Did it really happen? The question is far more than academic. Because if Jesus Christ really died on a Roman cross and was raised again to life, it changes everything.
On the best authority
It’s funny how we sometimes believe things that don’t make sense or that have no supporting evidence whatever. Conspiracy theories abound today. The tabloids do a multimillion-dollar business tantalizing believing readers with a steady diet of the sensational, if not the ridiculous. You’ve seen the headlines: Elvis is still alive. JFK was abducted by aliens. Hitler is living in Argentina. Miners discover an opening to hell. Half alligator, half human baby. World to end in 2005.
There are facts we simply take for granted in our modern world: The world is a sphere, not flat like a pancake. The earth revolves around the sun, not vice versa. A virus causes measles. Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope.
Most of us believe these things, not because we have personally proven them, but because we trust the authorities who tell us they are true. We use the phone; who invented it doesn’t really matter to us. We go to the doctor when we get sick; it doesn’t matter to us who discovered a given vaccine. We can enjoy a beautiful sunset without giving much thought to planetary dynamics.
We live in a world of facts, but most of the facts we know have little, if anything, to do with who we are and how we choose to live. The resurrection of Jesus is different. It may be easy to believe Jesus was raised, as though it were just another fact for a history exam. But this fact is not like other facts. It changes everything.
If Jesus Christ really was raised from the dead, then he is far more than just another great figure in history. He is who he claimed to be—the Son of God. If that’s so, then he, and everything he said, has to be taken seriously. The resurrection of Jesus stands at the heart of Christian faith. We believe in Jesus because Jesus did not stay dead. He told his disciples he would be raised on the third day after his crucifixion—and he was! The fact of his resurrection verified his claims: He was indeed the Son of God. It verified that God had acted decisively to deal with human sin.
If there is any one characteristic that is universal among Christians of all denominational stripes, it is celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The celebration may occur in a variety of ways, but ever since that first Sunday morning when the tomb was found empty, Christians have remembered. It’s much more than memory. It’s participation.
On the night before he was betrayed and arrested for trial and crucifixion, Jesus ate his final meal with his disciples. As he blessed and broke the ritual bread, he told his disciples, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). As he lifted and blessed the cup of ritual wine, he told them: “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:27-28).
Jesus died for you and me. On the third day, he destroyed the power of sin and death. In him we possess the greatest hope imaginable. There is rich meaning in this simple ceremony we call the Lord’s Supper (Jesus’ final meal), Communion (communion with God through Christ and with fellow believers) or Eucharist (thanksgiving). Paul wrote: “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16).
When we eat and drink the bread and wine (or grape juice) of the Lord’s Supper, something wonderful, yet incomprehensible, is going on. A communion with God is taking place, and through Christ, a communion with all believers. Through this command of Jesus to eat his flesh and drink his blood, we are not only kept in memory of what God has done for us, we are also brought together, united by faith, into an intimate relationship with God and into his presence in a special way.
Out of slavery
We humans know about slavery to sin. We know the invisible, yet humanly invincible, chains that bind us in self-destructive habits and cravings. We know about the pride, the personal walls, the ego defenses, the crippling envy, the resentment, the greed, the burning lust. We know the powerlessness, the failure, the frustration, the depression. We know the loneliness, the isolation, the fear. We know about the end of it all—the separation we call death.
God, who loves us, knows it too. That’s why he sent his one and only Son, who, without sin, subjected himself to the cruel and unrelenting environment of our sin-darkened world. God’s love is why Jesus took our broken condition on himself, yet without sin, walked in our shoes and suffered, even to death, at the ignorant and violent hands of us sinners. But for Jesus, death was not the end of the story. Because of Jesus, it’s not the end of the story for you and me either. Jesus was raised to life, and through him, we, too, are raised to a bold and fresh and glorious new life—eternal life.
Life of the age to come
We often think of eternal life as something God will give us in the future. But the fact is, Jesus said that those who believe in him, those who eat his flesh and drink his blood, have already entered into eternal life. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:54). Being raised up at the last day is something promised to those who already possess eternal life!
Maybe we tend to limit our concept of eternal life to the future because the words eternal life sound like something we don’t yet have. After all, we are still mortal, and we know we are going to die before we receive immortality. But eternal life and immortality are not the same thing.
Immortality refers to our physical bodies. At the resurrection, our mortal bodies will be changed to immortal. But eternal life—or the life of the age to come —is something we entered when we became believers.
Eternal life might be easier to understand when we realize that the Greek words John used in quoting Jesus, aionios zoe, are literally translated, “age life,” meaning, “the life of the age to come.” When we became believers, we passed from death to life. We entered into the new life, the life of the age to come. That life, which is a life of joy and self-sacrificial love in the power of God, will fill all the universe after Jesus returns. It has already begun in his believers.
Because he lives
Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24). Greater words of comfort have never been spoken! It doesn’t matter how far from God we have been. It doesn’t matter how dark and vile our sins have been. When we believe the word of God, the good news that God is redeeming sinners through his Son, God forgives us, accepts us and gives us fresh, new life in his eternal kingdom.
We have it on the highest authority, the very highest, that we will not be condemned on the day of judgment. Jesus says believers have already crossed the great divide separating death from life, and because he lives we are now on the side of life!
The kingdom of heaven has already begun to show itself in the lives of those who have entered it. Not perfectly. In fact, sometimes we make a rather rotten show of it. Sometimes we drop our cross, or maybe even throw it down, but Christ in us always moves us to pick it up again and follow on. The fact is, now we are his, and he who began a good work in us will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
The crux of our faith
Our Christian faith and hope are based squarely and entirely on the fact of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. On that central truth hangs everything we believe and everything we stand for in earnest hope. Because he lives, we live too!
That’s why the Easter season is important to us. It’s a time of reflection, self-evaluation, recommitment and rededication. Above all, it’s a time of thanksgiving and joy in the unsearchable riches of the grace of God! He died for you and me. On the third day, he destroyed the power of sin and death. In him, we, together with all the saints, even as we tread the path of the cross, possess the greatest hope imaginable.
Praise God! He’s alive!
That church, armed with such an improbable claim and beginning from a handful of uneducated fishermen and tax gatherers, swept across the whole known world in the next three hundred years. It is a perfectly amazing story of peaceful revolution that has no parallel in the history of the world. It came about because Christians were able to say to inquirers: “Jesus did not only die for you. He is alive! You can meet Him and discover for yourself the reality we are talking about!” They did and joined the church. And the church, born from that Easter grave, spread everywhere.
Michael Green, Evangelism Through the Local Church, Nelson, 1992
Jesus’ resurrection was instantly recognized as the firstfruits of general resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20; Colossians 1:18). Jesus was regarded as the first born from the dead, the one through whom the believing community learned to look for the final coming of the kingdom of God, and the fulfillment of the apocalyptic hope.
Thomas C. Oden, The Word of Life, Harper and Row, 1989
There is no justification for reducing the meaning of “the resurrection of Jesus” to something like, “the continuing significance of Jesus,” or “the disciples’ realization that Jesus’ message could not die.” By “resurrection” they clearly meant that something had happened to Jesus himself. God had raised him, not merely reassured them. He was alive again, made alive again with the life which is the climax of God’s purpose for humankind, not merely retrieved from the jaws of death but conqueror over death, “exalted to God’s right hand.” It was this glowing conviction which lay at the heart of the chain reaction which began Christianity.
James D.G. Dunn, The Evidence for Jesus, Westminster Press, 1985
Through the cross, God meets us in our lostness and finds us, setting us on the road which leads home—a road on which Christ has gone before us, blazing a trail in which we may follow, knowing that by doing so, we pass from death to eternal life.
Alister McGrath, Understanding Jesus, Zondervan, 1987
Author: J. Michael Feazell