Yesterday was Easter, the day for celebrating the resurrection of the Son of God. History turns on this event. The world looks the way it does today because of this event more than just about any other. It’s a remarkable story. Today, let’s spend some time reflecting on just what it means for us that Jesus rose from the dead.
Where It All Begins
Jesus was dead…and then He wasn’t.
If you were to take that statement, get rid of Christianity entirely, and drop it into any other context, it wouldn’t make any sense. At all. None. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Across the centuries of human history, various different religious movements offered up theories and ideas about what might lie on the other side of the grave. But none of them had anything like the resurrection of Jesus as a part of their frame of reference. Now, some of them developed something like it after Jesus’ resurrection, but not before. This is because we didn’t have a category for something like that. Instead, when Jesus was buried late in the afternoon on the Friday when He died, everyone expected Him to stay put.
Joseph of Arimathea certainly did. That’s why he loaned Jesus’ followers his family’s tomb. The apostle Matthew tells it this way in Matthew 27:57: “When it was evening, a rich man from Arimathea named Joseph came, who himself had also become a disciple of Jesus. He approached Pilate and asked for Jesus’s body. Then Pilate ordered that it be released. So Joseph took the body, wrapped it in clean, fine linen, and placed it in his new tomb, which he had cut into the rock. He left after rolling a great stone against the entrance of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were seated there, facing the tomb.”
Every single one of those people expected that when Jesus’ body was laid in that tomb He wasn’t going anywhere ever again. After all, He was dead.
The only people who didn’t actually believe that Jesus’ body would be lying in that tomb until the final resurrection of the saints were actually the chief priests and the Pharisees. This group didn’t harbor any delusions about a resurrection, though. They knew that Jesus had said some things about being raised from the dead on the third day, and they didn’t want any of the disciples getting any ideas of trying to pull a fast one on the people and claiming that His ridiculous prediction had come true. As a result, on Saturday, they went to Pilate to get a guard of Roman soldiers to make sure Jesus’ followers didn’t try to pull any shenanigans.
Listen to what Matthew adds to the story next: “The next day, which followed the preparation day, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, ‘Sir, we remember that while this deceiver was still alive he said, “After three days I will rise again.” So give orders that the tomb be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come, steal him, and tell the people, “He has been raised from the dead,” and the last deception will be worse than the first.’ ‘You have a guard of soldiers,’ Pilate told them. ‘Go and make it as secure as you know how.’ They went and secured the tomb by setting a seal on the stone and placing the guard.”
Once all these measures were put in place, no sane person would have gone near that tomb. Joseph and the Marys may have known where it was—as apparently did lots of people such that His burial wasn’t a secret—but they weren’t going to mess with it. That guard of soldiers would have killed anyone who got too close to the tomb, and anyone who messed with the seal would have been crucified like Jesus had been. But then, this was all overkill, because Jesus was dead.
Until He wasn’t.
Back to Matthew’s story: “After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to view the tomb.” Pause just a second. Do you think there’s any chance they got the wrong tomb? Not on your life. Someone they loved had been buried. They knew exactly where He was. But when they got there, He wasn’t.
“There was a violent earthquake, because an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and approached the tomb. He rolled back the stone and was sitting on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing was as white as snow. The guards were so shaken by fear of him that they became like dead men.”
So, after this angel makes a big, noisy scene of dropping down from heaven, shaking the ground so hard that the several-ton stone rolls up a hill and out of the way of the entrance of the tomb, and turning on his high beams for a second, he looks down at these battle-hardened Roman soldiers who all understand that if anyone goes in or out of that tomb, they’ll all be put to death for failing at their duty, says, “Hey,” and they all pass out from fear. Then he sees the women who are just arriving to finish the embalming job on Jesus’ body—because they knew Him to be dead—and just before they all fall out from fear like the soldiers did, he says, “Don’t be afraid, because I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here. For he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.”
Jesus was dead…until He wasn’t. Then He was alive.
If that sounds like really good news, that’s because it is. But what does it actually mean? For the rest of our time together this morning and with the help of the apostle Paul, I want to talk with you about why that is such good news.
Paul makes the case for this better than anybody else has ever done in his first letter to the believers in the ancient Greek city of Corinth. Corinth is actually still around today. It sits on a narrow isthmus of land with large seaports on either side of it. Being in between two seaports like that, Corinth was a pretty wild place. Lots of folks from all over the world were coming and going all the time, interacting with people they’d likely never see again. That kind of a situation tends to bring out our more…sinfully adventurous…side as people. It was like Vegas in terms of being a place that invited and encouraged all kinds of sin, but they didn’t think of any of it as sin. It was just what people did.
The church in Corinth, while pretty wealthy thanks to its attraction of some prominent members of the city, struggled to make a meaningful theological and moral break from the culture around it and so wrestled with all kinds of different issues. One of these was the belief that whether or not Jesus actually rose from the dead didn’t really matter. After all, one of the major philosophical beliefs at the time was that the physical was bad while the spiritual was good. From this perspective, the idea that Jesus would return from the dead to once again inhabit a physical body didn’t make the slightest bit of sense. Why leave the more morally pure spiritual world to come back to the filth and limitations of physicality? Surely the whole Gospel thing could survive just fine if the resurrection was removed in favor of something more philosophically palatable to people. Paul’s answer, which comes in what we know as chapter 15 of the letter, was a rather emphatic, “No, it could not.” If you have a copy of the Scriptures, join me in 1 Corinthians 15, and let’s look at this together.
After spending quite a lot of time correcting their theology and practice as a church, Paul comes down here near the end of the letter to make sure they understand the basics properly. Look at this with me: “Now I want to make clear for you, brothers and sisters, the gospel I preached to you, which you received, on which you have taken your stand and by which you are being saved, if you hold to the message I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.” In other words: this is the thing that matters most. I want to make sure that if you don’t remember anything else I told you, you remember this.
What comes next is something most scholars believe is not original to Paul, but was instead an early Christian creed—a statement of faith, if you will—that may date all the way back to within just a year or two of the resurrection itself. Folks who want to try to argue that the core points of Christian theology as we know them today didn’t develop until much later and didn’t have much to do with the teachings of the apostles have a hard time getting around this one. Paul says this: “For I passed on to you as most important what I also received: 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 [that is, Peter], then to the Twelve.” Paul goes on to note a couple more significant appearances including to a crowd of 500 all at the same time, effectively ruling out any suggestion that the resurrection was just a mass hallucination on the part of the disciples. The point for Paul, though, was that the resurrection was the most important thing to know about the Christian faith. Everything comes a distant second to that.
But again, why is this so important? Why does the resurrection matter so much? Paul knew his audience was asking this, and so he went on to tell them. Look down to v. 12 with me. “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say, ‘There is no resurrection of the dead’?” That’s what he was up against here. There were folks who, thinking in firmly cultural terms, said the resurrection really didn’t matter. They could follow Jesus and live out His teachings just fine without the resurrection.
Paul says, “Not so fast.” “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.” That makes sense right? If dead people stay dead, then when Jesus died, He stayed dead. That’s just simple logic. Yet “if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation is in vain, and so is your faith.” Now Paul is starting to meddle a bit. I mean, if he wants to criticize the validity of his proclamation of the resurrection, that’s fine. They didn’t want to believe him on that point anyway. But to suggest their faith itself was in vain was to get personal. They were perfectly capable of believing in Jesus without the resurrection.
Yet just where you might expect to find Paul drawing back to soften things up a bit, he doubles down in v. 15: “Moreover, we are found to be false witnesses about God, because we have testified wrongly about God that he raised up Christ—whom he did not raise up, if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Those, then, who have fallen asleep in Christ have also perished. If we have put our hope in Christ for this life only, we should be pitied more than anyone.”
Now, those are some big claims there. What are we supposed to do with this? Might I suggest taking him seriously? His logic is pretty sound. If the resurrection isn’t a thing, if Jesus hasn’t been raised from the dead, then nobody else has been either. Jesus is the only person about whom there has ever been a meaningful claim about such a thing. If Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, then a whole lot of people have been lying about God for a really long time. This means we don’t really know who God is at all. It’s worse than that, though. The only reason anyone has ever actually followed Jesus is because of this claim that He was raised from the dead. But if He wasn’t raised from the dead, then they’ve been following a lie. They’ve given their lives to a lie. The hope they’ve been given about loved ones dying with faith in Christ and seeing them again was a lie. And if that’s all a lie, we really can’t trust anything else Jesus said. If someone has given their whole life to this Christianity thing only for the sake of doing the things Jesus said here and now, they deserve our pity. Doing the things Jesus said here and now is more likely than not to bring trouble and pain and sorrow. We pursue them anyway, though, because of this hope that one day, after the resurrection, our efforts will be rewarded. But if there’s no resurrection, those are entirely false hopes.
No, as it turns out, this whole resurrection thing really does matter because without it, the whole of the Christian worldview falls completely to pieces. Not a single thing about it is true or worthwhile if the resurrection isn’t real. And maybe that sounds like a bit of a grandiose claim, but check me on it. Put it to the test. There is not a single aspect of the Christian life whose justification doesn’t come back to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. If you remove that from the picture, there’s nothing supporting the rest of it. But wait! It’s a good thing to be kind and loving to the people around us. Being generous is something celebrated. No one likes a jerk. Maybe so, but let’s say you try to live out the teachings of Jesus without the resurrection. Good for you. But let’s say a bit further that someone comes along who doesn’t care in the slightest bit about the ways Jesus said we should live. This person is willing to lie, cheat, and steal in order to get rich and powerful and politically connected. From his position, if you get in his way, he can crush you, and that’s it. There’s no one who has your back. There’s no one who is going to reward your faithfulness. There is no one who is going to hold him to account on the other side, because there is no other side (not one for which we have any actual evidence, anyway). If Jesus isn’t alive, then you’re on your own. Good luck to you. May the best man—or woman—win. Christianity only makes sense, the Gospel is only good news, if Jesus rose from the dead. Absent that, it’s nothing.
If that’s the negative case for why the resurrection matters so much, though, how about a positive one? How about this: If Jesus rose from the dead, then that means death isn’t the end. Every religion has some sort of an explanation for what happens after we die. They did before Christianity. They do on this side of Christianity. And the reason for this is that death has always been terrifying for us. Something in us screams that there’s got to be more to life than just what we experience on this side of the grave. There has to be. Because if this life is all there is, then what’s the point? We live. We do some things. We die. And eventually, we’re forgotten. Yes, there have been a handful of people who have been remembered down through the annals of human history, but a great many more have been forgotten. You and I will probably be among that latter bunch. Most people are. In this way, death was the ultimate victory of the futility of sin. We naturally recoiled from that. Hard. There had to be something that gave justification to the choices we made in this life that weren’t entirely selfish in nature. We made up elaborate stories about why they mattered. We clung to any and every signal that something could penetrate that veil. We pursued bizarre and made-up mystical methods of making contact with the deceased. But none of them ever got us anywhere. We lived. We died. And that was all.
And so did Jesus. Until He didn’t.
When Jesus came walking back out of that tomb, it was the first real signal that death wasn’t the end. And if death wasn’t the end for Him, then just maybe, it didn’t have to be the end for us. Maybe there really was something more that gave credence to our efforts to do and be more than mere automatons floating their way through a meaningless existence. Through the Holy Spirit, God gave guys like Paul a vision for what was coming. And what was coming was life after this one was over. It was life after this one for everyone who wanted to pursue the path of Christ through this life. What Jesus was in this sense was a preview of coming attractions.
Look at v. 20 now: “But as it is, Christ has 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 also comes through a man. For just as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.” Don’t miss that last part: “…so also in Christ all will be made alive.” If you have placed your faith in Jesus, then you will share in His resurrection from the dead. That is: death won’t be the end for you. There will be life on the other side of this one. And what kind of life will that be? Paul told us. Jesus’ resurrection was the firstfruits of what’s to come. Ours will be like His when the time for it arrives. If His is powerful, so will ours be. If His is glorious, so will ours be. If His is eternal, so will ours be. Eternal life. In Christ. Because He lives.
How is this going to work? We don’t know. Paul goes on to ruminate on it a bit, but finally settles on calling it a mystery. As mysterious as it will be, though, the one thing we do know is that it will be incredible. Listen to Paul’s incredible conclusion starting in v. 50: “What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor can corruption inherit incorruption.” In other words, we’re not fit to be in God’s kingdom in the state we are currently in. We are spiritually fit in Christ, but upon our resurrection from the dead, God will make us entirely fit.
Again we ask: How? “Listen, I am telling you a mystery: We will not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we will be changed.” Are you with Him? When this world comes to its end and Christ returns, all those who have placed their faith in Him will be transformed. Some will have died—Paul uses the language of sleeping for those who have died in Christ because sleeping people wake up—and will be resurrected and transformed. Some will not have died yet, and so will simply be transformed. “For this corruptible body must be clothed with incorruptibility, and this mortal body must be clothed with immortality. When this corruptible body is clothed with incorruptibility, and this mortal body is clothed with immortality, then the saying that is written will take place: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, death, is your victory? Where, death, is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!”
And then He saves the best part for the end: Because of this, everything we do in pursuit of Christ matters. It all matters. It all matters because your life is eternal in Him. This life may end at some point should our Lord tarry in His return, but things you do now for Him are preparing you for the life ahead. “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the Lord’s work, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” It’s not in vain because Jesus rose from the dead and now life lasts forever. The resurrection of Jesus is the key to eternal life.
So, what do we do with this? There’s only one thing that makes sense. You place your hope in Him. You place your trust in Him. You give your life to Him. If you haven’t yet named Jesus as your Savior and Lord, repenting of your sin, and committing yourself to doing life His way, there’s no reason to keep waiting. Do that today. Respond to the invitation the Spirit is right now laying on your heart. Paul told us that it is as simple as confessing, acknowledging a belief, that Jesus is Lord, and believing in your heart—that is committing to living your life as if this were true—that God raised Him from the dead. Confess and believe and this eternal life is yours. The resurrection of Jesus is the key to eternal life.
If you have already made that decision, then Paul’s final words here are particularly important for you. Don’t get tired of following Him, of living life His way. The choices you make that are informed by His resurrection from the dead are not in vain. They matter. All of them. They matter no matter how much grief you take for them here and now. There will be days that it gets hard. Some days you’ll be ridiculed. Some you’ll be hated. Others you’ll be abused and mistreated. Don’t give up. Be steadfast and immovable in your efforts to love like He did. Do all of this because one day your life will last forever, and all the sacrifices you make to follow Jesus will be rewarded. All of this comes because Jesus was only dead until He wasn’t. And so one day will we also be. The resurrection of Jesus is the key to eternal life. The resurrection of Jesus is the key to everything. Let us receive it—receive Him—and live.