Great Texts of the Bible
The Resurrection from the Dead
But now hath Christ been raised from the dead, the first-fruits of them, that are asleep.—1 Corinthians 15:20.
1. Do we recognize the immense debt which we owe to the great Apostle of the Gentiles? We base our hopes for time and eternity on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Well, it was St. Paul who was the first to pierce beneath their surface and seize their hidden meaning and power. The Twelve, in their early preaching days, were staggered by the death, and only half understood the resurrection. They had to sit at St. Paul’s feet before their Messianic hopes broadened out into the eternal Gospel.
2. The Apostle has been contemplating the long train of dismal consequences which he sees would arise if we had only a dead Christ. He thinks that he, the Apostle, would have nothing to preach, and we nothing to believe. He thinks that all hope of deliverance from sin would fade away. He thinks that, the one fact which gives assurance of immortality having vanished, the dead who had nurtured the assurance have perished. And he thinks that if things were so, then Christian men, who had believed a false gospel, and nourished an empty faith, and died clinging to a baseless hope, were far more to be pitied than men who had had less splendid dreams and less utter illusions.
Then, with a swift revulsion of feeling, he turns away from that dreary picture, and with a change of key, which the dullest ear can appreciate, from the wailing minors of the preceding verses, he breaks into this burst of triumph. “Now”—things being as they are, for it is the logical “now,” and not the temporal one—Christ is risen from the dead, and that as the first-fruits of them that slept.
3. What a shout of joy there is in that word “now” with which the Apostle opens out into his glorious theme of the Resurrection. It has been struggling to get out, through discords and obscuring passages of controversial doubt. This great theme of the Apostolic Gospel had been dragged down by the cries of those who say there is no resurrection of the dead; down deeper into the sombre depths of a false witness to God, of a tragic mistake in estimating evidence; down into a gloom, where the holy dead lie only as so many perished lives, crushed by sin, and a challenge to despair. We hardly trace a note of the first inspiration in the dismal discord of broken hopes and fooled expectations: “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.” But it is at this point that the resurrection theme bursts out, rising above and upon the shifting discords, and opening up out of the passages which ended only in woe. “Now hath Christ been raised from the dead, the first-fruits of them that are asleep.” Christian preaching was not a proclamation of meaningless and empty platitudes, not a principle incapable of producing any good results; God’s messengers were not false witnesses; the Christian dead were not perished; Christian life was not a hollow sham, a cunningly devised fable. All was safe all was bright; the brighter because the very discordance of the doubt could only open out into this: Christ was risen, His people should also rise.
The subject is the Resurrection of Christ as the pledge of our Resurrection. Take it in three parts—
I. The Possibility of the Resurrection.
II. The Power of the Resurrection.
III. The Promise of the Resurrection.
The Possibility of the Resurrection
1. The Christian doctrine of the Resurrection is a stumbling-block to faith because we have allowed ourselves to exalt and to exaggerate death to a degree altogether beyond reason and Scripture. We speak, that is to say, and mourn, as though death were the last law of life, as though death were the ultimate fact of our experience, and then we have to smuggle in our hope of the resurrection as a miraculous exception to this universal power of death. Exactly the opposite is true. Life is the law of nature, and death a natural means to more life and better. Death is the lower fact, and life the higher. Or more specifically, the resurrection of Jesus is not the great exception to natural law; it is an exemplification of the higher, universal law of life.
The earth was dead, so they tell us, ages ago. But now how this earth lives! There is hardly a cliff too barren for nature not to hang some blooming thing upon it; and the old earth teems with life. Furthermore, even here, where death reigns, life has been growing higher, more complex, more capable of larger correspondences with things. Between the lowest living thing and the brain of man there is a difference of life wide as the distance between the earth and the heavens. That first infinitesimal point of life has no world with which to establish relations larger than the microscopic field in which we have looked and discovered it, but we have already established relations of thought and knowledge with the farthest stars. Plainly then, without any doubt, life is something stronger thus far upon this earth than death. Notwithstanding death, life grows to be more and richer.
What is death, so far as we can see what it is? Here is a minute living thing in a glass of water. You turn the water out. That living particle is now mere dust upon the glass. Dead,—that is, it is no longer moving in an element corresponding to its capacity of vital movements. What is death then? A living thing is no longer in harmony with its surroundings. It is thrown out of its own proper correspondence with things; it is dead. So death is a relative thing. It is simply some wrong or imperfect adjustment of life to external conditions. But death may be partial, then, not entire. A part of the body may be dead. A man may be dead in some relations, and still live in others. There is a sense in which we die daily. Parts of us are thrown out of vital relations. The body may begin to die long before it is dead. Death is but a relative, negative thing. Life is the principle, the force, the law; death the limitation, the accident, the partial negation of God’s great affirmation of life in things.
The weakest point in the historical acceptation of the Fall certainly is its theory of death; for if death in the case of man be a penal punishment for breaking the Divine law, how happens it that this penalty should lay low not only the guilty party, which is the proper nature of all penalties, but should travel with an indiscriminate sweep over the whole length and breadth of the creation? Death is not a horror but a universal phenomenon; all things die just as certainly as they are born. Flowers die; quadrupeds die; birds die; fishes die—fishes! there they lie enswathed by millions in some mud-beds of the primeval slime, thousands of thousands of years possibly before the appearance of the unfeathered biped on this terrestrial stage, scarcely with any presentiment of Adam’s first sin. The ecclesiastical theory of death, therefore, plainly breaks down, by the logical defect of explaining only a small number of the facts. Had it been otherwise,—had man been the only creature that knew death,—the theory might have some plausible ground on which to stand. But a more fundamental objection remains. Death is an evil, but to whom?—to the creature who dies, and to all who have special cause to lament its loss; but is it an evil to the universe? to this earth?—manifestly not; for if all the people that have been born on the earth from Adam until now had lived and not known death, where would the room have been for them? Re-juvenescence is one of the grandest and most sublime facts in the divine constitution of things: so that young persons may constantly appear on what to them is a new and therefore a stimulating scene, old persons must depart and make room.1 [Note: John Stuart Blackie, Notes of a Life, 270.]
As to death, any one who understands Nature at all thinks nothing of it. Her whole concern is perpetually to produce nourishment for all her offspring. We go that others may come—and better, if we rear them in the right way. In talking of these deep things, men too often make the error of imagining that the world was made for themselves.2 [Note: George Meredith.]
2. Physical death is not made the important thing in our Bibles. Physical death does not hold the first place in the economy of redemption. The Bible assigns a subordinate place to our King of Terrors. The Book of Genesis, it is true, invests natural death with certain punitive fears; but it does not elevate death to the rank of the supreme and final transaction between man and his Maker. Adam was not commanded by the Lord to live every day as though it were his last, himself a slave bound under the fear of death; he was commanded to go and work in the sweat of his brow, but with a promise of God in his heart. Man is to work out his time here, and to pass through death, as a being born under the higher law of the spirit, and with the possibility of eternal life always before him.
And in the New Testament the chief use made of the fact of death is as a metaphor. Jesus makes a metaphor of what we call death. To Him sin is death; the maid whom the people thought dead, He said, was asleep. The crisis of a soul’s history is not, in the Bible, the death of the body. The fact of physical death and resurrection is used as the symbol of the greater change of a soul from sin to life.
It is comparatively easy to set our teeth and face the inevitable with “a grin”; but the “highest bravery” is to hide our anguish with a smile. I do think I make a decently good Stoic, but confess that in times like this Christians have the pull. Nevertheless, I have often thought of the words, “I am not in the least afraid to die,” and wondered if, when my time should come, I would be able to say them. But now I know that I can, and this even in the bitterness of feeling that one’s work is prematurely cut short.1 [Note: George John Romanes, Life and Letters, 317.]
If we Christians believe the smallest fraction of what we pretend to believe, there is but little to mourn over in death. I know not when or how that veiled messenger may come to me, but this I do know, that it can come only at the bidding of my Father. I know its mission can be nothing more than the unclothing of this poor weak body of my humiliation to clothe me with the body of His glory.… Death is not only an exodus, it is also an entrance; while we stand by the bedside and say, “He is gone,” they on the other side are welcoming him with unspeakable joy.2 [Note: Quintin Hogg, 308.]
3. The only thing to be feared is spiritual death. That is non-adjustment of our hearts to God. The soul out of harmony with love and truth may become as dead as the animalcule left dry upon the edge of the empty glass. To attempt to live as an immortal soul without love, and not as in God’s presence, is to dream of living in a vacuum. The true life is to know God. Even now they are most alive who have in pure and loving thoughts the largest relationship to all good. The wages of sin is death—death creeping into the heart; death clouding the eye of the intellect; death, as Jesus said, destroying the soul in Gehenna.
Dante saw some souls in hell whose bodies were still alive on earth,—their friends in Florence and Lucca had not the faintest idea that these men, seemingly a part of everyday life, were, all the time, “dead souls.” There is hardly a more terrible idea in all that terrible book, and yet it is a possibility in our own daily life—this atrophy of the spiritual nature, corresponding to the atrophy of the poetical nature which Darwin noted in himself as due to his own neglect. Clifford, in A Likely Story, forcibly depicts a soul awaking in the next world to find that through this unconscious starvation, there was no longer anything in him to correspond with God.1 [Note: L. H. M. Soulsby, Stray Thoughts for Girls, 160.]
They pass me by like shadows, crowds on crowds,
Dim ghosts of men, that hover to and fro,
Hugging their bodies round them like thin shrouds
Wherein their souls were buried long ago:
They trampled on their youth, and faith, and love,
They cast their hope of human-kind away.
With Heaven’s clear messages they madly strove,
And conquered,—and their spirits turned to clay:
Lo! how they wander round the world, their grave,
Whose ever-gaping maw by such is fed,
Gibbering at riving men, and idly rave,
“We, only, truly live, but ye are dead.”
Alas! poor fools, the anointed eye may trace
A dead soul’s epitaph in every face!2 [Note: Lowell, “The Street.”]
4. The resurrection of Jesus was in accordance with the higher, universal law of life. Death is for life, not life for death, in the ultimate constitution of this universe. The resurrection of Jesus is an instance of the general law that life is lord of death. His resurrection, as our text puts it, is the first-fruits of them that sleep. In the opinion of the Apostle the resurrection of Jesus was no more out of the Divine order of things, no more contrary to the ultimate law of nature, than the first-fruits of the summer are exceptions to the general law of life which in the autumn shall show its universal power in every harvest field.
5. This was Jesus’ teaching concerning the resurrection. He answered the Sadducees of His generation not merely by asserting His knowledge that the dead shall be raised; He placed the fact of the resurrection upon the fundamental principle that life, not death, is God’s first law. “But that the dead are raised, even Moses shewed, in the place concerning the Bush, when he calleth the Lord the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is not the God of the dead, but of the living: for all live unto him.”
6. This, then, is clearly and unmistakably the Biblical teaching of the resurrection. It is in accordance with law. It is in the Divine order of the creation. Why should it seem otherwise to us? Why should we regard it as a thing incredible that God should raise the dead? Partly because in our pagan philosophies we have exaggerated the place and importance of death in the world; partly, also, because we have fallen into gross and carnal imaginations of the resurrection and eternal life, which would be violations of natural law most difficult to conceive. But, planting the standard of our faith firmly upon this high Biblical doctrine of the resurrection as the final fulfilment of the law of life, let us survey the field of nature and see whether we have learned anything to make it a thing incredible that God should raise the dead.
7. Our Lord’s own resurrection is set forth as an event which could not possibly have failed to occur. We say Jesus’ resurrection was a miracle, that is, contrary to what might have been expected—a great exception to the law of death. But that is not the way the Scriptures put it. They say, “Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God … whom God raised up, having loosed the pangs of death: because it was not possible that he should be holden of it.” “Moreover my flesh also shall dwell in hope: because thou wilt not leave my soul in Hades, neither wilt thou give thy Holy One to see corruption.” It would be impossible for death to hold a principle of life like the Spirit of that Man of Nazareth. It would be a violation of all law should the Holy One be given over to corruption. There is something inherently inconceivable and impossible in such a thought. How can Holiness see corruption? how can life itself be given over to death? Impossible! It would have been a miracle, had Jesus not risen from the dead. It would have been a violation of the inmost principle of the creation, had the mere dust of this earth held Him as its own for ever. It would have been a miracle without reason, a miracle not against the ordinary course of nature merely, but against God,—the living God,—had He not risen from the dead, the first-fruits of this power and order of Divine life in the creation.
Dean Bradley, in his Easter Day sermon at Westminster Abbey, put his finger on the very centre of the contrast between ancient and modern feeling concerning Easter, when he said that while it was the crucifixion of Christ that was to “the Jews a stumbling-block and to the Greeks foolishness” in the great day when Christianity first came into the world, it is no longer the Crucifixion but the Resurrection—which to both Jews and Greeks, though a great marvel, was a marvel which attracted rather than repelled them—that seems to modern pride and scepticism a stumbling-block and foolishness. We feel no difficulty where the early believers felt most difficulty, in accepting the tremendous humiliation and sorrow and shame of the cross. On the contrary, as Dean Bradley told his hearers, the story of the Man of Sorrows is wholly credited by the sceptical world of to-day, and is accepted even with eager reverence and gratitude. It is the suffering, the forgiveness, the resignation, the peace, the calm, the fortitude, the sympathy, the “Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children,” the “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do,” the “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give unto you; not as the world giveth, give I unto you—let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid,” in which we all believe—even sceptics and those who are more than sceptics, who assert positively that “miracles do not happen.” The shame does not humiliate us; we can see through it to the infinitely greater glory behind; whereas the Jews found it a sore stumbling-block to their pride of race, and the Greeks looked down upon it as radically inconsistent with that intellectual caste to which they ascribed the sole possession of “the good and beautiful” in all its perfection. To them the asserted resurrection seemed that which alone gave a glimmer of probability to the bold assertion that God had manifested Himself in human nature only to die upon the cross, and submit to the jeers and scoffs of Jewish and Roman ridicule. To us there seems something intrinsically convincing in the assertion that this great death was died, that that majestic calm and that magnanimous sympathy prevailed even over the torture of the cross; we come to our difficulties only when we come to the assertion that He who died that supernatural death really lived again to be recognized by those who saw Him die and heard Him foretell their own discomfiture and dispersion. The early disciples found it all but impossible to believe that a Divine nature could go through physical and moral humiliation. Our difficulty is not in the least in believing in that which is Divine enough to overcome any combination, however overwhelming, of physical and moral humiliation. What we find difficulty in believing is, that that which is morally and spiritually supernatural involves even any power at all of controlling or overruling what we suppose to be the fixed necessities of physical law. Our minds are jaded and hag-ridden, as it were, by the physical fatalities of modern science; and yet modern science itself might, if we only used our eyes, warn us of the extraordinary blunder we are making in thus depreciating the true power of mind over matter.1 [Note: R. H. Hutton, Aspects of Religious and Scientific Thought, 159.]
For the Apostles, the resurrection of Jesus meant that He who had claimed to be the destined Son of Man had been approved, justified, and glorified by the Father, according to the rule by which resurrection is the established and almost natural consequence and proof of justice. What they had doubted was His claim to be the Christ; not the possibility of His resurrection. When He rose, their trust in Him, in their own redemption with and through Him, in His whole Gospel of the coming Kingdom and His own place in it, was confirmed and verified, not by an exceptional but by a regular occurrence. Resurrection is the fruit of righteousness, and a tree is known by its fruit.2 [Note: G. Tyrrell, Christianity at the Cross-Roads, 140.]
8. What was miraculous about Jesus’ resurrection was not that God raised Him from the dead, but that He was raised before the last great day, and that He should be seen by men, and recognized in His transitional or intermediate state between earth and heaven. The visibility on earth of the risen Lord, before He ascended to His Father and ours, was exceptional, out of the common course, or miraculous.
If you should see a tree break into blossom in the month of June, and the next morning find the fruit already ripe upon the bough, you would say, That is extraordinary! It is not indeed contrary to the nature of the tree that fruit should ripen on the bough, yet contrary to all our experience of growth that the fruit should ripen in a summer’s day. That fruit would be a miracle upon that tree; yet not in itself contrary to the nature of the tree, but only to its ordinary conditions of fructification. The fruit itself would be perfectly natural, only the method of its growth would be extraordinary. And it would not be impossible to conceive an enhancement, or quickening, of nature’s forces which might cause a plant to break into fruitfulness contrary to our experience of its usual times and seasons. Somewhat so, in the view we are now trying to win, is Jesus’ resurrection a first-fruit of the tree of life;—not in itself contrary to the law of life, but in its manner and time out of the common order. In the miracle of His resurrection we have only to think of God’s quickening, or anticipating, by His power the course of nature, not as violating any real principle of it.1 [Note: Newman Smyth.]
The yearly miracle of spring,
Of budding tree and blooming flower,
Which Nature’s feathered laureates sing
In my cold ear from hour to hour,
Spreads all its wonders round my feet;
And every wakeful sense is fed
On thoughts that o’er and o’er repeat,
“The Resurrection of the Dead!”
If these half vital things have force
To break the spell which winter weaves,
To wake, and clothe the wrinkled corse
In the full life of shining leaves;
Shall I sit down in vague despair,
And marvel if the nobler soul
We laid in earth shall ever dare
To wake to life, and backward roll
The sealing stone, and striding out,
Claim its eternity, and head
Creation once again, and shout,
“The Resurrection of the Dead”?2 [Note: George Henry Boker.]
The Power of the Resurrection
1. Have we yet entered into the grandeur and depth of St. Raul’s teaching about the Resurrection? What is his teaching?
(1) St. Paul insists that Jesus Christ did actually rise from the dead and appeared to him, to Cephas, to the Twelve, to five hundred brethren, to all the Apostles, to James; and he infers that the appearance was of one and the same character throughout. It was no vision—in the popular sense of that word—still less an hallucination that they experienced, but a direct impression made by a living and active Person.
(2) He asserts consistently that no substantial difference exists between the resurrection of Jesus Christ and that of His followers. His was the pattern of theirs, and they can but look for a risen life such as His was. He was the first-fruits, the first-born among many brethren. Where He is, there shall also His servant be.
(3) Hence St. Paul had but a single answer to the double question: “With what body did Christ rise?” and “With what body do Christians come from death?” He tells a parable, the meaning of which cannot be evaded. We sow seed in the ground. It contains in itself the principle of life; it casts off its first body and takes another. So also is the resurrection of the dead. The earthly body is laid in the grave of life. It, too, contains an unseen principle of life. That life, too, casts off the old and natural body, and takes another, a glorified and spiritual body. The body which is spiritual is that which is suited to the spirit world, as the natural body was fitted for a material world. The spiritual is not the natural sublimated, however, but a new creation. Flesh and blood cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. The natural body, with all the atoms composing it, belongs to the present natural order. A spiritual environment demands a spiritual body. And spirit is not atomic—or at any rate, St. Paul assumes that it is not.
(4) The power which raised Jesus Christ from the dead was the Holy Spirit of God. One writer declares that it was through the Eternal Spirit that Jesus offered His life while on earth without spot to God, and, in saying this, he only follows St. Paul in his declaration that He was marked out as the Son of God with power by the resurrection according to a Spirit of Holiness. The Holy Spirit given to Jesus Christ without measure was the efficient cause of His resurrection from the dead. Therefore it follows from the close similarity between the Head and the members that their resurrection is brought about by the same Holy Spirit. “If the spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his spirit that dwelleth in you.”
(5) The next step in St. Paul’s teaching is that in which his religious originality and depth of thought are seen most clearly, and, indeed, stand out before us with startling freshness. That is perhaps the reason why this doctrine of his has fallen into the background and been overlooked. Materially minded people want materialistic images which they can grasp readily, and about which they may give a logical account. But religious truths by their very nature are too august and too evasive for logic. They are of Heaven, and logic is of earth only. Now the doctrine that the resurrection means the resumption of the old body which death had corrupted is a materialistic conception. That is why it is so popular. But it is not the doctrine of St. Paul. He was far more concerned with religion than with metaphysic or theories of being. That is why all he says about the resurrection moves strictly within the atmosphere of religion.
He says—and let this be weighed, marked, and learned—that he has little interest in death and resurrection from the mere standpoint of physical existence. It was not the physical death and resurrection of Christ on which he based the Christians’ faith and hope, but His spiritual death and resurrection. But then you cannot limit these latter to the tragedy of Mount Calvary and that which immediately followed. Christ’s death was a death to sin, and that was in process from the first. Christ’s resurrection was a rising superior to sin, and that, too, took place from the first. Christ died unto sin throughout His early life, and He died finally, once and for all, when on the Cross He rose superior to the last and most bitter temptation of all. Every time that temptation came to Him—and temptation came to Him continuously—He mastered it by the power of the Spirit of God, of that risen life which was hid in God His Father. Calvary and the great forty days were no new elements in His life, but its crown and its reward.
(6) From this follows the practical bearing for us of Christ’s death and resurrection. When we look on Him and are touched by our sinfulness, and come to God, and determine to live the life of faith, we die to Sin as Christ died to it; we rise to newness of life as Christ rose to it; we are buried with Him, and, like Him, become alive unto God. The sole difference—and it is immense—is that we have a past to undo, and He had none.
(7) Now we can see what St. Paul taught about our resurrection body. It is fashioned for us by holy living. It is already in course of formation within. He that is leading the spiritual life is having prepared for him gradually a spiritual body. Then, when the “natural body” is finally cast aside, the glorious “spiritual body” will leap out, as the fitting organ of a soul which has become predominantly spiritual, and death will be swallowed up in life.
The unique part of the Christian revelation is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit who forms the Spiritual body, so that when the believer dies, or, more truly, awakes, he awakes after the likeness of the Lord, to co-operate with Him freely in redemptive love. I quite understand the quickening of our mortal bodies (Romans 8:2) to refer to this, the getting rid of that death or mortality which limits or imprisons us in this order of existence, by developing and perfecting the power of the incorruptible Seed of Life which brings us into living contact and consciousness with the Life of the Universe. Then the grub body is no longer wanted; like the husk in the seed, it has done its work in the early stages of growth, and now is put off as the butterfly puts off the chrysalis-shell, and as the materials of that body go to the churchyard to return into that which may through various modifications become part of another human earthly body.1 [Note: R. W. Corbet, Letters from a Mystic of the Present Day, 183.]
Human nature, as its Creator made it, and maintains it wherever His laws are observed, is entirely harmonious. No physical error can be more profound, no moral error more dangerous, than that involved in the monkish doctrine of the opposition of body to soul. No soul can be perfect in an imperfect body; no body perfect without perfect soul. Every right action and true thought sets the seal of its beauty on person and face; every wrong action and foul thought its seal of distortion; and the various aspects of humanity might be read as plainly as a printed history, were it not that the impressions are so complex that it must always in some cases (and, in the present state of our knowledge, in all cases) be impossible to decipher them completely. Nevertheless, the face of a consistently just and of a consistently unjust person, may always be rightly distinguished at a glance; and if the qualities are continued by descent through a generation or two, there arises a complete distinction of race. Both moral and physical qualities are communicated by descent, far more than they can be developed by education (though both may be destroyed by want of education); and there is as yet no ascertained limit to the nobleness of person and mind which the human creature may attain, by persevering observance of the laws of God respecting its birth and training.1 [Note: Ruskin, Munera Pulveris (Works, xvii. 149).]
In 1865 Lord Francis Douglas, while climbing Mont Blanc, slipped and fell to his death. His body could not be found, and it was supposed that it had fallen into the bed of the glacier. According to computations based on careful estimates from experience, the glacier should have discharged the body at the foot of the mountain in the summer of 1905. All that summer, the aged mother of Lord Francis was there watching and waiting for the body of her boy, but the body, to her bitter disappointment, did not appear. Broken-hearted, she had been waiting for years just to get a glimpse of the scarred face and mangled body she loved, and to lay its dust to rest. She would have been comforted if only that had been allowed her. But there is an infinitely better thing which Christ has prepared; not the dull dust and broken body released from the icy embrace of the cruel glacier, but the living, glorified personality in the bosom of the Father’s love; not for one hurried, agonizing glimpse as the heart sobs over the memory of what it has lost; but for ever and ever in the fellowship of heaven.2 [Note: J. I. Vance, Tendency, 245.]
2. What are the consequences of Christ’s Resurrection?
(1) It gives us a complete Gospel.—A dead Christ annihilates the Gospel. “If Christ be not risen,” says the Apostle, “our preaching,” by which he means not the act but the substance of his preaching, “is vain”; or, as the word might be more accurately rendered, “empty.” There is nothing in it; no contents. It is a blown bladder; nothing in it but wind. What was St. Paul’s “preaching”? It all turned upon these points—that Jesus Christ was the Son of God; that He was Incarnate in the flesh of us men; that He died on the Cross for our offences; that He was raised again, and had ascended into Heaven, ruling the world and breathing His presence into believing hearts; and that He would come again to be our Judge. These were the elements of what St. Paul called “his gospel.” He faces the supposition of a dead Christ, and he says, “It is all gone! It is all vanished into thin air. I have nothing to preach if I have not a Cross to preach which is man’s deliverance from sin, because on it the Son of God hath died, and I know that Jesus Christ’s sacrifice is accepted and sufficient, only because I have it attested to me in His rising again from the dead.”
(2) A living Christ gives faith something to lay hold of.—The Apostle here in the context twice says, according to the Authorized Version, that a dead Christ makes our faith “vain.” But he really used two different words, the former of which is applied to “preaching,” and means literally “empty,” while the latter means “of none effect” or “powerless.” So there are two ideas suggested here. The risen Christ puts some contents, so to speak, into our faith. Who can trust a dead Christ, or who can trust a human Christ? That would be as much a blasphemy as trusting any other man. It is only when we recognize Him as declared to be the Son of God, and that by the resurrection from the dead, that our faith has anything round which it can twine, and to which it can cleave. That living Saviour will stretch out His hand to us if we look to Him, and if I put my poor, trembling little hand up towards Him, He will bend to me and clasp it. You cannot exercise faith unless you have a risen Saviour, and unless you exercise faith in Him your lives are marred and sad.
(3) Again, a living Christ destroys the dominion of sin.—The first blessing which the believing soul receives through and from a risen Christ is deliverance from sin. If He whom we believed to be our sacrifice by His death and our sanctification by His life has not risen, then all which makes His death other than a martyr’s vanishes, and with it vanish forgiveness and purifying. Only when we recognize that in His Cross, explained by His resurrection, we have redemption through His blood, even the forgiveness of sins, and by the communication of the risen life from the risen Lord possess that new nature which sets us free from the dominion of our evil—only then is faith operative in setting us free from our sins.
(4) The resurrection was the convincing proof that Christ’s words were true, and that He was what He had claimed to be.—He Himself had on more occasions than one hinted that such proof was to be given. “Destroy this temple,” He said, “and in three days I will raise it up.” The sign which was to be given, notwithstanding His habitual refusal to yield to the Jewish craving for miracle, was the sign of the prophet Jonah. As he had been thrown out and lost for three days and nights, but had thereby only been forwarded in his mission, so our Lord was to be thrown out as endangering the ship, but was to rise again to fuller and more perfect efficiency. In order that His claim to be the Messiah might be understood, it was necessary that He should die; but in order that it might be believed, it was needful that He should rise.
(5) The resurrection of Christ holds a fundamental place in the Christian creed, because by it there is disclosed a real and close connection between this world and the unseen, eternal world.—There is no need now of argument to prove a life beyond; here is one who is in it. For the resurrection of Christ was not a return to this life, to its wants, to its limitations, to its inevitable close; it was a resurrection to a life for ever beyond death. Neither was it a discarding of humanity on Christ’s part, a cessation of His acceptance of human conditions, a rising to some kind of existence to which man has no access. On the contrary, it was because He continued truly human that in human body and with human soul He rose to veritable human life beyond the grave. If Jesus rose from the dead, then the world into which He is gone is a real world, in which men can live more fully than they live here. If He rose from the dead, then there is an unseen Spirit mightier than the strongest material powers, a God who is seeking to bring us out of all evil into an eternally happy condition. Quite reasonably is death invested with a certain majesty, if not terror, as the mightiest of physical things. There may be greater evils; but they do not affect all men but only some, or they debar men from certain enjoyments and a certain kind of life but not from all. But death shuts men out from everything with which they have here to do, and launches them into a condition of which they know absolutely nothing. Any one who conquers death and scatters its mystery, who shows in his own person that it is innocuous, and that it actually betters our condition, brings us light that reaches us from no other quarter. And He who shows this superiority over death in virtue of a moral superiority, and uses it for the furtherance of the highest spiritual ends, shows a command over the whole affairs of men which makes it easy to believe He can guide us into a condition like His own. As St. Peter affirms, it is by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead we are begotten again unto a lively hope.
There is a beautiful sonnet of Petrarch, who sees Laura in heaven amongst the angels; she walks amongst them, but from time to time turns her head and looks behind and seems to be waiting for him:
Wherefore I raise to heaven my heart and mind
Because I hear her bid me only haste.1 [Note: Mandell Creighton, Life and Letters, ii. 168.]
The history of the three anthems which are chosen in place of the Venite for matins on Easter morning (1. Cor. 1 Corinthians 5:7-8; Romans 6:9-11; Romans 1. Cor. 1 Corinthians 15:20-22) well illustrates the care taken by the compilers of the Prayer-book to make it reflect the great doctrinal lessons of the sacred year. They do not stand to-day in their original form, but there can be no question of the greater fitness and beauty of the present arrangement. The first anthem was inserted last, and did not appear till 1662, at the last revision of the Prayer-book at the Savoy Conference. But, as an Easter anthem, it was already very old, for part of it had appeared as such in the Antiphonary of Gregory the Great. It had also been read in the Epistle for the second communion on Easter Day in 1549, in the first Prayer-book of Edward vi., when provision was made for a Collect, Epistle, and Gospel at two communions. These were ordered to be used as the special features for Easter Tuesday and for the first Sunday after Easter, though this arrangement was abolished in the second Prayer-book of Edward vi. in 1552.
The second anthem is much older. It formed a part of a short service which was prefixed in the Sarum Breviary to the ordinary matins as a special feature for Easter Day. The exact words used were as follows: “Christ rising again from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over Him. For in that He liveth He liveth unto God.” And this had been followed by the refrain, “Alleluia, Alleluia.” In the Sarum Breviary the versicles and response followed: “The Lord rose from the sepulchre: who for us hung upon the tree. Alleluia.” To these succeeded the following beautiful collect: “O God, who for us didst suffer Thy Son to endure the yoke of the Cross, that Thou mightest drive away from us the power of the enemy; grant to us, Thy servants, that we may always live in the joys of His Resurrection.” In the Prayer-book of 1549 the same anthem was placed at the head of the short introductory service therein framed before matins for Easter Day. Next to it was added the present third anthem, each being followed by the word “Alleluia” twice after the first, once after the second anthem. Two versicles then followed thus: “Show forth to all nations the glory of God … and among all people His wonderful works.” Then the following exquisite collect was added, instead of the collect given above: “O God, who for our redemption didst give Thine only Begotten Son to the death of the Cross, and by His glorious Resurrection hast delivered us from the power of our enemy; Grant us so to die daily from sin that we may evermore live with Him in the joy of His resurrection, through the same Christ our Lord.”
A further change took place in 1552 in the second Prayer-book of Edward VI. The two anthems were shifted from the head of the service for matins to their present place before the Venite. The Alleluias were omitted, and also the special versicles and the collect just quoted. And thus it continued till 1662, when, as we have seen, the first anthem was added. These changes will serve to bring home to our minds the special importance which attaches to these three anthems in their present position in the service. From the date of the Sarum Breviary in 1085 down to the present time, that is, over a period of eight hundred years, one or other or all of them have stood at the head of the Easter service, where, in the old days, until their change of position in 1552, they were originally a sort of Introit, a “processional hymn,” which ushered in the worship of the Queen of Festivals. Indeed, the one alteration which we might well wish had not been made is the shifting of that position (so as to make them the mere alternative of the Invitatory Psalm) to a place in the service where their significance is almost lost in the glad festival psalms which immediately follow. Clearly they were intended all along, and are intended still, to strike the keynote of praise for the whole festival, and to sound forth its doctrinal and practical characteristics.
When we study them carefully this impression of their importance and significance is deepened. For all the great essential thoughts of Eastertide are in germ here, and three chief aspects stand prominently forward. They offer us on the morning of the Resurrection a full and complete Christ, the perfect answer to the needs and desires of fallen man. Our souls require above all things mercy to cover the past only too stained with sin. We find that offered us here through the Cross in Christ our Passover. They yearn for the secret of spiritual power in the present, that sin already forgiven may have now no dominion over us. It is laid bare to us in Christ our life, in and through whom we too, reckoning ourselves “dead indeed unto sin,” are “alive unto God” with the power of an endless life within. But our souls have also “keen desire,” which finds expression in “earnest prayer and strong” for fellowship in a life beyond the grave, which shall restore to us the losses which the havoc of death has made in this. It is offered us in Christ our first-fruits, our promise, and the first-fruits of them that sleep, the key to an everlasting destiny. Thus, as the first anthem proclaimed the Crucified Christ as the ground of our justification, so the second anthem extols the Risen Christ as the secret of our sanctification, whilst the third anthem adores the triumphant Christ as the pledge of our glorification. What a magnificent revelation of the Alpha and Omega of Grace, who once, as in the first anthem, “was dead,” now “lives for aye,” and, better still, “hath the keys of hell and of death”! A risen Christ in strong and glorious relation to the past, the present, and the future of His redeemed ones, whom He hath “ransomed from the power of the enemy.” The Lord for me: the secret of my pardon and my peace. The Lord in me: the secret of my holiness and victory. The Lord with me: the sure pledge of immortality, the “first-fruits” of them that sleep, the sheaf of early ripe corn waved at the Passover Feast in the temple of God as the promise of the
Which will all its full abundance
At His second coming yield.
A Christ who is the object of adoring faith, “declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.” A Christ who is the motive power of love, who died and rose that “they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again.” A Christ who is the inspiration of heavenly hope, “who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him.” Thus, if in the first anthem we specially dwell upon the victorious work of Jesus whereby the curse is removed, in the second anthem we are contemplating the ever living person of Christ in whom the blessing is restored, and in the third anthem we are echoing the rapturous music of Heaven, the song of the redeemed before the throne, which tells of the consummated Kingdom of Christ in whom Heaven itself is given to the sons of men. Or, in other words, if in the first anthem we realize the guilt of sin atoned for by the Paschal Lamb, in the second we joyfully celebrate the power of sin crushed through the overcoming life within, and in the third we foretell the result of sin cancelled through the second Adam, who is “the Lord from heaven.” All the three groups of thought find special allusion in the collect already quoted, which, from 1549 to 1552, followed two of these anthems at the head of the Easter morning service.1 [Note: T. A. Gurney.]
The Promise of the Resurrection
“The first-fruits of them that are asleep.”
The word “first-fruits” has a very definite signification in the Scriptures, There was a commandment given to the people of Israel that when they entered into the possession of the Land of Promise, they were not to begin harvest till they had first cut down a sheaf and presented or waved it before the Lord, in thanksgiving as well as in token that they and their harvests belonged to the Lord. The circumstances connected with the offering of the first-fruits are singularly suggestive of a higher symbolism. The sheaf was offered on the third day after the Passover. In this we see Christ, the sheaf of first-fruits, rising from the dead on the third day after His Passion, the first begotten from the dead the precursor of the harvest yet to come, the proof, pledge, and pattern of the resurrection of the just.
1. The resurrection of Christ is the proof of the resurrection of them, that are asleep. When a farmer holds in his hand the first ripe sheaf of corn he has in possession an unassailable proof that he will have a harvest. More decisive and satisfactory evidence to that effect could not be desired by any reasonable man. Long before this time the precious seed had been cast into the dark bosom of the earth, when no tokens were visible that nature possessed any power of life. But in due season the sun began to warm the sleeping world, the gentle rain from heaven fell upon the place beneath, and the winds of the south whispered of a coming revival. Soon there was first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear, and then the first ripe sheaf telling of a harvest at hand. Christ is the first-fruits of them that sleep, the infallible proof that we shall have a resurrection from the gloomy winter of death.
Think of one who never in his life saw a harvest or spoke with any one to whom it was a familiar thing, who was well acquainted with sowing, but an utter stranger to reaping. Suppose, further, that not one harvest had ever gladdened the earth in any corner of it, and you have some idea of the state of knowledge necessarily possessed by men of old, concerning the rising again from the dead. Men had been but too familiar with sowing; from age to age they had committed to the earth all that remained of the fondest, the fairest, the best that they had. “Earth had been sown thick with graves,” but there had been no harvest; none had ever been seen to return from the “dark portal, the goal of all mortal.” Earth had swallowed up an immeasurable quantity of seed without showing any symptom of spring-time or harvest. We need not wonder that the Old Testament gives little light on the great rising again of the people of God. The Psalms and the Prophets occasionally show that there was light, and they may have had more than we can see in their records of the old days; but their light must have been dim and uncertain, seeing that none had ever risen from the dead to die no more. Enoch and Elijah were removed from the world in a mysterious way; they never looked upon the pale messenger, and their feet never touched the cold waters of the border land; but none of the sons of mortal men had ever risen from the grave to immortality.
Before the resurrection of Christ there had been instances of what is popularly termed “resurrection,” as in the case of Lazarus and others whom Christ raised from the dead. In the Old Testament period, also, there had been similar cases, as in the history of Elijah and Elisha. Had the resurrection of Christ been like these earlier “resurrections,” as we call them, simply the return of the spirit to the waiting body, and a mere reviving and continuance of the interrupted life, it is hard to see truth in the terms frequently applied to Christ as “the firstborn from the dead” (Colossians 1:18), “the firstborn of the dead” (Revelation 1:5), “the firstfruits” (1 Corinthians 15:20; 1 Corinthians 15:23). We recognize the appropriateness of such terms to Christ only when we perceive that His reappearance within the circle of the friends who had buried Him was not on a level with that of Lazarus, but in a higher mode of life than that which He had quitted. In Lazarus we behold simply the reanimation of the natural body, and the resumption of the fleshly life. In Christ we behold resurrection in the spiritual body, and assumption of the life of the world to come. This is fully demonstrated by the facts given in the Gospel record, and this is required by the exceptional pre-eminence which the New Testament accords to Christ’s rising from the dead. But one instance of that which is indeed the resurrection has been vouchsafed to our knowledge, as a sure pledge of that which is to come. This is manifest in the risen Christ, who thereby “was declared to be the Son of God with power” (Romans 1:4). All the partial resemblances to this which are found on record are cases of mere resuscitation or reanimation.
Not as a fallen stone,
Abiding where it hath been flung,
Did Christ remain the dead among,
But sprang from Hades’ deep invisible zone,
As the corn springs from where it has been thrown!
Not, as at Nain of yore
The young man rose to die again,
Did He resume the haunts of men,
But closed behind Him Death’s reluctant door
And triumphed on to live for evermore!
Not, as we spend our days,
Subject to sorrows, pains, and fears,
Does He persist a Man of tears;
Henceforth He feels no touch of our decays,
But inexpressive joy in all His ways!
Not for Himself alone
He fought, and won that glorious life:
For us He conquered in the strife,
That we might make His victory our own,
And rise with Him before the Father’s Throne!
Thus hath the Saviour brought
Our immortality to light!
O may He tarry in our sight,
That, clinging fast to Him with every thought,
We may partake the triumph He has wrought!1 [Note: G. T. S. Farquhar.]
In a sheltered corner of my Manse garden stands a common red flowering-currant bush. I suppose it has no value at all for anybody but me. But I would not exchange it for all the roses in the Major’s fine domain across the road. For year after year it gives me the first news of Spring. Just after the New Year has come in, I begin to watch it,—long before anything else in the garden has stirred. And some still, quiet morning it has its message for me. There is quite a distinct new shade of green on the buds. The wind is bitterly cold, and snow showers are about. Everything else in the garden is cold and dead. But it has risen. And the rest will follow in God’s good time.2 [Note: Archibald Alexander.]
2. The resurrection of Christ is the pledge of our resurrection.—We need more than simple proof, however clear, that a resurrection of man is possible. We require a pledge of its certainty before we can taste strong consolation. How can one man’s rising give assurance that we shall rise? Did He not rise from the dead purely in virtue of His power and Godhead? What more does that prove than that He was able to rise because He was the strong Son of God? How shall we, who are certainly not strong, be able to follow His example? Is not the proverb, that what man has done man may do, false on the very face of it? Who shall say that the doings of the man Christ Jesus are the just criterion of what may be expected from man? If the Lord had been related to us in the same way as we are related to our fellows, and in no other way, His rising would have proved the possibility of a resurrection, but nothing more. If He had been only our Brother, He could not have been the first-fruits of them that slept, or the pledge of their rising again. But while He was truly our Brother, He was also the Everlasting Father, the representative Head of the race of men.
Luther says: “Our most merciful Father, seeing us to be overwhelmed and oppressed by the curse of the law, and so to be holden under the same that we could never be delivered from it by our own power, sent His holy Son into the world, and laid upon Him the sins of all men, saying, ‘Be Thou Peter that denier; Paul that blasphemer and cruel persecutor; David that adulterer; that sinner which did eat the apple in Paradise; that thief which hanged upon the cross; and, briefly, be Thou the person which hath committed the sins of all men. See, then, that Thou pay and satisfy for them.’ … Now cometh the law, and saith, ‘I find Him a sinner, and I see no sins else but on Him; therefore let Him die upon the cross,’ and so he setteth upon Him and killeth Him.” The old order changeth, ever giving place to the latest born, and Luther’s form of sound words is now obsolete, just as our little systems will have their day and cease to be; but the immortal soul of vicarious sacrifice is unchanged. It is unalterably and eternally true that Christ, as the Head of His people, and made one with them, was made a curse, was made sin, took upon Himself all their responsibilities, and fully discharged them in dying. When He was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father His reappearance on earth, or reconstitution as a man, was nothing less than God’s pledge that every liability had been settled, and that a similar resurrection belonged to them who should be found united to the Head that had suffered in their room and stead. The solidarity of our race in ruin is the groundwork of its solidarity in redemption; in a true sense, all Christ’s people rose up with Him on the third day, according to the Scriptures.
Little one, you must not fret
That I take your clothes away;
Better sleep you so will get,
And at morning wake more gay—
Saith the children’s mother.
You I must unclothe again,
For you need a better dress;
Too much worn are body and brain;
You need everlastingness—
Saith the heavenly father.
I went down death’s lonely stair;
Laid my garments in the tomb;
Dressed again one morning fair;
Hastened up, and hied me home—
Saith the elder brother.
Then I will not be afraid
Any ill can come to me;
When ’tis time to go to bed,
I will rise and go with thee—
Saith the little brother.1 [Note: George MacDonald, Poetical Works, i. 348.]
3. The resurrection of Christ is the pattern of our resurrection.—The first sheaf is a specimen, type, example, or pattern of the harvest at hand. If the first fruits be poor and withered, the after fruits will be similar; if rich, full, and perfect, the harvest expected will be excellent. When we read that the Lord shall raise our vile bodies at the last, so that they may be fashioned like His own body of glory, we have at once a type of the glorified humanity that shall stand on the earth at the last day. He remained with us for forty days after He had risen, in order to give us light concerning the wonderful transformation.
(1) The condition of the spirit after death and resurrection is clearly seen in that light. Full and perfect peace was the atmosphere in which the spirit of the great Redeemer lived and moved after He had conquered death and the grave. The memory that He had of the past was clear and distinct, but not painful in the smallest degree; He contemplated the whole of His life in the past as a finished work, an arduous task accomplished, a hard-won battle ended—the whole to look back upon as a joy for evermore. His heart was the same, as kind and thoughtful as ever, and He resumed companionship with His friends very much as if there had been no cross and no grave. We hope to be like Him in all that pertained to His holy and happy humanity; our spirits hushed to rest, and blest in the possession of His peace; our minds unvexed and untortured by the element of pain that troubles our memories here, and poisons our joy when we recall the past. We look to have, like Him, the same sweet intercourse with former friends of mortal years, and to retain our old familiar, and well-known personality, set free from sin.
(2) The condition of the glorified body is unveiled in the light of His forty days’ sojourn after the resurrection. His was most distinctly a real body, and not a phantom without substance, to mock the gazer’s sight. So real was He to the disciples that, after the first natural start of terror, they fell easily into their old ways with Him, and did not seem to feel it a strange thing to walk and talk with One in a glorified state. He was easily recognized by them, for His body had the well-known marks and signs by which they were able to identify Him at once. He showed them His hands and His feet—
The arm which held the children, the pale hand
That gently touched the eyelids of the blind
And opened passive to the cruel nail.
They could not fail to remember every line of His blessed face; He had been away only for a little while, and it was easy to know Him after the short grief and pain. The body of the Lord was essentially a spiritual one withal; not any longer confined to the conditions of time, space, and matter, but supreme in power over the world of sense; able to enter a fast-closed room, and to leave it at will; to become visible or invisible as He wished, known or unknown—His was a body that obeyed every wish of the Spirit.
I sent the Queen (January 1885) a little book which contained some verses due to a great sorrow of my own. In her reply she said, “You surely do not think, as it would a little seem from the beautiful poem, My Yew Tree, that our dear ones sleep awhile, and that their bodies are to rise again? I thought you wrote to me once you thought, as I always think one feels one must, that the spirit is at once free in death, and that you were inclined to believe in a spiritual body within our present one?”
To this I replied that the Queen was quite right in supposing that I was in sympathy with the view that the “spiritual body” (as St. Paul calls it) is set free at death. I have never been able to feel that the supposed long sleep and time of unconsciousness is taught us in the New Testament. The phrases I had used in my verses were used in the sense that to us our dear ones seemed to sleep; and that what I had tried to sing was a kind of triumph song, telling the cold earth that her seeming victory was no victory at all.1 [Note: Bishop Boyd Carpenter, Some Pages of My Life, 287.]
Death and darkness, get you packing,
Nothing now to man is lacking;
All your triumphs now are ended,
And what Adam marr’d is mended;
Graves are beds now for the weary,
Death a nap, to wake more merry;
Youth now, full of pious duty,
Seeks in thee for perfect beauty;
The weak and aged, tired with length
Of days, from Thee look for new strength;
And infants with Thy pangs contest
As pleasant as if with the breast.
Then unto Him, who thus hath thrown
Even to contempt Thy kingdom down,
And by His blood did us advance
Unto His own inheritance;
To Him be glory, power, praise,
From this unto the last of days.1 [Note: Henry Vaughan.]
The Resurrection from the Dead
Aglionby (F. K.), The Better Choice, 157.
Alford (H.), Sermons on Christian Doctrine, 251.
Brown (J. B.), The Higher Life, 338.
Buckland (A. R.), Text-Studies for a Year, 115.
Butler (W. J.), Sermons for Working Men, 211.
Gurney (T. A.), The Living Lord and the Opened Grave, 57.
Horder (W. G.), The Other-World, 123.
Howatt (J. R.), The Children’s Pew, 71.
Jerdan (C.), Manna for Young Pilgrims, 272.
Keble (J.), Sermons for the Christian Year: Easter to Ascension, 147.
Newbolt (W. C. E.), Words of Exhortation, 147.
Pentecost (G. F.), Bible Studies: Mark and Jewish History, 193.
Pierson (A. T.), The Making of a Sermon, 96.
Russell (A.), The Light that Lighteth Every Man, 107.
Shore (T. T.), Saint George for England, 104.
Simpson (W.), in The World’s Great Sermons, v. 121.
Smyth (N.), The Reality of Faith, 244.
Steel (T. H.), Sermons in Harrow Chapel, 171.
Thorne (H.), Foreshadowings of the Gospel, 205.
Varley (H.), Some Main Questions of the Christian Faith, 78.
Wheeler (W. C.), Sermons and Addresses, 162.
Whiton (J. M.), Beyond the Shadow, 68, 224.
Wilson (S.), Lenten Shadows and Easter Lights, 125.
Christian World Pulpit, v. 369 (Kennedy); viii. 347 (Brown); xvi. 197 (Craig); xxiii. 276 (Alexander); xli. 355 (Varley); xlvii. 257 (Newbolt).
Churchman’s Pulpit: Easter Day and Season: vii. 200 (Keble), 203 (Vaughan).
Churchman’s Pulpit: First Sunday after Easter; vii. 463 (Cobb).
Contemporary Pulpit, 2nd Ser., i. 245 (Alexander); v. 235 (Brown).
Treasury (New York), xix. 848 (Broadbent).
Twentieth Century Pastor, xxii. 241.