In the last study we focused on how the Hebrew Scriptures prophesied the death and the exaltation of the Messiah. Isaiah’s oracle focused mostly on the suffering servant Messiah, but did not specifically teach the doctrine of the bodily resurrection, not as Psalm 16 and Daniel 12 so clearly describe such. But for Isaiah to speak of the exaltation of the Messiah after a suffering and death certainly assumes some kind of restoration to life, and that restoration is clearly explained in many other passages of the Bible.
The Gospel narratives record the resurrection appearances of Jesus after his death and burial; and the apostles taught very plainly this truth of the Christ-event: that Jesus who suffered and died for our sins actually rose from the dead, physically and not just spiritually, and appeared to the disciples and to larger groups of people in his resurrected body. That body was similar, but different. And the resurrection itself authenticated everything that Jesus had claimed about himself, and about his death, namely, that he was the Son of God who came into the world to die and also to conquer sin, death, and the grave, and bring immortality and eternal life to all who believe in him.
It should come as no surprise that this doctrine has been attacked more than most in the Christian faith--just the idea that Jesus came back from the dead is a stumbling block to many. Modern theologians have tried to argue that the early Church simply made up the doctrine to give people hope and comfort, and then made it the foundation of their living faith. Others suggest that Jesus may not have been dead, but in a coma, and the cold tomb may have revived him. But the Scripture makes it clear, that he was actually dead, and buried (under guard), and that he rose from the dead; and the apostles rightly based the Christian faith on his death and resurrection. Without the resurrection, Jesus died a martyr, a good man, a sample to his followers, but not as a Savior, and not as the incarnate God. With the resurrection we have the guarnatee that his death was more than this, and that we will be saved, resurrected, and exalted to glory with him. Only Jesus could say, “I was dead, and am alive for ever more; and I have the keys of death and Hades” (Rev. 1). In the resurrected Christ, then, we have the answer to all of the problems and difficulties that this life can afford--Christ has overcome them, because death has lost its sting. Therefore, we worship and serve him, the risen Savior and divine Lord.
Perhaps the clearest presentation of the doctrine of the resurrection is found in 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul defends and explains it to the church at Corinth. There were those teaching that there is no resurrection of the dead. But Paul begins the chapter by reminding them of the Gospel, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, was buried, and rose again according to the Scriptures (15:3,4). Elsewhere Paul had preached strongly from the Old Testament (Ps. 16) that Jesus had indeed been raised from the dead (see Acts 13:13-48; and 23:1-11). He then proceeded to remind them of all the appearances that Jesus made to people after his resurrection, so that there were abundant witnesses to the fact. The Lord also appeared to him, Paul, as well (v. 5).
Paul’s grand theme is announced in verse 20: “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.”
First, this statement is the answer to the issues raised in verses 6-19--that is why it begins with “but.” Paul had gone down the list to state what the case might be if there were no resurrection of the dead--those who had died were gone forever, Christ would still be dead, their preaching would be useless, people would still be in their sins and without hope, and they who proclaimed it would be false witnesses. This is what it would mean if Christ did not rise from the dead. But Paul declares, “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead.” He was seen by scores of witnesses; it was a proven fact. And now the declaration of verse 20 affirms that those who died in the faith are not lost forever, Christ is alive forever, the preaching of the Gospel was true and life-giving, and that believers were indeed forgiven for their sins and had the assurance of eternal life.
Second, Paul says that the resurrection of Christ is a first fruit. He is here alluding to the Israelite festival of giving the first fruit of the harvest to the LORD (Lev. 23:9-14). When the spring crops began to grow, the devout Israelite would watch the fields for the first shoots of wheat. They would be given to the LORD as a token thank offering, and viewed by the worshiper as a pledge that a great harvest of wheat was to follow--this was the first. Paul clearly is using the agricultural festival as an illustration of the resurrection, for he talks about planting the body in the ground when it dies, and in season a glorious new body rises from the ground; Jesus was the first to rise, and his resurrection is the harbinger that a whole harvest of people being raised will follow in God’s plan.
But for Paul this is more than an illustration, it is a divinely foretold illustration, what we call a “type.” Biblical typology is a form of prophecy; it uses people, places and things as divinely intended revelations of the greater truths to come, the fulfillments. But one does not know the item is a type until the fulfillment comes; then looking back, we can see what God had in mind all along (manna, the sacrifices, the tabernacle, etc). Paul already knew that the Passover was a type of Christ’s death, for he declared “Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed for us” (1 Cor. 5:7). Then, in Leviticus 23:11, after the instructions about Passover, the text says the first fruit is to be presented (waved) before the LORD on the morning after the Sabbath after the Passover (verses 4-8)--that is Sunday morning. The Church rightly saw the first fruit being fulfilled in Christ’s resurrection from the dead on the first day of the week, the morning after the Saturday after the Passover. And if it is the first--then there is a great harvest to follow, at the end of the age (1 Thess. 4:16).
Third, Paul says that he is the first fruit of those who sleep. This is a figure for death--falling asleep. It is the way believers refer to death as a temporary aspect of their journey to God. Jesus himself used the expression to describe the death of Lazarus (John 11), and when his disciples did not get the point, he explained that Lazarus was dead. In Acts 7:54-60 Stephen was put to death at the hands of an angry mob. But the chapter ends calmly by saying “he fell asleep.” His death was cruel and violent, but it was a falling asleep in the Lord because the Lord has conquered death.
The verb “to sleep” in Greek is koimao (pronounced koi-mah-o); in the language a word can be changed with certain suffixes, and there is a suffix that is used that makes a noun of place; it is the suffix -terion. The word koimeterion is a “sleeping place”; we use it for our word “cemetary.” Those who believe in Jesus do not fear death, for it is a falling asleep in Jesus until the resurrection morning when he appears and the dead in Christ rise and with all who remain alive are transferred into the glorious estate of his presence.
Luke 24 records one of the post-resurrection appearances of our Lord to two disciples on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. It is Sunday afternoon, the very day that Jesus rose from the dead. The account is wonderful because it clearly teaches that the resurrection of Jesus enables us to see past all discouragement and disillusionment that this life can present. (There is a full sermon on Luke 24 in the archives of this web site).
The two disciples going home represent for us the embodiment of disillusionment and near depression that all the discouragements in this life can cause. They were soon to learn that the inspiration of the risen Christ restores the proper perspective on the circumstances of life.
The first scene (verses 13-24) sets the stage--disillusionment brings spiritual depression. The two were walking along pondering the events of the crucifixion, and Jesus came along side them asking them what was wrong. They were taken back that he would not know. But their report to him reveals that they had almost given up. “We had hoped” that he was the Messiah, but he is dead. “Some women” told us this fantastic story that he was alive; some of the men checked it out, “ but him they did not find.” They were now without hope; it was time to go home.
The second scene of the story records Jesus rebuke (verses 25-27)--the word of God will correct their thinking. Jesus rebuked them for being slow to believe in “all” the prophets had said about the Christ. “Was it not necessary” for the Christ to die before entering his glory? Of course it was. Then he proceeded to open the Scriptures to them and teach them “all” that was written about this truth. Their problem, which was not theirs alone but ours too, was that they read the word selectively--about kings and victory and salvation and driving out the enemies. Not about suffering for sins and death.
In the process of his teaching several clear truths came out: (1) the Messiah had to suffer and die first to pay for sins, and then could enter his glory; (2) the Messiah stands sovereignly apart from time and space, not limited to this world, or the grave, or our time; if he existed before Bethlehem and came into this world from the Father, he can easily exist after the grave and return to the Father; (3) the Messiah is the sovereign Lord who controls life and death--no one rushed Jesus to the cross as they had thought; it was the fulfillment of the eternal plan of God.
No wonder they later said, “Did not our hearts burn within us . . . while he opened to us the Scriptures?”
The third scene (verses 28-32) records the dramatic revelation of the risen Christ to the men in the breaking of the bread--faith in the word brings knowledge of the Word. In their home Jesus took the bread and broke it and blessed it. Then the text says “and they knew him.” And then he was gone. Jesus chose that moment, that familiar act, to open their eyes so that they could see it was he. This suggests that there was some difference in his appearance; but it also is clear that he had withheld their vision of him til this moment. They instantly recognized in the act of breaking the bread the symbolism of the vicarious suffering of the Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world--this is how Jesus had instituted the New Covenant in the Upper Room. The men now knew why he died, and they knew that he conquered death, because he was alive--he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.
The fourth scene (verses 33-35) is the report of their rushing back to Jerusalem to tell others--knowledge of the resurrected Christ brings zeal. All was well now, all was different now, for he was alive. The resurrection was the answer to their discouragement and depression, to all of life’s sorrows. He had overcome the greatest enemy, death.
The Holy Spirit carries on the ministry of Jesus to us today. Through the clear exposition of the Word of God, the Spirit illumines our hearts as to the plan of God, and especially as to its victorious outcome in spite of the sorrows and sadness of life. And then, having had a clear teaching on his word, when we come to the Lord’s table for communion, the reality of his presence is solidified in the spiritual experience of the breaking of the bread. This act of Jesus became the symbol for the Church down through history of the meaning and purpose of his death, a meaning and purpose that the resurrection affirmed and confirmed. Nothing in this life can separate us from the love of God we have in Christ; because he lives, we shall live also, even though we may die here on earth.
But we must keep the proper balance in our spiritual lives--unless we hear from God through his word, clearly, faithfully, the pressures of life will control our hearts and minds, and the holy communion will become an empty ritual to be got through. But if our hearts are open, and the exposition of the word is clear so that the “burning heart” is the frequent experience of being in the word, then all the spiritual aspects of the faith and the worship will remind us powerfully that he is alive, and that our faith alone offers true hope to a world that has no hope and no expectation other than conflict, suffering and death. Christians need to be in a church where the word of God is clearly and faithfully expounded (and not in shallow little talks), where the Holy Spirit is actively at work in changing peoples lives (and not just spectacular experiences), and where the worship focuses powerfully on the risen Christ (and not just some ritual acts done routinely). All of this together will build up the faith and confidence of the believer to live for Christ in this world. Then they can proclaim, “He is alive,” “Was not our heart burning within us when he opened the Scriptures to us,” and “He was known to us in the breaking of the bread.”