(April 17, 2018) Dr Jim McClure, straight shooting theologian, reflects…
In English there are some words that sound very impressive, such as iridescent, ethereal, serendipity, ineffable, and so on. On the other hand there are some words that sound pathetically unimpressive.
However some of those unimpressively sounding words are supercharged with significance… such as if or but. It’s hard to imagine anything less impressive than those two common little words.
Nevertheless they lie at the heart of the most marvellous of all Christian truths – the resurrection of Jesus that millions of people around the world joyfully celebrated earlier this month.
But did the resurrection of Christ really happen?
Is the recently celebrated Easter story just a fascinating tale? Can we really believe that a brutally executed man came alive again three days later?
It does seem to stretch the bounds of credibility and, as atheism is embraced by more and more people today, many dismiss the reality of that event and believe that it should be classified as a fairy tale.
Recently I read these words by a Californian college professor of sociology and secular: ‘The world is better off when supernatural tales lacking evidence fade, especially when these tales teach that all humans are evil and rotten and in desperate need of salvation which can only come about through the brutal torture, murder, and resurrection of the son of a magical deity. As for the death and resurrection of Jesus, well, fewer and fewer people are buying that old tale. Increasing numbers of men and women in formerly Christian societies are losing their faith.’
This professor is right in one sense – individuals and Christian societies are losing faith in that story. And many just cannot give any credibility to the fact of a man coming alive again three days after he had died.
The apostle Paul addressed this very question around 20 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. In 1 Corinthians 15 we discover that there were some people who were saying that when you are dead, you are dead! That’s it! There’s nothing more!
Paul was concerned that some of the people in the Corinthian church were wavering in what they believed about the resurrection of Jesus. And in addressing this issue Paul’s argument hinged on two words: ‘if’ and ‘but.’
A) ‘If’ is about CONSEQUENCES:
‘If Christ has not been raised …’ (1 Corinthians 15:17). If Jesus Christ had not been raised from the dead, there are consequences that inevitably flow from that. Paul lists four of them:
1) ‘A Futile Faith’
‘If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile.’ In other words Paul is saying that if the resurrection of Jesus had not actually taken place, those who build their lives on that false fact are in reality building on a bogus foundation.
There can be no authentic Christianity apart from the historical reality of the resurrection of Jesus! His resurrection requires an empty tomb because he needed it no longer. In vain will archaeologists search for a tomb containing Jesus’ body. To the women, who arrived at the tomb to embalm a dead body, the angel said, ‘He has risen, he is not here’ (Mark 16:6).
Some people may admire Jesus for his good life and for his wonderful teachings. Others may admire him for his amazing kindness, for his compassion for the oppressed and for his willingness to stand up for those whom society had rejected. Still others will acknowledge that Jesus made a greater impact on the world than any other person has done since and that he is the most admired man the world has ever seen.
But if Jesus had not been raised from the dead and is not alive today, admiration counts for very little and is no substitute for faith in one who is alive. Why put your trust in someone who is dead? Faith in a dead person is futile because it is baseless and foolish and irrational. And if that is so, perhaps Easter should always be celebrated every year on April Fools’ Day!
2) ‘Unpardoned Sin’
‘If Christ has not been raised, you are … still in your sins.’ Unless the resurrection took place, we have an unresolved dilemma.
In Romans 4:25 Paul writes, ‘He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.’ Our salvation depends on a two-fold event – Christ’s death and his resurrection. The great reformer, John Calvin, wrote, ‘How could he by dying have freed us from death, if he had yielded to its power? How could he have obtained the victory for us, if he had fallen in the contest?’
The plan and purposes of God in sending his son into the world to be its Saviour would have been wholly incomplete if it had ended at Calvary. In dying on the cross for us Jesus paid the penalty for our sin and by his resurrection he provided the power to place us in a right and living relationship with Almighty God. If he had not risen, his death would have been in vain.
3) ‘A Destructive End’
‘If Christ has not been raised… then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost’ (verse 18). That is spelling it out bluntly! There is no ambiguity here. If Christ is not alive, when Christians die, our story comes to an abrupt end!
Paul makes it quite clear – if Jesus was not victorious over death, there is no reason for anyone else to be optimistic! We may claim that Jesus is our Saviour and we may be convinced that for us there is life beyond the grave, but if Jesus is not risen, what we believe is a self-deception and deceit.
As such, there will be no hope of glory, no experience of eternal life, no heavenly banquet, no singing of God’s praises with the angels, no grand reunion with loved ones. Instead our bodies will turn into dust and our souls will be lost. That is our sad and inescapable conclusion if Jesus has not risen.
4) ‘A Pitiable Hope’
‘If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men’ (verse 19). If Easter celebrates only an old supernatural tale, it is rather pitiable to fix our hope on Jesus for now or for the future. Simply to hope for something does not make it a reality, and the old hymn would then express this colossal delusion.
If the message of Christ’s resurrection is a delusion and a fabrication, how pitiable are we!
B) ‘But’ is about CONTRASTS:
‘But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead …’ (verse 20). Following all the despairing consequences of his first argument, Paul moves on to state that the negative things he has written in the previous couple of verses are only delusions for the simple reason that Jesus actually is alive!
Yes, he died but he ‘has indeed been raised.’
I can almost hear Paul shouting this out at the top of his voice, ‘But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead!’ He is saying, ‘Now let’s get down to the truth of the matter. Jesus really is alive! The resurrection really took place! The tomb really is empty! And because of that reality our faith is effective, our sins are forgiven, we are saved for eternity, and we have a glorious hope for the future.’
The apostle Peter agreed with Paul when he wrote, ‘Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead’ (1 Peter 1:3).
‘But’ changes everything! ‘But Christ has indeed been raised …’. This is not a subject on which Christians can agree to disagree. Jesus is either dead or he is alive and to Paul he is undisputedly alive!
Paul makes two points concerning Christ’s resurrection: It is the…
1). CORE of the Unqualified Christian Message
There is another little word in this verse that we might miss – the word ‘indeed’… ‘But Christ has indeed been raised.’
The KJV translates the little Greek word ‘nuni’ as ‘now’ but that does not do justice to what Paul is stating. ‘Nuni’ is an emphatic word and is meant to convey something like ‘truly’ or ‘absolutely.’ It is as if Paul is putting underlining and highlighting what he has written to emphasise the point he is making. JB Phillips has very meaningfully translated the verse in this way: ‘But the glorious fact is that Christ did rise from the dead.’
It was the discovery of that ‘glorious fact’ that made the sceptic Thomas drop to his knees before Jesus and confess ‘My Lord and my God’ (John 20:28) and radically transform him into a ‘sold-out’ believer with an unquenchable commitment to world mission.
And it is this same ‘glorious fact’ that still lies at the very heart of the Christian message. Indeed there is no gospel, no authentic Christian faith, apart from the wonderful fact of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Why is it so important? Why does it lie at the core of Christian belief?
Firstly, the resurrection provides the evidence of the integrity of Christ’s ministry and the truth of the message he preached.
It is the stamp of guarantee, the validating mark of the Christian faith, the seal of authority on everything Jesus ever said or did.
- If Jesus had not risen from the dead, he would have been no different from all the founders of other religions over the centuries.
- And it is questionable even if his name would ever have found a place in history books!
- But he did indeed rise from the dead thus affirming that he was whom he claimed to be and that his kingdom message of salvation resounded with truth. And for 2000 years that same message of the resurrected Lord has transformed countless millions of lives.
Secondly, the resurrection exposes the measure of God’s love for us.
How do we know God loves us? First there is the evidence of the death of Christ for us and then there is the confirmation of that love found in the resurrection which exposes once and for all that God is true to his word.
In John 3:16 we have what Martin Luther described as the gospel in a nutshell. Here we find Christ’s wonderful promise, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’ The gift of eternal life, made possible only by Christ’s resurrection, is God’s ultimate gift of love to us.
Thirdly, the resurrection emphasises God’s commitment to us.
Jesus’ death on the cross demonstrated God’s commitment to us in placing our sin and our judgement on Jesus. The failures of our past have been dealt with, but what about our future? Well, God’s commitment to us deals with that also.
Peter reminds us that we can have a ‘living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade’ (1 Peter 1:4). God is committed to giving us a glorious future!
2. CONFIRMATION of an Unbreakable Promise of the Gospel
Paul writes, ‘But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.’
What does this mean? The word ‘firstfruits’ refers to the first sheaf of grain which was offered in gratitude to God. Jesus is here described as the ‘firstfruits’ in that he was the first to enter God’s presence after his resurrection. He then paved the way for us to follow.
Shortly before his arrest and crucifixion Jesus made a promise to his disciples. He had told them that he would have to leave them to go to the Father, but then he made a promise to them, ‘I am going there to prepare a place for you’ (John 14:2). He was not leaving them behind!
In describing Jesus as the ‘firstfruits’ Paul was emphasising that Christ’s resurrection is a promise of our resurrection. Death is not the end for those who have faith in him.
As the firstfruits typified the whole harvest, so Jesus’ resurrection affirmed the unbreakable promise of the gospel message of the future reality of our resurrection that is guaranteed to us by God himself.
The reality of the resurrection of Jesus is our glorious hope as Christians!
As pointed out above, Thomas was so overwhelmed by the fact that Jesus was alive that he was unquenchably committed to world mission. So should every Christian, beginning in our own locality!
We’ve now moved on from Easter. I encourage every sold-out believer who believes in the gospel message to take every opportunity to fulfil Jesus’ Matthew 28:19-20 great commission to ‘go make disciples’ and share with full confidence the gospel message of salvation.
Dr Jim McClure, author of several books and Bible study series, welcomes questions from Christians seeking enlightenment on biblical perspectives.
Recommended is his enlightening Looking for Answers in a Confusing World, available in electronic version in EPUB, Kindle and PDF formats with hyperlinks and offered free. Link for orders and questions: firstname.lastname@example.org