The Resurrection of Christ—And Christianity

The Resurrection of Christ—
And Christianity

S. Lewis Johnson, Jr.

Scripture Reading: Matthew 27:62 -28:15

Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., is a Bible teacher at Believers Chapel, Dallas. Texas.

Introduction

The bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ is peculiar to Christianity. The father of Judaism, Abraham the patriarch, died around 1900 B.C., but no claim of a resurrection for him has ever been made. In fact, the tomb of the patriarch has been carefully preserved for almost 4000 years, according to tradition, and is covered with a Mohammedan mosque, located in Hebron in southern Palestine.

The sources for the life of Buddha never claim a resurrection for him. Indeed, the earliest records of his death, namely, the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, say that when he died it was “with that utter passing away in which nothing whatever remains behind.”

Mohammed died on June 8, 632 A.D. at the age of sixty-one in Medina, and his sepulcher is visited annually by thousands of devout Mohammedans, but no claim is made of a bodily resurrection.

There is a well-known story about Talleyrand, a bishop turned skeptic at the time of the French Revolution, which illustrates the pivotal significance of the bodily resurrection. Following the revolution and the revolt against Christianity, which was a part of it, there was a movement afoot to invent a new religion that might take the place of Christianity. One of the Bishop’s friends was speaking of the difficulty of doing this in his presence. The friend commented that, even if its doctrines were doctrines of good works, it was still almost impossible to create the new faith. “Surely,” said Talleyrand with a smile, “surely, it cannot be so difficult as you imagine.” “What do you mean?” said the friend. “Why,” said the heretical former ecclestiac, “the matter is simple. All you have to do is to get yourself crucified, or put to death in some way, and then at the precise time of your prediction of it rise from the dead in bodily form. You will then have no difficulty in creating the new faith.”

Not only is the bodily resurrection peculiar to Christianity, it is also essential to it. There could not be an Easter faith without the Easter fact of the resurrection from the dead of the Founder of Christianity. In fact, Stalker is quite right in saying, “As Christ rose from the dead in a transfigured body, so did Christianity.”1 Further, while the resurrection of Christ is affirmed by the Christians and believed by the Christians, so far as the world is concerned it is an “alleged resurrection.” The resurrection of Christianity, however, is not simply alleged. It is an indisputable fact, and it is one of the incontestable proofs of the genuineness of the apostles’ confessions to the saints.

We stress, too, that the resurrection of Jesus Christ must be proclaimed as a bodily resurrection. It was not a spiritual resurrection, meaning simply that the influence of Jesus still lives on in the world, nor is it a simple testimony to the fact that life always conquers death. It must not be compared to Spring, as if that is the time that nature celebrates its resurrection with triumphant reaffirmation of imperishable life. “This view is shockingly mistaken,” Thielecke points out. “There is no resurrection in nature. We may just as truly say that everything is as grass which blooms and quickly fades. Every spring carries within it autumn, every birth death. It is simply a matter of mood or temperament whether we emphasize the one side or the other.”2

The bodily resurrection, then, is misunderstood by its friends. It is also attacked by its enemies. H. G. Wells once said that the resurrection was like a happy ending tacked on to an essentially tragic story. Eugene Carson Blake, while president of the National Council of Churches, in an Easter message for 1957, said, “With more or less imagination we hear the angel speak, ‘Why look ye for the living among the dead? He is risen. He is not here!’ So we half believe and half doubt the miracle.”

A. M. Ramsey, who later became the Archbishop of Canterbury, claimed that the resurrection accounts were “embellished” with unjustified additions. “Such as an editor’s embroidery of his source,” he -wrote of Matthew’s allusions to the earthquake, the descent of the angel, and the paralysis of the guard, “and if elaboration of the tradition took place in the written stage it is reasonable to think that it took place in the oral stage, too.”3 Let’s turn to the accounts themselves and see for ourselves what the apostle claimed and measure for ourselves the credibility of the record.

The Sealing of the Sepulcher

Pilate had visitors on the day following the crucifixion, members of the chief priests and Pharisees, who requested that he make the tomb of our Lord secure, so there would be no question of a resurrection such as He had promised. They say that, if that should happen, “the last error shall be worse than the first” (cf. Matt. 27:64). “The last error,” in their minds, was evidently the claim for a resurrection, while “the first” was probably the claims of divine Sonship and Messiahship.

Pilate replied, “Ye have a watch; go your way, make it as sure as ye can” (27:65), thus throwing the responsibility for the security of the body on the Jewish leaders themselves. And this responsibility they willingly assumed, for “they went, and made the sepulcher sure, sealing the stone, and setting a watch” (cf. 27:66).

God makes the wrath of men to praise Him, so one of the psalms says, and that is the case in this instance, for the elaborate precautions of the leaders only increase the testimony to the startling fact of the resurrection. Now the soldiers know the truth, too (cf. 28:4, 11).

The Resurrection Fact

The occasion (Matt. 28:1). The resurrection accounts in the Scriptures are remarkable for the indirect and discreet manner in which they describe the resurrection events. There is no propaganda, no sensationalism, and no glamorizing of the most remarkable event in human history. “What takes place around this tomb is all bathed in an indirect and puzzling light,” Thielecke says, adding, “We are not really told about the resurrection as such. No sensationalism, no curiosity tries to tear aside the veil of mystery. We see only the reactions and effects of this tremendous event on the disciples and the women.”4

The expression, “in the end of,” is probably to be rendered here by after.5 On Sunday morning then, the mother of James and John (cf. 27:56, 61) and Mary Magdalene came to the sepulcher. The women had seen His death and His burial, and now it shall be their privilege to see His resurrection.

It is not really strange that it is the women who come to the tomb first. The men, shattered and disappointed over what had happened, had skulked off to their dens like wounded beasts. The plaintive words of the Emmaus disciples were expressive of their feelings, “but we hoped that it had been He who should have redeemed Israel” (cf. Luke 24:21). Jesus had made the enormous claim that He was the One who stood between men and God, “The way,” and that through Him alone men could come to the Father. But now, — how different it all seemed. The Romans and the Jews had slain Him and thrown His body to the grim earth. If He had only brought teaching, or advice, concerning God, it would not have been so terrible. But this Man had made the astounding claim that He was the Word, the very voice of God, and the Son, one with the Father, and Israel’s longed-for King, who would fulfill the ancient promises made to the patriarchs. How could death and the grave be the end of such a divine life? But that is what it seemed had happened. With the men so deeply confused, it is not surprising at all that the women are first on the road to Calvary.

Of course, we are not to think that they made their way out to the sepulcher exulting in a risen Saviour. None of them really believed He had risen. The only thing that moves them is the mundane question, “Who shall roll away the stone for us from the door of the sepulcher?” (cf. Mark 16:3). Even when they find out that He has risen as He promised, they are so little prepared for it that they are amazed and flee from the sepulcher, their panic and their joy all mixed up together in physical flight. They had gone out to the tomb in the spirit of modern worshippers on Good Friday, but they finally attain to the joy of Easter’s risen Lord by the pathway of blended fright and delight.

I once asked my wife the question, “Why did the Lord have the women come to the tomb first?” She replied, “Was it because He knew they would broadcast it?” That, of course, is what they did, and we are thankful they did.

The earthquake and the angel (Matt. 28:2-7). According to the Matthean account, as the women approached the tomb there occurred a great earthquake, which, in effect, meant, “Listen, the Lord speaks.”6 The angel that had come with the earthquake had removed the stone over the entrance to the grave and, removing it from its groove, had turned it over on its side. He was sitting upon it. The little word, “for,” indicates that the coming of the angel was the cause of the earthquake, and we must presume that God wished to speak through Him. That is what followed. One of the old commentators said, “The earth, which-trembled with sorrow at His death, leaped for joy at His resurrection.” The removal of the stone, it is clear, did not take place in order that Christ may rise, but rather in order that the women and the men enter the tomb and see the evidence of His resurrection.

There are many witnesses to the resurrection, and we cannot expound them all in a single sermon. Furthermore, it must be said most plainly that, although the evidence for His resurrection is compelling and convincing to an enlightened mind, it is not to an unbelieving person. The effects of sin have left man’s mind in blindness, and he cannot respond to the light of God apart from the invincible grace of the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Cor. 2:14; 2 Cor. 4:3-4; Rom. 8:7-8; Eph. 4:17-19, etc.) Further, even in the case of the believing man it is ultimately the testimony of the Holy Spirit that gives certainty in divine things through the Word of God. As Calvin said, the evidences are a help to the unbeliever in that they often sweep away false hindrances to faith, and to the believer in that they confirm him in his already given faith.

In this context there is, first, the witness of the displaced stone. This ton-sized stone could not possibly haved been removed by anyone before an armed guard, even if they had fallen asleep.

The watch was utterly unnerved by what happened and, with hearts heaving in fear, they collapsed like so many sacks of meal. In fact, it appears that the earthquake so shook them that they ceased to be an organized body of men, because in verse eleven it is said that only “some” of the watch came into the city and told what had happened.

The message of the angel, “Fear not; for I know that ye seek Jesus, who was crucified. HE IS NOT HERE; for he is risen, as he said” (cf. vv. 5-6), confirms the witness of the displaced stone and becomes itself the witness of the empty tomb. This witness is extremely important, and it is interesting that the gospels contain neither the first or only account of it. In fact, even in the second century the controversy over the empty tomb was still alive. Justin Martyr, it appears, cites an official letter of the Sanhedrin, in which it is mentioned that the tomb was empty, although it was the contention of the council that the disciples were responsible for it.7

We may reject the witness of the empty tomb, but, if we do, the burden of proof rests upon us to explain the belief of the early church. It is plain and indisputable that they believed the tomb was empty because He had indeed been raised from the dead. In fact, the change that came over them after the resurrection is one of the most compelling of the evidences that He did rise from the dead and appeared to them.8

The stolen body theories founder over hard facts. The enemies of our Lord wanted above all for Him to remain in the grave, so they could not have removed His body. And as for His friends, they did not know He would rise and, when it happened, it completely surprised them (cf. John 2:22; 20:8-10; Mark 16:8). Further; it would mean that these holy men, who suffered the loss of everything material, worldly, and carnal, were only imposters. It is so hard to believe this that even Joseph Klausner cannot accept the consequences and rejects the thought that they were imposters.

Still others, such as Kirsopp Lake, have sought to show that the women, with tear-dimmed eyes, went to the wrong tomb. The Bible almost studiedly prepares for this conjecture, for it mentions that the women were eye-witnesses of the burial (cf. 27:61). Further, was the angel also confused? He said to them, “He is not here; for he is risen, as he said. Come, SEE THE PLACE WHERE THE LORD LAY”!

Finally, others have had recourse to swoon theories. He did not really die; He only swooned. Modifications of this theory surface in modern times from time to time, and Hugh Schonfield’s recent book is an example of this. Could a weak, emaciated man, who promised resurrection and did not rise, stagger out of a tomb and inspire His followers to preach Him and His cross as the only way of salvation for men, giving their all for Him and His message? It is on the face of it incredible.

The statement of the angel in verse six, “Come, see the place where the Lord lay, implies the witness of the grave clothes, a witness that John most fully expounds. Otherwise, the words would have little meaning. It would be impossible to see “the place” where He had lain (cf. John 20:5-8).9

The appearance of the Lord

(Matt. 28:8-10). Finally, we have the witness of the personal appearances of the Lord. What a wonderful patience He showed them in their doubts! That very patience and longsuffering, prominent in the case of Thomas but clearly shown to all the apostles, indicates that, although His bodily appearance was different, He was still the same Lord in His heart and spirit. They saw Him, they touched Him, and they heard Him. Upon at least ten occasions over a forty day period of time He appeared to them. Klausner suggests that they were simply hallucinations. Did five hundred brethren have them at once (cf. 1 Cor. 15:6)? Why did they stop in {six weeks? Why so far as we know, were the appearances undisputed twenty-five years later (15:5-8)?

The Bribing of the Soldiers

When the watch came into the city with their report to the chief priests, after counselling with the elders, the leaders gave “large money” to the soldiers as a bribe that they might keep quiet about what happened. Instead, the theory was circulated that the disciples of the Lord “came by night, and stole him away WHILE WE SLEPT” (cf. v. 13). The leaders promised the soldiers protection in case the report of their sleep came to the procurator. That failure of duty might mean death for them. There is an irony in this arrangement. It took only a small amount of money, thirty pieces of silver, to buy an apostle (cf. 26:15), but for pagan soldiers it took a large sum.

The theory of the leaders is patently impossible. By what kind of twisted reasoning could it be thought that soldiers could accurately tell what happened WHILE THEY SLEPT! Can you imagine what a defense lawyer would do to that theory in court!

The author of the gospel to the Jews, then, begins and ends His story by giving the lie to the Jewish fables, the one regarding the virgin birth of the Messiah, and the other of the resurrection of the Messiah. We can only conclude that the angel was right, “He is not here; for He is risen, as He said.”

Conclusion

First of all, we conclude by contending that the resurrection is a fact, and not a fancy. But, is it important? It is, and for the following reasons.

    1. First, it is the proof of the defeat of death and of the forgiveness of sins (cf. Rom. 4:25). He was raised on account of our justification, and with that resurrection testimony was borne to the fact that our faith is not groundless. We have the forgiveness of sins (cf. 1 Cor. 15:12-19). By the cross we know that atonement has been made, and by the resurrection we know that atonement has been accepted. Uniting our destiny with His, He did not merely survive death, He conquered it.

    2. Second, it is the principle and pattern of a joyous life with One who can still the storms, release the demons, bind up the wounds, open the graves, cancel guilt, comfort aching hearts, and convey peace. It is as the risen Savior that the Apostle Paul bids us to remember Him (cf. 2 Tim. 2:8). And in the eternal future it is in the power of His resurrection life that we shall live, learn, and grow throughout all eternity.

    3. Third, it is the pledge of judgment to come, being the assurance of God that He will one day judge the world in righteousness by Jesus Christ (cf. Acts 17:31). There shall be a second Easter of His coming again, but the consequences will be terrible for the lost.

And second, let us not leave the subject without emphasizing that, while the resurrection is true, it must become a personal fact for each one of us individually. When the Lord Jesus had unfolded the marvellous truth that He was the resurrection and the life, and had explained it further, He concluded with a word of personal application to Martha of Bethany, “Believest thou this?” (cf. 11:25-26). In the power of the Spirit’s enabling she beautifully responded, “Yea, Lord; I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, who should come into the world.” Oh, Lord, may that be the response of all who read these words.

1 Stalker, p. 142.

2 Thielecke, p. 85.

3 A. Michael Ramsey, The Resurrection of Christ (Philadelphia, 1946). pp. 61-62.

4 Thielecke, p. 80.

5 Arndt and Gingrich, p. 332.

6 Hendriksen, p. 988.

7 Stauffer, Jesus and His Story, pp. 144-45.

8 Cf. Stalker, pp. 142-43.

9 Merrill C. Tenney, The Reality of the Resurrection (New York, 1963), pp. 117-18.