READ : Luke 24:36-53
Do you know what the most often repeated command in the Bible is? The answer might surprise you.
On October 22, 1978, the newly elected Pope John Paul II delivered his first papal sermon. The message he proclaimed was summed up in a phrase he used, not just in that sermon but throughout the nearly 27 years of his remarkable papacy. The phrase was this: “Be not afraid.” Of course, those words were not original to John Paul. He was merely quoting his Lord.
These were the words with which the risen Christ greeted the women who first saw him on Easter morning: “Do not be afraid,” he told them, “go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me” (Matthew 28:10).
They were also the first words the angel spoke to the women at the empty tomb: “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said” (vv. 5-6).
The very first thing the disciples are told after Jesus’ resurrection isn’t “Come and see!” or “Rejoice!” or “Go tell everyone about it!” The very first thing they’re told is “Don’t be afraid.”
I heard somewhere that that’s the most frequently repeated command in the whole Bible. So I did a little personal research, and I believe it’s true. I counted more than 50 times in the Bible where God says “Fear not . . . Be not afraid . . . Don’t worry” or the like to his people. Sometimes those words are spoken on his behalf by a prophet; in fact, Isaiah alone says them ten different times. I wonder if you would have guessed that this was the imperative most often issued by the Lord – not “Love your neighbor,” not “Obey my commandments,” not “Repent of your sins,” but this simple encouragement: “Don’t be afraid.”
I wonder why that is. Perhaps it’s because it’s so easy to be overcome by fear. Let’s face it, there’s a lot to be afraid of out there. The world is a scary place, and it seems to be getting worse. Every day the news is full of stories about evils that threaten to overwhelm us: killer diseases, viral pandemics, terrorist attacks, climate change.
Several months ago a major news magazine published a special report with the title blazoned across the cover: Global Warming: Be Worried, Be Very Worried. And if all those mega-catastrophes talked about on the news each evening aren’t enough to keep you awake at night, you can always worry about more personal fears, like getting cancer, or losing your job, or having an accident, or being swamped by debt, or losing someone you love. Our well-being is a fragile thing. Our personal happiness hangs by a spider’s thread. It can all come crashing down in a minute, destroyed by a single phone call or a knock on the door.
And yet the Lord tells us, “Be not afraid” – not because there’s nothing to fear, but because he is risen, because Easter has happened, and because Easter happened, you have some very good reasons not to be afraid if you are a Christian. Here are two of the most important.
Jesus Is Alive
Don’t be afraid, first of all, because Jesus is alive now. Luke 24 gives us the wonderful vignette of Jesus’ encounter on Easter evening with two of his followers as they walked from Jerusalem to their home in the nearby village of Emmaus. At first they didn’t recognize him, but as they sat together at the supper table Jesus took the bread and blessed and broke it, and Luke says “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him, and he vanished from their sight” (Luke 24:31). So these two immediately jump up and rush all the way back to Jerusalem, to the place where Jesus’ other disciples were gathered, and there they told their story.
As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you!” But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit. And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them.
When Jesus appeared to the assembled disciples on Easter evening the very first concern he had was to prove to them that what they were seeing was really himself. As the Lord suddenly stood in the middle of that crowded room and greeted his followers, they reacted exactly as we should have expected them to. They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. To put it colloquially, they were freaked out.
None of Jesus’ followers was expecting to see him alive again, not after what they had witnessed at Golgotha. So Jesus takes pains to convince them that he’s real. Not a ghost, not a spirit, not a hallucination, but a real person with a real, albeit very different, body. That’s the point of his urging them to touch him, and even offering to eat some food with them. The resurrection, you see, wasn’t merely a spiritual experience the disciples had. The story the gospels tell isn’t some kind of metaphor to account for the lingering influence the memory of Jesus had upon his friends and followers. It’s the testimony of people who laid eyes, and even hands, on the transformed body of the living Lord Jesus, the same body that had been laid in the tomb. And this changes everything.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ changes everything. Look at what the resurrection says about Jesus himself. It is God’s reversal of the world’s condemnation, God’s triumph over evil’s attack, God’s vindication of Jesus’ trust and obedience, God’s future out of death’s dead end. The resurrection says that all Jesus’ claims are true, and all his promises will be kept. Look at what it says about God. The resurrection says that God is in control, that he has a plan and is carrying it out.
Meeting his disciples there in the Upper Room on Easter evening, Jesus reminds them that everything written about him in the Old Testament had to be fulfilled (v. 44). He “opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (v. 45), Luke says, and showed them how his death and resurrection was essential to God’s plan of salvation, a plan revealed through the prophets and written in the Bible long centuries before (v. 46).
Jesus’ crucifixion was no accident. Jesus’ didn’t die because his life momentarily slipped out of God’s hands when God accidentally lost control and fumbled it away. His death was part of what the apostle Peter called “the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23).
Most of all, look at what the resurrection says about us and our lives. It says that we don’t live in a random world, a world ruled by fate or chance or bad luck. We live in a world ruled by God, who controls our lives too, who has a plan for you and me just as he had for Jesus.
This doesn’t mean nothing bad can happen to us, that all those threats and disasters the news reports talk about aren’t real. No. The cross was real. Jesus was really crucified. Bad things happened to Jesus, and we have no guarantee they won’t happen to us as well.
But because of the resurrection we do have this guarantee: nothing that happens to us can thwart God’s plan for us, and that plan always has a good ending. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is proof that, no matter what, it all ends well for those who know and love him (cf. Romans 8:28). So don’t be afraid; Jesus is alive!
Jesus Is with Us
Here’s a second reason not to fear: Jesus is with us. “Peace be with you,” he told his frightened disciples as he appeared in their midst (v. 36). “Look, it’s me,” he’s saying. “I’m really here. Don’t worry. I’ll stay with you.” Of course, we can’t see him the way his disciples did in the Upper Room that evening, but we can still know he’s here with us. Even though Jesus himself would leave his disciples physically in just a few days time, he promises to send his Spirit (v. 49) to be with them always, even to the end of the world (cf. Matthew 28:20).
I can remember as a boy sometimes lying in bed at night, frightened because my parents were out of the house. I was too old to be scared, really; old enough to be home alone, certainly. But that didn’t stop my imagination from dwelling upon the big, dark, empty house, and that led to a significant level of uneasiness in my mind. One thing, though, would lay that quickly to rest. It was the sound of the door opening and closing as my parents returned home. All my fears instantly vanished because my father was in the house again.
The Lord’s promises are like that, you know. They are a reminder that he’s here with us.
Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you . . . Fear not, for I am with you” (Isaiah 43:1-3, 5). “I will not leave you as orphans, I will come to you.
“Be worried, be very worried,” the world tells us. But the Lord says, “Be not afraid. I’m alive. And I am with you.” Believe that good news and live in peace.