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A poll conducted for the BBC recently suggested that nearly one in a four Christians do not believe in the story of the resurrection. Such a result makes of course for interesting headlines but perhaps begs more questions than it answers. A couple of letters published in The Times this week highlighted what the fundamental problem was with that poll – it did not have any coherent definition of what a Christian actually was!
Must a Christian Believe in the Resurrection?
One of those letters suggested that when Jesus taught about the greatest commandment he made no mention of belief in any future resurrection but made love the central, if not exclusive, factor for defining the Christian.
Well, no Christian would want to argue against our Lord’s teaching concerning the great importance of love – loving God and loving one’s neighbour – but it surely is important to note that Jesus gave this teaching as his answer to a very specific question: "What is the great (or greatest) commandment?" and the questioner was thinking about what had been revealed in the Law given to Moses.
The author of that letter in the Times clearly thought that it was in recognising this commandment and seeking to follow it that constituted a person a Christian. But why is just one part of Jesus’ teaching singled out in this way and then allowed to trump everything else that he taught? No, answer to that was supplied.
And yet we know that Jesus repeatedly declared ahead of the event that he was going to be rejected, that he would suffer, that he would be put to death and then on the third day be raised from the dead. When he did in fact rise from the dead he spoke to two of his followers with some challenging words:
The women who had gone to the tomb had already been confronted by a similar challenge by the angels who met them there:
Thomas was not commended for his refusal to believe and although the Lord graciously did reveal himself to Thomas he also had these words for him:
Jn.20:27 "Do not disbelieve, but believe."
When Thomas was convinced and answered Jesus with that impressive declaration of faith "My Lord and my God!" Jesus carried on with the following words:
"Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." (Jn.20:29)
We are entitled to ask by what right the author of the Times letter feels free to pick and choose the aspects of Jesus’ teaching and still call himself a Christian.
The author of another letter got it better when he wrote that a person who does not believe in the resurrection might be many things but he is not to be confused with a Christian! And this assessment agrees with the entire thrust of the NT. Here is how the apostle Paul explained it to the Christians in Rome:
The early Christians were an enthusiastic and passionate bunch and resurrection was not considered something of an optional extra or a minor doctrine. When Paul preached at Athens some of those listening to him responded:
Acts 17:18 "He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities"—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection."
Paul must have been putting a lot of emphasis upon resurrection if his hearers thought he was referring to another god!!
When he wrote to the Church in Corinth Paul summarised the gospel which he had preached to them, the gospel which had secured their salvation:
Before we move on to consider some of the reasons why we should rejoice and celebrate the resurrection let me just say that while strong faith will bring with it greater comfort weak faith is still faith for all its weakness. If you are sometimes troubled by doubts do not jump to the conclusion that faith is for that reason inexistent:
Mt.28:17 "And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted."
Reasons for Rejoicing
Let us not forget that the resurrection is not a problem for us!
We do not have to desperately try to find an explanation that will satisfy the sceptical. The resurrection is a fact that we are to declare. The Spirit delights to glorify Christ and takes up such truths and brings men and women boys and girls to a proper understanding and to a proper belief. After all the church of Jesus Christ is still here in the 21 st century with millions of members who are glad to serve a living Saviour and not to simply follow the teachings of a man who disappeared some 2,000 years ago!
The resurrection authenticated and established the claims and the teachings of our Saviour.
Do you remember when he was challenged by his adversaries to give them a sign so that they might be convinced of his identity and his authority for saying what he said and for doing what he did?
Jesus response to this unbelieving demand was to speak of a single sign that would be given; he called it the sign of Jonah and described it like this:
Mt.12:40 "For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth."
He was referring to what he would experience in dying and in being buried before being raised from the dead. And of course he spoke several times over to his disciples about his being raised to life again – they hadn’t grasped what he meant when he first spoke to them but after the event they remembered and then it was crystal clear to them.
But who could speak and teach such things and then see it all through? The apostle Paul tells us:
Rom.1:4 "(he) 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,"
The resurrection means quite simply that Jesus is alive! We have a Living Lord to serve, one who is able to accompany us, to help us, to hear us, to intercede for us and more, much more, because he is alive!
The risen Christ told the women who came and found his tomb empty that they had no need to fear; he told his followers that he had all power and authority in heaven and on earth and with that power he sent them out into the world to proclaim the good news. He also told them that they would not go on their own either – he would be with them until the end of the age and then he would receive them in glory where he has gone to prepare a place for them.
The resurrection completed and consummated the saving work of our Saviour. Had the resurrection not followed his death then that death would prove to have no effect. The NT knows of no salvation that exists outside of or independently of Jesus Christ. The Christian is united to Christ in baptism and what use would it be to be united forever to one who was dead? But the Christian is not left in this position for Christ is risen and so the Christian is alive to God in him! Alive to God and in a good relationship too!
Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness. The Christian similarly is saved through faith, through believing in God and specifically:
God not only raised Jesus to life but one of the consequences of this resurrection was us being declared to be "right with God".
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is a demonstration of the almighty power of God. Our regular experience is that men and women once dead stay dead. In the history of mankind only Enoch and Elijah avoided death. A handful of men and women have been restored to life only to die again but Jesus’ resurrection was different – he now lives forever with the power of an indestructible life.
What power must have been exercised in order to bring about such a resurrection! And the Bible tells us that the very same power is at work in the believer guaranteeing that the believer too will be raised to resurrection life.
In the meantime that great power is at work currently in the believer’s life: when confronted with temptations or trials you have no reason to collapse under the strain for such power is available to you to help you overcome and to stand firm!
The resurrection as an historic fact reverses the devastating effects of Adam’s sin. The Bible declares to us that all in Adam die for Adam brought death to all men. Christ died to free us from death’s claims and by his resurrection he brings life:
Does it matter? Does the Christian need to be concerned about this doctrine? Wouldn’t it be easier to drop it as it seems to be a stumbling block to so many who want to declare how much they otherwise appreciate Jesus and his teaching.
Yes, it does matter! According to the NT there is no Christian faith without faith in a resurrected Lord. If folk find it hard to take it is because the sinner always finds God’s ways hard to take and in his pride refuses to bow. The answer is not to water down the message or to preach another message but to plead with the Spirit of God to convince men and women boys and girls just as he has convinced them down through the centuries and just as he has convinced us.
Let us not act as though we find the resurrection an awkward doctrine for which we have to try to make our excuses but let us rather rejoice that our Saviour has conquered death and lives! Let us rejoice that in the power of this resurrection life he is able to carry out his purposes of building his church. The power of the man who was crucified and raised on the third day is more than sufficient to bring many sons to glory!
Praise his wonderful name.