READ : Acts 17:29-31
Perhaps you are a skeptic. You know some of the Christian claims about God and Jesus but you are not quite convinced of them. “Give me one good reason to believe,” you say. All right, I will.
Let’s imagine that we are listening in on one of history’s most fascinating conversations. It took place in the audience chamber of the Roman governor’s palace in the ancient city of Caesarea, located not far from present-day Tel-Aviv. Caesarea served as the capital of the Roman province of Palestine, and some time around the year a.d. 60, a man called Festus arrived there to take up his duties as governor of the territory.
He could not have been very happy at the prospect. Palestine was a long way from the limelight in Rome, and to make matters worse, it was a province with a long history of trouble and a well-deserved reputation as difficult to govern. The big problem in Palestine was, of course, the Jews, an obstinate and cantankerous people who refused to be assimilated with their Gentile neighbors and who constantly got into quarrels, often violent and bloody ones, over religion. To a cultured, well-educated, and above all cynical Roman official like Festus, these infernal people with their interminable wrangles, people who were perfectly ready to die for something as unimportant as religion, were simply incomprehensible.
What It’s All About
When Festus had settled in and could turn his attention to getting his new administration up and running, he made a discovery that politicians have been repeating for thousands of years. Bureaucrats retiring from office have always had a habit of sweeping some of their most awkward problems under the rug and leaving them for others to deal with after they are long gone.
In Festus’s case, the problem was an especially sticky one involving a man named Paul. It seems that Paul had been the cause of a riot in Jerusalem, and had been languishing in protective custody in Caesarea for two years while the previous governor, Felix, tried to decide what to do with him. For some reason which Festus could not quite figure out, the religious leaders in Jerusalem all wanted to kill Paul, and Festus had to decide whether to let them have their way.
On the particular day we happen to overhear him in the governor’s palace, Festus is about to listen to Paul’s side of the story. He is talking over the case with Agrippa, a local prince who had stopped by on a courtesy call. “They had some points of dispute about their own religion,” Festus explained to King Agrippa; “it’s about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive” (Acts 25:19).
Festus doesn’t seem to have been an especially bright man, but he certainly got this right. This is indeed what it is all about. This is the central point; as far as Christianity is concerned, it is the most basic issue. It’s not about religion, it’s not about philosophy, it’s not about politics, it’s not about psychology. It’s about a dead man named Jesus who we claim is alive. If he is not alive, then no one needs to bother about us; we Christians really have nothing to say. But if he is alive, then every person on earth needs to know it. And do something about it.
The Easter Story
Let’s consider briefly the evidence for the Christian claim that Jesus is alive. Here is one of the earliest accounts of what happened on Easter morning, three days after Jesus’ crucifixion and burial.
After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.
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. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.
The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.”
“Don’t be afraid,” the angel said to the women. “I know what you’ve come for. You’re looking for Jesus, the one who was crucified. Well, he isn’t here; he has risen from the dead, as he said he would.” These three simple statements constitute the earliest testimony to the resurrection, and also indicate the most important evidence for it.
- He is not here. The first piece of evidence to which the historical record points is the fact of the empty tomb. “He is not here” means “his body is gone.” The angel intended those words in a strictly literal sense. It was not like the comment that you will sometimes hear murmured at a grave side: “He’s not really there, you know.”
In Jesus’ case, the angel was not speaking of his spirit, his soul or his personality. He was talking about Jesus’ body. This is why he added the invitation, “Come and see where he lay” (in the past tense). The record says that the grave had been opened. The stone sealed and guarded by soldiers had been rolled away; not, we surmise, to let Jesus out, but to let others in so that everyone could see that his grave was quite empty.
The initial testimony to the absence of Jesus’ body from his tomb was confirmed by numerous eyewitnesses. It has never been disproved. To the angel’s statement, “He is not here,” no one has ever been able to say, “He is here.”
This point was easily verifiable; as Paul remarked to Festus and Agrippa, “These things were not done in a corner” (Acts 26:26). Jesus’ followers first began to publicly proclaim that he had risen from the dead only days after the event. They did so in Jerusalem, the very same city where the resurrection had occurred, so anyone could have visited the tomb for himself whenever he wanted. And yet no one, not even Jesus’ harshest enemies, could deny that his tomb was empty. What this means is that the resurrection was no illusion. It was a real and literal event, not a myth, not a metaphor, but a fact of history.
- He has risen. The statement testifying to the empty tomb is, by itself, not enough. The absence of Jesus’ body from his grave could be accounted for by any of several alternative explanations. The women might have gone to the wrong grave in the early morning darkness. Jesus might not really have died on the cross but only lost consciousness, later to revive and walk out of his tomb on his own. Perhaps someone stole the body after it had been buried. On careful examination, none of those explanations is plausible, though each has been suggested at one time or another. But the more one studies it, the more clear it seems that the true explanation, fantastic as it sounds, is the one given by the angel. “He has risen.”
This was an entirely new thing. The resurrection does not mean that Jesus simply came back to life. On rare occasions Jesus himself had restored other people to life after they had suffered death, but that is not what happened with him. His dead body did not suddenly begin to breathe again and then to stir and then to rise and walk from the tomb. Jesus’ resurrection means that he was changed from earthly life into a different kind of life altogether. If we could have witnessed it, what we would have seen at the moment of Jesus’ resurrection was an instantaneous transformation. In the twinkling of an eye, his body was changed from a physical to a spiritual one.
The life he entered on Easter morning was the life not of this world but of the world to come. Jesus’ resurrection has no precedent. It was the first and only thing of its kind – but some day, according to the Bible, there will be many more just like it.
- As he said. The third statement serves as a reminder that Jesus’ resurrection was not a surprise, an unexpected bonus after the painful experience of his death. During his lifetime, Jesus himself was as aware of his ultimate resurrection as he was of his impending passion and death. On at least three separate occasions he spoke of how he must suffer many things and be crucified, and then how afterwards he would rise again (Jesus’ predictions are recorded in three successive chapters in the gospel of Mark – chapters 8, 9, and 10.)
This awareness of what would happen after his death was not merely due to some kind of supernatural knowledge of the future that Jesus possessed. He was sure about his resurrection because he knew the scriptures of the Old Testament, which foretold not only the Messiah’s suffering and dying but his subsequent rising as well. “This is what I told you while I was still with you,” said the risen Christ to his followers. “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me. . . . ‘This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day. . . .’” (Luke 24:44, 46). So the resurrection was not only real and unprecedented; it was planned by God from the very beginning, and revealed in the prophecies of the Old Testament.
Why It Matters
Let’s think about why it matters. Suppose for just a moment that the evidence of the New Testament to the literal, physical resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is true, as I believe it is. Does it really matter? It most certainly does! Here are three reasons why.
First, Jesus’ resurrection settles the most basic question of all, the question of God. Does God really exist? Humans have struggled with that question for almost as long as they have been human. But if Jesus Christ rose from the grave, that settles it once and for all. Yes, there is a God; because only God could do what Jesus has done. Not only that, we know exactly what God is like, because Jesus himself is God. If you want to see God, look at Jesus!
Second, the resurrection of Jesus Christ establishes the truth of the Christian faith. In this little book I have examined a number of common objections to Christianity. Is the Bible a trustworthy book? Can a loving God exist in a world that has so much suffering? Is it fair to claim that Christianity is the only way to God?
The ultimate answer to all these questions is found in Jesus’ resurrection. For, you see, if Jesus rose from the dead, then he is unique. This one act sets him apart from every other prophet or religious teacher. This shows why he is not only to be listened to but worshiped.
In the light of this stupendous miracle, the religion of Christ is stamped at once from heaven as divine . . . so long as it stands, Christianity too must stand as the one supernatural religion. The resurrection of Christ is the fundamental apologetic fact of Christianity.
(B. B. Warfield, The Risen Christ)
The third reason why Jesus’ resurrection matters is that it confirms everything he ever said. All of his claims are shown to be true, and all of his promises trustworthy. To those who struggled with the burdens of life, he called, “Come to me and I will give you rest.” To the lonely, he said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” To those searching for meaning or purpose in life, he cried, “Follow me.” To frail mortals facing death he promised, “Everyone who believes in me has eternal life.” The best thing of all is that because Jesus is alive today, you can know the truth of all these promises yourself. Believe in him, and his life will be yours.