Resurrection Sunday is a day to celebrate the majesty, glory, mercy, grace, and transforming power of our God. Each year at this time there are all kinds of programs on television, as well as articles in magazines and newspapers raising questions, stirring skepticism, and planting seeds of doubt about the literal resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
It was reported this week by the BBC that 25% of Christians in Great Britain do not believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus. From what I’ve read I think the number of American Christians who view Jesus’ resurrection as more metaphorical than literal would be about the same. This trend isn’t confined to people in the pew, there are many speaking from pulpits each Sunday who now believe Jesus’ resurrection is a powerful story, but it’s not meant to be taken literally.
Reverend Dr. Lorraine Cavanagh is the acting general secretary for Modern Church. Dr. Cavanagh has written many books, she’s a popular guest on radio programs, and she was asked about the recent poll taken by the BBC. She said:
I think [people answering the survey] are being asked to believe in the way they might have been asked to believe when they were at Sunday school. You’re talking about adults here. So to ask an adult to believe in the resurrection the way they did when they were at Sunday school simply won’t do and that’s true of much of the key elements of the Christian faith. (Lorraine Cavanagh, BBC. April 10, 2017)
According to Dr. Cavanagh, only those who should actually believe that God raised Jesus from the dead are found upstairs in Children’s Church. Dr. Cavanagh is not alone in her belief of the powerful metaphor of Jesus rising from the dead, but yet denying the event literally happened. Another pastor, Rev. Lowell Grisham, writes that some still believe,
But there are others—including me on some days—who find the physical resurrection just too much to swallow. However, they do see God’s work bringing life out of death all around us. They are moved by the compelling creativity of the divine Surprise who turns darkness into light. They know the presence of the risen and living Christ. And though they may plead agnosticism about the physicality of the resurrection, they believe in the deeper truth it symbolizes. (Reverend Lowell Grisham)
Is it enough for us to simply believe that Jesus’ resurrection was a story rich with meaning, filled with metaphors of overcoming, but to stop at that point and refuse to believe that God literally raised Jesus from the dead? The Apostle Paul wrote,
17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. (1 Corinthians 15:17 NIVO)
All of the metaphors in the world can’t unpack the richness and meaning that are contained in Jesus’ death and resurrection for those who believe and trust in Him. I’m certain there are probably some here this morning who have wondered, or who try to keep from wondering, if it could really be true. We know dead people are dead. We go to funerals. Our experience supports the evidence that underscores the truth that when people die they are dead. So how can we believe the stories we read in the Gospels, and the other books of the New Testament, that Jesus did in fact die, yet He lives? That’s a question worth spending some time thinking about this morning. I want us to read Luke 24:13-48 and then we’ll talk. Read along with me.
13 Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. 14 They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. 15 As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; 16 but they were kept from recognizing him. 17 He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?” They stood still, their faces downcast. 18 One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you only a visitor to Jerusalem and do not know the things that have happened there in these days?” 19 “What things?” he asked. “About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. 20 The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; 21 but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. 22 In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning 23 but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. 24 Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.” 25 He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. 28 As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus acted as if he were going farther. 29 But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. 32 They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” 33 They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together 34 and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” 35 Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread. 36 While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 37 They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? 39 Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” 40 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. 41 And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate it in their presence. 44 He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” 45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. (Luke 24:13-48 NIVO)
I want to share three important aspects of the story of the resurrection that I believe underscores the validity and truth of Jesus’ resurrection, His literal resurrection from the dead.
First of all, none of Jesus’ followers believed that He would actually die and come back to life. At first hearing you might think that would support not believing in Jesus’ resurrection, but hold your horses. We just read Luke’s Gospel and what were Jesus’ followers, Cleopas and the other disciple, doing? They were leaving Jerusalem and talking as they walked along the road. They didn’t recognize Jesus as His path merged with theirs. Jesus asked them what they were talking about. Cleopas told Jesus about what had happened to Jesus. Can you imagine what was going through Jesus’ mind as He listened?! Cleopas said,
20 The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; (Luke 24:20 NIVO)
Cleopas went on to say, “But we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” “Had hoped.” Past tense. Their hopes were shattered. This isn’t just true of Cleopas and his buddy, it was true of all of the disciples. They knew Jesus had died and in spite of all that Jesus had told them concerning His death and resurrection, they still had no hope that He would come back to life. But then they saw Him and they believed. A little later in Luke 24, when Jesus broke bread with the men, we read,
31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. 32 They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” 33 They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together 34 and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” (Luke 24:31-33 NIVO)
These men who had been walking with their heads hanging down, all of their hopes and dreams shattered, once they saw Jesus they ran like Olympic sprinters back to Jerusalem to tell everyone that Jesus was alive.
Secondly, Mary Magdalene was the first person to see Jesus after His resurrection. That’s a big problem because in the first century a woman’s testimony was considered unreliable and therefore inadmissible in a court of law in both Roman and Jewish jurisprudence. If the story of Jesus’ resurrection was made up by His followers then they certainly would have been smart enough to name a well-respected member, especially a male member of the community, as the first witness.
I hear all the time that the followers of Jesus have changed the Bible through the years. They took out the things they didn’t like, elevated Jesus from His peasant teacher role to the place of Messiah and Savior, and so on the story goes. If that were the case then I can promise you one of the first things they would have changed would have been the name of the first witness to Jesus’ resurrection, but they didn’t. And why didn’t they? Because it was true.
Third, it wasn’t one or two people who said they saw Jesus, it was over 500 people. The Apostle Paul wrote to the followers of Jesus in Corinth and he laid out what had been passed down to him about the appearances of Jesus to His followers following His resurrection. Read along with me from 1 Corinthians 15:3-8.
3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8 NIVO)
Jesus’ appearances weren’t grief-driven hallucinations or visions that took place because they loved Jesus so much they willed themselves to see Him. Did you catch what Jesus said to Cleopas and his friend towards the end of the Scripture we read? Let’s read it again.
38 He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? 39 Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” (Luke 24:38-39 NIVO)
Jesus said, “It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” When Jesus appeared to His disciples who were hiding out, fearful the authorities would come for them, Thomas wasn’t with them. One week later, Jesus appeared to His disciples again and this time Thomas was with them. Jesus passed by all of His disciples and went directly to Thomas.
27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” 28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:27-28 NIVO)
You can’t touch a metaphor. You can love someone so much you have dreams about them, even think you hear their voice, but you can’t reach out and literally touch them. Over and over again Jesus showed His followers that He was really alive, literally resurrected from the dead.
I believe the greatest proof of all to the literal resurrection of Jesus was the transformation that took place in the lives of His followers. Those who were once hopeless were changed. Those who experienced Jesus’ presence, on the other side of the cross and the grave were changed. Everything He had said before He went to the cross now made sense. Jesus told the two men on the road to Emmaus.
46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. (Luke 24:46-47 NIV)
Think about Saul of Tarsus with me for a moment. Saul was a Pharisee. He was steeped in Jewish theology. He was passionate about his faith and that is why He was adamant that the followers of Jesus had to be annihilated. Acts 8 tells us Saul was present and giving his approval when Stephen, a follower of Jesus, was stoned to death. Acts 8:3 tells us “Saul began to destroy the church.” He went from house to house dragging out the followers of Jesus and taking them to prison. Acts 9 opens with these words, “Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples…” But then suddenly something happened. Saul saw Jesus while he was traveling to Damascus and his life was forever changed. His life wasn’t changed by metaphors and powerful stories that held some kind of symbolic power for him. Saul’s life was changed because the One he had formerly hated had truly been resurrected from the dead.
Pinchas Lapide was an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, Israeli diplomat, and theologian who wrote 35 books before he died in 1997. In his book, The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective, the rabbi examines all of the evidence for Jesus resurrection. In eleven chapters he unpacks Jewish Scripture, Scriptures from the New Testament, and arrives at the conclusion that there are only three possibilities: 1. The story of Jesus’ resurrection is a religious myth. 2. Jesus’ resurrection is nothing more than a series of individual personal spiritual experiences. 3. Jesus’ resurrection was a historical event. Even though rabbi Lapide rejects Jesus as the Messiah because, he says the Messiah will set up His Kingdom on earth, he is absolutely convinced that Jesus’ resurrection was a historical event. He writes,
If the defeated and depressed group of disciples overnight could change into a victorious movement of faith, based only on autosuggestion or self-deception—without a fundamental faith experience—then this would be a much greater miracle than the resurrection itself. (Pinchas Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective, p. 126.)
It is true. The disciples weren’t willing to die for a myth, they were not moved by a metaphor, they were transformed by an event they never dreamed possible–the resurrection of Jesus from the grave. Jesus’ resurrection validates everything He ever taught. Salvation has come through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Lives are continuing to be changed in every corner of every country throughout the world.
A baby boy was born in India in 1946. His father was brilliant, but his son could have cared less about school or learning. He wanted to play cricket and to become a professional cricket player. He knew he was a disappointment to his father because his father wanted him to be an academic, not an athlete.
He squeaked through high school even though his father had paid an exorbitant amount of money for his son to go to the finest high school in Delhi. When he went to University he began to lose hope. His dreams for becoming a star at cricket were clearly not in the cards, he was struggling academically, and he lost hope. He went to his science lab one day and gathered up several packets of poison. When he got home he mixed them with water and drank it down hoping to take his own life. Someone found him, took him to the hospital, but that only made him more depressed. He said that he prayed, “Jesus I don’t know how to live and now I know that I don’t even know how to die.” Through an extraordinary turn of events he gave his life to Christ, he believed, and today Ravi Zacharias is one of the world’s greatest teachers of the Christian faith. Ravi wrote,
I came to Him because I did not know which way to turn. I remained with Him because there is no other way I wish to turn. I came to Him longing for something I did not have. I remain with Him because I have something I will not trade. I came to Him as a stranger. I remain with Him in the most intimate of friendships. I came to Him unsure about the future. I remain with Him certain about my destiny. I came amid the thunderous cries of a culture that has 330 million deities. I remain with Him knowing that truth cannot be all-inclusive. (Ravi Zacharias, Jesus Among Other Gods: The Absolute Claims of the Christian Message)
I know the transforming power of Jesus in my own life, but let me tell you there is something we need more than transformation and that is salvation. You see, Jesus ultimately came to give His life as an offering for your sin and mine. Let’s read one more time what Jesus told Cleopas and his friend.
46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. (Luke 24:46-47 NIVO)
As a result of Jesus’ death and resurrection forgiveness of sin and the assurance of eternal life is promised to all who trust in His work and not their own. I was talking to a friend of mine this past week who recently lost a loved one. My friend said, “You know what is even greater than grief? Not knowing where my loved is now.” Anyone who has ever lost a loved one not knowing if he or she was a follower of Jesus and now in the presence of God in Heaven knows that empty feeling. We can’t do anything about our loved ones, but this morning you can know where you are going when you die. Will you believe that Jesus took what was deservedly yours, the penalty for sin, so you might be reconciled with God? Will you receive Jesus’ gift of salvation this morning? I pray you will.
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
April 16, 2017