On Friday evening in West Kirk we read from Mark’s gospel how the Lord was taken to the Jewish Sanhedrin, the Jewish court, where he was accused of blasphemy for saying he was the Son of God and they condemned him to death. Since they didn’t have the authority to execute anyone, they had to take him to Pilate, the Roman governor, to persuade him to pass the death sentence on him. Pilate could find nothing wrong with the Lord Jesus and wanted to release him. But he gave in to the pressure of the crowd and had the Lord Jesus flogged to weaken him before handing him over to his men to crucify him. And so, the Lord Jesus died. And there was a Roman centurion there. And when he saw how the Lord died, he confessed, ‘Surely this man was the Son of God.’ And that’s who he is. The members of the Sanhedrin didn’t believe in him, and they accused him of blasphemy, but he really is the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, of one substance with the Father and the Spirit.
And on Friday evening we spent our time thinking about why the Son of God died. His death was a sacrifice to remove our sin and guilt from us. His death was a sacrifice to satisfy God’s justice and to turn away God’s wrath from us. His death is the means by which God and sinners are reconciled. By giving up his life on the cross he paid the ransom to set us free from death and condemnation. And by his death and resurrection he has defeated Satan. And so, we ought to trust in him because he’s the only Saviour of the world; and whoever believes in him is cleansed from all their guilt and sin; and whoever believes in him is pardoned by God; and whoever believes in him has peace with God; and whoever believes in him is set free from death and condemnation to live forever; and whoever believes in him is released from Satan’s tyranny to belong to Christ’s kingdom of grace. And so, if you have not yet done so, you should confess your sins to God and ask him to pardon you for the sake of Christ who died for sinners and you should ask him to give you the free gift of eternal life.
That’s what we were thinking about on Good Friday. Today it’s Easter Sunday and today we celebrate the Lord’s resurrection. Of course, we celebrate the Lord’s resurrection every Sunday, because every Sunday we gather in the name of our Risen Saviour to give thanks to God for the salvation he won for us by his life and death and resurrection. But on Easter Sunday, Christians all around the world celebrate the good news that our Saviour who died for us was also raised for us on the very first Easter Sunday. And this is good news. It’s good news because it means we believe in a Risen Saviour who is alive forevermore and who rules and reigns from heaven, and who is coming again one day to raise the dead and to gather together all of his believing people so that we might be with him for ever and ever in glory. If Jesus Christ had died and remained dead, then we would have nothing to hope for. We would have nothing to look forward to. But he was raised, and he’s coming again, and believers are looking forward to that day, because all of the sin and misery of this life will be over, and there will be perfect peace and rest and joy for all of God’s people for ever and ever. And so, all around the world, Christians will be rejoicing in this good news.
In the passage before us this morning, John records for us what happened. In verses 1 to 8, he tells what Mary Magdelene saw and what Peter and John saw when they went to the tomb. And then, in verses 10 to 18, John tells us how the Risen Lord Jesus appeared to Mary and spoke to her. And then, in verses 19 to 23, John tells us how the Lord appeared to the disciples. And we’ll look at those three sections now.
Verses 1 to 8
First of all, in verses 1 to 8, John tells us what Mary saw and what Peter and John saw when they went to the tomb.
John tells us that these events took place early on the first day of the week. In other words, these things took place on Sunday. And that’s why Christians meet for worship on Sundays. The Jews met for worship on Saturdays, the end of the week, to mark the completion of creation. But Christians meet for worship on Sundays, at the beginning of the week, to mark the completion of our redemption. On this day, on a Sunday, the Lord Jesus was raised from the dead. And so, we gather together on the same day each week to give thanks to God for the salvation he accomplished for us by his Son.
On this particular Sunday, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb. This Mary was one of a group of women who stood near the cross and saw how the Lord Jesus had died. According to Luke’s account of the resurrection, two other women were with Mary when she went to the tomb. There was Mary the mother of James and another woman called Salome. John doesn’t mention these other women. And John doesn’t tell us, though the other gospels writers do, that they came to anoint the Lord’s dead body with spices. It was the custom in those days to put spices on the remains of a person who had died. The women didn’t have time to do this on the Friday night, because the Sabbath Day was approaching. And they couldn’t do it on Saturday, because it was the Sabbath Day. And so, Sunday morning was the first chance they had to do this. Well, even though John doesn’t mention the other two women, he implies that Mary was not alone, because he records in verse 2 that Mary said to Peter and John: ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we don’t know where they have put him.’ We don’t know. There were others with Mary.
John tells us how Mary came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. Tombs in those days were like caves and a great big stone was rolled over the entrance to prevent anyone from getting inside. Well, on this occasion, the stone had been rolled away. John tells us that Mary ran to tell Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved. That’s John’s way of referring to himself. So, she ran to Peter and John and said to them: ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb.’ She thinks someone has come and taken away the Lord’s body in the night. Not for one moment, it seems, did it cross her mind that he might be alive. No, she’s sure that he’s dead and someone has stolen his remains.
When they heard this, Peter and John immediately ran to the tomb to see for themselves. And we can imagine them — can’t we? — running with all their might through the streets of the city and out to the graveyard to see the tomb. John is faster and arrives there first. But he doesn’t go in. Instead he peered into the tomb and saw what? Not a body, but only the strips of linen which had been used to wrap the Lord’s dead body. Peter eventually caught up, and he went straight into the tomb and saw the strips of linen as well as the cloth that once covered the Lord’s head. But there’s no body.
Finally, John went into the tomb and he saw the linen strips and the head covering. And as he looked at these things, the truth of what happened finally dawned on him and he realised that Mary was wrong: it wasn’t that someone had taken the Lord’s dead body. He now believed that the Lord Jesus was alive.
John then adds an interesting comment in verse 9. Do you see it there? John wrote that they still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead. What’s he saying? He’s saying that when he saw the empty tomb, and the strips of linen and the head covering, he believed that Jesus had risen. But he didn’t realise yet that the Old Testament had spoken of these things long before they had actually happened. Later he would understand what the Old Testament said about these things. But at that time, he didn’t understand.
Now the NIV puts that verse — verse 9 — in brackets, as if it’s not really important. But when we get to the book of Acts, and read about what the Apostles preached, you’ll see that again and again they were able to show that what happened to the Lord Jesus when he died and was raised was foretold in the Old Testament. For instance, in Acts 2, Peter was preaching about the Lord’s resurrection and he said: ‘David said about him….’ And then Peter quoted from Psalm 16 which includes the lines: ‘you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay.’ Peter was saying to the crowds in Jerusalem: ‘You know that psalm where David spoke about not being abandoned to the grave and not being left to decay? David was talking about the Lord Jesus who died, but who was raised from the grave.’ On that first Easter Sunday morning, the Apostles didn’t understand that the Scriptures foretold these things. But later they understood and they preached about it.
And, of course, according to verse 9, they didn’t understand from the Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead. It says the Lord Jesus had to rise from the dead. Why did he have to rise from the dead? Well, he had to rise from the dead because the Scriptures foretold it. In other words, God said it would happen. And so, because God said it would happen, then it had to happen.
However, he had to rise from the dead, because his resurrection assures us that our sins have been paid for in full. I’ve spoken about this before. A criminal is caught and tried and sentenced to ten years in prison. And so, he’s taken away and locked up. And he has to remain locked up until the ten years are up. But when the ten years are up, he’s allowed to go free. He’s allowed to go free, because he’s done his time. He’s paid the penalty for his crime in full. And the reason the Lord Jesus died on the cross was to pay for our sins. He took the punishment we deserve and he suffered in our place the penalty for all that we have done wrong. And the fact that he has now been raised, and set free from the prison cell of death, tells us that our sins have been paid for in full. If our sins had not been paid in full, he would still be dead; he would still be suffering the penalty for our sins. And so, he had to be raised in order to make clear that our sins have been paid in full and God will never, ever require further payment from those who trust in his Son. If you’re a believer, then God will never punish you now that Christ has been punished in your place. He may discipline you out of love when you go astray, but he will never, ever punish you out of anger.
So, the Lord Jesus had to rise from the dead in order to fulfil the Scriptures. And he had to rise from the dead to make clear that our sins have been paid for. And he had to rise from the dead in order to pour out his Spirit on us. After he was raised, and after he ascended to heaven, he was able to send his Spirit to his people to enable us to receive all the benefits of Christ’s death on the cross. You see, he needed to send his Spirit into our lives to enable us to turn away from our sins in repentance and to turn with faith to the Saviour. And whoever repents and believes receives the forgiveness of sins and the hope of everlasting life. The Lord Jesus had to rise from the dead, in order to pour his Spirit into our hearts to enable us to believe.
So, he had to rise from the dead in order to fulfil the Scriptures. And he had to rise from the dead to make clear that our sins have been paid for. And he had to rise from the dead in order to pour out his Spirit on us. And then, he had to rise from the dead, to re-assure us that just as he died and was raised, so all who believe in him will also rise from the dead. The resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ gives us hope, because we know now that the grave is not the end for us and death will not always triumph over us. Just as our Saviour died and was raised, so all who believe in him will be raised to live with him for ever.
The Lord Jesus had to rise. He had to rise from the dead to make clear that our sins have been paid for. And he had to rise from the dead in order to pour out his Spirit on us. And he had to rise in order to give us hope.
Verses 10 to 18
Having seen that the tomb was empty, the disciples went home, leaving Mary who was weeping outside the tomb. She too stooped down to look into the tomb and she saw something that the disciples didn’t see. She saw two angels, dressed in white, sitting where the Lord’s body had been. And they asked her: ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ You see, they know what’s happened. They know the Lord has been raised. So, if the Lord has been raised, why are you weeping and not rejoicing? But Mary is still under the impression that the Lord is dead and his body has been moved. And so, she weeping, the way we weep at the grave of someone we loved who has died.
Now, perhaps she sensed a movement or heard a noise behind her, because she turned around and saw the Lord. Only she didn’t recognise him, even after he spoke to her the first time. She thinks he’s the gardener. And so, if he’s the gardener, then he might know what has happened to the Lord’s body. That’s what Mary is thinking. But then the Lord spoke to her a second time. And all he said was her name. And perhaps there was something about the way he pronounced her name, because as soon as he said her name, she realised who this man was and that the Lord Jesus was not dead, but alive.
From the Lord’s words in verse 17, it seems that Mary must have grabbed hold of him. And we can imagine her — can’t we? — in her joy, hugging him. Or perhaps she fell down in shock and amazement and grabbed hold of his hands or feet. It was so good to see him alive again that she didn’t want to let go of him. We can understand that, can’t we? I remember seeing a child who only just avoided being knocked down by a bus on the Antrim Road. And the child’s mother, when she realised what almost happened to her daughter grabbed her child and hugged her and wouldn’t let go for many minutes. Well, Mary didn’t want to let go of the Lord.
But look at the Lord’s words in verse 17. He tells her she mustn’t hold on to him. And he goes on to explain that he can’t remain on the earth, but must return to his Father in heaven. And, of course, he’s referring to that time later when he ascended to heaven to sit at his Father’s right hand side in glory. That’s where he is now. But, before he was ready to leave and go to his Father, he must first show himself to his disciples. And so, he instructed Mary to go and to tell the disciples what has happened.
And the way he refers to his disciples is remarkable, because in verse 17 he said:
Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’
Do you see? He’s referring to them as his brothers. Back in chapter 15 he said to them: ‘I no longer call you servants…. Instead I have called you friends.’ So, once you were my servants. Then I began to think of you as my friends. But now I regard you as my brothers, members of my family. And as members of the same family, they share the same heavenly Father. And this is one of the great benefits we receive whenever we trust in the Lord Jesus who died and was raised. Through faith in him, our sins are pardoned and God regards us as if we’ve done everything right even though we may have done everything wrong. That’s the first benefit. But the second benefit is this: we’re adopted into God’s family so that God is no longer the judge who is going to condemn us. Instead he becomes our loving, heavenly Father. And Jesus Christ has become our elder brother. So, we’ve moved out of the court room, where we once faced God’s judgment and condemnation; and we’ve been brought into the living room of our father’s house.
And so, here’s the Lord Jesus, with a message for the disciples. He said to Mary: ‘Tell my brothers….’ And that’s how he regards all who trust in him: My brother. My sister. If Jesus Christ is your Saviour, if you trust in him, then you can know for sure that he is now your brother and God has become your Father in heaven who loves you and who cares for you and who will never, ever condemn you no matter what you have done wrong.
Verses 19 to 23
In verse 18 we read how Mary went and announced the news to the disciples: ‘I have seen the Lord!’ And she passed on to them his message. But in the next section of today’s passage — verses 19 to 23 — we read how the Lord appeared to the disciples. That same day, even though the doors were locked, he came to them. Now, we should remember that when he was raised, he was raised bodily, physically, from the dead. In other words, he didn’t rise like a ghost or disembodied spirit. He rose with a body. In fact, he rose with the same body he had before, because he was able to show the disciples the marks left by the nails and the spear.
However, even though he was raised with a body, he was able to appear and disappear at will. And so now, he appeared before his disciples and pronounced a blessing on them. He said to them: ‘Peace be with you.’ And you know, that’s significant. In the Old Testament, the priest would go into the temple to offer a sacrifice to God on behalf of the people. And afterwards, the priest would come out of the temple and pronounce a blessing on the people: ‘Peace be with you!’ That is, God has accepted the sacrifice and forgiven you. And now, here’s Jesus Christ, our Great High Priest, who comes out to the disciples, having offered himself on the cross as the perfect sacrifice. And he said to the disciples: ‘Peace be with you.’ That is, God has accepted me as the once-for-all, perfect sacrifice for sins. Your sins are forgiven forever.
And having pardoned them, he sent them out into the world. And he gave them his Spirit to help them. And he gave them the authority to forgive sins. Do you see that in verse 23? He said: ‘If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; [but] if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’ You see, he was sending them out into the world as his apostles to preach the good news that Jesus Christ gave up his life to pay for our sins and he was raised from the dead afterwards; and whoever repents and believes in him receives forgiveness and the hope of everlasting life. And when anyone repented and believed, the apostles were able to say with authority: ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ And when anyone refused to repent and believe, they were able to say with authority: ‘Your sins are not forgiven.’ And you know what? It’s the same today? Whenever a preacher stands up and preaches the gospel message, he’s able to say to all who repent and believe, ‘Your sins are forgiven; you now have peace with God forever.’ And to all who will not repent and believe, the preacher is able to say: ‘Your sins are not forgiven; and the wrath of God will remain on you until you repent and believe. So, repent and believe.’
And that’s a message we all need to hear. If you’ve never believed, you need to know that Jesus Christ died and was raised and no matter what you have done, if you now repent and believe, God will forgive you for Christ’s sake. And if you’ve been a believer all your life, you still need to hear this message, again and again and again. We all need hear this good news again and again so that we’ll be continually reminded of why we need to keep trusting in Christ and not in ourselves and our good deeds; and why we ought to give thanks to God for Jesus Christ, because he’s the one who died for us and who was raised for us, so that the forgiveness of sins would be preached in his name.