The Bible is very hard on its heroes. It exposes the sins, the flaws, the faults, the appetites, the compulsions, the inadequacies, the lack of faith and the doubts of its most vaunted heroes. It discloses the fact that every last one of Jesus' disciples fled the scene in abject fear when their leader and champion was about to be crucified. Yet barely fifty days later they were willing — to a man — to be lashed to the bone, imprisoned and even put to death for the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Here were men who, only weeks before, had escaped for their lives in fear and craven cowardice. Now they were suddenly willing to endure excruciating pain and even death on the rack. Why? What caused these men to so completely change their approach? What great event in history filled their minds and hearts with such incredible courage?
From ashamed anonymity to open acknowledgement, from hiding behind closed doors to standing on platforms before thousands of Jews, from talking in whispers to boldly proclaiming the gospel with great power and conviction, from trying desperately to lose themselves in crowds to openly jeopardizing their very lives — such is the unbelievable transformation of a small cadre of men destined to alter the course of history.
"We Are All Witnesses"
These men were eyewitnesses to one of the greatest events in all of human history — the resurrection of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. They saw Him; they talked with Him; they ate with Him; they touched Him — they did all these things after they knew He had been dead and buried for three days and three nights. No wonder they powerfully preached and proclaimed the resurrection over and over again. Peter, in his very first sermon on the day of Pentecost, boldly said to the thousands gathered at Jerusalem: "Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know: Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain: whom God hath raised up, having loosed the pains of death: because it was not possible that he should beholden of it" (Acts 2:22-24). A little later in the sermon, Peter restated it to his hearers: "This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses" (verse 32). All the apostles were eyewitnesses to the fact that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead. Just days later, Peter reiterated the same message to another crowd who had gathered because of the miraculous healing of a man lame from infancy. With great courage, he boldly told the gathering: "But ye denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer to be granted unto you; and killed the Prince of life, whom God hath raised from the dead; whereof we are witnesses" (Acts 3:14-15).
Did They Change Their Minds Under Pressure?
Were all these fervent speeches just an emotional manifestation of having seen a series of hallucinations? Would that fervor stand up to the insistent pressure of a "little" pain and a few threats to life and limb? Or were these men so solid in their convictions that even threats, beatings and imprisonment would fail to shake them? Critics eager to disclaim biblical authority allege the disciples conspired in a plot to fake Jesus' resurrection. Stories of every stripe, including the very first one deliberately contrived and duly paid for by religionists of the first century, are freely circulated. Some say the Romans stole His body away. Some claim the Jewish religious leaders did the same thing. Others say Jesus wasn't really dead, but was just in a deep trance or coma — faking death and then appearing later in the same body. A popular concept alleges a plot and a hoax. What marvelous dedication to deliberate conspiracy it would have required — all of the apostles conspiring together to create a false religion around a person in whom they did not believe, and whom they knew to be a fraud! Think about it. If the Romans had taken the body, they surely would have displayed it openly to bring to a halt the religious furor that raged in an area the Caesar wanted quiet, peaceful and profitable. If the Jewish leaders had spirited the body away, they most surely would have paraded it through the streets, for they of all parties were the most keenly interested in proving Jesus dead and stopping the surge of religious zeal surrounding His resurrection that threatened their own status. Did the apostles steal Jesus' body? Some of them were married; whole families, hundreds of people, would have been directly involved. Mary, the mother of Jesus, saw Him alive, as did Mary Magdalene, "the other Mary." Jesus' own brothers and sisters saw Him dead and then saw Him alive. Can you believe for one instant human beings would submit to the most horrible torture, including being crucified upside down (as tradition says Peter was), impaled, sawn in two, burnt at the stake, thrown to wild beasts, stabbed with spears and. swords, stretched on racks, beheaded, or left to starve in a dungeon cell, for what they and their loved ones KNEW to be a farce? Can you believe this, when only moments prior to Christ's final agonies they had all forsaken Him and fled? Peter cursed — which he knew was a sin — and vehemently denied Jesus three times. As we shall see, they proved unwilling to believe Jesus was alive; they were incredulous, disbelieving, needing to be convinced. Hardly the setting for a plot. Almost immediately following the resurrection, the religious leaders jailed some of the apostles because a great healing had taken place. The religionists couldn't gainsay the healing; hundreds knew the man, knew about his crippled condition, knew he had been miraculously healed. Can you believe healings take place as a result of lying plots? Do criminals involved in a great conspiracy have the power to heal? The trauma of the original apostles was soon in coming. Let's see how they reacted: whether with real faith, knowledge, and courage, or in doubt and disbelief, knowing they were conspirators in a plot. "And as they [the apostles] spake unto the people, the priests, and the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees, came upon them, being grieved that they taught the people, and preached through Jesus the resurrection from the dead. And they laid hands on them, and put them in hold [incarcerated them] unto the next day..." (Acts 4:1-3). The apostles reacted with great courage before the assembled might of the Jewish religious leaders. Through their chief spokesman, the apostle Peter, they said as if with one voice: "Ye rulers of the people, and elders of Israel... Be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, whom God raised from the dead, even by him doth this man [formerly permanently crippled] stand here before you whole [completely healed]" (verses 8, 10). Threats and beatings were not about to change their minds about what they saw with their own eyes and heard with their own ears. Later Peter and John further told them: "... We cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard" (verse 20). More threats quickly followed — threats that not long before would have had these men quavering in fear. But instead of a shaken collection of cowards, now they were a close-knit, transformed cadre of dedicated men which neither the might of the Roman government nor the persistence of the vassal Jewish rulers could quiet. Notice verse 33: "And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus...." By now, the religionists were beside themselves with anger and fear. Jerusalem was in an uproar! Impulsively they imprisoned the apostles once again (Acts 5:18), but this time an angel miraculously freed them. The twelve then hurried to the temple to give even further witness. But the religious rulers soon caught up with them. They asked these apostles: "Did not we straitly [strictly] command you that ye should not teach in this name? And, behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine..." (verse 28). But the apostles steadfastly refused to bow to ever growing political and religious pressures. They weren't going to change their message to suit any man or group of men! Peter boldly told them: "The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree.... And we are his witnesses of these things..." (verses 30, 32).
The Same Message to the Gentiles
Neither did Peter change his message when the gospel was expanded to include the Gentiles (non-Israelite ethnic groups). Luke, the author of the book of Acts, penned the very same message from Peter in the tenth chapter. Here it is again, almost like a broken record: "And we are witnesses of all things which he [Jesus] did both in the land of the Jews, and in Jerusalem... Him God raised up the third day, and shewed him openly; not to all the people, but unto witnesses chosen before of God, even to us, who did eat and drink with him after he rose from the dead" (verses 39-41). So over and over again, the apostles preached the same message about the resurrection throughout the whole Middle-Eastern area.
The Reality of What They Saw
What the apostles experienced with their own eyes and ears was not just a one-time appearance. In the prologue to the book of Acts, Luke says: "To whom also he [Christ] shewed himself alive after his passion [suffering and death] by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days..." (Acts 1:3). As I mentioned earlier, there was eating and drinking together, much personal conversation, teaching of the Scriptures, give-and-take question and answer sessions, solid rebuke, and even sharp individual instruction. Actually, Christ's personal relationship with His disciples after His resurrection did not differ much from that before His crucifixion. Time and time again, He proved to them in myriad ways that He indeed was one and the same Being that had been with them throughout the 3 1/2-year ministry. He left no possibility for any doubts to arise later. Perhaps the most poignant incident is that of Christ's appearance to Thomas. This particular apostle had, like the others, been throughout Galilee with Jesus, had traveled with Him down to Jerusalem, up to northern Israel, and over to Tyre and Sidon. He had seen Him alive for 3 1/2 years in dozens of different circumstances and situations. Then he'd seen Him killed, had forsaken Him, and just afterwards experienced the forlorn feeling of being part of a let-down, bewildered, scattered group of men whose hero and champion had just been taken from them. But Thomas was even more skeptical than the others. He wasn't even interested in the eyewitness accounts of the other disciples. He didn't for a moment believe the other ten. "The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the Lord. But he [Thomas] said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe. And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas was with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst.... Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing. And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God. Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed" (John 20:25-29). Look at the long after-dinner conversation Christ had with Peter concerning his immediate responsibilities to those who would later be converted and Peter's natural curiosity about John's impending duties (see John 21). Read the last few chapters of every Gospel account and you will see clearly that Christ showed Himself alive to His disciples in many varied circumstances and situations. All are not even recorded for our benefit today. John wrote: "And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name" (John 20:30-31).
The Hostile Witness
Paul (formerly called Saul) was overtly hostile to the teachings of Christ. In the earliest years of the Christian Church, he was busy "breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples" (Acts 9:1). He sought to imprison more and more members of the early Church — that is, until his totally unexpected meeting with Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus. Probably there has been no' comparable turnaround in the history of the Christian Church: a transformation from an almost megalomaniacal, hostile, Hitlerian type of egotist to a humble, teachable, willing and loving type of person in almost an instant of time. This doesn't happen every day. It requires a traumatic experience to accomplish such an immediate change. Paul saw and heard something that turned his life around in a few moments' time. He never was the same again — his change was total and lifelong! Notice his own personal account of this life-changing event: "I verily thought with myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. Which thing I also did in Jerusalem: and many of the saints did I shut up in prison... and when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them. And I punished them oft in every synagogue, and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even unto strange [foreign] cities. Whereupon as I went to Damascus with authority and commission from the chief priests, at midday, O king, I saw in the way a light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun, shining round about me.... And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks [the goads of his own conscience]. And I said, Who art thou, Lord? And he said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest" (Acts 26:9-15). Acts 9:6 records Paul's immediate reaction: "And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?" Jesus then told Saul to go to the city, and that he would be shown what he had to do. There followed three long days and nights of blindness (Acts 9:9), coupled with total fasting. Saul was in a state of deep shock. He had been struck blind; had heard a powerful voice; had seen a light brighter than the sun; had been reminded about the inner doubts of his own conscience which were continually nagging at him. (This explains his vehemence in some measure. It seems almost axiomatic that the more violently one struggles against some issue of conscience, the more likely that person has been compromised.) Christ then spoke to Ananias in a vision and told him where to find Saul of Tarsus. Saul was spending his time in deep prayer (verse II), and Christ had shown Saul that Ananias would come to him. Ananias had heard of Saul and was afraid of him, but Jesus insisted he go and lay hands on him and baptize him. "And Ananias went his way, and entered into the house; and putting his hands on him said, Brother Saul, the Lord, even Jesus, that appeared unto thee in the way as thou camest, hath sent me, that thou mightest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Spirit. And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith, and arose, and was baptized" (verses 17-18). Now, with the total change of the Holy Spirit to influence a brilliant mind — a mind that really knew the Scriptures (the only Scriptures written were those we call the "Old Testament") — Paul was able to preach "Christ in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God" (verse 20). Quickly Paul's own troubles began. The Jewish community in Damascus became more and more enraged at his teaching, and the news of a plot to kill him became known to some of the disciples, so they "took him [Paul] by night, and let him down by the wall in a basket" (verse 25). There is strong indication Paul spent up to 3 1/2 years with Jesus in person, learning at His feet, in the deserts of Arabia. That's more time than the average college education takes! In any event, Paul, as one begotten "out of season," began preaching about the truth of the resurrection. The fact of Christ's resurrection became the central, dominant theme of Paul's message; and the culmination of such preaching gave us one of the most inspiring passages in the Bible: the "resurrection chapter" (I Cor. 15). In that first letter to the Corinthian church, Paul summarized the many resurrection appearances. "For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: And that he was seen of Cephas [Peter], then of the twelve: After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain [alive] unto this present [time], but some are fallen asleep [have died]. After that, he was seen of James [the brother of Christ]; then of all the apostles [once again]. And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time" (I Cor. 15:3-8). Paul's summary, however, is not intended to correspond exactly to the resurrection appearances in the Gospel accounts. It is written more as a general overview of the total picture.
A Change of Heart in Old Age?
Over the long haul, did the apostles' conviction that Christ had indeed been resurrected begin to wane as the years rolled by and they approached old age? Did the mere passage of time do what even whippings, imprisonments and death threats had failed to accomplish? The Bible records the old-age convictions of three of the "pillar" apostles — Peter, Paul and John. Peter's second general epistle was written shortly before his martyrdom. Notice verse 14 of the first chapter: "Knowing that shortly 1 must put off this my tabernacle, even as our Lord Jesus Christ hath shewed me [in John 21]." By this time, had Peter's earlier heartfelt convictions undergone a slow wilting process? Just the opposite! Peter told his audience: "For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty" (verse 16). There is nothing in this last letter of Peter's to even slightly imply that his personal religious beliefs had undergone any basic change. His earliest teachings were intact. What about Paul? Did the fact that he was not of the original twelve slowly begin to erode his beliefs and lead to a later repudiation of the heavenly vision he had seen? Did the fact that he had to suffer more than the other apostles finally begin to gnaw at him as time went by? Did a life-style that included the hatred and enmity of his own people, several bouts with a ball and chain, and deprivation of many physical necessities ultimately begin to take its toll? Let's see what he wrote just prior to his death. Paul's second pastoral epistle to Timothy was his last. In the fourth chapter, he wrote to the young evangelist: "For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand" (verse 6). Notice now another verse in the very same letter to Timothy: "Remember that Jesus Christ of the seed of David was raised from the dead according to my gospel" (2:8). This one verse makes it clear that Paul never changed his mind about what he had seen and heard. He was an eyewitness — having asked the Corinthian church even years after the actual resurrection: "Have I not seen Christ?"
The Aged Apostle
Apparently only John, of all the original apostles, died of old age. He outlived most or all of the others by about thirty years. He lived to see Jerusalem vanquished by the armies of Titus. According to many scholars, all of his writings should be dated in the late first century. But had the passage of time dimmed his convictions about Christ? Did he later reject the resurrection, in spite of the lifelong endurance of the other apostles? No, John was busily proclaiming the very same gospel (which included the resurrection of Jesus Christ) right to the end of his life. In his first general epistle, his prologue begins: "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;) That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you..." (I John 1:1-3). Note that John appeals to three of our five senses in his logical declaration — hearing, touch and sight — something that even the most uneducated among us can readily understand. Turn now to the book of Revelation, which is the record that John wrote of what he saw and heard. Notice his introduction to Christ's seven letters to the churches in Asia Minor: "John to the seven churches which are in Asia... and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten [or born] of the dead..." (Rev. 1:4-5). Notice verse 18 where Christ is speaking in the first person: "I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore...." Here you have Christ's own personal witness of His resurrection through the pen of the apostle John in his very old age.
A Unique Attitude and Approach
In these three installments on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, knowledge has been given to you that you may never have seen or heard before. What are you going to do with it? What is the ideal attitude and approach to new knowledge — something not generally brought out even in our Christ-professing churches? The apostle Paul once went to a city where he encountered a group of people with one of the most unusual approaches to new knowledge in all of human history. It's one that is almost never used today, even in educational circles. This approach will do you no harm. But it does preempt prejudice, bias, hatred, racism, etc. It demands a patient, open-minded and objective search for truth. Notice Luke's account of Paul's encounter with these unusual people in the seventeenth chapter of Acts: "And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Berea: who coming thither went into the synagogue of the Jews. These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so" (verses 10-11). What was the result of listening to Paul with readiness and open minds, digging out the source material and studying it on a daily basis? "Therefore many of them believed..." (verse 12). You have a choice before you. You can close your mind to what you have read, cling to your own cherished concepts and shut your mind to everything except your own preconceived ideas. Or you can be objective and open-minded about this new knowledge, and use these articles as a springboard to more and more truth. The choice is yours. No one else can make up your mind for you. The resurrection of Jesus Christ of Nazareth is a fact of history. Your Bible proves it. Sound logic and plain admission of concrete evidence prove it! Without it there would have been no Holy Spirit from heaven; no New Testament of the Bible. All history would have been written differently. Without it you cannot be saved. Without it there would have been no Church; there would have never been a single real Christian. It is a prelude to another great event in history soon to come. Jesus Christ is going to stand on this earth once again. He will rule it with a rod of iron. Think of it! The heavens splitting with a rock-breaking, earth-quaking roar! Streaming, blinding, brilliant flashes of light revealing the descending King of kings, followed by vast numbers of His angels, as far as the eye can see. Will you be ready to meet Him?