“God’s Remarkable Providences”
Text: Mark 16
It isn’t in the best interests of the church to put all of our eggs in the same basket when it comes to the miracle of Easter—the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. What I want to point out this Easter is that the miracle of the resurrection is enhanced by the setting of God’s remarkable providences. We can imagine this major miracle as a large precious stone, as in a piece of jewelry, rendered in a setting of many lesser stones, all of which aim at enhance the impact of the crown jewel.
We read from our text that the women purposed to go to the tomb where Jesus’ body supposedly lay in order to anoint him. Now the provision of that tomb is one of God’s remarkable providences. God arranged that a man of high and honorable rank among the Jews, a member of the Sanhedrin, should be raised up to begin the process of removing the reproach of the cross through the honor of burial. God provided a new, unused tomb through Joseph of Arimathea. This meant that the body of Jesus instead of being cast aside to rot on the ground, the fate of the corpses of other “criminals,” was buried by the hand of Joseph. Jesus born in a stable, growing up in a small rural town, and crucified with common thieves was without honor during his life, but once he completed his work of obedience, then he began to be honored. This was completely a work of God.
Let me delve a little deeper. Joseph is commended to us as a man of deep piety and integrity. All of his life, God had been raising up this man, cultivating his magnanimity—a big word for being noble of mind and heart, generous and forbearing. This means that such riches as he had at his disposal could be harnessed to further the purposes of God. Here’s a question for us all: are all of our possessions, including our funeral arrangements, truly at God’s disposal? Many of those who are successful financially, in a word, rich, tend to people pleasers, or approval seekers. They tend to go along, preferring stability to turmoil even if it means suffering some injustices to continue. Many of the rich therefore are big on “tolerance” and they avoid anything that excites strong differences, or division. Cautious and timid, they tend to avoid “holy boldness” because they have so much to lose. But Joseph was different. He was endowed with courage from heaven so that he could risk the disapproval of the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem. God displayed His power by over-ruling the general disposition of his class. The body of Jesus had a tremendous onus on it; an unjust trial and murder stigmatized it; surely some of the leadership would have preferred that it be left to the dogs. It is impossible to know why Joseph didn’t display this courage earlier in the proceedings. Perhaps it took the execution to convince him that enough was enough—or perhaps Joseph was simply waiting for an occasion to present itself that he was uniquely placed to stand up and be counted over. In that case, we see a display in him of healthy, virile manhood; a manhood that stands for justice, opposes oppression and abuse. However, this may be, Joseph stood up to be counted when the rage of God’s enemies, the priests and the scribes, was at its height and met their wickedness with fortitude. Joseph dressed Jesus’ body with a linen cloth, gave up his own newly prepared sepulcher conveying the dignity, and honor which such an interment would express. It was an undefiled tomb and would be still undefiled after Jesus was through with it. God provided all this; it was not accomplished by the premeditated plan of man.
In addition to the motivation supplied instantly by God for this moment, we read that Joseph was prepared in the long term through his piety. He was waiting for the Kingdom of God just like Simeon (Luke 2:25ff) who prayed over the baby Jesus as he was being dedicated at the temple. The root of Joseph’s personal righteousness was this earnest expectation, this faith. He was looking for God to be his deliverer and the deliverer of the whole nation. So, we may conclude that if we are prepared in our daily walk, if we are living by faith, we shall be ready to respond out of faith rapidly when the critical occasion demands it. Is yours a rapid deployment faith?
We now turn to a second remarkable provision of God: the ill-conceived mission of the women. That mission turns out to be humanly foolish, but divinely wise. God put it into their minds that they should honor the body of the Lord Jesus by anointing him. Probably this is because it was all that they could, in the duress of Jesus’ crucifixion, handle. This is so even though the anointing is redundant—remember Mary had already accomplished that at the table in Bethany. More importantly, this mission is unnecessary. However, God uses that mission to bring them to the grave. If they had understood and believed what Jesus spoke about His resurrection, they could have spared themselves the expense of the spices and ointments and the trouble entailed in preparation. Then there is the matter of the huge stone blocking the entrance to the tomb—who would remove it for them? All these false starts serve to authenticate the record. We, humans, tend to blunder our way through our lives, but God harnesses that blundering to bring about His right outcome at just the right time. What is important? It is important that the women be present at the grave to discover that Christ has risen; that these women fulfill their calling to take this glad news to the disbelieving apostles, and that the skepticism of the apostles might be displayed to all—so that reports of the resurrection gain more credibility with skeptics and unbelievers. If there had been no resistance to break down and the reports had been believed without persuasion and evidences, the world would be justified in dismissing the resurrection as fantasy, or wish fulfillment—and not as established fact.
A stronger example of this redemption of human plans, a third remarkable provision, is found in the remarkable providence of God in supplying eyewitnesses of the resurrection, albeit it through the eyes of the guard posted by the opposition. As Thomas a Kempis wrote: “Man proposes, but God disposes.” Cunning men sought to extinguish the memory of Jesus Christ by seeking to destroy the certainty of the resurrection. They posted witnesses to insure that the body couldn’t be stolen and to be able to testify to what they assumed would be the non-event of the resurrection. So what the scattered and terrified disciples couldn’t supply, God brought about and the enemies of Christ, unworthy as they were to have the resurrection made known to them, were stationed where all their senses would testify against their prejudice! They found the tomb to be empty. They were unable to account for His body’s absence honestly without admitting what had transpired on their watch. God permitted them to call Christ an imposter in order to bring His judgment to bear on their wickedness. He permitted them to bribe the soldiers knowing that the rest of their lives they would live with the knowledge that they chose to suppress the truth. These are dreadful consequences for they cut off those who do such things from all hope of redemption. The wicked vainly imagine that they can overthrow the whole doctrine of Christ with a single blasphemy but God continually brings light out of their darkness!
Alongside these remarkable providences of God in supplying two positive as well as a negative witness, we also have the remarkable arrangements of God on the post-resurrection side of things: the actual resurrection appearances of Jesus. As Calvin wrote, “The lively assurance of our reconciliation with God arises from Christ having come from hell as the conqueror of death, in order to show that he had the power of a new life at his disposal. Justly, therefore, does Paul say that there will be no gospel, and that the hope of salvation will be vain and fruitless, unless we believe that Christ is risen from the dead. (1 Cor. 15:14)”
Let us first consider the terror of the Lord. When the resurrection occurred, the event was so stupendous, so unimaginable that the soldiers, seasoned men of war were so completely overwhelmed that they “fell down like dead men.” Now a similar terror fell upon the women, but to them was given immediate consolation, a better hope. Both the soldiers and the women were humbled and subdued by the presence of divine majesty, power, and glory. But the women, who represent the elect of God were immediately ministered to; to them only did the angel say, “Fear not.” Then, the angel of the Lord held out to them a ground of assurance “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” In so doing the angel affirmed the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Then the angel said, “Go quickly and tell his disciples.” In this instance, the women were commissioned to preach to the preachers! “And, lo, He goeth before you into Galilee.” This last instruction, of course, put into their remembrance what Jesus had himself said to them before He had been crucified. (As Luke records: Luke 24:8.) Of course, it is remarkable that Jesus would so honor women in His ministry, what is more kind and typically astounding is that, according to the record, the first person who ever laid eyes of the Risen Lord in His heavenly glory was a wretched women, someone who had been possessed by seven devils. In our parlance, this woman represents a very troubled lady.
Jesus appears and says, “Go, tell my brethren.” Sometimes we allow certain portions of scripture to overshadow others; so with this verse, we have Peter’s need for restoration so much in mind that we overlook the fact that all the disciples needed restoration. They were all scattered and had every one fallen down. But Jesus calls these deserters “brethren.” This was an act of consolation to those who were weeping and mourning the loss of their Friend, Teacher and Master. It is instructive to consider how far grief had marred their capacity for belief. Indeed it is grief-induced unbelief that makes the disciples appear so uncommonly stupid as to reject the light of truth as an idle fancy. They had lost all relish it appears for the words of Christ. If the order of events follows most naturally, the women come bringing their news after Peter as run to the tomb, seen the empty grave and returned wondering at what was an evident proof of the resurrection. Now the seeds of his strengthened faith are to be found in the doubt Peter must have held towards the general despair of the disciples. The possibility of resurrection occurred to Peter prior to this announcement and that was the beginning of belief as is often the case with notorious skeptics who come to faith eventually.
Meanwhile, the guard is making its way back to the city. Calvin makes this comment on Matthew 28:11: “They knew well that there was nothing that the priests dreaded more than a report should gain credit that Christ rose on the third day after his death; and they knew that they had been sent there, that, by guarding the body, they might suppress that report.” Hence they determined to make profit of the cruel and implacable hatred which the priests bore towards Christ. They also knew of their guilty conscience and on the basis of these two things, they determined to extort money from them. And they hit the jackpot. But as for the priests we may note that God would not allow their single crime stand on its own—without repentance it became a series of criminal acts and ever-greater crimes. So the soldiers gave out a false report and it is widely believed. Yes, this is awful. However, it is also the dreadful judgment of God. The Jews blinded themselves with lies so that they were unable to enter into a saving relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. An incredible loss based on such flimsy, silly lies:
· Armed, experienced soldiers say that a feeble, timid and unarmed body of men stole the body of Christ from them?
· This was supposedly done while they were asleep. Falling asleep on one’s watch was unprofessional; it was also a capitol offense! And if it were stolen, how would they know that being asleep.
· If the disciples had stolen the body, wouldn’t they be duty bound to track them down and retrieve it? Surely the disciples left footprints. Were the disciples capable of accomplishing this feat with making a single sound and rousing the soldiers from their sleep?!
Such silliness would not screen them from protection if they had had to deal with an honest and upright governor. The irreligiosity of Pilate not only allowed enormous wickedness to pass during his term, it also allowed him to suffer all truth to be oppressed by fraud and malice. Why did God allow all this to unfold? He did so in order to deliver them over to every kind of blindness, madness and folly.
The next positive, remarkable providence of God happens on the Emmaus road. These two were chosen as witnesses. They were chosen to reprove the disciples for their slowness in believing that Jesus was indeed risen from the dead. They were unable to convince the disciples initially, but they added weight to the increasing evidence and eventually they were believed completely. We know that one of the two was called Cleopas. While Calvin does not believe that they belonged to the twelve, Dr. Lightfoot argues that Cleopas’ companion was none other than Peter himself. Peter was headed for Galilee eager to see his Lord again and to beg his forgiveness. Upon the return of the two the other disciples are amazed saying, in essence, surely the Lord is risen and has appeared to Peter otherwise he would not be back so soon. But the particulars of their experience are no more convincing than the particular related to them by the women. It is very likely that they supposed Cleopas and Peter to have seen a vision, a spirit or apparition and they fell back into their unbelief. It is at this point in the narrative that the Lord Himself appears in their midst. Apparently Thomas is not at this appearance. This is to be the first of two appearances of Jesus to the disciples, according to John, prior to his third appearance to them at the Sea of Tiberius (21:1).
Jesus’ sudden appearance, late at night, is pure miracle. Again, they are terrified and frightened and then consoled as He says, “Peace be unto you.” They are truly tempted to think that an image of the resurrection offered to them in a vision by the Spirit is more like than it be Jesus Christ himself, who had lately died on the cross, now before them alive, real and present. This appearance and proof of the resurrection is the main gemstone in the setting of many mini-miracles that I spoke of earlier. Perceiving this disturbance in their minds, Jesus asks, “Why are you troubled?” “Why are you questioning the manifest truth before you?” For plainly they are trying to make sense of this miracle in terms other than an actual, factual physical resurrection. The physicality of this resurrection is established by the Lord’s appeal to their bodily senses, the senses of sight and touch. He wants them to know and to affirm that the body He is glorified in is the same body that He was humiliated in. There is no corpse to be discovered. His body was not stolen, it walked away on its own! And this body still bears the marks of His crucifixion. He is plainly not a spirit. But then what He is the world has never known before. A huge surge of joy then occurs. It’s a powerful emotion, but it does not result in faith; in fact it hinders, or gets in the way of solidly receiving what is before them. And that is why Jesus proceeds to further demonstration. He eats in their presence establishing a commonality between His resurrection body and their bodies—however, we must not presume from this that He needed nourishment. Similarly, we do not assume that the angels who dined at Abraham’s table needed sustenance. God is able to clothe Himself in a real body without limiting His godhead in any way, without becoming subject to biological conditions of life. When these things occur, they do so for the sake of the persons to whom they are appearing. And when the usefulness of those assumed bodies was over, those same bodies were returned to dust, or energy or nothing as God chooses.
Now, before we leave this scene, the main action of which occurs the day after His resurrection, we should examine two crucial actions that the Risen Jesus performed. John says that He breathed on them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (20:22). And this complements the second action; recorded in Luke (24:45) “He opened their minds, or understanding, so that they could understand the Scriptures.” These two actions by the Risen Lord are what make the season between Jesus’ Resurrection and His Ascension so productive. It is because they are now in possession of the Holy Spirit that they can understand the Scriptures. As a result, they are able to preach with power. And conviction came upon those who heard them because they were not hearing merely from men, but hearing the very word of God. Then they understood that Jesus’ predictions about His sufferings were just as much truth as the prophecies of old which foretold His coming, His mission and declared His Sacrificial death to atone for the sins of the world.
In closing let’s summarize the remarkable providences of God we’ve covered:
1. The provision of Joseph of Arimathea who honored Christ in burial. Both Joseph’s response to the needs of the moment and his faithful waiting were provisions of God.
2. The plan of the women to anoint the body of Jesus which brought them to the tomb. They were the first appointed to know the truth of the resurrection.
3. God remarkable provision of eyewitnesses, albeit posted by the opposition.
4. The actual resurrection appearances of the Lord Jesus
· First to the soldiers and then to the women visiting the tomb. An angel put the women on task for proclaiming the great news of the first Easter.
· The Emmaus Road experience which served to confirm the witness of the women and which built the case for the eventual acceptance of the truth by the eleven.
5. Jesus’ personal appearance in the midst of the eleven late that same evening. The sheer physicality of Jesus’ resurrection body coupled with the two acts of empowerment that occurred during this late night encounter with the Lord.
Such is the truth of what we proclaim Easter to be—it is world shot through with the remarkable providences of God. That world is available to all who would believe. Perhaps that is a world that you would like to inhabit. Do not miss the invitation of Christ today—allow Him to be your Lord. Ask God to increase your faith. Ask the Resurrected Lord to be your Lord. Amen.