Sermon for Easter Sunday
Dr. Dan Doriani
GOD’S STRONG PLAN
Luke 24:36b-40, 44-47
1. God's decision
A couple in our church whom I'll call "Jeff and Laura" wanted to have children. Sadly, they conceived and suffered miscarriages several times. But they didn't give up; they consulted physicians who determined the cause. To carry her child to term, the mother would need to go on bed rest at four months and remain there; five months of bed rest except for ten minutes a day. We shudder at the thought.
Their child was born: sweet, beautiful and healthy and they loved her very much. They treasured their capacity to give the gift of life to a child and determined, Lord willing, to have another. Truly it is a God-like thing to choose to give life and to nurture it. But this couple knew something. A second pregnancy would probably require another five months of bed rest. The thought of five months in bed brings waves of angst over most of us.
I told Laura how I admired her courage, her willingness to sacrifice so much of her life, to give so much for a child she didn't know. She smiled and said, "I'm no hero. Any mother would do that for her child."
She is sincere, but is she right? How many would conceive a child knowing this lay ahead? What a remarkable spirit! Then I realized: Laura's love, Laura's decision is an echo of Jesus' love and his decision to love us – at far greater cost. For Laura, far more for Jesus, we have a story of a life-giving sacrifice. Why did Jesus go to the cross? He did it to freely make a life-giving sacrifice. Let's review the story.
Luke 24: the Easter story and the necessity of the resurrection
The first Easter began this way: Several women who were devoted to Jesus came to the tomb where Joseph of Arimathea had placed His body. Jesus had died rather late in the day on "Good Friday" right before Passover, so Joseph had no time for everything proper to a burial. Mary, Mary and Joanna walked to the tomb, hoping to complete a proper burial by pouring aromatic spices on His body.
Their devotion was greater than their mindfulness in two ways. First, the body was sealed behind a huge stone, which they would not be able to roll away. Second, they completely forgot that Jesus said He would die and then rise again.
So they were not prepared for what they encountered: "They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus." The body was gone. "Suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them." The frightened women bowed down, but the angels asked, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; He has risen!"
Let's remember: Jesus had predicted His death and resurrection six times in Luke. Yet none of the disciples thought Jesus would rise again. The crucifixion dashed their hope in Jesus as Messiah. Their devotion was to His memory. They wanted to honor His dead body. The disciples were "the first skeptics."
But now "He has risen." There is barely time for this to register; for the angels continue: "Remember how He told you…'The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, crucified and on the third day be raised again'" (24:2-8).
Notice: The angels don't say, "Jesus died and rose." He had to be crucified, had to rise again. The Apostles' Creed says, "He was crucified under Pontius Pilate." There is a lot of information there. Jesus is real history – Pontius Pilate, well-known Roman procurator of Judea, executed him. Not a natural death at a ripe old age; he was slain. Not by a mob, by authorities, Roman authorities. These are the facts. What do they mean?
The angels say, "He told you… [he] must be crucified and raised on the third day." It had to happen. Earlier he told his disciples, "I must keep going [to Jerusalem] for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem" (Luke 13:33).
Jesus saw it coming. From a historical perspective, most everyone – believers and doubters alike – can understand what happened. From a secular historical perspective, we can see why Jesus might predict His death:
The sheer popularity of Jesus as teacher and healer led to envy. He won the affection of the people and it filled Israel's leaders with envy (Matthew 26:5, 27:18, Mark 15:10).
Jesus did things that upset Israel's leaders. He rejected their traditions, questioned their authority and called them hypocrites. They judged him a false prophet because he did not subordinate his power to their law.
Jesus was so popular he could lead a rebellion against Rome. Next, some people called him Son of David, King of the Jews. This was dangerous; it seemed the right thing to execute him before it got worse (Matthew 27:29, 37, John 11:45-53).
These are some of the reasons, human reasons, why Jesus had to die. Historically speaking, we understand them. But the angels also said Jesus had to rise; that is not so understandable. If history is our sole guide, we would say Jesus had to stay dead. How can it be that Jesus had to rise? Here we leave history behind. We must explore the plan of God.
The Plan of God
The Bible says, "It was impossible for death to keep its hold on him" (Acts 2:24). Why? Because he has in himself "the power of an indestructible life" (Hebrews 7:16). He is the author of life. The ground could not hold his body…
This idea of necessity runs throughout the gospels (especially Luke): Jesus had to preach the kingdom, had to heal the sick, had to seek the lost, had to die and had to rise. In that context, the idea that Jesus had to be crucified and then raised to life is nothing new.
Later that day, Jesus told his disciples the same thing: "Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory? And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself." All Scripture foretold this. God ordained it and declared it in advance so we would recognize it as the culmination of his plan.
To say it another way: the motive of the women was good, their love and devotion was good, but they shouldn't have worried about honoring Jesus' body. The Father took care of that; it was in His control all along.
But I want to meditate on this idea of necessity. For that we return to Jeff and Laura's. They freely chose to have second child. No one forced it on them. But once they made their choice, bed rest became a necessity. Bed rest, painful as it was, was required if they wanted to become parents again.
If they wanted to give the gift of life and love another child, bed rest was not an absolute necessity, it became a necessity. It was a necessary consequence of their desire to give the gift of life.
We see in Laura's sacrifice an echo of Jesus' sacrifice. Jesus wasn't obligated by some law outside Him or above Him, to enter this world, teach, preach, heal, make disciples (and enemies) and die on the cross.
Jesus could have let the human race go – on its way toward death. He could have chosen to remain outside this creation. He could have toured a while, in any time frame. But he came. Why? To give the gift of life because He loved his creatures, loved people and His friends.
Jesus said, "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends"(John 15:13-14). Jesus used another metaphor elsewhere; it also stressed the freedom of His sacrifice (10:11-18): "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. I lay down my life, only to take it up again. No one takes it from me; I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again.”
The Bible says "God is love". Again, "By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us" (1 John 4:8:16, 3:16). This love is personal and purposeful. Jesus says He came from heaven not simply to do as He willed but to fulfill the Father's will. This is his will: "That I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day." So then "everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life." (John 6:37-40).
The principle is that acts of love and sacrifice flow from our nature. Jeff and Laura were motivated by love of an unborn child. But the Lord is motivated by love for a lost child.
A friend shot me an email this week. "I lost a photo. I showed it to you at your house… Can you look?" My grandfather was a painter of some note from 1930-60 in the folk-primitive style. He sold some paintings, a couple are in museums, most were lost for years (now found). A lost photo, a lost painting; the Bible compares us to lost children – beloved but lost, straying. And the Lord felt love and compassion for us.
“The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love... He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities… As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust. (Psalm 103:8, 10, 13-14).
Again, the Bible says, "God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." So when the Bible says, "it is necessary" for Jesus to die and to rise, we know: it is not a necessity imposed from the outside. Rather, once the loving Lord determined to restore us, it became necessary for Jesus to come, teach, heal, die and rise.
Still, people wonder: Was the cross really necessary? Many devout Muslims, who believe Jesus was a prophet, say Jesus escaped the authorities, who killed another man in a case of mistaken identity. They cannot imagine that Allah would let a prophet die in such shame. Other people have followed this line. We can see why the Romans in fact did slay Jesus. But in the realm of history, everything seems open, changeable; it could be otherwise. If he had just withdrawn quietly, gotten out of Jerusalem at the right time, he could have had lived longer.
But the crucifixion is necessary in another sense. J. I. Packer illustrated the issue this way: Suppose a man is in a tower overlooking a train yard. Surveying the scene, he spies a toddler on a live track; a train is approaching and will kill the child if no one intervenes.
The man dashes from his tower, runs toward the child and arrives just in time to hurl himself across the track and push the child to safety. But, alas, he is killed. We will call this act an act of great courage and sacrifice if he gives his life to save a child. But suppose the supervisor could have stayed in the
control tower and saved the child by pressing a button to switch the train to another track. If that were true, we would call the supervisor misguided at best, a suicidal fool at worst.
Jesus was not a fool, so when we say he had to suffer, we mean this: Once Jesus determined to restore us, there was no button to push, no switch to pull, no easy way to rescue us. God took this hard path, ending with an excruciating death because there was no easier way – no other way at all.
We must tread carefully here. Before God we are like children; we can't understand everything. Children love to ask, "Why?" Example:
“Where are you going, Daddy?”
“I’m going to the baseball game.”
“Can I come too?”
“It's hard to explain”. We can't always explain to a child's full satisfaction.
Before God, we are like children, struggling to grasp things that are a bit beyond us. It seems that the sacrifice of Christ, the atonement, is like this. The Bible uses at least five main metaphors, overlapping yet different, to explain it. No one, by itself, can fully explain: Jesus offered a life giving-sacrifice to restore us to himself. The Bible gives several perspectives to grasp facets of it.
1. By Jesus' death and resurrection, God has achieved victory over sin, death and Satan. Jesus has bound the strong man, plundered his house. He has triumphed over rulers and authorities (Luke 11, Colossians 2:15).
2. By Jesus' death and resurrection, God has satisfied his justice, he demonstrated his justice, so that he is just even as he justifies. (Romans 3:26).
3. By the death and resurrection of Jesus, God reconciled the world to himself. A relationship was broken. We were avoiding God. It was as if we would notice that he was looking at us and turn away. He restored trust, affection.
4. By the death and resurrection, Jesus ransomed his people. We were captives to sin, captives to death and the fear of death, held by a power from which we could not extricate ourselves. Jesus' death released us from that power.
5. By the death and resurrection of Jesus, sinners are justified. All of us have done things that are harsh, mean, thoughtless or shameful and we know these things are wrong. We have a sense of justice – visible since the day we first cried, "That's not fair!" Now if we judge others, we admit judgment is needed. The Bible says God is that Judge. He holds us accountable for all - every word and deed.
Jesus stood before the judge for us, took our misdeeds on himself and said – "Let the judgment, the punishment fall on me. Let my righteousness be granted to them." That is the final meaning of the cross and the resurrection. Because Jesus did this, we can stand before God the judge without fear. Isaiah said this:
“He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; The punishment that brought us peace was upon him and by his wounds we are healed.”
There are so many metaphors. From the realm of war and conflict, Jesus is victor. From the realm of relationships, Jesus heals and reconciles us to God. From the realm of law and justice, Jesus bears the punishment we deserve, so that God declares us innocent. From the realm of commerce, Jesus pays a price to ransom us from captivity. From the world of religion, Jesus offers a sacrifice to God. No single
metaphor can exhaust this reality: Jesus has acted decisively to restore our relationship with God.1 Sadly, not all of these concepts resonate today. Some bristle at the thought that they need Jesus to intervene, to save them: "I need to be saved"? The idea clashes with my autonomy, freedom and authenticity. We think: I can't be myself, be free, if I depend on someone else – even if that someone is God.
Or, if we need deliverance, we expect it to come from this world, from mankind. In fact, when we feel someone coming alongside to offer help, sometimes we object: “I don't want to be your project! I don't need to saved!”
Or, we expect deliverance from within. We look for progress from science, technology, education, medicine, progress through economic developments or even evolution. We look for personal progress. If I am attentive, centered, I will treat others better.
Ultimately, if you are an outsider, you must decide if you can deliver yourself from your failings, from the evils of life, even from death - or not.
I know a man who grew up with abusive parents. They told him he was worthless, good for nothing, didn't even to bother to offer him medical care when he was sick. It hurt him, but not in the most obvious ways. He became angry. He determined to prove his parents wrong. He learned to be wary, to find ways to disarm people before they could attack him. But most of the time, he pretended it never happened. Is that authentic?
It's more authentic to say, "This was evil." It's authentic to say, "I will battle my wounds all my life. I will never find perfect healing." But Jesus came for us, trapped as we are by our past. He will forgive us when we do destructive things due to our past. Above all, the Christian faith teaches us to look to away from wounds to Jesus.
Again, the resurrection teaches us to admit our brokenness, but not to dwell on it. We face it, but look away from self to Jesus, the redeemer, victor over sin. Let me tell you a story that illustrates the issue.
It was a clear, blue and warm in northern China in August, 1945 near the end of World War II. The Japanese have kept 2,000 Europeans and Americans in internment camp since the war began. Their crime? They happened to live in north China when war broke out. For three years they dreamed of the end of the war and release. They had heard rumors that the Allies were winning. They had even seen Allied planes two or three times, silver specks streaking through the upper atmosphere, far from the chugging Japanese planes. The high fliers caused a cool thrill, a hint of Allied military might. 2 On this August day, everyone was busy with the usual camp chores. Then someone sighted a low-flying Allied plane. Word spread, "An American plane is headed straight for us!" Everyone went outside to see. There it was, big as a gull and heading their way.
As it came nearer, the elation mounted. The Allies are probing our area! People began shouting: "It's a big plane, with four engines! It’s coming straight for the camp. There's the American flag painted on the side! It's almost touching the trees! It's turning around now. It's coming back over the camp! Look, they're waving at us! They know who we are. They have come for us!"
Moments later seven paratroopers dropped from the sky, heavily armed, brimming with confidence. They advanced on the camp and virtually the whole camp met them – including the fifty guards. The paratroopers invited the guards – who were not warriors – to surrender and after a minute, they accepted the offer. The prisoners were now free.
I like this story because of the parallel to the work of Jesus. The message of Christianity: Jesus knows who we are, where we are, our need for deliverance and He came for us – in person. He didn't soar through the stratosphere, barely seeing, hardly caring, for the events on the ground below. He came low, he entered this world. He came for us.
It's a stirring story and a good analogy for Jesus' work. It corrects the hint that can creep into the mind - that Jesus' work is a bit mechanical, impersonal. I did evil, Jesus pays for it. I say "I believe" – problem solved.
No, he came for us in person, as the soldiers came for their people, as the nation's leaders knew and cared about the plight of their citizens. They came in person to release them from real oppression, from objective evil in this world.
Still, the story assumes you and I need rescue from the outside. We asked if this still lets us live authentically - if we yield to a deliverer. Yes, more than ever. The story of Jesus lets us take our brokenness and sin seriously - and the brokenness of the world too.
How often we fail to do that! When I talk to people who are miserable, I often hear them say: "I need to accept reality. I need to get used to it." It's true that we need to accept reality, but there is more than that. If all we know is "I need to get used to it," we are fatalists. Realistic expectations are good, but no expectations?
It's more authentic to take sin and evil seriously, to be startled and outraged by it and to admit that no final cure will come from us. If you seek authenticity, I must add that Jesus does more than forgive sins, He brings a kingdom.
To be a Christian is no private matter. Jesus would never have us withdraw into a small enclave of like-minded people, pursuing private righteousness. He sends us into the world, to work out our faith in building and banking, arts and education, engineering and investments, food and sports. The scope is grand: God so loved the world that he sent his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). Jesus told his disciples, "Go and make disciples of all nations" (John 3:16, Matthew 28:19).
But the work of Jesus is personal before it's cosmic. Jesus knows us, He came for us. It's amazing how much humans vary in their reactions to things. For example, one person loves a noisy restaurant – full of life. Another hates all the shouting to be heard. That applies to bigger events, too. On the day when the paratroopers arrived, the prisoners burst from the compound. Most ran to get food packages that fell as the paratroopers landed.
But one man ran to get fresh fruits and vegetables from Chinese farmers living nearby. Joe saw most things through the lens of money. When the planes came, he saw a chance for a profit. He rushed to a farmer and began to haggle over the price of melons. He brought them into the compound, sold them for a profit and found his ecstasy there, not in his deliverance.
We can do better. We must. Easter marks the completion of Jesus' life-giving sacrifice. He came for us, died for us and rose in victory. Trust in him.
1 Gert van Roest, JRT, 2008, pages 75-80. Murray, Redemption Accomplished, pages 19-51.
2 . Gilkey, Shantung, pages 206-213.