One president of a prominent seminary does not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus (an unfortunate reality becoming less shocking in our culture). When interviewed by a New York Times opinion columnist, the interviewer noted upfront to the president that he doesn’t believe in the virgin birth or the physical resurrection of Jesus’ body at Easter. The president replied: “Well, you sound an awful lot like me, and I’m a Christian minister.”
- Matt 28:1-15
- Mark 12:9-11
- Philippians 2:9-11
A. Was Jesus actually, physically, literally resurrected?
B. The passages for this week are pivotal. They literally change the story through a radical reversal of direction. Note this pivot especially in Philippians 2:9, beginning with the word “Therefore.” What begins with Jesus in glory with the Father (2:6-7) quickly moves to the ultimate act of condescension (or, “coming down”) in 2:8. However, his obedience—even unto death—was the cause that produced the effect of his victory over death. He rises from the ashes in splendor in 2:9-11.
C. Up until now, the story of Jesus that began in our second week of this study has been told in the past tense. The creed affirms that Jesus was conceived by the Holy spirit, was born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, was buried, and descended to the dead. The story in past tense continues through the plot pivot, for Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. From this point, the storyline shifts dramatically from the story of what was to what is. The creed reports that Jesus now “sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” What was past now is present.
D. What has the power to shift this story on its historical timeline by bridging the quantum gap between what was and what is? It is simply this report: “He is not here, for he has risen, as he said” (Matt 28:6). If Serene Jones is right and Jesus never actually rose from the dead, the entire Christian enterprise is a farce. Our hope is without foundation and our faith is without power. Further, the Jesus we sentimentally embrace is a charlatan, for he lied to us. Note those three little words in Matt 28:6: “as he said.” C. S. Lewis summed up the futility of views like those of Serene Jones when he said:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” (Mere Christianity)
E. To really illustrate the utter nonsense of building one’s faith on a Jesus who never rose from the dead, let’s consider a “What if…?” scenario. Many of us love the enduring charm found in the Jimmy Stewart film, It’s a Wonderful Life, precisely because it so clearly presents the “What if…?” scenario—and with powerful effect. George Bailey feels that his life was a big waste and the world he lives in would be better off had he never been born. So, to satisfy his curiosity, an angelic messenger named Clarence comes to show him a picture of what his hometown and family would be like had he not been born. The exercise accomplished its intended goal.
F. If we were to apply this same scenario to the bodily resurrection of Jesus, what would we find? What if Jesus never rose from the dead? What if it had been a great big April fool’s joke? If Jesus was never resurrected, then:
i. The women would have remained at the tomb.
ii. The disciples would have been ridiculed, then forgotten.
iii. Jesus would have become a by-word and forgotten—just another messianic pretender writing checks his body couldn’t cash.
iv. There would be no Gospel accounts of his life, no record of his teachings, no real memory of his presence on earth except perhaps some brief mention among the cast of false prophets who have dotted the landscape of history.
v. We would have no memory of Jesus’ walking on water, healing the sick, restoring sight to the blind, or forgiving the vilest of sinners.
vi. We would never have known that great things come in small packages like mustard seeds, that the Kingdom of Heaven is available to the meek and mournful, or that Zacchaeus was a wee little man.
vii. It would never occur to us to forgive our offenders seventy-times-seven times, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, or that those who would be great must first learn to serve.
viii. The greatest of Jesus’ acts and words would be discredited because of his failure to live into his promise to rise from the dead.
G. What if Jesus had not risen from the dead?
i. There would be no outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost just a few weeks after Jesus’ death, and therefore no church. There would be no worldwide spread of the gospel. ii. There would be no Roman Catholic Church, for the Roman emperor Constantine would never have had anything to convert to. There would be no Eastern Orthodox Church, for there would be no occasion for the east to split from the west. There would be no Protestant Church and its denominations, for there would be no occasion for protest.
iii. There would be no church of England prompting the early pilgrims to seek refuge on the shores of American soil. And there would be no United States emerging from that event.
There would be no cause for armies to rise against the tide of unjust and oppressive regimes, leaving dictators and terror-based organizations to prey on persons worldwide unchecked.
iv. If Jesus had not risen from the dead, countless orphans would be abandoned, subject to human trafficking and starvation.
v. If Jesus had not risen from the dead, there would be no church to rise against the social injustices of slavery, racial bigotry, and abuse of the poor.
vi. If Jesus had not risen from the dead, we would no know hope for tomorrow. The promise and reality of heaven would not even be in the realms of our imagination.
vii. And if Jesus had not risen from the dead, we would know no hope for today, remaining lost in the hopeless snares of sin that seek to steal, kill, and destroy life which Jesus offered in abundance.
H. What If Jesus had not risen from the dead…
i. There would be no (insert the name of your congregation here).
ii. There would be no (list things that are known and loved by your congregation, like special people or events—things that make your congregation uniquely you).
iii. There would be no Advent, no Candlelight Service, and no Christmas program.
iv. In fact, there would be no Christmas, and if no Christmas, no Black Friday
v. There would be no Easter, and if no Easter, no Good Friday. There would be no reason to get out of bed Sunday morning, or any other morning.
I. Our journey to Easter is not based on an April Fool’s joke. It is based on the concrete reality of a promise fulfilled. The journey to Easter began over 2,000 years ago when the son of a carpenter rode into a city seated on a donkey, and throngs of people celebrated him as king. The journey to Easter continues today as that son of a carpenter now sits on a heavenly throne at the right hand of our Father Almighty, and we worship him as God.
While each congregational context is different, this week would be an excellent opportunity to invite seekers to begin prayerfully considering a life in Christ. It is also an appropriate occasion to invite believers to begin prayerfully considering renewing their commitment to Christ. Be sure that congregants know how and when to reach out with questions or requests for spiritual guidance.
Make the pathway accessible and clear. That pathway may simply be inviting people to: the altar following (or during) service; the back of the church for private conversation with the pastor; or a follow up appointment in the coming week with a lay leader or member of the pastoral staff. The occasion for such commitment and renewal could be Easter Sunday, but it could also be the present moment. Don’t let the opportunity pass without offering them Christ.
Are you interested in engaging with the Apostles’ Creed in a more meaningful way? In This We Believe: Meditations on the Apostles’ Creed, Timothy Tennent brings together a wealth of theological and biblical insight with years of practical experience in making disciples. Broken into twelve chapters, one for each of the great faith declarations of the Apostles’ Creed, this resource makes for an excellent introduction or refresher course on the essentials of the Christian faith. It works well for personal or group study as well as a congregation-wide journey.