This article is linked to the Bible study detailed post for for April 4 and based on the following Bible readings from the Revised Common Lectionary:
OT Isaiah 25:6-9 — Victory on the Lord’s mount swallows death for ever
NT gospel Mark 16:1-8 — The angel explains the empty tomb: “He is risen!”
NT letter: Acts 10:34-43 — The good news of peace with God through Jesus
Theme: The message of the empty tomb for all who believe and turn to Jesus
THE open tomb, empty apart from an angel posted there to explain that Jesus has risen and is alive: This is the focal point of the Christian faith — not the manger, and not all the things that church tradition has added on. Jesus, who died, is risen and alive and we can know Him — and through Him, know His Father as our Father. We don’t have to be of the chosen race, we don’t have to be male, we don’t have to be of any particular appearance or denomination, and we don’t have to be good, or have any works to add to our credibility. Just humbly believing some things that we can grasp, if not explain, because this requires more than human reasoning, it requires faith.
The story starts several hundred years before Christ, when the prophet Isaiah saw something in the Spirit, and he spoke about it and wrote it down. His words seem to describe a vision, and as heaven is outside the constraints of chronological time, the vision can have meaning for people at different times. So it looks forward to the end of time, and a great celebration banquet, but at the same time, something that happens before the end of time, on the mountain of the Lord — Mount Zion — and it concerns the shroud of death being removed.
“On this mountain He will destroy the shroud that enfolds ALL PEOPLES, the sheet that covers ALL NATIONS; He will swallow up death for ever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears FROM ALL FACES; He will remove the people’s disgrace from ALL THE EARTH. The Lord has spoken.Isaiah 25:7-8
With the emphasis added, we can see the repetition that makes this point. This confronts deeply-held preconceptions about our self-sufficiency.
The Jews of the time enjoyed a historic, special relationship with God. And they thought that salvation was their entitlement.
Medieval church teaching was about avoiding the seven deadly sins and making suitable penance for all the others, whereupon (it is assumed) we have an entitlement.
The modern equivalent, far less sin-conscious, is about fulfilling our social norms and obligations — those that don’t, or don’t fit in, are seen as less deserving.
These are all philosophies that the Bible challenges. This Bible passage is telling us that God’s salvation, and it has the Sovereign Lord at the centre, is offered to all people, without privilege or favouritism. The ones that we don’t think are deserving may be the very ones the Lord wants to hear and respond to His offer. It must not be misunderstood as a universal salvation apart from any response to God — nowhere is that supported in Scripture. But it is a statement of the power and breadth of His grace in seeking a response from the most unlikely people.
This passage clearly points to the work of Jesus on the Cross outside the walls of Jerusalem. What happened at the time when He gave up His spirit? An earthquake, a darkness that came on the earth for a time, the temple curtain ripped from top to bottom. These are signs, signs that death itself was defeated. The order of things changed, challenged by God’s just order and kingdom advancing.
“In that day they will say, “Surely this is our God; we trusted in Him, and He saved us. This is the Lord, we trusted in Him; let us rejoice and be glad in His salvation.”Isaiah 25:9
That’s a picture of people seeing in their mind’s eye Jesus on the Cross, suffering for their sins, out of love for them — and trusting Him for salvation. It’s a picture of what happens when we are born again spiritually.
Long before Jesus gave Nicodemus an explanation of the new birth (John 3) , Isaiah here speaks of trusting in the Lord and being glad in His salvation.
Many people are happy to agree that Jesus was a significant historic person. It’s easy to believe that in our heads. But trusting in what He has done, entrusting our life to Him, as He gave His for us — that is a different level. That kind of trust comes from the heart. And it comes with a hallmark release of joy and excitement. It’s not difficult to tell the people who really are His.
Act two of our story opens on the scene of the three women, setting out in the grey light of dawn, and not sure who or what they were trusting. They were in shock. Standing by the Cross, they had seen what no person should ever be asked to see. Yet they were prompted to set out, to show their love and respect and prepare Jesus’ body for mourners, without working out how to do it. They didn’t know if anyone would be there to help them move the stone.
“…They were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance to the tomb?”Mark 16:2-3
They clearly didn’t realise that it had been sealed, and a guard posted. But it seems that God wanted them to be the first to see that the Lord had risen, and to be His witnesses to that fact.
“When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away.”Mark 16:4
In our society we have learned that men and women are of equal value (some would say we are still learning). It requires us to pause for a moment and consider the place of women in first century culture. They could not testify in a court, were not regarded as reliable witnesses, were not allowed into the inner court of the Temple. God wanted these special women, who had seen everything, to be the first to see — and testify — what He had done in resurrecting Jesus. This was a sign of the kingdom.
They are addressed by the angel, who shocks them even more, showing them the empty space and telling them Jesus had risen. And then sends them:
“Go and tell the disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see Him, just as He told you.’ ”Mark 16:7
They were privileged to see, and believe. We are called to believe it — and then we see. Believing the resurrection is a key to our receiving the new life that Jesus wants us to have.
NT letter (Acts) sets it in context
The third act of our story comes a good while after the Holy Spirit was poured out at Pentecost. Now the focus in not on women or even outsiders, but on Gentiles gathered in a Roman household.
Peter preaches the gospel to them, a short but comprehensive summary from a first-hand witness. He makes three main points:
Jesus was divinely empowered to free people from the power of the devil:
“…God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power and… He went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with Him.”Acts 10:38
The Jews had Jesus killed on a cross:
“…but God raised Him from the dead on the third day and caused Him to be seen…by witnesses who God had already chosen… who ate and drank with Him after He rose from the dead.”Acts 10:40
Jesus’ disciples are now commanded to proclaim who He is:
…and to testify that He the the One whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead… everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His name.Acts 10:43
The “all… all… all” of Isaiah’s prophecy about salvation (above) needs to be understood through this clear statement that “everyone who believes in Him” finds salvation, and that salvation and forgiveness is “through His name”.
The concept of “all peoples” and “all nations” being recipients of God’s blessing was a difficult one for the Jews. Peter must have felt uncomfortable as a guest in a Roman Centurion’s house. He was a Jew who was not supposed to be associating with Gentiles. He was a fisherman and this man was an officer with servants.
We feel uncomfortable about the people God shows us to tell about Jesus and what He has done for them. We will always try to narrow it down, to view people as being more or less deserving, and to create our own club of people like us. But that is not the gospel. What we have been given, we must hold joyfully and give freely — and be free of prejudice and ready to share with whoever God shows us.