Monday, April 13, 2009

The Real Significance of Easter

Give or take a few years, today is the 1,982nd anniversary of THE pivotal event in human history. It is the one event that has shaped people and humanity more than any other before or since.

On one level, I have nothing new to tell you. This is an old, old story about a cross and an empty tomb and being saved from the wrath of God, and Satan and sin and Hell. A few billion people are hearing this basic story around the Earth on this day. Interestingly, our brothers and sisters in Eastern Orthodox Christianity celebrate Easter next weekend....but that's another story.

But what if this year there was a new wrinkle in the story? What if archaeologists had found the bones of a man they had identified as Jesus of Nazareth; a man crucified. And what if after months of study, archaeologists concluded that without a doubt this man had been the Jesus of the New Testament.

What would that do to your faith? Would you be able to soldier on as a Christian? I'll tell you what it would have done to my faith: I would cease being a Christian.

But I am here to tell you that the bones of Jesus will never be found on this planet. Let's review what happened on those three amazing spring days 2,000 years ago, and then I'm going to tell you why you and I can have unshakable confidence in Christ's resurrection and all that it means.

I am fascinated by how Isaiah 53 foretells the first part of the story with uncanny accuracy. The accuracy is particularly uncanny in that it was written 700 years before Christ.

The basics of the first part of the story – the Good Friday part – are well known. The Apostle John tells the story from his first-hand experience in John 19:16-42. Each of the Gospels have this basic story, but each approaches it a little differently.

From the viewpoint of the outside world looking into Jerusalem on that day, what happened must have not seemed very different than any other day. Here is the “10,000 foot view:”
  • In late March or early April of about the year 27, a Jewish carpenter who was leading some kind of miracle movement was sentenced to death by crucifixion.
  • His was not the only crucifixion that day, and probably not the only one that week.
  • The Romans had perfected crucifixion. It was an exquisitely cruel method of using gravity and nails to slowly and agonizingly execute criminals, rebels, and others that got in their way. Swedes call Good Friday, the day of Jesus' death, LĂ„ngfredag which means "long Friday" in memory of the suffering of Jesus over many hours.
  • History tells us that crucifixion was commonly used from Rome to Persia for about 1,000 years. It was finally abolished out of veneration for Jesus about AD 300 by Constantine, the first Christian emperor of the Roman Empire.
  • The Jews were a particularly difficult-to-govern people in the Roman empire and the provincial governors must have thought crucifixion would help keep the population under their control.
Basically, the crucifixion of the Jewish carpenter was just one more in a long line of them. It wasn't big least when the crucifixion got started. This crucifixion didn't follow the usual pattern, however.

First, and for no apparent reason, the curtain separating the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place in the temple was torn from top to bottom. Second, there was a violent earthquake and the sun went dark. And even one of the soldiers recognized that this man he had helped to kill was special, and called him a son of God.

While it was still light, the soldiers gave Jesus body to Joseph and Nicodemus, and they prepared His body for burial and laid it in a tomb. The Chief Priest asked permission to seal the tomb, and guard it with soldiers, and that is what they did. That was the end of the first day.

Night fell, and it was the Sabbath. The Gospels are silent about the events of this day, but Jesus body lay in the tomb all day. The soldiers continued guarding his tomb. The disciples must have been in shock. What must have been going on in the minds of the disciples on this Sabbath day? Fear and doubt must have been right there at the top of their fevered imaginations. The Gospels record that they kept their doors locked for fear of the Jews. I doubt they slept much.

The religious elite must have been expecting to finally have been done with that troublesome Nazarene....but surely they were struggling on this Sabbath because the crucifixion did not go as they planned. And the people who had a week earlier cried Hosanna, Hosanna must have wondered what had happened to the man they hoped would be king.

But then night fell again, and it was the third day; the day we now call Easter Sunday. Let's pick up the story in John 20:1-19.

Most people, at least here in the West, whether Christ followers or not, have heard the story of Jesus' resurrection. Why do we still believe this incredible story after nearly 20 centuries have passed? Let's take a look at some of the proofs:
  • First of all, the Bible tells us so. There are four separate accounts, essentially the same, by four different authors. Matthew and John witnessed the events first hand. Mark wrote down the words of Peter (according to Church tradition) and Luke interviewed eyewitnesses. There is general agreement in the stories, but not so much as to suggest collusion.
  • Doubters suggest that Jesus didn't really die; that He just swooned. But the scourging was enough to kill some, and that combined with crucifixion was enough to kill the strongest. Even if He had survived that and the spear thrust to the heart, he would have suffocated in nearly 100 pounds of linen and burial spices.
  • People of the first century world did not believe in life after death, with the exception of a few sects of Judaism, and they believed in an afterlife, not life on earth after death. That Jesus returned to actual living life on earth burst like a bombshell in the first century and that is why Christianity spread so quickly -- people rightly interpreted this as a powerful sign from Heaven, and they are still interpreting it that way today.
  • Acts 6:7 records this astonishing statement: "So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith." I'll bet I read that a dozen times before the other shoe dropped. These priests were invested in the Jewish religious system: why would they lose it all by becoming disciples of Jesus? It's because the resurrection happened, and everyone in Jerusalem knew it.
  • Peter turned from a coward to a bold lion. How did that happen? Because he had seen the resurrected Jesus. It was the same with the other disciples. Here were men who had fled in the night on Thursday who on Sunday suddenly had, and kept, courage to proclaim their faith even to the point of death. Will people die for a lie? If they had made up the story of Jesus resurrection, would they be willing to die for their fabrication?
  • What would it take for you to worship your brother as God? In Jesus case, resurrection from the dead had that effect for His brothers. Two of Jesus' brothers were transformed from doubters to believers and became leaders in the early Church, and wrote books in the NT.
  • Then there is the evidence of dramatic transformation in my own life and the lives of people around us, and men and women through history
There are many proofs that the resurrection of Jesus is really true. These are just a few.

The real significance of Easter is that the reality of Jesus as God burst into the minds of men and women. It is still bursting into our minds today almost 2000 years later.

If Jesus rose alive from the dead, then the Good News of the Kingdom of God is the best news of history. It is hope for you and it is hope for me and it is hope for every person who ever lives.

It is hope for a life without drama; hope for healing; for deliverance; hope for peace; hope for forgiveness of all that we have done wrong that separates us from God.

Jesus did not come to us as a mighty king, but humbly, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. He does not command us as a king, but as a suffering servant, He offers us entrance to his Kingdom. He does not call us servants, but friends.

The real significance of Easter is the same today as it was on that first Easter: Christ has purchased our pardon, and He has opened a way back to God. He has made possible eternal life with God instead of eternal separation and torment. We now have a true and living hope.

If today you are far from God, His kingdom is closer than you think. You need only repent of your sins and ask the Lord to forgive you. In the Book of Romans, it is written that that if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

Happy Easter!