How important is the resurrection to your faith? Not to the doctrinal center of your belief system, but to the day-to-day out-working of your salvation? If your mind draws a blank, you may be missing the power of the resurrection in your personal walk with God.
Steve Mathewson, pastor of CrossLife Evangelical Free Church in Libertyville, Illinois is an adjunct professor in preaching at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He has written a helpful book called risen: 50 reasons why the resurrection changed everything (Baker Books) which unpacks the significance of Christ’s resurrection. Today, he joins me on the blog for a conversation about his book.
Trevin Wax: In the foreword to your book, Craig Blomberg writes:
Christian teaching often focuses more on the question of believability of the resurrection narratives than on their theological meaning.
When I consider many of the Easter sermons I’ve heard in the U.S., I see his point. Why do you think we tend to focus on the historicity of the resurrection more than its meaning?
Steve Mathewson: I think we have become so preoccupied with answering the radical skeptics that we have given little time or energy to proclaiming what Scripture ways about the meaning of the resurrection.
The other twin element of the gospel, the cross, simply does not require the apologetic defense that the resurrection demands. While unbelievers deny the significance and meaning of the cross, few doubt that a man named Jesus was crucified on a cross. But when it comes to the central miracle of the Cristian faith, the resurrection of Jesus Chris, skeptics say “No way! Jesus did not rise bodily from death.” Thank God for Frank Morrison, Gary Habermas, Michael Licona, and others who have crafted articulate responses to the skeptics.
But this has conditioned us, I think, to defend the resurrection rather than to declare its meaning. Apologetics has become our default mode whenever we speak about the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
As a result, our evangelical heritage has not provided the kind of magnificent treatments of the resurrection that is has for the cross. For example, we have John Murray’s redemption accomplished and applied as well as John Stott’s classic, the cross of christ. We have had nothing comparable on the resurrection until N. T. Wright’s more recent tome, the resurrection of the son of god.
So it’s not surprising that pastors and Bible study leaders have followed the same path as evangelical scholars by spending more time defending the resurrection’s historicity rather than proclaiming its significance.
Trevin Wax: You list fifty reasons why Jesus was raised from the dead. Were there any reasons on this list that surprised you? Reasons you wouldn’t have immediately thought of before you started writing the book?
Steve Mathewson: I was struck by how Paul argued in Athens that the resurrection of Jesus is proof of God’s commitment to justice. Justice is a huge issue today, as it should be.
What do we say to the world when it screams that if a loving God really existed, he would do something about child abuse, sex trafficking, and massive starvation? Our answer, of course, is that God will one day make everything right. But it’s easy for unbelievers to say, “Oh yeah? Prove it!” According to Paul in Acts 17:31, the resurrection of Jesus provides that proof.
Another reason which surprised me was the connection between Jesus’ resurrection and the believer’s fruitfulness. Romans 7:4 makes this connection, but most of the times I have read or studied it, I’ve been preoccupied with other theological ideas in that text. But it’s clear that our belonging to the one who was raised from the dead enables us to bear fruit for God.
This idea is reinforced at the end of 1 Corinthians 15, the great resurrection chapter, when Paul concludes that the resurrection of Jesus motivates us to give everything we’ve got to the Lord’s work since we know that our labor in the Lord is not an empty effort (verse 58). Wow! I go back to this when I get discouraged and wonder if what I’m doing for Christ makes any difference. According to the resurrection, my service matters–no matter how feeble or insignificant it seems!
One more reason that surprised me was how Jesus was raised to life for our justification. I knew that, of course, having read Romans 4:23 dozens of times. But the link between the resurrection and justification seemed to leap out at me when I re-studied this text as I prepared to write the book.
When I think of justification, I think of Romans 3:24 and the role that the death of Jesus plays in this wonderful aspect of God’s salvation. But it really hit me when I revisited Romans 4:23 that justification would not be possible without the resurrection. I was intrigued, too, by how Paul made this same point in his proclamation of the good news in the synagogue at Psidian Antioch (Acts 13:32).
Trevin Wax: You write about death being an enemy (not a friend, though many encourage us to embrace death as just part of life), and yet death is also defeated (which means it’s not an enemy to be feared). How do we hold those two truths together?
Steve Mathewson: I believe we hold these two truths together by practicing biblical grief. Here, I am thinking of Paul’s desire that we “not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 1:13). This statement presumes:
- that we will grieve over death and
- that our grief will be marked by hope.
To begin with, our sorrow and even anger over the death of someone we love expresses the reality that death is an enemy. I’m thinking here of how Jesus responded to the death of his friend, Lazarus. He was outraged and then wept (John 11:33). As Don Carson points out in his commentary, the gospel according to john, Jesus’ grief and outrage was generated by sin and death as well as by the unbelief he encountered.
I remember feeling anger as well as sadness when I viewed my dad’s body lying in his casket. Cancer had taken his life while he was still in his prime. I remember saying to myself, “This just isn’t right.” Yes, death is an enemy, and we cannot deny it by suppressing our grief.
But this is where we must hold up the other truth that the defeat of death through Jesus’ resurrection gives us hope. Hope keeps our grief from turning into despair, even as grief keeps our hope grounded.
What I mean is that our hope is objective, not a sentimental, silly sentiment which prompts us to tell ourselves to ”think happy thoughts” or to pretend that every person who dies is in heaven. Someone has said that our culture believes in “justification through death. ” I agree. I have watched families who have no time for God suddenly comforting themselves with the sentiment that “Old Bob is looking down at us and grinning as he rides his big Harley in the sky.” Oh really? The hope we have is not based on sentiment but on an objective reality–the resurrection of Jesus Christ in time and space.
To summarize, then, when we hold in balance the truth that (a) death is an enemy and (b) death is also defeated, we will avoid unnecessary despair and unfounded hope..
Trevin Wax: What’s the connection between Christ’s resurrection and our relationship with Him? I found it interesting how you connected Christ’s victory over death with our intimacy with Him as Savior (Philippians 3:10).
Steve Mathewson: I’ll give the Apostle Paul credit for this connection! I am fascinated with how Paul sees the two monumental elements of the gospel – the cross and the resurrection – shaping our intimacy with Christ.
Knowing Christ means knowing the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his suffering in the everyday events of our lives. Once again, the benefits of our future resurrection have been pulled back into the present with all its difficulties.
Last week, I saw the power of the resurrection recently in the life of a believer who lost his job. His company went out of business, and while everyone else was agonizing over the future, this guy radiated hope and rejoiced in the opportunity to share the gospel with his fearful, distraught co-workers.
This week, I listened to a lady share about the nightmare she has been experiencing ever since her husband left her. Yet I was struck by the joy and hope she exudes as well as the love for Christ she professes even in her distress. I am convinced that this is an expression of the resurrection power she is experiencing in her quest to know Christ.
Trevin Wax: How do you recommend people read this book? All at once? Daily?
Steve Mathewson: I suppose it depends on a person’s personality.
There’s something to be said for devouring it in one sitting. The book is short enough for that.
But I think most people will benefit by take a bite-size approach and reading a chapter a day. This provides more time to savor and reflect on the ways that the resurrection has changed everything. I’d love to see entire churches begin reading the book on Easter Sunday and then finishing it together fifty days later on Pentecost Sunday.
Trevin Wax: What was your goal in undertaking this project?
Steve Mathewson: My desire in writing the book was to provide readers with the same experience I had when I read through John Piper’s little volume, the passion of jesus christ: fifty reasons why he came to die (Crossway), over fifty days. My experience was a deep sense of awe and joy over the gospel, specifically over what Christ accomplished for me through his death. So my goal in writing this book was to help my church family and also my unbelieving friends understand and treasure and savor the difference the resurrection makes for those who trust in the gospel.
I will be pleased if the book can lead believers to a deeper sense of awe and joy and wonder and hope as they reflect on what Scripture says about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I will be ecstatic if God in his grace allows the book to be a tool which leads people to the glory of new life in Christ.
I can’t wait to give it to some friends from high school, some friends with whom I fly fish, and some friends whose sons play sports with my son. I am excited to see what God will do with it.
Trevin Wax is the Managing Editor of The Gospel Project, a curriculum developed by LifeWay Christian Resources. He blogs daily at kingdom people. He is also the author of holy subversion (Crossway, 2010) and counterfeit gospels (Moody, 2011).