In yesterday’s sermon (March 27, 2016), we discovered the reason we should believe in Jesus’ victory over death through His resurrection is the Scriptures (the Old Testament) clearly point to a Messiah who would come and conquer death through His death and resurrection.
Peter, who was an eyewitness to Jesus’ transfiguration, death, and His life in a glorified body following the resurrection says, “We have the even more sure prophetic word to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place” (2 Peter 1:19a). We have something more reliable than Peter’s own eyewitness testimony – the Scriptures. Jesus Himself says, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31). For centuries before He came, dozens of writers living at different times and in different cultures declared the same message – look for God’s salvation which comes through God’s Son.
But, some people suppose a Christian’s appeal to the Scriptures is some sort of intellectual cop-out. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are a number of credible reasons to believe Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. Below, I list and explain several of the reasons that I find most compelling.
1) The gospel writers put women at the empty tomb first and build the case for Jesus’ resurrection from the initial testimony of these women who say they discovered an empty tomb. In the first century, a woman’s testimony was, sadly, not regarded to be as reliable as a man's. If the disciples were inventing a story about a resurrection, they would have put themselves or other men at the tomb first to make the story more compelling to their first-century audience. By placing the women at the tomb first, we know the disciples were not inventing facts to make their story more credible. They were simply reporting the facts as they knew them to be.
2) The gospels consistently mention the disciples failed to understand that Jesus would be victorious through His crucifixion and resurrection. Contrary to human nature, the disciples willingly confess their ignorance and even their petty arguments about who could be the most important disciple in Christ’s Kingdom. If the disciples were inventing a story, they would have left out the details of their arguments, and someone would have surely taken the credit for understanding everything that was going to take place. The disciples mention their arguments and doubts because they are not afraid to tell us the story as it happened.
3) The New Testament is the most reliable document from the ancient world. There are over 5,760 Greek manuscripts, more than 10,000 Latin manuscripts, more than 9,300 early versions, and the church’s early pastors and theologians quote from the New Testament constantly.[i] People often say the church “created” the canon in the fourth century, but this claim overlooks that the vast majority of what is formally accepted as the canon had functionally been accepted as canonical from the first days of the church. The first manuscripts of the New Testament date to within 30–50 years after they were written. By contrast, we only have two copies of the Histories and Annals by Tacitus which date to 800 and 1000 years after they were written. As a historical and literary document, the New Testament is far more reliable than its ancient peers based upon the number of copies we have for comparison and the amount of time lapsed between when the document was written and the date of the first copy that has been discovered.
4) Dozens of other ancient sources mention Jesus. Jesus is not a fictitious invention by the writers of the New Testament. He really lived and walked on this earth. Consider just one example of a source other than the New Testament which speaks of Jesus.
Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus. . . .(Tacitus in Annals 15.44).
In this account, Tacitus, one of Rome’s greatest historians, confirms several facts also recorded in the New Testament. Christians were persecuted for their faith, a faith that is built on the resurrection. If the resurrection were not real, Christians would have enjoyed a much easier life by simply denying the resurrection and proceeding with life like everyone else. Also, Tacitus's description of the circumstances of Christ’s crucifixion are the same as those recorded in the New Testament. No one can dismiss Jesus as a fictional character of the church’s own invention any more than he can deny George Washington was the first president of the United States.
5) Faith in Christ who will one day raise us up to be with Him is the faith that makes the best sense of the human body. God made the body for worship. Worship is not found in escaping the body. It is found in attaining to the resurrection of the just and worshiping Jesus in a body that never dies. There is a reason we do not want to die, and we want to remain in these bodies. We were made for life in the body – not just for now but forever. We will not be reincarnated as a butterfly. We will not attain to new levels of out-of-body enlightenment. We were made for the everlasting worship of Christ offered from the totality of our being – including our bodies.
6) Most of the disciples of Jesus suffered and died in different places and at different times as martyrs for their faith in the resurrected Christ. This was not group think. This was not every disciple dying in the same place at the same time. No, this was each disciple standing for the truth of what he had seen with his own eyes even though it meant he faced a horrific death. If the disciples had not really seen Jesus risen from the dead and later ascended into heaven, they could have spared their lives by simply denying the resurrection and going back to fishing the Sea of Galilee. The disciples either died horrific deaths for a lie that they knew was a lie, or they saw the resurrected Christ. If they had seen the resurrected Christ, they knew they could endure a horrific death with confidence because they too would one day be raised up with Christ. The reality of the resurrection of Christ is the best explanation of the self-sacrificing confidence of the disciples.
7) The faith spread rapidly across ethnic and cultural barriers despite its fantastic and falsifiable claim. A resurrection gets people’s attention. It crosses all sorts of barriers because every culture knows the enemy called death. Unlike almost all other religions which are based upon the private thoughts of one or a few individuals which cannot be confirmed or denied, Christianity is based on this fact – Jesus Christ is risen from the grave. Jesus is either raised from the dead, or He is not. If Jesus has conquered death, everything He said was true. If He has not, well, as Paul says, Christians “are of all men most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:19).
There is no Christianity if there is no risen Christ. Christianity could have been stopped almost immediately. It would not have required a philosophical discussion or a great debate about whose private religious thoughts were more accurate. Christianity was not built on private thoughts suddenly made public. It was built on centuries of consistent prophecy, a public crucifixion, and a well-attested resurrection. To stop Christianity, all that was required was that someone produce the dead body of Jesus. Surely, it was in the interest of the Jewish leaders who were opposed to Christians to produce a body. Likewise it was in the interest of Rome to produce a body. Yet, for all the hubbub in Judea, for all the reasons people had for producing a body, no one ever could. No one ever did.
And yet, for all the reasons we have for believing in the resurrection, our primary reason is that this is what the prophets told us to expect from the very first pages of Genesis. In Christ, we have found the Son who is born of a woman, who bruised His heel, and who crushed the head of Satan (Gen 3:15). In Christ, we can say with Job, “As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, And at the last He will take His stand on the earth. Even after my skin is destroyed, Yet from my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:25–26).
-Brother Daniel, March 28, 2016
[i] Andreas J. Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles in The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown.