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Sermon Message

"Easter Encounters"

1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Theme: The testimony of the New Testament is that Jesus is alive and able to change the life of anyone who trusts in Him.

(Delivered Easter Sunday, April 20, 2003 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotes are taken from the New King James Version.)  


I had the opportunity to participate in a campus outreach at a local community college last week. The campus ministry had placed a poster on the wall in the cafeteria that invited students to write their response to the question, "What does Easter mean to you?" I had the opportunity to read some of the comments when I was there; and I was reminded once again of just how controversial Easter is. One student wrote that Easter meant nothing; that Jesus died for Himself and for no one else. Another student wrote that Easter was simply a holiday that Christians stole from the pagans. Someone else wrote that it was the celebration of bunnies laying eggs and hiding them. Some of the comments were actually very bitter toward Christianity in general, and were peppered with a certain amount of profanity. One student's comment, however, stood out to me the most: "Easter means that I am alive."

Easter is controversial because the claim it makes to us is monumental; and the response it demands to that claim is total. It's based on the claim that our sins are such a great offense to a holy God, and such an impassable barrier to our ever entering into fellowship with Him on our own merit, that He had to send His Son to die in our place. The monumental claim of Easter is that the removal of the barrier of sin through the sacrifice of God's son is proven to be successful, because Jesus - the one who died for our sins - has been raised from the dead. He was, in the words of the apostle Paul, "delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification" (Rom. 4:25). And the claim that He is alive places the total demand on us that we now turn from our sins, cease to live for ourselves, and faithfully follow this risen Savior with our whole lives.

The apostles passed this declaration of Easter on to the world - that is, that the Son of God has put on human flesh and has died for sinners, and has now been raised from the dead. The Savior of sinners can now be easily identified to the world because of Easter; and thus, none of us could claim that we didn't know who the Savior is. Paul wrote that Jesus Christ our Lord "was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead" (Rom. 1:3-4). He also preached to the Athenians and said that God "has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead" (Acts 17:31).

Now, it falls upon every man and every woman, every boy and every girl, to make the choice: What will they do with this One whom God has risen from the dead? Will they reject Him, or will they accept Him. Easter makes us all accountable for this all-important decision.

* * * * * * * * * *

The apostle Paul spoke of Easter as something so essential to the Christian faith, that if Jesus wasn't really, literal raised from the dead, we might as well give up on the whole idea of Christianity altogether. Paul hung everything on the conviction that Jesus truly had been raised from the dead and really is alive today. He wrote,

Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ, whom He did not raise up - if in fact the dead do not rise. For if the dead to not rise, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable.

But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep (1 Corinthians 15:12-20).

* * * * * * * * * *

May I share with you, on a personal level, what it means to me that Jesus was raised from the dead? It, of course, means so many thing that there isn't time for me to describe them all - such things as the assurance of the forgiveness of my sins (Rom. 4:25), the demonstration of how powerfully God is able to work in the lives of those who trust Him (Eph. 1:19-20), and the certainty of hope that I can have in an inheritance beyond the grave (1 Pet. 1:3). But one of the most precious things Jesus' resurrection means to me is that my Christian faith is more than a mere religion. It means that I haven't just agreed to follow the religious principles of a spiritual Leader who is dead and gone - far away, distant, and removed from my everyday experience. It means that, instead, I have entered into a real relationship with a real Person who loves me so much that He would die for me.

The resurrection of Jesus means that He is alive at this moment, and very active, and very present, and very much able to change me into the person He wants me to be. It means that I never have to fear any circumstance, or any trial, or any other person; because Someone who is mightier than all is always with me, and is always watching out for me, and is fully able to care for all my needs. It means that I have the greatest of all Friends - a Friend who is all-powerful, all-wise, and all-knowing - a Friend will never let me go from His care until I am safe and secure in His presence forever. It means I can claim His wonderful promise to be as literally true for me as it is for any of His followers: "... Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age" (Matt. 28:20).

The writer of Hebrews said that Jesus serves us in an unchangeable priesthood; "Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them" (Heb. 7:25). He is not only able to save me; but He is able to save me to the uttermost, because He always lives to make intercession for me. This is, I think, the most precious of all things that this day means to me. It means that the hymn, "What A Friend We Have in Jesus" can literally be true for me in everyday experience!

* * * * * * * * * *

I think that the greatest appreciator of all this was the apostle Paul. In fact, I think it would be safe to say that Paul was the greatest fan in all human history of the resurrection of Jesus. His whole world-transforming life was one enormous response to the monumental fact of Easter. There's, in fact, no other way to explain Paul's remarkable life than by the fact that Jesus truly did raise from the dead and had transformed him.

And so, when Paul explained the message of the gospel as he preached it, he made it clear that the Easter story was absolutely essential to it. He wrote,

Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel, which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you - unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures ... (1 Cor. 15:1-4).

Paul would have considered that the gospel hadn't been preached at all if the great proposition of Easter had been left out. He affirmed that Jesus not only died and was buried, but He also was raised on the third day. Paul maintained that those propositions are inseparable! And what I'd like to have you notice this morning is that the impact of that resurrection was, in Paul's mind, meant to be a personal and practical one. Because Jesus is alive, He is able to go around and personally, radically transform people's lives. The apostle affirms that Jesus

... rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephus, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time. For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. Therefore, whether it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed" (vv. 4b-11).

Paul, then, wasn't being merely philosophical, or simply engaging in abstract theology, when he proclaimed the proposition of Easter. To him, Jesus' resurrection was so real and so practical that he became 'anecdotal' in the way he proclaimed it. He objectified the fact of Easter for us by telling us about real human experiences of its truth. He related it to us in the form of solid, factual, flesh-and-bone encounters with the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ. He even loved, most of all, to tell of how he himself met the resurrected Lord Jesus and was transformed by the encounter.

This Easter morning, I'd like for us to go back together and consider some of these different stories of the encounters people had with the resurrected Jesus. And my hope in doing so is that we all will grow to appreciate the fact that, because Jesus is alive today, He is wonderfully able to transform the life of anyone who places their trust in Him.

* * * * * * * * * *

First, I read that Paul says Jesus "rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures". And that draws my attention to the very first person to have encountered the resurrected Jesus - Mary Magdalene.

We know a little from the Bible about Mary. At one time, she must have been a dreadful person to meet; because the Bible tells us she was a woman out of whom Jesus had cast out seven demons (Luke 8:2). Some believe that she was the "sinful woman" that Luke describes in his gospel - the woman who, out of gratitude for being forgiven of her sins, washed Jesus' feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair; and who kissed His feet and anointed them with expensive oil (Luke 7:36-50). She was among those who remained with Jesus to the very end, even while He was being crucified (John 19:25).

Mary was certainly not the kind of person that this world would have considered important or who would have drawn much attention. But it was the plan of God that she be granted a very rare and great privilege. This simple woman was the one to whom Jesus chose to appear first, after He had been raised from the dead. To me, there's something wonderfully sweet and tender in the fact that the glorious Savior would make sure that He first appeared to this poor, simple woman who loved Him so very much.

After He had died, Mary had come to Jesus' tomb, with some of the other women, to anoint His body with spices as was the custom of the Jewish people in that day. But when they arrived, they found the large stone rolled away from the entrance to the tomb, and the body of Jesus gone. Mary ran to Peter and to John, and told them, "They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him" (John 20:2). And the two disciples came and investigated the tomb, finding things to be just as she had said.

Peter and John left; but Mary remained behind. The Bible tells us that

... Mary stood outside by the tomb weeping, and as she wept she stooped down and looked into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. Then they said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him." Now when she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?" She, supposing Him to be the gardner, 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, "Rabboni!" (which is to say, Teacher). Jesus said to her, "Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, 'I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God.'" Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that He had spoken these things to her (John 20:11-18).

Consider the warm, personal touch we find in this encounter with the resurrected Jesus. The Bible tells us that, after He had risen, He presented Himself alive to His apostles over a period of forty days - giving them "many infallible proofs" that He was alive (Acts 1:3). They were the ones He had commissioned to tell the world about Him. They were sent forth with the task of proclaiming the most startling piece of news that the world has ever heard! All of them would proclaim Him mightily; and all but one would boldly lay down their lives in doing so. But before He appeared to these appointed witnesses who were destined to turn the world upside down (Acts 17:6), He made sure that His very first appearance was to a very unlikely, very simple, very humble woman whom He loved very dearly.

He called her by name. At first, He said, "Woman, why are you weeping?", and she thought He was someone else. But when He called her by name, she immediately knew who He was. She recognized His voice when He spoke her name. And in the original language of John's gospel, it has Jesus telling her, "Stop clinging to Me." Jesus was not making Himself "untouchable" to her; but had to tell her to let go of Him! I believe she was clinging to Him because, now that she had seen her beloved Savior alive, didn't want to ever be apart from Him again.

And think of this. Jesus sent her - Mary Magdalene, the former demoniac; the former sinful woman - to be the first to tell the disciples the news that He was alive and was ascending to His Father (who was now also their Father), and His God (who was now also their God). Mary Magdalene was, if you will, the first gospel preacher. A personal encounter with the resurrected Jesus had transformed her into the bearer of the most exciting news the world has ever heard. The Bible doesn't tell us anything more about her after that; but it's safe to assume that she was never the same again.

Jesus Christ is as alive today as He was then. And He knows your name. He loves you personally. He is tender-hearted toward you. It's His pleasure to make Himself known to you. And it doesn't matter what sort of life you lived before you meet Him, or what your station in life might be today; a personal encounter with the resurrected Savior is able transform you into the most powerful force in the world - a person who has been with Jesus, and a bearer of the good news that He is alive!

The risen Savior is able to do this for me, and He's able to do this for you. He is alive, and is able to transform anyone who trusts Him. That's why the Sunday we celebrate His resurrection is such a great day to rejoice!

* * * * * * * * * *

Second, Paul said that "He was seen by Cephas" - which is the Aramaic name of Peter.

It's a sad fact that, whenever we think of Peter, we think of the terrible lapse in his faithfulness to Jesus. He had once boasted to his Master, "Even if all are made to stumble, yet I will not be" (Mark 14:29). He said, "I will lay down my life for Your sake" (John 13:37). But the Bible tells us that, when threatened by the possibility of arrest, he shamefully denied three times that he even knew Jesus. At the time when he should have demonstrated commitment to Jesus, Peter had proven a failure. How could he ever again be considered among the disciples of Jesus? How could he even dare to think that the Lord would wish to have anything further to do with him?

But in Mark's gospel, we're told that some of the women who had come with Mary to anoint Jesus' body saw an angel in the tomb where He had lain. And the angel passed on specific orders to them from Jesus; "Do not be alarmed," he said. "You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid Him. But go, tell His disciples - and Peter - that He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you" (Mark 16:6-7). They were sent to tell the disciples in general; but Peter in particular. They were given the command to go to Galilee and meet Jesus there; and in that command, The Lord specifically mentioned that Peter should come as well. The risen Savior wanted Peter especially to know that He was alive. And according to Paul, Jesus was "seen by Cephus".

Luke tells us that, about that time, Jesus met with two disciples who were walking along the road to a village called Emmaus. Jesus had hidden His identity from them; and as they talked together, He told them all that the Old Testament Scriptures had said about His death and resurrection. And then, later, He revealed Himself to them and disappeared. They said to one another, "Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us?" (Luke 24:32). (And by the way; I think of that as yet another reason why we can rejoice that Jesus is alive. Because He lives, we can enjoy reading the Scriptures together with the Author Himself; and each time we share that time with Him and invite Him to teach us from His word, He is there to give power to the Scriptures and enlighten us with what they say about Him. He causes our own hearts to burn within us at such times as well.)

And when these two disciples rose up and returned to Jerusalem, they found the disciples and those who were with them together. They said to the two, "The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!" (Luke 24:34). We're told nothing of the encounter that the Lord had with Peter. Perhaps it's safe to say that's not any of our business. But can you imagine what a humbling experience it must have been for Peter to meet the resurrected Jesus whom he had so shamefully denied?

We're not left with the impression, however, that Jesus scolded Peter during that meeting, or humiliated him, or crushed his spirit any further than it had already been crushed. In fact, we're told that Peter soon went back to fishing; and when he and some of the others were out on the boat, and when he saw Jesus on the shore, Peter didn't even wait for the boat to make its way in. He immediately jumped out of the boat and swam to the Savior (John 21:7). And as we turn to the Book of Acts, and read of how the disciples were gathered together after Jesus had ascended, we find that it's Peter who stands up to serve the others in a leadership position (Acts 1:15-22); and after the Holy Spirit came, Peter was the one who preached the first public gospel sermon in Jerusalem (2:14-39). The Lord saw fit to include two of Peter's letters in the New Testament; and scholars also tell us that Mark's gospel account was the gospel as Peter told it. Church history tells us that Peter eventually laid down his life for this One whom he had once denied - asking that he be crucified upside down; because he felt unworthy to be crucified in the same way as his Lord.

Jesus is alive and powerful to change the life of anyone who trusts Him. Failure stories become success stories after an encounter with the resurrected Jesus. He is able to take us, failures and all, and to fully convince us of His forgiveness and comfort us with His loving acceptance and restoration. He is able to free us of all our timidity because of our sins, and transform us into mighty witnesses for His name's sake. Jesus - the resurrected Savior - is able to take us as we are, and turn us into what He wants us to be ... if we will just let Him.

Jesus is alive to do that for us. That's why His resurrection is such a cause for celebration!

* * * * * * * * * *

Paul goes on to mention that Jesus was seen by "the twelve", which is a name that the Bible gives for the disciples as a group.

The Bible tells us that on the evening of that very first Easter Sunday, the disciples were assembled together in one place. The doors where tightly shut; not so that they could have privacy, but because they were all afraid that they too would be arrested and killed. But suddenly Jesus appeared among them.

Luke tells us that they were "terrified and frightened, and supposed that they had seen a spirit" (Luke 24:37). Jesus greeted them by saying, "Peace be with you" (John 20:19); and perhaps they really needed peace right then, because He had to say it again - "Peace to you!" (v. 21). He told them,

"Why are you troubled? And why do doubts arise in your hearts? Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have." When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet. But they still did not believe for joy, and marveled. He said to them, "Have you any food here?" So they gave Him a piece of a broiled fish and some honeycomb. And He took it and ate in their presence (Luke 24:38-43).

It doesn't say so, of course; but I suspect Jesus even handed them the fish bones when He was through.

Not all the disciples were there that first time; and the story of that one missing disciple is very important for us to hear on this particular day. The Bible says,

Now Thomas, called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said to him, "We have seen the Lord." So he said to them, "Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hands into His side, I will not believe." And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, "Peace to you!" Then He said to Thomas, "Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach you hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing." And Thomas answered and said to Him, "My Lord and my God!" (John 20:24-28).

I would say that Thomas was convinced; wouldn't you? But pay special attention to what Jesus says next, because it may be that it's something that He particularly would wish you to hear this morning:

Jesus said to him, "Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed" (v. 29).

We do not have the advantage of receiving the personal appearance that the disciples - and especially Thomas - had received. We are among those who have not seen. We are not invited to place our hands into His side, or place our fingers in the nail prints of His hands. Instead, we're invited to believe the testimony of those who did. And we're told by Jesus Himself, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."

These words indicate that Jesus knew people would have doubts. Do you have doubts? You can be sure that Jesus is aware of them. He knows how you might struggle in your heart over faith in Him. Because He is risen, He is just as alive today as He was when He appeared to His disciples. He is more than able to help you with your doubts, if you'll just turn to Him in honesty and confess them to Him. He is able to help you over the hurdle of your doubts in just the way you need the help.

This, again, is another reason to rejoice on Easter Sunday. He is alive to help those who turn to Him; and transform them from doubters into fully convinced,totally devoted followers.

* * * * * * * * * *

Paul mentions others who saw Jesus. He reports that 500 disciples saw Him at one time. He said that some of them had "fallen asleep" (which is the Bible's wonderful way of saying that they had died for a time, but will one day be raised again by Jesus). But he said that, at that time, the greater portion of them were still alive; and if the reader had wished to, he or she could have gone to them and talked to them about it personally! Wouldn't you have loved to have done that?

Paul also says that James, the half-brother of the Lord, saw Him. James had been an unbelieving man. He even, at one time, mocked Jesus (John 7:3-5). But something had happened to him. After Jesus had ascended to the Father, we find James in the upper room with the other disciples (Acts 1:13). And later, we find that James had become the leader of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 15:13-21). Paul referred to him as one of the apostles - speaking of him as if he had the same authority as Peter (Gal. 1:18-19). And later, we find that James wrote a letter in the New Testament in which he introduces himself with these words: "James, a bondservant of God ad of the Lord Jesus Christ" (James 1:1). What happened to him? What had changed him? He saw the resurrected Lord, and the encounter transformed his life.

Paul also speaks of Jesus being seen by all the apostles. And then, speaking of himself as "one born out of due time" - long after the other apostles were called - Paul says that Jesus appeared to himself as well.

Paul (formerly known as Saul) had, at one time, been a vicious opponent to those who worshiped the risen Christ. He was a Pharisee - utterly devoted to the Jewish faith. When he told his own story, he said,

"Indeed, I myself thought I must do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. This I also did in Jerusalem, and many of the saints I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in every synagogue and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly engaged against them, I persecuted them even to foreign cities" (Acts 26:9-11).

If ever there was an unbeliever, it was Saul of Tarsus. But now we know him as the apostle Paul. He wrote thirteen letters of the New Testament, and was without question the greatest missionary, the greatest preacher, the greatest evangelist, the greatest theologian - perhaps we can say, the greatest Christian - the church has ever known. What transformed him from Christianity's greatest antagonist into its greatest protagonist?

Paul was telling unbelieving King Agrippa the story of his persecution of the church; and he said,

"While I was thus occupied, as I journeyed to Damascus with authority and commission from the chief priests, at midday, O king, along the road I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and those who journeyed with me. And when we all had fallen to the ground, I heard a voice speaking to me and saying in the Hebrew language, 'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.' So I said, 'Who are you, Lord?' And He said, 'I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to make you a minister and a witness both of the things which you have seen and of the things which I will yet reveal to you. I will deliver you from the Jewish people, as well as to the Gentiles, to whom I now send you, to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me.'

"Therefore, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those in Damascus and in Jerusalem, and throughout all the region of Judea, and then of the Gentiles, that they should repent, turn to God, and do works befitting repentance." (vv. 12-20)

There is simply no way to explain the remarkable life of the apostle Paul except that what he said was true: "Then last of all He was seen by me also ..." His life proves to us that Jesus truly has risen from the dead and truly is alive. He is able to transform the life of anyone who trusts Him - and even transform a murderous unbeliever into a great apostle. No one is beyond the powerful grace of the risen Lord Jesus.

* * * * * * * * * *

What then does Easter Sunday mean to you? If you don't have an answer to that question, then let me suggest one to you. It's the conclusion I believe we can draw from all these stories of encounters with the resurrected Christ. They all affirm to us that Jesus Christ is alive today, and fully able to transform the life of anyone who comes to Him in humble faith and trusts Him. He proved this in the days shortly after He rose to those who trusted Him then. He's been proving it again and again to countless multitudes of people who have trusted Him. He is able to prove it to you as well.

If you haven't trusted the risen Savior before, can there be a better day to do so than today?

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