Through the ages there have been many important victories won. But today we celebrate absolutely the most important victory in all of history—the triumph of Jesus Christ over the grave. It is the most important victory because it happened only once. It’s the most important victory because it impacts every person listening to the sound of my voice. It’s the most important victory because it was a conquest over such a dreadful adversary. If one of our favorite college basketball teams defeats a local junior college, that doesn’t generate much excitement. But if they beat a North Carolina or Duke, that’s a case for joyous celebration. Well Jesus’ victory was over a formidable unbeaten foe. Easter Sunday every year is a cause for a festive celebration.
Matthew chapter 28, verses 1-10, relates the story. Grab your Bible or your electronic device and follow along with me as I read.
Verse 1: “After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.”
The women came back to the tomb as soon as they could to prepare the body for a proper burial. Jesus had died so near the Sabbath that He was buried hastily and incompletely.
Verse 2: “There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it.”
Just seconds before, Jesus Christ had risen from the grave. The power of God had penetrated that tomb, quickened that body that had been mutilated by the crucifixion, and Jesus Christ was given a new glorified body that could penetrate walls and transcend time and space. So the angel rolled back the stone, not so Jesus could get out, but so that the women could look in. Jesus was already gone!
Verse 3: “His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men” (vv. 3, 4).
The end of this chapter relates that the guards informed the religious leaders of what had happened. They had been knocked unconscious. But the religious leaders paid them huge sums of money to say that while they were sleeping the disciples came and stole the body. They said, “We’ll take care of your superiors. Don’t worry.” So there was a conspiracy to cover up the resurrection.
Verses 5 and 6: “The Angel said to the women, ’Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said.”
Now we usually learn more from tombs that are full. For years archaeologists learned little from the tombs of Egypt because grave robbers had come in and stripped those tombs of their contents. But then the tomb of King Tut was found, with all the treasures of Egypt intact, and we learned a lot about early Egypt. But in the case of Jesus of Nazareth we learned our important spiritual truths from an empty tomb.
The end of verse 6: “Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead…’” (vv. 6-7).
And skip to verse 8: “So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples.”
In that day it was not dignified for an adult to run, and rarely would you see a woman running. But these women were so ecstatic that they raced to tell the disciples.
Verse 9 says, “Suddenly Jesus met them. ‘Greetings,’ he said.”
Now that word “greetings” is just the common expression for “hello,” “Hi there!” Have you ever been outside of town and met someone you know real well, at some popular vacation spot maybe, and they didn’t see you coming? They were going to be surprised to see you. You didn’t give them any advance warning. You just stood in their path and said, “Hi there! How ya do’in?” And you can’t restrain your grin. Well I think Jesus broke into a smile as these women were racing down the path, and He stood there and said, “Good morning! How are you?”
Well the women were exuberant. Verse 9 says, “They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him.”
They had just witnessed the most spectacular and significant conquest ever.
And that empty tomb still gives testimony today that Jesus has triumphed over three of life’s most dreaded foes.
I. VICTORY OVER DEATH.
First, Jesus gained victory over death.
Death is one of man’s most hated enemies.
The Bible calls it “the last enemy to be defeated” (1 Corinthians 15:26). Sam Walton died in 1992. The founder of Wal-Mart stores was 74 years old when he died. He was worth about $40 billion. But all of his money could not prevent him from dying of leukemia and bone marrow cancer.
You see, death is a universal enemy.
It is no respecter of persons. It takes rich and poor, athlete and artist, men and women. Statistics tell us that one out of every one person dies!
Death is also a feared enemy.
Some people are so terrified of death that they will not write a will, they won’t buy a burial plot, they won’t buy insurance or even discuss it. Hebrews 2:15 speaks of those who spend a lifetime in bondage to the fear of death. I think that’s one of the reasons that disaster movies hold a certain fascination for us. We wonder what it’s like to be on the verge of dying. What is it like to be in an airplane when the engine goes out and it’s about to crash? We wonder what it’s like to be trapped in a house where some lunatic is outside with a chainsaw and trying to come in, or something.
And death is a vicious enemy.
It’s not the actual dying that we fear so much, it’s the painful process leading up to it. Many of us have sat by the bed of a dying loved one who was struggling for breath, perhaps writhing in pain, and we prayed that they would die because death is such a savage enemy.
And death is a constant enemy, too.
The aging process is a nagging reminder that our earthly house is wearing out. The reflexes slow down, the eyesight grows dim, the joints hurt, the wrinkles increase, the mind falters, and we’re reminded constantly that from the time we are born we steadily move toward death. Now some people age more gracefully than others, but the loss of memory, the loss of physical prowess, serve as constant reminders that the grim reaper lurks ever nearer.
But the great news of the empty tomb is that Jesus Christ defeated the enemy of death!
At age 33 He experienced the most agonizing death imaginable. He went into the grave for three days and absorbed the most vicious blows of the enemy. But early in the morning on the first day of the week, Jesus Christ came out of that tomb and began a celebration of victory over death.
I love 2 Timothy 1:10, which reads, “Christ Jesus…has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”
He destroyed it! It was not just a marginal victory, He wiped it out.
And the great news is that Jesus’ experience paves the way for us to gain the victory, too.
Listen to 1 Corinthians 15:20 and following: “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (vv. 20-22).
You see, Jesus’ resurrection was not a biological oddity never to be repeated. He has promised, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me, even if he dies, will live” (John 11:25 CSB).
I heard somewhere that possums are smart animals. Now I guess we would probably doubt that because we hardly ever see a possum unless it’s dead on the road! Somebody said, “Do you know why the chicken crossed the road? To prove to the possum that it could be done!” But possums are smart animals. I’ve read that they will not enter a hole if there’s just one set of tracks going into the hole, because they know that there’s an animal in there, perhaps lurking to devour them. But if there are two sets of tracks, one going into and one coming out, then the possum will enter and not be afraid.
You see, the message of the resurrection is that we don’t have to fear death because there are track’s leading both in and out of the tomb.
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:54: “’Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ …Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (vv. 54-57).
In his book The Kingdom of God Is A Party (pg. 130), Tony Campolo tells about an unusual funeral at his church, which is predominantly a black church in Western Philadelphia. A friend of the pastor, by the name of Clarence, had been killed in a construction accident. The church building was packed for the funeral. But during the eulogy the preacher stepped off the platform, went down beside the casket, and spoke to Clarence as though he were still alive. He said, “Clarence, there were so many things we should have told you when you were alive.” And he proceeded to tell him all the things he appreciated about him. And then finally he said, “Well Clarence, that’s all I’ve got to say to you. Oh, wait a minute. I do have just one more thing to say to you, Clarence. Goodnight!” And he reached up and he slammed the casket lid down! Boom! And he turned to a stunned congregation and smiled, and then said, “But I know that the Lord is going to give Clarence a good morning!”
And with that the choir stood and sang, “On that great gettin’ up morning we shall rise, we shall rise! On that great gettin’ up morning we shall rise!” And then the whole congregation stood, and with tears streaming down their faces, clapping and celebrating, they sang, “On that great gettin’ up morning we shall rise, we shall rise! On that great gettin’ up morning we shall rise!” And Campolo said that that funeral service was a service of celebration, because they knew that death had been swallowed up in victory.
II. VICTORY OVER HELL.
Secondly, that empty tomb signifies that Jesus defeated hell.
Now to be honest with you, I hesitate to talk about hell on Easter Sunday. That’s a controversial unpleasant subject.
But a victory doesn’t mean anything if it is not over a potent enemy.
Dr. Henry Jowett, speaking at Yale University, explained it like this: “The very term ‘good news’ implies that there is such a thing as bad news. The very proclamation of salvation presupposes a state of being lost. Hell is the dark background on which the brilliant picture of the gospel is painted. But without the background you have no picture. Without an enemy there is no victory.”
Now surveys tell is that only about 52% of the American people believe in a literal hell.
Well I believe in hell for two reasons.
Number one, the Bible teaches it.
Frankly I wish the Bible didn’t teach it. I wish the Bible said that when you died in your sin you just ceased to exist. But the Bible mentions hell 54 times. And Jesus Christ spoke more about hell than he did heaven. He called it a place of fire, torment, darkness, thirst, second death, weeping, eternal gnashing of teeth, and separation. Jesus used to the most foreboding terms available in the human language to express the danger of hell.
The second reason I believe in hell is because justice demands it.
Do you think it’s right for Adolf Hitler to exterminate six million Jews and then die of a sudden suicide and never have to pay any punishment? Do you think it’s justice for a man to cheat in his business, make a lot of money, be unfaithful to his wife, abuse his children, go to church and be thought of as a godly person, and then die at a ripe old age and never receive consequences for his sin? The Bible says, “It is appointed unto man once die, and after that the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). The Bible says, “’Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19).
When I ministered in Tennessee, I related one Sunday morning in my sermon some of the last-minute sayings that Christians had had just before they died. For example, Lee Carter Maynard, a great Christian Church preacher, died at the age of 94. And just before he died he lifted up his eyes and said, “I see it! It’s beautiful! Do you see it?” And after the service an elderly woman in our congregation, who had been a critical care nurse for many many years, came up to me and said, “I would like to tell you what a man I once cared for in the hospital said when he died. This man didn’t believe in God. He was a playboy and a rounder. But just before he died he had a look of horror on his face and he said, ‘I see a fiery pit!’”
Henry Van Dyke said, “It is better to be sobered by the saddest fact than it is to be deluded by the merriest lie. “
You see, the problem of our society is not that people don’t fear death, the problem is that they don’t believe in hell anymore. And the people who have no fear of hell are selling drugs to our children, raping our women, robbing homes, polluting our world with filth. And the most loving thing that we can do for them is to tell the truth about consequences. But the truth is that we are all sinners. Romans 3:23 says, “There is no difference, for all have sinned….” That means that David Hall is more like Osama bin Laden then he is like Jesus Christ. I, too, have sins for which ought to be punished.
But the great news of the empty tomb is that Jesus Christ went to the cross and He defeated hell on our behalf.
When He died, the last thing He said was, “It is finished!” “It is accomplished. The victory is won!” And when He came out of that tomb He demonstrated that death and hell have been defeated forevermore and we don’t have to fear the consequence of hell. In celebration of Christ’s victory at the empty tomb, we can live in assurance that we are to be with Him for eternity.
“For 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” (John 3:16).
Many today have the mistaken notion that all good people go to heaven. But the truth is, good people don’t go to heaven, forgiven people do. And there’s a big difference! We are only forgiven by the death of Jesus Christ. We are granted hope through our surrender to Him and our belief in His resurrection from the dead.
III. VICTORY OVER SIN.
Thirdly, that empty tomb announced a victory over sin.
Now sin is public enemy number one. In John 8:34 Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” Sin is enslaving our minds and our bodies.
Did you see the story in the news recently about the United Parcel Service being sued by a woman who contracted herpes? The man and the woman both worked for UPS. The company has a no dating policy among their employees, but this couple dated secretly, the woman became infected, and now she is suing UPS for not enforcing their policy more strictly.
Can you believe that?! Our society is so goofed up that we don’t know right from wrong. We don’t want to take responsibility for our behavior. We try to blame other people, we try to deny it, we try to laugh it off, but sin is a gruesome enemy that knocks us down, captivates us, and enslaves us.
And nearly every problem in our society is rooted in individual sin.
What’s wrong with our educational system today? Ask any schoolteacher and they will tell you that it is very difficult to get the young people to pay attention and to be controlled. Why? Because so many of these young people are growing up in dysfunctional homes. Sin is the problem.
Why do we have so many broken families? It’s because of the sin of adultery, and selfishness, and greed.
Why is it that we so often have problems with the economy? So many jobless and poor? The sin of greed in big business on one hand, and the sin of laziness on the other.
Why do we have drug problems? Why do we have drunk driving problems? It’s because of the sin of self-indulgence.
Why are the jails overcrowded, spouse abuse centers needed, racial slurs common, abortion clinics prospering? Well the root cause is human nature, the heart, which is deceitful and evil. In fact, sin is such an awesome enemy that a lot of people have just given up and conceded defeat. And they will say, “Well it’s unrealistic to expect young people to be sexually abstinent before marriage. If it feels good than go ahead and do it. You’ve got to do your own thing. You just can’t change human nature.”
But I have great news for you!
When Jesus Christ came out of that tomb it was an announcement of triumph over sin.
Jesus experienced every temptation known to man—He took every vicious blow that sin could inflict on Him—but He died sinless and He arose from the grave completely healthy. He said, “Examine my wounds, touch me and see, for I am well.” Steven Brown said, “On Friday evil won, but on Sunday evil died.” And the good news is that He can change us, He can give us a new heart.
Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”
And when you become a Christian, God doesn’t just save you from the consequences of your sin, He gives you a new power to overcome sin.
Former college basketball coach Jimmy Dan Conner became a Christian a few years ago. He is a member of a Christian Church in Kentucky. The preacher who baptized him said that when he performed the baptism ceremony it was the first time he had ever seen the water literally turn black. The preacher wasn’t sure the significance of that, but he said he knew it wasn’t good! But Jimmy Dan Conner said the greatest victory that he’s ever experienced is not in basketball, but in the Christian life. Connor said, “In order to win the victory, I had to first admit defeat.”
You see, the Christian life is a paradox—we die to self to live for Christ. We lose self to gain. We give to receive. And we admit defeat, that we can’t do it our own, in order to gain the victory.
In 1 John 5:4 we read: “For everyone born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith.”
And there are millions who will give testimony that Jesus Christ has changed them, and continues to change them. Now for most of us, that happens gradually. It doesn’t happen overnight. There is a daily struggle and we lose some battles. But we’re growing and winning the war. I feel like I’m a stronger Christian than I was ten years ago. Now I’ve still got a long way to go, but I believe I’m making headway.
So Christians don’t go to church because they feel they are better than everybody else. No, Christians go to church to worship because we know that we are sinful and we are seeking to allow Jesus Christ to transform is. And when we stay in tune with Him, over a period of time He helps us to mature. He gives us power to forgive, to be unselfish, to be sensitive, to be faithful, and to be victorious.
Corrie ten Boom spent time in a Nazi concentration camp in World War II because her family had harbored Jewish refugees. She underwent unbelievable torture and humiliation for months. Her sister Betsy died in that camp at Ravensbrück. Years later, Corrie ten Boom was a guest speaker in a church in Germany. And as she looked out in the audience that day she saw a former Nazi guard at Ravensbrück in the crowd. She knew that he didn’t recognize her, but he had humiliated her and her sister countless times and she despised this man.
Well after the service was over, that guard came up to shake her hand. And he said, “Fraulein, you mentioned Ravensbrück. I was there, too! Isn’t it wonderful that God can forgive us all our sins?!” And then he stuck out his hand to shake hands, and he said, “Would you forgive me, too, Fraulein?”
And Corrie ten Boom said, “I could not look him in the eye, I could not shake his hand because of the bitterness that was in me. But,” she said, “it was as though I heard the voice of the Father say, ‘Just lift your arm, Corrie.’ And out of obedience I lifted my arm.” And then she said, “When his hand touched mine it was as though the healing oil of God’s power flowed through me to heal me of my bitterness, and I was able to forgive. But,” she said “it took all of the power of God, and all my years of Christian growth, to be able to forgive.”
Only Jesus Christ can transform people like that.
It may take time and effort, but if we allow the resurrected Christ to have dominion over us He will give as victory over sin.
And we can have new families. And we can have transformed schools. And Jesus Christ saving people individually will transform our businesses, and our communities, and our nation.
“For this is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith” (1 John 5:4). And that, folks, is our only hope!
When little Martha Taft introduced herself to her grade school class she said, “My name is Martha Bowers Taft. My great-grandfather was President of the United States, my grandfather was a United States Senator, my father is an ambassador to Ireland, and I am a Brownie!”
You know, maybe we don’t look like much, maybe we don’t bear important titles, maybe we’ve got some maturing to do, but we have a great heritage. Our Heavenly Father is the Creator and the Savior of this universe. He came down in the form of Jesus Christ and died on the cross for our sins, and He arose from the dead to give is the victory over sin, and death, and hell.
And John 1:12 says, “To all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God” (NLT).
(Pastor David Hall, April 12, 2020, First Church of Christ)