When Christians get together they sometimes speak a language no one else can understand…a kind of Christianese. Sometimes I wonder whether even we understand it. When we sing, “Praise God” or “I love you Lord” or “you are worthy” or “I give myself to you,” do we know what the words mean? Or when we say, “Jesus died for our sins” or “Jesus is my Lord and Savior” could we explain what we mean?
But in this post I want to consider an expression we may hear on Easter Sunday. The leader will say, “He has risen.” And the church will say, “He has risen indeed.” Do we know what we are saying? Do we know that we are speaking about the most revolutionary event since the creation of the world? Do we feel its power and truth? And do we live lives that correspond to this assertion? Or is “He has risen. He has risen indeed” just another expression in Christianese. Just something we say on Easter Sunday?
I want to give you 6 points about the resurrection of Jesus to help us break free of Christianese into the reality about which it speaks.
Apart from the resurrection of Jesus Christianity would not exist. We read the story of the two sad disciples on the Emmaus Road in Luke 24. Jesus appeared to them, but they did not recognize him. As they talked they expressed their disappointment: “but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). They “had hoped,” but their hope was gone.
Paul is also clear that Jesus’ resurrection is the “make it or break it” fact of Christianity. He says, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:17-19).
If Jesus had not risen, the world would be very different! There would have been no apostles, no church, and no world mission. We would never have heard of Jesus or Paul or John. Rome would have remained pagan. The French, Germans, English, Russians, Greeks, and hundreds of other nations would have continued to worship their gods. There would be no Chinese, Indian, African or Korean Christians. Every moral principle, religious belief or rational idea that Christianity gave to the world would be missing. There would be no Harvard, Princeton or Pepperdine. And you and I would not be standing here this evening. Indeed, most likely we would never have been born.
The Resurrection of Jesus is a real event that happened in our space and time. Christianity is not based on a philosophy derived from observing the repeating patterns of nature. It is not based on the secret revelations to a self-proclaimed prophet. It is not derived from speculations about the divine world that appeal to your pride or fancies. Christianity is based on a historical event. It either happened or it didn’t. It could have been refuted. To believe in the resurrection is to believe those witnesses who tell us that Jesus appeared to them alive after his death and burial.
The Resurrection of Jesus reveals the goal of creation and all history. The meaning of any historical event is determined by its context and what flows from it. There are three contexts that are especially important for determining the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus: the life, teaching, actions, and death of Jesus; those religious and theological speculations about the end of the world that were held in Jesus’ day; and the experience and reactions of the disciples of Jesus to his resurrection appearances.
Had it been someone other than Jesus, the meaning of the resurrection would have been different. Perhaps it would be simply an amazing event testifying to the power of God but without further implications. But it was Jesus! Jesus came preaching the coming kingdom of God, he cast out demons, healed the sick, raised the dead, forgave sins, taught with authority, spoke about God as his Father, called himself the Son of Man; he predicted his death, and instituted a new covenant at the Last Supper. And he was crucified as a blasphemer of Israel’s God and a rebel against Imperial Rome. For God to raise this man from the dead would be to confirm God’s approval of all he said and did. It would be to reverse completely the charge of blasphemy and unlawful rebellion.
As for the religious and theological context, most Jews in Jesus’ day hoped that when God defeated evil and established his everlasting kingdom, he would raise the dead so that they could participate in the kingdom. The resurrection of the dead to eternal life was supposed to happen only with the end of the age and the coming of the kingdom of God. So, when Jesus was definitively saved from death and his human body was glorified and made immortal, the disciples concluded that the kingdom has come. It is the beginning of the end. And Jesus is the first of many!
The original disciples and Paul experienced appearances of the resurrected and glorified Jesus. And they were completely transformed. Paul was changed from Rabbi and Persecutor to Apostle, Missionary and Martyr. They feared neither death nor the devil. They desired neither money nor fame. Paul summarizes well the resurrection lifestyle: “For me, to live is Christ, to die is gain” (Phil 1:21). Or “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20).
The Resurrection of Jesus Really Happened. How do we know this? We know in the same way we know any event in the past: either we remember our own experience of it or we believe the word of someone who did experience it. In the case of the resurrection of Jesus, the decisive issue is whether or not we believe the testimony of those first generation Christians who tell us they saw and heard the resurrected Jesus. We have the witness of gospel accounts, Acts, 1 Peter and the letters of John. But the testimony of Paul, from a historian’s point of view, is the strongest and most direct testimony. We can listen to his own words from his letters, and no one doubts that 1 Corinthians and Galatians were written by Paul within about 20 years of the resurrection and about 17 or 18 years of Paul’s conversion on the Damascus Road.
1 Cor 15:3-8
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”
And according to Galatians 1:18-20, Paul met Peter and stayed with him 15 days and he also met James the Lord’s brother. So, what Paul’s says in 1 Corinthians about Jesus appearing to Peter and James is not hearsay. He heard their stories from their own mouths.
We can believe them or not, but there is no doubt about what they claim.
Accepting the apostles’ testimony to the Resurrection of Jesus establishes their authority for us. The Lord Jesus chose to reveal himself to the apostles. They are special. When we come to faith in Jesus through their words, we simultaneously acknowledge our dependence on them. We naturally want to know everything they can tell us about Jesus and about how to become his disciples and live as Christians. This is why the church accepts the authority of the NT. We don’t believe the resurrection because of the authority of the NT, we accept the authority of the NT (and the whole Bible) because we believe the apostles’ testimony to the resurrection. Keeping this order in mind will answer many of the questions and solve many of the problems nonbelievers and believers alike have about the Bible.
Believing—really believing—the apostles’ testimony to the Resurrection of Jesus will revolutionize your life. Think about how their experience of seeing and hearing the resurrected Christ changed Peter and Paul’s lives. In fear, Peter denied Jesus three times. But after the Jesus’ resurrection he stood before the same Sanhedrin Council that condemned Jesus, headed by the same high priest, Caiaphas. But this time he boldly proclaimed to the Council the name of Jesus “whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead” (Acts 4:10).
Meeting the resurrected Jesus changed Paul from persecutor to preacher and missionary to the world. As soon as you have the chance, turn to Acts 26 and read Paul’s speech to King Agrippa. There he tells the story of his conversion. These people no longer feared death or kings or emperors or the devil. They no longer desired riches or fame. They no longer sought pleasure or comfort. This revolution happened not only to Peter and Paul but also to Stephen and Phillip, James and John and many others. And it can happen to you as well.
But we have not experienced the risen Jesus in the same way they did. So we have to experience it in faith. How do we do this? It might help us to remember that as far as we know they did not continually experience appearances of Jesus their whole lives. Even they had to remember what they saw and heard. We don’t have those memories as our own. So we can’t imagine it or remember it for ourselves. But we have their memories! So, we need to listen to their testimony, enter into their words and let their words enter into us; and through their words we enter into their experiences.
One of the main reasons for the existence of the church and for gathering together as a church is to enter into these memories. Symbols and sacraments and teaching and singing brings these memories to life again. As we read their words, we realize that they had no doubts about the reality of the resurrection. The resurrected Jesus was as real to them as you are to me, and their memories of his appearances were as real as our memories of yesterday. And as we continually let their words dwell in us, we will begin to experience their confidence in the reality of the resurrection; and you may find yourself acting with their boldness in living.
So on Sunday when the worship leader says to you “He has risen” and you say in return, “He has risen indeed,” understand that these words are not originally your memories, not your feelings. You can’t assert them on your own authority. And they are not empty Christianese code words. These are the words the angel spoke to the women at the empty tomb. But if you are clear about who said these words first and why, you can experience something of the joy, confidence and boldness of those who first heard them.
Note: This talk was delivered to a student gathering at Pepperdine University on Thursday, April 2, 2015.