Among the many Rock-clefts of the believer's trust, pre-eminent in importance and value is the Resurrection of Jesus, forming as it does the crowning proof of the Redeemer's divine mission.
In the hour indeed of deepest humiliation, when pouring out His life's blood on the cross, there were not lacking signs and miracles which evidenced and proclaimed His Godhead glory. There were wondrous symbols in the heavens, and strange convulsions on earth. The shrouded dead rose from their graves. The High Priest was disturbed in his devotions by the mysterious rending of the temple-veil. The sun was draped in darkness as if his race were prematurely run. But, along with these, there were also startling contrasts.
His marred visage is motionless, in death. He who saved others seems powerless to save Himself; He has perished with a felon's excruciating torture. The funeral rites are over. He who raised others from the tomb, is Himself laid lifeless in the sepulcher. The stone is rolled to the mouth of the cave, and the fond hopes of the disconsolate disciples seem crushed forever--"We hoped it had been He that would have redeemed Israel." But on the third day the Divine Conqueror rose triumphant. The glad tidings are circulated from lip to lip, "The Lord is risen indeed;" and from that memorable moment He was declared in apostolic teaching, to be "the Son of God with power, by the resurrection from the dead." As this was the most important fact of all the incidents of the incarnation to have established on clear and decisive evidence (Christianity as a system must stand or fall with it), so did God provide that it should be accredited and authenticated by "many infallible PROOFS." Let us in a few words enumerate these.
The Jewish authorities made sure His sepulcher. It was a sepulcher hewn out of a rock--leaving being thus impossible, except by the one entrance. A band of Roman soldiers were stationed around it, to whom sleeping on watch would have been dishonor and death. A clear passover moon, also, defied the abstracting of the body by stealth in the dark.
And with regard to the testimony of the disciples, it is incredible, when all the circumstances are weighed, that they could be either deceivers or self-deceived. What motive could a handful of illiterate, unsophisticated men have had, in secretively possessing themselves of a dead body, and upholding an imposture? What possibly could induce them to circulate and uphold a cunningly devised fable, when persecution and imprisonment was their only recompense for doing so? Peter had more than once shown a craven spirit. What could have made this Feeble-heart become "bold as a lion," if we resolve that boldness into a mission through the world to defend a lie, and at last to be crucified, as tradition asserts, in a more cruel form and with more intense physical suffering than his Master? And the same is equally true with regard to all the others. There was nothing conceivable for these unlettered, simple-hearted fishermen to gain, by propagating an enormous falsehood. It could bring them neither riches, nor worldly influence, nor renown. It would infallibly draw down upon them scorn and contempt, if not bonds and suffering and death--martyrdom, as in the case of James, with the sword--long exile and lonely banishment as in the case of John.
Paul, also, like "one born out of due time," had surrendered all his hopes of earthly distinction to uphold the fact of a risen Savior. Wonderfully does he unfold and vindicate this cardinal article of his creed, in that noble treatise on the Resurrection, contained in the 15th chapter of 1st Corinthians. His pleadings are not like the pleadings of a deceiving advocate--a man who was propping up a desperate and untenable cause--it is the grand exposition of one who would stake his all, yes, life itself, on his fervid heartfelt utterances.
While they had thus no conceivable object in deceiving others, it is equally impossible and improbable that the apostles could themselves have been deceived. It is true they were plain men, but they were no fanatics. They were just such a jury as in this country would enlist our confidence, in submitting a case for decision, which required no more than the testimony of their senses and average powers of discrimination. Though unskilled in the world's wisdom and philosophy and science, they possessed honest minds, capable of taking broad and commonsense views of things. And if some would aver, that, as the disciples of Christ who had accompanied with Him, they were likely to be biased in their opinions, and more disposed than others to be credulous--we know from their own conduct, on the day of alleged resurrection, that it was not so--rather the reverse. They were slow to believe--their faith had been shattered by the crucifixion-scene. When the Risen Lord appeared, not a few doubted; others denounced the wondrous tidings of a vacant sepulcher as "idle tales;" one would not give his assent until he could have tangible evidence of the fact. Not until he had touched the gash of the spear and the holes in the hands and feet, would he renounce his incredulity, and give in his adherence, as he did, by the emphatic utterance, "My Lord and my God."
Add to this, for the space of forty days after the resurrection, they had been familiar with their Lord's presence--so familiar, as to make sure of His personal identity. Their eyes had seen--their ears had heard--their hands had handled the Word of Life; enabling them to give the united testimony (James, Peter, the twelve, the "five hundred brethren at once"), "This Jesus, God has raised up, whereof we ALL are witnesses." In truth, few historical facts are so well authenticated; and those who refuse to admit its evidence as sufficient, must be incredulous and skeptical about other remarkable events in the world, based and established on ordinary data. Reject the truth of the Resurrection because the evidence is inadequate, and the annals of the past must become a blank; skeptical on this, we must be skeptical on the most important incidents of profane history. Xenophon and Herodotus, Tacitus and Livy, Gibbon and Macaulay, need not have written. Their facts are myths--and the last four thousand years of the world are a chaos.
From what we have said, then, we may cease to marvel at the pre-eminent importance assigned by the inspired writers to this great sheet-anchor of the Church's faith. From the frequency with which they allude to it, even the peerless truth, Christ crucified, seems to give way in their estimate to Christ risen. And for this reason, as we shall subsequently show, that the one would be valueless without the other. The glorious light, illuminating the tomb of Jesus, throws its radiations on almost every other doctrine of the Christian system. The believer's justification, regeneration, sanctification, resurrection, glorification--each has its halo of glory borrowed from that vacant sepulcher. "The Resurrection" seems, with the sacred penmen, to be the article of a standing or a falling faith. "If Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain." "And with great power gave the apostles witness of the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus."
Paul, to his cultured auditory on Mars' Hill, preached "Jesus and the Resurrection." "It is Christ," says he, "who died, YES RATHER who is risen again." Once more, in the concluding benediction of the great Epistle to the Hebrews, it is the Redeemer's Resurrection which is specially singled out as the mightiest of God's mighty acts--"Now the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you perfect in every good work to do His will, working in you that which is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen."
We shall cease to wonder at the relative importance assigned by the apostles to this soul-stirring doctrine, when we briefly glance at three, out of the many glorious truths, which cluster around it.
I. It was the public token of the Father's acceptance of the work of Christ. God, by thus raising Him from the place of the dead, and not allowing Him to see corruption, expressed His full and unqualified satisfaction with the great atoning Sacrifice. At the commencement of His Son's ministry, He had given public attestation to His divine mission by the heavenly voice and the descent of the dove. He would now at its close, give visible demonstration that the crowning oblation was accepted, and that the expiring cry, "It is finished," uttered on earth, had been heard and ratified in Heaven. "Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father." The demands and penalties of the law having been discharged and fulfilled by His obedience unto death, it was now consistent with the honor of the Father's name, that "His Beloved should be delivered," that "He should save with His right hand and hear Him." The Surety-Substitute descended into the lonesome prison-house of the grave. The new tomb enclosed Him within its rocky cavern. If one single sin had remained unatoned for, the stone would to this hour have remained sealed, and the hopes of untold millions been buried along with the Captive. Death stormed the citadel. For a moment its walls trembled under the assaulting foe, and the Divine Vanquisher seemed the vanquished. But it was only His heel the serpent touched--no more! He had completed the work which the Father had given Him to do. He could not be held captive by death. The superincumbent stone (befitting symbol of a violated law) has been rolled away, and two white-robed angels are seated in the deserted tomb, to tell the glad news, "The Lord is risen!"
The believer can now triumphantly exclaim, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who, according to His abundant mercy, has begotten us again unto a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead." Satan, death, and hell, are chained as trophies to the wheels of His conquering Chariot. He leads these "captive multitudes captive;" taking from them all the armor wherein they trusted, and dividing the spoils. As we behold Him, on that early morning of a new dispensation, carrying in his hand the iron crown of the King of Terrors--a voice proceeding from the excellent glory seems to repeat the old assurance, "This is my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."
"Lord of Life and Glory," says Bishop Hall, "is there any weak soul that makes doubt of Your complete atonement for his sin; of the perfect accomplishment of the great work of man's Redemption? You raised Yourself from the dead leaving that prison of the grave whence You could not have come, until You had paid all." Or as Bishop Reynolds similarly expresses it, "Therefore the Lord sent an angel to remove the stone from the mouth of the Sepulcher; not to supply any lack of power in Him, who could Himself have rolled away the stone with one of His fingers; but as a judge, when the law is satisfied, sends an officer to open the prison doors to him who has made that satisfaction, so the Father, to testify that His justice was fully satisfied with the price which the Son had paid, sent an officer from heaven to open the doors of the grave, while his Lord came forth from His bed-chamber."
II. Almost identical with this view, and arising out of it, the Resurrection of Jesus was a pledge of the believer's complete justification. In manifold passages of the New Testament a 'oneness' is represented as existing between Christ and His Church. Every notable official act in the Incarnation was performed by Him in His federal character, as our covenant Head and Representative. When He died, it was reckoned as if His people had died with Him. "I am crucified," says the apostle, "with Christ." "Reckon also yourselves to be dead unto sin." And when the buried Savior rises victorious from the grave, the Church, His mystical body, is represented as rising with Him. "Buried with Him in baptism, wherein also you are risen with Him, through the faith of the operation of God, who has raised Him from the dead." And again, to the same effect, believers are spoken of, as being "quickened together with Christ."
As our adorable Redeemer left behind Him in His tomb the mementoes of victory, so the believer, by virtue of this union with his Lord, becomes a partaker in the same great Resurrection triumph. With every fetter of condemnation struck off his limbs, every brand of condemnation effaced from his soul, he walks forth "alive from the dead" claiming as the glorious security of his new resurrection-life, that because Christ lives he shall live also. Thus God the Father, by raising the Living Head, sets His seal to the pardon and justification of all the members. "He was delivered for our offences, and raised again for our justification."
Yes, coming to the empty grave of Jesus, we can see in these scattered trophies the pledge and guarantee of our own spiritual emancipation. Written on that tomb are the words--"It is God who justifies, who is he that condemns?" However much we may delight to stand under the shadow of Calvary's Cross, and listen to the Conqueror's dying words, declaring the work finished and the victory won--with not less holy but rather augmented interest do we approach the mouth of the sepulcher, there to be the privileged auditors of tidings fraught with everlasting consolation--"He is not here, He is risen, as He said; come, see the place where the Lord lay."
Reader, remember too, in the light of that sepulcher, that yours is a completed justification. By virtue of your living union with your living Savior, your acceptance with God is not a question that remains indeterminate and unsettled. It has been settled--the accounts have been closed--the debt liquidated. "Now," says the apostle, "if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him. Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead, dies no more. Death has no more dominion over Him. For in that He died, He died unto sin once--but in that He lives, He lives unto God. Likewise reckon you also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin--but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord." Standing with your feet on that displaced grave-stone, and your eye heavenwards, you can join with Paul in challenging the heights above, and the depths beneath, ever again to separate you from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus your Lord.
III. The Resurrection of Jesus was a pledge and pledge of the Resurrection of His people. "If a man dies, will he live again?" is a problem insoluble by natural religion. What is called the argument from analogy, when we come rigidly to sift it, is really at best not an argument. It is an illustration, a corroboration, no more. To take two well-known and familiar instances. The farmer casts his seed into the furrow--these handfuls of seed, laid in winter in an earthy sepulcher, rise in spring exultant from their tomb. No, more, they become, in harvest, fields of yellow corn a hundredfold multiplied. Can analogy fairly point to this, as a triumphant demonstration and prophecy of the body's resurrection? It is a type of it--but no proof of it. And why? Because that buried seed, or rather each individual grain, is not dead. Inert, lifeless though it seems to be, it has within it the germinating principle--the latent element of vitality. The earth of the field into which it is cast is not its grave. It is the nurturing home of a still living thing, which the clods of the valley only serve to foster and develop. Or look at the example of the torpid chrysalis, which in summer starts into resurrection beauty in the form of the butterfly. That chrysalis, also, inanimate as it seems, is not lifeless. Vitality is within the repulsive shell. It is in a dormant state. No more. It only waits the return of summer suns and summer skies, to awake from its sleep of darkness and begin its winged existence.
But it is altogether different with the body of man laid in the grave. The analogy is imperfect--rather, it completely fails. There is here no dormant state--no mere condition of torpor. It is utter death--decay--dissolution--brotherhood and sisterhood with the worm and corruption. It is dust resolved into dust--ashes resolved into ashes--earth resolved into earth! Thus, however suggestive these be as illustrations (and we are abundantly warranted to take them as such), they form no proof whatever of the certainty of the body's future and final resuscitation. They are beautiful guesses of a great truth culled from the Volume of Nature--but that is all. And when the solemn question is propounded over the grave--"Son of Man, can these bones live?"--Reason can give no more--natural theology can give no more--than the modest answer of the prophet--"O Lord God, You know."
But coming to the grave of Jesus, there we have the problem solved. The Great Abolisher of death has brought life and immortality to light. We hear Him proclaiming, "I am the resurrection and the life," and the gladdening truth is caught up and echoed by one after another of the "glorious company of the apostles." "He that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies." "Christ being raised from the dead dies no more, death has no more dominion over Him." "Begotten again unto a lively hope, by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead." "Who by Him do believe in God, who raised Him up from the dead."
"But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first fruits of those who slept." The First fruits--either as a sheaf, or the earliest gatherings of the harvest--were of old taken with pomp and rejoicing to the Jewish temple, and "waived" there "as an offering before the Lord"--the pledge alike of corn-crop and vintage before long to follow. So has the Divine 'Sheaf' (if we can venture, with reverence, to apply the symbol) been waived in the Heavenly Temple, the pledge of a coming harvest of immortal redeemed spirits, the fruit of His soul-travail. Nor is it unworthy of note, that there was a remarkable correspondence between the olden Israelitish type and the antitype. The offering of the first fruits of barley harvest among the Jews, took place on "the morrow after the Sabbath" that is, on the third day after the passover. Jesus was crucified on the passover-day. He was laid in His grave on the Jewish passover Sabbath. But on the third morn He rose--the very day in which these first fruits of the land were offered in the temple. As the type was being presented in the earthly courts, angels were bearing to the Heavenly the tidings of a risen Antitype. They carried the First sheaf, the glorious pledge of a mighty harvest--gathering in the morning of the general Resurrection, when 'the Church throughout all the world,'--the vast family of the ransomed from earliest to latest eras--would be assembled before the supreme tribunal, to listen to the words of the enthroned Judge, "Behold I and the children which God has given Me!"
It was that Resurrection hour for which Jesus Himself is represented as longing from all eternity, when pillowed on the Father's bosom. Then He joyed "according to the joy in harvest, and as men rejoice when they divide the spoil." He seems to bound over intervening ages; and with His eye first on His own vacant tomb, and then on the myriads His Resurrection foreshadowed, He is represented as exclaiming--"I will ransom them from the power of the grave, I will redeem them from death. O death, I will be your plagues! O grave, I will be your destruction!" No wonder that the Resurrection of Christ has been for the last 1800 years a joyful day--that our Sabbaths are its solemn commemorations. It was the truth of all truths among the primitive believers. It was not the day of His death they made their Sabbath, but the First day of the week--the day when the sadness of the weeping women at the sepulcher was turned into gladness--and their watchword at meeting (the word of congratulation and welcome) was not "the Lord has died," but "the Lord has risen." It was with them a day of praise, more than for confession; for psalms of thanksgiving, more than for penitential tears. Conscious that a new and nobler Genesis had dawned on a benighted world, they sung in responsive melody, "This is the day which the Lord has made, we will rejoice and be glad in it."
The pledges of the outer material creation are welcome and joyful. If we hail with grateful spirit the first budding of early spring in grove and field, because in these we see the pledge that soon nature will be arrayed in her full robes of resurrection beauty--with what feelings ought we to stand by the sepulcher of our Lord, and see the buried Conqueror rising triumphant over the last enemy! Do we not behold in Him, the harbinger of an immortal spring-time, or rather a glorious harvest, when the mounds of the earth, and the caves of the ocean, shall surrender what they have held for ages in sacred custody, "Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision" when "this corruptible shall put on incorruption, and this mortal immortality," and the summons shall go forth, "Awake and sing you that dwell in dust." "Christ the first fruits, afterward those who are Christ's at His coming!"
Not satisfied with His own Resurrection as a pledge of His people's, Jesus gave, in the course of His ministry on earth, four striking confirmatory attestations to the same gospel truth; and as has been noted, there is an impressive and significant sequence in these four successive instances of victory over death. The first was in the case of Jairus' daughter. She was "now dead;" the last enemy had only just gained his triumph. The second was the case of the son of the widow of Nain--"He was carried out"--death had for two days put his icy brand on the pale brow. The third is the case of Lazarus, a farther step in the progression--"he has been dead four days"--corruption begun. The final case was on the occasion of the commencing Easter of the Church, when from the graves which had previously been opened by the quaking earth and rending rocks, "many bodies of the saints which slept arose." If the proof had rested with these four illustrative instances of resurrection, we might still have been staggered. They were only temporary resuscitations--no more. They effected only a transitory respite from the iron grasp of the King of Terrors.
Lazarus and his restored compeers had the gloomy portals a second time to enter--these withered flowers were revived only to decay--their dust is probably at this moment reposing in one of the Valleys around Jerusalem. But the great Conqueror dies no more, death has no more dominion over Him. He carried away with Him forever the gates of Hades. "You will not leave My soul in the place of the dead, neither will You allow Your holy One to see corruption."
Come then, believer, enter into this cleft of the Rock. How it disarms death of all its terrors, to hear the unconquered Lord of Life proclaiming through the bars of the grave, "I am He who lives. I was dead, and behold I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death." In Adam, the first federal head, we are hereditary bondsmen--"in Adam all die." But in our second Head, the Lord from heaven, "shall all be made alive." The grave is converted into a bed of repose, where the sleeping but redeemed dust "rests in hope."
You who have priceless treasures in the tomb, think of this! "So He gives His beloved sleep"--"them also who sleep in Jesus will God bring with Him." True, that "house of our earthly tabernacle" at death, is a "darksome ruin." That dust is resolved into its kindred dust. The constituent elements of the dismantled framework are incorporated with new forms of matter. Sad and terrible truly is dissolution in all its accompaniments. We do not wish to strew that dismal path with flowers. Death, from the earthly view of it, is not irradiated by one gleam of sunshine. The slow and gradual wasting and decay, the fading of the bloom from the cheek, the languor of the eye, the wearisome days, the long night-vigils, the mind participating in slow degrees with the wreck of the body, memory often a total blank, even the fondest look and the fondest name eliciting no response! Then the close of all--the silent chamber, where "echo slumbers;" the noiseless footfall, the mute crowd of mourners, the grave, the return to the silent dwelling, and the vacant seat--O Death, truly here is your sting; O Grave, truly here is your victory!
But the day is coming when all these memories of woe shall vanish, like the darkness before the morning sun. When the spoil of plundering ages shall in a mysterious way be all restored--when, as in the Prophet's Valley of Vision, bone shall come to bone, and sinew to sinew; the old loving smiles of earth will be seen again in the newly glorified body, purged from all the dross and alloy of its old materialism--the drooping withered flower reviving, beauteous and fragrant with the bloom of immortality!
But for the Death and Resurrection of Christ and the blessed hope of a glorious resurrection to eternal life in Him, how cheerless, how repulsive would be every thought of the grave. How we might well shrink from all its associations, and make the very mention of the name of loved ones a proscribed and forbidden theme--saying, Consign them, as soon as may be, into cheerless oblivion--let them sleep on in their clay couch, unremembered; draw close the grassy curtains around them--whisper not that word into my ear, it only brings memories of darkness and annihilation!
No, no!--talk not of the living as among the dead. "Weep not;" he or she "is not dead but sleeps!" "Why do you weep?" was the question of the risen Conqueror, as He gazed on a tear-dimmed eye on His Resurrection morn. The Christian's grave need be watered by no tears; for Jesus has converted it into the vestibule of heaven, the robing-room for immortality. Oh! to live as "the children of the resurrection;" as those who are waiting for their Heavenly Father's final adoption--"the redemption of our bodies." We know not the constituents of the higher natures of the invisible world--what are those angel-forms which move in ceaseless errands and ministries of holy love, doing God's pleasure. But no elevation of their immortal being can be higher than that of those, who, from dust, are destined to spring into union (we had almost said assimilation) with deity, "fashioned like unto Christ's glorious body." No more shall there be the elements of decay; no more "the sentence of death in themselves;" no furrow ploughed on the cheek, no wrinkle of age on the brow; but when stars shall fall from their orbits, and worlds succumb to the present laws of decadence, they shall still be in the immortal youth of undying life!