Topic Scripture: Matthew 28:1–10
Easter last fell on April Fools’ Day in 1956. We’ve waited sixty-two years to see the irony in their alignment.
On this day in 1996, Taco Bell announced it had agreed to purchase Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell and rename it the Taco Liberty Bell. The company boasted, “Taco Bell’s heritage and imagery have revolved around the symbolism of the bell. Now we’ve got the crown jewel of bells.”
In 1998, Burger King advertised a “Left-Handed Whopper” designed for the 1.4 million left-handed customers that visit their restaurants every day. Scores of customers requested the fake sandwich.
Of all the surprises on April Fools’ Day, none could be greater than the event we will celebrate today: the resurrection of a Galilean carpenter from the grave. Here’s the question we’ll ask today: why Easter?
This is my thirty-fourth year to preach an Easter sermon. In all those years, I’ve never thought to ask the question: Why did Jesus have to rise from the dead?
We understand why he had to die on the cross—to pay for our sins and purchase our salvation. But why was it important that he rise physically from the grave on the third day? Why couldn’t he go to Heaven like everyone else who has eternal life?
Jesus promised the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43), but the thief didn’t have to rise physically to rise eternally. My mother went to Heaven ten years ago, but she didn’t have to rise from the grave physically to rise into God’s presence.
My first answer was: Jesus had to be resurrected because the Bible promised he would be. And that’s true: David predicted that God would not “let your holy one see corruption” (Psalm 16:10). The prophet said of the Suffering Servant, “when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days” (Isaiah 53:10).
Jesus promised repeatedly that he would be raised from the dead. For instance, he told his disciples that “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matthew 16:21).
But why were these promises made? The Spirit didn’t have to inspire the Old Testament writers to make them or lead Jesus to affirm them. Why did his physical resurrection matter?
What’s unique about Easter?
Here’s the answer that came to me: everything Jesus did in his public ministry was something others had done before him. Nothing he did proved that he was God.
Jesus was a great teacher, but Moses gave us the Ten Commandments and the first five books of the Bible. Jesus controlled nature, calming stormy seas and walking on water, but Moses parted the Red Sea and Joshua’s people stepped into the flooded Jordan River as it stopped miraculously.
Jesus fed the five thousand, but Moses promised the people manna from heaven and Elijah provided for the widow with oil that was miraculously sustained during a drought (1 Kings 17:8–16). Jesus healed the sick, but Elisha healed the leprous Naaman (2 Kings 5). Jesus raised Lazarus and the widow’s son from the dead, but Elijah and Elisha raised the dead as well (1 Kings 17; 2 Kings 4).
None of Jesus’ miracles by themselves proved that he was God. But his resurrection did.
When the women met the risen Christ on Easter Sunday, “they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him” (Matthew 28:9). When Doubting Thomas met the risen Christ, he exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).
What about Lazarus and others raised from the dead in Scripture? They all died again. They were resuscitated, not resurrected.
Jesus is the only person in history to die and then be resurrected, never to die again. His resurrection proves that he is God. If he had simply gone from the cross to heaven, we would not know that. We would not have proof that he is who he says he is: our Lord and King.
The problem of the empty tomb
You see, there’s no way around the empty tomb.
If the disciples stole the body, they then convinced five hundred eyewitnesses that a corpse was alive (1 Corinthians 15:6), somehow got it to make breakfast beside the Sea of Galilee (John 21:9–14) and appear through locked doors (John 20:19–20), then threw the corpse into heaven at the ascension (Acts 1:9). Then they died for a lie they kept so well that their secret never got out.
If the women stole the body, they faced the same problems.
If the authorities stole the body, they would have produced it. If the disciples went to the wrong tomb, the authorities and owner would have shown them the right tomb.
The “swoon theory” is my favorite: Jesus “swooned” on the cross but didn’t actually die. He then survived a spear thrust that pierced the pericardial sac around his heart and being wrapped in an air-tight mummified shroud for three days before shoving aside the stone, overpowering the Roman guards, appearing through locked doors, and doing the greatest high jump in history at the ascension.
His empty tomb shows that he was resurrected, and his resurrection shows that he is God.
Four Easter facts
Now, what does the fact of Jesus’ divinity mean for you today?
One: He is present in your pain.
David said to God, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (Psalm 23:4). God promised his people, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior” (Isaiah 43:2–3).
God is with us in our greatest pain. Easter proves that Jesus is God. Therefore, Jesus is present in your pain. He suffered the worst torture known to man in his crucifixion. He wept at the grave of Lazarus. He has been tempted in every way we are (Hebrews 4:15).
When you wonder if Jesus is with you in your sufferings, challenges, and temptations, remember Easter.
Two: He hears your every prayer.
Jesus promised, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8). The psalmist testified, “Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan, and he hears my voice” (Psalm 55:17).
God hears our prayers. Easter proves that Jesus is God. Therefore, Jesus hears your every prayer. The next time you wonder if Jesus is listening to you, remember Easter.
Three: He is more powerful than your greatest problems.
The Bible says of God, “It is you who made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you” (Jeremiah 32:17). God is omnipotent. Easter proves that Jesus is God. Therefore, Jesus is more powerful than your greatest problems.
The next time you wonder if Jesus has the power to help you with your challenges and struggles, remember Easter.
Four: He loves you where you are, as you are.
The Bible says that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Easter proves that Jesus is God. Therefore, Jesus loves you where you are, as you are.
The next time you wonder if Jesus will forgive your sins, if he loves you no matter where you’ve been or what you’ve done, remember Easter.
Can the risen Christ change any life? Can he heal any pain, hear anyone’s prayer, address anyone’s problem, and love any soul?
Alice Cooper is one of the most notorious “shock rockers” in America. Known for his heavy metal concerts, he was infamous for stage acts too horrific for me to describe. He was also known for his years of alcoholism and heavy drug use.
This week, Fox News carried a story that caught my eye: “Alice Cooper believes his faith saved him from alcoholism, temptations of rock star lifestyle.” It turns out Cooper is the son and grandson of ministers.
When he nearly died from drugs and alcohol, he says, “I grew up in the church, went as far away as I could from it—almost died—and then came back to the church.” He says that his faith saved his life and is the basis for his marriage of forty-one years.
He’s not the only surprising story of conversion in our day. David Berkowitz, the “Son of Sam” murderer and devil worshipper, is a sold-out Christian who ministers to his fellow prisoners every day.
Dr. Francis Collins is director of the National Institutes of Health and arguably the best-known scientist in America today. He was a staunch atheist before C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity helped lead him to faith in Jesus.
Lee Strobel graduated from Yale Law School and worked as a journalist for the Chicago Tribune for fourteen years. A staunch atheist, he was shocked when his wife became a Christian. Investigating her faith, he became a Christian. He has since published bestsellers The Case for Christ, The Case for Faith, The Case for a Creator, and The Case for the Real Jesus. His life story has been made into a movie; The Case for Miracles was just published.
Here’s my point: if Jesus could change Alice Cooper and David Berkowitz and Francis Collins and Lee Strobel, what can the risen Christ do in your life today?
Because of Easter, Thomas called Jesus “my Lord and my God.” Now it’s our turn.