READ : 1 Corinthians 15:14-19
If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.
1 Corinthians 15:14-19, rsv
DID HE RISE?
From the very first Easter until now, there have always been some who doubted the resurrection of Jesus. Remember how Thomas, one of the original Twelve, refused to credit his fellow-disciples when they told him about it? When they exclaimed, “We have seen the Lord!” he countered “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
Think of these words at the close of Matthew’s gospel, as he describes an appearance of the risen Jesus to a large group of His followers in Galilee: “And when they saw him they worshipped him; but some doubted.”
Among the believers in Corinth a generation later, there were other doubters. They said, flat out, “There is no resurrection of the dead.” Obviously they meant that no one, including Jesus, had ever been raised from death. They doubted that anyone ever would be.
Perhaps you have met people like that in our time. I have – considerable numbers of them. Some reject the resurrection simply because it is outside their experience. They’ve never met anyone who came back from the grave. They can’t imagine it happening. Like Thomas, they insist on seeing, if they are to believe.
Others argue against Jesus’ resurrection because they view such an event as scientifically impossible. They claim that after the heart stops pumping, after the lungs collapse and brain activity ceases for a period of days (or even hours), no human body could ever be restored to life. It would take a miracle, and they don’t believe in miracles.
How do such people account for the faith of the first disciples, and of millions since? Some say that Jesus’ original followers simply imagined that they saw Him alive. They experienced hallucinations, mass hysteria. They wanted so intensely to believe that they somehow succeeded in convincing themselves that Jesus had been raised.
Others contend that it was all a hoax, a carefully orchestrated deception. The disciples stole the dead body of Jesus, buried it somewhere else, and then told the world they had seen Him alive. They were trying to sell, in the name of Jesus, their own contrived religion.
Still others explain it as a mixup over the exact location of Jesus’ tomb. The disciples, we are told, went to the wrong sepulchre, found it empty, and leaped to the conclusion that a miracle had happened. They were a bumbling, credulous lot.
Some have even conjectured that Jesus was taken down from the cross while still alive, and later recovered from His wounds sufficiently to make a few brief appearances two days later. On this view, He later died, but the time of His death and the whereabouts of His burial have been kept secret ever since.
To some, I suppose, the whole issue doesn’t matter a great deal. Even if Jesus wasn’t raised to life, they say, His “spirit” can live on in His followers. Even if the tomb wasn’t really empty on Easter, the memory of Jesus remains, and His contributions to our religious and ethical life are intact.
WHAT IF NOT?
What would you say about that? How important is the resurrection of Jesus? Does it make much difference whether or not it actually happened?
Listen to Paul the apostle, writing on this subject to his friends in Corinth:
If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied (1 Cor. 15:14).
Paul obviously sees the resurrection of Jesus as the heart of Christianity. If this didn’t happen, he notes, the message is empty. It’s nothing, a hollow shell. The whole content has dropped out.
What follows necessarily is the collapse of faith. Faith looks to the risen Jesus. Believers trust Him, worship Him, call on Him. If He is not alive, Christian faith has no object. We can’t give ourselves to a dead man, and we surely can’t hope to receive anything from one. Having “faith” for Christians has then become like the child on the nursery floor grasping at sunbeams. His eager little hand closes again and again on . . . nothing.
If this be the case, Paul continues, the proclamation of the Christian church from the beginning has been a prodigious lie. Falsehoods are always potentially dangerous, but most so when we tell them about God, or about the ultimate issues of life and death. If Christ has not been raised, then everyone who testifies that He is alive has perjured himself before the Almighty. We preachers have been consistently leading the world astray.
Now the picture becomes darker still. “If Christ has not been raised,” writes Paul, “your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” This faith without content can obviously have no effect. It is powerless, for example, to secure forgiveness. If we have a vain faith in an absent Christ, we are fooling ourselves about being forgiven. We are as guilty, defiled and enslaved by sin as we ever were. A dead Jesus can save no one.
The litany of despair goes on. “Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.” Even when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, perhaps 25 years after the Crucifixion, a number of believers had already died. What had become of them? They, says Paul, have perished. Without a living Christ they are gone, lost, as dead as the One in whom they placed their trust.
Finally, Paul says, if Christ has not been raised, Christians who labor and suffer for Him are of all people most to be pitied. Their multiplied toils, troubles and tears have been a colossal waste. They’ve gone through it all for nothing. It would have been better for them to “live it up” than to bear reproach in a meaningless cause and finally die for a delusion. Pity them – these pathetic dreamers.
Let’s dwell on all that for a moment. Let’s tick off the sad results that would follow if Jesus had never really conquered death. Here we have a message without meaning, faith in nothing at all, and preachers who lie. Here’s the mockery of redemption and the death of hope. Here’s a religion that asks everything of people and then dismally lets them down. That’s what Christianity is if somewhere in a Palestinian tomb, just like any other dead body, the corpse of Jesus long ago decomposed.
Oh, how I thank God that I don’t have to stop there, that Paul didn’t stop there! Hear him again, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” The apostle has stopped peering over into the abyss of what might have been; now he affirms what is. Christ has been raised, and will yet raise all His people with Him.
What’s the difference? If Christ is risen, this is the most momentous message ever heard. Now there’s a risen Lord in whom to believe. Now the gospel witnesses have been telling everywhere God’s own truth. All who believe in Jesus Christ are forgiven, cleansed, set free. Everyone who has died believing in Him now rejoices in His presence. And whatever His followers suffer here will seem as nothing when He comes in His glory and when all the tears are wiped away. Christians sing with triumph, “It will be worth it all, when we see Jesus.”
But wait a minute. Can we be sure? The Christian faith seems acutely vulnerable, doesn’t it? If anyone should ever dig out of a near eastern burial site what could be authenticated as the skeleton of Jesus, it would be all over for the gospel and the church. It’s that simple. Everything, everything, depends on His actually rising from death on Easter morning. The tomb had to be empty, but even that wouldn’t have been enough by itself, would it? He had to be alive.
Were the apostles deluded? One or two, maybe. But all of the eleven? The group of over 500 that saw Him in Galilee? Hardly. That’s difficult to believe.
Would they preach Him everywhere if they knew He were really dead somewhere? Would they be jubilant, even through torture, even to death, for what they knew to be a lie? Come on.
What convinced these disciples, and millions of others since, is something unassailably simple. They met the risen Lord.
Those first followers saw Him alive, heard His voice, touched Him, fell down at His feet. Then He breathed into them His Spirit. He shared with them His risen life. And through their witness still today, the marvelous thing happens again and again: He meets us. He comes to us, calls us, and makes Himself indescribably real. He breathes into us too His Holy Spirit. He shares with us His risen life. We sing in that wonderful hymn of joy, “You ask me how I know He lives? He lives within my heart!”
This Jesus I present to you today – crucified for our sins and risen from the dead, forever alive. He, friends, is the world’s only Savior. He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. In Him the Father’s mighty love invites you home, draws you. If you have been a doubter like Thomas, why not today like him, cry out from your heart to the risen Jesus, “My Lord and my God.” Then you can hear Him say, with a promise stronger than death, “Because I live, you shall live also.”
Easter has always been a day of joy, a day for the trumpets to blow, a day for people all over the world to say, “The Lord is risen!” and to hear the response, “He is risen indeed!” Are you a sharer in that joy? Has the gospel, the overwhelmingly good news of Jesus Christ alive, reached your heart? Friends, that is the gospel, that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that this Jesus, once crucified for you, for your sins, has conquered death and risen, reigning, offers forgiveness and new life to all who will believe. Wouldn’t it be wonderful that on this Easter day you could pray a prayer of faith? You, hearing the gospel, confronted by this living Christ, should say, “Yes, Lord, I do believe.” All of God’s people and the Lord Himself through His people, invite you to make that commitment and to pray that prayer. And why don’t you right now repeat a prayer like this after me, if it’s what you really want to say, “Lord Jesus Christ, I believe that You died for me and that You arose from the dead. I trust in You as my Savior. I surrender my life to you as my Lord and I believe Your promise of forgiveness and everlasting life and I praise You. Amen.”