Church History

An Easter reflection from John Stott

I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he was seen… (1 Cor15:3-5)

The Apostle is reminding his Corinthian readers of the gospel that he had preached and they had received, in which they stood and by which they were being saved if they held it fast and had not believed in vain.

What is the gospel?

It is composed of two parts, the death of Jesus and the resurrection of Jesus. First, Christ died for our sins; secondly, he was raised on the third day.

True, the emphasis is on his death, since it is by his death that he dealt with our sins. Nevertheless, the Christ who died for our sins was raised, and his resurrection illumines his death.

These two doctrines of the death and resurrection of Jesus were both biblical, “according to

the scriptures”, that is, foretold in the Old Testament.

They were also both historical. They really happened. Their historicity is vouched for in each

case. The fact of Christ’s death was proved by his burial, and the fact of his resurrection by

his appearances. “Christ died, and… was buried.” “He rose again… and… was seen.”

We know that he died, because he was buried (and you only bury dead men); we know that he rose, because he was seen (and he could not have been seen if he had not risen).

How is our understanding of the death of Jesus affected by the fact that he rose from the dead? Or, more accurate, that he “was raised” for the common way of describing the resurrection in the New Testament is to ascribe it not to Jesus himself (“he rose”) but to God the Father (“he was raised”). Why did God the Father raise Jesus from the dead?

In answer to this question, let me bring you three propositions and commend them to you from the Epistle to the Romans.

1. God raised Jesus to demonstrate the deity of his person

Jesus Christ was “declared to be the Son of God with power… by the resurrection from the dead” (Rom 1:4). Let us look at this historically.

As the three years of Jesus Christ’s public ministry ran their course, the Apostles became increasingly convinced that he was the Messiah, indeed the Son of God. But when he warned them that he must suffer and die, they could not understand. They could not reconcile this dreadful prospect with their ripening faith in his divine Person. Then he was arrested, tried, condemned crucified, and all their hopes were shattered. How could Jesus be God’s Messiah if, instead of reigning in his Kingdom, he suffered the appalling ignominy of crucifixion by the Gentiles? How could he be the Son of God, if men killed him? These were the questions which tormented the disciples.

It is hard for its to conceive the greatness of their perplexity as the One in whom they had believed was shamefully done to death. The tears they wept were not just of bereavement, but of bewilderment. When Jesus died their hopes died with him. They sank into black and bitter despair.

Then God raised him! He was “powerfully designated God’s Son by the resurrection”. Jesus had never predicted his death without adding that he would rise, for he knew that his death would not be the end. Now they knew, too, and understood.

And the resurrection became the burden of their message in the early sermons recorded in the Acts. Again and again we read this kind of thing: “This Jesus you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men, but God raised him up” (Acts 2:23, 24 cf. Acts 3:15; 4:10; 5.30).

Exactly! On the cross Jesus may have seemed defeated by the combined might of Jewry and Rome, but God reversed man’s sentence and by the resurrection publicly vindicated him. It was the resurrection which convinced Saul of Tarsus that Jesus, whom he had been persecuting as an impostor, was true after all, and Romans 1:4 is an echo of Paul’s own experience.

Still today many seekers have come to faith in Christ through conviction that on the first Easter Day the great stone was rolled away, the tomb was empty, the grave clothes left, the body gone, and the Lord seen. Jesus had risen indeed.

2. God raised Jesus to confirm the efficacy of his death

He “was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification” (Rom 4:25). Jesus was not content to foretell his death as a fact; he indicated its purpose as well. He said that he was going to give his life as a ransom for many, and that his blood would be shed for the forgiveness of our sins.

Well, he died all right. That is an irrefutable fact. But how could his followers be sure that the purpose of his death had been accomplished? How could they know that his life had been accepted as a ransom, that his blood could cleanse from sin and that through his death sinners could be forgiven?

The answer is by the resurrection. God confirmed the satisfactoriness of his Son’s death by raising him from the dead. The resurrection was God’s own proof that Jesus had not died in vain. This is the meaning of Romans 4:25, which should be translated that Jesus was “put to death because of our trespasses and raised because of our justification”.

In other words, it is because we were sinners that Christ dies for us, and because we can now be justified on the ground of his death that he was raised from the dead. But if Jesus had not been raised, we could never have known if his sacrifice for sin had been accepted.

Rather we would have known that it had not been accepted. “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile, and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished” (1 Cor 15:17 18 RSV).

But Christ has been raised, to show that he did not die in vain. And since he did not die in vain, we have not believed in vain. We are no longer in our sins, but justified from them. And those who have died in Christ have not perished, but are with Christ in glory, which is far better.

3. God raised Jesus to complete the salvation of his people

We turn now to Romans 6, and I must ask you specially to read verses 4, 5 and 8 to 11. These verses make it plain that God is concerned not only with the justification of his people but with their sanctification, that is, not only to bring them into his favour, forgiven and accepted sinners, but to transform them into the likeness of Jesus Christ.

If we belong to Christ, because we have become one with him by faith, then we have died with him to sin and risen with him to newness of life.

The merit of his death and the power of his resurrection have both become ours. And one day our bodies will rise too.

We have already been raised with Christ spiritually from the death of sin; we shall be raised from physical death also and clothed with new, glorious bodies like his.

Thus each stage of our salvation is tied to the resurrection of Christ, our justification, sanctification and glorification, that is, our acceptance before God, our growth in holiness, and our acquisition of new bodies on the Last Day.

In the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead we have the proof of our justification, the power of our sanctification, and the pattern of our glorification. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is a vital foundation of the Christian religion. The Christian faith is not only “the faith of Christ crucified,” but “the faith of Christ risen”.

Let me apply this to my readers with some direct questions:

First, are you doubtful about the deity of Jesus? Then do examine the evidence for the resurrection. God raised Jesus from the dead in order to demonstrate the deity of his Person. He was powerfully designated God’s Son by the resurrection.

Are you doubtful about your own salvation? Whether you are accepted before God and your sins forgiven? Then do look at the empty tomb! God raised Jesus from the dead to confirm the efficacy of his sacrifice.

Are you doubtful about the possibility of victory? Then do remember that God raised Jesus from the dead in order to complete your salvation! You need to be convinced that Jesus is alive. If you belong to him, you have risen with him, and in the power of the resurrection

you and I can be “more than conquerors”.

This article was first published in the Australian Church Record on 8 April 1965.