Seward United Methodist Church
Wednesday, January 19, 2022
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Why Believe in the Resurrection?

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

At the heart of the gospel message is an impossibility, something that defies our understanding of the world: Jesus died and rose from the dead. That’s impossible from our world’s point of view.

In the first century, most Jews didn’t have nearly as hard a time with that message. Most Jewish people believe in a resurrection of the dead. There are hints of it in the Old Testament, though to be perfectly honest, it has more to say about Sheol as the place of the dead than the about resurrection. The resurrection is pictured incompletely in the Old Testament. That picture is completed in the New Testament.

Most Jewish people believed in a resurrection, though there were exceptions. For example, the Sadducees were one group that did not believe in it, but they were a small group. The challenge, if there was one, was that most Jews only believed in a resurrection at the end of days, when this world is destroyed and replaced by the New Creation. And they didn’t have a concept of a Messiah who would die and rise from the dead. Again, there were hints of the Messiah dying and rising again in the Old Testament, but those passages were not fully understood until after the coming of Jesus. For example, Psalm 16 said, “You will not leave my soul among the dead or allow your holy one to rot in the grave.” Jesus himself said that the three days Jonah spent in the belly of the “great fish” were a foreshadowing of his death and resurrection. And there were other prophecies. But these things were not really understood before Jesus’ death and resurrection. There were plenty of challenges to the Jewish mind in the gospel message, but the basic idea of resurrection was not one of them.

On the other hand, resurrection was a great challenge to the Greek mind. In Greek thought, there was an immortality of the soul, but not the body. They saw no goodness in the body. They believed our bodies are only alive because a “spark of the divine,” a “small piece of God” inside each of us. This spark is trapped in the body. “I am a poor soul, shackled to a corpse,” one Greek writer said. At death, this divine spark is set free and returns to God. So there is no individuality in the afterlife. And they did not believe in a fundamental unity of body and soul, as the Jewish people did. So it was a great challenge for the Greek mind to believe in a future resurrection of the dead.

But Paul reminds them that there is a resurrection that they could not dispute: the resurrection of Christ. It was nothing less than a fact as far as Paul was concerned! Paul recounts the message that had been passed down to them:

First, Christ died for sins, as the Scriptures said that he would. Isaiah chapters 52-53 foretold the death of Christ for the sins of the world.

He was buried. The mention of burial implies an empty tomb. Peter mentions that very thing in his sermon on the day of Pentecost in the city of Jerusalem. He spoke about David and his prophecy of “the holy one not rotting in the grave” and points out how they couldn’t be about David, since his tomb was right there. The implication is that Jesus’ empty tomb was also right there for them to inspect.

He was raised on the third day, as the Scriptures foretold. And then he was seen. There were eyewitnesses of this resurrection, many of them, not all of whom Paul mentions here, such as the women who went to the tomb. The first Paul mentions was Peter, leader of the Twelve Disciples. Peter had failed Jesus and denied him. Jesus went to him first, to restore him to his place of leadership. The Gospel of Luke says that Peter was the first of the Disciples to see the risen Christ. Then he appeared to the Twelve Disciples. This would be the “upper room” appearances in Jerusalem on the first Easter Sunday evening, and then again the following Sunday. Then Jesus appeared to more than 500 witnesses. This was probably his appearance in Galilee, mentioned in Matthew 28. “Most of whom are still living.” As in, if you have doubts, then go ahead and ask one of those who was there that day. Then he appeared to James, his oldest brother. What’s interesting is that James and the other brothers of Jesus did not follow him during his earthly life and ministry. They thought he was mad. But after his resurrection, we see James and at least one of his other brothers becoming important leaders in the early Church. So Jesus did not just appear to his followers at the time. Then he appeared to “all the apostles.” This probably refers to the Ascension, which took place just outside of Jerusalem. And finally, as to one born “out of time,” he appeared to Paul. Paul was an enemy of Christ, someone who specifically thought he was a deceiver, before this vision. So not all of these people were looking for the risen Christ. Even those who followed him were surprised by the resurrection.

Why should we believe in the resurrection? I think the answer is because it’s the best explanation of the facts we have. Some people have tried to explain it away, but I find their explanations to be lacking.

There is the “swoon theory,” that Jesus didn’t die on the cross. He only “swooned,” fainted if you prefer. Then later, he woke up in the tomb and went out and told everyone he had risen from the dead. But Jesus was flogged with a lead tipped whip thirty-nine times. He was crucified; nailed to a cross. Then, to be sure he was dead, a spear was driven into his side. It’s hard to “walk that off.”

There’s the wrong tomb theory. The disciples went to the wrong tomb, found it empty, and figured he rose from the dead. The problem with that is that some of his

followers buried him, others saw where he was buried. And if the religious elites could have produced his body to put an end to his following, they would have.

There’s the hoax theory. The disciples stole his body and said he rose. But they were afraid for their lives. And the tomb was guarded by soldiers. Even if they did steal his body, they would know it was a lie. Most of them were put to death for their faith. Charles Colson was one of Nixon’s men involved in the Watergate scandal. Those men agreed to stick to a story, but when the pressure was on, they all turned on each other to save themselves. He became a Christian in prison and said of this theory, “Men will die for a lie, but only if they don’t know it’s a lie. If anyone knew the resurrection was a hoax, it would have been the disciples, and almost all of them died for it.”

There’s the “spiritual resurrection” theory. Jesus rose from the dead, but only as a spirit. The Gospels are clear that he rose bodily. He could be touched. He ate food. And no one would have batted an eye if the disciples just said they saw his spirit. Most first century people believed in ghosts. The resurrection is a resurrection of the body. The resurrection body is different from the body we have now. It is eternal and free from the corruptions of sin, but it is still a resurrection body.

And finally, there’s the “mass delusion” theory. The disciples wanted him back so bad they just imagined the resurrection. This one is hard to disprove. But mass delusions are not common occurrences. And when people do experience delusions, it’s usually something they are expecting. The Gospels make it clear the disciples were not expecting the resurrection. And again, if the authorities could have produced a body, they would have.

Is it airtight? No. It’s still faith. But I think we have good reason to believe in the resurrection as the best explanation for how a bunch of scared and disheartened disciples who saw their master die became a force that changed the world, often at the cost of their own lives.

This is the message we have received, Paul reminds us. It’s not our creation. We have received it. And we stand in it. It gives us stability in the storms of life. And through it we are being saved.

Later in this chapter, Paul calls the resurrection of Christ the “firstfruits of the resurrection." The Jewish festival of firstfruits was held at the beginning of the harvest, and it was God’s assurance that the rest of the harvest would come after. These Corinthian Greeks struggled to believe in a future resurrection. But they couldn’t deny the resurrection of Christ. The evidence was overwhelming. So even if it defied conventional wisdom, they held onto it. So should we.

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