Books: The Path to the Cross — Chapter 13

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Chapter 13

Not in Vain

Jesus’ resurrection promises meaning

In the lush, misty hills of Vietnam lies the A Shau Valley. In this picture postcard setting rises a hill with a harsh American name — Hamburger Hill. A name well earned.

In 1969, during the Vietnam War, American paratroopers had assaulted the North Vietnamese who were entrenched atop Hamburger Hill. For nine straight days the battle-hardened enemy beat back the American attack. Finally, on the tenth bloody day, the assault forces drove the enemy off the summit. To win that height, 430 American soldiers had given their lives, and many who stood on that summit thought of friends suddenly ripped from this world.

Within hours after the hard-won victory, orders arrived from headquarters, directing that the hill be abandoned because that specific position had become strategically worthless. Someone had decided that it wasn’t needed. The paratroopers greeted those orders with burning rage; for the first time in American military history the troops almost mutinied.

This tragic story demonstrates that each of us wants to live for something; we don’t want to live or die in vain. Whether knowing it or not, every person searches for meaning and purpose for their life.

It may strike you as a mystery that Paul connects meaning and purpose for our lives with the resurrection of Christ, but that’s exactly what he does in 1 Corinthians 15. Paul tells us that, because of Christ’s victory over sin and death at the cross, you and I can live for him in full knowledge that we do not live in vain. As we put our faith in Jesus Christ and then live for him in a way that is pleasing to God, we are making an eternal investment that we will never regret.

Such meaning and purpose in Christ will prove vital at several crucial points in our earthly lives. Research reveals that at about ages thirty, forty, and fifty, men look back over their years and take stock of their lives. An evaluation that looms even larger comes sometime after age sixty, when virtually every man evaluates his life and judges whether it has been worthwhile or wasted.

If his backward glance reveals drifting purpose and faded value, then his later years may be spent in bitterness and regret. But a life of purpose, meaning, and lasting value can give a sense of closure that allows a person to face the last years with a satisfied feeling inside. How true that should be for believers!

Jesus among the Dead

50 Now there was a man named Joseph, a member of the Council, a good and upright man, 51 who had not consented to their decision and action. He came from the Judean town of Arimathea, and he himself was waiting for the kingdom of God. 52 Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body. 53 Then he took it down, wrapped it in linen cloth and placed it in a tomb cut in the rock, one in which no one had yet been laid. 54 It was Preparation Day, and the Sabbath was about to begin.
(Luke 23:50–54)

In Joseph of Arimathea we find a godly man, “waiting for the kingdom of God.” Surprisingly, we find that he held membership in the Sanhedrin, the ruling Council comprised chiefly of Sadducees and teachers of the law. The Sanhedrin had orchestrated Jesus’ death, so it is doubly surprising that one of its members approached Pilate to ask for his body. The explanation lies in the fact that Joseph had become a secret disciple of Jesus (Matt. 27:57).

I want to concentrate for a moment on the fact that Jesus was truly dead. That may seem strange, but some have tried to deny the resurrection by claiming that Jesus was not really dead at the time.[1] But to say that, one must deny the statements of the biblical record. The Sanhedrin wanted Jesus dead; he had caused them no end of trouble.

They spared no pains in accomplishing that goal. They had stood among the crowd around the cross to confirm that their efforts had been crowned with success. You can be sure that no member of the Council went home that day before satisfying himself that Jesus was dead.

Consider the Romans as well. Once Pilate had given the death sentence, Jesus was taken by Roman troops out to the cross to be executed. The Romans had executed thousands of Jews in this manner and knew how to do the job. So the Sanhedrin watched while experts carried out their will.

The Roman centurion declined to break Christ’s legs to hasten his death, after confirming with a spear point that he had already died. When Pilate received Joseph’s request to bury Jesus, he did not grant it until he had personally asked the centurion in charge to confirm that Jesus was dead (Mark 15:44–45). Only then did he give the body to Joseph. We can be sure that the body Joseph took down from the cross had no vestige of life in it.

A Short Tour of the Tomb

Try to use your imagination for a moment to picture the tomb in which Jesus was buried. Being a man of wealth, Joseph placed Jesus in his own freshly made tomb cut from rock (Matt. 27:57–60). The tomb probably had a round opening leading to an antechamber about ten feet square. In this area the mourners made final preparation of the body.

The walls around the room usually contained shelves cut from the rock; these shelves were used to hold each of the bodies placed in the tomb. In this way, whole families could be buried together, much as is our own custom.

The door of the tomb consisted of a large round stone, rolling in a stone groove to control access to the doorway. These closure stones weighed many tons and were often accompanied by a smaller stone, rolled up against one side to prevent the large stone from moving in its track.

Joseph probably put Jesus in his own tomb not only out of personal kindness, but also because he was sorely pressed for time. Jesus died about three o’clock in the afternoon, and very little time remained before the sun would set and the Sabbath would begin.

Because no work could be done after sunset, Joseph had to move quickly to obtain Pilate’s permission to take Christ’s body down from the cross and to place it in his tomb. In all probability, Joseph did not finish the preparations of the body that he had hoped to accomplish. That would explain what happened next.

Vigil of Sorrow

55 The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it. 56 Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.
(Luke 23:55–56)

These loyal women had been with Jesus for a long time, and they didn’t leave his body until they had seen exactly where Joseph had put it. Some skeptics have claimed that the tomb was later empty because the women found the wrong tomb. But the women knew exactly where to look.

Besides the women, Joseph was assisted in his hasty preparation by Nicodemus (John 19:39). At least two members of the Sanhedrin had trusted in Christ and were honoring him in his death.

Jesus among the Living

1 On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.
 (Luke 24:1–3)

The word Sabbath comes from a Hebrew word that means seventh. The seventh day was Saturday. Jesus was crucified on Friday, the sixth day of the week, and the women did not return to the tomb until the first day of the following week, which was Sunday in our terminology. As God-fearing people, they did not work or journey on the Sabbath day, Saturday.

Jesus had said that he would rise on “the third day,” and he stayed in the tomb for parts of three different days. His body was placed in the tomb on Friday, the first day, and was unobserved in the tomb on Saturday, the second day. He departed from the tomb alive on Sunday, the third day.

As the women were walking on their way to the tomb, they expected that the stone would present a big problem (Mark 16:3). They didn’t know it, but God had removed an even bigger problem than that from the scene. On Saturday, the religious leaders had obtained Pilate’s permission to post an armed guard at the tomb. They remembered what Jesus had said about rising on the third day, and they wanted to prevent any theft of the body that might be used to spread such a lie (Matt. 27:62–66).

With Pilate’s permission, they posted a guard and then placed a seal, probably on the boundary surface between the large stone covering the door and the small stone beside it. The seal meant that the tomb was not to be opened without Pilate’s permission.

But God opened Christ’s tomb without his permission! While the women were still approaching the tomb, an angel of the Lord had arrived and thrown the stone aside. He also frightened the guards to the point that they first collapsed in fright and later ran away to report to the chief priests (Matt. 28:2–15).

Those guards would only have run away from mortal danger, because a Roman guard could be executed for abandoning his post. The religious leaders not only paid them to spread an erroneous story, but also promised them that they would keep Pilate from punishing them. Luke tells us only that when the women arrived, they found that the stone had been rolled away and the body of Jesus was gone. He does not mention the guards, because they had already fled.

An empty tomb in itself doesn’t mean a whole lot; that could exist for any number of reasons. The town in which you live probably has some empty tombs. The reason this empty tomb is so important is that God has revealed to us why it was empty. God spoke first through angelic messengers and later through his risen Son, appearing alive before his followers. The empty tomb means little, but the living Savior means everything.

A Forwarding Address

4 While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. 5 In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? 6 He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: 7 ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’ ” 8Then they remembered his words.
(Luke 24:4–8)

After his death, fear and despair overwhelmed most of Christ’s disciples. Only a few, like the women and the two Sanhedrin members, dared to move in public. Most of Christ’s disciples hid themselves, trembling at the possibility that the authorities might arrive and haul them off at any moment. They were looking back at those last few years and thinking that it had all been in vain. They thought they had found the Messiah, but he had been taken away from them, and they were left with regret and fear.

In every description of the disciples, both male and female, we find that they were very slow to process what had really happened. Christ’s death so shattered them that they struggled to begin accepting that he had truly risen from the grave. Using the remainder of Luke’s account, let’s consider for a moment how they gradually changed from despair to confusion, to shock at his appearing, and finally to triumphant joy.

An Amazing Transformation

Two of the first disciples Jesus encountered were making a journey to Emmaus. Jesus supernaturally prevented them from grasping who he was as he probed them on the events of the previous days. Then Jesus rebuked them for being “slow to believe” all that had been told to them beforehand (Luke 24:25). The women had fled straight from the tomb to the men to tell them what had happened, but the men had responded with unbelief and scorn.

Later in the day, after Jesus had appeared to Peter and James as well as others, all the disciples had gathered and were still having a hard time believing what they had seen. That’s when Thomas made his memorable statement that he would not believe that Jesus had risen unless he could see the nail marks in his hands and put his finger there (John 20:25).

A week later Jesus appeared in their midst and called on Thomas to “stop doubting and believe” (John 20:27). Only then did they all accept what had occurred. Jesus had indeed risen from the dead.

Luke ended his account of Christ’s life by describing how the disciples worshiped Jesus and then returned to Jerusalem with great joy (Luke 24:52). In his sequel (Acts 1–8), Luke described how those who had hidden in fear of death went out with tremendous boldness to witness all over Jerusalem, and elsewhere, too. An incredible reversal took place in their attitudes and behavior because they had been with their risen Lord.

I want to present what I see as the leading reasons that the resurrection of Christ must have happened exactly the way the Scriptures tell it.

First of all, Christ’s opponents could never produce his body to refute the claims of his followers. You can imagine how quickly this popular movement would have dissipated, if they had only brought his dead body before the crowds. You can also be sure that the Sanhedrin that plotted so carefully to put him to death searched far and wide to try to produce his body.

They thought they had solved their problems when they put him to death, but he didn’t stay where they put him. The leaders could not just produce another body, because Jesus had been seen by too many people, and his appearance was quite well-known. Thousand of Jewish worshipers came to Jerusalem from around the Mediterranean world to worship at Passover, and many of them had observed Jesus firsthand.

Second, whenever you see a big effect, you should look back earlier to find a big cause. Only big causes produce big effects. Let me explain. The explosive spread of Christianity within the hostile environment of Judaism and Roman persecution is what I would call a big effect. Christianity first arose in a Jewish setting that found it absolutely abhorrent.

The Romans did not hinder Christianity much in the early days, but they did later when it became apparent that the Christians would not worship the Roman pantheon of deities. That was considered treason in the eyes of many Romans. For most of the Roman world to become Christian within two centuries after Christ’s death constitutes a big effect. Can you really get such a big effect from someone lying dead in a tomb? No, to get such a big effect requires a cause as big as the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

The resurrection filled Jesus’ disciples with explosive zeal because they knew that even if they lost their lives, they had not lived in vain. They had something to live and die for.

Third, Paul and James, the Lord’s brother, would never have trusted Jesus as their Messiah apart from his appearing to them after the resurrection. Only an encounter with the resurrected Lord could change Paul from a murderous persecutor of Christ’s disciples into an equally zealous proponent of Jesus as the Messiah (Acts 9). The same is true for James (see John 7:5 about the unbelief of Jesus’ brothers).

The apostles and others were willing to die for their faith because they knew that the resurrection was true. Liberal scholars have claimed that the apostles fabricated Christ’s resurrection because the church wanted to believe that it had happened. But such views run into fatal psychological difficulty when we realize that these men had to lay their lives on the line for what they were saying. People simply will not die for a lie.

If the apostles had conspired to fabricate a resurrection lie, they would have produced a more airtight story. They would not have written four Gospels that tend to stress different aspects of the event from different viewpoints. To sell a lie, it would have been far easier to invent one simple story and get everybody to spread the tale.

But the apostles didn’t worry about that. They were telling the truth. They knew their story hung together; they had been there to see it! Further, a fabricated story would never have included women as witnesses, because Jewish society did not accept their testimony about anything. Finally, a fabricated story would have contained no evidence of residual unbelief (Matt. 28:17). But God need not feel insecure just because few people don’t believe. He could afford to tell the truth and not worry about unbelief.

The Domino Effect

Even some believers hesitate to accept the resurrection because it does not fit well in a modern world that feels skepticism toward the supernatural. But the fact of the matter is that the resurrection links up with other things that Christians desperately want to believe. Paul connects the reality of eternal life with the reality of Christ’s physical resurrection (Col. 2:13). If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then there is no such thing as eternal life. That’s a loss few Christians would be willing to accept.

Paul also links the resurrection of Christ to the power God has given us for Christian life (Rom. 8:11). Without the resurrection, sin still reigns over our mortal bodies (Romans 6:12), and we remain dead in our sins (1 Cor. 15:17).

I have given you only a few examples among many of the importance of the resurrection. These things are theologically connected to the resurrection by the writings of the New Testament. Like dominoes in a row, if the resurrection falls, then other things that Christians value dearly fall as well. Believers cannot reasonably choose to defend only those parts of the Scriptures that they find comfortable. The whole thing stands or falls together. God says it stands!

The Resurrection and You

Use the following applicational ideas to drive home the truth of the resurrection in your own life.

1. The resurrection of Christ proves that God has accepted his sacrifice for our sins. The penalty for our sins has been paid in full.

I agree that my entire guilt before God has been taken away.

2. The resurrection of Christ brings every believer a new power to live for God. The dominating power of sin has been broken. In Romans 6 and 8 we are told that believers share the same kind of power that raised Jesus from the dead. Only by our access to this power can we successfully resist the domination of our sinful nature. Peter tells us that God has “given us everything we need for a godly life” (2 Pet. 1:3). Through the presence of his Holy Spirit, God has given us all that we need to live our lives unto him.

I agree that God has granted me power through the Holy Spirit to live for him.

Are you taking advantage of this resource that God has provided, or has your behavior remained unchanged since you trusted Christ?

3. We can respond to Christ’s resurrection with thankfulness that living for God is not a futile gesture. Managing our lives for him will have eternal significance. Perhaps you will find it appropriate to express yourself in prayer thanking God right now.

A Final Word

At the midpoint of the Civil War, a solemn journey brought Abraham Lincoln to the scene of the bloodiest battlefield, Gettysburg. Here, in a hard-fought battle, tens of thousands of Union soldiers were slain in the hills and fields near the town. Lincoln had come to dedicate a national cemetery to honor the Union dead.

He gave the very short speech that we call the Gettysburg Address. He looked back at the awesome loss of life and noted that these men had made the ultimate sacrifice that anyone could make. They had given their own lives for a cause that they believed in. But when they perished, they did not know whether or not they had died in vain.

Lincoln said that only by winning the final victory could the Union make those men’s profound sacrifice worthwhile. He challenged all present with the responsibility to win the war so that their dead companions would not have died for nothing. Two more bloody years of doubt passed before that question was finally answered.

No one who believes in Jesus Christ will ever have to face such doubt. Jesus tells us that the final victory has already been won. He settled that first by dying for our sins and then rising from the dead. As we continue our struggle, our fight in life, we can do so without ever worrying that it will prove a waste.

With Paul, I reach this conclusion: “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” (1 Cor. 15:58).

[1]A classic example of this: Hugh J. Schonfield, The Passover Plot (New York: Bantam, 1971).