But God Raised Him from the Dead

Original Date: 
Thursday, April 9, 2015

Acts 12:22-39 But God… Impossible for Death to Keep Its Hold on Him

I’ve been thinking about Saturday.

Have you ever wondered what happened on Saturday?

We’ve got a pretty good idea of what happened on the other days of Holy Week. We know about the Last Supper and the prayer in Gethsemane on Thursday. We know about the cross and the horror of the crucifixion on Friday. And, of course, we know about the Glorious Resurrection on Sunday.

But what about Saturday? What happened on Saturday? The Bible doesn’t say much about that.

We know where Jesus was—at least we know where His body was. He was in the tomb. He was dead. Not much going on there.

But what about the disciples? What were they doing? They just saw their master and leader, the One in whom they had put all their hope, brutally killed. They saw all the anger and hatred of the Jewish Religious Authorities and the terrible power of the Roman Empire poured out on Jesus. So what were they doing on Saturday?

I imagine they were packing their bags and making plans to get out of Jerusalem as fast as they could. I bet they were laying low and hoping the authorities didn’t decide to come looking for them. I bet they were scared. And, more than that, I bet they were sad. Crushed by the unbearable sadness of knowing that Jesus was gone. I’m guessing they felt helpless and hopeless. Probably they weren’t really sure what they were going to do next.

I have a feeling that a lot of us are living on Saturday. A lot of us can relate to what the disciples must have been feeling on that day.

We’ve had our Friday moments. Friday is the day of terrible news. The day hope dies. Our Friday moments come when we get that phone call that something terrible has happened to Dad, when we realize the money in the bank is not going to cover the bills, when our spouse tells us that he or she is done. Friday is a day of chaos. Friday hits us like a punch to the gut.

And we hope that Sunday is coming. Sunday is the day of good news. Sunday is the day that hope is reborn.

But in between is Saturday. And Saturday is the day when we just don’t know. Saturday is the day when we are just too numb to know what we are going to do next. “An event takes place that sucks the life out of us. It drains our energy, destroys our initiative, wrecks our belief that life makes sense or that God is in control. We are left standing, waiting, paralyzed by hopelessness.” (Pete Wilson, Plan B, p. 165)

That’s Saturday. And I’m afraid that a lot of us are living on Saturday. And it often lasts so much longer than just a day.

Pete Wilson, in his book Plan B, describes it like this:

You may be in that hopeless state. Your dreams have come crashing down around you, but you’re no longer complaining.

You’re not crying.

You’re not fighting.

You’ve kind of accepted defeat. You’re overcome with hopelessness.

Maybe you had a vocational dream you thought for sure was going to happen—but for one reason or another, it didn’t. So you’ve given up and settled for less than you desire.

Maybe you had dreams for your marriage, but it’s so overwhelmed with mediocrity you’ve given up. You used to fight for a good marriage, but now you feel like there’s no point. Nothing’s going to change.

Maybe you just had the dream of being married. You were sure you’d be living that dream by now, but you feel all alone. You’ve given up on finding that guy or that girl.

Maybe you had dreams for your kids. You were positive they would turn out this way or that way, but they’ve taken a different path from what you expected. Maybe your kids are so out of control you’re not even trying anymore. You’ve lost hope in what they can be.

Whatever your particular [situation], you’ve run out of faith in possibilities. You’ve run out of energy for trying something new. You know you’re not in control, and deep in your heart, you’re not sure God is, either. (p. 164)

That’s what the disciples must have felt like on Saturday. And that’s what a lot of us feel right now. It feels like we are perpetually stuck on Saturday.

And if that describes us, then what we need is a “But God…” We need God to step into our helpless situation and turn things around. We need an injection of hope.

And, of course, that’s what Easter Sunday is all about. On Easter Sunday we get the biggest “But God…” in all of history.

The First Sermon
Our scripture passage this morning is actually set 50 days after Resurrection Sunday. It’s Pentecost. The day the disciples were huddled together in the upper room when they were filled with the Holy Spirit. Suddenly they came flooding out onto the streets of Jerusalem with heads on fire and talking like the translator pool at the United Nations.

This commotion, of course, drew a crowd. Soon they found themselves surrounded by over 3,000 religious pilgrims trying to figure out why such strange things were happening.

Faced with such a crowd the leader of the disciples—Simon Peter, filled with a renewed confidence following his humiliating denial of Jesus in the courtyards of Caiaphas—sees a golden opportunity to bear witness to Jesus. So he gets himself to a place he can be seen, he raises his voice so he can be heard, and he preaches what amounts to the first ever Christian sermon.

After explaining about the Holy Spirit, he can’t help but talk about Jesus. And his outline is pretty simple. It has three parts. He says: 1) You killed Him, 2) God Raised Him, and 3) You should Follow Him. We’ll use the same outline today.

Whom You Crucified
First, Peter says: “You Killed Him.” Explaining that the whole commotion has to do with Jesus Christ, Peter says this in Acts 2:22-23:

22"Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. 23This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.

Peter starts with Jesus’ ministry. He did “miracles, wonders and signs.” There were a lot of people in the crowed listening to Peter that day, and chances are that among them would be some who had been healed by Jesus. Or perhaps some in the crowd that day had been numbered among the 5000 or the 4000 whom Jesus had miraculously fed. Some of them might have been there the day Lazarus walked out of his tomb.

At the very least, they’ve heard the stories. They’ve talked to people who were firsthand witnesses, they know that this was no ordinary man.

But the strange thing is, this miracle-making, wonder-worker died. That’s verse 23: “This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.”

Here, in one sentence, Peter pulls together two of the most hotly debated topics in theology: God’s sovereignty and Man’s free will. He says: God planned what happened to Jesus, it all went according to the script, there were no accidents—and yet, you, the people of Jerusalem, you killed Him, it was wicked of you to nail Him to the cross, you are guilty for killing Jesus.

You want to know, which is it? Was this God’s plan? Or was it a wicked act of men? But Peter puts them both together, and he doesn’t see any contradiction: God knew it would happen, and you are responsible. God planned it, and you are guilty for killing Him. God predicted it, and you were sinful in what you did.

Jesus was betrayed by one of His closest followers, railroaded to judgment by conniving priests, decried by a bloodthirsty crowd, and condemned by a cowardly Roman government. All of this was the evil work of sinful people. And yet, it all went according to God’s plan. Jesus’ death had a larger purpose. God was working good through it.

You have to admire Peter’s courage here. He says: “You killed him. You nailed him to the cross.” No doubt, in such a large crowd, there are many who were also a part of the crowd that shouted “Crucify Him!” at Pilate’s gates. And Peter’s not afraid to look them in the eye and say: “You’re the reason Jesus died.”

But, at the same time, with such a large crowd, there had to be lots of people there who had nothing to do with Jesus’ death. There are religious pilgrims there who were nowhere near Jerusalem 50 days ago. Peter says to them: “You killed him” and they had to be thinking: “What did we do?” In what sense can they be said to be responsible for Jesus’ death?

And what about us? There is a way to read verse 23 so that it includes us as well. “You killed him.” Even though we live 2000 years after the cross. It feels like the Bible wants to put the responsibility on us too.

This is where God’s plan fits into what happened at Calvary. Because we believe that Jesus’ death was not just a tragic miscarriage of justice but a deliberate sacrifice to pay for the sins of humanity. And so, there is a sense in which we are all responsible for Jesus’ death. We all killed him.

The Apostle Paul puts it like this in Romans 5:6-8:

6You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. 8But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Jesus died for the ungodly. He died for sinners. He died for us. There is a sense in which we all killed Him.

And that was Friday. That was the darkest day in history. Jesus of Nazareth, the miracle maker accredited by God, was killed in pain and agony. The maker of the sun was crucified as the sun hid its face. Humanity’s creator killed by His own creation. That was Friday, and it’s bad.

And then came Saturday. And the world must have been numb.

But Peter doesn’t dwell there. He moves on to Sunday, and the greatest “But God…” in history.

This is the second part of Peter’s outline: God Raised Him. Verse 24:

24But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.

You killed Him, but God raised Him. He was dead, but God brought Him back to life. He was held captive in the agony of death, but God set Him free. As the great black preacher S.M. Lockridge would say: “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.”

I love the language Peter uses here. I love that he uses the word “impossible.” It was “impossible for death to keep its hold on him.” It’s like Jesus and death were engaged in a wrestling match, and death went for the headlock, but it was impossible for death to maintain its hold. It’s like death had Jesus in prison. Like death had built the most elaborate and escape proof maximum security facility ever. But it was impossible for death to keep Jesus in a cage.

Impossible. That means death never had a chance. There was no way Jesus was going to stay dead. There was no way mortality could compete with the life found in Jesus. No matter what happened, once Jesus died He was coming back again.

That’s what we are celebrating today: the greatest “But God” in history. Jesus was dead, but God raised Him back to life.

And yet, you might be asking: How can this be? How can I really believe that a dead man came back to life? Where’s the proof? That’s what Peter talks about next. He begins by quoting a Psalm of David, specifically Psalm 16:

25David said about him: "'I saw the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. 26Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will live in hope, 27because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay. 28You have made known to me the paths of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence.'

David wrote this Psalm some 1000 years earlier. And he seems to be implying that he’s not going to die. Verse 27: “you will not abandon me to the grave.” You will not “let your Holy One see decay.” It sounds like David expects to live forever. There’s just one problem. He’s dead. Verse 29, Peter says:

29"Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day.

Peter says: “Look, we’re in the City of David. All we need to do is march down the street and we can find his grave. We can crack it open but all we’re going to find is some bits of bone and rotten grave clothes. He’s dead.”

But what Peter is implying is that they can’t do the same thing for Jesus. Even though they are in the very city were Jesus died and it was only 50 days ago and everybody knows the precise location of the tomb where they laid Him, if they march over there now all they’re going to find is a rolled away stone and an empty burial chamber. Jesus’ tomb is empty and the only plausible reason why is because He’s alive.

So what, then, was David talking about in Psalm 16? Peter goes on in verses 30-31:

30But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. 31Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay.

David had been promised--2 Samuel 7--that his line of descendants would lead to an eternal kingdom. It was clearly understood by all of Judaism that the Messiah--or Christ--would come from the family of David. And so, if David knew that he was going to die, He must have written this as a prophecy for his coming descendant.

And that’s the remarkable thing about Jesus: His life matches up to the Biblical prophecies again and again. In just a few verses Peter will quote from another Psalm, Psalm 110, and it will be clear that it matches Jesus word for word. What happened on Easter Sunday is exactly what God had foretold would happen. It was impossible for death to keep its hold on Jesus.

So, verse 32, Peter says:

32God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact.

Here’s another thing that has to be considered when you are wondering whether Jesus could really have come back from the dead: how do you explain the remarkable change in the disciples? How do you explain these men and women who on Saturday were laying low and packing their bags because they so hopeless and scared now standing in front of thousands and proclaiming the name of Jesus in the very city he was killed?

Peter says: “we are all witnesses of the fact.” Peter says he’s standing there preaching because Jesus is alive. What other explanation makes sense of the incredible change of demeanor and attitude and courage? They went from dismal and hopeless to joyful and hope-filled. From powerless to powerful. They had this unstoppable force of hope in them that allowed them to go out and change the world. And they say it’s because they saw God do the impossible. They saw Jesus risen, and everything changed.

Here’s one fact that cannot be argued with: the church started in Jerusalem 50 days after Jesus died. People began believing in Jesus in the very city he died, and the movement has not stopped growing to this day. Scholar and historian CFD Moule writes:

“If the coming into existence of the church, a phenomenon undeniably attested by the New Testament, rips a great hole in history, a hole of the size and shape of the Resurrection, what does the secular historian propose to stop it up with?…The birth and rapid rise of the Christian Church…remain an unsolved enigma for any historian who refuses to take seriously the only explanation offered by the church itself.” (C.F.D. Moule, The Phenomenon of the New Testament, pp. 3, 13)

It’s because Jesus was alive. It’s the only way to explain it.

What Should we do?
So, the first two parts of Peter’s message: You killed Him, but God Raised Him. It’s the biggest “But God…” in the history of the world. Now, the final part, You Should Follow Him. Verses 37-39:

37When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, "Brothers, what shall we do?" 38Peter replied, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off--for all whom the Lord our God will call."

“What shall we do?” This is the big question. It’s the “so what?” question. Every time you hear a sermon you should be prompted to ask this question. “What shall we do?”

And the answer: Follow Jesus. Follow Jesus.

Peter says: Repent. For Peter's listeners this implies a change of heart from the attitude they had when Jesus was crucified.. But for us too, the call to repentance still rings true. The Jews in Jerusalem are no more guilty in Christ's death than we ourselves are, by virtue of our rebellion from God. Jesus went to the cross to pay for the sins of the world, and each and every one of us has contributed to the world's sins.

Repentance means a complete 180 degree spiritual turn around. It means recognizing we have sinned and seeking forgiveness. More than that, repentance means we not only feel sorry for the bad things we do, but we now strive not to do them anymore. We turn away from sin.

But that's not all. We must also be "baptized in the name of Jesus Christ." What Peter means is that we must confess Jesus Christ as Lord, that we must declare our belief in the gospel message. Baptism, then, is the external sign by which we are incorporated into the Christian church. It signifies identifying with Jesus and living for Him. Following Him.

And this isn’t just for those who were present that day. Peter says “The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off--for all whom the Lord our God will call.” And that includes you. And me.

And the thing is, when you feel like you are living on Saturday, when it feels like all hope is gone and you just don’t know where to turn, following Jesus gives you hope.

Pete Wilson writes:

You see, the resurrection is more than just a historical reality. We don’t gather on Easter weekend all around the world just to celebrate a moment in history. We gather together to remind each other that what happened two thousand years ago changed this world forever. It changed my life forever. It can change yours as well, if you let it.

You see, there are two very different types of hope in this world. One is hoping for something, and the other is hoping in someone.

One day, everything we hope for will eventually disappoint us. Every circumstance, every situation, every relationship we put our hope in is going to wear out, give out, fall apart, melt down, and go away.

That’s the problem with hoping in something. That’s why the only dependable hope is hope in someone. Or rather, Someone [with a capital S]. The entirety of Scripture points to one cross, one man, one God—not because he gives us everything we’re hoping for but because he is the One in whom we put our hope.

That is why I can have hope in the midst of my crisis. I can have hope when there is no circumstantial reason to have hope. My hope is not based on what the stock market does or what others think of me or whether my life turns out the way I want it to turn out.

My hope is based on a powerful, in-control God who can do and will do the impossible.

My hope is based on a God who has defeated death itself. (p. 169-170)

It often feels like we are living on Saturday. But God…

But God raised Him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible [IMPOSSIBLE!] for death to keep its hold on him.

Put you hope in the One who died, and lives again.