Over the past three months, I have been looking at some thirty-eight books about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, as part of "The Third Quest For The Historical Jesus." We have noted the theological argument over the past two decades and in particular during the 1990's and especially in relationship to the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
An experience with the Risen Christ could change a person's whole life round. Listen to this statement by a millionaire super-star: "I sit in my house in Buffalo and sometimes I get so lonely it's unbelievable. Life has been so good to me. I've got a great wife, good kids, money, my own health, and I'm lonely and bored. I often wondered why so many rich people commit suicide. Money sure isn't a cure all." Fame and fortune did not lead to happiness with this man. They did not give him the capacity to handle life or live with integrity, as the more recent events in the life of O J Simpson illustrate. (People Magazine, June 12, 1978)
Some scholars in this debate argue that the Gospel stories of the empty tomb and Jesus' post- Resurrection appearances are fictitious. Must a Christian believe in Jesus' bodily resurrection? Does Christianity owe its origins to the Resurrection? Paul wrote "If Christ is not raised then our preaching is in vain and so is your faith." A former Catholic priest and Biblical scholar in Chicago, John Dominic Crossan, says that the tomb of Jesus was empty. That is because the body of Jesus had already been eaten by wild dogs. Crossan does not believe the historical evidence in the New Testament because he believes the account is a legend.
We accept there were no witnesses to the Resurrection. The New Testament writers describe the tomb as empty and that they had seen and met with the Risen Lord over a period of seven weeks. Paul was turned round completely after meeting Jesus on the Damascus Road, twenty years later!
The scholarly debate agrees that resurrection does not mean the resuscitation of a corpse. A medical resuscitation of a patient who dies on the operating table is good news for the patient and family, observes Luke Timothy Johnson, Professor at Candler School of Theology, but it is not good news that affects everyone else. In proclaiming that Jesus had been resurrected, they were asserting that "after His death, Jesus entered into an entirely new form of existence, one in which He shared the power of God and in which he could share that power with others... Sharing in Jesus' new life through the power of the Holy Spirit is an essential dimension of the resurrection." We must examine the evidence for ourselves:
1. THE RESURRECTION APPEARANCES.
Few scholars deny Jesus appeared to the apostles and to hundreds of His followers after His death. The debate is how to interpret these "visions." Paul's testimony that the disciples saw Jesus is not disputed. Peter saw the Risen Lord. Again most scholars agree Peter believed he saw Jesus. The Twelve Apostles saw Jesus on several occasions. Luke (24:36-42) and John 20:19-20 cover different appearances. The resurrected Jesus shows his wounds and eats with the disciples. There were the 500 believers who saw Jesus at the one time. Paul challenges sceptics to ask them because most of them were alive at that time.
Then there was James. He was the younger brother of Jesus and the conversion of His brother James, is one of the strongest testimonies to the fact of the resurrection. James and his brothers never believed in Jesus, until after they saw Him risen from the dead. The only explanation of James and his brothers worshipping their 'brother' is if Jesus really did appear to them. Then there was Paul. The conversion of Paul, the persecutor of the Christians, is another amazing testimony to the fact of the resurrection. Why would Paul give up all he had to follow a peasant Jew, unless Jesus appeared to him resulting in blindness for three days?
2. THESE ACCOUNTS ARE HISTORICALLY RELIABLE.
There was only a very short time between the crucifixion and resurrection and the writing of these accounts. The gospels show no sign of legendary writing. Legends do not typically have the vast amount of historical testimony the gospel accounts do. The gospels mention cities, governors, provinces, names of people and many other details that could easily be verified. In all the early Christian and Jewish records there are no contradictory accounts.
3. THERE IS STRONG EVIDENCE FOR THE RESURRECTION.
There are six lines of evidence for the historicity of Jesus' appearances. The resurrection of Jesus is the central fact of the Christian faith. The entire structure of Christianity, the hope for eternal life and for any meaning to human existence, stands or falls with Christ's resurrection. As Paul wrote: "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins." (1 Cor 15:17). His resurrection is the most important event of history and is the most certain fact in all history.
a. The very fact of Christianity is proof in itself. The preaching of the apostles (Acts 2:22-36; 3:14-15; 4:10-12; 10:36-43; 13:26-39; 17:31; 26:22, 23; etc.) always centred on the resurrection. "With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus." (Acts 4:33) This was the message that won thousands to faith in Christ and indeed, as their enemies alleged, "turned the world upside down" (Acts 17:6).
b. Worship on a Sunday. The first Christians were devout Jews, accustomed to worshipping faithfully on the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week, but now they began meeting instead on the first day, because that was the day of the resurrection.
c. The institution of the Lord's Supper. Their greatest annual observance was the Passover, but this soon became Easter for them, when they realised that Christ had fulfilled the Passover, dying as the Lamb of God, and then rising again from the dead. The observance of the Lord's day, Easter and the Lord's Supper, can be traced back to apostolic times and only the resurrection can account for them.
d. The existence of the Christian Church. There is no doubt that the apostles and early Christians, by the tens of thousands, believed and preached the resurrection. Is it possible they could have been wrong and their faith was based on wicked deception or fanatical delusion? Highly unlikely.
e. Their willingness to suffer for truth. They suffered severely for their faith, losing their possessions and lives in the great Jewish and Roman persecutions of the first century. Would they have persisted in their testimony if they knew it was a lie?
f. There is the evidence of the empty tomb. The tomb had been sealed with the Roman seal and was guarded, under pain of death, by a detachment of 16 Roman soldiers, and a great stone weighing several tons was rolled in front of its entrance. Yet on the first Easter morning, the soldiers fled in terror, the stone was rolled away, and the body vanished from the grave, with the grave clothes still as they had lain before He had passed out of them. The empty tomb has never been explained, except by the bodily resurrection of Jesus.
If the body actually were still there, where the Jews or Romans had seen it, and had guarded it, they would certainly have produced it as a sure means of immediately quenching the spreading flame of the Christian faith. If the apostles or other friends of Jesus somehow had the body themselves, and thus knew He was dead, they could never have preached His resurrection as they did, knowing it would surely mean persecution for them and possibly death. No man will willingly sacrifice his life for something he knows to be a lie! Even the empty tombs speaks eloquently of His resurrection.
4. WELL, ARE THERE ANY CREDIBLE ALTERNATIVE VIEWS?
Some have suggested that these post-resurrection appearances of Christ were only hallucinations. But hallucinations don't occur repeatedly like this, to individuals and to groups, indoors and outdoors. They themselves first Luke 24:37 "were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost." But then He invited them to touch Him and especially to note the nail scars in His hands and feet. He ate dinner with them, and they could no longer doubt that it was Jesus Himself as they had always known Him.
Some have suggested that He never really died, but only fainted on the cross. Some people go to absurd lengths to avoid facing facts. Jesus had been through hours of intense psychological pressure, the scouring with the whip for 39 lashes, the nailing through the wrists and ankles, the hanging for nine hours in the sun, no drugs, the spear thrust up into His side piercing the pericardium so that blood and fluid ran out. Any wound in the abdomen would bring gross infection. He was open to the flies, infection, no control of bowel or bladder, exhaustion, disjointed bones. Jesus was in the vertical position, just the worst position for any possible lingering of life. Anybody surviving this would be invalids for months. Yet on the Sunday Jesus was whole, walking and talking, showing the scars in his hands and side!
The Roman soldiers knew death and they pronounced Him dead. Some modern scholars like Barbara Theiring have repeated an old claim that maybe Jesus had just swooned. Grievously wounded and weakened, an almost-dead Jesus could never have survived the three days in the tomb, avoided the infection, recovered from the wounds, shifted the massive stone from the door, escaped unseen past the Romans, walked seven miles into Jerusalem, go through locked doors and then inspire His disciples to the heights of courage and power which they soon began to manifest. You would have to have great faith to believe that!
There is no other fact of history supported by such strong evidence! The final evidence is the reality of the assurance of salvation and eternal life, enjoyed by each person who believes! "You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart!"
We simply place our personal faith in the living Christ. Rom 10:9 "if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."
Jesus came to give people eternal life and the capacity to cope with what ever life brings them here and now. That experience of the Risen Christ is testified to by millions of people over the centuries. Even people who do not believe in the Resurrection of Jesus find themselves strangely drawn to it. One of the writers who rejects the resurrection of Christ finds himself strangely drawn to it. Bishop John Shelby Spong writes: "What we cannot finally deny is that Easter dawned and that a community of people became convinced that Jesus was alive in a new way and that the grave of death could not contain the meaning of his life. Furthermore we cannot deny that because of their conviction their lives were dramatically and qualitatively different, and that they were able to pass that difference on for two thousand years so that you and I can now be part of the community that lives in this conviction. So here I stand, a citizen of the twentieth century, called, I believe, to live as a part of the people of the resurrection. And living here, I assert that Jesus lives, that death cannot contain him, that Jesus is Lord."
Why not join with the Easter people? Believe in the Risen Lord with all you heart and find Him as your friend and Saviour.
REFERENCES USED IN THIS SERMON:
THE HISTORICAL JESUS J D Crossan Harper 1989
JESUS UNDER FIRE M J Wilkins & J P Moreland 1995
THE JESUS QUEST B Witherington 111 IVP 1995
RESURRECTION:MYTH OR REALITY J S Spong Harper 1994
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