The Truth Question and the Meaning Question
I wonder how many of you remember Dick Pommerantz. He used to host a radio program called News Talk on KSTP. He was razor sharp and witty and blunt and controversial. Seven years ago in early 1983 my associate Tom Steller got the idea that we should offer Dick Pommerantz $400 to cross examine me about the resurrection of Jesus in the great hall of the Coffman Union at the University of Minnesota. To our amazement he accepted. So two days after Easter on April 5, 500 students gathered to hear this Baptist preacher get roasted by the brilliant, unbelieving Dick Pommerantz.
We sat down across from each other at a table in front of the crowd, and his first question to me was something like this: "Why do you practice voodoo?" I said that I was unaware that I practiced voodoo, and asked him if he would define what he meant by voodoo. He said, "You know, believing that a man can die and rise again and that this can have an effect on people far away—sort of like sticking pins in dolls in order to hurt somebody far away."
I won't take the conversation any further. (It is on tape, by the way, in our church library.) But let me tell you what I learned that day—or learned again. I learned that whenever you talk about the resurrection of Jesus, the truth question and the meaning question are so intertwined that you have to deal with both of them together. The truth question: Did it really happen? and the meaning question: So what, if it really happened?—these are so intertwined that you have to deal with both of them together.
There are people who reject Christianity because they don't think it is true. Jesus didn't really rise from the dead and that's that. But there are other people who reject Christianity not because they are convinced it's not true, but because they can't see why it would make any real difference if it were true. In other words the meaning of it is insignificant or irrelevant to what really concerns them.
So what I want to do this morning is say something about both of these questions—the truth question and the meaning question: Did the resurrection of Jesus really happen? and, What difference does it make? You can't really separate these questions. The meaning of it—the effect it has had on us—is part of the reason we believe it is true, and the truth of it is part of the reason it has such great meaning.
The Truth of the Resurrection
Our time is very short. So let me just mention six reasons that I believe the resurrection of Jesus really happened.
1. Jesus' Own Claim That He Would Rise from the Dead
First, Jesus said that he would rise from the dead. He said, for example, "Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up" (John 2:19; Mark 14:58). He said, "No sign will be given [this generation], except the sign of Jonah" (Matthew 12:39).
Of course, the fact that Jesus predicted his own resurrection doesn't prove that it happened. But it points strongly in that direction, because there are many people, even those who reject the resurrection (like Mahatma Gandhi or Albert Schweizer) who want to honor Jesus as a man of integrity and a faithful teacher. But his integrity and his faithfulness come into question if he went around saying he was going to rise from the dead but really didn't. It's hard to honor Jesus as an honest and good man, or a psychologically healthy man, if we reject him as the risen Son of God.
2. The Empty Tomb and the Inability to Produce a Body
Second, the tomb where he was buried was empty on the third day and the enemies of Jesus never could produce the body, even though that would have ended the new movement of Christianity overnight if they could have.
So some have tried to say that he never really died, and so he revived in the cool of the tomb and moved the stone on his own. This goes against the horrible realities of crucifixion and against the rigorous steps that Pilate and the leaders demanded to make sure he was dead (John 19:31–33).
Others have tried to say that the disciples stole the body. But that would mean that the disciples began to risk their lives and give themselves up to martyrdom for the sake of a hoax they knew to be false and worthless.
3. The Dramatic Change in the Disciples
Something must account for the dramatic change in the disciples after Good Friday. The fact is they were utterly dejected and terrified after the death of Jesus. They did not have hope for a resurrection. They were ready to go back to fishing, but were scared of the authorities that had put their teacher to death. They were hiding in a secluded room and were unwilling to believe the first reports of Jesus' appearance. But in a few weeks these same men were overflowing with joy and courage. They were ready to die for Christ. Why? What had happened? Their own explanation was that they had seen the Lord alive.
4. Numerous Eyewitnesses
Twenty years later a Christian leader named Paul wrote a letter to the church at Corinth, and said to some very skeptical Greeks, "Christ was raised on the third day . . . He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep" (1 Corinthians 15:4–6). In other words, Paul was not merely claiming that Christ was raised; he was claiming that skeptics who wanted to could find almost 500 eyewitnesses that were still alive 20 years later. The early church was growing not in a fanatical flush of gullibility, but in the presence of eyewitnesses to the resurrection.
5. The Integrity and Reliability of the Witnesses
The New Testament writers who tell us about the resurrection of Jesus do not seem like dupes or deceivers. I realize that this is somewhat subjective. But think about it; isn't that the way we make crucial decisions in our lives? If we must decide about something that happened when we weren't there, we have to bank our hope on the credibility of the witnesses, don't we? And we do that by trying to get to know them. Are they gullible? Are they dishonest and deceptive? Do their testimonies hang together?
When I read the writers of the New Testament, my conscience is won over. Their insights into human nature are profound. Their personal commitment is sober and carefully stated. Their teachings are coherent and do not look like the invention of unstable men. The moral and spiritual standard is high. And the life of these men, as it comes through their writings, is totally devoted to the truth and to the honor of God. You shouldn't just take my word for it. You should read them yourself. Test whether the witnesses are less credible than those that witness against them today.
6. The Life-Changing Power of Christ Today
Finally, hundreds of you can bear witness today to the personal life-changing power of the living Christ. When you put your faith in him, he came by his Spirit into your life and began to show his power and love in your experience. There began a new love for God, a new love for people, a new hope and joy, a new patience in trouble, a new freedom from old enslavements, and courage to stand for justice and righteousness. The changes that he has made in us are an undeniable evidence that he is alive and real.
Those are six reasons to take very seriously the biblical claim that Jesus really did rise from the dead. And you can tell from that last reason that we have moved from the truth question to the meaning question. They overlap. The meaning it has for us—the effect that it has in us—is very much a part of why we believe it is true.
The Meaning of the Resurrection
So let me move for a few minutes to the meaning that the resurrection has for us, and commend it to you not only as true but as utterly crucial and vital and relevant for your life in 1990.
God Is Not Served, but Serves
It often astonishes people to hear that right at the heart of Christianity is the truth that God does not want you to prove your strength by serving him; instead he wants to prove his strength by serving you. Listen to what the Bible says on this. Acts 17:24–25 says,
The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything. (Cf. Romans 11:35–36.)
God can't be served because he has no deficiencies that need serving. Instead we have the deficiencies and he is infinite in wisdom and power and readiness to serve us. He has the resources. We have the needs, not vice versa.
The Uniqueness of the God of the Bible
This sets the God of the Bible off from all other gods. Isaiah the prophet said,
From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. (Isaiah 64:4)
No one ever dreamed that God was like this. He had to reveal it to us in the Bible. That the burden of God's heart is to work for people, not to have them work for him. Another place says,
The eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show his might in behalf of those whose heart is whole toward him. (2 Chronicles 16:9)
In other words the Christian gospel is not a "Help Wanted" sign. God is not looking for labor. He is looking for people who magnify his power and wisdom and love by admitting their needs and letting him labor for them.
Why Jesus Came to Earth
That is the essence of Christianity. And so it is the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus, God's Son. What do you think Jesus' answer is to the question, "Why, Son of God, did you come to earth as Son of Man?" His answer is given in Mark 10:45,
The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.
There it is again: Jesus did not come looking for people to work for him. He came to work for us. He came to serve us. Jesus didn't come to recruit you to meet God's needs. God has no needs. Jesus came to bring you the resources of God to meet your needs. He died to meet your needs. He rose to meet your needs. He reigns to meet your needs—and make you happy in him forever.
Our Most Pressing Needs
The most urgent question this morning is whether we know what our most pressing needs are, and whether we will let the risen Christ come into our lives to meet those needs—whether we will let him be our servant.
The most pressing needs you have this morning are not financial needs or health needs or vocational needs or family needs—as heart-wrenching as those needs may be, and as much as Jesus stands ready in his living power to help you with them. The most pressing needs you and I have are these:
- the need to have our sin taken away and a right relationship with God established, and
- the need to overcome death.
The two great enemies of our lives are sin and death.
How God Has Met Our Needs in Jesus
And what makes the resurrection of Jesus so precious to so many of us is that it is God's declaration and confirmation that he will be our servant to meet these two needs through his Son Jesus Christ.
1. The Enemy of Sin
The Bible says, "If Christ has not been raised your faith is futile and you are still in your sins" (1 Corinthians 15:17). But Christ has been raised. And we are no longer trapped in the condemnation of our sins. The reason God raised Jesus from the dead was to put his divine seal and validation on the saving, sin-defeating death of Jesus for sinners.
Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous that he might bring us to God. (1 Peter 3:18)
And God raised him from the dead on the third day to show that his death had been an awesome success. The debt had been paid, the penalty had been borne, the curse had been lifted. Our Servant from heaven had done for us the work that we could never do for ourselves—take away our sin and make us right with God.
And shall we, then, try to work for this gift? Shall we try to switch roles with our Omnipotent Servant and earn our way out of sin and into heaven? No, for the Bible makes it very clear:
By grace are you saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not of works, lest anyone should boast. (Ephesians 2:8)
The forgiveness of your sins no matter how terrible and no matter how long—the new reconciled relationship with God—is not your work; it is God's work. Because the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many. Today his eyes run to and fro though this world and through this service to show himself powerful on behalf of those who trust in him.
That's the first urgent need that we have—to be free of our sins and get right with God. Jesus did it on the cross, and God sealed it with the resurrection.
2. The Enemy of Death
The other need we all have is the need to overcome death. A friend called me from Boston yesterday and said there have been 48 murders in Boston so far this year. There is a spirit of violence and fear. He said you don't even honk your horn carelessly for fear that someone might just fire a pistol through your windshield. That's our world.
There are three million people with AIDS in the world, and sixty million AIDS carriers and four hundred thousand AIDS related deaths each year. Do you think they are unusual? Not very. Three million people die of tuberculosis every year. Five hundred thousand women die in childbirth every year. There are fifteen million hunger related deaths every year. On planet earth this year 50 million people will die. The average life expectancy is 62.3 years. If I am average, I have less than 18 years to live.
Death is an enemy. We were made to live. I want to live forever! But I cannot save myself from death. Nor can any scientist in the world. That's why the resurrection of Jesus is so precious to me. Because the Bible says,
If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit which dwells in you. (Romans 8:11)
In other words, because he has overcome death, we can overcome death by faith in him. Jesus himself put it powerfully like this:
I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. (John 11:25)
Do You Believe This?
And he turned to the woman standing by and said, "Do you believe this?" And he turns to us this morning and says, "Do you believe this?"
If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead you will be saved. (Romans 10:9)
If you put your faith in Jesus Christ this morning as the living Lord and Savior,
- all your sins will be blotted out,
- you will receive the Spirit of Christ as a free gift in your heart,
- God will give you the assurance of everlasting life,
- and he himself will become your Servant to glorify his grace and his power by working everything together for your good forever and ever.