(I originally preached this message as part of our “God Question” series in October, 2018)
Every October is bitter sweet for me. In 2009 I lost my dad to pancreatic cancer, when he was only 59. Though I grieved the loss of dad following his death, it wasn’t until October of that year that it really came home. Like many families in Kamloops, I hunt deer in the fall, trying to fill the freezer with the best organic, free-range, low-fat, low-cholesterol meat available. And one cold morning – a little snow falling – I got a deer.
It was then. In the thanksgiving to God, and the sort of sadness that always follows taking life for our food, there was that realization – as I carried my father’s rifle, and was wearing his favorite hunting sweater – this beat up old wool thing he called “road rash” because it had so many holes in it…it was that morning, without dad to help me drag it out, to high-five me, to share in a little bit of tears that he often had at a successful hunt too – that’s when I really began to grieve. He wasn’t there, when – to that point in my life – he always had been. Bittersweet.
In a recent discussion between Michael Ruse, a very friendly, atheist professor of philosophy at Florida State University, and John Lennox, professor of mathematics at Oxford University, Ruse said that the idea of Jesus’ physical resurrection was utterly unimportant – it’s irrelevant. Lennox, a bit stunned, responds by saying; “All of us face the problem of physical death….If the problem with physical death has been solved historically, I want to know about it!” I do too.
This morning we are coming to the conclusion of our series “The God Question”, but more than a conclusion, this is really the “climax” of the series – and I say that because this morning we are zeroing in on Jesus – who he is, what he claimed, and most importantly, looking at if we could really believe in the resurrection in our late-modern, scientific age.
If you are just joining us for the first time today, we’ve been looking at some of the biggest questions that people who are looking into Christianity often ask: “Is it even reasonable to believe in God? What about science? Or the fact that there are so many religions in the world; how can Christianity claim to give us the truth about God? And more – there is so much evil and suffering in the world – how could we possibly believe in a good and loving and all-powerful God in light of all this pain? Great questions.
But there’s more: like, doesn’t Christianity restrict our freedom? And, isn’t the church – people who claim to follow Jesus – aren’t they responsible for so much injustice, and aren’t they hypocrites? What about that? More great questions!
If you are just joining us, and those are your questions too – or you have friends who are asking you about those kinds of questions – I want to encourage you to go online to our webpage and have a listen to any of those messages – or just come and chat with me, I’d love to connect over coffee about those questions with you.
Now, I say that this is the climax of our series because the arguments for God that we looked at – like, the Kalam Cosmological argument, that says the universe had a beginning, and therefore someone “began” it, because we don’t get something from absolutely nothing – these sorts of arguments are not going to “prove” the existence of the one, holy, all-powerful, all-loving God that is described in the Bible.
They provide a means, as one scholar puts it, for “shaking up the dogmatic confidence…that naturalism and materialism
[the idea that only the material world is real – like no “super-natural”]
are the default rational views of the universe.” (C. Stephen Evans). As we’ve seen, maybe it actually does make good, reasonable sense – even better sense – to believe that a “god” of some sort is responsible for all that exists.
But that doesn’t get us to the God of the Bible. Christianity says that we know about God not by well-reasoned arguments, but through God’s self-revelation – through how God has spoken to humanity, and, even more significant, how God has “shown up” in real history.
We’ve looked at a number of reasons to believe in God over this series, but as Tim Keller put it: “Jesus himself is the main argument for why we should believe Christianity.”
Let me read you a section from his book Making Sense of God – a book I have drawn from extensively over this series and highly recommend! He writes:
“The man Christians call Jesus Christ is the single most influential person who ever lived [there is really no disputing that!]…Western civilization was shaped in large part by the Bible and particularly by Christian theology. Even today’s secularism shows the marks of the humanistic values that grew out of Christian understandings.”
Now, I’ve tried to show that throughout our series – pointing out that the values we have in our culture of the equality and dignity of all people – those values are drawn directly from the influence of the teachings of Christianity.
He continues: “And Jesus’s influence does not lie mainly in the past. Today a greater percentage of the world’s population than ever before is Christian, and Christianity adds to its ranks over fifty thousand persons a day, or just under nineteen million new people a year. Even in its beginnings, the movement of Jesus followers spread out in all directions outward from its Middle Eastern origins, not only to Europe but also to North Africa, to Turkey and Armenia, to Persia and India. “Christianity was a world religion before it was a European one.”….And today…Christianity is the religion most equally distributed across the continents of the world. So “no other [faith]…has so extensively crossed the cultural divisions of humanity and found a place in so many diverse cultural contexts.”
Last week Pastor Colton talked about how Christianity has been used to justify injustice and oppression in the world – but he also showed that this is inconsistent with the heart and message of Jesus. Keller goes on to make this important point:
“Even when Jesus has been used to legitimate oppression, as in the nineteenth-century American south, the African slaves themselves found the inspiration and power in Jesus to resist their domination. Even though during the early-modern period Christianity was tied too closely to European and American colonialism and empire, today most of the most vital and largest Christian populations are now nonwhite, non-Western. No matter how many efforts have been made to capture and deploy Jesus for imperialistic ends, he has always escaped them.” (Keller, Making Sense of God, 228-229).
So that leads us to the big question – that we’ll explore in more depth today: Why has Jesus had the incredible effect he had – and continues to have?
How would we even know about who Jesus really was? Well, the New Testament of the Bible begins with four “Gospels” which are biographies of Jesus’ life and teaching.
1. The Gospels As History – Not Legend
The notion that Jesus existed as a real, live, human person who walked on the earth, this is now virtually uncontested by historians today. What is contested is the historicity of the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Throughout much of the 20th Century, form-critical scholars assumed that the Gospels were folk-literature, the product of oral tradition – of stories passed around like a game of ‘telephone’, if you can remember from elementary school days – and that the writers weren’t really interested in telling the story based in historic reality. Many even argued for very late dates on the writing of the gospels – some even into the second century.
So they had the assumption that the writers of the Gospels felt free to embellish the details so that it answered the needs and questions of the ancient Christian communities.
However, these assumptions have been challenged by many historians over the last 20 years, who have shown that much of that methodology has been flawed. It is a valid enterprise to explore the historical Jesus, but that shouldn’t rule out the Gospels as significant, trustworthy, historical sources.
Here are some of the facts we need to recognize which have challenged the form-critical assumptions.
One, scholars now generally agree that Mark is the earliest Gospel, written around 65 AD (maybe earlier), that Matthew and Luke are about a decade later, and John a decade after that.
So all of them were written within the lifetime of the people who actually walked around with Jesus, and those people could have disputed the main points.
And two, historian and biblical scholar Richard Bauckham, who has taught at St. Andrews and now at Cambridge, he has looked into the ancient history writing conventions and shown that the authors of the Gospels were following the customs of their day when they interviewed the eyewitnesses of the events. At the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, he clearly claims to have to have interviewed eyewitnesses of the events, and to have written an orderly account of the details. And more; the Gospel writers mention specific people – naming eyewitnesses – that you could go to and ask for confirmation of the events. These include people like Simon of Cyrene, his sons Rufus and Alexander (Mk 15:21), Cleopas (Lk 24:18), and Malchus (Jn 18:10).
So, these Gospels don’t have the form of legendary material – these have the form of eyewitness testimony, the normal, most respected form of ancient history writing (Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses).
2. There are many “embarrassing” features of the Gospel Accounts
I don’t know about you, but I don’t tend to tell stories about myself that make me look bad or stupid, and reduce my credibility among other people – that aren’t true.
But the things about the New Testament Gospels is, well, they have features that are really embarrassing for the early church – things that you wouldn’t just “make up”, especially if you were trying to gain credibility.
Paul Eddy and Gregory Boyd have a book called The Jesus Legend, and they point to a number of these features that are either embarrassing or really don’t fit with either the Greek or Hebrew worldview – like:
“…the claims of Jesus’ identity…as that of Yahweh-God [like, that Jesus – a human person – is actually one and same as God described in the Old Testament] and that he should receive worship [for a person to be seen as God, and to receive worship was totally and utterly against the Jewish faith – and yet, Jesus accepts worship], the notion of a crucified Messiah [messiah was the Jewish concept of the ruling king – not someone shamed and crucified…that didn’t fit at all with the Jewish expectation], the dullness of the disciples [the disciples are presented as very ‘slow’, and often petty and ridiculous…and these are the new leaders of the Jesus-movement, the church!], the unsavory crowd that Jesus attracted” [Not those of cultural influence – but those who were marginal and even despised in the world] (In Keller, MSoG, 232).
Now, if you wanted to make up a story that would somehow gain traction in the ancient world, making up this sort of story would have been completely counter-productive!
These early Christians had every incentive to downplay, or totally eliminate these embarrassing features, and yet, they didn’t. Why? They felt bound to tell the truth about Jesus.
Here’s what Eddy and Boyd conclude: “The fact that this story originated and was accepted while Jesus’ mother, brothers, and original disciples…were still alive renders the legendary explanation all the more implausible…It is hard to understand how this story came about in this environment, in such a short span of time, unless it is substantially rooted in history.” (In MSoG, 232).
And I hope you can see, this is good reason to believe the Gospel are at the least “substantially rooted in history,” that they are telling us the truth about Jesus.
3. Jesus’ Claim About Himself
Listen to what Jesus says about himself in John 8:56-58. He’s in a discussion – more like a debate – with some religious leaders.
56 Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”
57 “You are not yet fifty years old,” they said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!”
58 “Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!”
This is a huge claim that Jesus makes about himself here. When he says “I am” he’s echoing the language from Exodus 3, where God meets Moses and speaks to him through a burning bush. Moses asks God, “What is your name?” And God responds: “I am.”
See, Jesus’ words here amount to the claim to be the one true God – Israel’s God, Yahweh. That’s why the religious leaders pick up stones to kill him; because they did understand what he was claiming – and they believed it was blasphemy, and it would be… if Jesus wasn’t truly God.
So, how did he get them to believe he was who he claimed he was – that he was God?
No other religious leader of any major religion claimed to be divine, so why did Jesus succeed in this claim to be divine – and to lead the largest religious movement in history?
First, his life must have been extraordinarily beautiful. He was claiming to be sinless and divine, and the people who actually lived with him and saw his life, well, they believe it. If I made that claim, and you lived with me for a day you would know it wasn’t true. But his followers, who knew him best; they believed it.
And it’s true that many people of other religious faiths, or who might claim to have no faith at all, they look at the counterintuitive teachings of Jesus and marvel at him.
But the second reason is where I want us to focus now: People believed Jesus because…well, because of the resurrection.
4. The Resurrection of Jesus
Now, if we don’t start with an automatic bias against the possibility of miracles, then the resurrection of Jesus by far makes the best sense, historically, of the beginnings of the Christian movement – of the fact that Jewish, people who were the first followers of Jesus came to worship him as God virtually overnight. So…let’s just start by clearing up a few questions in regards to miracles.
If you weren’t here in Part One of the God Question series, where I dealt with this question a bit more in depth, I would encourage you listen to that first message. But let me give a brief explanation here:
We cannot empirically prove or disprove God’s existence. We can’t put God under a microscope and say “yes” or “no” to his existence, but instead we have to look at the evidence and see where it leads.
But, if we can’t disprove God’s existence outright, then we need to at least be philosophically open to the possibility that God exists. And if it is possible that God exists, then it must at least be possible that he could intervene into the world he made and do a miracle. So, we should at least grant the possibility of a miracle if we want to be intellectually honest.
Let me read one of the resurrection accounts in the Bible. Read Matthew 28:1-10
“After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.
2 There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. 4 The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.
5 The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6 He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”
8 So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
So, without a doubt, this is describing a miracle. And we know that people don’t just rise from the dead! Well, exactly. Now, we might assume that the disciples were just gullible folk, or that they just really wanted Jesus to rise again, so they felt that maybe he was “spiritually alive”; still “alive in our hearts.” No. They had the real, physical, bodily-resurrected Jesus right in front of them…and still, in Matthew – just a few verses later, we read in 28:17: “…some doubted.” That line, “some doubted” – that’s really important.
See, resurrection shouldn’t be easy to believe in. Having doubts about it is normal. It was outside of what the disciples expected – and it’s outside of what we expect too.
However, we cannot – and must not – simply end with our doubts. That’s not actually thinking well. Thinking well is looking at the evidence and then trying to account for it. A common objection says: “resurrections don’t happen so Jesus wasn’t raised.” But why believe that? That’s not an argument; that’s just restating a belief, not discussing the actual details.
So let’s look closer at three lines of evidence for believing this account.
1. First, there is the empty tomb
The Christian claim was that Jesus was alive but that claim could have easily been disproved by recovering and displaying the body. And there would have been enormous pressure to find and display his body to quell the early Christian movement. In fact, Matthew’s Gospel recounts how the Jewish leadership sought to cover up the resurrection story. Producing Jesus’ corpse would have easily dismantled the claim that Jesus was raised again. But historians generally agree that there was an empty tomb. But more, if the tomb did contain Jesus’ body, the early Christians would have made the tomb a site of pilgrimage. But that didn’t happen.
2. The Testimony of the Eyewitnesses
The text we read talks about the women who actually saw Jesus alive – and they are named, by the way. Later in that chapter, Jesus appears to his disciples. In the book of 1 Corinthians, published only 20 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Paul claims that over 500 people saw Jesus alive, many of them in large groups. This rules out the idea of a single person having hallucinations – a common notion skeptics have put forward to explain these accounts.
And, let’s go back to those women. All the gospels point out that the first people to witness Jesus alive are…female. Now, women weren’t allowed to bear witness in court at that time and place in history – they were seen as unreliable. This would have been the last thing anyone who was ‘making up’ this story would have said if they wanted it to be seen as credible. So, if these reports were legends or a false story, why would all of the Gospels report that women were the first to see Jesus alive? Only if they felt bound to tell the truth.
3. Third, the impact of the resurrection on Jesus’ followers
This is really important to notice. Everyone has a worldview – a way that ‘makes sense’ of what is going on around you – like a set of lenses we look through.
Our ‘vision’ or what is believable is conditioned by lots of factors – our family, our education, the cultural narratives that we just take for granted.
As I mentioned, (1) the Jewish worldview would not have easily recognized that God might have actually taken on human form – the exact thing Jesus claims to have done. And Jesus’ disciples actually bow down and worship Jesus – claiming he is be both fully God and human at the same time.
But more, (2) the Jewish people did not believe in the idea of a single resurrection in the ‘middle of history’. They believed at God would raise all his people to life at once – so they had no “worldview” category for a single resurrection. So why did they come to change that belief overnight? This didn’t fit their categories.
Not only that, (3) soon after the church started to declare that Jesus was alive, non-Jewish or “Gentile” people were invited to faith. Christianity advanced like crazy through the non-Jewish world. Now, this was also problematic because the worldview of the Greek culture was that resurrection was grotesque – like the night of the living dead, zombie apocalypse stuff. They didn’t believe in bodily resurrection and wouldn’t want to. So how did this Christian movement, claiming the Jesus was bodily raised, how did it gain traction among people who wouldn’t even want to believe it?
And still more, (4) there had been other messianic pretenders – people who claimed to be leading a mission to renew Israel. N.T. Wright and Richard Bauckham point to Bar Kokhba, who – like other messianic pretenders – died attempting to establish himself as ushering in God’s kingdom rule. In every case these movements withered and died as soon as the leader died. Wright says it like this: “The violent execution of a…would-be Messiah, did not say to any Jewish onlooker that he really was the Messiah after all, or that YHWH’s kingdom had come through his work. It said, powerfully and irresistibly, that he wasn’t and that it hadn’t” (Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 558). But that’s not what happens with Jesus – he is described as the world’s true king and launches the biggest movement in history! Why?
So the historical question must be pressed: If Jesus story had ended on the cross, he would have also been considered just one of the other would-be, failed messiahs. But he wasn’t. His followers don’t abandon the mission, but with renewed vigor and fearlessness, go out declaring the opposite: Jesus really is king of the whole world!
So we have this small group of poor, marginalized followers of Jesus who are so galvanized by what they experience that they go boldly into the world, proclaiming that Jesus had been raised from the dead, and many of them gladly die for their faith. You don’t die for a hoax that you know isn’t true.
What could explain all of this historically? If you don’t rule out miracles out of the gate – the best, most plausible historical explanation is that Jesus really and truly was raised from the dead, and hundreds of people saw him.
If this evidence is new to you, and if you have never thought that the Christian claim could be legitimately described in historical terms, my hope is that you seriously consider that the message and meaning of Christianity is actually based in reality. And if this is true, it means so much for us now. It means all of Jesus’ taught, and all he promises, they are true. That “…the Lord himself [really] is a living reality.”
See, Jesus claimed that his death on the cross was actually to pay for our sin – our self-centeredness, all the ways we have contributed to the evil of the world. Boy, I need that!
By trusting in him, we can be forgiven and brought into a loving relationship with God. We no longer need to be weighed down by guilt. That’s freedom! Do you know that forgiveness yet? Do you know that security of having the God who called the stars out one by one call you his own child? That can be yours today!
And, consider; we will all have to face not only our own death…and, if you haven’t already, you’ll have to deal with the death of those you love. You will. Like the words of the Iron and Wine song: “One of us will die inside these arms.” And that is…just true. But what if death is not the end of our story?
And as I said when we started, I’ve tried to show today is that we can know it – know this hope – because God has come to us. Jesus, God the Son, has come to show us that he loves humanity enough to die in our place so we can be forgiven, and was raised again to confirm that all his promises are true.
Most every night I am reminded of this resurrection hope when I pick up my copy of The Message – it’s the Bible written in everyday, modern language by pastor and scholar, Eugene Peterson. As I read The Message, and I hear the words of Jesus fill me with hope again, I also hear Peterson’s love for God and for people – I see in his word his desire for God’s words to us to be heard in a fresh way for our day and age. Here’s what he writes about how God reveals himself:
“I sometimes marvel that God chose to risk his revelation in the ambiguities of language. If he had wanted to make sure that the truth was absolutely clear, without any possibility of misunderstanding he should have revealed his truth by means of mathematics. Mathematics is the most precise, unambiguous language that we have. But then of course, you can’t say “I love you” in algebra.”
On October 22, 2018 Peterson got to hear “I love you”, not just from the language written in the text of scripture, but he heard it from Jesus himself, as Peterson passed from this life into the next. He is now face to face with the One whose “I love you” changed Peterson’s life. He’s face to face with the One who transformed him into a man that wanted to give of his whole life and energy to serve God and to tell others of that love. He went to be with the Lord in that kind of confident hope. I want everyone to know that hope.
And, you know, my copy of The Message that sits beside my bed, that I read nightly – this was my dad’s Bible…oh he had other translations too – but in his last years of life, as cancer was slowly but surely wearing his body thinner and lighter by the week, his heart and life were being filled and gaining a ‘weightiness’ of hope as dad poured over these pages and grew and grew in his excitement and confidence that he was going to meet his Savior soon.
I don’t want anyone to face death without the confidence my dad had. And now I get to read, every night before bed, from his Bible – to be reminded daily of the Source of Dad’s hope, a hope I can now carry. A hope I want everyone to know.
And this is the promise. Just listen to Revelation 21:3-5 – and this is from The Message:
“I heard a voice thunder from the Throne: “Look! Look! God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women! They’re his people; he’s their God. He’ll wipe every tear from their eyes. Death is gone for good—tears gone, crying gone, pain gone—all the first order of things gone.” The Enthroned continued, “Look! I’m making everything new. Write it all down—each word dependable and accurate.”
“Death is gone for good.” If Jesus’ has been raised, folks, that’s actually true. “Tears gone, crying gone, pain gone.” That’s the hope I have for the future. How about you?