“The Culminating Victory”
April 16, 2017
The climax of God’s Big Story is too good. But not too good to be true.
I. The greatest prophecy – fulfilled (Luke 24:1-12)
II. The greatest story – culminated (Luke 24:13-35)
III. The greatest victory – proved (Luke 24:36-53)
So let me ask you to think about something. Of all the things you’ve read or seen, what book or movie has the most satisfying ending. You know what I mean: There are some books and movies where the ending, happy or sad, just doesn’t work. Not to cast aspersions at successful authors, but The Hunger Games was abysmal. One of those trilogies that finally ended and you’re saying “What?”
On the other hand the book version of The Lord of the Rings ended perfectly. About fifteen times. The first climax was really the battle of the Pelanor fields, when Aragorn shows up at the last desperation and changes the course of the battle. Then there are the Cracks of Doom, where beyond hope and beyond thinking the One Ring is finally destroyed, and “the reign of Sauron is ended.” But then you had about five more happy endings, and one more battle where the last remnant of evil is destroyed by the hobbits on their own doorstep. Finally, after Frodo and Bilbo and Gandalf depart the Gray Havens, Sam returns to the Shire and settles down at home and says “Well, I’m back.” By the way, the movies had hardly any of that in them. And both the climax and the endings are immensely satisfying, You want to start reading it over immediately.
We’ve been working our way through the ups and downs of God’s Big Story for a number of months now. We’ve seen his perfect creation ruined by sin and the fall of man. We’ve seen that God himself took on the role of the hero, come to save his lost love. “You will be my people and I will be your God and dwell among you.” But we’ve also seen the continued rebellion of mankind, how all have sinned and turned away to idolatry, self-centeredness and evil. So God showed that only through sacrifice could the price of sin be paid. Forgiveness required the giving of a life in the place of the guilty person. We’ve seen that from the beginning God had one man in mind as that perfect sacrifice, one who would be the offspring of Eve, the descendant of Abraham, the shoot of tribe of Judah, and the Son of David. We’ve seen the prophecies that he would be born as a child of promise, Immanuel, that he would reign on David’s throne forever, and that he would be the Suffering Servant, the one who would bear our sins and carry our sorrows, and be unjustly and cruelly done to death.
And, of course, we’ve seen Jesus. His birth was celebrated by angels and surrounded with promises, “God with us,” “He will save his people from their sins,” “in the City of David, a Savior.” We’ve heard him proclaim the presence of the kingdom of God, and display his authority over demons and disease, over nature and over death. We’ve heard him proclaimed as king with Hosannas.
But as in any good story, and God’s Story is the best, there has to be a crisis and a climax. And Holy Week is the crisis in which the young king, cruelly betrayed and oppressed, heroically sacrifices himself for his beloved. But Sunday is the climax. He defeats his enemies, sin and death, Satan and rebellion, and rises to life, takes his beloved from darkness and bondage to light and freedom. What we want to see today is that God’s story is too good – but not too good to be true. We’re going to survey the last chapter of Luke, his resurrection account. We’ll see how this climax is the greatest prophecy fulfilled, God’s great story culminated, and God’s great victory proved.
It’s also very familiar. We read verses 1-12 earlier. At least three women, Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Mary the mother of James went to the tomb. They were bringing spices to finish preparing the body for burial. But they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, and no body in it. They soon learned that the greatest of Jesus’ prophecies had been fulfilled. Let’s re-read verses 4 to 8: While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. 5And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? 6He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” 8And they remembered his words.
One of the great things we see in Scripture is that God’s acts are explained by God’s words. Yes, Jesus rose from death. We’re going to see the evidence in a few minutes. But it wasn’t a bare act open to all kinds of interpretations. It was an act explained, by these angels, using Jesus’ own words. The two in dazzling apparel are not here called angels, but verse 23 tells us the women knew they were angels. The women have the classic biblical response to the presence of angels: they were bowed in fear. Both Matthew and Mark tell us that the angel gives the common angelic response, “Fear Not.”
The angels go on to announce the resurrection in plain terms. Verse 5: “Why do you seek the living among the dead? 6He is not here, but has risen.” In all the Gospels the actual fact of the crucifixion is given in one sentence and the actual fact of the resurrection, the present tense record of it, is also given in one sentence. “Don’t look for him here. The grave is a place for dead people and he’s alive. He’s risen from the dead.” Yet this one sentence, this one fact changes everything. It validates everything, culminates everything. It sets this moment apart from any other in the religious and moral history of the world, because it trumpets victory over sin and death, Satan and bondage. As Paul will later say, if Christ has not risen from the dead, then your faith is useless and you are still in your sins. But he has risen, as he said.
Further he has risen in accordance with his own prophecy, which I have called the greatest prophecy in Scripture. “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” 8And they remembered his words.” Each of the Gospels record Christ’s prediction of his death and resurrection. In Luke there are three. The last was Luke 18:31 “Taking the twelve, he said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. 32For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. 33And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise.” 34But they understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.”
Jesus knew what would happen in Jerusalem. He knew the human betrayal he would face. In the Garden he knew the divine forsakenness he would endure. He also knew all this would lead to glorious resurrection victory. And a man who can predict his death and resurrection and pull it off can be trusted in all he says. If he is talking about the future, the destruction of the temple or the return of the Son of Man, he is to be believed. If he is talking about his own mission, to seek and save, to give his life as a ransom for many, to pour out his blood for the forgiveness of sins, he is to be believed. If he is talking about the blessings of faith, eternal life and resurrection, he is to be believed. If he is talking about the human heart, its wickedness and the need to hunger after purity, he is to be believed. If he is talking about the Old Testament, taking it as historically true, as Scripture that cannot be broken, he is to be believed.
A man who can predict his death and resurrection and then die and then rise is to be believed in all that he says. So, of course, inevitably, the disciples did not believe. The women returned from the empty tomb and told the eleven but, verse 11, “these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” The truth is the empty tomb is not enough. If someone says they are going to rise as Savior, then you need a risen Savior to really believe. Verse 12 says that Peter went to the tomb, he saw that it was empty “and he went home marveling at what had happened.” Not believing but marveling. He’s saying “what is going on here?” not “Oh, he is risen as he said.”
He’ll get to that. But in the meantime, we’ve seen that this is the greatest prophecy, fulfilled, and in the middle of the chapter we see that this is the greatest story, God’s Big Story, culminated. It’s verses 13-35. Again, I’m not going to read the whole thing. If you were at the sunrise service this morning, you heard John Bauer and Zion Early do a great job recounting this Scripture. But I want to focus on what I think is the most remarkable verse in this section.
These two from Emmaus are walking along the road discussing the things that have happened in Jerusalem. Jesus, though they don’t recognize him, joins them and says “What are you talking about?” They can’t believe he hasn’t heard about Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth, who was crucified, and, verse 21, “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. 22Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, 23and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. 24Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.” They have only an empty tomb, not yet a Risen Savior.
Verse 25: He said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. Jesus himself tells God’s Big Story. Wouldn’t you have loved to have heard that? Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things about himself to show that it was necessary that the messiah, should suffer these things and enter into his glory.
We’ve attempted over the past months to tell the same story Jesus told on the road to Emmaus. He began with Moses, which probably means he began with Genesis, just as we did, the beauty of creation and the tragedy of the fall. He probably explained the Passover, how it pictured him. He may have spoken of the promises to David, how he was fulfilling them, and how some of the Psalms pointed to him. Based on the teachings of the apostles later, he must have identified himself as the suffering servant of Isaiah, told them explicitly that he fulfilled Isaiah 53, bearing our sins, being weighed down by our sorrows, being pierced for our transgressions and crushed under the weight of our iniquities. And showing them the resurrection in that chapter, as he sees the light of life, his days prolonged and many offspring.
Peter, certainly, understood Isaiah 53 this way. In his first letter he says “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 25For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” There are at least five allusions to Isaiah 53 in those four verses.
We’ll see in a moment that Jesus repeated this virtuoso telling of God’s Big Story for all the disciples in the upper room, including Peter. And Peter taught it to us. We don’t know how long Jesus talked, but it was seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus, and if Jesus met them early in their walk, he might have talked for two hours. I could not accomplish all that he appears to have done in those two hours if given a whole day. In fact I calculated how much time I’ve spent preaching this series and it’s almost fifteen hours. And I’ve barely scratched the surface. But it’s easier to tell a story if you’re the author.
At the end of that time they got to Emmaus. The two who had heard his explanation said “Stay with us.” This was not just hospitality. You sense a real desire to hear more. So Jesus stays, and being recognized as a teacher, he says the blessing and breaks the bread. At that moment, maybe because this was a very Jesus thing, they recognized him. This was Jesus, alive, the fulfillment of the story he’d just been telling them. And at that moment, because his resurrection body was a glorified body, and because he was God, he just disappeared from their sight. But it’s interesting what they say “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” It’s wasn’t his face, his hands, his voice or even his disappearance that they thought should have made them recognize him. It was the way their souls felt when he was telling God’s Big story. When we felt that we should have known this was Jesus. In one of the sermons last fall I mentioned that in the Gospels when people hear Jesus they are amazed. These two apparently felt the same amazement when he talked to them on the road.
They should have known it was him. Once they figure it out, they get up at once and return to Jerusalem, another three hour walk. The eleven disciples and others are still gathered, and they too are becoming convinced of the resurrection, because Jesus has also appeared to Simon Peter. These two from Emmaus, verse 35 “told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.” His words should have done it, but it was bread from his hands that did do it. So also in the Lord’s Supper, we recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread, as we hear his voice and take it from his hand.
So the climax of God’s Big Story is too good. His prophecies are perfectly fulfilled in Jesus. The story itself culminates in the effective sacrifice and amazing resurrection of Jesus. But this story is not too good to be true. Luke shows us the proof of Jesus’ victory in Verses 36-52. And I am going to read these, though I’ll only comment on a few of them. 36As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you!” 37But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit.
38He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41While they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43and he took it and ate before them. 44Then he said “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things. 49And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” 50Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. 51While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. 52They worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, 53and were continually in the temple blessing God.
Jesus stands among them. The other gospels tell us that he appeared even though the doors were locked. And since the sudden appearance of a man raised from death is not something you see every day, they are startled, frightened. They think he might be a spirit, or a ghost. But Jesus says “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts.” There have already been at least three independent reports of the resurrection. There is the report of the women, who were told of the resurrection by angels. There is Peter’s report. He had seen the Lord. And there is the report of these two from Emmaus, who had spent time with Him. They should have known by now the resurrection was real. But as one commentator said, hearing that someone has risen from the dead, and actually seeing the risen person yourself are significantly different. And Jesus, compassionate to them, but caring about our faith as well, gives several simple proofs that he is alive, and has been raised in a real, material, body.
First he says: “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself.” He doesn’t say: Look at the nail scars in my hands, look at those in my feet, but that is clearly implied, for a hand or a foot by itself will only rarely serve to identify someone, but a hand with a nail scar, a foot with a nail scar, will be clear proof that the one talking to them had been crucified.We know he had these scars - in the Gospel of John he showed them to Thomas. The sight of his hands and feet was proof number one that Jesus had been raised. Next he says: “Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”
Proof number two that Jesus has really been raised: you can touch him. You can feel the bones in his resurrected body. We had a weird baby doll when our girls were little. It was heavy like a baby, and had a what felt like a skull in its head, arm and leg bones, and a squishy feel. Despite that, it felt nothing like a real living baby. Let me ask you to do a demonstration. Reach out and squeeze the arm of somebody sitting near you. Go ahead. Squeeze their forearm, and then let them squeeze yours. Is there anything else in the world that feels like a real living person? No. Is there any way that can be faked? Not easily. Jesus was just as real as the person next to you. Notice how the attitude of the witnesses is changing. In verse 37 they are startled and frightened. In verse 38, troubled and doubting. But after these first two proofs, the light is beginning to dawn. In verse 41 they can’t believe it because of joy and amazement.
The third proof that Jesus was really raised from the dead, comes when he asks them “Do you have anything here to eat?” “Yea, some of us ordered a pizza. We’ve got a couple of slices left over.” Whatever it was, probably fish, Jesus eats it. He’s real. He does the things real people do. If you wanted to prove in a court of law that someone had been alive and healthy at a certain place and a certain time, and you had more than twelve people who would testify that he had been there, they had touched him and he’d had some pizza, no jury in their right mind would doubt his aliveness or his reality. And neither should we. The firm foundation of our faith is Jesus Christ raised from the dead.
And the proof isn’t just in these few verses. The whole New Testament supports it. People who have studied the resurrection generally cite three strands of proof. One is the empty tomb. John Piper says “I'm sure you've heard of the various theories used to explain away the empty tomb, such as that the body was stolen. But those theories are laughed at today by all serious scholars.” This story was spread early. I read an interesting article as I studied this section. Did you know that a decree has been found, carved in stone, after the time of Christ where a Roman emperor set up penalties for those who would roll away a seplechure stone and extract the body? Even Rome ended up worried about the empty tomb. But the authorities had nothing to gain from stealing the body and the disciples, as we’ll see, didn’t behave like people who had stolen it.
The second strand of proof is the resurrection appearances of Christ. These are very physical and matter-of-fact, the exact opposite of hallucinations or grief. And a lot of people saw him. 1 Corinthians 15:3 “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time.”
It is generally agreed by critical scholars that Paul receive this creed from Peter and James between 3-5 years after the crucifixion. The resurrection appearances are solid, eye-witness testimony. The third proof is the subsequent behavior of the apostles. They might have been lying about the empty tomb or about the appearances of Jesus, but if so they took these lies far more seriously than can be reasonably expected. They brought these lies to the world, and refused to recant these lies in the face of death threats and martyrdom. The origin of the Christian faith grew from an absolute conviction that Jesus had won the victory over sin and death and established his kingdom as a ruling, reigning Savior who sent the Holy Spirit to continue his work in his people.
So we’ve seen that God’s Big Story reaches it’s climax in the resurrection victory. The prophecies of Jesus are fulfilled in the resurrection. The big story of the Old Testament finds its culmination in the resurrection. And the victory of Jesus is proved by the resurrection. In the verses that close Luke’s gospel Jesus repeats the big story again and gives some insight into what happens after the climax. Verse 45: “Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things.” He says “you know the Big Story, you know of my victory. Now you are going to tell the story so that repentance and forgiveness of sins can be proclaimed to all nations.”
If there was ever anything that would tempt you to say ‘Man, this is too good to be true, it’s the resurrection of Jesus and the saving effectiveness of his death. But the one thing is proved, so the other thing, our salvation, is not too good to be true. In fact we should believe it with amazement and joy.
But even this is not the end of the story. Verse 49: “And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” This power from on high is the Holy Spirit whom Jesus had promised. And next week we’ll start the last, brief segment of this series as we see in Scripture how, with the coming of the Holy Spirit, the victory of Jesus plays out in the early church and ultimately in eternity.
Like The Lord of the Rings this is a story with a crisis, a wonderful climax, and many endings. Luke writes one of the best in the last four verses of his Gospel, picturing the Ascension of Jesus. But some time later he picks up at the same point to begin the book of Acts. And that’s where we’ll continue next week.