Believing the Truth

Explore the Bible Series

April 24, 2011




I have written these Sunday School outlines since the Spring of 2005, and, as part of my responsibilities, the lessons have included annual reflections on the resurrection. With your kind understanding, this outline begins with some meditations from a 2007 outline.


 Everyone has a certain “life-lens” through which we interpret Scripture.  I, for instance, see the Bible through the eyes of a historian; therefore, I give special attention to the methods of historical research and interpretation as I examine the Bible.  Others, obviously, approach the Bible from a different direction.  All of us come to the message of the Bible as sinners, moral failures who have disparately fallen short of the glory of God.  The Bible addresses our needs in ways that wonderfully transcend what we could ask or think.


Historians have examined the story of the resurrection in every way imaginable, and I have read some of these studies with great interest.  Their task is two-fold: (1) historians determine, through careful examination of the extant evidence, what happened in a particular situation, (2) these scholars offer learned explanatory hypotheses to explain the meaning and significance of these occurrences.  Antiquarians content themselves with merely ferreting out the data, but historians press beyond that preliminary task to venture on explanatory models.  Dr. Jesse Northcutt, late professor of homiletics at Southwestern seminary, taught me the most important academic lesson I ever learned.  After hearing a student sermon I delivered for my preaching class, the dear old master probed the value of my address by asked me a sobering question, “So what?”  He did not intend to cruelly crush my fragile ego; instead, he taught me that our work (as historians or preachers) must center on meaning.


I have examined the four Gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus.  While the biblical accounts were not written by trained historians, in the modern sense of the term, they did give eye-witness testimony to what they saw and heard.  It simply won’t do to dismiss these stories as fictional, theological accounts of the dogma of early Christians.  Some believers grow frustrated with the variations in the Bible record of the resurrection (i.e. one angel at the empty tomb or two); however, these dissimilarities actually authenticate the reliability of the accounts.  If the early church had merely manufactured the “story” the writers would have, I think, ironed out the variant wrinkles. Historians cannot “prove” the historicity of the resurrection, but they can establish that the resurrection really happened:  they can affirm that these eye-witnesses really believed they had encountered the resurrected Jesus.  Then, the scholar must ask, “So what?”  What does this testimony mean? 


Scientists view the accounts of the resurrection somewhat differently (if I may be so bold to speak for my scientific colleagues). People trained in the sciences deal with repeatable, testable phenomena.  They can (and should) assert that the scientific method indicates that dead people do not rise from the grave.  At the moment of death, the body begins to undergo certain irreversible processes that make resuscitation impossible.  After a short period of time, the body simply cannot reanimate.  Any reasonable person affirms this unbendable principle of nature, and Christians must acknowledge this.  Jesus died as a result of the unspeakable violence of Roman crucifixion.  The Roman soldiers received thorough training in this form of execution, and victims did not survive this efficient means of disposing of criminals.  Moreover, men did not recover from these atrocities, and I have no doubt that Jesus died from the horrible wounds inflicted by the soldiers.  A few of Jesus’ followers had no doubt that he died, and, in the limited time they had, these discouraged women hurriedly prepared the body for burial and entombed Jesus’ remains in a nearby grave.  His body stayed in that tomb for approximately forty hours (three o’clock Friday afternoon until about six o’clock on Sunday morning).  Jesus died, and his disciples laid his corpse in a rock-hewn grave.  Like the remains of every other human being, scientists would affirm that this irreversible process of decay occurred during those hours.  No man could possibly resurrect from that progression of decay. 


Here, then, is the unique claim of Christianity, a claim that centers on the affirmation that what could not happen, did happen.  The scientist can rightly assert that the resurrection could not occur, but he cannot affirm that it did not happen.  That is the nature of miracles: that which cannot occur, does indeed take place. Christians believe that the impossible, in this case, actually happened.  Jesus rose from the dead in an unrepeatable, unique act of God.  History seems to indicate that First-Century believers affirmed, based on eye-witness accounts, Jesus’ resurrection.  Our lesson for this week examines one of those records of this event.  As the lesson progresses, the text will compel us to determine the significance and meaning of this occurrence. 


Lesson Outline:


I.        Mary’s Arrival at the Tomb (20:1)

A.     Mary’s prominent role in the life of Jesus: Despite the ruminations of Dan Brown, the Bible gives no hint of any romantic relationship between Jesus and Mary; nevertheless, the two shared a special bond.  She hailed from Magdala in Galilee, and Jesus healed her of demon possession, according to the Gospels of Mark and Luke.  Mark records her financial support of the apostles; so it seems plausible she must have come from a well-to-do background.  The Synoptics reveal her attendance at the crucifixion and efforts to prepare the Lord’s body for burial.  These writers also list several other women who helped with the unpleasant task of entombment.

B.     Differences in the gospel accounts: I find it interesting the John only mentions Mary at the tomb.  The text says she arrived before dawn, while Mark, for instance, claims the women arrived after daybreak.  Perhaps Mary arrived at the tomb somewhat before the other women, and John centered his attention on her unique role in announcing the empty tomb to Peter and the unnamed disciple. Please note that the Bible never records anyone actually witnessing the resurrection: rather, the women (later the disciples) simply encounter an empty sepulcher and the announcement of the angel(s). Without any reference to the other women, John records Mary’s hasty effort to find Simon Peter.


II.     Peter and the Unnamed Disciple at the Tomb (20:2-10)

A.     The identity of the unnamed disciple: Traditionally, the church has identified this man as the Apostle John.  If so, perhaps humility persuaded him to exclude his name from the narrative.  John and Peter were apparently together, and the passage indicates that Mary still regarded Peter as the leader and spokesman for the disciples.  Note that, at this point, Mary seemed to have no awareness that Jesus had raised from the dead.

B.     The disciples visit the tomb: These early disciples must have been in good shape!  Mary ran to Peter and John; then, the two men ran to the tomb.  John, the younger man, reached the crypt first.  Deferring to Peter, John did not enter the grave site, but Peter, ever impetuous, blustered in.  The sight of the empty grave and the abandoned burial clothes evoked a faith response in the beloved disciple, and, in time, all of Jesus’ followers understood these events as fulfillment of the predictions of the Old Testament.  The text makes clear that the disciples first believed in the resurrection; then, in time, came to understand the predictive materials in the Old Testament.  This is an important point.  Liberal scholars sometimes surmise that the early church fabricated the resurrection story to conform to prophecies in the Scriptures.  John makes certain that his readers understand the proper sequence—belief in the resurrection, then scriptural understanding.


III.   Mary’s Encounter with Jesus (20:11-18)

A.     The appearance of the angels (vv. 11-13): Apparently, Mary still did not believe that Jesus had risen from the dead, as she remains, grieving, by the empty tomb.  Two angels appeared to her, but as they began to speak, the Lord interrupted the conversation.

B.     Jesus’ appearance to Mary (vv. 14-18): At first, Mary thought she was speaking to the gardener, and she accused him of hiding the body.  When Jesus called her name, she recognized him, and she embraced the Lord.  After a mild rebuke, Jesus instructed Mary to tell the disciples he had risen.