Contending for the Recognition of Absolutes, Part 11

Jesus’ Death and the Internal Consistency of the Christian Faith

Many people quite naturally think to themselves, If I live a good life and my good deeds outweigh my bad ones, I should be saved. Yes, in the abstract that sounds good, but it ignores so many things that a perfect God cannot allow to be ignored.…[Thus,] God’s salvation plan wasn’t just one plan that He chose among many.…He had no choice other than the one He exercised for our salvation because [of] His moral perfection, His holiness, and His perfect justice inhere[nt] in Him. Unless He was willing to deny His own nature and compromise and violate His perfect holiness and justice, He couldn’t just wipe the slate clean without requiring a sufficient satisfaction of our debt. Far from violating His nature, He vindicated it with this brilliant salvation plan.
—David Limbaugh1

View summaries of all the articles in this series here.

Although I originally had planned to release an article this Easter weekend about Jesus’ resurrection, I am compelled, in part because I am in the midst of writing a series of posts about the existence of absolute truth, to write instead about Jesus’ death. I trust you’ll see why as my presentation unfolds. I have written earlier about evidence for Christ’s resurrection, including one post about the transformed life of the apostle Peter. Please visit these posts for information about this crucial aspect of Easter.

Today’s discussion will rely heavily on last week’s presentation of the Seven Pillars of Christianity. For easy reference, print out this one-page summary of the Seven Pillars and refer to it as you read this article.


For your convenience, print out this one-page summary of the Seven Pillars and refer to it as you read this article.


Significantly, we’ll highlight all seven and demonstrate their interrelatedness. Unlike relativism, Christianity has perfect internal consistency. Its components fit together and make sense of the world.


Unlike relativism, Christianity has perfect internal consistency.


We start with pillar number three, which upholds the Bible as the true and reliable written revelation of God to humanity. Introductory evidence for this can be found here, here, here, and here. We need to realize as well that the Bible also accurately records the events in which God acted to reveal Himself in history, an element of Christianity upheld by pillar number two. Keeping in mind these two supports, we now move to a third.

The Role of Ethical Teachings in Christianity

In the seven pillars, pillar number five is made up of “ethical teachings that mirror God’s character and that contrast to man’s sinful nature as well as the choice of every human being to follow his or her own way rather than God’s.”

A set of ethical and moral teachings as a component of any religious belief system certainly does not surprise us. While living a pure life is important, Christianity’s moral teachings are unique in that they represent far more than guidelines to follow and ideals for which to strive. Old Testament principles of morality, as well as the broader teachings upheld by Christ in the New Testament—all the moral guidelines of the Bible—point not only to how people should live, but also to both God’s holiness and man’s sin. When we understand this, we begin to uncover a critical way in which the Christian faith stands apart from all other belief systems. We need to ask, therefore, what God is like, and how the moral guidelines He provides reflect His nature.

God Is Perfect

Pillar number one describes God with several important words, including “just and holy.” To the Lord God, “all things are not the same.” Notice that this refutes relativism outright. Also, God “is the source of absolute truth, for He is the source of reality.” There is much more here than we can cover in this short post, but let’s examine just a few Bible passages that showcase God’s righteousness, justice, and holiness. You can see all of the following passages printed on one page here.


To God, who is the source of reality, all things are not the same.


We see in these Bible passages that God is absolutely perfect. He always is just and fair. He consistently does everything right. Keep in mind, though, that He is loving as well. In fact, the Bible declares with profound simplicity that “God is love.”

God’s Laws Reveal His Perfection

Returning to pillar number five, we note further that the ethical teachings of Christianity don’t just tell us what God wishes of us; they also demonstrate His holiness and perfection. We need look no further than the Ten Commandments to see this. Here are some examples.

God’s love is shown in His commands as well. Matthew 22:35-40 says,

35 Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?”

37 Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ [see Deut. 6:538 This is the first and great commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ [see Lev. 19:1840 On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

But wait! God isn’t just perfect in what He does, but also in who He is. Therefore, attitudes are important to Him, not just actions. Note Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount. The sobering truth is this. If you think you’ve done well by not killing anyone, but have hated someone—anyone—in your heart, you’ve still broken the law. It’s a good thing not to have committed adultery, but you’ve still violated God’s law if you’ve lusted after another person in your heart. Do more than you’re required to do! Go the second mile! Love not just those who love you, but your enemies as well. Finally, Jesus nails us all when He says, “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).

The important point here is God’s character, which is absolutely pure, perfect, and holy. To violate the law of God is to violate His character, and consequently, to offend Him!

God’s Laws Also Put the Spotlight on Human Sinfulness

We ought to be seeing this truth already. If we are attentive, we will hear the Ten Commandments and other divine guidelines telling us not only about God, but also about ourselves. It doesn’t even take Jesus’ expanded guidelines to show us we stand guilty before Almighty God. We tend to think we are pretty good people until we measure ourselves against God’s standard—then we realize how completely we’ve missed the divine mark. We’re reminded of Isaiah. Confronted with God’s holiness, he was overcome with a realization of his own unworthiness and sin. As Psalm 14:2-3 states, “The LORD looks down from heaven upon the children of men, To see if there are any who understand, who seek God. They have all turned aside, They have together become corrupt; There is none who does good, No, not one.” Romans 3:23 echoes this with the testimony that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

On his Facebook page, evangelist Ray Comfort explains.

Have you kept the Ten Commandments? This is what someone would be like if he kept the moral Law—he would always love God with “all of his heart, mind, soul, and strength,” and love his neighbor as much as he has loved himself. He has never made a god to suit himself (either with his hands or in his mind). He has always given God’s name reverence, kept the Sabbath holy, honored his parents implicitly, and never once has he been “angry without cause.” He has never hated anyone, had lust in his heart, or had illicit sex. He has never stolen even a paper clip or ballpoint pen, or told as much as a “white” lie, and not once desired anything that belongs to someone else. He is, and always has been “pure in heart,” perfect in thought, word, and deed.

God is not indifferent to these offences. He cannot be, because of His holy character. He must judge sin. What is the punishment for sin before a holy God? Death, both physical and spiritual: “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Ray Comfort continues,

The truth is, we are not like that. We have all “sinned” many times, and therefore we have stored up God’s wrath, which will be revealed on Judgment Day. The proof that we have sinned will be our death, and after death we must face God in judgment. Think of it—if He has seen our every thought, word, and deed, and if He is going to bring all our sins out as evidence of our guilt on the Day of Judgment, we will all be found to be guilty. Our conscience has shown us right from wrong; we will be without excuse. God will give us justice, and Hell will be the place of our eternal punishment. “For there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known” [Luke 12:2]. That’s why you need the Savior.

Before moving ahead, we do well to recognize that all of these things are true because of absolutes. God is, and He is who He is. We are humans made in God’s image but marred by sin. We not only have a bent to sin but also have freely chosen to disobey God. We face the dilemma we face because of the real circumstances that prevail. We cannot dodge these realities or imagine them away. We cannot come up with our own “truth” to rescue us.


God is, and He is who He is. Moreover, as sinners, we have offended God and stand guilty before Him. We face the dilemma we face because of the real circumstances that prevail. We cannot dodge these realities or imagine them away. We cannot come up with our own “truth” to rescue us.


What, then, can we do? As Ray Comfort declares, we “need the Savior,” One who can rescue us from our otherwise helpless state. Only God can provide a Savior, and the good news of Easter is that He did just that in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ.

The Law Points Us to Our Need for Christ

Accordingly, the Bible affirms, “Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Gal. 3:24). Obeying the law was and is insufficient to save us, because we cannot obey it perfectly. Only God can do that. So, God sent His only Son, Jesus Christ, who was and is God, down to earth as a human being to live a perfect life and to reveal the truth about God. Pillar number four speaks to this. The apostle John wrote,

1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.… 14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.… 17 For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him. (John 1:1-5-5,14,17-18).

Artist Enrique Simonet depicts Jesus’ weeping over Jerusalem.

Jesus not only revealed truth about God; He also obeyed God’s moral law perfectly. In other words, He “fulfilled the law” (see Matt. 5:17). Having done that, He could die in the place of sinners, paying their penalty for them. Indeed, the only way their penalty could be paid was through His death. Accordingly, Jesus sacrificed Himself willingly as He was crucified on a Roman cross. Jesus’ death and subsequent resurrection were the two most important historical events orchestrated by God and alluded to in pillar number two. What did God accomplish through Jesus’ death and resurrection? These passages tell us.

Artist James Tissot depicts his perspective of what Jesus saw from the cross.

From the writings of Paul:

  • For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor. 5:21).
  • For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time (1 Tim. 2:5-6).

From the writings of Peter:

  • For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit (1 Pet. 3:18).

From the writings of John:

  • He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him.11 He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. 12 But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: 13 who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:10-13).
  • And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up,15 that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. 16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. 17 For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved (John 3:14-17).

Significantly, John went on to write in John 3:18 these reassuring—and jarring—words: “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”


He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.
—the apostle John in John 3:18—


God’s Invitation, and Real Answers for Life as it Really Is

Christ died for all, but His death is credited only to those who receive God’s invitation “making it possible to avoid His wrath, experience His mercy and grace, and get to know Him personally and intimately. When we accept God’s invitation, the Holy Spirit regenerates us, giving us a new spiritual life.” This is pillar number six.

We note here also that God’s plan of salvation and the way it addresses life’s critical issues give us real answers to the questions we naturally ask about the imperfect world that surrounds us. We saw this in pillar number seven. Here is one such question. Why does a holy, perfect, all-powerful, and good God continue to allow suffering and evil in the world? Peter tells us in 2 Peter 3:9: “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise [to return and to set the world right], as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.”

The internal consistency of Christianity is striking. This is especially true when we contrast it to relativism, which is self-refuting. While the harmony between the components of the Christian faith by itself doesn’t prove Christianity to be true, it stands as strong evidence. Furthermore, the biblical worldview coincides with what we see externally, in the real world. It explains reality as does no other belief system. Our questions are answered, not completely, but adequately.


The internal consistency of Christianity is striking. This is especially true when we contrast it to relativism, which is self-refuting.


Knowing all these things, however, is not enough. We must respond. Returning to the invitation we highlighted in pillar number six, we emphasize that Jesus’ death and resurrection place before us life’s most important question. Pilate faced it, as will every other human being. Pilate asked, “What then shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” (Matt. 27:22). Again, because of the absolute realities of (1) a holy God who exists and loves you, (2) your sinful condition, and (3) Christ’s provision for you on the cross, you must answer this question. You can’t “make up your own truth” to detour around it.


Because of the absolute realities of (1) a holy God who exists and loves you, (2) your sinful condition, and (3) Christ’s provision for you on the cross, you must determine what you will do with Jesus. You can’t “make up your own truth” to detour around this issue.


How will you respond?

Next week, against the backdrop of this post, we’ll offer answers to two common objections to God’s plan of salvation.

Written on Good Friday, April 14, 2017

Part 12 is available here.

 

Copyright © 2017 by B. Nathaniel Sullivan. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture has been taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Transformed!

Note: Scripture quotations in this post are from the New King James Version. An edition of this article that uses the New Living Translation is available here.

Jesus didn’t come to make bad people good but to make dead people live!
Ravi Zacharias

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.
—the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:17

“I was a bad lot,” a new believer told a preacher when recounting the place from which Christ had rescued him. “I drank. I pawned the furniture. I knocked my wife about. And now life is real life, and splendidly worthwhile.”

The preacher asked the man about how he was getting along with the men with whom he used to drink and carouse. That very day they had ridiculed him, telling him he surely didn’t believe the story that Jesus had turned water into wine (see John 2:1-11).

Since he was a new Christian, this man apparently hadn’t yet heard the story of Jesus’ miracle at the wedding in Cana—but that didn’t stop him from affirming the miracle he knew Christ had performed in his own life. Here’s what he told his friends: “I know nothing about water and wine, but I know this: that in my house Christ has turned beer into furniture; and that is a good enough miracle for me!”

That man and millions of others whose lives have been changed by Jesus Christ through the years provide substantive evidence that Jesus was who claimed to be—God in the flesh—and that His death was substitutionary, paying sin’s penalty for everyone who would come to Him in faith. Even more specifically, their transformed lives also testify to the historical reality that Jesus rose from the dead. It’s true that for the inquirer, investigating the events surrounding Jesus’ death and reported resurrection are essential to determining just how likely it is that He returned to life—but other aspects of the resurrection are important as well. Today I want to examine evidence beyond eyewitness accounts associated with the resurrection: the transformed life of one of Jesus’ well-known followers—a fisherman named Peter.

Peter was quite sincere in his devotion to Christ, but he frequently inserted his foot in his mouth. Peter’s impulsiveness and fickleness may actually sometimes remind us of ourselves!

  • In Matthew 14:22-33, while he did have enough faith to venture out from the boat and walk on the water toward Jesus, Peter became afraid and began to sink “when he saw that the wind was boisterous.” Jesus rescued Peter and then gently challenged him with the words “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
  • In Matthew 16:13-23, the Lord asked his closest followers “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” After they reported what the people were saying, Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter rightly answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus commended him for his answer, telling him, that “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.” This was truly awesome, but just a short time later, when the Lord explained how He would be persecuted, killed, and raised to life again, Peter rebuked Him: “Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!” Jesus responded by rebuking Peter and the sinister, evil source from which Peter’s idea had come: “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.”
  • In Matthew 17:1-8, when Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James, and John, Jesus’ “face shown like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and One for Elijah.’”
  • In the upper room, on the occasion of the Passover celebration, Jesus washed His disciples’ feet (see John 13:1-20). When the Lord approached Peter to wash his feet, Peter said,

6 “Lord, are You washing my feet?”

7 Jesus answered and said to him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but you will know after this.”

8 Peter said to Him, “You shall never wash my feet!”

Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.”

9 Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!”

  • In this same upper room on the very same evening, Jesus warned his closest followers they would desert Him (see 26:31-35). Peter denied it outright, saying,

33 “Even if all are made to stumble because of You, I will never be made to stumble.”

34 Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you that this night, before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.”

35 Peter said to Him, “Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You!”

And so said all the disciples.

How brash can a man be? Peter would learn the hard way. Jesus was arrested and placed on trial, and Peter followed to see what would happen. Waiting in the high priest’s courtyard, the fisherman was asked three times about having been with Jesus, and he denied it strongly each time, even swearing the second and third times. Then the rooster crowed, and “Peter remembered the word of Jesus who had said to him, ‘Before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.’ So he went out and wept bitterly” (see Matt. 26:57-58,69-75).

06_Peter_Denies_Jesus_1920

Jesus was right about the other disciples, too. Earlier, at the time of the Lord’s arrest, “all the disciples forsook Him and fled” (26:56).

Peter, and the rest of Jesus’ disciples as well, were extremely unlikely to become leaders who would change the world. Yet after His resurrection Jesus said to them, “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Just how could Peter, as fickle as he was, along with the other cowardly followers of Christ, boldly witness to the world? We see the twofold answer in (1) the fact that Jesus indicated to His followers they would be his witnesses after the Holy Spirit had come upon them, and (2) in the fact that Jesus made this statement after He had been raised from the dead. These two events were transformational.

Significantly, in one of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to Peter, the Lord gently challenged him by giving him three opportunities to tell Him that he loved Him. It was the same number of times Peter had denied the Lord. Jesus also directed him three times, “Feed My lambs.…Tend My sheep.…Feed My sheep.” Furthermore, Jesus told him, “Follow Me.”  (see John 21:15-19).

01_Jesus_Questions_Peter_1920

Despite Peter’s failures, the Lord wasn’t through with this man who by nature was outspoken and impulsive. In fact, God would use him to shake the world. Contrast the old Peter to the new.

  • At Pentecost, a mere fifty days after Jesus’ resurrection, Peter preached the sermon that marked the birth of the church. His sermon is recorded in Acts 2:14-39. In it, the fisherman-turned-preacher declared,

22 “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves also know— 23 Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death; 24 whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it.

  • In Acts 3, Peter and John created a controversy by being used of God to heal a man who never had been able to walk. After the man had been healed, these spokesmen of God used the occasion to credit Jesus publicly for the healing. Peter boldly asserted,

12 “Men of Israel, why do you marvel at this? Or why look so intently at us, as though by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk? 13 The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified His Servant Jesus, whom you delivered up and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he was determined to let Him go. 14 But you denied the Holy One and the Just, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, 15 and killed the Prince of life, whom God raised from the dead, of which we are witnesses. 16 And His name, through faith in His name, has made this man strong, whom you see and know. Yes, the faith which comes through Him has given him this perfect soundness in the presence of you all.

  • The healing and the public preaching greatly displeased the Jewish leaders: “Now as they spoke to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came upon them, being greatly disturbed that they taught the people and preached in Jesus the resurrection from the dead” (Acts 4:1-2). They arrested Peter and John and asked them how they healed the man. Full of the Holy Spirit, Peter proclaimed it should be

10 “known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by Him this man stands here before you whole. 11 This is the ‘stone which was rejected by you builders, which as become the chief cornerstone. 12 Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (vv. 10-12).

Significantly, when the Jewish leaders “saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated and untrained men, they marveled. And they realized that they had been with Jesus” (v. 13). They warned the apostles not to preach or teach Jesus any more, but they were undeterred. We can summarize their response this way: “We can’t help it! We have to talk about what we have seen and heard!” (see vv. 14-22).

  • In Acts 5:17-32, the apostles were arrested again and imprisoned by the Jewish leaders. An angel freed them and told them to preach the truth of Christ at the temple, and they obeyed. The Jews put them on trial once again. The high priest told them,

28 “Did we not strictly command you not to teach in this name? And look, you have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this Man’s blood on us!”

29 But Peter and the other apostles answered and said: “We ought to obey God rather than men. 30 The God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you murdered by hanging on a tree. 31 Him God has exalted to His right hand to be Prince and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are His witnesses to these things, and so also is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey Him.”

This doesn’t sound at all like the man who, just a few weeks before, had been too embarrassed to admit he had been with Jesus, does it? Later, in writing to the Corinthian believers, the apostle Paul would explain what had happened to Peter—and to himself as well.

3 For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas [Peter], then by the twelve. 6 After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. 7 After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. 8 Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time.

9 For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. 11 Therefore, whether it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed (1 Cor. 15:3-11, emphasis added).

We see that Peter never got over Jesus’ resurrection. It was years later, near the end of his life, when, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Peter wrote these words (1 Peter 1:17-21) to persecuted believers.

17 And if you call on the Father, who without partiality judges according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves throughout the time of your stay here in fear; 18 knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot. 20 He indeed was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you 21 who through Him believe in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.

Indeed, Peter was a different man after Jesus rose from the dead—and the stark difference between the former man and the new man provides strong evidence Jesus really was raised. Having been transformed by Jesus’ return to life, Peter let it be known that he could not take credit for the changes that had taken place. Like a turtle on a fence post, he didn’t get where he was on his own.

Peter is not alone, for countless lives have been transformed by the resurrected Christ. Are you among those Jesus has brought from death to life? If you aren’t yet, you can become such a person today. What more appropriate time could there be than Easter to allow Christ to make you a new person?  If you a believer already, then make sure your life testifies to Christ’s resurrection as a sure fact of history.

After all, if Christ was powerful enough to come back from the dead, then He easily can turn water into wine—and beer into furniture!

 

Copyright © 2016 by B. Nathaniel Sullivan. All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture has been taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

photo credits: www.lumoproject.com

Eyewitness Testimony and the Resurrection of Jesus

In his first letter to the Corinthian Christians, the apostle Paul began his powerful discussion of the resurrection of Christ in what we now know as 1 Corinthians 15 by reaffirming

the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, 2 by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. 3 For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. 6 After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. 7 After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. 8 Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time.

How could Paul promote something so preposterous as the idea that beginning on the Thursday evening of the Passover through Friday evening, Jesus of Nazareth was arrested, tried, beaten, flogged, crucified, and buried—and then arose from the dead on Sunday morning? (See Matt. 26:57,67; 27:1-2,26,59-60; 28:1-10.) We should note carefully that despite the unusual nature of Paul’s claim, his words ring with authenticity, for he cited eyewitness after eyewitness who saw the risen Christ. Of those closest to Jesus, Peter and the apostles saw Him, James did, and Paul himself also saw Him, although later than the others. These words, however, are especially significant: “He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep.” Would Paul have dared write this it weren’t true? Of course not. Paul was essentially saying that most of these people still were living and could verify the truth of his words, so anyone who doubted Christ’s resurrection could simply ask them. Here were eyewitnesses numbering in the hundreds!

With regard to those who had been closest to Jesus, the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—give details of numerous eyewitness accounts. In reading the Gospels, however, some questions may arise. Why do these reports contain so many differences? Are they contradictions? Did the Gospel writers disagree on what happened?

For example, in John’s account of the initial discovery of the empty tomb, Mary Magdalene is the only woman mentioned (see John 20:1); Matthew, Mark, and Luke all indicated more women were involved (see Matt. 28:1; Mark 16:1; Luke 23:55–24:1).

Also, John stated that when Mary looked into the tomb, she “saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain” (John 20:12). Luke mentioned two angels in his Gospel as well (see Luke 24:3-8). Matthew and Mark, however, wrote about just one angel (see Matthew 28:2-7; Mark 16:5-7).

Did the Gospel writers contradict one another? Actually, they did not. The various details of the resurrection accounts can be reconciled.

While John wrote only of Mary Magdalene, he did not say she was alone. In fact, in his record of Mary’s words in John 20:2, John actually indicated Mary had company; he wrote that Mary told Peter and John, “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him” (emphasis added).

Regarding the number of angels, “Matthew and Mark specify that one angel spoke, but they do not say there was only one angel present or that only one angel spoke. Quite possibly one of the angels served as the spokesman for the two, thus he was emphasized” by the writers of the first two Gospels.1

We notice other differences as well, but these also can be explained. Let’s consider one more example. Matthew was the only Gospel writer who reported that an earthquake occurred and the only one to mention the guards on Easter morning (see Matt. 28:2,4). Apparently he was relating some of the first things that happened that morning, events that took place even before the women arrived (even though he wrote of the women’s making their way to the tomb in verse 1). The fact that the other Gospel writers didn’t mention an earthquake or the guards does not contradict what Matthew said about them.

Had the early followers of Jesus offered accounts with identical details, we would suspect they had gotten together secretly and fabricated the story of Jesus’ resurrection. This obviously did not happen; they could not have made up the testimonies we have in the New Testament—claims that are vividly different, yet that convey the same essential information.

It’s helpful to understand that no writer recorded everything that happened. Upon reflection we also see that no detail in any account conflicts with a detail in another, and the specific elements in all the accounts can be reconciled. Some minor questions may remain, but no troubling ones. As any good lawyer will affirm, this is exactly the kind of testimony we would expect from four eyewitnesses in court—testimonies highlighting a variety of specifics and representing the different perspectives of the witnesses, yet statements with no direct or major contradictions. Speaking in more general terms about the four Gospels, David Limbaugh, himself a lawyer, writes, even though “there are some differences in emphases in the various gospel accounts, what intellectually honest person can read all four books and deny that they put forward a consistent image of Jesus as fully divine and fully human?” 2

Remember, too, that the thrust of each resurrection account offers the same “bottom line”: Jesus’ tomb was empty because He had risen from the dead!

Returning to 1 Corinthians 15, we note that Paul went on to say,

if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is vain and…your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!…But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.…The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law, but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (vv. 14,17,20,56-57).

Paul could have ended his discussion of Christ’s resurrection there, but he did not. He concluded with this encouragement for his readers in every age: “Therefore, my beloved brethren, [because Christ is raised,] be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (v. 58). With these words, the apostle highlighted additional evidence for Christ’s resurrection that should consistently be on display in believers’ lives, visible to modern eyewitnesses everywhere. As Jesus said in John 15:5, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me, you can do nothing.”

Notes

1Josh McDowell and Don Stewart, Answers to Tough Questions Skeptics Ask About the Christian Faith, (San Bernardino, CA: Here’s Life Publishers, 1980), 53.

2David Limbaugh, Jesus on Trial: A Lawyer Affirms the Truth of the Gospel, (Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 2014), 220.

Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture has been taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2015 by B. Nathaniel Sullivan. All Rights Reserved.

photo credit: www.lumoproject.com

Easter weekend, April 3, 2015