The following is from a short series of Sunday School lessons I prepared and taught concerning the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Based on some interactions I have seen today in the blog world it seems quite appropriate. The tone of this blog may sound somewhat conversational, and references will be made to conversations that took place at other times.
The Resurrection of Jesus-Why it Matters
As with many other core doctrines of Historical Orthodox Christianity, the Doctrine of the Resurrection is under assault from many quarters. Obviously, atheists and humanists discount the account of the Resurrection just like they discount all other Biblical accounts of anything. We are not surprised by their disbelief at all, as it makes perfect sense from their worldview. Surprisingly, and more disturbingly, is the assault on the account of the Resurrection coming from supposedly “Christian” denominations and scholars. Sadly, even among the so called Christian Church, the Resurrection is dismissed as not historically accurate, or as simply not key or important to core doctrines. Here are a couple of examples of so-called Christian theologians who promote a far less than literal account of the Resurrection.
The first is from Marcus Borg, whom some may remember from our first lesson when we discussed the Jesus Seminar. This was the collaboration of Christian Scholars who studied and then voted concerning that parts of Jesus’ life they found to be credible. This information is from the Patheos.com website, Borg verifies that he does not believe in a physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the tomb, then goes on to defend why he thinks this belief is not even necessary. He says what we have today, including what the disciples had prior to the Ascension, are merely “experiences” and not necessarily physical in nature. Although one could almost agree that today we only experience Jesus as “an experience” (through prayer and God’s Word), he denies also that the post resurrection interactions with Jesus were with a real, living Jesus.
Another blogger on the same site wrote the following. This quote comes from David R. Henson, who happens to be an Episcopalian Scholar, which happens to be a major Protestant Denomination in this country.
“The Gospel stories of the resurrection are not intended to prove the resurrection happened bodily, literally, and historically. Rather, they are intended to invite us — the disciple of today — to experience the ongoing reality of resurrection.”
Can the account of the Resurrection be dismissed or even watered down while still maintaining the core of true Christian belief? The answer is a resounding NO! As with other key doctrines, such as the Creation and the Divinity of Jesus, the Resurrection is one of the hinges upon which all true Christian belief swings. Throw it away or dilute in in any substantial form, and the entire Biblical record might as well be tossed aside as well. So, our first task is to establish why this doctrine is so central and important to true Christian belief. Several writers state outright that without the Resurrection, Christianity is false. John McArthur said the following in one of his sermons.
“If you remove the resurrection of Jesus Christ from Christianity, you don’t have Christianity. You literally take the heart out of it”
In 2007, the late Christopher Hitchens wrote a bestselling book entitled, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. In that book, Hitchens—a world-famous atheist—tried to disprove the existence of God. During his book tour, Hitchens was asked if he made a distinction between Christians who believe in the Resurrection and Christians who don’t. He responded:
“I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that He rose again from the dead and by His sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.”
Additionally, study for this section has discovered numerous writers who not only hold the belief of the centrality of the Resurrection to Christian belief, but go so far as to say that the Resurrection is, in fact, the single most important even in the history of the World.
Paul, writing to the believers in Corinth pointed out in 1 Corinthians 15:17-19 that without the Resurrection, our faith is vain and useless. Since Paul wrote that under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, it is as if God Himself is telling us that the Resurrection matters.
Not only is the belief in the fact of the Resurrection vital, but the belief in the nature of the Resurrection of Jesus is also vital. Many false belief systems believe in some form of a “Resurrection”; they just believe wrongly about the nature of it. For instance, one of the biggest heresies concerning the Resurrection is that Jesus did not really return to life physically, but was merely raised spiritually in spirit. In this section, then, we will not only establish the importance of the fact of the Resurrection, but the importance of the nature and substance of it.
There are many, many reasons why the Resurrection is so vital, and books have been written to study them all in depth; in this section we will simply try to capture some of the more compelling ones in a condensed form.
Jesus Christ had to die. Before we cover why Jesus had to arise from the dead, a quick review of why He had to die is in order to properly set the stage. We have covered this idea in previous sections and will continue to discuss it in subsequent ones as well, so our discussion will be brief. It is important that Jesus, the Man, die a very human and very complete death.
Jesus was our substitute. We all understand this concept, as it is the basic premise of the Gospel. A just, righteous God demands that a penalty be paid for the sin of each of us as well as the sin for all of mankind. Jesus, as both God and man, could pay that infinite penalty. The issue is the comparison of God’s Holiness with our sinfulness. We learn in Leviticus 11:44 and Proverbs 15:9 how God cannot allow sin to go unpunished. Yet, as we learned in the section on The Fall of Man as well as the Depravity of Man, we are sinners by birth and nature. A good review of this basic concept is found in Romans 3: 10-20.
It has to be specifically Jesus who died, and no other man. Because man had sinned, man had to die. If a man were sentenced to death, no secular judge could ever accept a plant as a substitute. So, man had to die for man’s sin. But, it also took more than a mere man to die for the sin of all men. A mere human can only die for themselves, they cannot cover the cost for anyone but themselves. So, not only did Jesus have to be fully human, but He had to be infinite in nature to substitute for all humanity on the Cross. That is a very quick review, but it covers the basics of the fact that Jesus did have to literally, physically die.
Jesus’ Resurrection proves He was the Divine Son of God, and that He was God in the flesh. Men die; however, men do not return from the dead. That is, of course, unless they are brought back to life by God Himself. Other than that, men stay dead once they are dead. The act of dying on the Cross proves nothing really, but the act of rising in three days proves everything. God Himself told us this through the Apostle Paul in Romans 1:4, that Jesus’ Resurrection declares Him to be the Son of God. We cannot get a more reliable witness than the Supreme witness! While we covered many reasons why we believe Jesus was the Divine Son of God in an earlier lesson, they all pale in comparison the testimony of God Himself.
Jesus’ Resurrection proves the Word of God to be true. God Himself has said in His Word numerous times that it is true, and we studied extensively in and earlier lesson many valid and compelling reasons to believe that Word is true; yet, no other event shows us as clearly why we can believe The Bible is true than the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Bible contains prophecies throughout about the future resurrection of Jesus, and they all have come to pass. If we accept the truth of the Resurrection, and we do, then these fulfilled prophecies constitute much proof of the reliability of God’s Word. Below we will look at some of them.
Jesus Himself foretold His own death and ultimate resurrection. In Matthew 16:21 we learn how Jesus began to teach His disciples about His upcoming capture, death on the cross, and resurrection after three days. He taught them the same lesson in Matthew 20:17-19. The list goes on, as Jesus taught of this concept over and over: Mark 8:31; Matthew 12:40; Luke 9:22; John 2:19-22. In that last verse, we see how the disciples ultimately believed Jesus had predicted His death, burial and resurrection and believed on Him.
Even Jesus’ enemies recalled clearly that He had predicted His death and resurrection. That is why the Scribes and Pharisees came to Pontius Pilate after His death requesting a guard be placed on His tomb. This account can be found in Matthew 27:62-66.
We need not only use Jesus’ own words to see that His death and resurrection was foretold before it happened. One place we can see some of the Old Testament predictions of the Death and resurrection of the Messiah are from the Sermon Peter preached on the day of Pentecost contained in Acts Chapter 2. Beginning in verse 22, Peter relates how his hearers had crucified Jesus, and hands them their condemnation for that act. But he does not leave it at that. He then tells how the grave could not hold our Savior and beginning in verse 24, Peter then relates this even as fulfilling the prophesies of King David as the Holy Spirit inspired him to write in Psalm 16:8-11. In addition, Peter quotes from Psalm 16, which in context is clearly not talking about David himself, but is a future prediction concerning the Messiah.
Peter was not alone in revealing that the Resurrection of Jesus was fulfilled prophecy; Paul joined in later in Acts Chapter 13, preaching the Gospel to the Jews in the Synagogue at Antioch. Paul starts out with a simple description of how Jesus was slain and arose again. Then starting in Verse 32 he points out that this was not a simply incident of current history, but was fulfilled prophecy. In Verse 33 he then shows them exactly where this prophecy came from, Psalm 2:7. Incidentally, both of these instances teach us a very useful lesson regarding the interpretation of Scripture: One always has to look at the context of any passage as a whole, as over and over again, we see scripture interpret itself. We just have to be thorough in our reading and study to see it sometimes. In Acts 13:34 Paul goes on to reference Isaiah 55:3 when he refers to the promise to give the sure mercies of David to Him. John MacArthur refers to this as a promise of the Resurrection. He points out that Isaiah 53 describes His death, and Isaiah 55 His inheritance. He then goes on to point out that if there is a death followed by an inheritance, somewhere in between there has to be a resurrection.
The Resurrection makes our justification possible. Without the Resurrection we have no hope of eternal life; in fact, without it we remain dead in our sins. Paul pointed out in his first letter to the Corinthians that without the Resurrection, our faith is vain and useless, in 1 Corinthians 15:13-17. The Resurrection is as much a part of the process of our salvation, really, as the death of Christ. Even when we teach children the ABCs of salvation, they learn this idea. The B is what we believe. We don’t just teach them to believe Jesus died for our sins. We teach them they need to believe that He died for our sins, was buried, and then rose again from the dead.
First we have to understand the fact that Jesus became sin for us; 2 Corinthians 5:21 teaches that to us. Then we also learn in Romans 6:23 what the penalty for sin is, and that penalty is death. We know that Jesus lived a perfect and sinless life and did not deserve to die. It was his sinless perfection which earned Him the right to not stay dead, but to rise from the dead. In other words, Jesus earned the right to overcome death because of His sinless life. It is through his overcoming of death that we are ultimately justified. We, of course, do not earn our own justification. We are given credit for Jesus’ payment as our justification. It is fairly simple really; if Jesus stayed dead it was because He deserved death. If He deserved death then He could not pay our assigned penalty of death. So, The Resurrection is absolutely a necessary part of or justification.
Without the Resurrection, Jesus is just another dead “Prophet.” Every other prophet or founder of any world “religion” has died. The list is long and here are just a few: Buddha(Buddhism), Joseph Smith(Mormonism), Charles Taze Russell(Jehovah’s Witnesses) and of course Mohammed(Islam). Those are just the founders and prophets of some of the major religions movements in the world today; there have been countless religions founded by countless “prophets” throughout history. What they all share in common is that they all died. In that sense, they are no different from Jesus Christ, as we know he died also. There the similarity ends. First and foremost, Jesus died for a specific reason; that reason was to pay the penalty God required for the sins mankind had committed. No other religion even makes such a claim as that. And finally and most importantly, all those other men and women stayed quite dead! In fact, no other religion even claims that their founder or prophet died then came back in a bodily form.
As we pointed out earlier, this concept is key and central to the very core of the Christian Faith. Without a bodily resurrection, our entire faith simply melts away. Without the Resurrection, Jesus was not God; he was just a martyred prophet. Without the Resurrection, every single prophecy about it is false; that renders the Bible false. Without the Resurrection, even Jesus’ own prophecies about His death and Resurrection were false, making Him not even a real prophet, but a false one. Without the Resurrection, we cannot be justified and cleared of our sin; If Jesus is still dead then we are still dead in our sin. Without the Resurrection, there is no hope. If Jesus died and stayed dead, then we also will die and stay dead. We know, however, that we all face a future resurrection in a bodily form; we will cover that topic later in this lesson.
How Can We Know the Resurrection Really Happened?
To say that the Resurrection of Jesus is a hotly debated historical event would be a huge understatement. Only the Genesis account of creation and the miracles in The Bible are debated as much as the account of the Resurrection. Atheists and secularists attack these three areas more than any others in their attempts to discredit Christianity. We have covered several times the very simple reason why these areas come under such fire, but we will cover them once again. If the events in Genesis did not occur, then there is little reason to accept that anything else in The Bible took place. If the miracles of The Bible did not occur, particularly the miracles of Jesus, then Jesus was not who He said He was; He was not God, The Messiah and the Savior of the World. We just discussed previously why the Resurrection is so central and necessary to our Faith.
Nonetheless, there are many very compelling evidences that show us that the Resurrection was a real, historical event. It can be shown that it occurred with just as much reliability as any other historical event from that time period. When we apply the generally accepted rules of historical and literary research to the accounts of the Resurrection, we find that they are at least as reliable as accounts of other events from ancient history.
When people ask if we can prove the Resurrection, the answer of course is no. We can’t really prove Julius Caesar or George Washington existed in the sense than any one alive today has seen either one of them; all we have are very reliable accounts and histories that provide very strong evidence that both of these mean were real and that the events in their lives were also real. Based on the reliable evidences that support the existence of those two, any reasonable person would conclude that they were absolutely real. Base on the reliable evidences concerning the Resurrection, and reasonable person would likewise come to the conclusion that it happened.
Luke, the writer of the Book of the Bible with his name as well as the book of Acts had the following to say regarding the Resurrection of Jesus Christ in Acts 1:3
“To whom also he shewed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God”
In our section on the reliability and accuracy of scripture we covered how Luke today is considered a very reliable historian of the Biblical period, and that no one has yet found him to be wrong concerning any historical issue he wrote about. So it’s quite reasonable to think that when perhaps the most reliable historian writing in the Bible speaks concerning “infallible proofs” that there might be some substance to it. Now we will move on and explore some of those “infallible proofs” concerning the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The Tomb is empty. Perhaps this should have been worded that the tomb was empty, because the fact that the tomb Jesus was buried in was immediately known to be empty remains one of the biggest proofs that our Savior arose from it. There is little argument historically that the tomb was, in fact, empty.
In fact, one of the biggest proofs concerning the fact that the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea was empty is the fact that even those hostile to the Christian faith acknowledged the fact. The unoccupied tomb was not just written about in The Bible, but also in early Jewish and Roman writings and traditions. Several writers of the time, notably the historian Josephus, referred to the empty tomb. Very little evidence is more compelling to prove a position than when someone hostile to that position actually admits a fact that is not favorable to them!
Another big proof of the empty tomb was all the stories that had to be made up to answer how the tomb became empty. The disciples stole the body; the women went to the wrong tomb; the Roman guards fell asleep; all were efforts to explain why the Tomb was empty. All of these problems could easily been solved by simply producing a body, which could not be produced, because it was not there.
The fact that the disciples, after encountering the risen Jesus, came back to Jerusalem to preach the gospel is solid evidence for the Resurrection. The disciples may have been simple and uneducated, but they were not stupid. Once they encountered the risen Jesus, they right away returned to the very place where He had been buried to proclaim His rising to the world. If it were doubtful or untrue, the last place they would go to proclaim is was the very place it supposedly happened! It simply would have been too easy for their enemies to disprove what they were saying by just producing a body. The entire rise of early Christianity would have been shut down and stopped before it even began if only a body had been produced.
If there had been some way to produce a body and refute the preaching of the disciples the Jewish Council, The Sanhedrin, would certainly have done that right away. If the disciples had even thought that Jesus’ body could be produced they certainly would not have been preaching in the very city where the Resurrection occurred; they would have gone to some other place where their teachings could not be disproved easily.
The women witnesses lend credence to the empty tomb. Think back to the Bible story of the discovery of the empty tomb that first Easter morning. It was not Peter and the other disciples who returned to find that Jesus was no longer there; it was Mary Magdalene and the other women. It is important to note that in those times, women were not considered the equal of men; in a court of law their testimony was not even allowed. Any writer attempting to make up a story would never have used the accounts of a group of women to be the basis of his story! Why would the gospel writers have told the story this way unless it was true? Surely if they were making it up, they would have enhanced the story with more “reliable” witnesses.
The post resurrection accounts of encounters with Jesus provide evidence of its truth. The Bible records numerous incidences of people encountering Jesus after he died on the cross. Let’s take a look at some of them. These are not necessarily in order, but represent a general ordering of them in a simplified manner. Scholars can, and do, fill volumes with debate concerning the exact order of the post Resurrection appearances of Jesus.
Mary Magdalene at the tomb, John 20:11-18
The other Mary, Salome, Joanna, and at least one other woman, Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:1;Luke 24:10.
Peter, Luke 24:34; 1 Corinthians 15:5.
Cleopas and another disciple on the road to Emmaus, Luke 24:13-35.
Eleven disciples minus Thomas, Luke 24:36-43; John 20:19-25.
The eleven disciples, John 20:26-29.
Seven disciples at the Sea of Tiberius, John 21:1-23.
Disciples at a mountain in Galilee, Matthew 28:16,17. (This could also when the 500 hundred Paul referred to in 1 Corinthians 15:6 were, or that could be an additional appearance.)
James, 1 Corinthians 15:7.
Some disciples before He led them to the Mount of Olives, gave the Great Commission and ascended into Heaven, Luke 24: 49-53; Acts 1:3-11.
Not only did Jesus appear before people at these times, but He did things for and with them as well. Mary Magdalene clung to Him. The women at the tomb grasped His feet. He walked and talked with the two on the road to Emmaus. He cooked and ate with the disciples on the Sea of Galilee. Thomas, after missing the first appearance, touched the scars in Jesus’ hands. These accounts all show that Jesus was not just walking around in some spirit form, but that He rose in His physical body from that tomb.
The actions of many of the disciples and followers of Jesus after they encountered him are evidence the Resurrection is true. When Jesus was being crucified, the disciples all fled and hid. They were scared they would be next. We all know how Peter was so terrified he denied three times that he even knew who Jesus was. Saul the Pharisee had adopted it as his mission in life to persecute, imprison and even kill as many Christians as he possibly could. James, the brother of Jesus did not even believe himself that Jesus was The Christ.
The changed lives of the Apostles certainly gives weight to the evidence that The Resurrection is real. Quickly and suddenly, this group of men went from cowering in fear for their lives to boldly preaching and proclaiming the Gospel of the Risen Christ. Generally speaking, men do not change like that unless some outside influence causes it to happen. It seems evident from the accounts of their encounters with Jesus that seeing Him alive after His death was that event. It is important to note that, according to tradition, all of the Apostles except for John were eventually martyred for their preaching of the Gospel. Not only did most of them die as martyrs, but countless other disciples of Jesus died in the early days of Christianity for preaching Jesus. While many people might be willing to die for something they know to be true, few are willing to die for something they know to be false. They fact that these early Christians were willing to die for their new faith is certainly strong evidence they actually believed what they were saying. Combine their belief with other evidences and one has compelling evidence for The Resurrection.
James, the early leader of the Jerusalem Church and the brother of Jesus, did not believe that his own brother was the Messiah until after he encountered the Risen Jesus. We learn in John 7:5 that his own brothers did not believe in Him, “For neither did his brethren believe in him.” We can read in Mark 3:21, 31-15 that not only did Jesus’ family not believe, they actually thought perhaps He was mentally ill! So, what changed for James? It seem likely that James’ encounter with his risen brother is the event that changed his unbelief into belief. We see the only record of his appearance to James in 1 Corinthians 15:7. We do not know exactly where or when this occurred, but we do know that James’ life changed in a powerful way. He went on to be the leader of the early Jerusalem Church and the author of the Epistle bearing his name. In fact, it is interesting to note the in the opening of the Book of James, that James did not even refer to himself as Jesus’ brother. He called himself “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
And of course we have to add James to the list of men and women who were willing to die for believing in and preaching the risen Jesus, as James was ultimately killed in Jerusalem in AD 62 according to some traditions. James was taken to the top of the Temple and given a chance to renounce his faith, which he refused. He was then thrown from the top of the Temple; when this did not kill him, he was then stoned and finally clubbed to finish the job.
Finally, we cannot forget the Apostle Paul and his conversion. Saul of Tarsus had made it his life’s mission to persecute, imprison and even kill Christians. We cannot forget that Saul was the young man holding the outer garments of the men who were stoning the Preacher Stephen in Acts 6 and 7. Saul then continues to be the center of the narrative into Chapters 8 and 9 as he “made havock of the church.” What happened to Saul of Tarsus? We can see this in Acts Chapter 9. In the first verse, Saul of Tarsus was “breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord;” and yet by Verse 20 “he preached Christ in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God.” What happened? The 10 verses in between tell the story; Saul encountered the Resurrected Jesus, was converted, and became Paul the Apostle and the world changed forever. Paul went on to become perhaps the greatest missionary and preacher ever and the inspired writer of much of the New Testament.
Of course we cannot ever forget Peter. The same Peter who was so scared he denied even knowing who Jesus was became the very different Peter who preached the sermon on the day of Pentecost during which some 3000 people were saved in Acts Chapter 2. This same transformed Peter later gave his own life as a martyr, only this time he did not fear it, but welcomed the chance to die for his beliefs.
Living witnesses at the time of the Resurrection are evidence of its truth. The writers of the gospels were either witnesses to or drew their information from people who were witness to the Resurrection of Jesus. They wrote their accounts at a time when many of the people who were alive at the time of this event were still quite alive. One has to wonder why, other than the Jewish authorities and the Roman Government, nobody came forward to dispute the accounts they wrote. Surely if there was no basis in fact, people disputing the Resurrection would have come forward in multitudes; yet we see no evidence of this in other non biblical writings. In 1 Corinthians 15:6 when Paul gives account of the 500 witnesses who saw Jesus at once, he points out that at the time of his writing, many of them were still quite alive. It was as if he was inviting someone to come forward and deny it. “Ask them if you don’t believe me,” he is almost saying.
What are some of the theories doubters use to explain away or deny the Resurrection?
There are many, actually, but we will cover and dismiss just a few of the more common and notable here.
The women, and later the disciples, went to the wrong tomb. This theory states that the women the morning of the Resurrection simply were mistaken and went to the wrong tomb; later the disciples did the same thing. That seems doubtful, as we can be certain that the Jewish authorities and the Romans knew exactly where Jesus’ body was placed. And the Roman guards certainly knew where He was, as they were assigned the duty of guarding him. The very second the women and disciples began making claims that Jesus had risen, it would have been very simple for them to just produce the body.
Jesus didn’t die, He just “swooned.” In other words, He fainted from exhaustion and blood loss. So, later, when he woke up and appeared, people just thought it was a resurrection. Crucifixion universally killed its victims; one can search all the writings and not find an example of anyone being punished this way later being reported alive. Why would Jesus be the first? Even if someone were taken down from a cross and lived, they would not be walking around. The Bible records the spear being thrust into Jesus side in John 19:34 and the blood and water that came out; most likely that was the rupture of the pericardium or the sac that surrounds the heart and major blood vessels. As a note, that was done to make sure Jesus was actually dead; he apparently died faster than people crucified usually did. A person is not likely to survive that, especially in a day with no real medical care available. Jesus had been beaten so bad he was not recognizable by those who knew Him. He was laid in a tomb covered in grave clothes. If He had gotten up and began walking around to see people, they certainly would not have considered Him a victorious conqueror of death!
All the post resurrection sighting of Jesus were just illusions or hallucinations. That theory might work if only one person at a time had reported seeing him; however, He appeared repeatedly to groups of people. Psychologists will gladly share the fact that hallucinations are an individual thing, not a group things. Groups can get hysterical, they can riot, they can all think something at the same time; but groups of people simply do not all have the exact same hallucination at the same time. We still end up at the same conclusion; where was the body and why didn’t the authorities just produce it?
The disciples stole the body. This one is hardly worth looking at due to its absurdity. Jesus tomb was, first of all, being guarded by a Roman Guard contingent. Roman soldiers were the finest trained and most well armed in the world at that time. They were extremely serious about guard duty, as the punishment for failing in that mission was execution. One the other hand, one has a group of disciples who had already shown they were scared to death. Peter, the bravest of them all, denied even knowing Jesus! So the idea that they would confront a Roman guard detachment, break a Roman seal, roll away that massive stone and walk off with Jesus’ body is simply ludicrous.
In summary, the following ideas seem vastly important.
Believe in the literal, physical resurrection of Jesus is vital and central to true, orthodox. historical Christianity. Without the resurrection, one simply does not have Christianity.
When compared to the evidences offered to support the occurrence of any other historical even which none of us have seen, the resurrection of Jesus Christ stacks up quite well as a historical event.