[A number of years ago] my wife and I received a letter from dear friends. The letter was read aloud by my wife. As she read, the words were distinct but they tumbled off my ears like oil on water. I could not or did not want to absorb what it said. It told of my best friend, a retired chaplain, diagnosed with a malignant, inoperable brain tumor. He would be gone within months. And life changed. No longer was it measured in decades and years, but in months, weeks, and days.
I wrote to my friend. I spoke of times shared together in worship, camping with our families, of laughter and dreams we shared, of things we’d planned to do. I reminded him of all he had done for others. I encouraged him to lean on me when he needed to, and let me be strong for him, and we’d both lean on the Lord.
Finally, I encouraged him in the faith and told him that on Easter Sunday I was going to speak on the Resurrection from 1 Corinthians 15, about the hope in Christ in which we both so fervently believed.
The Resurrection is why we are here today. It gives us the hope, courage, and strength to face life’s problems and tribulations, because through it we are more than conquerors and heirs of eternal life with our Risen Lord. Listen to Paul as he simply and succinctly explains Easter: “I delivered to you of first importance, that Christ died for our sins, that he was buried, that he was raised, and that he appeared on the third day to Peter…to the twelve…to more than 500…to James…to all the Apostles…to me also…”
The bottom line of Easter is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and this Resurrection has four critical and related benchmarks. If we understand these, we begin to understand the Resurrection. Paul says these are of “first” or critical importance.
I. Christ Died for Our Sins
What an obstacle that was for the disciples. Christ was gone. Nailed to the cross with Him was all that He taught them, all they hoped for, that messianic kingdom, gone in the dust and blood of Golgatha. The earth quaked, the veil of the temple was split in two…and the world stood still, covered in darkness. The cross was an obstacle not to be overcome.
Some of the world’s greatest men and women have faced obstacles, but have overcome them. Abraham Lincoln surmounted poverty and humble circumstances, and saved the Union. Golda Meier, daughter of an American immigrant, rose to the position of Prime Minister of Israel. Lech Walesa, a blue-collar worker in communist Poland, changed the course of Eastern Europe.
But the obstacle of the cross — how could you overcome the finality of death, physical death, and the death of the dreams of the followers of the Nazarene? It was the end, so they thought… A stumbling block? A scandal? Paul knew better. So he put it in context: Christ died for our sins.
II. He Was Buried
Christ was placed in the tomb. It had a finality about it that was devastating. What could be worse than this? The disciples’ hopes were sealed in the cold tomb of their Lord. Could there ever be light in their hearts again? Only God could transform the circumstances.
Elisabeth Elliot Gren tells of Judy Squier, a friend of hers who was born without legs. She is a cheerful radiant woman who loves her Lord Jesus. Elisabeth asked Judy to write a letter to the family of Brandon Scott who also was born without legs. In her letter, this woman without legs relates that this would be at least a hundred times harder for them (the parents of the child) than it would be for Brandon, for “a birth defect by God’s grace does not rob childhood of its wonder, nor is a child burdened by high expectations.”
Toward the end of her letter she tells them they have been “chosen in a special way to display his unique masterwork. I pray that your roots will grow deep down into the faithfulness of God’s loving plan, that you will be awed as you witness the fruits of the spirit manifested in your family. ‘What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the creator calls a butterfly.'”1
Change. Transformation. And so the third benchmark …
III. He Was Raised on the Third Day
The Resurrection has little to do with spring, except that we celebrate Easter then. Oh, there is some symbolism involved in those Easter eggs, in the idea of new life emerging, in the budding of trees and the appearance of flowers, and in the earth’s recovering from the death-grip of winter. But the Resurrection is so much more.
Nor is the concept of Easter a theological idea which has evolved over the years as a fitting concept for humankind in the face of death and its devastation to the human spirit — sort of that “crutch” of which the agnostic philosopher, Bertrand Russell, spoke.
No, the Resurrection is the power of God which raised Jesus Christ from death to life. Ephesians speaks of that power “which He exerted in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly realms…” (Ephes. 1:20, NIV). That is the Resurrection! It transcends season, and it even bypasses revered but crusty religious rites and rituals, because it is centered in the dust and trauma, the blood, sweat, tears, hopes, and dreams of all human existence. Therefore it cannot be encapsulated, much less codified and classified as yet another phenomenon or distinctive of one of the world’s religions.
The Resurrection occurred subsequent to the riveting events of the crucifixion and burial of Christ. The fate of the soul of all humanity hung in the balance. Without the cross, there would not be a resurrection. Life after death depended on God’s grace in giving the sinless Son of God as an atonement for sin — yours, mine, the world’s. Our sinfulness was cancelled by His sinlessness; our guilt was absolved by His innocence, our penalty was paid by His sacrifice. And our newness of life was guaranteed by His triumph over the grave and death itself.
Hear the almost lyrical words of Paul in verses 42-44: “The body that is sown is perishable; it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.”
Because He lives, we shall live also, and hope is born in the human heart. He was raised on the third day. And this Resurrection gives us hope for the future which transforms the present. There are illness, loss, death, a cross, a burial…and Resurrection. And that makes all the difference in human existence, both in this temporal world, and in the eternal life to come. He was raised on the third day, bringing salvation and hope.
IV. He Appeared
Jesus’ appearance to a plethora of people marks the last benchmark of the Resurrection. These witnesses included real live persons, from Peter to the twelve disciples, James, the apostles, 500 unnamed believers, and Paul himself. It didn’t happen in a vacuum. Frightened human beings were confronted with history’s most astounding event to date — the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. George A. Buttrick describes it like this:
“After the crucifixion and burial of their master they were terrified and disconsolate men, hiding fearfully behind barred doors in an upper room in some back street of Jerusalem. They trembled at every knock on the door; they feared the same fate that had befallen Him. But after they had been convinced — and they were not easily assured, as the various Resurrection narratives make quite clear — they were men transformed. Fear was transformed into courage, uncertainty into strong and radiant faith. Soon they were out in the open streets of the city that had dealt so brutally with their master, proclaiming with passion and joy the great salvation that had been wrought through this mighty vindication of His son by the almighty God.”2
We who are transformed also through His presence in our lives by the holy spirit, keep alive the flame and are His witnesses in our generation.
The bottom line of Easter is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The benchmarks of prime importance are His Death on the Cross, Burial, Resurrection on the Third Day and the Witnesses of the Resurrected Christ.
I close, as I began, with a story of a chaplain. He tragically lost an adult son, an Army officer. While visiting with his wife at the grave of their son, they saw a woman kneeling before two gravestones, praying aloud, almost like a conversation. Every time they had visited the cemetery this same woman had been there.
The chaplain approached her, introduced his wife and himself, and said, “I don’t want to intrude, but I have noticed that you have been here every time we have visited.” She said, “Oh, I know who you are. I read about your loss in the newspaper. I come here all the time.”
“You see, my husband and son are buried here. I spend time with the Lord, and, in a sense, with them, too. I don’t want ever to forget them or them to forget me. I know they are with the Lord. I read there in the Bible, in first Corinthians, that ‘as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ the first fruits, then when He comes, those who belong to Him.’ Doesn’t it say that? And I believe that to be true. When I see them, my Lord, my husband, and my son, we sure won’t be strangers.”
As they walked away, the wife said to her husband, “I’m sorry, honey, but that’s the best sermon I ever heard.” The chaplain suggested that perhaps the opposite of joy is not sorrow, but unbelief. This woman’s belief in the Resurrection was real and joyful. How she believed! The bottom line of Easter is the Resurrection, and the bottom line for our response is belief. In the end, our hope is centered on this living, resurrected Lord.
“Christ…died for our sins…was buried…raised on the third day…appeared to the disciples, and others … and also to me …” May He appear by faith to each of us as well, this Easter morn. Amen.
1. Elisabeth Elliot Gren, A Path Through Suffering, (Vine Books Publishing, 1990), p. 132.
2. George A. Buttrick, The Interpreter’s Bible, (New York, Abingdon Press, 1953), Vol. X, p. 218.