Acts 17:31-34 “He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead. When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, ‘We want to hear you again on this subject.’ At that, Paul left the Council. A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.”
As Luke records it, the last five words of Paul to the Aeopagus were about the Lord Jesus and God “raising him from the dead.” We are told that this was the last straw for some of the Greeks listening to him. They were not gullible men. They may have been alive in a pre-scientific age, but it was certainly not a pre-common sense age. “No one comes back from the grave; you die and you stay dead. There can be no resurrection except in fairy stories.” That is what they believed and that is what men believe still. But Paul climaxed his message to them by referring to Jesus rising from the dead and while some of them sneered at it, God honoured the word of Paul. It wasn’t all swallowed up in the dust of Athens. There were others who wanted to hear more and a few of the people listening became believers, a man called Dinoysius who was a member of the Areopagus itself, and an important woman named Damaris, and others too. So for Paul an essential part of the Christian message to the unbelieving world contained a statement of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Let us examine the teaching of the Bible concerning this theme.
- RESURRECTION IS NOT UNIQUE TO THE NEW TESTAMENT.
In the Old Testament there is the incident in the life of the greatest of the prophets, Elijah, when he raised the son of the widow of Zarephath from the dead. We are told that he “cried to the Lord, ‘O Lord my God, let this boy’s life return to him. The Lord heard Elijah’s cry, and the boy’s life returned to him, and he lived” (I Kings 17:21&22). Also a similar resurrection happened with Elisha, the successor of Elijah, when the Shunammite’s son was raised from the dead after Elisha had interceded for him. So the believers of the Old Testament knew that death was not the terminus of our existence, not the ultimate reality, that the power of the Creator God was greater than the power of death; he had the power to resurrect people who had died. In fact, that was the hope of such an Old Testament believer as Job when he said, “For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: and though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God: Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another; though my reins be consumed within me” (Job 19:25-27).
There is an interesting 21st century Jewish scholar, a historian and a diplomat, called Pinchas Lapide (who died a few years ago) and he’s done well in taking seriously the New Testament accounts of the resurrection of Jesus, going so far as to declare the following. This sentence is his actual words, “I accept the resurrection of Easter Sunday, not as an invention of the community of disciples, but as an historical event.” Lapide studied the New Testament and he’s concluded that the recorded events are too rooted in history for there to have been any major revisions or deceptions or a conspiracy involved in the writing. He believes that Jesus physically rose from the dead. As a Jew, believing the Scriptures of the Old Testament, he has something to go on in the miracles of resurrection of Elijah and Elisha and Job’s hope about his destiny. Lapide has written about his conviction in his 2002 book, The Resurrection of Jesus (you can get it on Amazon), but strangely he hasn’t become a Christian. He regards Christ as a kind of role model to prepare the world for a future coming of the Jewish Messiah. Such a future Messiah would have to follow Jesus the Messiah, the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount, and the one who raised the dead and spoke to the winds and they obeyed him. The Lord Jesus is, as they say, a hard act to follow. Can you imagine such a messiah coming, and referring back to Jesus and introducing all his own preaching by saying to the world, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet?” I am saying to you that what was unique about the Lord Jesus Christ was not only the great signs he did – like raising others and himself from the dead, but also his extraordinary character in all its perfection, his personality and his teaching, his parables and the Sermon on the Mount. No man ever spoke like this man, nor ever will!
- WHAT DO WE MEAN BY THE RESURRECTION OF CHRIST?
That is not as simple a question as may at first sight appear because you will scarcely find anywhere in the Christian church, even in its most apostate branches, anyone who will deny the resurrection in outright and absolute terms. This claim that the Lord Jesus rose on the third day lies so firm in the Bible and in the church’s creeds that no man will dare to say that it’s an outright lie and some falsification or the result of an elaborate conspiracy.
What can happen and what does happen is that men claim to believe it and then they go on to explain the doctrine away. Now the resurrection does not mean the survival of the soul of the Lord Christ, nor does it mean the survival of his memory, nor the survival of his teaching, nor the survival of his influence nor the survival of the Jesus idea. It does not mean that Christ is alive still in the sense that – as it is said – men have a ‘religious encounter’ with him. It means none of those things. No doubt all those things are true, but those things are not what Paul meant when he speaks to the men of the Areopagus of God “raising him from the dead” (v.31). What Paul was telling them and what the whole New Testament asserts is that there was a phenomenal occurrence in the most literal of understanding. There was a physical event. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is not referring to the revival of the soul of our Lord, or the revival of the ideals of Christ, or the religious potential of his influences. It is speaking of the physical body of Christ and it is saying that something happened to that body which means that it was reanimated, that it came to life again, that the heart started beating, that blood began to course through his veins, that he began to breathe, that there was electrical activity in his brain, that he had blood pressure, that he opened one eye, and then another eye, and that he got up and removed the napkin from around his head and took off the shroud and folded it neatly, and walked out of the tomb, and that that body still exists and it still functions today. We must lift this whole concept of resurrection out of the realm of ideas and doctrines. We must place it firmly where it belongs in the world of physical reality, and in the world of phenomenal reality, not in the world of theology and philosophy.
If you go to the New Testament and you ask the authors of the gospels and letters of Acts and Revelation who all saw the risen Christ, what exactly they saw, then they will say that they saw a body. They saw Christ in a certain physical form, and it was a visible and tangible form. If it stood on scales it would register a certain weight. If a camera had been invented you could have take a photo of the body. That body had hands and feet; it had eyes and ears and a nose. It was able to speak; it was able to eat and swallow and digest food and defecate. It was able to think with its brain. It was capable of locomotion. It was capable of making and baking bread and catching, killing, gutting and cooking a fish. It was capable of thinking with its brain. It was capable of walking miles along a road to Emmaus. It didn’t float and hover. It was a body which the Lord said had flesh and bones. It was a body which still bore the marks of its recent crucifixion. Thomas was invited by his Lord and Saviour to see the marks of the nails and to put his hand into the appalling wound in the side of the Lord. And if we go to John’s vision in the book of Revelation then he saw in the midst of the throne a lamb and it was a lamb as if it had been slain. And what these men saw, and what these men heard, and what these men touched was the body of Jesus Christ. That risen Lord, he had a body and he had a visible and tangible body you could hug and kiss it. It had its own human scent. In other words the whole event, the whole of the Bible’s teaching is literalistic; it is physical; it is crass; it is in the old sense of the term a carneous doctrine. It is a teaching about the carnality of the Saviour’s body. His body physically rose.
Let me put it otherwise. There is a place where Jesus Christ now is. He exists in one location as to his body. Now do we ponder that? It is not that we believe that he used to exist one time, ages ago, as in that way Henry VIII existed, and Nelson Mandela, and Diana the Princess of Wales, but that he is today alive as to his physique. He still is in the body physically as I am in this body located in this place. In other words we are not arguing for Christ in the hearts and minds of his people. He is not in the memory of the church. He is not in Christian preaching. It is not that he is in Christian art and music, all those things being true but Jesus exists objectively and carnally in the world that is out there. We know where he is now; he is at the right hand of God and he is as real as you or me. He is the one who actually is, the most vibrant physical reality in all the universe. He actually is, and not as some disembodied spirit, but he is a resurrected and embodied teacher who teaches, and a great high priest who offers himself and intercedes and a Lord who rules and works all things together for the good of his people.
I am insisting that he has a physical form and he is at this moment in a certain place, and in that place men see him. The spirits of justified men and women, freed from the sin that used to beset them, they actually look at him. And one day the whole ransomed church of God will see him. And from that place he will one day physically and literally come back into this cosmos, and back to this earth. The Jesus Christ of the resurrection appearances is a physical Christ. The Christ at the right hand of the majesty on high is a physical Jehovah Jesus.
But now again, there is this, that he is a transfigured Christ. The whole teaching is that the physical form of the Lord Jesus has undergone the most marvellous transformation. Now you ponder . . . you ponder the condition of that entombed body. He was crucified in weakness. He had been beaten up. He had been hit in the face when blindfolded. He has been whipped and whipped. A crown of thorn had been thrust onto his head. Nails were driven through his hands and feet that attached him to a cross and from that cross he hung suspended for nine hours or so, and finally a spear was thrust deep into his stomach and a flow of blood and water came out of the wound it left. Then, after he was officially pronounced to be dead, he was taken down from the cross. They used pincers and extracted the nails and he was tenderly lifted down by Joseph of Arimathea and his servants – that bruised, sunburnt, lacerated, pierced, disfigured, emaciated body. It was inert; and it was immobile; it was utterly impotent, and it was wrapped in grave clothes, transported, and in that condition of humiliation, covered in fragrant spices like frankincense, it was laid on a cold slab in a tomb where the stone protecting it from wild animals, was rolled down a little ramp and significantly sealed the body in that cold and dark cave.
Now it was that body, in that tomb, a couple of days later, that came alive again. It was transfigured by the power of God. Vitality was restored to it. Its impotence was removed. It helplessness was removed. Death was totally dethroned, losing its power over him; the bitter taste of death vanished. The body of Jesus was raised in power and glory and splendour. He no longer and never again wore a crown of thorns. It was raised as a body, certainly, necessarily, essentially, but a new body, a body which came and went in a marvelous way, a body which was able to vanish and appear at will. It was a real body but a new body. You remember the sight of it that Paul had on the road to Damascus. He saw the risen Christ, and what he saw was an object of unspeakable splendour. It was overpoweringly and overwhelmingly majestic. It was blinding. It was intimidating; it was a thing of glory. And do you remember John’s vision on the Isle of Patmos? The Christ whose body he saw is described like this, that his eyes were like burning fire, and his voice like the sound of many waters, and his countenance – “you never saw the like” he said. It was like the sun shining in its noonday strength. The body had been crucified in weakness; it was raised in splendour. In its committal to the sepulcher it was a body of vileness and a body of humiliation, but in his resurrection it had become a body of divine glory, and again it is all physical and always physical. The Christ whom the apostle John saw on Patmos was physical; the Christ who rose was physical; and at the right hand of the glory of God is a man with a man’s transfigured boy, with transmuted glory, with a body equal to the splendour of the Son of God.
Now that is what this whole teaching is about. It is not about a soul; it is not about a god; it is not about a man’s influence living on. It is about a body, the body of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. Now let me ask you another question . . .
- WHAT DOES THE RESURRECTION MEAN FOR US TODAY?
We are each of us individuals with our own personalities and pressures. We live in the second decade of the 20th century and are confronted with an overwhelmingly secular way of life, and predominantly secular values. What are the implications for us of this risen Christ, this empty tomb, this observable and seen Jesus of Nazareth? What is its message to you and to me?
i] We live in a supernatural universe. You see the great predictability and constancy of this world, the way one event follows another with the most unfailing regularity, but men refuse to admit that all that regularity is the constancy of the operations of God, that the world and all its inhabitants live and move in omnipotence. It is a humbling experience to ponder in the light of 20th century physics that as our great solar system moves – let along the whole universe – just what that means. We ourselves as human beings are all just bundles of atoms and neutrons and electrons and sub-atomic particles constantly on the move. There is such immensity and complexity in all that movement. Even in this little building and in this gathering today no finite mind is capable of grasping or computing all the movement that is here. Then there are those unique moments when the finger of God intrudes in a special way, when God makes known to us that he can perforate the process, that he can burst in and disturb, and stop, and disorientate, and reverse things, because it is his cosmos.
It happened at the crossing of the Red Sea. It happened when a shadow was reversed. It happened when the plagues hit Egypt. It happened at the incarnation of the Son of God – the greatest of all miracles, when God added to his own divine nature the nature of a man, two natures in one indivisible person. It happened in all the miracles of Jesus when the wind and waves obeyed him, when he turned great jars of water into jars of wine, when he cleansed the leper, and raised the dead, and walked on the Sea of Galilee, and rose again on the third day. There was the forth-putting of the power of God. And that universe and that whole complex of natural law that we so often personalize and call ‘Nature’, it cannot think and speak. It cannot say to God, “Don’t you dare to interfere.” It can’t do that. At his will he interferes. At his will he walks on water. At his will he gives sight to a man born blind. At his will he opens the heart of Lydia and she gives attention to the gospel. And at his will, when his own chosen moment has come, he will close down the whole vast universe in which we find ourselves. He will cause its every element to melt with fervent heat. The whole world which he has divinely created and sustained and guided, this whole solar system is going to be brought to its close, its consummation, at the very moment of God’s choosing. And that is what the resurrection means. We live in a supernatural world open to the intrusions and perforations of God. The resurrection also says this;
ii] We shall live also. As certainly as there was a tomb for the Son of God so as certainly there will be a grave for you and me. There will be a moment of our very last breath, when we give up the spirit. Now that fact is a great solemnity, and as we look at that inescapable destiny facing each one of us, the most certain thing about every one’s future, then I ask you do you have hope? What lies beyond death? “Yes,” says the great consensus of human longing and aspiration, “there is life beyond it.” But there’s another witness that speaks up and affirms this. “Yes,” says the word of God, “beyond death there is indeed life, and a special kind of life.” What kind of life is it going to be? Will it be an attenuated life, vague, and ghostly, and insubstantial? Then the resurrected Christ speaks and tells us “No. Because I live you shall live also.” How did the risen Lord live? He walked down a road talking, and cooked and ate fish, and he sat and helped his followers and comforted the godly women who had followed him, whose hearts were broken by his hideous death. He moved among 500 of them talking to this one and another, not in any hurry to leave them. “You shall live eternally as I live,” he told them, our souls immortal, our bodies raised by the power of God
It will be in that glorious eternal order which has a permanence that ours today does not have. In that coming great order we are to experience then we will not be simply just men made perfect, but we will share the existence of the risen Lamb, and we will have the redemption of our bodies.
What tremendous consolation there is here for us, that our dead shall be raised. It is an inspirational thing to stand before the simple and elemental words of this great gospel that was written by an almost illiterate man, perhaps, like Bunyan the first of all the generations preceding him able to read and write, and to write down those words of the messenger from God about the Son of God, that “He is not here; he is risen.” And it will be true of every grave in Christ and every tomb in Christ. The earth shall give up the dead that are in it, and the seas shall give up the dead that are in them, and your dead – your dead loved ones – shall rise, and, as Job says, in my flesh I shall see God. That body sown in dishonour will be raised in glory. There will be the reconstitution of our personalities. We will become whole men, body, soul and spirit, in Christ. There will be the reconstruction of severed relations with all those who lived and died in Christ and we shall stand hand in hand for ever with the Lord. Because he is not here; he is risen. The resurrection of Christ, which Paul preached to the men on Mars Hill in Athens spoke to them of a cosmos open to the intervention of God. It spoke of the certainty of immortality and resurrection life. It also speaks of one more thing.
iii] We are confronted with a glorious Christ. The Greeks had had great philosophers, like Plato and Aristotle and Socrates, but they were all dead and buried. Their dust lay beneath the Grecian sky. They had had great dramatists and writers of sagas like Homer, and historians and poets, but they were all dead and buried. They had architects and sculptors, but they had breathed their last. They were no longer in the land of the living. But Paul never forget the one he had met on the road to Damascus and he told the Areopagus that that Lord Jesus Christ was alive! He’d said, “I am the resurrection and the life.” He’d declared, “Because I live you shall live also.” He’d promised that when we meet together and speak in his name that he is there also. Welcome living Jesus Christ! We are honoured to have you with us again today!
There is nothing more glorious than that. You will hear many things that are much less familiar to you, and are more novel to you, and more astounding to you. But you will hear nothing more glorious than the fact that Jesus Christ is risen indeed. The Lord Jesus is alive; he is not a memory; he is not a force; he is not an influence. He is a living person of consumate power. He is the one who upholds all things, who has the whole world in his hand, to whom belong life and death. He has the keys of death and hades. When he opens that trap-door we fall through with nothing to stop us, nothing whatsoever, and that is what lies before us on our journey to eternity.
This is the perplexity that the Jewish writer Pinchas Lapide gives to any who follow his logic. “God raised him from the dead,” he says. “The evidence of the New Testament is unanswerable. On the third day he rose again.” But then Lapide doesn’t bow the knee, but we affirm, “Jesus Christ is what he claimed to be, the Son of God, what John claimed him to be, the Word who was with God and was God. So many things supported that claim, the miracles, the gracious things he did and said, the marvelous strength of his person, the holy, loving integrity, the fact that no one could point out a lie he had told, a smutty comment he had made, a foul act, a suggestive word, no pride, no peevishness, no self-pity, but patience, strength, kindness and mercy. They all bear out this one fact that this world has seen a man as holy as God and as powerful as God and as loving as God, and he was raised from the dead as the Son of God.” That is our conviction and we bow the knee.
Then there is this appalling contradiction, that he had been crucified. God did not spare him, and the church was left only with its pathetic thoughts – “we thought he might have been the one who’d come to redeem Israel, but God abandoned him to be crucified. We thought wrong, and now what have we got? Just despair and hopelessness.” Then something happens in this world, in space and time on this planet, where a degree of latitude crosses a degree of longtitude, and all that black despair has to be reviewed, because who was this man walking with them on the road to Emmaus? It is the one they had heard preach the Sermon on the Mount and heal every sick one brought to him. This is the one who spoke and the winds and waves obeyed him. He is not dead. He was dead. But he did not stay dead. He has been declared by God to be the Son of God with power by his triumph over death, and his resurrection. God cancels the great word which the crucifixion had spoken. The cross said, “This man was a fake Messiah. This man was a blasphemer. This man was a failure. This man was mad,” but the resurrection said, “This man is my beloved Son and I love him.” The resurrection of Christ said, “The Son of God with power!”
And we ask ourselves how they responded to this? The claim that he is the Son of God. You remember what those early disciples did” They worshipped him. Yes. They fell instinctively at his feet, as though dead. You remember those great moving words of the doubting Thomas, “My Lord and my God!”? Now that’s great theology, that he is Lord Jehovah and he is God. That is great doctrine and great Christology, but that is not the most important thing. It is great religion. It is a great way of life – eternal life. Owning him as your Lord and your God by saying from your heart and confessing with your lips, “My Lord and my God.”
- WHAT’S OUR RESPONSE TO THE RESURRECTION OF CHRIST?
How did the men on Mars Hill respond to the claims of the apostle Paul concerning the living God that were so different from their ideas. Many of them tolerated what Paul had said until he told of God giving proof of a day of judgment coming to them and that this proof consisted of God raising Jesus from the dead. Then there was a division among them. They had heard the gospel preached by an apostle of Jesus Christ, proclaimed in demonstration of the Spirit and of power. They heard the words and themes, but they were divided. How interesting those various divisions were. There was a threefold response. “When they heard about the resurrection of the dead . . .”
i] “Some of them sneered” (v.32). It was simply unthinkable that Paul was right and the Greek philosophy of reality and all of proud Greek history and all the Greek gods could be wrong. And today that is the case with the vast majority of men and women in our town. They’ve been brain-washed, and so it is a futile waste of time for them to read the Scriptures or go to a church to hear the gospel preached. They never give a possibility to regard the apostolic message as true, they have never given it a moment’s thought. It is something that to them is self-evidently false, worthy of a sneer. It was utterly irrelevant and not worth examining. They would not give Paul’s words a single moment’s thought.
ii] “But others said, ‘We want to hear you again on this subject.’ (v.32). They had heard the most amazing message they would ever heard in their lives, and it was all absolutely true, and it spoke of a new living relationship with God and the possibility of the forgiveness of their sins and eternal life. They didn’t sneer but they were indecisive. They may have been admiring, but uncommitted, academic gentlemen who like to debate and argue, until their end. But there were a few others . . .
iii] “A few men became followers of Paul, and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others” (v.34). Paul then left the Council. He had been faithful. He had spoken the word and he went away, but some followed him and believed what they had heard. “Ah,” you say, “that is simply an intellectual response.” But my argument through examining Paul’s presentation of the Christian message to a pagan world has simply been this, that if what the apostle said, intellectually, was true, then God has a right to your intellect, and to your service and being a follower of his with all your talents and with all you have.
Maybe I have moved you to this point where you believe the message of Paul in Athens, that your mind is convinced. I have won the battle for your minds. God has won that battle, maybe as the climax of weeks or months or years of going to church and praying and reading the Bible. God has brought you to the point where you are saying, “I am going to follow this teaching but I still want to feel something. I am waiting for that.” I am saying, “You have no right to wait. The moment you know that Jesus rose from the dead then down on your knees. Give God your heart. Give him your life. Become his follower. If today you believe that Jesus did rise from the dead on the third day according to the Scriptures, that he is the Christ, the son of the living God then bow to him. You do not need to feel strangely warmed. You do not need my hand on your head and any special persuasion that I bring to bear on you. You don’t need some heightened atmosphere; some repetitive singing. You just need to follow. You know the truth? Then follow the truth, yield to it, bow to it.
There is, as I have often said, as the final analysis, only one great reason for being a Christian, and that is that it is true. All that Paul said to the men on Mars Hill was true and that is why the man Dionysius and the woman Damaris followed Paul and became believers. If you believe that Jesus is alive then you also follow and believe, falling before him and worshiping him, clinging to him, and saying to him, “My Lord and my God.”
1 November 2015 GEOFF THOMAS