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“Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?”

The apostle Paul was talking to skeptics. Not just any skeptics; powerful ones who could have him killed because of the accusations against him; he had rubbed some other very powerful people up the wrong way. The issue was resurrection, return to life from death, and it concerned a man whom powerful people had killed and who Paul now claimed to be alive.

Jesus of Nazareth had been executed by the Romans on a trumped-up charge of fomenting sedition, in order to please religious rulers: the same religious elite who would now like to see Paul silenced. But the problem was, there was plenty of evidence that the plot to do away with Jesus had seriously backfired. There was no doubt whatsoever that Jesus had been killed. The Romans were extremely good at killing people, especially by crucifixion. The Romans declared him dead on the cross; they were so convinced that they didn’t see the need to break his legs (John 19:31–35). The centurion signed it off, Pontius Pilate the governor, who had ordered the execution, released the body. A prominent Jewish ruler oversaw the burial. Guards were posted over the sealed tomb in case of further trouble (Matt 27:57–66). So far, so good. A Good Friday’s work.

The followers of the Nazarene had fled, gone underground, their hopes in their executed leader dashed. No one had come to his defence, all had deserted him, his most outspoken disciple had denied any connection to him (Matt 26:56, 69–75). Only a few women hung around (Matt 27:55–56, 61). But then Sunday came, the day after the Sabbath. And the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth was empty. Over five hundred witnesses were available for interview, able to testify that Jesus was alive (1 Cor 15:3–8). Neither the religious leaders nor the Romans could produce the body, which would have settled the matter. The idea that the remaining disciples would have stolen the body from under the noses of the guard, although the “official” story, was ridiculous (Matt 28:11–15). Their panic, despair and utter defeat testified to their inability to even organise a funeral testified to that. And yet their transformation was complete. From a frightened, demoralised remnant had grown a thousands-strong movement that declared the Nazarene to be alive, and not just alive, but reigning over a heavenly kingdom, which his followers now fearlessly proclaimed. They were utterly convinced that Jesus was alive, and was the Christ, the Messiah. So convinced that they were now willing to face imprisonment and death for him (Acts 2:22–42; Acts 21:13). No one would do that if they knew they were upholding a lie (2 Peter 1:16). Then there was the evidence of the miracles. The same sorts of things that Jesus had done, that convinced the crowds to follow him in the first place. Now these ignorant fishermen who called themselves “apostles,” or “sent ones” were performing miracles in his name and preaching with a boldness and eloquence and undeniable authority that could never have come from what little education they’d ever had (Acts 4:1–21).

It was incredible. In fact, it was more incredible to think this new movement was built on a lie than on what the Christians proclaimed was true; that Jesus Christ had died and was now raised to life again. “Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?” challenged Paul (Acts 26:8). Why indeed? It’s a question that must be addressed today, when millions of people still follow the resurrected Jesus and proclaim him Lord and God. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is still an article of profound faith that leads millions to endure persecution, to suffer and die rather than deny him, at the hands of atheist, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist and leader-cult states.

The resurrection of Jesus matters. It’s no myth; there are more ancient documents testifying to the beginnings of Christianity than for any comparable historical event or figure. But it’s not just a matter of defending something that millions believe to be true, as if what’s true for them is fine, but it doesn’t affect you or me. The resurrection of Jesus matters, not only because it vindicates his claim to be the Lord, the coming Messiah, the revealer of God. It does that, of course, but it also makes him our saviour. “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Romans 8:11).

Humanity is in a mess. Having forsaken our Maker and turned our back on his purposes for us, we claim we know best and have set about lives centered on ourselves. Where life is all about me and what I want. Wars, extortion, greed, inequality, oppression, immorality, and every other evil that plagues humankind arises from sin. We are intrinsically corrupt in our thinking and actions. Instead of writing us off, God stepped in to save us. His justice required sin to be condemned, not ignored, and although we deserved to receive his just punishment, he recognised we could never, ever make amends. Could never do enough good to outweigh the bad. Without divine help we could never be who we were meant to be. So God took on humanity himself in the person of his Son, and became the man Jesus Christ. A perfect, sinless man, who took our sins upon himself and destroyed them in his death. Wiped the slate clean, made all things new. Opened the way to God for all who believe in his gracious work.

But the death of Jesus Christ for us was not a zero sum game. We did not win because Christ somehow lost. We won because he won. Sin could not control him, and death could not hold him. It was impossible, explained Paul, that the grave could hold him (Romans 6:9–10). He was raised to life on the third day; just long enough for there to be no doubt about his death, just short enough to turn everything on its head because those who witnessed his death could now witness his resurrection. “I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus told his bereaved friend Mary. “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). Having conquered sin and death, Jesus shares that victory with all who come to him in faith. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead? If God exists, and God is “God,” the supreme being, the Creator, the giver of life, of course he can raise the dead! Skeptics reject resurrection because we don’t see it happening around us now. We have bought into the idea that only seeing is believing, and that faith in the unseen entails abdication of reason. Once of Jesus’ friends had that problem, too. His name was Thomas, and he loved Jesus dearly. His world fell apart when Jesus died; all his hopes, everything worth living for. When people started saying Jesus was really alive, Thomas couldn’t believe it. He was too distraught, too uncertain, too numb. Cynically and bitterly, he responded, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” Then Jesus appeared to him. Showed him his hands and feet, invited him to touch the nail wounds, the spear gash in his side. Gently, Jesus said, “Do not disbelieve, but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." There was no question that Thomas believed now, but Jesus knew that not everyone would have Thomas’ advantage. The disciples and the other hundreds of people who witnessed the risen Jesus would pass from the scene and leave their written testimonies about the greatest event in history. And not everyone would believe. That’s why, said John, the author of this account, that he wrote all this down. “These things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:26–31).

John, Thomas, Paul and the other early Christians knew that people would not want to believe. Not just because it seemed too much to hope for in their despair and hopelessness at their plight. Not just because we are proud creatures who like to think we are smart and that only the things we can see and grasp with our hands and comprehend with our minds could be true, and it’s easier to disbelieve than confront the possibility that there’s a lot of stuff going on that we don’t understand. The good news about Jesus is counter-cultural, and it seems foolish. If Jesus rose from the dead, then it changes everything, and we don’t want that. If Jesus died and rose again, then it vindicates his claims, his claims to have a right to tells us what is right and wrong, to set the agenda. It gives him a claim over us, as our Creator. It confronts us with the reality of our sin and helplessness and our need for redemption. It reminds us that we are mortal and only through him can we have hope. Many of us would rather live this life for ourselves, grab what we can and ignore God. To do that confidently we have to ignore the resurrection, which means an active effort at disbelief. We have to set up walls to protect us from the challenge, walls that declare it’s too incredible to think there is a God who can raise the dead. Walls that prevent us from even reading about Jesus and giving him an honest hearing, that stop us from reaching out to touch the wounds that our sin made in his hands and feet and side.

Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead? Rather, we should ask, why isn’t it thought incredible that this life is all there is, that we make it or break in our own strength, that suffering and inequality are okay because it’s survival of the fittest. That everything we do see and touch came about by chance with no purpose whatsoever, that there is no reason for anything, that nothing matters except what I get out of a few years now. That when death arrives, it’s the end. There’s nothing more, and if this life sucked for you then that’s just tough. Is the thought of eternity in oblivion a comforting thought? Does it give us hope? And yet, incredibly, we grasp for that because the alternative, eternal life, would be on someone else’s terms; God’s terms. The God who made us and loves us and knows what’s best for us and wants us to have it.

Easter Sunday is a celebration of life. Not just “life,” in terms of spring flowers and rabbits and hatching chicks and chocolate and a long weekend. Easter is a celebration of resurrection life.

“For this is the will of my Father,” said Jesus, “that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:40). If we associate ourselves with the risen Jesus by faith, the forgiveness of sins which he accomplished by his death is ours, and we are received into the life everlasting, hope beyond the grave. This changes everything, as Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 4:13–18.

“We also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”

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