Fact or Fiction?

15:1-11 Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. 3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. 9 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 11 Whether, then, it was I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.

Confucius is dead. History knows it. It’s well documented. You can still find his grave in a large cemetery in his hometown of Qufu. L. Ron Hubbard suffered the same fate. The founder of Scientology was cremated and his ashes were scattered in the Pacific. I suppose could keep at this. I could keep listing off the founders of world religions and how their bodies are all in some form buried, but I think you get the point. A depressing one, I know. So many people have come through the world, have taught their version of truth, and then they’ve died and been buried. And where does that leave us? With nothing solid. Nothing definitive. And nothing to set our souls on with any real confidence.

It’s always been like this. People have always been on the search for the most credible voice. The best stab at truth. Anything that will give us purpose for our lives and ultimate hope for our future. Anything that will help us believe there’s more to this life than watching imminent death bare down on us like a semi-truck. You know what we need? We need a claim to truth that rises above the rest. We need a claim to truth that totally impresses us with the evidence of its life-giving claims. We need a claim to truth that captures our hearts with the proof of its power.

Paul held that trump card. The problem was that not everybody knew it yet. Not everybody knew that Christianity wasn’t just one voice among many. It was the only voice. And why? Because its founder didn’t stay dead. That wasn’t yet clear to all the Corinthians to whom Paul was writing. You know what was? Death. Corinth was a place where saying, “I think a guy can die and then physically come back to life,” sounded just as likely to happen as seeing a pig wing it’s way off on the horizon. They knew how the world worked. You swat flies and watch them drop. You get steaks in no other way than dispensing with the cow. You go to funerals, attend wakes, and bury loved ones never to see them again. They were living in a world where their hairlines were receding, their arteries were clogging, and their minds were dulling. They saw this life as followed by death and then nothing after that. Nothing.

At least, that’s how it looked. And that’s the way people thought. People still do. Lots of them. It’s hard to get the head and certainly the heart around the idea that a human being can be laid under the sod only to rise and shine again afterwards. Death feels too final to us. Too ultimate. And too powerful. It did even to Jesus’ first disciples. And this after they had been told by Jesus that he would be rising! But they clearly didn’t buy it. When I read you the history of Easter morning just a little while ago did you catch why those women decided to show up at Jesus’ tomb? It wasn’t to celebrate the resurrection. I can tell you that much. They showed up to give poor, dead Jesus a proper burial. It didn’t even cross their minds that maybe, just maybe he would do what he said he was going to do… that he might rise. Not once.

That’s our battle too. We’re still fighting for that truth just like those first Christians were. It totally makes sense if you think about it. We all live in a world that always seems to be dying, but never rising. And so sometimes we end up believing that that’s how it always works. The most current statistics bear this out. 1 out of 2 people who regularly attend mainline churches - we’re talking three out of four Sundays - don’t believe people physically rise from the dead. Even in the most vigorous and Christ-centered churches like this one, only 85% of people who regularly attend think Jesus bodily rose. And I’m not picking on anybody. I’m really not. Even people in the Apostle Paul’s church were struggling with this.

You know what Paul did about it? It’s not what you might expect. He didn’t bust out a scientific thesis. He didn’t hand out scholarly abstracts explaining how it’s possible for a man to rise physically from death. He didn’t fight back with a legal analysis examining all eyewitness testimony to make the case. He didn’t even berate people for their creeping doubts. You know what he did? He doubled down. He doubled down on the same truth that had initially convinced them of it. He doubled down on the same ideas that they had first believed. He doubled down on the same power that had first knocked their spiritual socks off.

See if you can catch how Paul does that here, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” (v. 3-4) If you asked me what I was going to eat next Thursday, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. I’m not even sure what I’m going to put on my plate for brunch after worship let alone tell you what I’m going to eat next Thursday. Put that in perspective for a moment. I’m so abundantly human and so completely finite that I can’t even make a concrete and accurate prediction about what I’m going to be doing in the next hour let alone in the next week. Let alone hundreds of years from now. Let alone be so confident of my power to make a prediction like that that I put it down in writing. Did you know that that’s what the word “scriptures,” means? It means, “writings.” In other words, Christ is so powerful and so important that he predicted true happenings in his life hundreds of years in advance, put them into writing, and then pulled them off in real time.  

You see what Paul’s saying here? He’s saying, “I didn’t hallucinate this resurrection story while on some ancient drug. I didn’t originate this amazing myth hoping you’ll somehow buy it. I'm just handing out facts that were put into writing millennia ago and now have actually come to pass.” I remember how my heart jumped into my mouth when I “caught” this truth in my own mind. I went to see a massive historical display called The Dead Sea Scrolls a few years ago. I will never forget seeing ancient scraps of prophecies from the Old Testament about Jesus. And I mean specific, concrete ones that can’t possibly be talking about anyone or anything else. Like Psalm 16:10 that says, “You will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay.” Do you see what that’s saying? God’s Holy One will have a body and it won’t stay in the grave long enough to decompose. Scientists carbon dated those scraps to back before Jesus was even born. Mind blown. I saw it with my own two eyeballs. Jesus’ resurrection isn’t some mythological story accidentally gone viral. It’s the real deal. It’s been in the cards for millennia. God put it in writing.

Then the personal witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection come flying at us. It’s honestly a bit overwhelming both in terms of quality and quantity. That’s the deal, right? Witnesses to a fact are not all created equal. You’d likely take the word of a 30-year-old quicker than you would the word of two-year-old. (I’ve got a two-year-old. I can tell you she’s not always trustworthy.) So quality matters. Quantity does too. Having one person make a claim about seeing something feels a lot different than having six people make the same claim. Both quality and quantity matter to us when it comes to formulating an opinion about what actually happened. Watch how Paul stresses both to us, “He appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.” (v. 5-8)

There is enough eyewitness proof here to pile it higher than Mount Everest in terms of real legal witness. This could land in the Guinness Book of World Records for eyewitness proof. Do you see that? You’ve got high, high quality - not going to lie kind of people here. You’ve got your spiritual titan Peter saying it. You’ve got Jesus’ trusted inner circle, the Twelve, broadcasting it. And it’s not just the top quality eyewitnesses getting Jesus sightings. It’s a whopping 500 plus people to whom Jesus simultaneously appeared. And get this, most of them were still alive when Paul wrote this. You think people wouldn’t fact check that? These were people you could take to an ancient Starbucks and they’d tell you, “Oh yeah, I saw him.” We’ve got eyewitness testimony coming out of our ears here.

And I didn’t even tell you about the most convincing one yet. The guy writing this. Paul. The one “abnormally born.” The hostile witness. The one who not only was a skeptic of Jesus, he was an attacker of him. He was so into attacking Jesus that he strategized and carefully planned how he would murder people who actually did believe the resurrection. Paul is a hostile witness if there ever was one. He would’ve been the last person on earth to make claims about Jesus rising from the dead. There is only one thing that can explain a man like that writing words like this. Only one thing. You don’t go from being a stark, raving Christian hater to the resurrection’s greatest proponent. You don’t go from strategizing how to kill the Christian movement to joining it. You don’t go from devoting your life to killing people who make claims to Christ’s resurrection to a life devoted to promoting it unless you saw it yourself. It’s just that simple. Only Christ’s real, historical, and physical resurrection explains Paul’s 180 degree shift. Only that.

In summary, you know what we’ve got here? Overkill. Can you imagine a prosecuting attorney trotting out 513 plus witnesses into a courtroom? Can you? Can you imagine him on top of that busting out words put into writing hundreds of years ago? Can you imagine how convincing he’d be with a hostile witness admitting to it like Paul? This is overkill. This is overwhelming evidence. It’s like getting buried in an avalanche of mind-bending truth. It’s like getting slammed with a 100-foot tidal wave of worldview shaking evidence. It’s an open and shut case.

You know why God delivers with so much overkill? I think you already know why. Because I’ll bet you already sense it happening inside you. For the joy. For the gospel. For you. That’s what this is about. This is about dealing the deathblow to despair and watching the joy begin to grow. This is about not wondering where to find truth or if there is any. This is about coming to see that truth is found and will be found in the man who was the first to walk out of a tomb alive again. This is about knowing that this man has the truly unique ability of doing everything he said he was going to do. Up to and including his promises of reversing the whole world order. Gone is the world where sin is counted against you. Gone is the world where you live for a time only to die. Arrived is a world where sin is forgiven and where you will live a life only to live more life.

That’s the kind of truth to set the heart on. That’s the kind of truth to live life with. I’ll be honest. We haven’t even begun to dig into the massive, craterous impact Easter can have on the way you do your daily life. Not even begun. We’re just getting warmed up here at Peace. We’ve got a whole sermon series lined up for you called Easter Impact. Actually, Christians have always thought of Easter this way. Easter’s never been just a day. It’s always been a season - a whole period of time for us to process and appreciate everything Jesus’ resurrection means for us.

For now, it’s time to be pragmatic. There’s only one religious leader who rose from the dead. Just one. There’s no one to compete with him. I’m not going to trust Confucius to give me something I need when he clearly can’t even help himself. I’m going to trust the man who put it in writing that he would die and rise and then pulled it off. I’m going to trust the man who actually has done what I want done to me. If I’m after trying to erase the date that will inevitably show up on the right side of my gravestone, I’m sure as shootin’ going to pay attention to the guy who erased his. Let me say that even more clearly, I’m sure as shootin’ going to pay attention to the guy who already did erase the date on the right side of my gravestone. More on that great news next week. Amen.

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