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Back from the graves

April 18, 2019, More from this speaker 更多关于此讲员: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee (Matthew 27:51-66) For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Matthew
Preached at a Maundy Thursday service

Tags: Matthew 马太福音

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Title: Back from the graves
Date: 18th Apr 2019
Preacher: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee

We started on the Gospel of Matthew at last year’s Christmas Sunday service and Christmas eve candlelight service, and we shall close the Gospel with tonight’s Maundy Thursday service and Easter Sunday service. Some of you might still remember what I shared last Christmas eve on King Herod. He killed his in-laws, his wife and even his own sons. Some expressed shock at Herod’s brutality towards his own family in order to secure his kingdom and kingship. We should never be desensitized by violence and cruelty, but we should not be shocked as if Herod was an outlier. Herod was indeed a paranoid and merciless ruler, but he was merely an epitome of the nobilities in the historical period during Jesus’ time. From the ancient days to medieval times, political treachery and infighting within the royal family were pervasive across cultures of different lands. Nobody gets to sit on a throne with clean hands and a pure heart (Ps. 24:4). There was an old Chinese lament by a young deposed king (“May I never be reincarnated into a royal family”) 愿生生世世莫再生于帝王家. [1] Herod’s ruthless consolidation of his throne was not an exception but merely the norm.

In the same way, we must not let the cruelty of the crucifixion shock us into focusing on the pain and torture of the punishment. The pain and torture may be horrifying to us, and I have no doubt that the crucifixion was intended to be humiliating and sadistic, but Jesus was merely one out of thousands who suffered this gruesome death. It may be a culture shock to us, but that was also the honest state of humanity in those times. The Romans were not the only people to practice crucifixion in antiquity. The history of crucifixion extends as far back as the Assyrians, Phoenicians and Persians of the first millennium B.C. [2]A Jewish king, one of the Maccabees called Jannaeus had 800 Jews, primarily Pharisees, crucified in Jerusalem. [3] This happened merely a hundred years before Jesus. So whatever Jesus suffered, the Pharisees collectively suffered a thousand times and more.

Why am I starting with this emphasis, to state that brutal kings were the norm, and suffering and death by crucifixion was the norm? This is my point: only when we are confronted with this harsh reality, then we can truly appreciate the uniqueness of Jesus. Herod was representative of the ruthlessness of kingship. But Jesus showed the world what it meant to be a different kind of king. What made Jesus unique wasn’t his suffering alone, but rather that he willingly suffered and died as the Messiah and king. The Jews knew about the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, and they were also expecting a Messiah and king from the prophets and psalms. But they could not imagine that two such contrasting identities could become one. What Jesus revealed and embodied was the suffering servant king.

And when Jesus revealed this to the world and completed his divine mission, God in his good will changed the course of human history. A new world began. As Paul expressed so beautifully in Ephesians 1: “9 God made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10 to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.” I want to draw your attention to the word “unity” (同归于一). And I want you to remember the brokenness of this world. In labeling countries as first-world countries, second world and third world, it is as if we are not living in the same world. But we are. We are one humanity. Driven by poverty and persecutions, desperate people flooded into Europe and America. Descendants of the original immigrants struggled with these new incoming immigrants as if they had different concerns about food and shelter for their families. But we have the same concerns. We have the same needs. And within each nation, we fight over taxes and rights to healthcare and religion as though we do not have a responsibility towards our fellow neighbors. But we do. We are our brothers’ and our sisters’ keeper. Oh dear heavenly father, we are broken. Show us the unity in Jesus Christ. Let this no longer be a mystery to us. May the blind see and the deaf hear. So that the mute may speak; and the lame can walk again.

I am here to witness to you the good news from God. We can have unity in Jesus Christ. For on the night Jesus died on the cross willingly as the suffering servant king, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. There were two curtains in the temple – One that separated the gentiles and the Jews; and one that separated the Holy of Holies where only the appointed priest could enter. Bible scholars cannot agree which of these curtains was the one that was torn. Very good. Let both curtains be destroyed so that the unity in Christ might be complete. For at the cross, Jesus suffered and died for all humanity, both gentiles and Jews. At the cross, Jesus replaced the priestly system, bringing the brokenness of the world directly to God. In the name of Jesus, we are united as one.

I am here to witness to you the good news from God. There was something different about the day that Jesus suffered and died on the cross. Maybe it was the darkness that came over all the land (Matthew 27:45). Maybe it was the earthquake (Matthew 27:54). But if you were there, even if you had no Jewish background like the Roman centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus, you would exclaim, “Surely he was the Son of God”. It was a simple declaration that Jesus comes from God, and God is doing something. If you were there, you would see it and feel it in your bones. Something divine was happening. And if you did have a Jewish background, then you would know what was happening. These phenomena were no coincidences. They were signs that indicated the fulfillment of an ancient promise in Ezekiel.

Ezekiel 37: 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”

When Jesus died on the cross, God ushered in a new reality. Resurrection had previously been just prophecies found in the scriptures like Psalm 16:10, “10 because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful one see decay.” The Jews themselves believed it, especially the Pharisees. Resurrection of the dead wasn’t invented by Christians because of Jesus, as you have just read from the prophecy in Ezekiel. But in Jesus, the prophecy was finally fulfilled. On that day, the tombs were broken. Three days later, on Easter Sunday, resurrection began, first in Jesus Christ. Then, as Matthew said, “The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. 53 They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.” As Paul declared what he witnessed on the road to Damascus: 8 and last of all Jesus appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. 20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. (1 Corinthians 15:8,20) The resurrection of Jesus was only the firstfruit, indicating that the world had transformed. More and more fruits will be coming.

I am here to witness to you the good news from God. To tell you that death has no more power over you. The truth will set you free (John 8:32). Our bible passage mentioned a possible deception, that Jesus’ body might have been stolen. His resurrection might have been faked. I will address that fully three days later in the Easter Sunday sermon. There is no deception about Jesus’ body, and shall be easily proven. Tonight, I want to tell you that there is instead a real deception, and the real deception is death. Death is the source of the brokenness of this world. Do not be deceived by death. When we think that because of death, life is so limited, we grasp it ever so tightly, fearing that any of it might accidentally slip away. Don’t steal any of my life, my life belongs to me. I cannot share it because there is already so little. I’m sure many of us have felt this way before. We must protect our precious lives whenever we feel threatened. Don’t you dare touch my life, my precious life. People who think like this are so easy to deceive. Politicians especially, use death as an instrument to dominate and to manipulate their voters. Give them an enemy, a scapegoat for their worries and anxieties, whether it is immigrants, the rich, the poor, the people in charge, the people in opposition, and they will flock to you for security. And so the deception of death must continue. The truth about resurrection must not be known. 65 “Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.”

I am here to witness to you the good news from God. The tombs were broken that day. For the life that was willingly sacrificed, eternal life was given. Jesus the suffering servant king who gave his life for all mankind ushered in a new world. God, through Jesus Christ, transformed what was a prophecy into a new reality. Death can deceive us no longer. We can die, but we can rise again. In fact, make that our very identity, we are the resurrected ones, unlimited by death, fearless of death. Only by sharing and giving our lives, unfettered by the deception of a limited supply, that we can discover what abundant life is. We are back from the graves with a vengeance, to show the world the true meaning of living.

What do you want to do if you are back from the graves? For me, it means two things. One, cherish every moment. Two, live fearlessly. Cherish every moment means that I would make it a point to be alive and present in every moment, especially during the seemingly mundane things. The time you spend with your friends and family becomes precious. Express your love language to them. Work should be meaningful as well. You work because of the joy of labor; it is not just a means to an end. Living fearlessly means that you know your life is by the grace of God, “freely you have received; freely give” (Matthew 10:8). Do what is meaningful, not what is safe or convenient. When others see the way you live, they witness a person living like Jesus Christ. Jesus is the suffering servant king. But he was the first of many, and not the one and only. The apostles lived the same self-sacrificial life. And Paul told his church: 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:9) We should be suffering servant kings wherever we are. Think about the brokenness of this world. Let us bring the God of peace into this brokenness, and unite all as one in Jesus Christ.

[1] https://kknews.cc/zh-sg/history/mq6rvpg.html
[2]https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/crucifixion/a-tomb-in-jerusalem-reveals-the-history-of-crucifixion-and-roman-crucifixion-methods/
[3]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Jannaeus

Matthew 27:51–66 (Listen)

51 And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, 53 and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. 54 When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!”

55 There were also many women there, looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him, 56 among whom were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.

57 When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who also was a disciple of Jesus. 58 He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. 59 And Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud 60 and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had cut in the rock. And he rolled a great stone to the entrance of the tomb and went away. 61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.

62 The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate 63 and said, “Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise.’ 64 Therefore order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last fraud will be worse than the first.” 65 Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers. Go, make it as secure as you can.” 66 So they went and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard.

(ESV)