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Why the empty tomb matters (Easter Sermon on 1 Corinthians 15:3-23)

Below is the sermon that I’ll be giving tomorrow (4/20/14) at Grace Community Church of Seal Beach, at 9:30 and 11 am in the Surfside Room. We’ll also have services at 8, 9:30, and 11 in the Fellowship Hall. 

When you picture your body 5 years from now, what do you think you’ll look like? Maybe a little grayer, a few more wrinkles. Or maybe you’re an optimist, and you think your body will have lost a few pounds by then. What about 25 years from now, what will your body look like then? I’ll be 58 years old in 25 years, so I imagine my body will have a little more of a belly, my hairline will probably have receded some, my shoulders may have drooped a little. What about you? How about 50 years from now? What will your body look like then? 75 years? 

I think we’ve reached the upper limits of how long any of us expect to live at this point by hitting 75 years, but let me push a little farther: what do you think your body will be like in 150 years? 300 years from now? 1000 years from now?

You might answer strictly from a biological standpoint and say, “Well, I imagine 300 years from now my flesh will have decomposed and my body will have ceased to exist. That’s what always happens when people die.”

But what if there’s another possibility. What if death is not the end for you? What if there was someone whose body did not decay? And what if he promises to resurrect us in the same way?

That possibility of resurrection will be our topic today. First, we’re going to look at, “Did Jesus’ resurrection really happened?” Is it true, did Jesus actually come back from the dead? Question 2: “What if it didn’t?” What if it’s not true? What if Jesus died and stayed dead? And finally, question 3, “Since it did happen, so what does that have to do with me?” What difference does it make in my life, today, and what difference does it make in my future, if Jesus really did come back from death?

Let’s start by looking at why we can have confidence that Jesus’ resurrection really did happen, that he was actually raised from the dead. I know that today is Easter, and many of us are so accustomed to the language of Jesus being resurrected that we don’t hear how amazing that sounds. Think about it: What we are talking about and singing about today is nothing less than God breaking the rules of death and plucking Jesus out of the grave. Resurrection violates one of the most widely held experiences people have: once dead, always dead. Is it possible for someone to die and come back to life? Not just after a few minutes, but after 3 days of being dead?

Some of you hear this and think, “To be honest, I don’t think it is possible. I come to church on Easter with my wife to make her happy, but there’s no way that I could believe someone could die and come back to life. Maybe people in the ancient world believed that sort of thing, but aren’t we more advanced than that now?” 

It’s tempting to think that our modern minds are the only ones that would object to this idea, but Paul was facing doubts about the resurrection in the 1st century. They saw Jesus’ physical resurrection as intellectually embarrassing, like some do today. But Christians can’t give up on the physical resurrection of Jesus, then or now.

In 1 Corinthians 15, we will see why Paul was so adamant about the fact that the resurrection mattered and that it really happened in history. According to him, it’s a core fact of Christianity, the basis of everything else that our faith is built on.  Look at how Paul carefully describes the resurrection was so central to Christianity in 1 Corinthians 15.

******On the Screen:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: 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, (1 Corinthians 15:3-4 ESV)

What Paul is saying is that the basic thesis of Christianity is that Jesus died for our sins, that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day. This happened in accordance with the promises of the Scriptures. God had been pointing forward to the resurrection of Jesus for thousands of years before Christ in the Old Testament.  And now that it happened, the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus make-up the basis building blocks of the gospel of Jesus.

By putting so much weight on this specific event in history, Christianity boils down to the question: Is it true? Was the tomb really empty? I mean, if Christianity is proven or disproven by the resurrection, how can I know if it happened?

Paul’s answer to the question, “Did it really happen?” is to assemble all the witnesses who saw Jesus alive. The people in Corinth, just like us today, didn’t see the resurrected Jesus. They had to take the word of someone else. This is the same with all issues of history. We have to take the word of someone that George Washington was really the 1st president of the US, for example, since we weren’t there. But we trust the historical sources that vouch for it. So the question becomes, who are the witnesses that say they saw Jesus resurrected, and can they be trusted?

Who are these witnesses? First off, they were the people who knew Jesus best, the people who spent years walking the roads with him. The first group of witnesses to the resurrection were those who followed him during his life. Look at 1 Corinthians 15:5

and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (1 Corinthians 15:5 ESV)

Cephas, which is the Aramaic way to say Peter’s name, and the twelve apostles were men changed by the resurrection. They immediately and permanently went from fear to courage. Before the resurrection they were scared to show up to the trial, but a week later were so bold that they withstood torture. Years later they would each suffer martyr’s deaths without breaking their conviction that Jesus was alive. What sort of event so completely and permanently changes men like that?

           But it’s not just the twelve apostles who saw him. It’s not just the already convinced. Look at verse 6

Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. (1 Corinthians 15:6 ESV)

At the time Paul wrote this letter (about 20 years after Easter Sunday), most of these 500 witnesses could still be consulted and asked if this was really true. Can you imagine lining up 500 witnesses for a trial to find out if something is true beyond a reasonable doubt?

But it’s not just people who were “pro-Jesus” who claim they saw Jesus alive. Paul points out two people who were opposed to Jesus. The first is Jesus’ brother, James. Earlier in the gospels James is seen as someone who mocked Jesus as crazy. Also, there’s Paul, who himself thought Jesus’ followers were toxic to the nation. But both of these men have sudden and lifelong u-turns, and their explanation is that they saw Jesus resurrected.  

Paul’s argument to the Corinthians is: if you don’t believe me, ask the literally hundreds of other people who saw him, too. He knows the Corinthians are biased against resurrection. He knows that they assume something like resurrection was impossible. But he encourages them to look at the real evidence, not just their bias.

In that spirit, we want to help you think through the questions you might have about whether believing that the resurrection really happened. If that’s a question you’re wresting with today, we’re really glad you’re here. As you leave this morning, we have a gift for you, a small book titled The Case for Easter. If you are still thinking through whether this is reasonable, please grab a copy of that book as our gift to you.

I realize, though, that agreeing intellectually that the historical evidence is impressive and compelling doesn’t remove all our doubts. Even if hundreds of witnesses say the resurrection happened, some people will still object to the idea of a physical resurrection as scientifically impossible. Couldn’t we just have Christianity without the resurrection?  Why is it so important for Jesus to be raised from the dead? Couldn’t I still take the teachings of Christianity to heart without believing in this?

This brings us to the second question the text addresses: What if the resurrection didn’t really happen? What if it’s a hoax, a lie, or a myth? Does it really matter one way or the other?

            Paul gives three reasons why the resurrection had to happen for Christianity to be true. The first one is the matter of sin and forgiveness. The resurrection proves we are forgiven of our sins. Look at verse 17:

And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. (1 Corinthians 15:17 ESV)

Our faith only counts because it is based on the truth of Jesus’ death and resurrection. If the resurrection didn’t really happen, then your sins are still on our shoulders and you and I are going to be judged for them. If Jesus didn’t really raise from the dead, there’s no forgiveness for us, and we’re eternally accountable for the wrong we’ve done. 

            Have you ever gone through the line at the store and asked, “Do I have enough in my account to pay for this”? Or maybe you’ve given your debit card to a cashier for a major purchase, and waited to see whether you had enough in your account to cover the new computer. A moment goes by while it’s processing. Then “Accepted” flashes across the pad, the receipt kicks up, and the cashier hands you the bag with your new purchase. Your payment was enough, it was accepted. That’s the resurrection. It was enough to pay our debt. Without the resurrection, though, we have no reason to believe that we did have enough to pay for our sins, that they would be forgiven. In fact, the very opposite is true without the resurrection – our sins would not be forgiven at all.

            The second reason it matters whether Jesus’ resurrection really happened is that if Jesus’ resurrection isn’t true, Christianity is lying about God. Paul has told the Corinthians that God raised Jesus from the dead. If they don’t believe that, why should they believe anything else Paul told them about God?

We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. (1 Corinthians 15:15 ESV)

If Jesus wasn’t really raised from the dead, Paul says, then I’m lying about God.

            Lastly, if the resurrection was a lie or a myth, then people should pity us because we are so delusional. That is, if we are putting our faith in the resurrection of Jesus foolishly, we shouldn’t be applauded but rather receive people’s sympathy. Sometimes a person will find out I’m a Christian pastor, and tell me, “I’m glad you have something that works for you and that religion makes you happy.”  What they mean is, “I don’t think Christianity is objectively true, but I’m glad it helps you sleep at night.” Their assumption in saying that is that Christianity can be a good thing whether it’s true or not. Paul doesn’t see it that way. Look at what he says in verse 19:

If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:19 ESV)

Why does Paul say we should be pitied if the resurrection isn’t true? Paul had given up a lot of comfort and access to become a Christian. He had endured physical, financial, and social costs, and did it with joy. He had hope. He didn’t think that this life was the end, that his body would just get eaten by worms. Why did he have such hope? Because Jesus’ body hadn’t been eaten by worms. If that’s just a “nice thought,” Paul is pitiable, because he’s delusional.

You might have this same moment of truth that Paul faced, between comfort on one side and truth on the other. When your son has signed up to be a missionary in Libya, and you don’t know whether he’ll come back safe or not, you’ll ask, “Is this really true?  Or am I just sending off my son into harm needlessly?” Or maybe it is when you turn down a date with a man you’d otherwise be interested in, because you know that he isn’t a Christian, and you pray, “God, am I holding this line for a reason, or am I just shooting myself in the foot?”

In those moments, we want to know how “true” the resurrection really is, because we can see the appeal of the comfort of compromise. In those moments, if we are only operating under a delusion of truth, rather than real truth, we should be pitied for missing out on comfort unnecessarily.

            So, if the resurrection didn’t really happen, if it’s all just a myth, we’re still stuck in our sin, we’ve lied about God, and we’re to be pitied. But what if it is true? What if Jesus really did come out of the tomb? What does Jesus’ resurrection tell us about our future? What does it matter for us if Jesus was raised from the dead?

Here’s the “so what” of why it matters for us that Jesus was resurrected: What Jesus’ body was like on Easter Sunday tells us about what our bodies will be like forever. Since Jesus wasn’t just locked away in the tomb forever to decay and disappear, we won’t be locked in a coffin forever to just decompose. If Christ has been raised from the dead, then we who are his followers can be raised from the dead, too.

            To be clear, Paul is not speaking of just our souls going to heaven. While this happen in the short-term, when Jesus returns, he will give us the sort of bodies he had at Easter.

How do we know that this will happen for us? How do we know that our bodies are not just going to be left in the coffins forever? Because Jesus is the start of the resurrection people.  The resurrected Jesus that we celebrate on Easter is the model of what all of his followers are going to be like. Look at verse 20:

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. (1 Corinthians 15:20 ESV)

Firstfruits are the first of the crop, and it tells the farmers what kind of year it’s going to be, what the rest of this year’s apples or grapes are going to be like. Jesus’ resurrection is the first crop of grapes, and we’re the ones that are coming. His resurrected body shows what ours will be like.

            But this is not automatic. We don’t deserve resurrection, and it doesn’t happen on its own. As descendants of Adam, we inherited death. As people of Christ, we receive resurrection from death by becoming followers of Jesus.

For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. (1 Corinthians 15:22 ESV)

How do you go from people in Adam to people in Christ? By deciding to follow Jesus Christ as your lord and savior. If you’ve never made the choice to follow Jesus, you are still under the curse of Adam, waiting to die. Choose to follow Christ, and be alive. 

We would love to help you take your next step in that journey of following Jesus. After the service today we will have people up front here who would love to talk with you, or you can make a note on your attendance card in the bulletin and we’ll get in contact with you this week, to help you figure out what’s next.

Like the Corinthians, we are prone to question whether a bodily resurrection could be possible. We assume that because it’s not normal it couldn’t happen. But Jesus’ resurrection proves it is possible, and Paul goes to great lengths that Jesus was resurrected and the tomb was empty. Are you willing to be reasonable enough to consider the evidence around Jesus’ resurrection? Look at the evidence. Ask God for wisdom, and open up the logical possibility in your mind that miraculous intervention by God could happen in this way. I’m convinced that based on the historical testimony of the witnesses, and specifically the way the gospel made the witnesses brave until death, we can have confidence in the truth of Christ’s resurrection. Because of this confidence, we are not hopeless and pitiable. Instead, we look forward to our own resurrection as followers of Jesus.

 

 

 
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Posted by on April 19, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

What did I just vow to do? (Or, ordination in a “free church” tradition)

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Last Sunday night was my ordination service at Grace Community Church of Seal Beach. In our tradition (Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches), it is the local church alone that is the ordaining agent, rather than a diocese, presbytery of classis. This made the night more personal, since it was our church family doing the ordaining. But personal has its challenges: since I could design the service however I wanted (within reason), the question became: What do I really want to vow to do? Below are the ordination vows I chose. They borrow heavily from the Presbyterian Book of Order and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, with an eye toward our free church practice.  

Vows for the candidate: 

Do you trust in Jesus Christ your Savior, acknowledge him Lord of all and Head of the Church, and through him believe in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit? If so, please answer I do.

Do you accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God’s Word? If so, please answer I do.

Do you sincerely receive and adopt the statement of faith and teaching positions of Grace Community Church as reliable expositions of Scripture, and will you be instructed and led by them as you lead the people of God? If so, please answer I do and I will.

Will you fulfill your ministry in obedience to Jesus Christ, under the authority of Scripture, proclaiming the Word of God in season and out of season? If so, please answer I will.

Will you shepherd the flock of God that is before you by equipping them for works of ministry, praying for them and seeking to serve them with energy, intelligence, imagination and love? If so, please answer I will.

Questions to the Congregation

Do we the members of Grace Community Church of Seal Beach ordain Bob Wriedt as our pastor, chosen by God through the voice of this congregation to guide us as disciples of Jesus Christ? Do we?

Do we agree to pray for him, to encourage him, to respect his decisions, and to follow as he guides us, serving Jesus Christ, who alone is head of the church? Do we?

Do we promise to pay him fairly and provide for his welfare as he works among us, to stand by him in trouble and share his joys? Will we listen to the Word as he preaches, welcome his pastoral care, and honor his authority as he seeks to honor and obey Jesus Christ our Lord? Do we?

 
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Posted by on March 26, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

Why have an ordination service for someone who has been a pastor for 8 years?

To answer this question, it helps to understand what we mean by “ordained” here at Grace, because it is different from other denominations.

I became licensed as a minister in the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches (of which Grace Seal Beach is a part) during my first year here. This process involved two written exams, two oral exams (one with area pastors, another with our local elder board), and a ceremony of licensure in the Sunday morning worship services. In that service, Pastor Don explained licensure this way: “It’s like a driver’s permit. It’s temporary, but let’s you get out on the road and drive.”

Some denominations require completing ordination before one becomes a pastor. Our fellowship does it a little differently, believing that the best way for both the pastor and the congregation to learn whether someone should be ordained is to have them engage in real life ministry. So, once one is licensed, he has at least a three-year trial process before being eligible for ordination. After that waiting period, he can take two more written exams, two more oral exams, and have a Sunday evening service with carrot cake (okay, I may have added the carrot cake part).

What’s the difference between the two? Licensure is temporary, the tests are easier (though not easy), it is for the purpose of discernment, and is therefore best done under supervision of an ordained minister. Ordination is the final step of the process, and therefore requires a higher level of theological precision in the exams, more self-awareness of strengths, gifts, and calling, and is fitting for those in senior/supervisory leadership roles.

While I could have remained licensed indefinitely, I made the choice to be ordained as a way to express my commitment to serving Jesus in the pastoral ministry for as long as He will have me to do so. The testing period affirmed my commitment to Him, and to serving His church.

Let me end with this: Being licensed here at Grace has provided me a terrific experience of “testing out” pastoral ministry. You have let me figure out who I am and what pastoral ministry is during these first eight years of my time in Seal Beach. I know I have stuck my foot in my mouth plenty of times during these past eight years. Thank you for your patience; it has been a means of God’s grace in my life.

I am especially grateful to Pastor Steve and Pastor Don for their direction, encouragement, trust in me, and prayer. I hope I can encourage others in ministry the way you have encouraged me.

 

 
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Posted by on February 25, 2014 in Uncategorized

 
Quote

“It is because in Christ there is neither circumcision nor uncircumcision that the distinction is abrogated not only between Jew and Gentile but also between male and female.”

F.F. Bruce,  The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, p. 104

The end of circumcision and gender issues for Christians

 
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Posted by on January 22, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

Neuroscience and the Soul

Last week I attended a lecture at Biola University’s Center for Christian Thought on the topic of “Neuroscience and the Soul.” The speaker, Dr. Kurt Thompson, a psychiatrist from Virginia, built off of this basic premise:

- According to Romans 1:20, creation declares the glory of God.

- Neuroscience is a part of creation.

- Therefore neuroscience declares the glory of God.

If this is true, Thompson wondered, why is neuroscience often used as a tool to ridicule God-belief? (Thompson was too gracious to say it, but noted “New Atheist” Sam Harris springs to mind as someone who leverages the language of neuroscience in order to diminish theism.)

I certainly am not a neuroscientist: the only things I know about the brain are from helping Becca study or listening to NPR. But Dr. Thompason did raise a fascinating question in my mind: neuroscience is held up as the definitive language of our culture. If you can cite a neuroscientific study, it is regarded as a more authoritative form of evidence than just about anything else out there. Therefore, how can Christians engage in the study and dissemination of the findings of neuroscience in a way that glorifies God and declares the gospel of Jesus Christ?

 
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Posted by on April 15, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

Four observations about Bible translations in the United States today

The Christian Booksellers Association announced the top ten selling Bible translations from 2012 in the United States recently:

2012 – Based on Dollar Sales

  1. New International Version
  2. King James Version
  3. New Living Translation
  4. New King James Version
  5. English Standard Version
  6. Holman Christian Standard Bible
  7. New American Standard Bible
  8. Common English Bible
  9. Reina Valera 1960
  10. The Message

2012 – Based on Unit Sales

  1. New Living Translation
  2. New International Version
  3. King James Version
  4. New King James Version
  5. English Standard Version
  6. Common English Bible
  7. Holman Christian Standard Bible
  8. New American Standard Bible
  9. Reina Valera 1960
  10. New International Readers Version

A few things stood out to be about these lists:  

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1. Readability – The top two translations (both in terms of dollar sales and unit sales) are the NIV and NLT, both translations that prioritize readability over literal translation. 

2. KJV/NKJV tradition – In pockets of American Christianity, the KJV is considered to be the only choice, with perhaps an allowance of the NKJV for the youth. This is based 

on a preference for the group of manuscripts (called the Byzantine or Received text) that the KJV is based on. I was surprised to see this tradition so near the top of the 2012 list. 

I wonder if the Gideon’s use of the KJV and NKJV had something to do with it. If you aren’t familiar with them, the Gideons are a parachurch organization that gives away  Bibles in hotels, near schools, doctor offices… really anywhere they can, for free. And since the KJV has no license fees, they can get more bang for their buck.  

3. Competing literalist translations - The HCSB, ESV, and NASB all are looking for the same market (those wanting a more literal translation of the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek), but seem to be splitting the pie. The HCSB is the official translation of the Southern Baptist Convention, the ESV is favored by the younger Reformed crowd, and the NASB is the translation of choice for an older group of evangelicals who like inductive Bible study. I use the ESV 99% of the time in teaching, and think that it’s star is rising, as influential groups like AWANA and Bible Study Fellowship switched to it this year. 

 

 

4. Reina Valera 1960 and Spanish translations – I certainly am no expert on Spanish translations of the Bible, but I wonder if the market is there for an updated and more readable translation of the Scriptures in Spanish. If anyone knows of one, I’d appreciate the heads-up, so I can help be a resource when asked about what Spanish translation to recommend. 

(HT: Thom Rainer)

 
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Posted by on March 19, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

St. Patrick’s Prayer

From the famous prayer of St. Patrick (aka the Lorica or Breastplate of St. Patrick)

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

 
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Posted by on March 17, 2013 in Uncategorized

 
 
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