April 9, 2023
After Christ’s crucifixion, His disciples hid in fear, disappointment, and confusion—until Jesus appeared speaking peace, establishing their purpose, and promising the power they would need to fulfill their mission. In this Resurrection Sunday sermon, Alistair Begg explores the significance of Jesus’ message for the church, the world, and each of us. The Gospel, he reminds us, demands a decision: we can either do our best to bear our own burdens, or we can trust Jesus as King, Lord, and Savior.
Sermon Transcript: Print
If you are able and wish to turn to the Bible with me as I read, I’m going to read from the Gospel of John and chapter 16—two brief passages, first of all in the sixteenth chapter, and then in chapter 20.
We remind ourselves as we read from John’s Gospel that John was written after Matthew, Mark, and Luke. He was aware of those Gospels, and sometime in between AD 70 and AD 100, he sets down the material that we have before us. And like the other Gospel writers, he’s not writing simply history, although the events are historical. He’s not writing biography, although the biographical details concerning Jesus are there. He’s writing with an expressly evangelistic purpose. And he tells us that at the end of chapter 20. He says, “There could have been many more things that would be contained in a gospel like this. But the ones that are here are here in order that you as a reader might believe and that by believing you might have life in the name of Jesus.”
So, it is in that context that we read from 16:16–22. Jesus is speaking to his disciples, and he says,
“‘A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me.’ So some of his disciples said to one another, ‘What is this that he says to us, “A little while, and you will not see me, and again a little while, and you will see me”; and, “because I am going to the Father”?’ So they were saying, ‘What does he mean by “a little while”? We do not know what he is talking about.’ Jesus knew that they wanted to ask him, so he said to them, ‘Is this what you are asking yourselves, what I meant by saying, “A little while and you will not see me, and again a little while and you will see me”? Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.’”
And then in 20:19:
“On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.’”
In keeping with John’s evangelistic purpose, I want to let you know that all that we’re now about to look at in the Bible calls for a decision from every one of us: either that we lay, if you like, our hands upon Christ as a Savior and a Lord and King; or we continue to put our hands in our pockets, or put them anywhere else, and walk out as the master of our own destiny. And just to let you know, I want to bring that challenge very clearly to us this morning.
So, what we do not know, Father, teach us. What we have not, Lord, give us. What we are not, please make us. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
John Masefield’s poetry is largely unknown except perhaps for “I must go down to the seas again,” which we had to learn at school. I never really knew what sea we were going down to, and I never paid much attention to it at all. I haven’t really followed his poetry, but I did come across, this last two weeks, a book that he had written entitled The Trial of Jesus. And in that book, he has a fictitious conversation between Pilate’s wife, whom he calls in his novel Procula, and Longinus is the name that he gives to the centurion who was responsible for the overseeing of the death of the Lord Jesus Christ.
And Procula—that’s Pilate’s wife—comes to the centurion to ask him, “How did that man die?” And the centurion lets her know. She then says to him, “Do you think he is dead?” “No, lady,” Longinus replies, “I don’t.” Then she says, “Then where is he?” The centurion replies, “Let loose in the world, lady, where neither Roman nor Jew can stop [this] truth.” He’s “let loose in the world, lady, where neither [Jew] nor [Roman] can stop [this] truth.”
The conversation, of course, is a fiction. He wrote it. But the underlying history bears testimony to the fact that the truth of Jesus’ resurrection is today being proclaimed throughout the entire world—millions of people taking the words of the Creed upon our lips, even as we did, declaring that Jesus was crucified, that he died, that he was buried, and that he rose again on the third day.
And our focus this morning is on that third day—not in the morning of the day primarily but, as we’ve noticed, on the evening of the day. The day itself was quite a day. We sang about it as we sang of Mary coming from the tomb and so on. Mary, you will remember, had gone to the tomb early in the day while it was still dark, and she’d gone there expressly to sit beside a dead body. She had not gone there because she thought it was Easter Sunday morning. She had gone there because she knew that Jesus Christ was dead and buried. And when she got there, she discovered that even his body was gone. You will recall that she told Peter and she told John. They came running and were able to verify her statement.
But, of course, the absence of Christ’s body does not equal resurrection faith. And Peter was not immediately saying, nor John like him, “Oh, well, there we have it. Suddenly, everything is fine.” Mary’s encounter with Jesus was then reported to the disciples. It clearly didn’t carry very much weight at all, because along with the rest of the fellows, “on the evening of that day”—20:19—and along with some others, as Luke 24 tells us, they had locked themselves away. They locked themselves away not in order that they might rejoice in the resurrection but on account of the fact that they were afraid of the reaction of the Jews and of those who were opponents of Jesus.
Now, if you could picture this—and it depends on your imagination—I think we have to say that they are a sorry lot. There they sit in a kind of bewildered sadness. After all, just a week before, everything had looked so amazingly promising. They’d had that, what we refer to as the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and there were children, and there were songs, and there were palm branches, and there was everything. It all looked so good. But now all the colors have faded to black and white.
I sat with my Bible, just looking at this for a long time, and I was trying to imagine the things that they might be saying to one another—snippets of conversation.
Somebody says, “Well, what do you make of Mary?”
And somebody says, “Well, Mary, you know, she was so upset. It’s hard to know with Mary, especially given her past. She didn’t get a selfie, did she? No, of course not.”
“Can you imagine?”
“No, we won’t imagine anything at all.”
“What did they mean? What did Jesus mean when he said, ‘A little while, and then another little while’?”
Someone says, “I didn’t really get that at the time. I’m not sure I get it now.”
And someone says, “Well, I think, frankly, what we all just need to do is just go home. Let’s just go home and face the music where we are. After all, Cleopas and his friend, they’re already on their way to Emmaus. They’ve decided it’s over.”
And Peter says, “Yes, and frankly, I think I’ll just go fishing.”
Someone else says, “This is a disaster. He told such wonderful stories. He did those amazing miracles. We were sure it had to be the Messiah. But the dream has died.”
Somebody says, “Well, somebody had better go and start telling people. Somebody had better go and tell Levi. They better go and tell Zacchaeus. Tell the woman at the well. It was all a big hoax. It’s all come to a crashing halt.”
Yeah, look at the scene. Imagine it in your mind. What’s the mood in the room? The mood in the room is fearfulness, it’s cluelessness, and it’s emptiness. In fact, if we were able to ask them to recall how they felt that evening, they might have said, “Our hearts were filled with sadness, and we had lost our way.”
“On [that] evening,” the evening of “the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them.” Suddenly, into the darkness comes the Light of the World. He stands among them. And the Gospel writers tell us, all of them, that they were immediately startled by it. He was not there, the doors were locked, and suddenly, he was there. In fact, Luke says that their immediate response was “This is an apparition!” Their immediate response was to say, “This is a spirit!” or “This is a ghost! What in the world is happening to us here in this moment?” And in fairness to them, people don’t just appear through locked doors, do they? No, but why would we be surprised by this—that the resurrection body, triumphing over sin and death, is no longer held by the ordinary limitations of time and space? That’s why when they see him, they think it’s him, and then they think it isn’t him. They recognize him; he seems the same—and yet, somehow or another, he is different.
But let him speak for himself. And he “stood among them and [he] said to them, ‘Peace.’” “Peace.” Shalom aleichem, the customary greeting, and yet with significance on this occasion vastly different from before. We ought not to miss the fact that he speaks to them so kindly in this way—that he says to them, “Peace to you.” Some of us, if we’d been in that position, we would probably have started in a very different way: “What a bunch you are! Where were you when I needed you? I knew that you would all depart, but I didn’t think you’d depart just like that. I didn’t think when he came for me in the garden and I looked around, you’d all be gone.” He doesn’t do any of that. No. In short order, he speaks peace to them, he establishes a purpose for them, and he provides a power that is going to be necessary for fulfilling that purpose—all of that peace, all of that purpose, all of that power found in the Lord Jesus. “‘Peace be with you.’ [And] when he had said this, he showed them his” wounds; he showed them “his hands and his side.”
What possible relevance is there in this? Well, on one level, on a material level, it is an opportunity for them to actually touch him, to see. Thomas, of course, was not here. He gets his own special little show, which is a week following, which you can read on in John’s Gospel and find. But they were able to look and say, “Yes, we can see this.”
But beyond that, they understood something. These Jewish fellows understood that the whole story of meeting with God, of receiving forgiveness from God, had to do with sacrifice. They knew that all of the Old Testament had to do with taking a lamb or taking a goat, taking something, and the person, aware of their sin, placed their hands upon the head of the animal, identifying themselves entirely with it, realizing that they themselves are the ones who deserve punishment for their sins and yet offering up that creature in their place.
So, when these disciples hear this word of peace, a customary greeting, they now hear it in a way that they could never have heard it before. By the time the Epistles are written, Paul is making clear that was happening in the cross was that Jesus was “making peace [by] his blood, shed on the cross.” In fact, there is a sense in which when Jesus comes and greets them on this occasion, this is the first truly authentic expression of peace in the entire world. Because from the garden of Eden, man had been at war with God, turning his back, going his own way, making his own destiny, charting his own course, separated from God, alienated from God, unable to make a contact. And now, here in the person of the Lord Jesus, the solution is provided.
So, the peace gives way to the purpose that he declares for them: “When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.” Then and only then. The empty tomb was an empty tomb. In Columbo terms, it’s corroborating evidence that something has happened, but it’s no evidence that a resurrection has happened. No, “when they saw the Lord,” then they “were glad.” And he said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”
Well, what does he mean by this? Well, he means something very straightforward—that is, that Jesus knew that he had come into the world on a rescue mission. His rescue mission was not to put together a religious club but to save men and women who were aware of the fact that they needed a Savior. And so what he’s saying to them now is “Phase one was my part. Phase two is your part.” And, perhaps anticipating their diffidence after all, given the way they had responded to the events in the preceding seven days, he says to them, “I am breathing on you in order that you might receive the Holy Spirit.”
And what is pictured here is actually performed some weeks later on the day of Pentecost. And it is in that context that he makes this statement, which has been hijacked along the way by many people, but it is very straightforward: he says to his followers, “I want you to go out and to take this good news to the world. And if you forgive people’s sins, they will be forgiven, and if you retain their sins, then they will be retained.” Well, some people think this is a prerogative that is given to religious professionals, to bishops or to priests, or to people in a position of authority. But no, not at all. No, it is simply this: that if you proclaim the good news of the gospel—that Jesus is a Savior for sinners—and they accept the gospel, their sins will be forgiven. If you proclaim the gospel and tell them the same story, and they say no to it, then their sins will be retained. Because there is only one Savior from sin.
You know, the power that they needed for this was significant power. And you can read the Acts of the Apostles, and you’ll discover it, because there were plenty of people who were willing to nip this in the bud if they could—to shut this crazy idea down. And yet to no avail. The people this morning are willing to nip this in the bud too. But throughout the world, this Galilean carpenter, who isn’t dead, has gone out. He’s “let loose in the world.”
No one in the ancient world who dealt with Christians, whether it was Nero in seeking to persecute them or whether it was the authorities in Jerusalem, ever once suggested that Jesus was a fiction, that Jesus was imaginary. You have to wait for centuries before you get to an idea that is as silly as that—that the whole development of the Christian church, the celebration of Communion, the gathering on the Lord’s Day, the taking of this news to the ends of the earth is based on an imagination?
Well, let me just say three things by way of application. Because that’s the context. Jesus comes, and he speaks peace to them. He says, “And this is my purpose for you, and here is the power that you’re going to need.” Let me apply it in three ways.
First of all, the application that is obvious, and that is to the church. To the church. To the followers of Jesus. To those who are committed to obeying Jesus and seeking to live for him.
I actually think that this little scenario here, without being unkind to ourselves or to anybody else, may be a little too close for comfort in relationship to the predicament of the church in our generation. Just today, in The Times of London, as you would expect on Easter weekend, there are a number of pieces there about faith and belief, or unbelief, and so on. And one of the articles has a picture showing just a church building—just entirely empty pews. And the picture is vivid. And the article is explaining that in 25 percent of the church buildings, there is no church service at all. It’s gone. And the inference in the article is “Well, of course, there you have it.”
So where is the church? Well, I think, like the disciples, more fearful about the opposition from outside than resting on the power and purpose of God on the inside, losing sight of all that God has given us by way of the gospel, losing confidence in the truth of the gospel, losing a genuine desire to tell the whole world about his love. You’re a believer today. Jesus comes to his followers, and he says, “Now, the purpose of my departing is to pour out the Holy Spirit upon you so that you can actually go to the very ends of the earth with the good news of the gospel.” And at a very basic level, it means that we go to our schools, we go to our clubs, we go to our exercise places, and we tell people about Jesus—unless, of course, we’ve become so afraid of those who are outside that we’ve decided the better part of valor is just to keep it to ourselves.
And then the application beyond the church, to the world itself. To the world—our big world today. Our big world. What does the message of Jesus, coming to his disciples in that evening of the first Easter Sunday, actually have to say? What does it have to say to our world? Well, it has definitely something to say to a world that finds it far easier to go to the moon than to create peace on earth.
You think about all of the endeavors that we’ve been able to make. This morning, right now, going at seventeen thousand miles an hour, round and round and round: the Space Station. And who’s on the Space Station? Well, there’s Americans on the Space Station, and there are Russians on the Space Station. But Americans and Russians, they don’t talk to each other, do they? We only argue and fight and do everything. Well, they’d better not be arguing and fighting up there. They might tip that thing off its axis or something. No, no, they’re perfectly comfortable up there. We know that, because we’ve had one of the astronauts here, and he told us that, and he speaks Russian. He knows.
But yeah, look at our world. It’s broken. Why? Because there aren’t enough conferences? There aren’t enough arms talks? There isn’t enough diplomacy? There isn’t enough international peace endeavors? What about all the starvation? What about all of the brutal dictatorships? What about all the clueless politicians? The hearts of men and women in our world are actually crying out for meaning, for love, for forgiveness, for reconciliation, for hope.
Again, in The Times today, you find that people who do not believe are very prepared to acknowledge where they are. David Baddiel, who’s a writer, a playwright, and a comedian in Britain, is a Jewish man, and he’s just written a book called The God Desire, in response to The God Delusion, which was written, of course, by another atheist. And it’s not out yet. But he says in the course of it, “I am as possessed as anyone else by the God desire—a need to feel there is something greater than [myself], something that will survive [me], [something] that gives [my life] meaning.” Meaning!
Matt Rudd, deputy editor of the Sunday Times magazine, acknowledging the fact that he was once a choirboy and he’s not sure where he is now, he says in an article this morning, “The only problem with atheism is that it’s just as terrifying as religion. Because if there isn’t life after death, what is there? Nothing, absolutely nothing, for absolutely ever.” He says, “Now, that kind of mentality’s okay when you’re in your teens and you think you’ve got all your life in front of you.” He says, “But now, when I’m my mid-forties and I’ve got teenagers in my own house, suddenly life feels short, and an eternity of nothingness is no longer an eternity away.”
Do you think that the visit of Jesus in this evening has something to say to a world like that? What does it have to say? It has to say what the Bible says: that the underlying problem in broken relationships, first between ourselves and God and then ourselves internationally and politically and familially and so on—the underlying issue is on that vertical axis; that we are sheep who’ve gone astray; that the reason we think sinful thoughts is because we’re sinful; the reason that we’re jealous, that we’re mean, that we’re dispirited, that we’re selfish is an outworking of the fact that we need a Savior. Yeah—as individuals, we need a Savior.
So, it has something to say to a church that may be losing its nerve. It has something to say to a world that is searching for answers to the deepest questions. And therefore, since the world is made up not just of nations but of individuals, it has something to say to you and me.
Well, what does it say? Well, it takes us from the picture and the anticipation of the Old Testament into the New Testament. The reason that those sacrifices—remember, the hands on the head of the animal—the reason those sacrifices had to be repeated was because they could not ultimately deal with the problem. Therefore, it was always looking forward to the one who would come, and the problem would be solved—that there was one who would come, and we would be saved by his death; that this one would be wounded for our transgressions; he would be bruised for all our stuff; that the punishment that we deserved would be placed upon him, and so by his stripes, then we are healed.
The reason that the sacrifice of Jesus was perfect is because he had lived an entirely sinless life. He never sinned. Therefore, it was not for him to endure the punishment for his own sin. Instead, God the Father accepted the death of Jesus on account of the sins of others. What others? Those who laid their hands upon Christ and said, “I am the problem. I am the sinner. And you are the only Savior.”
Actually, I think if you go out from here, you’d be able to have conversations with people who will give you their own story about that—about what happened along the way. Somebody read a book for them, or somebody gave them something. They picked up a Gospel of John at a church service, not necessarily here, and so on.
Charles Simeon was a young man of privilege in the eighteenth century. He went to Eaton College. He then went on to Cambridge University. And when he arrived at Cambridge University in 1779, he says in his journals that he was anything but a Christian in his outlook. One of his tutors informed him that he was going to have to attend a Holy Communion service in three weeks’ time. Simeon writes, “The thought rushed into my [head] that Satan himself was as fit to attend [the Communion service] as I [was]; and that if I must attend, I must prepare for my attend[ing] there.” And part of his preparation is in reading the books that take him from the Old Testament into the New Testament, from the sacrifices in need of repetition to the sacrifice that needs no repetition.
And in one of the books that he purchased, he came on this sentence: “The [ancient] Jews knew what they did when they transferred their sin[s] to the head of [the] offering.” Simeon writes, “The thought [came] into my mind, What! [can] I transfer all my guilt to another? Has God provided an offering for me, that I may lay my [sin] on his head? then,” he said, “God willing, I will not bear them on my soul one moment longer. Accordingly,” he writes, “I sought to lay my sins [on] the sacred head of Jesus …. [And] from that hour peace flowed in … abundance”—power enabling him for fifty-four years to be the minister of Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge and through whose ministry hundreds of young men were to go out into the world to tell the same story. But it all started because Simeon realized, “This man Jesus demands a verdict. This man Jesus calls for a decision. And with this man Jesus, neutrality is not an option.”
And so I say to you: you have a decision to make. We all do. Either we are prepared to acknowledge the burdens that we bear and say, “I’m going to try my best to go on from here; I’m just going to continue to make my endeavors along the religious line”—self-reformation (How’s it working?)—or, “My burdens are too heavy. If the people around me knew them, they would be appalled. But if what you’re telling me is right—if you’re telling me that this Bible is true, if you’re telling me that I may personally lay my life down upon Jesus—then I want to do that today.”
And if you do, I want to give you a prayer to make your own. So let’s join together in prayer. Let us pray.
Perhaps you find yourself at the end of a line of curious events that have brought you to this day, and perhaps you want to say this in response: “Dear God, I know that I’m not worthy to be accepted by you. I don’t deserve your gift of eternal life. I’m guilty of rebelling against you and ignoring you. I need forgiveness. Thank you for sending your Son to die for me that I may be forgiven. Thank you that he rose from the dead to give me new life. Please forgive me and change me, that I may live with Jesus as my ruler and my friend. Amen.”
Now, if that is your prayer, you will be forgiven. Because Jesus said, “This is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks [to] the Son and believes in him [will] have eternal life.” And that’s why the arms of Jesus, as it were, from the cross are reached out not like this but like this. “Come unto me,” he says. “Come unto me.”
 John 20:30–31 (paraphrased).
 John Masefield, “Sea-Fever” (1902).
 John Masefield, The Trial of Jesus (New York: Macmillan, 1925), 109. Paraphrased.
 Masefield, 111.
 See Luke 24:33–43.
 William Chatterton Dix, “Come unto Me, Ye Weary” (1867).
 See Luke 24:37.
 See John 20:24–29.
 Colossians 1:20 (NIV).
 David Baddiel, “Why I’m a Fundamentalist Atheist,” The Times, April 8, 2023, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/david-baddiel-why-fundamentalist-atheist-easter-2023-bxkfjwqb5.
 Matt Rudd, “This Ex-Choirboy Is Going to Church, Not Tesco, for Easter,” The Sunday Times, April 9, 2023, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/this-ex-choirboy-is-going-to-church-not-tesco-for-easter-vb2tzxn0c.
 Rudd. Paraphrased.
 See Isaiah 53:6.
 See Isaiah 53:5.
 Memoirs of the Life of the Rev. Charles Simeon, ed. William Carus (London, 1847), 6.
 Simeon, 9.
 John 6:40 (ESV).
 Matthew 11:28 (KJV).
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.