I find this to be one of the most comforting verses in all the New Testament. It means that right now, as I speak these words, the risen and ascended Christ is living and real and present and near with grace and love and power for his people. He ever lives to make intercession for us (Heb. 7:25). It means that his promise, that he will be with us to the end of the age, is not an empty one. And throughout history, the saints have found it to be so.
I love the testimony of John G. Paton, a missionary to the New Hebrides in the South Pacific, who ministered and preached the gospel to cannibals there. At one point, he was hidden in a tree by some of the natives who were of questionable reliability while war went on all around him. Many on that island wanted him dead. Many were looking for him to kill him. And there he was, all by himself in a tree! But this is what he says: “I sat there among the branches, as safe in the arms of Jesus! Never, in all my sorrows, did my Lord draw nearer to me, and speak more soothingly in my soul, than when the moonlight flickered among these chestnut leaves, and the night air played on my throbbing brow, as I told all my heart to Jesus. Alone, yet not alone!” Our Lord is not some sage we simply look back upon with respect. He our very present help in time of trouble. He is not far, he is near. And all this is because he is risen from the dead.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is one of the most important truths of the Christian faith. The apostle Paul put it this way in his epistle to the Corinthians: “if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain. Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not. For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised: and if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable. But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept” (1 Cor. 15:14-20). According to Paul, it is the linchpin of the faith. If you don’t have this, you don’t have Christianity.
There have been a lot of people, theologians and philosophers, who have tried to argue that you can have the essence of Christianity without the miraculous – without believing things like resurrection. But this is false! You cannot be a Christian without believing in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The essence of Christianity is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and the consequences that flow from that reality. The truth is that if you take the resurrection of Christ out of the gospel, you are left with a hollow gospel.
So we need, we must, believe in the risen Christ. It is our only hope in life and in death. And we are invited this morning in this text to consider this great truth. You hear it in the words, “Behold, I am alive.” We are told to look. Upon what are we told to look? Upon the one who was dead and is now alive. Upon the resurrected Christ. Consider with me this morning the one who was dead, and is alive, and will be alive for evermore.
In particular, I want to look at three things that the resurrection of Christ tells us. First, it tells us something about the work of God. Second, it points us to the word of God. Last, it points us to the victory of God. To sum up, it tells us something about God and what he has done for us poor sinners.
The Work of God.
First, our Lord’s resurrection from the dead points us to the work of God in our salvation. The resurrection is God’s breaking into the realm of human history to accomplish for us what we could not. It is important that we remember that. This fact means that the salvation for which we long and hope is not based upon something that we do but upon something that God does for us. This fact points us away from ourselves and our works and our accomplishments. It means that Christianity is not a work of man, it is not a moralistic system or a self-help system. The gospel is not a manual for self-improvement but the announcement of what God has done in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ.
The gospel is not a means of psychologically manipulating people to believe the best is going to happen. But if the resurrection is not true, then that’s the most we can say about the gospel. I’m thankful that the reality is that our salvation does not depend upon our moods or emotions. I’m thankful that it’s not merely a religious symbol that encourages us to sacrifice for the good of others. Like the Exodus, it is a real, historical event in which God saves his people from bondage to sin.
The intervention of God into our story is essential because we cannot save ourselves. Our Lord himself said, “With men it is impossible, but not with God, for with God all things are possible.” For this reason, “if Christ be not risen . . .” can only be followed by bad news. We have no hope apart from the salvation accomplished by Christ which hinges not only upon his death but also upon his resurrection. God is the only one who can create something new, who can bring life out of death, who can erase our guilt and restore righteousness. On the other hand, all we can do is to rearrange the wreckage. That’s all we can do, as the modern world demonstrates. Technology doesn’t help us for we only invent new ways to kill each other. Education doesn’t seem to help, for it at most can make us into clever devils. Morality by itself doesn’t help us, for it only turns us into self-righteous Pharisees that condemn and cancel others (the modern Pharisaism is alive and well today).
This is why it is so important that we steadfastly affirm the historicity of the resurrection. It is not a mere academic question. The fact of the matter is that our salvation hinges upon it. So is it in fact true that Christ rose from the dead? Did he?
Now I know it is unlikely that one is going to believe in the resurrection just based on the evidence for it, no matter how strong it is. This is because if one is already committed to an anti-supernaturalistic viewpoint, they are going to be automatically against any explanation that involves a miracle. Never mind the fact that such reasoning is circular. It reminds me of how C. S. Lewis began his book, Miracles. He says that he had only met one person who ever said he claimed to have seen a ghost, and this man still didn’t believe in ghosts! This kind of person needs to first understand that his or her commitment to a purely materialistic viewpoint is unsustainable philosophically. It is usually tied to the idea that science is the only door to knowledge (which is an irrational statement since that is a statement that cannot be validated by science).
But if you are open to the idea that God exists and that God can intervene in his creation, then the evidence for the resurrection is very strong. In fact, it is the best explanation of the facts of the case. Let me summarize it for you in four steps (I am indebted to William Lane Craig here and the quotations in the following four paragraphs are taken from this website).
The first fact is that after his death, our Lord was buried in the tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea. This is significant because the tomb would have been known. And, by the way, there simply is “no other compelling burial story” (Craig). But if the disciples proclaimed Jesus as risen when he was not, all people would have had to do was to check! Moreover, this is not some late tradition that evolved over time. It is attested as early as a few years after his death (cf. 1 Cor. 15:3-5), before any of the canonical gospels were written and even before the writings of the apostle Paul (1 Corinthians was most likely written in the mid 50’s A.D. and the already accepted tradition that Paul quotes was before that).
The second fact is that on the Sunday following his crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found to be empty by his followers. We know this because all the gospels agree to this, including Mark which is the earliest of the gospels written. The gospel accounts bear no mark of embellishment at this point (which is in contrast to later apocryphal gospels, one which has the cross emerging from the tomb and speaking!). Moreover, the gospel writers tell us that the first ones who discovered the empty tomb were women, which – given the culture of that day – would have been exceedingly unlikely if these accounts were made up.
The third fact is that it is simply indisputable that many people on multiple occasions claimed to have experienced seeing Jesus risen from the dead (cf. 1 Cor. 15:5-7, and the gospels). Moreover, this believe was so strong that those who had been skeptical of Jesus’ claims just a few years after his death were willing to die for him, believing that he had risen from the dead (like his brother James, a fact recorded by the Jewish historian Josephus). In fact, a leading critic of the resurrection has had to admit, “It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.”
The fourth fact is that “the original disciples believed that Jesus was risen from the dead despite their having every predisposition to the contrary.” (Note Paul’s argument in 1 Cor. 1). It was no Jewish belief that the Messiah would die and rise again. Resurrection didn’t happen in the here-and-now: it happened at the end of the age. Moreover, their leader had died an ignominious and cursed death (Deut. 21:23). Nevertheless, they believed. (Neither was such a belief nurtured by the Greco-Roman culture, as can be seen in Paul’s interaction with the philosophers at the Areopagus in Acts 17.)
I would also add to this the emergence of the early church. Now if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then the gospel accounts are a massive fake. It means that the disciples made all the material about Jesus up, including events involving specific people at specific places at specific times – all of which could have been easily checked since the early church began and grew in the very places where all these things were supposed to take place. It would also have meant that the apostles went out knowingly proclaiming lies and willingly being persecuted for it. How is that possible? I can understand dying for a cause you think to be true when it is actually false; but I can’t fathom dying for a cause you know to be false.
For these reasons, I take the gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus to be historical accounts. The actual, physical resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the best explanation of the facts. Craig writes, “Indeed, the evidence is so powerful that one of the world’s leading Jewish theologians, the late Pinchas Lapide, who taught at Hebrew University in Israel, declared himself convinced on the basis of the evidence that the God of Israel raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead!”
The resurrection of Jesus says something about history. It tells us that God has not merely said something to us, but that he has done something for us. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. He kept the Law that we break every day. Upon the cross, he absorbed God’s wrath upon sin that we deserve. And having done that, he rose from the dead, and in so doing he declared that God had accepted his sacrifice and that redemption had truly been accomplished. This is why the gospel does not come to us as a how-to manual but as an announcement of peace with God through Jesus Christ. It places before us the crucified and risen Christ and says that all who believe and trust in him and come to him will be saved. It doesn’t tell you to look into yourself to save yourself but to look away from yourself to Christ.
The Word of God.
The resurrection doesn’t just tell us something about the work of God in history but also about the word of God. It is often said that God has revealed himself through redemptive acts. That is true. But often this is said in order to get around the need for God’s word, for his spoken and written revelation. But we not only need God to act, we also need him to interpret those acts. That is why the Bible is so important. We need God to speak to us. Thank God, he has. And the resurrection of Jesus proves this.
How? The resurrection authenticates Jesus to be who he said he was. Think about the argument of the blind man in John 9. His argument was that Jesus could not have healed his blindness if he had not been sent by God. Healing a blind man is one thing – rising from the dead is on a different level altogether! If healing a blind man points us to the authority of Christ, much more his resurrection! It proves that he is the Son of God (cf. Rom. 1:2). As such, he speaks with absolute authority. And so his attitude towards the Bible is clearly important.
What does our Lord say about the Scriptures? Well, he quotes the Old Testament as having authority as being completely true down to the last word and detail. He says, “For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and hearth pass, one jot or one tittle (referring to the Hebrew letter yod, and to the serifs that distinguish letter from another) shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” (Mt. 5:18). Some people have a problem with the doctrine of the verbal inspiration of the Bible. This is the doctrine of verbal inspiration in its strongest form. Our Lord is saying that the OT is without error and inspired (since it will be fulfilled) down to the dots and the serifs of the Hebrew letters.
Yes, our Lord believed that the OT was true down the very words. Here is what he said in an argument with the Pharisees, quoting Psalm 82:6, “Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods? If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the scripture cannot be broken” (Jn. 10:34-35). Note that his argument hinges upon a single word – the word “gods.” When our Lord says that scripture cannot be broken, he is saying that down the very words of Scripture, it is true.
This is because our Lord understood the OT to be the word of God. It’s interesting that when our Lord quotes Gen. 2:24, even though God is not explicitly said to be speaking, our Lord ascribes it to God anyway (Mt. 19:5-6). Why? Because it is God’s word. This is why when our Lord faced the temptations of the devil (Mt. 4), he turned away the assaults of Satan by quoting, again and again, from the Scriptures. “It is written,” was enough for our Lord. His resurrection is a tremendous argument that it ought to be enough for you and me.
But what about the New Testament? We can have absolute confidence in the NT because they are the writings of the apostles of our Lord, and they were commissioned by him. The apostles understood their writings to be authoritative, not because of any intrinsic worthiness on their part, but because they were commissioned by the risen Christ. This is why the apostle Paul opens his letter to the Galatians as he does – for his authority and teaching was being questioned by the false teachers – “Paul, an apostle, (not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised him from the dead” (Gal. 1:1). Note the authenticating factor of the resurrection of Jesus and its bearing upon the authority of the apostle.
The apostles themselves understood this. They knew they were writing Scripture. It’s why when Peter talks about Paul, he puts his writings in the category of Scripture (2 Pet. 3:15-16). It’s why when Paul quotes Luke 10:7, he writes “For the Scripture saith…” (1 Tim. 5:18). And it’s why the early church only looked to those writings which were either written directly by an apostle or under supervision by an apostle for its authoritative canon.
Do you understand the importance of this? We live in a day that is swimming in knowledge. If I may use a mathematical illustration, a few years ago statisticians had to worry about drawing conclusions from the paucity of data; now they have to worry about sifting through too much data. There is so much information. But are we really better off? Are we any closer to the truth than we were a hundred years ago? I think not. If anything, there is more reason than ever to despair of finding truth amid all the conflicting claims.
Even apart from the problem of information today, the finitude of man precludes us from being able to arrive at absolute truth on our own. This is because we can never be sure we have enough information. We could only know with certainty if we knew everything there was to know about everything (or if we knew someone who knows everything about everything). Massive amounts of information does not solve the problem, either.
Now we may be able to afford being agnostic on many issues. But when it comes to matters of ultimate reality, how can we afford to do this? Like Tom Cruise in the movie A Few Good Men, we should just want the truth! But how can we get at it! How can we find the proverbial needle in the haystack? Is it even possible to know it?
Yes, and again, yes! For God has spoken. He has spoken through his Son the living Word and in so doing he has validated for us the written Word. And he knows everything there is to know about everything and he knows it perfectly. As we hear God’s word in the written word we can have confidence that we hold in our hands that which is truth. And it is truth about what matters most: truth about who God is and who we are.
The victory of God.
The resurrection tells us about history in the work of God, and it tells us about truth in the word of God. But as wonderful as these realities are, it does even more than that. For it gives us faith and hope. For it tells us about the victory of God.
Now in some sense we have touched on this in the work of God in Christ. It is the work of God in raising his Son that gives us hope. But I want to look more particularly at how this gives us hope.
It gives us hope because in rising from the dead, our Lord has defeated sin. He was delivered for our offences and raised again for our justification (Rom. 4:25). If he had not risen from the dead, we would be yet in our sins, but he is risen and is become the firstfruits of them that slept. It is the testimony of the empty tomb that God accepted the sacrifice of his Son. In the old tabernacle, people waited with bated breath which the high priest ministered in the presence of God in the Holy of holies. As long as they could hear the bells at the hems of his garment ringing they knew he was still alive. Not every priest fared well. Aaron’s own sons found this out. But when Jesus rose from the dead, having purged our sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high (Heb. 1:3). He rose victorious over sin.
Guilt is a powerful thing. People will do all sorts of things to try to ignore or elude it. If we are honest with ourselves, we have to recognize that we are guilty people. We have not just done wrong things, but we are fundamentally wrong. Because of this, guilt is perpetual. We cannot get rid it unless we pretend it isn’t there. But that doesn’t make it go away.
Religion can’t make it go away, either. What I mean is that no matter how many good deeds we can do, we will not be able to erase the guilt of our sins. Martin Luther found this out as a monk. No matter how hard he tried, no matter how hard he pushed himself to be better, he never could arrive at a place of peace. How can a sinful man be right with God?
It was not until Luther saw that it was not by trying but by trusting that a sinful man is justified that he came to have peace. It was not until he stopped looking within and started looking solely to Christ that he could find joy again. For when we look to Christ and see the one who knew no sin become sin in our place, and when we see that not only has he taken our sin but gives to those who trust in him his righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21), it is then that we can have peace.
The problem of peace with God is like the problem of truth. You can never know enough to be sure you have the truth. And you can never do enough to have the confidence that you have dealt with your sins. But when you look to Christ and see the Son of God purging our sin, how can we not have confidence? Is this not a tremendous statement: “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God” (Rom. 5:1)? Not, we might have peace, but we have peace with God. And therein we find hope: “we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”
And then there is the problem of death. But in rising from the dead, our Lord defeated death. I love the title to John Owen’s book on the atonement: The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. Amen! He put death to death. He not only rose victorious over death himself, but he did so as the representative of his people. Through death he destroyed the one who had the power of death, the devil, and delivered those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage (Heb. 2:14).
Modern man does not know how to deal with either of these things. Not with sin, as we can see in the cancel culture. The only way post-modern man knows how to deal with wrongs is by canceling those who do them. They don’t know anything about atonement. They don’t know how to show mercy and get justice at the same time. And you know what? This is not a problem that can be solved apart from the cross. For only on the cross do we see mercy and truth kiss, do we see the grace of God and the justice of God perfectly displayed.
Nor does modern man know how to deal with death. If anything, we do all we can to avoid the very mention of it. Secularism has no way to deal with this thing that is the most certain fact of our existence except by ignoring it or to deny its significance. But our Lord has conquered it. “I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive forevermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.” No one else in the universe can say that. How do we know he can say that? He is risen. There is our hope: Christ is our hope. He is the resurrection and the life. Our Lord put it this way to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?” (Jn. 11:25-26) Do you? Do you believe it? Our Lord in his word asks us this question today. You can have no hope apart from Christ. We have perfect hope in Christ, in the one who is risen, who is alive today and has the keys of death and hell.