Whoever reads the New Testament seriously, or gives thought to the impact which the apostles made upon their generation, must acknowledge that one outstanding historic event alone spurred that small band of 11 ordinary men to an amazing task of evangelization in their generation. Defying every obstacle—loss of home, persecution, even death itself—they evidenced the supreme relevance in their ministry of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
There is no historic record that any of the apostles or any of the early Christians made an annual pilgrimage to the garden of Joseph of Arimathaea, to that empty tomb which once held the body of the Christ.
That first Easter Sunday, however, the tomb indeed was visited, beginning at the early morning hours when two women were first to arrive there. Matthew tells us that those women came “to see the sepulchre”; Mark adds that these two ladies “had bought sweet spices, that they might … anoint him.” But as Luke, the writer of the third Gospel, so succinctly puts it, “they found not the body of the Lord Jesus.” On the contrary, these women found that the great stone placed against the entrance to the sepulchre to seal it had been rolled away. Entering in, they saw an angel who said to them:
He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. And go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead; and, behold, he goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see him (Matt. 28:5–7).
Later that morning Mary Magdalene revisited the tomb, and her unusual devotion was rewarded by the Lord Jesus himself. Her eyes dimmed by tears, she at first assumed him to be the gardener. She begged “the gardener” to tell her where he had placed the body, and heard him speak her name as Jesus alone had often spoken it.
Earlier the women had hurried back into the city to tell the disciples what they had seen and heard, whereupon two of them, Peter and John, ran back to the garden. They saw the empty tomb. They went in. John observed something which caught his eye. Then and there he knew and believed that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead. The shape of the graveclothes and their position in the tomb were evidence that he had risen as he said he would. But the apostles as a group were far from convinced.
Some time during that Resurrection day the Lord appeared to Peter in Judea, who in turn returned to tell the other ten that he had seen the Lord. Toward the evening of that same day, two disciples were returning from Jerusalem to their home village of Emmaus. The striking happenings of the day were being discussed in animated conversation when a third man joined them in the walk. The Creator had not yet adjusted the focus of their eyes to him, and they did not immediately recognize him. He appeared as a man, a stranger walking along the roadside.
When the Lord asked why they were sad of countenance and what they were talking about, they looked at him in utter astonishment and said, “Art thou only a stranger in Jerusalem, and hast not known the things which are come to pass there in these days?” (Luke 24:18). When he asked, “What things?” they told about “Jesus of Nazareth which was a prophet mighty in deed and work before God and all the people: And how the chief priests and our rulers delivered him to be condemned to death, and have crucified him. But we trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel.” That all took place three days ago. But the most astounding thing of all, they told him, was the word of several women who had visited the tomb and had come back with the report that they had seen a vision of an angel who said he was alive! Some of the male members of the group went out to see the sepulchre where he had been buried; they found it empty, but him they saw not!
Our Lord then hid himself in the Scriptures in order that their faith in his resurrection and what had taken place upon the Cross could be better understood. He said to them, “O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to have entered into his glory?” Right there, walking those dusty roads, our Lord gave those two disciples a postgraduate course in Bible. Their hearts burned within them as he opened up the Scriptures. When they arrived home, they invited the stranger in to dine with them. They sat down to break bread and gave this interesting person the privilege of returning thanks. At once the scales dropped from their eyes. They saw him, the man Christ whom they had known and loved, and who had hung upon a tree a few days previously. He then vanished out of their sight.
They immediately returned to Jerusalem. They knew where the disciples were to be found. When they gained entrance into that house, they were met with a chorus of voices from inside: “The Lord is risen indeed, and hath appeared to Simon” (Luke 24:34). The fact that the Saviour had appeared to Peter, who had denied him thrice, clinched everything! As those disciples began to tell of their own experience, the risen Lord himself entered that room.
Can anyone forget the rapture of that night, or the understanding those disciples received, as our Lord disentangled their minds and illuminated the Scriptures? Fifty days later that company of men began the effort which turned the tide of civilization. They never preached without telling of his resurrection. It was the keynote in every address recorded in the Acts of the Apostles.
No man, examining the New Testament or searching history, can completely understand the impact made upon the apostolic world by this little band of devoted men, but he must surely acknowledge that the resurrection of Jesus Christ became the most relevant thing in their lives.
We live in a different world today from that era when the apostles became evangelizers. Actually no generation of men has had to face what we in 1959 must live with 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and with little hope of alleviation. If ever there was a time when the individual Christian and the Christian Church needed to re-examine their position in the world it is now.
When the Apostle Paul was escorted to Mars Hill to explain the arresting things he propagated in the market place at Athens, he struck a note too little heard in our pulpits on Easter. And yet it is the same note that our Lord sounded in his last recorded words spoken to John, the disciple who outlived all the other members of the group. It was the keynote in all apostolic preaching. The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and all that this implied in that historic event, is still the great keynote of historic Christianity. As he orated on religion, on the infinite yet benevolent God, on the world, life, breath and all things, and as he quoted from their own poets, Paul was at least given a courteous hearing. But when Paul touched on the subject of repentance, made necessary by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, the men of Athens abruptly dismissed him and refused to listen any further. Paul declared:
Because he [God] hath appointed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he raised him from the dead (Acts 17:31).
When John the Apostle received that majestic, awesome revelation of Jesus Christ while he was on the Isle of Patmos, he gave us a word portrait of the glory of the risen Christ. That dazzling glory made him fall as dead at our Lord’s feet. John wrote:
And laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the first and the last: I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am forevermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death (Rev. 1:17, 18).
Could any message be more relevant for 1959 than this which energized the apostles and disciples? “Jesus and the resurrection” were the twin messages which the Apostle Paul proclaimed.
Judas is dead; Caiaphas is dead; Pilate is dead; Herod is dead; Nero is dead; Stalin is dead; Khrushchev will die! But Jesus Christ the Lord is the living One who became dead, and behold he is alive forever, and has the keys of hell and of death. At a time when a large segment of Christendom looks upon the Resurrection merely as an historical event in the remote past, it is imperative that the Christian Church and the individual Christian make crystal clear the relevancy of Christ’s resurrection to the bewildered world of 1959.
This can be accomplished in two ways. First, there is the realm of personal experience. The Apostle Paul expressed his own aspirations concerning the development of his Christian life when he wrote “that I might know him.” That involves a personal knowledge of Jesus Christ, which is eternal life. He promptly followed this with a further statement: that I might know “the power of his resurrection.” It was evident to the Apostle that in the life of an individual believer the power of Christ’s resurrection may become a living reality. How important is that power in a day when so much Christian profession is hardly more than lip service, and when some men even hold tongue in cheek while reciting the Apostles’ Creed.
One other great fact comes out of the fact of the empty tomb which needs to be emphasized. Modern man travels faster on the earth, in the sea, and in the air than many persons ever thought possible. Indeed, our generation has come to possess extraordinary knowledge enabling man to harness vast powers for good or evil purposes. Even some eminent minds of our own day thought this impossible. As late as 1939 Albert Einstein was reported as saying he did not believe in the release of atomic power.
Has the resurrection of Jesus Christ anything to say in a day like ours? Indeed it has. First, it substantiates every line in Holy Scripture concerning the impending apocalyptic judgments of God once that hour has struck to which Paul alluded on Mars Hill, “when God will judge the world in righteousness.”
Second, with the threat of overhanging catastrophe, light streams from that empty tomb proclaiming Jesus Christ as the resurrection and the life. It is he who has “abolished death, and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”
Third, and last, the resurrection of Jesus Christ assures redeemed man of ultimate triumph. The statements of David made 3000 years ago in the eighth Psalm will become a reality. Redeemed man will be crowned with glory and honor, thus enabling him to have dominion over the works of God’s hands which include the habitable earth, the moon and the stars—the work of God’s fingers.
In that postdiluvian age when man shook his fist to defy God by building the ill-fated tower of Babel, God confounded their tongues. When the devil and unregenerate man nailed Christ to the cross, God answered by raising him from the dead. When man once more defies God and shakes his atomic fist at the God of heaven and earth, “He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision. Then shall he speak unto them in his wrath, and vex them in his sore displeasure.” And they shall hear him say, “Yet have I set my king upon my holy hill of Zion. I will declare the decree: the Lord hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee” (Psalm 2:4–7).
Erling C. Olsen is President of Fitch Investors Service, nationally known investment advisory and statistical service. For 25 years he has conducted a Sunday morning broadcast on New York stations. A Bible conference speaker, he addressed the 1959 Rose Bowl Sunrise Service in Pasadena, California.
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