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Resurrection on Trial

The earnest listener and honest inquirer has been invited to see that Jesus is the real deal, to believe, and therefore to live.


Have you heard of Snopes.com? If you want to check out a rumor or a legend that’s online—you get some email that says some guy in Africa has been unjustly imprisoned, he’s actually secretly a billionaire, and he’s trying to figure out what to do with his money; if you will wire him money to help him free he will give you money, and things like this. So you look on Snopes.com and you find out if these urban legends or these rumors are true. It’s a website designed to help us figure out what is a hoax and what isn’t. Because let’s face it, we live in a world ever since Eden in which hoaxes exist.

So I typed in Resurrection of Jesus on Snopes.com. I found some interesting stories about ghostly moths that saved people on a train. Or disappearing hitchhiker stories. A story of Edith Burns who believed in Easter and said so. I’m not sure why that’s on Snopes.com, but it is. And I’m thankful for Snopes.com, because it gives me one way to find out what is true and what isn’t. Even if you go on Craigslist and you want to buy a car, a truck, or furniture, you’re going to get this list that will pop up to help you determine how to notice if it’s a scam or not, how to handle a scam on Craigslist. Handling scams is a part of the real world that we have to live in.

So when we come to this historical document narrated for us in Acts 26, we come into this courtroom scene and you’ve got two guys who are trying to figure out a scam. It’s AD 60, give or take year or two, in a Roman court. This is history, not a made-up story. A Roman court in Caesarea. Two judges: A Roman judge, Festus; a Jewish judge, Agrippa. They are listening to this man named Paul whose crime is that he believes that Jesus rose from the dead. So this is within 30 years of the Resurrection, Paul is in prison, and these guys are trying to figure out if Paul is a poser. They’ve been told by others that Paul is a hoaxer. His sermons declare that Jesus is alive. They want him dead for that. So Festus and Agrippa are trying to figure it out. That kind of cynicism and doubt, trying to figure out who is posing with their God talk. It’s something that’s a part of my life; it’s something that’s a part of yours. It’s no wonder that a prominent New Testament professor would say something like this: “I do not think that anyone anywhere at any time brings dead people back to life.”

So we hear the apostle Paul; we’re with Agrippa and Festus. We’re skeptical and we are trying to figure out what’s going on there and the apostle Paul in this historical document says this: The resurrection of Jesus isn’t posing; it’s the real deal. The resurrection of Jesus is the real deal; it’s credible. And because of that, we must believe it.

I’m going to read for you just a few verses. You could read the rest of this transcript from Luke from this court document later today, if you’d like. It’s found in Acts 26. Here are the first eight verses. The resurrection of Jesus is the real deal.

(Read Acts 26:1-8)

As a side note: Paul himself is Jewish. So when Paul says the accusations of the Jews against him, he is not anti-Semitic, he is not making some kind of statement about every Jewish person that ever lived. He himself is a Jewish man who loves his own people and loves his own religion, but he is a man on trial, accused by people from his own people.

And Paul goes on in his defense. He was a skeptic, he says. More than that, not only skeptical about Jesus, he persecuted Jesus. But something has changed in his life. Historically, something has changed. He is on trial and he is asking this question: Why does it sound like I’m posing? Why does it sound like a hoax? Why does it sound unsound, unreliable that God should raise Jesus from the dead?

So let’s take a bit of time to understand what’s here, then let’s think about how some of our neighbors might have some problems or how they interact with this idea, and then let’s apply it to us as a church community.

Paul’s testimony

First, let’s understand what’s being said here. Why did Paul assert that the resurrection of Jesus is the real deal? First of all, because it’s philosophically credible. It’s not unreasonable to say that the resurrection of Jesus is the real deal. Look in verse 8. “Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?” In Paul’s defense, the first place he goes is philosophical credibility. He is not talking about Jesus right here. He moves off of the question about Jesus in particular and onto the question about God in general. Why is it incredible that God would raise the dead? You see what he was saying? If God is God, if God exists and God is God, he has the resume of one required to get the job of God, right? Why is it incredible to think that such a being could do what they want with death? If the premise is God exists and God is God, then why is it incredible that that being could raise anybody from the dead? It’s philosophically credible; it’s not unreasonable, if you grant the premise about God. And both of these judges would have granted a premise about God. Agrippa was a Jewish monotheist who followed the Old Testament. Festus was a Roman. The Romans at that time had two kinds of gods: public gods that they looked to, such as Jupiter, and every family had private spirits that they looked to to protect their individual family life. So Paul is appealing to both of these people and saying if God is God, he could raise the dead. It’s philosophically credible.

But not only is it philosophically credible, it’s theologically credible. It’s not immoral to say this either. Verse 6 says, “And now I stand here on trial because of my hope in the promise made by God to our fathers.” Look over with me in verse 22 and verse 23, “To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.” It is theologically credible; it’s not an act of blasphemy.

Paul is simply saying this: There was a promise made in the Old Testament. The prophets have talked about it. Moses talked about it. And all of those prophecies, numerous prophecies for all those years, have been fulfilled in this guy named Jesus. At least you should check it out. And I’m not just making up stuff here, he says. I’m trying to say that the scriptural promises are coming true and we should look it up, we should check it out. It’s not immoral to say this or suggest it; it’s philosophically credible; it’s theologically credible.

It’s also historically credible. It’s not crazy to say this. Verse 24 says, “And as he was saying these things in his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, ‘Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.’ But Paul said, ‘I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words.’” Now he turns his attention to Agrippa. “For the king knows about these things.” See what he is doing? Festus, I know what I’m saying isn’t familiar to you, but the man sitting next to you, Agrippa, this Jewish king, he knows what I’m saying. “So to him I speak boldly. For I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this has not been done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.’ And Agrippa said to Paul, ‘In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?’” You see, Paul zeroes in on the historical credibility here. These things haven’t been done in a corner. This king knows what’s been happening in the provinces that he governs.

And notice back in verses 4 and 5, he says, “My manner of life from my youth, spent from the beginning among my own nation and in Jerusalem, is known by all.” The people who live right now know, and you can ask them. “They have known for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that according to the strictest party of our religion I have lived as a Pharisee.” There’s a historical record, Paul is saying. You know it, Agrippa, the people of the community that I come from know it. If anyone is willing to testify, their testimony would be historical fact. But not only is it not unreasonable, not immoral, not crazy, it’s also not a sales pitch that Paul is giving us. It’s philosophically, theologically, historically and personally credible. Verse 4, “My manner of life is known.” And then he goes on to talk about in verse 9, “I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth.” Then he goes on to tell us, “I not only opposed Jesus of Nazareth, I punished people. I tried to make them blaspheme.” Which means he would have tortured them for them to recant their faith. And this person has changed. Something has changed. It’s not a sales pitch, friend. Festus and Agrippa might not believe it, but they have to conclude this man believes it. Which is the case today. Renowned atheists who deny the resurrection of Jesus will not deny that Paul saw something; they will not deny the credibility of 1 Corinthians 15 or of this narrative from Luke. They will say it’s historically credible. They just don’t believe Paul saw what he thinks he saw.

Paul is saying something philosophically, theologically, historically, personally credible. In verses 27 and 29 he says, “I would that you were as I am, except for these chains.” This is personal to him.

And it’s universally credible. It’s not a bigoted or parochial thing that Paul is saying. Look with me in verse 8, “O king! Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?” Why is it incredible that a Jewish monotheist who believes in God and the Scriptures of the Old Testament would think it’s incredible? Why is it incredible to you, Festus, who believes not only in public gods but private spirits that a deity could raise people from the dead? The implications of what I’m saying are universal. Jew, Gentile, great, small, monotheist, polytheist. It doesn’t matter. The thing I’m trying to say has implications for you, whoever you are. Paul is saying that the resurrection of Jesus is credible; it’s the real deal. He’s not posing, and he’s asking us to believe it. He’s asking them to believe it. Philosophy, theology, history, personal experience, universal human implications for each of us. As we continue to try to understand that, what that means is that for Paul the resurrection isn’t a metaphor.

It makes me think about a time when my kids were younger. My oldest two, my son and my daughter, were going over to a pretend sink, making the sound of water coming out of a pretend sink, pssshh. Nathan did that and Abigail brought her pretend cup over. Nathan put pretend water in it. Abigail said, “Mmm, wow, this is good.” Drinks her pretend water. Now, our little guy, Caleb, is watching all this. He’s maybe two-years-old or something like this at the time. He runs over because he wants to get involved. He runs over, and he says, “Drink, drink.” So pssshhh, the pretend water, they form his hands like this, they do the pretend water in there, and then they pretend drink. And Caleb’s just looking at them and looking down at his cup. And he runs over to me, still with his pretend cup intact. He runs over to me, “Daddy, real, Daddy, real, drink, real.” He wanted real water, not metaphorical water. And isn’t that what you and I want as it relates to God talk and matters of faith? And Paul is saying this is real. It’s not pretend water that I’m offering you.

A fascinating interview in this regard about why the Resurrection not being a metaphor matters. It comes from an odd place, the late Christopher Hitchens, who is a renowned antagonist to the faith and atheist, is in a dialogue with a person who identified themselves as a liberal Christian. Here is just a snippet of that dialogue. This person says to him, “The religion you cite in your book is a generally fundamentalist faith of various kinds. I’m a liberal Christian, and I don’t take the stories from the Scripture literally. I don’t believe in the doctrine of atonement that Jesus died for our sins, for example. Do you make any distinction between fundamentalist faith and liberal religion?”

What she’s saying is, I know the fundamentalists are bad, and you’re right to take them on. She will say later in the dialogue that she believes most of what he says. But she’s saying to him, “But I’m a liberal Christian. I don’t take any of this stuff literally. It’s all a metaphor.” Fascinating to hear what Christopher Hitchens said in response. He says, “I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead, and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.” Why? He quotes the apostle Paul, “If there is no resurrection from the dead, our faith is meaningless.” So she goes on to describe her metaphorical view of God, and then he responds to her by saying, “I know we’ve just met, but the things you’re saying are statements without meaning.” Paul is saying that the resurrection is no metaphor. In space and in time in a court of law in AD 60, a Jewish man is declaring philosophically, theologically, historically, personally, with universal implications that Jesus is alive.

The response

Now let’s think for a moment about the neighbor experiences that he encountered and how it might open our eyes to how our neighbors might approach this too. The first is if we begin to say that the resurrection of Jesus is historically and philosophically credible, then we’re going to encounter the hot-tempered religious neighbor. Those who accused Paul wanted him to die. They’re slandering him; they’re doing to him what they did to his savior, Jesus. They’re happy to see him in court. They’re giving thanks to God for the murder that’s on their mind. They can’t put people to death but the Romans can. It worked with Jesus, they’re wanting it to work with Paul. I want to say to that person, Paul is interacting with those folks gently, calmly, rationally. There is no yelling match here. Paul isn’t calling anybody names; he’s not mocking anybody’s voice.

Even when Festus calls him a crazy man, he retains the respect of the court that’s required there: “Most Excellent Festus, what I’m saying is rational.” It’s not like late-night talk show; it’s not like some kind of debate you see on YouTube where people just rip each other apart in the name of God. I want to say to the hot-tempered religious neighbor, “Either the God you follow needs anger management and is a bully, or the God you follow has made no significant difference in your actual life. For all your Bible quoting and justice talking, you are a mean SOB who has no patience, no self-control, no gentleness, no love, and no sense that God is God and can defend himself.” Paul was just like that. He tells us he was. What changed him? The God he professed to follow. The character of Christ is none of that stuff. The character of Christ is love for enemy. Grace, truth, hospitality, forgiveness, gentleness, hope, patience, self-control. In the face of his enemies, Jesus didn’t call names, didn’t yell back, didn’t plot and scheme. He said, “Forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.” So if the God you follow leads you to somewhere other than that, I don’t want any of it. You’re a poser to me. Aren’t you a poser to yourself?

It’s like being in the hallway as a married man and my wife says something true to me that I don’t want to hear. What she’s saying is true; she’s on to me. What do I do sometimes? I avoid it or I bluster. Why am I blustering? Because I don’t want to surrender to the truth. May I ask you a question? Is it possible that all your bluster is because you do not want to surrender to what the truth would require of you? The hot-tempered religious neighbor. Do you know, the apostle Paul, there is a moment when he is standing before another court, a Jewish court, just before this? And the Jewish leader has someone slap the apostle Paul. And Paul has a moment of the old Paul. He shoots a dagger of words right at that magistrate and someone says to Paul in that crooked court, “How dare you speak to the High Priest that way?” Paul says, “Forgive me, I did not know this was the High Priest, please forgive me.” How, how did the hot-tempered religious man become a gentle man who asks forgiveness even of his enemies?

And I say, it’s because of the Jesus that he followed. Take a look at the character that you think you have to have in the name of God and you will discover who you think God is. But we don’t only encounter these violent religious neighbors.

We also encounter the skeptical mocker. You’re crazy, Paul—we read that verse—all you’re learning is going to your head. And here he is, rather than dealing with the facts as they are, philosophically set in front of him or historically set in front of him. He could check out the records with Agrippa. Instead of entering that, he just calls Paul names. His absence of personal religion leads him to justify, ridicule, mock, and name-calling when he is baffled. I mean, Paul has just spoken with philosophical, theological, historical, personal, universal integrity. It does not do to respond by saying, “You’re just crazy.” It sounds more like a dodge. I want to say if the absence of God in your life leads you to a way of relating to people where you ridicule them and mock them if you don’t agree, what kind of life is that? Why do I want to follow your non-God? Anybody can do that. Don’t you want substantive life change, like real deal stuff? No more posing. So for these two guys, for all their talk about their hot-tempered stuff, these crowds and for this Festus, this judge, for all of his secularism and all that he would say that makes him morally superior to Paul, his character is no different.

Then there’s Agrippa, an honest seeker. Agrippa is caught in a wonderful way because he knows the history, the historical facts of what Paul is talking about. He knows the historical fact about Paul’s life as Saul of Tarsus. He knows the historical fact about resurrection claims all over the region that he governs. He believes the Bible, the Old Testament, and the promises of the Messiah that would come. Paul is calling upon him to look at the evidence and to act where the evidence leads you as he called upon the other two. Folks like Festus will say this, they will say that Paul saw what he saw, the historical documents that he wrote are credible, that the creed that he quotes in 1 Corinthians 15 might possibly be from just three years after the death of Jesus, but they will say that Paul didn’t see what he thinks he saw. They will say it this way: He had a conversion disorder. They’ll quote from the DSM psychological categories and say he had a conversion disorder. A conversion disorder, as some people helped me to see, is this: There’s a trauma in your life, you convert to God, usually your conversion passes away, it fades after a time. Someone on the battlefield—whether an actual battlefield or in the living room—they convert for a while out of the trauma. The problem with that idea is that the apostle Paul is happy, there is no known trauma in his life, he’s happy Jesus is dead, on his way to persecute people in any way that he can. And it doesn’t fade, it doesn’t leave. Usually a conversion disorder, when someone pushes back on you to say, “Hey did you realize …” there is some recognition of what is and what isn’t over time. Another thing that people will say is he is having a grief hallucination. You know how it is when someone has died, maybe you’ve experienced this. You are certain you have seen your loved one who died. The difficulty about that is that this was hundreds of people saying they saw Jesus. A grief hallucination is usually one person in a private moment. This is hundreds of people saying they saw Jesus. See, he is appealing to the honest seeker.

The evidence

It goes something like this in 1 Corinthians 15. He says, “Jesus appeared to 500 at one time, most of whom are still alive.” Let’s look at two quick points about that if you can hang with me. First, let’s imagine we are at the Boardwalk Café just down the street, where Webster Groves entered Old Orchard. We’re just hanging there, and let’s say that someone says to you, “I saw Jesus.” You would think nothing of that, so would I. They need to go to the looney bin, right? Let’s say that 30 people saw Jesus at the Boardwalk Café on Thursday. Well, there is a little bit more there. There is enough for a court of law there, by the way, 30 people. You only need two or three credible witnesses, sometimes just one. Now let’s imagine that 500 people, your friends and neighbors, people you know, say they saw Jesus at the Boardwalk Café on Thursday, and you know that some of these people are just plain skeptics, atheists, agnostic, nothing. Others are hellions, nothing to do with God or anything else. Suddenly, those same people are saying, “I saw him.” Now, that doesn’t make it true, but if 500 witnesses say they saw the same thing you sure have to check it out. Right? Paul goes even further and says, “Most of whom are still alive.” You know, that is bold. Paul is saying, “I’m telling you, Jesus rose from the dead. He appeared to 500 people at one time. Most of them are still alive. Go ask them.” It’s like if I were to stand up and say, “20 years ago at the Turkey Day game when Kirkwood and Webster were playing one another, they had to call the game off because this dead man appeared to the assembled crowds. Everybody who was there freaked out about it. You can go ask them. They just live right in the streets right around here, go ask them.” Do you see the audacity of that if it’s not true? I mean, immediately people around here would say, “Huh uh, it didn’t happen. I was there. It didn’t happen.” Paul is appealing to the earnest seeker.

Someone recently reminded me of a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode. You read, Trekkies? It’s the episode where Kahless the Klingon messiah appeared to have returned from death in fulfillment of a prophecy so Lieutenant Worf, the Klingon security officer on the Enterprise, has to decide whether or not he believes in the return of Kahless the messiah. And as Worf considers the claims of the resurrected Kahless, he is challenged with a question. The question is this: What empirical evidence is there for the truth of these claims? That’s a great question. Worf’s answer to the good question is startling. He says, “It’s not an empirical matter.” He replies, “It’s a matter of faith.”

I would like to say to you right there, the apostle Paul wholeheartedly disagrees, fundamentally disagrees. Christianity is the religion that says the thing we base our faith on is empirically verifiable. It’s a matter of history in actual time with actual people during an actual time period and date, with actual witnesses written down on actual evidences of parchment. Check it out. It’s different. Christians ought not ever to say it’s just a matter of faith, don’t reason about anything, don’t look at anything, don’t check out anything. I mean, this is faith, not life. The gospel is directly the opposite. Faith is life. The God who created us, the God who gave us everything around here, these shoes that I am wearing. There is reality, physical stuff here. And if the Resurrection didn’t happen, go get a six-pack and go to Florida. Really.

My Uncle Steve is in ICU right now. He had a heart attack two days ago in Virginia following a softball game. His two buddies saw him drop. One gave him CPR; the other called 911. He is in an induced coma, and we don’t know what will happen when they try to wake him up. All the family has been called in. Can I just say to you plainly: I don’t need a metaphor. In the ICU, I’m not interested in a nice story about flying moths that save trains. Are you? Who wants a poser in the funeral parlor? Death brings us face-to-face with these actual relevant questions about resurrection, life, God, purpose, people, love, forgiveness. And this man is saying God himself gave himself in actual time in a verifiable way so that our faith could apply to life.

What does this mean for us? Our love for God. God is pushing back on this idea that faith and empirical stuff have nothing to do with each other. God gives us a verifiable historical fact in real time. Take a look at it. Our love for people. When we are in ICU and our neighbors are there, we don’t need a metaphor. It’s time to be done with hot-tempered religious stuff and skeptical absence of religion, name calling, ridiculing. It’s time to deal with the evidence and follow where it leads. This physical reality isn’t separate from the faith. Life with God in Christ gives us purpose for an actual place. And all creation groans, longing for its redemption too.

The verdict

Then we come to this question of how is it that Paul was changed. He said, “I wish that you could be like me.” And I say, “Really? Unjustly treated with death threats on your life?” He’s going to be beheaded at the end of all this, kangaroo courts and no retirement fund, no trips to Florida, no job advancement, no career, no notable vocation, nothing in the world. If he’s on the cover of Time magazine, it’s as a looney. And he wants us to be as he is?

Who is he, apart from those chains? He is a forgiven man with a cleansed conscience, brought home to his purpose with God. God is so joy-giving to him, so enjoyable to him, so full of satisfying, real water that he doesn’t need what Festus thinks Festus needs, and what Agrippa thinks Agrippa needs. He is free, truly. He is able to show grace because grace has been shown to him. And you know what, even to be as Paul is with his chains.

What do you think, is it preferable? Festus gets to go home that night, Agrippa and his wife go home, maybe they make love, make some dinner, talk about their future, while Paul sits in jail. Which one? Which one has the better life, if the Resurrection is true? I submit to you, Paul does. That’s what he wants us to see and believe. I invite you to make of it what you will. The testimony about the resurrection of Jesus is credible according to Paul. It’s not unreasonable, immoral, crazy, a sales pitch, bigoted, or parochial to say this. The response of the hot-tempered religious neighbor displays insecurity, pride, and fear. The response of the baffled disbeliever who ridicules and mocks is not for us. There are credible facts to sit in front of us. The earnest listener and honest inquirer has been invited to see that Jesus is the real deal, to believe, and therefore to live.

Zack Eswine serves as Lead Pastor of Riverside Church and as Director of Homiletics, Resident Scholar of the Francis Schaeffer Institute, at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri.

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