gospel accounts illustrates this quickly. We can so easily gloss over the details when we read these narratives, but it is human brutality at its worst. The body is wracked with unimaginable pain. Crucifixion was the ultimate statement of the state’s authority.

Runaway slaves were caught and hung to illustrate how their freedom was an illusion before the might of Rome. Criminals were hung to show their crimes had no impact on the power of the Empire. Jesus was hung on the cross as a political prisoner. The sign above His head declared Him to be the King of the Jews. Here, says the might of Rome, is what has become of your king. Your great king, your hope, your so-called Messiah, see how He hangs upon our cross. It was the ultimate defeat at the hands of the state, and the sign above Jesus’ head was an open ridicule of any hopes of deliverance through this now beaten Messiah.

As Jesus hung His head and died, the horror of His death had one final, brutal reality. As He hangs on the cross, Christ’s words are recorded in the Gospel accounts. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” In His final moments, this Son of God felt His Father turn His back. Abandoned by friends, disciples and followers, now His God had turned away.

The Shame of Those Left Behind

Just a few days before, Jesus has ridden into the city on a colt, with crowds surrounding Him, cheering “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” Truly, this Messiah was at His earthly peak. Adoring crowds surrounded Him, welcoming the Son of God come to save a broken humanity. The disciples marched proudly behind Him, basking in His glory. Yet by the end of the week, His battered and torn body hung limply on a cross. The disciples retreated to an upper room. Not for a supper such as the one they had shared just a few hours before, but instead, in fear and trembling, to assess their options.

Only a week earlier they seemed headed for certain success. Now, their leader hung lifeless on a wooden cross, and the faithful lieutenants hid fearfully. Victory had turned to shame. Their king hung like a criminal. Rome had won. The High Priest and the Pharisees had won. This lowly band of fishermen and tax collectors had seen their hopes crushed in the most public of ways.

The disciples offer a painful absence in the Gospel account of the death and burial of Jesus. The Gospel writers tell us that several of the women who followed Jesus stood by watching, but as Joseph comes to request and collect the body, before burying it in his family tomb, there is only silence from the disciples.

Their wonderful leader was seemingly crushed, and in their shame and sorrow, their response was hopelessness.

The Faintest Hope?

Amazingly, in the face of this most horrific of executions, there was a glimmer of hope. The disciples shivered alone in their locked upper room, because they had fled in panic as their leader was defeated. Except He wasn’t defeated. Though all seemed lost, though Rome and the Jewish leaders seemed to have crushed this Jesus Christ, the story was by no means over.

Because this death was not the end.

Jesus Himself had made that clear. He was the first man for whom death was not the end, because He had come to defeat it. He was in charge of the dark events of this first Good Friday. And He had made that clear to all those who would listen just a short while ago.

“I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again.

John 10:17b-18a.

Jesus knew exactly what was coming when He rode into Jerusalem in triumph. It wasn’t a triumph at a past victory, but one He was about to win. As Christ breathed His last on that humble wooden cross, the story was far from over. He had laid down His life for the very people who had surrounded Him at that triumphal entry, for the same people who had called for Him to hang upon that cross. But He had the authority to take it back up again.

Good Friday is only the start of the weekend.

Because Easter Means Hope.