Like many families, our family typically spends a fair amount of time and energy preparing for Easter Sunday, or as our church calls it, Resurrection Sunday. Some of our preparations center on the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection: meditating on the biblical account of the events, doing the “resurrection eggs” activity with our three young children, and attending —or in this case viewing—special worship services. Some of our preparations in the past have centered on our celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection: planning a big meal, laying out special clothes, and stuffing eggs with candy for our egg hunt. Admittedly, it’s a bit different this year with all the social distancing but, we’ll do our best. Recently I have realized that our family spends almost no time and energy responding to Resurrection Sunday. The following week, we mostly return to the same old routines and inward concerns of everyday life. Considering how the first Christians responded to the resurrection, this response seems at least inconsistent, if not disobedient.
Think for a moment of how the disciples responded to the resurrection. Beyond the initial confusion and excitement, the resurrection gave them a new identity and mission: to be witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. Luke says the risen Jesus appeared to them and “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:45-48). Rather than keeping the good news of His death and resurrection to themselves, Jesus told His disciples to be witnesses of those things to all nations.
In the opening chapters of Acts, Peter repeatedly affirmed this new identity and mission to be witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. In Acts 1:22, when seeking a replacement for Judas, Peter tells the other disciples, “One of these men must become with us a witness to His resurrection.” In his sermon at Pentecost, Peter tells the Jews of Jerusalem, “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses” (Acts 2:32). Shortly afterwards, Peter tells the people of Jerusalem, “You killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses” (Acts 3:15). And finally, before the council of the Sadducees, Peter said, “The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging Him on a tree…and we are witnesses to these things” (Acts 2:30-32).
Not only did Peter and the apostles talk about being witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, they bore witness to Jesus’ resurrection in their evangelistic preaching. Nearly half of Peter’s sermon at Pentecost concerned Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 2:24-32). In Acts 4:33, Luke says, “And with great power the apostles were given their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and grace was upon them all.” And Paul preached at length about the resurrection of Jesus, both to the Jews (Acts 13:29-39) and to the Gentiles (Acts 17:30-32).
Why was Jesus’ resurrection so central to the witness of the first Christians? First, the resurrection completed Jesus’ work of redemption. As Paul says, if Jesus did not rise from the dead, our faith is vain, and we are still in our sins (1 Corinthians 15:17). But because He rose from the dead, we are justified (Romans 4:25). Second, the resurrection confirmed Jesus’ identity. His resurrection declared Him to be the Son of God (Romans 1:4) and the Savior from sin (1 Timothy 3:16). And third, the resurrection compels people to respond to Jesus and His Gospel. As a public, historical event, the resurrection cannot be ignored; one must either deny it (Matthew 28:11-15) or believe it (Romans 10:9).
Responding to the resurrection in a biblical way not only means believing in Jesus for our own salvation, but witnessing about Jesus to all nations. And our witnessing about Jesus will be incomplete if we do not witness to Jesus’s resurrection as the first Christians did.
I will be the first to admit that to witness to Jesus’s resurrection before unbelievers is not easy. The logistics are even more challenging during these days of social distancing. Being a witness requires boldness, because some may reject what we have to say. Unlike Jesus’ loving care or moral example to us, His physical resurrection from death is an idea that’s tough to swallow for many. And as it did for Paul, proclaiming the resurrection may bring mockery (Acts 17:32) and, in extreme circumstances, perhaps even threats of death (Acts 23:6-12).
But to witness to Jesus’ resurrection is never fruitless; God will bless our witness and cause even the most unlikely hearers to accept the risen Jesus as their Lord and Savior (Acts 13:42-43). At the end of his glorious chapter about physical resurrection of believers, Paul writes, “Therefore, my beloved, brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58). In light of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and His victory over our own sin and death, Paul says we can be steadfast and immovable witnesses. Like the first Christians, may we as a church, as families, and as individuals be found responding to the resurrection as witnesses, knowing that in the Lord, our labor is not in vain.