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From the Upper Room to the Empty Tomb – Part 6

Matthew 27:57-66

The disciples were absolutely devastated.  They had really believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah.  They had seen Him perform incredible miracles.  They had been captivated by His irresistible charisma.  They had learned so much from His dynamic teaching.  Three years ago they had left their jobs and their families to follow after Him.  Some of their friends thought they were crazy, chasing after a fantasy, but they were really convinced that Jesus was the Anointed One who was going to lead Israel to overthrow Rome and reestablish the glory of the past.

But now Jesus was dead.  His body was hanging lifeless on that cross.  How could they have been so wrong?  How could their dreams have shattered so quickly?  What were they going to do now?  They certainly couldn’t go back to the mundane lives they had known before.  How could they face family and skeptics who warned them that they ought to be more realistic?  And how those disciples must have dreaded hearing people say, “I told you so!  You should have known better!  Next time you will be more cautious before you get taken in by some con man!”  James Stewart says, “Of all the disappointments in life, to be disappointed in Jesus surely has to be the worst.

As the disciples stumbled back down Golgotha, they were overwhelmed with despair.  And if you have lived in this world very long, then you can identify with their experience.  Oh, maybe life has never appeared as bleak to you as it did to the followers of Jesus, but we have all known dismal times.  Maybe your doctor said to you, “We can’t find a cure.  There’s no hope.”  Maybe your accountant said, “I just can’t see a way out.  Maybe you ought to think about declaring bankruptcy.”  Maybe a mate said, “I don’t love you anymore and I’m not interested in counseling.”  Maybe a child said, “No, I’m not going to a treatment center.  I’ll work it out on my own.  Buzz off!”  Or perhaps for you, like the disciples, it is the death of a loved one.  And the devastating blow came to you when you really realized that you will never see that person on the face of this earth again.

Well how do you handle the despair that comes into your life?  USA Today newspaper carried an article about a Buffalo, New York, man who, in an attempt to take his own life, jumped out of a 4th story window and landed on a car roof below, only suffering a few facial cuts.  He went back into the same building, took the elevator to the 4th floor, and jumped again—this time landing on the same car roof, breaking only his wrist and ankle!  A policeman arrested him and took him to the hospital in Buffalo, where he was admitted to a first-floor room.  Boy, if he weren’t depressed beforehand, he certainly would be then.

Maybe you never think about suicide.  Or maybe you do.  Maybe you turn to alcohol, or drugs, or you run away.  Maybe you are a little bitter at God.  I mean, it just doesn’t seem right that He’s let you down the way He has, and you have no desire to go on.  You go through the motions, but there is no zest, no purpose for your life.  A woman wrote a letter to Franklin Graham recently and asked, “Mr. Graham, I would never commit suicide, but do you think it’s wrong to pray to die?”  She said, “I just don’t have any purpose for living anymore.”

Well I want you to put yourself in the sandals of those disciples for a few minutes today.  For some of you that will be much easier than others, because you are struggling right now.  But all of us need to learn from their experience and be ready, because we all have to cope with despair at some time in our life.

I.  THE EVENTS SURROUNDING THE DEATH OF JESUS.

For the first part of this message I just want to follow the text in Matthew Chapter 27, beginning with verse 57, and I want you to see the events that transpired immediately after Jesus died on that cross.

The first thing that happened was that Joseph of Arimathea buried him. 

Look at verse 57: “As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus.  Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him” (vv. 57-58). 

The bodies of crucified criminals often were left hanging on the cross to be devoured by predators and vultures.  But it was a gesture of kindness on the part of Joseph of Arimathea to gain custody of Jesus’ body from the government.

Now this is the first time that we read about Joseph in the Bible, and we only know four basic facts about him. 

Number one, he was from a place called Arimathea, which is a little village in the hill country about twenty miles from Jerusalem. 

Number two, he was rich. 

He was wealthy enough to own a tomb, which was something that Jesus’ mother certainly would not have been able to afford.  We usually think of Jesus appealing only to the poor, the common man.  But Jesus said, “If I be lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men unto me” (John 12:32), and He brought men from both ends of the economic spectrum.

John 19 tells us a third fact about Joseph.  And that is, he was a secret disciple of Jesus. 

John 19:38 reads: “Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus.  …but secretly because he feared the Jews.” 

Joseph had admired Jesus for some time from a distance, but he had friends in high places, and he didn’t want to lose them, so he kept his convictions a secret. 

Joseph of Arimathea was like that little boy who had a mongrel dog.  Somebody asked him, “What kind of dog is that?”

The boy said,”It’s a police dog.” 

They said, “Well it certainly doesn’t look like a police dog.” 

“Well,” the boy said, “he’s in the secret service!

And there are a lot of Christians who are in the secret service.  Like Joseph, they secretly follow after Jesus.

And we’re told one other thing about Joseph in John 19:39, and that is that he was an acquaintance of a man named Nicodemus, who was a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin. 

John 19:39 reads: “He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night.” 

These two wealthy men had a lot in common.  Not only were they wealthy, but they were influential, and they were both clandestine disciples.  But they split the cost of Jesus’ burial.  Nicodemus covered the spices, Joseph covered the cost of the tomb, and they did what they could. 

Matthew chapter 27, verse 59 reads: “Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock.  He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away” (vv. 59, 60). 

When Jesus died, Joseph of Arimathea did what he could.  But I’m confident that when he left that tomb he was down on himself.  He must of thought,” Too little, too late.  I should have done more earlier. “

Let’s also notice that when Jesus was buried, the women attended to Him. 

Verse 61 reads, “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb.”  

Now keep in mind that in that day women were second class citizens.  Jesus elevated the status of women.  He treated them with respect.  He welcomed their service.  And these women loved Him.  The women were the very last to leave the cross and the very first to be at the tomb.  So when Joseph and Nicodemus took Jesus’ body down off the cross, the women attended the body.  I think they wiped the blood from His brow and washed the body, preparing it for burial.  And then they followed it to the tomb.

The women at the cross weren’t satisfied to leave the body on the cross, even though the spirit was gone.  And they weren’t satisfied for Joseph and Nicodemus to cart it away.  No, they followed Him right up to the tomb and stayed there until the stone was rolled against the grave.  And then the women left.  They were also filled with despair.  There was nothing else they could do.

Then notice, when Jesus was buried the enemies guarded Him. 

Verse 62: “The next day, the one after Preparation Day (preparation for the Passover), the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate.  ‘Sir,’ they said, ‘we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again’” (vv. 62, 63). 

Now isn’t this amazing?!  The enemies of Christ remembered that He predicted a resurrection, but the disciples of Jesus didn’t remember it.  And one of the reasons is, when you are filled with despair you don’t think rationally.  Another reason is, when Jesus talked about dying earlier the disciples just kind of glossed it over.  After all, He was only 33.  He was the Messiah.  Surely He was speaking mystically.  But the enemies of Christ were plotting His assassination.  And when Jesus talked about dying, they listened carefully and took notes mentally.

Well after Jesus died, His enemies we’re going to make sure there was no hoax perpetrated on them.  So, in verse 64 they said to Pilate, “Give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day.  Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead.  This last deception will be worse than the first,” they said. 

Now they act so pious, pretending to be intervening on behalf of the people. “We just don’t want to see the people hurt, so let’s be sure to guard the tomb so the disciples don’t come and steal the body and create a bigger hoax.” 

And in verse 65 we read: “’Take a guard’ Pilate answered.  ‘Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.’”

One of my favorite paragraphs in Christian Literature is a paragraph by James S. Stewart in which he says this is the most pathetic sentence ever spoken by man—“Take a guard and make the tomb as secure as you know how.”  Listen to what he writes:

If you were to see a man going out in the gray of the dawn and shouting at the sun, “Stop!  You can’t climb the heavens today!”, or you saw him, when the tide had ebbed and had begun to return, standing on the shore drawing a line in the sand and then crying to the waves that were heaving their shoulders for a new advance, “Halt!  You can’t pass this line!”, what would you say to him?  Well you would say the man was mad.  What, then, will you say to this pathetic Roman who thought he could barricade the tomb of God?!

Verse 66: “So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.” 

A truck driver friend of mine once told me that if a truck’s cargo is extremely valuable, officials may seal the door of the truck with a soft piece of metal that is placed against the door like a bicycle lock.  The seal has a number recorded on it and you can’t open the door without breaking it.  Only the officials of the company can open it.  And a broken seal indicates foul play.

When Jesus was buried, Pilate had a seal placed between the stone and the side of the tomb with Pilate’s insignia on it.  A broken seal would surely indicate foul play.  And then they posted Roman guards.  Later, in the book of Acts, we read that when Peter was guarded there were sixteen soldiers guarding him in prison.  There may have been as many as sixteen, or as few as four Roman soldiers standing there at the entrance of the tomb.  There was no back door.  They made it as secure as they could.  They used a big stone, a seal, and Roman soldiers for fear the disciples would come and steal the body.

But the disciples weren’t about to confront the Roman soldiers.  They weren’t about to steal the body.  They were petrified.  Because when Jesus was buried, they mourned for Him.  Two days later we read that the disciples were meeting behind barricaded doors for fear of the Jews.

Dr. David Seamonds, in his book Healing for Damaged Emotions says that there are three main causes of depression.  Number one is indecision.  Number two is anger.  Number three is injustice.  And the disciples were experiencing all three.  They were undecided about what to do.  They didn’t know whether Jesus was the Messiah or not now.  They were furious at the enemies of Christ for crucifying Him.  And they were overwhelmed at the unfairness of it all.  No wonder they were filled with despair.  Later, in the book of Luke, we read that two of them said, “We had hoped that He was the one who was going to redeem Israel.  We had hopes, but now they’re gone” (see Luke 24:21).  And they were filled with despair.  They had no idea what was going to happen in just three days!

II.  THREE LESSONS FOR LIFE.

Now there are three lessons for life that I want you to take with you today.

Number one: Be realistic – the Christian life can be like a rollercoaster. 

Be realistic.  The Christian life has its ups and downs. 

Think of the disciples during the final week.  They went from the mountaintop, to the valley, and back to the mountaintop again.  On Palm Sunday they were ecstatic.  Thousands lined the streets of Jerusalem with palm branches.  People shouted, “Hosanna!”  It was a victory celebration like a ticker tape parade and the disciples were right in the center of it.  They were on an emotional mountaintop.  Then, five days later Jesus was accused of being a fake and was crucified.  Now they were in the pit.  And then by Sunday morning they were elated again.

You see, everyone’s life has emotional highs and lows.  Just a few weeks ago most Americans were enjoying life and our economy was booming.  Now, just a few weeks later, we find ourselves in the throws of a global pandemic – having to seclude ourselves in our homes and keep our distance from others.  Fear and anxiety now rule the day for millions of people.  And instead of a robust and thriving economy, our nation is now threatened with a recession that may take years to recover from.

And the Christian life has highs and lows, too.  There are some Christian teachers that leave the impression that if you really give your life to the Lord you are going to be on an emotional spiritual mountaintop for the rest of your life.  You’ll just “Praise the Lord!” for everything.  Maybe you sang the song when you were younger, “I found happiness all the time, wonderful peace of mind, when I found the Lord.”  Well, happiness all the time?  There’s joy all the time, a sense of purpose all the time, but the Christian life is not one continuous mountaintop.  There are some valleys, too.

I remember when our son Joshua was born almost thirty years ago.  What a wonderful high for both Angela and me.  When we brought him home, relatives and friends came to visit.  There was all kinds of excitement.  But I can also remember days shortly after his birth when Angela was almost in tears.  I would say, “What’s wrong?”  And she would say, “I don’t know.  I’m just a little blue.  I can’t really put my finger on it.”  Now I didn’t scold her for that.  I didn’t say, “You need to repent, woman!”  I didn’t get out the Bible and read it to her, and say, “You ought to be thankful!  God has given you a child.  Look at all the women in the Bible who were barren.  How dare you be depressed!”  No.  You see, we had been warned in advance that it was normal to experience temporary depression after the birth of a baby.  She didn’t need Scripture at that point, she didn’t need a lecture, what she needed was an embrace and some understanding.  So I said, “I understand.  I think you’ll feel a lot better after you change him.  He needs changing again!”

Now it’s important that we understand that “new birth” has some highs and lows, too.  So be realistic about it. 

Archibald Hart, writing to ministers, spoke of a “post-adrenaline depression.”  He said that after an emotional high there is usually a corresponding low when the adrenaline stops flowing.  And that’s true in every occupation, for every calling.  It’s a physiological experience.  And the minister gets so geared up for Sunday that no matter how well the day goes, Monday is kind of a downer.  And when you experience that downtime, if you don’t understand that, you’re going to go chasing after some spiritual adrenaline again.  Off you go to another concert, another teaching about the Holy Spirit, changing churches every six months, trying to get back that emotional high you once knew.  People, the Christian life is not one mountaintop experience.  There are valleys, too.  So be realistic about it.  Don Francisco has a song that says, “It ain’t no sin to get the blues.”

Now I do think that as we mature in the Christian life there ought to be kind of a leveling out.  Maybe we don’t get quite so high on the mountaintop because we realize that there is a valley on the other side.  And when the valleys come we realize that they are just temporary.  We know that God is there, too.

Now I’m not suggesting we get stoical and we never get excited about anything.  What I am saying is that we be mature enough that we’re not devastated by temporary setbacks either.  Maybe we’re not shouting “Hallelujah” at every turn, but neither are we vulnerable to frequent despair.  I just think there ought to be a spiritual stability about us as we grow older, realizing that God is in the valleys and God is on the mountain peaks, and that one follows the other.

Simon Peter was such an emotional yo-yo.  He was ready to take to battle for Jesus one minute, and a few minutes later he denied that he even knew Him.  And Jesus said to him, “Now Simon I want you to become Peter.  I want you to be a rock-like character.  I want you to be dependable.” 

The Bible tells preachers, “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2).  Do it when you feel good and do it even when you don’t feel so good.  Just do it. 

Paul said, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do everything through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:12, 13).

So be realistic.  There are going to be ups and downs.  But as you mature in the Christian life have a goal that you are going to be a more stable person.  You are not going to be tossed about by every wind of doctrine, as the Bible says.

That brings me to the second lesson: Be patient – desperate circumstances can be quickly reversed. 

Nothing could look more desperate than that tomb that contained the cold body of Jesus.  But in three days it was completely reversed, and Christ was raised from the dead.

God occasionally allows people to be in situations of utter despair so that they will turn to Him.  One man said he didn’t realize that God was all he needed until God was all he had.  Think of the Bible characters who were trapped in situations that appeared hopeless.  Moses was trapped at the Red Sea.  The Egyptians were pursuing him and he had nowhere to go.  But God parted the Red Sea and the next day he was free.  Joseph was trapped in prison for two years with no hope.  But suddenly Pharaoh needs an interpreter and within three days Joseph became the Prime Minister of Egypt.  Jonah was thrown over the rail in the midst of a storm at sea.  He was trapped.  He was about to drown.  But along came God’s special fish that transported him and in three days he was preaching on the shores of Nineveh.  Somebody said, “Man’s extremity is sometimes God’s opportunity.”

When you are faced with what appears to be a hopeless situation, trust God and wait for Him to work. 

Listen to this passage from 1 Peter 1, beginning with verse 6: “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.  These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (vv. 6, 7). 

There’s a great verse in a Rich Mullins song that says, “You’ll meet the Lord in the fiery furnace long before you meet Him in the sky.”

That brings me to the final lesson: Be faithful – God’s rewards are not always immediate. 

The disciples just had to wait three days and their gloom turned to gladness.  But I’ve got to be honest with you today, it doesn’t always happen that quickly.  Sometimes you are in a difficult circumstance for years, or maybe even for a lifetime.

Someone watching or listening today may be fighting a losing battle with cancer.  Some of you are battling physical infirmities that you’ll have for a lifetime.  Some of you may never be reconciled to your mate.  Some of you have debts that, humanly speaking, you can never repay.  Some of you have children who may take years to repent, or maybe they never will.  Some of you have parents with Alzheimer’s and they’re not going to get better.  And it seems to me that the ultimate test of our faith is summed up in the question: “Can we hold on to God when the stone isn’t rolled away in three days?”

When Job experienced all those horrendous problems—bankruptcy, ten children killed, health broke—Job’s wife said, “You’re so wretched.  Why don’t you just curse God and die!”  And Job said, “Even if God slays me, I’m still going to trust in Him.”  And I think the gold medal of faith in eternity will be given to those individuals who trust God’s goodness and grace, even when the stone of their despair is not rolled away on this earth.

Christian author and speaker Becky Pippert tells a parable, an enchanting American folktale that is given to children, about three ambitious trees that is entitled The Legend Of The Three Trees.  It’s a story about three trees on a mountain who were little, who were talking about what they were going to be when they grew up. 

The first tree said, “When I look at the stars and I see them sparkling, when I grow up, I want to be made into a treasure chest and have sparkling diamonds within me.  I want to be a valuable treasure chest.”

The second tree said, “When I look at the water running in the stream, I think about the ocean.  I would like to be a powerful sailing vessel carrying the Kings and Queens of this world all across the ocean.”

The third tree said, “When I look down into the village and see the busy people, I just want to stay here and grow to be the tallest tree in the forest so that when people look at me they will think of God.”

Well the sun shined, and the rain fell, and the trees grew strong over a period of years.  And the legend has it that eventually the woodcutters came up the mountainside and the three trees were felled.  And the first tree was delighted because he was taken to a carpenter’s shop, but then he was devastated to find out that he wasn’t being fashioned to be a treasure chest.  Instead, he was being made into a feeding trough for animals—not containing diamond’s, but hay and grain—where animals could slobber and feed.

The second tree was delighted when he was taken to a shipyard, but then devastated when not fashioned into an ocean vessel.  Instead, he was shaped into a tiny little fishing ship.  And instead of carrying Kings and Queens, that ship was just carrying dead smelly fish.

The third tree was devastated to be cut down and fashioned into a beam, and then discarded in a lumber pile and forgotten. 

And the years went on and on.  Many years passed and the dreams were forgotten and shattered. 

But then one day that tree that was a feeding trough saw a young man and woman come into the stable, and the young woman gave birth to a baby and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes and placed Him in the manger.  And the feeding trough realized that he contained the most precious treasure of all.

And one day, a few years later, that little fishing boat carted a handful of men across the Sea of Galilee late at night.  And it was a terrible storm, and a stranger in the boat was asleep.  And they awakened Him, and He stood up in the boat and said, “Peace!”, and suddenly the storm stopped.  And that second tree realized that he was privileged to carry across that lake the King of the universe.

The third tree, that was now a beam forgotten in the wood pile, was one day yanked out of the wood pile and placed on the shoulders of a man who carried it through jeering mobs.  And then the man’s hands and feet were fastened to it and that third tree felt cruel and harsh and ugly—until the third day, that is, whenever the earth trembled for joy beneath it and people celebrated a resurrection.  And the third tree realized that every time that people looked at it they would remember God!

What do you do with plan B?  Plan A is your dreams and hopes.  But God so often works through plan B.  And maybe some of your dreams have been shattered.  Maybe you think God has disappointed you and you don’t see the ultimate meaning of your life.  But God specializes in using ordinary people to do extraordinary things—in His time.

So be realistic about life’s ups and downs because they are inevitable.  Be patient with Him, even through times of despair.  He can reverse the situation so quickly, maybe in just three days.  And be faithful to Him, even though there’s no immediate relief.  Because it’s still true, you know, that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).