The Easter Story: "The Column" – John 20:1-17

One of the many incredible and undeserved joys of my life is that of travel. I have traveled to many of the world’s finest places, and in the process I have had my breath taken away by some undeniably beautiful pieces of art and architecture, vistas of gorgeous landscape and some lofty tones of musical joy. I have to admit that “awestruck” is not a word I use often – but on occasion it is the only one that truly conveys a feeling. I was standing in an imposing and ornate Cathedral in Europe a few years ago. The baroque ornamentation was spun in every direction, and the sheer artistry took my breath away. Yet, though the art was impressive, it wasn’t until the guide stood our small group beside a vast column that towered several stories above us that I was truly struck by a powerful scene. She simply said: “The entire roof above you was placed there more than eight hundred years ago and weighs many tons – but it is all held up by this single column. Remove this – or even badly damage it – and everything above you will crash to the ground.” We all stood there and looked up. It took three hand holding tourists just to reach our arms around the vast column, and though it was not decorated with the ornamentation of the rest of the cathedral, it was the single feature of the architecture that left us awestruck.

Christianity has such a column – a story that that holds all the rest of our message in place. If there were a single picture of it – a “Nike swoosh” type logo – it would a single hand hewn and rounded stone. That simple stone has evoked awe for more than two thousand years! It held no great cathedral with its might – but it held together a movement of men, women and children spread throughout the earth. That stone was barely two feet tall. It was a small covering door – a stone that sealed in the body of a dead man. This simple cover once held a great Teacher inside – but it was miraculously and powerfully rolled open on a day that is now celebrated by followers of Jesus around the world. God moved a stone and created a breach in the seamless hold of death. God authored hope by moving a rock. From Heaven, He commanded a lifeless body to be restored to life – and the Resurrection displayed His undeniable approval of the payment Jesus made for sin. The sacrifice was accepted. The door of that tomb was the opening to the world beyond our world. When God rolled that stone back- His power broke through a veil that man could never before breach. Death was done! Sin, and its ultimate effect of death was conquered. Eternal life was now available to all who believe …

Men have tried to deny it, to say it was a mere fabricated story – but an empty tomb has shouted them down! Even more, the changed lives of sin sick men and women wouldn’t let the transforming power of God be drowned out in the world’s attempts to harness a relationship with Christ into a mere religion. Christianity was never meant to become a simple ethical system. It wasn’t meant to become a list of do and don’ts that keep people feeling small and outside. It’s chief symbol was a door – because it was a deliberate invasion into the former darkness of separation and death.

Christianity is not a religion. It is the transformation that comes from a relationship with Jesus. It is the act of choosing to believe in, know, love and follow the Person of Jesus. But that only happens when we truly grasp Who Jesus is and why we needed His sacrifice. That only happens when we trust Him, so that His Resurrection power can change us. The truth is, without the Resurrection – it might be hard for any of us to really believe Jesus. Maybe an illustration will help:

We stood at the cave and I admit I was really afraid. There were bats that lined the top crevices of the cave, and guano that lined the bottom. The entry was lit for a few feet, but then there was utter darkness. Crawling back into the close and tight quarters of the cave, we had no idea if there was a huge hole – a drop within. I was afraid and the whole venture of the cave seemed foolish and perilous. What changed my mind? When my dear and trusted friend explained that he had been all the way in there before me. Because he went in and came out – I could rest in the experience. So it is with death. I have a trusted friend that has already been there, and come back – and He said that if I trust Him – I will be fine.

In other words, we can’t be a Christian without encountering, trusting and then following Jesus. We don’t just learn from His example – we leave the docks of the world and get in the boat with Him at the helm. That’s Christianity –Jesus steering my life because I trust Him to do it. Remember the column of that cathedral? The story of Jesus is our column. His life, His death, and His Resurrection are the key events to God being openly revealed to us.

Key Principle: The story of Jesus – His life, His death and His resurrection- is the single column that holds up the whole structure of the message of the Gospel. Every part of the story is essential, and in its totality the Gospel stands.

The great news is found in His story. What is it? Death is not a victor, nor a mystery… the door to the tomb stands open. For that reason an open tomb door has become our best SYMBOL. His sacrifice on the Cross saved us, but the announcement of His Resurrection is what evokes awe in us – because God showed acceptance of the work to save us. God is on board with opening the once sealed door of death, and the sting of eternal separation in death is gone.

I recall being at the funeral of an unsaved man. His wife asked my Pastor to come, and he brought me along to watch and see how it was done. The woman loved her husband. She was inconsolable. She cried out over and over.. “He’s gone! He’s gone! How can I go on?” I will remember that scene of despair all of my days.

With that kind of pain at stake, we need to be certain about what we are saying. Is our understanding truly the Gospel taught by the Apostles? I mean, how can anyone look at death and think its power to sting has been undone? Doesn’t that seem like escapism – an unrealistic look at life? I can see how one could arrive at such a conclusion. After all, it seems that even now we cannot do anything to escape the shadow of death. Many people try to ignore it. It is the “elephant in the room” of many sick and aging people. This week one of my friends went into his living room, sat back in his lounge chair, and drifted out of this life. How do I KNOW he is not gone forever? One of our other friends got a call that his sister left this life – she was found in her home. While I was preparing this message, yet another call came in with another sister that slipped into death up in Ocala.

Chuck Swindoll wasn’t wrong when he said: “Death doesn’t seem defeated. Every major paper still has obituaries. The idea of death haunts us, even when we don’t want to think of it. Death seems like the card that trumps all other life cards. It still seems inevitable, inescapable and undeniable. What the philosopher Euripides said still seems to ring true: “Death is the debt we all must pay.” An Old Persian proverb said it this way:  “Death is the camel that lies at every door.

Even when we look in the Bible, we must admit the Biblical writers recognized the power of death in our lives. They weren’t silent on the subject. The salt in the wound caused by sin was evident in the poetry of Gen 3:19: “By the sweat of your face you will eat bread, Till you return to the ground, Because from it you were taken; For you are dust, And to dust you shall return.”

Can you hear the echo of the Bible that promised death?

  • Rom 5:12 ”Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned…”
  • Heb 9:27 “And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment…”

It is easy to see why someone would believe that death was a door shut for all times. According to what we read from God’s Word, the future of every man and woman is, well, dust – from the original curse. Can we not hear it is the trembling tone in the voice of Job, when he sat in an ash pile covered with boils all over his body? He lamented in the shadow of the grave stones of his children. He sat beside his three hope draining friends, and his discouraging wife. While Job’s eyes were yet swollen from visiting the ten fresh graves of his children, he sat in brokenness and offered this painful insight in Job 14:1: “Man, who is born of woman, Is short-lived and full of turmoil.”

Who could argue with him when he compared life to a flower that quickly withers and inevitably heads to death in 14:2? Who can dispute that the number of days was fixed by God above, as Job argued in 14:5? Who could argue that life doesn’t feel like that temporary worker that we pass by once or twice on the job – and then they are GONE (14:6). We feel it. What Job says seems to painfully resonate with us. We can hear his logic when he saw more hope for a tree when it was cut down than a man– at least the tree would live again in the new shoots (14:7). In the sheer weight of the pain of loss, he struggled to see such hopefulness for men. He said this: Job 14:10 “But man dies and lies prostrate. Man expires, and where is he?” A few verses later, he asks the PENTRATING question that every thinking person must one day confront (Job 14:14): “If a man dies, will he live again?“ You could conclude that the Bible promises death at the end of life – but that wouldn’t be an account of ALL OF THE BIBLE.

You see, there is a problem: the story of Jesus didn’t end in death. Something happened – and that is the central feature of the GOOD NEWS. The tomb was left open and the grave was left empty. The stench of death was replaced with the fresh smell of a new spring day. Job’s question was answered by an invasion of God’s power. Can the dead live again? Well, in fact, Jesus taught that He had the power over death – and He could open the grave. He was having a conversation with a friend after her brother had died during His absence from them. John 11:21: Martha then said to Jesus, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died. … 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to Him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?”

What a great question. Let me ask you: Do YOU believe this? Do you believe that you will never die? Was Jesus serious? Does such a promise really exist, and if it does, what must I do to gain assurance that I shall have life beyond life?

Turn for a moment in your Bible to John 20 and watch Jesus DO what He talked about. Talking about defeating death is one thing – dying and then living again is another! Watch God deliver on the promise of power over death through the open door on Jesus’ tomb. If you look very closely at the story of Jesus – you will see many truths about the Resurrection:

Truth: New life doesn’t come until you meet Jesus.

John 20:1 “Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb, while it was still dark, and saw the stone already taken away from the tomb.

  • First, His Resurrection was set at a time of new beginnings: it was the “first day” of the new week (20:1a).
  • Second, the scene of the Resurrection began in darkness (20:1b). The term comes from a root word for indiscernible.
  • Third, the first encounter with the Resurrection was not seeing Jesus – but seeing the symbol – the stone rolled back (20:1b).

It is very possible that you are encountering this Resurrection story today in the same way. You have seen the SYMBOLS of Jesus – the Cross on many a church, the dove or fish on someone’s car. You know SOME PEOPLE have been impacted by an encounter with Jesus – but YOU haven’t really had such an encounter. You are still in the dark, and your new day hasn’t begun…stay TUNED – there is more to the story!

Truth: Meeting One who died seems really unlikely.

John 20:2 “So she ran and came to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.”

  • Confronted by the seemingly impossible, we look for someone who can help make sense of it all! She looked within her life experiences and concluded – SOMEONE MOVED HIM. Of course He didn’t move Himself – He is DEAD!

I admit it. The Resurrection is so CONFOUNDING! It requires you to believe that there truly IS a GOD in Heaven, and that He truly IS engaged in our world. Is that really so hard to believe? When you look at the vast heavens in their splendor and organization – do you really see only chance and chaos? When you examine the film of cells knit together in the womb of a mother, do you really not see the hand of a skilled designer? Maybe you have encountered some evidence of God’s power – and you have come running to someone you believe may be able to help you find the truth. If that is the case, I can only thank you for coming to us to hear about Jesus.

Truth: Religion won’t get you what you are really looking for.

John 20:3 “So Peter and the other disciple went forth, and they were going to the tomb. 4“The two were running together; and the other disciple ran ahead faster than Peter and came to the tomb first; 5 and stooping and looking in, he saw the linen wrappings lying there; but he did not go in. 6 And so Simon Peter also came, following him, and entered the tomb; and he saw the linen wrappings lying there…”

  • Peter and John took off running because they had some teaching, but hadn’t yet encountered the transforming power of Jesus yet.

People like Peter and John are all over our world. They know something of what Jesus said. They may know some things He did. They were warmed in their heart by the profound stories of sheep, fish and trees. They were moved by the selfless example at the Cross. The truth is, however, they haven’t yet encountered the transforming power of the Risen Christ. They are full of religion and eager to find truth – but they haven’t touched the power of the Resurrected One.

It is simply not enough to know about Jesus – you must meet Him and recognize Him for Who He is – the Lord above all. If your encounter with Jesus leaves you fully in charge of your life – then you know nothing of Jesus as He truly is. You have met a “Hallmark Card” Jesus – not the One in the Gospel account. Jesus demands ownership so that He can remake you and I to be His very own. In becoming His, we die to self and live to and for Him!

Truth: God has been holding a spot for you for ages.

John 20:7 ”…and the face-cloth which had been on His head, not lying with the linen wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself.

  • The cloth was rolled up and set aside.

Ask yourself why John was struck by that. This was not the scene of a hasty stealing away of a broken body. Someone took the time to unwrap Him. Someone took the time to roll up the wrapping that had been on His head, and placed it neatly on the burial preparation bench. This was the evidence of a plan at work.

If you took the time to look carefully at the feasts of Israel – only one was always to be on the Sunday following Passover – it was the feast of FIRSTFRUITS. God planned as far back as Leviticus 23 and Deuteronomy 16 to have Jesus raised on the Sunday after Passover – and He became the first fruits of the Resurrection pictured there. Paul made that point carefully in 1 Corinthians 15. It is worth recalling – this wasn’t a haphazard event. This wasn’t God catching up to what the enemy did at the Cross of Jesus. Oswald Chambers reminded long ago: “The Cross didn’t happen to Jesus – this was the reason He came.” God planned the death, and God planned the Resurrection.

God took thousands of years to work out salvation’s plan – and He wasn’t in a hurry. He knew from the moment right after sin that a Son of Man would get a bite on His heel from the enemy – but in doing so He would CRUSH THE ENEMIE’S HEAD. He promised that in Genesis 3. The plan took time – was organized – and was never haphazard. God had the napkin folded and set aside.

Truth: You will need a map to get there.

John 20:8 So the other disciple who had first come to the tomb then also entered, and he saw and believed. 9 “For as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead.”

  • The evidence of the empty tomb was enough to get the men to believe that SOMETHING had happened – but only the Scripture could really make sense of it all.

Maybe you are encountering this message today and they believe that PERHAPS something unusual happened to Jesus. You may even believe He was an incredible teacher. Still, you haven’t truly encountered His personal touch. Here is the truth: Knowing about Jesus may make you historically informed. Knowing what He taught may make you morally ethical. Neither of those is KNOWING HIM. Maybe you would ask: “How can I know Him?” Keep reading, the answer is on its way…

The basis of the whole event is God performing according to the promises He made in His Holy Word. The Bible set the whole story in its meaning. John ended this very chapter with the words “these are written that you might have life.” The Scriptures hold the plan, and the plan reveals the Person. Jesus will transform the person that takes His Word as truth. If the Bible is a paperweight on your desk or a doorstop in your apartment – it will not yield the antidote for your sin sickness – For it is like an unfilled prescription left on your coffee table while the deadly poison ravages your body.

Truth: You will have to really want to meet Him.

John 20:10 So the disciples went away again to their own homes. 11 But Mary was standing outside the tomb weeping; and so, as she wept, she stooped and looked into the tomb;

  • A casual look toward Jesus and return to your home will produce no lasting change.

Jesus is not a curiosity – He is a Savior. Yet, sadly, many will come for a brief and casual glance in His direction today – and then head straight back to their busy lives. By this afternoon, they will be heavily dosed in ham and sweet potatoes – and cutting into the cakes and pies. The holiday will be much more about home and food than Heaven and surrender.

Truth: When you ask Him, He will show you the truth.

John 20:12 and she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been lying. John 20:13 And they said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.” John 20:14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus.

  • A close and earnest look gave Mary a chance to see that Heaven really was ready to encounter her!

Salvation is about God’s acceptance of those who shook their fist in His face. It is about being embraced by the One that we ran out on. It is about finding forgiveness that opens our heart to surrender to One who will take us back. It is never given to the proud. It is never open to the self-sufficient. It can only be found by peering beyond this world through the veil of the physical and into the world of the spiritual. If you and I strip off our arrogance and admit our rebellion – Heaven will show itself. When Heaven opens – you will find God has been planning for your return and has a place ready for you!

Truth: When you hear Jesus call your name, you will know His voice.

John 20:15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing Him to be the gardener, she said to Him, “Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to Him in Hebrew, “Rabboni!” (which means, Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.’”

  • When you open your heart to Jesus, and you ask Him to meet you – He will meet you. He will know you, and you will know Him.

You were made to worship your Creator. You were made to bring Him pleasure – and He knows what you need. Every joy you have ever experienced was created in His mind. Every beauty you have ever known was whipped into being by Him. He is not aloof, He is patient. He is not angry, He is knocking. We shook our fist at Him, and He laid down His hands and let us drive nails in them – because His Father wanted us back home.

The truth of the Resurrection is that DEATH HAS LOST ITS STING!

Kevin was always extremely allergic to bees and their sting. The doctor warned Tom and Alice that if he were ever stung, it would be seconds before they saw his life begin to slip away. They were always aware of the danger, and they tried to teach Kevin how to be aware without being paranoid. On a fishing trip near the mountain cottage, Kevin panicked in the boat next to Tom. A bee was buzzing around the center of the tiny rowboat. Tom reached out and cupped his hand over the bee. A moment later, Tom let the little yellow insect go free. “Dad, what are you doing?” Tom quietly stilled Kevin: “Don’t worry son. He can’t hurt you – He stung me and now he cannot sting you.” What Tom did for Kevin, Jesus did for me.

What about the promise that we shall not die?

  • Philippians 3:20-21: (NIV) But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior …who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
  • 1 Peter 1:3-5 (NIV) Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you…”
  • Paul, writing to believers in Jesus promised them: 1 Cor. 15:20 But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. 21 For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming, … 26 The last enemy that will be abolished is death… 54 But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “DEATH IS SWALLOWED UP in victory. 55 “O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR VICTORY? O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR STING?”

Jesus is Alive. He has conquered death.

  • Armies have marched against this message – but the truth of the Resurrection is a stubborn foe.
  • Forgiveness for sin is available – but my stubborn insistence on self-determination can hold me back from surrender.
  • Jesus overcame the external enemies and opened the tomb door – but I must open the door of my heart. I must be willing to let Him inside. I must cede control and let Him be King of ME.

The story of Jesus – His life, His death and His resurrection- is the single column that holds up the whole structure of the message of the Gospel. Every part of the story is essential, and in its totality the Gospel stands. Why not wrap your arms around that column today, and feel its strength. He has long been ready to meet with you. Are YOU ready to meet with Him?