David Jeremiah - Easter Message: What If?
Some of you may know that one of the great Reformation leaders of the past, a guy by the name of Martin Luther, suffered from huge bouts of depression. For days, he would have a hard time just functioning. And he tried a lot of things, and he had a wonderful wife. And the story is that one day, he was at breakfast, and she came down, and she was dressed in black. And he asked her why she was dressed like that, and she said, "Well, I'm in mourning". He then says, "What do you mean, 'I'm in mourning'"? She said, "Well, I'm in mourning". He says, "Well, who died"? She said, "God died". And he said, "Well, you know better than that. You know that God did not die, so why are you dressed in black"? And she said, "Well Martin, you're living as if God had died, and I thought I could get your attention by maybe showing you that he isn't dead, that he has risen from the dead, and he is alive, and you needed to start living like he was alive".
So even preachers get in your face messages once in a while, and that was one for Martin Luther. What she was doing that day was not trying to prove the resurrection. She was trying to pretend that it hadn't happened. She was trying to get him to look at his life, and realize that sometimes you forget things that are important, and it affects the way you live every day. And that's what Paul was trying to do, I believe, in the 15th chapter of the book of 1 Corinthians. For in this chapter, he talks in a certain section of the chapter about what would be true if there was not a resurrection of Christ from the dead.
In fact, in a span of nine verses, he uses the word "if" six times. What if Christ had not been resurrected from the grave? Just suppose for a moment, he wants us to think, that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is untrue. What if the women who went to the tomb on that first Easter Sunday found that the stone was still in place, and the soldiers were still marching up and down in front of the tomb? What if nothing had changed at all when they arrived? What if these women had to live by the memory of those cold, dead eyes, and the body of Jesus as it was taken down from the cross? What if Jesus Christ had not come back from the grave? In the verses that we're going to look at today from 1 Corinthians chapter 15, Paul focuses attention on that particular subject. He poses this question: what if Jesus Christ is not risen from the dead? What then? What are the implications? And systematically, he lays out for us in just a few verses five tragedies that are true if there is no Easter and if Jesus is not risen from the grave.
First of all, in the 14th verse of the 15th chapter, he says to us that if there is no resurrection from the dead, if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is foolishness. And since I am a preacher, that gets my attention. When Paul says that our preaching is empty, what he is saying, that if there is no resurrection, there's no foundation for any preaching. He says if you took away every passage of the New Testament that referred to the resurrection, what you would have left is simply a collection of writings so mutilated that you would never be able to make any sense out of them. Without the resurrection, there is no core to the gospel message.
You see, the resurrection is the cardinal truth of the gospel. Yes, I know the death is important, the death of Christ is critical, and we celebrate it on Good Friday. But if the death of Christ is all we have, there's nothing to celebrate. You never celebrate a death. The celebration is because he came out of the grave, victorious over death, and that's why Easter is so important. Some people argue, "Well, I don't get all of this, Dr. Jeremiah. The resurrection is just a part of Jesus' story, and if I don't happen to believe in that, that doesn't mean the rest of it goes away. I mean, Jesus did a lot of good things, he said a lot of good things, he did a lot of miracles. Why can't I just enjoy all of that and not have to deal with the resurrection? I mean, what about the Sermon on the Mount? That was so wonderful. I'm into all of that stuff about Jesus. I'm just not into his resurrection". But unfortunately, that isn't an option.
If you take all of the other things that are written about Christ, and you gather them all together in both his words and his teachings, and you put all these things together, and you take Christ and put him back in the tomb somewhere in Palestine, you can just throw everything else away. If Jesus Christ is still in the tomb someplace, what he did and what he said on this earth is of no value to us, any more than any other teacher of that time. When Christ came out of the grave, he proved that what he had said he would do, he did. He proved that he had the power over death and life. He proved that what he did on the cross to take away our sin was sufficient, and Almighty God answered from heaven by allowing him to come back to life from death.
So Paul's first what-if is this. If Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty. If Christ is not risen, that means that the Son of the living God, the creator of the universe, could be killed forever by a hammer and some nails. If that is true, that means that he can be imprisoned forever in a grave, bound by an embalmer's cloth, until time shall be no more. That means that a stone and a seal can shut him up forever. That is not the gospel of the Word of God. That is some liberal message, fostered by those who have determined not to believe in Christ. For over 45 years, I have been preaching the gospel. It is what God had called me to do. And I have to tell you, I love preaching more than anything else that I do. But if Jesus Christ did not come out of the grave, there's no reason for me to preach.
If I did not believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, I would resign from my job, and I would never preach again, for the only thing I have to offer anybody from this pulpit from the Word of God is the message of hope in the risen Christ. Paul is teaching us the absolute priority of the resurrection. If Christ is not risen from the dead, he says, the gospel message is without any meaning at all. There is no reason for anyone to preach, and we have no hope to offer the world. But it's not just about preachers. He has something to say about you and to all of us in that respect. In verses 14 and 17 of the 15th chapter, he tells us that if there is no resurrection, there is no such thing as personal faith in God. He says in verse 14, "And if Christ is not risen, then your faith is empty". And in verse 17, "And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile, and you are still in your sins".
The crucifixion of Christ reminds us that we have only two choices in life. Either Christ bears our sin on his body on the cross, or we bear our sins ourselves. If we put our trust in him, he promises that he will take all of our sin away from us, and place it on himself, and pay for it by what he did on the cross. However, if we choose not to do that, all of the weight of our sin rests on us. But if Jesus didn't come out of the grave on that particular Easter Sunday 2,000 years ago, we're still in our sins. Our sins aren't forgiven. We still have to deal with them ourselves. And one of these days, we're going to stand before a holy, righteous God to have to give an account of all the things that we have done that have violated his holy standard, whether in word or deed, whether by omission or commission. We will stand with our sins before a holy God if there is no resurrection from the dead.
I still remember the day as a teenager when I asked Christ to come into my life and forgive me. Some of you may know that I grew up in a pastor's home, so what chance did I have? I used to tell people that when I was little, I had a drug problem, I was drug to church every week. I mean, that's the way it was. But you know, I had a lot of preliminary experiences with the Lord, as most children do, in vacation Bible school, in Sunday school. But when I was a teenager, I really, really for the first time myself understood the implications of the gospel, and made what I believe to be a meaningful decision to trust Christ, knowing what I needed to know to make that decision. And I have to tell you that when I did that, I didn't have any emotional response to it, I didn't cry. I'm not much of a crier. I didn't run around the house with my hands up high, singing, or anything like that.
But what I do remember, and it's interesting that after all these years I still remember this, I remember that I felt like something was lifted off of me, that I didn't have the weight of sin that I didn't know how to deal with. It's a strange thing because I don't get into all of the emotional things that many people do. I just kind of felt lighter. I was free of the burden of my sin. It was no longer on me. For the first time, I realized that God loved me, and that Christ had died for me, and that he had taken all of my sin off of me, and now it was on him. That is why Christ came into the world, and that is why he died on the cross. But 3 days later, he came out of the grave, proving beyond any doubt that he who claimed to be the Son of God and able to forgive sin would and could do it, and did do it. If Jesus Christ is not risen from the dead, our faith is futile, and we still carry all of our own sins on ourselves.
Third, if there is no resurrection, our profession is false. It says in verse 15, "Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ, whom he did not raise up, if in fact the dead do not rise". Now, watch this. The book of Acts is the story of the birth of the early church. It begins primarily with the ascension of Christ, and then the day of Pentecost, and how the church in Jerusalem began to grow. And the Bible says that one of the first services they ever had, Peter was the preacher, and when he got done preaching, 3,000 people got saved. And if you study the historic documents that go with that period of time, what you learn is that in the early church in Jerusalem, there probably were about 100,000 members of the church in just a few weeks.
The church just exploded. And it exploded for two reasons. First of all, because of the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came down and filled everybody with himself. But it exploded also because of the preaching that happened. The apostles were preachers, and they went everywhere preaching the gospel. But if you study what they preached, you'll be amazed. There are 19 sermons or addresses in the book of Acts, and every one of them are about the same thing. They are about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. You say, "Well, why would that be true"? Well, I'm going to show you just a couple of places, and you see if you don't understand why this was such a dynamic thing in their lives. We begin to read this when you see Peter preaching on the day of Pentecost.
And when he got done preaching and 3,000 people got saved, this is what it says. He preached this, "This Jesus God has raised up, of whom we are all witnesses". Over and over again, you see that phrase. When Peter healed the lame man at the gate of the temple, and a whole crowd of people showed up because of the miracle. He spoke these words, listen again, "But you denied the holy one and the just, and you asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the prince of life, whom God raised from the dead, of which we are all witnesses". After the supernatural escape from prison, the apostles again spoke of the resurrection. And they said, "The God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you murdered by hanging on a tree, and we are his witnesses".
The apostles knew who Jesus was. They had seen him in his resurrection body. These are the apostles who had seen him hanging on a tree, so dead that the soldiers didn't even break his legs. They had seen his limp, dead body taken down off the cross, and hundreds of pounds of spices rolled into the fabric with which he was entombed. They saw him placed in the grave, and the stone put across the mouth of the tomb. And then on Easter, they saw this same person, undeniably identified by the prints in his hands and in his feet, and they saw him walking around in a resurrected body. And they couldn't help but tell everybody what they had seen. Put yourself in their shoes. They had known Jesus before his death. They had seen the brutality that had been wreaked on his body. And then they saw him after death, walking around, the resurrected Son of God. And everywhere they went, they said, "He is risen, he is risen indeed".
One pastor reminds us that if the apostles, the prophets, and the New Testament writers lied about this, if they were false witnesses, why should we believe them about anything else? If they went around telling everybody he is alive and he wasn't, and by the way, almost all the New Testament was written by these guys, 13 of the books of the New Testament written by these apostles. If they're not telling us the truth about the resurrection, why should we believe anything that they say? You see, it's not like you can just set the resurrection over here and say this is optional belief for a believer. You don't get to do that.
If you don't believe in the resurrection, everything falls apart. Because everybody who is a part of that story witnessed that it was true. And these are the people who have written to us the instructions as how to live as Christians. These are the apostles, the witnesses of the resurrection. And Paul says if Christ is not risen, they're all false witnesses, they're deceitful people. Here's the fourth thing he wants us to know, that if there is no resurrection, our promise for the future is fraudulent. I love verse 18, he says, "Then also," if he is not risen, "those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished".
Now, let me explain the first part of that very quickly. Paul is not talking about the kind of sleep that some of you do in church. He is talking about a different kind of sleep. This is a metaphor for death. In the New Testament, the word "sleep" is often used as a metaphor for death. And he's talking about dying. He's telling us that if there is no resurrection, then those who have died, it's over, they've perished. If Jesus didn't come out of the grave, nobody else is going to come out of the grave either. If the resurrection didn't happen, if he did not conquer death by his resurrection from the grave, there is no hope that anyone will ever live again after they die.
I know that, one day, I'm going to see my mother and my father in heaven because they trusted in Christ, and I'm going to see my sister and others that I have known and been close to over the years who have gone on to be with the Lord. They're in heaven. My hope for heaven is based upon what Jesus did when he came out of the grave. When he came out of the grave, he put his foot on the neck of death and he broke it. And death is broken because he broke through death so that we would have hope that, after his resurrection, one day we are going to be raised again to life. So, let's review. If there's no resurrection, preaching is foolishness. If there's no resurrection, personal faith is futile. If there's no resurrection, our professions are false. And if there's no resurrection, our promise for the future is fraudulent. But here's the last one. If there's no resurrection, our prospect for life is fantasy.
You see, the resurrection not only is about the past and about the future, but it's also about the here and now. Listen to what Paul says in verse 19. He says, "If in this life," in this life in which we live right now, only in this life, "we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most pitiable". In other words, if we don't have Christ, our resurrected Lord as our hope, even what we do in the current life begins to come unraveled. If all I am living for in the here and now is the here and now, that's not enough because it continues to recycle itself, and it doesn't come out in the right place. I need something much more powerful to hinge my life on than just what's going to happen tomorrow. I need to know that my life is meaningful, and that it has a purpose beyond this life.
Someone has said that when you become a Christian, you cast an anchor into heaven, and it's twirled around the throne of God, and that anchor continues to pull you toward the Father. And every day, you realize you're connected to eternity. But if you don't have a connection to what comes after this life, then the life you live now will have its good moments and its bad moments, but it won't have any meaningful moments that will keep you going and give you hope. If we don't know that there is a future with God, it affects our future with God, but it also affects the here and now. Here's the way I like to say it. If you get heaven, you get heaven and now as well. But if you don't get heaven, you don't get either one. If you don't get heaven, you don't get the future and you don't get meaningful life.
The reason my life is meaningful is because, even though I know there are issues and troubles and difficulties here, I'm living my life for something beyond my death. My life has a meaning because of eternity, and because that Christ is there. And one day, I'm going to be with him. And one day, I'm going to spend eternity with him. And everything I do on this earth is connected to that in some way. And I'm still learning as I grow in Christ how that all works, but what I know is that heaven and the future and life after death, and understanding how that works in my life, brings meaning and hope to every day. If we only have this life, if all we have is living for now, Paul says that's not enough.
And many of you have told me over the years you've discovered that as well. When you find Christ, you find the center of meaning. Often, we have said it this way. When God created you, he built you with a God-shaped vacuum in your heart. And until God is in that place, you feel incomplete and something of an emptiness. The purpose of Paul's argument here is this. If Christ is not risen, everything we hold dear as followers of him falls apart. But I'm glad he didn't end his little message on kind of a negative list of tragedies. He gets through with all of these what-ifs. And when he gets through with all of the what-ifs, he comes to the 20th verse of this 15th chapter. And in this verse, he puts it all into perspective. It's no longer what if, what if, what if, but it is, "But now Christ is risen from the dead, and he has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep".
The Scripture says that Jesus Christ is not in a tomb somewhere in Palestine. He is risen from the dead. He is alive forevermore. And because he lives, we too shall live. And that is the hope of Easter, and that is the hope of the gospel. And without the resurrection, there is no gospel, there is nothing really to believe in except a fantasy story about a good man who walked on this earth many years ago. But if he really did what the Scripture says he did, and what historians have adequately proven he did, if by his own power on the third day after his death, he walked out of that tomb victorious over death, and says to us, "Because I live, you too shall live," it is worthy of us to put our trust in him both for now and forever.
Don't miss this point. He is risen, he is living. He is the one who said to the sister of Lazarus, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this"? What did he mean? Was he saying that if you believed in him, you would never physically die? Of course not. He had just presided over the resurrection of Lazarus. What Jesus was saying is what we need to understand as we bring this all together into our hearts today, that there is life and there is death in two areas of existence. Just as we are born physically and one day will die physically, so we have the opportunity to be born spiritually so that we never die spiritually.
Here's how it works. Death is simply a word that means separation. When we say somebody has died physically, that means their soul and spirit has departed from their body. Their soul and spirit has separated from their body. In the New Testament, one of the writers said, "Absent from the body, present with the Lord". But spiritual death is also separation, much more seriously so. Spiritual death is the separation of your soul from God. You can overcome physical death, but you cannot overcome spiritual death. Just as we are born physically, we need to be born spiritually. Jesus Christ went to the cross and was resurrected from the tomb so that we could have new life in him. That new life begins when we put our trust in him and what he has done. And the Scripture says when we do that, we are born again. That's what Jesus said to Nicodemus, "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God".
So here's how it works mathematically. If you are only born once, you have to die physically and then ultimately die spiritually. You will be separated from your body, and if you haven't had a second birth, you'll be separated from God. But if you are born twice, you only have to die once. If you're born twice, you're born physically, you may have to die physically if the Lord doesn't return before your death time. But if you've trusted in Jesus Christ, because you've been born again, you will never, ever die spiritually. Now, listen to these words again. "Jesus said to her, 'I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he may die,'" physically, "he will live. And whoever lives and believes in me shall never die".
That is the message of the gospel, and you can see how it is so entwined with the resurrection of Christ. Because he came out of the grave victorious over death, he canceled death's power over us so that one day, we too shall live because of what he did. And it behooves us to make sure of our birthdays, that we've had two of them. Because if you've only been born once, you will have to die twice. But if you've been born twice, you will only have to die once. And if Jesus comes back, you might miss that one too. That's kind of what I'm hoping for. I want to be alive when he comes back, and then I'll miss both of those. You see, when you believe in the resurrection and you know that you have a living Savior, everything changes. We live in a very troubled world. And every day, it seems like something happens that was worse than anything we've ever heard before.
Sometimes, we have to just step away from all the things that are happening in the temporal world in which we live, and get a long, long look at the risen Christ, and remember that he has overcome it all. And there is nothing too hard for him. And he stands in the wrecks of time with his hands lifted up as the risen Savior. Jesus Christ is the champion over everything for one reason: he is the only one who ever faced death square in the face, and overcame it by his own power. And he says to you and to me, "If you'll put your trust in me, you can be victorious over death yourself". That's the message of Easter. That's why I love to preach it because it is the most liberating truth you will ever hear.