Christianity stands or falls on the resurrection of Jesus. Christians do not believe that Jesus was merely resuscitated after what we might call a “near-death experience,” or raised from the dead in a metaphorical sense because he continued to “live on” in the memory of his followers. No, Christians believe that Jesus died a violent death on a Roman cross and then was raised with a new physical body to a whole new mode of existence. If the resurrection really happened, then that changes everything. The question is: Can we believe it?

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    Our Scripture reading is taken from 1 Corinthians 15:3-10a, 14-20, 54b-58. 

    3For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. 

    14And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. 20But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 

    54b“Death is swallowed up in victory.” 

    55“O death, where is your victory? 

    O death, where is your sting?” 

    56The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 

    58Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. 

    This is God's word. It's trustworthy, it's true, and it's given to us in love. 

    The two best known facts about Jesus of Nazareth are (1) he died on a Roman cross and (2) his followers believed that he rose again from the dead on the third day. The earliest Christians did not believe that Jesus was merely resuscitated after what we might call "a near-death experience," only to die another day. Nor did they believe that he was raised in merely a metaphorical sense because he continued to live in the memory of his followers who loved him. No, they believe that Jesus died a violent death and then was raised with a new physical body to a whole new mode of existence. 

    As Paul makes clear in the letter to the Christians in Corinth, the resurrection of Jesus is the hinge upon which Christianity turns. If you take away the resurrection of Jesus, Christianity falls apart. If Jesus has not been raised, then nothing else he did or said really matters. If the resurrection didn't happen, then there is really no point in any of this, and I have to get a new job! But if the resurrection happened, then it changes absolutely everything about the world in which we live. 

    The problem is that people from the first century down to the 21st century have struggled to believe it. Perhaps I can illustrate that with a story from my own life. When I was about three and a half-years-old, I tripped and fell off of a balcony, and I fractured my skull. So if you’ve spent some time with me and ever wondered if I am all right in the head, now you have your answer. I was rushed to the hospital. I was in and out of consciousness about three days, but I eventually recovered. Not long after that, I went to church. I attended Sunday school and my Sunday school teacher told me the story of Jesus' death and resurrection—about how he died and was laid in the tomb. And then on the third day, he rose again. Upon hearing this, I got very excited, and I blurted out, “The same exact thing happened to me!” The story, of course, is humorous because we all know the same exact thing did not happen to me. We all know that the dead stay dead. But the fact that the dead do not normally rise again from the grave is not an argument against the Christian claim—that's actually part of the claim itself. Christians believe that what happened to Jesus was unique, and that is why we worship him as God. 

    The question is: Can we believe it? The fact remains that it's always easier to dismiss the resurrection as a mere fabrication or a fairy tale. So the question is: Can we believe it? And if so, what difference does it make? Those are the two questions that I'd like us to take up: Did the resurrection really happen? And if so, why does it matter? 

    Did The Resurrection Happen?

    First, let's consider: Did the resurrection happen? Can we believe it? The evidence for the resurrection is actually quite strong. I'd like to draw your attention to three facts. We can debate the significance of these claims, but we cannot ignore them. They are what historians would call "historically secure." 

    The Tomb Was Empty

    The first fact is that the tomb was empty. The Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the church in Corinth within 20 to 25 years after the death of Jesus. In v.3-4, the Apostle Paul reveals that the death and resurrection of Jesus was already a carefully guarded tradition by this point in time. He writes, “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.“ The first point to be made is that Jesus really was dead and buried and three days later the tomb was empty. 

    Over the years, a number of alternative theories have been offered. Perhaps those first witnesses went to the wrong tomb or maybe someone stole the body. Others suggest that perhaps Jesus didn't actually die on the cross, he merely passed out and then later he revived in the cool of the tomb and left of his own accord. At first, that may sound plausible, except that it fails to take into account the physical trauma that Jesus endured. Jesus was beaten and he was flogged—meaning that the flesh was ripped off of his back—and then he was nailed to a cross, where he was suspended from his wrists and was left to die of exposure and asphyxiation for at least a six hour period. 

    The guards who oversaw the crucifixion were professional executioners. They would not have allowed Jesus' body to come down from the cross if they weren't convinced that he was dead. They knew what they were talking about. According to John 19:34 one of the soldiers pierced Jesus in the side, which resulted in the sudden flow of what John describes as blood and water. Most people believe this was an indication of the separation of serum and clot, which we now know is a medical sign of death. Pontius Pilate only gave permission for Jesus' body to be removed from the cross when he was convinced that Jesus was dead. Once placed in the tomb, he sealed the burial site with guards. Those guards themselves would have faced the death penalty if they failed in their duty and did not keep the site secure. 

    Personally, I find it a lot harder to believe that after being beaten, tortured and crucified, Jesus survived 36 hours without food, or water, or heat, or medical attention in a cold dark tomb, and then revived with sufficient strength to remove the boulder that sealed the entrance, escape detection of the guards, and then convince his followers—not that he had been beaten within an inch of his life—but that he had conquered death itself. No, talk about a conspiracy theory! In this case, the best explanation may be the simplest: the tomb really was empty. I find it intriguing that unlike the founders of other religious movements, none of Jesus' followers are recorded to have venerated his tomb. No one turned it into a shrine. Even to this day, we don't exactly know where Jesus was buried. So why did no one worship him at the site of his burial? Simply because they didn't believe he was there. They didn't bother. The first claim with which we have to contend is that the tomb was empty. 

    The Risen Jesus Was Seen

    The second is that the risen Jesus was seen. The gospels recount at least 10 different appearances of the resurrected Jesus to different people, in different locations, in different states of mind. In his letter to Corinth, the Apostle Paul reproduces a definitive list of these appearances. He tells us that at different points in time Jesus appeared to individuals. He appeared to Cephas, which is the Aramaic name for Peter. He appeared to James, he appeared to Paul himself. At other times, he appeared to small groups of people. Paul refers to "the twelve" and "all of the apostles." Paul even says that Jesus appeared to 500 people at one time. 

    Clearly, Paul is appealing to these individuals in their role as eyewitnesses who were still alive and known to the community at the time of writing. The implication is clear. Paul is saying, if you don't believe what I'm telling you about the resurrection of Jesus, here are the witnesses. Go and ask them for yourself. All it would have taken was for one person to come forward and say, “I was there and it didn't happen, or it didn't happen like that.” But no one ever came forward. 

    Some have argued that, perhaps, these appearances were nothing more than hallucinations. The curious thing is that the appearances of the resurrected Jesus were limited to a 40-day period. They stopped as suddenly as they began. People didn't think that they were hallucinating. People in the ancient world were familiar with the idea of ghosts. They knew that sometimes people had visions of loved ones who had died. But even if those visions happened quite frequently, they knew that the reality was that the body of their loved one was in the grave, and that this was just a ghost. But that wasn't the case with Jesus because his followers didn't think that his body was in the grave. They didn't think that they were talking to a ghost because they could touch his body. They could look at the mark of his wounds. They watched him not only prepare, but eat a meal. I don't know about you, but I've never seen a ghost eat fish for breakfast! We have to contend with the fact that the tomb was empty and secondly, that the risen Jesus was seen.

    The Disciples Were Changed

    The third claim which we need to consider is that the disciples were changed. The reality is that the gospels do not portray the disciples in a very positive light. They never seem to really understand what Jesus is talking about. They don't have much faith. They're consistently jockeying for position with one another, and they constantly let Jesus down. But after the resurrection, they are completely changed—completely transformed. Now they are willing to risk their lives for what they have seen and heard. Of course, it's possible that the disciples made it all up. But if so, not one ever broke down and said it was all a lie even at the cost of their own lives. Tradition has it that all the apostles except for one died because of their faith. Peter was crucified upside down. James was stoned. Paul himself was eventually beheaded. The fact is, people will die for something that they believe to be true, even if they happen to be mistaken. But no one is willing to die for something that they know is false. No one will die for something that they know is a lie, which means that something must have happened to transform the disciples' fear into courage and their doubt into faith. 

    The New Testament scholar N.T. Wright has argued that no one from a Jewish or a Roman background was expecting anything like the resurrection of a single individual in the middle of history, while the rest of the world goes on as it does no matter how hopeful or depressed they might have felt, or how much cognitive dissonance they might have experienced after Jesus' death. How do you account for this sudden emergence of this belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus that sprang up literally overnight, and then spread throughout the rest of the Mediterranean world like wildfire? These three claims—the tomb is empty, the risen Jesus was seen, the disciples were changed—may not mean all that much on their own, but taken together they provide a compelling case for the reality of the resurrection. 

    Why Does The Resurrection Matter?

    That brings us to this second question. If we can believe it, what difference does it make? It's even more important than you may realize. If Jesus has been raised, it means that there is pardon for the past. It means that there is promise for the future. And there is purpose in the present. 

    Pardon For The Past

    First of all, if Jesus has been raised, it means that there is pardon for the past. Did you notice that the Apostle Paul suggests that there's a connection between the death and resurrection of Jesus and our sins? In v.3, “Christ died for our sins." Jesus' death on the cross was God's way of dealing with our sin.” That's why Paul goes on to say in v.14-19 that if Jesus has not been raised, then Christians of all people are most to be pitied. Why? If Jesus had not been raised, then it means that our sins have not actually been dealth with. And therefore our faith is futile. It's all in vain. We're still in our sins. Then he goes on to say, what's even worse is if Jesus hasn't been raised, then it means that the apostles are guilty of misrepresenting God because they are claiming that God did something that he apparently didn't. 

    But no, Paul asserts that God did infact raise Jesus from the dead, which vindicates the claims that Jesus made about himself. That means that we can experience the forgiveness of sins. Now sin is a word that we often tend to avoid unless we want to tell a joke. We'd prefer to talk about sinful desserts or perhaps guilty pleasures rather than describing the human condition. But sin, at its core, is simply self-centeredness. We human beings were made for relationships of love with God and with others. But in our self-centeredness, sin alienates us from God. It leads to conflict with others, and it leads to inner slavery to our own compulsions. One way or another, whether over a long period of time or short, sin eventually ends in death. That is its ultimate as well as its natural consequence. Yet the message of the gospel is that Jesus has come to interrupt the consequences of our actions. Jesus somehow mysteriously substitutes himself for us on the cross. By going to the cross in our place, Jesus bears our sins, and he dies our death, so that we might experience the forgiveness of God. That is not something to be taken lightly. 

    Some of us may look at ourselves and say, “I'm not perfect. To err is human. I know I've made some mistakes. But I haven't done anything all that wrong, which would require the forgiveness of God.” But I would suggest that that's a superficial response. Look a little more deeply at your relationships and the accumulation of all the wrongs that we've committed against one another, and standing behind all those relationships is the God who loves us and made us, whose love is scorned, and whose laws are broken in every offense. One author puts it like this, 

    “The things we have done wrong seemed, or mostly seemed, small at the time. The word of encouragement withheld, the touch of kindness not given, the visit not made, the trust betrayed, the cutting remark so clever and so cruel, the illicit sexual desire so generously entertained, the angry answer, the surge of resentment at being slighted, the lie we thought would do no harm. Surely not too much should be made of it, we thought to ourselves, but now it has come to this.” 

    If Jesus has been raised, it means that the grace of God is real. Who of us could honestly look at our lives and say, we have not done something or failed to do something for which we could never make amends? Who of us could say that we haven't done something that we cannot change, or undo, or take back? If Jesus has been raised, and if the grace of God is real then it means that we can be healed. We can be restored. We can be forgiven. If Jesus has been raised, there's pardon for the past. 

    Promise For The Future

    Secondly, there's promise for the future. Notice in v.20, that Paul refers to Jesus' resurrection as the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. What does that mean? If Jesus' resurrection is "the first fruits," it means that it's just a prelude to our own resurrection. God has promised that he is going to do for us at the end of history what he did for Jesus in the very middle of history. In Mark 5, there's a scene where a man named Jairus comes to Jesus and begs him to come to his home quickly because his little daughter is on the brink of death. When Jesus finally arrives, it's too late. She's gone. She's dead. Then Jesus goes into the room where she lies, and takes her by the hand and says to her gently, “Little girl, arise. It's time to get up,” and she awakes. I believe that that scene is there for us to give us a picture of the ultimate future that God has promised for us. For those who are united to Jesus by faith, we can rest assured that one day he will take us by the hand. He will call us by name, and he will say, “It's time to get up.” If Jesus has been raised it means that he has transformed death into mere sleep, and it will turn even the worst things that have happened to us in this life into nothing more than a mere bad dream. 

    All of this raises the question, what are we permitted to hope for when it comes to the ultimate future? Do our past sins and the inevitability of death create an impenetrable barrier that not even God can cross? An atheist might say that death is nothing to be frightened of because when you die, there's no you left to worry about. When you die, you will lose your individual identity. You'll become a cosmic pebble within the universe. You'll be nothing but stardust, so enjoy the moment while it lasts. 

    I suppose some of us could come to terms with the reality of our own death. But what we really can't bear is the thought of being cut off forever from the ones we love the most. Think of the people that you love more than anything in the world—a spouse, a child, a parent, a sibling, a lover, a friend. Our relationships are what makes life meaningful. They provide the deepest, most powerful kind of happiness. That's why the greatest crisis that many of us will face in life is the loss of a loved one. We can't stand to bear the thought that we would never see that face again or feel that person's touch. 

    That's why this matters. If Jesus has been raised, if his resurrection is the "first fruits" of those who have fallen asleep, if God has promised to do for us at the end of history what he did for Jesus in the middle of history, that means that he's promising us that he will raise us with new physical bodies in order to live in a new physical world. God's goal is not to remove us from this world, but to renew this world. God's plan is not to whisk our souls away to enjoy some ethereal existence beyond the clouds, but rather to transform this world in which we live, He will usher in a new creation where everything that once went wrong will be made right. We will enjoy new physical bodies to live in that new physical world. This is not some vain wish that things will turn out alright in the end. This is what is known as the sure and certain hope of the resurrection. For the Christian, this is rock-bottom reality. Somehow, someway all the suffering that we have experienced in this life will be healed and made up for in a way that will suffice for all hearts. 

    Do you realize the significance of what Paul is saying here? Part of the problem is that these bodies are made out of the wrong stuff. These bodies are subject to decay and to death. But through the death and resurrection of Jesus, Jesus has not only defeated sin and evil, but he's conquered death itself. Do you hear what Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 15? Because of the resurrection death has been swallowed up. “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” It's been taken away. 

    The promise of the future is this: (1) You will not lose your individual identity in the cosmic abyss. No, you will get your body back. Some of you are hoping to, perhaps, be able to trade this one in for a better model. In which case, I've got good news for you. You will get your body back but it will be better than the old one. Why will it be better? If for no other reason because it will last! This new body cannot be taken out by a germ or by cancer. The point is that you will be you in the new creation, not someone else. (2) For those who are united to Jesus in faith, we need not be separated from the ones we love the most. If Jesus has been raised, it means that you will look into their eyes. You will see that smile. You will hear that laugh. You will feel that person's embrace. This is not the end. (3) You will not watch evil destroy this world. No, you will see it renewed with justice, peace, and love. 

    One French philosopher who identifies as an atheist, summarizes the contrast between a Christian view and an atheistic view of the future cogently. André Comte-Sponville writes,

    “…What can people hope for who have never believed in God or who have ceased believing in him?  Nothing–that is, nothing absolute or eternal, nothing beyond the ‘darkest reaches of death’…which means that all our hopes for this life, no matter how legitimate (less war, less suffering, less injustice) run up against that ultimate nothingness; it engulfs all, joy and misery alike…This by no means prevents us from struggling for justice, but it does prevent us from believing in it completely or believing that its triumph can be permanent. In a word, Pascal, Kant and Kierkegaard were right: There is no way for a lucid atheist to avoid despair…

    …If you believe in God, what may you hope for? Everything, or at least everything that really matters: the ultimate triumph of life over death, justice over injustice, peace over war, love over hate and happiness over unhappiness…”

    If Jesus has been raised, this is just the beginning. The best is yet to come. 

    Purpose In The Present

    The resurrection of Jesus not only offers pardon for the past and promise for the future, but purpose in the present. Some say if there is no God, that there really is no meaning to our existence. The only meaning to our lives is the meaning that we manage to create for ourselves. But if Jesus has been raised, it means that there is purpose in the present. We might think that Paul would conclude this spectacular chapter on the resurrection of Jesus by telling us to make ourselves comfortable and spend the rest of our waking days rejoicing in the hope that lies before us. 

    No, that's not the way he ends because there's an important link between the future that God has promised and our present responsibility. We must not separate the two. If God is going to resurrect our bodies and renew the whole world then what we do in our bodies now matters. We’re called to anticipate God's future promises in our actions now because that's the primary way in which God will give the watching world around us a glimpse—just a glimpse, but a real picture, nonetheless—of what the world will be like when Jesus makes everything new. 

    That's why Paul concludes this chapter not by telling us to kick back and relax, but rather to get to work. He says, “Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” Your faith is not in vain. Your actions today are never in vain when they are done "in the Lord." Everything we do in service to Jesus will have to be purified. Our motives are always mixed. We never get it quite right. Everything we do for Jesus' sake will have to be cleansed. But everything we do now in service to Jesus and the world around us will last. Nothing will be lost or wasted. Everything we do now matters. Everything we do in service to Jesus will be preserved in the mind of God and will be part of the future world that God has promised. 

    Do you realize the significance that places on every little action? Every time you speak a kind word. Every time you extend a warm embrace. Every time you write an encouraging note. Every time you love an enemy. Every time you forgive a friend. Every time you reconcile a relationship. Every time you welcome a stranger. Every time you are patient with a spouse. Every time you play with a child. 

    Every time you lend a listening ear. Every time you hold your tongue. Every time you turn the other cheek. Every time you go the extra mile. Every time you offer a cup of cold water, feed the hungry, house the homeless, heal the sick, clothe the naked. Every time you defend the innocent, stand up against evil, rescue the oppressed, declare the truth. Every time you sing a song. Every time you write a poem. Every time you tell a story. Every time you design a building. Every time you paint a canvas. 

    Every time you open a door, make a connection, create a job, start a company, serve a client, close a deal. Every time you pray for a friend. Every time you share the gospel. Every time you maybe deliver a sermon. Every time you sacrifice your time and energy. And every time you give away your money. You provide the world around you with a glimpse of what the world will be like when Jesus makes all things new. So don't you see: Everything we do now matters!

    Did the resurrection really happen? You better believe it. What difference does it make? It changes everything—your past, your present, and your future. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

    Let me pray for us. 

    Father God, we thank you for this day that marks the resurrection of Jesus. We pray that you would give us good reason to believe it. Help us to consider the claims that argue for the reality of the resurrection and to put our trust in you. We pray that as a result, you would change absolutely everything about our lives. Help us to receive pardon for the past, promise for the future, and purpose in the present because of what the risen and reigning Jesus has done for us by his grace. We pray in his name. Amen.