The Risen Christ, And the Power to Serve

Just in time for Easter, the media are pushing a new survey that says nearly one in four Christians don’t believe in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. From the Telegraph:

Nearly one in four Christians do not believe in the story of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, a poll has claimed. Fewer than one-in-three Christians in Britain believe “word-for-word” the Biblical story of Jesus rising from the dead, with another 41 per cent believing some sections should not be taken literally. But the Palm Sunday poll for the BBC found 23 per cent of those calling themselves Christians “do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead” at all.

Can you be a Christian and not believe in the Resurrection? Apparently so. It’s easy to blame our “post Christian society” for such a poll result, but a cursory glance at Church History tells us that the Resurrection has frequently been doubted. And the doubt started very early on.

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. (Matthew 28:16, 17 | TNIV)

Not too many years later, a large church in Corinth had a big problem accepting the Resurrection of Christ and the future resurrection of believers. Paul’s explanation went like this:

But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 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. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.  If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all others. (1 Corinthians 15:12 – 19 | TNIV)

Verse 19 is a verse that all those so-called Christians who don’t believe in the Resurrection of Christ should get to know. Think about what Paul is saying in it:

If only for this life we have hope in Christ

That phrase speaks to all those people who claim to believe in Jesus as “the good guy,” the “loving rabbi” who taught about love and went about doing good. These people love the Beatitudes but don’t have any use for the divinity of Jesus Christ or of His literal Resurrection from the dead. There are plenty of people who have great respect for the Jesus of the Beatitudes. But the second phrase tells us that’s just not enough:

We are to be pitied more than all the others

In other words, it’s pitiful – pathetic – to have such a limited view of Jesus Christ. It’s not enough. The moral teachings of Jesus, as powerful and life changing as they may be, can’t save you. Simply living according to the Beatitudes would make our sick society relatively healthy, but not result in any souls getting saved and would offer no hope for the future. Indeed, hope for the future is grounded in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

History of the Crucifixion

The Crucifixion of Christ is a historical event. We can read about in the Bible and in other sources. For example, Cornelius Tacitus (55 – 120 AD), Rome’s greatest historian, wrote this:

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus…

Josephus, a Jewish historian, wrote:

At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. And his conduct was good and he was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly, he was perhaps the messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.

And according to the Talmud, a collection of Jewish writing from 70 – 200 AD, we read this account:

On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, ‘He is going forth to be stoned because he has practised sorcery and enticed Israel to apostacy. Anyone who can say anything in his favour, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.’ But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of the Passover.

That the Crucifixion of Christ happened is indisputable. But it’s the Biblical record that gives us details of how it happened. When our Lord finally died on the Cross, a number of strange events took place:

• The heavy curtain of the Temple was torn in two, Matthew 27:51;
• There was an earthquake, Matthew 27:51;
• Many graves of Old Testament saints were opened up, Matthew 27:52;
• Some of the resurrected saints were seen in Jerusalem after the Resurrection of Jesus;
• A Roman centurion, no less, declared Jesus was truly the Son of God, Matthew 27:54

The burial, Matthew 27:57 – 66

Some time before sunset, shortly before the Sabbath was about to begin, one Joseph of Arimathea took it upon himself to secure the body of Jesus Christ in order to bury Him. For the body of a fellow Jew to go unburied was considered a terrible thing.

As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away. (Mastthew 27:57 – 60 | TNIV)

What do we know about this man, Joseph of Arimathea? He was born to Matthias, and had at least one brother, Jonathan, and was intelligent and well-thought of by those who knew his family. He was born about eight years before Jesus Christ, and by the age of 17 had a strong desire to learn about the laws and customs, both religious and civil, of his people. He studied the teachings and philosophies of the Pharisees, the Saducees, and the Esseans, in order to choose the best Jewish sect to join.

Young Joseph would eventually join the Pharisees, but did not become obsessed with power and authority, as many of his peers did. His heart remained pure, and it was Joseph’s hope that through his efforts, the Jewish faith would grow in strength and purity and remain devoted to the teachings of Scripture. And just like when he was a young boy, all who knew this Pharisee were impressed with his sincerity and integrity and devotion to the faith.

But when Jesus Christ burst onto the scene and gained fame for His teaching and miracles, he caught the attention of the Pharisees, and some like Nicodemus and Joseph understood that there was something different – special – about this Jesus Christ. In time, Joseph became a convert and a disciple of our Lord’s.

It took a great deal of courage for this Pharisee to approach Pilate and ask for the body of Jesus, but Joseph did and his request was granted.

Burying Jesus had to be done quickly, and so there was no time for extensive preservation. Our Lord’s Body was wrapped up in linen and placed in a brand new tomb. The two Mary’s, who had been utterly devoted to Jesus for such a long time, were there, silently watching carefully where their Lord was buried.

Christ’s Resurrection, Matthew 28:1 – 10

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. (Matthew 28:1 | TNIV)

This visit recorded in Matthew is probably the same one we read about in John 20, but there only Mary Magdalene is mentioned. And only Matthew mentions this:

There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. (Matthew 28:2 – 4 | TNIV)

The angel’s words in Matthew are similar to Mark’s record.

Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’ ” (Mark 16:6, 7 | TNIV)

It’s interesting that none of the Gospel writers even tries to describe the Resurrection of Jesus, yet it makes sense: There were no eye witnesses to the actual event. Our Lord left His tomb quietly, after the Spirit gave Him life in a moment.

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. (1 Peter 3:18 | TNIV)

The fact is, as much as we wish the Resurrection took place like some of the paintings portray it, nobody saw it happen; Jesus didn’t come out of the tomb with shocked guards watching Him. Silently, miraculously, and gloriously, our Lord simply rose up and passed through the stone with no fanfare.

For their part, the women didn’t linger at the tomb. They had a job to do; a witness to share. The angel kept the women from discussing how it all could have happened or speculating about things they couldn’t hope to comprehend. He ordered them to go and spread the news. On their way, who should they meet? None other that their risen Lord:

Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” (Matthew 28:9, 10 | TNIV)

This first appearance of Jesus was important given what He told them: “Do not be afraid.” It sounds like the women were afraid at that moment, but the Greek suggests they were living in a state of constant fear. The command of Jesus looks more like this: “Stop being afraid.” These precious women were afraid of many things this day, the least of which was the appearance of the Man they loved and worshipped. Fear had no place in their hearts this happy day.

The challenge, Matthew 28:16 – 20

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. (Matthew 28:16, 17 | TNIV)

The disciples were obedient to the word of their Lord. They went north to Galilee. We’re not told what mountain they were to go to, but in spite of their doubts, they went. A word of explanation and encouragement about Matthew’s account would be good right about now. For those of you who know your Gospels, it’s clear that Matthew has left out a lot material. He doesn’t mention all the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus, but remember what the angel told the two women back in verse 7: “He is going ahead of YOU into Galilee.” In other words, in spite of Matthew’s rather truncated account, the women as well as the eleven disciples were present in Galilee. In fact, it’s entirely possible that this encounter in Galilee was mentioned years later by Paul:

After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. (1 Corinthians 15:6 | TNIV)

Galilee was the perfect place for this meeting. It was probably near the end of Jesus’ 40 days on earth, given the familiarity of His words. In spite of everything, though, some doubted. I have always said that “doubt is the beginning of faith,” and I believe that to be true. These doubters, and we have no idea how many there were, still went IN FAITH. Their faith was far from perfect; who’s isn’t? The main thing is that in spite of their doubt, they still obeyed the word of the Lord. And we should too. We can’t let out doubts – our imperfect faith – keep us from living lives in obedience to the Word of God. In due time, the Lord will give us certain victory over those doubts.

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18 – 20 | TNIV)

That’s what we call today, The Great Commission, but at the time they were simply words of instruction given by Jesus to His followers. Edward Blair, in his excellent book “Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew,” wrote that this commission from Jesus is the whole point of Matthew’s Gospel. In these three verses, we see the absolute, final authority of Jesus Christ, but also, as Blair called it, “its derivative authority.” With authority from Jesus, His followers were to go and evangelize the whole world. Not only that, we also see what discipleship is all about: teaching those evangelized the Word of God and not abandoning them at the very moment of the spiritual rebirth. And we have the promise to Jesus’ continued presence.

One of those who heard this Great Commission could possibly have been Joseph of Arimathea. It’s speculation, of course, but when you consider what became of this man, it seems more than probable. For some time after the death and Resurrection of Jesus, he lived a solitary life. Eventually, but he joined with Peters 72 disciples, according to tradition, and began to fulfill the Great Commission. As Roman persecution of Christians dialed up in intensity, and with martyrdom looming on the horizon, Peter’s followers dispersed, including Joseph of Arimathea, taking the Gospel with them.

Joseph travelled all over Italy, preaching and teaching the Gospel, and very often his life was in peril. Eventually he returned to Jerusalem, after the threat of persecution had died down, reporting to the church there all that he had done. The church, impressed with his missionary zeal, ordained Joseph of Arimathea and commissioned him to take the Word to what would become England. He would end up, as tradition has it, in Glastonbury, some three years after Jesus ascended to heaven. Still only in his yearly 40’s, Joseph had a long and powerful ministry of preaching and performing miracles by the power of God, and in one day he baptized 18,000 people. There’s surely a hint of exaggeration there, but there is no doubt that Joseph of Arimathea is an unsung hero of God’s Word.

You have to feel sorry for those who doubt the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. They will never exceperience what Joseph of Arimathea and countless followers of Jesus have experienced:  The continued presence of Christ in their lives and the power given them to fulfill the Great Commission through the Holy Spirit.

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