Monday, April 17, 2006

Reasons to Believe in the Risen Christ: 1 Corinthians 15

1 Corinthians 15:1-23

Reasons to Believe in the Resurrection of Christ

Do you remember where you were when the news broke on August 22, 2002? I do. I was sitting in front of the computer in my study at the parsonage of Conowingo Baptist Church in Conowingo, Maryland, when I read one of the most amazing pieces of news to ever pass before my eyes. On August 22, 2002, I read about Mayor Gil Bernardi of Le Lavandou, France, on the French Riviera issuing a startling decree. “It is forbidden,” says the decree, “to anyone who does not have a burial plot to die within town limits.” The reason for the decree was that a court order restricted the town government from building a new cemetery. Since the old cemetery was full, the mayor had no other choice but to outlaw death. The day after the decree was issued, Bernardi was asked about it, and he said, “No one has died since then, and I hope it stays that way.”

That was very intriguing to me. To my knowledge, this is the first time that death has been outlawed by a civil government. However, if Jesus really did what we say He did 2000 years ago, when He died for our sins and rose from the dead, then for all practical purposes, death has been rendered invalid and impotent forever.

Easter is the day of our celebration of His glorious resurrection, and the salvation we can receive because of Him. The Apostle Paul said in Romans 1:16, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” And here in this 15th Chapter of 1 Corinthians, he gives a brief overview of that saving gospel. The Corinthians were so distracted, so divided, so deceived, by many unnecessary things, so Paul deemed it appropriate to remind them of what matters most. He says it is of the utmost importance that we believe, that we know, and that we trust these things:

- Christ died for our sins according to Scripture

- He was buried

- He was raised on the third day according to Scripture

Now notice that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is foundational to the gospel. Remove it and there is no gospel; and if there is no gospel, there is no salvation. No less than 104 times in the New Testament, the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ is spoken of, including this reference here. Think of what Paul would be saying if the resurrection didn’t exist: Here is the gospel—“Jesus died and was buried.” That makes Him no different from anyone else who has ever lived. But, you might say, “Jesus died for our sins,” and I might say, “Everyone dies for something.” Innocent people have died on death row in the place of the guilty, but God will judge the guilty one rightly. Compassionate people have jumped in front of assassins’ bullets to protect the lives of others, but even those whose lives are spared have no guarantee of eternity. Jesus died for our sins, but He was nothing more than a compassionate martyr unless He was able to defeat those sins and their penalty. And that could only be accomplished by the resurrection.

Kenneth Scott Latourette wrote in his History of the Expansion of Christianity, “It was the conviction of the resurrection of Jesus which lifted his followers out of the despair into which his death had cast them and which led to the perpetuation of the movement begun by Him. But for their profound belief that the crucified had risen from the dead and they had seen him and talked with him, the death of Jesus and even Jesus himself would probably have been all but forgotten.”

H.D.A. Major has written in his book The Mission and Message of Jesus, “Had the crucifixion of Jesus ended his disciples’ experience of Him, it is hard to see how the Chrisitan Church could have come into existence. That Church was founded on faith in the Messiahship of Jesus. A crucified Messiah was no Messiah at all. … It was the resurrection of Jesus, as St. Paul declares in Romans 1:4, which proclaimed Him to be the Son of God with power.”

Now I want you to notice something very significant here. Paul did not just throw this doctrine of the risen Christ on the table and say, “Believe it, just take my word for it, tell ‘em Paul told you so.” No, belief in the resurrection of Jesus is very rational, very intellectual, and very much warranted.

So many times, people think that becoming a follower of Christ means taking an intellectual flying leap, checking your brains at the door, and foolishly buying into an unbelievable myth. Several years ago, Jesse Ventura gave voice to a statement that has been echoed by godless people in all generations: Christianity is a crutch for weak-minded people. I used to say the same thing myself. However, I have learned that God does not expect us to follow along in spite of evidence. If all God wanted was for us to buy into a theory, Christianity would be no different than any other religious system in the world. However, God gives us evidence to confirm that our faith is rightly focused. It is not a leap in the dark, but a step toward the light. The evidence for belief in Christ and His resurrection is as strong as any historical fact. Consider the evidence found in this passage alone:

I. The Evidence of Scripture (v4) (according to Scripture)

The Gospel of Luke records that when the Risen Jesus appeared to His disciples, we read (24:44-48).

Now He said to them, "These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled." Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”

So, in referring to the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms, Jesus says in essence, “The whole OT testifies to this.” The Hebrew Bible that we now call the Old Testament, was divided into three parts: Torah (Law), Nevi’im (prophets), and Kethuvim (writings). Therefore it became known as Tanakh: an acrostic (TNK) for those three divisions. Jesus Christ is saying to His followers that for centuries, it has been prophesied that I would come, and I would die, and I would rise again.

You remember Job’s great affirmation of faith in Job 19:25-27-- "And as for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will take His stand on the earth. 26 "Even after my skin is destroyed, Yet from my flesh I shall see God; 27 Whom I myself shall behold,

And whom my eyes shall see and not another. My heart faints within me.”

You recall how Jesus answered the Jews who wanted a sign:

Matthew 12-- 39 But He answered and said to them, "An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign shall be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; 40 for just as JONAH WAS THREE DAYS AND THREE NIGHTS IN THE BELLY OF THE SEA MONSTER, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

Jesus, Peter, and Paul all referred to Old Testament scriptures in discussing the resurrection. Genesis 22, Psalm 16, Isaiah 53, and Hosea 6:2 are among their favorites as is Psalm 22.

It has been well noted that the rabbis sometimes, when teaching from the Psalms would refer to them by their first line, since they did not have numbers at that time. With that in mind, think of what Jesus could have been saying on the cross as He said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If you know the first lines of the Psalms, as most faithful Jews in Jesus day would have, they would have recognized this as the opening line of Psalm 22, which concludes with a great statement of victory over the Psalmists trials and a coming forth to give God praise in the midst of the assembly.

So the Scriptures, the Old Testament Scriptures, written centuries before, affirm that Jesus would not only die, but would rise again. But what of those who don’t believe in the Scriptures? What evidence shall we give to them?

II. The evidence of eyewitnesses (v5-7)

We could say anything we want about a person after he has died. We can even say that he is risen from the dead, but that would be easily disproven. Just go dig up the grave and see if it is empty. If it is empty, that is still no guarantee. We might say, “I will believe it when I see him face to face.” We criticize Thomas for his skepticism, but we must say we would be just as skeptical about the claim that someone who was dead was no longer. Two words are crucial here in this passage: He appeared. And the eyewitnesses to whom He appeared are powerful evidence that He is risen indeed.

A. The Abundance of Eyewitnesses (5-8)

In Deuteronomy 19:15, a principle is given to cover matters of government and judgment: “A single witness shall not rise up against a man on account of any iniquity or any sin which he has committed; on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed.” If two or three witnesses is enough to confirm a thing, then how much more sure is something witnessed by no less than 640 eyewitnesses?

In verses 5-8, we read of no less than 514 eyewitnesses:

¨ Cephas (Peter)

¨ The Twelve

¨ More than 500 Brethren at one time

¨ James

¨ Paul himself, in an unnatural encounter on the Damascus Road

Elsewhere in the NT, we read of at least 126 other eyewitnesses.

¨ Mary Magdalene (John 20)

¨ Joanna and Mary (Luke 24)

¨ Annas and Cleopas (Luke 24)

¨ 120 people (Acts 1)

¨ Stephen (Acts 7)

So that is at least 640 different people who saw the risen Jesus after His bodily resurrection. If you were on a jury, and you were deliberating this case, after how many of these would you say, “OK, we’ve heard enough.” No case would require more than 640 eyewitnesses to identify a person. But you say, “Well, how do we know any of this is true? How do we know Paul wasn’t making it up?” One statement confirms it, and I believe it seals the case as it affirms …

B. The Availability of Eyewitnesses (v6)

“Most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep.” Obviously by our day, all have died, but when Paul wrote this letter, he indicated that most of those who had seen Jesus after His resurrection were still alive and could be consulted about the matter. Any person in Corinth who doubted the reality of Christ’s resurrection could have sent correspondence or traveled to Jerusalem and sought out any of these 640 people who could validate their eyewitness accounts of His resurrection.

The testimony of eyewitnesses is powerful! In fact, as Luke compiled information to send to his dear friend Theophilus, he said that Jesus had, “presented Himself alive, after His suffering, by many convincing (or, infallible) proofs” (Acts 1:3).

The evidence of Scripture and the evidence of eyewitnesses ought to be enough to convince anyone of the reality of Christ’s resurrection. But if spiritual evidence and tangible evidence are not enough, then perhaps practical evidence will be, as we see …

III. The Evidence of Changed Lives (v8-11)

“Last of all,” Paul says, “as it were to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.” For much of Paul’s career, people doubted his claim to be an apostle. They said he hadn’t even seen Jesus, so how could he call himself an apostle. But Paul said that Christ appeared to him last of all, “as to one born at the wrong time.”

You recall how Paul’s life was changed as he met Jesus? We meet him in Acts 7:58 as he is in hearty agreement with the martyrdom of Stephen. So convinced was he that these Christians were blasphemous heretics, he began persecuting them intensely. Acts 8:3 says that he began ravaging the church, entering house after house, dragging off men and women and putting them in prison. Acts 9:1 says that he was breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord. So he sought permission to pursue them violently and that permission was given.

But then Saul (which was his Hebrew name) met Jesus. After this encounter on the Damascus Road, his life was radically changed: Acts 9:20-22 says, “immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’ All those hearing him continued to be amazed, and were saying, "Is this not he who in Jerusalem destroyed those who called on this name, and who had come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests? But Saul kept increasing in strength and confounding the Jews who lived at Damascus by proving that this Jesus is the Christ.” His changed life and his reasoning from the Hebrew Scriptures was considered proof to them that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, the Savior of the World.

So he says in 1 Cor 15:9-10 that he is not fit to be called an apostle because of his past, but God’s grace made him an apostle through that encounter with the risen Christ, and compelled him to be the most fervent laborer in God’s harvest fields.

And we might point to hundreds and thousands of other godless people whose lives have been radically altered by meeting Christ. Josh McDowell set out to disprove the resurrection of Christ, but couldn’t, and he became a follower of Christ, and today is one of the world’s most influential evangelists. C. S. Lewis was an atheist with no appetite for the things of God, until he encountered Christ in a personal way. Since then, his book “Mere Christianity” has been used to win the souls of countless atheists and skeptics. On and on we could list those who are well-known examples of people who the Risen Christ has transformed. I was radically converted from dogmatic atheism to faith in Christ as I read the Bible and considered the reasonable claims of Christ. I run into people all the time whom I haven’t seen for many years, and they say, “What are you doing these days?” I say with pride, “I am a Southern Baptist Pastor!” When they return to consciousness, they ask how on earth that could be possible. It really doesn’t make sense unless you allow that Jesus is alive and is still in the life-changing business.

We have considered theological evidence: long before the birth of Christ, His life, His death, and His resurrection were prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures. We have considered testimonial evidence: over 640 eyewitnesses to the Risen Christ are mentioned in Scripture, and Paul invited his readers in his day to contact them for further inquiry, since most of them were still alive that point. We have considered existential evidence: lives that underwent radical change through an encounter with Jesus Christ.

IV. Other Evidence

Now, there is much more evidence to prove the resurrection of Christ. The empty tomb stands as a remarkable testimony to the resurrection. I have already said that an empty tomb by itself is no evidence. But, an empty tomb with no other reasonable explanation is. Some have attempted to suggest many other theories of how the tomb of Jesus became empty.

It has been suggested that Jesus’ body was stolen by his disciples, and they made up the story of his resurrection. This was, in fact, the first alternative theory ever offered to explain the empty tomb. This was the story concocted by the chief priests, the elders, and the soldiers when the tomb was found to be empty (Matthew 28:11-15). Yet people continue to advance this theory as if it was cutting edge. My response to this is to say, if it was all a lie, why did so many of the earliest Christians die for it? You say, “Well, people die for lies all the time.” Think of the 9-11 hijackers who killed themselves and multitudes of others for Mohammed’s lie that death in jihad would transport them instantly to a heavenly garden to be attended to by 70 virgins. How about the followers of Jim Jones, David Koresh, Heaven’s Gate? Indeed, people die every day for the sake of a lie, but all do so believing that lie to be the truth. No one dies for a lie that they know is a lie. And if Christ was not risen, the apostles and early followers of Jesus would have certainly known it. They had no reason to believe in a resurrection unless they had been personally and powerfully convinced of it. Something happened that transformed them from paranoid recluses to powerful evangelists. And if the apostles had stolen the body, or known that somehow Jesus was not actually risen, do you think they would have suffered and died for Him?

¨ John suffered imprisonment and exile at Patmos (the only one of the faithful apostles to not be killed for his faith)

¨ Andrew, James the Less, Philip, Simon Zealotes, and Bartholomew were all crucified

¨ Peter was crucified upside down

¨ Matthew and James, brother of John, were killed by the sword

¨ Thaddaeus (the other Judas) was killed by arrows

¨ Thomas was run through with a spear as he preached

¨ Paul was beheaded

¨ Matthias died either by crucifixion or by stoning, then beheading.

The evidence for a stolen body and a fictitious resurrection is not convincing. Others have said that the body was stolen by the political and religious leaders of Jesus’ day. This is an even more ridiculous suggestion. First of all, they had no motive for stealing the body, and if the had stolen it, they would have probably paraded it through the streets to prove that the resurrection did not occur. But that did not happen.

Others have said that the disciples went to the wrong tomb. If that is the case, then certainly Joseph of Arimathea could have pointed them to the right tomb, or otherwise, the religious and political leaders of the day would have. Most certainly, this does not explain the empty tomb of Christ.

Still others have said that Jesus did not really die. They say that He merely fainted on the cross, but after being placed in the tomb, he regained consciousness and escaped from the tomb. I would remind you that we are talking about an individual who was beaten, whipped, and scourged beyond recognition; He was nailed to a cross with spikes in his wrists and feet; He was pierced in the side by a spear, breaking his pericardial sack and causing blood and water to flow out. Now, I am supposed to believe that this person did not really die, but rehabilitated himself to the point that within three days (with no food or water, mind you) he could move a massive stone, fight off an entire regiment of soldiers, and present himself alive and well to his followers. With all due respect, I believe that it would take much more faith for me to believe that than to believe that He rose from the dead.

Sir Edward Clarke, a once prominent English attorney for King’s Court said, “As a lawyer, I have made a prolonged study of the evidences for the events of the first Easter day. For me the evidence is conclusive, and over and over again in the high court I have secured the verdict on evidence not nearly so compelling.”

Historian Thomas Arnold said, “The evidence for our Lord’s life and death and resurrection may be and often has been shown to be satisfactory. It is good according to the common rules for distinguishing good evidence from bad. Thousands and tens of thousands of persons have gone through it piece by piece as carefully as every judge summing up on an important case. … I know of no one fact in the history of mankind which is better proved by fuller evidence than the great sign that God has given us that Christ died and rose again from the dead.”

In John 11:25-26, Jesus said, “"I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die.” And after that statement, He asked a very important question: “Do you believe this?” Do you? If not, why not? I suggest that if you do not believe it, it is not because of the evidence, but rather in spite of it.


FreeTibet05 said...

One thing that has always fascinated me is the conversation the risen Jesus had on the road to Emmaus. I wish I could get my hands on that transcript. Proof that Jesus is the Messiah is a particular skill of Paul and the writer of Hebrews, but could you imagine having the writer of history explain it from Scripture? If there is a time transporter in heaven, that will be one of my first stops.

Russ Reaves said...

Indeed! I think I would give everything I own for the opportunity to have heard what must have been the most incredible Old Testament lesson ever taught.