The Third Day
with Rev. Alex Lang
March 12, 2023
Jesus’ resurrection is one of the most central tenets of the Christian faith. Yet, for scientifically minded people, the resurrection is one of the hardest things to believe. This Sunday we will explore this ancient event and what it means to us today!
1 Corinthians 15:3-8
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 Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters 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.
1 Corinthians 15:42-53
42 So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 43 it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.
If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. 46 The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. 47 The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. 48 As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.
50 I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.
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During Lent, we’re doing a sermon series called Credo: The Apostle’s Creed Then and Now. Each week, we will be examining a line from the Apostles’ Creed and asking the question: What did this line of the creed mean to the people who wrote it and what does it mean to us today?
I’ll explain the traditional beliefs surrounding a statement from the Apostles’ Creed and, then, I’m going to provide a modern interpretation of that belief for those who might be a little skeptical. Whether you resonate with the traditional interpretation or with the modern interpretation, my goal is to demonstrate that the Apostles’ Creed has the flexibility to speak to both audiences.
Last week we discussed the line from the creed: Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried. He descended into hell. This week we are discussing the next line in the creed, which states on the third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty. Obviously, today we are discussing Jesus’ resurrection and ascension.
I don’t need to tell you that out of everything we’re discussing in this series, Jesus’ resurrection is one of the most difficult propositions for modern people. The idea of a man dying and coming back to life after three days feels scientifically unlikely, and yet this event is at the core of the Christian faith. So how do we deal with this very delicate subject?
Let’s begin with the traditional understanding of Jesus’ resurrection. As we discussed last week, Jesus is placed on trial for treason, after he’s convicted, he’s crucified. According to the gospels, after Jesus’ crucifixion, he is removed from the cross and placed in a tomb. There he lays unattended Friday night, all day Saturday (because of the Sabbath) and then on Sunday morning at sunrise, women loyal to Jesus come to perform the Jewish rites of burial on Jesus’ body with spices and oils.
When the women arrive, they discover that Jesus’ body is gone. Eventually, the disciples are informed that Jesus is alive. He has been resurrected, brought back to life. As we read this morning in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, this was not an isolated event. Numerous people witnessed Jesus’ resurrected body at different times. This story is the basis of this line from the Apostles Creed.
Therefore, regardless of whether a modern person is skeptical of the story of Jesus’ resurrection, I think there’s ample evidence to suggest something profound happened and it was corroborated by many different groups of people. So if there’s no disputing that everyone saw something, the question becomes: What exactly did they see? To answer this question, we need to spend a little bit of time discussing how crucifixion was performed by the Roman Empire.
The punishment of crucifixion was not unique to the Roman government. Crucifixion was used by many different nations as a means of capital punishment because it was cheap and public. All you needed to crucify someone was a plank of wood and some rope or nails. Often, the executioner was given discretion as to how the accused was to be attached to the plank. Some were hung right side up, others upside-down. Sometimes they would be hooded, but it was common to have the accused stripped naked for maximum shame.
Unlike what we see in the gospels, the accused would often be executed before being nailed to the cross. In this way, the cross was more like a display case rather than a torture machine. The Romans became famous for crucifixion because they were the first to make the process uniform by requiring the executioner to nail the hands to the cross beam.
Historically, the purpose of this type of execution was quite simple—the government wanted to demonstrate to the public that, under no circumstances, will rebellion, in any form, be tolerated. Crucifixion was always performed in a public place where lots of people could see the results. The entire idea of hoisting someone up in the air was to deter other people from engaging in the same behavior. This is why Jesus was led to a hillside outside of Jerusalem to be crucified.
This hillside was public enough that it would be hard for anyone to miss as they went about their daily activities. This hillside was nicknamed Golgotha, otherwise known as the place of the skull. The reason it was called the place of the skull is because the hillside was literally littered with skulls from other people who had been crucified. The way those skulls got there is because the bodies of the crucified were left on the cross to decompose after they had died. The whole point of crucifixion was to leave the body on the cross to serve as a reminder for as long as possible that you don’t want to be like this person.
But this isn’t what happens in the gospels. The gospels tell us that after Jesus is convicted of treason and crucified, he was taken down off of the cross and placed in a tomb. What many Christians don’t realize is that the removal of an executed individual from the cross for burial was extraordinarily rare. Pulling the body down for burial would defeat the entire purpose of being crucified. Why go through all that trouble to hoist them up in the air if you were going to take them down as soon as they were dead?
The gospel authors knew how rare it was to be taken down off of the cross and this is why they portray Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy man with political connections, stepping in to procure Jesus’ body for burial. Historically, it doesn’t make a lot of sense that Jesus, a poor Jewish peasant from Nazareth, would be shown such treatment. The reason why is because the person who would have granted permission for the burial of the body is Pontius Pilate, who as we talked about last week, hated the Jews with every fiber of his being. It’s certainly not impossible, but it seems highly unlikely to me that Pilate would grant this permission, even for someone who had political connections.
More than likely, Jesus was left on the cross like everyone else who was crucified. When his remains had fallen to the ground, he was probably buried in a mass grave along with all the other criminals who had been crucified alongside him. One piece of evidence in the Bible that supports this point of view are the letters written by the Apostle Paul.
In Paul’s letters, like what we read this morning from 1Corinthians, he says: “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures…” Notice that Paul does not say that Jesus was buried in a tomb.
Just so we’re clear, Paul’s letters predate the gospels. More importantly, Paul is the only author in the New Testament who personally knew Jesus’ disciples and who personally saw Jesus’ resurrection. So even though Paul was not present for Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, he was regularly in contact with people who were. If Jesus was buried in a tomb, I think Paul would have heard about it. Yet, Paul never discusses how Jesus was buried.
So this creates a bit of a problem because we have two competing narratives. One narrative is found in the gospels where Jesus is removed from the cross and placed in a tomb. The second narrative is the science of crucifixion where the Roman government left the crucified on the cross. How are we to deal with this inconsistency?
Well, it helps to understand that there is not just one version of Jesus’ resurrection in the New Testament. In fact, there are three different types of resurrection. One type can be found in portions of John’s gospel where Jesus is portrayed as a ghost or spirit who can walk through walls: “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’”
As you can see, John’s portrays the resurrected Jesus as having the ability to randomly appear and disappear in the presence of his disciples, like a ghost. For this reason, John’s version of the resurrection seems to be the least likely for me because the people writing John’s gospel are three generations removed from Jesus’ lifetime. More importantly, John’s version of events has the least in common with the other portrayals of Jesus’ resurrection.
Now if you know you’re Bible well, you might say, “But Alex, doesn’t Jesus literally eat breakfast with his disciples on the shore of Galilee in John chapter 21? How can he be a ghost if he’s eating breakfast?” You would be correct, a ghost can’t eat breakfast. But what we know is that chapter 21 in John was added later, likely because people were uncomfortable with the implications that Jesus was a ghost. The author of chapter 21 wanted to make it crystal clear that Jesus’ resurrection was physical, which is why Jesus is portrayed as eating breakfast, the most bodily thing you can do.
The second way that Jesus’ resurrection is portrayed is found in Matthew, Mark and Luke when they portray Jesus as physically coming back from the dead and being placed in a tomb. Of course, the problem with this assertion is the science of crucifixion, which makes the historical validity of tomb burial highly suspect. Therefore, this leads me to believe that Jesus’ physical resurrection (at least the way it’s portrayed in the synoptic gospels) is also highly suspect. Which means that if the physical resurrection lacks credibility, then so does the ascension.
The ascension of Jesus, where Jesus’ body gets taken up to heaven, occurs in only one out of the four gospels – the gospel of Luke. The ascension became necessary because, unlike Matthew and Mark, Luke realized he had backed himself into a corner. If Jesus physically came back to life, but is no longer present on earth, then his body had to go somewhere. However, the story of the ascension has roots in what I feel is the most likely of the three explanations—Paul’s rendition of the resurrection.
Paul’s version of events seems to describe Jesus’ resurrection as a vision. We know this because of what we read this morning in 1Corinthians where he goes to great lengths to describe the difference between the body of Adam (which is our body type) and the spiritual body of Jesus that he witnessed. When Paul saw Jesus, he had a body, but it seemed substantively different than a normal human body. Indeed, you can understand what Paul saw of Jesus’ resurrection when he describes Jesus’ return in 1Thessalonians:
For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.
Notice how Paul describes Jesus being in the sky, like the ascension. Based on this description and what we read about Paul’s conversion in Acts, this is consistent with a vision. While I know that many people struggle with the physical resurrection, visions are incredibly well documented. They happen all the time and have even been filmed. Sometimes these visions have rational explanations, sometimes they do not.
Therefore, if you’re struggling with believing in the physical resurrection of Jesus, just know that the New Testament gives you two other options to choose from. You can view Jesus’ resurrection as being more like a spirit or a ghost as we read in John’s gospel or you can choose Paul’s version, which is like a vision. Now, regardless of which one you choose, it’s clear that whatever happened was profound enough to completely change the life trajectory of the people who witnessed this event.
They dropped everything they were doing to keep Jesus’ movement alive. And what’s crazy to me is that they did it! Here we are 2000 years later, still talking about Jesus of Nazareth. There are not many things in this world that are able to stand the test of time and last 2000 years. Indeed, the story of Jesus’ resurrection continues to inspire new generations to believe in him and his message.
Whatever it was that those men and women saw, it caused them to carry Jesus in their hearts with them for the rest of their lives. And it didn’t stop with them. They told the next generation about the resurrection, and even though the next generation hadn’t seen it first hand, somehow that was enough for them to carry Jesus in their hearts as well. And the same is true with each subsequent generation until, finally, it has come to you in 2023. You sit here in these pews because for some reason Jesus is real to you.
The beauty of the Christian faith is that reason is unique for all of us. Thankfully, our church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), is very open theologically. This is why I’m a pastor in this denomination because I can preach a sermon like this without fear of getting defrocked. We believe God is Lord of the conscience, which means you don’t have to believe what I believe and I don’t have to believe what you believe.
What I love about this church is how you can have this unique tapestry of different thought, and yet, we all work together to serve God and Jesus in amazing ways! Therefore, I want to end my sermon today by saying, “Thank you!” Thank you for believing what you believe. Thank you for being thoughtful about your faith. Thank you for your perspective because we need your perspective just as much as the church needs mine.
Regardless of where you fall with your beliefs about the resurrection, just know what makes us the same is that you are a bringer of Jesus’ light into the world. Without you, the gospel will not get passed down to the next generation. So thank you for being you and for continuing the tradition of spreading the faith to those who need it most. Amen.