1 Corinthians 2:1-2, 15:12-17
Have you ever been in some sort of sales transaction or contract? All sorts of details are being presented and the other person goes on and on and on. As you are listening to all the talking, you begin lose patience. What is the bottom line? Whether that is price or timing or quality or whatever, what is the main thing? We can apply this to every area of our life, including our Christian faith. There are all kinds of things that Christians talk about. We talk about worship styles and offerings and membership and baptism and predestination and sanctification and so on and so on. These are all very important, but what is the main thing? Part of it is what we have been looking at over the last two weeks: the divinity and humanity of Christ. But there is something else that is absolutely required. Christians can agree to disagree on many things but they cannot on this: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We started off the message with some comments by the Apostle Paul. Paul is writing to a church in Corinth that valued knowledge and philosophy. Paul was an intelligent man, well educated, who could handle his own in any debate. But he says something very interesting and surprising, Paul says that he wanted to know nothing but Christ and Him crucified. For Paul, Jesus on the cross providing forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God was central to the faith. Closely connected to this are his comments later on. Some of the Corinthians doubted the resurrection. Paul works through this and points out that if Jesus did not rise from the dead, our faith is in vain. For Paul, the crucifixion and the resurrection, were the two axles that drive the vehicle of the Church. Take one or both axles off of a car and it is good only as a lawn ornament. The same is true for the crucifixion and the resurrection for the Christian faith. But you might say that no one questions these central truths. Unfortunately, they have been questioned both inside and outside of the church. Today, we are going to look at some of the myths about the death and resurrection of Jesus and as a result become more confident that we are on a firm foundation.
I. Jesus Was Too Good to Die on a Cross
Right from the beginning, people were struggling with the cross. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1:18, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Why is the cross folly to some people? People back then understood very clearly what crucifixion was. It was one of the most painful and humiliating ways to execute a person. You did not look to a person on a cross with adoration or worship; you looked at them with pity or scorn. It was reserved for the worst of the worst. In the ancient world, there were both honorable and dishonorable ways to die. A good way to die would be to voluntarily ingest poison or stab oneself with a dagger. Crucifixion was at the bottom of the list. That is why the Greeks struggled with worshipping one who died on a cross. In addition, the Jews knew that Old Testament passage about one who dies on a tree being cursed. That did not sound like a messiah to them. People who struggled with this had two choices: either Jesus was not God’s chosen on or Jesus did not die on the cross. Muslims adopted this second option. Muslims believe that Jesus was God’s chosen messiah to the Jews. He was a righteous man who was condemned by the Jews. The Jews tried to crucify Jesus but God intervened because of how faithful Jesus was. They thought they crucified Jesus but God did a last minute switch, perhaps replacing Jesus with Judas. To the Muslims, Jesus was too good to be crucified. We might disagree, but it is worth asking: was Jesus too good to die on a cross? The reality is, that is the wrong question. It was not: was Jesus too good to be crucified, but rather was Jesus good enough to be crucified. God’s whole plan was for Jesus to die on the cross. The Jews were right to think of one who died on a tree being cursed. But the curse that Jesus had was not based on His sin but ours. He took on the curse of sin and death and paid the price. Jesus’ death does not contradict His goodness, it is based upon it.
II. Jesus Survived the Cross
One of the areas that critics have struggled with is that the disciples really seemed to believe that they saw Jesus alive on the third day. Assuming that resurrection is not possible, how can we explain this? For the last couple hundred years there has been an attempt to provide a non-supernatural explanation. This is called the swoon theory. The basic idea is that Jesus passed out on the cross and the Romans mistakenly assumed He was dead. They allowed Jesus to be buried and on the third day He recovered from His wounds and escaped the tomb, meeting up with His friends. Since they thought He had died, they also thought He had been resurrected. One the face of it, this seems to make sense. But let’s look deeper. The Gospel of John anticipates this theory when it recounts the Romans investigation into Jesus’ death. They pierced Jesus with a spear to ensure that He was dead. The Romans were too good at their jobs to make a mistake like critics claim. Let us assume for a moment that the Romans did not check or that Jesus survived the spear thrust. Surviving on the cross required the physical strength to lift oneself up to catch a breath. If you passed out, you would be dead soon from suffocation, because you would not be able to lift yourself up. But there are still more problems. Our earliest traditions in the New Testament interpret the appearance of Jesus, not as resuscitation, that is a bringing back to life, as experienced by Lazarus and others during Jesus’ ministry. They saw Jesus as being the first one to experience the resurrection, that is, the transformation that all followers of God looked forward to, the reception of an eternal spiritual resurrection body. Now imagine what they would have seen as Jesus appeared them on the third day if He had only passed out on the cross and had been trapped in a tomb for a couple of days. Jesus would have literally looked like death warmed over. They would not have been worshipping Him, they would have been rushing Him to a doctor. Under no circumstances would they have looked at his bruised and bloody body and anticipated that is what they would look like at the resurrection. The swoon theory is not logical at all.
III. There is No Historical Evidence for the Resurrection
For the last couple of hundred years, critical scholars have tried to piece together the historical Jesus from a non-supernatural perspective. They have attempted to reconstruct His journeys, ministry and even His sayings. But most often they stop at the crucifixion. The reason? The claim is that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a matter of faith and not a matter of history. I am not sure how you can separate the two, but let us take a look. The best place to begin is 1 Corinthians 15, the first few verses of which have been dated as being within a few years of the events. Notice some important parts to this account. The resurrection was not something that took place in secret. Paul offers names and numbers of people who witnessed the resurrected Jesus. This is very important. It is often claimed that the disciples saw only what they wanted to see because of their grief. But that is difficult to accept from what Paul tells us. I had dreams for years and years that my grandmother was not really dead. I did not take those dreams very seriously as I was the only one having that dream. But if five hundred people were claiming to see my dead grandmother, I would get suspicious. There were too many people who claimed to have seen Jesus for this to be a hallucination. In addition, Paul challenges the Corinthians to talk to the people who saw these things, as most of them were still alive. This is not something claimed hundreds of years after the events. There were living witnesses. In addition to the number of witnesses, there is the nature of the witnesses. Paul names two people, James and himself, who were hostile to Jesus before encountering the resurrected Jesus. James, who was Jesus’ own brother, rejected Jesus during His life time, but after seeing the risen Christ, eventually became the head of the Jerusalem church. Paul, actually had Christians killed because he was convinced that Christianity was a false and dangerous heresy. After meeting the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul became the most successful evangelist, church planter and theologian of the early church. These are the kind of life changes that need more than a bad dream after eating too much pizza. There is much more that I could say, but I want you to take notice of where this belief in the resurrection of Jesus led these people. James died a very violent death. Peter was crucified upside down. Paul was beheaded. They did not have to go through these violent deaths, but were willing to because they were convinced of the truth of the Gospel. I love the story of Lord of the Rings and see many great life and moral lessons in it. But I would never give my life in appreciation for the story. The willingness of the first Christians who claimed to have seen the risen Jesus is good historical evidence that it really happened.
If you enjoy history, you might have liked what I had to say. But what does this mean to the average Christian? Each one of us knows that we do bad things and that we cannot live up to God’s standards. Our good works never seem to do the job. That could leave us feeling rather condemned and guilt-ridden over our condition. But if Jesus really did die on the cross for our sins, then there is hope. There is a reason to feel close to God and to feel as if there is a place in His family for us. And then there is the resurrection. I think almost everyone reflects on what happens after death at some point in their life. The resurrection of Jesus proves that there is something after death. Not only that, the resurrection of Jesus was meant to be the first stage of what would happen to us. The empty tomb proves that Jesus is the Lord who conquers not only sin but death as well. The resurrection of Jesus gives us reason to see our lives in light of eternity. Knowing that neither sin nor death have any more hold on us should have a tremendous impact on how we live our lives.