There has been a lot of talk in recent years about whether it is time to give up on the label ‘evangelical.’ For many people evangelical refers to being a supporter of Donald Trump or some other narrow definition. There is a thing now called post-evangelical, referring to people who reject evangelicalism and are looking for something different.
I hold on to the label evangelical, but doing so does not tell you any thing about my politics or my position on any controversial issue. I have a very specific understanding of what it means to be an evangelical. Evangelical comes from evangel, which means gospel or good news. So for me, an evangelical is one who embraces and focuses on the gospel. But that leaves us asking about what the gospel or good news is.
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul clearly explains the gospel that he preaches. The gospel is about the death and resurrection of Jesus. The death and resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection is not just a little add on to the gospel, it is vital to the gospel. Without the resurrection, the death of Jesus would have been just a sad injustice. A number of years ago, I was in a leadership program and were instructed to preach a 5 minute evangelistic sermon. The instructors made it clear that it had to include the resurrection and that mentioning just the cross was not enough.
Why should we care about the resurrection? Is this something just for pastors and theologians to reflect on? Or is there something about the resurrection that is relevant to every one of us? That is what we are going to look at. Do you remember the Christmas Carol and the ghosts of Christmas past, future and present? We are going to look at what the resurrection means for the past, the future and the present.
Christians have sometimes been guilty of focusing too much on the cross. Too much on the cross? How is that possible? After all, Paul himself said, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2) But we have to ask why he said this. It is not that the cross was the only thing that was important. The church at Corinth was one that prided itself in its strength and despised weakness. The beginning of Paul’s letter is meant to humble the Corinthians by demonstrating that God works through weakness. It was through death that God reconciled us to himself in Christ. This is also an example of how God works through our weakness.
The cross is extremely important. In some way, Christ paid the penalty for our sins. In Christ’s death, we are forgiven and adopted into God’s family. But how do we know that actually happened? I could tell you that my death would provide some spiritual benefit to you and then throw myself in front of a car. But how would you know that my death did anything? The death itself is not enough evidence.
How many people were crucified in the first century? Thousands and thousands. The death of Jesus didn’t prove anything by itself. How many were resurrected? Only one. What about Lazarus and a couple of other people mentioned in the Gospels? They were not resurrected, they were resuscitated. What’s the difference? Lazarus and those other people eventually grew old and each died again. Jesus, on the other hand, was not just brought back to life, he was given a resurrection body that could never die again.
I’m not trying to minimize the importance of the cross but I am trying to demonstrate that our faith in the cross is justified because of the resurrection. We can believe that Jesus paid the penalty for our sins because of the empty tomb.
I mentioned that Paul was writing to the Corinthians and they had some issues. They were proud of their strength. They were so confident that they claimed that they had reached the spiritual pinnacle. There was nothing better than what they were right at that time. They were so confident in this that they rejected the resurrection.
They didn’t reject the resurrection of Jesus but the resurrection of the believer. Judaism, the faith that Christianity emerged from, hoped not for a shadowy afterlife but a bodily resurrection. This was the same message that Jesus taught. He had very little to say about heaven but had much to say about the resurrection. But the Corinthians couldn’t handle this because that would mean that there was a future state superior to what they were experiencing then.
Paul demolishes this argument by looking at the link between the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of the believer. If there is no bodily resurrection, than Jesus was not resurrected. But since Jesus was raised, with evidence by eyewitnesses, there is a bodily resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus and our resurrection are not two different things. They are not different in nature, only different in timing. Paul explains this as being the first fruits. As someone who has only started gardening, i love it when the first shoots pop through the soil. It is not that those one or two plants are enough but they are the promise of what is coming, a full harvest. That is what the resurrection of Jesus is. It was not just for Jesus’ benefit but was for ours as well. The resurrection of Jesus was the promise of what will happen to us in the future.
When will this happen? The New Testament makes it clear that the resurrection takes place when Jesus returns from heaven. Despite all of the embarrassing predictions of the end of the world, the second coming of Jesus is a clear teaching of Scripture. When he returns, we will be made like him, receiving bodies that will never age or decay.
We have looked at what the resurrection meant in the past, with the resurrection of Jesus. We have looked at what the resurrection means for the future, with the bodily resurrection that we will all experience. But what does the resurrection mean for right now?
In a sense we are experiencing the resurrection in the presence. Paul wrote, “And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 2:6-7)
What does this mean? Have you ever thrown a large rock into a pond? The rock doesn’t just sink, it sends out ripples across the pond. Think about the rock as Jesus and the shore as the future bodily resurrection. We are somewhere in between, being hit by the ripples of the rock.
The church is meant to be immersed in resurrection power. It is the reason that we can proclaim a message of hope. Christians talk about eternal life but that is not something that begins the moment after our last breath. Eternal life begins now. It speaks not just to the quantity of life but the quality of life. This is something that Jesus also described as abundant life.
The present experience of the resurrection means that we can really live life. Not that we won’t experience hardships and challenges. But the point of the resurrection is life from death. Resurrection life is most evident when we are going through the darkest times.
We live in a dark world. There is fear of terrorism and war and violent crime. Corruption is rampant and people are dishonest. Then there are the things that are just happening to us and our families. Problems and pain and suffering of different kinds. Where is the hope?
The hope is in the resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus was a historical event. If you went back in time and set up a video camera outside the tomb, you would see the stone roll away and a living Jesus walk out. The resurrection is a future hope. Jesus will come back and when he does, our bodies will be transformed into bodies like his, bodies built for eternity. In between the past and the future we have the present. The resurrection is a present experience. The ripples of Jesus’ resurrection bathe us in eternal life, transforming every part of us. It is because of the resurrection, past, future and present that we can have hope in this life.