Resurrection – Improbable?
In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s second Sherlock Holmes novel, The Sign of the Four, Holmes utters one of his most famous lines to his sidekick Dr Watson, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
I meet lots of people, who think of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, in those kinds of terms. Either it’s impossible, at the very least improbable. “It’s almost too hard to believe.”
And yet, the Apostle Paul makes exactly the opposite argument in this part of the book of Acts, Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?,
“It’s not improbable, actually it’s elementary, my dear Watson!”
So let’s take a look.
This is Paul’s final defence speech in Acts, and we’ve heard him defend himself a number of times against, verse 2, all the accusations of the Jews. They’d accused him of speaking against the temple,
Against the Old Testament Law,
Against the Jewish people themselves,
And the very political accusation that Paul and his Christian message were bad for society.
“The empire would be better off, if this message was silenced.”
And that’s not an uncommon statement even today, is it?
Once upon a time in our society, people were willing to have the Christian message spoken in the public sphere,
Now the Christian message is not so much ignored, it’s described as harmful. Think of Christopher Hitchens best seller God Is Not Great:, How Religion Poisons Everything.
Christianity, and the Christian message are bad for society, Christian people, are bad for society. That’s the message that we’re starting to hear now. Friends, it’s nothing new, and nothing to be alarmed about. The apostle Paul faced the same allegations in the first century AD.
And so against all the accusations of the Jews, Paul now makes his final defence. Or at least the final defence we have a record of.
And Paul gets very quickly to the resurrection of the dead.
Why should the resurrection seem incredible?
See there in verse 6, it is because of my hope in what God has promised our ancestors that I am on trial today
That the Jewish people of Paul’s day, and especially the Pharisees, believed in the resurrection from the dead, looked forward to the resurrection of the dead, goes without saying. No one would argue with that.
We could even say, as Paul does, that all of their hopes for their nation were tied to the hope of the resurrection. They looked forward to the resurrection of the dead, so that the promises God had made in the Old Testament could be fulfilled.
I’ve noted on your outline a few places in the Old Testament, where Israel’s hope for the future is presented in resurrection terms. You can have a look at them later if you’re interested. REFERENCES ON OUTLINE: Isaiah 9:6 – 7, Ezekiel 37:11 – 14, Daniel 12: 1 – 2, Hosea 6:1 – 2,
So when Paul speaks of my hope in what God has promised our ancestors, he’s speaking of the confident expectation that God will fulfil the promises he made during the generations of the Old Testament,
Paul’s question is, “do you think God keeps his Word?”
Because, verse 7, This is the promise our twelve tribes are hoping to see fulfilled as they earnestly serve God day and night
Any faithful Jew, twelve tribes is a way of referring to all the people of Israel, “everyone’s hoping to see God’s promises fulfilled in the raising up of the dead,” Paul says.
He’s asking his accusers, “Do you actually believe, what you claim to believe.”
No one likes a hypocrite, so Paul says, “put your cards on the table.”
Either, you have this hope, not just wishful thinking, “I hope I pass my exams”, but a confident expectation, That God will raise the dead as he has promised.
Or you think God’s a liar.
And so show that he stands in continuity with all God’s promises, he even goes back to his Sunday school days!
I don’t know if you’d be too impressed if I pulled out the books that I received as prizes for learning memory verses in the Darwin Baptist Church Sunday School, in the early 1980s.
But my name is written in the front, these are awarded to me!
Paul brings his entire life into the argument, from his childhood, to say, it is a matter of public record that I have lived my life according to the promises God has made.
And the implication in verse 4 and 5 is that those opposing Paul would be muttering away, “well, yes, yes, that’s what he was like,
We know he was a Pharisee, we know what he believed,
He was one of these uber strict ones.”
“OK,”, says Paul, “So we’ve established that what I believe stands in line with all of God’s promises,
What about you?
Do you think that God keeps his word?
Because if you believe God’s promises, verse 8, Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?
Do you believe what God has said?
And if you do, why would you think it unusual that God would raise Jesus from the dead?, especially when he has promised that he will!
And if we think about our own situation for a moment,
There’s much talk about a decline in Christian belief in Australia, And of course the moving of the “no religion” category in the census form to the top of the religion list for the next census will probably have a donkey vote effect, with more people ticking that box.
But research done in the last few years turns up perhaps interesting and unexpected findings.
74% of Australians believe in God.
45% believe in life after death,
And 43% believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
We might be tempted to think, “Surely none of my friends are going to listen to me talk about my Christian faith if I start saying that Jesus came back from the dead.”
The thing is, at least according to that research, nearly half of our friends believe it already!
And if, as Christian people, we’re sometimes tempted to think,
Is the resurrection real?
Is it really an essential part of what we believe? Because, it can seem improbable or impossible,
Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?
Do you believe that God keeps his Word?,
In short, can God be trusted?
If God’s word can be trusted, then the resurrection is not improbable or impossible, but guaranteed.
So Paul’s argument is like this:
Do you believe God’s promises?
Then you believe in the resurrection from the dead?
Well, if you do, why don’t you believe in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, which proves that he is the Messiah, God’s king, and the fulfilment of all God’s promises?
For God’s Old Testament people, the resurrection from the dead was supposed to be a sign,
It would make you sit up and take notice, because something big was about to happen.
In the last few months, many of you will have seen the sign on the Old Princes Highway between Littlehampton and Nairne, announcing roadworks coming. There’s going to be a roundabout.
And so this week, if you drove along it, and had to slow down to 25, and go onto the wrong side of the road, and you saw the bulldozers and trucks and whatever else,
You weren’t surprised,
You didn’t think “how unexpected!
How can this be?
Why is there machinery blocking my way?”
You’d seen the sign, and so you knew exactly what was happening; finally, our new Freeway interchange is taking shape!
For God’s people, because of everything that God had promised in the days of the Old Testament, someone rising from the dead, was to be a sign.
They weren’t supposed to go “Someone’s been raised from the dead. I wonder what’s going on here. What does all this mean?”
But “Someone’s been raised from the dead, I therefore know exactly what’s going on here; God’s king has come.
The Messiah is now reigning.
Paul very shrewdly shows that those who are opposing him, have failed to believe God’s promises,
Failed to understand the sign that God had given them.
But Paul says, I have to admit that once upon a time I too refused to believe that Jesus was the Messiah.
And so explains again, how he vigorously opposed the Christian message, putting Christians in prison, and even, verse 10, casting his vote to have them put to death.
Notice, Christian people are still meeting in synagogues, Jewish places of worship, see there in verse 11.
One record indicates there were 394 synagogues in Jerusalem when the city was destroyed by the Romans about a decade after these events.
And it was to some or all of them, that Christian people went to pray and hear from God’s Word.
Paul is not unusual, he’s not the outlier in thinking that Christianity is the natural, logical outworking of Judaism,
The theologically coherent continuation of the Jewish faith.
All the first Christians thought that.
Paul was formerly a persecutor of Jesus
But it was this persecution of Christian people from synagogue to synagogue, that gv led Paul one day, to the city of Damascus.
You may remember, this is the third account of Paul’s conversion, or should we say Saul’s conversion, as he was known at the time. And each time we get some new details that are particularly appropriate to the context.
So they’re on the road, when there’s a bright light from heaven, and Saul heard a voice;, Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?
Saul thinks he’s been doing God’s business by rounding up people who claim that God is acting in fulfilment of his promises,
Christians who believe that God has sent the sign, the resurrection of the dead. The freeway interchange is now a reality! Or, God’s kingdom is now a reality!
Paul doesn’t believe any of that.
And now, in what we can only imagine must have been a stomach churning moment, God speaks to Saul, and accuses him, not of serving God, put persecuting him. And in fact it’s Jesus himself who speaks to Saul, verse 15, I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,
Notice in verse 15, Saul asks, “who are you Lord” and then, the Lord replied, and in the original language, Lord and the Lord are side by side, emphasising that this isn’t just polite language, but this voice from heaven, is Jesus, the Lord.
Jesus, equal with God.
Jesus who was crucified is now alive!
He is in heaven!
That means he wasn’t some crazy religious nutcase, or false teacher, he’s been vindicated by God,
He’s ascended to heaven,
He’s in God’s presence now.
And in persecuting Christian people, Saul has been persecuting this glorious, risen, ascended, divine, Jesus.
Which, when we think about it, must mean that Jesus sees Christians as his own people, in a really unique and special way.
Jesus identifies with Christian people, with those who trust in him for forgiveness, who believe that he is God’s king, Jesus relates to those people, in a way, that isn’t true of the way Jesus relates to people more generally
And so as we noted the last time we looked at Saul’s conversion, if you’re a Christian, please see how Jesus thinks of his relationship with you!
Please notice how closely Jesus identifies with you.
Because it doesn’t always feel like this, does it?
Now, hardly any of us are persecuted for our faith in Jesus, although that is the reality for lots of Christians around the world, I read a report just this week saying Christians are the most persecuted group on earth.
We’re much more likely to face the disdain of colleagues,
Maybe family members mock our hope in Jesus,
Not often, persecution in these terms, but what we do face can be disheartening, demoralising, make us feel isolated and alone.
Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?
While we might feel that we’re facing opposition for our Christian faith alone, Jesus thinks the exact opposite.
Which is definitely an encouragement, but also it’s a little reminder for us to think about our conduct in those moments of opposition.
If Jesus thinks he’s right there with us,
Right there with me,
In that conversation with husband, wife, parent, boss,
Right there with me when I’m,
When I’m tempted to bite,
And fight back,
And respond ungraciously,
To be reminded that Jesus is right there beside me in that moment, it’s just a little prod, in the direction of a right, godly, and gracious response, isn’t it?
But maybe, And if, by this point in Acts, you’re feeling a bit of an expert in Paul’s conversion, you maybe noticed the new detail shared here.
Paul says the voice of Jesus spoke to him in Aramaic, literally “the language of the Hebrews.”
During the First World War, the Governor of the US state of Iowa, William Harding, issued a proclamation forbidding the use of any language other than English in schools, on trains, even over the telephone! It was called the Babel Proclamation!
But Harding also went so far as to say “There is no use in anyone wasting his time praying in other languages than English.
God is listening only to the English tongue”!
Well Paul’s not saying that God only speaks one language, but he does want to demonstrate that even his interaction with God, is in the language of God’s people.
There’s nothing about this, that says Christianity is something new, or innovative.
Resistance is futile
And the other new detail, included here for the first time, is that funny phrase from Jesus, Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.
A goad was a stick with a point on it, that was used to prod cattle! And actually I discovered, in my personal Bible reading just this week, in 1 Samuel 13, that the pointy end was seriously pointy, and you’d go to the blacksmith to get your goads repointed.
Think of a half-inch diameter metal skewer!
So this is a painful picture!, to kick against the goads.
And it we find it used in places like the plays of Euripides, a few hundred years before Paul, as a metaphor for useless opposition to a deity.
Resistance is futile.
With the coming of God’s king,
With the life and death, the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, God had put in motion the central aspects of his plans for all of history. God wants to draw all things together under Jesus, the head of everything. Remember, Ephesians 1 from earlier in the year.
And the growth of the church, and the spread of the gospel of Jesus, the good news of reconciliation with God through Jesus, is an absolutely integral part of what God is doing in the world.
And so there’s no way that one little Pharisee from Jerusalem is going to mess up God’s plans,
Is going get in the way of God achieving what he wants to,
God’s not going to let Saul, or some other person in another generation, in our generation, get in the way of God giving the world, what he thinks it needs,
What he thinks is good for it.
Think of the person, who seems to you, most opposed to the good news of Jesus, most violently outspoken maybe, in their hatred of Christian things.
They might seem intimidating,
They might seem to have the ear of all of society, attuned to their words,
But if they have set themselves up in opposition to God,
If they’re trying to stop God, bringing about in his world, what he thinks the world needs;,
The hope of eternity,
The promise of reconciliation with God,
The assurance of forgiveness,
Whoever that is, they will not stand in God’s way.
They will not defeat God,
It is hard for you to kick against the goads.
And no doubt Paul includes the detail here when he’s skipped it previously, is to say to King Agrippa, to Bernice, the high-ranking military officers and the prominent men of the city, to the Jewish religious leaders who oppose him, resistance is futile.
What great assurance for Luke’s early readers, about to face the first widespread and official persecution of Christians.
And equally, what a good reminder for us.
No one who sets themselves up to silence the Christian message, or wipe the name of Jesus from the earth, will ultimately triumph.
What was the shape of Paul’s ministry?
I want us to spend the rest of our time thinking about what Paul says about Christian ministry.
Because he invests most of the rest of his defence, in an explanation for King Agrippa, about the shape and character of his ministry;, both what Jesus said to him his ministry would he like, and also his own description of how he’s sought to be obedient to Jesus’ commission.
Most of us would call ourselves Christians. We think of ourselves as being involved in God’s work in the world, and yet we know that Paul was different to us.
He had unique role. It was through him that the good news of forgiveness and relationship with God through Jesus pressed out into the Gentile world. Not everything that applies to him, applies to us.
And yet, some of Paul’s experience,
Much of the shape and character of Paul’s ministry, is directly applicable to those who serve the cause of the gospel more broadly.
We think of places like Paul’s farewell to the elders of the Ephesian churches in Acts chapter 20,
Or the way we describes the example of his ministry in 1 Thessalonians, and how the new Christians there came to imitate his ministry,
Or his instructions to his younger colleagues, Titus and Timothy, there is plenty about Paul’s ministry, that is to be copied, and imitated and modelled,
And so much of what we see here, can shape and sharpen what we do, labouring as we do, for the cause of the gospel.
Paul gives eyewitness testimony
So first we see that Paul’s ministry as an apostle, is to be a servant and witness of the risen Jesus. Verse 16, I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen and will see of me.
The language here is reminiscent of Luke chapter 1 verse 2, where, in his introduction to these 2 books, Luke says that what he’s written down, has been handed down from those who were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.
There is a unique place, in the spread of the Christian message for people who were eyewitnesses of Jesus. In Acts chapter 1, when the apostles were planning to replace Judas, the requirement for becoming an apostle, a foundational leader of the church, is to have been an eyewitness of the resurrected Jesus, to have had a real encounter with Jesus after he’s been raised from the dead.
So when Jesus meets Paul on the Damascus road, that encounter isn’t necessary for conversion, for coming to faith in Christ, but it is necessary for Paul to be an apostle. He is to be a servant and witness of what he has seen, and will see of Jesus.
That’s a good distinction for us to remember. Don’t think that your conversion to Christ is somehow second rate, if you didn’t meet Jesus by the side of the road like Paul did!
And if you’re not a Christian, please don’t think, “I’ll just keep waiting until Jesus appears to me one on the side of the Freeway one day.”
Becoming a Christian is ordinarily much less spectacular;! Simply believing that Jesus died the death that you deserved for living in rebellion against God!
But Paul is to be an eyewitness, of me. Not of Clayton, but of Jesus. Both of what he’s seen;,
Jesus is alive,
Jesus is in heaven,
Jesus’ claims to be the Christ have been vindicated,
And also the things that Jesus is yet to show him. And we’ve seen, haven’t we, that one of the things that Jesus continually demonstrates to Paul in the book of Acts, is his ability to sustain and preserve Christian witnesses, even when it looks like the cause of the gospel is about to fail.
Paul is to be a witness, about Jesus.
Not a witness about series of rules and regulations,
Not a witness about moral framework,
Not to a message of self-improvement,
The message of Christianity is a message about Jesus.
And we see, all through the New Testament, Paul tells Christian people, the message you heard from me, that’s the message that needs to be passed on. So 2 Timothy chapter 2, for example, Paul, near the end of his life, explains to his young friend Timothy what the shape of his ministry should look like, the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses, entrust to reliable people, who will also be qualified to teach others
Paul’s message about Jesus, is normative of the church for all generations.
Verse 17 though implies that this message about Jesus will not always we welcomed! I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles
Paul isn’t promised a good hearing,
He isn’t promised a positive response every time. Really it’s the opposite!
And if Paul, Jesus’ specially appointed messenger, isn’t promised immunity from opposition, and hardship, and rejection, well it would be foolish of us to expect that wouldn’t it?
In fact God’s language here, deliberately echoes what he said to his prophets in the Old Testament about how their message would be received.
Don’t think that just because your efforts to share the great hope that you have in Jesus, seem to make people only more firmly opposed to Jesus, don’t imagine for a moment that you’ve failed in your task,
That you’ve let the side down,
Or that something unexpected is happening.
The message about Jesus brings light and forgiveness
But the gospel of Jesus isn’t without effect. Some will oppose Paul and those who follow him, but look at what Jesus says happens, when people hear the eyewitness testimony about Jesus.
I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins
When Paul speaks about Jesus, God’s king, the one to whom allegiance is due,
When the Spirit of God takes that message, and brings it into people’s hearts, a real transformation happens.
People are brought from darkness, into light,
from the power of Satan, to God
And they receive forgiveness of sins.
Now, we’ve already seen that Paul’s message is the same message that’s been passed down and entrusted to us.
So friends, when we speak this eyewitness testimony,
When we bring, this the Word of God to bear on people’s lives,
The Spirit of God does his work, and the same transformation of lives can happen today, as what Jesus promised Paul nearly 2000 years ago,
Light, deliverance, forgiveness.
I wonder, is that what you think, hope, pray, anticipate, expect will happen, when you point people to Jesus as we find him in the Scriptures?
I think, we all too easily lose confidence in the Word of God, to effect this change, to bring light and forgiveness, to free people from the power of Satan, and bring them into relationship with God.
Friends, the gospel of Jesus, the gospel message entrusted to you and to me, has the power to transform lives. The barrier of sin and rebellion that stands between people and God, can be taken away.
At this moment you are holding in your hands,
And in your minds,
And on your tongue,
The one thing that can break down the barrier that separates people from God.
The message about Jesus continues to have an effect
The final thing I want us to note is that the message about Jesus continues to have an effect. The eye-witness message about Jesus that brings people from darkness into light, doesn’t stop having an effect the moment someone’s trusts in Jesus.
See verse 20, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and demonstrate their repentance by their deeds.
Having been brought from the power of Satan, into relationship with God, the change that the good news of Jesus brings into someone’s life doesn’t stop there.
Of course you can’t see that spiritual, inward transformation. Someone doesn’t look different, the moment they believe that Jesus has reconciled them to God.
But we should be able to see the effects of that invisible transformation, Paul says.
If I’m living with Jesus as number 1, and not myself, if I realise that, despite that superannuation ad from a few years ago, I’m not the most important person in the world,
Well that change of allegiance should be evident in my life.
How I spend my time,
How I treat people, the things I think are most important, all of that will change.
Sometimes we see it very clearly in the lives of those who become Christians here in our community, their deeds, their lives, make it very clear, that something has changed;,
They’re no longer living for themselves,
They’re submitting their preferences and desires, to the preferences and needs of others,
They’re working hard, asking to be kept accountable, to bring their lives into conformity with the pattern of Christ.
They say to others here “please help me live in a way that is honouring to Christ.”
And in many cases, the demonstration of their repentance, is quite remarkable.
But what worries me, is that for some of us who have been Christians for much, much longer, I wonder where are the deeds, the works, the fruit, that demonstrate our repentance,
Where is the evidence that we are, in the words of verse 18, sanctified by faith Jesus?
Paul sees coming to faith in Jesus, not just a decision in a moment of time, but as an entire ethical transformation.
Where is the evidence that we’re living the life of God’s holy, sanctified people?
I’m not saying there isn’t any, I’m not accusing us of that at all.
But we read Paul’s letters in the New Testament,
And he constantly looks for a life of holiness, being set apart for God,
He looks for a life of love,
He looks for a life of consistently putting the needs of others before our own, of being the servant to all, as the evidence, of genuine faith in Jesus.
The longer we go on in the world, the easier it is to become indistinguishable,
To no longer demonstrate our repentance by our deeds
I’m sure we’ve all heard the story that if you put a frog in boiling water, and it will jump out immediately, but put a frog in cold water and slowly raise the temperature, the frog will swim happily around, unaware of his impending doom until he’s cooked.
The fact is, the story’s a myth, don’t go home and try it, just take my word for it or Google it!
But if it were true, it would be a perfect illustration of the danger for those of us who have been Christians for a while.
The response that the gospel of Jesus once elicited from us, can fade further and further, the longer we’re around, and eventually we just kind of forget that our lives are supposed to demonstrate something. Meanwhile, people who are coming to faith around us are jumping out of the pot all over the place!
The Jews, those who considered themselves God’s people didn’t like to be told that they ought to be producing evidence of their faith in God, and so they seized Paul, and tried to kill him
I pray that we might not react so defiantly, to the call to live demonstrably as those sanctified by faith in Jesus.