Strange events that happened around the first Easter

Title: Strange events that happened around the first Easter

Text: Matthew 27:11, 19, 52-53

Time: March 30, 2008

Last week was Easter Sunday, the day we celebrate Jesus rising up from the dead, winning the victory over death, and giving us all hope that He’ll do the same for us at our death as well. But before we leave Easter entirely, I’d like to devote a Sunday on the strange and unusual scenes in the Easter account as found in the New Testament Gospels. Today, I’ll just speak to three of these weird descriptions and then maybe another year talk about more in connection with the Easter season. The Bible is a book full of very strange and unusual accounts, to be sure, but I’m not going to talk about any of those, but only the ones that pertain to Jesus’ last days on earth. The first strange event was when Jesus stood before Pilate. The Roman leader questioned Jesus as to his identity and mission by asking him, “Are you a king?” To which Jesus replied in the most well-known Bible translations, more or less, “So you say.” What does that mean? What was Jesus really trying to say to Pilate? Why did he answer that way? These are all questions I’d like to look into this morning. Then, second, there is the strange scene where Pilate’s wife approaches her husband and says something like, “Have nothing to do with this man, for I have lost much sleep over his situation,” or something to that effect. Now what does that mean? Why was that included in the Gospel accounts? What was the purpose of the story? I’ll take a few minutes to try to answer these questions today. And then, three, what about the bizarre account of after the death of Jesus on the cross of Calvary, one of the gospel accounts says that the tombs of many righteous persons opened up and they began to appear in Jerusalem alive. What? Have you ever tried to picture this scene? Jesus is on the cross, finally gasping his final breath and dying, when all around Jerusalem tombs break open and many holy persons who had died appear alive in the city. What would that look like? Did it look like a scene out of the movie Night of the Living Dead? Or were these people fully alive, fully recovered from whatever caused their deaths? Did they live a long time after that, or did they simply come back to life a few hours or a few days and then die again, this time permanently? And what about the accounts of these persons among the Jews? Were these people all newly dead who came back to life, or had they been dead a long time? These are all questions that come to mind in trying to picture exactly what such a thing would look like. Yet you hardly ever hear about this scenario in churches and sermons around Easter time, probably because the focus is properly on Jesus and his death, burial and resurrection. But what of these other strange scenes? Well, today is the Sunday after Easter, so we can’t be accused of shifting the focus from Christ on his resurrection day, so it’s probably a good time to talk about these other rarely mentioned scenes from the Easter season. I hope they can teach us something important as we look into them further. I fully believe that everything in the Bible is there for a purpose, so there must be some good purpose for them to be in the scripture text. Let’s see if we can figure out what those reasons might be.

First, there are the words of Jesus, who spoke, “So you say,” to Pilate. Matthew 27:11, “Jesus stood before the Governor, who questioned him, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ he asked. ‘so you say,’ answered Jesus.” (Today’s English Version). In the original Greek language of the New Testament, it simple says, “You say.” That’s all. Bible translators have had a hard time trying to figure out how to translate those two simple Greek words, and so we see a lot of different attempts. For example, the King James Version says, “Thou sayest.” The modern New International Version says, “Yes, it is as you say.” The paraphrase Living Bible simply says, “Yes.” The Phillips Modern English translation says, “That is what you are saying.” The Catholic Jerusalem Bible says, “It is you who say it.” The Revised Standard Version says, “You have said so.” The New English Version says, “The words are yours.” The New Living Translation says, “You have said it.” And on and on it goes. So we see that almost every Bible translation says it a little different, because nobody quite knows how to translate it. I remember early on in my Christian life, just after I was converted to Christ at age 16, I remember hearing a message on Jesus standing before Pilate and giving his reply, which the speaker explained that Jesus had said to Pilate, “You yourself said it.” I remember wondering what was Jesus trying to do in answering Pilate that way. It seemed at the time that he was trying to answer the question without answering directly. I remember asking myself, “Why was Jesus beating around the bush? Why so circumspect? Why not just come right out and tell it like it is, which Jesus had done on so many other occasions? Why be so cautious here?” But then I read an explanation that I think explains why Jesus did answer like he did to Pilate. The explanation is that he wanted to affirm the question, but not entirely in the sense that it was asked. Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews,” or “Are you a king?” Jesus wanted to both say “yes” and “no,” because he was indeed a king, but not in the sense that Pilate was thinking, but indeed in another sense he was affirming his kingship. Jesus answers this same way to the Jewish leaders of the Sanhedrin also when he is asked, “Are you the Christ?” He answers in a similar way, “Thou hast said,” Matthew 26:64. So in both cases, before the Jews and before Pilate, Jesus is trying to say, “Yes, I am something of what you are asking me, but also I am denying that I am what you are thinking when you ask the question.” The Jews were looking for a political messiah to lead them to liberation from Rome. So when the Jews asked Jesus whether he was the Messiah, in that sense, no, he wasn’t. But in the spiritual sense of saving souls to heaven, liberating from sin, etc., yes, he was the Messiah. The same with Pilate. In the sense of a king such as Caesar, no, Jesus wasn’t that. But in the sense of a spiritual king who rules in the hearts and souls of his followers, yes, he was a king. So that’s why Jesus answered in the ambiguous way he did. We also need a to learn a lesson from the way Jesus answered. We need to make sure we don’t bring to the Bible our own preconceived ideas and then seek God’s answers to them. We need to make sure God is answering the same questions we are asking. Or better yet, we need to ask of God, what questions he is truly answering in the Bible.

Second, there are the strange words of Pilate’s wife who warned against action against Jesus. Matthew 27:19, “While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: ‘Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.’” How odd. Did she regularly interfere with her husband’s judging of criminals before his court? Or was this a one time thing, never having happened before or since? Almost all the Bible translations indicate that Pilate’s wife had a nightmare the previous night and it so upset her that she suffered anxiety and depression that whole next day. Have you ever had an upsetting dream? One of the things about a bad dream at night is that you wonder if anything bad is going to happen as a result of the nightmare, and that adds to the upsetting nature of the dream even after its over. We don’t know if Pilate’s wife was taken to dreaming often. We don’t know if she regularly had upsetting dreams. Some people do. Some people dream often, while other people hardly ever or never dream at all. Often times we’ll have nightmares after we’ve seen something disturbing or had a bad experience recently. For example, soldiers will often have bad dreams and nightmares; we don’t have to wonder why, with all the violence and death all around them during fighting and battles. I’m sure the soldiers that are fighting now in Iraq have to deal with nightmares and bad dreams. It’s natural and normal to dream after unpleasant experiences in life. But the strange thing about Pilate’s wife is that she must have had these dreams before Jesus was arrested and before Jesus was beaten and tortured by the soldiers. We can imagine someone witnessing the cruel beatings by the soldiers of Jesus having bad dreams of such violence, or even hearing about such accounts could push someone into bad dreams, but Pilate’s wife evidently had her nightmares before all of this took place, so it wasn’t on account of hearing of or witnessing the violence done to Jesus. Was it so-called women’s intuition? Or was it God speaking to this woman in her dreams? The ancient people used to pay closer attention to dreams than we do today. People even 100 or 150 years ago used to pay more close attention to dreams than we do today. We have Sigmund Freud to thank for that, with all of his writings on dreams and the subconscious mind, he’s basically explained dreams totally in terms of experiences and the processes of the brain. We are so used to thinking of dreams in terms of how Freud explained them that we find it hard to imagine that God would or could speak to us through dreams anymore, but the ancient people believed strongly in dreams as a way of God speaking to them. And who can deny that God did and does speak to people through dreams; sometimes that’s the only time when some people will listen. I think the record shows that Pilate was influenced by his wife’s dream, although in and of itself, the dream didn’t prevent the death of Christ, but it did make Pilate distance himself from the crime, to wash his hands of it, so to speak. What’s the lesson for us today? One lesson is that God is always speaking, even through dreams, even to pagans, if his own people won’t listen. God’s chosen people certainly weren’t listening to him concerning His Son Jesus. It’s funny that a pagan wife of a Roman leader could hear the voice of God better than God’s chosen people. That should encourage us to listen to God closely so that we might not miss what he is trying to say, all the while thinking that we already know his will.

Third, there is the bizarre scene of the tombs of holy people opening and them coming to life. Matthew 27:52-53, “The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people.” The Bible translations don’t have any trouble rendering this passage into English; it’s pretty straight-forward. But the commentators have the trouble because it’s really hard to know what actually took place and why. Many questions come to mind. Which holy people came to life again? How many actually came back to life? It says that at the time of Christ’s death there was a huge earthquake which broke open the tombs of holy persons who then appeared alive, but how could a mere earthquake raise the dead? It had to be by the power of God that those bodies came back to life, but through what process? It says that the tombs broke open on Friday, but they didn’t appear in the city until Sunday, does that mean they came to life on Sunday, or were they alive Friday and just didn’t appear until Sunday? Who did they appear to, family, friends, a few people or many? How long did they appear? Was it a full restoration to life or was it only a temporary resurrection? How long had they been dead before they were raised again? Were they in there natural bodies or did they have a more spiritual body like the Lord Jesus when he arose? Did they ascend also into heaven or live out there lives further on earth or die shortly thereafter? I think this account raises more questions than it answers. But I believe the purpose of the description is to show the mighty power of God to raise the dead, because it is that mighty power that we are counting on to raise us up from the dead in some form after we die. We have the hope of life after death, but with the resurrection of Jesus Christ, our hope is a reasonable hope because there is now rational precedence for it. In other words, without the resurrection of Christ, we might still have hope that someway, somehow our soul might live again, but with the resurrection of Christ we now have a reasonable hope based on the fact that Christ rose. Since he rose, we have hope that we will rise also. Now also, we have this account of these holy persons also rising from the dead under the power of God on Good Friday and Easter. This is still more rational proof that our hope in life after death is solid and sound. Why isn’t there more explanation as to what happened with these saints who raised from the dead? Probably so as not to distract from the main event: the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If the Bible talked too much about the resurrected saints it might have distracted us from the resurrection of Christ, which is what we really need to be focusing on because it involves our Lord and Savior. But the added fact that not only Jesus rose from the dead, but that others did as well, regular, ordinary people, gives us added hope that when the times comes for us to leave this world in death, we already know that not only Jesus has survived death, but also others have as well. That makes us feel doubly confident that we too will survive death and experience life on the other side.

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