"The Definitive Sign"
(Delivered Easter Sunday, April 11, 2004 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture is taken from the New King James Version, unles.)
One of my great concerns, as we gather every year to celebrate the resurrection of our Savior, is that we never grow used to it. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the most wonderful news that could ever hit this earth! As Christians, it's the basis of our hope! It is what gives credibility to the whole Christian faith! And so, as a preacher, I feel the need to keep the significance of this momentous event fresh in my own mind and heart and - I pray - in your minds and hearts as well.
The fact that Jesus our Savior has died on the cross for us is certainly pivotal. We commemorated that event just the other night during our Good Friday service. Because of the cross, we can know that God has taken our sins as seriously as they can possibly be taken, and that He has provided a complete atonement for us. But we could not be assured that our sins are truly atoned for, or rest in our full justification before God, or even enjoy the hope of eternal life, if it weren't for the fact that Jesus has literally been raised from the dead. His resurrection is what shows us that His Father has accepted His sacrifice for us. The Bible tells us this, when it says that Jesus "was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification" (Romans 4:25).
So, as much as the death of Jesus on the cross must mean to us, its success as our atoning sacrifice before God could not be assured to us if it weren't for the fact that Jesus rose from the dead. The great event that we celebrate on Easter Sunday is truly the most significant thing we can think about. And I am deeply burdened this morning that we understand and feel the significance of it. As followers of Jesus, His resurrection should permeate everything we think and do in life.
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The resurrection of our Savior is one of the greatest themes of the New Testament. There are lots of places in the New Testament where we've been given reason for appreciating the significance of this great event. And to help renew our grasp of its significance this morning, I would like to turn your attention to the very first mention of the resurrection in the Gospel of John. It was mentioned by Jesus Himself at the very beginning of His earthly ministry. And its mention occurs during an event that we wouldn't ordinarily associate with Easter.
John tells us, in the second chapter of his Gospel;
Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. And He found in the temple those who sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers doing business. When He had made a whip of cords, He drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen, and poured out the changers' money and overturned the tables. And He said to those who sold doves, "Take these things away! Do not make My Father's house a house of merchandise!" Then His disciples remembered that it was written, "Zeal for Your house has eaten Me up" (John 2:13-17).
Perhaps you're familiar with that story. Those who are already know the story of Jesus from the Bible will recognize that this sort of "cleansing of the temple" happened twice; once at the beginning of Jesus' earthly ministry, and once again near the end, just after He entered into Jerusalem to die for our sins (Mark 11:15-19). The cleansing that John is describing here is, of course, the first of those two "cleansings".
But perhaps at this point, you're also wondering, "What's this got to do with Easter?" Well; as we read on, we discover one more reason why the resurrection of Jesus is such a significant event. We're told;
So the Jews answered and said to Him, "What sign do You show to us, since You do these things?" Jesus answered and said to them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." Then the Jews said, "It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?" But He was speaking of the temple of His body. Therefore, when He had risen from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had said this to them; and they believed the Scriptures and the word which Jesus had said (vv. 18-22).
Do you see it? Jesus' resurrection is being presented to us as a "sign". It's the indicator of something. And it's a very clear and distinguishable sign. If I may say so with all reverence, it's an "in your face" sign.
I encountered such a sign not long ago. (This, by the way, is the "Your-pastor-is-all-too-human" portion of the sermon.) I was on my way to downtown Portland a few weeks ago, and I was about to pass through the Vista Ridge tunnel. As I came to the tunnel, I clearly read the signs that said, "No passing for the next 1/2 mile." But traffic was thick, and I was stuck in the wrong lane for my exit. Well; there was a truck lumbering along slightly behind me on the lane I wanted to be on, and it made a very tempting opening for me.
Are you old enough to remember the old, child-like Red Skelton character that said, "If I dood it, I'll get a whippin'; . . . I DOOD IT!" Well; I surrendered to temptation and "dood" it right at the outside edge of the tunnel. Which, I discovered, is also a nice spot for a motorcycle cop to be. He signaled to me that I pull over to the side of the road. I could tell by the body language that I wasn't about to get a 'safe drivers' commendation. And would you like to know the first thing he did when he came to the car window? He told me, "Sir, there is a sign clearly posted on the other side of the tunnel that says that lane changes are prohibited for the next 1/2 mile.'" The implication was that, once I saw the sign, I should have known what to do. And would you like to know the next thing he did? Well . . . never mind that part of the story. Suffice it to say that I now notice - and appropriately respond to - that sign every time I drive into downtown Portland. It's an 'in my face sign' - one that demands a response.
Well; Jesus' resurrection is being presented to us here as a "sign". It too is an "in your face" sign. In fact, it's the most "in your face" sign in all of human history. It's the most momentous event on earth. No one can claim they didn't see it. No one can ignore it, even if they try. It absolutely obligates a response from each man and woman in the world. There are consequences for ignoring it.
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Let's consider this passage in closer detail, and see how it gives us Jesus' own testimony about the significance of His resurrection. The first thing we see from this story is . . .
1. THE QUESTION THE SIGN ANSWERS (vv. 13-18).
The great question that was being put to Jesus was this: "What sign do you show to us, since You do these things?" This is a question that touches on the whole matter of Jesus' authority, and even on His identity. To appreciate this question, we need to look back to the context in which it was asked.
When Jesus entered the temple, He saw that it had been turned into a marketplace. It was, as He said, "My Father's house"; but they had turned it into "a house of merchandise". There were those who sold oxen and sheep and doves for sacrifices. The worshipper no longer had to bring their own, but could go directly to the surrounding temple courtyard and buy one - conveniently pre-approved for sacrificial purposes, and for a very 'reasonable' price. And there were the money-changers. Those who came from Roman-occupied lands or from Greek or Asian nations - whose heathen money was unacceptable in the temple - could exchange their currency for temple-appropriate currency, and again for a very 'reasonable' price.
Imagine! The Son of God came to His Father's holy temple to discover - not a place of worship and prayer - but a busy Middle-Eastern bazaar! There were animals noisily being herded here and there, crates full of merchandise being hauled, and the language of commerce being shouted above the din. It didn't look like a place of worship. It looked just like the world.
When I read of Jesus' response in this passage, certain phrases come to mind: 'holy outrage' over the dishonor of His Father's house; 'passionate zeal' for the holiness that ought to characterize the temple; 'bold authority' in taking action to purify God's place of worship. We don't have a sense that Jesus spent any time deliberating on the matter. He saw that some cords where laying nearby; and He immediately made a whip out of the cords and drove out the oxen and the sheep. He overturned the money-changers' tables - and can you imagine them scurrying to collect the coins that were flying everywhere? The doves were, no doubt, in crates; and so He commanded, "Take these things away!!" I believe that people were shocked, and were terrified of Him. I believe the expression on His face made them move fast! I suspect that, when He said to take those things from His Father's house, the tone of His voice made them scramble quickly to do so! He was fulfilling the words of Psalm 69:9; ". . . Because zeal for Your house has eaten me up . . ."
Now, it's important to know that there's an Old Testament prophecy connected with this; one that speaks of the promised Messiah. It's found in the last book of the Old Testament - Malachi; and in it, we read,
"Behold, I send My messenger, and he will prepare the way before Me. And the LORD, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple, even the Messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight. Behold, He is coming," says the LORD of hosts.
As the Jewish people - and we can probably assume that the priests and the leaders of the people were among them - saw this happening, they may have thought to themselves, "This Man presumes to be the fulfillment of the promise of God through Malachi! How dare He! Who does He think He is? What authority does He think He has to come marching into the temple like He owned the place? Does He think He's the Messiah?" I believe that's what's behind their question, "What sign do you show to us, since You do these things?"
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The apostle John tells us, in his Gospel, that Jesus had already begun to display "signs". In verse 11, concerning His miracle of turning water into wine, we're told, "This beginning of signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory; and His disciples believed in Him." If they truly wanted signs, signs were already being given. But the Bible tells us that, even after signs had been multiplied, those signs still were not received. Jesus went so far as to raise a man from the dead before their very eyes - calling him out of the tomb after he had laid in it for four days. But we're told that "Then the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered a council and said, "What shall we do? For this Man works many signs" (John 11:47). Seeing "signs" - even remarkable and outstanding "signs" - didn't incline them to bow to the truth.
Their demand for "signs" was a demand that sprung from unbelief. Such a demand for signs doesn't come from pure motives. In this case, a sign was being demanded from out of a predisposition to disbelieve, and with the intention of fighting and debating against every sign that is given. What Jesus said elsewhere is applicable now as it was then;
"An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Matthew 12:39-40).
God knows and sees what goes on in the human heart. He doesn't feel any obligation to cater to an ill-motivated demand for "signs". Nor does He feel any obligation to satisfy the prideful demands of human reason. As the Bible says, "For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Corinthians 1:22-24).
A sign was demanded. And Jesus said that no sign was going to be given - except one. This leads us, next, to consider . . .
2. THE FORM THE SIGN TAKES (vv. 19-21).
When the Jews demanded a sign of Jesus, they spoke in the present tense. They were, in effect, saying, "What sign are you now going to show us, since you now doing these things?" They were questioning His authority, and were demanding immediate proof of His credentials.
They demanded a sign; and Jesus responds by giving them one. But it's not a sign that was going to be given immediately. It was one that they would have to wait for. It was one that would be enough to convince those who are sincere in their search for spiritual truth, and who would be willing to believe the truth if it would be given to them. But it was also a sign that would never satisfy those who are unwilling to believe.
His actions had challenged them; and His sign would challenge them even more! Jesus said, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." Think of it! The sign that He gives to confirm them of His divine authority was to permit them to crucify Him, and then to rise from the dead!
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When we're told that Jesus came to "the temple", the Greek word being used is one that referred to the temple area in general - including the outer courts, where all the things He saw were taking place. But when He said, "Destroy this temple . . .", He used a different word. He used one that refers to the inner sanctuary of the temple, where the offerings were brought before God, and where the Holy of Holies was found. And as John tells us plainly, "He was speaking of the temple of His own body."
Jesus was the substance of which the temple was merely the shadow. Hebrews 8:5 tells us that the priests, who offered gifts according to the law, "serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things". Jesus Himself was the complete sacrifice, of which all the other sacrifices commanded in the Law of Moses were merely the incomplete and imperfect type. As Hebrews 9:23-26 says,
Therefore it was necessary that the copies of these things in the heavens should be purified with these, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ has not entered the holy place made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us, not that He should offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood of another - He then would have had to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now, once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself (Hebrews 9:23-26).
He Himself was the heavenly fulfillment of all that the temple and the offerings represented. So He could say, "Destroy this temple . . ." and be speaking not only of the physical temple, but also of His own body.
Now, they only thought of the temple building. And they would in fact destroy it by rejecting the One who then stood before them. Imagine if someone were to admire and adore the mere photograph of someone - while at the same time viciously rejecting the living, breathing person in the photograph that was then standing before them! In rejecting the Son of God of the temple, they truly were sealing the destruction of the temple. Before going to the cross, Jesus told them;
"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! See! Your house is left to you desolate; for I say to you, you shall see Me no more till you say, 'Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!'" (Matthew 23:37-39).
The temple they were then standing in was even then in the process of being built! The temple that Solomon had built had been destroyed centuries before by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar (2 Kings 25:9). It had been rebuilt on the ruins by the Jewish people in Ezra's and Nehemiah's time; but it had again fallen into neglect and disrepair. Herod the Great had begun to restore and rebuild it around the year 19 or 20 B.C.; and it had been 46 years in the process of being rebuilt by the time Jesus began His earthly ministry. It wouldn't be finished for another ten years or so after the time these words were spoken. And within one generation's time of Jesus being rejected and crucified, the very temple in which they then stood would be destroyed by the Romans. As Jesus had promised, "Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down" (Matthew 24:2). This finally happened in the year 70 A.D. They literally destroyed their own temple by rejecting the One who was - Himself - the true "Temple".
But the sign Jesus gave to them was this: they would destroy the temple (His body, through the crucifixion), and He would raise it up (through the resurrection).
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Now, at this point, I admit that I find a paradox. It would appear that those who heard Jesus say these words didn't understand them at the time. In fact, Jesus' words were deliberately misinterpreted and misrepresented as the basis of their charge against Him. He said that they would destroy this temple; but as He stood on trial, they said, "This fellow said, 'I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days" (Matthew 26:61). He never said He would destroy it. Rather, He said that they would destroy it. Yet, as He hung on the cross, they mocked Him, saying, "You who destroy the temple and build it in three days, save Yourself!" (Matthew 27:40).
And yet, it seems to me that they did understand the intention of His words. After His body was taken down from the cross and placed in a tomb, the chief priests and Pharisees came before Pilate and asked that the tomb be sealed; saying, "Sir, we remember, while He was still alive, how that deceiver said, 'After three days I will rise' . . ." (Matthew 27:63). They misunderstood Him; and yet they understood Him clearly! The only explanation for this that I can come up with is the desperate sinfulness of the human heart. Unbelieving men were bound and determined to misunderstand and misrepresent the very sign that identified their Savior to them.
Frankly, people are the same today. The resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate sign that identifies Him as God in human flesh. It is the decisive sign. It is the definitive sign. It's the one event that most clearly marks Him out to the fallen world. As Paul said, He 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" (Romans 1:3-4). As Paul preached, He is marked out to us as the Man by whom God will judge the world in righteousness; "He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead" (Acts 17:31). But people still deliberately misinterpret and misrepresent this definitive sign. They say that Jesus has only risen "spiritually", not literally - that He is "risen in our hearts". Or they say that "He lives again", not literally in a risen body, but only "figuratively" and "symbolically" - "living again" in us each time we love our neighbor or serve the needy. Such people scoff at the idea of a literal resurrection, because as everyone knows, "no one can rise from the dead" - which, of course, is what makes it such a definitive sign!!
The meaning of Jesus' words, nevertheless, are very clear; and so is the testimony of the Scripture. Jesus meant that He would rise in the same body that was crucified. And that's what He did! This makes His resurrection the great answer to the question, "What sign do You show us?" His resurrection is "the" sign - the ultimate sign - the definitive sign. It is an "in your face" sign; and those who behold it must respond to it.
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This leads us, finally, to . . .
3. THE RESPONSE THE SIGN REQUIRES (v. 22).
We're given the appropriate response to this sign in verse 22; "Therefore, when He had risen from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had said this to them; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had said."
The proper response is to believe on the One who is identified to us by this sign. What was it that His disciples believed? First, we're told that they believed what had been told them in the Scriptures - the promises that had been made to them concerning the Messiah. They remembered, for example, what it says about the Messiah in Psalm 16:
I have set the LORD always before me;
They no doubt remembered what it says in Isaiah 53 about the Messiah:
Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise Him;
Not only this, but they also remembered and believed the things that Jesus Himself taught them. We're told that, after Peter made the great confession that Jesus "is the Christ, the Son of the living God", ". . . Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day" (Matthew 16:20). Later on, He again told them, "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death, and deliver Him to the Gentiles to mock and to scourge and to crucify. And the third day He will rise again" (Matthew 20:18-19).
Even after His resurrection, He Himself taught the disciples about His resurrection; "And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself" (Luke 24:27). He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures; and He said to them,
"Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem. And you are witnesses of these things" (Luke 24:46-48).
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And I make the observation that their position was the same as ours is today. They "remembered" these things and "believed" them - as John says - "when He had risen from the dead". We're gathered together to celebrate it today, from the standpoint of having already seen it happen! How much more sure a sign it is to us today than it was to them then!!
I hope you have not allowed yourself to get "used" to this wonderful "sign". I truly hope that it remains fresh and exciting to you that Jesus has risen from the dead. I sincerely hope that it impacts you as an "in your face" sign - a sign that impacts every area of your life, and fills your whole being with the hope of eternal life.
And most of all, I hope you have responded to this most definitive of all signs in the only way that you should - by believing upon it. "For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus" (1 Thessalonians 4:14).
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