History's Greatest Event -- The Resurrection of Jesus Christ
- Friday, December 01, 2006
Twenty-fourth in a series
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures. (1 Cor. 15:3-5)
A few years ago, this article appeared in the Washington Post. It reads:
American schools are producing students with "startling gaps in knowledge" of history and literature, teaching them how to think without giving them anything to think about, the National Endowment for the Humanities charged Sunday.
The endowment said 68% of high school students questioned in a new survey could not place the Civil War within the correct half-century.
The survey of nearly 8,000 17-year-olds found that 43% could not place World War I in the correct half-century, 39% could not do the same for the writing of the U.S. Constitution and nearly a third placed the date of Columbus' discovery of the New World after 1750.
The students lack of knowledge about literature was equally disturbing, the NEH said, reporting that 84% could not identify Fyodor Dostoevsky as the author of "Crime and Punishment" and 67% could not say in what region of the country William Faulkner set his novels.
Nearly two-thirds could not identify Geoffrey Chaucer as author of "The Canterbury Tales," 60% could not name Walt Whitman as the American poet who wrote "Leaves of Grass" and most were unfamiliar with classics written by Dante, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville and Jane Austen.
These facts are all the more astonishing when you realize that 80% of these students were enrolled in an American history course at the same time when they took the multiple choice test.
Some educators blame the poor state of humanities education on several factors, including a curriculum that emphasizes skills over knowledge, a system of teacher training that stresses teaching methods over subject matter and text books that have become "an overcrowded flea market of disconnected facts." One observer stated, "Usually the culprit is 'process' — the belief that we can teach our children how to think without troubling them to learn anything worth thinking about."
It is amazing what we don't remember or what we never knew. These young people, and perhaps some of us, are U.S. citizens who live bereft of a conscious, factual database about our heritage. Most of us are quite well-educated people, who have either forgotten or have never known the basic facts about history and literature.
The same can be said about the religious and spiritual facts of life.
Our basic thesis statement of today is that the most important event of all human history is the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
That's right. The greatest event in all history is the resurrection of Jesus Christ, for this event is the earthly culmination of God's atoning work on the cross.
The Apostle Paul, throughout the first fourteen chapters of 1 Corinthians, has dealt with many, many issues. Some are of only peripheral significance to the Christian faith. Now as he nears the conclusion of this letter, he reminds the Corinthians and us today of our heritage, writing, "Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you — unless you have come to believe in vain" (1 Corinthians 15:1-2).
Could you ask for stronger language? Paul is about as straightforward as he can be. He recapitulates the Good News that, several years before, he had brought to the Corinthians. He was not the inventor of it. It had been delivered to him. It was the Gospel, the news of the crucified and risen Lord.
Paul reminds them that they had received it. He reminds them it was something in which they stood. It was foundational to all they were. It was something by which they were saved.
Now we're down to the basics, aren't we? This is the essence of the Christian faith. It was something they must hold fast. He was aware that life bombards us in ways that threaten to strip us of our faith.
William Barclay puts it in these words:
Things happen to us and happen to others which baffle our understanding; life has its problems to which there seems to be no solution and its questions to which there seems to be no answer; life has its dark places where there seems to be nothing to do but to hold on. Faith is always a victory, the victory of the soul which tenaciously maintains its clutch on God.
This is bottom-line truth. The Gospel is not something to be handled haphazardly. It's the most important news one can ever receive. You and I need to be reminded frequently what it's all about. It's important that we remember the basics.
So, Paul continues to state the facts of religious and spiritual life. They are clearly declared in 1 Corinthians 15:3-11:
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them — though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.
Some of this sounds like the Apostles' Creed, doesn't it?
For several years here at St. Andrew's, we stated the Apostles' Creed every Sunday. Why did we do it? We did it to remind you and me of the basic facts of life about the Christian faith. Why do we no longer do it every Sunday? We don't do it because simply to recite a creed doesn't guarantee our own heartfelt commitment and existential involvement with the Person of Jesus Christ about whom the Creed speaks.
You see, we live in a push-shove relationship between the facts about the faith and our commitment to the crucified, buried and risen Lord. There is more to theology than the Creed. There is more to faith than the Creed. But the facts of life are basic. We dare never forget them, or we end up like those high school young people who remain U.S. citizens but are lacking the rich knowledge of their historical, literary and cultural heritage. So today we recited the Nicene Creed, and periodically we state the Apostles' Creed, hopefully as a fresh, vital reminder of the content of the faith once delivered to the saints.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the greatest event in all human history. It is the basic event, in fact, undergirding our faith. Why? Because it takes our vague notions of the existence of God, perhaps a loving God, and fleshes out in understandable terms that this God loves us so much that He took upon himself humanity and exposed himself incarnationally to our human existence and ultimately bore upon himself our sins, our guilt, our brokenness, our alienation, capturing all that in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The fact is that God's real name is Jesus Christ.
"Christ is risen!" has been the church's affirmation through the centuries. You and I are privileged to declare that fact as the basis of our faith.
Obviously, not everyone believes this. There are three basic approaches to the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Approach One: The resurrection never happened.
You and I know people who simply deny it. They see the resurrection as absurd. It was a result of pre-enlightenment imagination. Educated people don't believe that dead people rise from the dead. Intelligent people don't believe that God, if there is a God, ever became a man.
Some who deny the resurrection are atheists. They are people committed to the belief that there is no God. All other religion is absurd, except wherein it may have some culturally redeeming aspects.
On the other hand, some who deny the resurrection are quite religious. They simply don't believe the Bible. They have developed a religious faith system that is Unitarian in nature. We do not have the time to become specific as to the various expressions of this thesis. In short, there are well-meaning people who see Jesus as one of the most powerful people to have ever walked the face of this earth. He set a marvelous example. He died a martyr's death. Somewhere buried in the environs of Jerusalem are the two thousand-year-old remains of this person about whom such a fantasy mythology exists. Jesus is a great or the greatest man. That's it. Our lives are in much better shape if we take Him seriously, if we follow Him and live according to His example.
Approach Two: The resurrection happened spiritually.
Persons who hold this approach see in life a resurrection principle. Even as the tulips
and daffodils break out of their bulbs and move to the surface of soil, once frozen solid, and finally peak above the surface, bringing glorious springtime color, even so there is a death and resurrection principle in human life. Jesus died and was buried. However, what He taught lives on.
This is classic Protestant theological liberalism, which emphasizes the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. Jesus was the finest expression of humanity. His teachings were so wonderful that, when He died, His example and spirituality is resurrected within us.
This is a more common viewpoint than some of us might realize. Kenneth L. Chafin, a pastor for many years in Texas, tells about one Easter season in which he read a chapter a day from a devotional book written by a minister who was quite prominent approximately one hundred years ago. The book focused on the events of Holy Week. Chafin timed his reading so that he could read the chapter on the crucifixion on Good Friday and the one on the resurrection on Easter Eve. He describes his letdown as he read the last chapter in that book. The author did not believe the resurrection literally took place. He felt that the accounts of the resurrection in the Bible were nothing but faith's expression of what the disciples had wanted to happen.
The author had imagined an Upper Room scene in which they were all lamenting that one who had loved so freely should have died as the object of such hatred, that one whose teaching had such authority should be silenced so young. Then, in the scenario he was imagining, he had one of the disciples jump to his feet and shout, "We will not let Him die. The way He lived, we will live. The things He taught, we will teach. The mission He had will become our mission. We will not let Him die." The plain inference was that the church had created the resurrection.
So-called Christian theologians who take this approach refer to "the resurrection event." By that very phrase, which sounds like they believe it happened, they are declaring that they are not prepared to affirm that He literally rose from the dead. They are demythologizing Scripture. They are doing their best to make this supernatural account palatable to the most enlightened mind. They are declaring a spiritual resurrection principle but denying its historical factuality. When they do that, they are pulling the rug out from under the ". . . the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you. . ." (1 Corinthians 15:1-2).
They are trying their best to hold onto notions about a loving and forgiving God who won't hold us accountable for our sin. They are troubled by the thought of a blood atonement. They want to preserve all that is pleasant, nice and understandable about the Christian faith without affirming the resurrection.
Let me be very frank. I can understand how a person might have difficulty believing in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. But it would appear to me that that same person would ultimately have a hard time believing in their own romanticizing of the faith into spiritual principles void of the divine authority of Scripture.
In fact, it is this denial of the historical facts of the faith that has brought Western European, British and American so-called Christianity into such decline. Take the facts away, and there's nothing left but bland religious platitudes that are the equivalent of putting rouge and lipstick on a corpse.
Approach Three: The resurrection actually happened.
This is what the church has affirmed throughout the past twenty centuries. This is the basis of our faith. The historic teaching of the church is that Jesus Christ literally, physically rose from the dead!
You see, these are the terms of your Christian faith. Paul writes reminding you and me of that which is of first importance. This is an expression of that which God has given to us and that to which we have committed ourselves.
Any legal document has its presuppositions, its contractual understanding. There are basic commitments a person agrees to in a mutual negotiation when called to a new job. You are saying, "I will provide certain specific services in exchange for a particular amount of money and additional benefits that you will give me." These are the facts of life. You know them. You live according to them.
Every time we call a new member to our staff here at St. Andrew's, we have a specific contract signed by both parties. We try to be as specific as possible in terms of position description and in terms of what the church is responsible to provide in return. If someone resigns to accept a call elsewhere, it is clearly understood that those conditions have changed. That person will not continue to receive their paycheck and benefits, as they no longer are on the staff of St. Andrew's. We still love the person. We will remain friends. We hope to see the person with some degree of regularity, but the working relationship has changed. That person's new terms of call are with the new church or institution to which they have accepted a call.
You and I can relate to this, can't we? You and I know that we can't have it both ways. There are basic facts of life, and we have to live with the realities of them. There are basic terms, also, to the Christian faith.
All the sentimental notions in the world cannot change reality. I am either a United States citizen or I am not. My admiration of the Swiss does not make me Swiss. The warm feelings I have when I'm in Scotland do not make me a Scot. There are certain terms of citizenship in any earthly kingdom. And there are certain terms for citizenship in the kingdom of God. God has established that kingdom, and the establishment is based on His very nature, which requires righteousness, justice and even wrath. Sin cannot be dealt with lightly. Some must pay the price of sin. The Bible says that He himself bore our sins in His body on the cross that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. The Bible says that, on the third day, Jesus Christ rose from the dead. That is why Paul, at this strategic point in his letter to the Corinthians, states emphatically in 1 Corinthians 15:3-6:
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.
The resurrection did actually happen.
Question: Can the resurrection of Jesus Christ be proven beyond the shadow of a doubt?
The answer is "Yes" and "No."
I remember my own faith struggle during my late high school and early college days. Not only did I find it difficult to believe in the divinity and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, I even struggled with the historical existence of this one named Jesus. I remember those times of debate and discussion with my father, a man of honest and sincere faith.
On one occasion, my father, my college roommate, Merold Westphal, and I discussed this matter into the wee hours of the morning. I wanted proof. They couldn't give me proof. What they did was begin to help me see that there are evidences that demand a verdict. One can't go on forever in that never-never land of doubt. You have to decide. History records the existence of a man named Jesus of Nazareth. Casual references in Josephus and Tacitus are amplified by other human writers, such as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — persons who were witnesses to the events of His life. These persons recorded what they saw. We cannot take their reports lightly.
I personally would have a hard time proving the historicity of George Washington and the many events surrounding his life. However, there were enough people who did observe him that I feel quite confident that he existed. Perhaps, though, the whole idea is a legend to give some kind of stability to our American way of life. You and I can play games philosophically. Much of what we believe, we have to take on hearsay, the report of others who observed and carefully recorded their observations. We do need to carefully sort out the data. Proof does not come easily.
But there are evidences for the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. These facts stand in the way of all attempts to explain away the resurrection. Tell me, where is His body? Produce it. It would have been to the authorities' benefit to have done that. There is the circumstance of the precisely disposed graveclothes. There are the numerous appearances over nearly six weeks as Jesus appeared to them individually, in small groups and to large gatherings. Paul corroborates the record of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. He appeared to Mary Magdalene in the garden and to Peter, to the two disciples on the Emmaus road, to the disciples in the locked room with Thomas absent, then to the disciples in the locked room with Thomas present, to the seven on the Sea of Galilee, to over five hundred brothers and sisters.
The very existence of the Christian church bears witness to the fact that something happened to transform a broken, beaten group of losers into men and women who gave their very lives as martyrs for Jesus Christ, whom they had witnessed in His resurrection presence. Every Sunday bears its own witness to the living Christ. That is why we no longer worship on the seventh day the Sabbath. The first day is the day of resurrection. This is the Lord's Day. Jesus himself, in His revelation to John, states it succinctly, ". . . 'Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades'" (Revelation 1:17-18).
The British jurist Sir Edward Clarke wrote:
As a lawyer I have made up a long study of the evidences for the events of the first Easter Day. To me the evidence is conclusive, and over and over again in the High Court I have secured the verdict on evidence not nearly so compelling. Inference follows on evidence, and the truthful witness is always artless and disdains effect. The Gospel evidence to the resurrection is of this class, and as a lawyer I accept it unreservedly as the testimony of truthful men to fact that they were able to substantiate.
Attempts have been made to explain the resurrection accounts naturalistically. German rationalist Venturini suggested that Jesus only fainted on the cross and subsequently revived in the cool tomb. The theologian John Warwick Montgomery wrote:
This "swoon theory" is typical of all such arguments: They are infinitely more improbable than the resurrection itself, and they fly squarely in the face of the documentary evidence. Jesus surely died on the cross, for Roman crucifixion teams knew their business (they had enough practice). He could not possibly have rolled the heavy boulder from the door of the tomb after the crucifixion experience.
And even if we discounted these impossibilities, what happened to him later? If we agree that he died and was interred, then the explanation that the body was stolen is no more helpful. For who would have taken it? Surely not the Romans or the Jewish parties, for they wished at all costs to squelch the Christian sect. And certainly not the Christians, for to do so and then fabricate detailed accounts of Jesus' resurrection would have been to fly in the face of the ethic their master preached and for which they ultimately died. . . .
Note that when the disciples of Jesus proclaimed the resurrection, they did so as eyewitnesses and they did so while people were still alive who had had contact with the events they spoke of. In A.D. 56, Paul wrote that over 500 people had seen the risen Jesus and that most of them were still alive (1 Corinthians 15:6). It passes the bounds of credibility that the early Christians could have manufactured such a tale and then preached it among those who might easily have refuted it simply by producing the body of Jesus.
Let's go back and revisit the three basic approaches to the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We said that some believe that the resurrection never happened. What if it didn't? Paul is not trying to con people into faith. He bluntly states that you and I are most to be pitied if this did not happen. He writes in 1 Corinthians 15:17-19, "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied."
It's important to realize that the issue at Corinth wasn't that the Corinthians didn't believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. They did, even though they were divided into factions, following the various teachers and preachers who had come through Corinth. Whether it be Paul or Cephas or Apollos or some elitist who had claimed to simply follow Jesus, all these teachers held to the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Where there was disagreement was whether or not the rest of us would also rise from the dead. Paul is saying that, if the resurrection of Jesus never happened, we are wasting our time. If He is not risen from the dead, when you die, you also will not rise from the dead. There's no promise of life beyond this life, if Jesus is not risen. Make all your decisions on the basis of this life. Don't mess around with false hope. If Jesus Christ is raised from the dead, you have the hope of the resurrection. He claimed to be the resurrection and the life. He was the first fruits of all who died. Whoever believes in Him will not die but have eternal life.
We say that some talk about the resurrection principle, spiritualizing it. Isn't that good enough? Well, you can develop a very fine ethic based on the example of a dead martyr, Jesus. But then there's the question of whether that spiritual resurrection of His ideas is worth following. After all, He claimed to be God.
As C.S. Lewis so aptly stated, one of three possibilities then is true. One is that He was a lunatic who thought He was God and wasn't. Who wants to trust the ethics of a lunatic? The second is that He was a charlatan who knew He wasn't God but was out to con people into thinking He was. Who wants to follow the ethics of a charlatan? A third possibility is that Jesus Christ is God, the facts as outlined are true: that He was crucified, dead, buried and that on the third day He rose from the dead. For me to call myself Christian and give my life to a dead lunatic or a dead charlatan is simply not where I am. I would toss out the whole Christian faith, acknowledging that there are some positive ethical teachings. But I wouldn't hang around long enough to take them that seriously. There have been other excellent ethical teachers of various religions who have never made such fantastic claims. I'd rather follow one of them.
Then there are those who say it really did happen. If it did, the whole Christian faith holds together. Sin and death are destroyed. Both life and death begin to make sense. Life makes sense, because I know where I've come from and I know where I'm going. Death makes sense. I no longer have to deny it. I no longer have to kid myself into thinking I am still a teenager. I don't have to try to look young, holding on to every little bit of life I can possibly hold on to, playing it safe. Jesus Christ has destroyed death and the terrible specter of annihilation. Jesus Christ has destroyed my fear of punishment for the things I've done wrong. Jesus Christ is alive. Because He lives, I live both in this life and the life to come.
Sixty-one years ago, a curly headed, five-year-old boy named Johnny Huffman got down on his knees in his parents' bedroom in Arlington, Massachusetts, and received Jesus Christ as his Savior. I didn't know a whole lot about myself at that tender age. I could never have dreamed what would happen in the next sixty-one years. But you know, as a five-year-old, I knew as much as I had to know about the greatest event in human history and my own need of that event. For I knew I had done some things I shouldn't have done, and I had left undone some things I should have done. I knew I had tried to be good but hadn't quite pulled it off. Yet, I wasn't all bad. I knew I needed a Savior. I had heard the terms that there was one. His name was Jesus Christ. God had become man, crucified, buried, risen. Little Johnny Huffman admitted some things he shouldn't have done, some things he should have done and asked the risen Christ to come into his life.
That's right. This was the same Johnny who, twelve, thirteen, fourteen years later, was raising the ultimate questions about the historicity, the deity and the resurrection of this same Jesus Christ. But in the midst of all that questioning, he was praying the prayer, "God, if there is a God, if your name is Jesus Christ, I commit all I know and don't know of myself to all I know and don't know of you, as you are revealed in the Bible.
I've had my moments of doubt and my moments of deep faith. I have my strengths, and I have my weaknesses. I've tried to be a good husband and a good father but haven't always been either. I've tried to have an ethic of social concern that identifies with the poor and the hurting and is willing to give not only of my money, but my time and energy to help bind up the physical, emotional and spiritual wounds of this world. But I haven't always been successful. I've tried. Oh, how I've tried. Sometimes, I've done it right. And sometimes, I've done it wrong. And sometimes, I've come out with this awful "glob" that is a strange mixture of both.
I don't know how many more years I have or you have. But I know one thing for certain. I don't have one single security in this world of my making. Everything I have is based on God who is my Father, who created me; the God who is my Redeemer, who has saved me; the God who is the Holy Spirit, who sustains me.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ equips me both to live and die. Whether you are five, forty-seven, sixty-nine or ninety-seven, I trust that you've received Jesus Christ as your Savior. If you haven't, do it now. If you have, celebrate. For Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed!
John A. Huffman, Jr. is Senior Pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA.
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