A Sermon for The Festival of Christ's Resurrection
The Power and the Benefit of the Resurrection of Christ
by Dr. Martin Luther1
- Text: In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre. And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it. His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow: and for fear of him the keepers did shake, and became as dead men. And the angel answered and said unto the women, Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified. He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. And go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead; and, behold, he goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see him: lo, I have told you. And they departed quickly from the sepulchre with fear and great joy; and did run to bring his disciples word. And as they went to tell his disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, All hail. And they came and held him by the feet, and worshipped him. Then said Jesus unto them, Be not afraid: go tell my brethren that they go into Galilee, and there shall they see me. Now when they were going, behold, some of the watch came into the city, and shewed unto the chief priests all the things that were done. (Matt. 28:1-10)
In our Creed we confess that Christ arose again on the third day, which is far different from saying that He arose after three days. The Lord was not dead three entire nights and days. On Friday evening, about three hours before dark, He died. These three hours are called the first day. During the whole night and day of the Sabbath He remained in the grave, and also the following night until the next morning. This night counts also a day; for the Jews begin their day with the night, and count night and day as one whole day. We reverse this method of counting and call the day find the night one day. In the Church, however, the old Jewish method of reckoning the festivals was retained, so that these always begin with the evening of the previous day.
Very early on Sunday morning, which was the third day after the Friday on which Christ was crucified, at the first dawn of day, when the soldiers were lying around the tomb, Christ, who had died, awoke to a new, eternal life, and arose from the dead in such a manner that the guards around the grave were unaware of His resurrection. From the account which Matthew gives of this event we must infer that Christ did not arise during the earthquake, which evidently began when the angel descended from heaven and rolled away the rock from the entrance of the tomb. Christ, however, passed out from the closed grave without disturbing the seals put upon it, just as on the evening of the same day He also came to His disciples through the doors which were shut.
When the earth began to quake and the angel appeared, the soldiers were so terrified that they lost all consciousness. As soon as they recovered they all ran from the grave, some in this, others in that direction; for the coming of the angel was to them no occasion of rejoicing, but one of terror and distress. There were others, however, who should be comforted by the cheerful tidings of the angel.
While the soldiers ran from the tomb, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, also Peter and John soon after, came to see the sepulchre. When the women arrive, the angel comforts them, telling them that Christ had arisen and that they should see Him in Galilee. He also orders them to depart in haste and to announce these things to the disciples. As the women return from the sepulchre the Lord meets Mary Magdalene in the guise of the gardener, and appears also to Peter, as John relates. In the evening of the same day He joins Himself to the two disciples who are walking to Emmaus, and revealed Himself unto them when He brake the bread and gave it to them. After these two disciples had hastily returned to Jerusalem, to announce to the others what had happened unto them, how they had seen the Lord, and when the disciples were amazed at this, some however still doubting the truth of such reports, Jesus suddenly appears in their midst, the doors being closed (Luke 24, John 20).
These are the incidents of the holy Easter festival in reference to the revelation of our Lord and Saviour, as we learn from the Evangelists. It behooves us to be well acquainted with these facts; they refer to that article of our Creed which confesses that Christ arose again from the dead on the third day.
The mere knowledge of these events, however, is not enough; we must also realize their meaning and importance. Of these we will now speak a little; for the subject is so fertile and inexhaustible, that we could not fully present it though we preached about it every day of the year.
If we desire to comprehend the benefits of the resurrection of Christ, we must keep in view two distinct pictures. The one is sombre, full of distress, misery, and woes; it is the scene of blood presented to us on Good Friday — Christ crucified between murderers and dying with excruciating pain. This scene we must contemplate with much earnestness, as already said, to realize that it all happened on account of our sins, yea, that Christ as the true High Priest sacrificed Himself for us and paid with His death our debts. We ought all to know that our sins thus wounded and tormented Christ, and that His sufferings were caused alone by our iniquities. Therefore, as often as we remember or view this doleful, bloody scene, we ought to bear in mind that we have before us our sins and the terrible wrath of God against them, a wrath so dire that no creature could endure it, that all atonement became impossible except the one made by the sacrifice and death of the Son of God. If this awful scene were the only one presented to our sight, and if it remained unchanged, it would be too terrible and painful.
The other scene presents to us Christ no longer in woe and misery, weighed down with the ponderous mass of our sins, which God has laid upon Him, but beautiful, glorious and rejoicing; for all the sins have disappeared from Him. From this we have a right to conclude: If our sins, on account of the sufferings of Christ, lie no longer upon us, but are taken from our shoulders by God Himself and placed upon His Son, and if on Easter, after the resurrection, they are no more to be seen, where then are they? Micah truly says: They are sunk into the depth of the sea, and no devil nor any body else shall find them again (Mic. 7:18-19).
This article of our faith is glorious and blessed; whoever holds it not is no Christian; yet all the world reviles, slanders and abuses it. The Pope and his cardinals generally treat even this narrative as a fable to be laughed at; they are full-grown Epicureans, who smile with scorn when told of an eternal life to come. Our nobility, our burghers and our peasants also, believe in a future life, rather from custom than from true conviction, else they would act otherwise and not busy themselves solely with the cares, honors and employments of this temporal life, but would rather seek after that which is eternal. But we may preach and explain as we will, the world regards it all as foolishness. Thus we see that this article meets with opposition on every side; even they who possess and believe the Word of God do not take it to heart as earnestly as they should.
If we desire to be true Christians it is necessary for us firmly to establish in our hearts through faith this article, that Christ, who bore our sins upon the cross and died in payment for them, arose again from the dead for our justification. The more firmly we believe this, the more will our hearts rejoice and be comforted. For it is impossible not to be glad when we see Christ alive, a pure and beautiful being, who before, on account of our sins, was wretched and pitiable in death and in the grave. We are now convinced that our transgressions are removed and forever put away.
In the strength of this faith the early Christians composed and sang in Latin and German so charmingly and truly: Christ ist erstanden, von der marter alle, bess sollen wir alle froh sein, Christ will unser Trost sein; that is: Christ from all His sufferings has arisen, and will our solace be, hence we all should now rejoice. And again: Agnus redemit oves, Christus innocens patri reconciliavit peccatores. Mors et vita duello conflixere mirando, dux vitæ mortuus regnat vivus; that is: Christ the innocent Lamb has by His sacrifice purchased and redeemed us poor, lost sheep, and has through His innocence reconciled us to the Father. There was an amazing conflict between life and death; the Lord of life dieth, but having arisen now liveth and ruleth.
Whoever composed these old hymns must certainly have had a proper and Christian conception of the great event, else he could not have depicted so skillfully the scene when death assaulted life, and when the devil madly rushed against it. Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ permitted Himself to be slain; yet death was much mistaken in his aim; for the life in this Person whom he attacked was eternal. Death was not aware of this, that an eternal and divine power was enclosed in the mortal body, and was vanquished in the tilt; he attacked Him who cannot die, though He did die on the cross. For as surely as the human nature in Christ was dead, His divine nature was incapable of death, though it was so concealed in Him during His passion and death, as our old teachers represent it, that it manifested itself in no wise, and this for the very purpose that Christ might die. Death did all that he could do; but since the Lord, according to His divine nature, is life itself, He could not remain dead, but freed Himself from death and all his auxiliaries, vanquished sin and Satan, and now rules in a new life, exempt from all disturbance of sin, the devil, and death. This is indeed a strange, perplexing declaration: Christ, though He died, still liveth, and by His dying despoiled death of all his power. Reason cannot comprehend this; it is a matter of faith. But to us it is a source of great comfort to know and to believe that death has lost his reign, and that we owe this, praise be to God, to that One whom death attacks and overcomes as he does all mortals, but whom he cannot hold; for, in the struggle ensuing, death himself perishes and is swallowed up, while Christ, who had died, lives and reigns forever.
St. Paul rejoices over this beautifully when he writes, Colossians 2: “And you being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath He quickened together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses; blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to His cross; and having spoiled principalities and powers, He made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it.”
Two facts are here presented. He says, in the first place, that “Christ has with His own life blotted out the handwriting” which was against us according to the law. By this the Apostle means that we learn from the law what God demands of us, what we should do and what we should avoid. If now we trespass against the law, either by omitting to do what we ought to do, or by doing what we ought not to do, our conscience will accuse us of the wrong done. Thus our conscience becomes, as it were, a handwriting against us, in which we testify against ourselves as to our disobedience, and hence are subject to the wrath and punishment of God.
The law makes this “handwriting,” as St. Paul says; for if there were no law there would be no transgression. Thus we have against us, at the same time our sins and the handwriting, which convicts us of them, so that we must plead guilty; even as a merchant would have to acknowledge his own signature and seal. Here, the Apostle would say, we receive the assistance of Christ our Lord. He blots out our handwriting, “nailing it to the cross,” that is, He makes a hole through it and tears it to pieces, so that it can never again be used against us. To do this Christ was crucified; He bore our sins and paid our debts with His own life. This is what we have to notice first in the words of St. Paul above quoted.
In the second place he says: “Christ has spoiled principalities and powers,” that is, He despoiled the devil of his power, so that he can no longer urge and force Christians to sin, as was his custom to do ere they were converted to Christ. Now they are enabled, by the assistance of the Holy Ghost, to resist the wicked one, to defend themselves with the Gospel and faith, so as to repel him and thus have peace. Unto this end Christ sends us His Holy Spirit. In a similar manner are the “powers spoiled,” that is, Christ has conquered death, whose power over us before was irresistible. Now the Christians have the weapons with which to conquer the devil and death; for these, though they rage and chafe, and bring all their might to bear against the Christians, will not succeed, as St. Paul says, Rom. 8: “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus.”
As Christ has conquered death, so has He also vanquished sin. In Himself He was just and free from sin, but inasmuch as He assumed the sins of others He became a sinner, as He laments, Psalm 41: “I said, Lord, be merciful, be merciful unto me: heal my soul; for I have sinned against Thee.” He prays thus because sin is upon Him. Nor does Christ seek to avoid this encounter with sin; He willingly goes into death upon the cross, as if He Himself had sinned and merited death, as Isaiah says: “He was numbered with the transgressors.” And yet not He, but we, had sinned; He merely came to our rescue, and for our benefit took upon Himself our load of transgressions. But His holiness, though buried beneath the sins of others, is so great that sin cannot prevail against it. Thus sin and death are thwarted in their intentions; they encounter a too valiant adversary; death himself succumbs and is defeated in this struggle, as St. Paul declares.
The devil also made haste to assert his authority, and would fain bring Christ under his power; but he encounters a mightier One, whom he cannot conquer. For Christ, though much distressed by His sufferings and apparently overcome by the devil, is nevertheless strong and invincible. The devil was ignorant of this and loses all his power, so that Christ can be said to have conquered at the time when Satan was sure of victory. Hence these three terrible foes, the devil, sin, and death, are now defeated and under the feet of Christ.
This glorious victory we celebrate today. Above all we must firmly believe that in Christ there was a contest between God and the devil, between righteousness and sin, between life and death, between that which is good and that which is evil, between purity and all manner of corruption, and that the triumph was on the side of God. This scene we ought to cherish fondly and earnestly, and often to contemplate.
In the former scene of suffering and death we witnessed our sin, our sentence of condemnation and death resting heavily upon Christ, making Him a distressed, pitiable Man; now, on Easter, we have the other scene unalloyed with sin; no curse, no frown, no death is visible; it is all life, mercy, happiness and righteousness in Christ. This picture can and should cheer our hearts. We should regard it with no other feeling but that to-day God brings us also to life with Christ. We should firmly believe that as we see no sin nor death nor condemnation in Christ, so God will also, for Christ's sake, consider us free from these if we faithfully rely upon His Son and depend upon His resurrection. Such a blessing we derive from faith. The day will come, however, when faith shall be lost in sight and full fruition.
Nevertheless, while we are here on earth sin, death, disgrace and reproach, and all kinds of wants and infirmities remain with us, and we must patiently bear them. These all relate, however, only to the flesh; for in our faith we are already happy. As Christ arose from the dead, and has a life eternal, free from sin and death, so have we these treasures in faith. And as surely as the devil could not prevail against Christ, but had to flee, so surely will he also flee from the Christian who believes. In the end our body will also be perfected, so that neither sin nor death can have power over it. For the present we are as weak and sinful as other people, only that we strive to shun open and gross sins. It is true, Christians may also, now and then, be guilty of these, but they remain not in them; they flee them again through earnest repentance, and obtain through faith forgiveness of all their sins.
Hence it is impossible to judge a Christian aright by his external life and conduct. He may not be guilty of open, gross sins against conscience, yet he is not free from sins and infirmities. Therefore we must daily pray: “Forgive us our trespasses.” On the other hand, it may be that heathens and unbelievers, in their outward walk and life, appear before the world just as good, yea, even better than the true children of God. To know and judge a Christian correctly, it is necessary to make his faith the criterion. As to our flesh and blood we are sinners, must die and suffer many evils upon earth, perhaps even more than others who have no faith, since Christians feel the burden of their sins and are troubled by them, while the others live in full security, undisturbed by their guilt. How then can Christians claim to be holy and free from sin? By believing that in Christ, who died for their sins and arose again from the dead, they have forgiveness, upon which they rely and which they earnestly seek in faith. Christians only can do this; for to believe the forgiveness of sins, and to seek it, is the work of the Holy Ghost.
Where the Holy Ghost is wanting, this faith is also absent. The enemies of the Gospel, the Pope and his crowd, are living examples; they are great and abominable sinners, but they know it not, nor do they ask forgiveness in faith. If, now and then, a conviction of their sins breaks in upon them, they know not what to do, they despair. That Christ arose from the dead, without sin, is an unknown story to them. A Christian, however, has comfort and happiness in Christ in proportion to the faith wherewith he contemplates this scene of the resurrection; he views Christ no longer bloody and wounded, but in all His beauty and loveliness. For as He formerly, on account of our sins, was bleeding and crucified, so He now has, for our consolation, an eternal life, full of happiness and joy. Let us therefore be glad and sing; all this has happened in our behalf.
These two facts then belong together: through faith in Christ we are pure and holy; on account of the old Adam within us we are impure and sinners. This impurity we remember when we pray: “Our Father... forgive us our trespasses,” and are comforted in the faith that God, for Christ's sake and in the power of His resurrection, hears us and pardons us, and gives us eternal life. Thus we are holy in Christ through faith, even if we are sinners; for it matters not how much is yet lacking in us: Christ our Lord and Head arose from the dead; He has conquered sin and death, and we, through faith in Him, are also freed from their power. Whoever does not believe in this and has not Christ, will lie and remain under the dominion of sin, in spite of all his good works and religious observances.
Let us therefore earnestly view and study this joyful, lovely, and blessed Easter scene. It is a picture without sin and death. If sin troubles us, if our conscience accuses us of evil deeds and faithlessness, let us remember and exclaim: It is true, we are sinners, nor can we deny the weakness of our faith; but we console ourselves with the knowledge that Jesus Christ has taken upon Himself and borne our iniquities; and by His resurrection on this glorious Easter festival, sin and punishment threaten us no more. Say, devil, sin and death, why did you accuse this Man before Pilate and nail Him to the cross? Did you do right in this? And sin, and death, and the devil will then confess that a mistake was made — that they wrongfully abused Him. Then we can say to sin, death and the devil: Get you gone, molest us not!
But perhaps our timid hearts will object and ask: How dare we rely on this, — are we not sinners? Be sure then to reply: Yes, it is so; we are sinners; but that shall not cause us to doubt, since Christ is no sinner. He died and arose again from the dead for us, and the benefits of this are ours. If this does not satisfy you, settle it with Him; ask Him what He did with your sins; whether they were too heavy for Him, so that He could not bear them and had to lay them upon you again. He will surely be at ease who thus can turn the devil with his accusations to Christ, who silenced him before so completely.
This is the true doctrine concerning faith, which every one supposes himself to possess and to understand. There are, however, but few who know it aright; for it cannot be taught merely with words; the Holy Ghost must do it. If you have mastered this art, you are a Christian; but if you are imperfect in it, thank God that you belong to the number of those who love to hear of it, and do not revile it, as the Turks, Jews and Papists do, who imagine themselves so upright that they are perfectly justified in the sight of God, and need not this Easter narrative in their struggle with sin, death and the devil. Among them faith perishes entirely. May we learn utterly to disregard our own holiness, and to keep before our eyes only this Easter scene, Christ arisen from the dead, the Conqueror over death, sin and hell. If we thus look to Christ alone, and not to ourselves, just as our eyes do not look upon themselves while we are going forward, it will be well for us.
- Luther, M. (1884). First Easter-Sermon: The Power and the Benefit of the Resurrection of Christ (Prof. E. Schmid, Trans.). In M. Loy (Ed), Dr. Martin Luther's House-Postil, or, Sermons on the Gospels, for the Sundays and Principle Festivals of the Church-year (Vol. II, 2nd ed.). Columbus, OH: J.A. Schulze (Original work published in German, 1545, from Viet Dietrich's stenographic notes of M. Luther's Hauspostille, preached between 1531-1535). pp. 265-280