By Thomas Lambrecht —
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time …” (I Corinthians 15:3-6).
These verses contain one of the earliest doctrinal statements of the Christian faith. This passage was formulated and passed on from person to person in the same form as an expression of the Church’s faith.
This week, we are in the midst of remembering and celebrating the events captured in this statement. We observe not only the events themselves, but appropriate their significance for our lives today, 2,000 years later.
The Christian faith is based on historic events that really occurred. There is secular testimony to the reality of these events just a few short decades after they occurred – a more solid corroboration of history than many other ancient events.
Jesus really did live in Roman Palestine. He died a cruel death on a cross and was buried in a tomb. He rose again from the dead in his body.
The truthfulness of the Gospel rests on these events. As Paul goes on to say, “If it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (I Corinthians 15:12-14).
The historicity of these events is established in Paul’s mind by the fact that they are attested “according to the Scriptures.” One is reminded of that great passage of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah: “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:4-6 – read the whole chapter to get the full impact).
Jesus’ suffering and death were predicted in Scripture, as was his bodily resurrection. “Though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days” (Isaiah 53:10). “You will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay” (Psalm 16:10). The Scriptures confirm that these events took place under the hand of God, orchestrated by him for a purpose.
These events’ historicity was also confirmed by the eyewitnesses who saw and testified to what they saw. The eyewitnesses at the cross and the empty tomb. The 500 witnesses to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection. As the Apostle John put it, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it” (I John 1:1-2).
But the events by themselves are not that significant. What matters is why they took place.
We often lament the seemingly meaningless deaths we witness. But Jesus’ death had a purpose. He died “for our sins.” “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
Our sin irrevocably alienated us from God. We are powerless to reconnect with the Source of life. But Jesus. Jesus came and took our sin upon himself on the cross, putting our sin to death along with his own body.
In accepting the benefits of Christ’s death for ourselves on a personal level, the irrevocable alienation we feel from God is healed. We are reconnected to the Heart of love and the Source of life, not because we earned or deserved it, not because of anything we have done. But because of what Jesus did, our sin is forgiven and our relationship with God is rekindled.
Jesus’ burial had a purpose – to prove the reality of his death and set the stage for his resurrection. It was also “according to the Scriptures.” “He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth” (Isaiah 53:9). He stayed in that tomb until the third day, past the time when the Jews of the period believed that the spirit hovered near the body. He was not merely unconscious in order to spontaneously revive in the cool of the tomb. As the British would say, he was well and truly dead.
Jesus’ resurrection had a purpose. By rising from the dead, Jesus demonstrated his power over death. Death does not have the last word. With Job we can say, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes” (Job 19:25-27). “In Christ all will be made alive” (I Corinthians 15:22). Christ’s resurrection assures us that we, too, will be raised with him to life eternal.
By rising, Jesus showed that his death accomplished its purpose. After all, he could have said he was dying for the sins of the world, but just died like any other man. How do we know his death really did procure our forgiveness from God? His resurrection proved that what he said and did was true and effective. It was a demonstration of God’s power. It was one thing for Jesus to raise Lazarus and the widow’s son from the dead while he was on earth. Both those men died again. It is quite another thing for God to raise Jesus from death forever. Jesus is the first of the resurrected people who will never die again! That places God’s seal of affirmation upon Jesus and his work.
These matters truly are “of first importance.” They are a matter of eternal life or death. They hold the promise of comfort and encouragement in everyday life. They provide solace in the face of earthly death. Most importantly, they enable us to reconnect with the God who made us and loves us. We can recapture the purpose for which God created us. In the space of four days, we recapitulate, re-experience, and reappropriate for ourselves the heart of the Gospel. That is what it is all about!
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News