READ : Acts 10:34-43
Because of what happened on the very first Easter Sunday, today’s Christians continue to have a message that the whole world needs to hear. Let’s listen to the Easter witness to the good news won by Jesus’ victory over death.
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 in the first-century world known as a “God-fearer.” Though a gentile and an officer in an elite unit of the Roman army, Cornelius was a deeply spiritual man. He was searching for God. He was trying to satisfy a need for truth, and meaning, and purpose in his life.
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 idol worship and the widespread immorality of their culture and who were attracted to the wisdom, majesty, and holiness of the God of the Bible. Every place, in fact, 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 this God in Jesus Christ no matter what their race or nationality, many were converted on the spot.
Cornelius’s story is significant because it shows us the very first encounter of gentiles with the gospel. 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, at least initially. Peter 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 ethnic barriers that were keeping them apart. God did all this, bringing Peter to Cornelius so that he could hear the message Peter had to tell him. Listen to part of that message:
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 good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. . . .
“We are witnesses of everything he did . . . They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day . . . he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. . . . everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
Acts 10:34-43, NIV
Peter’s address to Cornelius and his household is not so much a religious discourse, nor is it arguments to persuade Cornelius to change his religion. It is rather testimony. “We are witnesses of everything [Jesus] did,” Peter declares (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 primarily witness; in particular, it’s Easter witness – testimony to the fact that God raised Jesus Christ from the dead on the third day after his death and all that that means for humankind.
If you read the accounts of Peter’s preaching in the early chapters of the book of Acts, you’ll discover that he really had only one sermon, which he repeated over and over. Speaking to the people of Jerusalem just six weeks after the crucifixion Peter declared:
You crucified [Jesus] . . . but God raised him up, and of that, we are witnesses. (Acts 2:23ff.)
When the authorities arrested him and ordered him not to speak of the name of Jesus again, Peter declared,
We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus … whom you killed … we are witnesses to these things. . . . (Acts 5:29ff)
We saw it happen, Peter is saying, and we testified to the truth of it. But this is not just Peter’s theme. The resurrection was the theme of the preaching of all the first Christians. When Paul was in the city of Athens, he spoke in the marketplace that was frequented by philosophers and religious teachers. People in the crowd remarked that he 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 seems to have 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 named “Jesus” and the other named “Anastasis.”
So this is a crucial point: the preaching of the apostles consisted at its heart of 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 later was hanged on a tree and crucified, this same Jesus was raised to triumphant new life by God. The apostolic witness is an Easter witness.
Now you may choose not to believe it. You may think it’s 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 into their testimony. But you can’t deny the fact that this was in fact the nature of their testimony. I, and millions of others, from the first century to the 21st, believe that they were telling the simple truth. Jesus rose again.
If Jesus Rose
Let’s assume for a moment that they were telling the truth, that the Easter witness is factual. 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. During 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, a 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 orthodox Easter liturgy,
Christos anesti!, “Christ is risen!” Back from the crowd thundered the deafening reply,
Alithos anesti!, “He is risen indeed!”
The point, you see, is not just that Christ rose. It’s that he is risen. If the resurrection is true, it’s 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 alive, he’s here with us. Because he’s here with us, we live with power, hope, and joy.
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’s more than a set of doctrines or beliefs, even beliefs about Jesus. It’s 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 on the pages of an ancient book. He is alive today. He is present now. Have you met him? Do you know him?
It’s 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. Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.
All these truths are part of the Easter witness too, and if we talk about it, we must talk about them also. Jesus is Lord of all, of the whole universe and everything in it. His name is the only name in which can be found forgiveness of sins and peace with God. 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 basis of whether or not we have put our trust in him.
I was standing one day in a busy airport, looking 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 over and over, to everyone he met. “Follow me,” he said. “Follow me,” he says. And he says it to us, today. If you do, if you begin to follow him now and continue all your days, then he will lead you home.