1st Corinthians 15, Apostle John, Apostle Paul, ascension of Jesus, baptism of Jesus, beloved Son, book of Acts, Christ, Christianity, Christians, empty tomb, evidence, eyewitness, followers, Gospels, hostile witness, Jerusalem, Jesus, Jews, John the Baptist, Josh McDowell, martyr, Messiah, persecution, Peter, resurrection, road to Damascus, Roman Empire, Roman guard, statement against interest, transfiguration
In a future post, I will be describing some of my favorite sports moments. But I am going to include one of them in this post because it fits the topic. It was actually an accomplishment that I did. It happened in basketball, which is ironic because it is probably my worst sport. I am short (about 5’4½”), don’t handle the ball particularly well, and I don’t have a sense of the field of play the way I do in football or soccer. But there is one very important fact about this event: I didn’t see it happen.
My friends must have been desperate for an extra player when they asked me to join them for a half court pickup game in the Teagle gym. During the game, one of my teammates was the last person to touch the ball as it was heading out of bounds in the corner to the left of the basket. I was the closest to the ball and unchallenged for it.
I have the quick reflexes of a hockey goalie, and they kicked in as I closed in on the ball. At the last possible second before it or I would be out of bounds, I dove and got my hands under the ball. The only way I could save it was to fling it upwards in the general direction of the court, hoping one of my taller and stronger teammates could get to it first. Then I hit the floor and skidded, coming to rest out of bounds against the curtain that separated our court from the next one.
As I shook off the impact of hitting the floor and got to my feet, it was strangely quiet. The first thing I saw was that everyone was standing around. I assumed the ball went out of bounds again, and they were waiting for me to get back onto the court before the inbounds play. They stood there with dumbfounded expressions. One of my teammates told me, “You swished it.”
I accused them of kidding me, but they all insisted it was true. Even the guys on the other team agreed that it went in. And the game resumed with us having one more basket than before.
I eventually believed them for three reasons. First, they didn’t have enough time to get their stories straight. Second, a group of guys that age are not good enough actors to keep a straight face under those circumstances. But the most important was that the guys on the other team were hostile witnesses. And they were making statements against interest. Confirming that it went in hurt their chances of winning. So I am firmly convinced it happened, even if I didn’t see it.
Now we will go to a different kind of court, one where witnesses are examined and evidence is weighed.
Here is a summary of the story of Jesus’s resurrection and the empty tomb He left behind. First, Joseph of Arimathaea persuades Pilate to release His body to him. He wraps His body in linen cloth and puts it in a new tomb he had recently created by hollowing out a cave into rock. Nicodemus put certain spices on the linen cloths according to their burial customs. They are followed to the tomb by some of the women who had been ministering to Jesus and His disciples.
The disciples of Jesus are disheartened, fearful and in hiding. They are supposed to stay in Jerusalem for the Passover. But they expect the authorities to find them and arrest them at any time.
Meanwhile, the Jewish authorities remember (far better than His disciples did) that Jesus had said He would rise from the dead. They go to Pilate and ask him to give them a Roman guard. A Roman military guard was made up of 4 to 16 men, deployed in a square formation, and were known for their ability to hold off a far larger force. Pilate grants their request. The guard goes to the tomb, puts a Roman seal on it and position themselves in front of it.
The day after the Sabbath, some of the women go to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus with more spices. As they walk there they wonder who will be able to roll the large stone away from the tomb so they can do this work. When they arrive, they find that the stone has been moved away and they encounter an angel who tells them that Jesus is risen and is not there. Eventually Peter and John arrive and find that there is no body in the cave, but the linen burial cloths have been left there.
Then Jesus appears to many people during this time. The Apostle Paul, in his first letter to the church in Corinth, gives an excellent summary of these events.
For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how 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: And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time. – 1st Corinthians 15:3-8 [Note: Cephas is the Greek name for the Apostle Peter.]
At this point a number of questions might come to mind. For instance, what revived the spirits of a disheartened group of disciples who had good reason to believe their cause was defeated with the death of their leader? When He was arrested and crucified, they were still struggling to understand much of His teaching, especially His purpose and objective. What enabled them to turn a movement in a small area of a conquered region, into a force that swept through the whole world, despite its initial leaders being a small group of men with relatively little education (except for Paul), influence, power or funds? Furthermore, how do we know that Paul’s statements are true?
If we recall the evidence regarding my amazing basketball shot, some of it applies here as well. The followers of Christ, in spreading their witness about Jesus, were speaking statements against their own personal interest. While many Jews became added to the number of followers in the early years after the ascension of Jesus, the Jewish leadership never accepted that Jesus was the Messiah. They vigorously persecuted their Jewish brothers and sisters who followed Jesus. Indeed, it was as part of that mission that Paul (at that time called Saul of Tarsus) was heading to Damascus. Until the vision and message from Christ on that road to Damascus led him to convert, Paul’s actions against the followers of Christ included imprisonment, voting for their death at trials, subjecting them to whatever punishments were allowed under the Law in synagogues throughout the region, even in areas distant from Jerusalem, and forcing some to recant their beliefs.
And while the Romans at first may have seen this situation as an internal dispute between the Jews which did not concern them unless it threatened the peace, that changed as the number of followers continued to grow, especially when non-Jews, even Romans, began to convert in significant numbers. Teaching and witnessing about a king named Jesus who is the son of the one true God, threatened the religious customs of the Roman Empire and the authority of Caesar.
Thus the persecution of Christ’s followers multiplied greatly. The book of Acts records the martyrdom of Stephan and the Apostle James. The historical record shows that all of the Apostles except John (who died of old age in exile) died a martyr’s death. That record further shows that Christians were routinely sent to death in the Coliseum and that Nero blamed the Christians for the fire he set that burned Rome. It took three centuries before Christianity was officially accepted by Roman authorities. Until then, it wasn’t very safe to be found proclaiming the Gospel.
The following is a link to an article by Josh McDowell that gives an extensive list of evidence, facts, proofs, counter-arguments to the claims of skeptics, and evaluations by historians on the validity of the testimony which supports the existence of Jesus and His historical resurrection after His crucifixion. Historical accounts by Jews and Romans who opposed Christianity (i.e., hostile witnesses) are included in the article with explanation why it is strong evidence. There is also archeological evidence that shows that Paul’s letter quoted above was circulated at a time when it can be expected that many of the people who saw Christ after His resurrection were indeed alive. And many other points are made, and made better than I could hope to do. And yes, at the end of his article, a challenge is made as to what you believe.
Why is all of this so important? A little further in 1st Corinthians, Paul explains it: And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain. (1st Corinthians 15:14)
Jews and Christians agree that God has promised a Messiah for His people. The disagreement that divides is over the identity of the Messiah. Paul, a most learned Pharisee before following Christ, has stated it clearly: if Jesus is not risen from the dead, then He is not the Messiah; He is not the Christ. He is just another false claimant to the title. There would be no need to continue to follow His teachings. Instead, all should pray that the Messiah would come soon.
Confronted by such an important spiritual question, I must conclude based on all that has been set forth in this series of posts, that we have reliable eyewitness accounts of people who have seen God. In times of His choosing, God reveals Himself in physical form to people. At other times, the effects of God’s presence in the world are evident.
I have left the most important witness for last: God Himself on two occasions. In three of the four Gospels, Jesus takes only Peter, James and John with Him to a hilltop where His appearance is transfigured and He converses with Moses and Elijah. At the end of that event, a voice comes out of a cloud and calls Jesus His “beloved Son”. Also, those same three Gospels testify that when Jesus is baptized, a voice comes out of heaven with that same description of Jesus, and the Holy Spirit also comes upon Jesus at that time. (In John’s Gospel, it is also mentioned that the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus when He was baptized. This Gospel quotes John the Baptist bearing witness at this time that Jesus is the Son of God.)
On the first occasion, three people witnessed. On the second occasion, an untold number of witnesses were there, whoever had come to be baptized at that time. And many people from all around were coming to be baptized. They heard a disembodied voice that could not be manufactured with the technology of that time.
Will you follow God? If so, then understand that to truly follow, it matters little that God is on your side; it is far more important that you endeavor to be on God’s side. What other way is there to follow?