An Idle Tale?
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An Idle Tale?

John 20:11–18  (ID: 2865)

John’s account of Christ’s resurrection shows us that despite all that the disciples had heard from Jesus, they did not understand the significance of His death or the promise that He would rise again. Their sadness, however, turned to joy and boldness when they were transformed by the risen Christ. We don’t mourn a Savior who is dead and buried. Insead, the message of Easter calls us to mourn for our sin, and then to rejoice in what Jesus has accomplished for us.

Sermon Transcript: Print

From John 20:11, the story continues:

“But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’ She turned and said to him in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’—and that he had said these things to her.

“On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.’ And when he[’d] said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven …; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.’”

And the story goes on from there. Amen.

Father, we pray that as we look at the Bible now, that the Spirit of God will be our teacher, helping us to think, to understand, to believe, and to trust and to obey. Only you can accomplish this, and it is to you alone we look. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Well, on the first Easter morning, there was a sunrise, as we would expect. But the noticeable thing is that it was not accompanied by a service. There was no sunrise service. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Salome and James had arrived early at the tomb, we’re told, actually before the sunrise had taken place.[1] But they hadn’t arrived, both of them, clutching in their hands a bunch of lilies and looking forward to the opportunity to greet one another by saying, “Christ is risen,” so that the other could reply, “He is risen indeed.” No such thing took place. In fact, Mark tells us that the preoccupation of the ladies was with the physical problem that was represented in the fact that while they were planning on doing further embalming to the body of Jesus, there was an obvious prevention from doing so in the form of the large stone which had been rolled in order to secure the tomb. And as they make their way there, they are pondering with one another how they’re going to actually deal with that problem. Of course, when they get there, they discover that it was an unnecessary concern.[2]

The occasion for the ladies is therefore marked by tears and by bewilderment. It is not, as we might have expected, marked by hope and by joy. It wouldn’t be too far from things to say that they were actually devastated by what had taken place. Or, in a simple three-letter word, they were sad. Sad.

The Disciples Were Sad

That is my first word of three words this morning to try and help us navigate our way to the benediction. First of all, sad.

They were not alone in this, because the Gospel writers tell us that the disciples, when the news came from the women to them, responded in unbelief. In fact, Luke tells us that their phrase was that their “words seemed to them an idle tale.”[3] If you like, an old wives’ tale. When I wrote “old wives’ tale” in my notes, I said to myself, “I wonder what an old wives’ tale really is.” And so I went to the dictionary and looked it up, and it said that an old wives’ tale consists of superstition, unverified claims, with exaggerated details.

And that actually is what some people think is the story of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And you may be here this morning, and that’s actually your conviction up to this point: it’s kind of an old wives’ tale—superstition, unverified claims, and all these exaggerated statements that we’ve been singing about in these songs. Well, you shouldn’t feel bad about it, as a skeptic. What the gospel writers tell us is that you’re actually in good company. For the very disciples themself had responded in unbelief.

We ought to give kudos to the women, because, after all, they’re the ones who actually made it to the tomb. The men, they apparently were not brave enough to go, at least in the first instance. And we’re told that the disciple band—that’s why I read on from verse 19, “On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, [with] the doors being locked where the disciples were”—they had all gathered together on that first Easter Sunday evening, fearing repercussions. And once again, I want you to notice that they hadn’t gathered to sing “Christ the Lord is risen today, hallelujah!”[4] Nothing could be further from their minds. Because the events of Friday had obliterated all of their unfulfilled hopes. They had a story line that they were following, and it had come to a grinding halt, and it was as though they had turned one more page and the next section was blank. And apparently, there was no future for them.

I wonder if you’re listening to me now, and up until now you’ve been unfamiliar with these things. And I don’t want to assume that everybody knows the Easter story. But if you’ve been unfamiliar with them, if you’ve caught a notion of it from listening to people speak, it may well be that you had the idea in mind that this whole Easter thing actually began with a sort of extravagant celebration on the part of those who were closest to the Lord Jesus Christ. But it isn’t so. And if, like some, you’re tempted to believe that the record provided for us is an invention, that the Gospels are rewritten history, then surely you have to wonder why the authors did not paint themselves in a better light. If I had been Peter inventing a gospel, I would never have included the part about me denying Jesus three times. If I was inventing the gospel, I would have written that on the evening of the day, we all got together and rejoiced in the fact that all that we had expected had come true. I wouldn’t have written down that we were actually behind closed doors, with them locked, for fear of repercussions.

When Jesus from the cross said, ‘It is finished,’ that wasn’t an expression of defeat. That was a cry of victory.

Now, you see, many people find themselves in the place, not having considered the claims of Christianity and rejected them but having rejected them without ever really considering the claims. And if you read the gospel records, you will find that the story is clear and it’s consistent—that those who had been closest to Jesus were identified as weeping, hiding, doubting. They were, essentially, sad.

Now, I’m going to have to leave you to, on your own, verify this data, to read the material. And when you do, if you backtrack, you will find that this series of events, this sequence of events, had begun not many days before with the raising of a friend of Jesus from the grave, Lazarus. And on that occasion, Jesus had said to his disciples, knowing that Lazarus had died, “Lazarus has fallen asleep, and I’m going to waken him up.” Jesus loved to make these little enigmatic statements. So the disciples said, “Well, if he’s fallen asleep, why do you have to waken him up? He’ll waken up of his own accord.” But, the gospel writer tells us, Jesus was actually referring to the death of Lazarus and that he was going to raise him from the grave. And he says to his disciples, “I’m glad that Lazarus has actually died, because now when you see what happens, you’ll be able to believe in me.” And they see Lazarus raised from the dead. And they hear Jesus say, “I am the resurrection and the life. He that believes in me, even though he die, yet he’ll live, and even though he die, he’ll still live.” They heard that.[5]

And as he begins to prepare them for his departure, he says to them, “You shouldn’t be overwhelmed by this. Don’t let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me.” And then he says, “I’m going to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and I’ll take you to where I’m going.” [Thomas]—we’re always glad of [Thomas]—he says, “Lord, we don’t know where you’re going, so how can we know the way?” And Jesus says, “[Thomas], I am the way, the truth, and the life. And no one comes to the Father except through me.”[6]

They had heard all of that. But look at the picture. A sorry picture. They are sad. And we don’t have to guess at why it is that they’re in the circumstance in which they find themselves, because John tells us right there in verse 9: the disciples did “not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” They hadn’t understood it! Now, you say, “That is quite remarkable. I think if I’d been there,” you find yourself saying, “I would have understood it in an instant. I would have been a believer immediately.” No, not so fast! They’d failed to realize that when Jesus from the cross said, “It is finished,”[7] that wasn’t an expression of defeat. That was a cry of victory.

The Disciples Were Glad

So, they were sad. But John goes on to tell us that they did not remain sad but that they became glad. This isn’t very hard, is it? Sad, glad. Where is that? It’s down in verse 20: “Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.” It’s 20:20, which I found quite striking—twenty-twenty. They saw the Lord with 20/20. Suddenly, now everything was radically changed. “Can this possibly be?” And into their fearfulness, into their darkness, into their sadness, into their unbelief, Jesus comes. Because Jesus is the one who comes into men and women’s sadness, darkness, fearfulness, and unbelief. He makes it the business of coming into that predicament.

And he stands among them, you will notice. And John tells us that he showed himself to them. Luke, as a doctor, in his record—far more detailed in many instances, you would expect—gives to us a pretty comprehensive explanation of this. And I’ll just read to you briefly from Luke’s account. It says that Jesus “stood among them …. They were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit.”[8] And note that again. They were startled and frightened and didn’t say, “Hey, Jesus! We wondered when you were going to show up!” No, they looked, and they didn’t see what they saw. “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself.”[9]

In other words, they didn’t just see a person. Jesus is concerned to make sure that they understand that someone hasn’t shown up as a surrogate; someone hasn’t shown up in his place. This isn’t one of the other thieves that has shown up, pretending to be Jesus, as if he could. “No,” he says, “if you look here and if you look here”: “‘For a spirit does[n’t] have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. And while they still disbelieved for joy…”[10] Now they’re overwhelmed. They’re in that kind of laughing, crying thing that happens to you when you just don’t really know what’s happening to you. He says to them, “‘Have you anything to eat?’ [And] they gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and [he] ate [it] before them.”[11] A little detail there, reminding us of what? That the risen body of Christ still functioned. That he doesn’t come back as a phantom. In other words, his gastro-entero tract works. He may be seen. He may be heard. He may be touched. He may be known. He comes into that situation.

And as a result, they were gladdened. They were gladdened. They weren’t gladdened because they had a transcendental vision. They weren’t gladdened because they had a spiritual feeling in their tummies. They weren’t gladdened because they encountered a ghost or a spirit. They were glad because they knew exactly what had happened to them: that Jesus has, in fact, risen from the dead. And their faith and their future—yes, and in many cases, their death—was posited on that reality. From that moment on, nothing could ever be the same. They believed. They believed.

You know, as I’ve been thinking about it this week, it’s reminded me of the fact that it really takes a lot of effort to disbelieve. You’ve really gotta work at it not to believe, when you examine the evidence. Did you notice the details of the graveclothes? In the coming forth of Lazarus in John 11, he comes out completely bound up by all of the graveclothes. It’s a dramatic picture. And Jesus says, as Lazarus comes out from the tomb, he says, “Loose him. Take those things off him and let him go.”[12] But there’s no description of that in Jesus’ tomb. This is not like an unmade bed. This is not like the average teenager’s bedroom—chaos everywhere, stuff lying all over the place. No, this is neat and tidy, and someone comes in and looks at that scene and says, “How in the world did anybody ever get out of this and leave it so beautiful?”

Sometimes when I travel on my own—well, always when I travel on my own—I always sleep on one side of the bed so I only have to make half of the bed. That just seems to me sensible. And sometimes, because I like it really tightly wrapped, sometimes I actually slide myself out up from the top, halfway up the back of the bedroom wall, in order that I have to do as little to it as possible and just leave it absolutely intact. But it’s not easy to do. And anyone coming in’d say, “I wonder if he even slept in this bed. It doesn’t look like it was slept in.” And when they came in and looked at this, they said, “Was there a body here, or was there no body here?”

Without the resurrection, you would never even have heard of Jesus of Nazareth.

“Oh, but they came and stole the body. That’s why people thought he was risen.” You believe that? Well, why—if they were gonna steal it, why didn’t they just steal it the way it was? Why go to all the trouble of dealing with all the spices and all the bindings and all the shrouds and all the bits and pieces, and then, not only having done that, why go to all the bother of putting it all back together again in such an unbelievable fashion that folks would come in and have cause to wonder? And you think the disciples stole the body and hid it up a backstreet and then went out and got killed for a lie?

“Oh, no, but the Jews stole the body. That’s the word that was circulated.”[13] Well, if the Jews stole the body, why, the first time that somebody said, “Jesus is alive,” did they not produce the body? Because there was no body to produce!

No, I’m telling you, it takes a tremendous amount of effort to disbelieve. By nature, we don’t believe. The arguments against the story don’t fit the facts.

Without the resurrection, you wouldn’t even have a New Testament. Why would anybody have bothered to write all this stuff down if Jesus wasn’t alive? Without the resurrection, you would never even have heard of Jesus of Nazareth.

That was all by way of aside. Somebody says to me, “Well, you know, I’m actually very, very doubtful about this stuff.” It’s good. Jesus had one just like you in his group, called Thomas. You might be just like him: “I’m not going to believe this stuff. Not just ’cause you said so. Not just ’cause you had a few songs. I’m going to have to investigate this for myself.” Please do. Christianity Explored would be a start; I mentioned it earlier. Thomas was straightforward: “I’m not going to believe in you unless I can actually put my finger right in the holes in your hands, unless I can see that thing in your side.” And Jesus, because of who he is and because of what he’s like, says, “Thomas—if that’s what it takes for you, Thomas, here you are.”[14]

You may be here and you say, “Well, I’ve always had to step back from this, because I feel so much that I have messed up, that I have disappointed Jesus, that I have disowned him, that I have denied him. I mean, I don’t think there’s any reason for him to have any interest whatsoever in me at all.” I’ve got good news for you; it’s in the record again! He had one just like you. He’s called Peter. Big, brave Peter, crumbling before the questions of a servant girl: “I never knew Jesus, I don’t know Jesus, I don’t know nothin’ about Jesus.”[15]

Or perhaps you’re worried on an occasion like this, lest these screens should suddenly be filled up with all of your past. If people could ever see what you’re really like, you find yourself saying, “they would have no time for me in here, and certainly Jesus would have no time for me.” Well, not so fast. Because when you look at the record, what do you discover? You discover that the first close encounter Jesus had after his resurrection was not with a lady who’d been a Sunday school teacher but was with a lady who had a sordid past—a lady who had been notorious in the community for her lasciviousness. I don’t think that there is any sense in which it is a haphazard occurrence that the first embrace, as it were, of Christ is for such a person.

Jesus, you see, in his death has paid the penalty for sin. He has reconciled sinners to God, as we said on Friday night. He is the only one who makes it possible for the gap to be closed between God, in all of his holiness that can’t look on sin, and man, in all of his rebellion against God that looks on God with fear. How can these two warring parties be brought together? And the answer is that in the Lord Jesus Christ, God “made him … sin who knew no sin” for us, in order that “we might become the righteousness of God” in him.[16]

That reconciliation which is provided is not possessed by us until we actually receive it. Till we receive it. And this, I think, is where many people are on the average Easter Sunday—people who have given intellectual assent to the facts of Jesus of Nazareth, who would be prepared to say, “I believe enough to believe that there was a Jesus and that he did these things,” but it stops at that. Because you have never received the reconciliation that has been provided for you in Christ. You have never welcomed Jesus the way you would welcome an undeserved gift, accepting it humbly, gratefully, personally. Because no one else can make this acceptance for us. Only we.

Can I ask you, have you ever done this? Do you trust Jesus in this unconditional, unreserved way? Do you take him at his word? Do you believe that he really died for your sin, that he was raised in order to put you in a right position with God, that his sacrifice is absolutely perfect and nothing possible can be added to it? Do you? Because, you see, trusting God in that way involves both giving and taking. It involves taking God’s promise, taking God’s Son, taking God’s salvation. And it involves giving ourselves to God in service. It involves taking the Lord as Savior, and it involves giving ourselves to the Savior as Lord. It’s actually a bit like getting married. It’s wonderful, it’s life changing, it’s demanding, and some of your single friends may actually think you’ve gone mad. That’s not uncommon. Not everybody says, “Oh, what a splendid idea!”—especially when they find out who it is you’re going to marry. Right? “You’re going to marry him? Him! You must have gone mad.”

The Disciples Were Seen as Mad

Now, you’re a bright group. You know we’re at our final word, don’t you? Sad, glad, mad. Mad! Where does the “mad” come from? Well, it comes from the Bible. We can’t go all the way through it; I’ll leave it to research it for yourselves. But it you check, you will discover that within a matter of weeks, Luke tells us that these same frightened disciples, hiding away—these sad people who were glad because they had seen the Lord—had taken this gladness and the power of the Holy Spirit out into the streets and onto the forefront of the community in Jerusalem. And as soon as they did so, what did people say? “These guys are mad! They’re crazy!” In French, “They’re fou.” In Italian, “They’re pazzo. They’re nuts!” They didn’t go, “Oh, this is wonderful. Thank you for finally discovering the Savior of the world, the one through whom we may be reconciled to God. Tell us more about this.” No, they did what many people are doing right now as you’re listening to me speak. You’re going, “He gotta button this up. He’s gotta finish this. This is craziness. I cannot believe this.” No, you won’t be able to believe it until God inclines your heart to him and opens your eyes. You’re dead right. Because the message of the cross seems like foolishness to those who are perishing. But to those who are being saved, it is the power of God.[17]

Saul of Tarsus was totally committed to bringing Christianity to a halt in his generation, if he could. That involved imprisonment, it involved all kinds of beatings, it involved all kinds of stuff to try and drive out these mad people—these crazy people—with this story of a risen Christ. But what happened to him was that he met the risen Christ, and he became glad. And then people said he was mad. And not long before he finally meets his destiny in execution, he’s giving a defense of his faith before Agrippa, in the company of Festus. And listen to what he says:

“I stand here as a witness to high and low, adding nothing to what the prophets [and Moses] foretold should take place, that is, that Christ should suffer, that he should be [the] first to rise from the dead, and so proclaim the message of light both to our people and to the Gentiles!”

While he was thus defending himself Festus burst out, “You are raving, Paul! All your learning has driven you mad!”

But Paul replied, “I am not mad, your excellency. I speak nothing but [that which is true and reasonable].”[18]

In other words, he says, “I didn’t take my brain out to become a follower of Jesus. I understood exactly who he was, I understood exactly what he’d done. And I turned from my religious way of life to a new way of life, trusting entirely in Christ alone. I’m not mad, Festus. What I say is true, and it’s reasonable.”

Well, you must be the judge of these things, I guess. You should examine this for yourself. And when you do, you either have to conclude that the writers of the gospel lied through their teeths and foisted on humanity a lie of monumental proportions, or that they reported things as they had found them and that they were testifying—that they had emerged on that Sunday morning completely bewildered and sad, it was the reality of the risen Christ that had made them glad, and that is why they didn’t even care if people thought they were mad. They were prepared to stand alone, to live for Christ, “to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, … to take arms against a sea of troubles.”[19]

Are you prepared to do that? Now, don’t get mad when I tell you this, but the way it works is this: God makes you sad, and then he makes you glad. If you are looking for a god that’ll just make you glad, you shouldn’t actually look for the God of the Bible. He does make you glad, but he starts by making you sad. And until you become sad, you will never realize how glad you really are. When you become sad that “on the cross, he was dying for my sin, my disbelief, my disobedience, my disinterest—that you loved me when I hated you?” “Yes.” “That you loved me when I didn’t want to listen?” “Yes.” What kind of love is this? There is no love like this. It is the love of God for men and women, for you and for me.

Have you ever become sad enough to say you’re sorry and to repent? Then you’ll know what it means to discover the gladness of having your account settled, and all of the debit wiped out, and credited with all of the righteousness of Jesus.

Have you ever become sad enough to say you’re sorry and to repent? Then you’ll know what it means to discover the gladness of having your account settled, and all of the debit wiped out, and credited with all of the righteousness of Jesus. So that your understanding of it all is not, “Do this so that you might be accepted,” but rather, “In Jesus I am accepted; therefore, I’m going to do this.”

Let’s pray together:

Gracious God, we turn to you. We look away from ourselves and ask for you to open our eyes that we might behold the truth of your Word. We cast ourselves down before you. We pray that you will sadden us by the awareness of the fact that we haven’t loved you with all our heart, that we have disregarded you, that we haven’t followed you. And we realize that you only hurt us in order to heal us; you only make us sad momentarily in order that you might make us glad forever. Some of us are frightened to acknowledge that this has taken place, because we don’t want people to think we’re crazy. And we pray that you will strengthen us and encourage us and show yourself to us in such a way that we might be bold, that we might be kind, that we might take what you offer and that we might give what you ask. And we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

[1] See John 20:1; Mark 16:1.

[2] See Mark 16:3–4.

[3] Luke 24:11 (ESV).

[4] Charles Wesley, “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” (1739). Lyrics lightly altered.

[5] See John 11:11–15, 25–26, 38–44.

[6] John 14:1–6 (paraphrased).

[7] John 19:30 (ESV).

[8] Luke 24:36–37 (ESV).

[9] Luke 24:38–39 (ESV).

[10] Luke 24:39–41 (ESV).

[11] Luke 24:41–43 (ESV).

[12] John 11:44 (paraphrased).

[13] See Matthew 28:13.

[14] John 20:24–29 (paraphrased).

[15] John 18:15–18, 25–27 (paraphrased).

[16] 2 Corinthians 5:21 (ESV)

[17] See 1 Corinthians 1:18.

[18] Acts 26:22–25 (Phillips).

[19] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 3.1.

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.