How Do We Know that Jesus Rose?
Passage: John 19:31–20:31
Good morning, and happy Easter! He is risen! We’re going to take a break from Ecclesiastes this morning, so please turn in your Bibles to John 20:24-31.
There’s a hymn that we sometimes sing on Easter (we’re not singing it this morning) called “He Lives.” Do you know that one? The last line of the chorus says, “You ask me how I know He lives? He lives within my heart!” So let me ask you a question: is that a good answer? “I know Jesus is alive because He lives in my heart”? It’s not a bad answer! Regeneration, sanctification, and my relationship with God are experiential things, so there’s nothing wrong with using those as a part of my argument for the truth of the Scriptures. However, is that the only answer? In other words, is our faith based upon feelings? No! In fact, if you read the New Testament, it is very clear that the for the first disciples, it was exactly the opposite. They did not convince themselves that Jesus was alive by wishful thinking. Instead, they were swayed by overwhelming evidence. And they were careful to record that evidence in the pages of the New Testament.
So what I want to do this morning is to take a look at some of that evidence as recorded in the gospel of John. And my prayer is that God will use this lesson to bolster your faith in the truth of His Word and to bolster your confidence when you go to share the gospel with others. It has been said that the entire system of Christianity hangs on one historically-verifiable fact: the resurrection of Jesus. That’s why if you listen to debates about Christianity, this is a topic that comes up over and over again. Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Because if He did, then everything He said must be true, which means that He is God and the Bible is true, and everything else falls into place from there. But if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then the entire system falls to pieces. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 says that Jesus died, was buried, rose again, and was seen by many. These are the historical events upon which our faith is built.
The gospel of John highlights each of these events and supports them all with firsthand evidence. So this morning, we are going to see from the gospel of John that Jesus actually died, that His tomb was actually empty, and that He was actually seen alive after He rose from the dead.
Jesus Actually Died.
One of the common theories that is out there among people who want to deny the resurrection is that Jesus didn’t actually die on the cross. People will say that He just swooned, or even that He faked His death. Then they will say that He revived three days later and somehow managed to free Himself from the tomb. But apart from a number of other factors that make that theory extremely hard to believe, the Bible clearly teaches that Jesus actually died. Here are five reasons why Jesus actually died, based on firsthand evidence.
We know that Jesus actually died because the soldiers did not break His legs (19:31-33).
The Romans would usually leave victims of crucifixion on their crosses for days. It would often take several days for the victims to die; and then even after their deaths, their bodies would be left there for the vultures. This was just another way of making crucifixion as shameful as possible and of using it to warn others. But the OT Law forbade the Jews from this practice of exposing dead bodies. Because of this, the Jewish religious leaders ask Pilate to have the legs of those who were crucified broken and their bodies taken down.
And again, that brings up another very unpleasant detail about crucifixion–that if the Romans needed to speed up the process of death, they would come around with an iron mallet and break the legs of the victims so that they couldn’t push up for a breath, which would cause them to suffocate much more quickly. And the soldiers did this to the first two criminals. But then when they came to Jesus, they didn’t break His legs. Why not? (Because they realized that he was already dead!)
But just to make sure, what did one of the soldiers do? (He pierced Jesus’ side.)
We know that Jesus actually died because one of the soldiers pierced His side, and blood and water came out (19:34).
Now there have been a number of medical experts who have tried to determine what this flow of blood and water means in terms of what was going on inside of Jesus. Some have suggested that the spear penetrated Jesus’ heart so that the water that came out was actually pericardial fluid. Others think that the water that came out was the result of fluid buildup in the chest cavity around the lungs due to the traumatic injuries Jesus had suffered. I’m not a doctor; so I don’t know for sure why water came out, and I don’t know that the answer to that question is really that important. What is important is that Jesus was dead, and everybody knew it.
Think about it. Here you’ve got these Roman soldiers who are basically professionals when it comes to execution. They take one look at Jesus and say, “I think he’s already dead.” Then, just to make sure, one of them thrusts his javelin deep into Jesus’ side, blood and water come out, and they conclude, “Yep. He’s definitely dead.”
And then, as if that wasn’t enough, John comes along in the next verse and says, “I saw these things take place with my own eyes, and I know that I’m telling the truth” (v. 35)!
We know that Jesus actually died because John saw these things with his own eyes (19:35).
Notice how dogmatic John is. We might say, “John, how do we know we can trust you?” John says, “I saw it with my own eyes.” We say, “Are you telling the truth?” He says, “Yes.” We say, “Are you sure?” He says, “Yes. Absolutely. Beyond a shadow of a doubt. This is what I saw and I swear, I am telling ‘the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.’”
And of course, what’s the purpose of John’s testimony? (“that you might believe”)
We’re going to skip vv. 36-37, because they deal more with the fulfillment of OT prophecy and don’t necessarily pertain to what we’re talking about this morning. Skip down to v. 38.
We know that Jesus actually died because Pilate released His body (19:38).
Typically, the Jews would not bury a victim of crucifixion in an ordinary grave. Instead, they would bury him in a common grave outside the city. However, this man named Joseph of Arimathea didn’t want Jesus to be buried in a common grave, so he acted quickly to keep that from happening. Based on the other gospels, we know that Joseph was an important member of the Sanhedrin, and he apparently leveraged his position when he approached Pilate with his request. And surprisingly, Pilate agreed and gave him the body.
Now there is a lot that could be said about this verse, but for today, let’s just focus on the obvious. Since Pilate released the body of Jesus to Joseph, Pilate obviously believed what? (that Jesus was dead!) Regardless of any sympathy Pilate had shown to Jesus, he would not have helped Jesus’ friends save Him from execution. Clearly, Pilate was absolutely convinced that Jesus was dead.
We know that Jesus actually died because His friends wrapped Him up and buried Him (19:39-42).
In these verses, we are introduced a new character–Nicodemus–who brought all of these expensive spices to bury Jesus with. The Jews who could afford to do so often did bury the deceased with spices, in order to counteract the stench of decay. So they wrapped Jesus in strips of linen cloth packed with spices. Would Josephus and Nicodemus have buried Jesus if they thought there was any chance that He was still alive? (No!)
So I hope it’s clear to you that Jesus actually died. He didn’t just swoon or fake his death. He died. But the second point that we need to establish in order to prove the resurrection is that the tomb was actually empty.
Jesus’ Tomb Was Actually Empty.
We know that Jesus’ tomb was empty because Mary Magdalene understood it to be empty (20:1-2).
So early on Sunday morning, the first day of the week, Mary gets up and goes to the tomb where Jesus was buried. Did Mary go to the tomb intending to meet with Jesus? (No!) In fact, the other gospels tell us that Mary and the women who came with her to the tomb brought spices to anoint Jesus’ body. Little did they know, those would no longer be necessary! When Mary and the other women show up with their spices, they find no soldiers, and the stone has been “taken away”. And they immediately conclude, “He has risen!” right? (No!) Instead, they think, “Someone has taken Jesus’ body!” They weren’t expecting Jesus to rise again! Not in a million years were they expecting that! (Although, they should have expected it, because He told them it would happen.)
Now, we know from the other gospel accounts that the other women stick around for a little while, go inside the tomb, and end up meeting an angel. But apparently not Mary. She turns right around and runs back to tell Peter and John (John is “the disciple whom Jesus loved” here)! And Mary is in a panic. So, when she gets back to Peter and John, she doesn’t just give them the facts, she gives them the conclusion that she has jumped to. She says, “They’ve taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him!” So based upon that statement, what did Mary believe to be true? (The tomb was empty.)
That brings us to vv. 3-10 (20:3-10).
We know that Jesus’ tomb was empty because Peter and John saw that it was empty (20:3-10).
So Peter and John take off running for the tomb! Now, we know from the other gospels that somewhere in here, the other ladies also return and give their report to Peter and John, which included the news about the angels, but Peter and John remain skeptical. Nevertheless, they race to the tomb, and John arrives first. He stoops down and sees the linen cloths lying there, but he does not go in. But then Peter arrives, and, being Peter, he goes right in. And he too sees the linen cloths. But from his closer vantage point, he also sees the face-cloth lying off to the side, all neatly folded or rolled up. The problem was that these details didn’t coincide with Mary’s conclusion. I mean, if Jesus’ tomb had been ransacked by grave robbers, why were the expensive grave cloths still there, all folded up neatly? Did the robbers unwrap Jesus’ body and then refold the cloths? That doesn’t make any sense! So John forms his own opinion about what took place. He concludes that Jesus rose!
Verse 8 says that he believed. He saw the grave cloths lying there neatly folded. He saw that there was no body to be found. He heard the report about the angels and what they had said to the women, and he believed, which is amazing because v. 9 says that “he did not yet know the prophecy Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead.” In other words, John did not have some sort of preconceived notion in His mind that Jesus was going to rise from the dead, so that when he saw the evidence, he immediately jumped to that conclusion. No, he came to that conclusions all by himself based solely upon the evidence, and only later did he come to understand what was meant by those earlier prophecies! This tells us that even by this point only hours after the resurrection had taken place, the evidence that Jesus had risen was extremely compelling to John!
So we know that Jesus’ tomb was empty. By the way, that fact is corroborated by many other considerations as well. The Jewish authorities obviously didn’t want the story of the resurrection to get around. So according to Matthew 28:11-15, they paid off the Roman soldiers to say what? (that someone had come and stolen His body) Also, during the period of the early church, the Jews reverted to persecution in order to silence the apostles’ witness. All of this would have been unnecessary had they been able to come up with Jesus’ body. They could have just said, “Here! Look! Here is His dead body! So stop all of this crazy talk about Him being the Son of God because He didn’t rise from the dead!” But they could never produce the body because it wasn’t there. The best they could do was to say that the disciples stole it. But that doesn’t make any sense! Why would the disciples steal Jesus’ body and then die for a lie? The only logical conclusion is that Jesus rose from the dead.
Finally, we know that Jesus rose from the dead because people actually saw Him after He arose.
People Actually Saw Him Alive after He Arose.
Mary saw Him (20:11-16).
So Peter and John leave, not having seen the angels that the other women told them about. But then Mary stoops down and looks into the tomb, and what does she see, but “two angels in white, sitting one at the head and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain”? And the angels ask her a question–“Woman [or “dear woman” is the idea] why are you weeping?” Normally, when people see an angel, they fall on their faces and are greatly afraid! But Mary is so overcome with grief that she’s not even phased by the fact that she’s talking to angels! Rather than falling down on her face, she blurts back at them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, I do not know where they have laid Him!” And then she turns to walk away! But as soon as she does so, she sees Jesus standing there. However, either because Jesus looks a bit different following His resurrection, or just because she is so emotionally distraught and crying, she doesn’t recognize Him. Verse 15 says that she supposed that He was the gardener. So then Jesus asks her a question. He says, “Dear woman, why are you weeping?” (Same question that the angels asked her only a moment before!) You see, if Mary understood the situation properly, she would have no reason to weep. Instead, she would be rejoicing!
But Jesus doesn’t stop there. Next, He asks, “Whom are you seeking?” You see, Mary is searching for the wrong Jesus. She’s looking for a dead man when she should be looking for the risen Christ. And the ironic thing about this little conversation is that the One who asked her, “Who are you seeking?” is the One she is seeking. But Mary still doesn’t recognize Him. And she refuses to be calmed down. Instead, she blurts out again. This time she says, “Sir, if You have carried Him away, tell me where You have laid Him, and I will take Him away!” That doesn’t make much sense. Why would the gardener take away Jesus’ body? And how did she expect to retrieve it? She certainly wasn’t strong enough to lift it by herself! She’s obviously not thinking clearly. So at this point, Jesus simply says one word—“Mary!”—and she immediately knows it is Him.
So Mary was the first person to see Jesus after He had risen from the dead. But she certainly wasn’t the last!
Ten of His disciples saw Him (20:19-20).
Verse 19 says that this episode took place “on the same day,” that is, Resurrection Sunday. By the way, Jesus was very busy that day! He rose from the dead and appeared to Mary Magdalene as we discussed just a minute ago; but then He also appeared to the other women, to Peter, and to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, all before returning to the appear to the disciples that evening! By this time, the disciples had already received multiple reports that Jesus was risen, but they were still cowering in a locked room.
But then Jesus came and stood in the middle of them. Now, imagine that you were Jesus. What is the first thing you would have said to the disciples upon appearing in the room? Maybe “Hi!” or “It’s me!” or “Ta-da!” But what was the first thing Jesus said? (“Peace to you.”) He calms their fears. But then what did He do? (He showed them His hands and His side.) And the Bible says that after that, the disciples “were glad when they saw the Lord.” In other words, when they saw those wounds, they knew for sure that it was Him. It appears that when Jesus first showed up, they didn’t totally recognize Him. That’s why Jesus says in the parallel passage in Luke 24:39, “Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself.” But also, they realized that He wasn’t a ghost. That’s why Jesus goes on to say in the verse I just quoted, “…A spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.” So the physical wounds of Jesus were important. They proved that He was truly Himself, and that He was not some disembodied spirit.
But there was one disciple who wasn’t present that night. Who was that? (Thomas) Let’s read about him next (vv. 24-29).
Thomas saw Him (20:24-29).
So Thomas wasn’t there the first time Jesus appears to His disciples, but he certainly heard all about it, didn’t he? The Bible says that the other disciples said to him, “We have seen the Lord!” And Thomas says, “Really? That’s wonderful! I can’t believe I missed it! What did He look like? What did He say? Did He ask where I was?” No, Thomas says to them, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will never” By this time, Jesus had appeared to at least seventeen people! And yet Thomas still doesn’t believe them. And he even issues an ultimatum: “Unless I am able to put my finger into the impression left by the nails in His hands, and put my hand into the hole in His side, I will never believe!”
That statement makes Thomas into something of the ultimate skeptic, which in turn makes his confession in v. 28 all the more significant. In addition, Thomas’s confession proves, as we’ve already said, that the disciples did not concoct the idea of the resurrection in their minds based on wishful thinking. Instead, John tells us about a disciple who simply refused to believe in the resurrection until his unbelief was reversed by sight.
So eight days later, Jesus appears to His disciples again. But this time, Thomas is with them. Once again, Jesus greets His disciples by saying, “Peace to you,” but then He turns to Thomas. Can you imagine being one of the other disciples at that moment? “What’s He gonna say? I bet He’s really gonna let him have it!” And can you imagine the look on Thomas’s face? Does Jesus scold Thomas? (No) What does He say? “Go ahead, Thomas. Here are the nail prints; why don’t you touch them? And I’ll even let you put your hand into the scar on my side.” He invites Thomas to trust in Him. He says, “Thomas, do not be unbelieving, but believing.”
So, how does Thomas respond? Well, we aren’t told that he goes and touches the wounds. Apparently, just seeing Jesus and hearing His words was enough for him. John doesn’t tell us this, but I imagine that he falls down on his face and he says to Jesus, “my Lord and my God,” which is probably the most significant confession of faith that we find in the book of John. When Thomas refers to Jesus as the Lord, he is recognizing Him as none other than Yahweh God of the OT.
Thomas refers to Jesus not only as His Lord, but also as his God. There’s no getting around this one. Some people have tried to explain this verse away by saying that is an example of shocked blasphemy. They say Thomas was so surprised to see Jesus that he took God’s name in vain. There are two major problems with that interpretation. First, no self-respecting Jew would ever take the name of the Lord in vain like that. Second, Jesus commends Thomas for His confession! He says, “Because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed.” So not only did Thomas recognize that Jesus had risen; he recognized what that meant. It meant that everything Jesus had said was true, that He truly was God, and that Thomas owed Him his undivided allegiance.
In v. 28, John’s book comes full circle, because the very first sentence of the book reads, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Jesus is God. That is John’s point. He is the Lord of all. God created the world through Him, and He is one with Yahweh Himself. He is God. But not only does Thomas say, “You are the Lord; You are the God,” he says “You are my Lord. You are my” Thomas isn’t just stating a theological fact; he is submitting to his rightful master, the one true God of the universe. And he is recognizing the relationship that exists between him and Jesus. Eternal life is about knowing God. It’s about having a personal relationship with Jesus. And Thomas had that relationship.
Thomas believed that Jesus was risen because He saw Him. That was good. But at the same time, he shouldn’t have had to see Jesus. And in fact, Jesus pronounces a blessing on those who believe in Him, even though they have never seen Him with their eyes. He says, “Blessed are the ‘not-seeing-yet-believing ones.’” That’s referring to us! You and I are the ones who have believed in Jesus, even though we’ve never seen Him!
You see, the question that we are left asking ourselves after the story of Thomas is, “What about me? I mean, that’s great that Jesus had compassion on Thomas and appeared to him to give him physical proof that He had risen—but I’ve never been given that proof!” And John says, “No you’ve haven’t. But that just means that you have the opportunity to receive a special blessing. Because Jesus said, “Blessed are those who believe in Me, having never seen.” So, that brings us to John’s purpose statement in vv. 20-21 (vv. 20-21). The first half of the book of John records seven “signs” or miracles that Jesus performed in order to prove who He was. And in addition to those signs, John tells us about the ultimate sign, which was Jesus’ own resurrection. John recorded these signs so that we would we would believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.” So we are to respond to the risen Christ in the same way that Thomas did. We are to believe in Him as our Lord and God.
So we’ve seen that Jesus actually died, that the tomb was actually empty, and that people actually saw Him alive after He had been buried. All of this points to the undeniable fact that Jesus rose from the dead. And if Jesus rose from the dead, then–as Thomas recognized–He is indeed God, and you must believe in Him and submit to His authority. Not only that, but you must tell others to do the same.
Across the street at the Mormon ward, they are also celebrating the resurrection this morning. I got a chance to tour the temple in Salt Lake City this past summer, and it was interesting to hear the tour guide talk about her faith. When we asked questions challenging her beliefs, most of her answers had to do with emotion or the “burning in the bosom” that they talk about. I’m thankful that as Christians, we have so much more supporting our faith than just emotion. The resurrection of Jesus is a historically-verifiable fact upon which we can rest.