We are here today to celebrate the resurrection of our Savior! Celebration is in the air! Can you feel it? I sure can. The excitement began to build for me as I made my way to church this morning. I saw banners in front of church after church announcing the Good News of Jesus’ resurrection as I made my drive to church this morning. I heard it as I walked across the parking lot and listened to the birds singing, “He lives! He lives! Christ Jesus lives today!” I noticed that the limbs on the trees were swaying like palm branches in the hands of the adoring crowd that welcomed the King just a week earlier.
At the same time that there is celebration in the air I have to admit that there is also controversy stirring this morning. The controversy has taken some of the sheen away from the Easter celebration for some in our society who are making their way to worship today. For others who do not believe, those who view Easter as nothing more than an opportunity to hunt eggs with their kids, the controversies have solidified their skeptical beliefs. There is controversy stirring this Easter morning.
Within the past two weeks we have heard reports that the story of Jesus’ life, as told in the Bible, is not the real story. The Gospel of Judas, the release of the movie “The DaVinci Code,” and reports that Jesus probably didn’t walk on the waters of the Sea of Galilee, but possibly walked on a frozen sea of ice have blown across our land like the Oklahoma winds. I’ve gotten a lot of questions over the past two weeks about these topics and it has led me back to God’s Word to search the Scriptures for answers. That’s a good place to begin whenever we have questions, isn’t it?
What I’ve discovered this past week is that controversy has always surrounded the life of Jesus and His claim to be the Messiah. The controversy surrounding Jesus has come not only from those like Dan Brown, the author of The DaVinci Code, or Michael Baigent, who has just released a new book called, The Jesus Papers: Exposing The Greatest Cover-Up in History.
Controversy has also originated from those within the Church. There are a group of “Bible scholars” who call themselves, The Jesus Seminar, that formed in 1985. There were initially 200 men and women who were part of The Jesus Seminar, but today their number has shrunk to about 75 participants. They’ve been studying the four Gospels in the Bible plus the Gnostic document, The Gospel of Thomas. After reading the words of Jesus they have voted on what they think Jesus said, what they think He could’ve said, or what they believe He definitely didn’t say. Seems pretty subjective doesn’t it? Here are their conclusions based upon what they “think:”
· Jesus did not ask us to believe that His death was a blood sacrifice, that He was going to die for our sins.
· Jesus did not ask us to believe that He was the messiah. He certainly never suggested that He was the second person of the trinity. In fact, He rarely referred to Himself at all.
· Jesus did not call upon people to repent, or fast, or observe the Sabbath. He did not threaten with hell or promise heaven.
· Jesus did not ask us to believe that He would be raised from the dead.
· Jesus did not ask us to believe that He was born of a virgin.
· Jesus did not regard Scripture as infallible or even inspired.
How these folks can arrive at these conclusions from studying Scripture is beyond me. The Jesus Seminar folks remind me of one of our past Presidents, Thomas Jefferson, who admired Jesus as a man, but rejected Jesus’ miracles and His claim of being God in the flesh. Jefferson decided that he would rework the Bible. With scissors and paste Thomas Jefferson went through the Gospels and cut out everything that smelled of anything supernatural, anything that contradicted “reason.” When he had finished his project, Jefferson had deleted almost 9/10 of the Gospels! Thomas Jefferson called his new “Bible”–The Life and Morals of Jesus. This is how Thomas Jefferson’s Bible ended, “There laid they Jesus . . . and rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulcher and departed.” No miracles. No resurrection. No Savior.
Who are we to believe? Should we side with Dan Brown and believe that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and had kids? Are we to believe the teachings of Islam that Jesus never died, but only appeared to have died on the cross? Are we to believe the Gospel of Judas that Jesus “arranged” His betrayal with Judas, the most favored disciple? Should we trust the “scholars” of the Jesus Seminar in their conclusions about Jesus’ life, death, and resurr…well, I guess it’s just His life and death. Should we trust these folks? Or, should we simply stick with the Bible? That’s a question every one of us must answer.
Before I ask for your answer of who you will trust let me tell you once again that controversy has always surrounded Jesus. I told you that I went back to the Bible this week and I learned some things about Jesus’ death and resurrection. Let’s spend some time examining the Gospel of Matthew. I want to show you some of the controversies that are recorded in God’s Word.
In Matthew 26:1-5 we read that there was a plot to have Jesus arrested and eventually killed. The Pharisees didn’t like what Jesus was doing, they were threatened by His presence, by His teaching, and by the fact that people were actually listening to what they felt were His heretical ideas about God and life. Read along with me.
1When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, 2 “As you know, the Passover is two days away– and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.” 3 Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, 4 and they plotted to arrest Jesus in some sly way and kill him. 5 “But not during the Feast,” they said, “or there may be a riot among the people.” (Matthew 26:1-5 NIV)
Controversy. Was Jesus really sent from God, was He the long-promised Messiah, or was He just a thorn in the side of the religious leaders of His day? Let’s go on and take a look at the next controversial scene found in Matthew’s Gospel. When Jesus was on trial there was controversy concerning His claims. In Matthew 27:11-22 we read,
11Meanwhile Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” “Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied. 12 When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer. 13 Then Pilate asked him, “Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?” 14 But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge– to the great amazement of the governor. 15 Now it was the governor’s custom at the Feast to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. 16 At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas. 17 So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” 18 For he knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him. 19 While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.” 20But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed. 21“Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked the governor. “Barabbas,” they answered. 22 “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?” Pilate asked. They all answered, “Crucify him!” (Matthew 27:11-22 NIV)
Controversy. Was Jesus the victim of a methodically planned, slanderous, public relations campaign? Did the people who cried out, “Crucify Him!” get caught up in the mob mentality? Was Pilate like many of our modern-day politicians who succumb to public opinion polls? Was Barabbas, the notorious criminal, released because people truly weighed the evidence against Jesus or because they got swept up in the emotion of the crowd? The choice of Barabbas over Jesus was controversial wouldn’t you say? Let’s not stop and draw our conclusions yet–Let’s move on. Take a look at Matthew 27:39-43 with me and let’s examine what happened while Jesus was hanging on the cross, sentenced to death as a common criminal.
39 Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads 40 and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” 41 In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. 42 “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the King of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” (Matthew 27:39-43 NIV)
Controversy. Mockery. Ridicule. Slander. Does this sound anything like the comments we hear rising up from doubters and skeptics in our own society today? I would say that those who hurled insults at Jesus on the cross were speaking more from their own ignorance than from their investigation of the facts. I want to come back to this a little later, but for now let’s continue our investigation of the controversies surrounding the life of Jesus. Turn with me to Matthew 27:62-66. Read along with me.
62The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. 63 “Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ 64 So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.” 65“Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” 66 So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard. (Matthew 27:62-66 NIV)
Joseph of Arimathea, Mary Magdalene, and the “other Mary” had prepared Jesus’ body and laid Him in Joseph’s tomb. The Pharisees were afraid that the followers of Jesus would steal the body and tell everyone that Jesus had risen from the dead. Pilate ordered that the tomb be made as secure as possible by sealing it and posting a guard. Controversy. The Pharisees were stirring the air with the possibility that the followers of Jesus were plotting to steal the body and keep the story alive even after He was dead. Let me clue you in…even if the followers of Jesus were plotting to steal the body, which they weren’t, it would have been impossible. Here’s why.
We have much information about the training, discipline, and machine-like precision of the Roman army. Roman soldiers were held to a very high standard. George Curry in his work, The Military Disciplines of the Romans from the Founding of the City to the Close of the Republic, writes,
The punishment for quitting post was death, according to the laws (Dion. Hal, Antiq. VIII. 79). The most famous discourse on the strictness of camp discipline is that of Polybius VI. 37, 38, which indicates that the fear of punishments produced faultless attention to duty, especially in the night watches. (Cited in Josh McDowell, The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict, pg. 237.)
When we read that Pilate ordered “a guard” be taken to stand watch over the tomb we know that Pilate sent four Roman soldiers to the Garden Tomb. Dr. William Smith writes in his book, The Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities,
We may remark in passing, that four was the regular number for a Roman guard…of these one always acted as a sentinel, while the others enjoyed a certain degree of repose, ready, however, to start up at the first alarm. (William Smith, DGRA, pg. 250-251)
These four soldiers, who guarded the tomb of Jesus, were well armed to fend off any threat from anyone who would try to steal the body of Jesus. The Roman “Pike” was a sword over 6 feet in length that the soldier carried in his right hand. The soldiers also wore a belt which held a shorter sword about 3 feet in length. On the left side of the soldier, tucked into his girdle, was a dagger. E. Le Camus says,
Never had a criminal given so much worry after his execution. Above all never had a crucified man had the honour of being guarded by a squad of soldiers. (E. Le Camus, The Life of Christ, pg. 396-397)
Every precaution was taken to ensure that the body of Jesus stayed in the tomb. You know the story. On the third day, the earth shook, the mountains trembled, and the heavens rejoiced when the stone was rolled away…not by powerful Peter or bowed-up Bartholomew, but by the hand of Almighty God. Someone once said, “The heavy, ponderous stone that sealed Jesus in the confines of that rock-walled tomb was but a pebble compared to the Rock of Ages inside.”
The tomb was empty, but that was not the end of the story. Jesus appeared to His followers. He appeared first to the two women who went to the tomb, then He appeared to Peter later in the day (Luke 24:34), the eleven disciples, and then He appeared to others as well. In 56 A.D., when Paul wrote to the believers in Corinth, he wrote,
1Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. 3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (1 Corinthians 15:1-8 NIV)
Over 500 people saw Jesus after His resurrection! If the resurrection was a lie, a hoax, or a hallucination, don’t you think someone would have eventually broke ranks? Chuck Colson, who was President Nixon’s “hatchet man” during the Watergate scandal, wrote these words in his book, “A Dangerous Grace.”
Before all the facts were known to the public—in March 1973—it was becoming clear to Nixon’s closest aides that someone had tried to cover up the Washington break-in. There were no more than a dozen of us. Could we maintain the cover-up and save the president? Consider that we were political zealots, among the most powerful men in the world. With all that at stake, you’d expect us to be capable of maintaining a lie to protect the president. But we couldn’t do it. The first to crack was John Dean. He went to the prosecutors and offered to testify against the president. After that, everyone started scrambling to protect himself. The great Watergate cover-up lasted only three weeks. Some of the most powerful politicians in the world — and we couldn’t keep a lie for more than three weeks. ( Colson, Chuck, A Dangerous Grace, pgs. 81-82.)
There were no more than a dozen men who knew about the Watergate scandal, but they couldn’t keep a secret for more than three weeks! Yet, more than 500 people, not power brokers or politically savy souls, but common, ordinary folks kept the secret throughout their whole lives and then passed the lie on to the next generation who kept it as well. Come on!
I told you earlier that I believe those who hurled insults at Jesus on the cross were speaking more from their own ignorance than from their investigation of the facts. Let me give you an example of what I am talking about from what is happening in our own day. The Gospel of Judas has caused quite a stir with the media and even among some of the followers of Jesus. Most of the people I have talked to, who have been impressed with The Gospel of Judas, are people who have only heard of it through a news report or read about it in a magazine or newspaper. The only thing they can tell you is that Jesus supposedly rigged His own execution by having His “favorite” disciple, Judas, turn Him in. They can’t tell you anything else. They don’t know that The Gospel of Judas is a “Gnostic” document, a heretical document. They don’t know that we only have one copy of the document, written in Coptic. They don’t know that the Church has known about the document since 180 A.D. when Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyons, denounced it in his writing called, “Against Heresies.” Irenaeus wrote,
They declare that Judas the traitor was thoroughly acquainted with these things, and that he alone, knowing the truth as no others did, accomplished the mystery of the betrayal; by him all things, both earthly and heavenly, were thus thrown into confusion. They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas. (1.31.1)
The early Church didn’t try to hide the heresies, they exposed them. Today, we need not try and dodge the questions that society throws at us when supposed new revelations come about, but we must go back to the Scriptures! Who will you trust? The Bible has stood the tests of time. The validity and veracity of Holy Scripture has been tested, tried, snickered at, doubted, and examined with a fine toothed comb to try and disprove its claims, but today the Word of God stands and the modern-day skeptics will join the assembly of those throughout history who have tried, but failed to prove God’s Word wrong.
We hear every instance of how new discoveries are challenging the Bible and its teachings today, but let me give you just one example of how new discoveries in science and archaeology are serving to strengthen the stance of Scripture in our lifetime.
In March of 1947 a Bedouin shepherd boy named Mohammad was searching for a lost goat. He threw a rock into a hole in the cliff and heard the sound of shattering pottery. Mohammad climbed the rocks and went into the cave where he found several large clay jars. In the jars were leather scrolls wrapped in linen cloths. Today, we know them as the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of more than 800 manuscripts, some biblical and some non-biblical material. Included in the Dead Sea Scrolls are whole copies or parts of every Old Testament book except for Esther. Josh McDowell writes,
The oldest complete Hebrew manuscript we possessed before the Dead Sea Scrolls were from 900 A.D. One of the scrolls in the Dead Sea caves was a complete manuscript of the Hebrew text of Isaiah. It is dated by paleographers around 125 B.C. This manuscript is more than one thousand years older than any manuscript we previously possessed. (Josh McDowell, New Evidence That Demands A Verdict. Pg. 78.)
How different do you think those two copies of Isaiah would be over the course of 1,000 years of copying by hand? How many people over the course of 1,000 years were entrusted with the responsibility of copying word for word each book of the Old Testament? Yet, Gleason Archer says that the scrolls found at the Dead Sea,
…Proved to be word for word identical with out standard Hebrew Bible in more than 95 percent of the text. The 5 percent of variation consisted chiefly of obvious slips of the pen and variations in spelling. (McDowell, New Evidence That Demands A Verdict. Pg. 79.)
What the shepherd boy found in the caves of Qumran proved to a doubting world that God’s Word stands tall in a world of skeptical cynics. People in our day fail to realize what King David confessed in Psalm 138:2.
2I will bow down toward your holy temple and will praise your name for your love and your faithfulness, for you have exalted above all things your name and your word. (Psalm 138:2 NIV)
Simon Peter knew that skeptics and cynics would come and go, but that God’s Word would stand true forever and forever. He wrote,
24For, “All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, 25 but the word of the Lord stands forever.” (1 Peter 1:24-25 NIV)
Let society say what it will about the life, death, and resurrection of our Savior, but God’s Word says, “He lives!” Let them snicker because you hold a “Sunday school” belief in the Easter story, but God’s Word says, “He lives!” Let the scholars of the Jesus Seminar continue to read out of Scripture what they don’t like, but God’s Word says, “He lives!” He lives! I’ve read it in Scripture and I believe. I’ve read the testimonies of those who came after Jesus, but who lived long before I ever stepped foot on this earth, and I believe. The evidence is in, let the critics be silenced, “He lives!” We serve a risen Savior! He lives!
In my humble opinion, the only controversy that is stirring this Easter morning is this: With everything you have heard this morning how in the world could you, those of you who came here having never surrendered your life to Jesus as Lord and Savior, how could you turn a blind a eye to the facts and reject Jesus? How could you refuse the gift of eternal life that the Savior is offering you right now? How could you? You don’t have to. I want to invite you to come forward, give me your hand as you give Jesus your heart, and let the world know that you believe “He lives!”
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
Oklahoma City, OK. 73114
April 16, 2006