On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father
Read: Luke 24:1-12, 50-53
And so we come to the second half of the story of the cross, the glory of the resurrection and ascension to the Father. From the bleak sorrow of the crucifixion to the unparalleled joy of new life.
In this weeks notes we continue to follow the events at the end of Jesus life. We’ll spend some time thinking about the resurrection and its significance for us in various ways.
We’ll spend some time thinking about our own resurrection and the idea of Christ as the ‘first fruits’.
We’ll spend some time thinking about the ascension, Christ as interceding for us, and Christ’s call to continue the things he did in his bodily absence.
The following section engages with some well known challenges to Jesus’ resurrection. It might be helpful for members of the housegroup and also to help in conversation.
Of course the big question to ask of the resurrection is this: Did it really happen? The answer to this question will have huge ramifications on our life of faith.
The New Testament Epistles presuppose that Jesus resurrection is an historical event and “…depend entirely upon the assumption that Jesus is a living, reigning saviour who is now the exalted head of the church…” The Epistles suggest that this resurrected Jesus can be trusted, is to be worshipped and adored, and will at some time in the future return in power and glory to fully establish his kingdom reign.
Likewise, in the book of Acts the proclamation of the early church is one of Christ resurrected, Christ who can be prayed to, and Christ who reigns from the side of the Father.
However, Christianity’s detractors have consistently argued that the resurrection did not take place. That the reports of the resurrection are creations of confused and superstitious first century peasants who in their state of shock and grief concocted a story to enable their faith in Jesus of Nazareth to remain despite his obvious demise. Numerous thesis are advanced to this end, some of which are not worth dealing with in any great detail as they are absurd in the extreme, but some of which deserve to be engaged with if we’re to ‘defend the hope that we have’ – a hope rooted in the resurrected Christ.
So firstly let’s look at some of the accusations:
Idea 1 (daft): Jesus didn’t actually die on the cross. He fainted / was unconscious.
This idea has been advanced by many. In his book “I Believe’, Rev Prof Alister McGrath cites the example of H.E.G Paulus who in 1828 suggested that the burial of those who were not actually dead was common place in the first century. He suggests that Jesus was merely unconscious and that his body was then taken from the cross to the tomb where the smell of the spices and the coolness of the tomb revived him. He was then able to remove the large stone blocking the entrance to the tomb, escape past the soldiers and occasionally put in an appearance to his disciples.
Leaving aside the obvious objected to a severley injured, flogged, and crucified man being able to move a large and very heavy stone from the inside of a tomb, it seems unlikely that the Roman executioners, well practiced in their art, would have mistaken an unconscious person for a dead person – especially as an executioner who failed to do his job was liable to be put to death for neglect of duty.
Idea 2 (less daft): The Disciples stole the body and invented the story of Jesus resurrection.
This idea is more credible than idea 1. What if the disciples intentionally invented a story in which Jesus rose from the dead? What if they arranged for his body to be taken somewhere and then claimed to have seen him?
This idea has some traction – after all, the disciples had given up their lives to follow Jesus, they had invested so much in him, they had a great deal to lose if he was not who they thought. However, it seems unlikely that the Apostles would go to their deaths for something they new to be untrue. The objection would have greater influence if it could be demonstrated that the Apostles stood to gain great wealth or prestige through the propogation of the lies – however in reality they gained neither wealth nor prestige. Instead they gained persecution, marginalization, and eventually martyrdom. An un-appealing list of things to acquire for the sake of something one knows to be untrue. It seems beyond the scope of normal human conduct for someone to set up a lie through which they gain nothing and eventually have to die for.
It’s also worth pointing out that the Gospel accounts suggest that a guard was placed outside the tomb to ensure that this very situation could not arise. The Jews and for that matter the Roman authorities went to great lengths to ensure that the ‘Jesus uprising’ would not continue beyond his death.
A similar idea which suggest that Jesus enemies stole the body but this seems unlikely too. If they had surely the body would have been produced to deny the disciples claims of Jesus resurrection?
Idea 3 (not daft): We simply can’t trust the New Testament documents and so cannot trust that the resurrection account is true.
Of all the objections this is perhaps the most serious. If the New Testament documents are unreliable and cannot be trusted then we simply cannot say that the resurrection story is true, nor for that matter can we say with certainty that anything else in the NT is true. If the gospels are fiction then we have a problem.
Christians generally believe that the scriptures (inc the gospels) are inerrant (without error) and that they are in some way divinely inspired as the word of God. It is unlikely that a skeptic will accept such an assertion, however we don’t need to make this assertion in order to address the suggestion that the documents are unreliable.
All that needs to be demonstrated to counter the suggestion that the NT documents are unreliable is that they are infact reliable as documents for historical purposes.
If the gospels are treated in the same way as other ancient documents (well known examples are: Tacitus Annals of Imperial Rome, Ceasar’s Gallic Wars, Josephus’ Jewish Wars) a number of factors to determine reliability come into play: The age of the earliest copies, the number of copies available, the time lapse between events and their reporting to name but a few. Using any of these criteria one must conclude that the New Testament documents are more reliable than any other ancient text of which we have copies including the rarely disputed Illiad by Homer. There are many more early copies of the gospels than there are of any other ancient work. The earliest copies of the gospels known to us today are far earlier and closer to the events than are the copies of any other ancient work.
The claim that the gospels we have and read do not bear much similarity to the original documents is dealt with in the above paragraph, but to underline the point further it’s worth noting that only 1-3% of the gospels text is open to any serious charge of distortion at the hand of the copyists. Only in a tiny fraction of the gospel texts are we unsure as to what the original text said.
It seems that people are happy to treat the gospels differently to other ancient texts. Generally speaking ancient texts are assumed to be trustworthy unless proved otherwise. With the gospels however it seems detractors presume that they are un-trustworthy and disingenuous and put the onus on Christians to prove otherwise. This historical skepticism, if applied to the gospels, ought also be applied to other ancient works too.
It seems sensible and fair to proclaim that Christ was raised in a real and physical way and that his resurrection is not simply a ‘spiritual’ event designed to communicate a certain idea or truth about God. It seems fair to suggest that the gospel accounts are not out to deceive but accurately re-tell the historical goings on in the burial garden.
Reflect and discuss: Have you at times found yourself doubting the resurrection of Christ? Are some of the challenges raised above familiar to you – perhaps voiced in your own mind or by others? How have you responded? Do you have confidence in the gospels as historical documents? This is a good opportunity to talk about any questions you may have regarding the resurrection as a group.
Accepting that Christ was resurrected a further important question needs to be asked: In what way was Christ resurrected and what of his resurrection body?
“Christ’s resurrection was not simply a coming back from the dead” asserts systematic theologian Wayne Grudem. If it were then he would be no different to Lazarus who died, and who was raised back to life, but who in being raised back to life would still age and eventually die again.
Instead the resurrection of Jesus was a resurrection to a new type of life and a body which was no longer subject to ageing and decay and death. As the proto-type of our own resurrection bodies Jesus resurrection body had “put on immortality” (1Cor15:53) and is “imperishable…in glory…in power…” (1Cor15:42-44).
And so according to the New Testament writers Jesus resurrection body is:
Flesh and blood (Luke 24:39)
No longer subject to decay and death (1Cor15:42-44)
Reflect and discuss: Have you thought about the nature of Jesus resurrection body before? If so what conclusions did you come to? Why does it matter what Jesus resurrection body is like?
The next question to ask is what did the resurrection mean and signify for the earliest Christians and what does it mean and signify for us?
Christ’s resurrection insures our regeneration:
In 1Peter1:3 we read “…we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” Here Peter explicitly connects Jesus’ resurrection with our new birth as Christians. In his resurrection Jesus earned for us a new life just like his – not that we receive the fullness of the resurrection life when we place our trust in Christ, as our physical bodies remain subject to ageing and death – but that we are made alive with the resurrection power.
Paul says that the power at work in raising Christ from the dead is the same as the power at work within Christians (Eph1:19-20) It is this power that undergirds ministry in the work of the Kingdom.
Reflect and pray: How do you feel about having the very same power at work in you that raised Christ from the dead? Does that encourage you and give you confidence to do the work of ministry? Why not spend some time praying that the full outworking and realization of this power might be made known in each other’s hearts and minds?
Christ’s resurrection insures our justification:
Read Romans 4:25
In one passage in the NT (Romans4:25) Paul makes the connection between Christ’s resurrection and our justification. In the resurrection the Father makes known his satisfaction in the sacrifice of Christ, saying in effect that Christ’s work was completed, that there was no penalty left to pay for sin, and that no guilt remained. In the resurrection the Father says to the Son – it is done, the price is paid, death is no more and sin is dealt with.
In declaring his approval in Christ, the Father also declares his approval of us. All those united with Christ will be treated in the same way by the Father, and what the Father says to Christ he also says to those who are ‘in Christ’ – all the penalty for sin has been paid and I find you not guilty but righteous in my sight’.
Reflect and give thanks: All that is Christ’s is ours. Forgiveness, justification, and new life. All that Christ has we too have. Spend some time thanking and praising God for this life changing and wonderful truth.
Christ’s resurrection insures that we will receive resurrection bodies too:
Read 1Corinthians 15:12-58
In the pages of the New Testament we find numerous passages which connect Jesus’ resurrection with our final bodily resurrection (1Cor6:14, 1Cor15:12-58, 2Cor4:14)
In 1Cor 15:12-58 Paul deals with this topic extensively, calling Christ the ‘first fruits of those who have fallen asleep (died)’ This metaphor, taken from an agricultural context, implies that we will in our resurrection become just like Christ. The ‘first fruits’ denoted the first tasting of a ripening crop and gave a clear indication as to what the crop would eventually become and be like. In calling Christ the ‘first fruits’ Paul is suggesting that when we see Christ’s resurrection we get an direct picture or ‘taste’ of our own resurrection. In the same way that Christ experienced a bodily resurrection – so too will we. In the same way that Christ’s resurrected body was raised in ‘glory’ and ‘incorruptible’ so too will ours be.
Reflect and discuss: The resurrection of Christ and our own resurrection means that the work of the Kingdom that we do on earth has truly eternal significance. Do you think of your life and ministry as having an effect on the eternal life and reality? Does this add a sense of significance to your life and work? How might you respond to this?
It’s also worth reflecting on this in terms of our own hope for the future. As Christians we do not have a vague hope of some disconnected ethereal existence, but the concrete hope of a bodily resurrection to the life everlasting. Does this fill you with hope? Does this hope make eternal life a more understandable concept and perhaps less frightening?
The New Testament Documents. F.F Bruce. – An excellent short book which discusses a number of questions about the books of the New Testament as historical documents and argues for their essential validity.
I’d Like to Believe, but… Michael Green. – Another short book which is particularly helpful as a guide to engaging with barriers to belief in Christ.