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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