The message that we Christians have for the world is a message that concerns certain key historical events, and we include with that message the theological import, the theological meaning, of those key events. We preach and declare that Christ died and rose, and we also declare that this same Christ was the God/man, meaning that His death was a propitiation for our sins, and that His resurrection was the ultimate vindication or justification of all who believe in Him. His new life is our new life, which we possess by faith alone.
“For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time” (1 Cor. 15:3–8).
Summary of the Text:
This passage from 1 Corinthians contains a wonderful summary of the contents of the objective gospel. That gospel includes in it a summary overview of some of the resurrection appearances of Jesus Christ. But first, Paul had passed on to the Corinthians what he had received (v. 3). In accordance with the Scriptures (v. 3), Christ died for our sins (v. 3). He was buried, demonstrating that the death was not play-acting, not a sham (v. 4). The third day He rose from the dead, which was the initial moment of resurrection (v. 4)—a great event that was also in accordance with the Scriptures (v. 4).
That initial moment was the pivot point of all things. It was the moment the new cosmos, the new heavens and earth, were conceived. The cosmos was converted at that moment. The birth pangs would come much later, as Romans 8 predicts, but a woman who has just conceived is as pregnant with new life as she is on the threshold of delivery. She is pregnant when she is not yet showing, and she is pregnant when the contractions fall on her. So all the DNA of the new order is contained there, in that moment, in the great turning.
But the gospel message contains more than just that initial instant of resurrection. What we call the resurrection also includes the 40 days between that moment and the time of His ascension into Heaven. He appeared first to Cephas (Peter), then to the twelve (v. 5), and after that to over 500 brothers at one time (v. 6). The word had gotten out over the course of those 40 days and quite a crowd had assembled. Most of those witnesses were still alive several decades later when 1 Corinthians was written (c. 53-55 A.D.) Then James saw Him, and all the apostles (v. 7). After that, in a way that was more than a bit irregular (because it was after the Ascension), the Lord appeared also to Paul (v. 8).
Sunday Morning Chaos:
In all four gospels, the women are the first at the tomb Sunday morning (Matt. 28; Mark 16; Luke 24; John 20). The stone had been rolled away, and the tomb was empty. Mary Magdalene apparently separates from the other women, and goes to find Peter and John (John 20:1-2). The other nine disciples were not with Peter (perhaps because of his shame over his denial), and they are found by the larger group of women. The disciples were divided, and so the women divided to tell them. Peter and John run to the tomb, and find it empty, with Mary Magdalene apparently coming along behind them. After they depart (John having believed), Mary stayed there, saw the angels, asked about the body, and then after that encountered Jesus Himself (John 20:17). So Mary was the first to see the risen Christ, but as a group the disciples generally did not believe her (Mark 16:9-11). The other women had gone into the tomb separately (Matt. 28:5-10), and were sent by the angels to tell the disciples. As they were going back to Jerusalem, Peter, John and Mary Magdalene were coming back out of Jerusalem, on the way to the tomb. After Jesus appeared to Mary, He also appeared to the women still on the way back to Jerusalem, who had been too frightened to speak to anyone (Mark 16:8). But after He appeared to them, they were able to deliver the message (Luke 24:9-11).
40 Day Timeline:
While it is best not to be too dogmatic about such reconstructions, here is a suggested order for the Lord’s resurrection appearances:
- Mary Magdalene (John 20:11-18);
2. Salome, Joanna, the other Mary, and one other woman at least (Matt. 28:9; Mark 16:1; Luke 24:10);
3. Simon Peter (Luke 24:34; 1 Cor. 15:5);
4. Cleopas and companion on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35);
5. The disciples, Thomas missing (Luke 24:36-43; John 20:19-25);
6. The disciples, with Thomas present (John 20:26-29);
7. Seven disciples at the Sea of Galilee (John 21:1-23);
8. Disciples and small crowd on a mountain in Galilee (Matt. 28:16-17; 1 Cor. 15:6);
9. James, the Lord’s brother (1 Cor. 15:7);
10. Disciples, probably in Jerusalem, before they walked out to Bethany on Mt. Olivet, where He ascended (Luke 24:49-53; Acts 1:3-11).
Please note that we are talking about a lot of people who saw the Lord, and in broad daylight. And remember also that the difficulty we have in untangling the order of the reports is an indication that the stories were not cooked. This is a jumble of reliable eyewitness testimonies.
Departure from Bethany:
Bethany was a village located about a mile and a half from Jerusalem. It is the place where Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-46). It is the place where the Triumphal Entry had begun (Mark 11:1; Luke 19:29). During the week that preceded His arrest, the Lord had stayed in Bethany (Matt. 21:17; Mark 11:11-12). Simon the Leper lived there, and it was in his house that Mary had anointed Jesus (Matt. 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; John 12:1-8). And Jesus led His disciples out to Bethany before He ascended into Heaven (Luke 24:50).
It is hard to escape the conclusion that Jesus went to Bethany and saw Lazarus, Martha, and Mary there. The conclusion of His resurrection appearances was not the dissolution of His friendships, but rather the eternal and everlasting ratification of them. Are you a friend of God? The answer to that momentous question is found in whether or not you believe what I am declaring to you now. Christ has risen. He has risen indeed. Do you believe? “And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God” (Jas. 2:23). What is it to be a friend of God? It is to believe Him.
So Jesus went to a small town; He went to a village. He ascended into Heaven from a place. He knew people there. When He ascended, there were houses in the background, one of them being a place where He had shared a meal, a place where He had previously stayed. In short, this last resurrection appearance was an event in history, in full color, under the same sun we have enjoyed this morning. We don’t know the precise latitude and longitude of the last place where Jesus was standing before He left, but God knows it. No doubt many an unwitting tourist has stood on the spot. There is probably a car parked there right now.
And because there is no reason a car couldn’t be parked on that very spot, your sins are forgiven. These things really happened, in other words. And by “really happened,” I mean something like actually happened. As sure as this Bible is on this pulpit, that fact being something that actually happened in human history, observed by hundreds, so also Jesus walked out to Bethany for His departure.
Those who want to pretend that Jesus rose, will also have to pretend to be forgiven. Remember that He was raised to life for our justification (Rom. 4:25). So a sham resurrection pairs well with a sham salvation.
Those who know, as we do, that Christ is truly risen are also privileged to know that we also will rise. He is risen indeed. We will rise indeed. Do you believe this? Then come to the Table as friends of God.