Hope That Brings
The opposite of joy is not sorrow. It is unbelief.
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The least joyous passage in the Bible is not found among the Old Testament threats of judgment or in the weeping prophets. The least joyous passage is in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. In it he writes, "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins." Paul expands: "If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men."1
For two thousand years the cross has been the symbol of Christianity. We see it everywhere on churches, on necklaces, on the front of Bibles, in cemeteries, on mountaintops. It bears silent witness to our salvation through the atonement of Jesus Christ, whose vicarious sacrifice for our sins paved for us the highway to heaven, taking us from death to life eternal. To Christians of every persuasion it is more precious than life. We love it. But there is another symbol of Christianity that has a different but vital place in the hearts of us who believe, and that is the empty tomb.
It has been said often over the past two thousand years that the Christian church was built on the resurrection of Jesus Christ from that tomb. The apostle Paul opens his letter to the Romans with the statement that Jesus Christ our Lord was "declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead."2
John Whale was right when he wrote, "The church of Christ owes its very existence to the fact that in this open graveyard of the world there is one gaping tomb, one rented sepulchre. Belief in the resurrection is not an appendage to the Christian faith; it is the Christian faith. The Gospels cannot explain the resurrection, it is the resurrection alone which explains the Gospels."3
Let's go over it again very simply. A Man was born, lived, and grew to maturity. He was put to death by execution and was buried in a grave. Three days later His grave was found empty. It was thought His body had been stolen. Then He was sighted. Hundreds of people saw Him. Some heard Him speak, others watched Him eat, still others examined the wounds that killed Him. Then, after some meetings with His followers, He disappeared. His bones were never found.
The resurrection story was not built on human credulity or inventiveness. The man involved was not Elvis Presley, nor was He Harry Houdini. The man was Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, who was said to be "risen indeed" and who "has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep." Paul wrote to the Philippians that "God has highly exalted" His Son, and he wrote to the Colossians that Jesus Christ was also "head of the . . . church" and that "in Him all things consist . . . that . . . He may have the preeminence."4
But the overwhelming effect of this alive-from-the-dead report was not just on the people involved in what happened the temple guards, the Sanhedrin, the disciples, the women, and the others who may have talked with the risen Jesus. The most amazing thing was what the resurrection did to you and me! It gave us hope beyond death.
Here is a three-year-old boy whose father was just killed in a skiing accident. His little world is destroyed. His Christian mother comforts him: "Dear, Jesus came back from the grave and told us that one day we will see Daddy again. When we get to heaven he'll be waiting for us." The boy believes her. Our visions of heaven may be misty, it's true, but there was nothing cloudy about the resurrection: It actually happened. There are days for all of us when the thought of Jesus' empty tomb can fill our hearts with hope and joy.
The Bible claims that with Jesus' resurrection the fortifications of the last enemy, death, were breached. So if Jesus made it through the cycle of birth and death and came out alive, what about us? Since the beginning of life on earth the different cultures have all had their immortality legends about some Elysium or Happy Hunting Ground. Learning about such legends is a part of growing up. We don't of course believe them. We find them interesting and let the anthropologists write books about them, but they remain legends.
Now we are faced with a document that claims authenticity, not about a "beautiful isle of somewhere," but about an actual occurrence at a point in time, when someone who was dead came back to life. So if it happened to Him, what does it imply? Are we doomed to become fertilizer, or is there something more? Right now I am not especially concerned about what life after death will be like. If I can be with Jesus, that's all I could ask. Our Lord told His disciples, "I will come again and receive you to Myself." I'm counting on that.
There is another side to joy, and that is no joy. Our runaway culture has forgotten that the Bible warns of coming judgment, both for human beings and for nations. People who ignore the teachings of the Bible and commit what the Bible calls "the works of the flesh" will be called to account. The choices of time are binding in eternity.
The whole prospect of the future is mysterious and beyond imagination, but because of the resurrection account I have hope, not just for me, but for all those who love Jesus. For those who fill our media with lust, crimes, wickedness, corruption,
and horror, and for those who are wasting their lives in self-seeking, useless, soul-corrupting activities that the Bible calls sin, I will simply refer to Hebrews 10:31: "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." In a book on joy it is not congenial to discuss the temperature of hell, but it is nevertheless there waiting.
Here is a curious thing: Nearly all the books on aging today are written by younger experts. They cover everything connected with the subject of impending death. They consider the gradual disrepair of the body, the final medical report, the disposal of the remains, the funeral arrangements, the gravesite, the press notices, the will, the probate, the insurance, the division of the property, the settling of the accounts, the invitations to the memorial service, the seating of the immediate family, the inscription (if any) on the headstone, the quarreling among the heirs.
But God? Heaven? Judgment? "Good heavens! Who knows?"
Americans generally consider life itself to be a boon, and seek to protract it as long as possible. They may and do complain, but seem in no hurry to leave their present existence. Soldiers who returned from the Gulf War told how precious this life seemed to them, how wonderful it was just to be living at home.
We Christians are taught that life is a gift from God and is to be lived in a spirit of thanksgiving; but the Bible also indicates that our time here on earth is a time of testing and preparation for a future life. These few years of ours on the planet are a dry run, a road test, a proving ground, a shakedown cruise, and a simulator flight. We are pilgrims passing through, joyous with hope.
You might say this world is a doughnut shop where we stop in for a cup of coffee and a raised doughnut before moving on. We are not headed for Basin Street or Las Vegas or Piccadilly Circus or the Champs d'Elysees or the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City of Oz. Our road map is the last two chapters of the book of Revelation. We are assured that what God has in mind
for His children is so marvelous that it will make the whole global Internet system with its websites and cyberspace look like a child scrawling on a slate with a piece of chalk.
The late Carl Sagan assured us all that there is "nothing beyond the cosmos." I believe he has since then had some second thoughts about his statement. For us it is enough that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and was buried, and rose again the third day according to the Scriptures.
Today it is the continuing conviction of millions of Christians that Jesus' reappearance in the flesh following His crucifixion meant that there had been a resurrection from the dead. The natural processes of birth, life, and death were broken into, and the interruption was the deliberate, conscious act of the Supreme Creator of the universe. He who fixed the natural laws suspended them in this instance for a supernatural law. The famous objection of Professor Gotthold Lessing, a noted eighteenth-century German scholar, that "particular facts of history cannot establish eternal truths," was overridden on Easter morning by God Himself. The resurrection thereupon became an eternal truth.
But the glory of the resurrection did not end with the ascension of our Lord, as Luke tells us in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. Such time as the risen Lord spent with us was a prelude to something that we Christians firmly believe is God's future purpose for His people. It is the "blessed hope," the return of the Lord Jesus Christ, His reentry into the earth's atmosphere as promised by the two men in white apparel on the Mount of Olives.
The scene is unforgettable. The disciples had just been talking with Jesus, and now He was gone, and the two men were standing there and saying, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will also come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven."5 In other words, people, don't look back, look ahead!
All the history of the human race since that moment, all the explorations and wars and massacres and inventions and
writings, all the good and evil statements and actions of men and women, all the progress and regress of the human race, are simply events bracketed in the time zone between the departure of our Lord and His soon return. And that's where we are at this moment.
Will tomorrow be a better day? In the twenty-first century will there be less cruelty and more love, less suffering and more joy, less crime and more peace? Is there a bright future on the horizon? Don't look to sociology or anthropology for the answer; they come up short. Look to Jesus. He is our hope.
Luke says that after our Lord blessed His disciples they then returned to Jerusalem "with great joy." They had the promise of the Spirit's power inscribed in their hearts. They had the love of God, the greatest thing in the universe, and it was their task to spread it to people everywhere until He comes. But the watchword is still "Lord, come quickly!"
When He comes, we who love Him shall go to meet Him. Then at last we shall know in all its pristine, unsullied fullness the joy of the Lord.
1. 1 Corinthians 15:17, 19 NIV
2. Romans 1:4
3. John S. Whale, Christian Doctrine (New York: Macmillan, 1942), p. 73
4. Philippians 2:9;; Colossians 1:17-18
5. Acts 1:11
Chapter 22 || Table of Contents