Going All In: “The Third Day He Rose from the Dead”
April 11, 2004
Dr. Billy Graham once told Time magazine, “If I were an enemy of Christianity, I would aim right at the Resurrection, because that is the heart of Christianity.”
The founder of the Jesus seminar, Dr. Robert Funk, offers a perfect example of what Billy Graham was talking about. This is how Dr. Funk explains what happened to Jesus’ body after his crucifixion: “The tales of entombment and resurrection were latter-day wishful thinking. Instead, Jesus’ corpse went the way of all abandoned criminals’ bodies: it was probably barely covered with dirt, vulnerable to the wild dogs that roamed the wasteland of the execution grounds.”
When Thomas Jefferson wrote his version of the life of Christ, he removed all mention of the supernatural, including the miracles of Christ, the Virgin Birth, and the Resurrection. This is how the “Jefferson Bible” ends: “Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid. There laid they Jesus, and rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.” That’s it. The end. He died and they buried him. No mention of the Resurrection.
Even some professing Christians say it doesn’t matter. One man put this way: “Without a doubt, Jesus was raised from the dead. It does not matter at all to me if He was ‘physically’ raised from the dead.” Another writer put the matter this way: “I think the resurrection of Jesus really happened, but I have no idea if it involves anything happening to his corpse, and, therefore, I have no idea whether it involves an empty tomb … so I would have no problem whatsoever with archeologists finding the corpse of Jesus for me. That would not be a discrediting of the Christian faith or the Christian tradition.”
This raises a profound question. What would happen to your faith if tomorrow morning the Chicago Tribune carried this headline: “Body of Jesus Found near Jerusalem”? (When I asked that question in the 10:00 a.m. service, a man shouted out, “None at all.” He probably shouted too soon—but I knew what he meant. That headline wouldn’t matter because it wouldn’t be true. Not exactly my point—but he’s right—it wouldn’t be true even if the newspaper printed it.) But suppose the newspaper printed that headline because someone really did find the bones of Jesus in a box in the Holy Land. What would be left of our Christian faith? Would it matter at all? Or would we go on as if nothing had happened?
On this point the Apostles’ Creed offers an unambiguous affirmation: “The third day he rose again from the dead.” No ifs, ands or buts about it. Jesus died on Friday; on Sunday morning he came back from the dead.
I. What Does It Mean?
When we say that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day, we mean something like this: Jesus truly died on Friday afternoon, and on Sunday morning he personally, bodily, physically, actually, literally rose from the dead, never to die again. He rose personally—it was Jesus himself, not some substitute. He rose bodily—meaning that it was his crucified body that was raised from the dead. He rose physically—meaning that he wasn’t a ghost or a phantom or a figment of someone’s imagination. To say that he rose actually and literally means that it really happened. And the word “resurrection” means that he was raised immortal and incorruptible, never to die again. During his earthly ministry, our Lord raised several people from the dead, most notably Lazarus. But those miracles were resuscitations, not true resurrections. Lazarus was destined to die again. But Jesus, having once experienced death and having triumphed over it, would never die again. He was raised immortal—alive from the dead—and he still lives today. That’s what we mean when we say that on the third day he rose again from the dead.
Why does this matter? First, this is what the Bible teaches. Let there be no confusion on this point. Everything in the gospel records, everything in the book of Acts, everything in the epistles stands in perfect harmony on this point: Jesus died and then rose from the dead. Second, this is what really happened. If you had been there that Sunday morning, you would have seen the empty tomb. If you had been with the disciples, you would have seen Jesus alive from the dead. Like Thomas, you could have checked out the evidence for yourself. Third, this is what the church has always believed. The resurrection of Christ has always been a fundamental truth of Christian doctrine. It’s one part of that tiny handful of things that has always been believed by all Christians everywhere. This truth unites Christians of all denominations large and small. If you do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus, you have placed yourself outside the boundaries of orthodox Christianity. If you truly don’t believe it, you are not a Christian at all—and you shouldn’t be treated as one even if you happen to be a pastor or a seminary professor.
Fourth, this is the church’s message. Read the book of Acts. Study the sermons of Peter and Paul. The climax was not “Christ is crucified,” but “Christ is risen from the dead!” That’s the message that turned the world upside down. The Son of God had come back from the dead! Nothing like that had ever happened before. We do not worship a dead Jesus. We worship a risen Christ. That’s why the cross in the sanctuary is empty. Jesus was crucified once and for all—and the cross is empty to remind us that though he died, he did not stay dead.
II. What If It Didn’t Happen?
In the early church some believers became confused when their loved ones died and were buried. Evidently a belief spread that Christians who had died would not be raised from the dead. Paul addresses this problem in I Corinthians 15 by reminding his readers that the resurrection of believers depends on whether or not Jesus himself rose from the dead. When we stand at the graveside of a loved one, it’s very easy for death to overwhelm us with its awful power. It’s not unusual to wonder if we will ever see them again. No one we know has ever come back from the dead. Perhaps there will be no resurrection after all. Thoughts such as these—understandable, very human thoughts—filled the minds of those early believers and led them to the point of despair.
It is noteworthy that in his response, Paul does not rebuke the Corinthians for their fears and doubts, nor does he try to “prove” the resurrection of the dead in some detailed argument. He points these erring believers back to the empty tomb and says, “Remember that God raised his Son. Everything hinges on that.” Then for a few verses, he argues the contrary case. What if Jesus has not been raised from the dead? What if his bones really are in some box in the Middle East? What then? Four conclusions follow.
A. Our faith is futile.
He says this explicitly in verse 17. The word futile means “useless, empty, vain, of no value.” The Christian faith without the Resurrection is an exercise in futility. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, it’s not true and we are wasting our time believing it. When Billy Graham was just beginning to rise to prominence in the 1940s, there was another young evangelist who became well-known at the same time. Many people thought he was an even better preacher than Billy Graham. His name was Charles Templeton. He and Billy Graham spoke together at Youth for Christ rallies across America and in Great Britain. Charles Templeton was gifted, brilliant, articulate, polished, and a powerful preacher of the gospel. In the years following World War II, Templeton and Graham began to move in different directions. Templeton became enamored with liberal theology and began to question many aspects of his Christian faith. At one point he told Billy to get his nose out of the Bible or else he’d never be able to connect to the people of the world. Templeton attended a liberal seminary, pastored in Canada for a few years, and eventually gave up his Christian faith altogether. Later he became the host of a late-night talk show that made him the “Johnny Carson of Canada.” In his later years he attacked the evangelical faith he once preached. At one point he published a novel called Act of God that was built on the premise that the bones of Jesus had been discovered in the Holy Land, but the Catholic Church covered up the story because they knew it would destroy Christianity. Toward the end of his life (he died several years ago), Templeton was interviewed by Lee Strobel for his book, The Case for Faith. The book makes clear that despite some regret, he never gave up his skeptical unbelief. I mention his story because I wish to give Charles Templeton due credit, especially for his novel. He understood exactly what the Apostle Paul was saying. If Christ is not risen from the dead, then the Christian faith collapses like a deck of cards.
B. We are still in our sins.
That’s also in verse 17. Christ’s death cannot save us if he is still in the tomb. Not long ago I heard a man pray like this: “Lord Jesus, even if you didn’t rise from the dead, at least we know our sins are forgiven.” But that’s the exact opposite of what Paul says. There is no forgiveness and we are eternally lost if Christ is still in the tomb.
C. We will never see our loved ones again.
“Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost” (I Corinthians 15:18). Death has won the final battle if Christ did not rise. Then our worst fears are realized as we lay our loved ones to rest, knowing that we will never see them again.
D. We should be pitied.
“If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men” (I Corinthians 15:19). Sometimes well-meaning people say something like this: “Even if Christianity isn’t true, it’s still the best way to live.” The proper theological term for that is Baloney. If it’s not true, why would anyone want to believe it or live it? I don’t want to spend my days deluded, following some clever fable. Life is too short to do anything but find the truth and then commit yourself to it 100%. If Jesus did not rise on the third day, then the “Hallelujah Chorus” is just another piece of nice music. It’s beautiful but it’s not based on truth. If Jesus did not rise, then our prayers are empty, our preaching is in vain, our missionary work is useless, and the church itself is a danger because it stands for something that is not true. If Jesus is still in the grave, then we’re just talking nonsense on Easter Sunday morning. That’s what Paul meant—and he’s right!
It all hangs on that little word “if.” If Jesus did not rise … But what if he did?
III. What Difference Does It Make?
Having stated the negative, Paul now triumphantly asserts the positive truth in verse 20: “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”
We can simply reverse all of Paul’s previous points. Now that Christ is risen …
A) Our faith has meaning.
B) We have forgiveness.
C) We will see our loved ones who died in Christ.
D) We can be certain about our own future.
What wonderful news this is. Now there is hope for the hopeless. Now light shines from heaven in the midst of the darkest corners of the world. Now we can say to anyone, “If you come to Christ, he will not turn you away.” No one is beyond the reach of God’s grace. Whatever “your” sin might be, no matter where you’ve been or what you’ve done, the blood of Jesus Christ can forgive you and wash you clean in one great moment of transformation. Heaven now becomes real and death has lost its victory. We still die—but we don’t stay dead forever. There is good news from the graveyard because Jesus has come back from the dead.
“Do you ever doubt?”
A few weeks ago the 20/20 singles group asked me to come for an “Ask Pastor Ray” night. That’s always fun because the group is lively and they pepper me with unpredictable questions. That night 50-60 of us sat in a big circle in the Dining Room. I told them I would be glad to answer questions on the Bible, the Christian life, theological issues, or they could ask about my personal life, and if they wanted to, they could ask me how the Cubs and White Sox are going to do this year. Basically it’s wide open and no topic is off-limits. Near the end of the evening, a young lady raised her hand and said something like this: “Pastor Ray, when I listen to you speak, you always sound so certain about everything. Do you ever doubt?”
I told her that I thought she had asked a very important question. I know that when I preach or when I write, I do sound very certain. Part of that is intentional. For one thing, I know what I believe and I’m not shy about presenting my views in a forceful manner. I also think that when a man stands up to preach, he should preach his faith, not his doubts. People have enough troubles of their own without me adding anything to their burden. Folks come to church with their own unspoken worries, fears and doubts. They don’t need to have me add to that load. Some preachers make a practice of baring their souls when they preach. They turn the pulpit into a forum for personal confession and group therapy. If I had to come to church every Sunday and listen to a man talk about his fears and worries, I think I would go to the nearest bridge and jump off. People come to church because they want to hear a word from the Lord—not the preacher’s personal issues.
But having said that, I think the question deserves an answer. Yes, I do have doubts. I don’t talk about them very much, but I doubt every day. Not sometimes, but every day. (After I preached this sermon, one of the elders of the church was concerned about that statement—did I really mean it? Absolutely, I said. I have doubts and questions that come to my mind every single day.) I don’t know how a person could be a Christian and not have doubts from time to time. Faith requires doubt in order to be faith. If you ever arrive at a place where all your doubts are gone, you will know that you are in heaven. On earth, doubts abound. As a side note, I found that it was this part of the sermon on Sunday that drew the most attention. I received a number of e-mails from people thanking me for saying that I too have doubts. Some people doubt and then feel guilty. Sometimes they even wonder if they are really Christians at all because of their doubts.
When I answered the question at the 20/20 meeting, I mentioned that just that afternoon I had spoken at the funeral service for Leif Jonasen, a wonderful man and a good friend who had died a few days earlier. After battling with leukemia, he went into remission. Several weeks earlier I had seen him in church and he was doing fine. A few days later the leukemia returned with a vengeance. A week and a half later we had his funeral service. During my 26 years as a pastor, I have done more funerals than I can remember. It never gets any easier. The hardest part for me is driving away from the grave. The finality of leaving someone in the ground weighs on my soul. I told the 20/20 group that as I drove away from Leif’s grave, I said to Marlene, “I sure hope my brave words back there were true, because I’m leaving a good man in the grave.” Now I know—and I do believe with all my heart—that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. But I know and believe that simply by faith. What I see with my eyes is a man being buried in the ground. As we drove away, I added this thought, “I’m glad his resurrection doesn’t depend on my words, because my words have no power to raise the dead.” Over the years I’ve seen all the death I care to see—even though I will likely see much more before my time on earth is done. Everyone I’ve ever buried is still in the grave. I’m waiting for my first resurrection.
Where will we find hope in the face of death?
Going “All In”
So I shared an illustration that surprised the 20/20 group and then made them laugh. It shocked some of the people who heard it on Sunday morning. Who knows? It may get me in trouble with some people who read this sermon, but so be it. Here’s a fact about me that until now, almost no one has known. In the last year or so I have gotten hooked on watching a certain show on television. I don’t watch it every day or even every week, but when I happen to find it while I’m flipping through the channels, I’ll stop and watch it. In the last year I’ve started watching professional poker tournaments on TV. Sometimes it’s on ESPN and sometimes it’s on the Travel Channel. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched the 2003 World Series of Poker but it’s more than two or three times. And I watch the World Poker Tour also. So I know about Sam Farha and Chris Moneymaker and Doyle Brunson and Phil Helmuth and Phil Ivey and Annie Duke and all the rest of them. They play a game called “No Limit Texas Hold-’em.” (To be clear about it, I don’t play poker. I just watch it on TV.) It’s an amazing study in strategy and the intricacies of human behavior. Sometimes the pots will be huge—over a million dollars in chips in the middle of the table.
Here’s the illustration. In every game of high-stakes poker, there comes a defining moment that separates the winners from the losers. You never know when that moment will come because it’s up to the individual players. There is a moment when a player says two words—”All in.” That means he thinks he’s got the best hand so he takes his chips and pushes them to the middle of the table. He flips his cards over so everyone can see them, and then he stands up. Going “all in” means that you are risking everything you’ve got on just one hand. If you win, you win it all. If you lose, you lose it all. That’s why it’s a high-drama moment. You can’t win a tournament unless you’re willing to go “all in” at some point. You’ve got to pick the right moment, you’ve got to believe that your cards will beat the other cards, and then you’ve got to risk everything in order to win. And you don’t know whether you’ve won or lost until you’ve gone “all in.”
As a Christian and as a pastor, I confess that I do have my doubts. I know that people put their trust in what I say and that weighs on my heart. I wonder sometimes if all the things I say about life and death, about God and salvation and heaven and hell, are really true. In the end I come back to this: A long time ago I decided to go “all in” on the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. I took all my chips and pushed them to the middle of the table and risked it all that on the third day he rose again from the dead. I’ve taken my stand by the empty tomb, I’ve thrown my cards on the table for all the world to see, and I’m not ashamed to stand with Christians across the centuries and say, “I believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead.” I’m going “all in” on the Resurrection of Jesus.
I invite you to do the same thing. If he did rise from the dead, then we’re going to be okay. We can have our doubts and our worries and fears, and even as we drive away from the funeral, we can have many unanswered questions. But that’s not what matters. Our faith is not determined by our doubts. Our faith rests on what happened in the Garden Tomb outside Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.
If Jesus rose from the dead, then we’re on the winning side. Death has had a field day for a long time. Lots of people go into the cemeteries—no one comes out. No one, that is, except Jesus. I’ve staked my entire future and all I believe on this truth—that my Lord lives today because he conquered death on Easter Sunday morning. The rest is just details.
Arnold Toynbee, the eminent British historian, once said, “If the body of one Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, can be produced, then Christianity will crumble into a lifeless religion.” Toynbee was right. But it’s not going to happen. That’s why the man who shouted in the 10:00 a.m. service was right. Even if the Chicago Tribune reported that someone found the bones of Jesus, it wouldn’t matter because it wouldn’t be true.
Thanks be to God for the empty tomb. As much as I marvel at the virgin birth of Jesus, as much as I wonder at the sinless life of Jesus, as much as I glory in the cross of Jesus, it is the resurrection of Jesus that makes Christianity unique among all of the world religions. Go to the tombs of the founders of the great world religions and call the roll:
No answer … Because he is not there. The tomb is empty. Doubt if you will, but the tomb is still empty because he is not there. He is risen, just as he said.
In the early church Christians greeted each other this way: One would say, “He is risen.” Another would answer, “He is risen indeed.”
It is true … and we have staked our lives upon it. No one can remain neutral forever. You can bring your doubts to the empty tomb … but you have to make a choice. You can’t stay on the fence forever.
Doubting is no sin, but at some point you’ve got to stop doubting and start believing. Either you believe or you don’t.
This is Easter Sunday morning. It’s a wonderful day to make a choice. It’s a great day to stop doubting and start believing.
You know that Jesus died … there is no doubt about that. You know that he died for you. You know that he rose from the dead. The question God is asking you is very simple: What have you done with my Son?
Jesus said, “Stop doubting and believe.”
I’ve made up my mind. I’m going “all in” on the Resurrection of Jesus. “The third day he rose again from the dead.” Amen.