Celebrating Easter’s Significance

Explore the Bible Series

March 23, 2008


Background Passages:  John 20:1-18; I Corinthians 15:1-28

Lesson Passages: John 20:1-9, 15-18; I Corinthians 15:3-6; 20-22


Introduction:  A few days ago one of my colleagues gave me a DVD that a student had distributed around campus.  I watched the film, entitled Zeitgeist, and found it laughable.  This incoherent film rails against religion, especially Christianity and blames the Bush administration for the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon (I’m not sure I saw the connection between the assault on Christianity and the Bush administration).  Among the assaults on Christianity, Zeitgeist observes that many ancient religions espoused death/resurrection myths, and the Gospels simply updated and amended this common feature of Middle Eastern religions.  I, of course, do not claim any expertise on ancient Middle Eastern mythology, but I do notice some significant differences between Christian resurrection claims and these mythological traditions.


  1. As I understand it, ancient mythologies often centered on fertility cults, intended to ensure the success of agricultural life of the region.  The gods, according to these myths, died in the winter and resurrected at the outset of the growing season.  This cycle of life and rebirth occurred every year.  This is very different from the claims of Christianity.  The Gospels claim that Christ’s death and resurrection occurred in time, unrepeatable and unique events.
  2. The Gospel accounts of the crucifixion and resurrection do not read like mythology; rather, they claim to record eyewitness testimony of those who observed the crucifixion and encountered the risen Savior.  A modern reader may question the reliability of these witnesses, but, it seems to me, no reasonable person can question that real people had some kind of experience that they interpreted as interacting with the resurrected Jesus.  That’s not mythology.


As part of this introduction, I have included some remarks from a previous lesson on the Gospel accounts of the resurrection.  Hopefully, this little review will prove helpful in our present study.


Introduction:  Everyone has a certain “life-lens” through which he interprets Scripture.  I, for instance, see the Bible through the eyes of a historian; therefore, I give special attention to the methods of historical research and interpretation as I examine the Bible.  Others, obviously, approach the Bible from a different direction.  It is, I think, the universal book, and it addresses the deepest of human needs and inquiries.  All of us come to the message of the Bible as sinners, moral failures who have disparately fallen short of the glory of God.  This grand book addresses our needs in ways that wonderfully transcend what we could ask or think.


Historians have examined the story of the resurrection in every way imaginable, and I have read some of these studies with great interest.  Their task is two-fold: (1) historians determine, through careful examination of the extant evidence, what happened in a particular situation, (2) these scholars offer learned explanatory hypotheses to explain the meaning and significance of these occurrences.  Antiquarians content themselves with merely ferreting out the data, but historians press beyond that preliminary task to venture on explanatory models.  Dr, Jesse Northcutt, late professor of homiletics at Southwestern seminary, taught me the most important academic lesson I ever learned.  After hearing a student sermon I delivered for my preaching class, the dear old master probed the value of my address by asked me a sobering question, “So what?”  He did not intend to cruelly crush my fragile ego; instead, he taught me that our work (as historians or preachers) must center on meaning.


As a historian, I have examined the four Gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus.  While the biblical accounts were not written by trained historians, in the modern sense of that term, they did give eye-witness testimony to what they saw and heard.  It simply won’t do to dismiss these stories as fictional, theological accounts of the dogma of early Christians.  Some believers grow frustrated with the variations in the Bible record of the resurrection (i.e. one angel at the empty tomb or two); however, these dissimilarities actually authenticate the reliability of the accounts.  If the early church had merely manufactured the “story”, the writers would have, I think, ironed out the variant wrinkles. Historians cannot “prove” the historicity of the resurrection, but they can establish that the resurrection really happened, and they can affirm that these eye-witnesses really believed they had encountered the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  Then, the scholar must ask, “So what?”  What does this testimony mean? 


Scientists view the accounts of the resurrection somewhat differently (if I may be so bold to speak for my scientific colleagues). People trained in the sciences deal with repeatable, testable phenomena.  They can (and should) assert that the scientific method indicates that dead people do not rise from the grave.  At the moment of death, the body begins to undergo certain irreversible processes that make resuscitation impossible.  After a short period of time, the body simply cannot reanimate.  Any reasonable person affirms this unbendable principle of nature, and Christians must acknowledge this.  Jesus died, on the human side of things, as a result of the unspeakable violence of Roman crucifixion.  The Roman soldiers received thorough training in this form of execution, and victims did not survive this efficient means of disposing of criminals.  Moreover, men did not recover from these atrocities, and I have no doubt that Jesus died from the horrible wounds inflicted by the soldiers.  A few of his disciples had no doubt that he died, and, in the limited time they had, these discouraged followers hurriedly prepared the body for burial and entombed Jesus’ remains in a nearby grave.  His body stayed in that tomb for approximately forty hours (three o’clock Friday afternoon until about six o’clock on Sunday morning).  Jesus died, and his disciples laid his corpse in a rock-hewn grave.  Like the remains of every other human being, scientists would affirm that this irreversible process of decay occurred during those hours.  No man could possibly resurrect from that progression of decay. 


Here, then, is the unique claim of Christianity, a claim that centers on the affirmation that what could not happen, did happen.  The scientist can rightly assert that the resurrection could not occur, but he cannot affirm that it did not happen.  That is the nature of miracles: that which cannot occur, does indeed take place. Christians believe that the impossible, in this case, actually happened.  Jesus rose from the dead in an unrepeatable, unique act of God.  History seems to indicate that First-Century believers affirmed, based on eye-witness accounts, that Jesus resurrected from the dead.  Our lesson for this week examines one of those records of this event.  As the lesson progresses, the text will compel us to determine the significance and meaning of this occurrence. 


Lesson Outline:


I.                   John’s Account of the Resurrection (John 20:1-18): Most New Testament scholars agree that many years had passed between the ministry of Jesus and the writing of this account, perhaps more than sixty years.  This Gospel, like the other three, was written anonymously, but a very old tradition attributes the book to the Apostle John.  If this attribution is correct (I see no reason to deny John’s authorship), this account came from the pen of a very old man, a seasoned disciple of Jesus.  After many years of reflection, he still recalled some fascinating details of the first Easter morning.

A.    Mary’s journey to the tomb (v. 1): We have no eyewitness account of the resurrection (only the events that took place in the aftermath).  Matthew tells us that an earthquake occurred before Mary arrived at the tomb, and an angel moved the stone from the entrance to the sepulcher. John centered his attention on Mary Magdalene, but Luke recalled the names of other women who came to the tomb.  Also, John claimed that Mary arrived at the grave while it was still dark, but Mark said the sun had already risen.  Apparently, the women arrived at dawn. 

B.     Mary’s report to Peter and an unnamed disciple (v. 2): The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) reveal a conversation between the women and angels (Matthew and Mark only mention one angel, Luke mentions two), but John gives no indication of this encounter.  Instead, John emphasized Mary’s immediate impulse to report the empty tomb to the disciples.  The text identifies Peter as on of the men who received Mary’s report, but the second man remains something of a mystery to us.  Most conservative scholars think this man was the Apostle John.

C.     The disciples’ flight to the sepulcher (vv. 3-9): Peter and the younger disciple did not hesitate. They ran immediately to the tomb, and, upon entering, realized that something remarkable had occurred.  The men found the empty tomb and abandoned grave clothes.  John seems to indicate that these men did not really understand what they had seen, and they returned to their homes.

D.    Jesus’ encounter with Mary (vv. 10-18): Only John records this incident (Mark seems to give a slight indication of the encounter).  Two angels met with Mary; then, Jesus appeared to her.  At first she mistook him for a gardener, but she quickly realized that the Lord spoke with her.  Mary embraced the Lord, and he gently rebuked her. This account of Mary’s encounter with the angels seems very difficult to harmonize with the record in the Synoptics.  Perhaps we should simply bow to the mystery and majesty of the accounts. The important issue, of course, relates primarily to the resurrection of Jesus, not Mary’s conversations with angels.


II.                Paul’s Reflections on the Importance of the Resurrection (I Corinthians 15:1-28): Even liberal scholars acknowledge the Pauline authorship of I Corinthians.  According to the text, Paul wrote this book, for Ephesus, during his Third Missionary journey (c. 55 A.D.). Toward the end of this important document, Paul reflected on the essential nature of the message of the resurrection to the Good News; indeed, Paul concluded that the resurrection was the linchpin of the gospel.  Without the resurrection, the rest of the gospel unravels.

A.    Paul’s evidence for the resurrection (vv. 1-11)

1.      the recipients of Paul’s preaching (vv. 1-2): The resurrection stood at the heart of Paul’s preaching, and he rejoiced that the Corinthian believers had embraced his message.  Their belief of the gospel had saving effect on these people, and Paul encouraged them to “stand” and “hold fast” to the things they had embraced.

2.      the content of Paul’s preaching (vv. 3-11): Two emphases characterized Paul’s message: Christ’s death for sinners and the resurrection from the dead.  He highlighted several eyewitnesses to the risen Christ: Cephas and the Twelve (actually, only eleven disciples saw the Lord—Judas had taken his life), the five hundred (Scripture gives no other account of this), James (the half-brother of Jesus and the apostles (may refer to other appearances of Jesus to the Twelve), and, finally, the Apostle Paul.  This must refer to Paul’s Damascus road encounter with Jesus (See Acts 9:1-19).  This experience changed the course of Paul’s life, and he devoted the rest of his life to preaching the resurrection of Christ. 

B.     The essential nature of the resurrection (vv. 12-28): Apparently, some false teachers troubled the church at Corinth, claiming that there was no resurrection from the dead. Paul not only affirmed the Jesus’ resurrection, but he concluded that Jesus’ resurrection guaranteed the eternal life of all who trusted in Christ.  Indeed, if Christ did not rise from the dead, the entire gospel was in vain, and believers were, above all people, to be pitied.  Christ’s resurrection served as security for the eternal life for all believers who die in the faith.  Christ’s death and resurrection defeated death, the believer’s final enemy, and God has placed all things in subjection to the resurrected, glorified Lord.