God of the Living

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on November 3, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or read below).

We don’t live in a culture that seeks to understand. We live in a culture of people who think they’re right and want to shut down anyone opposed to them. Or, that’s how it seems to me, at least. It appears that many people of different persuasions want to assume that what others believe is incoherent, and, if put to the test, absurd. And the way that people sometimes try to prove this is through what you might call a “gotcha” question.

Let me give you an example of such a question that some Christians have asked atheists who believe in some form of Darwinian evolution. They ask something like this, “If humans have evolved from apes, why are there still apes?” The question is supposed to expose how foolish the evolutionists are. Now, I don’t believe in some form of Darwinian evolution, or what is called macroevolution. I don’t believe that random, undirected mutations of DNA could, against all the odds, produce different species. I don’t believe in that for theological reasons, but also scientific ones. I have studied what neo-Darwinians believe and I find errors in their reasoning. And because of that, I recognize that the “gotcha question” I posed earlier is a really bad one. Darwinians don’t believe that we evolved from apes who, inexplicably, still exist when natural selection should have wiped them out. No, they believe that we and modern apes have a common ancestor, an ape-like species that no longer exists. To quote an atheistic neo-Darwinian, Jerry Coyne, “We are apes descended from other apes, and our closest cousin is the chimpanzee, whose ancestors diverged from our own several million years ago in Africa.”[1]

Now, I’m not going to talk a lot more about evolution. My point is that Christians can engage in this “gotcha” question business. Of course, atheists do it, too. You’ve probably heard someone question your belief in the Bible by asking a question like, “Adam and Eve (at first) had two sons, Cain and Abel. Cain killed Abel, and then we’re told Cain had a wife. Where did she come from?” Or, atheists and Muslims might question the doctrine of the Trinity. “How can God be one and three? Isn’t that a contradiction?” They might question the doctrine of the incarnation: “How can Jesus be fully God and fully man?”

There are many different answers to those questions. Adam and Eve might have had daughters that we’re not told about, and Cain could have married one of them. God is three persons who share one divine substance, who are so united in their thoughts, will, and purpose that they act as one. Jesus is the only person with two natures, one divine and one human. And there are excellent books written about these subjects.[2]

But my point is not to answer those questions in detail. I bring all of this up because today, in the Gospel of Luke, we’re going to see some of Jesus’ enemies ask him a “gotcha” question. They don’t come to him seeking to understand what he believed. Instead, they try to trap him with what they think is not only a tricky question, but one that can’t be answered well at all. And Jesus answers them by showing that they’re wrong. Then, he asks his own “gotcha” question, and they can’t, or won’t, answer him.

We’ll see all of this in Luke 20:27–44. I invite you to turn there now. If you haven’t been with us, the Gospel of Luke is one of four biographies of Jesus that we have in the Bible. We’re getting closer to the end of the story that Luke tells. Jesus is now in Jerusalem, and it’s three days before he will be crucified. He is facing opposition from all kinds of people, including different groups of Jewish theologians and leaders and politicians. Eventually, he’ll face Gentiles, too. None of these people can show that Jesus is in the wrong.

We’ll begin by reading verses 27–33:

27 There came to him some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection, 28 and they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, having a wife but no children, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers. The first took a wife, and died without children. 30 And the second 31 and the third took her, and likewise all seven left no children and died. 32 Afterward the woman also died. 33 In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had her as wife.”[3]

We’ve met the Pharisees before. They were one group of prominent Jewish religious leaders in Jesus’ time. Now, we meet the Sadducees. They were “the priestly aristocracy of the Jewish people.”[4] The name “Sadducee” comes from Zadok, who served as high priest about a thousand years earlier, when Solomon was the king of Israel. Many of the high priests in the first century were Sadducees. But most English speakers learn who they are by this little saying: “The Sadducees denied life after death, which is why they were sad, you see.” Luke tells us that they denied there is a resurrection. They also didn’t believe that all of the Hebrew Bible was binding. They adhered to the first five books of the Bible, the books of Moses. And, they thought, since those books don’t clearly teach about the afterlife, there must not be any.

These men come up to Jesus to try to show him that the doctrine of life after death is absurd. So, they come up with an outlandish scenario. But first, they quote Moses. What they’re referring to is part of the law that God gave to Israel through Moses. This is what Deuteronomy 25:5–6 says:

If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.

This practice is very strange to our modern ears, but the law held that if a man dies, leaving a childless widow, his brother should take the widow as a wife and give her a son. In that day, widows were very vulnerable. They wouldn’t or couldn’t make much money, and they would have to rely upon the kindness of strangers, as it were, to survive. But perhaps more importantly, if the dead man had no left no children to carry on his name, it would “be blotted out of Israel.” It would be as if the man never lived. In the Sadducees’ way of thinking, since there is no afterlife, the only way to have one’s memory retained is through descendants. Perhaps some atheists today might think something similar: it’s important to leave a legacy.

Assuming that law, and that people are married in the resurrection, the Sadducees then present their absurd scenario, which isn’t seven brides for seven brothers, but one bride for seven brothers. A woman is married to one brother who dies, leaving her without a child. Brother two steps in, but he dies before the woman can have a son. The same happens with brothers three, four, five, six, and seven. So, this poor woman has been married to all seven brothers, not one of which has fathered a child.

Now, the Sadducees, ask, perhaps holding back their snickering, “In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be?” They assume that life in the resurrection will be like this life, only eternal. They assume that people will be married in that life. So, who will this woman be married to? Not one of these brothers has a better claim on her than the others. Will she be married to all seven? That seems absurd. In fact, the Sadducees are employing a tactic called reduction ad absurdum: they think they are reducing a belief in the resurrection to an absurdity. If we are raised from the dead, they think, then absurd situations will result.

Now, using that technique isn’t always wrong. Sometimes the best way to test out an idea is to see what consequences would follow from it if it were true. But to use that technique rightly, you have to understand the idea in the first place. And that’s were these men fail.

Let’s look at Jesus’ answer in verses 34–40:

34 And Jesus said to them, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, 35 but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, 36 for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection. 37 But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. 38 Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him.” 39 Then some of the scribes answered, “Teacher, you have spoken well.” 40 For they no longer dared to ask him any question.

Jesus tells them they’re wrong. I don’t know why, but Luke doesn’t include what Matthew and Mark do. In Matthew 22:29, Jesus says, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.” The Sadducees don’t understand the Hebrew Bible, they don’t understand the resurrection, and they don’t understand that God has the power to raise up people from the dead.

So, Jesus corrects them. He says that people marry in this age, but they won’t do that in the new creation. In the new creation, there is no death, and no need to produce more people. Procreation will no longer be needed. And God’s purpose for marriage will have an end. I’ll explain why in a moment. But the key thing that Jesus is correcting is their assumption that eternal life is going to be exactly like this life, only infinitely longer. Jesus is implying that things will be dramatically different in the new creation.

Then, to show that the Sadducees are wrong about their denial of the resurrection, Jesus meets them where they are. It’s like he’s saying, “You believe in what Moses wrote? I do, too. Now, don’t you know in Exodus 3, when God speaks to Moses at the burning bush, he says that he is the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Those men were dead for hundreds of years. God didn’t say he was their God. No, he still is, because Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob still exist. They haven’t been resurrected yet, but they will be one day. Still, they’re alive as spirits in heaven. God is the God of the living, not the dead.”

The technique that Jesus uses here is a great one to use. You start by pointing out something that both you and your debate partner agree on. Then, you show how your beliefs better explain that agreed-upon data better than your opponent’s beliefs. Christians, we can do this with human rights. We can say to atheists and agnostics, “You believe in human rights? I do, too. Now, if there’s no God and we’re the product of undirected, impersonal forces, why should all humans have rights. If we’re continually evolving, and if natural selection tends to eliminate the least fit members of a species, why shouldn’t we treat only those who are healthy, smart, and talented as fully human and ignore the needs of the disabled and people who are less gifted? That really doesn’t make sense. But if we’re all created by God and loved by God, then regardless of our abilities, we are all valuable.”

You can do that with other issues, such as rationality, or human intelligence. You could say to the atheist, “You believe that humans have intelligence and can discover the truth? So do I. But if we’re the products of undirected, impersonal, unintelligent forces, and if evolution is driven by the survival of the fittest, then that means that everything about us is tuned for survival, not truth. If every organ of our body, including our brains, are the product of the survival of the fittest, then that means they are good at surviving. But that doesn’t mean our brains will know what is true. Perhaps our brains believe a lot of useful fictions, lies that help us survive longer. But if we’re the products of a super intelligence, God, who has made us in his image and after his likeness, then we are intelligent, too, and can come to know the truth.”

That may sound strange at first, but a number of people, including Darwin himself, have realized that if the universe is the product of a godless process of evolution, then there’s no reason to trust our brains. Even Darwin had this thought.[5] If our thoughts are just the result of chemical reactions in our brains, then there’s no reason to trust they are true. But we couldn’t get anywhere in our thinking if that were the case. That’s why C. S. Lewis once wrote, “A theory which explained everything else in the whole universe but which made it impossible to believe that our thinking was valid, would be utterly out of court.”[6]

Jesus’ answer is brilliant, and even some of his other opponents, the scribes can recognize this. And at this point, no one else—not the Pharisees, the scribes, the Herodians, or the Sadducees—dared ask Jesus another “gotcha” question.

I’m going to come back to the idea of resurrection in a moment, but first I want to see how Jesus asks his own question. Let’s look at verses 41–44:

41 But he said to them, “How can they say that the Christ is David’s son? 42 For David himself says in the Book of Psalms,

“‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
43  until I make your enemies your footstool.”’

44 David thus calls him Lord, so how is he his son?”

This is a bit tricky to understand if you don’t know the Bible. In the Old Testament, God made many promises made that one day, a special person would come who would fix all of the problems of Israel and all of the problems of the world. And, just to give us a more complete picture of the biblical story, in case we don’t know it, in the beginning God made the universe to be a theater for his glory, a temple where he and his people would dwell together in harmony. He made us in his image and after his likeness, which means that we were supposed to have a special relationship with God, one marked by our love of God, our worship of God, and our obedience to God. But the first human beings didn’t love and trust God, and therefore they disobeyed. Ever since, we have lived apart from God’s special presence, separated from him by our sin, which is our rebellion against him. God didn’t abandon his creation, however. He always had a plan to bring his people back to himself. He even promised that one day he would recreate the universe to be a perfect place once again. That’s what I mean when I talk of the resurrection or the new creation. God will recreate the world so that his people live with him forever in a real, physical world, one that doesn’t have an evil or death.

God promised that there would be someone who could bring about this new creation, who could fix this mess. We learn that this figure would come from Israel, from one of Abraham’s descendants. More specifically, he would be of the tribe of Judah. Later, we learn that he will be a descendant of David, the greatest king of Israel who lived and reigned roughly a thousand years before Jesus was on the Earth. This figure would, like kings and priests, be anointed. That’s why he’s called Messiah, which is based on a Hebrew word for “anointed,” or Christ, which is based on a Greek word for “anointed.”

So, Jesus quotes the beginning of Psalm 110, which he says was written by David. Again, this would have been written about a thousand years earlier. In the Psalm, David says that “the Lord,” which we can understand as God or, more specifically, God the Father, said to David’s “Lord,” “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” The “right hand” isn’t a literal description as much as a description of power. Whoever is God’s “right hand man” shares his position of power and authority. God says to David’s Lord, “Come here until I put all your enemies under your feet.” Now, in Jesus’ day, it was assumed that David’s “Lord” would be a king who is his descendant. It could have referred to Solomon, his son. But it doesn’t seem to describe Solomon very well. It seems to be talking about the Christ, a descendant of David who would do more than Solomon could ever do.

Now, how could David, the king, refer to his own descendant as “Lord.” Fathers don’t usually address their sons as their own leaders. In David’s case, his son Solomon wouldn’t become king until after David died. Who could be David’s “Lord” when he wrote this Psalm? That’s what Jesus is asking when he says, “David thus calls him Lord, so how is he his son?”

Jesus doesn’t get an answer from his enemies. Luke doesn’t tell us that clearly, but Matthew says, “no one was able to answer him a word” (Matt. 22:46). What Jesus was getting his audience to consider was that the Christ had to be greater than David, and probably not a mere human being. Because we have the whole Bible, we can answer Jesus’ question. Jesus is David’s Lord. As the Son of God, he has always existed. He existed in David’s day. And he has all the authority and power of God the Father. In fact, other passages in the New Testament say that Jesus is at the right hand of God the Father (Acts 5:31; 7:55–56; Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:20; Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:3; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; 1 Pet. 3:22) and that Jesus will reign until all enemies, including death, are “under his feet” (1 Cor. 15:25–26). Jesus is both David’s son and his God and King, as strange as that may seem, because he is both God and man. The Son of God became a human being over two thousand years ago. He did this without ceasing to be God. He added a second nature to himself, one that coordinates with his divine nature so that he is one person with two natures, fully divine and yet also fully human. And, by the way, David’s son can be his Lord only if there is a resurrection, if David is still exists as a spirit and will, one day, be raised in bodily form from the grave.

Jesus is the answer to the riddle that he asks, just as Jesus is the answer to other riddles of the Old Testament. In Moses’s day, almost fifteen hundred years earlier, God said that he is “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exod. 34:6–7). How can God be merciful and gracious, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and also be a God “who will by no means clear the guilty”? Which is it? Is he going to forgive sin or punish sin? Perhaps it’s both. God’s plan to fix the problems of the world focuses on the problem of sin, because sin is what corrupted the world. To renew the world, God must remove sin. But how can God remove and even destroy sin without destroying his people? If the penalty for sin is death, which is what the Bible says (Rom. 6:23), then how can God be a righteous judge and punish sin without everyone dying forever?

The answer is Jesus. When the Son of God became man, he came to do what we cannot. He came to live a perfect life, always loving, honoring, and obeying God the Father and loving other people. Though he was perfect, he took the death penalty for his people. He died on the cross, an instrument of torture and execution reserved for the enemies of the Roman Empire. But when Jesus died, he didn’t just die a painful death—a literally excruciating death. He also faced the wrath of God, the spiritual punishment for our sin. The best way to understand this quickly is to think of him enduring hell on Earth so that his people don’t have to go to hell. All who trust in Jesus, who put their faith in him and swear their allegiance to him, will be spared that fate.

After Jesus died, he rose from the grave, in a body that cannot die again. He did this to show that the penalty for sin had been paid, that he has power of sin and death, that he is the Son of God, and that his predictions of death and resurrection were true. He also rose from the grave as the first installment of a new creation, a guarantee that someday in the future, all of God’s people will have a resurrection. Jesus then ascended to heaven, to sit at the right hand of God the Father. But he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. Everyone will have a resurrected body, and everyone will live forever. But not everyone will be in the new creation with God. Those who don’t put their trust in Jesus will be cast out, into darkness, into torment.

So, this passage teaches us about the identity of Jesus. He has the same authority and power as God, which is why God the Father can say to him that he is his right hand man. He is the Son of God, which doesn’t mean he has less power or authority than God the Father. But he’s also David’s son because he was born to a descendant of David, Mary, and he lived life as a real, though unique, human being. And from the whole Bible, we know that Jesus is the answer to sin and death. He is the key that unlocks the riddles of the Bible and the gate to the new creation.

We also get a brief glimpse of what life in that new creation will be like. We don’t have a lot of specific information about what life in that perfect world will be like, but from what God has revealed to us, we know that there will be continuities and discontinuities. In other words, some things will be the same, and other things will be different. God’s people will live on Earth, but the Earth will be perfected, with no more sin and evil, no more decay. We will have bodies that are recognizable, but they won’t have the effects of decay and they won’t die. We will worship God, but our worship will be enhanced because will be directly in God’s presence. And we will have relationships with each other, but they will be different. We will no longer be married to one another. Instead, we will be married to God. That sounds really strange at first, but think about what marriage is. It’s supposed to be a lifelong, exclusive relationship of love. We’re told in the Bible that the reason that God created marriage is to provide a picture of the relationship between himself and his people (Eph. 5:32–33). Our marriages right now foreshadow the true marriage. God could have made humans from scratch, instead of having them procreate. He could have made humans that multiply in other ways that don’t involve sex. And God didn’t need to create the only right context for sex, which is marriage. But he did all of this to provide a picture of the relationship he will have forever with his people. Marriage is one metaphor of the relationship between God and his people. There are others. Christ is the head of his body, which is the church. The Holy Spirit dwells in the temple, which is now the church. God is the King of his royal subjects. He is the Master of his servants. Jesus is also our friend and brother. Each metaphor provides us with a different understanding of our relationship to God. In a similar way, Jesus is our groom and we Christians are his bride. That doesn’t mean anything sexual, by the way. That relationship transcends sex and romance. It means that we are bound to one God in an exclusive relationship that includes love and trust. When we make other things more important to our lives, we’re cheating on God. God wants us to be faithful.

Now, the whole idea of no marriage and no sex in eternity sounds very strange to us. We tend to think that sex is one of the most pleasurable experiences that this life provides. But what we don’t know is that eternal life will be so pleasurable and so amazing that we won’t miss sex. To understand this, I want to quote again from C. S. Lewis. This passage comes from the book I already quoted, Miracles:

The letter and spirit of scripture, and of all Christianity, forbid us to suppose that life in the New Creation will be a sexual life; and this reduces our imagination to the withering alternative either of bodies which are hardly recognisable as human bodies at all or else of a perpetual fast. As regards the fast, I think our present outlook might be like that of a small boy who, on being told that the sexual act was the highest bodily pleasure should immediately ask whether you ate chocolates at the same time. On receiving the answer ‘No,’ he might regard absence of chocolates as the chief characteristic of sexuality. In vain would you tell him that the reason why lovers in their carnal raptures don’t bother about chocolates is that they have something better to think of. The boy knows chocolate: he does not know the positive thing that excludes it. We are in the same position. We know the sexual life; we do not know, except in glimpses, the other thing which, in Heaven, will leave no room for it. Hence where fullness awaits us we anticipate fasting.[7]

When we hear about the fact that there won’t be marriage or sex in the new creation, we’re like kids who can’t imagine that sex would exclude what we think is the great pleasure. Perhaps today kids would think that would be playing video games. They might say, “If I can’t play video games while doing that, well, I don’t want to do that at all.” That’s because they can’t imagine a greater pleasure. Right now, we can’t imagine that life in the new creation with God will be so much better than our experience right now that we won’t lack for anything. But that’s what God has told us. Life with him will blow our minds. It will be like this life, only far, far, far greater, to such an extent that we really can’t understand it now. But the reason life will be so much better is because we’ll be with him, and there’s nothing greater than him.

If you are a Christian, continue to put your hope in Christ and live your life in light of eternity. There are things that are more important than marriage and career and entertainments. Even the suffering of this life will be counted as nothing in light of eternity. In fact, our suffering will make us appreciate eternity even more (2 Cor. 4:16–18).

If you are not a Christian, I will tell you this: The only way to experience real life after death, and the only way to have pleasures so great that even sex will count as nothing, is to trust in Jesus. He is the answer to the riddles of your own life. Humble yourself, confess your sin to him, and follow him as if he is your King. He is the only one who can conquer sin and death and unlock the door to a new, greater, more pleasurable eternal life.

Notes

  1. Jerry A. Coyne, Why Evolution Is True (New York: Penguin, 2009), 192. He goes on to assert, “These are indisputable facts.” Well, no they aren’t facts. We don’t have irrefutable proof of such an evolution. As some have said, the theory is underdetermined by the data. For a fine refutation of Darwinian evolution (in its original and modern forms), see Stephen Meyer, Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design (New York: HarperCollins, 2013). See also my review essay on these books: https://wbcommunity.org/two-views-evolution.
  2. The books that deal with creation are many. I would recommend books by Hugh Ross as a starting place. For the Trinity, see Michael Reeves (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012) or Fred Sanders, The Deep Things of God, 2nd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017). For the incarnation, see Thomas V. Morris, The Logic of God Incarnate (1986; reprint, Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2001) or Bruce A. Ware, The Man Jesus Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012).
  3. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  4. Eckhard J. Schnabel, Jesus in Jerusalem: The Last Days (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), 71.
  5. In a letter to William Graham, written on July 3, 1881, Darwin wrote, “With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkeys mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?” In The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin Including an Autobiographical Chapter, ed. Francis Darwin (London: John Murray, Albermarle Street, 1887), 1:315–16, quoted in Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 316.
  6. C. S. Lewis, Miracles, rev. ed. (1960; New York: HarperOne, 2001), 21.
  7. Lewis, Miracles, 260–61.

 

God of the Living (Luke 20:27-44)

Jesus’ opponents ask him a “gotcha” question, intended to show that he is wrong. Jesus answers their question by showing that they do not understand what Jesus believes, neither do they know the Bible and the God of the Bible. Then, he asks a question of his own that they cannot answer. Find out why God is the God of the living, who Jesus is, and the hope of eternal, resurrected life that we have in him. Pastor Brian Watson preached this sermon, on Luke 20:27-44, on November 3, 2019.

In Christ We Have Hope

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on April 21, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

On a weekend in April, millions of people around the world will gather together in congregations to consider a story. It’s the story of how evil, an enemy, death itself, will be defeated by good in an unlikely way. It’s a story that has captivated millions, a story that has led millions to pour out their passion, their time, and their money. I’m not talking about Easter and the resurrection of Jesus Christ; I’m talking about Avengers: End Game. Yes, the latest Marvel superhero movie is opening next weekend, and it is expected to take in about $300 million in the United States in that first weekend alone.

In case you’ve been living in a cave in Afghanistan, the Avengers are the Marvel Comics superheroes, including Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, and the Hulk. Spider-Man has also joined the group. And in the last Avengers movie, which was released a year ago, the Avengers were up against the most powerful enemy they’ve faced, an otherworldly villain named Thanos. Thanos is the Greek word for death, which is fitting, because Thanos wanted to kill a lot of people in the universe. I don’t want to spoil too much of the movie in case you’ve missed it. Suffice it to say, Thanos succeeded in killing a lot of people, including some people whom the Avengers love. In this new movie, they will try to reverse the effects of death and even destroy the enemy named death.

Now, it may be silly to reference action movies on a day like this, but these movies are extremely popular. The last Avengers movie, Avengers: Infinity War, made $2 billion worldwide. That’s the fourth highest-grossing movie of all time (if you don’t adjust for inflation). The first Avengers movie made $1.5 billion and the second made $1.4 billion. Black Panther, another movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, made $1.36 million. Three other Marvel movies have made over $1 billion worldwide. So, people do pour out their money to watch these movies. And they pour out their time. I saw on Facebook a meme that suggested that fans should watch all of the twenty-one Marvel movies in their chronological order (according to time line) to gear up to watch this next movie. That would take over forty hours! And I’m sure there are more than a few people who are doing that.

It’s amazing that millions of people will spend all that time and money to watch fictional tales of superheroes defeating evil—and hopefully defeating death—and yet most people will not take the time and effort to consider what, if anything, they can do in the face of the real enemy, the real death that awaits us all. Is there any hope of life after death? Can we really rest in peace? If so, do we all rest in peace, or only some of us? How can we know such things?

I find that most people don’t spend much time asking these types of questions. They don’t think about why we’re here, where we’ve come from, and what the meaning of life is. Most people have some idea about what is wrong with the world, but I don’t think many people have correctly identified the root cause of evil. And few people seem to look ahead and think carefully about death and what comes after. Yet anyone with a well-thought-out worldview should think about these questions and should have answers that are coherent and true.

This morning, we’re going to hear about some of the most important parts of the Christian worldview. We’re going to consider what the Bible says is good news, and we’re going to think about the core events of that message. We’re going to look at some of 1 Corinthians, a letter that the apostle Paul wrote to Christians in the Greek city of Corinth in the year 54 or 55, a little over twenty years after Jesus died and rose from the grave. Specifically, we’re going to look at parts of chapter 15.

We’ll begin by looking at the first two verses:

1 Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.[1]

Paul wants to remind his readers of the gospel, which means “good news.” It’s the central message of Christianity. It’s a word that’s found in the book of Isaiah, from the Old Testament (Isa. 40:9; 41:27; 52:7; 61:1). Roughly seven hundred years before Jesus came to the world, God promised that he would comfort his people, that he would provide a way for them to be forgiven of their sin, and that he would even remake the world into a paradise, where there is no more evil and death. The problem with our world is that we sin, which is a rebellion against God, a failure to love him and obey him. God made us to love him with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. He made us to live under his rule, which is good because God is a good King and a loving Father. He made us to worship him and obey him, and to relate to him as children. He made us to love one another. The problem is that we don’t do those things, certainly not perfectly. And as a result, our sin separates us from God (Isa. 59:2). Because of sin, the first human beings were kicked out of a garden paradise and put into a wilderness where there is evil, fighting, wars, diseases, and death. All the bad things we experience in this world can be traced to our sin—the sin of the first human beings and our own sins. That’s the bad news. But the good news is that God has provided everything we need to be reconciled to him, to have that separation between him and us eliminated. And he has promised that one day in the future, he will restore the world so that it once again is a paradise, where God and his people dwell in peace, harmony, and happiness.

Paul says that it is by this gospel message that people are being saved—if they hold fast to it. Salvation isn’t a one-time experience. It is an ongoing experience, an ongoing relationship with Jesus. If you don’t have a deep, abiding faith that has changed your life, you really haven’t believed in Jesus.

Now let’s look at the content of the gospel. Let’s read verses 3–8:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

Here is the heart of the Christian message: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” and “he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” The Bible states that Jesus died on a cross, an instrument of torture, shame, and death reserved for enemies of the Roman Empire, and that he died while Pontius Pilate was governor. This squares with all the early historical knowledge of Jesus that we have outside of the Bible. But only the Bible, God’s written word, tells us why he died—to take the penalty for our sins that we deserve. Though Jesus is the only perfect person who has lived, though he never sinned, he died because our sin deserves the death penalty. He also rose from the grave on the third day, to show that he paid for the sins of his people in full, to demonstrate that he has power over sin and death, and to show what will happen to all who trust in him—they, too, will rise from the dead in bodies that are immortal and imperishable. All of this was in line with Old Testament prophecy. (Jesus’ death was prophesied in Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53, particularly Isa. 53:5, 12. His resurrection was prophesied in Ps. 16:10; Isa. 53:10–12.[2]) In short, God promised this would happen, and it did.

Not only that, it was witnessed by hundreds of people. Paul here is probably quoting some early type of creedal statement about Jesus’ death and resurrection. The parallel clauses that begin with “that” indicate it was structured in a way that made it easy to be memorized and recited. The language of “delivering” and “receiving” suggests this was a statement that he received from the apostles within the first few years after Jesus died and rose from the grave. And that’s important, because that means that this was the message about Jesus from the beginning. This isn’t some myth that was created many years after Jesus lived.

Also, Paul is writing an open letter to people in a very cosmopolitan city. If Jesus didn’t actually die on the cross and rise up from the grave, and if all these people didn’t see him, someone could easily refute Paul. In fact, Paul would have to be the boldest liar to say such things if they weren’t true. If there were people who knew that Jesus didn’t die on the cross, or that he was killed and his corpse was still in a tomb, they would have challenged Paul. But we don’t have any documents from the first century that contradict the Christian message. Paul is stating that these key events of Christianity are not just religious beliefs—these are historical facts, and hundreds of people could bear witness to these facts, though some of the witnesses had already died. (“Fallen asleep” is a euphemism for “died.”)

Paul is stating in the strongest way that Jesus’ resurrection is true. He goes on to say that if it’s not true, Christianity is false. Let’s skip ahead to read verses 12–19:

12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

Here’s what Paul is saying: Consider what would be the case if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. If there’s no resurrection of Jesus, Paul says, our preaching and your faith is in vain. It’s all a lie. It means that we’ve been misrepresenting God, which is a great sin. And it means that we’re all still in our sins. If Jesus didn’t rise from the grave, there’s no salvation, there’s no future resurrection for Christians. If Jesus didn’t rise from the grave, Christianity’s all a sham. If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, Christians are fools, because they give up so much to follow someone who clearly wasn’t the Messiah and the Son of God.

Paul was saying that because apparently some people didn’t believe in the resurrection. The idea that a dead man could come back to life in a body that can never die again was just as unbelievable then as it is now. People in the Greco-Roman world who believed in life after death didn’t believe that the afterlife would be physical. Today, it seems scientifically impossible that the dead could come back to life. But Paul swears that Jesus did rise from the grave.

Before we move on, I must stress how important it is to know that Christianity is based on historical truths. Some people tend to think religious beliefs aren’t real. They tend to think that if those beliefs make you feel better, well, that’s nice. But if Christianity isn’t true, it doesn’t matter if it makes you feel better. If it’s not true, you will still die, and there will be no rescue for you. That would make Christian preachers evil, for they are giving false promises. It would be like telling cancer patients that everything will be alright as long as they take this pill, which is nothing more than a placebo. If Christianity isn’t true, it’s useless. If any religion isn’t true, it’s useless. But Paul states that Christianity is true, that it’s the only way to be right with God. And I stand here telling you that same message.

Now, let’s move on and read verses 20–26:

20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

Paul says some amazing things here. First, he says that Jesus’ resurrection is proof that everyone who trusts in him will rise from the dead. The “firstfruits” was the first portion of the crop. It was the promise that the rest of the crop was coming. Jesus’ resurrected body was the first installment of a new creation. It was the deposit, the down payment, the first installment of a new creation that God promises is coming. One day, God will remove all evil, decay, and death from the world.

Paul then says that death came into the world through Adam. Adam and Eve, the first human beings sinned. But Adam was the head, the representative of humanity, and he sinned. And because he sinned, God put a partial punishment on the world, including death. Now, you might not think it’s fair that someone else would represent us the way Adam did. But we are represented by others, often by people we didn’t choose. Many people didn’t vote for our president, but he’s still their president. I’m represented in Congress by people for whom I did not vote. And all of us inherit things, specifically our genes, from people we didn’t choose to be our ancestors. Our first ancestor failed in the greatest way when he thought that he could be like God, and therefore didn’t obey God’s commandments. If we were in his place, we would have done the same, and we willingly sin against God. As a result, we all die.

So, Christianity tells us where we came from: God made people in his image, beginning with Adam and Eve. Christianity tells us what the purpose of life is, to know, love, worship, and obey God. Christianity also tells us what’s wrong with the world: our sin, which introduced all the evil we see in the world. And Christianity tells us the solution to that problem.

Jesus came to undo death, to defeat thanos. The first part of that defeat was when Jesus rose from the grave. But the victory over death won’t be completed until Jesus comes again. At that time, all who are united to Jesus by faith will be resurrected from the dead. Jesus will destroy every authority, every power that is opposed to God. Jesus is the King, and he will prevail. He will even destroy the last enemy—death itself. Death will die.

Now, many think that that’s just wishful thinking. Atheists don’t believe in a life after death. In fact, they don’t believe that life has any meaning or purpose. Here’s what Richard Dawkins, perhaps the most famous living atheist, once said:

In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.[3]

Another atheist, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell, believed that the world is “purposeless” and “void of meaning.”[4] He says that we are “the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms,” that nothing “can preserve an individual life beyond the grave,” that “all the labors of the ages” and “the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.”[5] In an equally cheery passage, Russell writes, “The life of man is a long march through the night, surrounded by invisible foes, tortured by weariness and pain . . . . One by one, as they march, our comrades vanish from our sight, seized by the silent orders of omnipotent death.”[6]

Now, you have to give credit to these atheists. At these moments, they have the courage to embrace the less pleasant aspects of a consistently-held atheistic worldview. If there is no God, you can’t say there’s any meaning to life, any prescribed purpose. In fact, as Dawkins admits, you can’t say that anything is good or evil. We’re here today and gone tomorrow, and all our achievements—in fact, all of humanity’s achievements—will be swallowed up in death.

However, there is a problem. One, the atheistic worldview can’t account for things that are very important to us, things like rationality and intelligence, purpose and meaning, love and human rights.[7] Two, the atheistic worldview isn’t livable. Elsewhere in their writings, both Dawkins and Russell say that there is good and evil, and they assume that there are purposes in life. They’re cheating on their own worldview, and borrowing from a Christian worldview, or least a theistic worldview, to fill in the gaps of their own belief system.

So, atheism can’t give us hope. What other worldviews are there? Well, there are many. And some do give us the promise of eternal life. Other religions like Islam or Mormonism promise eternal life. But eternal life in these religions is based on your works. You earn salvation in those religions. And these religions say very different things about God and Jesus. Islam talks about Jesus, but it regards him only as a prophet, certainly not the Son of God. And according to the Qur’an, Jesus didn’t die on the cross. That means there’s no atonement, no one who paid the price for your sins. And it means there’s no resurrection, so how can we be sure that we will rise from the grave in the future if Jesus didn’t rise from the grave in the past? Mormonism has its own unique beliefs, but it’s basically a religion of works. And both have historical problems. There is no historical evidence to support that Jesus didn’t die on the cross, and there is no historical evidence supporting the alleged ancient history that the Book of Mormon tells us about. And both religions were supposedly revealed to two men, who had private experiences of meeting an angel, or so they say. Christianity wasn’t revealed to just one man. As Paul says, many people saw Jesus, both before and after his death and resurrection. The truth of Christianity is supported by public historical events witnessed by many people, and we have different streams of testimony by people who bore witness to what they had seen, heard, and even touched (1 John 1:1–4).

I think most people aren’t atheists or Muslims or Mormons. I think most Americans are basically deists. A deist is someone who believes in a god who isn’t too involved with the world and who doesn’t place many demands on people. Over a decade ago, a couple of sociologists studied the religious beliefs of teenagers, and they concluded that most teens had a worldview that could be called “moralistic therapeutic deism.” These sociologists, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, summarized the beliefs of these teenagers in the following way:

1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.[8]

I think most Americans have that view of God and the world. But we must ask this question: who created that system of beliefs? Who says God is like that? That God places few demands on his creation. He’s like a doting grandfather who gives his grandchildren a little money and says, “Now go and play, and be nice to each other.”

The God described in that view is not the God of the Bible. The God of the Bible expects holiness and righteousness. Because he loves us, he wants the best for us, and because sin destroys us and the rest of his creation, God hates sin. It takes away from his glory and it ruins his creation. The Bible says that we can’t fix the problem of sin or earn a right standing with God. But God is merciful and gracious, and he has given us a way to be forgiven of our sin, to come back into a right relationship with him. That way is Jesus. Jesus is the only road that leads back to God and heaven. And we must follow that road, or we will remain in our sins, separated from God.

Salvation is offered freely. But once it is received, it changes one’s life. As I said earlier, salvation is a process, and real faith is one that perseveres and lasts. Real faith leads people to do hard things in the name of Jesus. Paul certainly did that. He was beaten, imprisoned, and shipwrecked, among other things. About a decade or so after he wrote this letter, he would be executed in Rome. He knew that if Christianity is true, then we can suffer a little while now, because in eternity we will be in glory. But if Christianity is false, then live it up now, for then your life will be extinguished forever.

Let’s look at verses 32–34

32 What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” 33 Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” 34 Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame.

Paul wrote this letter in Ephesus, a significant city in the Roman Empire. And when he says he fought with beasts there, he’s using a metaphor to say he suffered persecution there. Now, why would a person suffer for something unless he thought it was true? Clearly, Paul knew that he was suffering for the risen Christ, the one whom he had seen. If Christianity wasn’t true, Paul would “eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” In other words, if there’s no afterlife, just live it up now. Be selfish. Grab as much pleasure as you can. You only live once, so live large. Your best life is now. In fact, your only life is now.

But Paul knew that was false. He knew eternity was at stake. He knew there are two types of people: those who are associated with Adam, the first sinful man, the man of death, and those who are associated with Jesus, the God-man who gives life. Paul didn’t want to see people condemned, cut off from God and all that is good. That’s why he issues a warning here. He quotes a proverb of sorts, “Bad company ruins good morals.” Be careful who you’re hanging out with and what you do. If you’re truly a Christian, now is the time to wake up and stop sinning. Some people who are in churches, some people who have been baptized and confirmed and all the rest, have no knowledge of God. Their faith is in vain. It’s empty. It’s not real. And they’re not going to be with Jesus forever. Now is the time to wake up, before it is too late.

And I say that to all who are here. Do you know what will happen to you after death? How certain are you? Most people avoid thinking about death, which is a shame, because death will come. Perhaps death is too much to bear, so people avoid thinking about it. I think most people truly want to live forever. Last week, the news of a fire at Notre-Dame in Paris shocked and dismayed many people. Part of that is because the building is a priceless, historical treasure. But I think part of that response is because we assume that some things will be around forever. But the reality is that death will swallow up everything.

However, the good news is that God will destroy death. Christianity gives us amazing promises. Look at verse 53–57:

53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54 When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
55  “O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”

56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

These great truths inspired John Donne to write the following lines:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so . . . .
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Don’t you get a sense of how amazing this is? Don’t you want this to be true? Don’t you ache for a day when death has no power? Don’t you want your lives to have meaning and purpose? Don’t you long for death to be destroyed? Don’t you long for a perfect peace that never ends? God himself is that peace, and he has made a way for us to be at peace. That way is Jesus.

Now is the time to wake from our slumbers, to think about the meaning of life and death. Don’t hear this message and shrug your shoulders. Spend some time looking at the evidence for Christianity. I would love to help you learn more about the Bible and why we should trust that its contents are true. I urge you to turn to Jesus, the God-man, the conqueror of death, and live.

And Christian, know for certain that you will experience that glory. You will receive a body that will never die. But in the meantime, work hard for Jesus. Don’t be like everyone else who says, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” Say, “Let us work hard now, for in eternity we will rest.” Look at the last verse of 1 Corinthians:

58 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.

Notes

  1. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. “New Testament writers may have seen a pattern in God delivering or manifesting himself to his people on the third day (cf. Gen. 22:4; Exod. 19:11, 15, 16; Josh. 1:11; Judg. 20:30; Hos. 6:2; Jon. 1:17).” Thomas R. Schreiner, 1 Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2018), 303.
  3. Richard Dawkins, “God’s Utility Function,” Scientific American 273 (Nov. 1995): 85.
  4. Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” in Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects (New York: Touchstone, 1957), 106.
  5. Ibid., 107.
  6. Ibid., 115.
  7. For more on that subject, see Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical (New York: Viking, 2016).
  8. Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religions and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 162–63.

 

In Christ We Have Hope (1 Corinthians 15)

In this Easter message, Brian Watson shows from 1 Corinthians 15 what the good news of Christianity is and why it gives us hope. Jesus Christ rose from the dead, and all who are united to him by faith will rise from the dead when Jesus returns to destroy the last enemy: death.

The Mystery of Godliness (1 Timothy 3:14-16)

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on July 15, 2018.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

I want you to imagine something. Imagine that you live in England. And imagine you have receive a letter in the mail. This is not just any letter, but an official letter from the British royal family. The letter informs you that Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, and his new wife, Meghan Markle, will be relocating from Nottingham Cottage, on the grounds of Kensington Palace, to your house. That’s right, Prince Harry and his wife, two months after their marriage, are going to live with you. They want to live among the common people, and there’s no discussion, no debate. They’re not asking you if they can live with you. They’re just announcing that they will move in.

How would that change your life? What would you do? You would probably clean your house better than you ever have before. You might buy new furniture. You would be on your best behavior. You would probably make sure you had Harry and Meghan’s favorite foods. Of course, this enthusiasm might wear off over time. But what if you were told that the fate of England depended, at least in part, on how you managed your now-royal house? That would keep you motivated, wouldn’t it?

Okay, that’s a silly thing to imagine, I know. (I deliberately chose British royalty instead of American politicians because American politicians are now so hated.) But you get the point. If you had very special guests in your home, that would probably change how you live. And if you knew that the health of your house affected the whole nation, well, you would probably do your best to live in a right way. Of course, today’s British royals are really symbolic figures. Imagine if King Henry VIII was your royal guest. Now that was a monarch with power. And he was the Supreme Head of the Church of England, too.

Well, there is a greater reality that this should remind us of, one that isn’t just a silly thought experiment. If you are a Christian, you are part of the church, the body of Christ, God’s household, and God’s temple. You are part of God’s home on Earth, his temple where he is worshiped. You are even part of his family. And that should change the way you live. It should change how we live as individuals and how we conduct ourselves in this local church. That’s what we’re going to talk about today.

Three months ago, we started to look at the book of 1 Timothy. It’s a letter written by Paul, an apostle, which is a fancy way of saying a special messenger of Jesus. Paul was commissioned by Jesus to travel throughout the Roman Empire, almost two thousand years ago, to tell other people about Jesus and to plant churches. He helped established a church in Ephesus, a significant city in the Roman Empire located in the western part of what we now call Turkey. Paul left his younger associate Timothy there, to make sure that the church was healthy. Specifically, Paul wanted Timothy to protect the church from false teachers and from bad behaviors. And he wanted Timothy to have the church function according to God’s design for the church. In other words, Paul wanted Timothy to have the church go the way God wanted it to go.

Today, after some recent detours from 1 Timothy, we get to the center of the letter, which states why Paul wrote it. Since we’re looking at only three verses of this book today, let’s read them all right now. This is 1 Timothy 3:14–16:

14 I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, 15 if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth. 16 Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness:

He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory.[1]

Paul tells Timothy why he is writing this letter. Paul has left Timothy in Ephesus. While Paul hopes to come to Timothy soon, he realizes that he may not be able to get there quickly. So, he writes this letter to Timothy, “that . . . you may know how one ought to behave” in church. Timothy is to make sure the church is in good order. Specifically, he is to protect the church from false teachers and also from behavior that is not in line with the message of Christianity. Toward the beginning of the letter, Paul tells Timothy, “As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine” (1 Tim. 1:3). Some people had been teaching a different message, and they “made [a] shipwreck of their faith” (1 Tim. 1:19).

But it’s not just right beliefs or right teaching that Paul is concerned about. He’s also concerned about right behavior. The two are related. If you have right beliefs, you should behave rightly. And there’s even more motivation to behave rightly, because the church is “the household of God.” The church isn’t a museum that houses memories of a dead god. No, the church is “the church of the living God.” God is alive, and he makes his home on Earth with his people.

This should blow our minds. God doesn’t just dwell with his people. God dwells in his people. That’s because the church isn’t a building; the church is a group of people. God dwells among the church, but he also lives in individual Christians. The third Person of God, the Holy Spirit, dwells in believers. If we are God’s house, shouldn’t we live accordingly?

The language of “God’s house” indicates that Paul has something particular in mind. God’s house is the temple. The language of “pillar” also indicates that Paul is thinking of a temple. The temple of God isn’t one special building that we all have to make a pilgrimage to. The temple of God is God’s people.

This is what Paul writes in another letter, a letter to the church in Ephesus, the same city where Timothy was when he received the letter that we’re now studying. In Ephesians 2, Paul says that there is one people of God, consisting of Jews and Gentiles, who were brought together by Jesus. In verses 18–22, he writes,

18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

The whole of the church is a temple, built upon the cornerstone, who is Jesus. The cornerstone determines the shape of the building; it is the most important stone. The temple is built upon God’s word; the New Testament was written by “apostles and prophets.” And this temple is growing, as more and more people are added to it. It is the “place” where the Holy Spirit dwells. It is the “place” where God is worshiped.

The apostle Peter says something similar in 1 Peter 2. He writes,

As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 2:4–5).

In the Old Testament, animal sacrifices were offered to God to make atonement for sin and to bring peace between God and his people. But the fact is that those sacrifices didn’t actually atone for sin. They foreshadowed the only sacrifice that could pay for human sin, which was the death of Jesus on the cross. So, sacrifices for sin are no longer made. But we do make spiritual sacrifices, offerings to God of praise (Heb. 13:15), good works (Heb. 13:16), and finances given to ministry (Phil. 4:18). In fact, our very lives are offered up to God as “living sacrifice[s]” (Rom. 12:1).

Getting back to 1 Timothy, Paul says that the church is also a “buttress.” The Greek word that’s translated as “buttress” only appears this one time in the New Testament, so it’s not clear exactly what it means. It could mean “stay,” “support,” or “bulwark.” It is a support to the truth. Paul has something specific in mind when he talks about the truth. He doesn’t just mean “truth” in general. In the previous chapter, Paul said that God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). Paul means the gospel, or good news. That is the message of Christianity. Ultimately, Jesus is the truth (John 14:6). And the gospel is a message about him.

The church is meant to support, or uphold, the truth. The church isn’t the only support; that’s why Paul says that the church is “a pillar and buttress of the truth,” and not “the pillar and buttress of the truth.” Even if all Christians on Earth were to die, the message of Jesus would remain the truth, and that truth is witnessed to by the Bible and is supported also by the Holy Spirit. But the church is a guardian of the truth. We need to have a firm grip on the truth of who Jesus is and what he has done for us. We need to teach the truth about God and his kingdom. We need to teach the truth about God’s plans for the world, how we can be reconciled to God, and how we should live for him.

That’s what Paul gets to next when he talks about the “mystery of godliness.” That’s an interesting phrase. When Paul uses “mystery,” he doesn’t mean it in quite the way that we do. We usually talk about “mystery” in terms of something we can’t figure out. Paul does mean that, but he doesn’t mean it’s a secret. Paul means that what we couldn’t figure out on our own, God has now revealed. We could not figure out God’s plans through unaided human reasoning. We couldn’t discover on our own how to be right in God’s eyes. But God has revealed that information to us, and that’s what Paul writes.

When Paul writes “the mystery of godliness,” he is stating the reason why we should live godly lives, or why we should be devoted to God. The reason is Jesus: who he is and what he has done for us. This is what the church needs to believe and confess.

What follows is probably a poem or a hymn:

He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory.

This is something that Paul probably didn’t write. It was probably an early hymn of praise, a poem that captured some of the important elements of Christianity.[2] If you look at the translation that we use, the English Standard Version, you can see that the hymn is six lines long. The ESV divides it into two stanzas of three lines each. The New International Version divides it into three stanzas of two lines each. There’s some debate about the structure of the hymn, but either way, the message is clear.

The first line, “He was manifested in the flesh,” refers to Jesus’ incarnation, when the eternal Son of God added a second nature and became the God-man, Jesus of Nazareth. In John’s Gospel, we’re told that Jesus is the “Word of God.” “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Jesus has always existed, but over two thousand years ago, “he was manifested in the flesh.”

The last line of the hymn, “taken up in glory,” refers to Jesus’ ascension to heaven. After Jesus died on the cross and rose from the grave, he ascended back to heaven. So, the first and last lines bookend Jesus’ coming to earth and his leaving.

The middle lines indicate what Jesus did and how people have responded to him. They don’t tell us everything about what Jesus did, but they tell us some important things. The second line says that Jesus was “vindicated by the Spirit.” This is probably a reference to his resurrection. When Jesus died, it might have looked like he was a failure. If he stayed in the grave, we might wonder if his death had any meaning. But his resurrection vindicated him, showing that he is who he claimed to be, the Son of God. That’s what Paul writes at the beginning of his letter to the Romans:

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ (Rom. 1:1–6).

The resurrection, accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit, declared that Jesus is the Son of God, that he has power over sin and death, and that the sins of his people have been paid in full.

The third line of the hymn says that Jesus was “seen by angels.” This could possibly refer to the fact that angels appeared at Jesus’ resurrection. It could be a reference to the apostles, who saw Jesus, because the word “angel” can also mean “messenger.” But it more likely refers to angels in the spiritual realm. The risen Christ was seen by people and supernatural beings.

The fourth and fifth lines seem to belong together. Jesus was “proclaimed among the nations” and “believed on in the world.” Apostles like Paul and Peter told people throughout the Roman Empire about Jesus, and many people believed in him.

Now, this is just a poem. It’s not a very detailed statement of systematic theology. So, more could be said about who Jesus is and what he came to do. Who is Jesus? He is God. More specifically, he is the second Person of the triune God, the Son of God. And he became man. So, we say he is the God-man. Why did Jesus come into the world? Paul doesn’t explicitly mention Jesus’ death on the cross. Why did Jesus come into the world? “To save sinners,” as Paul says in the first chapter of this letter (1 Tim. 1:15; cf. Matt. 1:21). How did he do that?

Jesus saves sinners by fulfilling God’s plans for humanity and then dying for the sins of rebellious human beings. God made human beings in his image and likeness. That means we were made to represent God, to reflect God’s character, to rule over his creation, to worship him, and to love and obey him, the way children would love and obey a perfect father. But from the beginning, human beings have turned away from God, living life on their own terms instead of his. Instead of building our world around God and accepting the role he has given us, we build our worlds around ourselves, rejecting his authority. The rebellion of the first human beings created a separation between God and human beings.

Jesus is the one who closes that gap. He came to fulfill God’s plans for humanity. He is the perfect human being who always loves and obeys his Father. Yet though he never sinned, he died in the place of sinners, bearing the penalty that they deserve. All who believe in Jesus, who trust him, have their sins forgiven, are adopted into God’s family, and have eternal life. Though they die, they will live with God forever in a new creation, which will be established when Jesus returns to Earth to bring history as we know it to an end.

This is the “mystery” revealed to the church. This is the reason why we should pursue godliness. We do that because God first pursued us.

Our behavior should line up with the reality that we are God’s family, part of his very household. We don’t behave well in order to become part of his house. No, we are chosen by God, the gospel was preached to us, we believed, and we were adopted by God into his family. This is not because of merit. It’s not something we deserved. It’s not because we were so lovable that God just had to come rescue us. It’s not because we’re so good, because we’ve first cleaned up our house. No, it is all a gift from God, because he is love.

As I said earlier, we are God’s temple, the place where he resides on Earth, the place where he is worshiped, where we offer up spiritual sacrifices. God wants a beautiful temple to live in. The fact that he chooses to live in us is amazing. But God wants us to be purified, to become a house fitting for a king.

In his wonderful book, Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis describes what it’s like to become a Christian. He likens the Christian life to being a house that is undergoing renovation:

Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of—throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and to live in it Himself.[3]

God wants to refashion us so that we are a good house, children who act like our Father, people who represent the family name well, a great building for an even greater God to live in. As Lewis says, sometimes this refashioning hurts.

Our behavior should line up with what we profess to believe. But that doesn’t just mean how we live our individual lives. The way that we “do church” should line up with Scripture. That’s what Paul stresses throughout the letter of 1 Timothy. The problem is that so many churches aren’t organized and run according to God’s word. It’s no surprise that so many churches abandon “the mystery of godliness,” forsaking the truth of the gospel.

The reality is that while the truth should change how we live, often how we live changes what we think is true. Many people forsake the gospel because they don’t want to live the way God wants us to. Some people reject the truth of the Bible because of Christianity’s sexual ethics. They may reject Christianity outright, or they may revise the Bible to suit their desires. In that case, sex is an idol, a false god, and truth is put on the altar and sacrificed. Some people reject Christianity because they worship the idol of power, or of money. They don’t want God to be King, or they don’t want to be told to give money away to the church and to the poor. Some people sacrifice the truth to the idol of being acceptable in the world’s eyes. They are afraid of being seen as backward or foolish, so they alter Christianity so that it fits with the spirit of the age. But, as one person wisely said, those who marry the spirit of the age will soon become widows (or widowers), because that spirit always changes.

When some view of the good life, some view of human flourishing, puts anything other than God at the center of reality, truth will be sacrificed and an idol will be worshiped. This is what we rebellious human beings do. So, we need to hold on to the truth.

Doctrine gets a bad reputation among some people. The straw man argument is that those who care about doctrine have reduced Christianity to some cold, lifeless, dead orthodoxy, a religion of facts but not a living religion of the heart. But doctrine simply means “teaching.” Everyone has doctrine. Everyone has a creed of some kind. And our doctrine will either be true, or some mixture of truth and falsehoods, or completely false.

If we personally know the living God, we will know what he is like. We’ll know facts about him. If we really know God, we can’t fail to know who he is. We’ll know if he is triune. If we really know Jesus, we’ll know he is divine. To claim that Jesus was merely a man or prophet shows that we don’t really know who he is.

A few weeks ago, I was in Washington State, where I used to live. I was there to attend a friend’s funeral. After the service, I happened to meet someone who grew up in my hometown of Wenham. He is the same age as my oldest brother, Ted. I knew that they were in the same high school class and they both played on the basketball team. I also knew he lived somewhere north of Seattle and that he was a firefighter, just as my friend was. But I don’t recall every having personally met this man, named David.

When we met, he told me that both he and Ted put the same Scripture, Proverbs 3:5–6, under their high school yearbook photo; went to Gordon College; and went on the same mission trip.

But what if David started saying some things that didn’t line up with what I know to be true of Ted? What if he said, “Yeah, I remember Ted had that beautiful sister. What happened to her?” If he said that, I would say, “Uh, we didn’t have a sister.” He might say, “Oh, I must have been thinking of someone else. But Ted drove that awesome Corvette, right?” “No, but he drove a 1970s Dodge Dart for a while.”

If this went on for a while, I would start to wonder if we were talking about the same person. Either his memory would be really mixed up or he was thinking about a different person.

And that’s how it is with Jesus. Some people preach “another Jesus,” which is something that Paul noted elsewhere (2 Cor. 11:4). Mormons don’t believe the same Jesus we do. Muslims don’t think Jesus is the Son of God, that he is divine. They don’t believe he died on the cross, and therefore they deny the resurrection. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus isn’t God. Are they really talking about the same Jesus?

If we know Jesus personally, we’ll know facts about him, just the way that if we’re married, we’ll know facts about our spouse. We may not know everything, but we’ll know important things. Christianity is ultimately a relationship, and real relationships must be built on truth and love.

And that knowledge should lead to right behavior. Theology, our knowledge of God, must be lived out. One theologian said, “Theology is all about knowing how to sing the song of redemption: to know when to shout, when to mourn, when to be silent and when to hope. But in order to enjoy the song and sing it well, we must learn the words and the music.”[4] Think about that for a moment. If you don’t know the Bible and how to understand it, you’re like someone who doesn’t know the words and the tune of the song you’re supposed to be singing. The song is the Christian life. You’re supposed to sing it! But how can you sing it if you don’t know the words and the tune? You’re like the person in the shower singing a song they heard on the radio and making up words as they go. It’s funny when people get the words to a song wrong—“Hold me closer, Tony Danza”—but it’s not funny when people get words about God wrong.[5]

So, know the tune. Know the words. And then sing the song! Sing it at home. Sing it at work. Sing it when you’re running errands. Sing it when we gather. Behave as if you’re God’s house, God’s building, God’s temple. Because if you are a Christian, that’s what you are.

And if you’re not a Christian, I would urge you to put your trust in Jesus. The true Jesus is the one revealed in the pages of the Bible. He is not the Jesus of our imagination. No one could make up Jesus, because he confronts us all. He challenges each one of us. He calls us out on our sin. He teaches us a new way to live. He tells us to lay down our lives and to love our enemies. No one would invent that. Jesus tells us that he will come again to judge the living and the dead, and that the way we respond to him is truly the way we respond to God. When Jesus prayed to the Father on the night before he died, he said, “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Other hymns in the New Testament include Phil. 2:6–11 and Col. 1:15–20.
  3. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952; repr. New York: Touchstone, 1996), 176.
  4. Kelly M. Kapic, A Little Book for New Theologians: Why and How to Study Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), 22-23.
  5. In an episode of the sitcom Friends, one of the characters mistakenly thought that Elton John’s song “Tiny Dancer” featured those words.

 

 

My Lord and My God! (John 20)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches an Easter message based on John 20. The resurrection of Jesus gives us hope, because all who trust in him, all who embrace him as Savior, Lord, and God, will have a resurrected life, too. The only way to eternal life and peace is Jesus.

My Lord and My God!

This sermon was preached on April 1, 2018 (Resurrection Sunday, a.k.a. Easter) by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

I don’t know about you, but I’m glad that it’s April. Only in the past few days has it started to feel like spring. It was a long winter, and we still have about three, small, stubborn mounds of snow at the edge of the parking lot. But the rest of the snow has melted, and the temperature is getting a bit warmer. And before too long things will start to get greener.

I love it when spring arrives, because it gives us a feeling of hope. We see signs of life after a long period of dead leaves and bare branches. The seasons of nature remind us of the seasons of life, and we can see signs of both new life and death all around us. Five weeks ago, we got a new dog, a puppy who was about twelve weeks old at the time. She’s already grown quite a bit, and she can be very playful. On the other hand, we look at our older dog, who at twelve years old is slowing down and sometimes walks with a limp.

But our lives—or the lives of our pets—aren’t like the seasons. The seasons come and go in cycles. Our lives aren’t cyclical; they only move in one direction. While we all were young at one point (if we’re not young now), we know that we’re getting older, and that eventually our bodies will decay and die. Even this past week, I saw evidence of that. Last Sunday night, I found out that the wife of a family friend died. She was probably only in her mid-thirties. She had a rare disease that caused her body to create way too many of one protein and not enough of the corresponding protein. And though she had some experimental treatments with stem cells, she couldn’t be healed. I only met her on two occasions, but I was very sad to hear about her death. She left behind a husband and two young children.

Someone else I know this week died. He was in his late sixties and had multiple health problems, including a major stroke several years ago. I saw him the day before he died. He was having trouble breathing and he wasn’t very responsive, in part because he was on morphine and was tired. He couldn’t talk. But with a bit of effort he could open his eyes and nod his head. Viewed from one perspective, it was sad to see him in the shape he was in. He was in his bed, leaning to one side, a tube bringing oxygen to his gaping mouth. He had lost quite a bit of weight, his breathing was labored, and his skin was very pale and unhealthy looking.

But viewed from another perspective, his situation wasn’t sad. And neither was his death. That’s because trusted that Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God. He trusted that Jesus’ perfect, righteous life was credited to his account and that Jesus’ death on the cross paid for all his sins. He trusted that Jesus rose from the grave on the third day, the first day being the day when Jesus was killed by crucifixion. He believed that Jesus’ resurrection was a vindication of who Jesus is and what his death accomplished. He believed that Jesus “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25).[1] And because he believed that, and because he embraced Jesus as his Savior, Lord, and God, I knew that this was not the end of his story. I looked at him and said, “One day, you’ll get a resurrected body, a perfect body that won’t have all these problems, a body that will never die.”

The great claim of Christianity is that there is eternal life for those who are united to Jesus. Those who trust Jesus will die. But as Jesus once said, “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). Those who belong to Jesus will one day be raised from the dead and their bodies will be transformed, or glorified, so that they will be immortal. This will happen when Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead and to make all things new. And the reason we trust that this will happen is because almost two thousand years ago, Jesus rose from the dead. The resurrection of Jesus is the first installment of a new creation, a world that is made perfect, a world in which there is no more evil, disease, war, or death.

This sounds almost too good to be true. Everything in life seems to head towards a fall and the long death of winter. Can there really be an ultimate spring and an endless summer? Can there really be eternal life after death?

Well, that is the claim of Christianity. And I believe it is true. The reason I believe that Christianity is true is because it makes the most sense of life, because it provides us great hope, and because there is evidence that supports its claims.

Today, I want us to see three things about Jesus and his resurrection. One, no one would have fabricated this story. Two, I want us to see why Jesus lived, died, and rose again. And, three, I want us to see what a right response to Jesus looks like. We’ll do that by taking a look at what the Gospel of John says about Jesus’ resurrection.

We’re going to read John 20 today. We’ll start by reading verses 1–13:

1 Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples went back to their homes.

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. 12 And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

It’s Sunday, and Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb of Jesus. In the other Gospels, we’re told that Mary was with some other women, and that they went to the tomb to put spices on Jesus’ body. This was a form of embalming a body; the spices would help cover the smell of the decomposing body. Because Jesus was hastily buried, they didn’t have the opportunity to do this before he was put in the tomb.

It’s quite clear that Mary wasn’t expecting Jesus to be resurrected from the grave. She thinks some people have taken Jesus’ body from the tomb. She says this to Peter and John (“the other disciple”) and to the angels. And it seems like the disciples weren’t really expecting this. In Luke’s Gospel, we’re told, “Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (Luke 24:10–11). Mark says that the women were afraid after they saw the empty tomb (Mark 16:8). Matthew says that even after they saw the risen Jesus, some of the disciples doubted (Matt. 28:17).

The point is that no one seemed to believe that Jesus would rise from the dead. People in Jesus’ day knew dead people stayed dead. British theologian N. T. Wright says that Gentiles weren’t expecting this sort of thing.[2] He also says that Jewish people “never imagined that ‘resurrection’ would happen to one person in the middle of time; they believed it would happen to all people at the end of time [Dan. 12:2; John 11:23-24]. The Easter stories are very strange, but they are not projections of what people ‘always hoped would happen.’”[3] The apostles weren’t expecting that a man would come back from the grave in an indestructible body in the middle of history.

If no one was expecting Jesus’ resurrection, we shouldn’t think that people simply made this story up. There is simply no evidence that a group of people fabricated this story. The details of the story would be too unbelievable to make up. After all, if a Jewish person were to make this story up, they wouldn’t have women being the first witnesses of the empty tomb. In the first century in Palestine, a woman’s testimony was almost useless. In that male-dominated society, a woman’s testimony would be heard in court only in rare cases.[4] Now, that’s not a biblical or Christian view of women, but that was what people believed in that day. If you were making up a story, you wouldn’t have women as the first witnesses. You would likely have rich men or priests see the empty tomb first.

Also, the apostles would have nothing to gain by making up this story. Christianity put them at odds with the Roman Empire, the superpower of the day that controlled the whole area surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. This area included good portions of the Middle East, Northern Africa, and Europe. Christians occasionally died because of their faith. The earliest Christians were Jews, and the Roman Empire tolerated the Jewish religion. But it did not tolerate Christianity for almost three hundred years. Who would make up a story that would lead to their own death?

There are many other reasons to believe that the resurrection is true. You can read about them in the article that was included with your bulletin.[5] If you read that article, you’ll see that it points you to some online resources if you want to learn more.

The second thing I want us to see is why Jesus’ death and resurrection matter. Let’s read verses 14–23:

14 Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her.

19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

It was early in the morning and still dark when Mary went to the tomb. And she was now weeping. So, it’s understandable that she wouldn’t recognize Jesus. She assumes this man who is now talking to her is a gardener. That’s a reasonable guess, since Jesus was crucified and buried in a garden (John 19:41). When Mary hears her own name called by Jesus, she recognizes who is talking to her. Perhaps that’s an echo of what Jesus said earlier in John’s Gospel. He called himself the good shepherd who leads and lays down his life for his people, his sheep. He said, “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (John 10:3).

But perhaps Mary wasn’t so mistaken. Maybe Jesus is a bit of a gardener. Bear with me for a moment. The big story of the Bible says that God created human beings in his image and after his likeness (Gen. 1:26), to reflect his glory, to serve him and to obey him. Essentially, we were made to know and love God, to live all of life under God’s authority, and to let others know about God, too. At the beginning of the Bible, God made the first two human beings and he put them in a garden. I think this is a literal event that also has symbolic meaning. The first human beings were supposed to keep the garden (Gen. 2:15) and they were supposed to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28). And if you think about it, you start to get this image: Outside the garden is wilderness, a wild, undeveloped area. And as God’s image bearers worshiped and obeyed God and as they were fruitful and multiplied, having children who also worshiped God, they would be able to expand the garden until it filled the whole earth so that it became a paradise, full of the glory of God.

Now, that sounds like a beautiful thing. But there’s a problem. The first human beings didn’t trust God and obey him. They doubted his goodness. They wanted to be like God. In effect, they tried to remove God from his throne. As a result, God kicked them out of the garden, into the wilderness. And as a partial punishment for sin, God put his creation under a curse. Now, life would be hard; people would die. God did this to limit the rebellion of human beings. God loves his creation and doesn’t want evil—particularly the evil of rebellious human beings—to ruin it.

Now, if you’re reading the Bible thoughtfully and you read the first three chapters of the Bible, you may wonder, “How can we get back to the garden? How can we get back into God’s presence? How can we have a right relationship with him? How can go to a place where we will never die?”

As you read the Old Testament, you see how all human beings are rebellious. And, frankly, you don’t have to read the Bible to see that. Just look around. Look at how rebellious even little children can be. We can’t make our lives into a garden. We can’t remove all the weeds from our lives, let alone the whole world. People have tried, and they have failed, again and again.

The only solution comes from God. God the Father sent his Son, Jesus, into the world. He did that in part so that Jesus could fulfill God’s plans for humanity. Jesus is the only person who perfectly loved, obeyed, worshiped, and served God. He is the ultimate image bearer of God, the true image and likeness of God. He is the perfect human being, the only one who has any right to live in the garden of God.

But how can Jesus bring people like us into the garden? We are made unclean by our sin, our disobedience to God, our rebellion against him, our ignoring him. God is a perfect judge who must make sure that the guilty receive the appropriate sentence for their crimes. God cannot allow rebels to live in his garden, so the appropriate sentence is death. Really, when we choose to turn away from God, we turn away from the source of life, and we find a world of death. No one forces us to do this. We choose this willingly, because we don’t love God.

The only way that Jesus can bring us into the garden is to take that sentence of death on himself. That’s what he did on the cross. He died to pay the penalty for our sin. He endured God’s punishment against sinners on the cross. “For our sake he [God the Father] made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).

And when Jesus rose from the grave, he was the first fruits of a new garden. Quite literally, the resurrected Jesus came out of the garden tomb as an immortal being, the second Adam planted in a garden. And he later ascended to heaven, where he is now with God the Father, praying and pleading for his people, serving as their great high priest. But someday he will come again, to judge everyone who has ever lived. Those who have turned to Jesus in faith, trusting that he is who the Bible says he is and that he has done what the Bible says he has done, will live in a garden paradise forever (Rev. 22:1–5 echoes the garden imagery of Gen. 2).

Jesus told his disciples, “Peace be with you.” The only way to have real peace in this life, the only way to have peace with God, is to know Jesus. Jesus said to the Father, “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). That doesn’t mean that knowing facts about God gives us eternal life. No, it means we must know God because we have a relationship with him. That is what brings us peace. We don’t earn a relationship with God. We don’t make ourselves acceptable to God. No, we must simply receive salvation as a gift.

Now, I want us to see what a right relationship with God looks like. Let’s read verses 24–31:

24 Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”

26 Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

When Jesus appeared to the other disciples, Thomas wasn’t there. Thomas gets a bad rap. He’s known as “doubting Thomas. For him, seeing is believing. But earlier in John’s Gospel, Thomas said he was willing to die with Jesus (John 11:16). So, Thomas was a person who followed Jesus and trusted him. Still, he couldn’t believe that Jesus had risen.

Jesus doesn’t rebuke Thomas. Instead, he appears to him and to the rest of the disciples on the following Sunday. And Jesus invites Thomas to see him and to touch him.

When Thomas see Jesus, he cannot help but say, “My Lord and my God!” One of John’s goals in writing his Gospel is to make it clear that Jesus is God. He begins his Gospel that way (John 1:1) and here at the end he records Thomas’ confession of faith.

People who truly believe in Jesus know that he is Lord and God. I think we generally understand what the word “God” means, but it’s hard for us to understand what “Lord” means. When we hear that word, we may think of the House of Lords in London. The word sounds antiquated. But John’s initial readers would have known what was being said. During this time, the superpower of the world was the Roman Empire, and its leader was the emperor, also known as Caesar. And Caesar was known as Lord. According to one dictionary, Lord means “one having power and authority over others.”[6] Caesar was the most powerful man in the world.

He wasn’t just known as Lord, but he was also known as “the son of God” and a “savior.” There is an inscription of a decree made in 9 BC by an official in the eastern part of the Roman Empire that says the birthday of Augustus—the emperor reigning over the Roman Empire at the time Jesus was born—should be celebrated. This official wanted the calendar to be reset to the emperor’s birthday, in 63 BC.[7] The inscription claims that Augustus was a “savior”[8] and “our god.”[9] Coins in the Roman Empire had titles of the emperor on them: divi filius (“son of God”) and pontifex maximus (“greatest priest”). In the Roman Empire, the Caesar was worshiped as a god.

So, when Thomas says, “My Lord and my God!” he’s saying that Jesus is the true God, the true Lord, the true King, the world’s true ruler and ultimate authority. Thomas swears his allegiance to Jesus, not to Caesar.

The earliest Christians were willing to die rather than compromise that allegiance to Jesus. They would rather die than bow before the emperor and worship him. One of John’s students was a man named Polycarp (69–155), who became the bishop of Smyrna, which is now known as Izmir, a city in Turkey. He became a martyr, a Christian who died for his faith. At the time of his execution, some people tried to convince him to worship the emperor and therefore be saved from death. They said, “Why, what harm is there in saying, ‘Caesar is Lord,’ and offering incense” (and other words to this effect) “and thereby saving yourself?”[10] But Polycarp refused. Then, “the magistrate persisted and said, ‘Swear the oath, and I will release you; revile Christ,’ Polycarp replied, ‘For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?’”[11] When Polycarp was told he would be burned by fire, he said, “You threaten with a fire that burns only briefly and after just a little while is extinguished, for you are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly. But why do you delay? Come, do what you wish.”[12]

True Christians recognize that Jesus is not only Savior, but also Lord and God. I don’t think we have proper categories to understand what “Lord” really means. The most powerful man on earth is probably the president of our country, yet no matter who is in the White House, it seems like at least half the country hates him and doesn’t recognize his authority. And the president’s authority is limited, of course. But Jesus is Lord over everything. And when we come to him as Savior, he becomes Lord over all of our lives, not just our Sunday mornings or whenever we feel like being religious.

I think the reason many people don’t embrace Jesus is that issue of authority. We simply don’t want someone else to be Lord over our lives. That is why people reject Christianity. It’s not because Christianity is irrational or illogical. It’s not because there is no evidence to support the claims of Christianity. We have eyewitness testimony from several different witnesses, and the basic claims of Christianity are supported by philosophy and science. I think people often ignore that evidence because they don’t want a Lord.

The philosopher Thomas Nagel, an atheist, wrote these words several years ago: “I want atheism to be true and am uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”[13] He then says, “My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition.”[14]

We don’t want there to be a Lord God because we don’t want someone telling us what we can and can’t do, particularly in important areas of our lives like sex, marriage, money, how we use our time, and how we treat people who are different from us. I think people know that the Christian life isn’t an easy one, and they don’t want to take what they think is the hard road. As G. K. Chesterton put it, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”[15]

Yet if we reject Jesus because we reject his authority, we also reject his blessings. He said that those who believe—even when they haven’t seen him in the flesh—are blessed. John says he wrote his Gospel so that people would believe and have eternal life in Jesus. If you know Jesus, you know God and have eternal life. But if there’s no Lord Jesus in and over your life, there’s no eternal life for you. So many people say, “Rest in peace,” after someone has died. I’m here to tell you the truth: the only way to rest in peace is to have a right relationship with Jesus, the kind of relationship that Thomas and Mary Magdalene had. We will all have that moment when our bodies will fail. We all will die, whether in a sudden accident or slowly on a bed, tubes connected to our bodies, morphine in our veins. What happens next? Will you have eternal peace? You will if Jesus is your Lord and God.

We will all come under some authority. Something will rule over us, whether it’s something that we treasure the most or even our own desires. Entertainment, pleasure, money, politics, and almost anything else can function as our lord and god. But Jesus is the only God who would sacrifice his life for you. He’s the only Lord who can die for your sins and make you right with God. No one else, and nothing else will do that for you. I urge you to put your trust in him. And if you don’t know Jesus, please talk to me. I would love to help you know him and follow him.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. “Nobody in the pagan world of Jesus’ day and thereafter actually claimed that somebody had been truly dead and had then come to be truly, and bodily, alive once more.” N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003), 76.
  3. N. T. Wright, Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 192.
  4. Flavius Josephus the Jewish historian, writes in his Antiquities 4.8.15, “But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex.”
  5. Brian Watson, “Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ,” https://wbcommunity.org/evidence-resurrection-jesus-christ.
  6. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 2003).
  7. John Dickson, A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible: Inside History’s Bestseller for Believers and Skeptics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 133.
  8. M. Eugene Boring, “Gospel, Message,” ed. Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2006–2009), 2:630.
  9. Orientis Graeci Inscriptiones, 2:458, quoted in Dickson, A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible, 133.
  10. The Martyrdom of Polycarp 8, in Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, Updated ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 233.
  11. The Martyrdom of Polycarp 9, in ibid., 235.
  12. The Martyrdom of Polycarp 11, in ibid.
  13. Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (1997), 130.
  14. Ibid., 131.
  15. G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World? (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1912), 48.

 

How Can We Know the Historical Jesus?

How Can We Know the Historical Jesus?[1]
Brian Watson
December 3, 2017

People believe many different things about Jesus. Christians believe that Jesus is the eternal Son of God who became a man. (Jesus has always existed as God, and at one point in human history he added a second nature, of a human being, when he was miraculously conceived in the womb of a virgin.) Muslims believe that Jesus was only a prophet and not the Son of God. Other people, like those drawn to New Age spirituality, believe that Jesus was a wise man or a spiritual teacher. Some have imagined that Jesus was a political revolutionary. And still others believe the whole story of Jesus is fictional, no more than a legend or myth. How can we know the truth about Jesus?

Examining History

The Christian claim about Jesus is that he was born in roughly 5 B.C. and that he died in either A.D. 30 or 33.[2] How can we know what happened two thousand years ago? To state an obvious truth, we don’t have audio or video recordings of what happened then, so we can’t hear or see what happened at that time. Obviously, we weren’t there.

In order to discover what happened the past, we have to operate like police detectives, examining the scene of a crime. Detectives look for evidence, which may include physical evidence and personal testimony.

Many historians turn to physical artifacts, ones that archaeologists discover. These can range from structures that have inscriptions (buildings, columns, etc.) to coins or any other objects that might give us information about the past. Often, these objects are rare. With Jesus, we wouldn’t expect to find much, if anything, along those lines. He was not a political ruler or a wealthy man.

More often, historians look for written testimony. That’s what we’ll have to look at to know the truth about Jesus. And we do have various writings that mention Jesus.

Before we look at those, keep some other truths in mind: Two thousand years ago, there was no printing press. Everything was handwritten, and writing materials were relatively expensive and scarce. Also, literacy rates were lower, so fewer people knew how to write (and read). Furthermore, most materials decay or can be destroyed. We can assume that many documents have been lost or destroyed, or have simply decayed. That explains why we have few historical documents about anyone who lived in the ancient world. For example, Tiberias, the emperor who reigned A.D. 14–37, was the most powerful man in his day and yet there are only four written sources about him from the first two hundred years after his death that exist today.[3] (Another thing to keep in mind: There was often a significant gap of time between historical events and written histories. Often, decades elapsed between an event and when that event was chronicled.) Fortunately, we have many documents that detail the life of Jesus.

Non-Christian Histories

Let’s first examine histories of Jesus that were written by non-Christians. I don’t think that these sources are more trustworthy than Christian sources. The only reason to think so is an anti-Christian bias. But I begin here because the non-biblical evidence for Jesus’ life is not well known.

One source is the Jewish historian Josephus (c. A.D. 37–c. 100), who lived in Palestine and was involved in the Jewish War against Rome, which began in 66. After he was captured by the Romans, he became a Roman citizen, and he began to write. Josephus mentions Jesus twice. One short reference to Jesus is in his Jewish Antiquities, a history of the Jewish people. In describing the martyrdom of James, he states that this apostle was “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ.”[4]4 The Christ is the Messiah, the long-awaited anointed Jewish King who would usher in a reign of peace and righteousness. Josephus didn’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah, but he observed that other people thought he was.

Josephus refers to Jesus elsewhere in the Jewish Antiquities (18.63–64). There is some evidence that Christians added words to this text to create a stronger witness to Jesus. Yet it’s likely that in the original quote, Josephus acknowledged that Jesus was known for his virtue, that he had followers, that he was crucified by Pontius Pilate, that his followers reported that he rose from the grave, and they did not abandon the way of Jesus.

Roman historians also wrote about Jesus. Suetonius (c. A.D. 70–c. 160) wrote a history of the lives of many of the Roman emperors, the Caesars. He wrote about how Emperor Claudius (reigned A.D. 41–54) expelled Jews from Rome in A.D. 49., an event also referenced in Acts 18:2. “He banished from Rome all the Jews, who were continually making disturbances at the instigation of one Chrestus.”[5] “Chrestus” is most likely a misspelling of “Christ.” It seems that Suetonius thought he was a person living in Rome and causing unrest. (Christians began preaching about Christ in Rome, and this caused controversy among some Jewish people who didn’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah.) Suetonius also referred to Christians during the time of Emperor Nero (A.D. 54–68). He writes, “He [Nero] likewise inflicted punishments on the Christians, a sort of people who held a new and impious superstition.”[6]

Another Roman historian, Cornelius Tacitus (A.D. 56–117), also wrote of Christians and Christ. After a fire broke out in Rome in A.D. 64, people were looking for someone to blame, and even the emperor, Nero, came under suspicion. Tacitus reports that Nero blamed the fire on Christians:

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.[7]

Tacitus traces the origins of Christianity to “Christus,” a Latinized version of “Christ.” Notice that Christianity was “checked for the moment” after Jesus’ death, only to break out again. This detail harmonizes with what we know from the Bible. After Jesus’ death, the disciples were hiding. Even after his resurrection, the disciples did not do any public teaching. The disciples weren’t active until they received the promised Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. Within three decades, Christianity had spread to Rome.

Yet another Roman wrote about Jesus. Pliny the Younger (A.D. 61–c.112) was a Roman senator and the governor of Bithynia (part of modern-day Turkey). In one of his letters to Emperor Trajan (reigned A.D. 98–117), he mentions that he persecuted certain Christians, forcing them to abandon their faith. He says that the prayed to Jesus “as to a divinity.”[8]

Christian Histories

Not surprisingly, there are more Christian documents that mention Jesus, and these documents are far more detailed. The New Testament of the Bible consists of twenty-seven documents written by eight or nine authors. (We don’t know who wrote the book of Hebrews.) Four of these documents are Gospels, theological biographies of Jesus. (“Gospel” means “good news.”) One of those documents is a history of the early church (the book of Acts), which includes more information about Jesus. Twenty-one of those documents are letters that provide theological commentary on Jesus’ identity and works. Though they are not stricly histories, they include historical information.

The Gospel writers clearly saw themselves as writing history. Luke is the best example. He begins his Gospel by acknowledging that other accounts of Jesus existed. He decided to write “an orderly account” based on the testimony of “eyewitness and servants of the word” (Luke 1:1–4). In his Gospel and in its sequel, the book of Acts, Luke is careful to provide a historical context for his writing. He begins by recounting events that occurred in “the days of Herod, king of Judea” (Luke 1:5). Jesus was born during the time when Caesar Augustus required citizens to be registered, when Quirinius was the governor of Syria (Luke 2:1–2). Jesus began his public ministry in “the reign of Tiberius Caesar,” when Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea. Many more historical details are provided in the book of Acts.

The historical details recorded by Luke in his Gospel and in Acts, such as the names of political leaders and the titles used for those leaders in various places, are accurate. That may not seem impressive until we understand that in different localities, leaders had different titles, and Luke had no access to extensive reference works, much less the Internet. He couldn’t have invented the historical details he includes in his writings. New Testament scholar Colin Hemer has identified eighty-four facts in Acts 13–28 that have been confirmed by historical and archaeological evidence, showing that Luke was a very careful historian.[9]

Much more can be said about the historical reliability of the New Testament, though space allows me only to provide three reasons why we should trust the historicity of the New Testament.[10]

One other reason to trust the New Testament is that its writing is not like myths. The Gospels read like other ancient histories or biographies. They are more restrained than later documents that were not based on eyewitness testimony and that are rather fanciful. (Compare this to fanciful events in The Gospel of Peter, which comes from the second century and is not written by Peter. The Gospel of Peter features a resurrected Jesus whose head extends to heaven, not to mention a talking cross!)

Another reason to trust the New Testament is that the documents were written within a lifetime of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Some think these documents were written later, perhaps in the early second century, but those arguments are based on speculation and they lack supporting evidence. Take the example of Luke as an example: He claims to have used eyewitness reports. This means he must have written his Gospel within a few decades of Jesus, while those eyewitnesses were still alive. It’s unlikely that he wrote after the 60s because he doesn’t write about significant events that took place after the year 62, such as Peter’s and Paul’s deaths as martyrs in the mid-60s or the destruction of Jerusalem in 70. Luke and Acts couldn’t have been written as late as the end of the first century because passages from both books are alluded to in 1 Clement and 2 Clement, non-biblical Christian documents that were written at the end of the first century.[11] There is no good reason to assume that any of the New Testament documents were written after the first century.

A third reason to trust the New Testament is that we have more and earlier manuscripts of the New Testament than other ancient literature. For example, Julius Caesar’s Gallic War was written around 50 B.C., and we have only ten manuscripts, the oldest of which dates around nine hundred years later.[12] Yet, when it comes to the New Testament, we have a wealth of manuscripts. Here’s a general rule regarding ancient documents: The more manuscripts we have, and the closer they are in time to the original documents, the greater our confidence is that we have an accurate representation of the originals. We now have over 5,700 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, in part or in whole. We have more than 10,000 Latin Vulgate manuscripts, and more than 9,300 other early translations. The earliest manuscript evidence we have comes thirty to fifty years after the original writing, and the earliest complete manuscript, the Codex Sinaiticus, was written around A.D. 350, less than three hundred years after the last book of the New Testament was written.

The point is that, based on what we know, the New Testament are historical documents that reflect what truly happened about two thousand years ago. They testify that Jesus is the God-man, the eternal Son of God and Jesus of Nazareth, who performed miracles, taught with unmatched authority, lived a sinless life, died an atoning death for the sins of his people, and rose from the grave. The question is, will we trust the message about Jesus and put our faith in him?

Notes

  1. For more details, see https://wbcommunity.org/how-can-we-know-jesus.
  2. Some people imagine that Jesus was born in the year 0. There is no year 0. The year after 1 B.C. is A.D. 1. For details, see https://wbcommunity.org/when-was-jesus-born. It might seem strange that we don’t know the exact dates of his birth or death. However, this is not strange when compared to other figures in ancient history. The modern calendar didn’t exist at that time, so events were often dated with respect to other events. Herod the Great died in 4 B.C. and we know that Jesus was born prior to his death. We also know that Jesus died at that time of the Passover sometime during the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberias and when Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea. That could be A.D. 30 or 33.
  3. Edwin M. Yamauchi, “Jesus Outside the New Testament: What Is the Evidence?” in Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 215.
  4. Flavius Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews 20.200, in The Works of Josephus, trans. William Whiston (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987).
  5. C. Suetonius Tranquillus, Claudius 25, in Suetonius: The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, ed. Alexander Thomson (Medford, MA: Gebbie & Co., 1889).
  6. C. Suetonius Tranquillus, Nero 16, in Suetonius: The Lives of the Twelve Caesars.
  7. Cornelius Tacitus, The Annals 15.44, edited by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0078%3Abook%3D15%3Achapter%3D44
  8. Pliny the Younger, Letter 97: To the Emperor Trajan, http://www.bartleby.com/9/4/2097.html.
  9. Colin J. Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990).
  10. For more on the reliability of the New Testament, see https://wbcommunity.org/can-trust-new-testament.
  11. 1 Clem. 2.1; 5.6–7; 13.2; 48.4; 2 Clem. 13.4.
  12. Paul D. Wegner, The Journey from Texts to Translations (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1999), 235.

 

Why Do Bad Things Happen?

Brian Watson preached this message on October 8, 2017.
MP3 recording of sermon.
PDF typescript of the sermon that was written in advance.

Last week, I started to answer the question of the problem of evil. I said that many people asked questions along the lines of, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” or, “Why is there so much suffering in the world?” I had already planned to spend two weeks on this issue. And then, on Monday morning, I woke to the news that there had been a massacre in Las Vegas. One man managed to murder 58 people and injure hundreds more.

As I had already planned to talk about evil, I don’t have much to say about that one event. I will say this: a lot of people think that if we would just do something about guns, we could stop these things from happening. I’m sure there are some things that could be done. People from across the political spectrum are saying we should ban bump stocks, the device that can be put on the end of semiautomatic rifles to make them shoot at rates that are close to automatic rifles. But even if we did that and had increased scrutiny over who bought how many guns and when, we won’t fully eliminate evil. We can restrain it, but we can’t kill it. Only God can do that. And evil is a supernatural force. It can’t be destroyed through better laws, better education, better security, or a better government. As long as evil lurks in the shadows of the supernatural realm and as long as evil resides in our hearts, bad things will occur. I’ll talk more about the supernatural side of evil next week.

But today, I want to address the issue of why bad things happen. Why does God allow bad things, even evil things, to occur?

I don’t know that we’ll ever know exactly why any one particular event occurred. Perhaps we will. But I think there’s a story about Jesus that gives us an indication of why at least certain evils—and perhaps, in the end, why all evils—are allowed by God. That story is the famous story about Jesus raising Lazarus back to life, found in John 11.

Today, we’re going to look at this story and then we’ll draw some conclusions as to why Jesus allowed a tragedy to occur, and perhaps also why God allows all evil to occur. Without further ado, let’s turn to John 11 and start reading. I’ll read the first four verses:

1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”[1]

I’ll give us a bit of context. John, the author of this biography of Jesus, has told us that Jesus is God (John 1:1) and the Son of God (John 1:14, 34, 49). In the previous chapter, Jesus had been in Jerusalem talking to the Jewish religious leaders. When he said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30), they picked up stones to hurl at him. They thought he was committing blasphemy, claiming to be one with God (verse 33). Of course, Jesus was saying that, but he wasn’t blaspheming. He was correct. Still, in order to avoid being killed, he left Jerusalem and crossed the Jordan River and went north. He might have been close to one hundred miles away from Jerusalem.

Jesus had friends named Lazarus, Martha, and Mary, a brother and two sisters, and they lived in the village of Bethany, less than two miles from Jerusalem. Lazarus became seriously ill, and so Lazarus’s sisters sent a message to Jesus, probably so he could heal Lazarus. What’s important to see is that Jesus loved Lazarus (“he whom you love”) and he also says that his event will not end in death, but in God being glorified.

“Glory” is a very Christian word. It has a meaning of “brilliance,” or “fame,” or “weight.” When we say that God is glorified, we mean he appears to us as more brilliant, he becomes more famous among us, or he takes on more weight in our lives. God never changes. He is always brilliant. But when we see how great he is, he becomes more glorious to us. Somehow, this whole event will reveal how great God the Father is, and also how great God the Son is.

Now, let’s look at the next two verses, verses 5 and 6:

Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

We’re told that Jesus loved not only Lazarus, but also Martha and Mary, his sisters. And then we have a very odd statement. Because Jesus loved them, when he heard Lazarus was sick, he deliberately waited two days. Jesus didn’t run to Lazarus and heal him. Actually, Jesus didn’t even have to be in the same place as someone in order to heal them (see Matt. 8:5–13/Luke 7:1–10). We would think that if Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters, he would heal Lazarus instantly. But he doesn’t. He waits.

Let’s find out what happens next. We’ll read verses 7–16:

Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. 10 But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” 11 After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” 13 Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, 15 and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

After two days, Jesus tells his disciples that they must go back to Judea again. This is the region of Jerusalem, where people were just trying to kill Jesus. Jesus’ followers think he’s a bit crazy to think of going back there. But Jesus says that there are twelve hours in a day. On average, there are twelve hours of daylight in any given day. In a world before electricity, that is the time when work was done. So, Jesus means he still has work to do. He must do the work that God the Father gave him to do, and while he does God’s work, he is walking in the light. The safest place for him is in the will of God. So, even if it looks like a suicide mission, Jesus knows he must do the Father’s will.

Then he tells his disciples that Lazarus had “fallen asleep.” Of course, he means that Lazarus has died. Jesus must have known that supernaturally. Yet his disciples don’t get it. They take his words literally. (This happens a few times in John. See John 3:3–4; 4:10–11). So, Jesus had to be abundantly clear. Jesus tells them Lazarus has died. And, surprisingly, he says, “for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe.” If Jesus was there, he would have healed Lazarus. But he intentionally waited for Lazarus to die. Why? Earlier, he said this event would lead to God—the Father and the Son—being glorified. Here, he says Lazarus’s death, and what will happen soon, will lead to people’s faith.

Now, let’s continue with the story. We’ll read verses 17–27:

17 Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. 20 So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”

When Jesus arrived in Bethany, where Lazarus and his sisters lived, Lazarus had been dead for four days. It seems that Jesus was probably a four days’ journey on foot away, so that if he left right when he knew Lazarus died, he would arrive at this time. We’re told that many Jews from Jerusalem had come to comfort Marth and Mary, and this reminds us that Jesus was in trouble with the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. As we’ll see, by returning to the Jerusalem area, Jesus was risking his safety.

The first to greet Jesus is Martha. If you’re familiar with the Gospels, you might remember another time when Jesus was with Martha and Mary. Martha was busy with all kinds of activity while Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to his teaching (Luke 10:38–42). What we see here fits with that story. When Martha talks to Jesus, she says that if he had arrived sooner, her brother wouldn’t have died. But she still has faith that Jesus can do whatever he asks of God the Father. Jesus tells her that Lazarus will rise again. She says, “Oh, I know he will, because at the end of the age there will be a resurrection of everyone.” That’s true. Whenever Jesus returns, everyone will be raised back to life, some for eternal salvation and some for eternal condemnation (Dan. 12:2; John 5:25–29). But, as we’ll see, Jesus means more than that.

Yet first Jesus says that he is the resurrection and the life. The dead are able to be raised back to life because of Jesus. He is the way, and the truth, and the life (John 14:6). He is the only way to live forever. He says, “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” In this world, everyone will die. Only those who are alive when Jesus returns won’t die. But everyone else will. Yet Jesus says that those who trust in him, though they experience that death, will live. The one who experiences a spiritual rebirth and believes in Jesus will live forever.

Then Jesus says to Martha, “Do you believe this?” Martha makes a great confession of faith. She says that she believes, and she knows that Jesus is the Christ. That’s a word based on a Greek word that means “anointed one.”[2] Jesus is God’s anointed King. He’s also the Son of God, who comes into the world to rescue his people. As the most famous verse in the Bible says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Now, let’s see what happens when Jesus sees Mary. We’ll read verses 28–37:

28 When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. 34 And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus wept. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?”

Martha goes to Mary to tell her that Jesus is here and wants to speak to her. So, Mary comes to him, outside of the village. When Mary comes to Jesus, she falls at her feet and calls him “Lord.” This is clearly a sign of respect. Yet she says the same thing that her sister said: “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It seems John really wants to know that Jesus could have spared Lazarus from this death, but decided not to.

That might leave us thinking that Jesus is cold. But he’s not. We’re already told that he loves Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. And now we see something stunning. When Jesus sees Mary weeping, and then also sees others weeping, we’re told he “was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.” This is really a deceptive translation. And it’s not just the English Standard Version. Almost every other English translation tones down the meaning of the original Greek. The King James Version says that Jesus “groaned in the spirit,” which is closer. The New Revised Standard Version says Jesus “was greatly disturbed in spirit.” I’m surprised that the New Living Translation comes much closer. It says, “a deep anger welled up within him.” The Holman Christian Standard Bible says that Jesus “was angry in His spirit.” The Greek word isn’t used much in the New Testament, but it generally refers to anger.[3] Outside of the Bible, it was used to refer to the snorting of horses.[4] You might think of Jesus having his nostrils flared, indignant and furious.[5] Many translations tone down Jesus’ reaction, perhaps for fear of embarrassment, as if the Son of God couldn’t have such a passionate response.

Why was Jesus so angry, and so troubled? He knew Lazarus had already died. He had already seen Martha upset. He knows what he is about to do. But now he sees Mary and others weeping. It’s one thing to know all facts. As God, Jesus could access divine omniscience at any time he wanted. He knew Lazarus had died before anyone had told him. But it’s one thing to know a fact. It’s another thing to experience it. I believe that Jesus was angry that there was death and sorrow in the world. And it’s not because Jesus was like us, powerless and out of control. Remember, Jesus chose not to heal Lazarus. Still, he was so bothered and moved by what he saw that he also wept. And then he asked to see the tomb. (It seems he asked where Lazarus was laid because he “turned off” that divine omniscience. Jesus chose to live fundamentally as a human being.[6])

John wants us to see, again, that Jesus could have healed Lazarus before he died. That’s why he reports that some whispered, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” They’re referring to something that happened in chapter 9, when Jesus healed a man who had been born blind.

Let’s move ahead to see how the story ends. We’ll read verses 38–44:

38 Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” 44 The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Jesus became angry again, apparently when he saw the tomb. Perhaps he was angry at this visual symbol of death. Perhaps he was angry because it was necessary for Lazarus to die, because he couldn’t heal him the way he healed the blind man. At any rate, Jesus is once again disturbed, and he asks for the stone that closed the tomb to be moved. Martha warned him, quite grimly, that Lazarus’s body was starting to decompose. But Jesus says, “I told you would see the glory of God, didn’t I?”

When the stone was removed from the tomb, Jesus prayed. In a sense, he didn’t have to pray to the Father. He knew what the Father was going to do, and the Father did, too. The prayer was more for the sake of the crowd. He wanted them to know that he was sent by the Father. In this instance, the Father would respond to Jesus’ prayer and his alone. What was about to happen was a sign of divine favor. Once he prayed, he told Lazarus in a commanding voice, “Come out!” And Lazarus did. This is one of the more astonishing miracles that Jesus performs.[7]

Now that we’ve worked our way through this story, I want to think more carefully about what it says about why bad things happen. The way that John reports this story, he makes it clear that it was necessary for Lazarus to die. Jesus could have healed him before he died, but he chose not to. Twice, we’re told that Lazarus’ death led to God being glorified (vv. 4, 40). It also led to people believing in God, specifically believing in Jesus (vv. 15, 42).

Now, when people think about evil in the world, they often think about why God would allow evil to occur. Sometimes, people act as if God is not in control, or they act as if God is not good. I reject both of those ideas because God has revealed himself to be in control and good. I reject any unbiblical picture of God as a nice grandfather who gets really sad when bad things happen, and who wishes he could just do something about all the evil in the world but just can’t. I also reject an unbiblical picture of God as an unloving, uncaring, distant, silent tyrant.

The Bible teaches that God is eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly wise, and good, among other attributes. That means that God has always existed, he can do anything that he desires, and he never learns a new fact. So, before God created the universe, he knew that evil would enter into it. Yet he chose to create it, even though he didn’t have to. God isn’t required to create a universe, or to create human beings. But he chose to do so, and he chose to create this particular world and all that is in it.

Now, God had a choice. He could have created a world with no evil or he could have created a world in which evil emerged and led to some good things that are not possible without such evil. God could have created angels that never rebelled, so that there would be no Satan, the devil. He could have created human beings who were glorified, who were incapable of sinning and incapable of dying. The mystery is why God did not choose to do that. But think about what would be missing if there were no evil, no suffering, no pain, and nothing bad in the world.

It’s really hard to imagine that, if we stop and think. If there were never any bad, we wouldn’t know how good good things can be. There would never be any evil to defeat. That means there would never be a concept of victory. If there no evil in the world, there would be no Yankees, which means we would never know the joy of the Red Sox defeating them. Seriously, there would be no concept of bravery or courage, for there would be no dangers, no risky situations. There would be no concept of heroism.

If Adam and Eve, the first human beings, never sinned, they would have remained in Paradise with God. Imagine if they had children who never sinned, and they had children who never sinned, and so on. It’s very hard to imagine it fully. But if that happened, there would be no need for the Son of God to become a human being. Jesus, the Son of God, came to live the perfect life that we don’t live. Adam and Eve sinned, and so did all other human beings, except Jesus. We have all failed to live life the way that God made us to. Since we fail to live according to God’s design for humanity, Jesus came to fulfill humanity’s purpose. And he also came to die as a sacrifice for our sins. It’s not clear why Jesus would come if there were never any sin in the world.

If Jesus never came, we would never know to what great lengths God would go to rescue us. We would never see the full glory of God. Or, so it seems.

If Jesus healed Lazarus immediately, people wouldn’t have seen Lazarus raised from the grave. They wouldn’t see God’s power over death. They wouldn’t see that victory, and Jesus’ compassion and bravery, being willing to risk his safety to go back to Jerusalem in order to rescue his friend.

So, this story shows that though Jesus is in perfect control, he deliberately chose for his friends to suffer for a short time so that they would later rejoice, truly know God, and truly believe.

God could have made a world without sin, or he could have made a world in which evil would emerge. The world that God made, in which there is now evil, somehow gives him more glory and, if we know Jesus, it gives us more gratitude. It’s a world that has a richer, more complex story. After all, think of any truly great story you’ve read, heard, or seen, whether in the form of a book, a play, a television show, or a movie. All the greatest stories have evil that must be defeated. They have adventure, bravery, and sacrifice. We are in the midst of the greatest story ever told, and it would seem that evil is necessary to make this story richer.

We can also think of every great piece of art. Great pieces of music, like symphonies, often have dissonance that resolves into harmony. If you were to stop those pieces of music during a moment of dissonance, it would sound ugly, but when these bits of cacophony resolve into euphony, when what sounds ugly for a moment turns into harmony, there is a great sense of fulfillment.

If we were to look at life in light of eternity, we would see that our moments of suffering are short. If we know Jesus, if we trust in him, our suffering can only last throughout this life, and this life is but a blink of an eye compared to a never-ending life with God in the new creation. And so, whatever pain we may experience now is nothing but a small moment in time, like a bit of dissonance that resolves to a beautiful, lush chord.

To take another metaphor from the world of art, imagine that you saw the most beautiful painting imaginable. I happen to find Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings to be marvelous. Imagine we took an extremely high-quality picture of one of his paintings, and then looked at that picture on a computer screen. Then imagine we zoomed in on individual pixels. When looking at individual pixels, they probably look ugly. If we zoomed out just a bit, some groups of pixels might look nice, but I bet groups of them would still look ugly. Yet if we zoom all the way out so we can see the whole picture, everything is harmonious. Everything has its place. Our suffering is like those ugly, small pixelated bits of a larger, beautiful painting. They are the dark bits that make the light stand out.

In light of eternity, our moments of suffering are quite small. The apostle Paul said, “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17). If we know Jesus, we’ll experience that “weight of glory.” We’ll live in a glorious world forever, and all the pain will be wiped away. There will be no famine, no fighting, no wars, no diseases, no sin, and no death. Every tear that has ever been shed will be wiped away (Rev. 21:4).

But we don’t live in that world now. The reality is that we live in a world corrupted by sin, by the sin of others, and by our own sin. And that is why bad things happen. That doesn’t mean that all bad things happen to us because of our own individual sin. That’s not how things always work. The book of Job is an example of how bad things can occur for other reasons.[8] Even earlier in John, when Jesus healed a blind man, people wondered if the man had been born blind because of his parents’ sin or his own. Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). But bad things happen, generally, because of the presence of sin, because of our sin, someone else’s sin, or because something is happening in the unseen spiritual realm. The presence of sin in in the world separates all humanity from God and his partial punishment against sin is life in a world that has natural disasters, pain, suffering, and death.

That may sound harsh, but think about this: Imagine if tonight, at the stroke of midnight, God removed all evil from the world. Sounds good, right? But what if God removed all evil from the world, not just the big evils like mass shootings and devastating hurricanes, but also the smaller-sized, more mundane evils like hate, greed, envy, pride, covetousness, gossip, selfishness, and so forth? What if God removed all liars, all gossipers, all haters, all people who lust and who envy? The big question is, if God removed all evil at the stroke of midnight, where would you and I be? If we judge evil by God’s standards, we would be removed from the world. So, God is patient and gracious with us. He hasn’t stopped the world yet and made it perfect because he is allowing more time for people to turn to Jesus.[9] If God had stopped the world a hundred years ago, none of us would have been born. We would never have existed.[10] So, even though the world is evil, God is gracious to allow it to go on.

And God uses pain and suffering to get our attention. When we see bad things occur, whether they are natural evils like hurricanes, or moral evils like mass murders, we have another opportunity to think about how fragile life is. We have another opportunity to wonder where we can turn for safety and refuge. We have an opportunity to think about what really matters in this life.[11]

We think that what matters is safety, convenience, comfort, ease, and entertainment. That’s why we might be shocked to hear that Jesus lets his friend suffer and die, and he lets that friend’s sisters experience the great pain of mourning. But God doesn’t want our happiness so much as our perfection. This reminds me of some of the words of C. S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain. First, he addresses our problem with God. Because of our evil nature, we don’t really want to know God as he truly is. He writes, “What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’ We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence who, as they said, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves,’ and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all.’”[12]

Then, Lewis says that God isn’t that way. God is love, and real love doesn’t coddle. Real love isn’t afraid to let someone suffer, if that is necessary. If your child needs a painful shot to be immunized, you don’t without hold that treatment because she doesn’t like needles. Lewis writes, “Love, in its own nature, demands the perfecting of the beloved; . . . the mere ‘kindness’ which tolerates anything except suffering in its object is, in that respect, at the opposite pole from Love.”[13] God wants us to experience the very best in life, which is him. But, in our natural state, we don’t seek him. That is particularly true when things are going well, when we seem to be in control of our lives. To know that God is God and we are not, we must come to the end of our illusion that we are at the center of the universe. We must come to the end of thinking that we’re God, that we’re in control. God uses pain and suffering to bring us into that position. As Lewis famously writes, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”[14]

That might sound cruel if God were distant and aloof and uncaring. But he’s not. And the chief evidence of that is Jesus. As the Son of God, he lived in heaven for eternity with the Father. He had no pain. But he became a man and entered into an evil world. As we saw in this passage, he wept. And he risked his life. If you keep reading, you see that the news of Lazarus being raised back to life angered the Jewish leaders so much that they decided to kill Jesus and they wanted to kill Lazarus, too (John 11:45–53; 12:9–11).

Lazarus’ death and his coming out of the tomb foreshadow Jesus’ death. Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sins, not his, because he never sinned. He is the only person who has never done anything wrong, the only one in whom there is no trace of evil. And he rose from the grave. And one day, when he returns, he will call out with a loud cry and his people will leave their tombs. The brief pain of this life will be far, far outweighed and overshadowed by the unending brilliance of eternal life with Jesus.

Jesus told Martha that those who believe in him will live forever. He asked her, “Do you believe this?” That is my question for you. Do you trust that God has a purpose for every pain, even if it doesn’t make sense? Do you trust that he’s good, even when life doesn’t feel good? Do you understand that Jesus is the only God who would enter into evil and endure it to save you from this evil world? Do you realize that he is our only hope, and that no set of laws, no government leaders, no amount of money or power or anything will fix evil? If you trust Jesus, you will live in a Paradise with him forever.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Χριστός.
  3. ἐμβριμάομαι.
  4. D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 415.
  5. Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990–), 1:442.
  6. See my sermon, “Jesus Was a Man,” preached on January 4, 2015, available at https://wbcommunity.org/Jesus.
  7. Though he did raise two other people back to life (Matt. 9:18–19, 23–26; Luke 7:11–17).
  8. See https://wbcommunity.org/job.
  9. This is the essence of 2 Peter 3:9.
  10. In the new creation, there will be no more marriage and no more children born.
  11. See Luke 13:1–5. In that passage, some people tell Jesus about some Galileans that Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, killed. Jesus says, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” He doesn’t say that the Galileans died for their sins, but he doesn’t rule that possibility out. He simply instructs those present to turn from their sin to God. We don’t have to speculate as to why those people in Las Vegas were murdered, or why people in Houston or Puerto Rico died as a result of hurricanes. When we see evil, we should turn to Jesus.
  12. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 35–36.
  13. Ibid., 36.
  14. Ibid., 83.

 

Why Do Bad Things Happen? (John 11:1-44)

Pastor Brian Watson answers the question, “Why do bad things happen?” by preaching a message on John 11:1-44, the famous story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus deliberately lets Lazarus die in order to heal him. He does this so that God would be glorified and people would believe. Perhaps this is why God allows any evil to occur at all.

The Lord Restored the Fortunes of Job (Job 42.7-17)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches an Easter message on Job 42:7-17, which foreshadows God’s restoration of the world. The new creation is possible because of Jesus’ resurrection. That event gives us certainty that one day God will make the world into a paradise. Listen to learn more about what’s wrong with the world, why we need Jesus, and the great hope that Jesus gives us.

True and Rational Words (Acts 25-26)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message based on Acts 25-26 titled, “True and Rational Words.” In this passage, Paul is on trial before the governor, Festus, and he presents the case for Christianity to Herod Agrippa II. When Christianity is on trial, we see that it is true because it is the fulfillment of the promises of the Old Testament and the resurrection of Jesus is supported by eyewitness testimony.

Evidence for the Resurrection

The following is a longer version of a case for the evidence of the resurrection of Jesus. You can read a shorter version here. You can learn more about Jesus’ death and resurrection by visiting https://wbcommunity.org/crucifixion and https://wbcommunity.org/resurrection-resources.

It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The easiest way to grasp the importance of the resurrection is to imagine what would have resulted had Jesus not risen from the grave. If he had been crucified and sealed in a tomb, never to be seen again, how would we know that he was the Son of God, the Messiah, truly God and truly man? If he had remained in the grave, how would we know that his death on the cross accomplished anything? If he didn’t rise in an immortal body, how could we have any hope for life after death?

Fortunately, Jesus did rise from the grave. He “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4; notice also the presence of all three Persons in the Trinity in that verse).[1] In that way, the resurrection proves who Jesus is and demonstrates that he reigns in power.

Jesus “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). According to theologian Wayne Grudem, “By raising Christ from the dead, God the Father was in effect saying that he approved of Christ’s work of suffering and dying for our sins, that his work was completed, and that Christ no longer had any need to remain dead. There was no penalty left to pay for sin, no more wrath of God to bear, no more guilt of liability to punishment—all had been completely paid for, and no guilt remained.”[2] Similarly, Tim Keller writes, “Jesus had risen, just as he told them he would. After a criminal does his time in jail and satisfies the sentence, the law has no more claim on him and he walks out free. Jesus Christ came to pay the penalty for our sins. That was an infinite sentence, but he must have satisfied it fully, because on Easter Sunday he walked out free. The resurrection was God’s way of stamping paid in full right across history so that nobody could miss it.”[3]

When Jesus rose from the grave, he rose as “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). That means that his resurrection insures ours. Though Jesus is the only one to be resurrected so far in history (as opposed to revivified, which is what happened to Lazarus and a handful of others who were brought back to life, only to die again), all who are united to Christ by faith will be raised in the future when Jesus returns. Like Jesus, we will have an immortal, glorified body, one that cannot get sick and die. This is the great hope for Christians everywhere. The resurrection shos that God is making a new creation, one that began with Jesus, continues with our spiritual rebirth, and will culminate in resurrected bodies in a new heaven and earth.

That is the meaning of the resurrection in a nutshell.

But how do we know it’s true? If someone could somehow prove that Jesus never rose from the grave, Christianity would be refuted. For as Paul writes, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep [i.e., died] in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:17-19). Certainly, if the resurrection were false, then Christianity would be, too.

Unfortunately for us, we can’t go back and time and see what happened. Like any historical event, we don’t have access to it. And like all historical events before the advent of photography and video, we can’t see it. Sometimes we have physical, archaeological evidence; sometimes we do not. Often, we must rely solely on the reporting of eyewitnesses and ancient historians. Fortunately for us, there is excellent evidence that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is an historical event. In order to understand this evidence, we’ll look at various sources, and then conclude what historical facts can be known about the death and literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus. There are three broad categories of sources: the New Testament, extra-biblical Christian writings, and non-Christian historical documents.

Why We Can Trust the New Testament

The best sources for knowing Jesus are the twenty-seven books of the New Testament. It would be a mistake to say that the New Testament is one witness to Jesus’ resurrection. Rather, the New Testament consists of twenty-seven separate documents, written by nine different authors (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, the unknown author of Hebrews, James, Peter, and Jude). These authors did not sit down together and decide what they were going to write about. In other words, they didn’t conspire to write a myth or a legend, something they knew to be false. Rather, each one wrote, independently of the others, about what they had seen and heard, and what God revealed to them. We know that they didn’t write together because sometimes they had significant disagreements, as can be seen in Galatians 2:11.

The amazing thing is that these authors produced a very cohesive, unified document. And they did this while writing at different times, from different places, to different locations. This is what James White calls “multifocality.”[4] If the authors of these books were not inspired by God to write these books, they would not be so unified in thought. To understand the importance of having multiple witnesses writing in multiple locations, to multiple destinations, at various times, we can compare the origin of the New Testament to the origin of the Qur’an or the Book of Mormon and other works that Joseph Smith wrote. The story of the Qur’an is that the angel Gabriel supposedly appeared to Muhammad and revealed certain teachings, which he recited to his community. These teachings were memorized and written down after Muhammad’s death. Similarly, Joseph Smith claimed to receive a message from an angel, who revealed to him golden plates that only he could read, through the assistance of “seer stones.” He then translated the “Reformed Egyptian” of those plates into English. These stories are rather suspicious because they both involve one man and an angel. By contrast, the New Testament was written by several men, who saw God in the flesh. Jesus had a public ministry, died in public, and appeared to many individuals after his resurrection.

I should also add that we are quite certain that all of the books of the New Testament were written in the first century A.D.[5] Most of the New Testament was likely written before the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.[6] It is also important to know that various other “gospels” such as the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Judas come from the second century or later. Additionally, we should observe that the authors of the New Testament were some of the original twelve disciples (Matthew, John, Peter), two of Jesus’ brothers (James, Jude), an apostle to whom the risen Jesus appeared (Paul), and those closely related to the apostles. Mark was closely related to Peter (1 Peter 5:13) and tradition states that his Gospel is based on Peter’s recollections. Mark also travelled with Paul (Acts 12:25; 13:5). Luke was another of Paul’s travel companions (see the “we” passages in Acts, which was written by Luke, beginning with Acts 16:10). Both Mark and Luke are mentioned by name in Colossians 4 (verses 10 and 14, respectively) and 2 Timothy 4:11. We don’t know who the author of Hebrews is, but he surely had access to the apostles, for he mentions Timothy, who was the disciple of Paul (Hebrews 13:23).

In addition to the above observations, we can test the historical reliability of the New Testament using three criteria.[7] The first is bibliographical test, which seeks to confirm whether the text we now have is an accurate representation of the original New Testament books. (Bear in mind that these books were written by hand, and copied by hand, until the advent of the printing press in the fifteenth century. We don’t have the original copies—the autographs—of these books, but that is no cause for concern, since we don’t have the original copy of any book from the ancient world.) The more manuscripts we have, and the closer they are in time to the original documents, the greater our confidence is that we have an accurate representation of the originals. We now have over 5,700 Greek manuscripts of parts or all of the New Testament, more than 10,000 Latin Vulgate manuscripts, and more than 9,300 other early translations. The earliest manuscript evidence we have comes thirty to fifty years after the original writing, and the earliest complete manuscript, the Codex Sinaiticus, was written around A.D. 350, less than three hundred years after the last book of the New Testament was written.[8]

Now, that may not seem very impressive, but let us compare these figures to other historical works of the same era The Roman historian Tacitus’s two major works, the Histories and the Annals were written around A.D. 100, and they exist in incomplete form in only two manuscripts from the ninth and the eleventh centuries. We have only eight manuscripts of History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, written in the fifth century B.C., and the oldest manuscript is dated around A.D. 900, some thirteen hundred years later. Julius Caesar’s Gallic War was written around 50 B.C., and we have only ten manuscripts, the oldest of which dates to around nine hundred years later.[9] The New Testament is the best-attested collection of documents from antiquity. This fact doesn’t prove that the content of these books is historically accurate, but it does give us confidence that we have access to the content of the original New Testament documents. These thousands of manuscripts assist those in textual criticism, the practice of removing transcription errors from manuscripts until the original content is restored.

The second test is the internal test: do the documents claim to be history? Luke claims that his Gospel was written on the basis of eyewitness testimony (Luke 1:1-4), and the sequel to this book, Acts, picks up where the first book left off. Peter and John also claim to report what they have personally witnessed (2 Peter 1:16-18; 1 John 1:1-3) and Paul states that the gospel he taught was received through a revelation by Jesus and confirmed by visiting Peter and James in Jerusalem (Galatians 1:11-19).

The third test is external: are the contents of the New Testament verified through other writings and through archaeological evidence? The writings of the early Church Fathers, as well as non-Christian historians such as Josephus and Tacitus, confirm some of the details of the New Testament. While we do not have archaeological evidence for every event in the New Testament, there is no such evidence that refutes what we read in its pages. Many of the historical details recorded by Luke in his Gospel and in Acts, such as the names of political leaders and the titles used for those leaders in various places, are accurate. That may not seem impressive until we understand that in different localities, leaders had different titles, and Luke had no access to extensive reference works, much less the Internet.[10] New Testament scholar Colin Hemer has identified eighty-four facts in Acts 13-28 that have been confirmed by historical and archaeological evidence, showing that Luke was a very careful historian.[11] Additionally, precise locations in Jerusalem mentioned in John’s Gospel, such as the pool of Bethesda (John 5:2) and the pool of Siloam (John 9:7) have been discovered, revealing that John had a very accurate knowledge of Jerusalem.

Two more observations about Scripture: The Bible stands up to the criterion of embarrassment, a test that is used to determine whether a document is reliable. If a text has potentially embarrassing details, it is assumed that they are reported because the author is committed to telling the truth and is not concerned with how the truth might appear. Many of the great figures in the Bible, from Moses to David to disciples like Peter, are depicted as very flawed individuals. This is particularly true of the disciples, who are shown to be dim-witted (Mark 9:32; Luke 18:34; John 12:16), not concerned about Jesus (they fall asleep while he is praying to God the Father—Mark 14:32-41), wrong in their theology (Jesus rebukes Peter, calling him “Satan”—Mark 8:33), and cowardly, fleeing from Jesus when he is arrested (Matt. 26:56) and denying knowing him (Matt. 26:69-75). The way Jesus is depicted could be construed as embarrassing, for he is called “out of his mind” (Mark 3:21), a “drunkard” (Matt. 11:19), demon-possessed (John 7:20; 8:48), and “insane” (John 10:20). (To be clear, Jesus was none of these things, but he was—and is—often misunderstood.) Add to these potentially embarrassing some very difficult teachings of Jesus, and it is very hard to imagine anyone fabricating this story.

The second additional observation about Scripture is that the Gospels and Acts seem to be historical reporting. It is true that these books contain amazing details, such as Jesus supernaturally multiplying food, raising people from the dead, casting out demons, and so forth. Yet the Gospels and Acts show amazing restraint, even as they report such details. One only need compare these books to later works like the Gospel of Peter to see the difference between historical reporting and fantastical legend. Those who have studied the Gospels and Greco-Roman biographies (bioi) have recognized similarities between the two.[12] C. S. Lewis put it this way: “All I am in private life is a literary critic and historian, that’s my job. And I’m prepared to say on that basis if anyone thinks the Gospels are legends or novels, then that person is simply showing his incompetence as a literary critic. I’ve read a great many novels and I know a fair amount about the legends that grew up among early people, and I know perfectly well the Gospels are not that kind of stuff.”[13]

So, the New Testament claims to be history, has external evidence to support its claims, is the best-attested collection of documents in ancient history, has details no one would make up, and appears to be historical reporting. What does it say about Jesus’ resurrection?

Evidence from the New Testament

All four Gospels show that Jesus was raised from the dead. First, they claim that after being beaten, flogged, and made to wear a crown of thorns, Jesus was crucified (Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, John 19).The practice of crucifixion is well attested in various Roman histories.[14] Death on a cross was reserved for the worst criminals, and it was carried out by Roman soldiers who knew how to kill. The four Gospels leave no doubt that Jesus died.

The Gospels also report that Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a rich man, and that some women witnessed the location of this tomb (Matt. 27:67-61; Mark 15:42-47; Luke 23:50-56; John 19:38-42). This tomb was sealed and guarded by soldiers (Matt. 27:62-66). Some women returned to the tomb on the third day and found that it was empty, a fact corroborated by John and Peter (Matt. 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-12; John 20:1-10). The risen Jesus was then seen by various groups of people. Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” saw him and touched his feet (Matt. 28:9). He appeared to two disciples on the road to Emmaus and he ate with them (Luke 24:13-30). Jesus appeared to the eleven disciples (Judas, the twelfth, had betrayed Jesus and then committed suicide) multiple times, showing that he had risen in a glorified body (Luke 24:36-40; John 20:19-20, 26-27). His body bore the wounds of crucifixion (Luke 24:40; John 20:20, 27). He even ate with them and prepared breakfast for them (Luke 24:41-43; John 21:12-14). Ghosts or hallucinations can’t be touched and they can’t eat, let alone cook breakfast. Jesus died, and then he was alive again, able to appear and disappear at will. His resurrected body later ascended into heaven (Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:9).

A summary of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances is as follows:

1. Mary Magdalene (John 20:10-18)

2. Mary and the other women (Matt. 28:1-10)

3. Peter (Luke 24:34; 1 Cor. 15:5)

4. two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-15)

5. ten apostles (Luke 24:36-39)

6. eleven apostles (John 20:24-31)

7. seven apostles (John 21)

8. all of the apostles (Matt. 28:16-20)

9. five hundred disciples (1 Cor. 15:6)

10. James (1 Cor. 15:7)

11. again to all the apostles (Acts 1:4-8)

12. the apostle Paul (Acts 9:1-9; 1 Cor. 15:8; 9:1).[15]

The last person on that list is the apostle Paul. He had a very unique encounter with Jesus on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus (Acts 9). Additionally, Paul witnesses to the resurrection several times in his letters. What is interesting is that many of Paul’s letters were written before the Gospels, and various New Testament scholars believe that even within these letters, Paul uses teachings that date to the first few years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

For example, Paul wrote the letter to the Romans around A.D. 55-58. Jesus most likely died in A.D. 30, though many believe the year was 33. (Given the data we have, either year is possible.) Within twenty-five years of Jesus’ death and resurrection, Paul wrote this letter. At the beginning of the letter, he writes:

who was born from the seed of David according to the flesh;
who was declared the Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by the resurrection from the dead. (Romans 1:3b-4a)

Because of the language used here (in the original Greek), many scholars believe Paul is quoting an early creed or hymn regarding Jesus, one that goes back to the earliest years of Christianity. The parallel structure of the lines (there are two parallel relative clauses; “who was born/who was declared” are both aorist participles in the genitive case in Greek; both lines have “according to”) as well as other details in the language indicate that this was an early hymn from the church in Jerusalem and was approved by the apostles Peter, James, and John.[16]

In a similar way, Paul passes on to the Corinthians an early teaching regarding the resurrection that he most likely received from the Jerusalem apostles. This passage is found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received:
that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,
that he was buried,
that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,
and that he appeared to Cephas,
then to the twelve.
Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time,
(most of whom are still alive, although some have fallen asleep).
Then he appeared to James,
then to all the apostles.
Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

I have arranged the text in such a way as to bring out its parallel structure. Notice there are four “that” phrases and four “then” phrases (ὅτι and εἶτα/ἔπειτα, respectively, in the Greek). Paul also uses technical terms (“delivered” and “received”) to indicate that this teaching was a tradition that he received from others. This letter was written in A.D. 54 or 55, but this particular teaching is even closer to the resurrection. Given that Paul converted to Christianity within a few short years after Jesus’ death,[17] and that he visited Peter and James in Jerusalem three years later (Gal. 1:18), it seems quite possible that Paul received this early teaching regarding the resurrection from eyewitnesses, four to six years after the event took place.[18]

It is important to observe the early dates of these teachings because there have been many skeptics who claim that the teachings of Christianity are myths that developed over time. They may grant that Jesus was a real person who died by crucifixion. But these skeptics claim that Jesus’ followers invented many elements of the Gospels, including his resurrection. However, these early teachings show that the resurrection of Jesus was taught from the beginning, and that it was not a legend created by subsequent generations.

We should also note that both Romans and 1 Corinthians were public letters, meant to be read aloud to a broad audience (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:2). Paul mentions several resurrection witnesses in 1 Corinthians including Peter (or Cephas, the Aramaic rendering of his name), “the twelve” (the corporate title of the original disciples of Jesus, though the actual number was eleven, since Judas committed suicide after betraying Jesus), James, and five hundred others, many of whom are still alive some twenty-five years later. Paul is indicating that if people have questions about whether the resurrection actually happened, they can go talk to these witnesses. (There are several individuals, some of whom served as minor figures in the Gospels, who are named quite specifically in those books. It is believed that the naming of so many people was one way that the Gospel writers sought to authenticate their biographies of Jesus.)

Paul’s writings, his sermons in Acts, and claims of the Gospels all attest to some basic facts regarding Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. William Lane Craig provides the following table to help us see that fact.[19]

1 Corinthians 15:3-5 Acts 13:28-31 Mark 15:37-16:7
Christ died . . . Though they could charge him with nothing deserving death, yet they asked Pilate to have him killed And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last.
he was buried . . . they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tom And he [Joseph] bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud and laid him in a tomb.
he was raised . . . But God raised him from the dead . . . “He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him.”
he appeared . . . . . . and for many days he appeared to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people. “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him.”

The New Testament is well-attested, its contents are verified by external sources, it contains teachings that come from years right after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and it circulated quickly throughout the Roman Empire. Additionally, there are no contemporary non-Christian writings that state that this Jesus did not exist, or that he did not die, or that he did not rise again. If there were evidence contradicting the claims of Christianity, it could have been brought to the light, and Christianity never would have survived. If there was a tomb that contained Jesus’ remains, this evidence could have easily refuted the preaching of the apostles. However, no such evidence exists. However, we do have some evidence from non-Christians that tells us about Jesus.

Extra-biblical Christian Evidence

Many of the early Church Fathers, leading figures in Christianity in the two or three centuries after Jesus’ death, bear witness to the resurrection. One such witness is Clement of Rome. We do not know the exact time when Clement lived, but he was bishop of Rome at the end of the first century. It is possible that he is the Clement mentioned in Philippians 4:3 (written by Paul around A.D. 60) and it is also possible that he knew Peter. In 1 Clement, he writes of the resurrection: “Let us consider, beloved, how the Lord continually proves to us that there shall be a future resurrection, of which He has rendered the Lord Jesus Christ the first-fruits by raising Him from the dead.”[20] Later, he writes, “The apostles have preached the Gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ [has done so] from God. Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ. Both these appointments, then, were made in an orderly way, according to the will of God. Having therefore received their orders, and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and established in the word of God, with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, they went forth proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand.”[21] This letter was written perhaps before A.D. 70, though the traditional date is A.D. 95-97. Either way, we have another witness to the resurrection from within seventy years of Jesus’ death.

Another early Christian witness to the resurrection is Polycarp (c. A.D. 69-c. 155, according to traditional dates). He died for the Christian faith at the age of 86. In his Epistle to the Philippians, written around A.D. 110, he writes these strong words: “‘For whosoever does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, is antichrist;’ and whosoever does not confess the testimony of the cross, is of the devil; and whosoever perverts the oracles of the Lord to his own lusts, and says that there is neither a resurrection nor a judgment, he is the first-born of Satan.”[22] Clearly, Polycarp thought the resurrection was of first importance. Irenaeus, a Church Father of the second century, claimed that Polycarp was taught by the apostles, particularly John.[23] Therefore, his testimony is based on eyewitnesses such as John.

Non-Christian Evidence

There are several non-Christian historians who mention Jesus and the early Church. We should consider this evidence, too. The Jewish historian Josephus (c. A.D. 37-c. 100) lived in Palestine, was a Pharisee, and was involved in the Jewish War against Rome, which began in A.D. 66. After being captured by the Romans, he joined their side and became a Roman citizen. It was after this time that he wrote his histories of the war and of the Jewish people. Josephus twice mentions Jesus. One short reference to Jesus comes in his Jewish Antiquities. In describing the martyrdom of James, he states that this apostle was “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ.”[24] We have no indications that Josephus became a Christian, but he acknowledged that Jesus was called Christ, or Messiah, by some.

There is a longer reference to Jesus in the Antiquities that provides us more information. However, there have been some interpolations added to the text by Christians who desired to possess a stronger historical witness to Jesus. One attempt to recreate Josephus’s actual words is as follows:

At this time there was a wise man called Jesus, and his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. Many people among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive. Accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have reported wonders. And the tribe of the Christians, so named after him, has not disappeared to this day.[25]

At a minimum, it seems that Josephus was aware that Jesus was regarded as a virtuous wisdom teacher who had disciples, who was crucified, whose disciples did not abandon him, and who was reported to have appeared to his followers. If Jesus had been a false Messiah (and there were several of them) and he had been put to death without rising from the grave, his followers would have abandoned the cause.

The Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus (A.D. 56-117) also wrote of Christians and Christ. After a fire broke out in Rome in A.D. 64, people were looking for someone to blame, and even the emperor, Nero, came under suspicion. Tacitus reports of Nero’s blaming the fire on Christians:

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.[26]

Tacitus traces the origins of Christianity to “Christus,” an obvious reference to Jesus Christ, who lived during the time of the Roman emperor, Tiberius, and who suffered death (“the extreme penalty”) under Pontius Pilate. Notice also that Christianity was “checked for the moment” after Jesus’ death, only to break out again. This detail harmonizes with what we know from the Bible: after Jesus’ death, the disciples were hiding. Even after his resurrection, the disciples did not do any public teaching. The disciples didn’t make much noise in Judea or beyond until after Jesus ascended to heaven and after they received the promised Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. Christian proclamation began with Peter’s speech in Acts 2, after which three thousand people came to faith in Jesus. In the final chapter of Acts (Acts 28) Paul is preaching in Rome. The Christian message spread quite quickly in the thirty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

One more Roman witness will suffice. Pliny the Younger (A.D. 61 – c. 112) was a Roman senator and the governor of Bithynia (part of modern-day Turkey). In one of his letters to Emperor Trajan (reigned A.D. 98-117), he mentions that he persecuted certain Christians, forcing them to abandon their faith. At one point, he describes their Christian worship: “They met on a stated day before it was light, and addressed a form of prayer to Christ, as to a divinity, binding themselves by a solemn oath, not for the purposes of any wicked design, but never to commit any fraud, theft, or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble, to eat in common a harmless meal.”[27] While this passage, written around A.D. 111, does not speak directly to the historicity of the resurrection, it does show that Christians worshiped Jesus “as to a divinity.” There would be no Christian faith without the resurrection, and Jesus would not be considered divine if he had remained in the tomb.

There are further mentions of Christ or Christianity by other non-Christian writers such as Suetonius, who reports that Emperor Claudius expelled Jews from Rome in A.D. 49 because of disturbances caused by a certain “Chrestus,” again, another reference to Jesus.[28] Apparently tensions between Jews and Christians led to the emperor’s decision to remove Jews from the city, an event also referenced in Acts 18:2. Mara bar Serapion, a Syrian Stoic philosopher writing shortly after A.D. 73, makes a reference to the Jews murdering their “wise king.”[29]

Summary of the Evidence

If we were to take only the non-biblical, non-Christian evidence regarding Jesus, we could still establish certain facts. Jesus lived. He was a teacher, a wise man, and a virtuous man. He had followers. He was crucified during the reign of Emperor Tiberius, under the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate. The disciples later had claimed that after three days they saw a resurrected Jesus. The Church grew quickly and spread to Rome. And Christianity continues to thrive today.

Of course, if we add to this account what we know from the New Testament, we can say much more about Jesus. The only reason to refuse using the New Testament as an accurate collection of historical documents is an anti-Christian or atheistic bias, or perhaps an anti-supernatural bias (a refusal to believe in the miracles of Jesus, including the resurrection). However, if we consider that Jesus was God in the flesh, why should we suppose that God could not perform miracles? The incarnation (when the Son of God became the God-man, Jesus) is itself a miracle, and a one-time event in history. Why assume that Jesus’ life would not be accompanied by miraculous actions, such as healing the blind, bringing the dead back to life (temporarily, not permanently, as in the resurrection), and rising from the grave, never to die again? It seems more reasonable to assume that if Jesus is God, the one through whom the Father created the universe out of nothing, he would be able to do whatever he wanted to do. If Jesus is God, then we should expect some that historical reporting about his life would be full of amazing and fascinating details. We wouldn’t expect a boring story of highly ordinary events.

Once we allow the Bible to speak for itself, we learn so much more about Jesus. We learn about his identity as the Son of God, the Son of David (through his human lineage), the Messiah, and as God himself. When we allow the Bible to speak, we start to understand so much more about Jesus. We begin to understand that Jesus became man so he could die for our sins. He had to do this because only one who is truly God and truly man could serve as the perfect, eternal sacrifice. He took the penalty for sin that we deserve and in return we are counted righteous because of his moral perfection.

It is interesting to note twelve facts that the vast majority of biblical scholars,who range from conservative Christians to atheists, agree upon. These facts are listed by Gary Habermas, a philosopher and an expert on the resurrection.

1. Jesus died by Roman crucifixion.

2. He was buried, most likely in a private tomb.

3. Soon afterwards, the disciples were discouraged, bereaved, and despondent, having lost hope.

4. Jesus’ tomb was found empty very soon after his interment.

5. The disciples had experiences that they believed were actual appearances of the risen Jesus.

6. Due to these experiences, the disciples’ lives were thoroughly transformed. They were even willing to die for their belief.

7. The proclamation of the Resurrection took place very early, from the beginning of church history.

8. The disciples’ public testimony and preaching of the Resurrection took place in the city of Jerusalem, where Jesus had been crucified and buried shortly before.

9. The gospel message centered on the preaching of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

10. Sunday was the primary day for gathering and worshiping.

11. James, the brother of Jesus and a skeptic before this time, was converted when he believed he also saw the risen Jesus.

12. Just a few years later, Saul of Tarsus (Paul) became a Christian believer, due to an experience that he also believed was an appearance of the risen Jesus.[30]

Arguments for the Resurrection

In addition to observing the facts above, we can offer a few supporting arguments in favor of the resurrection of Jesus.

It should be obvious by this point that if the above facts are true, then only a supernatural cause can account for the resurrection, because dead men don’t come back to life through natural causes. Jesus actually died, and was raised back to life by God. As Peter said, “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. . . . This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses” (Acts 2:24, 32). According to Habermas, “That Jesus died and that afterward his early followers thought they saw him again are both held by virtually all critical scholars, including agnostics. Most critical scholars also concede that natural alternative hypotheses are unable to explain these data.”[31] If natural hypotheses fail, then a supernatural hypothesis should be accepted.

Another reason to trust the historicity of the resurrection concerns the Jewish expectation of resurrection. A general resurrection was prophesied in Daniel 12:2: “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” However, no one was expecting the resurrection of an individual in the middle of human history. We can see this in John 11, when Jesus is speaking to Martha, the sister of Lazarus, who has recently died. Jesus tells her that Lazarus will rise again. She says, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus responds, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:24-25).

Though the resurrection of the “Suffering Servant” is hinted at in Isaiah 53:10-11, and though Jesus told his disciples that he would die and be raised on the third day, it seems that even they did not expect a resurrection. Several of the disciples had doubts (see Matthew 28:16-17; Luke 24:36-43; John 20:24-25). My point is that the Jewish people were not anticipating the resurrection of the Messiah, and even the disciples were not expecting it. Therefore, it is unlikely that anyone would make up this event.

We can even add that Jews did not expect God to become a man. Their conception of the Messiah was a human, political deliverer. Though they expected God to vindicate them, they could hardly have imagined that God would become a man, and that this God-man would be put to death.

Even though the whole story of Jesus, from the incarnation to his death to his resurrection, seems unexpected, it was prophesied many times in Scripture. The prophecies of Jesus’ death and resurrection are particularly subtle. Two examples are Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53.[32] These passages were written roughly one thousand and seven hundred years, respectively, before Jesus’ death and resurrection. If you read these passages, you will see that they point forward to Jesus, but they do so in subtle—not blatant and fictitious—ways.

If the resurrection of Jesus were a tale that someone created, then the first witnesses of the empty tomb and of Jesus would not be women. The Christian philosopher J. P. Moreland observes: “In first-century Judaism, a woman’s testimony was virtually worthless. A woman was not allowed to give testimony in a court of law except on rare occasions. No one would have invented a story and made women the first witnesses to the empty tomb. . . . The fact is included in the Gospels because the Gospels are attempting to describe what actually happened.”[33] If someone made this story up, he or she would have had respected men be the first witnesses, not a group of women.

Another argument is the transformation of the disciples. Reading through the Gospels, one gets the sense that they are sincere but rather thick-headed. When Jesus was arrested, they all fled (Matthew 26:56). Jesus had selected a bunch of “nobodies.” In the eyes of the Sanhedrin, the court of Jewish leaders, the disciples were “uneducated, common men” (Acts 4:13). Yet these men were transformed into bold witnesses to Jesus, willing to die for their faith. (In fact, many of them did die for their faith.) What could account for this transformation, other than the resurrection of Jesus (and the subsequent outpouring of the Holy Spirit)?

In a similar fashion, there is the conversion of Saul/Paul from a Pharisee who helped persecute the Church (Acts 7:58; 8:1-3; 9:1-2) to a bold witness for Christ who established churches throughout the Roman Empire and died as a martyr in Rome. Paul’s witnessing of the risen Jesus and his dramatic conversion are told in Acts 9 and alluded to in his letters. In 1 Timothy 1:12-17, Paul called his former self a “blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent” and the foremost of sinners. What could account for this transformation other than an encounter with the living Christ?

Jesus’ own brothers were also converted to Christianity. During his ministry, they did not believe that he was the Son of God and the Messiah. It is unclear why this is so. Perhaps Mary and Joseph decided not to tell their younger children that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit (making Jesus, technically speaking, their half brother). Perhaps they were told that story and still didn’t believe. Their unbelief is reported in Mark 3:20-35; 6:2-6; and John 7:1-5. The Gospels do not lead us to believe that they were among Jesus’ followers or present at his death. Yet in Acts 1:14, after Jesus’ ascension, Mary and Jesus’ brothers are with the disciples. James became the leader of the Jerusalem church and authored the letter bearing his name. Jude also wrote a letter found in the New Testament. Paul tells us that the resurrected Jesus appeared to James (1 Cor. 15:7), and it was perhaps this appearance that was instrumental in his conversion.

Finally, there is the dramatic outgrowth of Christianity from its Jewish roots. Christianity grew out of a religion that had a non-Trinitarian, monotheistic view of God; a heavy emphasis on worship at the temple and on the Sabbath; animal sacrifice; circumcision; strict dietary laws; and many other laws regarding physical purity. Christianity, on the other hand, while still monotheistic, says that the one God exists eternally in three Persons. Christianity taught that Jesus himself was the temple (the dwelling place of God with human beings, the “place” of worship, and the “place” of atonement) and that now the Church is the temple. Christians shifted their day of worship from the Sabbath to the Lord’s Day, Sunday, in honor of the day Jesus rose from the grave. Christianity acknowledges that Jesus was the final and ultimate sacrifice for sin, that circumcision is no longer necessary, that all foods are clean, and that other laws regarding what is clean or unclean are no longer in effect. This dramatic change in religion can only be accounted for by something as dramatic as the resurrection.

Objections

There have been a number of objections offered to the resurrection. Those who do not believe in Jesus have offered up alternative explanations for what happened.

One hypothesis is that Jesus’ followers were hallucinating when they had experiences of seeing Jesus after his death. Given the fact that Jesus appeared to several different groups of people several times over a period of forty days, this explanation is hard to believe. When people hallucinate, it is a personal and subjective experience. How could many people have the same hallucination repeatedly? According to Michael Licona, “Since hallucinations are mental events with no external referent, one cannot share in the hallucinations of another.”[34] Additionally, when people hallucinate, they often see what they had previously believed. As we have shown, the disciples were not expecting Jesus to rise from the grave. Furthermore, hallucinations can’t be touched and they usually don’t eat food and cook breakfast!

Some people believe that the witnesses went to the wrong tomb and found it empty. This is not possible because the women saw exactly where Jesus was buried and they returned to the same tomb on the third day. It was also the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy member of the Sanhedrin. If a claim that his tomb, which once contained the corpse of Jesus, was empty, it could easily be disproved. A tomb with Jesus’ remains was all that was needed to refute the apostles’ preaching on the resurrection. But no such tomb, and no corpse, was ever found. Habermas states, “The Jewish leaders in Jerusalem had the power, motive, and location to investigate thoroughly the proclamation of the resurrection appearances. They knew of Jesus’s [sic] death and his burial. Though they were ideally situated to expose the error, they did not refute the evidence.”[35]

Others have suggested that Jesus didn’t actually die, but only appeared to die on the cross. This explanation is known as the swoon theory. The Qur’an claims as much when it says, “That they [the Jews] said (in boast), ‘We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Apostle of Allah’—but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not— Nay, Allah raised him up unto Himself; and Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise.”[36] The Qur’an was written six hundred years after Jesus’ death, and is not, therefore, a reliable witness. To paraphrase Shakespeare, the Qur’an doth protest too much, methinks.

As with the previous explanations, this is extremely unlikely, runs counter to the evidence (even the non-Christian ancient historians believed Jesus died), and is not held by serious scholars today. We must remember that Jesus was severely beaten and scourged before the crucifixion. Scourging was known to tear flesh off a body. Josephus reports a man being whipped until his bones were laid bare.[37] Jesus likely suffered a significant loss of blood on the way to the cross. He was also probably extremely tired and weak from not sleeping all night and not eating since the Last Supper. After he died, it is reported that the Roman soldiers pierced his side to verify his death (John 19:34). In all of ancient history, there is only one report of a person surviving crucifixion. This came when Josephus remembered three of his friends who were crucified. He asked Titus, the Roman commander, to release them. Even after receiving the greatest medical care, two of the three died.[38] By contrast, Jesus was not rescued prior to his death, which was verified by the Roman soldiers (who certainly knew how to kill someone). Even if he were released from the cross prior to dying, he would probably not receive the greatest medical care, and the fact that he already was tired and was scourged would make his survival highly unlikely.

Consider what three medical doctors wrote in an article on the crucifixion in the Journal of the American Medical Association:

Clearly, the weight of historical and medical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead before the wound to his side was inflicted and supports the traditional view that the spear, thrust between his right rib, probably perforated not only the right lung but also the pericardium and heart and thereby ensured his death. Accordingly, interpretations based on the assumption that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge.[39]

If Jesus did not actually die, he would have been sealed in a tomb for roughly thirty-six hours without medical attention, food, or water. Are we to believe he survived over that span of time? Could he have opened the tomb and found the strength to walk to his disciples? To believe such a thing is absurd in light of the evidence.

Some people believe the disciples may have stolen the body. In fact, the Pharisees and the chief priests were worried about this, so they asked Pilate for a guard of soldiers to secure the tomb (Matthew 27:62-66). After Jesus rose, the chief priests bribed the soldiers to spread this lie (Matthew 28:11-15). Interestingly, the Church Fathers Justin Martyr and Tertullian reported that this was still what Jewish leaders were claiming, even into the third century.[40] The idea that the cowardly disciples could get past a contingent of Roman soldiers and open a sealed tomb is rather unbelievable. Equally unbelievable is the idea that they would propagate something they knew to be a lie without anyone one of them confessing the truth under threat of torture or death. Would all of the disciples be willing to die for their faith? Liars make poor martyrs.

Regarding the idea that the resurrection was a myth created by the disciples, consider the words of Blaise Pascal:

The hypothesis that the apostles were knaves is quite absurd. Follow it out to the end and imagine these twelve men meeting after Jesus’ death and conspiring to say that he had risen from the dead. This means attacking all the powers that be. The human heart is singularly susceptible to fickleness, to change, to promises, to bribery. One of them had only to deny this story under these circumstances, or still more because of possible imprisonment, tortures and death, and they would all have been lost.[41]

It is hard to believe that the disciples could have conspired to create a story about a resurrection and not yielded to confessing the truth under pressure, persecution, and threats of death. It is harder to believe that many of them, such as Peter, James, and Paul, would have died for a lie.

Other theories have been advanced, such as a substitute (perhaps a secret twin brother?) died on the cross and not Jesus. These theories are equally unbelievable, and no serious scholars—whether atheists or agnostics—maintain them. Lately, it has become popular to say that Jesus didn’t even exist, and that the whole story of Jesus is based on other myths. Given the evidence that we have already examined, it should suffice to say that some people would rather imagine elaborate conspiracies instead of embracing the truth. Many people will not believe the truth regardless of how much evidence has been offered, because they do not want to believe that Jesus is who the Bible says he is.

The evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is impressive. It is one of the best-attested facts in ancient history. The only question left is, Will you believe it?

Notes

  1. All Scripture quoted herein, unless otherwise noted, is taken from the English Standard Version.
  2. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 615.
  3. Timothy Keller, King’s Cross (New York: Dutton, 2011), 219.
  4. James R. White, The King James Only Controversy, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2009), 307.
  5. For information on the dates of the books of the New Testament, see D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005).
  6. It is difficult to date most of the books with precision, but analysis of internal and external evidence assists those who try to determine when they were written. Matthew, Mark, Luke, Acts, Paul’s letter, Peter’s letters, and Hebrews were surely written before this time. James seems to have been written as early as the middle or late 40s. Jude was probably written around the 50s or 60s. All of John’s writings (John, 1-3 John, Revelation) were likely written in the 80s and 90s.
  7. J. P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1987), 134.
  8. Andreas J. Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 33.
  9. Ibid., 34; Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, 135; Paul D. Wegner, The Journey from Texts to Translations (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1999), 235.
  10. On the historical accuracy of Luke, see F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? 6th ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1981), 80-93.
  11. Colin J. Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990). These facts are listed in Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 256-59.
  12. Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010), 202-04.
  13. C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1967, 209, quoted in Geisler and Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, 311.
  14. For more information on crucifixion, see Martin, Hengel, Crucifixion: In the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross, translated by John Bowden (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977).
  15. This list is found in Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 546. Groothuis says he owes the list to Kenneth Samples, Without a Doubt (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2004), 137.
  16. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 220-21.
  17. Paul saw the risen Jesus and converted to Christianity possibly in 32 A.D. or 34 A.D. ), within two years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, according to John B. Polhill, Paul and His Letters (Nashville: B&H Academic, 1999), 80.
  18. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 231.
  19. William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, 3rd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 363.
  20. Clement of Rome, 1 Clement 24, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I: The Apostolic Fathers With Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 11.
  21. Clement of Rome, 1 Clement 42, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I: The Apostolic Fathers With Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts et al., 16.
  22. Polycarp of Smryna, The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians 7, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I: The Apostolic Fathers With Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts et al., 34.
  23. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 254.
  24. Flavius Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews 20.200, in The Works of Josephus, trans. William Whiston (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987).
  25. Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.63-64, quoted in Paul L. Maier, “Did Jesus Really Exist?” in Evidence for God, ed. William A. Dembski and Michael R. Licona (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2010), 145.
  26. Cornelius Tacitus, The Annals 15.44, eds. Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb, < http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0078%3Abook%3D15%3Achapter%3D44>.
  27. Pliny the Younger, To the Emperor Trajan, < http://www.bartleby.com/9/4/2097.html>.
  28. Suetonius, Claudius 25, <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Suet.+Cl.+25&fromdoc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0132#>.
  29. “A Letter of Mara, Son of Serapion”, trans. B. P. Pratten, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume VIII: Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries: The Twelve Patriarchs, Excerpts and Epistles, the Clementina, Apocrypha, Decretals, Memoirs of Edessa and Syriac Documents, Remains of the First Ages, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1886), 737.
  30. Gary R. Habermas, The Risen Jesus and Future Hope (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003, 9-10, quoted in Geisler and Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, 299-300.
  31. Gary R. Habermas, “The Resurrection and Agnosticism,” in Reasons for Faith: Making a Case for the Christian Faith, ed. Norman L. Geisler and Chad V. Meister (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), 292.
  32. There are many websites where you can read the Bible. Good websites include www.biblia.com, www.biblegateway.com, and www.youversion.com.
  33. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, 168.
  34. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 484.
  35. Gary R. Habermas, “The Resurrection Appearances of Jesus,” in Evidence for God, ed. William A. Dembski and Michael R. Licona (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2010), 175.
  36. Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an, Surah 4.157-58, Electronic version. (2004).
  37. Josephus, Jewish Wars 6.304.
  38. Josephus, Life 420-21.
  39. William D. Edwards, Welsey J. Gabel, and Floyd E. Hosmer, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” Journal of the American Medical Association 255, no. 11 (March 21, 1986): 1463, quoted in Geisler and Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, 305.
  40. Gary R. Habermas, “The Empty Tomb of Jesus,” in Evidence for God, ed. William A. Dembski and Michael R. Licona (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2010), 170.
  41. Blaise Pascal, Pensées 310/801, ed. and trans. Alban Krailsheimer (New York: Penguin, 1966), 125, quoted in Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 558.

Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ

What follows is a very brief defense of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If you want to read a longer version, which has much more detail, specific references, and citations, visit https://wbcommunity.org/resurrection. [1] Also, you can learn more about Jesus’ death and resurrection by visiting https://wbcommunity.org/crucifixion and https://wbcommunity.org/resurrection-resources.

The Meaning of the Resurrection

It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The easiest way to grasp the importance of the resurrection is to imagine what would have resulted had Jesus not risen from the grave. If he had been crucified and sealed in a tomb, never to be seen again, how would we know that he was the Messiah, the Son of God, truly God and truly man? If he had remained in the grave, how would we know his death on the cross accomplished anything? If he didn’t rise in an immortal body, how could we have any hope for life after death?

Fortunately, Jesus did rise from the grave. He “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4). The resurrection proves who Jesus is and demonstrates that he reigns in power.

Additionally, Jesus “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). This shows that he paid the sentence for our sins in full and walked out of the prison of the tomb a free man. His death paid the penalty for all the sins of those who are united to him by faith.

When Jesus rose from the grave, he rose as “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20). That means that his resurrection insures the future resurrection of all Christians. Though Jesus is the only one to be resurrected so far in history, all who are united to Christ by faith will be raised in the future when Jesus returns.[2] Like Jesus, each Christian will have an immortal, glorified body, one that cannot get sick and die. This is the great hope for Christians everywhere. The resurrection shows that God is making a new creation, one that began with Jesus, continues with our spiritual rebirth, and will culminate in resurrected bodies in a new heaven and earth.

That is the meaning of the resurrection in a nutshell.

But how do we know it’s true? If someone could somehow prove that Jesus never rose from the grave, Christianity would be refuted. For as Paul writes, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep [i.e., died] in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:17–19). Certainly, if the resurrection were false, then Christianity would be, too. Fortunately, we have several lines of evidence that show that the resurrection is an historical event.

Miracles?

Before we consider the evidence, we should first address one major objection. Many people don’t believe Jesus’ resurrection is a real, historical event simply because they think such things are impossible. In other words, they don’t believe in miracles. Since I don’t have a great deal of space to defend the existence of miracles, I’ll make three relatively brief points.

One, some people think miracles never occur. But it would be nearly impossible to prove such a statement. Such a statement is not based on evidence, for two reasons. One, we have evidence for miracles. For thousands of years, in different times and in different places, different people have claimed to have witnessed miracles.[3]

Two, in order to disprove the existence of miracles, scientists would have to have observed, measured, and accounted for every event in history.[4] To say that no dead person in all of history has ever come back to life, scientists would have to have information regarding every dead body in all of history. But scientists simply don’t have access to such information. To say that miracles are impossible is an assertion that needs to be proved. That statement (“miracles are impossible”) is a philosophical assumption, not a scientific conclusion.

Two, some people, such as the philosopher David Hume (1711–1776), think that the low probability of miracles indicates that they are unlikely, if not impossible. Yet the probability of a resurrection is about the same as the probability of a universe arising out of nothing, which is what the Big Bang theory implies. The origin of life is also highly improbable. Just because something is improbable doesn’t mean it hasn’t occurred.

Three, there are some events that are frankly impossible without an outside agent coming in to help. For example, I think it’s impossible for my son to bench press 225 pounds—unless I step in and help him lift that weight. Similarly, the origin of the universe and the origin of life are impossible—unless God does the work. So it goes with the resurrection. Usually, dead bodies stay dead. Everyone knows that. The earliest Christians knew that. That’s why they were so shocked when they saw Jesus alive again. Jesus’ resurrection shows that God is real and acts within the world he has made.

The Bible

The best witness to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is the New Testament. This is not one witness to the resurrection, but many. After all, the New Testament consists of twenty-seven different books written by nine different authors, at different times, in different locations, and to different destinations. What is amazing is the fact that these many different witnesses proclaim a single, unified message regarding Jesus. It is important to note that these books were all written in the first century A.D., within seventy years of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and that they were written by eyewitnesses or those who gathered information from eyewitnesses. The New Testament is the best-attested book (or collection of books, really) from ancient history, in the sense that we have much greater manuscript evidence for these writings than we have for any other ancient text.[5]

All four Gospels show that Jesus was raised from the dead. First, they claim that after being beaten, flogged, and made to wear a crown of thorns, Jesus was crucified (Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, John 19).

The Gospels then report that Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a rich man, and that some women witnessed the location of this tomb (Matt. 27:67–61; Mark 15:42–47; Luke 23:50–56; John 19:38–42). This tomb was sealed and guarded by soldiers (Matt. 27:62–66). Some women returned to the tomb on the third day and found that it was empty, a fact corroborated by John and Peter (Matt. 28:1–10; Mark 16:1–8; Luke 24:1–12; John 20:1–10). The risen Jesus was then seen by various groups of people. Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” saw him and touched his feet (Matt. 28:9). He appeared to two disciples on the road to Emmaus and he ate with them (Luke 24:13–30). Jesus appeared to the eleven disciples (Judas, the twelfth, had betrayed Jesus and then committed suicide) multiple times, showing that he had risen in a glorified body (Luke 24:36–40; John 20:19–20, 26–27). He even ate with them and prepared breakfast for them (Luke 24:41–43; John 21:12–14). Jesus died, and then he was alive again, able to appear and disappear at will. His resurrected body later ascended into heaven (Luke 24:50–53; Acts 1:9).

The apostle Paul was also a witness to the risen Jesus. He had a very unique encounter with Jesus on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus (Acts 9). Additionally, Paul testifies to the resurrection several times in his letters. In some of his letters, written roughly twenty to thirty-five years after Jesus’ death, Paul seems to quote early creeds or hymns that date back to the earliest years of Christianity. These include Romans 1:3–4, 1 Corinthians 15:3–8, and Philippians 2:5–11. The first two passages clearly speak of the resurrection, while in the third passage, the resurrection is implied.

Extra-Biblical Christian Evidence

Many of the early Church Fathers, leading figures in Christianity in the two or three centuries after Jesus’ death, bear witness to the resurrection. One such witness is Clement of Rome. He was the first bishop of Rome at the end of the first century. In 1 Clement, he writes of the resurrection: “Let us consider, beloved, how the Lord continually proves to us that there shall be a future resurrection, of which He has rendered the Lord Jesus Christ the first-fruits by raising Him from the dead.” This letter was written perhaps before A.D. 70, though the traditional date is 95–97.

Another early Christian witness to the resurrection is Polycarp (c. 69–c. 155). In his Epistle to the Philippians, written around A.D. 110, he writes these strong words: “For whosoever . . . says that there is neither a resurrection nor a judgment, he is the first-born of Satan.” Clearly, Polycarp thought the resurrection was of first importance.

Non-Christian Evidence

There are several non-Christian historians who mention Jesus and the early Church. We should consider this evidence, too. The Jewish historian Josephus (c. 37–c. 100) mentions Jesus twice in his Jewish Antiquities. In describing the fate of James, he states that this apostle is “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ.” We have no indications that Josephus became a Christian, but here he acknowledged that Jesus was called Christ, or Messiah, by some.

In another, longer passage in the Antiquities, Josephus states Jesus was a wise man known by his virtue, that he had followers, that he was condemned by Pilate to die, that his disciples reported that they had seen him alive after three days, and that they continued to follow him.

Another witness is Pliny the Younger (61–c. 112), who was a Roman senator and the governor of Bithynia (part of modern-day Turkey). In one of his letters to Emperor Trajan (reigned 98–117), he mentions that he persecuted certain Christians, forcing them to abandon their faith. He observes that Christians worshiped Jesus as one who is divine.

There are other references to Jesus from Roman writers such as Suetonius, and the Syrian Stoic philosopher, Mara bar Serapion.

Summary of the Evidence

If we were to take only the non-biblical, non-Christian evidence regarding Jesus, we could still establish certain facts. Jesus lived. He was a teacher, a wise man, and a virtuous man. He had followers. He was crucified during the reign of Emperor Tiberius, under the Roman prefect (governor) of Judea, Pontius Pilate. The disciples later claimed that after three days they saw a resurrected Jesus. Christianity grew quickly, spread to Rome, and changed the course of history.

Of course, if we add to this account what we know from the New Testament, we can say much more about Jesus. The only reason to refuse using the New Testament as an accurate collection of historical documents is an anti-Christian bias, or perhaps an anti-supernatural bias (refusing to believe in the miracles of Jesus, including the resurrection). However, if Jesus is God, the one who created the universe from nothing, no miracle is impossible for him.

Arguments for the Resurrection

In addition to observing the facts above, we can offer a few supporting arguments in favor of the resurrection of Jesus.

One is the Jewish expectation of resurrection. Jews believed in a resurrection at the end of history (Daniel 12:2; John 11:24), not the resurrection of an individual in the middle of human history. The disciples didn’t expect that Jesus would be resurrected, though he had told them he would. It seems that several of the disciples had doubts (see Matthew 28:16–17; Luke 24:36–43; John 20:24–25). Since this resurrection was not anticipated, it is highly unlikely that anyone would make this story up. (Also, if the Gospels weren’t true, why would they report the disciples’ doubts and flaws?)

Another argument is the transformation of the disciples. Reading through the Gospels, one gets the sense that they were sincere but rather thick-headed. They were also cowardly, fleeing when Jesus was arrested. Yet when we read Acts, we read of a group of bold witnesses to Jesus, willing to die for their faith. Only the resurrection (and the power of the Holy Spirit) could transform them in such a way. It should be added that these were not influential men; they didn’t have political power or riches.

Paul had a similar, though perhaps even more dramatic, transformation. He was changed from a persecutor of the Church to its greatest evangelist and missionary. Jesus’ brothers, James and Jude, also were converted from unbelievers to pillars of the church and writers of New Testament letters.

Finally, there is the dramatic outgrowth of Christianity from its Jewish roots. Christianity is the fulfillment of Judaism, yet several Christian worship practices are dramatically different from Jewish ones. This dramatic change in religion can only be accounted for by something as dramatic as the resurrection. In fact, Christianity threatened Judaism and the Roman Empire. If someone invented this new faith, there would be no money or fame to gain. Instead, that person might very well be killed. The only reason someone would risk proclaiming the message of Jesus is if he believed it was true.

The evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is impressive. The question is, will we believe it?

Notes

  1. Another online resource concerning the resurrection can be found here: https://credohouse.org/blog/evidence-for-the-resurrection-in-a-nutshell.
  2. It’s true that others, like Lazarus, were revivified: they were made alive, but they died again later.
  3. Craig S. Keener has written a large, two-volume work, much of which details miracle reports from different parts of the world. See Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011). For a more popular treatment, see Eric Metaxas, Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life (New York: Dutton, 2014).
  4. “One cannot inductively prove a negative without examining every possible instance” (Ibid., 1:105).
  5. For more on why we can trust the New Testament, visit https://wbcommunity.org/can-trust-new-testament.