In this part of the letter to the Corinthians, Paul wants his hearers to understand that the resurrection is a foundational teaching of saving faith. He is saying that if you don't believe in the resurrection, you are really not a Christian. In fact, he is saying that if you want to prove that Christianity is false, all you have to do is prove that Jesus did not rise from the dead. If there is no resurrection, then there is no Christianity.
The interesting thing is that you can use ordinary historical research methods to show that Jesus rose from the dead. As we look at ancient historians like Flavius Josephus, Cornelius Tacitus, the Emperor Hadrian, Pliny the Younger who was a Roman governor, and others, we can learn much about the life of Jesus. The thing that really adds credibility to the historical record is that many of these historians were hostile to Christianity. For example here is an excerpt of a letter that Pliny the younger wrote to the Roman emperor:
This is the course that I have adopted in the case of those brought before me as Christians. I ask them if they are Christians. If they admit it, I repeat the question a second and a third time, threatening capital punishment; if they persist, I sentence them to death.
If we excluded the Bible from the ancient historical record, there is still much that we could learn about the life of the man called Jesus of Nazareth. This man claimed to be the Christ or Messiah promised by Hebrew prophesy. The authorities arrested Him. In fact, archeologists have found his arrest warrant. Those same authorities found Him guilty of political crimes, and had him crucified. Three days after His death and burial, some women who went to His tomb found the body gone. In subsequent weeks, His disciples claimed that God had raised Him from the dead and that He appeared to them various times before ascending into heaven. The only thing left is to answer the question how did the tomb become empty?
The official theory of the religious authorities in Jerusalem was that the disciples had stolen the body. Think for a little while what that means. The body was in a tomb with a stone over the entrance. There was a trained squad of armed guards standing watch over the tomb and the penalty for falling asleep on duty was death. In order for the disciples to stage this elaborate hoax, the entire squad of guards had to fall asleep or be overpowered by the disciples. Since the historical record indicates that the guards were not harmed, that means that the disciples would have to over power the guards without hurting or harming them in any way. That takes a lot of skill.
After that, these disciples had to remove the stone from the opening of the tomb in such a way that it looked like a mighty being had simply picked it up and thrown it. They could leave no sign behind of how they had actually moved the stone. Think about the engineering that would take.
Then there were the burial clothes that were left behind. If this were a hoax, then the disciples had to remove the burial clothes from the corpse and place them so that they looked like the body had left the clothing behind. It also had to look as though Jesus had taken the cloth from His head and folded it neatly and set it aside.
Finally, the disciples had to take the body away and dispose of it somehow. Although they didn't have forensic scientists back then, it would still be tough to get rid of a dead body. IT might not be too hard to rob a tomb and dispose of a body during normal times, but this was still the time of Passover. Passover pilgrims are camped out all over the country side around Jerusalem. How do you dispose of a body without attracting attention?
It's easy to say that the disciples stole the body. On the other hand, the actual details of the body snatching are quite complicated. A quick study of the makeup of the disciples of Jesus leads us to believe that they didn't have the skill set needed to pull off such a hoax.
Then we have the hundreds of people who testified that they had listened to, seen, touched, and some had even eaten with Jesus during the forty days after He had died on the cross. It would be easy to dismiss the testimony of these people if it weren't for one thing. When they were given the choice to change their testimony or be punished, they chose the punishment. The earthly payment that these people received for testifying that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead was exile, imprisonment, torture, and death. The persecution struck all levels of the culture - men and women, young and old, rich and poor, even Jew and Gentile. The word martyr comes from the Greek word that means witness and these people verified their witness with their lives.
I suppose that there are thousands of people who have promised to die and then rise from the dead. Jesus is the only person who actually made that promise and then kept it. He didn't just promise to die and then rise. He actually did it.
Don't you think it would be a good idea to get to know this guy? Surely, someone who has been to death and back would have valuable insight into the human condition. Surely someone who could promise to die and then return to life before it actually happened ought to have some sort of authority. Wouldn't it be great to have His insight on a variety of topics?
Fortunately for us, some of those very credible witnesses who suffered rather than change their story compiled biographical records of the teachings of this man. These records give us tremendous insight into the human problem and the solution to that problem. These biographical records contain such good news that we have a special name for them. We call them Gospels for the word gospel means good news. It is from these Gospel accounts that we get to know the man who died on the cross and then rose from the dead.
These Gospels tell us why this man was able to die and rise from the dead. These Gospels tell us that He was not just a man, but He was also the Son of God. He allowed people to worship Him without scolding them. He seemed to be incredibly humble and yet, at the same time, He said things that only God should say. The only man who ever rose from the dead claimed to be God. Since He rose from the dead, I believe Him.
What else did this man teach? Part of what He taught should terrify each and every one of us. He taught that, at birth, we are all enemies of God. Our very essence and thought constantly schemes against the will of the one who created us. The man who rose from the dead taught that Almighty God has every right to punish us in hell forever because we are His enemies.
But there is also good news in the teachings of this man who rose from the dead. Although we are God's enemies, He is not our enemy. The whole reason that He came down from heaven and took on His human nature was so that He could rescue us from our condition. In an act of love beyond our understanding, He took the punishment of hell onto Himself. Almighty God had the right to punish us, but He took that punishment onto Himself instead. That was the whole point of His death on the cross. The good news of these Gospel accounts is that God the Father loved us so much that He punished God the Son in our place. God the Son loved us so much that He accepted that punishment from His heavenly Father.
How can we know that all of this is true? The one who rose from the dead said so. He promised to send God the Holy Spirit to work in us so that instead of hating God, we now trust God. The one who rose from the dead tells us that instead of punishing us, He wants to bless us forever with eternal joy.
That is all wonderful Good News, but can we trust those biographical records of Jesus' teaching. In fact, the historical foundation for the Gospel accounts is greater than the historical foundation for any other ancient manuscript.
Many historians readily accept the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, the biographies of Caesar, and so forth. Seven copies of the writings of Plato survive and these copies were produced about 1200 years after the originals were written. 49 copies of Aristotle survive and are dated 1400 years after the original. The original manuscripts of the biography of Julius Caesar were copied about 1200 years later and we have seven of those copies.
The copies that we have of the New Testament, on the other hand, were produced less than one hundred years after the originals. We have 5000 Greek copies, 10,000 translations into Latin and 9300 copies in other languages. The historical evidence for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is at least one thousand times more reliable than any other ancient person or event. If you reject the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ, then you have to reject Socrates, Plato, Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, and pretty much everything else you thought you knew about ancient history.
When people ask us why we believe what we believe, we can say, "Jesus Christ taught that I am a sinner. He also taught that He loved me so much that He paid for my sins with His death on the cross and they are forgiven. Since He kept his promise to rise from the dead, I will believe everything else that He has said." Amen
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