This sermon is part of the sermon series "Holy Week Preaching Resources ". See series.
The most fantastic claim Christians make is that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. It strains our credulity to the utmost. But Christians have a second problem with the Resurrection: not only whether it happened, but whether it matters if it happened, because it happened (if it did happen) two thousand years ago. People ask how an event of such remote antiquity can possibly have any significance for us today at the end of the twentieth century. Why on earth do Christians make such a song and dance about the Resurrection? Isn't it irrelevant? Does it really matter? My task today, as I conceive it, is to try to persuade you of the relevance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the up-to-date—really up-to-the-minute—relevance of the Resurrection.
The Resurrection somehow resonates with our human condition. It speaks to our needs as I reckon no other event of antiquity does, or even could. Certainly, the early Christians were convinced of this. They knew not only that it had taken place, but that it was an event of enormous significance. So central was the Resurrection to their message—I wonder if you remember this—that Luke, in the Acts of the Apostles, describes Peter and John as "preaching Jesus and the Resurrection." And it was the same with Paul when he was speaking with the philosophers in Athens. They were extremely rude to him. They called him in Greek spermologos, that is, "a guttersnipe." The reason for their ridicule was that he preached to them about Jesus and the Resurrection. And when the time came for Paul to summarize his message, he wrote, "I passed on to you as the first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins, that he was buried, that on the third day he rose again, and that he was seen." So, the resurrection of Jesus is at the very center, at the very heart and core of the Christian Good News.
We should first define "the Resurrection"
Before I go on any further, I think it's important for us to be quite clear on what we're talking about. We're not talking about Jesus' survival, as a result of which we can say, "Well, he's alive," or, "He is living." No—we can say that about anybody who has died. When President Makarios of Cyprus died some years ago, his followers spray-painted the buildings in Cyprus with the words, MAKARIOS LIVES ! He hadn't risen from the dead, but his influence was still living. In Latin America, there are many students who have such confidence in Che Guevara as one of their leaders that they often sing and chant, "Che lives." Or, if I may mention D. L. Moody, he once said in New York in 1899, "Some day you'll read in the papers that Moody is dead. Don't you believe a word of it. At that moment I shall be more alive than I am today." But Moody was not talking about having been resurrected. He simply meant he would survive death. So the Resurrection is not just the survival of Jesus.
Next, the resurrection of Jesus is not just his resuscitation. It doesn't mean that, having died, he was brought back again to this life, only to die again. C. S. Lewis expressed his great sympathy for Lazarus, who was resuscitated by Jesus, brought back to this life. C. S. Lewis said it was very hard on Lazarus, because he had to do his dying all over again. But Jesus didn't. We are talking not about his survival, nor about his resuscitation, but about his resurrection. God performed a dramatic act by which he arrested the process of decay, decomposition, and corruption; rescued Jesus out of the realm of death; and transformed his body into a new vehicle for his personality, so that he had a new power and was now immortal, never to die again. That is something new that never had happened before and has never yet happened since.
The Resurrection assures us of God's forgiveness
Now that we're clear on what we're talking about, I come back to my question: Does it matter? Does it make any difference whether it is true that Jesus of Nazareth actually rose from the dead? Let me suggest to you at least three reasons why it is of immense importance and what I mean by this up-to-the-minute relevance of the resurrection of Jesus. The first is this: the resurrection of Jesus assures us of God's forgiveness. Forgiveness is one of God's best gifts. I remember reading of a certain psychiatrist who said, "I could dismiss half my patients tomorrow if they could be assured of their forgiveness." The truth is that all of us have some skeleton or two in a dark cupboard at home — something we've done or said or thought, of which, in our best moments, we are deeply and sadly ashamed. Our conscience nags us, torments us, condemns us. It was your great American wit, Mark Twain, who once said, "Man is the only animal that blushes, and the only animal that needs to." We are ashamed, are we not, of things we've done in the past. Nobody is free who is unforgiven. Instead of being able to look God in the face or to look one another in the face, we want to run away and hide when our conscience troubles us. But, my friend, the Christian good news begins with the assurance there is forgiveness with God. Several times during his public ministry, Jesus said to somebody, "Your sins are forgiven." And in the upper room on his last night on earth, he referred to the Communion cup as his "blood which was shed for many for the forgiveness of sins." He linked our forgiveness with his death. He taught that he was going to die, burying our sin and guilt and condemnation in his own innocent person in order that we might be forgiven.
But the question is: How do we know whether Jesus was correct or not? He said he was going to die for our forgiveness, but can we credit what he said? Was he right? Was he telling the truth? How can we know whether he achieved by his death what he said he was going to achieve? How can we know whether God accepted his death as what we call "a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world"? I'm afraid our answer is that we would never know whether Jesus by his death had made forgiveness available to us if he had remained dead. If he never had been raised from the dead, we would not know whether his death had been effective. Rather, we would know that it happened. If he had remained dead, I'm afraid we would have been convinced that his death was a failure and that he did not secure by it what he said he was going to secure. Paul is very clear about this. He says, "If Christ was not raised from the dead, our faith is futile, we are still in our sins, we are unforgiven, and those who have died have perished. But," Paul went on, "in fact, Christ was raised from the dead." And, by raising him, God assured us that he approved of what Jesus had done on the cross and that he did not die in vain. On the contrary, his death is the ground on which God is able to forgive all our sins and give us a new life. The Resurrection validates the death of Jesus Christ. Are you with me so far? That's the first thing. The resurrection of Jesus assures us of God's forgiveness today.
The Resurrection assures us of God's power
Then second, the resurrection of Jesus assures us of God's power. I don't know about you, my friends, but I need more than forgiveness for the past. I need power in the present. I want to ask the question: Is God really able to change human nature? Is it possible for selfish people to be made unselfish? Is it possible for immoral people to be given self-control? Is it possible for cruel people to be made kind, and sour people to be sweetened? Wouldn't it be marvelous if that were possible? I want to tell you today on this Resurrection Day that it is possible. God has power to change human nature and to change human beings. He has power to transform you and me into the image of Jesus Christ, to make us like Christ. Or maybe you go on and say, "But is God really able to make alive people who are dead to spiritual reality?" Perhaps this describes you. The spiritual reality, a transcendent reality beyond the material order, has no meaning to you. You're not aware of it. You're dead to it. Is it possible for God to make you alive, spiritually, so that you become aware of the reality of this other dimension in life? I want to say here, again, it is. It is possible because of the Resurrection. That's why Paul, in one of his letters, prays that "the eyes of our heart (our inward eyes) may be opened in order that we may see the incomparable greatness of God's power toward us who believe, the power that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead." In other words, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the supreme evidence of the power of God in history. That same resurrection power, which God displayed in Jesus Christ when he raised him from the dead, is available to us today. He can raise us from the death of sin to the life of righteousness. He can raise us from the death of alienation into a life of close, personal communion and fellowship with God.
I'm afraid we are always in danger of trivializing the Christian good news but also always in danger of minimizing what God by his resurrection power is able to do in ordinary human beings like you and me. We sometimes talk of becoming a Christian as if it were really no more than turning over a new leaf or maybe becoming a little religious or making a few superficial changes to our usual pattern of life. But when you scratch the surface, we are the same old pagans underneath; no real change has taken place. Friend, I want to assure you that becoming and being a Christian, according to the New Testament, is something far more radical than that, and radical is the right word, because it means going to the very roots of our human being and human personality. Becoming a Christian is nothing less than a resurrection from spiritual death and the beginning of an entirely new life in the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In a word, the same God of supernatural power who raised Jesus from physical death can raise us from spiritual death and make us alive and alert to spiritual things. We can know that God can raise us from that death because he raised Christ. He can change us, because he changed Christ.
The Resurrection assures us of God's ultimate triumph
Well, once again, I wonder if you're following me. Perhaps it's a rather tightly-packed argument. But I suggested first that the resurrection of Jesus assures us of God's forgiveness, and then second it assures us of God's power. And now, third, it assures us of God's ultimate triumph at the end of history. One of the great differences between the different religions of the world and the different ideologists of the world, as well, concerns their version of the future. Is there any future? Is there any hope in the future? There are some people who offer no hope at all. They lapse into existential pessimism and deep despair. I think for example of that otherwise great and brilliant man Bertrand Russell—Lord Russell. He once said, "When I die, I believe that I shall rot, and that that is the end." Then he went on, "All the labors of the ages—the inspiration, the noonday brightness of human genius—are destined to extinction. The whole temple of man's achievement must inevitably be buried in the debris of a universe in ruins." In other words, there is nothing in the future to look forward to. Woody Allen is another. I love Woody Allen films. I'm a great fan of Woody Allen, but Woody Allen is terrified of death. Do you remember what he once wrote or said: "The fundamental thing behind all motivation and all activity is the constant struggle against annihilation and against death. Death is absolutely stupefying in its terror, and it renders anyone's accomplishment meaningless"? So there are many people who have no hope for the future. There is nothing to look forward to. Others think of history not in a line that's going to end in a climax, but in a circle, so that everything is going to be repeated continuously in an endless cycle of reincarnations (in which adherents of the New Age Movement are so interested), and there is no escape except extinction. I want to tell you that Christians, on the other hand, are confident that Jesus Christ is going to come back at the end of history, not in humility and weakness, as in his first coming, but in stupendous power and utter and sheer magnificence. The second coming of Jesus Christ is altogether beyond our wildest dreams and imagination when he comes in power and glory. And when he comes, he will bring history to an end. He will raise the dead, and he will regenerate the universe, and he will make everything new.
That's the Christian hope: that the whole creation (that is at the moment groaning in its bondage to decay and death) is going to be liberated into the freedom of the children of God. The groans of nature, Paul writes, at the moment resemble the birth pangs or birth pains of a new order; a new world is going to be born. There's going to be a new heaven and a new earth in which righteousness dwells, and on that day we shall be new people with new bodies in a new world. You know the name Joni Eareckson, don't you? She was that athletic teenager who broke her neck in a diving accident in Chesapeake Bay. I have a great and warm regard for her, having read her book. Let me quote something she's written: "I have hope in the future. The Bible speaks about bodies being glorified." (By the way, she's a quadriplegic.) And then she says, "I know the meaning of that now. It's the time after my death here when I, the quadriplegic, will be on my feet dancing." We're going to have a new body with undreamed-of powers.
But you say to me, "Isn't that wishful thinking? Isn't that Christians' just whistling in the dark in order to keep their spirits up? Is there any evidence for this fantastic assertion that the universe is going to be reborn and resurrected along with us?" Yes, my friends; thanks for asking those questions. There is evidence. The evidence is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is the guarantee of the resurrection of our bodies and the regeneration of the universe, because, you see, if I may put it like this, the resurrection of Jesus was the beginning of the new creation of God. In the resurrection of Jesus, the first bit of the old material order was redeemed and transfigured, and his resurrection is the pledge that the rest of the material of creation is going to be transfigured one day.
So, I conclude, the resurrection of Jesus has up-to-the-minute relevance for you and me. It assures us of God's forgiveness through Jesus Christ, if we put our trust in him. It assures us of his resurrection power that we can call upon in our lives. And it assures us of God's ultimate triumph in the end, when we shall have new bodies in a new world. We ought to be able to echo a word of the apostle Peter in his first letter, when he said, "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has caused us to be born again into a new hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead." And I hope, if you don't yet share it, that you will come to share this glorious hope with me and with all other Christians throughout the world.
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?
John R. W. Stott (1921 – 2011) is known worldwide as a preacher, evangelist, author, and theologian. For 66 years he served All Souls Church, Langham Place, in London, England, where he pioneered effective urban evangelistic and pastoral ministry. During these years he authored more than 50 books, and served as one of the original Contributing Editors for Christianity Today. Stott had a global vision and built strong relationships with church leaders outside the West in the Majority World. A hallmark of Stott's ministry was his vision for expository biblical preaching that addresses the hearts and minds of contemporary men and women. In 1969 he founded a trust that eventually became Langham Partnership International (www.langham.org), a ministry that continues his vision of partnership with the Majority World Church. Stott was honored by Time magazine in 2005 as one of the "100 Most Influential People in the World."