The Resurrection Matters Now

The Resurrection is at the very heart of the Christian faith.  After Jesus died in our place, bore the penalty for our sin, triumphed over the forces of evil and revealed the humble and sacrificial love of God for the world to win our hearts and our trust, then on the third day he rose from the dead: conquering death, vindicating the sacrifice for sin, and establishing a new hope for us all.  What is that hope?  Since Jesus is the firstfruits from among the dead, there is the promise of more resurrection to come –  ours!

Because of Easter our lives are changed.  We are no longer under condemnation, because Jesus was condemned in our place.  We no longer fear death, because Jesus has proven that death is defeated.  We are no longer living in darkness and confusion about God, because we know just how much he loves us, how far he would go to redeem us and how absolute is his victory over all that is against us.

But as another Easter comes and then fades away, I wonder if the present implications of the Resurrection have gripped me as they should.  I can look backward and forward, upward and outward, but are the Easter effects leaving the present me essentially untouched?  That is, I can think back to the first Easter, forward to the return of Christ, upward to heaven and outward to the world, but what about me here and now?  What difference does the Resurrection make to me, now?

Certainly, Easter is a past historic event with glorious implications for my future experience beyond death in this world.  Of course, Easter means that I have the certain expectation of being accepted by God rather than condemned, and it gives me a message to share with a needy world around me.  But is Easter all about past and future, heavenly status and evangelistic witness?

In what sense is my moment by moment experience of life marked and shaped by Easter?  Is the present effect just gratitude for heavenly blessings and my hope for the future?  Has Easter just changed my standing before God, and my ultimate destination beyond this life, but left me essentially a grateful anticipator of a better future?  Or has Easter actually done something in me now, something more than just stirring gratitude and hope, important as both surely are?

Let’s briefly chase the present significance of the Resurrection in the New Testament:

When John the Baptist announced Jesus’ arrival he pointed to two aspects of his mission.  Jesus was “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).  And Jesus was also “he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit” (John 1:33).  This is shorthand for the full expectation of the New Covenant promises in the Old Testament – Jesus was the one who would deal with our guilt, paying the penalty for it and carrying it away that we might be free of condemnation.  And Jesus was the one who would bring about an internal change in us by giving us the Holy Spirit to stir a new liveliness to God within us as our hearts are transformed and we enjoy not only the new status of being forgiven, but also the new experience of being adopted into God’s family.

Later in John’s Gospel Jesus makes it clear that his departure would make possible the coming of the Holy Spirit (John 16:7), and subsequently reveals in prayer what eternal life actually is: “that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).  To be truly alive we need not only to have our guilt forgiven, but also to experience the very life of God himself, which is only possible through the renewed presence of the Holy Spirit in us.

After Jesus rose and later ascended, we come to Acts 2 and Peter’s explanation of the apparently drunken behaviour of the believers.  This was not drunkenness, this was the promised pouring out of the Holy Spirit.  How was this possible?  Because Jesus who had been crucified did not remain in the tomb, but rather than experience decay he rose and now was able to give the Holy Spirit.  For Peter, the giving of the Spirit was only possible because Jesus had not remained in the tomb.

My fear is that I can too easily miss this Easter reality and settle for a past, future and heavenly salvation, while missing the present reality.  Yes, Jesus has represented me, died for me, forgiven me, and given me confidence that death will not be the end of me.  But more than that, because he rose it means that I am no longer living simply a flesh-life with an added heavenly future.  Instead, I have the Spirit of God dwelling in me now.  So, Paul could say in Romans 8:11, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.”

Is that life that the Spirit gives simply a future grant, or is he speaking of a present tense new gift of life?  Doesn’t the fact that Jesus is alive today mean that I am not living my life alone, but in fellowship with him?  Do I not get to join Jesus in his mission to the world, and in his relationship with his Father?

When Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote about Romans 8 he referred to our union with Christ as “the ultimate doctrine.”  How true this is!  When Jesus rose from the dead it was not simply to prove that the offering had been accepted, nor to simply demonstrate victory, nor to just establish hope, also it was also to make possible our present union with him by the Spirit.  The Resurrection of Jesus has massive here and now implications!

Because Jesus rose from the dead that first Easter, it means that I can enjoy relationship with him now, not just in the future.  Because he rose from the dead I can know not only that my status is changed in heaven’s records, but I can know the love of heaven now, as it is poured out into my heart by the Spirit that has been given to us (Rom.5:5).  Because Jesus rose from the dead, I don’t just speak to needy folks out there, I can also see the stirring of my own heart in the daily experience of union with Christ.

This Easter let’s celebrate all that the Resurrection of Jesus means for us, not only in our anticipation of the future, but also in our experience in the present.

10 Pointers for Preaching Easter

10 targetfEaster is a critical season in church ministry.  There may be people in church who would normally not be in church. There will be regulars who need to be captured by the Easter story afresh.  Here are 10 pointers for preaching Easter:

1. Tell the story – whether people are first-timers, once a year attenders, or regulars, they need to hear the basic Easter story.  Jesus told his followers to have a regular reminder in the form of communion, so we can be sure that Easter itself should include a clear presentation of what actually happened.

2. Pick a passage – while you can preach a blended harmony of accounts, why not pick a specific passage and preach it properly?  At the very least, it will be a blessing for your own soul.  For instance, Luke’s account of the trials, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus is marked by his distinctive “two witnesses” motif . . . underlining the certainty of what took place.  His use of the term “it is necessary” underlines the ‘must-ness’ of God’s plan.

3. Undermine familiarity – the frequency of reference to the death of Christ, combined with serene artistic impressions and popular jewellery, has made most people unaware of the reality of that first Easter.  Carefully pick a fact or two to help bring it home: Jesus was probably crucified at eye-level; the condemned had to lift his body weight to take a full breath.

4. Beware of shock and awe – people won’t be drawn by your graphic description of gory medical detail.  Rather, they will be won by the Spirit.  Be sure to preach Christ and him crucified, don’t try to shock people into a response.  Some may be hardened by exposure to Hollywood special effects, but others may grow faint at the mention of blood.

5. Recognize there is emotion in Easter – we certainly don’t want to manipulate emotions, but neither should we deny them.  Easter stirs emotions.  There will be sadness at what Jesus went through and why it was necessary (my sin). Yet also the joy and celebration of the resurrection – Easter mixes and stirs the emotions.   Preach in such a way as to make evident the emotion within the text you are preaching, while engaging with the mixture of response from those listening.

6. Make clear the truth of Easter – it is hard to think of a good excuse for not making clear the truth of Easter, including the fact of the Resurrection.  Apologetically this is ground zero for our presentation of the Gospel and Christianity.  Don’t miss the opportunity.

7. The Resurrection is more than proof – be careful that the Resurrection does not become simply the proof that theologically Christ’s sacrifice was accepted, or apologetically that Christianity is true.  Yes and yes, the Bible presents this truth and offers unparalleled historicity, but there is more.  The Resurrection introduces the wonder of New Covenant spiritual life now, and hope for the fulfillment of God’s plans in the future, and so much more.

8. The Crucifixion is more than payment – just as the Resurrection can get reduced to a source of proof, so the Crucifixion can be reduced.  Some will make it just an example for us.  That is very weak.  Some will present it purely as the payment for the penalty of our sin.  This is stronger, but still incomplete. Consider John’s Gospel emphasis on the cross as the revelation of the glory of God’s character, or as the means by which people are drawn to Christ.  (Obviously, if your passage is focused on satisfying the wrath of God against sin, then don’t fail to make that your emphasis!)

9. Clarify the ultimate identification – preaching any narrative will naturally lead to listeners identifying with characters in the story.  The Easter story is full of potential points of identification: deserting disciples, denying Peter, doubting Thomas, betraying Judas, power-hungry Caiaphas, self-protective Pilate, hurting Mary, mocking soldiers, shouting crowds, repentant thief, etc.  But don’t miss the central character: Jesus Christ came to identify with us, to bear our sin, to take our place, and to invite our trusting and adoring gaze in his direction.

10. Never lose the wonder – be sure that if you are preaching Easter to others, that it has first refreshed and thrilled your own soul.

Helmut Thielicke described Spurgeon’s humour as “Easter laughter,” that which comes as a “mode of redemption because it is sanctified – because it grows out of an overcoming of the world.”  May Easter so grip our hearts this year that our preaching points others to the wonder of the cross and the empty tomb, and so that our own souls burst out in praise to the God who would make such an event the centerpiece of His glorious redemptive plan!

Easter is Coming – The Power of Identification

I know Easter is still a couple of months away, but as a preacher it is never too early to think about Easter.  In fact, there is a sense in which commemoration of Easter is never more than six days away – the Lord’s Day is a weekly gathering because of His resurrection.  So here’s a thought regarding Easter (whether you’re planning for April or preparing for tomorrow’s message).

In preaching any narrative section, we need to consider whom listeners will gravitate toward, with whom they will identify.  We should consider how to encourage that or redirect that through our preaching.  In the case of the passion narratives, this tendency to identify can be powerfully used in our preaching.  Luther pointed to this when he wrote:

“Although Christians will identify themselves with Judas, Caiaphas, and Pilate; sinful, condemned actors in the Gospel story – there is another who took the sins of humanity on himself when they were hung around his neck.”

When it comes to the story of the crucifixion we find ourselves identifying with so many characters: Judas, Peter, fleeing disciples, Caiaphas, Pilate, Roman soldiers, Simon from Cyrene, mocking executioners, mocking crowds, mocking thief, repentant thief, followers standing at a distance, followers standing close by, even the Centurion.  Yet the wonder of it all is that we are invited to identify with the perfect One hanging on that cross, for in that act He was most wondrously identifying with us.

Consider how the natural function of narrative – to spark identification – can be utilized to communicate the wondrous truth of Calvary this Easter, or even this Sunday.

Preaching Easter (Pt4): Resurrection Implications

NT Wright made an interesting comment this week. He suggested that the New Testament presents many implications that come from the resurrection. However, the one that most preachers tend to emphasize is not really presented in the New Testament. Namely, “Because Jesus rose from the dead, we can go to heaven when we die.” I mention this not to affirm the comment, but to prompt our thinking and Bible study.

Before preaching the resurrection this Sunday, check your text for the implications that are present. For instance, in 1st Corinthians 15 we read that His resurrection gives us hope of our own (v16-20), the fear of death is removed (v26, 54-57), there are ethical implications (v32-34), motivation for ministry (v58), and even prompting to practical help for the poor (16:1, note Galatians 2:7-10).

Let’s preach the truth of the resurrection, let’s even allow our excitement to show, but let’s also try to be specifically clear in presenting the implications. It is easy in our excitement about the event to fall short in our relevance and application. Truly, everything is changed because Jesus rose from the dead. Part of our task is to help people see how that is true.

Preaching Easter (Pt3): Harmonization and the Gospels

Whenever we preach from the gospels we need to be aware that there may be up to four accounts of the story before us. In the past a great deal of emphasis was placed on harmonizing the gospel accounts. That is to say, placing all four side by side and seeking to combine them in order to have the “full” story. There is certainly a place for this practice, but how much of this should we concern ourselves with as preachers?

There are many elements in the Gospels that only appear in one gospel. In this case the issue of harmonization is largely irrelevant. But then there are events found in all of the gospels. The passion narrative, obviously, is found in all four.

Check all four gospels for accuracy in your preaching. If you are preaching from, say, Luke’s account, then it is helpful to check the other three. You wouldn’t want to undermine your preaching by telling the story in such a way that you make errors because you forgot to check the other gospels.

Preach the text rather than the event. Having checked the other gospels to make sure you are not presenting an error in your sermon, be sure to actually preach Luke’s account (or whichever you have as your preaching text). The gospel writers did not simply recount a transcript of a video taken the first Easter. They selectively chose the details to include in order to write an historically accurate theological presentation. Seek to preach the emphasis of the text you are in.

Preaching Easter (Pt1): Back to Basics

In some ways Easter is not like Christmas.  The Christmas story tends to remain largely unmentioned for eleven months of the year.  So when the advent season comes round again people expect to hear the basic Christmas story.  But the events of the first Easter get mentioned and preached on throughout the year.  So there is a temptation for us as preachers to try and get clever with our Easter messages – perhaps hyper-creative, or super-subtle, or whatever.

Our regular listeners need to hear the basic Easter story.  Jesus told his followers to share bread and wine, “in remembrance” of Him.  In a sense the Easter story never grows old for Christ’s followers – it means too much to us.  So as a preacher don’t feel pressure from somewhere to say something that is somehow clever or different.  There are plenty of biblical passages that can be used, and people will appreciate a clear preaching of any of them.

Remember that irregular listeners need to hear the basic Easter story.  At Easter time there is a higher likelihood of visitors.  Maybe they feel they should go to church at Christmas and again at Easter.  Maybe they are visiting family who go to your church and politely join their hosts.  These people don’t need some kind of creatively opaque and nuanced message.  They need the message of the text clearly presented and applied.

As a preacher you may be feeling the pressure to do something different this year.  I’m not suggesting we should be boring or predictable.  I’m not saying that creativity is inappropriate.  Let us be as effective as possible in our communication of the biblical message of Easter.  However, let’s remember that sometimes it is very effective to simply preach the basics – the story from the text, the implications for us today.

Don’t Preach Lazy Apologetics

Yesterday I attended a day conference about the resurrection held in Westminster Chapel.  NT Wright and Gary Habermas were the speakers, along with a brief session with Antony Flew.  He is the British philosopher who caused a real stir a few years ago by giving up his atheistic position to state that the evidence had convinced him of the existence of God.  His position is essentially deist, but he was asked what it would take for him to accept the deity of Jesus.  “Well, I suppose it would take something on the magnitude of what you’re talking about today, an otherwise impossible thing like a resurrection from the dead.”  When asked the same question about the Holy Spirit, his response was the same – “If the resurrection is true then everything else would come with it.”

Here is a non-Christian thinking more clearly about Christianity than many Christians.  How easy it is for us to slip into a very lazy apologetic, either directly or in testimony.  It goes along the lines of, “Obviously I can’t prove my faith, it’s like a leap in the dark really, but you just believe and then you know it is true.”

This easter season, let’s be sure to clearly communicate that the Christian faith is founded very firmly on historical fact.  The biblical record carries an unparalleled historicity.  If Jesus rose from the dead, then the implications are massive, but if he didn’t really rise, then let’s give up and do something else with our lives.  As preachers we are in the prime position to communicate the facts of easter and that the Christian message is not an invitation to take a leap into the dark.  As preachers we may also need to sensitively follow up on a testimony given by someone else that both affirms them, but also clarifies that actually Christianity is based and built on fact.