Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! That millennia-old paschal greeting sums up the essence of Easter. Jesus the Messiah, the Christ, as prophesied in the Old Testament as a future event and as described in the New Testament as a historical fact, was crucified and His dead body was placed in a guarded tomb. But on the third day, on that first Easter morning, He was raised from the dead. And by being raised from the dead Jesus was able to offer His resurrection life to anyone who would believe in Him. According to Romans 10:9, “If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.”
In our modern age, the Christ of Easter has been replaced by what we can call an “Easter Bunny Jesus.” 2 Corinthians 11:4 points out that false culture, false religion and false science manufacture false Jesuses. The Easter Bunny Jesus was a good man, a moral teacher, who was killed for preaching socialism, pacifism, and whatever other politically correct “-ism” is in vogue with the secular humanist, anti-supernaturalist, postmodernist, existentialist, moral-relativist crowd that has anointed itself the arbiters of truth. Their Easter Bunny Jesus, of course, died and is still very much dead. One of their favorite assertions is that the biblical accounts of Jesus are myths and fables written after the fact by people who were not eyewitnesses.
The problem with the Easter Bunny Jesus is that such a Jesus, like the Easter Bunny itself, ultimately means nothing, because he is nothing but a fabricated story with a fabricated theological meaning. And a dead Messiah can’t do anything for anybody for the very simple reason that he is DEAD and BURIED. And it is a doubly fabricated story because it has no connection whatsoever with the real Jesus and what the real Jesus really did on Easter.
So what really happened on the first Easter morning?
In 1 Corinthians chapter 15 we have an early Christian creed that dates to within the time of the crucifixion of Jesus that defines the meaning of the Gospel of Easter and defends the HISTORICAL REALITY of Easter.
Turn with me in your Bibles, if you have them, to 1 Corinthians 15:
1Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
3For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
What is the meaning of the Christian Gospel of Easter?
First of all, the Easter Gospel is that by which we are saved. According to the Bible, there are ultimately only two kinds of people: those who are saved, and those who are lost. Jesus believed in the reality of hell. We avoid discussing hell, because a lot of modern people find the concept very unpleasant. But the fact is that Jesus talked more about hell than anyone else in all of Scripture. In fact, Jesus talked about hell almost more than everyone else in Scripture COMBINED. Jesus said in Matthew 7:23 that there will be many to whom He will say, “Depart from me. I never knew you.” In Matthew 8:12 Jesus spoke of a place of outer darkness, and said “in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” According to Matthew 25:41 Jesus will say to those who are not saved, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
No Easter Bunny Jesus can save you. Only the power of the real Resurrected Son of God can save you.
What do you have to believe to have the Easter Resurrection Life of Christ? 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 tells us: “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” Forget the Easter Bunny Jesus; we’re talking about the REAL death and the REAL Resurrection of the REAL Christ Jesus who came in fulfillment of the Old Testament that prophesied the coming Christ. And this real Jesus REALLY died. The body of this real Jesus REALLY was buried. And the body of this real Jesus was REALLY raised from the dead.
Who is Christ? As Peter confessed to Jesus in Matt 16:16, He is the Son of the Living God. He is God the Son. The Gospel of John begins by teaching that Christ was with God the Father from the beginning, and ALL things came into being through Christ. Colossians 1:16 confirms this truth about Christ Jesus, teaching that “in Him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through Him and for Him.”
God the Son took on a human nature. He created man and woman in His own image knowing that one day He would assume our image, so that He could live the perfect life in our place that we could not live, and then die the death that we could not die in our place for our sins. And all you have to do to be saved, according to the Bible, is accept what He did for you on the cross, and believe that God raised Him from the dead with the kind of Resurrection Life that He alone can offer to YOU right here and right now as He takes your sin and gives you His righteousness.
Now comes the question: why should anyone believe this Gospel? Why should anyone believe that this Christ came, died in our place for our sins that separate us from God, and was raised from the dead as the Lord of Life to offer that Life to us? What evidence does St. Paul present that he’s telling the truth about the first Easter?
In verses 3 through 7 of 1 Corinthians 15, scholars identify an early Christian creed (there are SEVERAL early creeds preserved in the New Testament that were passed on from the very first Christian witnesses). St. Paul – who began his own career as a Jewish rabbi and a Pharisee – in saying, “For what I received I passed on to you” – is actually using technical rabbinical terminology for the receiving and passing along of established oral tradition. He’s pointing out that he received this creed from someone else and is now passing it on. Paul points out that he had ALREADY given the Corinthians this creed on his first visit, which history confirms happened in 51 AD. He uses the past tense: “I passed on to you.” So we’re already within twenty years of the cross, aren’t we? But St. Paul tells us that just as HE passed the creed on, it had been previously passed to HIM, right? So who did St. Paul receive the creed from?
It gets exciting: most scholars argue that Paul had to have received this creed when he made the trip to Jerusalem described in Galatians 1:18-19 to meet with Peter and James – the very people specifically named in the creed. That event is fixed historically: it happened in AD 38. That’s just a few years from when Christ was crucified.
But the stylized, structured wording of this creed strongly suggests to many scholars that it predates even Paul’s visit to meet with Peter and James. The underlying wording is clearly Aramaic rather than Greek, for example. When the passages are re-translated into Aramaic, they possess the rhyme and rhythm that clearly reveals they were originally developed in that language. That is why it’s “Cephas” rather than “Peter.” And in the words of this creed, we are back right to the moments right after the Cross, to the Resurrection, as the eyewitnesses described what they saw and who saw it with them.
Let’s look again beginning with verse 5: “and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.”
For the first thousand years after the Crucifixion of Jesus, the ONLY polemic from Jews – who saw the rise of Christianity as a threat to Judaism – was that Jesus’ disciples had stolen His body from the tomb. That was the only rival explanation that was offered. Jesus died and stayed dead, and His disciples stole His body and started preaching a lie. But here’s the thing: that explanation has largely been abandoned by even the most skeptical scholars today. Do you know why? Because in the thousand years SINCE the end of the first millennia, critics have had to contend with a brutal fact of history: that these twelve men who claimed they had seen Jesus resurrected from the dead CHANGED THE WORLD preaching about that resurrected Jesus they claimed they saw and heard and touched. The calendar on planet earth is dated in A.D., Anno Domini, In the Year of Our Lord, BECAUSE of the testimony of the apostles about Jesus.
History records the fact that Jesus’ disciples traveled across the known world preaching about what they witnessed that Easter morning. With the sole exception of St. John – who was himself tortured for his testimony – all of these men gave their lives as martyrs proclaiming that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God, whom they had seen crucified and whom they saw raised gloriously from the dead.
Here’s the problem for skeptics and for those who prefer the Easter Bunny Jesus: these disciples were in a UNIQUE position to know whether or not they had really witnessed what they claimed they had seen and heard and touched. While it is possible for people to be sincerely mistaken, the disciples were in a UNIQUE position to know for certain whether they saw, heard and touched what they claimed they had.
Would you be willing to die for something that you categorically KNEW was false? Do you think you could assemble a dozen other people who would likewise all be willing to die for something that they knew was not true??? No. Nobody dies for a lie. Everyone pretty much agrees that the disciples clearly, sincerely believed that they had seen their Lord Jesus gloriously alive after His death by crucifixion and after having spent three days in a tomb. There are some who want to argue that Jesus was the one who pulled off the fraud, having somehow survived being crucified, having a Roman spear shoved through His heart, waking up in a tomb and climbing out to deceive His disciples. But the problem with that is that it makes JESUS a horrible, lying fraud and in fact the greatest villain in all of human history. Does that work for you that the Man regarded as the greatest moral teacher who ever lived was a dishonest imposter???
So modern skeptics have devised a phenomena of mass hallucination, whereby all twelve of the disciples over and over again all thought they were seeing the same thing, hearing the same thing, even TOUCHING the same thing, but of course they had to be somehow mistaken every single time. And when 500 people all saw and heard the same thing at the same time, well, what else could have happened except that they were suffering from a mass delusion? A delusion so powerful most of them ultimately sacrificed their lives as martyrs for what they thought they had seen but of course hadn’t really seen.
I find it easier to simply believe that there really is a God who can do what the God of the Bible says He can do.
St. Paul provides three specific witnesses that we have to briefly discuss: Cephas (or Peter), James, and last of all, Paul adds himself to the list in verse 8.
These three men cover the panoply of possibilities and responses to Jesus: When Jesus was crucified, Peter – who had believed in and followed Jesus – was a completely broken man even before Jesus was crucified. He had fled like a coward from the One he had previously declared he would die for. He had denied Jesus three times that night while Jesus was on trial for His life.
Question: what would it take to make this completely broken man the boldest of the disciples who would preach until his own martyrdom by crucifixion? What would it take to make such a man – facing his own cross of execution – ask the Romans to crucify him upside down because he did not feel worthy to die in the exact same manner as his Lord Jesus? What would it take to restore Peter? Only one thing: an appearance by the resurrected Lord of Life who forgave him and restored him and gave him a mission that he would doggedly pursue to the moment of his own martyrdom.
Take James, the half-brother of Jesus. The Gospels record that James was highly skeptical of his half-brother Jesus. John 7:5 openly declares that James didn’t believe. Mark chapter 3 indicates that James was one of those who literally thought that Jesus had lost His mind. Here comes the question: what would it take for you to believe that your oldest sibling was the Creator God of the Universe??? Because THAT is the point that James the brother of Jesus had to somehow arrive at. What would it take? How about seeing his half-brother, having been crucified, gloriously risen from the dead in proof that everything He had said about Himself was true and that He really WAS the Savior of the world??? We know that James became a believer at the worst possible time, right after his half-brother was brutally executed by Rome as a warning to anyone who would believe what Jesus had believed.
And history records that James, known as James the Just for his godly character, was murdered by a mob as a martyr for preaching, yes, that his half-brother Jesus really was Lord and God.
And we arrive at St. Paul. Verse 8 says, “and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.” St. Paul started out as Saul, a rabid Jewish Pharisee who despised Christians and literally wanted them all either dead or in chains. Until something knocked him off his high horse when he was on the road to Damascus to persecute more Christians and changed his mind – and more – his heart forever afterward. And so Saul the most ardent persecutor of the Church became St. Paul, the most ardent evangelist of the Church he had tried to destroy. What could cause such a transformation?
Paul repeatedly offered only one answer: he saw the risen Jesus and he believed what he saw and heard.
On this Easter morning, I it is my privilege to declare to you that it all really happened just as the Scriptures declare: that Jesus the Christ, the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament, really came, really lived a perfect life in your place, really took your sins upon Himself at the cross, taking the blame for what you’ve done, and really rose bodily from the dead so that you could be raised to the Resurrection Life of Easter with Him.
And all you have to do to have that eternal Easter life is believe in the Lord of Life, believe in Jesus.