|The Crucifixion - Rembrandt, c. 1633|
Verse 1 expresses the aim of this message: that we be a people who stand in the gospel. We’re not interested in mere decisions. We’re not after unique, one-time religious experiences. Nor is our aim mainly intellectual persuasion regarding the Christian faith, although that is included. Our aim is to become, through God’s Word and Spirit, a people who stand in the gospel. People who take their stance, and have their feet well-planted, in the truth of who Jesus Christ and what He has accomplished.
But, what does “gospel” mean? The gospel is the good news that God is redeeming a fallen world through the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus – who is the Messiah of Israel and the world’s True Lord and King. The events of the gospel are first recounted, as Paul cites what was probably an early Christian creed that many scholars date within 3-8 years of the Crucifixion itself.
In this passage Paul unfolds the gospel with four brief statements: Christ died, he was buried, he was raised, he appeared.
I. “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures . . .”
Isn’t it interesting that Paul chooses to focus not on the manner of Christ’s death (crucifixion) with description of all the gore and violence and shame of it, but on something entirely different? His focus is on the meaning of Christ’s death. The theology of it. Not the how, but the why.
Why did Christ die? “He died for our sins, in accordance with the Scriptures.” This tells us two things. First, his death wasn’t an accident, it was part of plan (in accordance with the Scriptures); and second, his death wasn’t for his own sins, but for ours. It was a substitutionary death (he died for our sins).
(1) First, his death was part of a plan. He died “in accordance with the Scriptures.” On one hand, this means that the Old Testament pointed to Jesus’ death in all kinds of ways. We could spend a lot of time looking at these: types and shadows fulfilled at the cross, prophesies directly fulfilled by Jesus in his death.
Let it suffice to say that every slaughtered lamb, every priestly intercession, every supernatural provision of bread or water in the wilderness, every temple or tabernacle built to provide a meeting place between God and man, every triumph over evil through the courage of a humanly week, but divinely strong champion, warrior, or king, be it David or Gideon or Samson or Esther,
pointed to Jesus.
But on the other hand, this also means that God always had a plan for dealing with human sin and evil. The problem of evil is one of the most vexed and debated problems in the history of our race. Philosophers have written treatises about it, novelists have written stories about it, film-makers make movies about it, and ordinary every day people like you and me think about it in the still of the night. If there is a good God, why is there so much evil in the world?
Scripture doesn’t answer all of our questions about the origin of evil. It doesn’t tell us exactly how or why evil came to exist in the first place. But it does tell us how God has dealt with the problem – and that is through the cross.
One of my favorite authors is C. S. Lewis, the famed author of The Chronicles of Narnia, a series of fantasy novels for children. One of those stories recounts the entrance of evil into the land of Narnia and then records the lion Aslan’s response: “Evil will come of the evil, but it is still a long way off, and I will see to it that the worst falls upon myself.” (The Magician’s Nephew, p. 161). That’s what God did in Jesus.
(2) And that leads to the 2nd observation about Jesus’ death. His death was substitutionary. He did not die for His own sins. He had committed no crime which led to His trial and execution. He died for our sins. As Peter says, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (1 Pet. 3:18). Or in the words of Paul, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor. 5:21).
You see, the cross was more than just an execution of a Jewish prophet named Jesus. On the hill called Calvary, divine transaction between God the Father and God the Son occurred, where the Father laid on the Son the sins of unrighteous people, so as to punish those sins with all the fury of an eternal hell compressed into six hours. God was treating Jesus Christ as if He had committed every sin that I have committed. Every angry word, every bitter feeling, every lustful thought, every unholy action, every materialistic desire, every sin that I have ever committed in thought, word, or deed was being punished – in the body of Christ. My sins were the nails that held Him there. The 17th century Dutch artist Rembrandt is famous for a painting of the crucifixion, in which having painted several other characters around the cross, Rembrandt also painted himself in the picture. Perhaps he knew it was his sins that had crucified the Lord. As one poet wrote,
Ah, you my sins, my cruel sins,
His chief tormentors were,
Each of my crimes became a nail,
And unbelief the spear.
In the words the 18th century theologian John Gill: “God sheathed His sword of justice in the body of Christ.” This means that God’s justice against the sins of every person who ever trusts in Christ has been satisfied once and for all. And that means that God will not punish us for those sins! He doesn’t demand double payment. As Toplady’s hymn says,
If thou my discharge hath procured
And freely in my room endured
The whole of wrath divine
Payment God cannot twice demand
First at my bleeding surety’s hand
And then again at mine.
If you trust in Christ, the justice of God demands that your sins not be punished twice. Having trusted in Him, God’s justice demands that you be forgiven. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)
II. “He was buried . . .”
Secondly, the text tells us “he was buried.” Paul offers no additional comment upon this fact. But it demonstrates for us that he was truly dead. Except in horror stories, people are not buried alive. When Jesus was placed in the tomb, the physical life had expired, his spirit had departed. This is the answer to the so-called “swoon theory:” the theory suggested by some skeptics that Jesus never really died on the cross, but just fainted. And then in the tomb, the dampness of the air and the aromatic fragrance of the herbs and spices revived Him, so that He woke up and walked away to convince His disciples that He had risen.
The evidence against this theory is strong. It wasn’t even invented until around the year 1600. Prior to that, no one doubted that Jesus had really died. Remember: he had been flogged and crucified, and the flogging alone would have caused Him to lose so much blood that death was almost inevitable. Many people didn’t even survive the flogging. Furthermore, a Roman spear had pierced His heart, so that blood and water flowed out. That’s because the heart is surrounded by a sac of water called the pericardium. A spear pierced through both that sac and the heart, and therefore blood and water flowed out. Then Jesus was examined by a Roman executioner who assured the authorities that he was dead, his body was wrapped in a mummy like encasement that weighed between 75 and 100 pounds; and a stone was placed on the sepulcher, sealed, and guarded by Roman soldiers. The evidence for the death of Christ is irrefutable. And he not only died, he was buried.
III. “He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures . . .”
But he didn’t stay in the tomb. The third thing Paul says is “he was raised.”
(1) This means first that the resurrection of Christ was a literal, physical, historical event. It was a physical resurrection, in which the very flesh and bones of Christ were raised from death into life. On that first Easter morning, the cold corpse of Jesus lay in the tomb. And suddenly the amino acids rekindled, blood began to flow in the veins, air filled the empty lungs, his eyes fluttered and opened, and he stood up! As Peter said on the Day of Pentecost, ”God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.” (Acts 2:24). Death lost its grip on Jesus!
(2) Paul again says that the resurrection of Jesus (like his death) was in accordance with the Scriptures. It was apex of God’s plan for addressing the problems of sin and death. Perhaps I could do no better than to point once again to Lewis’s Narnian chronicles. In The Magician’s Nephew, Aslan promises that the worst of the evil will fall upon himself. And in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe it does, when the White Witch kills Aslan in the place of the traitorous child Edmund. But then Aslan rises from the dead and is discovered by Susan and Lucy, who fling themselves upon him, cover him with kisses, and ask what it means. Aslan explains, that "when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor's stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.” Death itself would start working backwards. That is exactly what happened in the resurrection of Christ. And His resurrection from the dead and His victory over death guarantees that all who believe in Him will share in that triumph.
Jesus said, "I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). And Paul says at the end of this chapter (I Corinthians 15:54-57):
"Death is swallowed up in victory."
"O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?"
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.
But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus has taken the sting out of death. That is the meaning of the resurrection. The effects of sin and the Fall are being reversed. Death itself is working backwards.
IV. “He appeared…”
Finally, Paul says that Christ not only died, was buried, and was raised, but that he appeared. Verses 5-8: “and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me…”
(1) Of course this shows, on one hand, that the appearances are evidence for the historical event. In contrast to the so-called “hallucination” theory which says that the disciples didn’t really see Jesus, they only thought they did, Paul points to the many credible witnesses of the Risen Christ. If there had only been one or two eye-witnesses, the hallucination theory might stand, but there were over 500 people who had seen Him, in many different settings and states of mind.
John Stott notes that “an investigation of the . . . appearances reveals an almost studied variety in the circumstances of person, place and mood in which they occurred. Thus, there were three individual interviews (Mary Magdalene, Peter and James), and an interview with two on the road to Emmaus. There were at least ten to whom Christ appeared on the first Easter Day, and eleven or so more the following Sunday, while St. Paul claims that more than five hundred brethren saw Him together on one occasion (probably in Galilee). As for places, so far from the appearances happening in one or two sacred spots, there were almost as many places in which He was seen as groups of people who saw Him. There were the garden of the sepulcher, somewhere between the garden and the city, the upper room, the road to Emmaus, a mountain in Galilee, the lake shore of Galilee, and the Mount of Olives near Bethany. If there was variety in person and place, there was variety in mood also. Mary Magdalene was weeping; the women were afraid and astonished; Peter was full of remorse, and Thomas of incredulity. The Emmaus pair were distracted by the events of the week and the disciples in Galilee by their fishing. Yet through their doubts and fears, through their unbelief and preoccupation the risen Lord made Himself known to them. He broke through the thick barriers of their faithlessness. Let no man dismiss these revelations of the divine Lord as the hallucinations of deranged, human minds.” (John Stott, Basic Christianity, p. 56-57).
Furthermore, it is impossible for that many people to hallucinate the same thing. Psychologist Dr. Gary Collins says: “Hallucinations are individual occurrences. By their very nature only one person can see a given hallucination at a time. They certainly aren’t something which can be seen by a group of people. Neither is it possible that one person could somehow induce a hallucination in somebody else.” (Quoted in Hank Hannegraaf, The Third Day, p. 53). So, this was no hallucination. It’s either a straight up lie, or these people really did see the risen Jesus.
(2) But the appearances are not only evidence for the historicity of the resurrection. They also show the transforming power of Christ. Among those whose lives were changed by the Risen Christ were three individuals named by Paul in this passage: Cephas, James, and Paul himself.
Cephas is the Aramaic name for Peter. Peter, you will remember, was one of Christ’s first followers. He belonged to the inner band of the disciples, along with James and John, the sons of Zebedee. He was the spokesman for the apostolic band, and evidently quite a character – which is why you always find Peter speaking up, often with foot in mouth, in the gospels. He probably considered himself Christ’s most loyal follower, because when Jesus prophesied that the disciples would all deny Him, Peter said that though everyone else would deny Christ, he would not – no, he would die with Him. But that night, true to the words of Jesus, Peter denied that he even knew Jesus three times. After the third time, a rooster crowed. Jesus looked at Peter. Peter remembered the words of Christ and left the temple crying his eyes out. He had failed the Master.
One can only wonder what went through Peter’s mind. Perhaps he considered suicide – taking his own life like Judas Iscariot had done. Perhaps he wondered how God could ever forgive him. Perhaps he was just numb with despair and unbelief. Whatever the case, it is a marvelous word that we read in Mark 16, when Jesus, risen from the dead, through an angel and a group of three women sends a message back to the disciples: “Go, tell his disciples and Peter, that he is going before you to Galilee.” And Peter. A special message for Peter. And according to this text, it was followed by a special appearance to Peter: a one-on-one encounter between the Risen Christ and the backslidden disciple who had denied his master three times. And something changed. Peter was restored, and became the dominant leader in the early years of the Jerusalem church. He was eventually confronted with his association with Christ again. But he didn’t deny Christ this time. He was crucified upside down, feeling unworthy to die in the same manner as His Lord had died. The gospel replaces cowardice with courage.
“Then He appeared to James . . .” James was the half-brother of Jesus Christ. He had not believed in Christ while He was alive, the Scriptures tell us. Jesus was without honor in His own country and His relatives scoffed at Him or were indifferent to Him. But something changed in the life of James. For the Jewish historian Josephus recorded that, “James was stoned to death illegally by the Sanhedrin sometime after A.D. 60 for his faith in Christ.” What changed? What turned this indifferent relative of Jesus into a loyal follower, even a martyr of the Christian church? He saw the Risen Christ. And his life was transformed. From then on, he described himself as “a servant of God and our Lord Jesus Christ,” as the New Testament letter that bears his name shows. The gospel turns apathy into loyalty!
Finally, there is Paul. “Last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.” Paul. He was once called Saul of Tarsus. He was a religious zealot. A Pharisee. And a hater of Christians. When the first Christian martyr, Stephen, was being stoned, Saul was right there, approving of the murderous slaying. And it was none other than Saul who launched the first wave of persecution against the infant church. But something changed this man, as well. He encountered Jesus, risen from the dead, and the murderer became a missionary. The antagonist became an apostle. Hatred gave way to ministry and sacrifice. The gospel replaces hostility with love and mission.
Here is the point: a living encounter with the Risen Christ is transforming.
The experience of the gospel changes a person. So, the question this morning is not whether you assent to the facts of the resurrection. The question is: have you been transformed by the reality of it? Has believing this changed your life? Has your cowardice and fear been replaced by courage? Has indifference and apathy given way to loyalty? Has your hostility been transformed into love and mission? That is the test of true faith.
Final question: How can you experience the gospel of the resurrection? There are three answers directly from the text. First, hear the good news preached (v. 1). That has happened. You’ve heard it this morning. So step one has taken place. Second, receive and believe in Christ (v. 1b, 11). Believe this truth and entrust your soul, your salvation, and your life to care and Lordship of Jesus Christ. And third, hold fast to the word (v. 2). There is the proof. Hold fast to this word. Live by it. Stand in this gospel, this good news, of the crucified and risen Christ!