This year we have been on a quest for the historical Jesus. We have made new discoveries, researched latest archaeological finds, considered the new papyri, confronted the theology of those theologians who identify with the Jesus Seminar. This is the self-appointed theological study group in USA which has critically rejected the authority of the scripture. Instead they have re-interpreted it in the light of what we think today about the world, science, psychology and personal relationships.
We tackled the issues head on intellectually. With faith we have sought to answer the criticism and to see the validity of the scriptures and the traditional doctrines of the faith. We are ending the year looking at six crucial issues: "Where Do We Look For Jesus?", "What Evidence Is There That Jesus Existed?", "How Can we Know Jesus Lived?", "Did Jesus Perform Miracles?", "Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?", and next Sunday, "Is Jesus the Only Way?.
Christianity hinges upon the fact that Jesus rose from the dead. The most obvious fact of our existence is that we humans are mortal. We each die. Death ends life. But the central fact of Christianity is that death is not the end. The power of death to end our life has been broken by Jesus Christ who was raised from the dead, and who gives power by faith to those who believe in Him, for they too will rise from the dead. The entire structure of Christianity hinges round this central fact: the power of physical death to end our life has been broken by Jesus Christ. Life now takes new meaning and purpose because we do not end when our bodies pile up in the ash trays of the crematorium.
All of life is under the tyranny of death. Everyone, no matter how great or small dies. The whole world, physical, social, biological, scientific is under the time-call of death. But Jesus Christ was God's answer to the finality of death. He conquered death because God raised Him from it, and gave to Him a resurrected and glorified body. God then gave to all who believe in Him that same capacity for life that is eternal and complete beyond death. Hence the fact that Jesus did rise from the dead is the most important fact of the Christian faith.
1. THE APOSTLES KNEW THIS WAS THE CENTRAL FACT.
Paul tackled any uncertainty. From the start the first preaching was based upon the fact of the resurrection declaring bluntly: 1 Cor 15:14-21 "If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. 20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep."
His resurrection would enable ours. He stunningly summed it up "Because I live, you shall live also." Even journalists can realise the pivotal nature of the Resurrection as Kenneth L Woodward, in a major article in "NEWSWEEK" on "Rethinking the Resurrection" wrote:
"As the Apostle Paul insisted, the Risen Christ is the centre of the Christian faith, without which there would be no church, no hope of eternal life, no living Christ to encounter in eucharistic bread and wine. By any measure, the resurrection of Jesus is the most radical of Christian doctrines. His teachings, his compassion for others, even his martyr's death - all find parallels in other stories and religious traditions. But of no other historical figure has the claim been made persistently that God has raised him from the dead.
From the very beginning, the resurrection of Jesus was met by doubt and disbelief. To the Jews of Biblical Jerusalem, it was simply blasphemous for the renegade Christians to claim that a crucified criminal was the Messiah. To the cultivated Greeks, who believed in the souls's immortality, the very idea of a resurrected body was repugnant. Even among Gnostic Christians of the second century, the preferred view was that Jesus was an immortal spirit who merely discarded his mortal cloak. And yet, if the New Testament is to be believed, it was the appearance of the resurrected Christ that lit the flame of Christian faith, and the power of the Holy Spirit that fired a motley band of fearful disciples to proclaim the Risen Jesus throughout the Greco-Roman world." (p73)
2. ATHEISTS KNOW THE RESURRECTION IS CENTRAL.
That is why they attack the resurrection. Without the resurrection of Christ from the dead, Jesus is simply a compassionate good man, a wise teacher, a marginalised messiah, a prophet of God or any one of the dozen other names that we considered during the course of the past year.
Some people like that. They want to reduce Jesus to our size. They want a Jesus who will be an inspiration to living in the way He cared for the environment, showed mercy to the hurting, diseased and wounded, taught nice teaching that would encourage the pure in heart, those who were meek and sorrowful, and those who hungered after righteousness. They like a Jesus who inspires us to noble living, and who shows us the way to cope with anxiety, pressure and antagonism.
Jesus is an inspiration to living, but He is much more. That Jesus is too small. The Bible declares Jesus is both Lord and Christ. His birth had to do with our death. His pure life had to do with our impure lives. His strong commitment had to do with our temptations. His suffering had to do with our sin. Something happened on the Cross and in the tomb that impacts upon our future.
Jesus was never merely an inspiration, a guide, an example. He actually did accomplish then and there something for us here and now. Our faith in what God did in Jesus is the means whereby we appropriate to ourselves the benefits of His death and resurrection. Without that, Christianity is just another philosophy of life, a poetic story of a good man, an historical account that inspires people. Without the resurrection there is no point in the church outside of an organisation for social change. Without the resurrection there is no purpose in your gathering together except to comfort one another on the way to the cemetery. The message of the cross, the tomb, and the resurrection 1 Cor 1:18 "is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God."
According to the German Marxist philosopher Ernest Bloc, "It wasn't the morality of the Sermon on the Mount which enabled Christianity to conquer Roman paganism, but the belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead. In an age when Roman senators vied to see who could get the most blood of a steer on their togas - thinking that would prevent death - Christianity was in competition for eternal life, not morality."
3. WHY DO SOME BELIEVERS REJECT THE RESURRECTION? Scholars agree that the priority of the early preachers was the proclamation of the good news. Pro-clamation is different from arguing the belief, gossiping about what had happened, telling the story, reciting the facts, teaching the instructions of Jesus and explaining the Scriptures. The preaching of the Gospel was a proclaiming of Good News.
It was heralding, trumpeting, announcing, broadcasting that Jesus Christ died for the sins of the world, was buried in a sealed grave, but had been raised from the dead and if you accept that fact, you too would share in new life! That kind of preaching is so different to what goes on in pulpits today. So many preachers today read little editorials about goodness, urge social change on a multitude of injustices, dialogue about which is a better viewpoint, spin evocative images of more satisfying life-styles - and none of what they say would be recognised by New Testament preachers as preaching! Because every sermon they preached announced that Jesus Christ died for their sins, was buried among the dead, has been raised from the dead by the power of God, and that by God's grace, He will raise those who believe also! That is preaching!
This week a leading Christian businessman told me he was troubled by the time wasted by preachers on what was not essential to the Gospel. I also can give nice little editorials about goodness, urge social change on a multitude of injustices, dialogue about a better viewpoint, spin evocative images of more satisfying life-styles. But when I do I am not preaching. Preaching is proclaiming the good news that 2 Cor 5:17-20 "if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God." That is the Gospel!
The Gospels were a new kind of writing. They are not biographies giving personal descriptions. They are not a full life story of Jesus because two thirds of them concern only the last week in His life. They are not literary works nor letters of oratory. They are "gospels", announcements of the good news that Jesus has died, been raised from the dead to save you from sin and death, and to enable you to enjoy forgiveness and eternal life. The writings reflect the different social and racial backgrounds of the writers, their levels of education, life experience and the approaches of each of the writers is different according to their audience. But they have one thing in common: to present the death and resurrection of Jesus in such a way that readers would end up believing in Jesus.
On previous occasions I examined the evidence for the resurrection. I answered the question "Was the Resurrection Myth or Reality?" The evidence concerning the Resurrection is available in printed form and on the internet. To deny the Resurrection of Christ is to deny the Christian faith of its essentials. Atheists will try to do that. But when well-meaning theologians and preachers indicate that it doesn't really matter what happened to the dead body of Jesus so long as you live in His Spirit and have some of His sunny attitude to life and belong to the supportive fellowship of people who treasure His memory - then they are making the Christian faith empty and irrelevant.
They leave us still in our sins. They leave us condemned. They leave us ignoring God. They offer us nothing but death. Paul put it, their 1 Cor 15:14-20 "preaching is useless and so is your faith." Furthermore, he says their preaching is "false witness about God." Furthermore, He says "if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins." Furthermore, whatever hope you have of a future life for yourself and those you love is in vain for they "who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost."
No wonder Paul proclaimed that if we have no firm belief in the Resurrection of Christ, but only warmly hope in Him, "we are to be pitied more than all men." But the great and glorious fact is that 20 "Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep." Jesus Christ died, was buried and was raised from the dead. That is a fact we believe and all the blessings of being Christian flow from that. Jesus really did rise from the dead: millions know it as a fact.
REFERENCES USED IN THIS SERMON:
NEWSWEEK April 14 1996 Kenneth L Woodward
JESUS CHRIST: MORE THAN A MAN C Walker JBCE 1995
LEADING LAWYERS LOOK AT THE RESURRECTION R Clifford Albatross 1991
THE TRUTH ABOUT JESUS P Barnett Aquilla 1994
RESURRECTION: MYTH OR REALITY J S Spong Harper 1994
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