On the Third Day

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : 1 Corinthians 15:1-3
Mark 16:1-8
“On the third day he rose again from the dead,” we boldly declare in the Apostles’ Creed. The story of Jesus’ life and death really ends — or rather, really begins — on the third day.

“Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you. . . . For 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 . . .” (1 Corinthians 15:3).

That is how the apostle Paul summarizes the Christian faith which he had brought to the city of Corinth and taught to the new converts he made there. It is the earliest and simplest statement we have of the ancient Christian tradition. The word tradition literally means “to hand on,” and the apostle uses this exact word here in 1 Corinthians 15. “I handed on to you,” says Paul, “the message that was first handed to me. This is the message you received, in which you stand, and by which you are saved, provided you hold fast to it.” Christianity is not first and foremost a way of life or behavior. Contrary to much popular opinion, a Christian is not first of all defined by a way of acting, but by a set of beliefs. And these beliefs most fundamentally have to do with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. You can’t be a Christian without being “traditional,” that is, without accepting and holding fast to the truth that Jesus died for your sins and rose again on the third day.

Unlike all other human lives, the story of Jesus’ life doesn’t end with his funeral. Though he was crucified, died and was buried, death could not hold him in its prison. Three days later his grave was empty: “On the third day he rose again from the dead,” as we boldly declare in the Apostles’ Creed. The story of Jesus’ life and death really ends — or rather, really begins — on the third day. And because death was not the end for him, it won’t be for us either — we who have committed ourselves to him in faith, for whom Christ’s resurrection is the center of our creed.

Easter Morning

What happened on the third day is a well-known story. Several of the women who belonged to the larger circle of Jesus’ disciples had come out to the garden tomb to finish the burial rites that were interrupted on the day he died by the onset of the Jewish Sabbath. Unlike Jesus’ twelve male disciples, most of whom forsook him and fled in fear, these women stood by the cross to the end, helped put Jesus’ body in his tomb, and now, early on Sunday morning, are coming back to finish the proper burial arrangements for their Lord’s dead body. They set out from Jerusalem at first light, worrying along the way about how they would move the huge stone that covered the tomb’s entrance. Reaching the grave about sunrise, they saw to their astonishment that the stone was already moved aside. The doorway into the tomb stood open. The bewildered women lingered there for a moment outside, uncertain what to do. Finally mustering the courage to peer inside, they were startled by the sight of an angel, who told them some incredible news.

Easter News

“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. (Really, can you blame them for being stunned and frightened? Try to imagine yourself in their place!) “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified,” the angel continued. “He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.” Those words of the angel to the women at the tomb (I’m quoting them in this case from the Gospel of Mark) are the very first witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And the testimony consists of a series of simple statements of facts, followed by an invitation to investigate those facts: “He isn’t here,” said the angel. “He has risen. See the place where they laid him.”

Consider first that most obvious fact: that Jesus was no longer in his grave. The angel’s “He is not here” means “his body is gone.” That angel meant those words to be taken literally. He wasn’t speaking the way we sometimes do in funeral homes: “You know, son, Grandpa isn’t really here.” No, the angel wasn’t speaking of Jesus’ soul; he was talking about his body. That’s the point of the invitation to the women to come and investigate and confirm for themselves: “Come and see the place where they laid him.”

That initial testimony to the absence of Jesus’ body from his tomb has never been contradicted. And it was easily verifiable. As the apostle Paul commented many years later, “These things were not done in a corner!” (Acts 26:26). Anyone could have gone and checked the tomb for themselves. The garden where Jesus was buried was only a few minutes’ walk from anyplace in the city of Jerusalem. And Jesus’ followers began to publicly proclaim his resurrection within days of his death and burial. But to the angel’s “He is not here,” no one has ever been able to respond, “Well, he is over here. Look. There’s his body.”

The second item in the angel’s testimony to the women at the tomb was the real explanation of what had happened to Jesus’ body: “He is not here,” said the angel. “He has risen!” Just the fact that Jesus’ tomb was empty isn’t enough. The absence of his body from the grave that morning could be explained by a number of different ways. The women could have made a mistake and gone to the wrong tomb. Or maybe Jesus didn’t really die on the cross; he only fainted, and later he revived and left his tomb on his own. Or perhaps, likeliest of all, someone stole his body, one of his disciples who wanted to fake the whole thing. None of those supposed explanations is really supported by any evidence, but each has been alleged as true at one time or another by those who refuse to believe that Jesus could have actually risen from the dead.

But it’s the angels’ explanation that is the true reason the tomb was empty. “He has risen!” Christ’s resurrection was a brand new thing, altogether different from anything that had ever happened before. The resurrection doesn’t mean that Jesus revived or was resusitated or somehow came back to life again. No. What happened on Easter was true resurrection; not a dead body being revived to its old life, but a body being transformed from death into a different kind of life altogether. Other human bodies have been restored to life after suffering physical or clinical death; that’s been done both by miracle and by medicine. But this isn’t what happened to Jesus. He didn’t “wake up,” rise awkwardly from his bed of death and stumble out of the tomb. Rather, he was changed in an instant, in the twinkling of an eye. His physical body was transformed into what the New Testament calls a spiritual body (1 Corinthians 15:44). Jesus’ body passed through the graveclothes, leaving them as they lay, and out of the tomb and into the life of the world to come. The stone was rolled away from the door to let the witnesses in, not to let the Lord Jesus out.

Easter Faith

This is what we believe happened on Easter morning. Christians are made by faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We accept the angel’s testimony. We accept the disciples’ witness to this testimony. We accept the apostolic tradition of the cross and the empty tomb on the third day. Jesus of Nazareth, the same man who was crucified, died and was buried, rose again from the dead on the third day. His tomb was found to be empty on Easter morning. Later he was seen alive by many who had known him (1 Cor. 15:4ff.) These things demonstrated conclusively that Jesus was more than just a man — in fact, that he was and is the Son of God (Rom. 1:4), and that his death is the salvation of the world. This is history. It’s a fact. It really happened. As Christians, we base our faith on it. More than that, we are staking our lives, our entire future, on it. The New Testament says as clearly as it can that Jesus rose physically from the dead. Skeptics who deny the possibility of this, who say that Jesus only rose in some spiritual sense, or who argue that the Gospel accounts of the resurrection are really just a symbolic way of saying that Jesus’ influence lived on in his disciples’ memories, well, they simply haven’t got the story straight.

Of course, many do deny the resurrection then as well as now. But the only way for an informed person to do that is to conclude that the New Testament itself is mistaken, perhaps a deliberate deception. Is that likely? Can you believe that the whole Christian faith is founded upon a lie? I can’t. I believe it’s true. I am convinced that Jesus’ tomb was empty on that third day, and that it was empty because he had risen to the life of the world to come. But even that isn’t the end of his story. As believers, Jesus shares his new life with us. We too are raised to the life of the world to come, first in a spiritual sense, but eventually physically as well, when Jesus will come again at the end of time. And in the meantime, the way we live out our lives becomes the rest of his story. Because when you and I really live with Jesus’ life and by Jesus’ power, we will start to affect the world the very same way that he did. So let’s get going because the Easter story isn’t over. You and I are going to help write its finish!