Date: 09 Jul 2017
Text: Matthew 16:13-20
It never ceases to amaze me at the number of people who have either never heard of Jesus or who think that the name “Jesus” is a perfectly acceptable swear word. Many homes don’t seem to possess a Bible even though it’s not that many years ago that every home in the land had a Bible. I can recall a Scripture Union advertisement from a few years ago which featured a little lad asking why they named a baby at Christmas after a swear word! That seems to sum up 21st century society exactly. Few know Who Jesus is or was and even fewer care.
So, the question has to be: Who was or is Jesus? Was He a mythical figure made up hundreds of years ago as a sort of spiritual placebo or as a character in a fairy story? Did He even genuinely exist? And, assuming that He did exist was He just a good man Who was kind to people and helped them or was He more important than that?
These are all serious questions that we need to consider even though far too many people don’t think that whether Jesus existed or not is important. Thankfully there are many millions of people around the world who not only believe that He existed but who know for a fact from their own lives that He most definitely exists.
There have been many historians down the ages who have acknowledged that a man called Jesus did exist in the period claimed by the Bible. Very few of these historians though go any further. However, there was a Jewish historian who worked in the first century AD by the name of Flavius Josephus, generally known as Josephus. He worked as an historian for the Roman Empire mainly documenting the history of the relationship between Rome and the Jewish people. Although Josephus himself was Jewish he wasn’t a ‘practicing’ Jew as such. In a mammoth translation of Josephus’ document The Life and Works of Flavius Josephus we can read:
“Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning ` him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.”
These comments from Josephus were true in AD 70 the approximate time when this was written and they are true today.
The well known author H G Wells is quoted as saying:
“I am not a believer, but I must confess as a historian that this penniless preacher from Nazareth is irrevocably the very centre of history. Jesus Christ is easily the most dominant figure in all of history.”
During my studies I have read of a number of other 1st and 2nd century secular historians who refer to Jesus in one way or another. Publius Cornelius Tacitus spoke of Christians who followed Christ Who suffered under Pontius Pilate. In his works Suetonius spoke of Christ Who lived in the 1st century. Pliny the Younger once wrote to the Emperor of Rome, Trajan, asking for his advice on how to deal with Christians who worshipped Jesus as God. They are only three examples although there were many more.
As well as Josephus and H G Wells who lived hundreds of years apart, many do believe that Jesus did indeed exist. He is generally regarded as an itinerant preacher Who lived in Galilee and Judea a little over 2000 years ago and is considered to be the central pillar of Christianity and a prophet by Muslims. Even though He died, and many believe rose from the dead, over 2000 years ago His influence in the world can still be seen today.
Of course it should go without saying that the greatest source of information about Jesus can be found in the Bible. The second half of the Bible, known as the New Testament, is totally about Jesus, His life and activities, and His many followers. The first part of the Bible, known as the Old Testament, contains 39 separate books all pointing to Jesus in one way or another. I will admit that you do need to be a bit of a scholar and to study the Old Testament to be able to discern all that is being said! The New Testament though is far more obvious and tells the story of Jesus’ conception, birth, life, work as a preacher, teacher and healer, and then His death and subsequent resurrection.
Probably the most contentious part of understanding just Who Jesus was concerns the claim that He rose from the dead after being subjected to horrendous torture followed by death on a wooden cross. Whilst many can accept that He did indeed live and do the things the Bible says He did, they simply cannot accept the resurrection, finding it too incredulous for words. There are many passages in the Bible that tell of His numerous post resurrection appearances. However, since many of these appearances were to believers, it is easy to be sceptical and suggest that “they would say that, wouldn’t they?” The repost to that comes with the story of Saul.
Saul was a very zealous Jew who was also a scholar and a Pharisee; that is a member of the Jewish ruling elite. He pursued all those who claimed to follow Jesus and frequently had them killed. These followers of Jesus were known as The Way and it was Saul’s ambition to totally destroy all members of The Way. Having worked in Jerusalem Saul decided to make his way to Damascus to visit the synagogues there and purge them of any influence from members of The Way. I think it is true to say that Saul was the king of the sceptics and most definitely not a follower of or believer in Jesus Christ. Imagine his utter amazement then when he was confronted on the road to Damascus by the risen Jesus Christ Himself. Even Saul, the arch sceptic, fell to his knees and cried out “Who are you, Lord?” (Acts 9:5) It is interesting to note that Saul was travelling with a number of companions all of whom heard the noise but none of whom saw anything; this appearance by Jesus was for Saul and Saul alone. Remember that Saul was an avowed persecutor of followers of Jesus and so it would have suited him to totally deny the resurrection. However, events overtook him and he could no longer deny that the crucified Jesus had in fact risen from the dead.
Down the years there have been many who have suggested all sorts of theories as to why the resurrection cannot be true. Whilst such people seem to accept that Jesus was laid in a tomb, none of them accept that He left that tomb supernaturally.
One theory suggests that the disciples; that is the eleven remaining close followers of Jesus, actually went to the tomb and stole His body so that they could claim that He had in fact risen just as He said He would. Whilst that may sound good, it cannot have happened. The tomb was guarded on Pilate’s orders so as to prevent just such an event. We are not talking a handful of guards here but at least a dozen maybe more and they would never have succumbed to a bribe or fallen asleep on duty on pain of death. Add to that the fact that the disciples were in essence Jews which meant that they would not have handled a dead body by removing it from a grave as that would have made it and them ceremonially unclean.
A second theory suggests that the Romans themselves stole the body of Jesus and hid it. Why would they have done that when such an act would merely have added to the myth of a risen Jesus? Surely they may have preferred to have displayed Jesus’ body to show that He was most definitely dead.
A further theory centres on the idea that the women who reputedly found Jesus’ tomb to be empty actually went to the wrong tomb, an empty as yet unused tomb. That doesn’t seem likely as I’m certain that it would have been fairly common knowledge where the tomb of Jesus was plus there would have been the heavy presence of military guards.
The final theory to consider is that Jesus wasn’t actually dead but had in fact gone into a deep faint. Remember that Biblical and other evidence suggests that Jesus was beaten, then forced to carry His own heavy cross quite a distance before being nailed to it. Then having hung on the cross for a little while, a guard pierced His side with a spear. Jesus took a lot of punishment and so to suggest that He simply fainted seems far-fetched to say the least. Jesus died, and that’s a fact!
There can be no getting away from the fact that Jesus died and was laid in a tomb. A huge rock was then rolled across the entrance and sealed so that any attempt to get into the tomb would have been obvious. The rock that covered the entrance to the tomb was extremely heavy and would have taken at least two people to move it. Finally, the tomb itself was guarded by Roman troops. And yet, despite all those precautions, on that third day following the crucifixion the tomb was found to be empty, Jesus had gone. The rock covering the entrance had been moved leaving the tomb open; it’s almost as if Jesus strolled out of His own tomb.
I am of the opinion that Jesus did exactly as had been prophesied many years earlier and what He Himself had predicted; He died and on the third day rose again.
Let me bring this to a close by posing a question of my own. If Jesus didn’t exist and didn’t die on a cross and then rise again from His grave, why is it that so many millions of people over hundreds of years and in so many parts of the world have believed and followed Him? Why is it that so many have died in His name? If the existence of Jesus was a hoax then it was a mighty powerful one to have duped so many millions of people.
At the end of the day a lot of this boils down to faith. It comes down to whether or not you believe and accept what the Bible and history has to say about Jesus. There can be little doubt that a man called Jesus existed and walked the earth in the early years of the 1st century. A man named Jesus was also crucified. Those are facts quoted in historical documents. The sticking point is the resurrection which you either accept or deny; that’s where faith comes in. Those who do believe in Jesus and follow Him as His disciples fully accept that He did rise from His tomb and that He exists today if only in Spirit form and in the hearts of millions of believers around the world.
Why not think about it; consider the evidence and come to the realisation that millions of others have and accept that Jesus did rise from the dead and lives today.
 Whiston, William (Translator), The Life and Works of Flavius Josephus, AGES Software: Oregon, USA, 1996/1997, page 1127
 Quoted in Yes - It matters what you think about Jesus, Creative 4 International: Bath, 2013, page 3