Alleluia! Christ is Risen! On earth, there is no joy greater than the joy that comes to us by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. The darkness of Good Friday, the grey sadness of Holy Saturday, makes the light that shines on this first day of the week, which is also the first day of the new creation, all the more radiant and bright. The law is fulfilled. The wrath of God is satisfied. The power of sin is broken. The devil is bound. Hell is plundered. Death itself has died. Rejoice, dear friends. Whatever sorrows you carry, whatever sins you bear, whatever hidden chains of shame hold you bound, Rejoice, and be glad. For Jesus Christ is risen today, and in him you’ve received the gift of unconquerable righteousness, life, and joy. Alleluia! Alleluia!
1. The Reality of the Resurrection
Mary Magdalene and the other women went at dawn Sunday morning to attend to the corpse of Jesus. Doesn’t that ugly word, “corpse,” drive home the brutal reality of it all? Jesus Christ truly came in the flesh. He truly suffered for us under Pontius Pilate. His limp, lifeless corpse truly was taken down from the cross and deposited in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. “But when they went in, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus” (v. 3). The tomb was empty! The corpse was gone. Why? Because just as truly as Jesus died for us on the cross, so he truly, really, bodily rose again on the third day. “He is not here,” the dazzlingly dressed angels explain, “He has risen!” (v. 6). Dear friends, the Easter gospel is not a timeless truth about how new life arises from death. It is not a poem to inspire vague hope that somehow everything will work out in the end. The Easter gospel, the Easter message, is about what we might call “cold hard facts” if the facts in question weren’t so terribly warm, gladdening, and sweet. Jesus Christ, who was crucified, is alive; the tomb is empty; death is undone in the real, risen, nail-pierced body of Jesus, the Son of God.
2. The Living One
Now look at Luke 24.5. In most Bibles it says “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” and that’s not a bad translation. But another way to put it is: “Why do you seek The Living One among the dead?” or The One who lives. And that doesn’t just tell us something about Jesus’ condition, i.e., that he is alive; it tells us about who he is, that he is The Living One. That matches how Jesus described himself when he appeared to St John in Rev 1.17-18: “I am the First and the Last and The Living One. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and hell.” Jesus rose again from the dead because he is the Living One, and it was impossible for death to hold him bound (Acts 2.24).
He is the Living One for two reasons:
(a) He is the Son of God. He says truly what only the everlasting God could possibly say: “I am the First and the Last.” As the eternal Son of the eternal Father, he is the true God and eternal life (1 John 5.20, 1.2), and the author of life in every creature (Acts 3.15). Everything that lives and moves and has being, lives and moves and has being through him (John 1.1-4). In him was and is and always will be life. That is why he is the One who lives. And better to look for snow in the Sahara than for the One who lives in a tomb. We mortals die out of weakness. The Living One laid down his life into death as an act of sovereign grace and power (John 10.18), not because he couldn’t avoid death but in order to destroy death, to make all creation new, and to bring us mortals immortality and life through his gospel (2 Tim 1.10).
(b) He is the Last Adam. “By a man came death, and by a Man has come also the resurrection of the dead” (1 Cor 15.21). Death is the fair wage of sin. But this Man, Jesus Christ, is the Righteous One. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary in order to renew in himself the nature Adam’s folly plunged into corruption and death. To his dying breath, this True Man did nothing but love his Father, love his friends, love his enemies (“Father, forgive!”) with his whole heart. Death has a just claim on each of us, but it had no right to take this Man. Adam and all his children became mortal through sin. This last Man is the Living One because he is the Righteous One. Death had no right to kill this sinless Man, and overplayed its hand at the cross, and lost everything in the end. Death couldn’t hold Christ bound in its cruel chains, and it cannot hold the weakest Christian who puts his trust in him.
(c) That’s the power of the glorious words: “I have the keys of death and hell” (Rev 1.18). You “have the keys” to something if you own it, if you have full right, authority, and power to dispose of it as you wish. That is what Jesus Christ, true God and Man and thus the Living One twice over (!), has, possesses, and enjoys in his own Person: complete authority over death and hell. Even before the cross, Jesus cast out demons with a single word (Matt 8.16). Then in the greatest battle of all time, our true David triumphed over death, devils, and all the dark powers of hell once and for all. Now, as King of kings and Lord of lords, Mary’s Son rules with full authority over the heavens and the earth and all that is in them, over life and death and hell itself. He is the Holy One, the True One, who has the key of David in his nail-pierced hand. He opens, and no one will shut; he shuts, and no one will open (Rev 3.7). Such is the immense power of the One who lives.
3. What the Living One does with his keys
Now in the last place, let’s pay close attention to what the Living One did with those keys of his on the first Easter morning.
(a) He chose to bestow a great honor on Mary Magdalene: she was the first to see Jesus after he rose from the dead (Mark 16.9). You see a hint of that in Luke 24, in the fact that she heads the list of the women who saw the angels and brought the gospel of the resurrection to the apostles (v. 10). In John 20 we get the full story. I’ll save the details for another day, but what counts now is this simple fact: the first person to see the Risen One, the first evangelist, indeed the one chosen to preach the apostolic gospel of the resurrection to the apostles themselves, was Mary Magdalene. We know from Mark’s gospel that Jesus had cast out seven demons from Mary (16.9). By tradition, she is the prostitute who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears in Luke 7. Now why would Jesus choose her, of all people, to be the first to see him after he rose from the dead? Because the salvation that is through Jesus is by grace. By his grace, he liberated her from those demons, died for her sins, rose again to bring her life. By his grace, the risen King appears first to her, thus making her an everlasting token of grace. By that same grace, he appoints the Mary who had been a harlot (not the Mary who remained a Virgin) to preach his victory over sin and death to his faithless apostles. Now, if the One who lives used those keys of his to unlock the prison of sin and shame that held dear Mary bound, don’t you think he can and will do the same for you? If Jesus the King appointed Mary the prostitute to preach his gospel of grace, don’t you think that for the glory of this great grace he’ll find a way to put you to work too?
(b) Then there’s Peter, dear, dear Peter. When Mary and the others told the apostles what they had heard and seen, “these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter rose and ran to the tomb” (vv. 11-12). Now why do you suppose he did that? I think Peter, out of all the apostles, was the one to get up and run to the tomb, because of all the apostles Peter had fallen the farthest into the dungeon of despair. Now it’s a rule of the Christian life (just read the Psalms!) that he who despairs little, hopes little, but the one who despairs much hopes much. The last we hear mention of Peter in Luke’s gospel is two chapters back, 22.61-2: after denying three times that he even knew Jesus, the Lord looked across the courtyard and made eye contact with Peter, “and he went out and wept bitterly.” I’m sure Peter thought it was all over for him; and perhaps, suffering bitterly under the conviction of sin, you’ve thought it’s all over for you. But Jesus is not dead: he is risen! the women say. And if Jesus is risen, then there’s a glimmer of hope in the darkness, even for Peter. I suppose the other apostles could afford to wait and see if further evidence might turn up to confirm the women’s idle tale about the resurrection. That, after all, is how most decent, sensible, middle-class people react when they hear the gospel. But Peter, that great sinner, takes leave of this common sense men’s conversation and runs to the tomb. Because he fell so far, because he wept in great bitterness, disgraced Peter knows (as the other apostles do not) that everything depends on whether Jesus is in fact alive. What does he find? Nothing but the linen cloths. The body is gone, and he heads back home marveling at it all (v. 12). Then in St Luke’s gospel there follows the marvelous story of Jesus’ incognito walk with the two men on the Road to Emmaus. Nothing about Peter. But when the two men come to tell the apostles that they’d seen the Lord and that he became known to them in the breaking of the bread, the apostles beat ‘em to it with this simple word: “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” (24.34). To Simon Peter, that is. What a glorious little detail, and St Paul confirms it in 1 Cor 15.4-5: “Christ was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” The Living One knew Peter the Denier needed those keys of his in a very personal way, to set him free from the chains of guilt and shame that held him bound. So in his great grace, the Risen Jesus appeared specially to Peter, to unshackle his guilt-locked conscience and to fulfill his highest hope. The others got to see him too, eventually. But Peter the Denier received his own private audience with the King of glory. Do you hear the gospel of grace, real, solid, strong, free grace, in this gospel of the resurrection? If you do, then be sure to get up like St Peter and run by faith to the One who lives. He knows how to unlock and burst apart the strongest chains hell knows how to forge. Your Redeemer is strong: stronger than sin, stronger than death, stronger than hell itself. Your Redeemer lives, now and forevermore. Jesus Christ is risen today. Alleluia! Alleluia!