As the sun gets warmer and the trees start to bloom, I find myself looking forward to summer vacation. I’ve heard of one place that sounds nice… but I’m not sure that I’d ever go there for a holiday. I think you’ll understand why once I tell you about it.
A Not So Lovely Vacation Spot
Behind the University of Tennessee Medical Center is a lovely, little wood-lot on a hillside where people are often seen lying in the sun or reclining in the shade, as squirrels and other little forest creatures play in the trees.
It is out on this hillside where a man named Arpad Vass, a scientist at the University’s Anthropological Research Facility, works every day. All those folks spread out there in the Tennessee heat didn’t get there on their own. They are not lying down because they need a tan, but because they’re all very much dead — they are cadavers, sprawled out intentionally as a way of studying modes of human decomposition.
They are the lifeless bodies of people who have donated their bodies to science, and it is Doctor Vass’s job is to evaluate how these bodies decompose under various conditions: buried in shallow graves, stuck in car trunks, wrapped in plastic bags, submerged in a man-made pond, just to name a few. He figures out all the different ways the human body can be disposed by a murderer. The data collected helps detectives throughout the world catch murderers.
Maybe you’ve heard of this. There is a TV show that I used to watch called Bones. At its core, Bones is a drama about forensic science. Each episode focuses on solving the mystery behind someone’s murder by examining the remains. They are brought to Dr. Brennan’s forensic anthropology team at the Jeffersonian Institution, and by studying whatever is left over of the person, they are able to figure out ‘who-dun-it’. The series is somewhat based on the life and writings of a real life forensic anthropologist named Kathy Reichs.
The truth is that in the 21st century, death has been almost thoroughly sanitized for our protection. We simply don’t like to think about death. We don’t even like to say that someone died. We’ve come up with all sorts of nicer ways to say it. They “Passed away”, are “deceased”, have “ceased to be”, are “no more”, have “gone to the other side”, , “shuffled from this mortal coil”, “gone into that good night”, are “in a better place”, have “crossed over”, are now “asleep”, are “dearly departed”, “pushing up roses” or have simply “kicked the bucket”. We’ll come up with any way to say it other than, “They died.”
Consider funerals. Many people spend thousands of dollars to pay an expert to prepare the body for us, so we don’t have to see it. We get them to put makeup on the body so they will look like they are only sleeping and not really dead. Then we pay them to put the dead person into very nice clothes, complete with jewelry and a new hairdo, and lay them into ornately carved, plush box full of silken pillows. Then after paying all this money to dress up the body, we close the box so no one has to see it, cover the box in flowers, so we don’t have to think about the box, and then we bury it in the ground — and put up a very expensive, beautifully carved piece of stonework to mark the spot. Even the hole we dug for the body gets decorated.
And sadly, people don’t even have to be dead for us to put them out of sight. It seems that anyone that reminds us of death is locked up and sent away. The elderly, the sick, the dying are stuffed away in special hospitals and homes, away from eyes of our society, so we don’t have to think about death – especially not our own.
Easter & Death
The way we celebrate the Easter season points to our phobia about death. These days, when most people think of Easter, their minds are filled with pink bunnies, new bonnets, marshmallow chicks, plastic grass, colorful eggs and candy! Even crosses – the symbol of the bloody death of Jesus Christ – is sanitized and decorated to make it easier on the eyes. We want to fast forward to Easter Sunday – and forget about the crucifixion.
But, scripture teaches us that as important as new life in Christ is – and the wonderful truth of the resurrection – it doesn’t overshadow the death of Jesus. Please open up your bibles to 1 Corinthians 15:1-8:
“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. 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. 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.”
Nearly every year since it came out I’ve watched “The Passion of the Christ.” Not because I like the movie, but because it remind me of the price that Jesus paid for my sin. It shows me courage Jesus showed on His march to the cross. It reminds me of the love our Heavenly Father has for us, that He would send His Son to go through that for our sake.
Think back to you you’ve done on Good Fridays in the past, and how you’ve responded to Holy Week – from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. Have you taken the time to remember what happened – to acknowledge the death of Jesus Christ – or do you avoid thinking about it in favour of more pleasant things?
The thing is, if we had to pick a decoration theme that the Easter season, it wouldn’t include flowers and bunnies – it would more resemble Halloween! There’s a corpse, burial clothes, embalming, a tomb, ghosts, screaming, torture…
I hope you come to the Good Friday service this week. Even though I don’t have control over what all happens there, I do get to preach, and it is my hope to remember the Amazing Grace of God and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on Good Friday that was necessary because of our sins.
Why? Because, as Paul said to the Christians in Corinth, it is of “first importance.”
You see, along with our discomfort with death comes the same kind of discomfort with Good Friday. We know the story and want to skip to the good part. We don’t like the part where Jesus is wrongly arrested, falsely accused, beaten, tortured, abandoned, crucified, stabbed in the heart and then placed in a borrowed tomb, alone. We want to skip to the good part on Easter Sunday.
We like to forget that the disciples and the women who went to the tomb on Sunday morning were fully expecting to the dead and already decaying body of their friend and teacher, Jesus. They did not go to His tomb to see His resurrection. They intended to make certain that the body of their friend, their mentor and their rabbi was properly and respectfully prepared so that it could decompose quickly and with dignity. That’s what the spices they were carrying were for. And then, later, the bones could be taken and put in an ossuary or “bone box” and then buried somewhere else.
We can make no mistake. The women and disciples expected to find a corpse. Although Jesus had told them of His resurrection all the time, they really didn’t get it. Even though He said that He would rise in 3 days, they didn’t really believe it. Jesus said in John 14:1-3,
“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”
Jesus said it over and over, but on Easter Sunday, there was absolutely no doubt in the minds of the women who were coming to the tomb (Luke 23:56-24:1, 10), that that when they arrived they would find the lifeless body of Jesus… and they wouldn’t need a forensic scientist to tell them how He died. Most of His followers didn’t have the stomach to stay and watch, but they knew. He’d been on a Roman cross – and while you go up on a cross alive, you always come down dead.
That’s why they panicked! Let’s read the story from John 20:
“Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.
And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples went back to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’ She turned and said to him in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means Teacher).”
In a lot of translations there’s exclamation point there on “Rabboni!” That’s possibly the most under-rated exclamation point in the entire Bible. Seeing Jesus alive was the most incredible thing that she had ever seen – and the last thing she would ever expected!
And that’s the point the apostle Paul drives home in 1 Corinthians 15 when he writes to the church about 20-30 years later. Verses 3 and 4:
“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…”
You see, back then there was no funeral homes to preparing bodies for burial. Family and friends were the default morticians. Their culture knew what death smelled like, what death looked like, what death does to a body. Tombs were closed, barricaded by large rocks and stone, but everybody knew what was happening inside the darkness of the sealed tomb. In fact, before Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, Martha reminded Jesus of how much it would smell.They knew what tombs were like, and what went on in them.
When Easter happened, those first witnesses saw something unprecedented in the history of human remains. The material, fleshly body of Jesus of Nazareth, somehow became a former-dead-body! They had seen Lazarus come to life after 4 days, sure… but that was Jesus healing someone else. What they were seeing here was different. This was someone actually bringing himself back to life! No one performed a miracle. There was no doctor, no prophet, no prayers. But He came back!
Even modern science hasn’t found a way to change dead bodies into live ones. They can take the parts from a recently dead body and transplant them into the living – like heart or lung…. but they can’t raise the dead.
The Miracle of Resurrection
When Paul is writing this to the Corinthians he’s addressing something that was being wrongly taught in the church. Some people were saying that there was no resurrection from the dead… no life after death. Even people today have a problem with that concept. But the church in Corinth had people who were teaching that there was no such thing as someone rising from the dead. Paul’s whole point here… his whole reason for writing this section… is to give proof and testimony to the fact of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is a critical, uncompromising part of the Christian faith. It is the central part of the Christian faith – that DEATH HAS BEEN OVERCOME!
Paul hammers this message here: Jesus was dead, and then He was alive. And Jesus, as a live, post-crucified person, was seen by numerous individuals whom he lists in verses 5-8.
“…and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 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.”
The disciples did not make the resurrection up. To them it was a crushing defeat. Peter returned to fishing… the disciples has scattered… the followers of Jesus knew He was dead. They were not just gullible witnesses who were testifying to a hope that they had… they were people who were telling the story of the hard evidence that had stood right in front of them!
Resurrection = Hope
Here’s why it’s important: Look at verses 16-19 of this same chapter:
“For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And 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. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
This is how monumental the death of Jesus is to Christians. Our salvation is only possible if Jesus died and rose again. As Hebrews 9:22 says,“… without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” That’s a restatement from the Law of Leviticus 17:11, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement…” Jesus had to die.
If Jesus didn’t die, our sins wouldn’t be paid for. And if He didn’t die, then he couldn’t be resurrected. And if there is no resurrection, then we have no hope.
If Jesus wasn’t raised, if the tomb isn’t empty, if death can’t be reversed somehow, then, as verse 14 says, “your faith is futile”. If Jesus’ death didn’t pay our penalty for sin… then we “are still in our sins.” If There is no resurrection, then all those who have died before us… no matter what they did… “Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.” They’re dead in their sins because “the wages of sin is death, and the gift of God is eternal life, through Jesus Christ …”(Rom 6:23)
Paul says, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” If the only reason that we are Christian is because of the perks we get while we are alive on earth… then we are to be pitied. One of my commentaries says it this way:
“If all the preachers lied (15:15) and no one will be raised, then not only is faith meaningless for this life, it is meaningless in death. Those who believed in Christ believed a lie; those who died because of persecution for their faith perished for no reason. The consequences of believing the lie that there will be no resurrection shake the very foundations of the Christian faith…. If the only promise of the Christian faith applies to this life, then why believe in it? Why believe in a faith that brought –in this culture and even still in many places in the world – persecution, sorrow, death, ostracism, separation? Without the resurrection, there would be no hope for final judgment and justice or hope for a final dwelling place with God. There would be nothing but death to look forward to. If the end is the same for everyone, then why not live like the pagans in sensual pleasure (15:32)? Why deny oneself? Why be miserable if the other choices bring the same result?” (Life Application Bible Commentary – 1 & 2 Corinthians)
The bodily death and burial of Jesus is truly of “first importance” and is the very linchpin of human history. His dead body, coming to life, has made all the difference, and has given hope everyone who believes.
Three Things to Remember
So there are three important things that I want us to remember during the next week of the Easter Season, and they are found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4.
1. Jesus’ Death was Always the Plan
First… Jesus died for our sins “according to the scriptures”. The death of Jesus as the substitute for our sins wasn’t something that the church or the Apostles came up with. It’s wasn’t something that God came up with on the spot. The crucifixion of Jesus was always God’s plan to save humanity from the consequence of sin, right from the beginning.
The Phrase, “according to the scriptures” refers to the Old Testament prophecies regarding this event that would come true in the future. Plans that God wrote into every book of the Bible. Plans He would carry out.
The People of Israel were waiting for God to send them a Saviour, and the reason they were waiting was because of the prophecies about the Messiah that would come, that God would send!
It is so important that we know that Jesus’ death as a sacrifice on our behalf wasn’t a way to make good of a bad situation. It was exactly the way the scriptures said He would save us – hundreds and thousands of years before.
2. Jesus Was Buried
The second thing I want us to remember is that Jesus was “buried.” The fact of His death is revealed in His burial. Everyone in Paul’s day there were false teachers of trying disprove the death of Jesus Christ.
But Jesus did die on the cross and was buried in a tomb. It’s a historical fact. Some have tried to say that Jesus only passed out… usually called the “swoon theory”. But consider that it was a Roman Soldier who told Pilate that Jesus was dead… not a follower of Jesus or someone with a political agenda.
And remember, they didn’t break His legs because they knew He was dead. They even stabbed Him in the side, right into his pericardium (his heart sac), making “blood and water” pour out of Him (John 19:34). Then Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus took him and wrapped his whole body in traditional fashion and placed it in the tomb themselves (John 19:38-42). Then the enemies of Jesus, the Pharisees, stationed a round-the-clock guard so no one could mess with the body. Jesus did die.
Consider for a moment the lives of the apostles after they saw Jesus alive. One theologian (David Strauss) said this, “It is impossible that a being who had stolen half-dead out of the sepulchre, who crept about weak and ill, wanting medical treatment, who required bandaging, strengthening and indulgence, and who still at last yielded to His sufferings, could have given to the disciples the impression that He was a Conqueror over death and the grave, the Prince of Life, an impression which lay at the bottom of their future ministry. Such a resuscitation could only have weakened the impression which He had made upon them in life and in death, at the most could only have given it a [mournful] voice, but could by no possibility have changed their sorrow into enthusiasm, have elevated their reverence into worship.”
3. Jesus’ Resurrection is a Historical Event
And the third thing that I want us to remember is that it is this week, as we gather together to celebrate and remember Holy Week, is that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. Permanently. He did not die again.
This is not just a belief, but a historical fact. Jesus said Himself that He would be in the tomb for three days and rise again… and even though no one believed Him… He did. He was seen in the flesh by many people, and even ate and taught publically only days after his very public crucifixion. Hundreds of witnesses attested to this fact. Look at 1st Corinthians 15:6. Paul seems to be saying, “If you don’t believe me ask one of these other 500 or so people. Don’t take my word for it… go ask one of the witnesses who had seen Him live, die, be buried, and then come back to life!”
Believe it or not, there are those who doubt that Jesus rose from the dead. And there are lots of supposed “arguments” against the resurrection.
Some say that the women went to the wrong tomb… but they were present when Jesus was placed there and new the area well. (Matthew 27:61)
Some say that the followers of Jesus stole the body and then pretended He rose again.… but no one questions that there were soldiers stationed there to guard against that.
Most of the disciples ran away like scared little girls when the guards came to get Jesus in Gethsemane, so it’s hard to believe that they would suddenly became so brave that they would be willing to face a detachment soldiers to steal Jesus’ body and fake a resurrection.
Some say that Jesus’ resurrection was some kind of group hallucination, but it’s hard to believe over 500 people had the same hallucination. Not to mention that if it was all in their minds, there would be an actual body that could be produced to discount their story.
We simply cannot get away from the fact the historical evidence points to the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Sure, the details of the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus is a subject of debate among scholars, historians, philosophers and theologians… I admit that. You almost get the sense in reading chapter 15 that Paul himself was trying to describe a process that is somewhat mysterious to even him. But the bottom line is that somehow, at God’s initiative, and through the resurrection of Jesus, death became a lot less about blood and guts, bodies and decay, and a lot more about the power of new life – and the very temporary, unscary nature of death – now that Jesus has defeated it.
After His resurrection, Jesus invited His disciples to check him out — to put their hands in the wounds, feel inside, touch him. To be sure that it was Him, and that He had conquered death. It was a proclamation to everyone that this secret, dark world of the grave had been exposed — the gruesomeness of Friday had turned into the glorious light of Sunday morning.
For a while there’s still a lot of darkness in this world, but believers have the promise that it won’t always be that way. The cure for death has been found — and we learned it from the only One who could teach us… from the one who Himself died… and was buried… and rose again… so that we might live with Him.