“The Conquest of Death”
The Gospel Series, No. 7
February 18, 2018
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
In this part of our series of sermons on the Gospel, the good news, we are defining the good news: precisely what is that news that Christians are proclaiming to the world. What events, what discoveries, what glad tidings must be trumpeted to the four corners of the earth? So far, we have said that the good news is that God himself has come into the world as a man to deliver us – the incarnation – and, because divine justice required it, Jesus Christ died in our place to pay the penalty for our sins – the cross – this is the good news: that Christ came into the world to save sinners. But Christ did not simply die for our sins, he rose from the dead, having triumphed over sin and death on our behalf. This is the next part of the good news: the resurrection.
v.22 Peter uses three terms: mighty works, literally “powers,” works, that is, that could be explained only by the power of God; wonders, acts that arouse astonishment and awe; and signs, works – I say “works” because Jesus did them – that signify or embody or teach or represent spiritual reality and truth. [Peterson, 145]
There was no fear on Peter’s part that people would dispute the miracles of Jesus. Even the Lord’s sworn enemies had not denied that he performed miracles, works of wondrous power. They had attributed them to the power of the Devil, but that the supernatural had been unleashed in the ministry of Jesus no contemporary witness of that ministry – friend or foe – could or did dispute.
v.23 The obvious question, especially for someone who had not been in Palestine during the Lord’s ministry, as many of these Pentecost visitors would not have been, was: if Jesus had such a powerful ministry, why was he put to death? Peter’s answer is twofold. “Lawless men” is probably a reference both to the Jewish leaders who hated Jesus because of their jealously of him and to the Romans, who acted without regard for truth or justice. But, more importantly, Jesus did not die because of a ghastly miscalculation on his part or because he was overpowered by his enemies. No! Such a death had been his intention from the beginning: as he himself had said, “the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and give his life a ransom for many.” Jesus himself had made a great point of the fact that there was never to be any other end of his ministry but the cross and that he went to Jerusalem knowing that he would be crucified and willingly gave himself up to that death. Men certainly acted wickedly in putting him to death and were responsible for their crimes, but unwittingly they had accomplished God’s will and unintentionally had contributed to the salvation of the world.
v.24 In other words, the sentence of men was reversed by a higher court! It was impossible for Jesus to stay dead not only because he was the Messiah, because he had perfectly completed the assignment his Father had given him when he sent him into the world, but because the Scripture had prophesied his resurrection. The citation of Psalm 16 that follows is not offered to prove the resurrection; the disciples could do that themselves with their own eyewitness testimony. It indicates rather that the Lord’s resurrection proves that he was the Messiah, the long-promised descendant of King David, of whose resurrection the prophets foretold.
Here we have, so far as we know, the first public proclamation of the good news and its central affirmation is that Jesus, crucified, dead, and buried on Friday, was alive again and alive forever the following Sunday! In the early preaching of the good news, as Luke’s narrative in the book of Acts makes very clear, the resurrection played a central role. In chapter 4, verse 2, we read that the Jewish religious authorities were annoyed because the apostles were “proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead.” That is, they were not only preaching that Jesus had risen from the dead, but that his resurrection anticipated the resurrection of those who trust in him at the end of history. His resurrection guaranteed ours! Later in that same chapter 4 we read:
“…with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus…” [v. 33]
Later in the book we read that Paul’s message likewise was “Jesus and the resurrection.” We saw last time that Paul sometimes summarized his preaching as “the message of the cross.” But it could also be summarized as “the message of the resurrection,” for the two subjects – the cross and the resurrection – while they can be distinguished, cannot be separated. Each is meaningless without the other.
Now it is important for you to know that the Jews of this time, or, at least most of them, believed in the resurrection of the dead. They believed that at the end of history both the righteous and the unrighteous dead would rise to life again to face the judgment of God. The idea of resurrection – anticipated in the Old Testament – was part of their theological understanding of history.
What no one believed at that time was that there would be a resurrection in the middle of history, even less that the Messiah – an exalted figure in all Jewish expectation – would die and rise again. No one has ever found any evidence that anyone thought such a thing would or even might happen. It was contrary to their entire understanding of how history would unfold to its end. Further, the reigning philosophies of the Greco-Roman world were uniformly uncongenial to even the idea of a bodily resurrection. The body was the problem and salvation – however conceived – required escape from the body, or getting rid of the body. The very idea that salvation should consist in the restoration and perfection of the human body was another offense to add to the offense of the cross. No one inventing a story he wanted anyone to believe would invent this story, so contrary to everything people thought – both Jews and Gentiles alike – and so repugnant to their intellectual tastes.
Again, as with the cross, the only thing that can explain the account of the resurrection we find in the New Testament and in early Christian preaching was the fact that it had occurred! It was the spear-point of early Christian preaching because they knew Jesus had risen from the dead; in fact, a good number of folk knew because they had seen him with their own eyes alive again, startling and wholly unexpected as it was.
Our primary interest in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, of course, is that it happened! That it happened means so much for our faith, for its historical credibility, and for its nature as the good news of deliverance from the power of death. Because our first and greatest interest in the resurrection is that it happened, we stress – and understandably so – the fact that it was the self-same Jesus of Nazareth who died on the cross and then, on the third day, rose from the dead. That is the key fact: the same body that was lifeless on Friday afternoon, was brimming with life – human life – but perfect life the following Sunday. This was the good news the early preachers (and an army of ordinary Christians) proclaimed not only because they knew that it had happened but because it was so obviously, irrefutably a fact that changed the world.
“Every sermon preached by every Christian in the New Testament centers on the resurrection. The gospel or ‘good news’ means essentially the news of Christ’s resurrection. The message that flashed across the ancient world, set hearts on fire, changed lives and turned the world upside down was not ‘love your neighbor.’ Every morally sane person already knew that; it was not news. The news was that a man who claimed to be the Son of God and the Savior of the world had risen from the dead.” [P. Kreeft and R.K. Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics, 176]
The resurrection changed everything. It changed the way men thought about God. It was the resurrection that explained how devout Jews, monotheists to the bone, could confess Jesus Christ as God without in any way compromising their belief in the one God. [R. Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, 90-93]
A real human being, like you and like me, really died and was buried or entombed. He was, as we are wont to say, “stone cold dead.” But then he was really, fully, wonderfully, vitally alive a few days later. He was dead and then he was alive in precisely that way that men are alive or dead today, though, to be sure, once alive again Jesus had clearly entered a new and higher realm of human life. No wonder the apologetic thrust and the theological thrust of the New Testament’s account of the resurrection made so much of the fact that it was the self-same Jesus who died and rose again. One could still see the scars from his crucifixion in his hands and feet!
Now, let’s be honest about this. Let’s be sure that our temporal distance from that event, now some 2,000 years ago, does not dull us to its tremendous significance. Suppose that one of those high school students murdered in Florida this past week, having already been buried, were now, suddenly to appear alive again. Or, let’s make it more personal. Suppose our beloved John Pribyl whom we saw to the grave a few weeks ago suddenly walked into our worship service brim full of life, wearing that wide smile that we remember so fondly, and greeting his friends with ready hugs and his loved ones with kisses.
Perhaps someone of a skeptical bent, like the apostle Thomas perhaps, would demand to see the death certificate, to interview the medical staff at the hospice house, the doctor who signed the death certificate, then the funeral home personnel, then perhaps the cemetery workers. They would want the grave opened to see if the body were still there. But all of that investigation would confirm both that he had died, that there was no question that he had died, but here he was alive again, and not alive only, but living as none of us yet lives.
You cannot tell me that this would not rock your world. This news would spread like wildfire; the world’s press would descend upon Tacoma interviewing anyone and everyone they could find who knew John both before and after. Why? Because that single fact would change everything! Everyone’s entire understanding of life would have to be reworked in light of the fact that a dead man had come to life again and was fully, wonderfully, perfectly alive! That would be true even if it were John Pribyl, of whom nothing more could be said but that he was a Christian man who died and then rose to life again.
But it was not so in the case of Jesus of Nazareth. They were telling everyone they met that Jesus had risen from the dead. They weren’t telling everyone that some man they knew had risen from the dead. Everyone knew about Jesus. He had been an absolute sensation in Galilee and Judea for upwards of three years. His crucifixion had been a highly public event. Before he was put to death everyone had been talking about him, arguing about him, many wondering openly if he might be the Messiah, many rejoicing that he was. They had heard about, if they had not themselves seen his powerful works of healing, had heard his teaching – utterly unlike the teaching they were familiar with – and many had some experience of his remarkable personal authority. He was a phenomenon and people were deeply divided over what to think about him.
To hear that this man was alive again: that was news! To have the report verified by so many good people, people who had known him well, people whose unabashed wonder was proof enough that they were proclaiming nothing but what they themselves had seen and heard. They spoke with the authority of the eyewitness. They had to be taken seriously. They were obviously as surprised by the news as anyone else would be. They were very ordinary men; not men of consequence or of reputation. They were fishermen, a tax collector, and the like. And suddenly they were commanding the attention of the entire city, the city lay at their feet. How did this happen? What made them what they had become? And their answer continued to be that they had seen themselves and talked with the risen Jesus Christ and their entire understanding of life and of human destiny had been transformed root and branch. They were talking about someone who had claimed to be the Son of God, about a man who said he had come from the Father, about someone who told his disciples and large crowds of interested countrymen that he was the savior of the world. This man had risen from the dead!
No wonder the apostles of the Lord proclaimed his resurrection. It was not only astonishing news itself, it was the proof positive that he really was the Son of God and really was the Messiah. Could you think of any event more perfectly suited to confirm everything Jesus had ever said about himself than that he had conquered death itself? No doubt they also proclaimed the fact of Jesus’ resurrection because it was their strongest suit. The authorities couldn’t produce the body and no one really believed it had been stolen. But they were proclaiming the resurrection also because it was their entire message compressed into a single historical fact. Jesus was sent from God, he did come to save sinners, in him human beings can find eternal life, eternal human life, eternal life of body and of soul.
Jesus’ resurrection may be amazing. It may be a fact that forces us to reconsider many things. But happy as we may be to know that Jesus of Nazareth, so cruelly and unjustly put to death on Friday, rose from the dead the following Sunday, it is altogether more wonderful to think that I might rise from the dead; that you might rise from the dead just as he did. After all, you and I are certainly going to die. However unwelcome a fact, fact it is. It is the brute fact of human existence. It is the reality that casts its shadow over our lives.
Whatever crazy sorrow saith,
No life that breathes with human breath
Hath ever truly longed for death;
‘Tis life, not death for which we pant,
More life, and fuller, that I want.
Fact is, Christians have never been embarrassed by the claim that lies at the foundation of their faith: that Jesus rose from the dead. In the days of Peter and John it was their Gibraltar, the rock against which shattered every effort to quiet, to disprove, and to discredit the fledgling faith. And so it has continued to be the case. An English attorney wrote a famous book entitled Who Moved the Stone? – a book that was originally to be a disproving of the resurrection and ended up instead an argument that it certainly happened; a book in which he described how his unbelief had been battered into submission by the facts themselves. Reflecting on that early history of Christianity the author wrote,
“The phenomenon which here confronts us is one of the biggest
dislodgments of events in the world’s history, and it can only really be accounted for by an initial impact of colossal drive and power.”
That initial impact of colossal drive and power was the resurrection of the Jesus Christ and you can feel its drive and power in the narrative we read this morning. What the resurrection means is that Christ completed the work he was doing for us on the cross. His was a complete victory over sin and death on our behalf.
That is what Paul meant when he wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:17 that “if Christ were not raised…you are still in your sins.” If Christ had not risen from the dead, that would be the proof that the sacrifice he made for our sins on the cross had not been accepted, had not been adequate, had not availed to save us from sin and the death that is its punishment.
But the resurrection also means that Jesus Christ is alive in the world. As Peter would say later in this same Pentecost sermon, the pouring out of the Holy Spirit that had arrested the attention of the great crowd standing before Peter; Jesus had done this. [2:33] Jesus was not only alive, he was continuing his work as the Savior of the world! And the 3,000 who became followers of Jesus that day and the thousands more who joined them in the days and weeks to follow, that too was the work of the Lord Jesus. Those men and women were coming to him, they were being drawn by him, they were believing in him. They were not trusting themselves and their eternal destinies to a dead man but to a living savior. Good News! Christ is alive for you! Let me finish with a story, one of the countless stories that could be told.
As Americans you know about Pearl Harbor, that shock that sent our country to war. You may remember that the pilot who led the attack on Pearl Harbor was a man named Mitsuo Fuchida. Fuchida hated Americans. He recalled later that when he looked down from his plane, saw the smoke billowing from the listing battleships and knew that the attack had been a success, “my heart was almost ablaze with joy.” At home, Fuchida became a national hero overnight. But, of course, Japan lost the war and when it was over the Allies disbanded the Japanese army and navy, so Fuchida went into farming. He was called to testify at the war crimes trials that took place in Tokyo after the war, but thought it was all just so much utter hypocrisy. Japan was being humiliated, he thought, for doing nothing more than what the Americans themselves had done. Surely, the Americans had committed atrocities too, he thought. In search of evidence to document and prove this double standard, Fuchida ran into an old navy buddy who had been interned as a POW in the United States.
Fuchida’s friend reported rough treatment but not atrocities; and he also told him of the strange kindness of an American teenager, Peggy Colby, who had helped at the prison camp as a volunteer worker. She had served the Japanese prisoners, he told Fuchida, with tireless energy and graciousness. After three weeks of this, one of the prisoners finally asked her, “Why are you so kind to us?” She answered, “Because Japanese soldiers killed my parents.” Her parents, Christian missionaries to Japan, had been beheaded by the Japanese in the Philippines. At first, their 18 year old daughter had been eaten up with hatred. But, knowing that her parents had forgiven their captors before they died, Peggy couldn’t continue to keep feeding her hatred and not only gave it up but volunteered to serve these Japanese prisoners of war.
When Fuchida heard this story he was dumbfounded. It made no sense to him because, as he later explained in his autobiography, in his moral framework revenge was a virtue not a vice; revenge was proof of your loyalty to the offended party whose honor you had a duty to vindicate.
He pondered for some time where such forgiveness might come from. Then, one day in October, 1948, Fuchida took a pamphlet from an American who was handing them out to folk as they passed. I’m old enough to have met the man who handed the tract to him on the railroad platform. It was the story of an American sergeant, Jacob DeShazer, one of the bombardiers in the famous Doolittle Raid, the daring attempt to bomb Japanese targets in Tokyo in April of 1942.
After hearing about the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, DeShazer’s hatred for the Japanese grew white hot, just like Fuchida’s for the Americans. He jumped at the chance to get back at the Japanese and was delighted to be a participant on the Doolittle raid. But his plane was shot down. With other members of his crew he had to bail out over occupied China. DeShazer was captured, tortured by his captors and spent more than three years in a POW camp, most of it in solitary confinement. His hatred for the Japanese consumed him.
But DeShazer began to think about why there was so much hatred in the world and within himself, inexplicably, found a longing to read the Bible. One had been circulating among the prisoners and, finally, in May 1944 it came to him. He had three weeks to read it, so in that time he read furiously. He was moved by the Scripture’s teaching about Jesus Christ who died and rose again that we might live forever. On June 8, 1944, in that POW camp in China, Jacob DeShazer became a Christian. His hatred began to melt and he promised God that, after the war, he would return to Japan to share with his enemies the knowledge of God’s love and of his own peace with God that he had found through Jesus Christ.
All this Mitsuo Fuchida read in this pamphlet and he read it with deepening interest. Here it was again, the power to transform a life, the power to overcome hatred with love, the power to forgive sins. Fuchida, the hard-bitten soldier, the hero, the great hater of Americans, was drawn to this. Fascinated by the moral turnabout of these two people, Fuchida bought a Japanese Bible and began to read and to think about what he read. In September, 1949 he came to Luke 23 and the account of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and his prayer on the cross, “Father forgive them.” That cinched it for him. He had traced the source of the power that changed Peggy Colby and Jacob DeShazer back to its source and was convinced that it must be true. He gave his life to Jesus Christ. Jacob DeShazer, was present with him the day Fuchida was baptized.
Fuchida’s conversion to Christianity, his new loyalty to Christ, aroused contempt among the Japanese and suspicion in the United States. He was accused of selling out to the enemy by some, was still hated by many here in the US for his role at Pearl Harbor, and suspected by others of nothing more than an attempt to ingratiate himself with his conquerors. In other words, his coming to faith in Christ was as radical and as controversial an act in his day as it had been for so many who became Christians in Jerusalem in Peter’s day.
But Fuchida’s commitment to Christ was real. He began to travel throughout Japan sharing his new faith. In 1952 he turned down the position of Chief of Staff in the new Japanese Air Force and in 1957 declined the position of Minister of Defense. For 25 years he devoted himself to proclaiming Jesus Christ as the Savior of sinners. He died of Diabetes in Japan on May 30th, 1976 at 73 years of age. That man and vast multitudes like him are what the resurrection of Jesus Christ meant and means. Here were two men neither at all likely to become a Christian; indeed highly unlikely to become one and yet both found Jesus Christ irresistible. And this is happening all over the world every day. Why?
Because there is abroad in this world a person of great power and great love. And because of who he is and what he did, there is in this sad and dying world the real possibility not only of a transformed life, but of eternal life, perfect life, and never-ending life. It comes from the only one who has ever conquered sin and death and whose conquest was not for himself but for others. That is impossibly good news!