The second of a series of six w e e k l y w o r d s expounding the biblical grounds and goals of our hope.
A.II The grounds of our hope – THE RESURRECTION OF THE SON:
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.
1 Peter 3:15 NIV
Some two millennia ago, an obscure cattle stall in a poor Mediterranean Roman province witnessed the great dividing moment in human history. Surpassing any science-fiction plot, a cosmic drama unfolded in this vulgar rural setting as the Creator of the universe fleshed himself out as a blood-covered, new-born infant. The Son was born in time and space.
The person, the purposes, the promises and the power of God the Father were now pin-pointed on this very human, very vulnerable infant, sent to execute the Great Rescue Plan for the human race: Emmanuel, God with us, the child of hope.
The Son came to put the Father on display, as John 1:18 literally translates. As he grew up and began his ministry, he modelled life under God’s rule – Kingdom lifestyle – to his disciples and the people of Israel. He taught from everyday images what life in the Kingdom was like. He performed miracles and healings. He taught with an authority contrasting that of the religious authorities. He taught about a lifestyle of love, about relationships with God and with each other. He taught about forgiveness and neighbourly responsibility. He taught about the wise use of money and possessions. He taught principles to live by. He gave real answers to real questions. Crowds began to follow him because he offered hope.
People began to wonder if he could indeed be the long-awaited Hope of Israel, the Messiah the prophets said would come to fulfil the promises and purposes of God. Jesus led his own disciples towards this discovery. Matthew links Isaiah’s messianic prophecy with this stage of Jesus’ ministry: “Here is my servant whom I have chosen….In his name the nations will put their hope.”
Yet at some point towards the end of his three-year ministry, the crowds started to thin. Their hopes began to wane. The demands of Jesus’ teaching seemed to be too high. Opposition began to grow. The disciples remained loyal to Jesus. They still believed him to be the Messiah. But when events in Jerusalem got totally out of hand, even the disciples’ hopes were completely crushed. Confused and confounded, they watched their beloved leader die a shameful criminal’s death by crucifixion. Later, on the road to Emmaus, two downhearted disciples told their apparently uninformed fellow-traveller, “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.”
What they did not yet realise was that this apparent setback to their messianic hopes was actually the climax to the Great Rescue Plan. It was God’s fatal blow to sin, death and Satan. It was the turning point in cosmic history. Jesus’ cry on the cross, “My God! My God! Why have you abandoned me?”, had not been merely one of human desperation, as is often interpreted. It was a conscious affirmation of God’s awesome purposes! Just as for the Christian, the words ‘Our Father…’ bring the whole of the Lord’s Prayer to mind, so too for the devout Jew, the first words of Psalm 22 represented the whole of this messianic psalm. Here the gruesome features of death by crucifixion are graphically described: bones wrenched out of joint, hands and feet pierced, gloating crowds and even lots being cast for the victim’s clothes. The psalm the dying saviour began to quote was a detailed prediction of that very moment! This was no accident. It was part of God’s plan! In the midst of suffering there was hope! For the psalm goes on to exhort the reader to praise God “for he had not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help” (v.24). The outcome of this suffering will be that the poor will eat and be satisfied; all the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord; all the families of nations will bow down before him (vs.27-31).
As their travelling companion explained what Moses and the Prophets wrote about the Messiah, new hope was kindled in the hearts of the two disciples. It burst into joyous realisation when over the meal they suddenly recognised their risen Lord. All fatigue and disappointment was forgotten as they rushed back up the long, mountain road to Jerusalem – over ten kilometres in the gathering dark – to share their discovery with the Eleven. The future was suddenly very, very different! Jesus was alive! There was life after death! All the promises of the Bible were true! Jesus had done what he had said he would do – he had risen from the dead! He was indeed the Messiah! There was hope! Hope for the disciples! Hope for Israel! Hope for the world!
By the time they reached the city, they had not worked out a theology of this stunning turn of events. They were just witnesses. They had seen the resurrected Jesus, walked with him, talked with him, broken bread with him. Some of the implications were startlingly clear: if Jesus had risen from the dead, then he was who he claimed to be, the Son of God! What he then said about life and death, about heaven and hell, about God and Satan, and about forgiveness and judgement – in fact, about any subject – was true! There was hope this side of the grave – of restored relationship with God and with our fellow humans. There was hope beyond the grave – of immortality and eternal fellowship with God.
Years later, after much careful reflection, the writer of Hebrews expressed the meaning of this event in theological terms. Jesus had gone through the curtain into the inner sanctuary to anchor our hope for the soul, firm and secure, on the other side of death.
Paul, whose life had been radically transformed after he met the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus, recognised in his first letter to the Corinthians that this event was the very cornerstone of the faith, the ground of Christian hope. Either it happened, and Christianity was true; or it didn’t happen, and Christianity was a hoax. “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins… If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.”
Even today, from the distance of 2000 years, we too can examine the evidence of this historical event. We are not asked to take a blind leap of faith over two millennia to ‘just believe’. We can probe the grounds of our hope to know that they are solid. Twentieth-century sceptics have set out to disprove the biblical account of the death and resurrection of Jesus, using the rules of inquiry and evidence of a modern court of law, but have been confounded by both the facts and the ring of truth of the eye-witness accounts in the gospels.
Lawyer Chuck Colson, Richard Nixon’s ‘dirty tricks’ man in the infamous Watergate affair, had much time to contemplate his sins in prison. One day in his cell, he realised that his own Watergate experience actually confirmed the truth of the gospel record of the resurrection. He himself had been part of a hand-picked team of America’s sharpest minds involved a conspiracy to keep President Nixon in office by fair means or foul. Yet when reporters disclosed a White House plot to cover-up illegal activities, the conspiracy became unglued. Under the threat of imprisonment, one by one the conspirators began to talk. Facing impeachment, Nixon was forced to resign. Now serving time for his part in the affair, Colson was struck by the contrast between the disciples’ behaviour and that of his fellow-conspirators. Jesus’ men had faced imprisonment and even death with joyful and selfless boldness. Nixon’s men had turned on each other in order to save their own skins. No, concluded Colson, this was no conspiracy cooked up by the disciples. These men firmly believed they had seen the risen Jesus. They had been radically transformed
from discouraged cowards in
to bold proclaimers of a message of hope that would in time overturn the Roman empire itself!
But, we may ask, so what if Jesus rose from the dead? What hope does the resurrection of this one man in an ancient middle-eastern land bring for the six billion people alive on the planet right now? The Christian hope is that, since Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead as the ‘firstfruits’, so too will all who are ‘in Christ’ be made alive. Physical death is no longer the final reality. It is a mere curtain through which we pass into eternal life. Jesus has already passed through the curtain and firmly planted the anchor of our hope on the other side. ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
This hope of salvation is the very helmet of the believer’s armour. Peter writes that God, in his great mercy, ‘has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.’ (1 Peter 1:3)
Surely the coming of God the Son in time and space, his life, death and resurrection, is the ground of our hope!
Next week: THE REASSURANCE OF THE SPIRIT