The Resurrection? So What?
An Easter sermon by Coty Pinckney, preached at Community Bible Church, Williamstown, MA, on 4/3/94
"Imagine that some archaeologist finds positive proof that he has unearthed the bones of Jesus of Nazareth. What would that do to your faith?"
My youth group leader asked that question one Sunday evening more than twenty years ago. I recall that we had a long discussion, first of all trying to dispute his premise -- How could we really know that these were Jesus' bones? -- but then, accepting the premise under duress, we hemmed and hawed. "He's still God, right? He still died for us. He still would have given the same teaching. I could still believe in him, couldn't I?" We somehow felt we could hold onto our faith, even though Jesus did not rise from the dead.
Paul gives a very different answer to the question in 1 Corinthians 15:
If Christ is not raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins . . . 19 we are of all men most to be pitied. (1 Cor 15:17,19)
Why does Paul say that? What was wrong with my youth group's response to this question?
Why is the fact of the resurrection central to true Christianity?
The answer to this most important question is found throughout the New Testament. This morning I want to focus on the answer Paul gives in his letter to the Philippians. In chapter 3, Paul is reacting to those who say we must follow the Jewish law in order to be saved. In verses 4-9, Paul says, in paraphrase:
I followed the Law as well as anyone, and better than any of these false teachers. No one could have looked at any part of my life and accused me of breaking the Law. I was, on those terms, perfect. But now I consider all that I did, all my accomplishments, all that striving to prove to God that I was good -- I say, I consider all of that garbage, as worthless as manure, compared to the greatest thing of all: knowing Jesus Christ. Indeed, I have given up everything else so I might know him. Once I know him, I will be in him, I will be part of his body, and will be declared good by him, not because of anything I have done, but because I am identified with Christ Jesus.
Paul then writes the verse on which we focus this morning:
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:10,11)
"I want to know Christ. I want to know the power of his resurrection." This is Paul's primary desire, this is what Paul wants more than anything else in this life: To know the living, the resurrected Christ, and to know the power associated with that resurrection.
You see, if Christ is not raised from the dead, if his bones are buried somewhere in Palestine, then we cannot know him. That man is dead. We might read about him, we might revere him, but we cannot know him.
Furthermore, if he is not raised from the dead, then he has no power today. He is dead. His words might have some influence -- but he himself has no power.
This is why the resurrection is so central to Christians: Christianity is not a religion based on abstract principles. Christianity is a relationship with a living Savior, a Savior we can know, a Savior who infuses our life and empowers us, who transforms us into his likeness.
But what does Paul mean when he says he wants to know Christ? And what is this power of his resurrection? We will address these two questions during the remainder of our time together.
First of all, what does "knowing Christ" mean?
Let us first consider whether or not this desire belongs to Paul alone. Is Paul stating a personal preference, or a truth that is central for all Christians?
The Bible, time and again, Old Testament and New Testament, portrays the right relationship between man and God as personal. In the Old Testament, for example, the Israelites' are always seen in relationship to a living God; they are not simply followers of a legal code or believers in a Mosaic philosophy. Consider, for example, Jeremiah 9:23,24:
23 This is what the LORD says: "Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, 24 but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight," declares the LORD.
Knowing God is more important than wisdom, or strength, or riches. Think about the people who are most admired in this world. They are admired for these three qualities, aren't they? We tend to admire those who are bright, intelligent, and knowledgeable; or those who are physically gifted in strength, talent, or beauty; or those who have amassed great wealth.
But the Lord says through Jeremiah that none of those are of great importance. What matters more than anything else is understanding and knowing the Lord, Yahweh, the covenant God who delights in kindness, justice, and righteousness.
And this prominence of knowing God carries over into the gospels. Jesus himself, on the night prior to his death, prays for his followers, saying:
Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. (John 17:3)
Eternal life is what? Knowing God, knowing Jesus! Without knowing him, there is no true life.
Peter also emphasizes this point:
His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. (2 Peter 1:3)
Our knowledge of him leads to his empowering us with everything we need for life and godliness.
John makes a similar point near the close of his first letter:
We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true-- even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. (1 John 5:20)
John says that Jesus came so that we might know him. The purpose of the incarnation was our knowing him. This is central to the gospel.
So Old Testament, New Testament, gospels, letters, Paul, Peter, John -- all agree that knowing God, knowing Jesus, is central. But what does knowing God mean? We get to know a person in part by being in his physical presence. But how do we get to know Jesus?
Knowing versus Knowing Facts
Let us first make a distinction between knowing a person and knowing facts about that person. I know a lot of facts about Abraham Lincoln -- but I don't know him. To know him, I would have to be in relationship to him.
Consider my relationship with my wife, Beth. I know more about her than any of you. I know her height, her weight, her birthday, her degree; I even know many of her undergraduate grades! I know the honors she has won, the jobs she has held; I know her brother and sister; I know where she lived growing up; I know the name of the family dog she lived with for 18 years. I know all these facts about her life.
In addition to these facts, I could tell you stories that display her character: how she responded to an ill child, how God worked in her life, how she raises children. And all these stories would give you insight into who she is, more than the list of facts.
But still, even after hearing all the stories, you won't really know her. To know her, you would have to be in relationship with her.
Furthermore, I know her not because I know all these facts about her, or because I can tell stories about her. I know her because for seventeen years we have been in relationship, sharing joys and sorrows, sharing ecstasy and pain -- indeed causing in each other ecstasy and pain. I have seen her lift me up when I am hurt, and stand by me even when she disagrees with me. I have seen her support me with all her strength in all that I do. So I know her. Yes, I know a lot of facts about her. But knowing her is much more than knowing facts about her life.
Surely knowing God also is much more than knowing facts about God. How can we come into this deep, personal relationship with God?
How Do We Know God?
First, surely we must know about him. While knowing Beth implies more than knowing facts, I can hardly say that I know her if I don't know at least some facts about her life. So we do indeed need to learn about God.
How do we do this? In part, by listening to faithful preachers of God's word. In part by regular reading and studying of the Bible. In part by witnessing the impact of God on the lives of others -- others that we know, and others who we can only read about through history or biographies.
But, second, we must go beyond learning facts. We must cultivate our own relationship with him. Clearly many sermons could be preached on this topic. Here, let me briefly suggest three steps:
The first step is putting your faith in him: believing that He is the Son of God, believing that the event we celebrate today, the resurrection, really did take place, and wanting Him to make you into a new creation.
A second step is spending time in prayer. Pray alone, and with others. In prayer, you can share all your joys, frustrations, and sorrows with the God of the universe, the God who cares. Try praying through Scripture, using Psalms, or Paul's prayers, or the prayers of Daniel or Moses. Talking to God builds your relationship with him.
The third step is following. Listen as you pray and read the Bible. Be willing to follow, even when his commands don't seem to make sense. Depend on God when his requirements seem unreasonable. When you do this -- when you step out in faith -- He will be there to support you, and you will see Jesus as a living, risen Savior.
KNOWING THE POWER OF THE RESURRECTION
The second part of Paul's desire is "to know . . . the power of his resurrection." Note that Paul does not ask God for more power. Instead, he asks God that he might know the resurrection power he already has.
Paul's first prayer for the Ephesians parallels this idea. In chapter 1 of that letter, he prays that the Ephesians might know three things. The third is:
his incomparably great power for us who believe . . . which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead (Ephesians 1:18,20)
All Christians have this power; all Christians have access to this incomparably great power, this resurrection power. Our task is to tap into it.
Let us consider four aspects of this power.
(1) The Power to Have Sins Forgiven
Sin has a hold on all of us. Without God, we are slaves to sin. But Christ, through his death and resurrection, frees us from the power of sin. Paul puts it this way at the end of Romans 4:
He was delivered over to death because of our sins, and raised to life because of our justification (Rom 4:25)
Christ died as the necessary sacrifice for our sins. But his being raised to life, his resurrection is absolutely vital! As Paul says, he was "raised to life because of our justification." When Jesus died, God laid on him the iniquity of us all, the punishment that all of us deserve for all our sins. Had there been anything lacking in Jesus' sacrifice, if his blood had lacked the power to cancel the penalty for anyone's sin, God could not have raised him. In that case, God's justice would not have allowed him to raise Jesus from the dead. But the very fact of the resurrection shows once and for all that Jesus' sacrifice is all that is necessary to pay the penalty for my sin, for yours. Whenever Satan accuses us -- saying, "God could never forgive you for what you have done -- Think how terrible you are!" -- we can say, "Jesus rose from the dead! Jesus rose from the dead because I am justified; having believed in Jesus, I am righteous in God's eyes." That is the power of the resurrection.
As Charles Wesley writes,
He breaks the power of canceled sin,
he sets the prisoner free;
his blood can make the foulest clean;
his blood availed for me.
(2) The Power to Conquer Sin
But resurrection power doesn't end with our forgiveness. Christ's resurrection also empowers us to conquer sin in our lives. As Paul says in Ephesians 4:
put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:24)
In Christ we are a new creation; his Spirit lives within us. We have been renewed, we have a new self -- and the purpose of that new self is to be conformed to the image of Christ, to become like him: truly righteous, truly holy -- to become what God intends humans to be!
So if this is the case, why do Christians keep on sinning? Paul gives us the answer in today's verse in Philippians: we don't know the power! We have all this power, but we continue to act as if we are weak, as if we are still slaves to sin. Satan tries to deceive us, making us think we are still his -- and he uses habits ingrained in us over years to make us believe him.
Do you remember Pavlov's dogs? The behavioral scientist Pavlov rang a bell prior to feeding the dogs he was studying. Every time he rang the bell, he fed the dogs. After a while, as soon as he rang the bell, the dogs would salivate. They had not seen any food, they had not smelled any food -- but ringing the bell made them salivate.
We become like Pavlov's dogs through years of living without the power of God. Someone hurts us -- and we automatically lash back. Something happens that tempts us sexually -- and our thoughts automatically turn to lust.
God gives us the power to break those habits -- but we must first know we have the power! That is why Paul has such a strong desire for this knowledge.
Donald Grey Barnhouse illustrates this point wonderfully. Imagine yourself as a prisoner of war; Satan is your captor. He has the gun. You must do whatever he says. He is in control.
Now, God intervenes. You are saved by the blood of Jesus. Does Satan go away? No, but you have the gun! You've got the gun! You no longer have to obey him!
What will Satan do? He will try to convince you that the gun is not loaded, that it really has no power. He will try to convince you to put the gun down, to give up using it, and to fight him "fairly" in hand to hand combat. He will try to convince you that it is in your best interests to obey him.
But you've got the gun! The resurrection power is yours! You need to know it, and use it!
(3) The Power to Be God's Agent
But Christianity is not just about forgiveness and overcoming sin. Christianity is not simply a solution to our problems. God has a positive purpose in our salvation. He has determined that we are to be his agents of change in the world.
God empowers us not only to defeat sin but also to share and display his loving message to the world. Jesus says, "You are the light of the world." Paul says,
He has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. (2 Cor 5:19,20)
God could work in the world by zapping directly each person he chooses. He could act in each person's life the way he worked in Paul's life -- dramatically appear in flashing brilliance and overwhelm the person. But normally he doesn't act this way. In his wisdom, God has chosen instead to work through us, weak as we are, limited as we are -- and to show His power through our very weakness. Later in 2 Corinthians God says to Paul,
my power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:9)
That is the idea. God shows his power by working through us, by working mightily through us, even though we are weak and unworthy. Praise him!
(4) The Power to Be Conformed to His Likeness
Finally, resurrection power's greatest accomplishment is conforming us to the likeness of Christ. We are forgiven for our sins, enabled not to sin, appointed as ambassadors -- and perfected in His love. Paul says we:
are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Cor 3:18)
Into his likeness! Can you imagine what that means? Think of everything about yourself that you don't like, all the habits, all the negative characteristics -- the things you have wanted to change, have tried to change. God will deal with every one of those. You are being made into a perfect creation -- you are becoming like Jesus! That is your destiny, Christian -- becoming the perfect bride of Christ, spotless, blameless, loving, kind, strong -- transformed into his likeness. The power of the resurrection!
So the fact of the resurrection is central to true Christianity. The resurrection must be true if we are to know, to have a relationship with our Savior; the resurrection must be true if we are to have access to the power which raised Jesus from the dead -- power to:
So what about you? More than anything else, Paul wants to know Jesus, and the power of his resurrection. What do you want more than anything else?
These are all worthless. In the end, all of these things that people spend their lives pursuing are unsatisfying.
Perhaps some of you instead more than anything else want:
I want to call you to something greater; I want to call you to the source of all true joy and happiness, the source of all great marriages, the source of all true satisfaction.
Some of you may be feeling smug, thinking, "More than anything else, I want to do great things for God!"
But this too misses the mark!
What did Paul want? What did he pray that others would have? To know Christ! Without this relationship, without knowing the power of his resurrection, we will never have true happiness, we will never have true joy -- and we certainly will never accomplish anything of lasting value. Make knowing God and his resurrection power your aim -- and all these others will follow.
So do you know this Jesus? Do you believe he rose from the dead? Has he been working in your heart? What better day than Resurrection Sunday to fall on your knees and acknowledge Him as your Savior!
Those of you who already have placed your faith in Him as a sacrifice for your sins:
Have you been trying to impress God with you religious activities?
Have you been putting the cares of finances, of job, of family, ahead of your relationship to Jesus?
Can you really say with Paul that you consider everything else you've done to be rubbish compared to knowing Him?
Do you know the power of the resurrection in your life?
Or have you allowed Satan to continue to control you, when you don't need to?
You believers need, not a decision, but a commitment -- a commitment to depend on the power of God, a commitment to knowing him better and better, so that you might be conformed to his likeness.
Christ is risen from the dead! Believe it! Know Him! Hallelujah!
This sermon was preached at Community Bible Church in Williamstown, MA on 4/3/94. The Donald Grey Barnhouse illustration is taken from his sermons on Romans 6.
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