Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Reality of Jesus and the Hope of the Resurrection

The following satirical letter to NYU has been floating around the internet for a while:
IN ORDER FOR THE ADMISSIONS STAFF OF OUR COLLEGE TO GET TO KNOW YOU BETTER, WE ASK THAT YOU ANSWER THE FOLLOWING QUESTION  ARE THERE ANY SIGNIFICANT EXPERIENCES YOU HAVE HAD, OR ACCOMPLISHMENTS YOU HAVE REALIZED, THAT HAVE HELPED TO DEFINE YOU AS A PERSON? 
I am a dynamic figure, often seen scaling walls and crushing ice. I have been known to remodel train stations on my lunch breaks, making them more efficient in the areas of heat retention. I write award-winning operas, I manage time efficiently. Occasionally, I tread water for three days in a row. I woo women with my god like trombone playing, I can pilot bicycles up severe inclines with unflagging speed, and I cook Thirty-Minute Brownies in twenty minutes. I am as expert in stucco, a veteran in love, and an outlaw in Peru. 
Using only a hoe and a large glass of water, I once single-handedly defended a small village in the Amazon Basin from a horde of ferocious army ants. I play bluegrass cello, I was scouted by the Mets, I am the subject of numerous documentaries. When I’m bored, I build large suspension bridges in my yard. On Wednesdays, after school, I repair electrical appliances free of charge. 
I am an abstract artist, a concrete analyst, and a ruthless bookie. Critics worldwide swoon over my original line of corduroy evening wear. I don’t perspire. I am a private citizen, yet I receive fan mail. I have been caller number nine and have won the weekend passes. I bat 400. My deft floral arrangements have earned me fame in international botany circles. Children trust me. 
I can hurl tennis rackets at small moving objects with deadly accuracy.  I know the exact location of every food item in the supermarket. I have performed several covert operations with the CIA. I sleep once a week; when I do sleep, I sleep in a chair. While on vacation in Canada, I successfully negotiated with a group of terrorists who had seized a small bakery. The laws of physics do not apply to me. 
I balance, I weave, I dodge, I frolic, and my bills are all paid. On weekends, to let off steam, I participate in full-contact origami. Years ago I discovered the meaning of life but forgot to write it down.  I breed prizewinning clams. I have won bullfights in San Juan, cliff-diving competitions in Sri Lanka, and spelling bees at the Kremlin. I have played Hamlet, I have performed open-heart surgery, and I have spoken with Elvis. But I have not yet gone to college.
He’s a fantastic guy, but he is not real.  He sounds good, but neither I nor anyone else I know of will be restructuring their way of life to follow him, or introducing others to him, or starting a Church of The Living NYU Student, or wearing a bracelet (WWNYUSD). It doesn’t matter how great he sounds, he is not real (and neither was the letter). 

If Jesus was not real – if he was not who he said he was – then Christianity has nothing to offer that you can’t find in another worldview, a self-help shelf or a bottle. But if Jesus was who he claimed to be, then He has a significance that no one else does.[i] The historicity of  Jesus Christ matters. [ii] 

The APOSTLES CREED (which probably dates from the second century) begins like this:
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only son, our Lord, Conceived of the Holy Spirit, Born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried, [he descended to the dead] on the third day he rose again, he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come again to judge the living and the dead...”
 If we have grown up in church or been a Christian for a while, we can lose sight of how fantastic this claim is.  The Incarnation says that God came to earth as a human being in order to save us from the penalty of our sins and restore peace between us and God. God made a good world; we break it. Over and over, we do the kinds of things that destroy peace with God, with others, and within. In an unbelievable act of love and grace, God himself took care of the penalty we deserved so that our sins could be forgiven and peace could be restored.  [iii] If you think that’s a fantastic claim today, so did those who lived with Jesus.

THE BACKGROUND

The Jews had been waiting for a Messiah (a Savior) since David. Time and again they ended up enslaved to other nations. By the first century, they had spent several hundred years convinced that the Spirit of God had been removed from them. They were waiting for a Messiah who would do two key things to fix this broken world: defeat the enemy and liberate Israel (in Jesus' day, that was Rome), and purify / rebuild the temple.  Plenty of people claimed they were this promised Messiah.
  1. Judas Maccabeus 160's BC, entered Jerusalem at the head of an army,  purified the temple, destroyed altars to other gods, but was eventually killed in battle.
  2. Judas (of Galilee), Zealot, led revolt against Romans AD 6 (Acts 5). It failed.
  3. Theudas (mentioned in Acts 5.36) claimed to be a Messiah, and led about 400 people to the Jordan River, where he would divide it to show his power.  He was stopped and executed in AD 46.
  4. The Anonymous Egyptian (Jew), with 30,000 unarmed Jews, did a reenactment of Exodus around AD 55. He led them to the Mount of Olives, where he claimed he would command the walls around Jerusalem to fall.  His group was massacred by Procurator Antonius Felix, and he was never seen again.
  5. Simon bar Kokhba ca. 135), founded a short-lived Jewish state  that he ruled for 3 years before being defeated in the Second Jewish-Roman War.  580,000 Jewish people died.
No wonder John the Baptizer, while in jail awaiting his death, sent a message to Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” This was John the Baptist, who once announced Jesus as, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” He needed to know if Jesus was the real deal. Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. And blessed are those who do not take offense in me.” (Luke 7)

That last line seems odd, but remember that the Jews were expecting a Messiah with a sword, not a healing touch.  Jesus is basically saying, ‘Don’t let this trip you up. This is what a real Messiah does.”[iv] So after doing all these things to show He was who He claimed he was, Jesus’ crucifixion suggested that he was just another failed messiah. He had not freed them from Roman rule and had not restored the Temple as they expected.  Now he was dead and his followers were hiding. Typically, another person would be tagged to continue the movement, usually a family member or relative.

And yet three days after Jesus’ death this movement begins.
  • The early Christians claimed they had seen a Resurrected Messiah at a time when no one believed that individuals would be resurrected. The Greeks thought the soul would finally be rid of the body. The Jews believed in the coming Resurrection where the entire world would be renewed, but they did not believe in the personal resurrection of individuals.
  • They didn’t appoint a successor (and James was an obvious choice)
  • The early Christians said they had more hope than ever before, not because Roman rule was gone but because they had been offered life in a Kingdom that was not of this world.
  • They claimed that Jesus had set them free from a much greater problem than Roman rule – the just and eternal consequence of their sin.
  • They claimed that the community of the church was now the temple, and it was being restored as the people in it were transformed into the image of risen Christ who was at work inside them through His Spirit and His word.
  • They worshipped Jesus at a time when worship of a human was blasphemous to the Jews and potentially traitorous to the Romans. 
The early followers of Christ reordered their entire worldview, changed their view of God, and radically changed their way of life to the point of being willing to die. Why? What had happened to cause them to confidently make this claim? [v] It was the belief that Jesus had resurrected. He had shown He was the Christ, God in the flesh, by showing his mastery over death.
 “But when they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away – for it was very large.  And entering the tomb, they saw a young man clothed in a long white robe sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.  But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed.  You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He is risen. He is not here.  See the place where they laid Him.  But go, tell His disciples – and Peter- that He is going before you into Galilee, and there you will see Him, as He said to you.” (Mark: 16:4-7) 
Several years later, after a miraculous conversion that moved him from a killer of Christians to an apostle of Christ, Paul would write that the power and hope of Christ’s Resurrection is meant to bring us to life. 
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world… all of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts… because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus…” (Ephesians 2:1-10) 
We are all in need of a Savior. We cannot save ourselves from the sin and brokenness within us and around us.  Nothing outside of us can save us either. We won’t be saved by a new tax system or a higher minimum wage or better health care or another person who will ‘complete us’.  We don’t need a better social circle or more money or amazing sex or the latest I-something. Substitute saviors will never save us.  We know this. They have failed us time and again, and then ones we think are working now will fail us too.

Christ offers to raise us out of sin, despair and death.  As Tim Keller says, because of Christ we are offered the hope that one day “everything sad will come untrue.” The very things that were once a sign of the deadness and despair of sin can be the very things that are a testimony to the life-giving power of Christ. 

That is what Easter offers to us.  The Crucifixion showed us how much God is willing to sacrifice for our good. Our salvation cost Him a crucifixion. The Resurrection of Christ shows us that Jesus has the power to do what He claimed.  We, who are sinful, broken and so often wondering if there is any hope, have an answer. 
“God so loved the world, that He gave His Son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send His son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”  (John 3:16-17)
This is the heart of Christianity, and it is the hope of Resurrection.
_________________________________________________________________________________

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES

Cold Case Christianity, J. Warner Wallace
The Reason for God, Timothy Keller
Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis
The Case for Christ and The Case for the Real Jesus, Lee Strobel
The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, by Gary Habermas and Mike Liconna
The Jesus I Never Knew, Phillip Yancey
What if Jesus Had Never Been Born? D. James Kennedy
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis (fiction)
The Sin Eater, Francine Rivers (fiction)
A.D. 30, Ted Dekker (fiction – recommended to me)
The Gospel of John (movie)

ENDNOTES

[i]  By way of contrast, the historicity of the founder of other world religious does not carry the same level of importance in other major world religions. Buddhism does not rise and fall on the historical reality of Siddartha – which is good, because the earliest records start 2 to 3 centuries after his death, and some of the trusted manuscripts appear 1,000 years later. Hinduism does not rise and fall on the reality of anyone.  It is not based on historical truth, but revealed principles. (If fact, it sees history as a weak point for other religions, because they become falsifiable.) Islam does not rise or fall on whether or not Mohammed rose from the dead, or was who he claimed he was. He was a prophet, not a Savior.

[ii] For the extra-biblical evidence about the life and person of Jesus, check out an article by J.Warner Wallace, “Is There Any Evidence for Jesus Outside the Bible?”  (http://coldcasechristianity.com/2014/is-there-any-evidence-for-jesus-outside-the-bible/)

[iii] The death of Jesus was understood by the early Christians as a fulfillment of a covenant God had made centuries earlier.When God made a covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15 (and following), he used the standard form of what was called suzerain covenant-making. In typical fashion, Abraham killed some animals, cut them in pieces, and arranged them to walk through. Typically, both parties or just the weaker party would walk through the dissected animals as a way of saying, “If I break our covenant, may this be done to me as punishment.” But then only God, the stronger party, passed through (as a fiery pillar) – but never made Abraham, the weaker party, do the same.

By passing through the slaughtered animal, God was saying that if He didn’t bless Abraham and honor the covenant, God – the stronger, initiating party - would have to pay the penalty. That alone would be unusual, but that wasn’t the most incredible point. God was saying that if Abraham doesn’t keep the covenant, God would pay the penalty for Abraham.

This was unprecedented. God was clearly not a consumer god, paying attention and blessing us because we made him happy.  God was a covenant god, but completely different from the wealthy, powerful lords of earth. He gave the rules, established the penalty of rule-breaking, then committed to paying that penalty for everybody.

What kind of God would do that? A God who arrives in the person of Jesus Christ. On the cross, Jesus fulfilled the conditions of the covenant by paying Abraham’s penalty. We commemorate this every time we partake in communion – His body broken, His blood spilled. The covenant must be honored. Someone must pay for breaking the agreement.


[iv]  There are at least two key reasons Jesus performed miracles.

Miracles confirmed Jesus’ divine mission
  • He “manifested His glory” at the marriage feast in Cana, so his disciples “believed in Him.” (John 2:11)
  • "Men of Israel, listen to this:  Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through Him, as you yourselves know.  (Acts 2:22)
  • “Even though you do not believe me, believe the miracles, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father." (John 10:38)
Miracles confirmed the message of the gospel  (Hebrews 2:1-4;  John 2:18-21;   Matthew 12:38)

Then the Jews demanded of him, ‘What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?’  Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.’ The Jews replied, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?’ But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.” (John 2:18-21)

“...This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.”  ( Hebrews 2:1-4)

“Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Get up, take your mat and walk'? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins . . . ." He said to the paralytic, "I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home." He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, "We have never seen anything like this!"”  (Mark 2:9-12)

[v] “If we are to think in first-century Jewish terms, it is impossible to conceive what sort of religious or spiritual experience someone could have that would make them say that the kingdom of God had arrived when it clearly had not, that a crucified leader was the Messiah when he obviously was not, or that the resurrection occurred last month when it obviously did not.”  - N.T. Wright

No comments:

Post a Comment