We generally evaluate any historical event by three main types of evidence: documents, historical studies, and after-effects. By these three standards, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is as plausible as anything else we think we “know” about the ancient world.
What might be the “after effects” of the resurrection on you, personally?
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Resurrection Sunday 2023. Acts 26:22-29
I’m going to use a slightly unusual text for Resurrection Sunday this year. Let’s set it up:
After three different missionary endeavours, Paul journeyed to Jerusalem, because he believed God was leading him there. Once there, Jews from the province of Asia recognized him and began to cause trouble. Some people tried to kill him. Others started riots in protest of his presence. The Romans, never very worried about getting the responsible party, arrested him for causing trouble.
Paul says that the sticking point, the reason people were so angry with him, is because he believes in the resurrection of the dead (Acts 24:17-21). In fact, this is true in almost all of the opposition that the apostles faced. In virtually every sermon in the book of Acts, you find that the main point the apostles make is that Jesus rose from the dead, fulfilling the scriptures, and proving his claims to be the messiah, the divine God-man. Most of the persecutions they faced came about because of that claim, as did Paul’s in our text today.
The Romans kept Paul in prison. Some time later, a new Roman governor, named Festus, was visiting King Agrippa (a descendant of King Herod). They invited Paul to speak to them. Paul told his story, and then ended like this:
22 To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: 23 that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.”
24 And as he was saying these things in his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, “Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.” 25 But Paul said, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words. 26 For the king knows about these things, and to him I speak boldly. For I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this has not been done in a corner. 27 King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.”
28 And Agrippa said to Paul, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?”
29 And Paul said, “Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am—except for these chains.” Acts 26:22-29
It is Paul’s claim that Jesus rose from the dead that provoked governor Festus to shout: “You are out of your mind!” But Paul’s response is very interesting. He says, “on the contrary, I am speaking true and rational words.” He then appeals to King Agrippa, who has spent his entire life in Judea. Agrippa knows the facts of the life and death of Jesus, and Paul appeals to him on the basis of those facts, and also what he knows of the Old Testament.
This is one of the several important things that make Christianity different from every other religion. In the first place, it is rooted in actual history. It names government officials, and locations, and other historical events. It refers to true aspects of life at that time in history. The stories of Jesus do not read like myths and legends, and in fact, they are not. The gospels and Acts are historical documents that can be placed in real historical time, and in a real geographical place, with known historical figures. There are other ancient documents which (though not as well preserved as the New Testament) attest to many of the same events and people. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus was born just a few years after the crucifixion of Jesus, and he treats that event as well-known history during his lifetime. The Roman court historian Tacitus, alive near the same period, also records many of the same events and several people referenced in the gospels and Acts. Archaeologists have continually affirmed that the New Testament accurately describes the world of the First Century Roman empire.
As Paul says to king Agrippa: “You are familiar with the events I am talking about.” These are not myths, they are actual happenings. As he says: “these things were not done in a corner.” The facts and the situations, and the people were known by many people who were alive at the time, and those people also left a lot of documentary evidence of these things for future generations.
The claims of Christianity might be true, or they might be false, but they are not irrational. They are not made-up legends or “magic” stories like those we tell children sometimes. I want us to spend a little time evaluating the historical evidence for the resurrection, looking at the facts that Paul said were well known.
Before we get into it, however, I want to point out that there is no historical event at all that can be proved the way certain things can be proved in laboratories. For instance, you can prove beyond doubt that water boils at one-hundred degrees Celsius at sea level. But historical events are not experiments in which we control variables and repeat over and over again. We believe in certain historical events based upon evidence, and for most of history the main kinds of evidence come from documents, historical studies (including archaeology), and after-effects.
Let’s take the assassination of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln as an example. We cannot go to a laboratory and prove that it happened. But there are documents that claim that it did happen. Those documents contain the testimony of some people who say they were there to see it. The documents appear to genuinely belong to the same period in history as they claim to. Compared to other documents that also come from the same time, the use of language is similar. Some of the same people are named elsewhere, by other sources. Documents are the main source of our information about Lincoln’s death.
In addition, there are historical studies. In the case of Lincoln, Ford Theater, the place where he was shot, has been preserved, as has the building across the street where he was taken immediately afterwards. The fact that these buildings are there doesn’t prove that Lincoln was shot there, but it lends credence to the story. Historians know generally about the weapons, culture, and procedures of that time, and the documents describe such things as they would if they were genuine. In other words, there is a great deal of consistency between what we know about that time in history, and the documents that describe Lincoln’s death.
Finally, we see the after-effects (from documents and historical studies) of the event. Immediately after the time Lincoln was allegedly shot, Andrew Johnson became the new President. Lincoln was not seen in public after that time. There is a burial site with his name on it. Mary Todd Lincoln lived like a widow afterwards.
I don’t think anyone seriously doubts that Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth in Ford theater, and died on April 15, 1865. It may surprise you, however to know that we have exactly the same kind of evidence, and quality of evidence, for the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as we do for the death of Abraham Lincoln.
As with Lincoln, our primary evidence is from documents – specifically the New Testament. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: The New Testament is the best preserved, most thoroughly tested and vetted historical document of its time. The evidence that the New Testament is what it claims to be is many orders of magnitude better than evidence for any other ancient document. If you believe anything at all about the ancient world – say, for instance, that Julius Caesar was a real person, or that the Romans held circuses – then you should also believe what the New Testament says. If you haven’t been around to hear me talk about how we know that the New Testament is so reliable, I can point you to my speaking and writing on that subject, and I am certainly not the only one who talks about this.
Next, historical studies lead us to accept what we find in the New Testament. Pontius Pilate was truly the Roman governor of Judea. The Romans later abandoned the practice of crucifixion as too cruel, but we know that they were still doing it during the time described by the Bible. Even today, you can go stand in the places described by the New Testament.
Finally, we have the after effects of the resurrection. Something surely happened back then. The resurrection started a movement that has literally and profoundly changed the history of the world. It changed the way people think and live. You can trace the emergence of hospitals, universities, science, and even modern democracy back to the movement that began when Jesus rose from the dead.
Let’s look briefly at the substance of the claim that Paul was making to governor Festus and King Agrippa:
First, that Jesus was, in fact, physically dead. This is not described as a coma, but as complete death. The Roman soldiers saw and testified that he was dead (John 19:33; Mark 15:44-45). John describes a physical phenomenon in John 19:34. He writes: “But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear and at once blood and water came out.” Crucifixion is essentially death by slow drowning in body fluids. As the pain in Jesus’ arms and feet became too intense, he would be physically unable to raise himself into a position where he could breathe properly. Body fluids would begin to collect around his lungs and heart, eventually either making it impossible for him to breathe, or putting so much pressure on his heart that it would stop. So when the soldier plunged the spear into the side of Jesus, from below, the spear would penetrate areas of the body where those fluids had collected. John saw not only blood, but a clear body fluid he describes as “water.” This is entirely consistent with death by crucifixion. Only one who had seen such a thing would have described it like that.
Some people have protested that the primitive Jews and Romans did not have our modern medical knowledge, and so they thought Jesus was dead, but he was really just in a coma. Therefore, he was not “resurrected,” but rather, just recovered from a coma. But there are two problems with this idea. First, the people in those days saw dead bodies first hand far more often than we do. Ordinary people saw death all the time, and certainly Roman soldiers saw it even more. It is in our modern world that we don’t know what it really looks like unless we are medical professionals. Second, if Jesus was in a coma, consider this: He was brutally beaten and whipped, twice, and then crucified. He was also stabbed in the torso, and given no medical treatment for any of it. Then he was tightly wrapped in burial cloths, in a way that might suffocate an ordinary, healthy person. Then he was placed in a tomb which was then sealed in such a way that two grown women could not open it. After two days, Jesus unwrapped himself, rolled away the huge stone and went walking all over the countryside; in fact, the day he left the tomb he covered at least fourteen miles. No, the coma story requires a miracle just as much as the resurrection.
Next, that Jesus was physically raised. In other words, he wasn’t a ghost. Jesus was physically present on earth after his resurrection. His body was definitely different than an un-resurrected body, since he could go through locked doors (John 20:26) and disappear from visual perception (Luke 24:31). Even so, the New Testament says he ate (Luke 24:41-42), he touched people (John 20:27-29) and his breath could be felt (John 20:22). He said to them:
“Why are you troubled?” He asked them. “And why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I, myself! Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have.” (Luke 24:38-39)
Finally, that both the death and resurrection were predicted by the Old Testament scriptures, and by Jesus himself (look at Isaiah 53 sometime).
Considering the evidence that he was dead, and the claim that he later physically rose from death, we need to ask ourselves: “If he was not raised from death, what are the alternatives?” Remember, we know, from extensive scholarly research the Bible was not edited or changed later; these texts were written not long after the actual events, and they haven’t been changed since they were first written.
One possibility is that the disciples made up the story. This, of course, is what the Jewish and Roman authorities said at the time. But there are some big problems with this. The Romans would often let the dead bodies of crucified criminals hang for a few days after death, as an example for the living to submit to Rome. In this case, they took the bodies down (there were two others, besides Jesus) in order to placate the Jews, since it was during a special festival. But once the disciples started talking about Jesus being resurrected, all the authorities had to do was go get the body and display it outside Jerusalem for all to see. That would not have been an uncommon practice. That would have certainly shut the disciples up quickly, and ended the story. But the authorities didn’t do that. Obviously, they could not produce the body.
So then the next question is, since the officials didn’t produce the body in order to silence the disciples, what happened to the body?
Possibility 1: Since the officials didn’t have the body, the disciples must have stolen it. There are several problems with this. First, these are the same disciples that ran away when Jesus was arrested; they deserted him while he was still alive. Are we to believe that now, after he’s dead, they’ve suddenly found courage to attack the soldiers guarding his tomb and then take his body?
Second, supposing they did somehow become transformed from cowardice to courage, and they fought the guards, or snuck around them, and stole the body. Next, they come back to Jerusalem and start preaching that Jesus is alive. They are brutally whipped for it – and remember, if they stole the body, they know they are suffering for a lie. Then some of them get imprisoned, and then even killed – all the while knowing that they are dying for a lie. If it was a lie, they got nothing from it – no riches, no power, no influence in their own lifetime, no revenge – nothing positive in their lifetimes, and a great deal of suffering instead. Why in the world would they sacrifice so much for no possible gain, and in fact, end up persecuted and dead for the sake of something they know is false? Of course, the answer is, they wouldn’t. So obviously, the disciples didn’t steal the body.
Possibility 2: The body was misplaced. This is the least likely of all alternatives. All four gospels clearly state that a Jewish leader named Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus, which he placed in his own tomb (Matthew 27:57-61; Mark 15:42-47; Luke 23:50-56; John 19:38-42). Joseph is described as a member of the Sanhedrin – that is, part of the Jewish ruling council that ultimately condemned Jesus to death. The first three gospels all explicitly state that several of the women who followed Jesus went with Joseph to see where Jesus was placed. John implies that same thing in 20:1. So all three interested parties know how to locate the body: The disciples; the Jewish authorities; and the Roman authorities. Pilate knows that Joseph of Arimathea asked for it. And Joseph isn’t some anonymous peasant – he is a Jewish ruler, and Pilate would know how to lay hands on him and find out where the body was placed, if he needed to. The Jewish leaders knew Joseph because he was one of them. In fact, Matthew records that the Jewish leaders went to Pilate and asked him for soldiers to guard the tomb to prevent the disciples from stealing the body. Pilate granted their request, and there seemed to be no confusion about which tomb it was placed in (Matthew 27:62-65).
On the other hand, there is positive evidence for the resurrection. There is, of course, the documentary record, the New Testament. The New Testament claims there were over five-hundred eye-witnesses who saw Jesus alive after he died (1 Corinthians 15:6). When Paul writes about those five-hundred witnesses, he says, “most of these are still alive.” In other words people could talk to them, and see for themselves if Paul had the story straight. This is Paul’s point to King Agrippa as well. He saying: “You know about this stuff. It didn’t happen in secret. There are still people you could talk to, who remember it personally.”
Once again, some of the evidence in favor of the resurrection is the after effect. There is the amazing transformation of the disciples from cowards to heroic martyrs. In addition, the resurrection of Jesus has continued to transform lives so much that it has affected the entire course of world history. I have already mentioned our learning, our knowledge, our hospitals, universities. There is also the exploration of the world, even our system of dating history – all of these sprang originally from Christianity and the Christian church, which, of course came about because of the resurrection. In addition, local churches and charities have made a difference all around the world for two thousand years. Something happened back then that resulted in a movement that changed history, and all the evidence is consistent with the idea that Jesus physically rose from the dead, giving people the courage to live for something beyond this life.
If Jesus’ resurrection changed the course of history, how might it change the course of your life? What difference does it make to you? Well, of course, it means that the claims and teachings of Jesus are true. He claimed not only to be human, but also to be God living in human form. If he wasn’t raised, we don’t need to worry about that claim. But if he was, we need to pay attention to him. That gives us a starting point, and that’s what makes it so important for us to read the Bible, to find out what his teachings are.
In the first place, Jesus said that his mission was to remove the obstacles between us and God. We are self-centered, and we consistently choose our own desires over those of God. When we do this, we are worshipping ourselves in the place of God. This is sin, and obviously, it creates a problem. But Jesus came, and died, precisely to reconcile us to God:
6 When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. 7 Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. 8 But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. 9 And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. 10 For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son. 11 So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God. (Romans 5:6-11, NLT)
Jesus calls us to find peace and rest by reorienting our lives around him:
28 Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30, NLT)
We live in a different way because of Jesus, and because he will share his resurrection life with us:
1 So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. 2 And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. 3 The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. 4 He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit.
5 Those who are dominated by the sinful nature think about sinful things, but those who are controlled by the Holy Spirit think about things that please the Spirit. 6 So letting your sinful nature control your mind leads to death. But letting the Spirit control your mind leads to life and peace. 7 For the sinful nature is always hostile to God. It never did obey God’s laws, and it never will. 8 That’s why those who are still under the control of their sinful nature can never please God.
9 But you are not controlled by your sinful nature. You are controlled by the Spirit if you have the Spirit of God living in you. (And remember that those who do not have the Spirit of Christ living in them do not belong to him at all.) 10 And Christ lives within you, so even though your body will die because of sin, the Spirit gives you life because you have been made right with God. 11 The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you. And just as God raised Christ Jesus from the dead, he will give life to your mortal bodies by this same Spirit living within you. (Romans 8:1-11, NLT)
Because Jesus rose from the dead, I have an unshakeable eternal hope. I’m old enough to feel the truth that no one gets out of this life alive. Last year a friend of our family, just forty-years old, died of cancer. Last month we lost two extended family members. We will all follow, someday. And within a generation or two, anyone who ever knew us will also be dead. Everything, all the struggle, all the work to build something good, all of it is pointless…unless there is something more. Jesus’ resurrection gives us a solid foundation to hope for more. His resurrection shows us that there is more to life than just this life we have right now. I can sacrifice and build for a future that I won’t be here to see, because, through Jesus, I actually do have a future that extends beyond my death. I can be at peace, because the very worst that anyone might do to me is to kill me, which only means my resurrection is nearer.
He is Risen!