Historical For You, Not Wishful Thinking – An Easter Devotion
A Devotion for Easter Season 2010
Paul R. Raabe
“This one God raised on the third day and gave him to become manifest, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.”
Christianity is not just another religion with religious ideas. “Tell me about your religion.” “My religion has the interesting idea of resurrection.” No, Christianity is not just about ideas.
Christianity makes historical claims. Key to these historical claims is the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Yet, the resurrection of Jesus did not occur in a vacuum, as some weird, freakish event out of nowhere. No, it occurred in a specific historical context. It came as the fulfillment of a much longer historical narrative. In Acts 13 the Apostle Paul presents that narrative, a narrative that refers to real historical events. The Creator of all things chose ancient Israel to be his covenant people. He delivered them from Egyptian bondage; he nourished them through the wilderness for 40 years, and he brought them into the land of Canaan. He gave them judges until he anointed David, the son of Jesse, to be their king. Of the house and lineage of David there eventually was born Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah.
This Jesus of Nazareth was baptized by John in the Jordan River. Then he began his public ministry. Toward the end of his public ministry, in fulfillment of the ancient Scriptures, this Jesus of Nazareth was crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem on a Friday in April, 30 A.D. This same Jesus of Nazareth was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. And early on that Sunday morning in April 30 A.D., this same Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised from the dead by God the Father.
The tomb was empty. Even his opponents conceded the fact, although they quickly concocted the falsehood that his followers stole the body. That notion is still around. I recently heard an archaeologist speak about 1st century burial practices, who remarked that the followers of Jesus must have taken the body and buried it elsewhere. A lot of people deny his bodily resurrection. Even some so-called Christian theologians say that the historical Jesus was buried, yes, but when it comes to the resurrection, that is the Christ of faith. With friends like that, who needs enemies?
A lot of people consider the claim that Jesus bodily rose from the dead to be wishful thinking on the part of Christians. Americans can be prone to wishful thinking. I would argue that much of pop culture can be characterized as wishful thinking. A few years ago there was a cult that committed suicide because they supposed that would transport them to a passing comet. That kind of wishful thinking led to a dead end, literally.
Is the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth wishful thinking? Were his first century followers gullible? Were they starry-eyed mystics? No, they were down-to-earth practical men and women. They knew as well as anyone that burial is a one-way road for the body. It took a lot to convince them otherwise. To convince them it took the empty tomb, the announcements of the angel, the promises of the Old Testament, the predictions made by Jesus himself, and his post-death, post-resurrection appearances. For 40 days after his resurrection he visibly and bodily appeared to his followers. They were eyewitnesses. The four Gospels record many of these post-resurrection appearances: to the women at the tomb, to Peter, to Cleopas and another on the road to Emmaus, to the disciples in Jerusalem, to the disciples with Thomas in Jerusalem, to the seven by the Sea of Tiberias, to the eleven in Galilee, and to the disciples near Bethany. The Apostle Paul adds that Jesus appeared also to more than 500 at one time, plus James, and finally to Paul himself on the road to Damascus (1 Cor 15).
In Acts 10, Peter states that Jesus visibly appeared to his first followers who had been chosen by God to be eyewitnesses, who ate and drank with Jesus after his resurrection. While we receive his body and blood in the Sacrament, we have not seen Jesus visibly with our physical eyes. Jesus of Nazareth has not visibly appeared to us. But we rely on the recorded testimony of the eyewitness accounts.
We are not engaged in wishful thinking. We have not followed cleverly devised myths. We are not referring to some mystical experience. We are not talking about some religious idea. Jesus of Nazareth was visibly seen by his first followers with their ordinary, everyday eyesight. As Peter says, they were “witnesses who ate and drank with him.” The Gospel accounts go out of their way to stress just this concrete, down-to-earth, see-ableness. Jesus was seen and touched, stood among his disciples, spoke, walked, blessed them with his hands, breathed on them, distributed food and drink. He even showed the marks of the crucifixion in his hands, feet, and side.
We gathered here at Concordia Seminary to study theology. We enjoy bouncing theological ideas back and forth. Theologizing is a lot of fun. But this Easter season we are once again reminded that our theology is based on historical reality. The church is built on historical reality, not simply theological ideas. The truth of the gospel is based on the historical testimony of the first-century eyewitnesses.
The same Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified and buried in 30 A.D. was also bodily raised on the third day in April 30 A.D. He did all this for you. The narrative does not stop there. God raised this man from the dead and made this man Lord over all. Now this same Jesus of Nazareth rules over all things not only as God but also as man. He rules over all things to the benefit of his church, to your benefit. Now through his gospel, this same Jesus of Nazareth gives you the blessings of his victory, the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and his Holy Spirit. And this same Jesus of Nazareth, now exalted over all, will one day visibly come in glory to judge the living and the dead. Everyone who ever lived will have to stand before Jesus of Nazareth as their Judge, Caiaphas, Pontius Pilate, your neighbor, you yourself. And that day will be a wonderful day for all who belong to him by faith. On that day Jesus will say to you, “Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom.” On that day he will transform your lowly body to be like his glorious body (Phil 3). Wow. What a historical narrative. What a promise. What a future. And it is all because He is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia.