Easter Witness

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Acts 10:34-43

We believe Jesus rose from the dead; this is the truth to which we testify. You can believe it too.

There is an interesting man named Cornelius whom we meet in the pages of the New Testament book of Acts. Cornelius was a good example of a type of person that was more common than you might expect in the first-century world. He was what is known as a “God-fearer.” Though a Gentile (a non-Jew from a pagan background) and an officer in an elite unit of the Roman army, Cornelius was a deeply spiritual man. He was searching for God. He was not content to live only for this world, as so many people do, seeking to satisfy only his physical and emotional needs. Cornelius had a hunger for a deeper reality. He was trying to satisfy a higher need, the need for truth. This hunger led him to search for the God who is more true than anything we know and more real than anything we see.

Not surprisingly, since he was stationed in Palestine, Cornelius’s search led him to the God of Israel. He began to pray devoutly to this God, the only real and living God, and he tried to serve him as best he knew how. There were many others like Cornelius throughout the ancient world, people who were dissatisfied with the idol worship and widespread immorality of their culture and who were attracted to the wisdom, majesty, and holiness of the God of the Bible. Every place there was a Jewish synagogue these God-fearers were to be found; no longer pagans, still unable to become Jews, but being drawn to the true God. When the Christian gospel came to them and explained how they could come to know God in Jesus Christ and be reconciled to him by faith through Jesus’ death no matter what their race or nationality, many were converted on the spot.

The Gospel for the Gentiles: Crossing Cultural Barriers

Cornelius’s story is significant because it shows the very first encounter of Gentiles with Christianity. For its first few years the church was entirely Jewish. Every Christian was simply a Jew who had embraced Jesus as the Messiah. The apostle Peter was their leader. He was, of course, a follower of Jesus himself and a bold preacher of faith in Christ, but he also remained a practicing Jew. He kept the Old Testament’s ritual commandments, observing the Sabbath Day, and following the dietary requirements of the law. And like every other devout Jew, he had no social dealings whatsoever with any Gentile.

But then one day God intervened directly to bring the Gentile Cornelius and the Jewish Christian Peter together in a saving encounter that broke the old taboos and leveled the racial and religious barriers that were keeping them apart. God did all this by bringing Peter to Cornelius so that he could hear the message Peter had to tell him:

Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right. This is the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached – how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.

“We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen – by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

(Acts 10:34-43)

Witness to the Resurrection

Peter’s address to Cornelius and his household is not so much a religious discourse, nor does it consist of arguments to persuade Cornelius to change his beliefs. Rather, it is testimony. “We are witnesses of everything [Jesus] did,” declares Peter (v. 39). He simply relates the facts of Jesus’ life, recounting the history of what he said and did. More importantly, he tells the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Christian preaching is witness, and Christian witness is, in particular, Easter witness – testimony to the fact that, on the third day after his death, God raised Jesus Christ from the dead.

If you read the accounts of Peter’s preaching in the early chapters of Acts, you will discover that he really had only one sermon, which he repeated over and over. In his first public address, speaking to the people of Jerusalem six weeks after the crucifixion, Peter declared: “Jesus of Nazareth, who was delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men but God raised him up, and of that, we are witnesses” (Acts 2:23ff.). After the authorities had arrested him and ordered him not to speak of the name of Jesus again, he said this: “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus . . . whom you killed by hanging him on a tree and . . . we are witnesses to these things. . . .” (Acts 5:29ff).

But this is not only Peter’s theme. The resurrection was also the theme of the preaching of all the first Christians. One illustration of how much the apostles focused on this subject is found in a story told later in the book of Acts about the preaching of the apostle Paul. While Paul was in the city of Athens, he spoke regularly in a public area near the marketplace that was frequented by philosophers and religious teachers. His message aroused a fair amount of interest and also some confusion. People in the crowd who either did not quite hear what he was saying or didn’t follow him very closely remarked that Paul seemed to be promoting foreign deities “because,” Luke explains, “he was preaching about Jesus and the resurrection” (Acts 17:18). The Greek word for resurrection is anastasis. What happened in Athens is that Paul was talking so much about Jesus and his resurrection, some of his hearers thought he was trying to introduce two new gods to them, one called “Jesus” and the other “Anastasis.”

So this is a very important point: at the heart of the apostles’ preaching was testimony to the fact that the Jesus whom they had known, whom they had accompanied for three years as he went about doing good, who had later been hanged on a tree and crucified by a lawless act, afterwards was raised to triumphant new life by God. The apostolic witness is an Easter witness. You may choose not to believe it. You may think it is all a hoax or a conspiracy, despite the fact that every apostle laid down his life rather than deny the truth to which he bore witness. You may believe they were all mistaken or deluded, despite the fact that they invited the closest and most careful investigation of their evidence. But you cannot deny the fact that this was the apostles’ testimony. I, and hundreds of millions of others from the first century to the brink of the twenty-first, believe they were telling the simple truth.

If Jesus Rose

Let us assume for a moment that the apostles were telling the truth, and that the Easter witness is true. If Jesus rose from the dead, what then? Let me suggest two conclusions.

First, if Jesus rose from the dead, then he is alive today. British evangelist Michael Green has related a true story from the days of communism in the old Soviet Union. A Russian atheist was delivering a lecture to a large audience on the subject of the resurrection. He gave a long and detailed speech in which he showed conclusively why such an event could never have occurred. When the lecture was finished, an orthodox priest got up out of the audience and asked for the opportunity to reply. “You can only have five minutes,” the lecturer said. “I only need five seconds,” answered the priest, and turning to the packed hall he greeted them with the joyful words of the Easter liturgy, “Christos anest?!” he cried. (“Christ is risen!”) Back from the crowd thundered a deafening reply, “Al?th?s anest?!” (“He is risen indeed!”).

The point, you see, is not just that Christ rose. It is that he is risen. If the resurrection is true, it is true not as a historical curiosity but as a present reality. Jesus is alive. He is at work in the world, building his church, transforming men and women, overcoming evil with good. As Christians our faith is based on past events that happened long ago, but we live in the present. And because Jesus Christ is here with us, we live with peace, joy, power and hope.

A second conclusion: If Jesus is alive today, then nothing could be more important than coming to know him yourself. This is really what living Christianity is all about. It is more than a set of doctrines or beliefs, even beliefs about Jesus. It is more than the practice of good works, even works of love and mercy. At the heart of living Christianity is a relationship with the living Christ. If Jesus is only a historical figure to you, if he only exists or touches your life as part of a holiday tradition or a dimly remembered religious ritual from your childhood, then you are seeking the living among the dead. He is so much more than that. He does not only live in stories from the distant past or in the pages of an ancient book. He is alive today. He is present now. Have you met him? Do you know him?

It is vitally important that you do. When the apostles proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus, they also drove home to their listeners all that it meant. “Jesus Christ is Lord of all,” Peter declared. “He is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42). “Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (v. 43). All of these truths are part of the Easter witness to the resurrection, and if we talk about it, we must talk about them too. Jesus is Lord of all, of the whole universe and everything in it. His name is the only name through which forgiveness of sins and peace with God can be found. He is the judge of the living and the dead, and one day every human being, including you and me, will be either acquitted or condemned on the grounds of whether we have put our trust in him or rejected him. That is why it is so important to hear and to believe.

I was standing one day at one of the world’s busiest airports, O’Hare International in Chicago. As I looked out at a maze of runways and taxiways covered with swarms of aircraft and other vehicles, I wondered how anything ever found its way safely through it all. Suddenly, I saw a small truck dart out into the confusion and pull up in front of a moving jetliner. On the back of the truck was a large sign with flashing letters that read: “Follow me.”

Those are the words Jesus spoke again and again, to everyone he met. “Follow me,” he said. He says this to you today. And if you do, if you begin to follow him now and continue all your days, then he will lead you into Easter life, Easter freedom, Easter power, Easter hope, forever.