Imagine with me D.C. without the White House, St, Louis without the Arch, Atlanta without the Varsity, New York without the Yankees, and L.A. without the Lakers and you begin to get a remote idea of what it means to have a gospel without the doctrine of the resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is more than a historical fact; it’s the main motif and high water mark of the historical drama known as God’s redemptive story.
We leave this massive truth out of our preaching at the peril of telling only half the story, a half truth in an incomplete story that is impotent to save sinners. We must preach Jesus’ atoning death and victorious resurrection. It’s not an either/or proposition, it’s a both/and proclamation.
What We Preach as Resurrection
The resurrection must have been on the minds of the Corinthian believers as they questioned the Apostle Paul about the comprehensive nature, redemptive scope, and historical particulars of the resurrection. Had the resurrection of the dead already occurred? Had Jesus really been raised from the dead? Was resurrection even possible? And did any of this matter to the gospel they had believed?
Believe it or not, these questions remain pertinent today, even in our modern, post-modern, post-Christian, pre-Christian day (you take your pick at to the times we live in). Questions about the resurrection matter because the resurrection matters to the gospel we preach. If the gospel we preach is simply about how to have a better life, a better marriage, or success in business then the resurrection is unnecessary. In fact, if the gospel is just another self-help method then away with a dying God and a living Lord.
There are plenty of good books, websites, and magazines to help in all of these categories. Sadly, too many preachers have distilled the gospel in a minimalistic fashion that views the gospel as a ‘tack on’ to a life in search of success and fulfillment, i.e. “Let’s see, I have my pretty wife, my smart kids, my green car, and my house in the burbs. I care about the poor, global warning, healthcare for all, and being a good neighbor. I better add on this God thing to cover all my bases.” This is the plastic gospel of our era, which is no gospel at all.
If we are interested in actual success and not just perceived success, if we are interested in essential change and not topical change, and if we are interested in life-changing change then the resurrection is essential. If the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is true, and it is, then it supersedes all other claims – it makes all the difference because it is the difference between life and death.
The Apostle Paul’s answer to the Corinthian believers is amazingly comprehensive. In 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 Paul outlines the basic contours of the importance of the gospel. The gospel is the life-changing truth 1) we receive and believe in salvation, vs. 1a.; 2) it is where we stake our claim and take our stand as believers, vs. 1b.; 3) it is what saves the sinner, vs. 2a.; 4) and, it is what we preach to the nations, vs. 2b. Preacher, this will preach!
But the gospel is more than just a truth with contours but no specific content. It’s more than just a nice story. Preacher, do you understand what you are claiming? We are claiming that a dead man died, but rose again and that this matters to our death and life. Amazing! Preposterous! Lunacy! The gospel is historical truth wrapped in a redemptive narrative that is breathtaking, mind-blowing, and God-revealing. Paul continues unfolding the content of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:3-11. The gospel is:
1) that Jesus died an un-accidental death because it was predicted in history and in the Scriptures; and not just a simple, martyr death, but a vicarious, substitute death ‘on behalf of’ or ‘in the stead of’ sinners; though perfect, Jesus died in the place of sinners, satisfying the justice of God so that the awakened, repentant sinner might be given a righteousness not his own (see Rom. 3:21-26), vs. 3;
2) that Jesus was buried in a borrowed grave – used with the intent of giving it back, (see Mk. 15:42-47);
3) that Jesus was raised from the dead not as a divine afterthought but according to God the Father’s sovereign plan unfolded in history and Scripture, vs. 4;
4) and that this physically, corporeally raised Jesus did not hide himself after his resurrection, but appeared to numerous people in various settings at differing times, vs. 5-11. Preacher, this will preach!
But what does all this mean? And why is it so important? The Apostle Paul continues unpacking the importance of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:12-34 by first looking at what happens if the resurrection is not true, and then looking at the resurrection, by implication, positively by what happens because the resurrection is true. If Jesus Christ has not been raised from the dead:
1) Jesus Christ himself has not been raised from the dead – he is a fraud, vs. 12-13;
2) Preaching the gospel is vanity, empty – we are liars, vs. 14a.;
3) Faith is misguided/misdirected – we are peddlers of a false worldview, vs. 14b.;
4) We are misrepresenting God – we are using false advertizing, vs. 15;
5) Faith is futile or vain – faith in a liar is no faith at all, vs. 17a.;
6) Sinners are still in our sins – we are unsaved, unredeemed, vs. 17b.;
7) Those who died believing the gospel have perished – death is it, vs. 18;
8) Believers are to be pitied – we are fools for having believed a lie, vs. 19;
If Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead, and all the indicators evidence this truth, then:
1) Jesus himself has been raised from the dead, vs. 20;
2) Preaching has meaning because we herald God’s truth (Rom. 10:14-21);
3) Faith is rightly and savingly directed toward the resurrected Christ who gives life (Eph. 2:8-10);
4) We rightly represent God in our ministries;
5) Faith is fulfilled in the gospel;
6) Sinners are no longer in their sins (Titus 3:1-11);
7) Those who have died have not perished but are present with the Lord;
8) We do not have to be pitied – God has made us wise in Christ.
I cannot imagine a gospel without the twin truths of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Without these complimentary and essential truths there is no gospel. What is there for us to say if these truths are not true? It was this gospel that instilled great confidence and power in those early disciples who continually gave witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ (Acts 4:33). It was the truth that put Paul on trial (Acts 23:6). The gospel is the power that makes new life possible in Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:3).
It is this gospel that empowers the oppressed church, undergirds believers in missionally closed countries, and that warrants hope in the face of cancer, courage in the face of trouble, and confidence in the face of death.
Preacher, this will preach! This is the message of gospel. God died for sinners. This dead God lives again! Sin, death, and hell have been vanquished. The last enemy of life has been murdered. In the murder of Jesus and his subsequent resurrection we see the murder of death. Death was lured to the cross and was crucified in the crucifixion of Jesus (Col. 2:13-15). A price was paid, a debt was resolved, and a holy God was satisfied and pleased. We can join with that great Puritan divine, John Owen, in celebrating the death of death in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Heb. 2:14-18). Preacher, this will preach!
How We Preach Resurrection
All of this doctrinal content is great, but how do you preach such a weighty doctrine to often doctrinally neutral audiences? Let me offer three concepts around which you can wrap various ways to look at the truth of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Preach Resurrection as an Invasion of Epoch Proportion
We preach resurrection as invasion. We live in hyper-religious, spiritual times. People are less committed to institutional religious expressions, while at the same time demonstrating a commitment to a search for that which is spiritual and eternal. Spirituality is not decreasing, but is increasing as people explore more and more the spiritual dimensions of human existence. Popular movies like ‘Paranormal Activity’ and ‘The Fourth Kind’ elicit great interest as many ask questions of what is ‘out there?’ and ‘is there another dimension?’ The rediscovery of the mystery of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection is part of the reason Dan Brown’s works, though entertainingly misguided, elicit so much interest. Such questions inform the on-going questions of ‘what’s out there’ as we search our own souls for meaning and purpose.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the culminating event of an invasion of epoch proportion of what is ‘out there’ to what is ‘right here.’ This invasion is described in the word ‘Immanuel’, is defined in the word crucifixion, and is comprehended in the word resurrection. Preaching the death, burial, and resurrection in this way calls us to reconsider the life of Jesus as more than a historical fact and more as the incarnation of the unthinkable and unimaginable – God himself.
I am afraid that we have undervalued the magnificence of this invasion. It is the invasion of God into time and space in the person of Jesus Christ that continues to rock the nations and the souls of men and women. This is why Jesus still makes front page news today. As communicators of the gospel we must never underestimate the awkward, but enticing dissonance of the truth that God has come, God has died, and God has been raised from the dead!
Preach Resurrection as a Miracle of Monumental Meaning
We preach resurrection as miracle and meaning. What does the resurrection mean? And how do you preach what it means? Is the resurrection simply a theological term that defines a doctrinal concept in an academic enterprise? The answer is Yes! But it is more. A theological concept does not save the sinner. A God who sacrificed himself in death, was buried, and then raised from the dead saves sinners.
This is absolute miracle. No one does this. No one dies and then lives again. Not even God is supposed to do this because God is not supposed to die. But the astounding miracle taking place in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is that God submits himself to that which is totally foreign to himself – death. The Father sent, the Son went; the Father offered his Son, the Son offered himself; the Father directed, the Son died; the Father called him forth; Jesus was raised from the dead; death died in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
This miracle enables us to preach true meaning. If the resurrection is true, then it changes everything, including how we define ourselves. Meaning is often found in defining who we are over against the challenges of life, especially our finitude. But what if something or someone has come that has eliminated every possible foe that would stand in the way of our search for meaning, including death? And what if that very event is the meaning, our meaning? And what if God means for us to live, really live? And what if this life is meant to be a life set free from sin, fear, and anxiety? Maybe this is what Jesus meant when he said in John 10:10, “I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly.”
The resurrection gives us a new reference point of definition. Rather than being defined by our birth date, death date, marriage date, family origins, or monetary worth, we are now defined by an event that unveils life, forgiveness, mercy, grace, and purpose. Isn’t this what the Apostle Paul meant in Philippians 3:10 where he defined his entire life-purpose to “…know him (Jesus Christ) and the power of his resurrection?” This singular meaning was what liberated Paul to do all that he did without fear of death or life.
Preach Resurrection as the Power of Temporal and Eternal Significance
We preach resurrection as power. Resurrection preaching is significant for the here and now and the there and then. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is essential for the here and now. That is, the gospel we preach enables and empowers people to live without fear and a sense of fatalism. If God has conquered sin and death in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ then what or whom should we fear?
It is this great confidence in the gospel that empowers people in the oppressed church in China to live with courage; it is the power of a resurrected life that elicits boldness in the face of incredible odds; it is the power of the resurrection that enables people to face cancer with courage because death has been defeated, family troubles with tenacity because we have an enabling relationship with God and, life-crisis with patience.
Maybe the people in our churches are so cowardly when it comes to real Christian living because they haven’t yet grasped the awesome truth that there is nothing to fear. In other words, our significance is not measured on Main Street or by Wall Street, but by the God who rules all streets through the life-giving, death-conquering power of Jesus Christ.
Such meaning was how a 22 year old Wheaton college student by the name of Jim Elliott was inspired to pen such majestic words like, ‘He is no fool to give up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.’ Or, what enabled Elliott to write, ‘Let me not be a mile-post on a single road, but make me a fork men must turn one way or another in facing Christ in me.” It is what empowered Elliott’s death to confirm with Paul and thousands of saints who have believed throughout the centuries – to live is Christ, to die is gain!
How do you preach the resurrection of Jesus Christ? We must say it plain, in Spiritual power, with passion, for the sake of sinners and the nations yet to know the meaning of life. Preaching is, and must continue to be, the description of the invasion event of an absolute miracle that defines who and what we are in the ‘here and now’ and the ‘there and then.’