Listen to Your MotherThursday, 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 ObjectionsMonday, 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.
The Case for the ResurrectionMonday, April 22, 2019
When it comes to our faith, there is no more important question than whether or not Jesus was raised from the dead. If He was raised, everything else about our faith stands. If He was not raised, everything else about it falls. The resurrection is the cornerstone of Christianity.
However, this creates problems when we talk about our faith with unbelievers. We accept the resurrection because we accept the Bible as inspired; they reject the resurrection because they don’t accept the inspiration of Scripture. There, the matter tends to rest.
A few years ago, though, I encountered a book that offers a solution to this religious impasse. It’s called The Case for the Resurrection, by Gary Habermas and Michael Licona. Frankly, I think their method is brilliant. Rather than considering the Scriptures from faith, they adopt the approach of scholarly skepticism. They ask, “What are the things that nearly all scholars of the Bible, believers, agnostics, and atheists alike, agree are true?” Then, using only this evidence accepted by the scholarly consensus, they are still able to establish as a historical fact that Jesus rose from the dead. What I’d like to do this morning, then, is work through the argument of The Case for the Resurrection.
In building their argument, Habermas and Licona rely on five conclusions they call “minimal facts”. The first of these is that JESUS DIED ON THE CROSS. There are doubtless hundreds of passages I could cite here, but let’s look at 1 Corinthians 15:3-4. Throughout my sermon this morning, I’m going to lean heavily on the opening context of 1 Corinthians 15, and this is because the text has particular importance to scholars. Everybody agrees that Paul actually did write 1 Corinthians, which is not true with respect to many of the other epistles ascribed to him. Second, due to historical evidence about the Roman proconsul Gallio, we’re able to date 1 Corinthians to around 55 AD, less than 30 years after the crucifixion of Jesus.
All of 1 Corinthians is very early, very strong evidence for what early Christians believed, but it gets even better than that. Notice that Paul says he delivered to the Corinthians what he himself had received. In other words, Paul is repeating something that somebody else had told him, and that most likely happened during his first visit to the Jerusalem church as a disciple, when he talked to all of these various witnesses himself. We can date that to sometime around five years after the crucifixion. To scholars, then, this is the single earliest confirmed Christian teaching that we have, and it’s about the resurrection.
The first part of it is that Jesus died and was buried. Every book of the New Testament supports this claim. So does every one of the so-called Church Fathers, the Christian writers of the second through fourth centuries. For that matter, it even appears in the writing of the Roman historian Tacitus, who said that Jesus was executed by Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius. Basically, no serious scholar denies that Jesus was a real person who was crucified by the Romans.
Habermas and Licona’s second minimal fact is that THE EARLY DISCIPLES BELIEVED that Jesus rose from the dead. Look at 1 Corinthians 15:5-6. Let me pause here to highlight a key nuance. We don’t want to use this passage at this point as proof that Jesus rose from the dead. Instead, we want to use it to prove the much weaker claim that the early disciples believed He did. Once again, the fact of this subjective belief is something that even atheist scholars will accept. The earliest Christians taught the resurrection, and hundreds of them believed they personally had seen the risen Lord.
The primary proof of their sincerity is their steadfastness in the face of persecution. Who would suffer and die for a story they made up? And yet, suffer and die these early witnesses did. All writers about early Christians, both inside and outside the church, agree that they were despised and treated like dirt. If you’re a con man and that’s the reception you get, why wouldn’t you give up the con?
The same holds true for the deaths of several of the apostles. Acts records the execution of James the brother of John. Outside of the Bible, there’s strong evidence for the martyrdom of Peter and decent evidence for the martyrdom of Andrew and Thomas.
To this, some might say, “The 9-11 hijackers died as martyrs, and they were wrong.” The problem with the argument, though, is that the apostles and the hijackers aren’t logically equivalent. The hijackers died for their belief in something they hadn’t seen, which proves nothing. The apostles, on the other hand, died for their belief that they had seen something, which proves at least that they were sincere about it.
Our third minimal fact is that JAMES THE LORD’S BROTHER BELIEVED that Jesus had risen from the dead. Paul makes this point in 1 Corinthians 15:7. Even though James is only one man, in some ways, this evidence is even stronger than the last point. Unlike the disciples, all the way through the ministry of Jesus, James was not a believer.
As evidence for this consider John 7:3-5. You may have noticed that I’m not spending a lot of time in the gospels in this sermon. That’s because many scholars regard the gospels with extreme skepticism—after all, they’re filled with numerous accounts of supernatural events.
However, there are parts of the gospels that nearly all scholars accept as genuine, and this is one of them. This conclusion is based on the so-called principle of embarrassment. The idea is that when somebody records something that makes their side look bad, it’s probably true. In this case, the fact that Jesus’ own brothers didn’t accept Him makes Him look bad. There’s no reason for early Christian writers to say this unless it’s true, so everybody agrees that James, along with all of Jesus’ other brothers, was not originally a disciple.
However, this changed in a big way. Look at Galatians 1:18-19. By this point, James is not only a believer. He’s an apostle. He remains committed to Jesus until death. Multiple extrabiblical sources, particularly the Jewish historian Josephus, record that he was martyred for his faith. Something had to happen to turn a man who was skeptical about his brother’s wild claims into a die-hard believer that He was the Son of God, and the only real candidate here is that he thought he had seen Jesus after Jesus rose from the dead.
Fourth, SAUL OF TARSUS BELIEVED that he had seen the risen Lord. He says as much in 1 Corinthians 15:8-10. In some ways, Paul’s testimony is the most powerful of all. After all, he doesn’t begin as a disciple of Jesus. He isn’t even a sarcastic skeptic like James. Instead, he is a persecutor of the church, and not just any persecutor. He is the persecutor, the one who is leading the charge against early Christianity.
However, his course changes even more dramatically than James’ does. Rather than being the feared enemy of a small and despised sect, he becomes its single most energetic promoter. He used to be a prominent, respected leader in the Jewish nation; but he spends the last several decades of his life enduring untold suffering for the sake of the gospel he preaches. As with James, Paul is not martyred during the narrative of the New Testament, but numerous patristic writings report that he was, and there’s even some archaeological evidence that points in that direction.
Once again, we’re not going to use Paul’s life story as evidence that he actually did see Jesus after He rose from the dead. However, I think it’s safe to use it to establish that Paul sincerely believed that he had seen Jesus—so sincerely that he rearranged his entire life around his conviction.
The final minimal fact that Habermas and Licona introduce is that THE TOMB WAS EMPTY. They themselves are quick to point out that this one doesn’t meet with the same universal acceptance from Biblical scholars that the first four do. Instead, by Habermas’s count, only about 75 percent of scholars agree. Interestingly, the remaining 25 percent disagree not because there is some piece of contrary evidence, but simply because the 1 Corinthians 15 account doesn’t mention the empty tomb.
However, there’s still plenty of evidence that, indeed, on that Sunday morning, Jesus’ body was nowhere to be found. Habermas and Licona make several arguments to this effect, but my favorite is based on Matthew 28:11-15. Matthew is subject to even more skepticism than the other gospels, but once again, this chunk is accepted as historically accurate. Why would the presumably Christian writer of Matthew make up an alternate explanation for the resurrection only to discredit it? That makes no sense. What does make sense is that the early enemies of the gospel were insistent that the disciples stole the body.
Now, we come to the principle of embarrassment applied to the other side. Why are the chief priests making this argument? It implies that two things are true. They must have known that Jesus was buried in a tomb, and they must have known that the tomb was found empty. If either one of those things is not true, there is no need for them to say that the disciples stole the body out of the tomb.
These, then, are our five minimal facts. Notice that not a single one of them is supernatural. Thousands of years ago, lots of people were crucified. People sincerely believe all kinds of different things. Tombs can be both filled and empty. Not only are all of these things that scholars accept, they’re also things that Bible skeptics today can accept. They seem very reasonable.
However, once you put them all together, a very different picture emerges. Every one of these minimal facts is consistent with the conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead. In fact, and I’ll spoil next Sunday’s sermon for you here, the conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead is the only conclusion that is consistent with these facts. If you doubt that, see if you can come up with any alternate explanation that satisfies all of them. Jesus was raised—that’s the conclusion that even a very skeptical reading of the Bible leads us into.