April 1, 2018
Despite challenges in the Middle East, tours to Israel have always been the rage. That’s even what the first Crusades were about. In 1095, Pope Urban II called for Christian soldiers to go rescue the Holy Land from those dreaded Turks – so Christians could once again safely observe their pilgrimages.
You see, the Holy Land – Israel – is the birthplace of Christianity – the world’s largest religion. Think of it, to go to Bethlehem and see the place of Jesus’ birth – you can even visit the Church of the Nativity, I understand built on the actual site of the manger. Most any taxi driver in Bethlehem will take you to the fields where shepherds were watching over their flocks by night. Close your eyes and you can hear the heavenly chorus of angels.
Make your way to Nazareth, and yes, another church built on the site of the annunciation – that is, Mary’s home, where Gabriel appeared to tell her she would bear the Son of God. Nazareth, where as a son with His earthly father, Jesus learned the carpenter trade. You can see the town where He ran the streets with His little brothers and sisters – to include James and Jude.
You can go to the Jordan River where John the Baptist was baptizing people for repentance, preparing the way for the Messiah. There, Jesus was baptized, an example for those who be His followers.
You can go to the Sea of Galilee and visit the areas where Jesus spent most of His ministry – calming the storm on the Sea, walking on the Sea, teaching, feeding and healing the multitudes. From that area, He called most of His disciples – four of whom were fisherman – Peter, Andrew, James and John. You can visit Capernaum, His base of operations – and the purported actual site of Peter’s house. One of my personal favorites is the Church of the Beatitudes, erected on the slopes of the Sea, where it is said Jesus preached His famous Sermon on the Mount.
But no tour would be complete without a trip to Jerusalem. There, you can visit the Upper Room where Jesus and His disciples observed the last Passover, which became the first Lord’s Supper. You can visit the Garden of Gethsemane – which means olive press – and there quietly walk among olive trees, some said to date back to the time of Christ.
You can make your way down the Via Dolorosa – the path Jesus traveled from Pilate’s judgment hall, to the site of His crucifixion. Oh, there is some debate about that. The Via Dolorosa will take you to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which construction began in the 4th Century when Empress Helena, Constantine’s mother identified the site. You see, the church is supposedly built on the site of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus. Of course, another site became popular in the 19th Century – Gordon’s Calvary or Golgotha, the place of the skull, and the Garden Tomb.
Why the debate? You see, here’s the problem. We don’t really know where Jesus was crucified and buried. We know it was outside the city walls according to Hebrews, which probably eliminates the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Gordon’s Calvary is a good guess since the hill looks like a skull – calvaria is Latin for skull. And the Garden Tomb is only a short distance away, and seems to meet all the requirements of the biblical record. But we don’t know for sure. Why? Well, there’s no body there.
The death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the central tenet of the Christian faith. Yes, Jesus did all those things in the Holy Land – in Israel – and it is a great place to see. But visit the tomb, if you could pinpoint it, and you will find it empty.
This is the difference between Christianity and the other world religions of our day. For example, I can take you to the three most holy sites of Islam: the Kaa’ba in Mecca, Mohammed’s house in Medina, and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. But at Mohammed’s house in Medina, I can also take you to his tomb – underneath the famous Green Dome – where he has been buried since 632 AD when he died. You see, he’s still there. It’s called the Blessed Tomb.
I can take you further east, to China, the land of Buddhism. Founded by Siddhartha Gautama in the 6th Century BC, Gautama became the Enlightened One. He died in 483 BC at the age of 80. Tradition says he was cremated, and his ashes were divided among 8 princes who followed him. Suffice it to say, he is still dead.
I can even refer you to Judaism, and its founder Moses. Deuteronomy 34 says he died at the age of 120 in the plains of Moab – that’s modern-day Jordan – on top of Mount Nebo. The point is, he died, and stayed dead.
The difference between Christianity and other world religions is its founder alone was God in the flesh, and its founder did not stay dead. It is what we as Christians celebrate on Easter Sunday – the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Now, I suppose we could ask a couple questions about that resurrection. First, what’s the big deal? If Jesus came as the Son of God to die for the sins of humanity, and He did that on the cross, how important is it He was raised from the dead? All the founders of the other world religions died, and stayed dead. If we could visit the grave of Jesus, and His body was still there, would it really make that much a difference? Couldn’t we just build a big shrine and visit, like others do? And the second question, and one I want to focus on this Easter Sunday morning is, how do we know He was raised from the dead? Because, I would suggest if He was, it changes everything.
The Apostle Paul answers those questions for us in I Corinthians 15. The church in Corinth was confused about the resurrection. Technically, they weren’t denying the resurrection of Jesus – they were okay with that – but they were denying a future resurrection for His followers. The key verse to the chapter is verse 12, “Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?”
Again, the Corinthians were not denying Christ’s resurrection – they were denying their own. So Paul had to deal with their error, and in so doing, gives us the Resurrection Chapter – the greatest exposition of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and the promise of our future resurrection, in the entire Bible. This is the pinnacle of Christian truth. Paul starts the chapter reminding them what he had preached and what they had believed. He starts with the gospel of Christ. Read it with me – I Corinthians 15:1-11.
Here’s the question: if the resurrection is essential to Christianity, how do we know it’s true? The outline of the verses goes like this:
- This is What You Believed (1-2)
- This is the Gospel (3-4)
- This is Proof of Its Truthfulness (5-11)
Verses 1 and 2 serve as a bit of an introduction. He’s going to define the gospel, but before he does, he says several things about it. Notice, he says three things: this gospel is that which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved. First, we see the Corinthians received or believed the gospel. That is, when Paul came preaching the good news – that’s what the word gospel means, the good news about Jesus – when he came preaching it, they received it, that is, verse 11, they believed it.
Now, those words carry great significance in the New Testament. It’s not just a matter of hearing and believing a set of facts. We talked about this last week. It’s much more than that – it’s receiving and believing the facts for yourself – believing the truths of Jesus are true for you, and committing your life to them. But it’s even more than that – it’s not just committing your life to a set of ideals – or to a set of historical facts – but to a person, who died for you, but didn’t stay dead.
John said it this way in John 1:12-13, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name….” Do you see? They received Him, they believed in Him such that they were born again, and became children of God.
That’s what the Corinthians had done – that’s what most of you have done. Maybe not all –again, it’s not just believing facts about Jesus – it’s trusting your life to those facts and allowing Jesus to come into your life to take over. Maybe you’ve heard all about the gospel, but you’re not convinced – Christianity is just another world religion to you. That’s fine – I’m glad you’re here. But examine the claims of Christ, and you’ll find Him different than the rest. You’ll find Him alive – that’s what the good news is.
So, what had this receiving or believing the gospel accomplished in the lives of the Corinthians? Notice second, the gospel is that in which they stand, the ground upon which they stand. It makes them what they are, and gives them life in the present. Trusting Christ gives glorious, purpose-filled life now. Are you aimless, purposeless, struggling with meaning? It’s found in Jesus.
Not only that, third, the gospel is that by which they were saved, that is, from their sin, and the punishment due their sin. Notice the past, present, and future aspects of this gospel – it is that which you received, past, in which you stand, present, and by which you will be saved, future. You see, the gospel is all of life to us. Now, I know that word saved is a bit out of vogue – but it is a biblical term. And it’s what happens, Paul says, if you believe and hold fast to the word preached – that is, the good news of the gospel.
Which brings us to our second point, the definition of the gospel in verses 3-4. These are some of the most important verses in the Bible. At the very least, they summarize the content of the gospel:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day, according to the Scriptures.” The Greek verb tenses here are very important. He died and was buried are in the aorist tense – which speak of a point in time past – a past action. But, when Paul says, He was raised on the third day, he switches to the perfect tense – which speaks of something happening in the past, with ongoing effect. In other words, while He died at a point in the past, while He was buried at a point in the past, He was raised, and is still raised, is still alive, and His resurrection has ongoing effect in my life today. Which is the point he’ll make in the rest of the chapter – because Jesus has been raised, the effect is that we, too, will one day be raised. This is the hope of the Christian faith. This is why Christian funerals are different…
Now, notice the gospel very clearly includes the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. Which means, to share a gospel that says Jesus died for your sins is only half the story – be sure to share the rest of the story – that is, you can visit His tomb today and He is not there – He’s risen from the dead. Tana and I were privileged to visit what is purported to be His empty tomb, and I can verify, no one’s there. I took this picture outside the Garden Tomb.
Notice first, Christ died for our sins. I Peter 2:24 says it this way, “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness….” He bore every sin we’ve ever committed. You say, I’m not that bad – yes, you actually are. Or you say, I’m too bad – no, you’re beyond the reach of God. Galatians 1:3-4 says it this way, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins so that He might rescue us…” No wonder it’s called good news.
Further, we also see the gospel accounts – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – all record the crucifixion and burial for us. We know He was buried in a new tomb, one cut out of the rock, in a garden, owned by a rich man, Joseph of Arimathea. A stone was rolled in front, and a Roman guard was posted, because, they remembered Jesus said after three days He would rise from the dead. They couldn’t have anyone come and steal His body away, could they?
But three days later, according to the Scripture and the promise of Jesus Himself, He did rise from the dead on the first day of the week, on that first Easter Sunday morning. Now, what does Paul mean, He was crucified and risen according to the Scripture? Remember, the NT was being written at this time – which means Paul was referring to the OT. Which is why, after the resurrection, Luke tells us on the road to Emmaus, Jesus appeared to two disciples, and said, “‘Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.” That is, the OT. This was all prophesied.
It’s also why Paul, while he was standing before King Agrippa in Acts 26, could say, “I stand to this day testifying both to small and great, stating nothing but what the Prophets and Moses said was going to take place; that the Christ was to suffer, and that by reason of His resurrection from the dead He would be the first to proclaim light both to the Jewish people and to the Gentiles.”
Well, which OT prophets? Isaiah 53, for example, says:
5 But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed.
6 All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him.
That speaks clearly of His crucifixion – like reading a news account. Oh, and by the way, Isaiah 53 also refers to His burial, again like reading the news:
9 His grave was assigned with wicked men, Yet He was with a rich man in His death,” which of course, speak of Him dying between two thieves, yet being buried in the tomb of a rich man named Joseph. How about His resurrection – where is that spoken of in the Old Testament? A number of places, again, Isaiah 53:
10 But the LORD was pleased To crush Him, putting Him to grief; If He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, And the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand.
Peter, in the first message of the Christian church on the Day of Pentecost quoted an Old Testament Psalm which speaks of the Resurrection:
23 this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death.
24 “But God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power.
25 “For David says of Him, ‘I SAW THE LORD ALWAYS IN MY PRESENCE; FOR HE IS AT MY RIGHT HAND, SO THAT I WILL NOT BE SHAKEN.
26 ‘THEREFORE MY HEART WAS GLAD AND MY TONGUE EXULTED; MOREOVER MY FLESH ALSO WILL LIVE IN HOPE;
27 BECAUSE YOU WILL NOT ABANDON MY SOUL TO HADES, NOR ALLOW YOUR HOLY ONE TO UNDERGO DECAY.
28 ‘YOU HAVE MADE KNOWN TO ME THE WAYS OF LIFE; YOU WILL MAKE ME FULL OF GLADNESS WITH YOUR PRESENCE.’
29 “Brethren, I may confidently say to you regarding the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. [interesting, even King David’s tomb can be visited] 30 “And so, because he was a prophet and knew that GOD HAD SWORN TO HIM WITH AN OATH TO SEAT one OF HIS DESCENDANTS ON HIS THRONE,
31 he looked ahead and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that HE WAS NEITHER ABANDONED TO HADES, NOR DID His flesh SUFFER DECAY.
32 “This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses.”
Notice that last verse, “to which we are all witnesses.” Which gets to our third point and that second question I want to answer – how do we know Jesus was raised from the dead? Look at all the witnesses. That’s what Paul talks about in verses 5-11 of our text. He starts with Cephas, or Peter. We don’t know when Jesus appeared to Peter, sometime after Mary Magdalene in the garden on the first Easter Sunday. Why did Jesus give Peter a personal appearance? Likely because Peter had denied Him, and repented bitterly. It was an act of grace on the part of Jesus – it’s not that Peter deserved to see Jesus most, but perhaps he needed to see Him most.
He also appeared to the twelve – that is, the twelve minus Judas – He appeared to them in the upper room, while they were cowering behind locked doors. He actually did that twice, once without Thomas, once with. He later appeared to them in Galilee. He also appeared to more than 500 brothers at one time. We don’t know when and where that was – but 500 at one time. In a Jewish court of law, two or three witnesses were all that was needed. What do you do with 500? Paul is building an airtight case – Jesus was dead, but was risen – now alive – there could be no disputing it – in fact, he says, many of them are still alive to this day – go ask them.
Then He appeared to James – likely, the half-brother of Jesus. Which is significant. The gospels record the brothers of Jesus did not believe during His ministry – in fact, they thought He was crazy. They made fun of Him in John 7, once they even tried to force an intervention – they went to get Him and bring Him home – I suppose because He was embarrassment to the family. But here, we see Jesus graciously and lovingly appearing to one of His own flesh and blood brothers, who became a believer, and the pastor of the church in Jerusalem.
But that’s not all. Not only Peter, not only James, and the 500, but also to Paul, who had been the chief persecutor of the Christian church. Jesus appeared to Paul, making him an apostle, and preacher of the gospel. Notice what Paul says about himself:
I was the last one – as one untimely born. The word for untimely born is an interesting one – it speaks of an abortion, miscarriage or premature birth. The idea is, I was born at the wrong time – after the death, burial, resurrection of Christ. And I was born into a hopeless life. If Jesus had not appeared to me, there would have been no life, no hope for me – I was one untimely born.
But His appearance made me an apostle – the least of the apostles – but an apostle, nonetheless. I’m not even fit to be called an apostle, since I persecuted the church so severely. In fact, in I Timothy, Paul refers to himself as the worst of sinners. Bearing papers from the Sanhedrin, he went throughout Israel, even to other countries, seeking believers in Jesus to destroy this new faith. But it was while he was on the road to Damascus that Jesus appeared to him, and called him to a life of preaching this good news he once sought to destroy.
And so therefore, Paul says, I am what I am only by the grace of God. Which is true of all of us, this morning. If by His loving grace, extended through the gospel, we did not believe, we too would be living a hopeless, helpless, ultimately meaningless life.
Paul was acutely aware he did not deserve the gospel – that he was what he was only by God’s grace. That he was the least of the apostles, the worst of sinners. But that is the good news of the gospel – Jesus came to save sinners – even the worst of them. Even if you think yourself unworthy of His love, His grace, His attention – it is precisely in that position that He will save you. Oh, and by the way, if you think pretty good – that you make it to God and heaven without Jesus – that’s not true, either. You see, Paul says in Philippians 3 that he was by Jewish standards, a pretty good guy. He kept the Law – the rules of Judaism perfectly. But he was still a sinner, and needed Jesus – just like all of us. No matter how good you are, you’re not good enough. No matter how bad you are, you’re not bad enough. God’s grace through Christ is for you.
I hope that is true of you this morning – that you have believed the gospel, and you have received Jesus as your Savior, having turned from sin and death, and to righteousness and life – life found only in the resurrected Jesus Christ. And if you haven’t – being saved is simply a matter of having faith in the gospel – the good news of Jesus. Won’t you consider doing that, today?