April 16, 2006

THE REAL WORLD

“It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” Luke 24:39

You are running as fast as you can, but it’s not fast enough. Enemy soldiers are racing along behind you. They’re getting closer and closer. Branches are clawing at your arms. Bullets are buzzing past your ears. Your legs are hurting. Your heart is pounding. Your lungs are bursting. You try to run faster, but you can’t. The shouts and the shots keep getting closer. You turn your head to glance back at your pursuers, and suddenly you find yourself falling through the air. Somehow, while you were looking back, you raced over the edge of a cliff, and now you’re plunging down, down, down to your death.

Just then you wake up with a jolt. You’re lying in bed, safe and sound. The nightmare seemed so real, but now it’s all over. You breathe a sigh of relief. Then you roll over and snuggle into the warmth of the blankets.

Isn’t it a relief to escape a nightmare and wake up to reality? Sometimes waking up saves you from your own death. At other times it saves you from someone else’s death. A tragedy strikes down your dear one. Your heart is aching with grief. Your eyes are brimming with tears. Your mind spins as you wonder how you can possibly live without that person. Then your alarm clock goes off. The nightmare is over. The tragedy vanishes. Your sorrow turns to joy. Your dear one is very much alive.

Nightmares seem real, don’t they? That’s why they’re so terrifying. You see and hear and feel everything so vividly. You go through all sorts of pain and panic and grief. But once you wake up, you’re back to reality.

If you’ve ever felt the relief of awakening from a nightmare, and the joy of realizing that everything is okay, then you have a taste of how Jesus’ friends must have felt on that first Easter when they realized that Jesus was alive. They had put all their hopes in him, and when he died, their hopes died with him. His death was so terrible and so final. But on Easter, the nightmare ended. Their Lord was alive. What a relief! What a joy!

Actually, it wasn’t quite that simple. When you wake up from a nightmare, you realize it was all just a bad dream. But Jesus’ friends knew that his crucifixion wasn’t just a bad dream. His death had been all too real. Their ears were still echoing with the jeers of the mob, the crack of the whip, the buzz of the flies, the thud of the hammer pounding spikes through flesh. Jesus’ death was as real as a wooden beam, as permanent as a bloodstain. It was a cold, hard fact—as cold and hard as the stone of a tomb.

Jesus’ friends were so sure of his death that when they first heard he was alive, they had a hard time believing it. For them it was like being half awake and half asleep. Know the feeling? You’ve been having a nightmare. Your mind stirs just enough to tell you that you might be dreaming and that it might all be okay when you wake up. But you’re still half asleep and the nightmare is so fresh and so vivid that you can’t quite snap out of it. That’s what it was like for Jesus’ friends on Easter.

At first it just didn’t sink in. They didn’t realize that a whole new world, more real and more glorious than anything they’d ever imagined, had dawned upon them. Jesus’ death was still so fresh and so real to them. They were too busy doubting to start dancing. Eventually, though, Jesus woke them up to the reality of his resurrection. Finally it dawned on them. Jesus was alive! His death was only temporary and his resurrection was eternal. The nightmare was over! They could rejoice.

Recognizing Reality

Here’s how the Bible tells it in Luke 24. Some women who were friends of Jesus went to his tomb early Sunday morning. They wanted to honor his memory and put some spices on his body. But when they got there, they got the suprise of their life.

They found the stone rolled away from the [entrance to] the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.'” Then they remembered his words (v. 2-8).

The women hurried away and told all this to the men from Jesus’ inner circle and to the rest of his followers. “But,” says the Bible, “they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened” (Luke 24:11).

Peter didn’t have to wonder for long. He soon found out. The risen Jesus appeared to him. Peter went and told the others, and it finally began to dawn on their groggy, grieving spirits: the women had been right! Jesus was alive! That evening a group of Jesus’ disciples were together in a room when two other followers of Jesus came in. The group told the newcomers, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon [Peter].”

But these two had some news of their own. They said they had been walking together on the road from Jerusalem to the nearby village of Emmaus when someone joined them. They didn’t recognize him. Their faces were so downcast that they hardly looked at him. When he asked what they had been talking about, they replied that they had been talking about Jesus of Nazareth. They talked of his terrible death and their ruined hopes. They also mentioned the empty tomb and the women’s vision of angels saying Jesus was alive, but they weren’t about to get their hopes up.

The stranger told them that they were foolish and slow to believe. Then he showed them what Scripture said about the Messiah, especially how he had to suffer and die and rise again. Somehow his words made their hearts burn within them. As they approached the village, their companion acted as if he were going to go further. But they urged him strongly to stay for supper and spend the night with them, since it was getting late. He agreed. When they sat down at the table, their guest took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. It was Jesus! The instant they recognized him, he disappeared. They were so excited that they rushed back to Jerusalem to tell the others.

While they were still talking about this [says the Bible], Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”

They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”

When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence (v. 36-43).

That was it. Now they knew beyond a doubt that he was real. The nightmare was over. Jesus was alive. The horror of his death gave way to joy. They were finally awake to the reality of the risen Lord Jesus. And today, almost two thousand years later, as we wake up to the reality of Easter, we discover that all the nightmarish evils and sorrows of life are swallowed up in Jesus’ victory.

Facing Facts

Just how important is Jesus’ resurrection? To put it bluntly, everything depends on it. If the resurrection never happened, if Jesus is still dead, then Christians are the most pitiful, deluded people in the world. But if Jesus did rise, then it is foolish, even fatal, not to be a Christian.

Sometimes we hear of church leaders or scholars who don’t believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus and who say it doesn’t matter all that much. Even though Jesus’ body is dead, they say, his teaching remains, and that’s what counts. Church leaders who think or say such things ought to resign their positions and get a real job. We don’t need preachers acting like vultures, scrounging around for nourishment in the remains of a dead Christ. A true preacher isn’t a vulture; he’s a messenger pigeon, a dove who carries the message of the living Christ.

Christianity stands or falls with the resurrection of Jesus. Don’t let anybody tell you different. The Easter bunny will do you more good than a dead Christ. The Bible says that if Christ is not raised, then Christianity is a fraud, the apostles were liars, Christians have no hope beyond this life, our faith is in vain, we are still in our sins, and we are the most wretched of all people (1 Corinthians 15:14-19). If Christ is dead, then Christianity is dead.

But if Christ is alive, then Christianity is the only way to go. If Jesus rose from the dead, then he is who he says he is: the Son of God and the Lord of the universe. He is the only way to be right with God; he is coming again to judge the living and the dead; and whether you spend eternity in heaven or hell depends on your relationship to the risen Christ.

So the most important question in the world is simply this: Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Consider the evidence.

One piece of evidence is the fact that Jesus’ tomb was empty. His body was nowhere to be found. If his enemies had produced the body of Jesus, they could have ended the rumors of his resurrection right there. But there was no dead body for them to produce. The tomb was empty.

That’s not the only evidence, however. As we’ve seen, the empty tomb wasn’t enough to convince most of the disciples. They began to believe only when they saw the risen Jesus and heard him and touched him and even shared food with him. The testimony of so many different eyewitnesses, recorded in the Bible, is the strongest possible evidence for Jesus’ resurrection.

But, you might wonder, how do we know their testimony is true? How do we know they didn’t just make it all up? Well, let me answer a question with a question. Why would the disciples lie? What did they have to gain by lying? Religious phonies might make up stories to attract gullible followers and get rich. But Jesus’ disciples didn’t get rich; they got killed. Nearly all of them ended up getting executed for preaching the risen Christ. Would you be willing to die for a lie? Would you subject yourself to harassment and imprisonment and torture and death for the sake of a story you made up? No way! The simple fact is this: the disciples saw and heard and touched the risen Christ, and they were confident that they would share in his resurrection. Why else would they be willing to die rather than change their story?

Jesus rose from the dead. That’s not a fantasy. It’s fact. The living Christ is real. In fact, he’s more real than anything in the universe. His glorified body is just as real as your body or mine, only better. He has genuine flesh and bones, but unlike our flesh and bones, Jesus’ body is no longer subject to death and decay. His body is physical, but it transcends our laws of physics.

After Jesus’ resurrection, he could appear suddenly in a room where all the doors were locked, and he could disappear just as quickly. Does this mean that the Lord lives only as a ghost or spirit? No, Jesus told his disciples, “It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” Then, with a very real hand, he reached out and took a very real piece of broiled fish, put it in his very real mouth, chewed it with very real teeth, and swallowed it down a very real throat. If Jesus was a ghost or a hallucination, he was the only one ever to eat fish for supper!

The fact that Jesus could appear and disappear at will simply means that his glorified body has the reality but not the limitations of our mortal bodies. The risen Christ transcends a world bound by limits and death. He’s not less real but more real than anything we call reality. Many of the things we call reality are going to die and decay and disappear. But Jesus is Lord of a higher reality, a permanent, eternal reality.

So, then, when I speak of the risen Christ, I’m not asking you to fantasize or to dream a pleasant dream. I’m telling you to wake up to reality. The glorious kingdom of God has invaded this planet, and it cannot be stopped. Jesus is real and his kingdom is real—more real than anything else in the world.

Ultimate Reality

Have you ever noticed that when we talk about “the real world,” we usually mean something bad? When children grow up in a loving Christian family, when they’re taught to believe in the risen Christ, to live for him and to trust that the Lord is caring for them at every moment, we might say such children are “sheltered.” They don’t know much about the so-called “real world” where nasty people couldn’t care less about Jesus.

But why speak of evil as the real world? Isn’t goodness real? Children who grow up with truth and love, who learn of Jesus and heaven, aren’t “sheltered” from the real world. They are getting in touch with the ultimate reality.

You want to know who is sheltered? Those who think the real world is a place of sin and suffering, of dog eat dog, of defeat and despair. They don’t know any different; they can’t imagine any different. They’re the ones who are “sheltered”—hidden away and cut off from the reality of God and his righteousness and his victory in Jesus’ resurrection.

This so-called real world is a world where “everybody else does it.” The real world is a school where students either cheat to get good grades or else don’t care how they do. The real world is a job filled with backstabbing or boredom. The real world is a courtroom where winning matters more than upholding justice. The real world is a neighborhood of gangs and drug dealers and crack houses. The real world is a choice between a dreary marriage or a series of live-in lovers. The real world is a government corrupted by money and arrogance. The real world is conflict, terrorism, and war.

Satan would like you to believe that this nightmare is reality, that this is all there is. If you want to succeed in this “real world,” you’d better forget about God and look out for yourself. The real world is a place where might makes right, where idealists are mocked and crucified and buried.

But Jesus’ resurrection wakes us up from that nightmare. What is the real world? It’s a tomb that stands empty. It’s an angel declaring victory. It’s a nail-scarred hand that is warm and strong again. It’s a piece of broiled fish being chewed and swallowed by a man who was supposed to be dead.

The real world is minds being opened to the scriptures. It’s hearts burning with the words of a God-breathed book and a God-given Savior. It’s a soul repenting of sin and rejoicing in the free gift of forgiveness and eternal life. It’s a man or woman determined to follow the Lord wherever he leads, controlled by the Spirit of Christ, eager to stand up for what is right and to spread the news of the risen Christ everywhere.

In the end, the real world is the sound of a trumpet and the opening of the graves and the resurrection of the dead. It’s “the dead, great and small, standing before the throne of God” (Revelation 20:12). In the real world, the enemies of God are banished to hell, and those who trust and obey Jesus are glorified forever.

According to the Bible, the real world is “a city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10). It’s a kingdom where “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” It’s a place where God is all in all, where the risen followers of the risen Christ “will reign forever and ever” with him (Revelation 21:4, 22:5). The real world is “a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness” (2 Peter 3:13).

Wake Up to Reality!

So if you think the laws of nature and the flaws of human nature mean we’ll always have “the same old same old,” if you think selfishness pays and “nice guys finish last,” wake up! That’s not the real world. It’s only temporary. It’s going to vanish like a bad dream. Wake up to reality! The real world of the risen Christ is all that remains forever.

Your suffering right now may seem great. Your sin and the sin of this world may seem overwhelming. But isn’t that what every nightmare is like? It seems real and overwhelming and inescapable. But once you wake up to reality, you realize that it was all an illusion. When you’re dreaming, a voice that tells you to wake up may seem faint and unreal. But once you snap out of your nightmare, you find that the person who woke you up is far more real than anything in your dream.

So it is with the voice of the risen Christ. What Jesus said on that first Easter, he says to us: “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? It is I myself!” As we hear Jesus say that, his voice may seem far off and dreamy and unreal. But is that because Jesus is unreal? No, it’s because we’ve been living in unreality. We’re in the habit of seeing everything terms of our present, temporary situation, not in terms of eternity. We’re in the habit of thinking that sin and compromise are necessary to get anywhere in life, when in fact faith and obedience are the way to the life that really is life.

The Bible says, “Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Ephesians 5:14). Hear the voice of Jesus. Wake up! Leave behind the dreamy, deadly world of sin. Get in touch with the real world! Believe in Jesus. Live as citizen of his eternal kingdom. Look forward to sharing in his resurrection glory.

This old, sinful world isn’t the ultimate reality. Jesus is. Sin and death don’t have the final word. Jesus does. When Jesus came to his friends on that first Easter and ate that piece of fish right before their eyes, the disciples realized that the real world was better than they had dared to hope. That’s what the Lord wants you to realize right now. Death is defeated! Evil is doomed! Jesus lives forever. And so can you.

PRAYER

Lord Jesus, we praise you and rejoice in your resurrection. When all we know is the darkness of this world, wake us up to your living reality. Give us the faith to enter the real world of your eternal kingdom. Send the life-giving power of your Holy Spirit into our hearts. Father God, fill us with the peace that surpasses understanding, and thrill us with the inexpressible and glorious joy of salvation through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.