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Choosing a Church

Thursday, May 23, 2019

 

It is certainly true that when I consider the Lord Jesus, there are many things about Him that intimidate me.  I read about His holiness, His meekness, and His love, and it’s sobering to realize that I’m supposed to imitate His greatness in all those things. 

However, there are some things about Him that reassure me, and one of them is that He can be very sarcastic.  Consider, for instance, the question of Luke 6:46.  That’s got some bite to it, doesn’t it?  His point is plain.  If we call Him “Lord” but don’t do what He says, we are no disciples of His at all.

This is important in our individual lives, and it’s important in our corporate lives as members of a congregation.  Is our congregation doing what Jesus says, or isn’t it?  Even a new Christian has to know how to distinguish churches that are from churches that aren’t, so for our ninth half-hour study session, let’s explore the topic of choosing a church.

Before I go on, let me note that the scope of this sermon is going to be limited, as the scope of every sermon in this series has been limited.  This is not an explanation of every nuance of the work of the church.  Instead, it’s a guide to make sure that somebody who knows none of that will be headed in generally the right direction.

The first thing that we ought to do in evaluating a congregation is to ASK ABOUT BAPTISM.  We see the centrality of baptism in the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20.  Any church that truly is submitting to the Lordship of Jesus is going to do these two things.  They are going to baptize, and they are going to teach those they baptize to observe all the commandments of Jesus.

Several weeks ago, we learned what the one baptism we are authorized to administer is.  It is the immersion in water of a believer for forgiveness of sins.  If a church administers that baptism, they are acting as authorized by Jesus.  If they do not, they are not.

Furthermore, if a church does not administer the baptism of the Bible, its members do not enjoy the benefits of Bible baptism.  They are not disciples.  They are not Christians.  They are not forgiven of their sins.  They likely believe that they are, but they are deluded and mistaken.  Assembling with a group of people like that has no more spiritual benefit than assembling with the Elks Lodge on Sunday morning.

The only way to find out the truth here is to ask.  Go up to the preacher or the pastor or the whoever and ask three questions:  “How do you baptize?”, “Whom do you baptize?”, and “Why do you baptize?” 

Be very careful of weasel-word answers to the last question.  Some will tell you things like, “We baptize because Jesus commanded us to.”  Usually, people who say such things do not believe in baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and the only way to smoke them out is to ask them directly, “Do you believe that baptism is necessary for forgiveness of sins?” 

If you get any other answer than a “Yes,” you know that the people in that church are not actually disciples, and you shouldn’t worship there.  There’s no need to consider anything else in this lesson.  Those people have flunked the most important Scriptural test.

Second, we ought to EVALUATE THEIR WORSHIP.  Once again, the words of Jesus set the standard.  He tells us what the worship of His people is like in John 4:23-24.  True worshipers must worship God in spirit and truth. 

Notice that Jesus does not say that they will worship God in spirit and sincerity.  Our society likes to confuse sincerity and truth, but they can be two different things.  Sincerity is subjective.  We all sincerely believe things, but we can be sincerely mistaken about them. 

Truth, on the other hand, is objective.  Something is either true or it isn’t.  Even if nobody believes the truth, the truth is still true. 

When it comes to the will of God, we know where to find truth.  Jesus says in John 17 that the word is truth.  Only worship that is authorized by the word is true worship.

Consider, for instance, a congregation that is welcoming and friendly, but they’ve got a rock band or a piano up on stage.  According to ordinary English usage, bands play.  Pianos are played.  The movie titles are And the Band Played On and The Piano Player, not And the Band Sang On and The Piano Singer

Bands play musical instruments.  A piano is a musical instrument that is played.  In both cases, the playing of a musical instrument is being offered as worship to God, and anybody who disputes that has got an agenda.

Let’s test that against the Scriptures.  If the true worship that Jesus contemplates involves musical instruments, we will be able to use the Scriptures to prove that Christians are supposed to worship using musical instruments.   No such evidence exists, so the congregation with that band or piano isn’t worshiping in truth. 

At this point, our next decision isn’t optional.  Jesus doesn’t say that those who worship God can worship in spirit and in truth if they want to.  He says that they must worship in spirit and truth.  If we want to be true worshipers, we can’t be a part of a church that doesn’t worship in truth.

Finally, if we are evaluating a church, we must LISTEN TO THEIR TEACHING.  Once again, this is a sermon point about the word of Christ and the truth of Christ.  Look at what He says about the importance of teaching in John 8:30-31.  Abiding in the word is what makes us true disciples.  When we abide in the word, we come to know the truth, and the truth will set us free.

The very mission of the church is to be the pillar and support of the truth.  If a church does not teach the truth above all else, it has failed in its mission.

There are several ways this can happen.  First, obviously, is if a church teaches false doctrine.  If we visit a congregation, and we hear things that we know aren’t in line with the Scriptures, obviously that’s not a church to which we should join ourselves.

The second lesson here is subtler.  In order to completely fulfill its mission, the preaching and teaching of a church must be more concerned with the truth than with anything else. 

Sadly, in too many congregations, even ones that get the first two points here right, the teaching of the church does not emphasize the truth.  The preacher’s goal is no longer enlightenment.  It has become entertainment.

I don’t have anything against jokes, but if a sermon becomes a comedy routine, that’s a problem.  I don’t have anything against emotional stories, but if a preacher does nothing but move from one tear-jerker to the next, that’s a problem.  I don’t have anything against wisdom from other sources than the Bible, but if a sermon is built around pop psychology instead of the word of truth, that’s a problem.

Brethren, we don’t need a church that will entertain us.  We need a church that will feed us, and only the word can do that.

Listen to Your Mother

Thursday, May 16, 2019

 

Today is a day on which we pay special attention to and honor mothers.  That’s certainly an appropriate thing to do.  Every one of us owes much to the woman who brought us up and cared for us, and mothers do appreciate it when we treat them well on Mother’s Day.

However, when you get right down to it, what every mother here wants from her children is not a nice corsage and Sunday dinner at Outback.  They don’t really want things from us.  They want things for us.  The best gift that any of us can give our mothers is a happy, successful, productive life.

In fact, that’s why mothers tell us the things they do.  It’s not that they enjoy nagging us or making our lives miserable.  It’s that they’ve been around longer than we have, they’ve seen how various kinds of choices play out, and they want us to make good choices and not bad ones.

Mothers have felt this way for as long as there have been mothers, so it’s not surprising that some of this timeless maternal wisdom has entered the Bible.  This morning, then, let’s turn to the book of Proverbs to see what sorts of things we will do if we listen to our mothers.

The first thing that we will do is to BE WISE.  Why?  Because it makes Mom happy.  Consider here Proverbs 10:1.  All of us need to recognize that we have a tremendous effect on our mother’s happiness.  All we have to do to make her miserable is to be foolish, because she knows very well how our foolishness is going to turn out.  She would much rather see us being wise instead.

It’s probably true that all of us will make better decisions if we make those decisions with our mother’s happiness in mind.  When we make decisions in this way, we will pay less attention to the immediate effects of our decision and more attention to what the effects of that decision will be down the road.  We’ll pay more attention to the consequences of our actions.

Let me tell you about some of the wise decisions that my mother wanted me to make.  First of all, she wanted me to assemble with the saints every time the doors were open.  My mother wasn’t anybody’s fool.  She’d seen enough to know that over time, Christians who faithfully attended services got stronger and stronger, but Christians who came once a week, if that, got weaker and weaker and perhaps even ended up falling away.  Is there any commandment that says we have to be here three times a week?  No, but it is wise!

My mother also wanted me to be careful with my money.  When I was a young man, my financial carelessness drove her to distraction!  Here too, it’s a consequence thing.  She knew that if I would be patient and diligent and save, bit by bit, I could build a better, more secure future for myself.  I’d even have money left over to give to the Lord’s work and help people in need.  However, if I was a spendthrift, I wouldn’t have that security in future, nor would I have the financial freedom to be generous.  Generally, wisdom makes a big difference in our lives—whether we practice it or not!

In addition to generic wisdom, there are also specific ways in which the mothers of Proverbs advise their children to be wise.  First, they want them to BEWARE SEXUAL IMMORALITY.  Here, let’s read from Proverbs 23:25-28.  Specifically, we see that Mom here is concerned about two kinds of women:  the prostitute and the adulteress.  In our society, sadly, sexual temptation is as much a problem for women as for men, but these two kinds of temptations remain.

Let’s start with the prostitute.  Obviously, none of our mothers want us to have anything to do with people like that!  However, I think we can expand the principle here to cover anyone who wants to make money off of lust.

Think about it.  Why does A Game of Thrones have all those naked people in it?  Why does so much comedy rely on innuendo and filthy humor?  Why is there so much porn on the Internet?  It’s all there because somebody is trying to get us to lust so they can make money off us.  Those people want us to believe that they care about us having a good time, but in reality, they are as heartless and calculating as the most jaded hooker on the street.  The less we have to do with them and their works, the happier we will be, the happier our mothers will be, and the happier God will be.

Let’s also watch out for the adulteress, who stands for anyone who entices us into sin for the sake of their pleasure.  Notice that I say “their pleasure”, not ours.  By definition, anybody who tries to get us to sin with them cares more about themselves than they do about us.  If they truly loved us, the very last thing they would do would be to endanger our souls!  Here too, the dire consequences are many.  When Mom tells us to stay away, she knows what she’s talking about.

Finally, the mothers of Proverbs want us to AVOID ALCOHOL.  Consider the words of King Lemuel’s mother in Proverbs 31:1-5.  Admittedly, this is advice dispensed by the mother of a king to a king.  It’s true that none of us are royal, but all of us want to reign with Christ.  It seems to me that we’d still better listen.

That’s all the more true because this advice is not popular.  Just as there are brethren who insist that you don’t have to come to Wednesday night services because there’s no passage that says you do, so too there are brethren who insist that they can drink alcohol because there’s no passage that says you can’t.  In fact, it’s common to find Christians who insist on both of these things simultaneously.

However, I think both arguments miss the point.  If we refuse to consider what wisdom has to say about both church attendance and drinking, we are quite literally being foolish.  In both cases, we need to pay attention to the consequences before we decide what we’re going to do.

Lemuel’s mother spells out the consequences in no uncertain terms.  She warns her son that drinking will lead him to forget God’s decrees and to pervert justice.  In other words, alcohol keeps us from remembering what God wants us to do, and it leads us not to do it.

Today, science has confirmed that Lemuel’s mother was right on.  Even for those who are not drunk, the consumption of alcohol decreases mental function.  It also lowers our inhibitions.  Both of those things make it more likely that we will sin, and on that list, Sin Number One is drunkenness.

In short, brethren, we need to exercise wise judgment when it comes to drinking, and it’s impossible to make the argument that drinking in our society is wise.  Let’s do as Lemuel’s mother advises.  For that matter, let’s do what our own mothers would want us to.  Let’s have nothing to do with drinking.

Why Care About the Pattern?

Thursday, May 09, 2019

 

As we continue through our series of half-hour studies we might hold with an unbeliever, we’ve now passed the point of conversion and moved onto instruction in righteousness.  The goal is to teach that new Christian what they need to know in order to be faithful to God.

In this, the most obvious verse to start with is 2 Timothy 1:13.  Here, Paul tells Timothy that he is supposed to hold to a pattern, a particular way of doing things that Christians are to imitate.  The pattern is laid out in sound words, in the teaching of Jesus, Paul, and the rest of the apostles. 

In recent years, this idea has come under attack.  Many now claim that following the New Testament pattern for our work and our worship is no longer important.  As long as we love Jesus, they say, everything else will work itself out. 

Is that really so?  As disciples of Jesus, should we concern ourselves with the cross and not with the tiny details of Scripture?  Or, conversely, is there some reason why we should concern ourselves with the details too?  In short, why should a new Christian—indeed, why should we—care about the pattern?

I’ve got three reasons for you this evening.  The first is that caring about the pattern is CONSISTENT.  Let’s look here at a text that is familiar to many of us, Colossians 3:17.  We’re not to do some things or even most things in the name of the Lord Jesus.  We are supposed to do everything.

There are many points that we could draw from this, but the point that I want to make is that if we do some things in the name of Jesus and not others, we are not being consistent.  Why is what the Bible says so important in this one area over here but not in this other area over here?

I think that nearly everybody here this evening would agree that following the New-Testament pattern is important when it comes to conversion.  We go to various passages and see that we’re supposed to believe, repent, confess, and be baptized.  That’s how you know you’ve been saved, not because you hear a still small voice in your head, but because you have done what the Bible tells you to do.

We are very suspicious, and rightfully so, of additions to that pattern.  For instance, let’s say we run into somebody who insists that we can be saved from our sins by praying the sinner’s prayer.  What do we tell somebody like that?  I’ll tell you what I’d do.  If this were somebody with any Scriptural sophistication at all, I’d hand them a Bible and ask them to prove it

Of course, nobody is going to be able to do that.  At that point, though, they’re likely to start saying that the Bible never says you can’t, either.  That’s true.  I cannot point to a verse that says, “Thou shalt not pray the sinner’s prayer in order to be saved.”  The Scriptures are silent concerning the sinner’s prayer, but I don’t think any of us would say that such silence makes the sinner’s prayer acceptable.

You know what, brethren?  If silence doesn’t authorize adding to God’s plan for salvation, it doesn’t authorize adding to God’s plan for worship or for the work of the church either.  If we honor God’s silence in teaching others the truth, to be logically consistent, we must honor it everywhere.

Second, caring about the pattern matters because IT CALLS US TO THE WORD.  Consider, for instance, the example of the Bereans in Acts 17:10-11.  Paul came to town proclaiming that Jesus was the Christ.  The Bereans didn’t dismiss his teaching out of hand because they’d never heard it before, nor did they uncritically accept it.  Instead, they turned to the word.  They examined the Scriptures to determine whether what Paul said was true.

We can just as easily apply the same method to weighing any teaching that we hear.  Preacher gets up, says something we’ve heard all our lives.  The fact that we’ve heard it all our lives is irrelevant.  The only thing that matters is whether his sermon stands up to the word. 

What if he says something we’ve never heard before?  Doesn’t matter.  Compare it to the Scriptures, and that will reveal whether we ought to listen.

This word-centric method of discovering truth has two main virtues.  First, it means that we can apply an impartial standard to our lives.  Now, obviously, not every Scriptural question we have can be answered with certainty.  If you think you know for certain what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was, I think you’re wrong!  However, the things that we need to do have been revealed for certain, and if we will agree on following the standard, we can use it to serve God together.

Second, turning to the word is important because it changes us in ways we don’t expect.  The longer I spend with the Bible, the less I think that it’s just a book and the more I think that it’s more like a computer program.  It’s more than a source of information.  As we take it into ourselves, it changes us, and the more we turn to it for answers, the greater that change will be.

Finally, we should care about following the pattern because IT HONORS JESUS, NOT OURSELVES.  Let’s begin our investigation here with Ephesians 5:22-24.  In context, Paul is making the point that women are to submit to their husbands as the heads of their families.  It’s important to note, though, that the example he uses for this submission in everything is the submission of the church to Christ.  Clearly, Paul believed that the church too was supposed to submit in everything to Christ.

That’s a big deal, brethren, not only for the church but for its members.  Everything is everything.  This begins with our personal lives.  Every decision we make, every hour of the day, is supposed to honor Jesus as Lord.  There’s a lot of noise on the news these days about how people have the right to control their own bodies.  Christians don’t.  The most intimate decisions we make, those belong to Jesus too.

So too in our churches.  We’ve got a sign out front that says “Church of Christ”.  Brethren, we can’t just say that we belong to Christ.  We have to prove it.  If everything this church does does not show our submission to Jesus as Lord, that sign out front is nothing more than an empty boast.

OK, but how do we know?  How do we know whether in our personal lives and in our church we are submitting to Christ?  Simple.  We know we are honoring Him as Lord when we do what He says.  There’s no other way.

If I’ve got this great idea for how I should live my personal life, and I can’t point to anything in Scripture that says it’s a great idea, that’s a problem.  If I put it into practice, I’m not honoring Jesus.  I’m honoring me.

Same goes for our conduct in the church.  There are all kinds of things that we might do in our assemblies.  There are all kinds of things that we might do with the Lord’s money.  However, unless we are taking our marching orders from Jesus in those things, we are not honoring Him.  Honoring Jesus means following the pattern.  Anything else is about exalting ourselves.

Why Should I Believe?

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

 

One of the things that I’ve really enjoyed about preaching this half-hour study series is the number of sermon suggestions I’ve gotten from the members here.  I love to hear what y’all want to learn from the word, and before I’m done, there will be about half a dozen sermons that some brother or sister here specifically asked for.

This sermon comes to us from Carolyn.  A couple of weeks ago, she came to me and asked, “What do you say to somebody who doesn’t believe in either God or the Bible?  What’s the simplest argument that you can make that will convince them?”

Of course, every argument has its limitations.  Not even Jesus could persuade somebody who refused to listen.  The same is true for us.  Nothing I say this morning will have any influence on a hard heart.  However, if somebody is not a believer but is open-minded, this is the best approach I’ve found for reaching them.  Let’s consider this morning, then, the answer to the question, “Why should I believe?”

The first point of the answer, and indeed the main argument, is that THE RESURRECTION PROVES THAT JESUS IS THE SON OF GOD.  Paul makes this point in Romans 1:3-4.  Today is a special day.  It is a day on which we are gathered to remember and celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  I am referring, of course, to the first day of the week.  If you’re here because you think that the resurrection should only be remembered one day a year, I appeal to you, please reconsider that.  The resurrection is the most important event of human existence, and we must give it the attention it deserves.

Let me back up a little bit, though.  The resurrection is the most important event of human history if, and only if, it happened.  A mythical resurrection has no meaning for any of us.  Why should we believe that it is more than a myth?

If you’ll recall, I preached two sermons on this last year.  If you don’t recall, I’m going to move those over to the current church blog so you can read them for a refresher! 

Having said that, here’s the basic argument.  Let’s start out by treating the Bible like any history book.  For now, we’re going to ignore all the supernatural stuff unless something else gives us a reason to accept it. 

Treating the Bible in this way, there are five reasonable, non-supernatural conclusions we can draw about the events surrounding the end of Jesus’ life on earth.  First, it’s apparent that Jesus died on the cross.  Second, His disciples believed, whether rightly or not, that the risen Jesus appeared to them.  Third, His brother James, who did not believe in Him during His ministry, believed the risen Jesus appeared to him.  Fourth, Saul of Tarsus, an enemy and persecutor of the church, also believed that he saw the risen Jesus.  Fifth, on the first day of the week, Jesus’ tomb was found empty.

There’s nothing supernatural about any of those things, but when you put them together, they add up to a supernatural conclusion.  The single best explanation for those five facts is that Jesus really did rise from the dead.

If that is true, if Jesus was indeed raised, we must take everything He said about Himself seriously, including His claim to be the Son of God.  Somebody who claims to be the Son of God, is killed, and stays dead is either a liar or a deluded fool.  Somebody who claims to be the Son of God, is killed, and rises from the grave truly is the Son of God.

Now that we’ve established that, it follows that IF JESUS IS GOD’S SON, THE BIBLE IS GOD’S WORD.  Consider the words of the Lord in Matthew 15:3-4.  In context, Jesus is involved in a dispute with the Pharisees about whether He has to follow their made-up human traditions.  That doesn’t concern us this morning.

What does, though, is the way that Jesus speaks of the Scriptures during his rebuttal of the Pharisees.  In v. 4, He quotes from two passages of the Law of Moses, Exodus 20:12 and Exodus 21:17.  Then, He describes them in a particular way.  In v. 3, He calls them “the commandment of God”.  In v. 6, He calls them, “the word of God”.

That’s extremely significant.  Let me explain why.  I believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God.  My belief is a reasoned, logical belief, and I’m happy to explain why I believe to anyone who asks.  In fact, that’s what I’m doing right now.

However, my reasoned belief is all I have.  It’s a conclusion that is not based on my own direct observation.  I can see Shawn in his office working on a sermon.  However, neither I nor anyone else could have seen the Holy Spirit inspiring Paul to write the book of Romans.

All that, though, is not true of Jesus.  When Jesus describes the Scriptures as the word of God, that’s not a statement of faith.  He knows, and He would not have hesitated to call the Scriptures out as a fraud if they were.  However, when the Son of God endorses the Bible as the word of God, that’s straight from the horse’s mouth.  That’s something we must accept.

The final part of the argument is that IF THE BIBLE IS GOD’S WORD, IT IS RELIABLE.  Look at the statement that God makes in Isaiah 55:10-11.  I believe that this is true because God said it, but even if He hadn’t said it, I think it’s nothing more than common sense. 

Even if we know nothing else about God, we know from this lesson that He is powerful enough and rational enough to raise someone from the dead.  The resurrection reveals God as a purposeful, intentional being.

If that’s who God is, the word tells us what His purpose is.  Unless the New Testament has been mangled beyond comprehension, that purpose is clear.  God sent Jesus to earth to die for our sins so that those who believe in Him and are faithful to Him could inherit eternal life.  That’s not from one verse.  That’s from hundreds of them.

However, if God allows the gospel to be perverted and destroyed, His purpose can no longer be accomplished.  If there are all kinds of errors and falsehoods in the Bible, we can no longer rely on it to learn what God has done for us and what we ought to do for Him.  Under those circumstances, the Bible would be about as useful a guide to heaven as a road map would be if it told us to get to Nashville by heading south.  In both cases, no one would ever arrive.

That makes no sense.  Why would God go to all that trouble to raise Jesus and then allow the gospel of the risen Savior to be corrupted into uselessness?  The point is that we don’t have to take the skeptical view of the Bible that we took in the first point of this lesson.  In fact, we shouldn’t. 

Once we see that even a skeptic’s Bible proves the resurrection, the resurrection opens the door for revelation and miracles and Bible authority and everything else.  In addition to everything else that Jesus proved when He rose from the grave, He proved that we can rely on the Scriptures too. 

Resurrection Objections

Monday, April 22, 2019

 

Last week, we turned our attention to a book called The Case for the Resurrection, by Gary Habermas and Michael Licona.  This book undertakes to establish the resurrection as a historical fact by using only evidence accepted by a scholarly consensus to prove its point.  In particular, Habermas and Licona rely on five “minimal facts” to build their argument.  These five facts are that (1) Jesus died on the cross, (2) the early disciples believed they had seen the risen Jesus, (3) James the Lord’s brother believed that he had seen the risen Jesus, (4) Paul believed he had seen the risen Jesus, and (5) the tomb was empty.  Though none of these facts are persuasive on their own, together they support the conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead.

However, for centuries, scholars have been attempting to come up with a naturalistic, non-supernatural explanation for these facts.  I agree that if one of these explanations fits the facts as neatly as the resurrection does, we should accept it.  After all, we generally think that natural explanations are preferable to supernatural ones.  It’s important that we explore these alternatives in good faith, so this morning, let’s consider objections to the resurrection.

There simply isn’t time this morning to examine all the possible alternate theories, so we’re only going to hit the most common ones.  Of these, the first is that the resurrection account is A NON-HISTORICAL STORY of some kind:  a legend, a parable, or a myth.  Maybe all 1 Corinthians is saying is that the disciples thought Jesus was still alive in their hearts.

When we test this theory against our five minimal facts, though, it doesn’t score very well.  It’s consistent with Jesus’ death on the cross, but it isn’t consistent with any of the others.  To illustrate, let’s look again at 1 Corinthians 15:3-8.  This is not the language of a parable or a myth.  This is the language of a truth claim.  Paul is asserting that these people really saw Jesus after he rose from the dead. 

In particular, look at v. 6.  Here, Paul says that Jesus appeared to 500 people at one time, some of whom have died, but most of whom remain alive.  If this is only a parable, why would Paul bother saying that?  A parable is just as valuable whether it comes from the lips of its originator or not.  The fact that these people were still around only matters because Paul is offering them as living eyewitnesses of a historical resurrection.

Likewise, it is not at all clear that a legend or a parable can account for the dramatic life changes in James and Paul.  Both James and Saul of Tarsus were exposed to plenty of Christian teaching, but none of it converted them.  Why would one more story do the trick when so many hadn’t?

Finally, the argument that this is a non-historical story cannot account for the evidence of the very historical empty tomb.  If Jesus died and stayed dead, His body would have stayed there.  Generally, as explanations go, this one is extremely unsatisfying.

Next, let’s consider the argument that SOMEBODY STOLE THE BODY.  Maybe it was the disciples; maybe it was the gardener whom Mary Magdalene blames in John 20.  Regardless, somebody took it.  

This one scores a little bit better than the story hypothesis.  It satisfies two of our minimal facts:  that Jesus died and that the tomb was empty.  However, it founders on the sincere conviction of those who claimed to be eyewitnesses.  As we’ve learned, neither the early disciples, James, nor Paul sincerely believed only that the tomb was empty.  Instead, they were convinced that Jesus appeared to them after His death.  That’s a very different thing.

In fact, if we look only at the fact of the empty tomb itself, nobody in any of the accounts seems to think it’s very convincing.  Even among the disciples, the only one who believes because of the empty tomb is John.  For an example of a much more common reaction, let’s look at John 20:11-13.  Now, scholars are certainly skeptical about the historicity of this account.  Typically, the only thing they will use it for is to suggest the gardener as a potential body-snatcher. 

However, it certainly does represent the way that early Christians thought.  Here, Mary sees the empty tomb, sees angels sitting inside it, and still concludes that somebody has stolen the body!  Isn’t that what we would think if one of our loved ones died and the body vanished from the funeral home?  None of us would jump to the conclusion that the loved one had risen from the dead.  Generally, the disciples also found the empty tomb by itself unconvincing, to the point where it isn’t even mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15.

Third, let’s evaluate the APPARENT DEATH hypothesis, also called the swoon theory.  According to this way of thinking, Jesus only passed out on the cross, woke up three days later, rolled away the stone, and appeared to the disciples.

This one also doesn’t score real well.  It only explains the phenomenon of the empty tomb.  Obviously, if Jesus only fainted on the cross, He didn’t die on it.  However, the participants 2000 years ago:  the disciples, Jesus’ family, the Roman guard, the chief priests, and Pontius Pilate, believed that He did.  The Romans certainly knew how to crucify people and make sure they were dead!

Second, this explanation is implausible on its face.  It’s asking us to believe that Jesus, sleepless, brutally beaten, crucified, in such bad shape that He passes out, and left in a tomb for 36 hours without food or water, somehow wakes up, uses His crucified hands to roll away the heavy stone from inside the tomb, and limps to safety on His crucified feet.  Basically, in an attempt to deny a miracle, the proponents of this theory are asking us to believe in a different miracle!

Finally, why would the appearance of this wreck of a human being convince anyone that He had risen from the dead?  Even granting all of the above, if Jesus manages to stagger into the upper room, none of the eyewitnesses would think He had risen from the dead.  Instead, they would correctly conclude that He actually hadn’t died yet. 

Similarly, this does nothing to explain either James or Paul.  James wasn’t going to be convinced because his false-prophet brother survived an execution attempt.  Nor would Saul of Tarsus, upon encountering a healed-up Jesus two years later, conclude that this meant that Jesus rose from the dead.  This hypothesis simply isn’t useful in explaining the facts.

Our fourth alternate hypothesis is HALLUCINATION.  According to this argument, all of the post-resurrection appearances of the Lord were the result of the disciples seeing things that weren’t there, perhaps as a result of the strain of bereavement. 

In order to evaluate this argument, we first have to distinguish between an illusion and a hallucination.  An illusion is when the human senses misapprehend something that is actually there.  For instance, probably all of us have seen heat shimmer on a blacktop road in the summertime that looks like water.  Because the illusion is based on something physical, multiple people can see it at the same time.

However, that’s not true when it comes to hallucinations.  Hallucinations aren’t based on anything real; instead, they occur entirely within someone’s mind.  As a result, there is no such thing as a group hallucination.  There is no known mechanism for transmitting a hallucination from brain to brain.  Even if people in the same place are hallucinating at the same time, they will hallucinate different things. 

This is a big problem for the hallucination argument.  As we’ve discussed, many of the experiences of the risen Lord were group experiences.  Whatever the 500 saw, it certainly wasn’t a group hallucination. 

Second, most people who hallucinate subsequently recognize that what they saw wasn’t real.  Only people with a predisposition to believe in the hallucination will continue to believe.  However, none of the people on our minimal-fact list had this predisposition.  Skeptic James didn’t.  Persecutor Paul didn’t. 

Even the early disciples didn’t.  Look, for instance, at Luke 24:10-11.  Once again, the principle of embarrassment comes into play here.  Early Christians intent on convincing others to believe in Jesus aren’t going to say that even the founders of the movement were skeptical and believed reluctantly!  That is, unless it’s true.  The same men who dismissed the story of the women at the tomb would also have dismissed a hallucination—correctly—as “seeing things”.  Finally, of course, hallucination can’t explain the absence of Jesus’ body from the empty tomb.

Our final attempt to explain away the resurrection is A COMBINATION of theories.  This approach attempts to pair theories with each other in order to overcome the weaknesses of each.  Thus, persons unknown stole the body, the early disciples hallucinated that they had seen Jesus, and Paul became a Christian because he wanted to gain control of a new religious sect.  All the evidence is explained, and we don’t have to be Christians!  Hooray!

However, there are two serious problems with the combination approach.  The first of these is that in addition to inheriting the strength of its component parts, it also inherits their weaknesses.  If the evidence doesn’t support the contention that Paul converted because of his lust for power (and it doesn’t), then the whole theory fails.

Second, the whole exercise has the flavor of ad hoc hypothesizing about it.  This is what people do when a hypothesis they like is falsified by contrary evidence.  Rather than rejecting the falsified hypothesis, they add another hypothesis to it that addresses the contrary evidence.  No matter the amount of contradiction, this is a process that can go on indefinitely.

Let me give you an example.  Let’s say we’re in high school, and I have a crush on a cute girl.  I tell you, “I think she likes me.” 

You reply, “Actually, she just went out with George last weekend.” 

At this point, my hypothesis has been falsified, but I don’t want to accept that, so I say, “She just went out with him because of her friends.” 

You answer, “Actually, they can’t stand him.”  Falsification Number Two. 

I say, “Oh, they just pretend like that in front of you.”

You see how it works?  As long as I want to cling to my original belief, I will always be able to manufacture one more reason to do so.  Similarly, people who want to deny the resurrection will always be able to manufacture one more reason to do so (sometimes flatly goofy stuff like “Jesus had a twin brother!”), even though the resurrection has vastly more explanatory power than any alternative theory, and even though the resurrection has all kinds of evidence supporting it and the alternatives have none.

What’s really going on here is that the combination-theory folks are committed to a philosophical belief in naturalism, so they will deny supernatural events like the resurrection, regardless of the evidence.  Let’s not be like them, friends.  Let’s follow the evidence wherever it leads, and it leads to Jesus as Lord.

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