Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Part 2: Witnesses

     In addition to the radical transformation that took place in the lives of His followers and the church that remains to this day as a result, we have documents they left behind as evidence that Jesus really did come back from the dead.  Peter (a Jewish fisherman), Luke (a gentile physician), Matthew, Mark, John, and Paul all wrote about the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Every single one of them wrote within the first generation of the death and burial of Jesus.  This means there were living eyewitnesses at the time of their writing who could have contradicted their accounts. This week, we will start to take a look at each of these writers and their interactions with Jesus after He died.  Today, we begin with Peter. 

     All four gospel accounts mention Peter being called by Jesus to be one of His followers.  Matthew and Luke provide the most detail:

 Now as Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Simon who was called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And He said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

Matthew 4:18 & 19, NKJV

Luke 5:1-11 shares the story of Jesus leading Peter and his fellow fishermen to a miraculous catch of fish followed by the instruction that from that point on they would "catch men". 

     Peter would go on to become a member of Jesus' inner circle, praying, learning, and serving others under the leadership of the One who called him out of fishing into relationship and ministry.  Like the other disciples, however, Peter also grew afraid and doubtful as the time of Jesus' crucifixion neared.  Luke's account of the situation is clear and concise:

     Having arrested Him, they led Him and brought Him into the high priest’s house. But Peter followed at a distance. Now when they had kindled a fire in the midst of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them. And a certain servant girl, seeing him as he sat by the fire, looked intently at him and said, “This man was also with Him.”But he denied Him, saying, “Woman, I do not know Him.”And after a little while another saw him and said, “You also are of them.”
But Peter said, “Man, I am not!”Then after about an hour had passed, another confidently affirmed, saying, “Surely this fellow also was with Him, for he is a Galilean.”But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are saying!”
Immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed. And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how He had said to him, “Before the rooster  crows, you will deny Me three times.” So Peter went out and wept bitterly.

Luke 11:54-62, NKJV

     Something changed dramatically for Peter in a very short time period.  As Jesus went to trial (Passover), Peter adamantly denied being one of His followers.  By the time of Pentecost (52 or 53 days later), he was boldly preaching about the same Jesus he had denied less than two months earlier.  Consider not just the change in behavior, but the change in attitude as well.  What does a man have to see to be transformed from a coward before a young servant girl into a courageous speaker of truth surrounded by crowds of men who passionately disagree with him?  Not the words Peter uses to describe what had just happened in the recent memory of the very people to whom he spoke:

 “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves also know— Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death; whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it."

Acts 2:22-24, NKJV
     The apostle who is famous for denying he even know Jesus would go on to repeatedly preach and write about the resurrection with absolute confidence for the rest of his life.  Here are a few examples:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
I Peter 1:3-5, NKJV

     In this portion of Peter's first letter, we see no room for denial in defense of life after death for Jesus.  It is also apparent that he recognized a connection between the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the future of those who believe in Him.  He calls the hope of those who trust Jesus a living hope.  Look at the adjectives he ascribes to the inheritance reserved for those with faith:  incorruptible and undefiled.  Peter writes that are inheritance does not fade away, that is reserved in heaven and we are kept by the power of God.  None of the calamities that befall riches, health, and property on earth can touch the inheritance God has reserved for His people.  A little later in the same letter, Peter confirms God's work in the lives of His people and again declares the resurrection of Jesus with assurance:

knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot. He indeed was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you who through Him believe in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.
I Peter 1:18-21, NKJV

     Once more, later in the same letter, Peter reiterates the truth of which he is convinced - Jesus Christ rose from the dead:

through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him.
I Peter 3:21b-22

     Finally, in his second letter, written when his death was imminent, Peter reminds his readers that his account of what happened in his life and in the life of Jesus, he was not making stuff up or citing some mythology to which he had been exposed.  Peter was describing events as he experienced them himself!  He saw the risen Christ with his own eyes!  He walked with Jesus, talked with Him, ate with Him...all after Jesus was brutally, publicly executed on a Roman cross:

For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty.
II Peter 1:16

     Peter is a witness whose transition from scared and silent to courageous and outspoken demands an explanation.  Any attempt to rewrite the explanation provided by Peter himself - that he saw death defeated - is misguided in the face of this eyewitness account repeated throughout Peter's life. 

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Did Jesus really rise from the dead?

     I recognize that the question of whether or not Jesus Christ really rose from the dead assumes a lot of other answers.  In order to have risen from the dead, Jesus had to have been a real person who actually lived and died.  He could not have been a product of legends or the mixture of various religious figures that some claim He is.  I intend to address those issues at some point on this blog, but for this morning, we will take a look at the central claim being celebrated today.  The claim is made very concisely by the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 15:

"For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures..."

 This is the reason for the worldwide celebrations taking place today, articulated in a very basic collection of statements, broken down as follows:

1.  Jesus Christ died
2.  His death is related to our sins
3.  His death took place in accordance with the Scriptures
4.  He was buried
5.  He rose again
6.  His resurrection took place in accordance with the Scriptures 

     Did Jesus experience death?  No heartbeat, no breathing, death?  Did He really come back to life and leave the tomb in which he was buried empty?

     Perhaps the best piece of evidence that Jesus did, in fact, rise from the dead can be found in the fact that Christianity even exists today.  According to the earliest accounts, the followers of Jesus abandoned Him when He was arrested prior to His crucifixion.  Matthew 26:56 and Mark 14:50 both use the same words to describe what happened:

Matthew 26:56 "...Then all the disciples forsook Him and fled."

Mark 14:50 "Then they all forsook Him and fled."

With this being the case, what happened to turn a small group of scared men into a world-changing, life-risking bunch of missionaries?  These men would risk and, in most cases, sacrifice their lives in order to tell the world that Jesus had risen from the dead.  If not His resurrection, what was their motivation?  What turned their fear into boldness?  What turned their silence into sermons?  

     The book of Acts in the New Testament details the behavior of these men in the years following Jesus' death and resurrection.  The evidence of the radical transformation that took place in their lives is still visible today.  If Jesus were still dead, there would be no Christian church.  The people who spread the message on which Christian churches are based had already given up.  They threw in the towel, their leader was dead...until He wasn't.  Once Jesus came back to life, nothing would stop His followers from spreading that message.  He is risen!  He is risen indeed.


Saturday, April 19, 2014

"It seems like made-up stories for kids"

     20 years of my life have been invested in youth, college, or young adult ministry.  I have often been pulled aside, or emailed, or Facebook messaged by a young person (or even a not-so-young person) with questions about Christianity, or the Bible, or why we believe the things we do.  It never comes as a shock, often my friends' questions are similar to those I ponder myself.  Christians believe some pretty crazy things, it would be scary if we didn't wonder from time to time.  Consider the Apostle's Creed, a brief summary of belief shared by most Christians:

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
Creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
He descended to the dead.
On the third day He rose again;
He ascended into heaven,
He is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and He will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

There is so much here that is foreign to our experience.  A virgin getting pregnant?  Giving birth to God?  Dead people coming back to life?  Life that doesn't end?  Are any of these things real?

     None of the questions shocked me until one evening, not long ago, when they came from my own child.  Teary-eyed and distressed, one of the people who means more to me than my own life came to me with doubts about God, even saying at one point, "sometimes when I read the Bible, it just seems like made-up stories for kids".  This blog will be the continuation of that conversation, sprinkled in with thoughts from our family study of the Bible and general life happenings.  I hope you will join the conversation.  Thanks for reading.