Churches of Christ and Easter

 

            Millions of devoutly religious people apparently believe that Christmas and Easter are the holiest days of the year.  If that were not the case, why is attendance at these two church services greater than any other time of the year?  One preacher is reputed to have told his Easter Sunday congregation: "I want to take this opportunity to wish all of you a merry Christmas because I will not likely see you until the Christmas season."  That may or may not have happened, but it illustrates the emphasis some people place on these two days.

 

            Faithful churches of Christ do not today and never have honored these days above the first day of the week.  Oh, I am aware that some churches of Christ have fallen in with the fleeting fashions of the world, but there is no scriptural warrant for setting aside Easter and Christmas as special celebrations.  We are sometimes criticized for not being in step with the religious world, but since the scriptures do not authorize our celebrating these days, there is no reason for us to do so.  Besides, nobody knows when Jesus was born and nobody knows the Sunday on which Jesus was raised from the dead.  We do not celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ; we celebrate his death and resurrection.  If the God of heaven had intended for Christians to honor these two days--Christmas and Easter--he would have provided instructions for doing so.  Both of these are based on pagan holidays--not on the scriptures.

 

            Having said that, let me be very plain: We worship our Lord on the day he was raised from the dead--the first day of the week.  That Christians must do so is not even open for debate.  According to Acts 2, the church of our Lord was established on the first day of the week.  The early Christians met on the first day of the week to engage in the Lord's supper (Acts 20:7).  Paul wrote as follows to the church at Corinth: "Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the churches of Galatia, even so you do.  Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store as the Lord has prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come" (I Cor. 16:1-2).  Worshipping on the first day of the week has been so widely accepted that very few people in any religious group which calls itself Christian have ever doubted our responsibilities to worship God on that day.  There are some who still claim to keep the sabbath, but the numbers are relatively small.  And, besides, nobody can really keep the sabbath.  It simply is not possible.

 

            Churches of Christ, generally speaking, have never doubted the fact of Christ's resurrection.  How can we doubt that great truth if we accept the Bible as the word of almighty God?  That does not mean we know all there is to know about our Lord's resurrection, but we accept all the biblical statements about that great event.  We know, because the Bible teaches it, that the resurrection of Christ is the central fact of New Testament Christianity.  If Jesus were not raised from the dead, then nothing in the scriptures--or for that matter, outside the scriptures--is of eternal value.  Is that not what Paul meant when he wrote, "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable" (I Cor. 15:19).  Christianity without the resurrection of Christ is no Christianity.  It would be absolutely meaningless.

 

            This does not mean we should downplay the importance of the Lord's incarnation.  According to the great apostle Paul, "And without controversy (or without any doubt) great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory" (I Tim. 3:16).  Jesus actually became one of us, although he did not sin (Heb. 4:15).  He was and is the perfect example for all who would be pleasing in the sight of God.  Jesus told some Jews: "I do always those things which please him" (John 8:29).  When we think of all these great blessings which God has so graciously bestowed on sinful men, we ought to have the attitude Paul expressed in his great epistle to the Ephesians: "I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Eph. 3:14).

 

            But regardless of the sacrifices Jesus made when he came into this world, none of them has any ultimate meaning if Jesus were not raised from the dead.  I know the good Jesus did as he walked among men.  Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are literally filled with the good deeds Jesus performed.  Matthew says concerning the work Jesus did while he was on earth: "And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the kingdom, and healing all manner of sickness, and all manner of disease among the people" (Mt. 4:23).  Peter informed Cornelius of God's anointing Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power.  Jesus "went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil: for God was with him" (Acts 10:38).

 

            Even unbelievers must concede that Jesus did more to elevate and liberate men than any other person in the world.  Warren Candler's remarkable book, Christus Auctor (Nashville: Publishing House of the M.E. Church, South, 1900), quotes J.H. Lecky, an English skeptic, as saying about Jesus: "It was reserved for Christianity to present to the World and ideal character, which through all the changes of eighteen centuries has inspired the hearts of men with an impassioned love, has shown itself capable of acting on all nations, ages, temperaments, and conditions, has been not only the highest pattern of virtue but the strongest incentive to its practice, and has exercised so deep an influence that it may be truly said that the simple record of three short years of active life has done more to regenerate and soften mankind than all the disquisitions of philosophers and all the exhortations of moralists" (p.44).

 

            As true as Lecky's statements are, what possible difference would all of that make if the dead do not rise to life eternal?  If the dead are not going to be raised, why would anyone make any sacrifice for any cause or any person?  I saw firsthand as I was growing into maturity, the enormous sacrifices parents make for their children.  My mother and father did whatever was necessary to see that their children were well fed, warmly clothed and kept physically healthy.  One of my younger sisters was afflicted with polio for about seventeen years.  It would take several hours for me to tell you how many hours my parents worked for her.  There were times when they practically never slept.  They must have spent thousands of dollars trying to keep her alive, thousands of dollars they did not have.  Besides, they had almost a dozen other children to feed, clothe and keep healthy.  If the dead are not going to be raised, then what was the sense of it all?  Why not "eat and drink, for tomorrow we die" (I Cor. 15:32).

 

            Today some preachers, including some among the churches of Christ, accuse older preachers of not sufficiently emphasizing Christ's death on the cross.  Sometimes those preachers examine the older preachers' published sermons, count the number of times they mentioned the cross and then conclude they were negligent in teaching about the cross.  In most cases, that is a gross misinterpretation of the older preachers' sermons.  Does a preacher have to mention the cross in order to preach Christ crucified?  Paul determined not to know anything except Christ and him crucified and yet he preached on dozens and dozens of different topics.  When one preaches the truth of the gospel--even if some of his sermons do not mention the cross--he is still preaching Christ crucified.  How absolutely inexcusable to accuse those old gospel preachers of not preaching the cross.  The accusations reflect more on the accusers than on those old preachers.

 

            The death of Christ on the cross can hardly be overemphasized.  No one can preach the whole counsel of God and not stress the death of Christ.  Jesus told his apostles: "Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Mt. 20:28).  Paul's letter to the Romans clearly stresses Christ's sacrificial death on the cross.  "For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.  For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet perhaps for a good man some would even dare to die.  But God commands his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.  Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him.  For if, when we were sinners, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved through him" (Rom. 5:6-10).

 

            In his great chapter on the resurrection, Paul outlines some of the basic facts of the gospel.  "Moreover brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also you have received, and herein you stand; by which also you are saved, if you keep in memory that which I have preached unto you, unless you have believed in vain.  For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and he was buried, and that he rose the third day according to the scriptures: and that he was seen of Cephas (or Peter), then of the twelve" (I Cor. 15:1-5).  Peter teaches that Christ suffered for us, leaving us an example, that we should follow in his steps…."In his own self he bore our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness, by whose stripes we are healed" (I Pet. 2:21,24).

 

            Without the death of Christ, there would be no Christianity.  Jesus came into the world to die for the sins of the world.  If Jesus had not died on the cross, we would not be living under a new covenant.  He had to die before his will could go into effect (Heb. 9:17).  So, anyone who denies the necessity of Christ's death is denying God's plan for redeeming fallen men.  But the death of Christ would have no meaning for us if Jesus had not been raised from the dead.  Of what value is a dead Savior?  Although Paul does not use that exact language in discussing the Lord's resurrection, that was unquestionably what he had in mind in his great chapter on the resurrection.

 

            Some of the early Christians believed the resurrection of God's people had already occurred.  We do not know how widespread that view was, but we know the names of some who believed that error.  "But shun profane and vain babblings: for they will increase unto more ungodliness.  And their word will eat as a canker: of whom are Hymenaeus and Philetus: who concerning the truth have erred, saying that the resurrection is past already; and overthrow the faith of some" (II Tim. 2:16-18).  When men believe that no resurrection will occur or that it has already occurred, there is no motivation for living righteously.  What motivates a man to live for God if he believes he will not be raised from the dead to stand before God in the judgment?

 

            Paul asked this question: "Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead" (I Cor. 15:12).  In answer to that question, Paul explains how meaningless life is if Christ were not raised from the dead.  "But if there be no resurrection of the dead (that is, all the dead who have ever lived), then is Christ not risen: and if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is in vain" (I Cor. 15:13-14).  As you can readily understand from verse 13, the general resurrection is tied to Christ's resurrection.  If we are not going to be raised, then Christ was not raised.  If Christ were not raised, then our preaching is vain and our faith is vain.  Surely no one can read these words without seeing the connection of the resurrection to the truthfulness of New Testament Christianity.  The resurrection is the very heart of the gospel.  If there were no resurrection, then there is no gospel, that is, good news.  But Jesus was raised and his resurrection guarantees our eventual resurrection.

 

            The preaching of the apostles and early gospel preachers almost always included the resurrection.  A careful reading of the book of Acts will confirm that fact.  I shall not take the time to read what Paul said in his sermon in Antioch of Pisidia, but no honest person can miss his emphasis on the resurrection of Christ (Acts 13:28-37).  Peter told the Jews on Pentecost: "Men and brethren, let me freely speak unto you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulchre is with us unto this day.  Therefore being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him, that of the fruit of his loins, according to the flesh, he would raise up Christ to sit on his throne: he seeing this before spoke of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hades, neither his flesh did see corruption.  This Jesus has God raised up, whereof we are all witnesses" (Acts 2:29-32).

 

            If Jesus were not raised, the apostles and other early gospel preachers needed to go back to Jerusalem, to Antioch of Pisidia and to other places and apologize for deceiving their hearers.  If Christ were not raised, the faith of those early Christians and of millions of others down through the ages has no foundation in fact.  Their faith is vain.  Can you imagine a greater disappointment than to learn that your devotion to the cause of Christ has been based on falsehood?  Paul adds: "Yea, are we found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ; whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead do not rise" (I Cor. 15:15).

 

            All rational human beings know that they and all other people are sinners.  We also know we have no power to save ourselves.  We must depend on God for our salvation.  "But if the dead are not raised, then Christ is not raised: and if Christ was not raised, your faith is vain: you are yet in your sins" (I Cor. 15:16-17).  Do you want to stand before God in the judgment with your sins still on your conscience?  That would be the condition of all people--if Christ had not been raised from the dead.  Your faith would be vain; you would still be in your sins.

 

            Have you ever stood before an empty grave and watched your mother or father or child lowered into that grave to await the final judgment?  What an emptiness must exist in the hearts of those who do not believe the gospel's teaching concerning our Lord's resurrection and ours!  When you lay that precious soul in the grave, you know there will be no future reunion.  Regardless of your love for your spouse or your parent or your child, there is nothing left except memories.  Paul explains: "Then they also who are fallen asleep in Christ have perished" (I Cor. 15:18).  I know that wishing cannot make it so, but who could wish for such finality to death?  But there is no reason to despair.  Jesus was raised from the dead and has become the firstfruits of them who slept (I Cor. 15:20).  The firstfruits of the crops were guarantees that the rest of the crop would come along in time.  "But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterwards they who are Christ's at his coming" (I Cor. 15:23).

 

            Faithful preachers among churches of Christ preach these great truths of the gospel.  We know how very vital it is to tell men of the life that is to come.  We furnish evidence from the gospel records that Jesus was raised and that we are going to be raised.  But we must also tell people what God requires of them for salvation.  Only those who have believed in Christ, repented of their alien sins, confessed the name of Christ before men, been baptized into Christ for the remission of sins and live for him will be saved eternally.  If you are not among that number, will you not this very day turn to Jesus Christ for the remission of your sins?  If you fail to obey the gospel and live for God, then your life on this earth will have been in vain.  In fact, it will have been worse than vain.  It will mean eternal banishment from the very presence of God and the saints of all ages.  I urge you to obey the gospel before it is too late.

 

Winford Claiborne

The International Gospel Hour

P.O. Box 118

Fayetteville, TN 37334