A Radical Reversal: Only One Acceptable Explanation

In my previous Easter blog, we considered several reactions to the resurrection: doubt, unbelief, faith, and hope. I could have added other contrasting emotional responses, such as cowardice and courage, confusion and certainty, to emphasize that the followers of Jesus were fully human, subject to the same feelings we experience, and thus acted and reacted differently to the incredible announcement that Sunday morning following the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, “HE IS RISEN! THE TOMB IS EMPTY! THE BODY OF JESUS IS GONE! HE IS ALIVE AGAIN! HE HAS CONQUERED DEATH! HE IS SET LOOSE IN THE WORLD WHERE NO ENEMY CAN STOP HIS TRUTH!”

That was the Easter morning message you know! It was the dawn of a new age! Was it accidental that the resurrection occurred “…very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen” (Mark 16:2), “…as the first day of the week was dawning” (Matthew 28:1), “…at early dawn” (Luke 24:1)? I  think not, for the risen Christ had turned all our sunsets into sunrises! That is why we have always had “Easter Sunrise” services around the world. I love those joyous celebrations when believers come together very early on Easter Sunday mornings every year to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. The first year following my graduation from seminary and my ordination to the ministry, I was privileged to preach to the most massive crowd I would ever have the opportunity to address on an Easter Sunday. It was estimated that there were more than five thousand people in attendance at Iroquois Park in Louisville, Kentucky. It was a glorious day as the sun was rising, and I felt inspired and empowered by the Spirit, when I announced to that large gathering that the kingdom age had dawned with the resurrection of Jesus, that something good had happened to death, that our resurrected Lord had “abolished death” (2 Timothy 1:10). That believers in all nations had “…been born anew to a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3), that “Death has been swallowed up in victory” (1  Corinthians 15:54), and that nothing in life or in death, nothing “…in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

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It has been said that this “Good News” (i.e. the literal meaning of the New Testament word “Gospel”) is almost “too good to be true.” But as I suggested in my Easter blog, it is news “too good not to be true!” However, it has never been easy to believe that the historical Jesus, who had been crucified and then buried in a borrowed tomb, actually robbed the grave of its victory (1 Corinthians 15:54-57). That is why there have always been those who consider themselves “Christians,” even some well-known theologians, who have not been able to accept the belief that the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of the Easter story” (i.e. the “Christ of faith”) are one and the same. Therefore, they have made a distinction between the two because of their inability to accept the basic Christian affirmation that Jesus of Nazareth was more than a man, that he was the “God-man”, both “fully God” and “fully man” (read Colossians 1:15-20, 2:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11 — consider also the affirmations of faith found in both the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, the oldest creeds still used in the worship services of so many branches of Christ’s Church). How can those self-appointed critics of historical and traditional Christology possibly stand up in church and share in recognized ancient unison affirmations of faith without feeling hypocritical or at least double-minded rather than single-minded when it comes to such creedal statements? The identity of the historical Jesus as the “Christ” — “God’s “only Son, our Lord”, “truly God” and “truly man”, “conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary…crucified, dead and buried.. the third day he arose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead” — has been the most critical doctrinal issue since the apostolic age, and is still the greatest “stumbling block” for those who have intellectual problems with belief in the deity of the historical Jesus, as well as the supernatural powers attributed to Jesus of Nazareth in the four gospels, including his power over death. This would include the accounts of his raising of a widow’s only son, and the raising of his dear friend, Lazarus, from the dead. Anyone who cannot accept the belief that the historical Jesus was the visible manifestation of the invisible God, possessing all the attributes of deity in human form (i.e. the doctrine of the “incarnation”, the Word made flesh, John 1:14; Philippians 2:6-11) must settle for a poor, pale, powerless, human Jesus. When these contemporary historians and theologians have finished whittling away at the Jesus we are introduced to in both the gospels and the epistles of the New Testament, that is really all they have left: a mere man. A good and godly man, but a purely human Jesus who made some extraordinary claims that cannot be accepted by anyone who believes in the superiority of human wisdom and reason. Well, I leave you with this thought: if Jesus were a good man, then we would have to say he was a truthful man, so he must have been telling the truth about himself (this also applies to his disciples, and all authors of letters and books found in the New Testament. Can anyone actually believe the apostles were willing to suffer such intense persecution as they did, and even ready to die a martyr’s death for lies, for stories they had concocted about the mighty acts of Jesus, as well as his resurrection from the dead and his appearances to them in his resurrected body)?

So, this faith issue raises other serious questions about the authority of scripture, the reliability of the gospels, the testimony of the “eyewitnesses” and also makes it difficult if not impossible to offer alternative explanations for the uniqueness of Jesus (i.e. his intellectual superiority, his moral purity, and his inexplicable power, including his power and authority over the minds and hearts of humankind even to this day). In addition to offering some reasonable explanation for the incredible changes in the disciples following the resurrection of Jesus, apart from their belief that it was the “same Jesus” they had known and loved (see Acts 1:11; also John 20:19-20, 26-2), it also explains the millions of lives that have been, are are still being, transformed in “all nations” on this planet. In response, I submit this question for your consideration: how can these so-called “critical thinkers” explain such power, such changes in so many lives through the centuries, as well as such passion and superlative boldness as witnesses for Jesus Christ, apart from the truth of the claims Jesus had made about himself, and the truth of the apostles about his resurrection and abiding presence with them and all believers (Mark 16:9-16, Luke 24:1-12, John 20:19-31, 1 Corinthians 15:12-23, 35-44; 2 Timothy 2:11-13; Hebrews 2:17-18, 7:26-27, 9:12-15)?  

Yes, I can understand the dilemma of doubt, which is not the absence of faith but rather an attack on faith. I can certainly identify with the original disciples who doubted and had a hard time believing in the actual bodily resurrection of Jesus (Luke 24:11) until the risen Christ appeared to them in his resurrected and glorified body, on more than one occasion, and they recognized him. They saw his nail-scarred hands and the wound in his side (John 20:19-20, 24-29), they actually talked with him and ate with him (Luke 24:36-43; John21:4-15), and two other disciples in the town of Emmaus had also recognized him in “the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:35). Try to go back in your imagination to the evening of that fateful Friday, after the crucifixion when the body of Jesus was placed in that garden tomb, and all the hopes of his followers had also been buried with him. Picture yourself in that upper room, behind locked doors, and listen — be still — what do you hear? Uncontrollable weeping! Such deep grief! In addition to their great sorrow, they were terrified. They thought they might be next! They had locked themselves in behind closed doors for fear of both the Jewish and Roman authorities. Then when the women, who had been the first to visit the garden of the resurrection, came early in the morning knocking on the door they were startled and afraid. Perhaps their enemies, who had falsely accused, condemned, and turned their Lord over to their Roman oppressors to be crucified, had now discovered their hiding place. No one in the room rushed to open the door! Then when they recognized Mary’s voice, one of them finally unlocked the door, and they could not believe their ears when the two women said the stone had been rolled away from the tomb! The soldiers who had been guarding the tomb were no longer there, but an angel had appeared to them, asking “Why are you seeking the living among the dead? He is not here is risen! Go tell his disciples.” How would you have reacted? Do you actually think you would have leaped with joy at the good news? Although Jesus had told them that he would be raised from the dead, they had not really taken those words seriously (i.e. interpreted them literally). They had seen Jesus “dead and buried.” What if we had been there to witness those events? Do you really believe you would have acted and reacted differently?

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Furthermore, the tomb had been sealed by Pilate, for he wanted to be sure the place of burial was not disturbed. He said, “Go and make the tomb secure.” So in addition to having a vast circular stone rolled across the entrance to the cave, Pilate stationed Roman soldiers to guard the tomb around the clock. He had heard rumors that the followers of Jesus might come by night and remove the body of Jesus from the tomb, and then announce that he had been raised from the dead as he himself had prophesied. Does that make any sense at all to you? Who would have dared to even approach a tomb guarded by soldiers with spears? Who would have been able to scare those soldiers away? Who would have dared to tamper with a tomb that had been sealed with the seal of Rome? Nevertheless, that is actually what the authorities said when they too found the tomb empty, and that is what many skeptics believe to this day. The Roman and Jewish authorities had to invent a story that could be spread abroad, some seemingly logical explanation for the Easter story, some reason they were never able to find the body of Jesus.

Those who are hostile to Christianity, as well as those who are skeptical about the bodily resurrection of the historical Jesus, are faced with the challenge of offering some plausible explanation for the remarkable changes that had taken place in the attitudes and actions of Jesus’ followers. For the cowardly had become courageous! Their great grief had become “good” grief! Their deep sorrow had turned to overflowing joy! Their crippling fears had been transformed into remarkable boldness! Their confusion had been changed into over-whelming confidence! What a radical reversal! It should come as no surprise that in the preaching and teaching of the apostles as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, and the letters written to young churches in the first century, we find them refuting such heresies and encouraging all followers of Jesus to keep the faith that had been entrusted to them, the one and only authentic Gospel of Jesus Christ (2 Timothy 1:12; Jude 1:3; 2 Peter 1:1). Suffice it to say, there are still so many alien gospels, so many deviations and distortions of the one true authentic Gospel handed down to us by the apostles. Believers in the contemporary Church need to hear and heed the powerful language the Apostle Paul uses when referring to all those in Christ’s Church who are guilty of diluting the Gospel or offering some synthetic substitute for the real thing: “As I have said before, so now I repeat,“If anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed” (Galatians 1:9). 

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Any concept of Jesus that is not in agreement with the orthodox understanding of the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and glorification of the historical Jesus as the eternal Christ, the object of heaven’s worship, the Lamb of God upon the throne (Revelation 7:9-17) can hardly be called an acceptable and sufficient Christology. Furthermore, this is not even what the title “Christian” implies historically speaking (i.e what has been historically, and still is to this day throughout Christendom, confessed about the historical Jesus as the “Christ of faith”). As I. Howard Marshall, the former senior lecturer in New Testament exegesis, University of Aberdeen, Scotland, has written: “The creeds define what is meant by Christian belief, and it causes nothing but confusion when people deny that Jesus is the Son of God (i.e the Christ, the unique and solitary Son of God) while claiming the title of ‘Christian’ for themselves, and their views. Whatever they are, they are not Christians.”

 

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