The Unbelievable Beliefs of Unbelief

I don’t think I have ever preached a full blown apologetics sermon on Easter Sunday morning. This year was no exception.

However, I do attempt to add an apologetic element to the Easter talk as it is important to remind everyone that what we believe is based on events that actually took place. We don’t believe the resurrection happened because it is in the Bible. We believe it is in the Bible because it happened.

A few things occurred to me as I was reading through the Easter story. So let me try and explain some of the things that you would have to believe to disbelieve the Easter story.

The first thing that struck me as a bit odd if you believed that the Easter accounts in the gospel are history thin, might seem a bit strange at first. It is found in Matthew’s gospel and Luke’s gospel. It is the Roman centurion’s response to the death of Christ:

The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, ‘Surely this was a righteous man.’ Luke 23.47

Matthew expands on Luke’s account with some additional detail, indicating that the other soldiers had the same reaction:

Now the centurion, and those who were with him keeping guard over Jesus, when they saw the earthquake and the things that were happening, became very frightened and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” Matthew 27.54

If the gospel writers had simply been writing to serve some sort of overarching theological or literary purpose, why include something that could easily have been disproved? Both gospels were written within a generation of the first Easter, so it is very possible if not likely that there were people around who had actually been there. If Matthew and Luke did make this up, they took a huge risk, because something so easily disproved would have called into question the authenticity and the value of the rest of their respective gospels.

If you believe that this was made up, you are forced to conclude that both Luke and Matthew were trying to persuade Jewish Christians that there had always been a place for gentiles in the church. To strengthen their case they independently made up a story about a centurion and Roman soldiers at the cross.

If they didn’t make up the story independently, then they colluded in a most calculating way. To make their accounts appear more authentic, they agreed on the overall narrative and changed the details to make it look more authentic.

Is it not more plausible to believe that they spoke to different eyewitnesses – or even to some of the soldiers or the centurion himself! – and recorded their recollections of that moment?

A second thing that occurred to me concerns the idea that the disciples stole the body. (We can safely rule out the mass hallucination theory. It has no weight whatsoever).

If we are to believe that the disciples stole the body – we have to in some way account for the empty tomb – then that calls into question the picture we have in the gospels of the disciples as a frightened group of men locking themselves away in case the authorities come looking for them.

The disciples of the gospels had no motivation to risk their necks trying to steal Jesus’ body from the tomb. So if we are to believe that they stole the body of Jesus, we have to believe that they were not in the kind of disillusioned, fearful state presented in the gospels.

If the gospel record about the disciples isn’t accurate, why did they allow themselves to be presented in such a bad light? And even if they were prepared to make themselves look so bad to further their deception, why did they ever allow Jesus’ body to be buried in the first place? Why risk it falling into the wrong hands? They could have taken the body of Jesus after He was crucified and hid it. The only reason Jesus was buried was because Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus asked for permission to take and bury the body of Jesus (John 19.38-41).

And if you think the whole Easter story is made up, then how on earth have the gospels and their accounts of the events of Easter survived for almost two millennia, especially when what they claim as fact could have so easily been disproved?

It seems to me that the more you reflect on Easter, the beliefs of unbelief become harder and harder to believe. And that’s before you get into serious apologetics. After all, I was only letting my mind wander during sermon preparation. Happy Easter.

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A week of failure and a day of grace

Holy week, as it is called, might just as easily have been called failure week.

It was a week when the weakness and human frailty of just about everyone in the Easter story was painfully exposed.

The fickleness of the crowd is staggering. From “We want Jesus to be King” to “We want a terrorist to lead us” within the space of five days must have left any polling organisations in Jerusalem looking very foolish.

Of course, we expected as much from the religious leaders. And Pontius Pilate was always going to make a decision that he believed would protect his career.

But the disciples! Judas’ deal with Jesus’ enemies to betray the Lord is astounding. The bickering over who would be the greatest in the kingdom was perhaps unsurprising. But abandoning Jesus when He was arrested  probably came as a shock to the disciples themselves.

And then there is the seeming failure of Jesus’ own mission as He hangs on the cross.

Holy failure seems to be the message of holy week.

Yet even in the midst of the unfolding failure, Jesus Himself speaks of resurrection (Matthew 26.32). Even in His prediction of Peter’s denial, He speaks a word of grace: Peter will be restored and he is to strengthen his brothers (Luke 22.31-32).

Resurrection followed the cross. Easter Sunday brought grace after a week of failure. The deserting disciples were restored in their faith and recommissioned to go into the world (John 20.21).

Thankfully the week of failure wasn’t followed just by a day of grace but by a whole era of grace. An era that we still live in because of Christ’s death and resurrection. And that grace extends to each of us no matter where we find ourselves.

There are weeks that reveal our weakness. There are circumstances that unveil our susceptibility to temptation. But because of Easter there is grace. In fact, because of Christ’s resurrection, even the week of failure looks like a huge God engineered victory.

 

You have to believe Him. You just have to believe Him.

Towards the end of Ephesians 1, Paul reveals to the church in Ephesus that he is praying for them. One of the things he is praying is that they will have a greater appreciation and expectation of the power that God releases towards those who believe.

That power, Paul says, is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 1.19-20).

So what kind of power are we we talking about here? The same kind as was unleashed when Christ was raised from the dead.

If you think for a moment about what happened when Christ was raised from the dead and what exactly the strength that God released had to be able to accomplish, you begin to build a picture of the kind of power that God makes available to people who believe Him.

First of all, it is power that reverses the effect of of natural processes. When Jesus died on the cross, He really did die. He was as dead on the evening of Good Friday as the two thieves crucified beside Him. All the natural processes associated with death therefore kicked in and went to work in His body. For Jesus to come back to life, those natural processes had to be halted and reversed.

That is what happened. In his Pentecost sermon, Peter explained that death could not hold Him. At some point between Good Friday evening and Easter Sunday morning the strength of God halted the natural course of death, reversed those processes and brought Christ back to life.

God’s power, working on behalf of those who believe, has the ability to reverse situations – even natural processes.

Secondly, it is power that removes obstacles. When Christ was raised from the dead, the stone that covered the tomb was rolled back. It wasn’t rolled back to let Jesus out! It was rolled back so that the disciples could see that the tomb was empty. However, this was more than just the removal of a physical obstacle. The tomb had a Roman seal on it and a detachment of Roman guards to guard it (Matthew 27.66). When the stone was rolled back, the political and spiritual authority connected to it was also pushed out of the way.

God’s power is able to remove the obstacles that obstruct His purpose in our lives. No obstacle, whatever the source of its authority is too difficult for the power of God to remove. And that power works in and for those who dare to believe God.

Finally, the sort of power that works on our behalf raises us into the places God prepares for us.

When Christ ascended forty days after His resurrection, He was enthroned at the right hand of God. All God’s authority was now His. He had taken His rightful place at the Father’s right hand.

Some of us know that we haven’t yet attained some of the things God has planned for us. The power that raised Christ from the dead and seated Him at the right hand of God is able to make a way for us.

How do we see this power released into our lives? You have to believe Him. You just have to believe Him.