When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3 And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” 4 And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back—it was very large. 5 And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed. 6 And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” 8 And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. –Mark 16:1-8
We’ve come to the end of our search for the authentic Jesus in the Gospel According to Mark, just as all over the world Christians have begun preparing for the beginning of Christ’s story, Christmas. We, as a staff, planned it this way, because the Christmas story only makes sense in light of the resurrection. Celebrating Jesus’ birth is silly if Jesus simply died on the cross and stayed dead, because Christmas is only good news if Jesus conquered death and rose from the grave. If we lose the resurrection story, if this story in Mark 16 is just some fairy tale or hoax, then all we’ve studied this semester is meaningless & Christianity is a lie. We are without hope & still stuck in our sins.
I came to Christ as a sophomore in high school, and I came to Samford planning to go into ministry. While here, I almost walked away from my faith. I was really wrestling with some questions about where God was in suffering (particularly as I studied the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, where 800,000+ people died in 100 days), the horrors of hell (how a good & loving God could send people to eternal torment), and, most troublingly, the Bible’s reliability (could I really trust this book? Or that what I now have is even what the authors intended?). This story- the story of the resurrection- was the one truth that I clung to in that dark & violent storm of my soul. As I read & studied, I found that I had no tenable alternative explanation of the resurrection. I really believe that Mark 16 tells the truth. And, if Mark 16 is telling the truth, if Jesus really rose again, then He really is who He says He is. And if He is who He says He is, then what He says is absolute truth, because He Himself would be the author of all truth, indeed, the author of all things. As the truthfulness of the resurrection sunk into my heart, my perspective began to shift: when I approached the Bible and found seeming holes or contradictions, formerly, I wondered if I could trust God, but now I began with a trust that, if Jesus was raised, even if I thought I saw inconsistencies, that there had to be a trustworthy answer, because Jesus is trustworthy. I believe that He said He would rise & He did. It is my great and sure hope.
As the Apostle Paul said, “If Christ has not been raised, then your faith is in vain” and, of course, he’s right. If Christ is risen from the grave, then Jesus’ claims to divinity, his teaching, etc. are all verified. If Christ is not risen from the grave, then there’s no real reason to give Jesus any attention at all. This is the “pivot on which all Christianity turns and without which none of the other truths would much matter” (John MacArthur). Either Christianity is, as Karl Marx said, “the opiate for the people,” a false hope & happiness that we use as a crutch to make it through, or it is the truth that shapes everything else. And it is the most important thing in the universe that we know which is true.
Tonight we’re going to ambitiously try to tackle two massive questions: (1) How can we trust the resurrection story? & (2) What did the resurrection accomplish?
First, how do we know that we can trust the resurrection story?
Well, there are those who say, “We can trust the resurrection because it’s in the Bible,” and, speaking simply to Christians, I understand that conviction. The Bible is the Word of God & we are meant to take it at its word. However, such a stance would do you no good in the face of critics, who demand an answer grounded in logic and history. Nor would it help you if you dialoged with a Muslim or Hindu, for they could just as easily say, “For the Koran or Bhagavad Gita told me so.” Nor would it help during those trying seasons when you wonder if you can trust the Bible itself. So, for the sake of us being able to one day say, “For the Bible told me so,” tonight we’re going to examine how history verifies the resurrection of Christ.
Now, there are a number of people today who attempt to dismiss the resurrection story entirely, claiming that ancient people tended to be very superstitious due to their primitive understanding about the world. So obviously, these skeptics conclude, they were more prone to believe in a resurrection story like this one. Not so fast, my friend.
For the Greeks, the end goal of all philosophy was to escape the body. For them, the soul was the ideal, and the body (indeed the whole physical world) was evil (or at least “less than”), so the notion of a physical resurrection would’ve been repulsive to them. Anyone who was wise or godly or powerful would never return to their body after they’d left it. Why would they want to? No Greek would’ve easily believed in God coming back from the dead.
Likewise, though many Jews did believe in a resurrection (see Martha in John 11), they believed that everyone would be raised together on one day to be judged before God. The idea that one singular person could be raised before that day was outside of all their categories of thinking. And besides that, no one imagined that the Messiah, God’s chosen one could die. If you died, it simply meant that you weren’t the Messiah. There were plenty of Messiah claimants in Israel around Jesus’ time, but they all died, and, soon after, their movements died with them.
No one expected this resurrection at all. Even the disciples, though Jesus had predicted his death & resurrection in Mark 8, Mark 9, Mark 10, etc. didn’t get it (“Hey guys, I’m going to die & three days later, I’m coming back.” “Hey, just to be clear…”; “Just to make sure we’re on the same page…”). They never saw it coming. What changed their minds? They found the tomb empty, and everything they had ever thought or believed about the Messiah changed forever in an instant.
One of the reasons we know the tomb was empty is because the gospels tell us that women were the first witnesses. How, you may ask, does this help Christianity’s credibility? Well, this detail isn’t the sort of thing the gospel writers would’ve written in if they were trying to convince someone of their story. Why? Sorry ladies, but in the 1st Century, your testimonies didn’t necessarily carry a lot of weight. In fact, women were not allowed to be witnesses in Jewish courts, because, as Josephus put it, “of the levity and impetuosity of their sex.” In other words, there was an ancient prejudice that women were less rational than men, more easily swayed by emotion, & more prone to jump to conclusions. Celsus, writing in the 2nd Century, essentially said that one of the reasons that we know we can’t trust Christianity is because its first witnesses were hysterical women. If someone was going to make up a story like this, they would almost certainly have had male disciples discover the tomb. As N.T. Wright notes, there must have been enormous pressure on the early church to remove women from the accounts, but the Gospel of Mark, written 20-30 years after Jesus’ death, gives the names of the women who found the tomb, basically saying, “Go find and ask these women what they saw.”
Not only that, but the women who found Jesus were known to be friends of Jesus (and not just any friends, mind you, but friends like Mary Magdalene, who, Luke 8 tells us, was known at one time to have had a bunch of demons. You can imagine how the people of the time loved to poke fun at that fact. “So you believe that Jesus raised from the dead, because the crazy woman told you she saw Him? Nice…”). The only plausible way to explain the fact that these women were recorded as the first witnesses of the empty tomb is if indeed they were.
The tomb must have been empty- otherwise there is no more story. Almost everyone everywhere agrees with this basic fact about Easter morning. So having established the basic credibility of the empty tomb, let’s address some of the major non-Christians explanations as to why the tomb was empty.
1. Maybe Jesus didn’t die on the cross
First, as many of you may know, Muslims believe (as, at one time, did a number of scholars) that Jesus did not really die on the cross. They claim that He merely “swooned” on the cross, then revived, rolled away a massive stone, and, shortly thereafter, had healed enough that Mary didn’t notice his gaping wounds, thinking He was the gardener.
Matt Chandler, I thought, had a great defense against this theory. He turned to Luke 24, where two guys are heading to Emmaus from Jerusalem a few days after Jesus was crucified, when suddenly Jesus Himself shows up (though they don’t yet recognize Him) and begins walking alongside them, telling them why the Messiah had to die. Now, they’re on a 7 mile trip to Emmaus. They’re walking & talking, and just how far are they walking? 7 miles. It’s 7 miles to Emmaus. Why point this out? Because this theory that He didn’t die (after being beaten, whipped 39 times with bone & glass, having nails drilled through his wrists & feet, having skin ripped off his back, after spending 6 hours hanging on a cross where he had to push up on nails driven through his feet for every breath, & then having a spear run through his side)… is absolutely absurd. Have you ever tried to walk after twisting your ankle? You look like you might as well have just had your whole leg under your knee chopped off. And to think that Jesus, after having his body weight sitting on two nails driven through his feet, 2 days later is up to move a stone that weighed a couple hundred pounds, overwhelm trained soldiers (who would’ve been killed for leaving their post) & a brisk 7-mile jog to Emmaus is ridiculous. Jesus was dead.
2. The Jews or Romans took the body
Some people claim that the priests or Romans took the body. If they had (and history will note that they never claimed to have done so), they certainly would’ve produced it quickly once the rumor spread that He was alive again, right? For the next several decades, both groups went to great lengths to stop the spread of Christianity in Jerusalem where the crucifixion occurred, but they never produced His body or even claimed they could. No, within 5 weeks of His crucifixion, there were over 10,000 Jews following the allegedly resurrected Jesus, worshipping him as God. The Jews & Romans did not take his body.
3. The Disciples Took the Body
Skeptical scholar Michael Martin wrote, “Many biblical scholars have argued that the Resurrection story was shaped by the theological aims of the evangelists.” In other words, Martin is saying, many scholars believe that the disciples took the body & made up the resurrection story as a useful tool to accomplish their goals. This was an early rumor (Matthew 28:11-15). First, could the disciples have overcome the guards at the tomb? Secondly and more importantly, if they had taken the body, would they have spent their lives for something they knew was a fraud?
Remember: These were men who walked, ate and talked with a man that they were convinced was the Messiah, whom they watched die. Then they claimed He rose from the dead, in defiance of anything any Jew had ever anticipated.
These followers of Christ, the argument goes, who’d forfeited so much to follow Jesus decide to carry on his movement (so they won’t have wasted their lives), by stealing his crumpled body & creating an elaborate hoax, like a more important Bigfoot or Loch Ness monster.
Now, let’s imagine that you & your friends have fabricated a picture of Bigfoot. You think it’s great & tell your friends & family, sell a few pictures, etc. Well, a few weeks later, imagine a few government agents come to you guys & say, “Did you really see this?” As you count your money from your magazine deals & look over the list of members in your fan club, you say, “Yes, of course, we did.” Then imagine they whisk you & your friends away to separate interrogation rooms & threaten to torture you & kill you unless you recant. How long do you think it’d take before each one of you gave up the fight? Even if you were the most stubborn person in the world, after the torture started, how long would you hold out for something you knew was a lie? Probably not long, right? What about the followers of Jesus? Not only did they spend their rest of their lives proclaiming the good news of Jesus, they almost all died horrible deaths.
How the Followers of Jesus Died
- James- Agrippa kills him with a sword (45 AD)
- Phillip- Tortured & Crucified (54 AD)
- James, Jesus’ brother- Thrown from the top of the temple (62-3 AD)
- Peter- Crucified upside down (64 AD)
- Paul- beheaded in Rome (67 AD)
- Matthew- Beheaded (60-70 AD)
- Andrew-Crucified (70 AD)
- Thomas- Thrust through with pine spears & burned alive (70 AD)
- Nathanael- Flayed & then crucified (70 AD)
- Thaddeus- Beaten to death with sticks (72 AD)
- Simon the Zealot- Crucified (74 AD)
As Blaise Pascal, the mathematician & philosopher, wrote, “I prefer to believe those writers who get their throats cut for what they write.”
You see, without the resurrection, “the Christian faith could not have come into being. The disciples would’ve remained crushed and defeated men. Even had they continued to remember Jesus as their beloved teacher, His crucifixion would have forever silenced any hopes of His being the Messiah. The cross would have remained the sad and shameful end of His career.” (William Lane Craig). Instead, the disciples were almost immediately transformed from hopeless, fearful men into courageous witnesses willing to die for their Risen Lord. The disciples did not steal the body.
4. The Disciples Hallucinated in their Grief
Most skeptics will acknowledge that the disciples must have at least thought they had seen the risen Christ, but what, they say, actually happened was that they had a vision of the Jesus in their grief. They hallucinated in a “waking dream.” As Vaughn Bell wrote in Scientific American, “mourning seems to be a time when hallucinations are particularly common.” “You see,” these skeptics will argue, “the disciples weren’t shysters trying to deceive anyone. They were grieving, and they simply saw something that wasn’t there.”
Now there are several problems with this hypothesis. First, as we’ve already discussed, 1st century Jews had no categories for a single person rising from the dead, so their first thought would’ve been to immediately dismiss what they thought they’d seen as a ghost or a dream. But Jesus knows this & takes special care to assure them that He is, in fact, raised. In Luke 24, He makes sure they watch him eat a fish. He invites his disciples to touch him. In fact, Thomas, you remember, told the other disciples, essentially that he didn’t believe his friends had actually seen Jesus & wouldn’t believe that Jesus was alive unless he put his own hands into Jesus’ side, which John 20 tells us he did. These weren’t gullible, grieving men. Jesus ate with them & embraced them to assure them that He had been raised.
Nor did Jesus simply make one isolated appearance. The Bible (basically daring 1st century skeptics to take up its challenge to disprove it) names at least 11 appearances of the Risen Jesus (Matthew 28:8-10, 16-20; Luke 24:13-32, 33-49, 50-52; John 20:10-18, 19-23, 26-30; 21:1-14), & Acts 1:3-4 tells us there were many more, appearing to as many to 500 people at once (1 Cor. 15:6).
If there was only an empty tomb and no sightings of Jesus, no one would have concluded that Jesus had been resurrected; they would’ve assumed that the body may have just been stolen (John 20:15- Mary Magdalene, “If you have taken him away, tell me where you have laid him”). Or if there were only eyewitnesses and no empty tomb, no one would have concluded that Jesus had been resurrected either; people claim to have seen departed loved ones all the time. The two factors must have occurred in tandem for anyone to conclude that Jesus was actually raised from the dead. The disciples did not hallucinate.
There is no other explanation. Jesus Christ not only died, but rose again from the grave three days later, changing everything. But what exactly did the resurrection change? What did the resurrection accomplish?
What Did the Resurrection Accomplish?
14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised.16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised.17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. 20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead –1 Corinthians 15:14-20a
I benefited greatly from John Piper’s treatment of this passage, where he argues that since Christ has been raised, we can extrapolate several truths from this text by taking the converse arguments of what Paul has written.
John Piper- Gifts of the Resurrection
- Verse 14: ” . . . our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” But since Christ has been raised, our faith and preaching are not in vain.
- Verse 15: If Christ has not been raised, “we are found to be misrepresenting God [literally: we are false witnesses], because we testified of God that he raised Christ.” But since Christ has been raised, the apostles are not false witnesses about the work of God.
- Verse 17: “If Christ has not been raised then your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” But since Christ has been raised, we are not still in our sins.
- Verse 18: If Christ has not been raised, then “those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.” But since Christ has been raised, the dead in Christ have not perished.
- Verse 19: If Christ has not been raised, then “we are of all men most to be pitied.” But since Christ has been raised, we are not to be pitied.
1. Our Faith and Preaching Are Not in Vain (Jesus is trustworthy)
“And was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord” -Romans 1:4
Jesus was declared to be the Son of God by His resurrection from the dead. Jesus’ resurrection was the proof that He is the Son of God, as He claimed to be. It is our proof and sure hope that He is now seated at the right hand of the throne of God, interceding on our behalf, pouring out spiritual blessing upon us, working his great plans towards His ends and our good, and that the coming of His kingdom is absolutely assured. For if the grave could not hold Him in, what force could thwart His plans? No, neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation can stop our God.
Our God and King reigns! His kingdom advances unstoppably, and, therefore, our power for sharing the gospel (for being the ambassadors of this news of the conquering King) comes not from ourselves but from the God who reigns.
2. The Apostles Are Not False Witnesses (The Word is trustworthy)
Jesus’ resurrection means that we can know God and His will for our lives. We can know Him, because the Sovereign King Himself gave us this book.
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” –John 1:14
We can, therefore, know how we are to relate to God, true wisdom, the difference between good & evil, how to relate to each other, what awaits us on the other side, how the world will end, and on and on. If Jesus was raised, we can trust this book, because the author of reality assured us of its truthfulness, and every word He has spoken has come true. If Jesus’ words and this Word were not true or only sometimes true, how could we figure out what to trust? We’d be without hope.
3. We Are Not Still in Our Sins
“Who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification”
By his death on the cross, Jesus paid the penalty for our sins and purchased our forgiveness, justification, and adoption. To demonstrate that Jesus’ work was finished & complete, God raised Jesus from the dead. Romans 4 tells us that He was raised for our justification. In other words, the resurrection vindicated all that Jesus had done, proving once and for all that He had done all that was necessary to conquer sin, Satan, and death. You see anyone could claim that they would “forgive” people of their sins by their death, but Jesus’ resurrection validated His claim. It affirmed that his death was satisfactory in the Father’s sight, that there is no sin, however small, for which satisfaction has not been made. The resurrection assures us that we, as God’s children, are free from all guilt & punishment.
We need not wonder that so much importance is attached to our Lord’s resurrection. It is the seal and headstone of the great work of redemption, which He came to do. It is the crowning proof that He has paid the debt which He undertook to pay on our behalf, won the battle which He fought to deliver us from hell, and is accepted as our Surety and our Substitute by our Father in heaven. Had He never come forth from the prison of the grave, how could we ever have been sure that our ransom had been fully paid? (1 Cor. 15:17.) Had He never risen from His conflict with the last enemy, how could we have felt confident, that He has overcome death, and him that had the power of death, that is the devil? (Heb. 2:14.) But thanks be unto God, we are not left in doubt. The Lord Jesus really “rose again for our justification.” True Christians are “begotten again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” They may boldly say with Paul, “Who is he that condemns – it is Christ that died, yes rather that is risen again” (Rom. 8:34. Rom. 4:25. 1 Pet. 1:3). –J.C. Ryle
Tim Keller wrote it this way: “The resurrection was God’s way of stamping ‘paid in full’ right across history so that nobody could miss it.” You can’t pay for a bill that’s already been paid for, right? The altar’s closed, because the resurrection proved that Jesus was the final sacrifice.
4. The Dead in Christ Have Not Perished
The resurrection of Jesus Christ proves that heaven is assured for those who trust in Christ. In John 14, Jesus told his disciples that in his Father’s house there were many rooms & that He was going there ahead of them to prepare a place for them. Jesus’ resurrection means that He did just that and those who have “fallen asleep” in Christ are alive & they live forever in the joy of their Master.
It also means that one day, we the living will also enter into the joy of our Master & be raised bodily, just as Christ was. It means that, though we now struggle with sin, we will be made holy (Hebrews 10:4) and presented spotless and blameless before Him (Colossians 1:22). The resurrection means that we will be a part of the new heavens & new earth, enjoying the eternal bliss of the people of God.
“4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” -Romans 6:4-5
5. We Are Not to Be Pitied.
The resurrection of Jesus assures us that we as Christians are not to be pitied: we are to be envied. Since Jesus has been raised, we know that all our obedience, all our love, & all our self-denial is well spent, for our lives count for something so much greater than ourselves. Everything we do is infused with purpose & meaning, for we labor for our conquering King. The resurrection assures us that, one day, we will see that the worst things that have ever happened to us will serve to enhance our eternal delight, as “every sad thing will become untrue.”
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison -2 Corinthians 4:16-17
Not only this, but we can be assured of all of God’s promises, “for all the promises of God find their Yes in him” (2 Corinthians 1:20). As John Boys wonderfully put it, “The resurrection of Christ is the Amen of all His promises.” It means that the same spirit that raised Jesus from the dead now lives in us, for God has promised it through his trustworthy word. It means that we have spiritual power & a new position of spiritual blessing before Him in this life (Acts 1:8; Ephesians 1; 2:7) as well as our assurance that He will safely guide us into the next life. It means that we have the mind of Christ, and we, by His Spirit, can withstand sin. It means that we forever have the welcome of God as His beloved children & bride. It means that we will reign with Him, sitting with Him on His very throne.
“For all things are yours… all are yours, 23 and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s”
-1 Corinthians 3:21-23
The gospel is the news that the true King, Jesus Christ, has come, has liberated us from the chains of sin & death, and He reigns forevermore. If we repent of our sins, trust in His finished work, and confess our total allegiance to Him, we too will reign with Him. If you have trusted in Christ, rejoice & rest in our certain hope. Give of yourself freely, for your perfect reward, your Savior Himself, awaits you.
If you haven’t yet surrendered to Jesus or if you’re still investigating Christianity, please don’t rest until you know whether what I’ve said is true, because none of the benefits I’ve spoken about tonight apply to you yet. The news of Jesus the King is not good news for you. For the resurrection also proves that judgment is coming. Jesus declared that the heavenly Father “has given all judgment to the Son” (Jn. 5:22), and since the Son is now risen and alive, His judgment is certain. God will put all things under His feet. Why wouldn’t you want to surrender to the King who will not crush you, but was crushed in your place? Let’s pray.