The Testimony of the Twelve: The Resurrection of Jesus Christ (3)
This Jesus did God raise up, whereof we are all witnesses.
-Peter for the apostles
Believing Without Seeing Is Not Blind Faith
We see Christ through the mind's eye. What we see is his life and death and resurrection. The way we see is through the wonderful medium of historical testimony. For an illustration, the apostle Thomas became so extremely pessimistic about Christ that even after the other apostles had testified to him that they had seen Jesus alive, he set his own conditions for believing. He said, "Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe" (John 20:25). Then John tells us his eyewitness account of how eight days later Jesus met with Thomas and gave him the opportunity to test the resurrection evidence for himself. He wrote that after Thomas had seen the evidence and had been invited to test its genuineness for himself by putting his finger into the nail prints of the cross and his hand into the gaping wound in his side, he humbly confessed that Jesus was both his Lord and his God.
That was the most blasphemous thing a Jew could say to another man, unless what he said was true. It's pretty clear that Thomas was convinced that Jesus was the son of God. Then, at that moment, Jesus answered Thomas in words which stretch right up to us today: "Because thou hast seen me thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed" (John 20:26-29). Right there Jesus spoke about believing without seeing.
Now the question is asked today: Why should we believe in Jesus when we have not seen anything? How can we know for sure that Jesus even lived, much less was raised from the dead, when we are separated from those events by nearly twenty centuries? The answer to that is testimony.
Belief in Christ Is Based on the Apostles' Testimony
It is a mistake to think that the historic faith of the Christian religion was begun or maintained by emotional subjectivism, that is, by following after one's inner feelings as an evidence that God has spoken to us or that Christ was raised from the dead. Jesus made it clear that the basis for believing in him rested solidly on the apostles' word (John 17:20). That is because their word was a testimony to what they themselves had seen and heard and experienced with Christ for the three and a half years they were with him. Their word was the testimony of eyewitnesses. That is how we know about the incident between Jesus and Thomas; John was there and witnessed it and told us about it in his written testimony.
The Christian faith (the objective religious system), like the Christian's personal faith, is based squarely on those objective, historical events to which those eyewitnesses like Thomas, a few days later at Pentecost, directed men's attention. It was this basis on which Peter encouraged persecuted Christians in the first century to endure the fiery test of their faith in Christ, of whom he said "not having seen ye love; on whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice greatly with joy unspeakable" (1 Peter 1:6-8). Theirs was not a blind faith. It rested on the testimony of eyewitnesses like Thomas and Peter, whose reliability, as far as they were concerned, was unimpeachable (2 Peter 1:16). So great was the power of their apostolic testimony for the resurrection of Christ that those early Christians loved him even though they had never seen him.
Our Identity With First Century Men
Today's man stands right where most first century men stood-totally without sight and sound of Jesus Christ. This is where modern men, though removed from Jesus of Nazareth by nearly two thousand years, can find the point of contact with nearly all of those first century Christians and their indomitable faith. We have not seen Jesus in the flesh much less have we had opportunity to examine the resurrection evidences in his hands and side to see for ourselves whether the prints of the cross were fact or faked. But, then, neither had those persecuted believers to whom Peter sent his epistle of encouragement (1 Peter 1:8). But they believed because of the apostles' eyewitness testimony to the historical facts of his death and resurrection.
Look at Theophilus. He was the Roman official to whom Luke wrote both his gospel account and the book of Acts. Theophilus stood in the same place where we stand right now, he had not seen Jesus in the flesh, nor had any apostle come to him with a confirmation of the gospel by miracles. Like any number of modern men, he had learned somewhat of Jesus, but needed confirmation in order to believe it. Luke arranged the apostles' testimony in written form, in true historiographical style, so that Theophilus could have a confirmation of the gospel he needed, as Luke stated it, "that thou mightest know the certainty concerning the things wherein thou wast instructed" (Luke 1:4). What we have today is what Theophilus had then. He had a witness to Jesus in written form, and we have that same witness, the historically verified and totally reliable books of Luke and Acts. So we stand where Theophilus stood in relation to the historical truth of Christ; and with those written witnesses, we can be as certain of the gospel as he could.
THE NEW TESTAMENT IDEA OF WITNESSING
Luke wrote that "with great power gave the apostles their witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all" (Acts 4:33). The convincing power of that apostolic witness was so great that it resulted in the production of great faith among all those that heard. Something stirring and convincing was present in that first century testimony by the apostles which brought multitudes to belief in Christ in all parts of the world.
No one today has the power to witness for Christ inasmuch as none of us has seen anything of him to which we can bear objective testimony. Today's references to bearing witness for Christ are usually misnomers. Generally, that means that someone's own personal experience is supposed to have become a bonafide testimony to the present power of Christ in their lives. But such "witnessing" is a totally subjective approach and has no better proof than some believer's statement that Jesus or the Holy Spirit is the power behind some experience. It cannot be proven to be more than human impulses subjectively interpreted as the leading of the Holy Spirit. We would not deny that experiences are happening to people which have a special meaning to them, even ecstatic speaking. However, Hindus, who do not believe in Jesus as Savior, also speak ecstatically and hold out their "experience" as a witness to the empowering help offered by Krishna. Are we therefore to believe that this is bonafide testimony that Krishna is a living god? Such testimony proves nothing. Today's "testimonies" of personal experiences with Christ appear to be the subjective interpretations which each person places on a happening or feeling he had. What this kind of witness amounts to is no more than what some individual thinks has happened to him. This is not the New Testament idea of witnessing.
The Purpose of the Apostles' Testimony
Jesus said that the apostles would bear witness of him (John 15:27). To bear witness means to give testimony in behalf of something with a view toward the confirmation of its truthfulness, its reality. The grand truth to which the apostles would bear witness for Christ was to his resurrection. They did this by stating that they themselves saw Jesus alive after the crucifixion; that for forty days after his resurrection, they had a daily opportunity to examine him closely, to handle his flesh and to examine the scars of the cross and so to satisfy themselves that this was the same person with whom they had walked for over three years prior to his death at Calvary. This testimony was to their own objective experiences with the risen Christ.
The apostles' sermons in the book of Acts reveal the characteristic line of their apologetic thrust. On Pentecost they stood up to give their testimony to the fact that Jesus of Nazareth was the resurrected and living Christ. Their proposition was that Jesus, whom the Jews had slain, had been raised from the dead (Acts 2:22-24). Peter affirmed that "this Jesus did God raise up, whereof we are all witnesses" (v. 32). Their claim to be witnesses of Jesus after the resurrection was offered as a proof to those who had not seen him alive. Later, Peter and John preached to another large crowd of Jews who had consented to the death of Jesus. The apostles testified that they had "killed the Prince of life; whom God raised from the dead; whereof we are witnesses" (Acts 3:15), They were arrested by the ruling Jews for this testimony and were brought before the council who commanded them not to speak in the name of Christ again. But they responded that they could not but speak the things which they had seen and heard! (Acts 4:19-20). They insisted that they had actually seen and heard Jesus Christ after the resurrection. After a warning from the Sanhedrin not to preach in Jesus' name again, they were released. But true to their commission, they returned to their work of preaching and testifying that Jesus was raised. Consequently, they were arrested again. Brought back to the Jewish council, the high priest sternly reminded them:
We strictly charged you not to teach in this name: and behold you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and intend to bring this man's blood upon us.
But Peter and the apostles answered and said, We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew, hanging him on a tree… . And we are witnesses of these things. (Acts 5:28:32).
One convincing evidence that Jesus had indeed raised was that all twelve of the apostles, even though under threats from the hierarchy-who very well held the power to pass the death sentence-nevertheless persisted in their preaching that the resurrection was a fact and that they were eyewitnesses of the risen Christ. To them, the implication of that event were such that they could not stop preaching it though it would cost them their lives.
The same methodology was used when preaching to Gentiles. To the centurion, Cornelius, Peter preached as always that the apostles were "witnesses of all things which he [Jesus] did in the country of the Jews, and in Jerusalem; whom also they slew, hanging him on a tree. Him, God raised up the third day, and gave him to be made manifest, not to all the people, but unto witnesses that were chosen before of God, even to us, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead" (Acts 10:39-41). In one of his sermons, Paul pointed out that the original apostles carried in their testimony the proof of the resurrection. He reported that "God raised him from the dead: and he was seen for many days of them that came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses unto the people" (Acts 13:30-31). Paul's own testimony in Athens was that God would bring them all into judgment and that he had given assurance of this to all men "in that he hath raised him from the dead" (Acts 17:31).
Luke's account of the apostles' presentation of the resurrection is presented with such startling objectivity that we are impressed with the fact that they actually expected their listeners to believe them. In each recorded case of preaching Christ, the apostles presented the death, burial, and resurrection as historical truth and then offered their own eyewitness testimony as proof of their claim.
John's Claim for the Apostles
This same idea is presented in 1 John 1:1-4, though perhaps at first the fact that the resurrection is implied does not appear.
That which was from the beginning, that which we have heard, that which we have seen with our eyes, that which we beheld, and our hands handled, concerning the Word of life (and the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare unto you the life, the eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us); that which we have seen and heard declare we unto you also, that ye also may have fellowship with us.
John represents the entire body of the apostles by using the plural pronouns we and ours. When he spoke of "that which we have heard … which we have seen with our eyes …which we beheld … our hands handled," he was speaking of the resurrected Lord whom the apostles had seen and heard. Then he explained that in this way, the eternal life was made known to them. How else can eternal life be made known to mortal man? He is born to live but a few years, then dies. Only a resurrection can prove to dying mankind that there is an eternal life. The apostle John stated that all the apostles bore witness to Christ's historical, bodily resurrection and its confirmation of eternal life. This was their constant and never-ending claim from Pentecost.
THE POWER OF THE APOSTLES' TESTIMONY
Those ingredients which combined to give credibility to the apostles' claim for the resurrection were the number of the eyewitnesses to the fact, their unity of doctrine, and their faithful lives in persecution.
Paul's testimony was unique to that of the original apostles. His personal encounter with Christ was not like theirs, and, therefore, his account would be different from theirs. (His testimony will be considered in chapter eight.) At this point, we want to consider the power which the twelve exercised. Usually, one person of reliable character is sufficient to confirm the claim or the character of another. In the case for the resurrection of Jesus, there were twelve witnesses whose reliability is confirmed by their lives in hardship and persecution, which was due to their resurrection claim, and whose lives, which were consistent with their gospel, exonerated them from any indictment that their testimony was due to some ulterior motive. Twelve such witnesses would be considered more than adequate in any court. If twelve would not be received as confirmation of the resurrection, neither would the testimony of twelve hundred. The unvarying testimony of twelve is a reasonable number.
Unity of agreement among the total number of witnesses lends the greatest credibility to a claim, regardless of the extremities to which the claim may reach. In the apostles' case, their eyewitness observations were extended over a pre-crucifixion period of some three and a half years and a post-crucifixion period of another forty days to determine that this was the same Jesus in both ministries. Inasmuch as their testimony to the life of Christ, his death, his resurrection, and his post-resurrection appearances are in agreement, and since their doctrine in every phase of the Christian faith agrees, and since all the apostles were willing to suffer the most miserable of persecutions for what they claimed they had seen and heard, we can be assured of having the best possible evidence.
Doubtless, the faithfulness of the apostles was the crucible of the Christian religion. From the beginning, the grand evidence for the resurrection was the unswerving testimony of a unified band of fearless men. Even though these men were imprisoned (Acts 4:1-3; 5:18,25) and threatened with their lives (Acts 4:17, 21; 5:17-33), and in spite of the early martyrdom of the apostle James (Acts 12:1-3), they maintained that they had seen Jesus alive after the crucifixion and that they had walked with him for another forty days. They persisted, without variation from their course both doctrinally and morally, in the face of severe hardship, even to the death. It goes without saying that it is against human nature for such lives as those apostles lived to be based upon a lie. You cannot expect that of human nature.
Today we have no testimony of our own experience that can be legitimately offered as proof of Christ's resurrection. Our testimony must be that of the apostle. The apostolic testimony, as recorded in the New Testament, is the intended ground of belief for all time to come (Luke 24:44-48; John 17:20). This apostolic testimony was the testimony of those early Christians who had not seen the Lord (Revelation 12:11). It is not ours to offer any "experiences" of our own as proof of Christianity's reliability. Ours today is to preach the word of qualified witnesses (2 Timothy 4:1-2).
A very reasonable conclusion in view of the evidence as it comes to us in the historical documents of the New Testament is that what the apostles testified to actually happened: Jesus was raised, and they saw him even as they claimed. Their motives were not challenged. Their lives were consistent with their doctrine. What other answer can be offered for the lives and teaching of the twelve apostles, without contradicting the facts? Here, in the number of the witnesses, their unity, and their lives, lies the real force of Luke's words that "with great power gave the apostles their witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus." The eyewitness testimony of the apostles was the power that brought great grace upon them all.