Sermon: Rewards Instead of Punishment
Scripture: Matthew 28:11-15
In this week’s Easter lessons, we note the contrast between Jesus’ enemies and friends concerning the resurrection, and the price worth paying to be a witness to Christ.
Theme: The Reaction of Jesus’ Friends
But now I want you to look at something else. I want you to turn from thinking about those enemies of Christ, who are exemplified by the soldiers and the priests on that first Easter Sunday, and instead I want you to focus on Christ’s friends, those who learned of the resurrection and who met with Jesus Christ following his resurrection. Consider people like the women who came to the tomb, or Peter and John, who ran there because of the women’s report, or James or any of the others who saw Jesus later. Many saw the Lord Jesus Christ after he was raised from the dead. Paul, writing about it later in 1 Corinthians 15, says that Jesus “appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also…” (vv. 5-8).
Here is a case of men who actually saw Jesus and testified to it. We would say that to have people witnessing to this great event of seeing someone who had risen from the dead is good news, indeed. They would go forth to a perishing world and announce, “Death is not the end. Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead, and he promises new life to all who are united to him in saving faith.”
Yet, as wonderful as this news of salvation was, we know how the world received these witnesses. They weren’t rewarded; they were punished for their faith. I think of Peter and John. They were the first two disciples who were present in the garden. They went into the tomb and saw the grave cloths in which Jesus had been wrapped. But the body was gone because Jesus had risen from the dead. Later on, Jesus appeared to them, and they saw him.
They went forth and testified about that, even in Jerusalem, the very place where Jesus had been crucified. What happened to Peter and John? The authorities got disturbed by what they were saying, and arrested them in Acts 4. Peter and John spent that night in jail, and the next day they were brought out and questioned. The Sanhedrin then threated them further, but were not sure how to punish them because all the people were praising God for the healing of the beggar in the preceding chapter.
The apostles continued to heal people, which of course brought more people to faith in Jesus. In response, members of the Sanhedrin arrested the apostles and put them in jail, as recorded in Acts 5. But then we read that an angel of the Lord came and opened the prison doors. The apostles then went back into the temple courts and began to tell the people about Jesus.
The Sanhedrin asked the apostles why they had ignored the order not to teach about Jesus. The Sanhedrin then said, “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood” (v. 28). It’s ironic that they would say this because at Jesus’ trial they said, “Let his blood be upon our heads.” Then, they were willing to assume the guilt for their unjust treatment of Jesus; but now they are trying to absolve themselves of any responsibility in Jesus’ crucifixion because of the people’s glad reception of the apostles and their message.
On this occasion, Peter and the other apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men!” They then testified again that God raised Jesus from the dead and exalted him at God’s right hand, where Jesus sits as Prince and Savior for the forgiveness of sins. The authorities were enraged after hearing this, and wanted to put them to death. But after wise counsel from Gamaliel, they instead beat them and let them go, once more telling them not to speak in the name of Jesus. But of course, once they were released they continued to bear witness to Christ.
A little further on in the book of Acts, you have the story of Stephen, who received an even harsher penalty. Stephen was one of the first deacons and, apparently, was a good preacher because a good sermon of his is recorded in Acts 7. He was placed on trial, and he used it as an occasion to testify to these men on the basis of the entire history of Israel. He said that again and again those in power had resisted the word of the Holy Spirit communicated through the prophets. The same thing was happening now in the religious leaders’ rejection of the early Christians’ testimony concerning the resurrection of Christ.
As he was rebuking them for their disobedience to God, they were growing more furious. Then God gave Stephen a vision. Looking up to heaven he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” In their rage, the Sanhedrin dragged Stephen out without even completing the trial, and they stoned him.
In what ways did Peter and John suffer for their witness?
What problems did the apostles’ testimony pose for the religious leaders?
Application: In what ways does God want you to be a witness to the resurrection of Christ?