Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Some Words for Wednesday - Where did the body of Jesus go?

(Here are some notes based loosely on the message shared when we gathered as a church last Sunday.)

Where did Jesus go?

That's a question that has been asked since the New Testament church first sprang up.  The Bible is an anthology of books, written by different authors over many centuries.  In the New Testament, we have the gospels (focusing on the life of Jesus) written about 30-60 years after Jesus died.  We also have letters written to New Testament churches, written at the same time or a bit before the gospels.  A claim that is repeated in all of them is that Jesus rose from the dead.

He didn't simply come back from the dead - he went to life beyond death!  It is claimed that, as the Son of God, he beat death, and if you trust your life to him, he will also beat death for you, and give you eternal life.

But a lot of people today don't believe that Jesus rose from the dead.  They believe that while he was probably a good person, he was definitely an ordinary person - and ordinary people don't rise from the dead!  They believe that some of what is written about Jesus in the Bible is true - the "non-miraculous" bits - but other parts of the Bible (especially the miraculous bits, like his resurrection) were made up after his death. 

So today, we're going to think about some of the suggestions people make about where the body of Jesus went. And while we're going to use the New Testament as evidence (it was, after all, written within a few decades of the events), we're only going to refer to the passages that would be included in the "non-miraculous" bits.

Why do this?  Because I think many people assume that if they only believe the non-miraculous bits of the New Testament, it will lead them to a non-miraculous conclusion about where the body of Jesus went.  Today, we're going to test that assumption!

Theory One:  Jesus was a fairly tale.  Some suggest you'll never find the body of Jesus because Jesus never existed.  All of it is a fairy tale made up a few centuries after the events.  Not many people believe this today because of the weight of historical evidence, but we'll still see what the New Testament has to say about it.

So how do you know someone is real?  How do you work out if someone existed?

You might check their family tree.  That's how many people today find out who their real family is.  It's also one of the non-miraculous ways the New Testament backs up its claim that Jesus is a real person.

"The book of the genealogy (family tree) of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham:  Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac was the father of... (this continues for 16 verses)...the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Christ." (Matthew 1v1-16)

How else do you check if someone is real?  You could ask people if they ever met the individual - e.g. did they see him?  Did they hear him speak?  Was their community affected by the life of the individual?  Luke openly takes this approach when writing his gospel.  Having referred to the eyewitnesses, he then writes:

"It seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you... so that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught." (Luke 1 v3-4)

So Jesus had a family tree, and was seen by lots of people.  If you only believe the non-miraculous bits of the New Testament, then the theory that Jesus was a fairy tale is simply unbelievable.

Theory Two:  Jesus was a real person who stayed dead in a tomb, and stories about his resurrection were made up centuries later.

When did the Christian church start to claim that Jesus had risen?  Was his body still in the tomb for everyone to see?  Let's consider some verses from the New Testament:

"Peter said: 'God raised up this Jesus, and of that we all are witnesses." (Acts 2v32).

This was part of the apostle Peter's first sermon, soon after the death of Jesus.  He claims to be a witness of the risen Jesus.  The clear implication is that the body of Jesus was no longer in the tomb for people to go and see.  

"Then Jesus appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have now died." (1 Corinthians 15v6)

The apostle Paul, when writing to the church in Corinth, makes it clear that Jesus rose from the dead, and many of the people who saw this were still alive.  It wasn't something made up several centuries later - it was claimed immediately, when people could still visit the tomb, see if the body was still there, and discredit the claim.  The only sensible explanation for how the church immediately began to grow by the thousands is that the claim was credible.

If you only believe the non-miraculous bits of the New Testament (such as the claims attributed to the apostles) then the theory that the body of Jesus stayed in the tomb is simply unbelievable.

Theory Three:  Jesus didn't die on the cross.  In the tomb, he revived, and over a couple of days regained his strength, and then escaped the tomb without being caught by the guards that were posted there.

Could Jesus have revived naturally and escaped the tomb without being caught by the guards?  What non-miraculous evidence does the New Testament offer?

First, we see a physically weak Jesus as he approaches his crucifixion.  "As they led him away, they seized one Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, and laid on him the cross, to carry it behind Jesus." (Luke 23v26).  Although Jesus had started to carry his own cross, someone else had to take the burden because he was so weak after the beating he'd received as part of his punishment.

It was the custom of Roman guards to check a person was dead before taking them down from a cross.  If someone wasn't dead, they would break the person's legs to speed up their death: "When they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs.  But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water." (John 19v33-34).

Having suffered so much punishment, then been stabbed in the side, could Jesus have revived and found the strength to move the stone that was rolled in front of his tomb?  How big was the stone?  We're given an impression by the women who went to the tomb to carry out customary post-mortem rituals: 'And they were saying to one another: "Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?" ' (Mark 16v3).

The stone was too heavy for a group of women to move by themselves.  It isn't plausible that an ordinary man, weakened by a beating, hanged on a cross, appearing dead, stabbed with a spear, wrapped completely in linen cloth (Luke 23v53), then left without food or water for 2 days could revive, break free of the cloth wrapping his body, then move a huge rock and sprint away so that the guards could not catch him.

If you believe only the non-miraculous bits of the New Testament, the theory that Jesus revived and escaped the tomb is simply unbelievable.

Theory Four:  The disciples bribed the guards and took the dead body of Jesus.  They then claimed Jesus had risen from the dead, though no one saw him alive.

Were the disciples wealthy enough to bribe the guards? What non-miraculous evidence do we have?  One of the disciples, Peter, sums up the situation for all of the disciples:

"Peter began to say to Jesus, "See, we have left everything and followed you." (Mark 10v28).

The disciples were not rich.  They had left their livelihoods to follow Jesus.  Even if they once were wealthy, we know what people with money did once they began following Jesus - they gave it away! Luke 19v1-10 is a non-miraculous example of this.

If you believe only the non-miraculous bits of the New Testament, the theory that the disciples were wealthy enough to bribe the guards is simply unbelievable.

Theory Five:  The disciples stole the dead body of Jesus.  The disciples somehow stole the body without being caught by the guards, then claimed Jesus had risen from the dead, though no one saw him alive.

Could the disciples have stolen the body of Jesus without being noticed by the guards?  Firstly, were they that organised?  The non-miraculous evidence suggests otherwise.   After the death of Jesus, they were in disarray.  They thought he was dead, and their hopes had been crushed (e.g. Luke 24v11, 20-21).  But also consider how the tomb was sealed:

"(The chief priests) went and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard." (Matthew 27v66).  

A huge stone was rolled in front of the entrance to the tomb, then sealed in place with hot wax that cooled and hardened.  To open the tomb in a non-miraculous way, you'd firstly have to crack the seal.  Then you would have to move the huge stone before being able to get into the tomb.  This wasn't something that could be done silently.

If you believe only the non-miraculous bits of the New Testament, then the theory that the disciples could stealthily get into the tomb and steal the body of Jesus without being noticed by the guards is simply unbelievable.

Theory Six:  The disciples drank protein shakes.  The disciples raided the tomb, overpowering the guards and stealing the body of Jesus.  They then claimed he had risen from the dead, though no one saw him alive.

Were the disciples capable of overpowering trained guards in order to steal the body of Jesus?  We get a glimpse of their non-miraculous fighting skills in the gospel of John, when a group of guards and servants come to arrest Jesus:

Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest's servant and cut off his right ear." (John 18v10)

When the guards come to arrest Jesus, Peter is just about capable of injuring the one guy who was probably unarmed!  The disciples were ordinary people, not trained fighters.  They weren't able to fight Roman guards, which would explain why they were never arrested for doing so.

If you believe only the non-miraculous bits of the New Testament, the theory that the disciples got organised and overpowered some trained Roman guards is simply unbelievable.

So where does that leave us?

When someone reads the Bible, they may be tempted to first decide who Jesus was, and then pass judgment on the evidence.  They decide he was an ordinary man, and then they accept or dismiss parts of the Bible based on whether or not it confirms that Jesus was ordinary man.  But if you only accept the non-miraculous bits, it doesn't lead to a non-miraculous answer to the question, "What happened to the body of Jesus?"  Instead, you're left with no answer at all.

But if you look at all the evidence first, before deciding who Jesus was, then the claim of Jesus and of the New Testament church - that he was the Son of God - becomes credible.  In the light of that revelation, the resurrection of Jesus makes sense.  It makes sense that the creator of life would be the defeater of death; that the one who moved planets could move a rock; that the one who created light could leave guards in the dark.

But how is this significant?

Firstly, if Jesus is the Son of God, then God exists.  It's a no-brainer, really, but if you want to see evidence for God, start with the evidence for Jesus.

Secondly, if Jesus overcame death, his words have more authority than anyone else's.  We don't give Jesus authority when we call him "Lord"; we recognise the authority he already has.  He is the only one who has the right to demand: "Death, where is your sting?  Grave, where is your victory?"  He is therefore able to speak words of hope that are more secure than anything we fear.

Finally, if you trust your life to Jesus, one day he will raise you up.  He overcame death for all of his people.  On the day he returns, all those who trust him as Lord and Saviour will rise to be with him in glory, forever.  

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