The Presence of the Absent Lord

Have you ever been unable to find something you were sure was there? The women experienced that at the empty tomb. They were sure that was where the body of Jesus was. They had seen him buried there. As Matthew 28:5–10 tells us, the absence of the Lord meant that he was, and would be present, not only with the women, but with you as well.

Jesus is absent from the tomb. The tomb stands empty. The women arrived to perform their last service to their Lord. They had been faithful during his earthly ministry. They, unlike the frightened disciples, had witnessed the death of their Lord, Matthew 27:55,56. Now they were visiting the tomb, and, as the other gospels tell us, intended to anoint the body. An angel rolled away the stone to reveal the empty tomb. His majestic appearance struck terror in the hearts of the Roman soldiers. Rolling back the stone was not so much to allow the Lord to exit (his risen body could appear in wonderful ways), but to show that the tomb was indeed empty. What had been a sealed barrier becomes a convenient seat! The empty tomb demands an explanation. The leaders of Israel had feared a hoax, and had obtained orders to seal the tomb. The women were at a loss. Note John’s account of Mary Magdalene’s grief. God provides an angelic messenger with the news that the empty tomb is explained by the resurrection of the Lord. God not only works great works of redemption, he provides the explanation, the meaning of those events.

The crucified Savior has been raised. Don’t be too critical of the women’s journey to the tomb. They had seen their Lord die. They had watched his burial there. Don’t overlook the crucifixion of your Lord. He was put to death in your place, bearing the guilt and punishment of your sins. You cannot understand his work apart from the death/ resurrection/ascension complex of events. This is the heart of his redemptive work. “In the counsel of God it was not possible for for Christ to be held by death, and therefore God raised him up, having freed him from the pangs of death (Acts 2:24). Death, as it were, ensnared Christ with its pangs… but those pangs were the labor pains of the resurrection, which would be undone by God in the moment of resurrection. And thus, in God’s good pleasure, Christ became the firstborn from the dead.” (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3, p. 438) A Savior still in the tomb would save no one. The Lord’s Supper appropriately focuses on the death of Christ. But it is more than a memorial observance. The celebration of it “until he comes” testifies that the crucified Lord has been raised. As the Supper presents the death of the Savior who rose for your salvation, the Spirit uses it as a means of grace, strengthening your trust in the risen Lord. His resurrection, no less than his crucifixion and death, involves his humanity. He died and was raised as the second Adam.

Jesus is present as your Savior. The Savior is with you. Matthew’s Gospel (in distinction from the other gospel accounts) focuses on the coming appearance of the risen Lord in Galilee. That keeps being emphasized in this chapter. As we’ll see in weeks to come, this is tied in with Jesus being the Shepherd of his lost sheep. He does meet there with his disciples. Because he is absent from the tomb, he can be present with you. Jesus thus appeared to the frightened, joyful women as they returned to the city. Because he has been raised (and has ascended), your Lord can be with you more richly than was true during his earthly ministry. While on earth in the flesh he was subject to the limitations of human existence. When he was in Jerusalem he was not in Galilee. Now, as he is present through his Spirit, there is no place on earth from which he is absent. As the risen Lord is he is with you as you face suffering, turmoil, and grief. His absence from the tomb means his presence with you. The presence of the risen Lord is reaffirmed in the Great Commission, verse 20.

“[H]e died in order that he might rise again…. [W]e should be reminded of the following facts.

(a) The death of Christ is not an end in itself. It is subordinate to a great purpose that can be achieved only through resurrection.

(b) The death and resurrection of Christ must never be separated; they are not only factually inseparable, they are causally inseparable. They stand related in such a way that they must together be regarded as the conjoint sources of our redemption.

(c) To be a Saviour, Christ had to pass through resurrection. It was an integral part of the experience and task assigned to him in the economy of redemption. The resurrection power exercised by the Father in the raising of Jesus, and the resurrection power with which, in virtue of that fact, Jesus is endowed are necessary facts in the plan of salvation. But if so, there needed to be death. For without death resurrection has neither existence nor meaning.” (Collected Writings of John Murray, Vol. 4, p. 88)

Worship your risen Lord. As the risen Savior, he is worthy of your praise. Notice how the women clasp his feet, a Middle Eastern sign of reverence and adoration. Don’t limit your worship of the risen Lord to “Easter.” Today is the 16th day this year we have gathered as God’s people to celebrate the Lord’s Day, the day of resurrection! And we look forward to another 36 celebrations of it during the rest of the year. Each Lord’s Day is the time to celebrate his resurrection. Each Lord’s Day is the time to worship him. “Yes, the living Saviour, alive for evermore, is the same Jesus who suffered and died. We cannot know him as the living One in any other identity. and we cannot know him in his vicarious suffering and death on our behalf in any other identity than that defined by his resurrection and the endless life that is his by the great event of the first Lord’s day.” (Collected Writings of John Murray, Vol. 1, p. 43) Make the news of Christ’s resurrection known. The women are informed of the good news, and told to “Go quickly and tell his disciples,” verse 7. Jesus repeats the instruction to go and tell his brothers, verse 10. Matthew doesn’t specify whether Jesus has in mind his half-brothers, who became believers after his resurrection, or whether brothers refers to the family of God. Finally, on the mountain in Galilee the risen, ascending Lord leaves the same command for his church here on earth, verse 19. The presence of the Lord, who is absent from the grave, is news too good to keep to yourself.

No, it wasn’t a mistake. No one had mislaid the body of the Lord. He was not there because he had risen. And as the risen Lord he is present with you — today, and throughout this week.

About jwm

I serve as pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Newberg, Oregon.
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