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OOOH! FANTASTIC! (Easter 2017)

Estate agent

We have finally persuaded my 90-year-old mother-in-law, Olivia, to sell up and move to a cottage next door but one to her youngest daughter, Livy (who is now the principal carer) in the delightful hamlet of Ebbesbourne Wake near Salisbury. We know that it will be a wrench for her but, since she has been living on her own in a large 5-bedroom detached cottage set in two acres of land, it is the sensible thing to do. Actually, she is really looking forward to it and sees it as another chapter in the adventure of life.

Julia and I (as former estate agents) have been given the task of selling Olivia’s current home and today we contacted various estate agents to come along and value the property. This proved to be great fun … especially one particular negotiator whose response to everything Julia told her about the property was, ‘Oooh! Fantastic!’ ‘It is thatched cottage in a quiet village, and part of the cottage dates back to the 17th century.’ ‘Oooh! Fantastic!’ It has five bedrooms, three reception rooms, nice kitchen, three bathrooms.’ ‘Oooh! Fantastic!’ ‘It is set in its own grounds, around 2 acres in all, gardens were designed by famous gardener, large double garage, studio, garden office, stream.’ ‘Oooh! Fantastic!’ ‘There is a paddock … suitable for keeping horses.’ ‘Oooh! Fantastic!’ Even the mention of the post code brought an equally ecstatic response … and when Julia gave her our phone number …?! At this point we wanted to say: ‘And next Sunday is Easter Sunday when we celebrate the fact that Jesus rose from the dead and is alive for evermore!’ We felt quite sure that her response would have been … ‘Oooh! Fantastic!’

‘Oooh! Fantastic!’ was not quite what the 120 or so disciples gathered together in that large Upper Room in Jerusalem said, when the news finally began to filter through to them that Jesus had risen from the dead and revealed himself to Simon Peter and a few others, but it was not that far off!? Luke tells us that their response to Cleopas, when Cleopas and his companion, shared the good news with them was ‘The Lord is risen indeed!’ (Luke 24:34) or as one translation puts it, ‘It’s really happened! The Master has been raised!’

This is the source of an ancient traditional Easter greeting in many branches of the Western Church where the Service begins with the exclamation, ‘He is risen!’ which in turn elicits the traditional response, ‘He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!’ These words are sometimes accompanied by the exchange of three kisses on alternate cheeks, depending on the church. In the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, the greeting is called the ‘Paschal Greeting’. We Baptist-Christians haven’t quite got to that stage yet although we have moved on from the ‘formal handshake’ to the ‘holy hug’ these days.

Exactly how the saying became a standard greeting in the church is not known, although there are various theories regarding how it came into common usage. We do know that, at first, the greeting was more common in Eastern and Byzantine liturgies than in the Western church. There is a tradition in the Eastern Orthodox Church that the saying was made popular by Mary Magdalene when she supposedly addressed Emperor Tiberius in Rome with the words ‘Christ is risen!’ Using this address should be more than an empty tradition, however. The words, ‘He is risen!’ remind us of the joyous news we celebrate at Easter – that Jesus’ death was not in vain, and that he has the power to overcome death. Saying ‘He is risen!’ allows us to share this incredible truth with each other and all and sundry for that matter. The resurrection of Christ reminds us that death is not the end – simply a ‘doorway’ into life beyond the grave. It also gives us hope for salvation, expectation of resurrection from the dead, and the gift of abundant and eternal life – life that begins the moment we ‘believe’ by the way, not just something to be received only when we die!

But did Jesus rise from the dead? Can we be sure? What is the ‘proof’?

There are many ways to answer this question but in this ‘blog’ I want to approach it from the angle of those many people who (as yet) do not believe, and who probably would rarely if ever darken the door of a church (unless it was for a ‘christening’ or a wedding or a funeral), or read the Bible, or even get into a meaningful conversation about spiritual things with a professing Christian. After all the ‘Easter Message’ is not primarily to make Christians feel happy but to enable unbelievers to believe (John 20:31). As Donald G Barnhouse puts it: ‘The angel rolled away the stone from Jesus’ tomb, not to let the living Lord out but, to let unconvinced outsiders in!’

It is impossible in a short ‘blog’ like this one to do justice to all that could be said about the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but with the ‘unconvinced’ in mind (whether they be unconvinced unbelievers or unconvinced believers for that matter) I want to suggest five ‘evidences’ for the resurrection of Jesus from the dead!

The Empty Tomb: I have been to Israel several times and visited all the alleged historical sites of the tomb of Jesus including the Holy Sepulchre (a dreadful place) and the Garden Tomb (a much more realistic spiritual place). I can assure you that every tomb was empty. In fact, there is a notice on the inside of the door of the Garden Tomb that reads: ‘He is not here for He is risen!’ Of course we cannot be sure that any of these sites is the correct one, but what we can be sure of is that the historical Jesus was crucified and was buried because the scribes and the Pharisees (Jesus’ political and religious enemies) were apoplectic at reports of the heavy stone, effectively acting as an immovable door, over Jesus’ heavily guarded tomb having been rolled away and the tomb being empty … coupled with numerous reports of the risen Jesus appearing to people in and around Jerusalem. In an attempt to ‘undermine’ the truth we are told that they hatched ‘a cunning plan’ to dissemble this remarkable event by putting out ‘fake news’ that Jesus had not really risen from the dead but that his disciples had stolen the body in the night (Matthew 28:11-15). My point is … why go to such trouble if Jesus had not actually risen from the dead?!

The Testimony of the Eyewitnesses: Even those who do not accept the Bible as the ‘inspired word of God’ (2 Timothy 3:16) accept it as having value as a ‘historical record’ of the times. As such the New Testament gives various accounts of those who met with Jesus following his resurrection – Mary Magdalene (Mark 16:9), Jesus’ remaining eleven disciples (Mark 16:14), Cleopas and his companion (Luke 23:13-35), doubting Thomas (John 20:24-31), several women (Matthew 28:8), even 500 or so disciples at one time (1 Corinthians 15:6), and so on. A pretty impressive list! Surely, they cannot all have been deluded?

Transformation of the Early Church: Following the crucifixion of Jesus, and prior to his resurrection, those first Christians were hiding away in the Upper Room scared to death that they were next on the Jewish/Roman ‘hit list’ for execution (John 20:19). And yet, just a short time late, we find them out on the streets of Jerusalem boldly proclaiming the Gospel to all who would listen to them (Acts 2:1-12)! What was it that had made such a big difference to them? What was it that had transformed them from a bunch of fearful wimps into a bold army of Christian soldiers? There can only be one explanation! They too (as we know from the Biblical record) had met with the Risen Christ and been filled with his Spirit!

The Impact of the Christian Church World-Wide:  With more than two billion adherents worldwide, Christianity is both the world’s largest and, in some regions, its fastest growing religion, with much of that growth taking place in the developing world. For the historian Robert Palmer, ‘It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of the coming of Christianity. It brought with it, for one thing, an altogether new sense of human life. For the Greeks had shown man his mind; but the Christians showed him his soul. They taught that in the sight of God, all souls were equal, that every human life was sacrosanct and inviolate. Where the Greeks had identified the beautiful and the good, had thought ugliness to be bad, had shrunk from disease and imperfection and from everything misshapen, horrible, and repulsive, the Christian sought out the diseased, the crippled, the mutilated, to give them help. Love, for the ancient Greek, was never quite distinguished from Venus. For the Christians held that God was love, it took on deep overtones of sacrifice and compassion.’ In fact, the history of Christianity is inseparable from the history of our Western culture and society. For over 2,000 years, Christian beliefs, principles, and ideals have coloured our thoughts and feelings. Christian traditions and practices have left an indelible mark not only on developments of purely religious interest, but on virtually everything good within society. Education and medicine, art and literature, science and law, politics and economics … even our approach to love and the conduct of war. Indeed, the indirect and unconscious influence that Christianity has often exercised even in secular matters – social, intellectual, and institutional – affords striking proof of the dynamic forces that have been generated by the Christian Faith over two millennia. Even those who have contested its claims and rejected its tenets have been affected by what they opposed. Whatever our beliefs, all of us today are inevitable heirs to this abundant legacy … and it is impossible to understand the cultural heritage that sustains and conditions our lives without considering the contribution of Christianity. And none of this would have happened unless Jesus rose from the dead!

Personal Experience of Receiving Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord: In the penultimate chapter of his First Letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul concludes a marvellous section, in which he lists Jesus numerous resurrection appearances to various people (1 Corinthians 15:3-7), by claiming to have also met with the Risen Christ – ‘And last of all (Jesus) appeared to me also, as to one born beyond due time’ (v.8). Paul is referring here to his conversion on Damascus Road (Acts 9) when he had a personal encounter with the Risen and Ascended Lord Jesus Christ. It was this experience which completely convinced the then virulently anti-Christian Pharisee Saul of Tarsus that he was totally in the wrong. Jesus had risen from the dead! He was who he had always claimed to be – the Son of God and Promised Saviour! It was this experience that transformed his life and turned him into Paul the (soon to be) Apostle and missionary-evangelist!

What is particularly wonderful about this statement of Paul’s is that it makes it abundantly clear that anyone and everyone, right down through time, can also come to know Jesus Christ for themselves as Saviour and Lord. Paul’s experience of Christ can be our experience. When Paul speaks of himself as having had a personal encounter with Jesus Christ as ‘one born beyond due time’ (v.8) he is referring to the fact that his conversion experience occurred some two to five years after Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension. Whilst it is possible that Paul heard Jesus teach during Jesus’ earthly ministry it is not definite, and in any case if he had heard Jesus teach it certainly had no positive impact on him at the time. It was only when he had his ‘Damascus Road experience’ of encounter with the Risen and Ascended Christ, some years later, that Paul’s life was changed significantly for the better.

My own personal experience of receiving Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord some 57 years ago, though not perhaps as dramatic, was not too dissimilar from that of Paul and of every other true Christian. At some point in our experience God in Christ breaks into our lives and becomes ‘real’ to us. This is the testimony of millions of people down through the last two millennia and across the world today! And as such it is the full and final proof that Jesus Christ has indeed risen from the dead and is alive today!

Karl Heim (1874-1958), the German theologian, tells of a large meeting of the Russian proletariat following the revolution where various people addressed the vast crowd propounding various secular, socialist and atheistic views. Eventually the chairman asked if there was anyone else who wished to say something, and an elderly, somewhat undernourished, Russian Orthodox Priest mounted the platform. ‘You won’t speak for long will you?’ said the chairman cynically. ‘No!’ replied the Priest, and turning to the vast crowd called out in a loud voice, ‘Christ is risen!’ … and immediately, from the voices of thousands, the crowd spontaneously responded, ‘Christ is risen indeed!’ For all their outward secularism they all all knew the truth deep down in their hearts!

My friends, Christ is risen! If this is not true then all those who profess to be Christians are totally deceived, living a lie, and wasting our lives away seeking to follow a dead Saviour and false teaching! But if Jesus did rise from the dead …?

I serve a risen Saviour,
he’s in the world today;
I know that he is living,
whatever others say;
I see his hand of mercy,
I hear his voice of cheer,
and just the time I need him
he’s always near.

He lives, he lives,
Christ Jesus lives today!
He walks with me and talks with me
along life’s narrow way.
He lives, he lives, salvation to impart!
You ask me how I know he lives?
He lives within my heart.

In all the world around me
I see his loving care,
and though my heart grows weary,
I never will despair;
I know that he is leading
through all the stormy blast,
the day of his appearing
will come at last.

Rejoice, rejoice, O Christian,
lift up your voice and sing
eternal hallelujahs
to Jesus Christ the King!
The hope of all who seek him,
the help of all who find,
no other is so loving,
so good and kind.

~ A H Ackley (1887-1960)

Jim Binney      

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