April 10, 2017

Beyond Smoke and Mirrors

Death may be inevitable, but it’s not final.

Gerald A. Klingbeil

“And face it—if there’s no resurrection for Christ, everything we’ve told you is smoke and mirrors, and everything you’ve staked your life on is smoke and mirrors. Not only that, but we would be guilty of telling a string of barefaced lies about God, all these affidavits we passed on to you verifying that God raised up Christ—sheer fabrications, if there’s no resurrection. If corpses can’t be raised, then Christ wasn’t, because he was indeed dead. And if Christ wasn’t raised, then all you’re doing is wandering about in the dark, as lost as ever. It’s even worse for those who died hoping in Christ and resurrection, because they’re already in their graves. If all we get out of Christ is a little inspiration for a few short years, we’re a pretty sorry lot” (1 Cor. 15:14-19, Message).1

Based on all we know, the Corinthian church was a complex church.2 Most of the believers had joined the nascent Christian movement from Gentile backgrounds. Thieves, swindlers, drunkards, idolaters, and adulterers—the Corinthian congregation apparently included them all (1 Cor. 6:9-11). Idol worship had been deeply ingrained in them (1 Cor. 8:712:2); temple prostitution, so normal to Greeks and Romans, had been part of everyday life (1 Cor. 6:12-20).

Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians reflects many of these challenges. It’s not easy to transform people with a deeply ingrained worldview. In fact, the new birth Jesus spoke about in John 3 suggests a complete reboot. We need to be born again—not just adapt practices, tweak opinions, or slightly adjust convictions.

Now imagine this assembly of sinners becoming a “family.” Romans and Greeks settled disputes in secular law courts; Jews were forbidden to do so. How would Christian brothers and sisters resolve disputes (cf. 1 Cor. 6:1-6)? Theirs was not a beautiful temple, or an impressive synagogue with a well-established administrative structure. They met in house churches. Scholars estimate a group of about 50 members spread out all over the city.3 Without Paul’s presence, they struggled to keep the faith. And they tended to forget what they had already learned.

Believing in Vain
In his letter Paul reminds the Christians in Corinth that they had already received this gospel (1 Cor. 15:1); that they had been saved by this gospel (verse 2). It seems, however, that established gospel truth had been replaced by disturbing “new light” in Corinth. Some claimed that there was no resurrection (verse 12).

Christianity without the Resurrection does not make sense. Paul’s preaching surely included this most essential of all gospel truth: the God-man Jesus died for our sins on the cross (in itself foolishness to Gentiles; cf. 1 Cor. 1:18)—and then He rose again on the third day.

Paul’s passion to preach Christ crucified and risen shines through every word he writes in his letters. This is the heart of his message. If this would not be true, whom had he really seen on his way to Damascus? Who had appeared to the disciples prior to the Ascension? Had it all been just a big mistake? 

Can You See the Cross?
Paul’s urgent (and logical) appeal to the cross and the resurrection of Jesus remind us of the centrality of the cross.

So, just for a moment, let’s reflect on this monument of shame and grace and Jesus’ last moments leading to the cross.

We find the Master kneeling in front of His disciples. Washing their feet and sharing a meal, He teaches them invaluable lessons of service and grace (John 13:1-17). “Eat” and “drink” connect to the symbolism of the Passover celebration, yet also anticipate death and dying and another glorious meal in the Father’s kingdom (Matt. 26:26-29). Prayer at Gethsemane tells us that this is not a show or charades. “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me,” cries Jesus in anguish, “Nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (verse 39).4

Ellen White offers valuable insights into the inner battles of Jesus: “As Christ felt His unity with the Father broken up, He feared that in His human nature He would be unable to endure the coming conflict with the powers of darkness. In the wilderness of temptation the destiny of the human race had been at stake. Christ was then conqueror. Now the tempter had come for the last fearful struggle. For this he had been preparing during the three years of Christ’s ministry. Everything was at stake with him.”5

Everything hangs in the balance—and the disciples fall asleep again and again. Peter denies the Master three times; the crowds, which some days before had shouted “Hosanna to the Son of David,” now scream “Crucify him!” Forgotten, lonely, and bruised, Jesus finds Himself carrying a cross through the streets of Jerusalem. People yell at Him, pull His hair, spit in His face, beat His bleeding body. Surrounded by an angry crowd, Jesus feels utterly abandoned.

He is unable to carry the cross any farther, so Roman guards force Simon from Cyrene to carry the heavy burden. Following their arrival at Golgotha, soldiers drive nails through the wrists and feet of Jesus. They breathe heavily as they push the cross into an upright position. As it crashes into the prepared hole in the ground, Jesus feels unimaginable pain. Hanging between heaven and earth, He hears and physically feels the scorn and mockery of His enemies.

A strange darkness settles over the area. “Eli, Eli, lemah sabachthani,” the bystanders hear Jesus cry out with a loud voice (Matt. 27:46). “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Has God really forgotten His beloved Son? Does He plead deafness when His children suffer and cry and wonder where He is?

Is this the end? Are these the last words, dark and doubtful, we hear of the Son of God?

No, there is one more. Jesus’ final “It is finished” (John 19:30) proclaims victory and promises more.

Resurrection Morning
The rest of the story of that fateful Friday is quickly told. Following His death, Jesus’ lifeless body is hastily taken down from the cross and laid in a nearby tomb that had been prepared for somebody else. Sabbath does not offer any rest for the anguished hearts of the disciples. Yet Jesus rests peacefully in His tomb, awaiting a new morning.

Sunday morning, however, changes everything. Accompanied by a violent earthquake, an angel frightens the Roman guards, rolls away the huge stone covering the opening of the tomb, and calls forth the Son of God. Ellen White describes this scene vividly: “The soldiers see him [the angel] removing the stone as he would a pebble, and hear him cry, Son of God, come forth; Thy Father calls Thee. They see Jesus come forth from the grave, and hear Him proclaim over the rent sepulcher, ‘I am the resurrection, and the life.’ ”6

When the women (and later the disciples) see the empty tomb, their hearts tremble with fear. Who has taken their Master? Where are the remains of their beloved Teacher? Then they hear it: “Do not be afraid,” the angel proclaims triumphantly, “for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said” (Matt. 28:56). 

He is not here, for He is risen, as He said. I wonder if the followers of Jesus caught the final “as He said.” Had they really listened as the Master had repeatedly foretold His death and resurrection (Matt. 20:19Mark 9:31Luke 9:22)? Do we listen when the words don’t make sense as we hear the living Word talking into our lives?

We cannot truly imagine the rush of adrenaline and the joyous realization the disciples must have felt. We know the story from the end. We anticipate the happy end as we follow the well-known sequence in our Bibles. They did not. Yet when the realization finally hits home they know first that everything has changed. Death has been vanquished; the serpent’s head has been crushed; righteousness and mercy have finally met.

When We Anticipate Resurrection Morning
The telephone rang noisily early one February morning in our home in Libertador San Martín in Argentina. At the time, I served as a professor of Old Testament at River Plate Adventist University. This was our eighth year of mission service in South America.

The voice on the other end sounded familiar, yet the message did not make any sense. “Gerald, you must come home immediately; I just received news that your father has died.” My mother’s voice crackled slightly; I heard tears and pain.

Life changes quickly when we receive this kind of news. Priorities shift in nanoseconds, and what seemed urgent and important at the outset of the day suddenly becomes insignificant and inconsequential. I had last seen my father during our annual leave in Germany eight months earlier. He had been in great health and had just celebrated his retirement a couple years earlier. Now he was dead. He would never know our third daughter, who was born at the end of that year. Death had separated us, it seemed, forever.

Back to Corinth
Not forever, I hear Paul say to the troubled flock of believers in Corinth. Christ has been raised from the dead, offering us the sure hope that we, too (and those we loved), will be raised. His resurrection is the down payment on eternal life for those who believe in the Son. He who shouted “I am the resurrection and the life” will also speak victory and comfort into our hearts. He is the firstfruit of grace completed. He is the promise of life eternal. He is the balm of Gilead that heals our hurting hearts.

Even in the cold, stark reality of death the hope of a resurrection “hello” is not smoke-and-mirror charades. Absolutely not; for we have the down payment on the blessed hope, Jesus Himself, who died, rose, and now lives to make intercession. “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command,” writes Paul in another letter, “with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words” (1 Thess. 4:16-18).

No, we have not staked our lives on smoke and mirrors. Resurrection morning changed everything. He rose to assure us that we will rise too.

“But the truth is that Christ has been raised up, the first in a long legacy of those who are going to leave the cemeteries” (1 Cor. 15:20, Message).

1.     Texts credited to Message are from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.

2.     This summary is based on the data discussed in S. J. Hafemann, “Corinthians, Letters to the,” in Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1993), pp. 164-179.

3.     Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, St. Paul’s Corinth: Texts and Archaeology (Wilmington, Del.: Michael Glazier, 1983), p. 158.

4.     Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations have been taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

5.     Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898), pp. 686, 687.

6.     Ibid., p. 780.

Gerald A. Klingbeil is an associate editor of Adventist Review who anxiously awaits resurrection morning. It can’t come too soon!