“According to the Scriptures”: What does that mean?

Sermon begins at 22:50

This is our sixth sermon in a series titled, Finally, Some Good News. We have been seeing what the good news is, according to the Bible, learning why it is good news, and figuring out what we ought to do about it. The last time we dug into this, we looked at the astonishing first bullet point in St. Paul’s summary of the gospel, “Christ died for our sins.” We want to go further today and try to get a handle on the explanatory phrase, “according to the Scriptures” and the second bullet point, “was buried.” We will take the burial first.

I know that means going out of order, which will drive some of you to distraction, but the inclusion of the burial here powerfully illustrates a truth we looked at several weeks ago, so going there first will serve as a brief review before we move on. Besides that, the line about Jesus’s burial frequently gets skipped over altogether. But Paul included it, as did each of the Gospel writers and, what’s more, Paul even mentioned it his evangelistic preaching,

But why? What is there to say? He was buried. Stuck in a hole in the ground. There is not a lot of color commentary to go along with that. When preachers go to their illustration files for something to highlight the burial, they usually come up empty-handed.

In the recent past, historically speaking, some preachers and apologists have focused on the empty tomb as proof that Jesus rose from the dead. Those who deny Jesus’s resurrection, they say, need to explain the empty tomb. And people have tried. Some suggest that the women, confused and overcome by grief, simply went to the wrong tomb. When they didn’t find Jesus’s body, they recalled something he had said and jumped to the conclusion he had been resurrected.

There are all kinds of problems with that theory, starting with the chauvinistic assumption that women are overly emotional and directionally challenged. But even if these women were, the disciples who buried Jesus knew where his body lay. And so did the authorities, who were desperate to squelch the news that he had risen. If they could have refuted the error – “Those over-emotional, directionally-challenged women went to the wrong tomb; it is as simple as that. His body is right where we left it” – they would have.

Others have suggested, including Israel’s leaders at the time, that the disciples overpowered the Roman soldiers who were stationed there, removed and hid the body, then claimed Jesus had been resurrected. Again, there are all kinds of problems with this theory, beginning with the idea that a few frightened disciples with two swords between them could somehow overpower a Roman military unit.

But besides that, as Kevin pointed out three weeks ago, everyone of those disciples endured torture and/or execution because they insisted that Jesus rose from the dead. Th torture and executions didn’t happen all at once but over a period of decades and across thousands of miles. The idea that these disciples would die independently of each other over numerous decades for what they knew to be a lie is simply unbelievable.

There is much more that could be said about this. The burial of Jesus, when combined with the empty tomb, is a compelling argument for Christ’s resurrection but that is not why Paul includes it as the second bullet point in his gospel summary. As an apologetic for the resurrection, the empty tomb argument didn’t develop until much, much later. The biblical writers simply didn’t think of it that way.

Then why does the burial merit a place in this brief summary of the gospel? That takes us back to something we saw earlier in the series. The gospel is an announcement of something that has happened. It is not an advertisement. It is not an argument. It is not the offer of a sweet deal. It is a news report. That is why the burial is included. It happened. It was part of the story.

Some of them – Joseph and Nicodemus – were the ones to perform the burial. Some of them – the two Mary’s, Joanna, and others – watched as Jesus’s body was placed in the tomb. The inclusion of the burial in this brief summary reminds us that the gospel is the announcement that something tangible, actual, has happened in real time, something orchestrated by God.

But before he was buried, Jesus “died for our sins.” That was the first bullet point. The Messiah, the kingdom-of-God-bringing king, died. The words “Christ died” feel like an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. The Christ doesn’t die! The very idea is preposterous. When, in John 12, Jesus signified the kind of death he was going to die, people responded this way: “What are you talking about? We have heard in the law that the Messiah will last forever” (John 12:34).

Yet the gospel announcement is that Messiah died. The rescuer was killed in the act of rescuing people. The king died at the very moment of establishing his kingdom. It is the Bible’s most unexpected twist – unexpected by us anyway. But it was not unexpected by Jesus. He had been warning his friends about what was coming for months.

Nor was it unexpected by God. He knew “before the creation of the world” that his anointed one, the Christ, the Messiah, would die for sins. That had always been the plan. So Paul says, “Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3).

That prepositional phrase has sent preachers and Bible scholars scrambling through the Old Testament in search of the texts that Paul had in mind. And the idea wasn’t just in Paul’s mind. All the disciples shared it. Jesus himself had told them, “This is what is written [in the Bible]: The Messiah will suffer and rise” (Luke 24:45). To Cleopas and his friend Jesus said, “How slow you are to believe the prophets. Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things?” (Luke 24:25).

But where in the Old Testament is it written that the Messiah would suffer these things? The hunt usually begins in Genesis 3:15, with the curse of the serpent: “he (the offspring of the woman) will crush your head, and you will strike his heal.” We find symbolism in Genesis 22, when the beloved “only” son Isaac is offered as a sacrifice. We go to Psalm 22, with it odd lines about pierced hands, “counting all my bones,” and laying in the dust of death. Psalm 69 mentions being given vinegar to drink, which, of course, happened to Jesus on the cross. We turn to the symbolism of Jonah, which Jesus himself sanctioned when he said, “As Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40). We find Zechariah’s prophecies of the gentle king who is pierced. There are many others.

Yet, more than any other passage, we think of Isaiah 53, which is quoted directly by New Testament writers on six different occasions. “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). “…the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). “…he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7). “He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death” (Isaiah 53:9). “Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days” (Isaiah 53:10). “…he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12).

We know the Gospel writers had these texts in mind because they referred to them again and again. Yet when Paul says, “according to the Scripture”; when Jesus said, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44); they both had more in mind than isolated texts which in hindsight appear to refer to the Messiah’s death. When Paul writes, “according to the Scripture,” he has in mind the story the whole Bible tells.

Remember that Paul was writing this to Gentiles living in Corinth, some of whom had never seen or heard the Bible before he arrived. With his help, those Gentiles had learned how to read the story of the Old Testament. More than that, with his help they were learning how to read that twisting story of sin and rebellion – and redemption – as their story.

Now they had a story long before Paul arrived with the gospel. They were Corinthians. Their city had been around for thousands of years. They had one of the most prestigious universities in the world. They had the Corinthian Games, which rivalled the Olympics and drew elite athletes from around the Mediterranean. They were affluent and influential and cosmopolitan. They were also an economic powerhouse.

The Corinthian story was impressive. When people asked, “Where are you from?” the first readers of this letter could answer proudly, “I’m from Corinth.” Their people had fought successfully in the Peloponnesian wars. They were part of the Achaian League. Their entire city had been rebuilt in 44 B.C. and was, in Paul’s day, a modern, beautiful, thriving place.

But Paul was teaching the Corinthians to locate themselves not on the Isthmus of Corinth but in the pages of the Bible. How absolutely crucial that is to success in the Christian life. They might be proud of Corinth’s history, but when they joined Christ it was the Bible story that became most important for them. It was the Bible story that revealed their true identity. The Bible story signaled who they were now.

The same thing is true of us. It is absolutely crucial that we find ourselves in the pages of the Bible. The most important parts of your story (if you are a Christian) didn’t happen in Michigan or Indiana or Ohio. They happened in Egypt and Babylon and, especially, in Israel. They didn’t happen in your lifetime. They happened thousands of years before your introduction into the narrative. They didn’t happen because of something you did. They didn’t happen because of something your parents did. They didn’t happen because your grandpa fought in the Battle of Midway, or George Washington led the charge at the Battle of Monmouth, or Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

I’m not saying you should not be proud of your grandpa or your country or your state.  I’m saying you should be even prouder of Jesus. Your identity has much more to do with the victory won at Calvary than the victories won at Midway or Saratoga. Our story is the story of the Bible and that is where our identity is found.

Our story is the story of Adam and Eve, the rebels who rejected the rule of God, were exiled from the Garden, and found themselves under the curse. But the story of sin, loss, and alienation – which has been repeated in every human life – doesn’t end there. It goes on to tell of the God who refused to give up on his creation, who chose Abraham and made a covenant with him to reverse the curse and bring blessing to all the people of the earth. It is the story of slavery and exile, but also of redemption and rescue, and it is our story.

Someone might say it is the worst kind of cultural appropriation to filch the story of Israel for ourselves. But this isn’t Israel’s story. It is God’s story. He brought Israel into it through Abraham, and he brought us into it through Jesus, and the story continues to this day. Did we think the world started with us?

It is a story of exile – lostness, weakness, and oppression by powers greater than us. (That is Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the Chronicles.) But it is also the story of redemption, release, and return. (That is Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Zechariah). It is especially the story of the return of the King and the establishment of his kingdom (2 Samuel 7; Isaiah 52; Daniel 7; Zechariah 12). And we have a place in this story.

The gospel, the good news we share, is always the good news that God’s kingdom has arrived though Jesus Christ. That is the “according to the Scriptures” story. “Christ died for our sins” means what it means according to the Scriptures”; that is, within the story of the restoration of God’s rule – his kingdom – over all the earth. Because he died for our sins, we can be admitted into God’s kingdom as citizens and agents.

But for what sins did Christ die? Surely a little anger, sloth, pride, lust, or greed isn’t enough to bar a person from God’s kingdom? Why, everyone on earth is guilty of such things. If God were to exclude us from entering his kingdom because of sin, there would be no one in his kingdom!

That’s not true. There still would be one person in the kingdom: the messiah, the servant of God, the promise keeper, the covenant mediator, the Rescuer-King, Jesus. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth” (1 Peter 2:22). He was what God’s people were meant to be. He did what God’s people were meant to do. He is Israel personified. He is humanity summed up.

We fail to understand why sin should be an obstacle to the kingdom of God because we don’t know what sin is. We think of sin as an I shouldn’t have done that but I’ll do better in the future kind of thing (though, left to ourselves, we won’t do better in the future because sin always grows deeper in and further out).

But sin doesn’t keep us out of God’s kingdom because it is a mistake but because it signals a rebellion. Sin is a seed that bears bitter fruit – greed, lust, anger, sloth, and pride – but the kernel of that seed is always rejection of God’s rule. Our story is about people – starting with Adam and Even but continuing right down to us – who turn away from God and reject his rule.

It is the story of humans suppressing the truth, ignoring God, and replacing him with other gods, ones they themselves have made. You say, “That was thousands of years ago when humans were superstitious and illogical. 21st century people don’t do that kind of thing.” But I say, “The gods have always been shape-shifters and they are as present today as they ever have been. In the prophets’ day, Baal and Molech were among the gods that could make someone successful. People sacrificed a great deal to them, on occasion even their own children. Today the shape-shifting gods have assumed other names: education, economy, science, and politics. If you think people aren’t still sacrificing to these gods – sometimes even their own children – you are fooling yourself.

I’m not saying that education and science and these other things are bad. Quite the opposite: In themselves they are good and it is important we understand that. But when they become a substitute for the God who made us; when we trust in them instead of him; when we turn from him to embrace them – which millions of people across our country have done and are doing – we are on the wrong side. C. S. Lewis was right: “…fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must laydown his arms.”[1]

Imagine you work for Citizenship and Immigration Services and it is your job to decide whether someone is granted citizenship or not. One person you interview tells you: “I don’t believe in this country. I won’t sacrifice anything for this country. I believe another country is better and I will serve that country and be a propagandist for it. I don’t promise to be loyal to this country and, if I can find any way around it, I will never pay a cent in taxes. However, I am applying for citizenship and the privileges it entails and I think you should grant it.” What would your answer be? You know what it would be.

But we want God’s answer to be different? We want him to grant us kingdom citizenship when we are serving another kingdom? God wants to grant us kingdom citizenship, but only if we will confess King Jesus as Lord. We simply cannot enter God’s kingdom if we refuse to be ruled by Jesus. That is a contradiction in terms.

Yet that is the nature of sin – to refuse, reject, and replace God. Do you see? We are still in “the according to Scripture” story – the kingdom of God story of rebellion and ofredemption, of sin and of the Rescuer-king who dies for our sin. And, because it is still going on, it can also be the story of forgiveness, a new start, and a life that is finally on track for those who give their loyalty to “Christ [who] died for our sins, according to the Scriptures.”


[1] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952; repr., San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 56.

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