The resurrection and ascension of Christ
Alastair Sinclair, Crosshouse, Scotland [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
The resurrection is central to Christianity. Every fundamental of our faith depends on it. Put simply, if there is no resurrection Christianity falls apart and is just another false, dead religion. In 1 Corinthians chapter 15, Paul confirms this. In the opening five verses he declares it to be the pinnacle of the gospel message. In verses 12 to 19, he addresses the issue of some suggesting there is no resurrection and confirms that this would negate Christ’s resurrection and would make our preaching and faith vain. We would be false witnesses, still in our sins, dead believers, would have no hope and would be the most miserable, deluded people. But he confirms that ‘Christ is risen’ in verse 20 and He is the first of myriads who will also rise from the dead. It is clear from these verses that it is not possible to be a genuine Christian unless you believe in the resurrection.
The centrality of the resurrection to the gospel message is confirmed throughout the book of Acts. Peter refers to it when choosing Matthias to replace Judas in chapter 1, at Pentecost in chapter 2 and in relation to the miracle performed in chapters 3 and 4. In Acts chapter 5 verses 30 to 32, he preaches it to the high-ranking Jews who were Sadducees and did not believe in resurrection. He also proclaims that Christ is seated with God and so has ascended to heaven. In chapters 6 and 7, Stephen refers to Christ’s second coming and sees Him in heaven about to receive his spirit. Peter again preaches it to Cornelius in chapters 10 and 11. In chapter 9, the risen Christ appears to Saul of Tarsus who, as the Apostle Paul, then proclaims the resurrection in all his preaching throughout the rest of the book. He does this at Antioch, Thessalonica, Athens, Corinth, Ephesus and Jerusalem before the Jewish leaders. He also declares it to Felix, Festus and Agrippa before arriving in Rome where he refers to ‘the hope of Israel’. A study of all these sermons will show the message is greatly adapted considering the background and understanding of the various audiences but in every case the resurrection is central to the gospel preaching as it should also be for us.
Resurrection is not only a New Testament truth but central to the faith of all believers including the Old Testament saints. This is established by the Lord’s teaching to the Sadducees recorded in Mathew chapter 22 verses 23 to 33 and in Mark and Luke. Hebrews chapter 11, listing the many Old Testament believers saved by faith makes it clear. In the case of Abraham, the father of the faithful, he had faith in a resurrection, vv. 17-19. Wonderfully, this resurrection was seen figuratively in Isaac being received again, despite going to the altar. This ‘raising’ of an only-beloved son is clearly a picture of Christ’s resurrection which all others are dependent on. This is perhaps why Christ’s resurrection provokes so many reactions and opinions. It is true some are indifferent, rationalizing or doubtful, but many are totally unbelieving and even hostile. Now, as can be seen above, while saving faith is required for true belief, it is still worth considering the evidence for the resurrection and the alternative explanations.
The explanation offered by some, including Islam, is that the Lord merely swooned on the cross and later revived. Apart from all the issues of getting out of the tomb, the most compelling evidence against this is that three days later He walked seven miles to Emmaus, Luke 24. This would be ridiculous for a man who had recently been beaten and lashed until His bones were visible, had his hands and feet nailed through and the sac around His heart pierced with a Roman spear! Others, like a former Bishop of Durham, claim the resurrection is a spiritual rather than physical event, but the eyewitnesses talk of seeing, hearing, touching, holding and even eating with the Lord. However, the most common explanation of unbelief is that put out by the Jewish authorities in Mathew chapter 28 verses 11 to 15. This claims the soldiers were asleep and the disciples stole away the body. Of course, there are no witnesses for this, except the soldiers who were supposed to be asleep even though they had four watches of only three hours each through the night. Amazingly, there was no subsequent investigation and no evidence that the Lord’s body has ever been found. Equally, there has been no explanation of why these disciples removed the grave clothes from the dead body in their stealth.
In contrast to all this, evidence for the resurrection is overwhelming, especially from the eyewitnesses. Piecing together the accounts of the four Gospels, Acts chapter 1 and 1 Corinthians chapter 15, there are records of at least eleven witness occasions. These include individual appearances to Mary Magdalene, Peter, James the Lord’s half-brother and Saul of Tarsus. The last two were, up to that point, unbelievers. In fact, even those who were believers did not yet believe in or expect a resurrection, John 19. 9-13. Clearly, this was also the case for the two travelling to Emmaus, the ten in the upper room, especially Thomas who was absent but is there when the Lord appeared to all eleven of them. He also appeared to seven at the Sea of Galilee, 120 in Acts chapter 1 and ‘over 500’ recorded in 1 Corinthians chapter 15. In general, these witnesses were afraid, deflated, lacking belief, looking only for a body, too poor to bribe soldiers and had nothing to gain but much to lose. Sadly, over time many of them did lose their lives for their faithfulness to the risen Christ whose appearance to them utterly transformed their lives, including both Peter and Saul of Tarsus who, as the Apostle Paul, constantly referred to, explained and affirmed the resurrection. When all these, together with the ‘over 500’, are included, it is ludicrous to suggest they colluded and none of them ever broke ranks, especially in the face of persecution and hostility. Why die for a lie?
It is these witness accounts which have caused many legal authorities to conclude that if tested in a court of law their witness statements would be overwhelmingly conclusive proof. Yet the scepticism, apathy, denial and hostility persist. Why? Perhaps the answer lies in the implications of a real resurrection and its twin truth of the ascension. We will see many positive implications for the Saviour, His Father and His people, but what about for others? The resurrection has huge implications for the wicked one; he is defeated, Heb. 2. 14, and judged, John 16. 11, by the resurrection and, in the ascension, the Lord went right through the domain of the wicked one demonstrating His total victory, Eph. 4. 8. Sadly, the defeated father of lies wishes to deceive men and women regarding the consequences for them. The Lord Jesus Himself warns that those who rejected Him will one day see Him exalted and coming in judgement, Matt. 26. 64. Among many other scriptures, Peter confirms that the risen, ascended Christ will one day judge all, whether alive or dead, Acts 10. 41, 42, and, considering this, appeals for them to believe, v. 43. The reluctance of many to believe in a resurrection is because its implications are coming judgement and, therefore, a need for repentance and saving faith which brings a change of life and behaviour. This is a serious and potentially sad implication of the resurrection and ascension, but we should conclude with the many positive ones.
Firstly, the implications for the Lord Himself are being reunited with His Father after His work is complete, John 16. 5. He is now exalted after His humiliation, Phil. 2. 8, 9, and will one day be acknowledged rather than rejected, vv. 10, 11. He is now on a throne rather than a cross, Heb. 12. 2, and the scriptures have been fulfilled, John 10. 18. But there are also immediate implications for us, His people. Romans chapter 4 verse 25 confirms He was raised for our justification. In other words, His resurrection enables us to be declared righteous and not only that but enables us, in the light of that resurrection, to walk in newness of life and so live a resurrected life, Rom. 6. 4, 5. Further to this, the Holy Spirit has been sent into the world, John 16. 7, as a direct consequence of the Lord returning to heaven. We are, in fact, living proof of a resurrected, ascended Christ as we display Spirit filled lives, John 15. 26 – 16. 5. So we now have a comforter or advocate indwelling us on earth and another one with the Father, 1 John 2. 1, who having passed through the heavens is now our High Priest representing us before God. This, along with a finished work and completed scriptures, is why there has never been a better age to be a child of God.
These are all present blessings, but the resurrection and ascension also provide future blessings. John chapter 14 verse 3 promises us we will go to be with Him where He is, and, in chapter 17 verse 24, His final request in prayer is that this might be so. Both the promise and the prayer are now certain because of His resurrection and ascension. 1 Corinthians chapter 15 verse 23 confirms He is the firstfruits; He was raised first but many more will be raised at His coming. Not only raised but taken to heaven, just like Him as He is the ‘forerunner’, Heb. 6. 20. These lovely pictures are of a harvest and an athlete. The Lord is seen as the first sheaf of a great harvest to follow, being raised from the dead and the first runner home of a great company of those who have ‘finished the race’, 2 Tim. 4. 7, and are going home to their reward, v. 8.
What a wonderful truth this is, not some cold doctrine but a vibrant living truth declaring our Saviour’s past victory, our present power and future hope that we shall be with Him and like Him. May the Lord enable each of us to live in the light of this till He come.
AUTHOR PROFILE: Alastair Sinclair is in fellowship with the assembly in Crosshouse, Ayrshire, and is active in oral ministry throughout Scotland. He writes regularly for Believers Magazine, is married with a young family, and works in the IT industry.