I wonder, if you saw a traffic accident, would you be a good witness? Was the car that caused the accident blue or black? Was it travelling too fast? Was the driver a man or a woman? Was the driver using their mobile phone? Was the driver distracted by someone on the pavement dressed in a gorilla suit? Was it a dog or a cat that ran in front of the car? Where, precisely, were you standing when the accident happened? It's very important to be a good, reliable witness, isn't it? Not to embellish the evidence. Not to give 'alternative facts'. But to speak the truth! In 1 Corinthians 15 we read about two witnesses to the resurrection. One witness was divine and the other witness was human. Together they pointed to the same event. Together they give a complete picture. What are they? The witness of the Bible and the witness of people.
1. The Witness of the Bible
At the beginning of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul wanted to remind people of what they already knew. He wanted to jog their memories. He wanted to challenge those who denied the resurrection and who were undermining the Christian hope. Here were things that they must never forget. Here were things that were fundamental to the Christian faith. Here were things that were not optional extras, but were at the heart of orthodox Christianity. That still remains true today. Evangelical Christians may be divided about (say) the details of the second coming but we are united in believing in the centrality of the cross and resurrection.
Of course we need to distinguish between primary matters of faith and secondary matters of faith. Between matters that are essential; and others about which Christians disagree. The death and resurrection of Jesus are at the heart of the Christian faith – central to what identifies us as believers – they are not optional extras or matters of dispute. We need to be reminded of what we believe. We must not tire in being reminded – but rather thank God for part a) the cross and part b) the resurrection. These two things stand together. So Paul wrote (vv.3-4):
"Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures"
Did you notice what he stressed? How he emphasised the importance of the scriptures? The death of Christ – his burial, his resurrection – are the key components. These things were not made up. Not matters of opinion. Not possibilities, but realities. In other words, Paul was saying that according to the witness of the Bible: Jesus died, was buried and rose again. We say as much in the creeds. That Jesus died on a cross and was raised from the dead. Why is this important? Without his death and resurrection, we remain unforgiven. We remain in our sins; we are spiritually dead and have no spiritual life in us. As Paul put it (v.14): "If Christ has not be raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain." Ignore the death and resurrection and we are lost. Take away the cross and the resurrection and we have no hope. We are literally hopeless people.
When Paul says that Jesus died and rose again in accordance with the scriptures, we need to check out what the Bible says in both the Old Testament and in the New Testament. The Old anticipates the New. The Old Testament points us forward to the New Testament, and the New Testament records what had happened. We have the testimony of the prophets (in the Old Testament) and the testimony of the apostles (in the New Testament).
The other day on the radio the Chief Rabbi told this Jewish story. A man came to a crossroads and found that the signpost was lying on the ground. So which way should he go? Then it occurred to him that he knew where he had come from and so he pointed the signpost in that direction – and then he knew which was the right direction for him to go. That's true isn't it? We look back to the past events recorded in the Bible and these point us forward to the future. And we need the past to give us the confidence to know that there is a sure and certain hope.
Here is God's written Word and we need to read it for ourselves and to take notice of what God is saying to us. That's why personal Bible reading is so important – to inform us, to teach us, to reveal to us the truth of God. Above all the scriptures point us to Jesus; and the Word and the Spirit confirm the truth to our hearts. As Martin Luther put it – as you go to the cradle to find the baby so you go to the scriptures to find Christ.
When Paul says "in accordance with the scriptures" he may not be referring to specific chapters and verses. More likely to themes of sacrifice, suffering and atonement. Of course there are specific verses that speak about the death of Christ (like Isaiah 53: "He took our infirmities ... he was punished for our sins … and by his death we are forgiven") but there are fewer verses that speak clearly of the resurrection. But of course 'cross' and 'death' imply 'resurrection'. The first embodies the second. The second completes the first. Together they are one. Now, that's good news, isn't it? That on the cross Jesus died for you and for me. And not just that he died, but that he took our sins upon himself and died in our place. In other words, he was our substitute. He took the punishment we deserve. He died – he was buried – he rose again. In Christ we died. In Christ we are raised to new life.
In John 20 we read about Peter and John running to the empty tomb. Mary had told them that Jesus' body had been taken away, and she didn't know where it was. So Peter and John went to see for themselves. Peter arrived first, and went inside. He saw, but didn't immediately believe. John, however, saw with his eyes and believed in his heart. We may not see the risen Jesus with our eyes – but we need to believe in him in our hearts.
The Bible tells us about the death and the resurrection of Jesus. But not merely in telling us the facts, but in making it clear to us that the good news is all about the forgiveness of sin and the hope of everlasting life. And we need to personalise this: Jesus died for me! Jesus rose for me!
The Bible is a reliable witness because it is God's word; and God's word is addressed to each one of us. So, we are challenged to answer two questions: Do you trust the Bible to be true? Do you allow the Bible to shape the faith you profess?
2. The Witness of People
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul lists five human witnesses of the resurrection. Whether they were individuals or groups of people, they had all seen the risen Jesus. While their experience was varied, their encounter was the same. We take notice of their faith and testimony. We are challenged by their testimony. We believe their words to be true. Notice what is missing here. The testimony of the women is not included. For that we have to go the gospel account.
a) Jesus Appeared to Peter
Peter (or Cephas) was one of the leading disciples. He had been with Jesus from the beginning. Once Peter had been a fisherman. But when Jesus called him he left his nets and immediately followed him. Once, Peter had confessed that Jesus was "the Christ of God" (Luke 9:20), in other words that he was the anointed one, the promised Messiah, sent by God, to save his people. Once, Peter had promised not to deny Jesus, but within hours he had denied him three times. Three times Peter denied Jesus, and three times he needed to be restored. So the risen Jesus challenged him: "Do you love me?" "Do you love me?" "Do you love me?" And we are challenged too. And Jesus asks each one of us: 'Do you love me? Do you trust me? Do you believe in me?' If you come to Jesus, he will hear your cry and forgive your sin. But you do need to come to him and to submit yourself to him. To acknowledge him as your Lord and Saviour.
b) Jesus Appeared to the Twelve
The 'Twelve' here refers to the 12 special disciples or 12 apostles - those whom Jesus had called to be with him and whom he sent out. In Acts 1 we read about the qualifications for a replacement for Judas. The Twelve had become the Eleven, and someone was needed to replace Judas. The qualifications were clear. The replacement had to have been with Jesus from the time of his baptism, throughout his three-year ministry, to his ascension. And most important, to have been "a witness to his resurrection" (1:22). On that basis two men were identified – and the one chosen to replace Judas was Matthias.
So again being an eyewitness was an important qualification. To have seen Jesus in the flesh and to have seen him risen from the dead. While we today cannot see Jesus with our eyes, we can believe in him in our hearts. But do you believe? Do you trust in him? Have you committed your life to him? And if you know him and love him, how obvious is it to other people – to members of your family, to people at work, and to people in your street?
c) Jesus Appeared to 500 and More People
For Jesus just to have appeared to individuals and to a small group of friends would be understandable. But here it is said that Jesus appeared to more than 500 brothers and sisters. Men and women and children. So we are talking about a large group of eyewitnesses. Here was no symbolic resurrection. Here was no figment of their imagination: no mass hysteria. Here is the testimony of many reliable witnesses. All of whom had seen the risen Jesus.
And did you notice that some of them "had fallen asleep" (v.6). That's not the sort of thing that people do in church, or in front of the television, but it simply means that in the past twenty or thirty years since the resurrection, some of the original eyewitnesses had died. They would awake when Jesus returned!
d) Jesus Appeared to James
This is James the brother of Jesus. From the start Jesus' brothers and sisters did not believe in him. They thought that Jesus was mad. But in time James believed, became the leader of the church in Jerusalem, and later died as a martyr (and of course the word martyr means witness). Sometimes family members don't believe as we believe, and so we need to express God's love to them in a sensitive way. At home our actions will speak louder than our words. But I wonder, do others see in us something of Jesus? Of his patience and humility; of his love and care? How much do our lives match up to our words? How much are we an icon of Jesus?
e) Jesus Appeared to Paul
Paul's testimony was that "last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me" (v.7). 'Untimely born' may refer to his development as a Christian or to his physical appearance. He may have been unattractive to look at. Some suggest that his speech was imperfect. An early tradition said that he was bald and bow-legged. But whatever it was - he was a nobody, but by God's grace he became a somebody. While Paul had not been with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry, the risen Jesus had appeared to him on the Damascus Road. And for Paul that had been a life-transforming encounter. He had met with Jesus. And would never be the same again.
Some people (like Paul) can date precisely the hour, the day, the month of their conversion. But not everyone. What really matters is not the precise time or place, but the reality of coming to Christ and acknowledging him as your Lord and Saviour. What matters most is that you are his and he is yours.
To conclude: in 1 Corinthians 15 we have two clear witnesses to the resurrection. The witness of the Bible and the witness of people. The testimony of the prophets and the testimony of the apostles. Today, we can all come to a living faith in Jesus who died and rose again. And all we need to do is to trust God's word. To believe it to be true. To accept the reliable witness of those who saw the risen Jesus for themselves. Here then is the challenge to each one of us. To believe in Jesus who died on a cross and who rose from the dead. That is the good news we continue to celebrate today – and every day – that Jesus is alive – and risen from the dead!