READ : Luke 24:36-49
With the holidays passed and winter stretching ahead, it’s easy to feel a letdown, or maybe you’re anxious about what the coming year might bring. If that’s the case, God has a word for you today.
Do you know what the most frequently repeated command in the Bible is? It’s “Don’t be afraid.” That’s not to say this is the most important command; it doesn’t quite match “Love the Lord your God” or “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But it is the most often repeated. I did a little bit of research, and I found more than 50 times when those words are spoken on God’s behalf to the people of God: spoken by angels, by prophets, even by the Lord himself directly, “Be not afraid.”
“Don’t be afraid.” It’s the risen Christ’s first word to his followers. It’s God’s word to us today, as we stand on the brink of another new year, looking ahead to a future that none of us can anticipate. I think the reason God tells us this so often is because there’s so much to be afraid about.
If you watch the news regularly you could soon be overwhelmed with fear. Frightful stories bombard us from all sides: crime, war, terrorist attacks, floods and fires, earthquakes and typhoons, pollution, global warming, economic uncertainty, looming epidemics. The list of lethal threats to our safety and happiness grows longer by the day. Last year a national news magazine had a cover story with a picture of the world and a headline that blared, “Be worried! Be very worried!” That’s really the message the world sends to us.
And if the possibility of one of those mega catastrophes they’re always talking about seems a little remote to you, you can always think about the dangers that threaten you on a very personal level. Think about getting cancer, or being in an accident, losing your job, losing your home, losing your family.
Who knows what the coming year will bring? Who knows if you or I or those we love will live to see its end? The truth is, our happiness, humanly speaking, hangs from a spider’s thread. We all know it can snap in an instant.
Yes, there is a lot to be afraid of. So what do you do? I think most people take the ostrich route and bury their head in the sand. Just don’t allow yourself to think about it, we tell ourselves; after all, there’s nothing you can do anyway. And if you can’t help but think about it, then pour a drink or pop a pill, or easier yet just turn on the TV and vegetate with all the mindless drivel it broadcasts night after night. Or lose yourself in your work, or in play. Go on a holiday, take up a hobby, do anything, anything you can to distract yourself from fear and worry; just don’t think about it.
A Better Way
As Christians we have a better option. We don’t have to be afraid of the future. Why not? Let me give you some reasons. Here’s the first one: because Jesus is alive! The gospel begins with the joyful declaration that Christ is risen. This is the testimony of the New Testament witnesses: not just that Christ rose from the dead, but that Christ is risen. You see the difference? To say that Christ rose is a simple past tense; it’s talking about something that happened long ago. But when you say “Christ is risen!” you’re talking about a present reality. To declare that Christ is risen is to affirm that Jesus is alive right now.
Think about what that says about God and about Jesus. The resurrection is God’s reversal of humankind’s judgment upon the Lord Jesus Christ. Pilate condemned him to death. The Jewish leaders denounced him as a blasphemer and a law breaker. But God has set aside that condemnation. He vindicated his own beloved Son by raising him from the dead. The resurrection is God’s “Yes” to Jesus’ whole life and ministry. It is the confirmation of every promise Jesus ever made. It is the fulfilment of the plan of salvation that the Father and Son had agreed upon from before the foundation of the world.
Jesus rising from the dead shows us that God really is in control of things, and that he is invincibly carrying out his saving purpose. The crucifixion wasn’t merely some terrible thing that happened that God somehow scrambled to respond to. No, it was all part of the sovereign plan of God. It was instrumental to his purpose to save. At every step of the way, God himself was in control of all that happened. And the resurrection is the great exclamation point proving all this.
But if this is true, then think about what Christ’s resurrection also says about us. It says that God has a plan for each of our lives as well. It says that God will invincibly work out his purpose to save us too. This doesn’t mean that we can expect a trouble-free existence. The resurrection is not a guarantee that we won’t have to suffer, that nothing bad or painful can ever happen to us. After all, Jesus’ suffering was real.
But the fact that he rose again assures us that whatever may happen, nothing can derail God’s plan to save those who belong to him. The promise of the resurrection is that nothing can happen to us outside of the control of our loving heavenly Father, and that his purpose for us in the end is life and blessing and joy. The resurrection is the guarantee that God will bring this to pass for all who are his own. “All things must work together for our salvation” (Romans 8:28), says the Bible. So don’t be afraid because Jesus is alive and all will be well.
“Peace Be with You”
Here’s a second reason not to be afraid. It’s because this same living Lord Jesus is right here with us. “Peace be with you,” he says, as he appears to his frightened and befuddled disciples in the upper room on Easter evening (Luke 24:36). “But they were startled startled and frightened,” reports Luke, “and thought they saw a spirit.” So Jesus goes out of his way to show them that it really is he himself, physically present with them again. Jesus even invites his disciples to look at him and touch him, to see his hands and feet bearing their wounds of love. And then he eats something with them to show them just how real he is.
Of course Jesus is no longer physically present with us in that same way. For that matter, he did not remain long with his disciples in that way. But he has sent his Spirit so that he could be with us and with all who know and love him, and so he could be with us always and everywhere.
I remember some rather painful moments in my childhood. I was probably 12 or 23 years old when my parents would go out for the evening, leaving me alone for a few hours in the house. When bedtime came I would creep slowly upstairs and then jump quickly under the covers. I was old enough to know better, but my over-active imagination would sometimes get the better of me as I thought about that dark and empty house. After all, when the lights are off you never know what could be under the bed or in the closet.
But as soon as I heard the sound of my parents’ car in the driveway all my fears suddenly seemed foolish and they instantly flew away, because I knew that my father was home again. That’s all it took. It was enough just to know that he was with me, that he was in the house. So don’t be afraid whatever may come, for has our Lord not promised, “I will never leave you or forsake you”? And will he not keep his word?
Here is a final reason why the Lord says to us, “Be not afraid.” It’s because Jesus is coming for us. The world may be a frightening place, but we, if we know him, know how it’s all going to end.
Luke closes his Gospel with a description of Jesus’ ascension into heaven, and he opens his second volume, the Book of Acts, with the same story. There an angel appears to Jesus’ slack-jawed disciples as they’re standing around looking up into the sky and says to them “Why are you doing this? Go on, do what he told you. For this same Jesus will come in the same way as you have seen him go.”
Yes, Jesus is coming again personally and physically. We know how the story ends. It ends with the return of this same Lord Jesus in the very way in which he went, only this time he will come with infinite glory, and every eye will behold him. So don’t be afraid!
In the meantime, Jesus has given us work to do. “You are witnesses of these things,” he tells his disciples (Luke 24:48). The biblical theologian James Denny says this about the early Christians and their scripture:
There is not in the New Testament from beginning to end in the record of the original and genuine Christian life a single word of despondency or gloom. It is the most buoyant, exhilarating and joyful book in the world. The men who write it have indeed all that is hard and painful in the world to encounter, but they are of good courage because Christ has overcome the world. When the hour of conflict comes they descend, crowned, into the arena. All this is due to their faith in Christ’s exaltation and in his constant presence with them in the omnipotence of his grace.
The New Testament is indeed a book of exhilaration and joy on every page. Not because Christians face no suffering. Not because we don’t experience conflict or pain, but because of our confidence in the risen, reigning Lord — the Christ who is alive, who is with us, who is coming again, who is even now exalted at the right hand of God.
And we are witnesses to these things. If you and I are Christians, if we know the living Christ, we can’t help but be witnesses. The question is, what kind of witnesses? Our lives, our words, our actions, the way we face adversity, how we handle suffering, it’s all communicating something to those around us. But is it communicating gloom and fear, or faith?