Tag Archives: resurrection

The Double Meaning of Good Friday

Good Friday commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth for blasphemy against Israel’s God and insurrection against the Roman Empire. Only in light of God’s act of raising Jesus back to life again on Easter morning, can Good Friday be called “good.” It is “good” only in view of the part it played in God’s plan to reconcile the world to himself in Christ (2 Cor 5:18-20) and because it demonstrated the depths of divine love (Romans 5:1-11). The cross of Christ is, as Paul never tires of saying, something in which to glory—an irony indeed because crucifixion was designed to shame the victim to the extreme measure. There is much to ponder in this reversal. However, on this Good Friday I found myself thinking of another divine revelation made known in the events of that day.

On the first Good Friday, God displayed his wrath on the world and pronounced his judgment on all flesh. In the persons of Judas the betrayer, Peter the coward, the Jewish religious leaders, and the Roman Empire, all humanity betrayed, rejected, denied, and murdered the Messiah and the Son of God. Whereas the Jewish leaders and the Roman Empire acted to judge and condemn Jesus, in fact they judged and condemned themselves. In their act of judicial murder, God revealed the corruption and futility of all human efforts, religious and political, to bring about salvation. Democratic politics can do this no better than Imperial politics. The Christian religion will fail just as the Jewish religion failed. Coercion will not work. Nor will persuasion.

Every new generation thinks it can do what no other generation has been able to do: If we evangelize the world, the Kingdom of God will be established! If we put all our energies into social causes, we can create a world of justice, love, and peace. Just one more war, one more revolution, one more election, one more treaty, one more freedom achieved, one more scientific advance…. But the glorious future never arrives. It never will.

Good Friday stands as the definitive refutation of optimism in human capacity for goodness. When the very embodiment of justice, love, and peace—indeed the exact image of God—appeared on earth, the “best” of men condemned him to death. They still do.

We Do Not Fear Death—For Christ is Risen

As a child, Athanasius (296–373) lived through the infamous Diocletian persecution, which began in 303 and ended in 313 with the Edict of Milan. With the memories of those dark days etched in his memory, he wrote about the change that has come over the world since the resurrection of Christ:

Death used to be strong and terrible, but now, since the sojourn of the Savior and the death and resurrection of His body, it is despised; and obviously it is by the very Christ Who mounted on the cross that it has been destroyed and vanquished finally. When the sun rises after the night and the whole world is lit up by it, nobody doubts that it is the sun which has thus shed its light everywhere and driven away the dark.

Equally clear is it, since this utter scorning and trampling down of death has ensued upon the Savior’s manifestation in the body and His death on the cross, that it is He Himself Who brought death to nought and daily raises monuments to His victory in His own disciples. How can you think otherwise, when you see men naturally weak hastening to death, unafraid at the prospect of corruption, fearless of the descent into Hades, even indeed with eager soul provoking it, not shrinking from tortures, but preferring thus to rush on death for Christ’s sake, rather than to remain in this present life? (Athanasius, Incarnation of the Word 29).

Death use to be powerful and intimidating. We hid our faces from its glance and trembled at its threats. It owned us. We obeyed its every command. But as Athanasius reminds us, the resurrection of Jesus deprived death of its terror and strength. Jesus frees us from its hold: “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body  and after that can do no more” (Luke 12:4).

Fear of death is the root and essence of every other fear. If you fear death, you are the slave of those who hold the power of death. But Jesus exposed death as powerless. It cannot defeat God’s love for us! What, then, is left to fear? Poverty or prison? Frowns or whispers? Pandemic or famine?

Name your fear, my friends, whatever it is. Face it, and say to it, “I do not fear you! For I do not fear death your master! I do not fear death! I do not fear death! For Christ is risen!  He has risen indeed!”

Resurrection of the Body or Survival of the Soul?

Last week in dealing with eschatology I urged us to keep our focus on the definitive state of salvation rather than getting bogged down in discussions of transitional end time events. Whatever the transitional events turn out to be, the definitive state of salvation is eternal life in the presence of God. However there is one transitional event that the New Testament so connects to the definitive state that I need to deal with it, that is, the resurrection of the body. Though I won’t take the space in this essay to discuss it, my thinking on the resurrection has been definitively shaped by repeated reading and reflection on Paul’s great treatise on the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15.

Everyone dies, and everyone knows it. But death means different things in different religions. For some religions and philosophies, death is merely a transition from this order to another. The higher part of the soul is freed from the body to return to the divine realm from which it came. Life in the cyclical of nature is bondage from which we need liberating and death is the way out. But for Christianity, death is not a transition to another mode of life; it is the end. Death is not the promise of liberation but the threat of annihilation. In the Christian understanding of salvation, the resurrection of the body is the central event of transition from this order to eternal life with God. Pinpointing death instead of the resurrection of the body as the transitional event, as popular religion often does, distorts and disrupts the entire Christian way of understanding the world. Let’s examine two reasons why the resurrection instead of death makes sense as the transition to eternal life.

First, God created this world, matter and nature, body and soul, and pronounced it very good. The body is not a prison, and life in this world is not a place of purgatory to which we were consigned because of our pre-incarnate sins. So, resurrection makes perfect sense as the transition from the present order in which creation is wounded and imperfect—though still good—to the healed and perfected order that God is preparing. Resurrection saves and perfects creation and affirms its created goodness. Or, to say it another way, God’s act of saving creation from death and decay and bringing it to its intended goal is called resurrection.

The promise of resurrection affirms continuity between the creation as it now exists and the new creation God will make. The new creation is not a replacement for the old one but the present creation saved and perfected. As for individual people, resurrection promises continuity between our present identity and our future selves. What good would it do for me to survive death if the part of my soul that survives has no memory of me and if my life in the body makes no ultimate difference? I have no more reason to look forward to this mode of survival than to survival of the atoms in my body after its dissolution! Who would find comfort in that? I can hope that my resurrected self (body and soul) will be expanded and illuminated and intimately united with Christ and filled with God’s Spirit. But unless there is continuity with the “I” that I am now, it makes no sense to call this transition resurrection or salvation.

Second, the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ is the central revealing and saving event of the Christian faith. Why would God raise Jesus, body and soul, from the dead if death itself were the transition to eternal life? If Jesus had merely survived death as a spirit, he could have appeared as a ghost to his disciples to declare his innocence and to assure them of the possibility of surviving death. But God raised him from the dead! Jesus’ resurrection declared not only his innocence of the Jewish’s accusation of blasphemy and Roman charge of sedition but it also declared his victory over death. Jesus’ resurrection made God’s intention to save and perfect his creation more than a hypothesis consistent with God’s act of creation. It made it a fact in history. And this fact calls for a revolution in the way we live:

Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:55).

It is written: “I believed; therefore I have spoken.” Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself…Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Corinthians 4:13-18).

Next Time: What shall we make of the doctrine of Hell? Is it part of the gospel or an especially difficult part of the problem of evil? Should we take the language about Hell as literal or metaphorical?

The Christian Hope Or End-Times Fancies?

Christianity presents itself as more than an ideal of human life in this world, a vision of a harmonious and just human community. It offers more than inspired knowledge of the secrets of the divine world. And it is more than a way of dealing with guilt. These benefits may enhance wellbeing and happiness in this life, but they do not address ultimate human longings. We long for a quality of life, being, community, knowledge, joy, freedom, and love that we cannot attain in this world. Our longings reach further than our minds can conceptualize or our imaginations can picture.

What is the Christian hope, the final form of the salvation Christianity offers? What should we seek and expect? And what is the ground and assurance of this hope? In this and the upcoming essays I want to address these questions.

In my view, many discussions of the Christian hope are obscured by an unhealthy fascination with the apocalyptic imagery and eschatological timetables associated with the transition from the present order to the new order. People lose sight of the hope of eternal life in intimate closeness to the eternal God. Instead, they become engrossed in current events, looking for signs of the approaching end. They stockpile food and construct safe houses for the coming collapse of society. They treat the Book of Revelation like some people treat the works of Nostradamus, as obscure texts on which to impose their own fancies, good for entertainment but not for edification. Or, they make their views of eschatology into an orthodoxy that becomes a test of one’s Christian faith. The nature of the millennium becomes as important as the fact of Christ’s resurrection!

A sober treatment of the Christian hope must remain focused on its ultimate fulfillment and not let itself be distracted by the imagery of transitions. What then is that hope? As I indicated above, it is eternal life in intimate union with the eternal God. But what does this mean? Popular religion speaks vaguely of an “afterlife” or of survival beyond death. Some people want another life like they want another house or another car. But why think another life would make you any happier than this life does? Does eternal life mean simply living forever? But why would living unendingly be a good thing? One can imagine conditions under which immortality would be a curse that would make us long for death.

Paul sometimes uses apocalyptic imagery when speaking of the transition from this life to eternal life. But when he speaks of the ultimate state of salvation he speaks of eternal life and immortality. His favorite expression seems to be “being with the Lord.”

I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. (Phil 1:23-24)

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead (Phil 3:10-11).

We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. (2 Cor 5:8)

After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. (1 Thess 4:17)

John speaks with cautious confidence when he says this

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure (1 John 3:1-3).

John keeps the focus on the hope of being like Christ and seeing him “as he is.” This hope does not encourage us to look for signs of the end or bury our end-time bunkers deep. Instead it motivates us to “purify” ourselves and live as Christ lived in the world. Nor does Paul connect apocalyptic imagery of transitions to speculation about times or seasons but to becoming like Christ in his sufferings and death.

The end of the story is being “with the Lord” and “like Christ.” And so is the beginning and middle of the story! At each stage our task is the same. Let God handle the times, seasons, and transitions.

Original Sin and Perfect Salvation

Jesus Christ is Savior and Lord. This is the heart of the good news Christians proclaim to the world. Too often, however, we find ourselves unable to explain what this confession means, that is, how it illuminates our situation and why it is good news. In response to the question about how Jesus saves us, we resort to other confessional assertions: Jesus “gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Galatians 1:3). Or, Jesus was “delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Romans 4:25).  Or, “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them” (2Corinthians 5:17).

These words were no doubt overflowing with transparent meaning for Paul and his hearers when he first uttered them. But after 2,000 years of use in worship and teaching they tend to become formulas we are taught to repeat on certain occasions. We assume we know what they mean because we know when to say them. I do not question the genuine faith, commitment, and spiritual experience of anyone who confesses these words. We need not understand our faith to great depth in order to love Jesus Christ for who he is and what he has done, to feel deep gratitude for God’s mercy, and to live for him our whole lives. Nevertheless, wouldn’t our genuine faith be strengthened, our love deepened, our commitment reinforced, and our witness emboldened by gaining a deeper understanding of our faith that Jesus is Savior and Lord? And this is what I am hoping to accomplish in this miniseries on Jesus as Savior.

In the previous four essays I’ve addressed the nature of sin, the forgiveness of sins, and the possibility of healing sin’s destructive consequences. Today, I want to address one of the most difficult and mysterious aspects of Jesus saving activity, that is, how Jesus liberates sinners from sinful condition of the will that makes sinful acts inevitable. In the first essay in this series I defined sin in these words:

Sin is a condition of the human will in which we affirm our own private interests and trust our own private judgment about good and bad instead of trusting and affirming the perfect will of our Creator. Out of this condition of the heart arise sinful acts, acts that attempt to force God’s creation into conformity with our wills. In sin, we substitute ourselves for God. We attempt to become our own protectors, providers, and judges. We act as if we were wiser, stronger, and better than God. Rejecting our own created nature, we try to remake ourselves according to our fanciful image of what we wish we were. Then we begin working to remake the rest of the world into our distorted image, creating death and destruction everywhere.

Paul, John, and all other New Testament writers are completely confident that “all have sinned” (Romans 3:23; see also 5:12) and that “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us…If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us” (1John 1:8-10). They are certain that human nature is always accompanied by a condition that inevitably produces sinful acts. How can Paul and John be so confident that everyone who has ever lived and ever will live sins? (Jesus Christ is the one exception. For how could Jesus save us from a condition from which he suffers and needs to be saved?) Do they think sin is part of our created nature? No, this answer is not an option because it makes sin a divine creation and sinful acts an innocent expression of human nature. It is neither. How can we understand this strange situation? As you have already guessed, this paradox or mystery has been addressed in the traditional doctrine of original sin.

The Western (Roman Catholic and Protestant) church’s doctrine of original sin derives its classic formulation from Ambrose and Augustine (4th and 5th centuries). The Eastern church (Orthodoxy) rejects it. The term original sin possesses several nuances of meaning. It means Adam and Eve’s original sin that brought sin and death into the world. The doctrine differentiates between the created nature of Adam and Eve and their act and its results. Because of Adam’s sin, created human nature now finds itself wounded, weak, and bereft of the support it needs to fulfill its task of living as God’s image in the world. And in a second sense, the term original sin refers to the condition into which every human being is born, that is, wounded, weak, and bereft of the support it needs to fulfill its task of living as God’s image in the world. (*For another meaning of “original sin,” see the note below.)

And because human nature is born in this weakened state, a person’s first interior acts of will turn inward to affirm their own private interests above those of others and the divine will. By the time a child reaches the age of reason and can make free choices among alternatives, the will to private interest, conditioned first by weakness and ignorance, has been reinforced by habit to form a sort of second nature impossible to escape. This second nature feels like our true self. The prospect of losing this “self” strikes us as a threat of slavery, alienation, and death. In our personal sins, our weakened condition and our false self expresses itself in our own acts in the world. In this way our inherited weakness becomes our enacted guilt.

How does Jesus Christ save us from this condition? As we saw in previous essays, Jesus embodies and enacts God’s forgiveness in his cross, and in his resurrection grounds our hope that sin’s destructive effects will be repaired. How does Jesus liberate us from the original condition from which sinful acts continually arise and cause offense and harm? It should not surprise us that a radical problem demands a radical solution. If our original weakness becomes a second nature (a false self) through our in-turned will and our sinful acts, the only way out is death and resurrection. The old self or the sinful nature must be purged and human nature strengthened, healed, and supported so that we can live as images of God. This change is so dramatic that the New Testament speaks of it as a new birth or a new creation that results in a new human being.

The resurrected Jesus Christ is first of these new human beings. Paul contrasts Jesus with Adam:

20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive (1Corinthians 15:20-22).

45 So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. 46 The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. 47 The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. 48 As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man (1 Corinthians 15:45-49).

God saves us from our sinful condition by including us by the power of the Spirit in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, so that we share in the effects of his death and resurrection.

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 (Romans 6:3-4).

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here (2Corinthians 5:17)!

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory (Colossians 3:1-3).

In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1Peter 1:3).

We must still die our own death, but we do not have to die alone. The meaning of our personal death is completely changed. Apart from Jesus, our death would be merely the final results of sin, which wishes to live without God. With Jesus, our dying will be definitive separation from the second nature or false self of sin and irrevocable joining Jesus Christ in his resurrection from the dead. In this state, we will be completely liberated from the conditions that made sin possible and inevitable. We will be forgiven, healed, and liberated. This is, in part, what we mean when we confess that Jesus Christ is Savior.

In future essays we need to consider the question of whether our liberation from the power of sin is still altogether in the future. How does Jesus’ liberating power affect us here and now, before we actually join him through our dying and rising?

*Note: In the traditional western doctrine of original sin, the term original sin also means the “guilt” of Adam’s sin we inherit from Adam. Without going into it in this essay, I reject this teaching as unbiblical and self-contradictory.

Forgiveness Is Not Enough

Forgiveness is not enough. If sin is as destructive as the New Testament claims, if it’s a condition of the will as well as a quality of the act, if it attempts the absurd, destroys the self, and produces death (see the posts of January 06, 16, and 23), divine forgiveness is only the beginning of salvation. In forgiving sin, God deals with the insulting aspects of sin not by becoming angry and taking revenge but by renewing his standing offer of reconciliation and fellowship. God, so to speak, absorbs, ignores, and neutralizes the insult to his dignity. But what about the damage sin does to others and ourselves? Sinful acts cause damage that sometimes continues long after the act. A person who steals your possessions or injures your body or harms your child sets in motion a cascade of ill effects in the world that may cause damage far beyond the their original intention or control. Such sinful acts affect others at every level, physical, social, psychological, and spiritual.

Suppose for example that someone lies about you so effectively that you lose your job, are abandoned by your closest friends, and your marriage is on the brink of divorce. You determine that you will not allow your enemy’s hatred to evoke hatred in your heart and provoke you to take revenge. Suppose further that your enemy comes to realize his sin, repents, confesses his wrong to you, asks for forgiveness, and seeks reconciliation. You respond by assuring your former enemy that you will not seek revenge and harbor no hatred. Does repentance and forgiveness heal the damage sin has caused? No, not fully. Even the best efforts of the repentant person to replace property and mend relationships cannot restore things to their original state. Repentance and forgiveness cannot replace a lost limb or bring the dead back to life or restore trust to a betrayed heart. It cannot undo past suffering or erase traumatic memories. Our willingness to forgive does not cause us (or others) to forget. We don’t have complete control over our psychological nature any more than we have complete control over our physical nature. Damage to the psyche can be as lasting as damage to the body. We cannot change the past or stop the cascade of cause and effect flowing from past sin.

Human repentance and forgiveness is not enough. Nor is divine forgiveness enough; it is only the beginning of salvation. In last week’s essay on divine forgiveness I asserted this:

“the work of Jesus Christ was not designed to change an offended and revenging God into a loving and forgiving God. Jesus’ suffering is not the cause of divine forgiveness. No. Jesus Christ is the visible, temporal enactment of divine forgiveness, of God’s eternal selfless love for us.”

In the same way, I do not think it is correct to think of the work of Jesus Christ as making it possible for God to heal the world of the destructive effects of sin. Jesus Christ is the enactment of this divine healing. God always has been the creator, the giver of life, the healer of our diseases, and the Lord who “works all things for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28). God has determined from all eternity that “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

Jesus enacted divine forgiveness by willingly enduring the fullness of sin’s insult and injury, without retaliation. What could be worse than annihilating humanity and blaspheming God? Healing impossible and forgiveness unthinkable! From a human point of view, the result of the sin done to Jesus was totally irreversible, completely hopeless. No human regret, repentance, or attempted restoration could change the deed that was done. In the suffering of the cross we see divine forgiveness happening before our eyes and, in the resurrection of Jesus, we see sin’s damage healed and turned to God’s service and glory.

Jesus’ resurrection was not merely the healing of his private wounds and the restoration of his personal life. The New Testament gospel understands Jesus’ resurrection as the beginning of a new humanity, the first fruits of the resurrection of all the dead (1 Corinthians 15:20), and the liberation of creation from its “bondage to decay” (Romans 8:21). In Ephesians, chapter one, Paul speaks of the mystery of God’s eternal plan “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (1:10). The history of Jesus Christ from his birth to his suffering, death, and resurrection sums up the history of all creation from beginning to end. God’s hidden work in creation, providence, forgiveness and redemption becomes visible and concentrated in Jesus Christ. In Jesus, we can see how all the damage, destruction, and death caused by sin, from the beginning to the end of time, will be and has been healed. Christianity reads history backwards, from the future revealed in the resurrected and glorified Jesus Christ to the act of creation and the course of providence. Every divine act in creation and providence finds itself fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus Christ is, was, and always will be the life-giving, forgiving, and healing God with us and for us.

Next week: we’ve seen how God forgives insult sin directs at God and heals the damage cause by sin, but how can we be saved from the condition of sin, which the New Testament describes as corruption, sickness, slavery, powerlessness, blindness, and death?


Christmas…Apart from the Resurrection it’s Just Winter Solstice

Judging by the length of the season and the visibility of the signs and celebrations, one would think that Christmas was the center of the Christian faith or even the essence of the faith. Yet there is no Christian sacrament that refers back to the virginal conception and birth of Jesus. Baptism re-presents the death and burial of Christ, and the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist makes present the body and blood of the Lord. Paul does not use the special manner of the Jesus’ birth to make a theological point; nor do John, Peter, James, or the writer of Hebrews. The sermons in Acts never mention it. The New Testament focuses overwhelmingly on the death and resurrection of Christ as the saving events. Even Matthew and Luke place the central emphasis on Jesus’ suffering and resurrection. So, as we celebrate Christmas—if you do—we would do well to remember this:

The birth of Jesus would be of no more significance than the birth of any other human being had not God validated his claims and reversed the court’s verdict of blasphemy and sedition by raising him from the dead. We probably would never have heard of him. And if we had heard of him, he would be just one more Jewish prophet martyred for preaching against injustice, one more apocalyptic fanatic deluded into thinking God would come to his rescue if he acted with enough faith. Indeed we gentiles would probably never have heard of the Jews or the Hebrew Bible; for the Jews became a world historical people only because of Jesus’ resurrection, and the Old Testament is the Old Testament because of the existence of the New Testament. And the New Testament exists because Jesus was raised.

Apart from the resurrection, the miracle of the virgin birth loses its significance as a sign of the incarnation of God. Isaac’s birth was a miracle and so were those of other prophets. And Isaac did not become the savior of the world. Islam teaches the virginal conception of the “prophet” Jesus but denies that Jesus is the incarnation of God. Ironically, Islam, which denies that Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead, can teach that Jesus was born of a virgin only because Jesus was raised from the dead. Otherwise the story would never have been told in Arabia.

At Christmas we celebrate the coming of the Son of God into the world, but we must remember that that Advent was hidden and ambiguous, as was the true meaning of the life and death of Jesus, until the resurrection. We know that Jesus is the Son of God, the Savior of the World, the union of God and man, very God and very man only because, contrary to all expectations, God raised the crucified Jesus from the dead. If God had not raised him from the dead, he would not be the Son of God or the Savior of the world, even if he had been born of the Virgin Mary. And we would not be celebrating Christmas.

If Christ had not be raised, this Christmas would be just another winter solstice, and we would be would be celebrating the birth of the New Year rather than the birth of the Savior.

The Resurrection Revolution: An Early Easter Sermon


When Christians get together they sometimes speak a language no one else can understand…a kind of Christianese. Sometimes I wonder whether even we understand it. When we sing, “Praise God” or “I love you Lord” or “you are worthy” or “I give myself to you,” do we know what the words mean? Or when we say, “Jesus died for our sins” or “Jesus is my Lord and Savior” could we explain what we mean?

But in this post I want to consider an expression we may hear on Easter Sunday. The leader will say, “He has risen.” And the church will say, “He has risen indeed.” Do we know what we are saying? Do we know that we are speaking about the most revolutionary event since the creation of the world? Do we feel its power and truth? And do we live lives that correspond to this assertion? Or is “He has risen. He has risen indeed” just another expression in Christianese. Just something we say on Easter Sunday?

I want to give you 6 points about the resurrection of Jesus to help us break free of Christianese into the reality about which it speaks.

Apart from the resurrection of Jesus Christianity would not exist. We read the story of the two sad disciples on the Emmaus Road in Luke 24. Jesus appeared to them, but they did not recognize him. As they talked they expressed their disappointment: “but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). They “had hoped,” but their hope was gone.

Paul is also clear that Jesus’ resurrection is the “make it or break it” fact of Christianity. He says, “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 of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:17-19).

If Jesus had not risen, the world would be very different! There would have been no apostles, no church, and no world mission. We would never have heard of Jesus or Paul or John. Rome would have remained pagan. The French, Germans, English, Russians, Greeks, and hundreds of other nations would have continued to worship their gods. There would be no Chinese, Indian, African or Korean Christians. Every moral principle, religious belief or rational idea that Christianity gave to the world would be missing. There would be no Harvard, Princeton or Pepperdine. And you and I would not be standing here this evening. Indeed, most likely we would never have been born.

The Resurrection of Jesus is a real event that happened in our space and time. Christianity is not based on a philosophy derived from observing the repeating patterns of nature. It is not based on the secret revelations to a self-proclaimed prophet. It is not derived from speculations about the divine world that appeal to your pride or fancies. Christianity is based on a historical event. It either happened or it didn’t. It could have been refuted. To believe in the resurrection is to believe those witnesses who tell us that Jesus appeared to them alive after his death and burial.

The Resurrection of Jesus reveals the goal of creation and all history. The meaning of any historical event is determined by its context and what flows from it. There are three contexts that are especially important for determining the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus: the life, teaching, actions, and death of Jesus; those religious and theological speculations about the end of the world that were held in Jesus’ day; and the experience and reactions of the disciples of Jesus to his resurrection appearances.

Had it been someone other than Jesus, the meaning of the resurrection would have been different. Perhaps it would be simply an amazing event testifying to the power of God but without further implications. But it was Jesus! Jesus came preaching the coming kingdom of God, he cast out demons, healed the sick, raised the dead, forgave sins, taught with authority, spoke about God as his Father, called himself the Son of Man; he predicted his death, and instituted a new covenant at the Last Supper. And he was crucified as a blasphemer of Israel’s God and a rebel against Imperial Rome. For God to raise this man from the dead would be to confirm God’s approval of all he said and did. It would be to reverse completely the charge of blasphemy and unlawful rebellion.

As for the religious and theological context, most Jews in Jesus’ day hoped that when God defeated evil and established his everlasting kingdom, he would raise the dead so that they could participate in the kingdom. The resurrection of the dead to eternal life was supposed to happen only with the end of the age and the coming of the kingdom of God. So, when Jesus was definitively saved from death and his human body was glorified and made immortal, the disciples concluded that the kingdom has come. It is the beginning of the end. And Jesus is the first of many!

The original disciples and Paul experienced appearances of the resurrected and glorified Jesus. And they were completely transformed. Paul was changed from Rabbi and Persecutor to Apostle, Missionary and Martyr. They feared neither death nor the devil. They desired neither money nor fame. Paul summarizes well the resurrection lifestyle: “For me, to live is Christ, to die is gain” (Phil 1:21). Or “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20).

The Resurrection of Jesus Really Happened. How do we know this? We know in the same way we know any event in the past: either we remember our own experience of it or we believe the word of someone who did experience it. In the case of the resurrection of Jesus, the decisive issue is whether or not we believe the testimony of those first generation Christians who tell us they saw and heard the resurrected Jesus. We have the witness of gospel accounts, Acts, 1 Peter and the letters of John. But the testimony of Paul, from a historian’s point of view, is the strongest and most direct testimony. We can listen to his own words from his letters, and no one doubts that 1 Corinthians and Galatians were written by Paul within about 20 years of the resurrection and about 17 or 18 years of Paul’s conversion on the Damascus Road.

1 Cor 15:3-8

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 Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters 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.”

And according to Galatians 1:18-20, Paul met Peter and stayed with him 15 days and he also met James the Lord’s brother. So, what Paul’s says in 1 Corinthians about Jesus appearing to Peter and James is not hearsay. He heard their stories from their own mouths.

We can believe them or not, but there is no doubt about what they claim.

Accepting the apostles’ testimony to the Resurrection of Jesus establishes their authority for us. The Lord Jesus chose to reveal himself to the apostles. They are special. When we come to faith in Jesus through their words, we simultaneously acknowledge our dependence on them. We naturally want to know everything they can tell us about Jesus and about how to become his disciples and live as Christians. This is why the church accepts the authority of the NT. We don’t believe the resurrection because of the authority of the NT, we accept the authority of the NT (and the whole Bible) because we believe the apostles’ testimony to the resurrection. Keeping this order in mind will answer many of the questions and solve many of the problems nonbelievers and believers alike have about the Bible.

Believing—really believing—the apostles’ testimony to the Resurrection of Jesus will revolutionize your life. Think about how their experience of seeing and hearing the resurrected Christ changed Peter and Paul’s lives. In fear, Peter denied Jesus three times. But after the Jesus’ resurrection he stood before the same Sanhedrin Council that condemned Jesus, headed by the same high priest, Caiaphas. But this time he boldly proclaimed to the Council the name of Jesus “whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead” (Acts 4:10).

Meeting the resurrected Jesus changed Paul from persecutor to preacher and missionary to the world. As soon as you have the chance, turn to Acts 26 and read Paul’s speech to King Agrippa. There he tells the story of his conversion. These people no longer feared death or kings or emperors or the devil. They no longer desired riches or fame. They no longer sought pleasure or comfort. This revolution happened not only to Peter and Paul but also to Stephen and Phillip, James and John and many others. And it can happen to you as well.

But we have not experienced the risen Jesus in the same way they did. So we have to experience it in faith. How do we do this? It might help us to remember that as far as we know they did not continually experience appearances of Jesus their whole lives. Even they had to remember what they saw and heard. We don’t have those memories as our own. So we can’t imagine it or remember it for ourselves. But we have their memories! So, we need to listen to their testimony, enter into their words and let their words enter into us; and through their words we enter into their experiences.

One of the main reasons for the existence of the church and for gathering together as a church is to enter into these memories. Symbols and sacraments and teaching and singing brings these memories to life again. As we read their words, we realize that they had no doubts about the reality of the resurrection. The resurrected Jesus was as real to them as you are to me, and their memories of his appearances were as real as our memories of yesterday. And as we continually let their words dwell in us, we will begin to experience their confidence in the reality of the resurrection; and you may find yourself acting with their boldness in living.


So on Sunday when the worship leader says to you “He has risen” and you say in return, “He has risen indeed,” understand that these words are not originally your memories, not your feelings. You can’t assert them on your own authority. And they are not empty Christianese code words. These are the words the angel spoke to the women at the empty tomb. But if you are clear about who said these words first and why, you can experience something of the joy, confidence and boldness of those who first heard them.

Note: This talk was delivered to a student gathering at Pepperdine University on Thursday, April 2, 2015.

The Damascus Road Revelation and Paul’s Gospel

We have been pursuing the idea that the event of the resurrection of Jesus, set in its historical context of the acts, teaching, death of Jesus, contemporary ideas about the resurrection of the dead at the end of the age, and the resurrection appearances themselves, contains the core gospel at the origin of Christianity. Today we consider some New Testament texts that refer to resurrection appearances. Since in this series so far we are not presupposing Christianity’s truth but examining the evidence for this conclusion, I will proceed with some historical caution. Hence we will give the highest priority to testimony from sources historians consider as having the most direct access to the appearances of the resurrected Jesus.

All New Testament writings presuppose or explicitly refer to the resurrection of Jesus. The Four Gospels narrate Jesus’ appearances to his original disciples, to the women who visited the tomb, and to Peter, John, and the others. And Acts presents the preaching and testimony of Peter and Paul concerning the resurrection. A good case can be made that these accounts derive from the people who actually experienced the appearances first hand. But Paul’s testimony is unique. He records, in his own words in letters written by him, his direct experience of the resurrected Lord. Someone might argue that the narrations in the Gospels or Acts or Hebrews are indirect, second or third-hand, and therefore could differ from the original witnesses’ testimony. No such argument can be made about Paul’s testimony in 1 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Romans, and Philippians. In this case, we must choose to believe Paul or not believe him. There is no issue of corruption in transmission.

Paul teaches about the significance of the resurrection of Jesus in many places (For example, Phil 3:10-11, 20-21; 1 Thess 1:9b-10; 4:13-8; Rom 1:1-4; 4:18-25; 6:1-10; 8:9-11, 22-26; 10:9-10; 14:7-9; and 2 Cor 4:7-15) . But he refers to his own experience of the risen Jesus three times, twice in 1 Corinthians and once in Galatians:

1 Cor 9:1

“Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord?”

1 Cor 15:3-8

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 Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters 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.”

Galatians 1:11-17

I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. 12 I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.

13 For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. 14 I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. 15 But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased 16 to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. 17 I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus.”

The topic we are considering is so huge that many books could be written on it. Sadly, I have time and space to make only one point. The two references to “revelation” in Galatians 1:11-17 (quoted above), considered along with the other two texts also quoted above, clearly refer to the appearance of the resurrected Christ to Paul (cf. Acts 9, 22, and 24). In verse 12, Paul says he received his gospel by revelation.  In verses 13-16, he elaborates on this revelation, its context, and its results. Before this revelation, Paul thought he should persecute the church and be zealous for the traditions of his fathers. But God intervened and graciously revealed “his Son in me”. Paul’s experience of the resurrected Jesus as an act of divine grace and as God’s choice to have mercy on a sinner and an enemy (cf. Rom 5:1), definitively shaped his understanding of the gospel. For Paul, the good news proclaims that God’s grace and mercy do not depend on our works of righteousness. And, if we don’t have to win God’s grace and avoid God’s wrath by scrupulously keeping the Law, God’s people can be opened to the Gentiles by faith in Jesus!

Further elaboration of the meaning and implications of the resurrection would lead us deep into the field of Christology. My point so far in this series on the resurrection is to show that the resurrection is not merely a brute fact, a miracle whose meaning is exhausted by its unusual nature. Given its context in the life of Jesus, the religious thought of the day, and in the lives of those to whom the resurrected Jesus appeared, we can see how Jesus’ resurrection implied a religious revolution that has in fact changed the world.

Next time we must ask whether or not Jesus Christ really rose from the dead and whether or not we can make a rational judgment and a responsible decision to affirm that “He is risen.”