Death’s Defeat

Nothing more graphically illustrates how Christ’s victory over death changed everything than the following real life scenarios.  The first takes place in a darkened room in Jerusalem.  The doors are locked, the shutters closed.  Eleven men hunker inside.  They hardly speak a word to each other.  The overwhelming fear they share is trumped only by intense dejection and grief.  One of their own has betrayed their Master who in turn was tortured to death, His lifeless body securely sealed in a tomb.  All their hopes and dreams for bringing light into the world have been dashed upon jagged rocks.  And, as if that’s not bad enough, they’re now wanted outlaws.  They have no clue what to do.  The second scene, occurring only a short time later, stands in stark contrast.  The same group of men are strolling the streets, openly broadcasting what they call “The Best News EVER!”  They aren’t scared.  They aren’t depressed.  They aren’t worried about what might happen to them.  Their eyes are ablaze with fiery zeal and the words they preach are super powerful.  They know their divinely-ordained purpose for being alive.  They’re on a mission to inform the entire planet that salvation is now freely available to all; that eternal life is within everyone’s reach; that death – the ultimate enemy of happiness – has been defeated.  The Messiah is alive!

 

The difference between the two couldn’t be more drastic.  The former is one of utter despondence, the latter of boundless enthusiasm and emboldened confidence.  Only a matter of a few days separates them.  What miraculous event could’ve caused this dramatic, 180 degree change in the disciples’ attitudes?  The Bible makes it clear – they knew firsthand that Christ had returned from the grave!  Our Lord had broken the stranglehold death had saddled on humanity since the fall of Adam & Eve forevermore!  This was no made-up fable, this was reality.  The Apostle’s Creed confirms that the followers, while hiding in that stuffy upper room, had been of one mind – Jesus was officially “crucified, dead and buried.”  It was over.  All was lost.  A bleak, pointless future was all they could anticipate.  Simon Peter figured he’d go back to fishing but he knew it’d never fulfill him the way life with Christ had.  Yet something urged them to keep the faith.  Perhaps it was the memory of their Master’s repeated assurances that His absence would be temporary; that on the third day He’d walk out of His grave very much alive and more glorious than ever.  Their patience paid off big time.  Jesus showed up, live and in person.

 

The Resurrection is as verifiable as anything history regards factual.  Now, if the Gospel accounts were identical in every detail in their documentation of what happened that first Easter Sunday we’d have good cause to accuse them of collusion.  But the eyewitness testimonies they recorded contain slight variations and they actually add credibility to the overall storyline instead of doubts because they reveal the all-too-fallible human touch.  Now, some will argue Christ’s coming back to life after being mutilated and killed is impossible.  Dr. William Craig begs to differ.  He said, “The hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead doesn’t contradict science or any known facts of experience.  All it requires is the hypothesis that God exists…  As long as the existence of God is even possible, it’s possible He acted in history by raising Jesus from the dead.”  The heavily-guarded tomb was definitely empty, else the authorities would’ve merely produced Christ’s corpse and halted the rumor mill’s churning immediately.  But they couldn’t dispute the inconvenient fact the tomb was, indeed, vacant.  They didn’t even try to prove otherwise!  Plus hundreds of folks saw Jesus alive.  Respected theologian Michael Green opined, “The appearances of Jesus are as well-authenticated as anything in antiquity… There can be no rational doubt they occurred, and that the main reason why Christians became sure of the resurrection in the earliest days was just this: They could say with assurance, ‘We have seen the Lord.’  They knew it was He.”  And James S. Stewart pointed out that, “…just fifty days after the Crucifixion the apostolic preaching of the Resurrection began in Jerusalem, the evidence convinced thousands.”  Was it some kind of mass hallucination?  Nope.  Any psychologist worth their salt will tell you those things are fictional.  They don’t happen.

 

Aside from the hard evidence skeptics must still contend with the amazing transformation that took place in the demeanor of the disciples themselves.  It’s nonsensical to surmise one of them stood up to propose they “cheer up already” and get busy concocting a wild, fanciful tale about Christ conquering death.  Undertaking something that desperate wouldn’t alter their fundamental character and it certainly wouldn’t cause them to suddenly deem martyrdom worthy of wholehearted pursuit.  Dr. J.P. Moreland said, “…the apostles were willing to die for something they’d seen with their own eyes and touched with their own hands…  And when you’ve got 11 credible people with no ulterior motives, with nothing to gain and lots to lose, who all agree they observed something with their own eyes you’ve got some difficulty explaining that away.”  Personally I’ve never met anybody willing to die for something they know is a lie.  The unprecedented exponential growth of Christ’s Church also bolsters belief in the Resurrection because that’s what really fueled and continues to fuel its strong assertion that the God’s honest truth has been revealed to mankind.  It’s difficult to conceive that an institution as influential as the Church has been could, for nearly 20 centuries, survive the vicious attacks – social, political and intellectual – that’ve besieged it nonstop if it was built solely upon a fairy tale.  Get real.  Movements, whether ideological or spiritual, just don’t last that long in this tumultuous world.

 

When all’s said and done what truly distinguishes Christianity from other religions, the thing which makes it not only credible but logical, is the person of Jesus Himself.  Once the disciples got over the shock of seeing their beloved Master whole again they likely wondered why they were shocked by His return at all.  When they reflected on the supernatural miracles they’d seen Jesus perform repeatedly it dawned on them that “…it was not possible for him to be held in its [death’s] power (Acts 2:24).  They’d never encountered anyone even remotely as full of vigor and vitality as Christ.  In him was life, and the life was the light of mankind (John 1:4).  I mean, they’d watched Him heal people of leprosy, the dreaded disease known to be incurable, on the spot.  So death never had a chance against the Son of God.  Why?  Because death had never tried to hold down a sinless, morally perfected human being!  Only the holy Son of God could end the curse of Eden.  Stewart wrote, “In Jesus alone among the sons of men the final break with sin had been achieved; and the power of spirit over matter, which in others was blocked and thwarted at every turn by sin’s taint and bias, was in Him fully set free.  Mighty works thus flowed naturally from Jesus; and the Resurrection, the mightiest of all, ceased to be impossible or even improbable and became inevitable.”  In the end it was the disciples’ close relationship with Christ, resulting naturally from being in near-constant contact with Him daily for years, which made them realize His Resurrection made perfect sense.  They’d come to savvy Jesus was truly God among us.  Thus if He’d died then God had died and all of creation would’ve collapsed.  It didn’t.  Their faith had been rewarded and their purpose precisely defined.

 

We can learn loads from our Savior’s post-resurrection appearances.  Both John and Matthew claim the first person to encounter the risen Jesus was Mary Magdalene.  Imagine that!  The spectacular news that permanently altered the course of human history and has outlasted the comings/goings of countless empires over the last 2,000 years was delivered initially to one humble, nondescript woman who’d at one time had 7 demons living in her before Christ evicted them.  It was love that’d sent her groping along in the pre-dawn darkness just to see if she might sit near Her Master’s mangled body only to discover even that opportunity had been cruelly taken from her.  He wasn’t there.  She wept until two angels asked her why.  She told them, They have taken my Lord away, and I do not know where they have put him! (John 20:13).  She turned to see a man standing nearby but it wasn’t until He called her by name that she recognized Him as Jesus.  What a joyous revelation that must’ve been for Mary!  Ponder this: If the disciples had opted to start a propaganda ball rolling by spreading sensationalized gossip concerning the Resurrection wouldn’t they have tossed in a lot more pizzazz to spice up the whole “empty tomb” fabrication?  Like avowing the stone exploded instead of rolling away?  That would’ve been tons more exciting, doncha think?  Or that Christ brazenly barged in on Caiaphas and his Sanhedrin pals, causing them to soil their robes in fright?  That’d make an attention-garnering tabloid headline, right?  But saying the risen Creator of the universe calmly addressed a woman of questionable character before presenting Himself to His male associates?  Say what?  Who ever heard of employing such an unimpressive, thoroughly forgettable tactic?  Only unwavering dedication to telling the truth can explain why they reported it the way it really happened.

 

In Luke we’re treated to the tale of two travelers trudging home to Emmaus after spending Passover week in Jerusalem.  Like the disciples, Cleopas and his unnamed friend were down in the dumps, venting to each other their disappointment that the one man they’d hoped would be the long-promised Messiah had been unjustly tried and murdered by the ruthless “powers that be”, thoroughly crushing all hope.  Yet ain’t it just like Christ to appear just when we think He’s nowhere to be found?  A stranger joined them in their walk and he offered insightful musings like, Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and enter into his glory? (Luke 24:26).  It was dusk when they got home so, being neighborly, they invited Him to stay the night.  When he had taken his place at the table with them, he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.  At this point their eyes were opened and they recognized him.  Then he vanished out of their sight (Luke 24:30-31).  Rather than lie around questioning their senses, they got up and raced eight miles in the dark all the way back to Jerusalem!  They had to inform the disciples immediately!

 

The 10 disciples (Judas was swinging in a tree by then and Thomas was AWOL) were still maintaining the lowest profile possible in the aforementioned room.  Cleopas and his companion evidently knew the secret password and were let in.  But before they could finish their report Jesus appeared out of thin air and “…stood among them (Luke 24:36).  All doubts the crew might’ve been harboring vanished – except, of course, Thomas’.  A week later, displaying His gracious patience with those who can’t help but doubt, Christ visited the same room again for Thomas’ benefit.  Thomas, embarrassed by his lack of trust, could only cry out, My Lord and my God! (John 20:28).  Now they all knew it was Jesus, not some weird apparition.  Yet there was something quite different about Him, nonetheless.  He said, Do not touch me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father (John 20:17), suggesting there was some sort of material-to-spiritual transition going on they wouldn’t be able to handle.  There are other hints: “…He appeared in a different form…” (Mark 16:12) and “…they were startled and terrified, thinking they saw a ghost (Luke 24:37).  Later we read where He stood on the beach “…but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus (John 21:4) so it’s safe to conclude He wasn’t exactly the same as before.  It’d be foolish to expect otherwise, though.  Being God, He was no longer restricted by time, space or matter.  He was as free as He promised we’ll be someday.

 

So what does the Resurrection tell us?  For one thing, it represents God’s acquittal of His only begotten Son.  Stewart wrote, “…Here in the Resurrection was God’s sudden, unexpected attestation of the very highest and most daring hopes that had ever been cherished about Jesus, God’s own seal set convincingly to Jesus’ messianic claim, God’s final vindication of His Son.”  It also affirmed the uncontestable validity of holiness, truth and love – the building blocks of Christ’s message and ministry.  Had His body remained entombed His enemies and critics would’ve touted it as evidence that righteousness, while admirable, is ultimately powerless to combat the inherently wicked, evil hearts of men; that we’re better off looking out for #1 after all.  But when Jesus rose from the dead His admonition to Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48) was proven justified.  It also demonstrated that there is, after all, life after death.  Otherwise, His telling us, “…I am going away to make ready a place for you.  And if I go and make ready a place for you, I will come again and take you to be with me, so that where I am you may be too (John 14:2-3) would mean nothing whatsoever.  But Jesus’ conquest of death was our conquest of it, as well.  It’s as He said: “…Because I live, you will live too (John 14:19).  Christians should realize fearing death is a colossal waste of precious time.  The Resurrection also means our Savior isn’t only alive but that He’ll be with us eternally.  The last words He spoke to His disciples before He ascended into the heavenly realm still ring true: “…I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20).  That means He’ll never abandon us; that we can face whatever tomorrow brings courageously because we know we’ll have the same hands that created the universe carrying us safely through what storms may come; that when all others fall away amidst our times of tragedy, heartbreak or loneliness He will faithfully stand by our side.  He’s promised us nothing less.

 

Still, I’m thankful to have something other than words printed in a book to back up, reinforce and substantiate my wholehearted belief in and surrender to Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.  I’ve literally felt His presence several times in my life.  To try to describe it would be futile for He’s touched my very soul with His extraordinary love, His limitless ability to heal, His unfettered willingness to forgive even my most egregious of sins and His unmatched tenderness.  As Karl Rahner wrote, “Some things are understood not by grasping but by allowing oneself to be grasped.”  I can’t top that poignant quote so I’ll simply affirm that it’s true.

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