As He Said

A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on April 4, 2021.

Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.” So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. And behold, Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.” While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day (Matthew 28:1–15).[1]

The church at Corinth was a wreck, filled with in-fighting, factions, even lawsuits             between members. Petty disagreements over masks, mandates, and medicine, pale in comparison to the problems in Corinth. They were ensnared in private and unrepentant sexual immorality. They considered divorce a viable option to fight the infiltration of worldliness and yet were blind to their own idolatry. Inward focused, they lacked concern for others, especially their neighbor. They considered the Lord’s Supper an opportunity for communal gluttony and inebriation, their experiential pleasure trumping proper worship. They considered spiritual gifts something to be manipulated rather than gifts to serve the body. They lacked unity as a church, and ultimately the greatest gift of love.

The bulk of Paul’s first epistle, chapter after chapter, deals with the problems of a dysfunctional church. And then, once he seemingly addressed every issue, he does something that may seem elementary: He preaches the gospel. Actually, to be precise, he reminds them of it. They have heard it before, but, like every church, they need it again.

As a matter of “first importance,” Paul reminds them that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” Of Jesus’s atoning death, Paul briefly summarizes that he “died for our sins.” Of the reality of his death, he confirms that “he was buried.” When he gets to the resurrection, he confirms that “he was raised on the third day,” and all of this according to the Scriptures (1 Cor. 15:1, 3-4). But he doesn’t stop there. Apparently in Corinth there were some who believed that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and the subsequent resurrection of all who savingly trust in him, was one step too far. Life, death, and burial is acceptable, but resurrection from the dead in a glorified, eternal body is simply unbelievable.

So, Paul continues, explaining that the resurrected Jesus appeared to Peter and the other disciples as well as more than five hundred believers at one time, most of whom were still alive at the time of Paul’s writing (1 Cor. 15:5-6). He also appeared to the Apostle James, and then later to Paul himself. For Paul, the resurrection was not a matter of conjecture but historical fact, confirmed by Word-fulfilled, eye-witness, empty-tomb, life-giving testimony.

Word-fulfilled Testimony

As defined, a testimony is “evidence or proof provided by the existence or appearance of something.”[2] Uniquely, testimony is a key characteristic of Christianity. We believe that Jesus was born of a virgin in Bethlehem, grew up in Nazareth. As an adult, Jesus commenced his ministry by confirmation of his baptism, teaching and working miracles throughout the country, based on the eye-witness testimonies recorded in four distinct books, or Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And, based on these testimonies, we believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus.

But, as he is resurrected from the dead and alive at this very moment, Jesus also testifies of himself.  For example, John begins his Gospel by defining Jesus as the pre-existent “Word” who “was God” and was “with God,” and who “became flesh,” and “lived and died and resurrected from the dead.” John says, “we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1-2, 14).

As the incarnate Word, Jesus was candid about many things, especially with his disciples. Some things they heard and understood. Some things required further explanation. And some things they heard and did not understand. For example, Matthew records that “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matt. 16:21). Apparently, what Jesus began to show and tell was unfathomable, as it can be for some today.

But it is Jesus’s resurrection from the dead that makes the unfathomable believable, as it fulfills precisely what he said as the Word of God. For example, the women at the tomb received the angelic explanation of Jesus’s resurrection with this reminder: “’Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.’ And they remembered his words . . .” (Luke 24:6-9). Similarly, John records that when he and Peter arrived at the empty tomb and saw the burial cloths folded and set aside, “he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead” (John 20:8-9). What John believed was not based on pre-resurrection logic or deduction, but rather observable, factual data, even down to the folded cloths. Likewise, Jesus himself confronts his disciples on their way to Emmaus, saying, “‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:25-27). As Jesus said it would be, it was, not a matter of speculation but according to Word-fulfilled testimony, and of course an empty tomb.

Empty-tomb Testimony

On Sunday morning of the first Lord’s Day, Mary Magdalene and one of the other Marys went to the tomb where Jesus was buried. According to Luke, their intent was noble; they planned to anoint the body according to custom. But there is no body, only an angel perched, curiously enough, upon the stone that once sealed the tomb. Matthew says that his appearance “was like lightning, and his clothes white as snow,” and his descent from heaven caused an earthquake. So brilliant was his presence that the men guarding the tomb first tremble and then faint. Apparently, guarding the tomb against former fisherman was one thing, fending off an angel from heaven was another.

But he was sent not to startle but testify. Having unsealed the tomb, sat himself upon the stone, he then tells Mary and Mary this: “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.” Consider the magnitude of this message! An angel from heaven calms their fear, confirms the resurrection, and then sends them to tell the disciples, and to go and see Jesus for themselves. The instructions are clear, the tomb is empty, and they are off in pursuit of the one who was crucified and risen.

Eye-witness Testimony

In Matthew’s account, Mary and Mary encounter our resurrected Lord shortly after leaving the empty tomb, responding, as worshipers should, by taking hold of his feet and clinging to him for dear life. They have not only heard the angel’s declaration and seen the empty tomb, but they have seen and worshiped Jesus himself. Later that day, Jesus appears to two of his disciples on their way to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35), and that evening he appears to the other disciples (John 20:19-20). Eight days later he even appears to Thomas, the skeptic (John 20:26-29). In the book of Acts, Luke records that Jesus appeared to his disciples “during forty days” (Acts 1:3), and Paul tells of Jesus’s appearance to “more than five hundred brothers at one time” (1 Cor. 15:6). Over and over again, the resurrected Jesus was witnessed by hundreds, physically touched by some, and interacted with even more, not as a ghost or a memory but a man, alive.

Yet, the truth does not guarantee support, but in fact often garners opposition. To be clear, the resurrection was not a cockamamie conspiracy to be believed by the credulous. It was a historical event, confirmed in time and space. But this did not thwart first-century social media and the dissemination of fake news, to be believed and repeated by the gullible. A bribe seemingly sealed the lie, protecting the interests of the religious establishment for at least a generation. 

But the truth got out anyway. Starting from Jerusalem, the Good News of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection began to advance from person to person, from tribe to tribe, from tongue to tongue, from nation to nation.  And the gospel that advanced was based on the historical testimony of Jesus’s resurrection, according to the testimony of the Word-fulfilled, empty-tomb, eye-witness testimony. But there was something more. Jesus’s resurrection was more than just coming back to life. It was physical and spiritual victory over sin and death, which is precisely why Paul reminds a struggling dysfunctional church in Corinth of the importance of the reality of the resurrection. The resurrection guarantees the eternal life of all who savingly believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, rendering the life of every believer a life-giving testimony.

Life-giving Testimony

Consider the testimony of the resurrection in the Christian life in three simple words: forgiveness, power, and victory. First, our forgiveness of sin through faith in Christ testifies to his resurrection. We often think of our forgiveness in the context of propitiation, and rightly so. For Example, Jesus points us to his atoning death in the sacrament, taking the cup and saying, “for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28). But how do we know that God accepted his sacrifice? As Paul puts it bluntly, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17). We know that we have forgiveness of our sins because “in fact Christ has been raised from the dead” (1 Cor. 15:20).

Second, the power of God at work in us through faith in Christ testifies to his resurrection. Consider the overwhelming, daily evidence of fallen human nature. Is it possible to make sinners saints, to make the dead alive, to transform the fallen into Christlikeness? Yes, but only if Jesus resurrected from the dead. As Paul explained to the Ephesians, the “great might” that God worked in raising Jesus from the dead is the very same “immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe” (Eph. 1:18-20). Sadly, some Christians are more apt to believe in the historicity of the resurrection than their own personal, ongoing sanctification but in fact both are true. Being a Christian is not moral reformation but supernatural transformation, a decisive act of God just like the resurrection.

Third, our victory over death through faith in Christ testifies to his resurrection. Again to the Corinthians, Paul explained, “if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised,” and then “those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.” He concludes, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:16, 18-19). Indeed, but what? “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20). Rightly do we believe that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16), but the eternal life that we have is only validated by the resurrected and eternal life of Jesus Christ. So, we too can ask, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”

Christian, just like the Word-fulfilled, eye-witness, empty-tomb testimony, you are a living, breathing testimony to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Rightly can we say with the poet:

            Death, and darkness get you packing,

            Nothing now to man is lacking,

            All your triumphs now are ended,

            And what Adam marr’d, is mended;[3]

That which has been “mended” in Christ’s resurrection brings us into, according to Paul, a “newness of life” (Rom. 6:4), a life in which the old self is crucified, and we are made alive to God in Christ Jesus (Rom. 6:14). “In him was life, and the life was the light of men” (John 1:4). As Jesus said he was and would be, so are we.

Therefore, on this Easter morning, indeed every morning, we may sing: 

            We acclaim your life, O Jesus,

            now we sing your victory;

            sin or hell may seek to seize us,

            but your conquest keeps us free.

            Stand in triumph, stand in triumph,

            worship Christ, the risen King![4]

[1] Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).

[2] “Testimony,” in New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed., ed. Angus Stevenson, Christine A. Lindberg (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010), 1794.

[3] Henry Vaughan, “Easter Hymn,” in The Soul in Paraphrase: A Treasury of Classic Devotional, ed. Leland Ryken (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 145.

[4] Jack W. Hayford, “Worship Christ, the Risen King,” in Trinity Hymnal (Suwanee, GA: Great Commission Publications, inc., 1990), 235.

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