Most of this lecture is taken from my Alpha talk, session 2: Who Is Jesus?
- In Italy for £3000 you can buy ready-made coffins that have beepers in them, two-way speakers, a torch, a small oxygen tank, and a sensor to detect a person’s heartbeat… just in case! True or false? (True)
- In the mid-1700s a Russian peasant woman named Feodor Vassilyev gave birth to 69 children. True or false? (True) In 27 separate pregnancies she had 16 pairs of twins, 7 sets of triplets, and 4 sets of quadruplets. Ouch!
- In 1664, 1785 and 1860 passenger ferries sank while crossing the Menai Straight in North Wales. Amazingly, each disaster occurred on December 5th. Even more bizarre than this is that on all three occasions the name of the sole survivor was Hugh Williams. True or false? (True) Citation
These bizarre stories are all true: But what about the story of Jesus? How do we know that Jesus even existed – and if He did, what about the death and resurrection of Jesus – is the resurrection really true? In this session we are going to be looking at some of the evidence.
First let me say there is evidence outside the New Testament that Jesus existed. The Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius both write about Jesus. And Josephus, a Jewish historian (not a Christian), gives us further proof in two of his literary works: Antiquities of the Jews and Jewish Wars. So there is evidence outside the New Testament that Jesus existed. And there is evidence inside the New Testament that Jesus existed. In fact, all four of the Gospel writers were absolutely convinced that Jesus was God’s unique Son… so convinced that they were willing to die to uphold that conviction. Mark opened his Gospel with these words: “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). And he concluded His Gospel with the words of the Roman centurion at Jesus’ crucifixion saying, “Surely this man was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39). All of the apostles, including Paul and all the other New Testament writers were all of them equally convinced. Indeed, the New Testament is full of first hand witness statements, testimonies and eyewitness accounts about Jesus. ‘His contemporaries… came to the unshakable conclusion that he was the visible expression of the invisible God. His character, his teaching, [his miracles], his influence, his claims, his death, his resurrection all support that conviction.’
Nobody today credibly doubts that Jesus existed but… the New Testament was written a long time ago so how do we know that what was written about Him has not been altered over the years? The answer is that we know because of the science [known as] textual criticism – basically the more texts we have to study the less doubt there is about the original composition. The late Professor F.F. Bruce (who was professor of biblical criticism and exegesis at Manchester University) shows, in his book, ‘Are The New Testament Documents Reliable’, just how trustworthy and accurate the New Testament is by comparing it with other historical works. Bruce points out that for the account of Caesar’s ‘Gallic War’ we have only 9 or 10 copies of the manuscripts available and the oldest was written some 900 years later than Caesar’s day [in other words the oldest surviving copy was written 900 years after the date of the original]. For Livy’s book, ‘Roman History’, we have no more than 20 copies, the earliest of which comes from around 900AD. For the Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides, and Roman historian Tacitus, again there are relatively few surviving manuscripts in existence and for those we do have there is a large time gap between when the original was written and the date of the earliest copy. In spite of this no classical scholar doubts the authenticity of these works, Citation and nobody seriously doubts the truth of the historical records.
In regards to the Bible, the accuracy of what has been written, copied and passed down through the centuries is remarkable. The Bible is a precise translation of the original texts. Again, we know this because we can compare it to the original manuscripts. There are some 24,300 ancient manuscripts or fragments of scripture known to be in existence today. The oldest fragment of New Testament scripture is a piece of papyrus containing part of John’s gospel dating back to around 130AD (exhibited in John Ryeland’s Library in Manchester). Also, in 1947 the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. These contained fragments of every book in the Old Testament (except Esther), and included the complete book of Isaiah. The scrolls have been dated to around 100BC and the discovery of them has proved beyond any shadow of doubt that the Bible we have today is an authentic copy and translation of the original documents. The Bible is accurate, very accurate.
So we know from the evidence outside the New Testament, and we know from evidence inside the New Testament that Jesus existed but who is He? Some people say, ‘Ok, I accept Jesus was a human being and he was a great moral teacher, but he was only a human being and not the Son of God.’
Indeed Jesus was fully human: He had a human body; he was sometimes tired (John 4:6) and hungry (Matthew 4:2) and thirsty. He had human emotions; he was angry (Mark 11:15-17), he loved (Mark 10:21) and he felt sadness (John 11:32-36). He had human experiences; he was tempted (Mark 1:13), he learned how to do things (Luke 2:46-52), he worked (Mark 6:3), he obeyed his parents (Luke 2:51); he experienced joy, bereavement and new life. Jesus shared in our humanity but Jesus is more than just a human being; Jesus is a person with authority – all the authority of God his Father. Who is he? Even his disciples didn’t recognise who He was, not at first anyway.
I heard a story about some young boys, led by Johnny, who were always making fun of an old man, tormenting him and calling him names: “Here comes old Rattlebones,” they’d call out teasing him whenever they saw him on the street. “Rattlebones, Rattlebones, moves as though he walks on stones”, was the usual taunt.
Then one day there was a knock at Johnny’s door and his mother went to answer it. There, standing on the doorstep was Old Rattlebones himself. “Oh, my goodness it’s you!” cried Johnny’s mother with obvious joy. “Please come in, come in,” she beckoned. “Johnny. Johnny, come downstairs quickly,” shouted his mother. “Come and meet the man who once saved your life.”
Johnny appeared instantly on the landing, but then he froze when he recognized who it was: Looking at his mother she said, “Remember I told you how, when you were a baby, your pram rolled down the hill and fell through the ice into the canal? This man here, without any regard for his own personal safety, jumped into the icy waters to rescue you.” Then pausing slightly, she continued, “He saved your life that day, but the prolonged exposure to the icy waters left his health so severely damaged that he has suffered from chronic arthritis ever since!”
Overcome with guilt and shame, Johnny looked at the man who had saved him. “Please forgive me,” he said, “I had absolutely no idea who you were. I didn’t know it was you!”
Friends, we need to recognise who Jesus is and what Jesus has done for us.
Coming back to my earlier point… At first, the disciples didn’t recognise who Jesus was… but then they did recognise him. In Matthew 16v13-16 we read, ‘when Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples: ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ [Son of Man is often how Jesus referred to himself.] They replied, ‘Some say, John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’
‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’
Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’
Who is Jesus? Jesus is a person with authority; all the authority of God his Father. The disciples came to understand this and they claimed Jesus is the Messiah or the Christ; the Son of the living God, but…
What Did Jesus Say About Himself?
People are searching for God. Jesus said, “I am the way…” [I am the way to the Father].
People are searching for truth. Jesus said, “I am the truth… “
People are searching for meaning and purpose in life. Jesus said, “I am the life.”
Jesus never went around claiming to be God but He often referred to himself as ‘I am’ which is one of the names for God.
In the Old Testament, when God appointed Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, Moses asked God his name, and God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:13-14). God’s name, I AM, is a reflection of His being. God is self-existent and self-sufficient. – God is I AM. – Jesus often referred to himself as ‘I am’, and he also made many other remarkable and unique claims. Here are just a few of them, all taken from John’s gospel. Imagine someone said this…
I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty (6:35)…. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever (6:51)… I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life (8:12)… I am from above… I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be (8:23-24)… I am the gate for the sheep. (10:7)… whoever enters through me will be saved (10:9)…. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep (10:11)…. I am God’s Son (10:36)… I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die (11:25)… I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (14:6).
As I mentioned before, many people think that Jesus was just a good moral teacher, a bit like Ghandi perhaps. But when you investigate the person of Jesus and who he is, you come to realise that the one thing that cannot be said about Him, is that Jesus was just a good moral teacher. He never meant to leave that option open to us. C. S. Lewis in his book, Mere Christianity, wrote:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things that Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” Citation
- Jesus claimed deity for himself in a way quite clear to his listeners. He said on one occasion, ‘I and the Father are one’ (John 10:30).
- The high priest expressly asked him, ‘Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.’ Jesus answered, ‘Yes, it is as you say’ (Matthew 26:63–64).
- He announced for all to hear that God was his own Father, making himself equal with God (John 5:18).
- He said he had authority to forgive sins (Mark 2:10).
- He said he would come on the clouds of heaven and sit at the right hand of the Mighty One (Mark 14:62).
- Implying authority to judge men, he said: ‘The Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgement to the Son’ (John 5:22).
- Several times Jesus asserted that he himself had the authority and power to raise the dead (cf John 6:39–40, 54; 10:17–18).
- He claimed omnipotence (all power) with the bold words: ‘All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me’ (Matthew 28:18).
- In a conversation with some who were against him, Jesus remarked that Abraham rejoiced to see his coming. The Jews were dumbfounded: ‘You are not yet fifty years old… and you have seen Abraham?’ He replied, ‘I tell you the truth, before Abraham was born, I am!’ (John 8:57–58). Of course He existed before Abraham since He was the Creator (who created Abraham!)
- Jesus was able to challenge his enemies with the question, ‘Can any of you prove me guilty of sin?’ (John 8:46).
- Jesus Christ accepted worship due only to God. After his resurrection He commended rather than rebuked doubting Thomas; who fell at his feet and declared with awe, ‘My Lord and my God!’ (John 20:28).
All that Jesus said about himself and all of his teachings point to who He really is. Who is He? God’s anointed Messiah, the Christ.
What Evidence Is There To Support What He Said?
His teaching and works
Jesus not only made unique claims He also lived a unique life: a perfect life without sin and in full obedience to God. He taught with divine authority. Jesus often taught by saying, ‘I say to you’, – he didn’t go around quoting the thoughts of other teachers or rabbis; and Jesus amazed people with miraculous signs and wonders. Again, the New Testament is full of eyewitness accounts and testimonies of the disciples who witnessed Jesus perform wonderful miracles: Miracles of physical healing; from curing a fever, to leprosy, to the lame being able to walk and people who were blind being given back their sight. They saw miracles of spiritual healing, with all sorts of demons and evil spirits being cast out; miracles over nature, such as turning water into wine, the feeding of thousands of people, Jesus walking on water and even controlling the weather, in calming the storm. And they even witnessed Jesus raising the dead with Jairus’ daughter, the widow’s son and Lazarus.
‘But it wasn’t just Jesus’ [teaching and] miracles that made such a lasting impression. It was his love, especially for the loveless (such as the lepers and the prostitutes), which seemed to motivate everything he did. The supreme demonstration of his love for us was shown on the cross (which, as we shall see in the next session, was the chief reason for his coming to earth, to die). When they tortured him and nailed him to the cross he said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they not know what they are doing’ (Luke 22:34).
Dr Maxwell Maltz, a Christian and a prominent plastic surgeon tells the story of a man who was severely burned attempting to rescue his parents from a fire. Unfortunately, he didn’t succeed and they died. Depressed and disfigured, the man went into seclusion refusing to let anyone see him – not even his wife. Desperately looking for help she came to see Maltz but even though he told her he could probably restore her husband’s face, the husband stubbornly refused treatment. So when the woman came back to see Maltz again he was surprised. But this time her question blew him away! She asked, “Can you disfigure my face, so I can be like my husband and share his pain? That way he’ll let me back into his life again!” That’s how much she loved him! Maltz was so moved, he prevailed on the woman’s husband to accept his help and thankfully the story has a happy ending.
The Bible says that before Jesus left heaven He was like God in every way… but he gave up his rightful place… and made himself nothing. He was born to be a man and became like a servant. John 1v14 says: “The Word [Jesus] became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” Just think, the God of the universe willingly left the splendour of heaven, was born into poverty and then suffered and died on a cruel cross for wayward humanity. Why? Because that’s how much he loves us!
Other evidence to support what Jesus said is His fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy
The Bible is full of predictions about the Messiah or Christ. In fact, one Biblical scholar has worked out that there are 332 distinct prophecies in the Old Testament, which were literally fulfilled in the person of Jesus (29 of them in one day, Good Friday). What are the chances of that?
In his book, Science Speaks, Peter Stoner applies the modern science of probability to just eight of these prophecies regarding Christ. He says, “The chance that any man might have fulfilled all eight prophecies is one in 10 to the 17th. That’s 1 in one-hundred-quadrillion.”
Stoner suggests that if “we take 10 to the 17th silver dollars and lay them on the face of Texas, they will cover all of the state two feet deep. Now mark one of these silver dollars and stir the whole mass thoroughly… Blindfold a man and tell him he can travel as far as he wishes, but he must pick up that one marked silver dollar. What chance would he have of getting the right one? Just the same chance that the prophets would have had of writing just eight prophecies and having them all come true in any one man… if they’d wrote them in their own wisdom.”
The Bible is the inspired word of God, and the Bible’s prophetic teaching is probably the most direct evidence for the special involvement of God in this book. “For example, the exact manner of Jesus’ death was foretold in the Old Testament (Isaiah 53); the place of his burial and even the place of his birth (Micah 5:2). Suppose Jesus had been a con-man wanting to fulfil all these prophecies. It would have been a bit late by the time he discovered the place in which he was supposed to have been born!” Citation Jesus was born of a virgin, fulfilling prophecy. Jesus was crucified on a cross, fulfilling prophecy. Jesus died for the sins of mankind, fulfilling prophecy. Jesus was buried in a borrowed tomb, fulfilling prophecy. Jesus was raised from the dead, fulfilling prophecy. Jesus ascended into the heavens, fulfilling prophecy. And this same Jesus will come again one day in fulfilment of prophecy. This is the hope and certainty of all those who believe in Him. Citation
From the womb to the tomb and back again, Jesus fulfilled prophecy. He lived and died in our place, to pay for our sin. BUT Jesus didn’t stay dead: He was resurrected again on the third day, in fulfilment of prophecy.
What Evidence Is There For The Resurrection?
Let me first try and answer the question: Why did God raise Jesus from the dead? In Acts 2v24 we read: ‘But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.’ But God raised him from the dead… we love a beautiful ‘but’ don’t we? (Don’t worry; God has a sense of humour.) The words ‘but God’ are two of the most important words in the whole of the Bible: But God raised him from the dead. Why? Because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead demonstrates His power to defeat sin and satan… death could not keep its hold on him.
“We have to understand that death was not part of God’s original creation plan. Death was an effect of sin. So, if death defeated Jesus, then sin has not been dealt with, and we are still lost. [A dead Saviour cannot save anybody!] Here’s the deal: If Jesus died and that was it, well there’s nothing remarkable about that. But if it’s true Jesus rose from the dead, then that changes everything. [If Jesus’ tomb was empty then his promises are not. If Jesus rose from the dead] that means he conquered the final enemy: death. That means that everything he claimed about himself is true. He isn’t just human. He is God. He is the answer to mankind’s problems. He is Saviour. (…) Jesus didn’t just die. He rose from the dead. That’s what God would do, because an eternal, infinite God can’t be killed off – at least not permanently, by his creation. The resurrection proves that everything Jesus said was true. The resurrection gives Christians [power to] live in victory in this life, and it proves that life continues after our time on earth is over.” The gospel is good news because of the resurrection.’ Citation
Why was Jesus raised to life?
Because the resurrection is God’s ‘YES’ to the sacrifice Jesus made being accepted. That’s why Jesus didn’t stay dead? His resurrection is the absolute proof that Jesus’ sacrifice is all-sufficient for the forgiveness of sins, and its proof too, that all believers will inherit eternal life, just as Jesus promised. Think about it: if Jesus had remained dead, how would we ever know we are forgiven? If there was no resurrection there’s no forgiveness, no judgement, no punishment or reward; no heaven! If there is no resurrection then this life is all there is! BUT there is life after death and the evidence for it is overwhelming.
A former Lord Chief Justice of England, Lord Darling, said of the resurrection: ‘In its favour as a living truth there exists such overwhelming evidence, positive and negative, factual and circumstantial, that no intelligent jury in the world could fail to bring in a verdict that the resurrection story is true.’
Another writer put it like this: “If Jesus never rose from the dead, the New Testament has no more value than a handful of confetti. If Jesus never rose from the dead the disciples were blasphemous deceivers, the early Christian church was a rabble of misguided bigots, all Christian martyrs have spilled their blood defending a non-event and the church’s great reformers of society were motivated by a pack of lies. What’s more, every Christian church building is a monument to a myth, all its ministers are liars, every prayer offered to or in the name of Jesus is pointless prattle, all who claim a living relationship with him are pathetically deceived, every Christian service is a farce, every Easter day commemorates something that never happened and any hope of life after death is deluded daydreaming.” Citation
You get the point: If Jesus did not rise from the dead then our meeting here this evening would be a complete waste of time. But Jesus did rise from the dead and He is alive.
What is the proof that the resurrection is true?
We know that God raised Jesus to life because the entire New Testament bears witness to His resurrection, and the Church only began because of the resurrection. The Church stands and falls on this one truth! On that first Easter morning the stone at the entrance to the tomb was not rolled away to let Jesus out, it was rolled away to let the eye witnesses in to declare: “He is risen!”
The life of Jesus is bracketed by two impossibilities: a virgin’s womb and an empty tomb. Over the years unbelievers and sceptics have come up with several proposed explanations for the empty tomb.
- It is sometimes said, Jesus was only unconscious and he later revived. But a Roman soldier told Pilate that Jesus was dead (Mk 15:44-45); the reason the soldiers didn’t break Jesus’ legs was because he had already died. You remember one of them pierced Jesus’ side with a spear. And Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus wrapped Jesus’ body and placed it in the tomb. (John 19:32-34, 38-40)
- It has been suggested that the women must have made a mistake and gone to the wrong tomb. But Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw Jesus placed in the tomb (Mt 27:59-61, Mk 15:47, Lk 23:55). And on Sunday morning Peter and John also went to the same tomb. (John 20:3-9)
- Some say that unknown thieves must have stolen Jesus’ body. But the tomb was sealed and guarded by Roman soldiers. (Mt 27:65-66).
- And if for some strange reason the Roman or Jewish authorities had removed the body from the tomb, well then they would have produced it as soon as Jesus’ followers claimed that he was alive again and the Christian church would have collapsed on the spot.
- Some even think what the witnesses saw was a hallucination. But that’s not possible because so many people saw the risen Jesus at different times, including natural sceptics like ‘doubting Thomas.’ In fact there are over 550 eye witness accounts of the resurrection in the New Testament, including once by over 500 people at one time, and when the apostle Paul recorded that event, well over half of those people were still alive and could confirm the fact (see 1 Corinthians 15:6).
- Before Jesus rose from the dead his followers hid behind locked doors ‘for fear of the Jews’ (John 20:19). Yet a few weeks later they risked persecution, imprisonment, torture and even death because they had seen Jesus alive again. Now, people sometimes die for something they believe to be true but nobody is prepared to die for something they know is false, especially if they concocted the lie.
- As author John Blanchard writes: “The Christian church is the largest religious body the world has ever known (over two billion and growing by the thousand every day) and no other group, religious or otherwise, has made a greater contribution to the well-being of humankind. Yet the church is not based on the moral example Jesus set, nor is it based on his death: it is based on his resurrection. For 2,000 years this has been its driving force and the only explanation for its existence. The first Christian church was known as ‘the Way’ (Acts 9:2), but if Jesus had remained in the grave ‘the Way’ would have become a dead end!”
- As one preacher put it: ‘The Grand Canyon wasn’t caused by an Indian dragging a stick, and the Christian church wasn’t created by a myth.’
The evidence for the resurrection is overwhelming and conclusive: There is no other plausible explanation for the empty tomb; the lack of a body; the transformed lives of the disciples; the fact that church worship shifted from Saturday to resurrection Sunday. There is no other plausible explanation for the existence of the Christian church, or the evidence of millions of Christians living transformed lives after personally encountering Jesus and receiving the Holy Spirit.
Jesus’ resurrection is true: He is alive. The evidence is overwhelming and conclusive.
In the words, again, of C.S. Lewis: ‘We are faced then with an alternative.’ Either Jesus was (and is) exactly what he said, or else he was insane or something worse. To C.S. Lewis it seemed clear that he could not have been insane or evil and so he concludes, ‘However strange or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that he was and is God.’
Let me leave you with this: Jesus never chased after anyone or begged anyone to believe in him. Why? Because who Jesus is, and what He came to do for us, must be discerned by the individual. Jesus calls to all saying, ‘come to me’, whether we do or not… well, that’s our call.