April 12, 2020
Following Jesus’ crucifixion, His disciples hid behind locked doors for fear of reprisal from the Jews. A sense of lostness had settled over them—a darkness that could not be dispelled by false hope. But Jesus did not remain in the grave! He appeared in His resurrected body, proclaiming peace to His disciples. As Alistair Begg explains, our hope is not rooted in an idea but in a risen Savior. It is this truth that enables us to proclaim the way of forgiveness to all who will believe.
We’re going to read again from John chapter 20 and from verse 11 through to verse 23 or 24. John 20:11:
“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 [foot]. [And] they said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not … where they have laid him.’ [And] 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 had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.’”
The verses that will be our focus are verses 19–23. And as we pause for a moment in prayer, it is an immense privilege, isn’t it, to be found in this way on this day? I was just standing there as I was thinking that this, I think, is the forty-third occasion that I have had the privilege of preaching on an Easter Sunday morning. And I certainly do not take it for granted, and feel the weight of the responsibility.
So, let us pause and ask for God’s help as we pray:
Our gracious God and Father, we thank you that we will not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from your mouth, from the mouth of God. And so we turn now for the food that is so needed by our hungry souls, for the direction that is so necessary in our increasingly chaotic lives, for the peace for which we long in the midst of relative chaos. And fulfill your purposes, Lord, in these moments, we pray, to our good and to the glory of your Son, in whose name we ask it. Amen.
Well, if you have your Bibles open wherever you are, you will notice that on the evening of the first day of the week of the first Easter Sunday, Jesus’ disciples were in lockdown. I know it seems rather trendy to use that phrase; it’s certainly bandied around a great deal. But in actual fact, it is true. They were not in this condition as a result of some state-ordered emergency protocol, but they were there on account of the fact that their hearts were now filled with sadness; they had apparently completely lost their way. The darkness which had engulfed Mary as she had gone to the tomb early in the morning, as we read at the head of the chapter, had now, in a kind of metaphorical sense, apparently settled on the shoulders of the disciples. And as we read these words, it is clear that this sense of lostness and darkness is not about to be dispelled by some illusory hopes. In fact, it is going to take something very, very special to see them changed.
It’s clear that whatever hopes and dreams they’d shared had now been crushed; they had been broken as a result of the crucifixion of their master. They had already begun to speak in the past tense. One of their company had earlier in the day referred to Jesus of Nazareth and the hopes that they had had concerning him by saying this: “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” Of course, they had already concluded that clearly he wasn’t, for surely no Messiah would have died such a death nor have been buried away from sight. And so, with the wind out of their sails, and with them essentially becalmed and going nowhere, there we find them.
Now, in order to help us navigate this passage, I’ve chosen to gather our thoughts under three straightforward words. The first word is fear, and then faith, and then forgiveness.
First of all, fear, which is the explanation for the fact that the doors were locked in the place where they had assembled. They were fearful of the possibility that those who had destroyed Jesus may in turn come and seek them out and do similarly to them. It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? Why would they assume that this would be the case? This little huddled company, if they were a threat to anyone, it was only that they were a threat to themselves.
And as you read this scene—and it’s a familiar scene, and perhaps as the day has ended on an Easter Sunday, some of us have turned to it on our own. And perhaps, as I have tried to this week, you’ve said to yourself, “I can almost imagine the mood or the atmosphere that must have been in that room,” encapsulated, perhaps, in a sense of emptiness. Emptiness. Those of us who have lost those near and dear to us can recall all too easily, I think, how in the aftermath of our loss—perhaps even before the time of burial—we had those evenings that were dreadful. Neighbors and friends and family members came, and we sat together, and we sat for much of the time in silence—silence that was punctuated every so often by reflection, reminiscing. Somebody began to say, “Do you remember when…?” or “Do you remember that…?”
I don’t think it’s difficult to imagine that the disciples on this particular evening were doing something along similar lines. It’s hard to imagine that they were simply sitting in silence. So one of them might have said, “Well, do you remember how excited and hopeful we were when he walked on the water?” Someone else says, “Yeah, but do you remember what a disaster it was when we began to tell those mothers to take their children away because we wanted Jesus to have some peace? And then he rebuked us and said, ‘No, the children should come to me.’” Someone else says, “Yeah, but do you remember when we came back with lunch, and he was seated with that woman at the well?” “Oh, yes,” said somebody, “what a day that was!” And someone says, “Well, you know what I remember? I remember at the tomb of Lazarus. I remember coming up on that scene and seeing him weep.”
And then, in that reminiscence, there is this stabbing anguish that comes, in the awareness of the fact that it is clear to them that they would never on earth see Jesus’ face again. Of that they were convinced. Hence the fearful locking of the door. Hence the sense of emptiness. Hence, I think, almost inevitably, the regret. Surely it wouldn’t be long before one of them said, “You know, if only we had stayed with him when they came for him, if only we had followed through. Why was it that we said, you know, ‘Jesus, you can count on us no matter what happens,’ and then we just ran away? And he died alone.” I suggest to you, there is more than simply regret in that. There is disappointment. There is despair. There is essentially shame. Shame.
Now, why is that to any degree at all we would be able to sense something of that atmosphere? Well, I suggest to you there may be many reasons why, but at least this: because in some sense, the atmosphere as I have depicted it in that room mirrors the condition of our world this morning—in particular, the condition of some of our lives: facing death, despair, lostness, emptiness, regret, and fear. And all of the time, we peer into an unknown future. And in moments of brutal honesty, we’re forced to admit that with all of our best endeavors, we cannot create life out of death. We are unable to bring order out of chaos. And so, for us, as it was for the disciples, it is going to take something pretty special to see us changed.
Fear. But then, faith. If fear was that which they experienced, then faith is that which was to be restored. And John tells us that it was in that circumstance that “Jesus came and stood among them.” Although they were locked down, Jesus could not be locked out. In fact, the reason they were locked down is because they believed that death had locked Jesus down once and forever. And here he stands among them—just appears, quietly.
I love it in the Christmas carol when we have those lines: “How silently, how silently the wondrous Gift is giv’n.” And there is a sense in which you come to the Easter story, Jesus is operating in the same way. I suppose if somebody were trying to create a mythology along these lines, there would have been a lot of crashing and ballyhooing and trumpets and various things going on. But there is none of that. I wonder if you ever noticed just how undramatic the appearances of Jesus actually are. We read of one earlier in the chapter, when Jesus, as it were, comes up behind Mary, and he simply speaks to her. When we go one more chapter on in John, we find him, as it were, on a beach, with a stick, poking a charcoal fire and preparing breakfast. We find him coming alongside two disconsolate individuals as they’re just walking down the road. And then here in this room. He who has created the world, who has been cradled in a manger, slips quietly but livingly into the events of life. It’s almost as though he sneaks up on us. Now, what is the first word that comes out of his mouth? Well, it is the word “peace,” or “shalom.” He stood among them, and he said to them, “Shalom.” Well, of course, that is a customary Semitic greeting. But let’s not pass over it too quickly. What a word to speak! The disciples might have anticipated that out of his mouth would have come rebuke, or blame, or at least disappointment. But no! “Peace be with you,” he said.
And “when he had said this”—this is verse 20—“he showed them his hands and his side.” Because, you see, Jesus realized just how startling this must have been to them, just how frightened they must have been—frightened first of all by their sense of the possibility of their own death, but now even more frightened, in a staggering way, that this Jesus, whom they were convinced they would never see again in their lives, was actually standing among them. And Luke tells us that they actually thought they had seen a spirit, an apparition, that they had seen a ghost. So far from the idea of the disciples waiting around, as it were, on Easter Sunday morning for the appearing of Jesus so that they could have a celebration service, nothing could be further from the truth! No, fear had gripped them. And so Jesus actually says to them, in Luke 24, “Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see … I have.”
And “he showed them his hands and his side.” Interestingly, anybody who had been crucified routinely would have been identified by the wounds in their hands and in their feet. But as you know, the story of Christ’s death—how his side was pierced with a sword in order to bring about the indication that he was entirely gone. It was a verifying move on the part of the soldier. And so he is able to point to his hands and to his side. And in a masterful understatement, it then reads, “Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.” Yeah, they were!
Now, what I find of interest here—and I wonder, do you follow along with this?—Jesus here appeals to their senses. Again, far from the idea that the story of the resurrection is an idea, that it’s a concept, that it’s a way of getting through life, that it is built on a forlorn hope propped up by years and years of religious tradition—nothing could be further from the truth when we examine the evidence. The disciples are not here entertaining an idea. They are embracing a person. And he says to them, “Listen, you can touch me, and you can see who and what I am,” appealing to their senses of hearing, of seeing, of touching; and in one of the other Gospels, remember, he eats some fish with them, making it clear that his digestive system is working perfectly too.
Now, why do we mention this? Well, because I think it’s important to realize that when you and I read the Bible, we were not present for that event, but when we read the record of the event, the Bible is not asking us to believe anything that is contrary to sense. The events of the Bible may be suprarational—in other words, they may be, if you like, in a sense, above reason—but the events of the Bible are not irrational. They are not contrary to reason. And the same John who wrote the Gospel, when he wrote his letter, he begins in this very way. He says,
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we [have] looked upon … [which we] have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, [we] testify to it[, we] proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and [which] was made manifest to us [in the Son].
This is the story of Easter. This is the story of the resurrection.
And so, once again, Jesus repeats his greeting. “Shalom,” again he says to them. Verse 21: “[And] peace be with you.” I wonder, are we right to see somehow or another almost a differentiation between the first “shalom” and the second? It’s surely a customary greeting. But the disciples, remember, had been on the receiving end of the instruction of Jesus concerning peace. He had said to them before, “It is in me that you might have peace.” He referred to it as “my peace.” And surely in this greeting, he is giving to them at least the initial inkling of the fact that their gladness would not be found simply in the awareness of the fact that he was no longer dead, but far more, that by his resurrection he comes now to bestow the peace that comes through his blood shed upon the cross. In other words, the peace with which he greets them is the peace that is bestowed upon the pardoned sinner. “On the cross he sealed my pardon, paid the debt, … [set] me free.” This is how Paul explains it later on when he writes to the Colossians: “In [Jesus] … the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace [through his] blood [shed on the] cross.”
“Shalom” then takes on a whole new meaning for those who discover this peace. Where in the world this morning; where in our weary world this morning, bowing as it is under the weight of all that is besetting us; where in a world that is largely indifferent to God as the Creator—a world that is, in our own tiny worlds, basically rebellious towards God, rejecting the notion that he made us extremely and supremely for a relationship with himself, and a God who, despite the fact that we’ve turned our backs on him, that we have essentially said to him, “Leave me alone,” you know, “I can figure this out for myself”… But he doesn’t leave us alone. As he came up behind Mary, as he came to them on the Emmaus road, so he comes to you and me. He still seeks us out. He still seeks in love. He pursues us. He bids us find peace in the one at whose birth the angels sang, “Peace on earth.”
Now, I have no embarrassment in this message at all. I have no concern about its relevance or its impact. I’ve lived long enough to have lived through the cries of the ’60s for peace—understandable longings, real longings, heartfelt longings. And yet many of those who sang the songs that we all joined in, if they’re still alive now, sixty years on, are clear about one fact: that the shouting for it, the longing for it, the singing for it, the creating of it has not created peace. And the words of Jesus are clear, and they are compelling. He says, “In me you may have peace.”
You see, this is the Easter message. It is this message that holds the answer to our dispeace. Because the resurrection doesn’t simply mean that there is a Jesus, there is a Christ, who defeated death one day long ago and far away, but what it says is this: is that Christ is alive forever, that Christ is the decisive answer to the chaos of our upside-down world, to the predicament of our individual lives.
So, the fear that they experienced, and the faith that was then restored, not as a result of an idea but as a result of the presence of the risen Christ. And then the forgiveness that they were not only to experience but to proclaim.
Jesus had come as a man on a mission. He’s made that clear from the very beginning. He said, “The kingdom of God is at hand. The time is fulfilled. Repent and believe the good news.” Jesus came to preach good news. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that when he would be removed from his earthly pilgrimage to ascend to the Father, that he would send his disciples out to continue his mission. And that’s exactly what he’s saying here: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”
Now, these words are a challenge, and one day far from now we will come back and deal with them in more detail. I have no desire to skip the challenges, but in light of them, I think it is safe for us simply to say this: that Jesus here, in this statement, is sending them out to proclaim the way of forgiveness. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.” Well, clearly, they do not have in themselves—no man, woman, anyone has in themselves—the power of personal absolution. So he’s clearly not saying that. And “if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” Again, it cannot be that. No, he is sending them out to proclaim the way of forgiveness. How could they take on such an assignment? Only in the power of the Holy Spirit. And so, symbolically here, in anticipation of what is yet to follow, “he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” In other words, “There is no way you’re going to be able to just do this on your own. It’s going to take the power of the Holy Spirit.”
And how did it work out? How did they do it? Well, the best way to actually answer that is to fast-forward just a few weeks and to find that Peter, along with others, had begun to do exactly what Jesus had told them to do. And in his first opportunity to preach a sermon, as recorded by Luke in Acts, he begins in this way: “Men of Israel, hear these words.” And then his first word is “Jesus”: “Jesus of Nazareth…” And I can’t go through his whole sermon. You’ll be relieved about that. But he then goes on to say, “You have crucified him, and God has raised him.” And then he says to them, “And in him there is forgiveness of your sins.”
So in other words, he addresses directly the situation that they face: rebels, unfit for God’s goodness, appealing to ideas of their own; and now the same God who has punished his own Son in the place of me, the sinner, comes now to make his appeal and to offer forgiveness in the preaching of one of Jesus’ followers. When he comes back to it in another of his sermons, he says this: “And there is salvation”—or, if you like, forgiveness—“in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” I say to you this morning that if this is false, then I do not believe there is hope for humanity anywhere.
Now, I always have to come up with a title for the talk, and so I called this “Life after Lockdown.” And life after lockdown for these men, as history records, meant going out to do what he had asked them to do: to proclaim this amazing story, good news, forgiveness, the love of God—the story that we in Jesus are given to proclaim. They proclaimed it, they lived for it, and in most cases, they died for it.
Well, what about us? What about us? Are we still convinced, as we walk out into the balance of this Easter Sunday morning, that we can work things out? Are we really believing that the best of our medics and our scientists have the answers not simply to a virus but to the answers that unsettle us on account of the virus? Our fears? Our disappointments? Our regrets? Our “If only I could have time over again,” or “I remember when,” or “It was wonderful then”? There is no answer there. I put it to you: there is answer in only one. And the answer comes when we refuse to walk around saying “We can work it out” and, as I’ve said to you before, we cry out in the words of Lennon, “Help!” “Help!”
There are many cartoons going around, and I saw a pencil drawing of one just the other day. It wasn’t particularly funny, but it was cute. And it was a goldfish bowl with two goldfish in it. And one goldfish was saying to the other, “What’s our exit strategy?” Well, there you have the real question—far bigger than the question “How are we going to exit this COVID-19 arena?” What about the exit strategy when our lives come to an end?
Here is the Easter story: Jesus is the resurrection and the life. The one that believes in him, even though he die, yet they will live. The question is, do you believe this? And if not, let me ask you: What do you believe? And does what you believe answer the biggest questions: What am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? Does it answer your fears, your despair, your regret, your shame?
The disciples went out from lockdown to tell the world what I now say to you: that Jesus has promised to save all those who trust him —that is, who are committed personally to him, who are not simply believing that he is who he said he was, but that they are saying to him, “Lord Jesus Christ, you are clearly the friend of sinners, and I want you to be my friend.” Only in Jesus will we find pardon and peace.
And it may just be that in this particular period of your life, with all that has been going on and the fact that you’re actually sitting in earshot of my voice right now, it may be that this sense of the silent advancing of the risen Jesus upon you has been almost sneakily apparent—perhaps in a text you’ve received or a song from your grandchildren. In a way that you’ve never known, perhaps, before, there’s been a sense of being stirred within your heart, being moved.
“Well,” you say, “how would I ever know?” Well, you know, the first sign of the Spirit moving in our hearts to change it is when we trust Jesus as our Savior and our King. And you may do that today, wherever you are. Why? Because Jesus not only paid the penalty, but he raised from the dead, triumphed over death and sin and the grave and everything that holds us in its sway. I commend to you the Lord Jesus.
A brief prayer:
Our gracious God, we thank you that you loved us so much that you did send Jesus to be the Savior of all who come to him in childlike trust and in believing faith. Well, what hope do we have in all of life and in the prospect of death, save that which is found in the one who has dealt with the penalty of sin and triumphed so that we in him may triumph too? Hear the prayers of each of our hearts, we pray. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Before a benediction, just a PS, as it comes to my mind. You will recall that it says in the Bible that Jesus was crucified with sinners and that he was then “with a rich man in his death.” And that, of course, refers to an individual who has been mentioned just briefly this morning, I think, in our opening song, Joseph of Arimathea. And it occurs to me that there may be a number of Josephs of Arimathea listening to me now—men, prosperous men, successful individuals who have been toying with the idea of really trusting Jesus. In fact, if you talked with them, they could explain things to you fairly well. And that was Joseph. But what really nailed his colors to the mast is when he came to Pilate and he asked if he could take the body of Jesus down from the cross. And if never before, at that moment, on that day, he identified himself with the Lord Jesus Christ.
I wonder if there isn’t one or two who meet that profile: having begun to believe, thinking things out, but essentially a secret disciple. Why not today? Why not today? Nail your colors to the mast. Tell someone—tell a colleague, tell your children, tell your wife—“Today I have come to trust in Jesus as my Savior, resurrected Lord, and King.”
Thank you for joining us for this service. Come again.
And now may the love of the Lord Jesus draw us to himself. May the joy of the Lord Jesus fill our often fearful hearts on this Resurrection Sunday. And may the peace of the Lord Jesus—the peace which he alone can provide, the peace that is pardon for our sin—may that peace stir our minds, flood our hearts, guide our steps, bless our homes, and lead us in the way everlasting. And may grace and mercy and peace from Father, Son, and Holy Spirit rest upon and remain with all who believe, today and forevermore. Amen.
 See Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew 4:4; Luke 4:4.
 Luke 24:21 (ESV).
 See Matthew 14:22–33; Mark 6:45–52; John 6:16–21.
 See Matthew 19:13–15; Mark 10:13–16; Luke 18:15–17.
 See John 4:1–30.
 See John 11:32–35.
 Phillips Brooks, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” (1867).
 See John 21:1–14.
 See Luke 24:13–35.
 See Luke 24:37.
 Luke 24:39 (ESV).
 See Luke 24:41–43.
 1 John 1:1–2 (ESV).
 See John 16:33.
 John 14:27 (ESV).
 Philip P. Bliss, “I Will Sing of My Redeemer” (1876).
 Colossians 1:19–20 (ESV).
 See Luke 2:14.
 See Mark 1:15.
 Acts 2:22 (ESV).
 Acts 2:23–24, 38 (paraphrased).
 Acts 4:12 (ESV).
 John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “We Can Work It Out” (1965).
 John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “Help!” (1965).
 See John 11:25–26.
 Isaiah 53:9 (ESV).
 See Matthew 27:57–58; Mark 15:42–45; Luke 23:50–52; John 19:38.
Copyright © 2021, 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.