“if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” (1 Corinthians 15:14)
Christianity stands and falls on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is made very clear throughout the New Testament and the apostle Paul makes it obvious as he speaks to the Corinthian church: “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”
But why does it matter that Jesus rose from the dead? If the work of forgiveness was won at the cross, why does the physical resurrection of Jesus matter? Some believe that the resurrection didn’t happen at all, at least not physically:
“If the event of Easter Day is in any sense an historical event additional to the event of the cross, it is nothing else than the rise of faith in the risen Lord, since it was this faith which led to the apostolic preaching. The resurrection itself is not an event of past history.” — Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976)
So does it matter whether Jesus really, physically rose from the dead? Or is it just fine for Jesus to have risen only in the hearts and minds of the disciples?
Yes it does! It matters a very great deal! As Luke records his account of Jesus’ resurrection he is at great pains to tell us that Jesus rose physically.
While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” (Luke 24:36–39)
The disciples themselves need this reassurance. They knew that people don’t normally rise from the dead. They weren’t expecting Jesus to rise again. So when they see Jesus they thing he is a ghost.
So Jesus reassures them: Don’t be silly, it’s really me. Look here I am: touch me and see! Look at the nail marks on my hands and feet. I am flesh and blood not some ghostly spirit.
And when they still struggle to believe, he asks for something to eat. And Luke tells us “he ate it in their presence”. Normally, eating isn’t really a spectator sport! But here it is, because Jesus isn’t eating because he is hungry. He is eating to prove that his resurrection is real and physical.
That’s a fact, and it’s not just a fact from 2,000 years ago. It’s a fact that is vitally important for us today. Because it tells us that real, physical things matter to God. And that God is in the business of renewing real, physical things.
Our material world is currently imperfect. It is broken – but that will not last forever. Jesus’ physical resurrection means there is hope for this physical world.
Tim Keller, pastor in New York City, puts the hope that the real, physical resurrection of Jesus brings very well:
“Each year at Easter I get to preach on the resurrection. In my sermon I always say to my sceptical, secular friends that, even if they can’t believe in the resurrection, they should want it to be true. Most of them care deeply about justice for the poor, alleviating hunger and disease, and caring for the environment. Yet many of them believe that the material world was caused by accident and that the world and everything in it will eventually simply burn up in the death of the sun. They find it discouraging that so few people care about justice, without realising that their own worldview undermines any motivation to make the world a better place. Why sacrifice for the needs of others if in the end nothing we do will make any difference? If the resurrection of Jesus happened, however, that means there’s infinite hope and reason to pour ourselves out for the needs of the world.” — Tim Keller, The Reason for God
There is hope because Jesus’ resurrection points us to the day when the whole of God’s creation will be resurrected, redeemed and made new. And that includes ourselves and our bodies.
Jesus’ resurrection give us a taste of what God has in store for those who trust in him. That our bodies will be remade, restored. There is continuity – Jesus was recognisably himself, and so I’m sure we shall be too, our God given identity and personality. But there is discontinuity – Jesus’ body is made alive and made new. And so shall we be – the aspects of our person which are flawed and sinful, renewed and perfected.
The physical risen Jesus gives us hope for our bodies – if we are struggling with illness, it will not always be so. If we limited in some way (and we all are), those limits will one day be gone. And when we die, we can know that there is one who has been there before and has conquered death.
It sounds so blasé, or even arrogant, to talk about confidence in the face of death. But we can be confident, because we know the one who has died and risen again. Because he physically stood with his disciples we know that one day we too will stand physically with him in awe and wonder and splendour.