Can I Believe in the Resurrection?

Explore the Bible Series

July, 25, 2010


Background Passage: I Corinthians 15:1-16:24

Lesson Passage: I Corinthians 15:1-6, 12-18, 50-52, 54b-57




I include  this week outline materials from two previous lessons, lessons based on Matthew 28:1-20 and Luke 24:1-49. In particular, this outline begins with introductory materials from earlier reflections on the New Testament claims concerning the resurrection of Jesus from the grave.  Paul’s meditations on the resurrection, recorded in I Corinthians 15:1-58, add some historical information to the accounts provided in the Gospels, and the apostle also draws, perhaps like nowhere else in the Bible, the theological implications of Jesus’ resurrection.  I hope the following comments will prove helpful.


Comments from the lesson on Matthew 28:1-20


The bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the lynchpin of the redemptive message; that is, this occurrence holds everything else together. The incarnation, the virgin conception, the miraculous works of Jesus, the demonic exorcisms, the matchless preaching, the impeccable   adherence to the Mosaic Law, and the awful crucifixion; all of these things lead to the empty tomb.  The resurrection validates and authenticates all of these events.  They meet their fulfillment and meaning in the empty tomb. The whole gospel turns on this claim that Jesus rose from the dead.  Disprove the resurrection, and Christianity crumbles to rubble.  All four Gospels affirm it.  The preaching of the apostles, in Acts, focused on it. The resurrection undergirds the letters of Paul, and the General Epistles reflect the same emphasis.  The resurrected Christ appears consistently in the Revelation.  Early Christians risked and often sacrificed their lives because they would not deny the resurrection.  Primitive Christianity spread across the Mediterranean like wide fire, in large measure, because of the message of the resurrection.  For centuries, Christians of every stripe have affirmed their belief that Jesus rose from the dead.  The resurrection is the central claim of the Christian message.


Personal note: I appreciate that some readers may struggle with the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus.  The story, after all, is quite incredible.  What modern person could easily believe that a man rose from the dead after approximately thirty-six hours in a tomb?  Christians should not flippantly dismiss the questions sincere seekers may have about the credibility of the resurrection claims of the Early Church.  Some years ago, one of my colleagues gave me a book that helped me affirm the historicity of this miraculous event, N.T. Wright’s, The Resurrection of the Son of God.  I have some questions about Wright’s views on justification (expressed in other writings), but this book on the resurrection is the most thorough work, on this topic, I have ever read.  If you really struggle with the resurrection, please consider reading this book. 


If the previous paragraphs have any merit, a thoughtful person must ask about the sources of our information about the resurrection. How does a contemporary inquirer discover reliable information about the claims of Christianity?  Well, one, of course, must begin with the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  All of these sources appear to have relied on eyewitness accounts of the resurrection; nevertheless, all of these records differ in some of the details of the story.  New Testament scholars have made valiant efforts to “harmonize” the accounts, but, it seems, an honest assessment demands that all of the problems cannot be resolved.  However, in this author’s judgment, this divergence may actually lend a stamp of authenticity to the Gospel records.  If, as some have suggested, the early church sought to manufacture a resurrection narrative, would they have allowed these nuances in the “story” to continue?  It seems reasonable that collusion would have produced a seamless, predictable, robotic story.  Instead, honest readers find, in the New Testament record, eyewitness accounts that emphasize different aspects of the story.  The nuance and texture of the varying accounts, in my judgment, actually lend credibility to the truthfulness of the testimony of the witnesses.


Don’t miss this central point; all of the Gospels unequivocally agree that something remarkable happened on the Sunday morning after the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, and this noteworthy occurrence transformed the lives of those who observed it. Jesus’ followers found the tomb empty.  The Lord’s enemies could not produce a body.  The notion that Jesus merely swooned in the cross is impossible to believe.  The men who killed Jesus were professional executioners, and they did their job with terrifying efficiency and competence. Moreover, since the first resurrection Sunday, the message of the cross and the resurrection has changed the lives of millions; indeed, innumerable multitudes of people will gather willingly and joyfully, this Easter Sunday, to affirm their convictions in the transforming power of the resurrection of Jesus.


Comments from Luke 24:1-49


Everyone has a certain “life-lens” through which we interpret 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, but 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 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.        The Centrality of the Resurrection to the Gospel Message (15:1-11)

A.    A critical reminder (vv. 1-2): Paul appealed to his preaching experiences in Corinth, and he hoped that his friends in Greece might remember the message he proclaimed, a message centered on the resurrection.  These people embraced Paul’s message, and, through this belief, they had begun the process of salvation through Christ.

B.     The gospel message Paul received from Christ Jesus (vv. 3-11): Here, Paul emphasized four dimensions of the gospel message.

1.     “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (v. 3): Leon Morris thinks Paul’s reference to the Scriptures probably reflects the message of Isaiah 53:1-12.

2.     “that he was buried” (v. 4a): This phrase denotes the certainty of Jesus’ death.

3.     “he was raised the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (v. 4b): It’s difficult to identify the particular Scripture to which Paul refers.

4.     “he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve…” (vv. 4-11): The Gospels do not mention Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to more than five hundred people, but Paul’s claim that many of the witnesses were still alive lends an air of credibility to Paul’s astonishing claims regarding Jesus’ resurrection. Finally, the apostle added his own eye-witness account of the risen Christ.


II.    The Implications of Denying Christ’s Resurrection (15:12-19): Apparently, some faction in Corinth denied the resurrection, and, of course, Paul expressed grave alarm at the implications of this denial.

A.    “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, and your faith is in vain” (v. 14): Vaughan and Lea point out that “in vain” means “empty”, “meaningless”, or “hollow.”

B.     “We are found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ” (v. 15): If Jesus did not resurrect from the grave, then the apostles were liars.

C.     “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (v. 17): Without the resurrection the death of Christ had not effect; that is, the resurrection validated the effectual redemptive work of Jesus.

D.    “Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have persisted” (v. 18): If there is no risen Christ, believers have no advocate in heaven; thus, Christians die in their sins and have no hope of eternal life.

E.     “we are of all people most to be pitied” (v. 19): If the resurrection did not take place, then our hope, for time and eternity, proves empty and pitiful.


III. Theological and Practical Implications of Christ’s Resurrection (15:20-58)

A.    “Christ is the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (vv. 20-23): This statement implies three things (See Vaughan and Lea, pp. 155-156).

1.      Christ was the first of many to rise from the dead.

2.      Christ’s resurrection is a guarantee of the resurrection all who are in him.

3.      Christ resurrection is a pattern for the resurrection of his people. Note that Paul asserts the historicity of Adam, and he traced a solidarity between Adam and the human race, a solidarity that seals, in Paul’s theology, all men in a state of sin.

B.     Christ’s resurrection ensures the divine triumph over sin (vv. 24-34)

1.      Christ, at the end of the age, will triumph over all authority and power, putting all enemies under his feet” (vv. 24-25)

2.      Christ’s resurrection subdues mankind’s final enemy, death (vv. 26-28)

3.      Christ’s resurrection makes sense of Christian suffering and promotes personal holiness (vv. 29-34): The reference to the baptism of the dead proves very difficult, and, frankly, I do not have a helpful interpretation to propose.  Whatever the case with this problematic reference, Paul’s understanding of the resurrection gave him hope in the face of terrible suffering for the sake of the gospel (See vv. 29-32).  Furthermore, Paul surmised that Jesus’ victory over the grave fostered the practical abandonment of sin.


IV. Christ’s Resurrection and the Glorification of the Body (15:35-58)

A.    The nature of the resurrection body (vv. 35-49): Death, for the believer, is like a seed sown in a field. The seed must die in order to bring life and fruitfulness, but the glorified body will not exist exactly like our mortal flesh (See vv. 42-44). It will possess the qualities of eternality, honor, power, and spirituality.

B.     Adam and Christ (vv. 45-49): Adam, a creature of the dust, was a man of the earth, but Jesus, a man from heaven, bequeaths a heavenly quality to his people, men recreated in his heavenly image.

C.     The mystery of the resurrection (vv. 50-58)

1.     Not all Christians will die (v. 49-51a): Paul, as I see it, implies that some believers will remain until the return of Jesus.

2.     All Christians will experience a remarkable transformation, glorification (vv. 51-53).

3.     Jesus’ resurrection ensures the believer’s victory over death (vv. 54-58): Paul cited Isaiah 25:8 and Hosea 13:14 to affirm the triumph of God’s people.