The Difference Easter Makes Today

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” —John 11:25-26

Let’s take this in three steps. One, what Jesus said. Two, why we should believe him. Three, how it works – how it works for us.

What Jesus said

Jesus said three things here. One, “I am.” Don’t hurry past that. He meant to startle us. Jesus is deliberately echoing the way God revealed himself back in the Old Testament. God said to Moses at the burning bush, “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). God said to the prophet Isaiah, “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god” (Isaiah 44:6). When Jesus says “I am,” he knows how those words resonate – as words that make him out to be God. And he said it repeatedly and clearly. For example, Jesus said, “You are from below. I am from above. . . . Unless you believe that I am he, you will die in your sins” (John 8:23-24). Jesus said, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). Jesus had no problem identifying himself with God. And he wasn’t bragging. Just the opposite. He was reaching out to us. Why do I say that? Because he quickly moves on to explain what it’s worth to us that he is God.

Secondly, then, Jesus said, “I am the resurrection.” He didn’t say, “If you come to church, I’ll give you a little uplift as you go into your busy week.” That’s the way we think, and it insults Jesus. We need to repent of our pathetic concepts of Jesus and listen to what he said. “I am the resurrection” is more than “I will teach you about the resurrection of the dead.” It’s more than “I am the resuscitation of the dead, giving them a little reprieve until they die again.” It’s even more than “I will cause the resurrection of the dead.” Jesus is saying, “I am the one who raises the dead on that great and final day. I am myself the only conqueror of death. I am the savior not only of the human soul but also of the human body.”

There is a lot of confusion these days about what happens to us after we die. So let me be clear. What Jesus meant by “the resurrection” is more than an afterlife in some vaguely defined sense. Some people today believe that, when we die, we just go poof. There’s nothing there. Other people believe in reincarnation. We keep morphing into different stages according to what we deserve. Still others believe that we get absorbed into the great flow of life in nature somehow and we live on in the wind and the rain and so forth. All this disagreement is good, in a way, because it forces us to think about it. And Jesus is not saying, “I will give you the answer.” He is saying, “I am the answer, I am the hope you are groping after, and there is no other.”

He goes on to explain what he means by “I am the resurrection.” Look what he says in the rest of verse 25: “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” “I am the resurrection” means, for us, that Jesus is greater than our very death. And he is not talking about some shadowy posthumous existence away from everything we’ve ever known. The whole point of the word resurrection is bodily resurrection. The road your body travels from youth to age into death – your body, the humblest part of you, but you’ve come to be very personally attached to it – if you believe in Jesus, the road your body travels into death stops being a one-way road and Jesus makes it a U-turn, but with a body and soul he makes new and immortal forever. “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.”

That takes us to the third thing Jesus said: “I am the life.” What does he mean? Obviously, he isn’t merely saying, “I am alive.” Why say that? Neither is he saying, “Here are three principles guaranteed to help you manage stress and improve your overall quality of life. Only $19.95. But wait. If you call now, I’ll double the offer.” What Jesus is saying here is deep and profound. No one else speaks like this. When Jesus says, “I am the life,” he means, “I am myself the life that is truly life. Apart from me, you have nothing but death in all its forms, and it will defeat you. But I am the Fountainhead of life. What you most desire isn’t off at the other end of the universe beyond your reach. I am what you desire. And I have come down, to give you the life you long for.”

Here in America, the land of optimism, we have our own version of “I am the life,” and it isn’t about Jesus. It’s about us and our health. This week I finally broke down and ate an organic apple. I don’t want those pesticides! We work out. We go on diets. We get plastic surgery. We check our cholesterol. But when death lays down its trump card, we are beaten. So staving death off is one of our national pastimes. It’s so deep inside us, we hardly notice this about ourselves. But we’re driving down the interstate, the traffic slows down, we weave around a serious car wreck and think, “He must have been driving recklessly,” as if the whole thing were beneath us. We manage our fears mentally, to cling to the illusion of control. We move our deepest fear around behind lesser fears, out of sight and out of mind, because the lesser fears are less threatening. It’s all denial. But Jesus is looking us scared people right in the eye today and saying to us today, “I am the life. And I am offering myself to you.” Do you see how he follows up, how he explains that, in verse 26? “Everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” What Jesus gives is a life that starts now, a life so deep not even death can destroy it.

That is what Jesus said. He spoke as God. He said he is himself a kind of health and fitness not even death can wear out. And then he added a question: “Do you believe this?”

Why we should believe him

Jesus does not ask, “Do you understand this?” He does not ask, “Do you deserve this?” He does ask, “Do you believe this?” And let me clarify. There is a difference between agreeing and believing. The question “Do you believe this?” is not the same as “Do you agree with this?” Many people in the Bible Belt agree, at some level, that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. But their agreement with Jesus doesn’t change them. Belief changes us. If you want to know whether you agree with Jesus or believe Jesus, is the conviction that he is the resurrection and the life changing you? If you really believe that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, you stop treating this world as your only chance for happiness. It makes a difference. How you think about health changes. How you think about retirement changes. How you think about suffering changes. How you think about sex and money and so many important things changes. You become willing to do hard things, to serve Jesus and make a positive difference for others, because you really believe that Jesus is your resurrection and your life forever. Maybe some of us need to repent of agreeing with Jesus and start believing him, which both honors him and changes us. So when Jesus asks us, “Do you believe this?”, it’s a profound question.

But he is not asking us to believe something that doesn’t deserve our belief. In fact, he gave us good and sufficient reasons for believing him. Jesus rose from the dead himself. That’s what happened on that first Easter Sunday so long ago. A man who had been beaten into a mass of bloody flesh hardly recognizable as human, a man crucified on a Roman cross and run through with a spear to make sure he was dead, a man buried in a tomb and mourned by his friends and gloated over by his enemies – that man, in defiance of all human experience from time immemorial, that man, to the amazement of his friends and the shock of his enemies, that man sprang back to life, with a new life, a body recognizable and even scarred but now beyond injury, sickness, pain and death forever, his heart no longer sad but overflowing, that man got up and burst out of that grave. He didn’t just return to his pre-crucifixion health. He didn’t resume the aging process. He was alive with the life you and I have only dreamed of. And my point is, Jesus put meaning into these words, “I am the resurrection and the life.” “Do you believe this?”

Some don’t. Some deny his resurrection. Some say he didn’t really die on the cross at all. He just fainted, and everyone thought he had died. So his friends mistakenly buried him. This theory says that, in the cool atmosphere of that tomb Jesus revived, escaped and later convinced his disciples that he had risen from the dead. People back then believed in that sort of thing, it caught on, but we know better now. That’s what some say.

But this theory – that Jesus never really died at all, so there couldn’t have been a resurrection – this theory has problems. For one thing, Roman history outside the New Testament records that Jesus died. Tacitus, the Roman historian, writing in the early second century, says that the Christians “got their name from Christ, who had been executed by the sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius” (Annals, 15:44). Anyway, is it believable that a man could survive a Roman scourging and then a crucifixion and then a spearing, and then persuade his followers, without any medical care, in less than 48 hours, that he had conquered death and was worthy of their deepest hopes? This theory doesn’t work.

Others who don’t accept the resurrection do realize that, of course, Jesus did die. The Romans knew how to kill! But still, some say, there wasn’t any resurrection. What happened was, somebody stole the body. The disciples took his body. After all, hadn’t Jesus predicted his resurrection? Didn’t he say, “I am the resurrection and the life”? So the disciples wanted people to think it had happened. That’s the argument.

But this theory has problems too. To steal the body, the disciples would have to overpower the police stationed at the tomb for the very purpose of preventing the theft of the body. Then there were also the linen wrappings in which Jesus’ body had been buried. On Sunday morning those burial wrappings were found lying there in the empty tomb, neatly folded up. Why would body snatchers have bothered to do that? But the real problem with the stolen-body theory is that the disciples were complete idiots before the resurrection. Yes, Jesus had predicted that he would rise again. But they didn’t believe him. They didn’t even understand him. They weren’t expecting a resurrection, any more than his enemies expected it. The disciples were demoralized by his execution that Friday. They were hiding from the authorities, fearing they were next. So, are we to think that these defeated and cowardly nitwits formed a bold plan to steal his body, pulled it off successfully, never divulged the hoax, even as they suffered for spreading the message of his resurrection? Is that convincing? And if not the disciples, who else would steal the body? His enemies? They had no reason to. They didn’t want a resurrection story getting traction. Even if his enemies did do something with his body, as soon as the disciples started shouting about his resurrection, all they had to do was produce the body. But they didn’t. Why? They didn’t have the body. Who did? Jesus.

One more thing. Have you ever noticed that the early Christians did not venerate the site of the crucifixion or the tomb where Jesus was buried? It was the custom of Jewish people at that time to do such things – to honor the prophets and martyrs. But the early Christians never made a big deal of the Golgotha or the tomb. No theme park. No Jesusland. No shrine. Why? They didn’t care about those places. Why not? Jesus was alive, he was with them, they were experiencing him wherever they went.

One final objection to the resurrection is this. Some say that the accounts of the resurrection in the Bible are such a tangle of contradiction that they can’t be taken seriously. Why believe witnesses who couldn’t get the story straight? That’s the objection.

And it is difficult to fit the four biblical accounts of the resurrection into a smoothly flowing narrative. But it isn’t impossible. And the very fact that the four gospels do not fit together easily argues in their favor. If the early believers were making it up, they would have gotten together and agreed on one “official version.” The four gospel accounts show us the resurrection in different ways. Each author is really speaking for himself, from his own angle of vision. They complement one another. They do not contradict each other. And the differences help us to reconstruct more fully what happened that morning.

What’s striking about the biblical records of the resurrection is how modest and non-Hollywood-ized they are. If Jesus rose from the dead, it was the greatest event in history. It means that death’s monopoly is broken. It changes all the ground rules. It means that Jesus is literally qualified to lead us through death into life eternal. What else finally matters? But here’s my point. What do we human beings typically do with exalted things that go way beyond us? We spectacularize them. We sentimentalize them. We glamorize them. For example, in the second century, after the New Testament was written, a book called the Gospel of Peter – not written by the apostle Peter – describes the resurrection of Jesus. It shows the pious embellishment of the goofy human imagination unleashed on something truly great. It describes Jesus walking out of the tomb, followed by a talking cross. It’s the National Enquirer. The Bible isn’t like that. It shows restraint and reverence.

When Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this?”, we should, because he said it. If you don’t believe him, what theory do you have that can better explain a dead man, plus an empty tomb, plus cowards who turned into heroes ready to lose everything for what they saw? When Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this?”, why would you deny the only hope you have?

How it works – for us

Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.

We don’t deserve him. But we can still have him forever. Why? Because on that Good Friday, on his cross, he absorbed into himself all our sin and guilt and failure, all the wrath of God we deserve for how we have slighted him and lived for ourselves and hurt one another. He took on himself at the cross every reason why God should reject you. In fact, he brings honor to himself by loving the undeserving. Whatever you’ve done, whoever you are, Christ offers himself to you today. All he asks is that you believe him: “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” Stop agreeing with him, because that’s really a strategy for holding him at arm’s length, remaining safely detached, while still thinking of yourself as a good person. Repent of that. Let your guard down. Believe.

Here’s how. The Greek text of verse 25 literally says, “Whoever believes into me . . . .” The translators don’t put it that way, because it’s not good English. But that’s what it says. When we cross the line from unwillingness to willingness, from resistance to openness, from agreeing with him to believing him, from guarding ourselves from his impact to welcoming the changes he brings, and we close with Christ, he lets us into him. He doesn’t hold us at arm’s length. He presses us into his deepest heart forever. Won’t you let him? Here’s what you do. You hold out the empty hands of faith and say to him, “Lord Jesus, I am a sinner. I need your forgiveness. Receive me as an act of grace. And change me into the person you want me to be. I believe.”

Will you say that to Christ right now? He promises to be your resurrection and your life forever.