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Did Jesus rise from the dead?

Every question deserves consideration. But some questions are foundational to all the rest.

The resurrection of Jesus is one of these foundational questions. Did he really rise from the dead? The answer has huge implications for the way we set our goals or find meaning in life. The apostle Paul wrote:

“(I)f Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:17–19 ESV)

Documents written during the lifetime of witnesses to his resurrection described the events that preceded and followed it. Jewish law required Jesus’s body to be properly buried. His enemies took precautions to assure it wouldn’t be stolen (Matthew 27:62–66). Yet according to detailed accounts in the Gospels, Jesus’s tomb was empty on Sunday morning. Had Jesus’s enemies been able, they would have produced his body to refute claims of his resurrection.

It is remarkable that women were the first to visit the tomb, a fact that wouldn’t have been mentioned if the account were “invented.”[1] The next witnesses were disciples who had abandoned Jesus when he was arrested. Then there are fascinating details, like the description of his body wrappings in the grave.[2]

On the morning of Jesus’s resurrection and during the following days and weeks many witnesses reported personal encounters with him (Luke 24; John 20–21). In fact, 55 days later, Peter proclaimed Jesus’s resurrection to thousands of Jewish pilgrims in the vicinity of the Temple. In letters written just 20 to 25 years later, Paul affirmed the Gospel accounts, noting that Jesus appeared to his brother James, to all the rest of the apostles (1 Corinthians 15:3–8), and to an assembled group of over 500 men and women. Many of those witnesses were still alive when Paul made his claim.

Testimony like this seems impossible to explain if Jesus’s resurrection didn’t occur. Why were friends who had abandoned him and hid from the authorities when he was arrested suddenly willing to risk their lives by testifying that he was still alive? No matter how absurd their claims seemed, early Christians were ready to confirm their faith in Jesus’s death and resurrection in the face of persecution and death (1 Corinthians 1:20–25).[3]

False messiahs preceded and followed Jesus’ life and ministry. Their credibility ended with their deaths. There is no historical precedent or parallel for such faith in the resurrection of a man who had died.

[1] At the time the Gospels were written, there was a strong prejudice against women as witnesses. They were viewed as too emotional and irrational to be reliable. This prejudice was so strong that women were generally not admissible as witnesses in Jewish courts.

[2] The folded head cloth in John 20:7 is itself an amazing piece of evidence, as described by William Barclay: “For the moment Peter was only amazed at the empty tomb; but then things began to happen in John’s mind. If someone had removed Jesus’ body, if tomb-robbers had been at work, why should they leave the grave clothes? And then something else struck John—the grave clothes were not disheveled and disarranged; they were lying there still in their folds—that is what the Greek means—the clothes for the body where the body had been; the napkin where the head had lain. The whole point of the description is that the grave clothes did not look as if they had been put off or taken off; they were lying there in their regular folds as if the body of Jesus had simply evaporated out of them and left them lying. The sight suddenly penetrated to John’s mind; he realized that had happened—and he believed. It was not what John read in scripture which convinced him that Jesus had risen; it was what with his own eyes he saw.” (The Gospel of John, Vol. 2)

 

[3] One of the many New Testament scholars who have been convinced by the historical evidence for Jesus’s resurrection, N. T. Wright, wrote a book that describes, among other things, the serious problems that arise when one tries to explain early Christian faith on the basis of visions and hallucinations. This is his summary of the evidence: “Historical argument alone cannot force anyone to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead; but historical argument is remarkably good at clearing away the undergrowth behind which skepticisms of various sorts have been hiding. The proposal that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead possesses unrivalled power to explain the historical data at the heart of early Christianity.” (The Resurrection of the Son of God, p. 718)

 

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Do those who reject Jesus really understand what they are rejecting?

Let’s face it. Jesus has been badly misrepresented by both friends and enemies. In the centuries following his ministry, his enemies described him as a sorcerer and false prophet. His followers, on the other hand, misapplied his teachings in ways that would have been deeply offensive to him. It really isn’t surprising that when people reject Jesus today, they are usually rejecting a misrepresentation of him.

Even those of us who follow Jesus have moments of doubt. There are times when we are so oppressed by the suffering, injustice, and chaos we see in the world around us that it is hard to believe his description of God as a loving “heavenly Father” is really true.

Jesus himself understood the difficulty of faith. In Matthew 8 he was surprised at the faith of a Roman centurion and noted that he hadn’t yet met even one of his fellow Jews who had such faith. He was painfully aware of the superficiality of the faith of his closest disciples and friends and wasn’t surprised when they all abandoned him at the time of his arrest (Matthew 26:56). Even after Jesus had met with a number of his disciples after his resurrection, Thomas refused to believe Jesus was alive until he saw him for himself. Jesus said, “You have believed because you have seen me. Blessed are those who believe without seeing me” (John 20:29).

In his teaching, Jesus made it clear that most unbelievers are not his enemies. He described them with the metaphor of “sheep” (Matthew 9:36; Luke 15:4). His listeners were familiar with the harmlessness, helplessness, and herd instinct of sheep. Scripture also refers to unbelievers as “ignorant” and “wayward people” (Hebrews 5:1–2), “poor,” “oppressed,” “blind,” and “captives” (Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:18). Jesus used much harsher terminology (“serpents”; “whitewashed tombs”) to describe the self-righteous religious hypocrites who genuinely hated him and rejected the Truth he represented (Matthew 23). But even some within this group of hardcore enemies, like the apostle Paul, rejected him out of ignorance (1 Timothy 1:13).

So it’s pretty clear that we sometimes find it hard to believe in Jesus, even if deep down we really want to. It’s a good thing he is who he is because he loves us. He understands our struggle for faith.

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Can the Gospels be trusted since they are based on oral recollections?

Skeptics have long questioned the trustworthiness of the Gospels. They contend that the Gospels cannot be reliable since they are based on oral recollections of the events surrounding the life and teaching of Jesus. As political satirist Bill Maher quipped, the Judaism of his mother and the Christianity of his father are based on “a long, 2,000-year-old game of telephone.”[1]

Nearly all scholars agree that the accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry were passed along by word of mouth for at least 20 to 60 years before being written in what we commonly call the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).[2] But does this fact mean that they are filled with half-truths, misrepresentation, and fabrications?

More than a century has passed since popular and highly publicized scholars first began to wonder if the gospels were fairy stories based on faulty memories and exaggerations that are part and parcel with oral transmission. Today, however, studies confirm that complicated and nuanced narratives can be faithfully passed along orally. Folklorists have found examples in cultures all over the world where long oral narratives were accurately passed down over many generations. These narratives typically contain a longer plot line together with various smaller units that compose the bulk of the story. In fact, when the subject matter is highly meaningful to a community, everyone in that community—not just the storyteller—is concerned with accurately and faithfully preserving it.[3]

Additionally, memory studies tell us that people are much more likely to accurately remember events when they are unique, consequential, and image-rich—just the kinds of experiences shared by the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life and ministry.

There are two final points to consider. The first is that the Scriptures themselves tell us that the accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry were codified and established before the first four books of the New Testament were penned (Luke 1:1–2). Second, the historical distance between the original events and actual text is so short compared to other ancient texts—less than 100 years—that it seems to render this point moot.[4]

[1] In an NPR interview in 2008 http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=95210724

[2] The oldest existing biblical text fragment is dated to the 2nd century AD with places it within 100 years of the original events it describes.

[3] See The Jesus Legend (252-254) and Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (305-306).

[4] The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts http://www.csntm.org/manuscript;

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Does the Bible Permit Divorced Persons to Serve as Church Leaders?

 

I recall a man in a church who was known and respected by everyone. He volunteered to help when people were in need and provided wise counsel when people were struggling. At a congregational meeting, his name was put forward as candidate for elder. But an objection was raised: 20 years earlier he had been divorced after his wife left him for another man. Even though he’d been faithfully married to his current spouse for many years, some in the congregation wondered if his election as a church leader would violate the standard set by 1 Timothy 3:2 and 1 Timothy 3:12:

Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach. (niv)

A deacon must be the husband of but one wife and must manage his children and his household well. (niv)

In Greek, the expression translated in most English Bible versions as “husband of one wife” actually reads “one-woman man.”

Some believe this passage implies that anyone who has ever been divorced and remarried is not permitted to serve as an elder or deacon. But this assumes that being a “one-woman man” means never being divorced. And that isn’t always the case.[1]

A number of other considerations must be taken into account in the context of Paul’s letter to Timothy and other New Testament passages. The “one-woman man” standard doesn’t stand alone; it is part of a larger group. First Timothy 3:2-7 seems to teach that a person’s suitability to serve as a church leader rests not only on one qualification, but many. An elder must be:

 

         blameless

         temperate

         self-controlled

         respectable

         hospitable

         an apt teacher (teachable)

         not given to drunkenness

         gentle

         not quarrelsome

         not greedy or covetous

         a good manager of his household and children

         a seasoned believer

         of good reputation with outsiders

 

A couple of additional thoughts:

First, the criteria for church leadership doesn’t seem to involve sins committed prior to conversion. The apostle Paul, for example, persecuted the church and participated in the murders of Christians prior to his conversion, yet he became one of the most influential church leaders of all time.

Second, a fair evaluation of an individual should take all circumstances into account. Are those who have struggled to preserve their marriage after being abandoned by an unfaithful spouse really in violation of the “one-woman man” principle?[2] Not likely.[3]

[1] Many scholars believe that this phrase is talking about current character rather than past performance. According to this line of thinking, a twice-divorced person who has been faithful to their spouse for 15 years may be more suitable to serve than a never-divorced person who habitually fosters inappropriate relationships with persons other than their spouse.

[2] Jesus himself acknowledged that sexual sin was legitimate grounds for divorce and remarriage (Matthew 5:32; Mark 10:11).

[3] If a person’s suitability on the basis of one qualification comes into question, his evaluation should continue based on all of the rest. If a local congregation knows that a man’s divorce had truly biblical grounds or occurred prior to his conversion so that he can be considered “blameless” (1 Timothy 3:2) and well-qualified upon the basis of all the other criteria, he can be considered a “one-woman man.”

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Can believers be over whelmed with despair?

Followers of Jesus Christ often assume that faith, if genuine, will allow them to live above despair. But Jesus never promised His followers a life of ease. He tells them that if they want to follow Him they must take up their cross,[1] and in this life they will endure many trials and sorrows.[2]

There will be times in everyone’s life when darkness and hopelessness seem ready to smother us. It is often in these times that we truly become acquainted with the Source of healing and light and experience the greatest amount of spiritual growth. Scripture offers some striking examples.

Following his supernatural triumph over the wicked king of Israel and the prophets of Baal, Elijah fell into deep despair. Only then came awakening.[3]

Soon after Peter emotionally declared his dedication to Jesus,[4] he denied Him with curses.[5] Being painfully aware of his weakness prepared him for the central leadership role he would play.

The apostle Paul gave up his status in the Jewish community to follow Jesus Christ. He came to see how evil his former life and world view had been. Even so, this missionary apostle to the Gentiles “despaired even of life”[6] and agonized over his helplessness against the “flesh.”[7] The position of service to which he had been called required even further self-awareness and surrender.

Even Jesus in His human nature had to come to terms with his utter dependence on God.[8]

These examples make it clear that believers often face unexpected trials that, in the moment, have no discernable purpose. Trials like these can overwhelm us. But biblical examples of great people of faith also illustrate that experiences of stress, fear, and despair can spur our greatest spiritual growth.[9]

[1] Luke 9:23; Luke 14:27

[2] John 16:33

[3] 1 Kings 19:4

[4] Matthew 26:33-35

[5] Mark 14:66-72

[6] 2 Corinthians 1:8

[7] Romans 7:18-24

[8] Mark 14:32-36; Luke 22:41-44; Mark 15:34

[9] Job’s story provides a good framework to help us understand our inevitable times of depression and feelings of abandonment. God allowed Satan to test Job (Job 1), just as the accuser (Revelation 12:10) will test each one of us. But just as God set limits to what Satan could do to Job (Job 1:12), He sets limits to what Satan can do to us (1 Corinthians 10:13; Luke 22:31-32). In fact, our Creator can even transform Satan’s attacks into a means of strengthening our faith and refining our love for others.  (1 Peter 1:6-7).

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