Understanding the Empty Tomb

Series: Preacher: Date: April 21, 2019 Scripture Reference: 1 Corinthians 15:12-22

12 – If it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 

13 – If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.

14 – And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 

15 – More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that He raised Christ from the dead. But He did not raise Him if in fact the dead are not raised.

16 – For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either.

17 – And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 

18 – Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.

19 – If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

20 – But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. 

21 – For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a Man. 

22 – For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.

As most of you know I’m a real John Ronald Reuel Tolkien fan.  I’ve read most of his books. I’ve seen all six movies based on his most popular writings—and as I was preparing for this message—God reminded me of one of my favorite scenes. It’s from The Return of the King.

Here’s the setting. Sauron’s demonic orcs have breached the walls of the mighty city of Minas Tirith. The White Wizard Gandalf and the hobbit Pippin and a few brave soldiers are behind one of the last gates. The Orcs are about to break in and—well watch what happens:


Did you catch it? Pippin thinks with the gate about to come down—his death is imminent—and he says he never thought things would END like this. Surprised that Pippin would think that—with joy on his face, Gandalf—the Christ figure in the film who you may remember has come back from the dead—Gandalf smiles and says that death is NOT the end—he seems shocked that Pippin would think it was. Gandalf says death is just a doorway to a far better place—the Middle Earth’s version of Heaven—white shores, green hills—a speedy sunrise to an eternity of light and life. Tolkien was a Christian—and I see his faith reflected in this scene. In fact, I think he intended to remind his readers of the central message of Easter—namely—since Jesus rose from the dead—because His tomb is empty—we know that this life is not the end. For the person who has put his or her faith in Jesus—death is just a doorway to an infinitely better place.

I hope you brought neighbors to worship this morning—and neighbors we are so glad you came—because our focus—is to help us all fully understand this glorious news. I want us all to leave here with a better grasp as to why it is that as Christians, we celebrate Jesus’ empty tomb every spring—why Jesus’ resurrection is such a big deal. If it helps, think of me as Gandalf—and you as a bunch of Pippins.

Just kidding—in fact, I want to begin by pointing out that for us Easter Sunday is not just a story—a work of fiction—like Tolkien’s wonderful books. Easter is not some pipe-dream—some fantasy—it’s not based on superstition like many other spring celebrations.  No—the resurrection of Jesus is fact. It really happened. Tim Keller writes, “The resurrection was not preached in the early church as a symbolic representation of wonderful higher truths like, ‘We must always keep hope.’ The resurrection was preached as a hard, bare, terribly irritating, paradigm-shattering, horribly inconvenient but impossible to dismiss FACT.”

Before we go any further let’s do a quick review of what happened following Jesus’ crucifixion and death that we talked about last week. Jesus was nailed to those rough crossbeams at 9AM on that first Good Friday and He hung there until His death at 3PM. At that point, having secured permission from Pontius Pilate, Jesus’ body was taken down and placed in the tomb of a man named Joseph of Arimathea—who was a Pharisee—and a secret follower of Jesus. Three of Jesus’ female disciples—all named Mary—followed Joseph and the others to the tomb but since the Sabbath was quickly approaching—the women did not have time to properly anoint Jesus’ body for burial.

So, they went home and came back on the third day—the first Easter Sunday. When they arrived—they discovered that the huge stone that had sealed Jesus’ tomb had been rolled open. Plus—the Roman soldiers who had been stationed there to guard the tomb were gone. In their place were angels who gave these women literally the best news ever heard in the history of this sorry planet of ours. They said, “He [JESUS] is not here for He has risen just as He said.” (Matthew 28:6)

Now, at this point I could SAY there are TONS of proofs that what the angels said that morning is true—proofs that Jesus really did rise from the dead after His crucifixion—but I won’t say that.

However, I do want us to take the time to zero in on just one proof—and I’m talking about the otherwise-unexplainable life-changing impact the resurrection had on the man God used to write our text for this morning—the Apostle Paul. As most of you know Paul used to be called SAUL and he was a Jew—a JEW of Jews.  He was a member of the highly-esteemed tribe of Benjamin—and a well-educated Pharisee to boot. I mean, if anyone was a Jew through and through—and proud of it—Saul was.

I emphasize Saul’s stalwart Judaism because Jewish people are the last people on the face of the earth to be open to the idea that a human being could be God. To believe that—to be preaching that kind of thing—well, that would be heresy. Remember, it was Jesus’ claim to be God—that led the Jews to force the Romans to have Him crucified. My point is claiming a man was God would be going way against Saul’s worldview.

I mean, in Jesus’ day, Jews wouldn’t even SAY the name of God out loud.  When they added vowels to the Old Testament Scriptures, they did it for every word except the name for God.

To them that name was too holy to “pollute” with vowels. So—how would a prominent Jew like SAUL come to worship a man—JESUS—as God?  Now—as many of you know, before Saul became a Christian—like most of the Jewish religious leaders—he was offended by Christianity.

He hated the gospel message. He was seriously ticked by the idea these Christians were proclaiming—the idea that there would be no more need for a temple—that—thanks to Jesus’ death on the cross—there need not be any more sacrifices for sin. These revolutionary teachings were outrageous to him. He was so enraged by all this that he took a hiatus from his regular duties as a Pharisee and made it his life’s goal to arrest, imprison and even kill as many Christians as he could. He wanted to wipe this new heretical religious sect off the face of the earth.

But then something happened—something that shattered Saul’s deeply held convictions—and that “something” was SOMEONE he met when he was traveling on the Damascus road. That day Saul SAW and talked to the Risen Jesus.  On that road Saul was confronted with the unshakable FACT that Jesus Who had been crucified—killed—buried—had RISEN. He was ALIVE!

You know, many people are just as offended by Christianity today. I mean, there are lots of “Saul’s” running around. They don’t like the Bible’s teaching on creation. They laugh at stories like Noah and the Flood or Moses parting the Red Sea or Jonah living in the belly of a whale.

They think Biblical accounts like that are ridiculous. They are offended by the Bible’s teachings on sex and marriage and morality and so on. Well, the fact is the first “Saul” was more offended by Christianity than any of the current “Saul’s.” But when this first Saul realized that Jesus had INDEED been raised—it didn’t matter that Christianity offended him anymore. It didn’t matter because he could see with his own two eyes that it was true. Jesus was alive!

And remember—Saul’s conversion was a SHOCKING thing to the other Christians.  To give us an idea of the SHOCK they felt—well, it would be like one of the “Saul’s” of our day—the late STEPHEN HAWKING having a news conference before he died and saying, “I was wrong—There really is a God. Jesus really is His Son. I saw Him. The Bible is true—creation, the flood, all of it!” People would think Hawking’s ALS had affected his brain.

And that leads to something else we need to realize when it comes to understanding why we celebrate Jesus’ empty tomb. The Resurrection of Jesus is the key to understanding the entire Bible. I mean, God’s written Word only makes sense if Easter is true—which it is—because He is RISEN! [He is Risen indeed!]

  • For example: The Jewish sacrificial system only makes sense if it points to the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.
  • The Jewish Passover meal Kevin talked about Thursday only makes sense when paired with the Resurrection. Missionaries from Jews for Jesus have helped us understand this in their numerous visits here over the years.
  • The promise of Abraham’s descendants blessing the whole world only makes sense if you realize this happens through Christians sharing the good news of our Risen Lord.

But let’s go back to Saul for a moment. The Bible says when He met our Risen Lord, Saul was stricken blind—for three days. In his book, Love of God, Don Carson reconstructs what might have been going on in Saul’s mind in those 72 dark hours. He points out that Saul, the Pharisee—would indeed have been offended by Christianity for many reasons and here’s one:

The Messiah, by definition, would be anointed. In fact, the word “Messiah” means “anointed one,” which means “the chosen one, beloved one.” In other words, a Pharisee like Saul believed the Messiah would have to be blessed by God.  The Messiah would have the favor of God. He would please God.

But here is this Jesus Christ, claiming to be the Messiah, and yet He died on a cross. Even the Romans knew that this was the most shameful way to die. Everyone knew that to die on the cross was the bad end for people who were the lowest of the low. Saul would have remembered that Deuteronomy itself says, “Cursed is he who is hung on a tree.”  He also knew Jesus had cried out, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?”  Saul was probably standing there with the other Pharisees when Jesus said this.

So, here’s a summary of Saul’s thoughts those three days of darkness:  First day: “Christianity makes no sense because the Messiah would be blessed by God, would be supported by God, would be accompanied by God—and this guy, Jesus, was abandoned by God, He was cursed. So—What kind of salvation could a man cursed by God—abandoned by God—bring?” But then Saul remembered the LAST thing he saw before his eyesight was taken from him—Jesus standing there ALIVE—raised from the dead. And he thinks: “Well, wait a minute, if He was raised from the dead then God did vindicate Him, then God is pleased with Him—then God does love Him and bless Him. So—if God does love Him and is pleased with Him—then Jesus must have been cursed and abandoned for somebody else’s sins, not His own.”  

And then on his second sightless day Saul—Paul—turns to the Old Testament Scriptures which of course, as a Pharisee of Pharisees he would have been able to carry around in his head.  He would have thought of Isaiah and said, “Okay, in the first part of Isaiah the Messiah is a great king but the second half is all about this strange figure of the suffering servant.  They couldn’t both be the same figure, could they? Yes, they could.” Then thinks of his precious temple and the sacrificial system, and these thoughts fill his mind, “Did the blood of bulls and goats and little lambs, did that really over the years actually completely atone for sins? That wouldn’t make much sense, would it? Well, what if it wasn’t supposed to? What if the purpose of all those sacrifices was to point to something or Someone else? What if all that was pointing to this Jesus?  But if it’s all pointing to Jesus what does that mean about the temple and sacrificial system?”

And then when he wakes on his third day of blindness Saul’s mind goes to Ezekiel and Jeremiah. He thinks, “Look at those places where it talks about a New Covenant, where it seems like God is actually talking to people face-to-face and writing the Law on their hearts. It’s almost like there’s no need for a priest or a temple anymore. What is that New Covenant discussion about? How do we understand that? Well, with Jesus’ life and death and resurrection, then it makes sense. What about the promise to Abraham, that through Abraham’s descendants all of the nations of the world would be blessed? How would that ever happen? Perhaps through Christians—followers of Jesus becoming children of God through faith!”

Do you see what’s going on? Once Saul understood the resurrection, he understood the cross.  He looked back and the entire Old Testament opened up to him. Paul had been expecting a strong Messiah to come save the strong.  His understanding was the Messiah would have gotten up on a horse and He would have saved all those who summoned up their strength to follow Him—and obey Him fully. So, it would have been a strong Messiah coming to save the strong.  But instead he suddenly realized, “Wait a minute, it’s a Messiah coming in weakness to save those who admit their weakness and their need for a Savior.”  Once he saw that, it opened everything up—including his eyes. God sent a Christian named Ananias to the house where Saul was staying.  Saul professed his faith in Jesus—Ananias placed his hands on Saul’s eyes and he was healed.

I can’t help but think of Saul’s three days in darkness—like Jesus’ three days in the tomb—for Saul was dead—dead in his sins—and then He was REBORN to new life. That’s the way it is for everyone who puts their faith in Jesus. Anyway, my point is the Resurrection is indeed THE KEY to understanding the entire Bible!

As you may know I’m a Bernard Cornwell fan. I’ve read every one of his books—so has Gary! I think I speak our star valve trombone player when I say our favorites are the Sharpe series—the stories of a fictitious soldier in the British army during the Napoleonic wars who rose from the ranks to become an officer. In one of the Sharpe books, Captain Sharpe and his riflemen capture a French soldier. They find a page of paper with numbers on it—and a damaged copy of a popular book by Voltaire. Only a few pages are legible. When they get to the next town they find a complete copy of the same book—and one of Sharpe’s soldiers discovers that it’s the basis of a code—he uses the book to decipher the paper with the numbers on it—and learns there is a spy in the British army. The key to figuring it all out was that book by Voltaire.

Well, similarly the resurrection is the key—the code—to understanding the entire Bible.  As 2nd Corinthians 1:20 puts it “all the promises of God find their ‘YES’—their understanding— in our risen Lord.” The answers to all our questions are found in Jesus for HE IS RISEN!  HE IS RISEN INDEED! Okay—to help us all deepen our understanding of the empty tomb—I want to try and explain why we rise with the sun like we did a few hours ago to worship the SON.” I want to explain why it is that Christians celebrate at Easter?

(1) First, it is a time to celebrate the FORGIVENESS of God.

You see, as Paul says in our text, “If Christ has not been raised, our faith is futile; we are still in our sins.” I mean, Jesus’ resurrection is the foundational block of our faith—without it we are without hope. We cannot be reconciled to God.

How many of you love to play JENGA?  Me too! Well, you know how the game ends. After carefully pulling blocks from the bottom of the stack and then carefully putting it on the top—eventually one player pulls one too many blocks and the whole thing comes crashing down. Well, in our text Paul says the empty tomb is like that one Jenga block that holds up the entire tower—without it—I mean, if you were to pull it out—our Christian faith comes crashing down. Look back at our text again where Paul says, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is pointless—if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.”

Without that foundational “resurrection block”—can you see the blocks falling—the “preaching block” — the “faith in Jesus block” — and especially the “forgiveness of sins block?” But wait. Freeze frame! Hit the pause button! Put that “resurrection block” back—because JESUS DID rise from the dead! He IS risen!  He is risen INDEED! The fact that He is—the fact that Jesus is the only person to ever have to BORROW a tomb—means our faith in His ability to forgive us is verified! The tower—the walls of our faith—stand firm!  I can’t help but think of the image of that shining gold cross still standing in the Cathedral of Notre Dame after the fire this week. Did you notice it’s not a traditional Catholic Cross—in that Jesus does not hang there? I like that—because like the cross—Jesus’ tomb is empty for He is risen! He is risen indeed! To me the fact that those massive fires couldn’t take it down reminds us that even the Gates of Hell can’t knock our faith over—because—Jesus DID rise from the dead. Jesus’ resurrection proves He was the only One qualified to die for our sins—and He did so! This means our sins, past, present, and future, can be erased like shaking an Etch-e-sketch—God remembers them no more—He casts them as far as the East is from the Rest. Isn’t that something worth CELEBRATING!!!?

In fact, if you have a sin in your past that you wish you could erase—would you raise your hand? I think that’s 100%—in fact anyone who didn’t raise their hand should do so now—because if you don’t you will be sinning by lying. We all have done things we are ashamed of. Can I get an honest, unanimous AMEN? Well, because of the empty tomb—those sins can be washed away.

Do you understand better now the importance of the empty tomb? EVERYTHING about our faith as Christians is built on what happened on that third day.  Jesus’ resurrection not only validates our faith—it marks it as the only true faith.

This week I read about a Muslim college student who came to believe in Jesus Christ.  One of his friends was shocked and asked him, “Why did you become a follower of Jesus?” Here was his response: “It’s simple really. Imagine that you’re walking down a road and you come to a fork in the road and there are two people there to follow as your guide along the way.  One of them is dead, and one of them is alive. Which one would you follow?” Indeed, who would you put your faith in—a dead person—or the ONLY individual to ever BEAT death—and therefore prove He has the authority to forgive us of our sin? Here’s a second reason we celebrate the empty tomb.

(2) We celebrate: the POWER of God.

The empty tomb is a reminder of God’s limitless power. Look at these two pics from the film: The Passion of the Christ and think with me. I mean, when the first disciples remembered what Jesus looked like on the cross—and then met Him resurrected—they realized that God really was OMNIPOTENT. Let me ask you a few questions.

  • Do you believe it is possible for selfish people to be made unselfish?
  • Is it possible for immoral people to be given self-control?
  • Is it possible for cruel people to be made kind, and sour people to be sweetened?

Wouldn’t it be marvelous if that were possible? I mean think for a moment of that one person who is most irritating to you. They are so self-centered—so prideful—they are so hard to be around. They always say hateful things. They have gossiped about you behind your back. You could never IMAGINE that person becoming a GOOD person. Well, because of Jesus’ resurrection—we know that kind of change is possible. It proves God has power to change human nature and to change human beings. He has power to transform you and me into the image of Jesus Christ, to make us like Christ. This is what Paul was talking about when he said, “If anyone is in Christ he is a new person—the old has gone the new has come.” And Paul knew this was true—by experience!

That same resurrection power, which God displayed in Jesus Christ when he raised him from the dead, is available to us today. He can raise us from the death of sin to the life of righteousness. Becoming a Christian is more than turning over a new leaf—it’s becoming a new person.

This is Bart Millard. He was born on December 1st, 1972 in Greenville, TX. To the casual observer, his childhood looked perfectly normal but it wasn’t because Bart’s formative years were marked by abandonment and physical abuse. Bart was primarily raised by his father, Arthur. His mother was named Adele—and for years they had a great marriage. But one day Arthur was accidentally run down by a semi-truck while on the job. Miraculously, he didn’t break a single bone in his body. His brain, on the other hand, was irrevocably damaged, leaving him in a coma for eight weeks. After the accident Arthur changed. His brain injury led him to break out in fits of rage, set off by the most insignificant things. He never laid a finger on his wife, but he would intentionally break everything that ever meant anything to her and their son Bart. Eventually, Adele buckled under the weight of his verbal, emotional, and psychological abuse. As far as she could see, she had no choice. So, she left. Bart was in the third grade.

Outside the home, no one saw the man Arthur had become. All they saw was a flighty mother who had turned her back on her family. But what we see on the surface doesn’t always tell the whole story. When Adele left, Bart became the focal point of his father’s uncontrolled anger. Spankings gave way to full-on beatings. Bart’s dad become an irredeemable monster. In Bart’s mind his only hope was to grow up, get out, and move on—which he did. But something happened. Bart’s dad got pancreatic cancer—and that led Arthur to turn to Jesus. He started going to church. He read his Bible regularly. He asked Jesus to forgive him for his life of sin—and to come into his heart. And our risen Lord did exactly that. When that happened—the monster disappeared. Jesus transformed Arthur from the inside out. Today Bart describes his dad as “the godliest man I ever knew.” When his dad died Bart—lead singer of Mercy Me—wrote a song, “I Can Only Imagine.” That change—is made possible by the POWER of Jesus’ resurrection. You and I can be changed. We can be RESTORED. Isn’t THAT something worth celebrating!!?? And that leads me to mention one more reason we celebrate Jesus’ empty tomb.

(3) The TRIUMPH of God.

Jesus’ resurrection shows us that God can and has defeated our greatest enemy—death itself. In Psalm 89:48 we find a question that we all know the answer to: “Who can live and not see death or who can escape the power of the grave?”  Everyone point to yourself and say, “NOT ME!”

Right! Young and old, good and bad, rich and poor—neither gender is spared; no class is exempt. We all die—nearly 2 people a second, more than 6,000 an hour, more than 155,000 every day—57 million a year.  Just at this church—since January we’ve done four funerals—3 in the last ten days—and there’s another one yet to be planned. Death comes for us all. The finest surgeon might enhance your life but he can’t eliminate your death. As Hebrews 9:27 says, “People are destined to die once.” That’s the fact—plain and simple. Saul Bellow, once wrote, “What is the philosophy of this generation? Not God is dead. That period was passed long ago.  Perhaps it should be stated DEATH IS GOD. For, this generation thinks that nothing faithful, vulnerable, or fragile can endure or have any true power.” All people fear death.

But Jesus’ resurrection takes away this fear. Hebrews 2:15 says that Jesus came to, “…free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” And at Easter we always recall those first words that Jesus uttered when He returned from death, “Fear not!” As He put it in John 14, “Because I live—you will live also!” So, we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus because it defeats our greatest enemy.  Death is no longer something we need dread. In fact, Jesus’ resurrection removes the reason for us to fear ANYTHING.

I love to play ROOK—any other ROOK fans? I learned to play in college—in fact, ROOK was so popular at the Baptist Student Union where I hung out between classes—we would skip class to play. And back then I was very good at the game—my bids were always high. I mean, the most points you can make are 180 and I’d consistently bid 150 or 160—there were even numerous times when I would shoot the moon—bid 180 before looking at the cards I had been dealt. I guess my mind was sharper because I could keep track of what card had been played in each suit. In ROOK there are certain powerful cards—like the “1” card—the “1” beats ever other card in that suit. And the cards in the suit chosen as trump are also powerful. I mean if red is trump—a red “6” can beat a green “1.” So, as you lay down your card in each hand you are always afraid that someone has a more powerful card to play—one that will “kill” your card and win the hand. But the card that is most powerful—the card that can beat any other card is the ROOK.

In my mind life is like a game of Rook. I mean, we all fear powerful “cards” like the trump cards of serious disease—cancer, ALS, Parkinson’s—and then there are other powerful “cards” — “1’s” like terrorism, war, assault, tornadoes, hurricanes, plane crashes. But the “1” card of life—the most feared card is the “1” from the trump suit and I’m referring to death. Death kills everything—and everyone. Without Jesus we face that “trump 1” all on our own.  There’s no way we can beat it. As the Paul says in our text, “If only in this life we have hope, then we are of all people to be pitied.” (1st Cor 15:9) But—we don’t only have hope for this life—we are not to be pitied—because He is risen!  HE IS RISEN INDEED! Because of our faith in Jesus we have the ROOK card of all ROOK cards to play. Jesus’ resurrection BEATS death. It takes away it’s ability to hurt us—Jesus’ resurrection turns death into nothing but a doorway to a far better place. This is the MAIN reason we celebrate that empty tomb as Christians—we do so because it means our tomb will be empty—for Easter empties death of its power.


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