Time has passed, but succeeding generations must still make an evaluation of the Jewish Rabbi who once went forth ministering throughout Palestine. Familiar questions still demand an answer.
“Do you believe that Jesus was a Prophet of God?”
“Do you believe that He was the Son of God?”
“Do you believe He had power to raise the dead?”
“Do you believe that one day He Himself rose again from the dead?”
According to Christian theology a person’s eternal destiny hinges on the answer to these questions. Central to the Christian faith is the idea of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul put it this way. “And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain. 15 Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not. 16 For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised: 17 And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:14-17).
Because of the importance of the resurrection of Jesus, attention must be given to this subject. In the New Testament, there are several converging lines of evidence proclaiming the resurrection. Each line of evidence deserves careful consideration. The first line of evidence for the resurrection is the life of Jesus Christ Himself.
The four Gospels give the story of the resurrection as the completion of the picture of Jesus Christ. Resurrection would be a proper ending to the narrative of a perfect life lived on earth. There is no question but that Christ anticipated His own resurrection. At first Jesus used only vague terms, such as, “Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (Mark 14:58). But later, as His ministry climaxed, Jesus spoke plainly about the matter, and when He mentioned His death, Christ added, “The Son of man …. must be raised the third day” (Luke 9:22). These references are too numerous to be overlooked. The veracity of Christ is at stake if He did not rise from the dead. Either Jesus lied about His resurrection, and thus forfeited being a good and righteous Man, or, He told the truth.
A second line of evidence for the resurrection of Christ is the fact of the empty grave, and the disappearance of the body. That Jesus died and was buried, and that on the third morning the tomb was empty, cannot seriously be challenged. The theory that Christ merely swooned on the Cross and recovered in the coolness of the tomb is impossible. The Roman soldiers who crucified Christ had stared death in the face too often. They would never have allowed the body of Jesus to be taken from the Cross unless Christ was dead. Moreover, at Christ’s burial a stone was rolled before the tomb. The gravesite was sealed, and a guard was placed before it. Yet on the third morning the guards were gone, the body had disappeared, and the tomb was empty.
There are only two alternatives. His body must have been taken out of the grave by human hands, or else by superhuman power. If the hands that took the body of Jesus from the tomb were human, they must have been those of His friends, or those of His enemies. If the friends of Jesus had wished to take the body of Christ out of the tomb, the question immediately arises whether they could have done so in the face of the massive stone, the official seal, and the Roman guards.
If the opponents of Jesus had wished to remove His body from the tomb, the question arises whether they would seriously have even considered doing that. For what purpose? It is a thought that borders on the absurd. Why should the enemies of Jesus do the very thing that would be most likely to spread the report of His resurrection and establish His credibility? No, the enemies of Christ did not remove His body.
The third line of evidence to be considered for the resurrection of Jesus is the transformation of the disciples. After initially fleeing into the night following the Lord’s arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, some of the disciples returned to the area to witness the death of Jesus. By witnessing the actual crucifixion of Christ, any flicking vestige of hope was extinguished. Yet hope returned three days later.
On the day of the crucifixion the disciples were filled with sadness. But, on the first day of the week these same disciples were suddenly filled with gladness. At the site of the crucifixion the disciples were hopeless. However, on the first day of the week their hearts glowed with certainty. Jesus was alive! When early reports of the resurrection initially came, the disciples were incredulous. They were reluctant to believe that Jesus was alive. But, once the disciples became individually assured the resurrection was true, they never doubted again.
The question comes. “What could account for the astonishing change in the disciples of Jesus in so short a time?” There is nothing more striking in the history of early Christianity than the marvelous change in the disciples by their belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
From this fact of the transformation of the personal lives of the disciples in a short space of time, we proceed to the fourth line of evidence for the resurrection of Christ which is the existence of the early church.
There is no doubt that the early church believed in the resurrection of Jesus. It is a fact of history that the church of Christ came into existence as the result of a belief in the bodily resurrection of Christ.
When we consider the beginning of the church, as recorded in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, we see two simple facts. First, individuals were attracted to Christianity by apostolic preaching. Second, the message that was proclaimed was the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
These facts become even more remarkable when it is remembered that Jesus Christ had been put to death on a cross. Devout Jews would have viewed Him as accursed of God (Deut. 21:23). Yet multitudes of Jews were led to worship Jesus, and a great company of priests were compelled to obey Him (Acts 2:41; 6:7).
The only explanation for these events is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead (Acts 2:36). Nothing short of a verifiable bodily resurrection could have led devout Jews to accept Jesus Christ as their Messiah.
The apostolic church was a result of a belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and that belief was based upon a historical fact, not a teary eyed myth. “As the church is too holy for a foundation of rottenness, so she is too real for a foundation of mist” (Archbishop Alexander, The Great Question).
There is another line of evidence for the resurrection of Christ, and that is the witness of Saul of Tarsus who became the apostle Paul. As a member of the Sanhedrin, as a Pharisee of the Pharisees, Saul was hostile to Christ—until he met the Majestic Master personally, and his heart was changed (Acts 9). He who persecuted the faith began to preach, and then to publish the gospel abroad through the power of his pen for all men to read. “Many people have seen the resurrected Christ,” said Paul. “And I have seen him too.”
A final line of evidence for the resurrection of Christ, and that is the record of the Gospels.
By some defenders of the Christian faith, appealing to the Gospel records should be the first line of defense, but it is proper that an appeal to the Gospel records be placed last, and for this reason.
The Christian church believed in the resurrection for many years before the Gospels were written.
According to the Gospel narratives there are two sets of appearances of the resurrected Christ. Jesus appeared to His followers in Jerusalem. He also appeared to some of His disciples in Galilee.
While time does not permit an examination of each resurrection appearance in detail, attention can be called to two.
The first is the story of the walk to Emmaus, as set forth in Luke 24:13-33. The second is the visit of Peter and John to the tomb, John 20:1-10. It is impossible to read these narratives and not be convinced of the literal truthfulness of the resurrection. Either the resurrection is true, or Luke, in particular, was “a greater poet, a more creative genius, than Shakespeare.” (Bishop Moule, Meditations for the Church’s Year, 108). In the narratives provided by Luke and by John, there is the uniform testimony to the two facts: the empty grave, and the live appearance of Christ to His disciples on the third day.
When we examine carefully all the converging lines of evidence, when we endeavor to give weight to all the known facts of history, it seems impossible to escape the truth that a physical miracle of a resurrection took place more than 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem. It was the miracle of the bodily resurrection of Jesus which caused the apostles to believe in Him afresh, and to die for Him.
Tragically, multitudes today refuse to accept the miraculous. Even Christians within the professing Church are told that they are not required to believe in the bodily resurrection of Christ, or even their own future resurrection. One reason for such blatant unbelief is failure to comprehend that God can make all things new. But He can, and He does.Here then, is the conclusion of the matter. The bodily resurrection of Christ is not difficult to believe when a person is willing to let God be God—the sovereign Worker of miracles.