Today, the Christian church everywhere (or, most everywhere) celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. We do this every Sunday, for it was on the first day of the week that he rose. But today is in some sense special because it was on this particular Sunday so many years ago that he rose from the dead.
But how important is it? How necessary to the Christian faith is it? Rudolf Bultmann, a famous New Testament theologian, said back in the middle of the twentieth century, “It is impossible to use electrical light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.” If this is the case, and God doesn’t do miracles, if the supernatural is not allowed to invade the realm of space and time, then Jesus did not rise from the dead. For of all the miracles, surely the resurrection of Jesus is perhaps the most important. But apparently Bultmann didn’t think this was necessary for the Christian faith. He believed you could dispense with the literal, historical resurrection of Jesus from the dead and yet go on and be a good Christian.
The apostle Paul who gave us much of the New Testament would have disagreed, and disagreed strongly. For there were some in the Corinthian church who, out of pressure from the popular thinking of the day, were denying a resurrection for believers at all. Paul responds to that in his first epistle to the Corinthians, in chapter 15. The key to his argument is that if resurrection can’t happen, then it can’t happen for Christ, and if it can’t happen for Christ, then the entire edifice of the Christian faith comes falling down. Like the stones in Herod’s temple, there is not left one article of Christian faith still standing.
You will notice what the apostle does. He awakens these Corinthian Christians out of their sloppy thinking by forcing them to think through the consequences of their ideas. He wants them to think about what would be true if Christ were not risen from the dead.
This is what I want to do with you this morning: I want us to consider what would be true if the tomb were not empty, if the dead body of Jesus had stayed dead. I want us to think carefully about this because it will help us to understand not only how important the resurrection is, but also just how wonderful and glorious and hope-giving it is to all who belong to Jesus Christ.
We want to follow the apostle’s argument here. “If Christ be not risen,” writes Paul in verse 14 (and then again in verse 17), a number of things follow. First, he says, “then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain” (14, 17). In other words, the gospel is false, and being false it is not good either. Second, he writes, “ye are yet in your sins” (17). That is to say, the gospel is not redemptive. To be “in your sins” is to remain unabsolved from them, to be unforgiven. That is the consequence of the rejection of the resurrection. Finally, those “which are fallen asleep (died) in Christ are perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable” (18-19). In other words, not only is the gospel not true, not only is it not redemptive, but neither is it hope giving at all.
I want us to consider these things, and why the truth of the gospel and the redemption preached by the gospel and the hope offered in the gospel all hang completely on the fact that Christ is risen from the dead.
But I don’t want to stop there, and I am grateful Paul doesn’t stop in verse 19. Verse 20 goes on to say, “But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first fruits of them that slept.” So we want to end on that note, and to give some reasons why it is right and reasonable to say with Paul, “but now is Christ risen.” Yes, he is! Three days after they placed the corpse of Jesus into the tomb, he stood up on his own two feet and walked out. I believe that as surely as you are sitting before me. It is as much a fact as it is that Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States or that Thomas Alva Edison invented the incandescent light bulb. And it is the reason why today we can proclaim to all who will trust in Christ and receive him as Lord and Savior that the gospel is true, redemptive, and gloriously hope-giving.
So what if Jesus had never risen from the dead?
Then the gospel is not true. “Our preaching is in vain; your faith is vain” (14, 17).
I know some people think that religion can be useful, apart from its truthfulness. It is, as they say, a useful fiction. Useful, but a fiction nonetheless. However, I disagree that the end justifies the means. I disagree that Christianity can be good, regardless of whether it is true or not. To deceive people is never right, even if it temporarily makes them feel good about themselves. I have no desire to peddle a gospel that is not true. Neither did Paul. Neither should any of us.
The fact of the matter is that deceit and lying are bad in themselves. If you lie to people, you have already harmed them (if they believe it) and yourself by the deceit. The Bible tells us that sin works through lies. It talks about the deceitfulness of sin (Heb. 3:13). It talks about deceitful lusts (Eph. 4:23). It tells us that Satan is the father of lies and that he commits murder through lies (John 8:44).
To hand people a gospel that is not true in order to get them to be good or to do good things is nothing more than religion as manipulation, and that is disgusting. It is the truth that sets people free, not lies dressed up in religious garb.
But someone may ask, can’t Christianity be true apart from the story of the resurrection? Is the resurrection really central to the gospel? And the answer to that question is, no, it can’t be true apart from the resurrection because the resurrection stands at its heart. It is not for no reason that every one of the four canonical gospels ends on the resurrection. It is not for no reason that when you listen to the preaching of the gospel in the book of Acts, those sermons always center around the resurrection of Jesus. We will see why in just a moment. But for now we just register the observation that taking the real, literal, historical resurrection of Jesus out of the gospel is like taking the sun out of the sky or the water out of the ocean. You can’t do that and still have the sky or the ocean. You can’t have the gospel without the resurrection.
Then the gospel is not redemptive. “And ye are yet in your sins” (17).
This is significant because we all need redemption. All of us: “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). We need someone to do something about our sins. We need someone to do something about the mess we have made of our lives and the lives of those around us. We need someone to reconcile us to God, against whom we have committed treason.
But how is that to happen? How are sins to be propitiated? For God is holy, who is of purer eyes than to behold evil, and who cannot look on iniquity (Hab. 1:13). And God the Judge has told us what the wages of sin are – which is important for us to hear. We don’t get to decide the punishment for our sins! We are the ones in the dock; we are the ones standing before the Judge of the universe, the Lawgiver. Where in the world do we get the idea that we get to decide what is right and just when it comes to the punishment for our sins? We don’t get to decide; only God can do that.
And God has told us that the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). In fact, the entire history of religion, and especially that of the Old Testament, given as it was by God himself, tells us in the sacrifices offered and the blood spilt that the wages of sin is death.
Of course, you need to understand that doesn’t mean that physical death by itself expiates our sins. How can it? How can a Hitler expiate his sins simply by committing suicide? We know that can’t be the case. And God tells us in his word, in the Bible, that it isn’t. Our Lord told his disciples that there is another kind of death: “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both body and soul in hell” (Mt. 10:28). We are not just bodies; we are body and soul. It is not just that the body dies, but that that there is a death awaiting the souls of those who die “in their sins.” That is why what the apostle Paul says here in verse 17 ought to shake us to the core. For what our Lord says here is meaningless unless the death of the soul is incomparably worse than that of physical death. And when we read descriptions of it elsewhere in Scripture, in terms of the wrath of God that is coming upon the children of disobedience, in terms of eternal punishment (Mt. 25:46), in terms of “flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his power” (2 Thess. 1:8-9), we begin to understand that this is something from which we must find deliverance, and that every other question is fundamentally trivial and inconsequential in comparison.
So if we are to gain redemption from our sins, we need someone to die for us. But not just to die for us – but to die in such a way that death itself, the penalty for our sins (both physical and spiritual and eternal death) is completely and finally conquered. And of course what that means is that you cannot separate redemption from resurrection. Redemption by a substitutionary sacrifice is meaningless if the one who is our sacrifice doesn’t conquer death for us in the process. We need someone who kills death for us.
The answer of the gospel is that Jesus is the one who does this: that the death of death happens in the death of Jesus Christ. He is the one who took the wrath of God’s justice which should have fallen on us and swallowed it instead. And this is why understanding who Jesus is, is so important.
Think about it this way: what sort of person could stand in our place before God, who could absorb the penalty due to our sins? This person would of course have to be fully human, to rightfully stand in our place. That is the reason why animal sacrifices are ultimately worthless in and of themselves. No animal can propitiate God for human sins. But this person also would have to be God, in order to completely absorb God’s just wrath aimed at our sins. Look, we can’t even look directly at the sun with our bare eyes without blinding ourselves, even though it is 93 million miles away. How do you think you can withstand passing through the furnace of God’s wrath, the very God who made the sun and for whom the sun must be a plaything? I saw recently that NASA discovered a massive black hole that they estimate weighs as much as 20 million suns, and which has left in its wake a cluster of stars that stretched out 200,00 light years long. God did that. And how then do we think a mere mortal can somehow fix the sin problem?
This is why it is so important to understand that Jesus didn’t just come to us as a mere man, but as the Son of God and Savior of the world. His claims show this. Think, for example, of what are sometimes referred to as the “I am” statements in the gospel of John. Jesus declares, “I am the bread of life,” so that those who “feed” on him by faith live forever (Jn. 6:35). He says, “I am the light of the world” (Jn. 8:12), who uniquely reveals the truth about God. He says, “I am the door” (Jn. 10:9), the only door into the kingdom and eternal life. He says, “I am the Good Shepherd” (Jn. 10:11, 14) who gives his life for his sheep. He says, “I am the Resurrection and the life” (Jn. 11:25) so that those who believe in him live forever. He says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man comes to the Father except by me” (Jn. 14:6). He says, “I am the vine” (Jn. 15:1, 5), the source of spiritual life for all who belong to him. These are, as C. S. Lewis put it, either the claims of a madman, or of a liar, or of the Lord of the universe. You simply can’t get away with a Christ who is merely a good teacher or a prophet of God. He is the eternal Son of God. And as God’s eternal Son, he shares the very nature of God (Jn. 1:1).
God could have watched the world burn itself up through sin. He could have let humanity perish forever in the fires of his everlasting and holy wrath. He could have done that and been just. But according to the gospel, God did something wonderful and surprising. He did what we could not do: he brought salvation. God didn’t leave us to ourselves but came to us in the person of Jesus Christ, and perfectly fulfilled the law of God that we broke and took the punishment we deserved. He died. On the cross, he suffered God’s wrath – the death of the soul – and then physical death. They put his body in Joseph’s new tomb. But he didn’t stay there. He rose, and in doing so showed that death in all its dimensions has been definitively defeated in the death of Christ.
But if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, this is all just so much wishful thinking. Our redemption depends upon the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Then the gospel is not hope-giving. “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable” (19).
Just by what we have said, we can see that this is true. Our greatest hope is that in Christ our sins are forgiven. But that can’t happen apart from death and resurrection.
But every hope that is offered in the gospel is resurrection-based. The promise that we too will be raised from the dead is based on Christ’s resurrection, which is Paul’s argument in 1 Cor. 15. The promise that we will inherit eternal life is based on Christ’s resurrection. The promise that we can receive grace from the risen Christ for help in our time of need is based on his resurrection, upon a high priest who is passed into the heavens (Heb. 4:15-16). The promise that we can die to our sins is based on power from the risen Christ (Rom. 6:1-23). The promise that God is for us is predicated on the reality that “Christ died, yea rather, is risen again” (Rom. 8:31-34). The promise of every spiritual blessing comes to us in Christ (Eph. 1:3), in a Christ who died and came to life again.
And what this means is that as Christians we can give no hope, no counsel, to anyone apart from gospel-resurrection hope. If someone comes to me for marriage counseling, in what direction do I want them to look? Where will they find the grace and power to relate to each other? They find both the example and the power in the risen Christ and in the church which is totally dependent upon the risen Christ. If someone comes to me for direction in suffering, I must point them to the fact that they must see their suffering in the context of the fact that death was defeated in Christ, and that no matter what they are going through they are more than conquerors in Jesus. If someone comes to me for help in sanctification, in wanting to kill sin and become more holy, I must tell them as Paul told the Colossians: “If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory. Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth” (Col. 3:1-5).
I have therefore nothing to say that is not in some way essentially connected to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus from the dead. That is the gospel; that is the sum and substance of the Christian message: “For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4).
How sad it would be, then, how utterly devastating if the tomb is not empty! If the resurrection is a hoax, if it was all fake, we should just all go home. No hope apart from this.
But thank God that . . .
The gospel is true: “But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first fruits of them that slept” (1 Cor. 15:20).
I don’t believe it is true because I want it to be so. I believe it is true because I think there are very good reasons for believing it. Biblical faith is not blind faith. It is not believing in the teeth of the evidence. In fact, the apostle John tells us why he wrote his gospel: “But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name” (Jn. 20:31). In other words, he wrote it to give folks reasons to believe. So I want to end briefly by reminding you of the some of the real evidence for the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
God is real.
I start here because if a person doesn’t believe in God, it won’t matter how much evidence there is; you will likely just discount it because it doesn’t fit your godless narrative. Atheism and agnosticism used to be relatively uncommon; now they are more and more accepted ways of looking at the world. I think that one of the reasons for this is that somehow people have been convinced that science has buried God and made him unnecessary.
But this is false. Science is indeed useful, and it can explain certain things, but it can’t explain everything. For example, science can’t explain the most fundamental realities of human existence (not even in principle – so we’re not advocating a “god of the gaps” idea). Some of those things are: the reality of an objective moral order (science can’t tell us anything about ought; it can only tell us about what is), objective meaning and purpose to life, or the value and beauty of love. Science can’t even explain itself. It doesn’t tell us why there is something rather than nothing (some folks have tried to do so using quantum physics, but they end up using sleight of hand, and redefining “nothing” so that it really isn’t nothing).
I would go further: even scientific explanations of the physical world are incomplete apart from the existence of God. To say that the scientific explanation makes God unnecessary is like saying we don’t need Thomas Alva Edison to explain the light bulb because we can explain it in terms of physics and chemistry.
God exists necessarily because the universe doesn’t. The universe had a beginning. At some point in the distant past, all matter and energy, time and space, came into existence at a moment of time. What made that happen? Everything that begins to exist has a cause. The universe began to exist. Therefore the universe has a cause, and this cause of the universe has to adequately explain the effect. Such a cause would have to be timeless, immaterial, all-powerful, and all-wise, and perfectly good. But this is just another way of saying that in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1:1). God is real.
The Bible is reliable.
I say this next because though not all of our information about Jesus comes from the Bible, a lot of it does. You should know that non-Christian authors from the first century like Tacitus, Josephus, and Pliny the Younger all attest to many of the basic facts about Jesus: that he lived in Judea during the procuratorship of Pontius Pilate, that he performed miracles, that he was crucified on a Roman cross, and that his followers proclaimed that he rose from the dead. But certainly our best information about him comes from the earliest Christian writings which include the four canonical gospels.
In our day, one of the most popular arguments made against the Bible, and the NT in particular, is that the Biblical text we have today is the end product of what amounted to a game of telephone. They say that we are as far removed from the original text of the gospel as it was written by the apostles as you might be from the original message at the end of the telephone game (so you will hear them repeat the mantra that the NT text we have today is just “copies of copies of copies of copies…”).
But the problem is that this is a very bad analogy. In a game of telephone, each person in the circle can only know what the previous person said. But this is not the case with the text of the NT. Rather, a better analogy would be a bunch of games of telephone being played simultaneously, which all started with the same message. In addition, each person in a particular circle can not only know what the previous person said, but in many instances what folks had previously said. Also, each circle can check their message with the message of other circles. And at the end (which is where we are at), you can look at the messages of all the various circles and at various stages, and check them against each other. What’s the probability that you would be able to recover the original message? I would argue that it is very high and extremely likely.
And the fact of the matter is that this is exactly what the science of textual criticism has found with respect to the text of the NT. On the basis of the textual evidence that we have (almost 6000 Gk NT manuscripts, apart from other early versions, sermons and quotes from the church fathers), we can have certainty that we possess the text of the NT as it was given to us by the apostles of Jesus Christ.
The reason why I am going on about this is because the gospels were written in the first century by Jews living in Palestine, and they preached the message of the gospel to first century Jews living in Palestine. This is significant because it means that it is highly unlikely that people living in the place and time that the purported events of the gospel took place would have believed it if it were just made up. But they did believe it by the thousands. Christianity didn’t begin hundreds of years later in a far-off land; it began in Judea with Jews living in the very places and times when these things took place. And we can know what this gospel was that was preached and what the first Christians believed because it is reliably recorded for us in the NT.
The tomb is empty.
What do the gospels say? They say that the tomb where they placed the dead body of Jesus is empty. They tell us that three days after Jesus died, he got up on his own two feet and walked out of the tomb, and then later ascended into heaven to be enthroned as the God-man at the right hand of his Father.
But why believe the gospel accounts? Let me give you three reasons. First, you should believe them because the narrative of the empty tomb is attested to my multiple, independent accounts. Historians are more likely to believe that a certain past event happened, if it is attested to in this way. Sometimes it is easy for us to forget this, because our Bibles today come as a total package. But the four gospels were written independently of each other, and then you have the witness of others like the apostle Paul. But how do you explain the empty tomb? An early explanation (recorded by Matthew and repeated in the second century by a Jew named Trypho) is that the disciples stole the body away. But this is implausible, for not only was the tomb guarded but his disciples really had no reason to do so. According to the gospels, the first followers of Jesus were just not expecting the resurrection. The best explanation is that the tomb is empty for the reason that the gospels give: because Jesus rose from the dead.
Second, you should believe it because it is equally well-attested to that multiple persons (like the five hundred mentioned in 1 Cor. 15:6) had experiences in which they saw the risen Christ. Even atheistic scholars (like Gerd Lüdemann) admit that this much is true, though they have to go on to explain it away (otherwise, they can’t remain atheist!). But it is hard to understand how so many people would have had what amounts to a kind of mass illusion – and on different occasions. And not just any illusion, but the illusion of seeing and talking to and touching and eating with the risen Christ.
And then third, you should believe it because the apostles who preached the message of the risen Christ were willing to die for this message. All the evidence that we have points to the fact that most of the original apostles were martyred for this message. It is one thing to die for something you believe in; we all know many instances of this. But it is quite another to die for something you know is false – which is precisely what the apostles would have done if they had just made this up.
Jesus Christ rose from the dead. What does that mean? It means that he is who he said he was, the eternal Son of God and Savior of the world. It means that he obtain eternal redemption and freedom from the penalty of sin. It means that he conquered death itself in all its dimensions, physical and spiritual and eternal. It means that he is the first fruits of believers who have died in Christ; it means that one day they too will rise again gloriously in physical bodies that are no longer plagued by the ravages of sin and decay. It means that all the pain we experience here will one day be replaced with pleasures forevermore. It means that all the suffering we experience today is not meaningless or purposeless, but that God in Christ is taking our “light affliction which is for a moment” and is producing for us “a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:16). It means that God is working all things for our good (Rom. 8:28). It means that the risen Christ not only will reign someday but is reigning today and does so for the good of his people. It means that, “Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession. For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:14-16).
So I will end with our Lord’s words to Martha at the tomb of Lazarus. Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus had just died. They are looking to Jesus for comfort. This past week, we learned of the passing of two of our members, Charlie Cope and Donna Wright. What comfort can we offer to those who are grieving the loss of their loved ones? It is exactly what Jesus said to Martha: “Jesus said unto her, 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). Indeed, do you?
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