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The World's Greatest Step

The story of the resurrection is not just good news; it's true news.

The story behind the sermon (from John Ortberg):

For Easter I wanted to present some of N. T. Wright's material on the Resurrection. I love his work on the distinction between the Resurrection and the immortality of the soul. Easter is much more than just the promise of life after death. The tricky part was finding a way to unpack his teaching in a way that doesn't feel overly didactic. For example, how do you quickly explain that the Jewish notion of resurrection was corporate, so no one would have thought of inventing a story of one individual experiencing resurrection "ahead of time." The single-sentence analogy I came up with to explain this idea—that "it would be like the Cubs' first baseman winning the World Series but not the rest of the team—actually took a ton of time and reflection to come up with. But what a gift to have Tom Wright help us see Easter with fresh eyes!


The proclamation of what happened at Easter is the pivotal point in human history, but it's often not as well known as the Christmas story. Let's hear the Easter story once more, from Mark 16:1-8:

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus' body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, "Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?"
But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.
"Don't be alarmed," he said. "You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.' "
Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

That's how Mark's gospel ends. Seems like a strange way to end a book. It ends not with great courage or great hope, but with trembling, bewilderment, women fleeing in silence. But as we're going to see, the way this story ends is one of the reasons we can believe this story is true. If somebody made up this story, they wouldn't have it end this way. In fact, some people tried to add alternate endings to the book after Mark had written it. You can see these endings in some modern translations.

One of the unique aspects of Christianity, when compared to any other faith or religious movement, is that it traces its origin to one particular event, on one particular day in history. This is not true for Buddhism or Judaism or Islam or Atheism. One day there was no such thing as a church, and then suddenly, overnight, there was. There was suddenly a group of people who believed in the resurrection of Jesus and even suffered the most extraordinary things for his sake.

There are four biographies of Jesus in the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In all four the last week in Jesus' life is given the most attention. That is unprecedented in any biography. Why would they be written like that? It's because these early followers insisted with remarkable unity that the one event that created the movement that is the church was the fact that Jesus was resurrected from the dead.

In our day many people think that the Resurrection would be good news. But if they're honest, they're not sure if it's true news. The thinking goes like this: In ancient days people didn't have science, so they were a bit gullible. So, when Jesus died, some people felt a vague sense of his presence still inspiring them. Over time this vague sense of his presence morphed into stories of his being raised from the dead. But this theory is only plausible if we don't take the time to understand how people in that day thought. It's plausible if we ignore the historical and cultural context of what was going on.

When the Resurrection took place, the women knew it was true news. But it took a while for them to understand that it was good news. What I would like to do in our time together is to see what happened through their eyes. Many of us don't really understand that there is a back story to this idea of resurrection, and that back story is critical to understanding Easter. It's also a powerful reason for understanding that this resurrection of Jesus really did happen.

A first-century understanding of resurrection

To help you understand what people in the first-century must have felt when they heard of Jesus' resurrection, this is the best analogy I could come up with. Quite some time ago, my wife and I went to see a movie called The Sixth Sense. Many of you may have probably seen it. The pivotal moment in the movie is when this little kid tells Bruce Willis, "I see dead people." And these dead people the little kid sees don't know they're dead. It's a scary movie.

Ever sit next to somebody in a movie so scared that they cover their eyes and keep asking you what is going on? And when they really get scared, they reach over and bend your finger—just one finger, bending it backwards. It's like the more pain they inflict on you, the better they feel. The tension in this film got so bad, that finally Nancy said to me, "John, if you won't let go of my finger, I'm changing seats." But I was scared. There is no fear like the fear of death.

The twist in this movie comes at the end. (If you've never seen the movie, and you don't want to know what the end is, I'm so sorry you came this weekend.) Here's how it ends: Bruce Willis realizes at the end that he is one of the dead people. The whole time, he didn't know. Keep this in mind, because we'll come back to it.

The human race has always been troubled by what happens to you when you die. In the ancient world, some people believed that when you die, you go out like a candle. There was an ancient tombstone epitaph so popular that there were versions of it in Latin and in Greek. It read: "I was not. I was. I am not. I don't care." A cheery thing to put on somebody's tombstone, isn't it? But this was the line of thinking for several people at the time.

There were other people who believed there was an underworld—sometimes called Hades—where departed spirits went upon death. In this underworld their spirits had a shadowy existence, and they could not come back to this world.

The Jews, however, had a completely different belief about the afterlife—one that was around long before Jesus. They believed in resurrection. The Jews had long believed that the problem isn't just that we all die, but that the world is a mess, filled with pain and suffering. The crux of this problem is that humans can't fix the mess. Jews believed that there is a great God who created all things, and that one day he will bring the righteous back to life and heal all of creation. They believed that resurrection is not just about the afterlife, but a God-perfected, God-redeemed, God-set-right life. They believed that God would step in, forgive the sins of his people, establish justice, end suffering, heal creation, and then resurrect his people to enjoy the new creation. They believed that when this happened, it would be dramatic, obvious, undeniable, done in mass to all of God's children. And—this is important—they believed it all would happen at the end of history. They believed that we're living now in this age, but when the resurrection occurs, we will be ushered into the age to come. While just about everybody else in the ancient world believed that life was an endless cycle, Israel introduced to the human race the idea that history was headed somewhere.

What does this have to do with Jesus' resurrection? Nobody in Israel would have ever thought to claim that one individual had been resurrected in the middle of history. If somebody were to have claimed that, the response would have been, "Has disease been eradicated? Has justice broken out? Has suffering ended? Stop talking nonsense!" Saying someone had been resurrected in the middle of history would be like someone today saying, "This year just the Cubs' first baseman will win the World Series. The rest of the team will have to wait." It wouldn't have made any sense at all. Just as the World Series is a team deal, Jews believed resurrection was a team deal.

But Jesus breaks the rules—just as he had so many times before in his life and ministry. Jesus was a rabbi like other rabbis. Nobody ever taught with his authority. He spoke of God like other spiritual teachers, but nobody else ever claimed the intimacy with God that Jesus claimed. Those who followed him knew there had never been anybody like him. They believed he was the Messiah—that he would overthrow Rome and usher in God's kingdom. But none of them saw the twist that was coming: Jesus would soon die.

When Jesus died, even though he had predicted it, none of his followers said, "Everything is going according to plan." None of his followers thought his death was a good thing. In fact we're told that when it became clear he was going to die, all the disciples deserted him. The picture we get in all four Gospels is that his followers were disheartened, dismayed, disappointed, disillusioned, and dispirited.

But then suddenly, they weren't.

Suddenly, as a matter of historical record, this same group of people became convinced that Jesus had been resurrected, and they were motivated to spread this news at enormous cost to themselves.

Why we can know the Resurrection really happened

Some people think that in ancient times people were gullible—ready to believe anything. C. S. Lewis calls this chronological snobbery. Ancient people were not stupid. They understood the dead tend to stay dead.

Ken Davis tells the story of a woman who looked out her window and saw her German shepherd shaking the life out of a neighbor's rabbit. Her family did not get along well with these neighbors, so she knew this was going to be a disaster. She grabbed a broom and pummeled the dog until it dropped the dead rabbit from its mouth. Seeing the dead rabbit, she panicked. She grabbed the rabbit, took it inside, gave it a bath, blow dried it to its original fluffiness, combed it until the rabbit looked like a rabbit again, snuck into the neighbor's yard, and propped it back up in its cage. An hour later she heard screams coming from next door. She asked her neighbor what was going on. "Our rabbit! Our rabbit!" her neighbor cried. "He died two weeks ago. We buried him, and now he's back!"

People in the ancient world knew dead rabbits stayed dead. New Testament scholar N. T. Wright notes: "There were many messianic movements in the first century. In every case, the would-be Messiah got crucified by Rome as Jesus did. In not one single case do we hear the slightest mention of the disappointed followers claiming their hero had been raised from the dead. They knew better." And why did they know better? Because as we've already seen, resurrection was not supposed to be a private event! It was a team sport. If you were following a particular would-be Messiah and he was crucified by Rome, you had two choices: disband the movement or look for a new would-be Messiah. As we would expect, Jesus' followers believed they were finished in the wake of Jesus' execution. But then two things happened. First, witnesses saw that the tomb was empty. Second, Jesus appeared to his followers. It was the combination of these two factors that was overwhelming. One without the other wouldn't do it. If it was just an empty tomb but Jesus didn't appear to anybody, skeptics could say, "It was just a case of grave robbery." But Jesus did appear. The apostle Paul wrote within two decades of Jesus' life that the risen Christ had appeared to Peter, to the remaining disciples, and then to more than 500 others. On the other hand, if people had reported that they had seen Jesus but the tomb still had Jesus' body in it, skeptics could claim those people were having visions or suffering from hallucinations.

If the Romans could have produced the body, they would have. The graves of heroes, especially crucified messiahs, were commonly venerated as shrines by their followers. The problem with Jesus was that the tomb was empty. This is simply not a story that could have been made up by somebody, because it violated their understanding of what was going to happen in history.

There is another reason we know the Resurrection really happened. Mark says that the empty tomb was first discovered by "Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome." Notice what all three of those people have in common: they're all women. Nowadays, we might not notice something like that. But in ancient Israel, women were so low in status that they were not regarded as credible witnesses. In fact, they weren't even allowed to give testimony in court. If you committed a terrible crime that was only witnessed by women, you would probably go scot-free. How extraordinary, then, that Mark points out that the first eyewitnesses to the empty tomb were women. In fact all four Gospels point out that women were the first witnesses. If you were going to make up a story of Jesus' resurrection, there was no advantage to having women serve as the eyewitnesses. It would have seriously undermined the credibility of the claim. The only plausible explanation for why all four Gospels say the first witnesses of the empty tomb were women is that it was women who found the empty tomb, and the tomb was, in fact, empty.

The greatest step in human history—and the step we must take in response

It wasn't long, too, before those who followed Jesus came to understand that what had happened didn't just affect Jesus. This was the twist that nobody saw coming. They began to piece together that "the age to come" they had all been looking for had begun that day in Christ. This little community of followers was not transformed because of some sense of inspiration. They now believed they were a resurrection community. They were suddenly thinking, We were dead—dead in our sins. We were cut off from God. God had promised he would fix the world—that he would forgive sin and heal suffering. He promised he would redeem humanity. That healing and redemption has begun now. God is being faithful to his promise in the resurrection of Christ.

Soon after the Resurrection, Christ's followers realized that when Jesus died on the cross, it was more than just his death. They realized it was their death, too. They just didn't know that when it was happening. It took the Resurrection for them to see the depth of what was happening. They realized that on the third day, the greatest step in human history was taken. The stone was rolled away, and Jesus stood at the threshold of that tomb. And that first step he took changed the world.

Here is where it gets personal. There is one more step that needs to be taken by each of us.

A friend of ours recently shared how she spent a great deal of her life living far from God. Over time she realized the limitations of her own self-sufficiency and pride. Feeling she needed more information about God before she would commit to him, she spent about a year studying God and asking questions. It wasn't long before she realized that her issue was no longer a lack of information. She had commitment issues. She had never actually surrendered her life to God, because she knew that if Jesus has been raised from the dead, that fact changes everything.

This friend of ours decided she wanted to confess her sin and receive forgiveness and start a new life. But she wanted this change to be really clear. Here is what she did: She went home and stood in her kitchen, staring at the threshold between her kitchen and the living room. She said aloud, "God, when I step across that line, I want you to know that I'm leaving my old life behind. I'm leaving behind my old sin. I want to be forgiven. I want to be your child. I want Jesus to be my forgiver and my friend and my leader." And then she walked across that line. She told us, "That is the biggest step I have ever taken in life, because I entered into a relationship with God. Now when I have problems or questions or doubts, I remember that line. I remember that step. I remember he is with me."

Have you ever taken that step? If you haven't, today is a great day to do it.


Years ago, while on vacation, we were staying at a hotel with a swimming pool. Our two daughters, Laura and Mallory, were five- and three-years-old at the time. I was standing in the pool, and they were taking turns jumping to me. I had to warn them both, "Do not run around the pool. If you run, you could slip and fall into the water, and if you do that, you might drown. That would be really bad. I don't want you to drown." Apparently these warnings were scarier than I had intended. At one point, while Laura was jumping into the pool to have me catch her, Mallory slipped and fell into the water. She went all the way down to the bottom for just a second or two before I reached in and pull her right back to the top. When I pulled her out of the water, she was sobbing. She looked up at me with these big brown eyes and said, "Oh, Daddy! I drowned! I drowned! I drowned!" I said, "No, Mallory, you didn't drown at all. That is not drowning. You didn't even come close to drowning! You weren't even within a mile of drowning. So let's not tell Mommy about this. Mommy probably wouldn't understand what I know, which is that your father was watching you the whole time, and in the moment that you slipped under that surface that was so scary for you, my arms were right there with you, and they were plenty strong enough to pull you up out of that water. You were perfectly safe, more alive than ever."

The story of the resurrection is not just good news; it's true news. And when Jesus says, "Whoever lives and believes in me will never die," that is not a metaphor or some vague hope. It means that death has no power to take you from the arms of the Father. Guilt cannot separate you from God. Whatever bad news you face, if you have crossed that line, if you have trusted Jesus, you have a resurrection coming.

To the elderly person whose health is frail, almost gone, you don't have to live in fear. You have a resurrection coming.

To the devastated husband whose wife has left you, and you feel betrayed and alone, you don't have to live like a loser. You have a resurrection coming.

To the frightened parents of a depressed child, you don't have to live burdened by this weight of blame. You have a resurrection coming.

To the anxious worker who has lost their job, you have a resurrection coming.

To the guilt-ridden addict hiding in the shadows, you have a resurrection coming.

To the lonely young person longing to be loved, you have a resurrection coming.

Whoever you are, if you have taken the all-important step of faith, you are living in a new reality. The Father's arms are plenty strong. They have not lost any of their power, and they will pick you up. Resurrection coming.

To see an outline of Ortberg's sermon, click here.

For your reflection:

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? _____________________________

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ___________________________________

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? _______________________

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? ______________________

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ___________________________________________

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? (For help on what may require credit, see Plagiarism, Schmagiarism and Stolen Goods: Tempted to Plagiarize.

John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.

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Sermon Outline:


Many of us don't really understand that there is a back story to this idea of resurrection, and that back story is critical to understanding Easter.

I. A first-century understanding of resurrection

II. Why we can know the Resurrection really happened

III. The greatest step in human history—and the step we must take in response


Death has no power to take you from the arms of the Father. To all who take the step of faith, resurrection is coming.