The Gospel and Resurrection

Recently, in our apologetics series in Friday night youth group, we went over the importance of the Resurrection. When it comes to apologetics and the resurrection, it’s often a matter of marshaling the textual and historical evidence to support the bodily resurrection of Jesus. As I studied Paul’s writing in 1 Corinthians 15, however, I was struck, not by any evidence that Paul gives, but by the central place that the Resurrection takes in his preaching. For Paul, the Gospel culminates in Christ’s Resurrection, and that has profound implications for present life, here-and-now. Here’s what I mean:

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:1-2 ESV)

Paul promises to sum up the Gospel, the good news in which we are being saved. I think it’s important to pay attention to what he says here, lest we become deceived by all the other “gospels” out there (e.g. prosperity gospel, self-help gospel, etc). Well, let’s see what Paul says:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
(1 Corinthians 15:3-5 ESV)

This message should be familiar to evangelical Christians. Jesus Messiah, the perfect, spotless Lamb of God, died for our sins, taking the punishment of death on our behalf. God, however, did not abandon His Son to death, but raised Him on the third day. For many Christians, it’s easy to be too familiar with this message, to take it for granted. So let’s try to pay more attention to what Paul is saying here.

First, a preliminary remark: I know sometimes I tend to think of the death of Christ as the “main event,” so to speak. I mean, that’s where the action happens, right? That’s where my sins get forgiven so I can go to heaven when I die, right? Thus, the resurrection becomes more of an afterthought. It’s the thing that proved that everything worked out in the end…or something like that.Well, of course, the whole thing – Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection – is the Gospel, and it could be foolish for us to try to divide it up. I do think, however, that my way of thinking of the death as the “main event” may be a little misleading, and here’s why. In chapter 15, Paul wants to draw special attention to the Resurrection, and for good reason. Take a look:

Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
(1 Corinthians 15:6-8 ESV)

Paul continues to emphasize that Jesus appeared to people after his death. In other words, Jesus is alive again, and He still lives. Paul goes on to expand upon this theme in verse 12: Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?

So to recap, here’s the Gospel: Christ is not just proclaimed as dead, but as raised from from the dead! Now, why is this so important to Paul? Why all the emphasis on Christ’s resurrection and appearance?

A bit of context will help us here. As we can see from verse 12, there were some in the Corinthian church who didn’t believe in a bodily resurrection. Instead, they (likely) thought of the resurrection in quasi-spiritual terms. The “resurrection” (if there is one) is some ghostly, disembodied state. The conclusion that they drew from this was that it didn’t matter what you did with your earthly body, since it would be destroyed anyway. As a result you have people in the Corinthian church indulging in all sorts of immorality (i.e., the kind that you find in the earlier chapters of 1 Corinthians). The way that Paul fixes this is by pointing to the reality of resurrection.

First, Paul lays out the negative side. If it’s true that there is no bodily resurrection, then it’s also true that Christ wasn’t raised from the dead (vs 13). And if that is true, then the game’s up. This whole Christianity thing is one huge mistake. Preaching and faith is in vain (vs 14). We’re lying about God (vs 15). We’re still in our sins (vs 17). In fact, says Paul, if there’s no resurrection, then Christians are of all people most to be pitied!

You might think that last statement is an over-exaggeration by Paul. After all, people are wrong about things all the time. But Paul knows his Old Testament. He knows that, since the Fall, God’s plan and purpose has been to save a fallen world. Now, if there’s no resurrection and if Jesus isn’t raised, that means death isn’t destroyed. If that’s the case, then Jesus isn’t Lord. Death is. Death is the final master, the ultimate reality. In other words, the problem of sin, suffering and death has not been solved. Everything that’s wrong about the world is still wrong. It doesn’t matter what we do to try to fix it, because in the end, we will still die. To quote verse 32, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”

Thankfully, it doesn’t end there, for Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead. Paul continues:

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.

(1 Corinthians 15:20)

What are firstfruits? Quite simply, they are the first of the fruits gathered at the harvest. In other words, Paul is saying that Christ is the first of the new humanity. In fact, he is the first of the New Creation. God’s plan to restore and save the world has come to its fulfillment, and the firstfruits, the forerunner, is the man Jesus Christ. Furthermore, those who belong to Christ will also be raised like him (vs 22-23). That is, in the same way that Christ was raised, we will be raised too. That’s why the resurrection is so important. If Christ didn’t rise from the dead, then neither will we.

Notice that Paul is speaking of a bodily, physical resurrection. As evangelicals, many times what we look forward to after death is “going to heaven,” where by heaven, we mean some disembodied, spiritual existence with God. However, when we look in the Bible, the New Testament writers are consistently looking forward to the bodily Resurrection. The real goal, the real focus is the resurrection – not just a spiritual resurrection, but a resurrection in which we receive glorified and immortal bodies.

Here’s where the rubber meets the road: what we do in this life matters. Because Jesus is alive, because he has conquered death, our lives are going to be radically different. So says Paul, “Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning” (15:34). The life we live now is lived in anticipation of the resurrection. Or even better yet: in the present, here and now, our calling is to learn to live the kind of life that will “characterize God’s new creation” (to quote NT Wright). That’s why we do the things we do as Christians. It’s not just an arbitrary system of rules. Being a Christian is nothing less than getting a head start on the New Life. You don’t have to wait until after death to start living eternal life. Being a Christian means you’ve died with Christ, but you’re also been raised with him. Eternal life starts now.

So again, let us listen to Paul’s exhortation to wake up. Let put away those petty sins that we think will satisfy us. Stop messing around with drunkenness, lust, pride, envy, and malice. Let us put away the things that the world values – status, wealth, comfort – and start pursuing love, justice, mercy. That’s why the fact of the resurrection is so important to us as Christians. It’s not just about getting it right or wrong. If Christ really rose from the dead, then those of us who belong to him get to share in the same resurrected life now. If Jesus didn’t rise, then we’re not just making an intellectual mistake; rather, we’ve lost the basis for the entire Christian life.

Forgetfulness and Forgiveness

What do you think about Dr. King’s statement on real forgiveness? Can one forgive without full reconciliation? 

This was a question from my friend’s blog post that was posed after writing about a quote by Dr. King on forgiveness.

“Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship. Forgiveness is a catalyst creating the atmosphere necessary for a fresh start and a new beginning. It is the lifting of a burden or the canceling of a debt. The words ‘I will forgive you, but I’ll never forget what you’ve done’ never explain the real nature of forgiveness. Certainly one can never forget, if that means erasing it totally from his mind. But when we forgive, we forget in the sense that the evil deed is no longer a mental block impeding a new relationship. Likewise, we can never say, ‘I will forgive you, but I won’t have anything further to do with you.’ Forgiveness means reconciliation, a coming together again. Without this, no man can love his enemies. The degree to which we are able to forgive determines the degree to which we are able to love our enemies.”[1]

I was recently reading Miroslav Volf’s book, Exclusion and Embrace and within his writing, Volf offered a thought on this concept of forgiveness & forgetfulness.  As he explored the concept of reconciliation between the oppressor and the oppressed, the culprit and the victim, one of the things that really challenged me was Volf’s point to say that forgiveness requires forgetfulness  In consideration of what it means to forgive, I think Jesus’ words to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us is perhaps one of the most impossible demands for anyone.  Consider even the one that has wronged you in a small transgression, it is even difficult to fully forgive one that has cut us off on the freeway or even embarrassed us before others.

Yet Jesus’ in His words in Matthew 5:43-48 calls us to a love that transcends anything this world has to offer.  He not only asks us to love (not in such a passive bearing sort of way), but in a way that even asks us to petition to the infinite God in prayer (which is perhaps the highest action we may do for another besides loving them).  But why do we do this? It is because it reflects our relationship as sons to our Father in heaven (5:45).  I think the kicker in Jesus’ statement is the hypothetical questions that follow in 5:46-47 that essentially pose the question to the listener/reader about how are we truly different than others that are able to love their loved ones or friends who love them too.  If the world can love those who love them, then when we love those that love us… isn’t that what everybody is expected to do?!  The calling to love then is one to love the worst of your enemies and I believe anyone in between. If you can love your enemy, you can love anybody… and Jesus ultimately showed this upon the cross in Luke 23:34 when he not only loved those who were crucifying Him (us)… and he prayed for them to His Father.  In ending this passage, Jesus makes the impossible statement… “you therefore must be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).  What an incredible statement, right? Let us be honest and realize that it is impossible to fulfill this call as the imperfect sinners that we are!  Yet, why this call then? I think it is this that constantly reminds us of the divine grace that has cleared our sins … forgiven our mistakes and forgotten our transgressions… and why the process of sanctification is one of hope and growth and maturity.

Volf quoting Lewis Smedes writes that “forgiveness is an outrage ‘against straight-line-dues-paying morality'” (120).  The world’s standard operating procedure is one to seek revenge, or reciprocal violence.  You take something or hurt me, I respond in kind.  Repayment/revenge/vengeance is demanded.  This leads to this endless cycle or spiral of violence … where violence feeds revenge, revenge feeds violence (121).  What is pointed out then is that our actions even those of violence or sin are actions that cannot be undone… if they could be undone then, revenge would not be necessary (121).  The only way then is through forgiveness for one’s actions.  Where Lamech (Gen. 4:23-24) demanded revenge that increased, Jesus, demands His followers to forego revenge… to forgive as much as Lamech sought revenge (Matt. 18:21).  Ultimately, Jesus reflected this.

Volf then quotes Jurgen Moltmann saying this about our Lord’s Prayer:

“With this prayer of Christ the universal religion of revenge is overcome and the universal law of retaliation is annulled.  In the name of the Crucified, from now on only forgiveness holds sway. Christianity that has the right to appeal to him is a religion of reconciliation. To forgive those who wronged one is an act of highest sovereignty and great inner freedom. In forgiving and reconciling, the victims are superior to the perpetrators and free themselves from compulsion to evil deeds” (Moltmann, 122).

Volf then points out that the very idea of forgiveness reveals that there is justice.  If there’s no justice, then there’s no need for forgiveness.

Truth is that “strict restorative justice can never be satisfied” (122).  Since no deed is completely irremovable, the original offense still remains.  It is also then because that original offense remains that we are always tempted to reciprocal revenge/violence. By truly forgiving, one keeps to reveal justice.  But as Volf points out and quotes Bonhoeffer… it is only those who are able to perceive and confess their sin to Jesus and have given their lives to Him… that are capable of relentlessly pursuing this true justice without falling into the temptation to return to acts of violence (123).

How do we then truly forgive? Volf points us to the prayers and Psalms.  He points us to the crucified Messiah… whom we must all stand before God and place our enemy and ourselves before God… the vengeful self that we are… before a God who loves and does justice.  It is only then as God pierces with light into the deepest cores of our hatred and desire for revenge that spreads that we realize we are excluding the enemy from his humanity but calling out their sinfulness, that we also excuse ourselves from our own sinfulness and connection to the community of sinners.  It is there that we start to see our hypocrisy and our desire to exclude the other that leads us to sin, but before the God who is love… which is greater than sin… we all start to see ourselves included with our enemies before God in enmity to God’s justice and our own sin (124).

We ultimately learn from God and the cross of Christ that in the cross is the example of that space that is created by God to allow the offender and sinner into His embrace (125-126).  Christ’s self-giving love and this creation of space in himself to received estranged humanity is shown through the interaction of the Trinity (127-128) and its mutual connectivity and support that we start to emulate this example that is manifested in the divine Trinity of how God has loved us and others.  This then leads to the ultimate final difficult act as Volf points out… which is that “certain kind of forgetting”…  it is this impossible task to forget as the victim the wrong done by the perpetrator.  As long as we carry this thought and harbor it…. what Volf points out is that “the memory of the wrong suffered is also a source of [one’s] own non-redemption. As long as it is remembered, the past is not just the past; it remains an aspect of the present” (133).  You will continuously bring another’s sin into the present by carrying it through good and bad times.  If the person doesn’t sin again then it is stored… but if the person fails, this memory of that original sin will come roaring back as additional affirmation to that person’s wrong and evilness.  Augustine offers  the big picture comfort that it all ultimately works out for God’s glory and plan for the future.  This hopeful thinking is kinda shot down by Volf as he points out is that the memories of one’s suffering … these open questions crave a solution (134).  What must happen then is ultimately we must go from mourning to non-remembering — in the arms of God (135). What Volf points out is that there needs to be a sort of forgetting… that God ultimately… “will forget the forgiven sin” (136).  God is going to do a new thing… and he calls his people not to “remember the former things” … promises to blot out their transgressions out of God’s own memory (Isaiah 43:18-19;25; cf 65:17) (136).  Why is this ultimately possible?! Ultimately it is at the cross of Christ that we see the reminder… that upon Himself, Christ has borne the sins of all humanity and placed them upon Himself (Rev. 22:1-4; Jn. 1:29).

When I consider Volf’s words, and think about what MLK Jr. is saying, I truly believe that this is essential to forgiveness is our forgetting and reconciliation   Truth is that this is impossible apart from God and the reality is we are more prone to cycles of memory (holding it and storing the transgression)…. and likely to respond as the world would… through violence and revenge.  What Volf shows is that through the cross of Christ, we are given the means to reconcile and forgive to truly forget another’s sins.  What MLK Jr. says is true, but absolutely impossible apart from the transcending and work of Christ on the cross for all of humanity’s sin and the hope that comes from His resurrection.  Ultimately, we must consider the Gospel in order to find and to truly reconcile and to forget, which then leads to forgiveness.

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Loving your enemies” in Strength to Love (Philadelphia: Fortess Press, 1981), 51.