On Sunday we celebrated Easter, known also as Resurrection Sunday. We talked last week about how important it is to know that Jesus claimed to be God since that was the very reason He was crucified. And it is important to stand firm on that claim because it is for that very reason that His death on the cross even means anything to us. But equally important is the fact that Jesus then resurrected from the dead. Without the resurrection, our faith is based on nothing. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:15–19, we should be the most pitied if there is no resurrection from the dead. Jesus’ resurrection again proves that He is God and it proves His power over death. Only by conquering death and, thus, sin are we even able to receive salvation. Therefore, it is critical to the foundation of our faith that we have confidence in the resurrection of Jesus.
How can we have confidence in something that we didn’t witness firsthand? The same way we have confidence in any historical event that we didn’t witness firsthand: by reading the accounts of eyewitnesses and seeing the effects on others of that event. For example, we know that the Revolutionary War was really fought and won by the new nation of the United States of America because we have eyewitness accounts of it and we see the effects now of that victory, the fact that we have a nation called the United States of America.
By reading the eyewitness accounts found in the New Testament we know several facts about that Resurrection Sunday. First, we know that Jesus really did die on the cross. The Romans were experts on killing people. These executioners crucified criminals on a regular basis and would know when someone was dead. There is also the medical evidence when the Roman soldier pierced Jesus’ side that both water and blood flowed out (John 19:34). It indicates hypovolemic shock resulting in heart failure. It is the medical confirmation that Jesus was dead. Even without that, there is the common sense factor of what Jesus had just endured to know He really died on the cross and didn’t just simply faint. Here was someone who was flogged to the point of exhaustion (he wasn’t even able to finish carrying His own cross to Golgotha), had thorns shoved into his head, had nails hammered through his hands and feet, and had a spear pierced into His side. It is not possible that Jesus could have simply fainted and awoke inside the tomb. He never would have been able to roll away the stone from inside the tomb. But even if He could have, His appearance to the disciples would not be one of a conqueror of death and the grave, but of one that was in dire need of medical attention. That kind of physical appearance would not have changed the disciples from sadness to rejoicing.
Second, we also know the disciples went to the correct tomb and found it empty. Jesus’ tomb was clearly marked by a giant stone over the entrance (sealed with the governor’s seal) and two guards posted by it. It would be very evident which tomb belonged to Jesus. We know the women went to the tomb that morning, but even Peter and John went to see the tomb for themselves after the women declared it was empty (John 20:3). It is highly unlikely that all of them visited the wrong tomb. However, even if for some reason they did go to the wrong tomb and started the rumor that it was empty, the Jewish and Roman authorities could have easily gone to the correct tomb and produced the body of Jesus. But that never happened.
Third, we know the disciples could not have conspired to steal the body. They had all been hiding and denying their association with Jesus even during the trial. They certainly weren’t going to then be bold enough to defy the governor’s seal on the tomb and get past the Roman guards after they saw Jesus executed. It is ludicrous to think they would have the gumption to steal the body. In reality, the disciples weren’t even expecting a resurrection. When the women first told the disciples the tomb was empty, they responded with disbelief, not confidence. Someone who is not expecting a resurrection is unlikely to risk their life to stage a resurrection.
So we can be confident so far that Jesus really died on the cross and the tomb was really empty. But even those two things wouldn’t be enough for us to have confidence in the Christian faith. The people actually seeing Jesus' resurrected body is what gave them confidence in who Jesus really was. Jesus could have just claimed that after His death He would resurrect in spirit – no one would be able to see it but we would just have to have faith that He really did. No, Jesus set the bar much higher than that. He claimed He would raise from the dead physically. That is a fact that can either be supported or refuted, not just supposed like a spiritual resurrection would be. So the appearances that Jesus made to others is something that cannot be taken trivially. He showed Himself to Mary at the tomb, to two disciples on the road to Emmaus, to the disciples in the upper room, to Peter, to over 500 at one time, and lastly to Saul on the road to Damascus. If they were all just dreaming or hallucinating or fabricating this story, the authorities again could have produced Jesus’ body from its tomb to silence these claims. Any alternative explanation of the resurrection fails to explain the empty tomb or fails to explain the resurrection appearances. It was those physical appearances that drastically changed the lives of the disciples. They went from a small band of frightened mourners in hiding to an emboldened outspoken force that nothing could silence. The only thing that can explain that kind of change in their lives is the reality of what they claimed.
And it is from the effect of this event on the lives of those that saw it that gives us confidence in its reality. The lives of the disciples were completely different after the Resurrection than before. They all fled Jesus during his arrest, but later they all were martyred for their claims of two things: Jesus was the Son of God and He had resurrected from the dead. Thomas wouldn’t believe until he placed his hands in Jesus’ wounds, but later took the gospel outside the Roman Empire into Persia and India until he was stoned and stabbed to death for his preaching. Peter denied knowing Jesus during the trial, but after the resurrection, he preached the gospel until his own death by crucifixion. James, Jesus’ brother, wasn’t a believer at all during Jesus’ ministry, but after the resurrection, he founded the church in Jerusalem and preached the gospel until he was stoned to death for it. Saul was a Jewish Pharisee hunting down and executing Christian believers until he saw the resurrected Christ for himself. Then he became the most ardent and outspoken preachers for the cause of Christ. He endured beatings, stonings, shipwrecks, imprisonments, tortures, treacherous travels, and all kinds of perils and dangers to spread the message to Jews and Gentiles that Jesus was the Son of God and that He had resurrected from the dead. Eleven of the apostles died as martyrs, and all for the same reason: their belief in the Resurrection and their belief that Jesus was the Son of God. They were tortured, flogged, and killed, and all they had to do to save themselves was deny that those two things were true. People don’t die for what they know to be a lie. These facts leave us with the confidence that Jesus was God and that Jesus resurrected from the grave, giving us all the hope of eternal life with Him.