The Importance of the Resurrection
Last week I mentioned in passing the doctrinal core of historical Christianity. (1) Jesus is God incarnate. (2) Jesus died as an atonement for sin. (3) Jesus rose from the dead. (4) Jesus determines our eternal destiny. If you leave any of these core beliefs out, then you have left behind true Christianity.
Of this doctrinal core, I would argue that the resurrection is actually the center of the Christian faith. As essential as the incarnation and the atoning death of Christ both are, it is the resurrection which is the central event of the New Testament. Indeed, I submit to you that without the resurrection of Jesus, there is no Christian Church, there is no Christian faith, and we are not having this conversation. Let’s look briefly at the importance of the resurrection, both in the New Testament itself and in our Christian faith and practice.
A. The Resurrection in the New Testament
1. The Gospels
Each of the four New Testament Gospels ends with an account of Jesus’ tomb being found empty, and the risen Jesus appearing to His followers. Mark 16:1-8 contains a fairly brief account of the women discovering the tomb empty, and being told by a young man dressed in a white robe (almost certainly an angelic messenger) that Jesus has risen from the dead and gone ahead to meet the disciples in Galilee.
Matthew 28 contains a somewhat longer and more elaborate account of the women’s visit to the tomb, and recounts Jesus appearing to both the women and the eleven disciples on a mountain in Galilee.
Luke 24 shares a similar account of women discovering the empty tomb and encountering two white-clad messengers (again, probably angels) saying that Jesus has risen. The disciples do not believe the women’s report (v. 11), so Peter runs to the empty tomb and finds it empty. Luke also recounts the risen Jesus appearing to two forlorn followers on the road to Emmaus that first Easter Sunday (v. 13 – ‘Now that same day’), and to a gathering of the disciples in Jerusalem.
John 20 begins with the discovery of the empty tomb by a woman (this time, only Mary Magdalene is mentioned), who is later visited by two angels. Peter and John both run to the empty tomb. Later that night, Jesus appears to the disciples in Jerusalem, but Thomas is not with them. A week later (v. 26) Thomas and the rest of the disciples see the risen Jesus again. John 21 records further resurrection appearances, this time in Galilee. There is a miraculous catch of fish, and then the famous reinstatement of Peter as an apostle of the Lord.
From the four canonical Gospels, then, we can establish the following general pattern of events. (
1) Women (including Mary Magdalene, Salome, and Mary the mother of James) go to Jesus’ tomb on the first day of the week (Sunday) to prepare his body for burial, only to discover the stone rolled away and the tomb empty.
(2) Two or more angels (appearing in human form, dressed in white) assure the women that Jesus has risen from the dead, just as He predicted.
(3) The women tell the disciples what they have witnessed.
(4) The male disciples do not believe them, but Peter and John check out the tomb, finding it empty just as the women said.
(5) The risen Jesus first appears to Mary Magdalene (Jn. 20:13-18), then appears to two followers traveling to Emmaus, then later that evening to the gathering of disciples in Jerusalem (Lk. 24:13-49; Jn. 20:19-23).
(6) A week later, Jesus appears again to the disciples gathered in Jerusalem, including Thomas (Jn. 20:24-29).
(7) An unspecified amount of time later [probably a week or so], the disciples return to Galilee, and Jesus appears to them there (Mt. 28:16-20; Jn. 21:1-23).
(8) Sometime later [forty days after the resurrection, according to Acts 1:3], Jesus leads the disciples to Bethany, outside of Jerusalem, and ascends into heaven; the disciples then return to Jerusalem and set up the early church (Lk. 24:50-53).
2. The Acts of the Apostles
What do you consider to be the center of the Gospel message? If you are going to preach about the center of the Christian faith, what do you focus on? Most often, I think, Christian preachers tend to focus on the crucifixion as the center of the Gospel message. There is certainly good reason for doing so. Mark’s Gospel has been called a ‘headlong rush to the Cross.’ John’s Gospel focuses heavily on the hours immediately preceding the crucifixion. And indeed the atoning death of Jesus Christ is at the very core of what it means to preach the Gospel.
But: What was the central focus of the Gospel as preached by the early church? The crucifixion was no doubt central – hence Paul proclaims “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Cor. 2:2) But it is also evident from the earliest Christian preaching that the resurrection of Jesus was often the central focus.
Acts 2:14-36 contains a synopsis of the first Christian sermon, preached by the Apostle Peter on the Day of Pentecost in Jerusalem.
Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These men are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
“In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.
“I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Joel 2:28-32)
Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. David said about him:
“I saw the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will live in hope, because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will find me with joy in your presence.” (Ps. 16:8-11)
Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said:
“The Lord said to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.’” (Ps. 110:1)
Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.
Now tell me, what is the center of this first Gospel message? Many things are mentioned, but I would argue that the clear center is the resurrection of Jesus. “God raised him from the dead … it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him … David spoke of the resurrection of the Christ … God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact.” Peter keeps coming back to the vindication of Jesus Christ expressed through his resurrection from the dead.
There are, of course, many more excerpts of apostolic sermons contained in the Book of Acts – by Peter in 3:12-26 and 4:8-12; by Stephen in 7:2-53; and finally by Paul in 13:16-41; 17:22-31; 22:3-21; and 26:2-23. The resurrection is stressed to a greater or lesser extent in each of these sermons. Sometimes it is quite clearly not the center of the preached message; but it is always present.
3. Paul’s Letters
To round off our study of the centrality of the resurrection in the New Testament itself, I would like to look at two passages from Paul’s letters.
(a) Romans 6:1-14
What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin – because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.
Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.
In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.
Throughout this passage, Paul relates the resurrection of Jesus Christ to the present faith experience of Christians. “Just as Christ was raised form the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” Jesus did not just die for the forgiveness of sins; he rose from the dead to bring new life to His followers. The crucifixion on its own, without the resurrection, is ultimately a hopeless death. Paul stresses that we identify and enter into both the atoning death and the glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ – partially in this mortal life, but fully in the life to come. This theme becomes even more apparent in 1 Corinthians 15, arguably the most important New Testament text with regards to the resurrection of Jesus.
1 Corinthians 15
Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance:
I want to stop there for just a moment to make sure you understand what’s going on here. Paul is not just reciting here in 1 Corinthians 15 his own personal understanding of Christianity. Rather, the passage which follows, through to verse 8, is an ancient creed which far predates Paul’s usage of it. Paul emphasizes this fact – what he received from others, he is now passing on to the Corinthian Christians. This isn’t Paul’s statement of faith – this comes from the early church, dating, according to most scholars, within 5 years of Jesus’ death and resurrection. This is ancient church tradition and teaching – not some later legend added upon the original historical core of the Christian faith.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
This creedal passage emphasizes the early Christian belief in the resurrection, but doesn’t necessarily outline the reasons why the resurrection matters. What follows, however, does. Let’s pick it up again in verse 12.
But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile, you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.
B. Two Reasons why the Resurrection of Christ Makes All the Difference
1. Assurance of our own Eternal Life: The Hope of the Gospel
Paul preaches that the resurrection of Jesus Christ makes all the difference in the world, and gives two primary reasons for it. First, and most importantly, Jesus’ resurrection is the assurance of our own future resurrection to eternal life. If Jesus is not raised from the dead, then we have no hope for eternity either. Hence the conclusion – if only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. From the atheist perspective, Christians are laughably naïve and foolish – we put our hope in pie in the sky bye and bye; when in reality after we die they think we’re going to rot in the grave and be eaten by worms. If that’s really what happens, then indeed we are to be pitied more than all men. The reality of the resurrection is therefore crucial to the hope of the Gospel. The Gospel proclaims not merely that Jesus died for the forgiveness of sins. If that was the end of the story, we would still be men and women without ultimate hope. Sure, we would have forgiveness in this life – liberation from sin and freedom from guilt. But the power of death, the sting of sin, would still have ultimate domination over us. As Paul writes, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.”
2. Confirmation of Apostles’ Honesty & Integrity: Otherwise Christianity is a Lie
The second reason why Paul says the resurrection of Jesus Christ matters is that if Jesus is not raised from the dead, then Christianity is exposed as a fraudulent, deceptive religion. After all, Paul says, “we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead”. If this didn’t happen, then Paul is a false witness – as are all the other apostles. Paul goes on, however, to insist: But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. Earlier in the same chapter, in verse 8, Paul insists that he knows that Christ has been raised from the dead, because the resurrected Jesus Christ appeared to Paul himself. Paul knows that Jesus is risen.
The reality of the resurrection is thus a central issue for Christianity. The Gospels proclaim that God raised Jesus from the dead, that death could not hold him. Paul insists that if Jesus did not rise from the dead, then Christianity is a house of cards and we should all go home. I think modernists who try to redefine or otherwise minimize or deny the resurrection of Jesus should take heed of Paul’s words! Don’t pretend! Don’t bother calling yourselves Christians at the same time as you deny this central event, this crucial historical fact of the New Testament. If you deny the resurrection of Jesus Christ, as defined and explained in the New Testament, you have left the Christian faith behind. The resurrection of Jesus Christ matters.
So then the question becomes - did the resurrection happen? Is it a historical fact, or a metaphorical legend? My next blog post will deal with historical evidence for the resurrection.