|Resurrection: THE Sign to Unbelief
"If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied" (1 Corinthians 15:17-19).
Everything about Christianity - who Jesus is, the reliability of Scripture, even the very existence of the God of the Bible - ultimately comes down to one issue. That isn't just my claim but Paul's as well. He admitted that the total truth or falsity, dependability or treachery of Christianity is wrapped up in the claim that Jesus was raised from the dead. "If Christ has not been raised," he wrote, "then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain" (1 Cor.15:14).
Christian faith is not like Harrison Ford's dramatic step into oblivion that contains the possibility that a bridge just might emerge to take you to safety. In the third of his Indiana Jones movies, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Ford's character is in search of the Holy Grail, the cup from which Jesus drank during the Last Supper. Because of the motif around which the script is written, Hollywood tries its hand at some religious orthodoxy. It gets some things dead-on right. (I'll show you one of them next week!) But it gets the nature of faith dead-on wrong!
In a dramatic scene near the end of the movie, Indy and his father (played by Sean Connery) are in the cave of the Grail. In order to force Indy to retrieve it for its healing powers, the Nazis shoot his father. He survives a number of ordeals in the process, one of which requires him to "have faith" by stepping over a chasm with no apparent support. As he takes that first blind step, a bridge suddenly spans the abyss and lets him pass to the place where the only chance to rescue his father from death (i.e., the Holy Grail) is protected.
That isn't faith - faith, at least, as the Bible characterizes it. Faith is not a desperation act that sometimes yields a good outcome and sometimes kills. Faith is one's confidence in the integrity of God. "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see" (Heb. 11:1, NIV). "Being sure" of the things in which our hope is placed is not the same as Indiana Jones' hoping against hope that he'll somehow get across; being "certain" of things beyond our own ability to discover or create for ourselves is not to be reduced to a "glorious uncertainty" on which one dares to act.
The power of faith is not in the one who has it but lies in the one in whom it is placed. Even on your weak days, when your faith is barely stronger than your doubt, when you believe but have to pray for God to help your unbelief - your faith is still mighty because of the one in whom it is placed. Better a struggling faith in the true God than a bold and courageous faith in something false.
Jesus' Word on the Matter
Was Paul correct to tie together the whole package of Christian faith with the cord of resurrection affirmations? His words certainly are consistent with what Jesus himself said. In a context where people were demanding some irrefutable sign from him about his identity and claims, this is what he said:
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, "Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you." But he answered them, "An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth" (Matt.12:38-40; cf. 16:4).Jesus occasionally rebuked not the seeking and inquiring hearts of his contemporaries but the hardened and mocking ones. These very words were spoken, in fact, on the heels of one of his most scathing rebukes of arrogant unbelief. Again, the issue was less the unbelief than the arrogance. No one could deny that he was really performing miracles - an interesting point in itself, for these were neither stupid nor uncritical people. What some of them did challenge was the source of those deeds. They said his miracles were exhibiting evil powers from Satan rather than God's presence. In order to "test" him (cf. Matt.16:1), they wanted a conclusive sign that God was behind him, his powers, and thus his teachings.
Over against a circus atmosphere that would have him performing signs on demand, Jesus would have no part of that. He would do miracles of compassion as he saw fit. In terms of validating signs for what he called "an evil and adulterous generation," he declared that there would be one and only one certain, unassailable sign offered. "No sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah," he said. Just as Jonah had to be humbled from his arrogant nationalism and racism only to be validated ultimately for his mission to Nineveh, so would a despised, humiliated, and crucified Jesus be certified for his role as Savior by heaven's mighty act of resurrection. So powerful a sign would make Jonah's deliverance from the belly of a sea creature pale by comparison!
Sure enough, at the end of his life on Planet Earth, Jesus was put to death on a Roman cross. Thousands upon thousands died such a death. There is nothing about crucifixion itself that could account for the emergence of the Christian religion. Only the fact that Jesus was alive on the Sunday following is sufficient to explain why a provincial movement begun in the backwaters of the Roman Empire would spread like wildfire throughout the known world in a generation.
A Case of Snobbery
There is an incredible snobbery about some of the modern criticisms of the doctrine of Christ's resurrection. It seems arrogant to me, at least, that those critics seem to assume that first-century people were, if not illiterate fools, gullible folks in search of something fanciful and far-fetched to accept as the truth. To the contrary, they were just as convinced as we are that dead people stay dead. The women at the tomb, Peter, more than 500 people at a single time, Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus Road - these people most certainly were not expecting to encounter Jesus of Nazareth alive from the dead. They thought he was finished, dead and gone. It took dramatic proof to convince them that someone they had given up as dead was alive again.
The Gospel records read just the way we might expect if critical-thinking people were being asked to believe the implausible. The first encounters he had with people produced shock and disbelief. There was a lack of recognition in a case or two. Some of them even commented later about "how slow of heart to believe" various ones among them had been (Luke 24:25).
If careful historical investigation proves the resurrection to be an impossibility or merely some mythical telling of how zealously devoted a little band of people was to Jesus that they would impose a dying-rising god motif on him, the quicker we all renounce it the better. If it isn't historically true, I want no part of it. More is at stake here than historical fact, but without historical fact as foundation the "more" at stake is mere wishful thinking or self-delusion.
The Explanation of Christianity
With all these grapplings to understand the rock-solid nature of faith in Jesus' resurrection, I do not want to be leave the wrong idea. You can't "explain" a resurrection. A resurrection explains Christianity.
The frightened, depressed, befuddled, excited men and women who witnessed Jesus alive again after the Romans had done their best to destroy him didn't get what they expected. Not one of them was expecting or wanting a resurrection. Do you know the old adage that says we humans prefer the devil we know to the one we don't? We know death. Everything that lives dies. Life's two certainties are taxes and death. And what dies stays dead. That's the devil Mary and Martha, James and John, Thomas and Saul knew. But God chose to make war on the devil and forced those early disciples to look at an utterly unexplainable set of possibilities for which they were not prepared. Easter shook the cosmos!
Even Scripture grants that death has long been Satan's ultimate weapon of terror against the human race. But it credits Jesus with breaking his stranglehold. "Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, [Jesus] himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil," says Hebrews 2:14-15, "and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death."
As natural, expected, and frightening as death is, Jesus stepped forward as the representative of the human race he had embraced to face Satan. The old devil threw each of his lesser weapons at him in swift succession. He could not be intimidated by anger, lust, or greed. Lies, slander, and betrayal could not make him flinch. So Satan unsheathed the sword of death.
The Son of Man saw what was coming at him at Calvary - and shuddered. But with Gethsemane behind him, he bared his neck to the blow his enemy was ready to strike. Satan brought down the gleaming blade with the full force of his evil being. Then, just as he was about to rejoice in his triumph, Jesus was alive again. Alive forevermore!
In a particular moment of terror in the life of the apostle John, Jesus spoke and said, "Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades" (Rev.1:17b-18). What a Savior!
This week I have stood in a hospital corridor and prayed with parents of a four-week-old child just placed on the heart transplant list. I talked with a man whose leukemia seems to be gaining ground against the newest and most hopeful of wonder drugs. I held my mother's hand and knew that she not only did not know me but her own name either because of Alzheimer's Disease. I have wept with a friend who was arrested and whose life is now a surreal nightmare of the first order. What one thing allows me to have hope for their situations - and to encourage them to take heart? It is my certain assurance of the bodily resurrection of all those who know Jesus Christ as their Savior.
His Satanic Majesty had held the race in bondage to the fear of death long enough. Jesus faced him at the cross, appeared defeated in the tomb, but burst forth in victory on the morning of his resurrection. Now he positively shouts at every human fear - including the greatest one, death - to ask, "Where is your sting? Where is your victory?" He crushed Satan, disarmed him, and took the keys of Death and Hades into his hands.
So never again, Satan! Your dark fortress has been entered and plundered by the Son of God. Do your devilish worst. Prowl and roar as you will, but you are a toothless terror! We shudder. We flinch in our weak faith. We even fall to a vast array of your temptations. But we will not be terrorized and turned back from Jesus. The same power that raised him from the dead will raise us up in triumph on the last day - and death, hades, and you will die.
Jesus' resurrection is the sign that everything about the Christian faith originates with God - and leads to him. The darkness of the tomb will not have the final word but will have to yield to the light of Emmanuel's presence!
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