The angel said to the women… “He is not here; for he has risen, as he said.” Matthew 28.6
Many assume that because the Resurrection of Christ is a truth revealed from heaven, it cannot be rationally proved. As a result, we have no choice but to take a leap of faith and blindly believe what the church teaches about Christ’s Resurrection… or reject it. Others contend that the Resurrection of Christ is obviously a myth not to be confused with historical fact, but that our faith should be unaffected, since true religion is defined not by the myths we believe but how we live our lives (invoking James 1.27). So, for many people, even for many Christians, the dogma of the Resurrection of Christ doesn’t matter much. Whether we believe God raised Jesus from the dead doesn’t have much to do with how, day by day, we actually practice our faith.
But, in fact, it matters greatly whether the doctrine of Christ’s Resurrection is truth or fiction, because truth always matters. If God did not vindicate Jesus by raising him from the dead, then the Gospel isn’t true and Jesus is not our Savior; because in order to accomplish our redemption the Savior had to fulfill the prophetic scriptures, all of them, including those that call for his Resurrection from the dead (1Cor. 15.3-4). It matters also because Jesus said he would rise again on the third day (Mt.16.21), and he promised to raise up from death all those who believe in him (John 6.40). “I am the resurrection and the life,” he said to Martha, “he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live; and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11.25-26). If he is dead and unable to deliver on that promise, then he made false promises. Men who make false promises are not good guys. They are bad guys. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, and therefore is not able to keep that promise, he was a bad guy and those of us who worship him are worse than fools; we are guilty of idolatry.
Christianity depends on the Resurrection of Christ being true because it depends on Christ being true to this word. He said that he would be killed and then rise from the dead, thereby fulfilling the scriptures that call for his Resurrection from the dead. There are several scriptures that reference Christ’s Resurrection. For the sake of brevity in this sermon, I’ll just touch on two of them:
Isaiah 25.6-9 looks ahead to the day of our redemption and makes a promise that, “He [The Lord] will swallow up death forever.” This means that Savior, when he comes, will make good on that promise; he will not be swallowed up by death, but he will swallow up death and thereby win a victory over our worst enemy. Death is the punishment that God inflicted on the human race because of Adam’s sin. So by swallowing up death forever, the Savior will forever change for the better humanity’s relationship with our Maker. This prophecy does not mention the death and resurrection of Christ specifically but it is a promise that our Savior will face death and “swallow” it, in other words, the Savior will do something definitive to rescue us from death. That’s a big promise. Christians believe that Christ fulfilled it (1Cor.15.54-57).
Jesus, prophesying his Resurrection, said that he would rise on the third day as Jonah did: “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale,” Jesus said, “so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Mat. 12.40).
Jesus, in making that prophecy, called himself “the Son of man.” The church from the day of Pentecost calls Jesus “the Son of God”. But during his lifetime, Jesus called himself “the Son of man.” The Gospels record him applying this title to himself over 80 times. But who is the Son of man? The Son of man is a divine king that the prophet Daniel saw. Daniel said, “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all the peoples, nations and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (Dan. 7.13-14) The Son of man, is the perfect representative of humankind to God and of God to humankind. In him, divinity and humanity, the immortal and the mortal are perfectly joined. If Jesus was the Son of man, as he said he was, then, although he died on earth, he lives eternally and is one with God. Christians believe that by his Resurrection Jesus proved himself to be the Son of man, the one in whom sinners are fully reconciled to the Holy God, the one whose dominion is universal and whose kingdom is without end (Mt.28.18).
The Gospel is only good news if it’s true and it’s only true if Christ fulfilled these two scriptures that call for his Resurrection to eternal life. The Resurrection of Christ is not peripheral to the gospel. Without the Resurrection of Christ, there is no gospel. As Saint Paul put it: “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain…[for] if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1Cor.15.14–17). Without the Resurrection of Christ we “are still in our sins” because Jesus may have offered himself to God for our sins, as Isaiah prophesied he would (Is.53 1–12), but the only way we have of knowing that God accepted his sacrifice is if God vindicated him by raising him from the dead. Without his Resurrection all we have in Jesus is a man who died under a curse (Gal.3.13).
So, before we can give our whole heart and mind to Jesus and believe in his Gospel, we need to know that God raised him from the tomb and that he fulfilled the promises of scripture; that he swallowed up death forever and that he lives eternally as one with God. But how can we know that? Our instinct is to throw up our hands and assume that knowledge of revelation is beyond reason and, therefore, we just have to take it on blind faith that God raised Jesus from the dead and trust the church to tell the truth. But God has endowed human beings with the gift of reason. We cannot be satisfied with blind faith. We need reasons to believe before we can commit. It’s hard enough for people in this modern age, an age that no longer pays any attention to philosophers like Aristotle or St. Thomas Aquinas, to believe in a transcendent divinity, let alone believe the universe has a Creator who, two thousand years ago, became a man, walked the earth, and was sentenced to death by Pontius Pilate. For many people, educated in the agnostic prejudices of the secular society, the Gospel of Christ’s death and Resurrection is laughable. So I know that many of you will almost instinctively resist what I’m about to say. I count 10 pieces of evidence that taken together make a compelling case for the Resurrection of Christ being an actual historical event; the most important event in history, in fact. Again, for the sake of brevity in this sermon I’ll just touch on four of them. But these four are enough to make the case. I just ask you to have an open mind, that’s all.
Number One: the empty tomb. Jesus was laid to rest in a tomb on Friday following his death. On Sunday morning his disciples found his tomb empty. His corpse was gone. It was never found. The Jews at the time spread a rumor that Jesus’ disciples had stolen the body to make it look like Jesus had risen from the dead (Mt.28.11–15). Apart from a few conspiracy theorists, no one, then or now, not even the most skeptical of the modern Biblical scholars, gives any credence to this rumor. So, why was Jesus’ dead body missing from the tomb?
Two: His disciples had the answer: God raised him from the dead. The reason that Jesus’ disciples gave for preaching Christ’s Resurrection and making it the centerpiece of their new found faith was, they said, that Jesus had appeared to them after death in a human but gloriously divinized body (John 21.26–27). They saw him fully alive, they said, not as Lazarus came alive after being laid in a tomb only later to die again. But they saw Jesus, they said, fully alive and fully human, but also fully God. No longer constrained by time and space, he had entered eternity (Lk.24.36-44). His body was absent from the tomb, they said, because God had raised him up “and of that we are all witnesses,” Saint Peter said (Acts 2.32).
Three: Remarkably, Jesus’ disciples proved to have more faith in him after his death than before. Before he died they were always questioning him and Peter even denied knowing him on the night of his arrest. And yet, after his death, his disciples all faced violent deaths and martyrdom rather than betray their conviction that God had raised Jesus from the dead “according to the scriptures,” (1Cor.15.3-4) they said. His death and Resurrection were not random events, they said, but were essential parts of God’s plan for our salvation, a plan they did not understand until Christ, risen from the dead, explained it to them (John 5.39-40; Mt.12.15-21). In other words, the only way to account for the disciples’ faith that God raised Jesus “according to the scriptures,” a faith to which they literally gave their lives, is that Jesus appeared to them risen from the dead and revealed this doctrine to them (Lk.24.44–49). People will endure torture and death for a cause they believe in. The disciples’ saintly behavior and total commitment to the Gospel after Jesus’ death demonstrates that something happened after his death that gave them a greater faith than they had before he died. That something, they said, was his Resurrection (John.20.19-23).
Four: This is the most significant issue for me. Those who witnessed Jesus resurrected said that they had not merely seen his ghost or spirit but they insisted that they had seen him, spoken to him, and eaten with him who had been resurrected body and soul (Lk.24.40; John 21.9–14). Think for a minute what this means. Death is the separation of the soul from the body. God gives a soul to the body at the moment of conception. Only God can unite a soul to a body and thereby make a human person. By insisting that Jesus had been resurrected body and soul, the witnesses were testifying to Jesus’ divinity. He was accused and crucified for blasphemy, for making himself out to be God’s Son, the equal of God (John 5.18), a man deserving of worship: “Believe in God believe also in me…the Father and I are one,” (John 14.1; 10.30) he said. By insisting that God raised Jesus from the tomb body and soul, something only God could do, they were saying that God had vindicated Jesus against the allegations of his accusers and by so doing proved that Jesus had been telling the truth when he declared, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14.6).
So, if it’s true that Jesus was the equal of God and if it is true that there is only one mediator between God and humankind, the man Jesus Christ (1Tim 2.5), then any doctrine of God that omits or denies the divinity of Christ is false. Or, to put it another way, God in Christ has revealed true religion. Christianity is that true religion. The other religions of the world are false (as the Psalmist said, “all the gods of the gentiles are devils” (Ps.96.5). This is very inflammatory and controversial stuff. The Jews did not like being told that they had rejected and crucified the Lord. Pagan cults in ancient Rome did not like being told that they were worshipping false gods. And we know all too well that the world of multicultural politically correct liberalism hates this kind of thing. That is why Christianity provoked so much backlash and suffered persecution in its early days and why, as the world today becomes increasingly more pagan, we’re seeing persecution and slander of those deplorable Christians unlike anything we’ve seen since antiquity.
There would have been nothing controversial about Christianity had Jesus’ disciples just said that they saw his spirit or ghost. No one would have objected to that. A belief in ghosts and spirits was as common then as it is today. The ancient world would have dismissed the Christians with a yawn if all they believed about Jesus was that his spirit survived the grave. Every pantheist in the world believes in something like that. But, by insisting on bodily resurrection, the disciples insisted that Jesus reunited his soul to his body and created life where there was none in the tomb, thereby revealing himself to be not only a man but a man who was also fully God: the Son of man of Daniel’s prophecy whose heavenly kingdom has dominion over all the nations (Mt.28.18).
So why didn’t Jesus’ disciples just take the easy way out and say that they had seen his spirit or ghost? Why didn’t they take the approach that liberal preachers take today and say that, “He lives on in our hearts and we’ll always have the memory of him to inspire us.” If they had stolen the corpse and were creating a hoax, inventing a new religion out of whole cloth, that would have been the way to do it. But they didn’t do that. James and Paul were beheaded. Peter was crucified, Bartholomew was flayed alive. John was boiled in oil. There is only one reason why they would invite such violent controversy and face death to preserve their conviction in Christ’s bodily Resurrection: they were telling the truth about something they witnessed.
The world, for many reasons, may not want to hear that truth. Jesus knew that many wouldn’t (Lk.16.31). But the disciples preached the truth of Christ’s divinity in the face of the controversy it incited because the early church was committed to continuing Christ’s work of salvation. Jesus said, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free”(John 8.32). And that is what salvation is. It is being set free from lies and from half-truths, from superstitions and from sin, set free by the truth to know and love, to worship and serve the one and only true and living God. Who is the true and living God? God is the one who declared through the prophets of Israel that he would redeem the world from sin, and then he came in person to fulfill the scriptures. God keeps his word. He set forth his plan for our salvation in the scriptures, a plan that called for God to become incarnate in a man born of a woman, to suffer rejection, torture, and death at the hands of his own people and then conquer sin and death by his bodily Resurrection from the dead. Truth is stranger than fiction. The Gospel of our salvation is too strange to be fiction.
That is why I believe in the Resurrection of Christ. It is a story no one would invent expecting others simply to believe it. So, we don’t take the Resurrection of Christ on blind faith. We believe in Christ because he has given us many good reasons to do so. We have an empty tomb; we have reliable witnesses who testify to having seen him and even eaten a meal with him after his death; we have disciples who, unexpectedly, have more faith in Jesus after his death than they had in him before; and we have a church that preaches a highly controversial doctrine of bodily Resurrection, a doctrine that led almost all of them to suffer cruel martyrdom rather than deny their faith in Christ’s Resurrection.
Okay, true enough. We can’t prove Christ’s Resurrection with the same kind of certainty that we prove that water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit at sea level. And if that is the only kind of proof you’ll accept, my feeble attempts to persuade you this morning will undoubtedly fail. But all of us know many things are true and certain without that kind of proof. None of us who have been blessed with a good and loving mother can actually scientifically prove her love for us. And yet the faith we have in our mother’s love may be the most important thing to us in life. We can’t prove the love others have for us scientifically but for many reasons we know it’s real and it’s priceless. Likewise, some people may look at a human being and see nothing more than a complex collocation of atoms, a mass of bone, nerves, and sinew that is no more than the sum of its chemical parts. But others look at a human being and see a unique person, a living soul endowed by the Creator, the giver of souls, with natural rights. We can’t prove the existence of persons, souls, or natural rights, but do you really think they don’t exist? The things that count most in life: love, faith, truth, and justice are by their nature transcendent and impalpable and therefore not subject to scientific proof. But their transcendence makes them no less genuine or important realities. The revelation of God in Christ, like your mother’s love or a child’s soul is transcendent truth. The most meaningful things in life always are. And wisdom knows the difference.
Besides, which, having fulfilled the prophecies of Isaiah that call for the Savior’s death (Is. 53.2–12), having established the New Covenant for the forgiveness of sins of which Jeremiah spoke (Jer.31.31-34), knowing that the “clean oblation” that Malachi foresaw is offered universally (Mal.1.11), and knowing that John the Baptist called him “the Lamb of God” in answer to Isaac’s age old question (Gen.22.7; John 1.29), is it really inconvincible that he did not seal the deal by rising from the dead, thereby fulfilling all the scriptures pertinent to our salvation? Do you really think he succeeded in fulfilling ninety percent of them, including healing the blind (Is.42.7), but failed to fulfill the last few?
You know the answer to that. Don’t let the secular society psyche you out and cause you to lose your salvation. Keep the faith. Remember Jesus Christ crucified and risen according to the scriptures and believe in him. You are a living soul meant for immortality and Christ is “the Shepherd and Guardian of your soul” (1Pt.2.25). It is the destiny of souls to believe in him. Without him we travel through this world like a ship without cargo. But having him on board who said,“I came that they may have life and have it abundantly”(John10.10), makes all the difference between a life that ends in a silent grave and life that never ends. Believe in him. As the Blessed Apostle said, “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom.10.9).