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Circumstantial Evidence of the Resurrection

The Silence of Jewish Leaders

Why wasn't the resurrection flatly denied? The Jewish leaders (referred to as Sadducees, Pharisees, chief priests, scribes) looked at Christians as a thorn in their side, both before and after the resurrection. This is why they were so adamant about stopping Peter and John from preaching. But through it all, they never denied the resurrection that these apostles were preaching. The following passage from the book of Acts is indicative of the interaction between the apostles and the Jewish leadership. While it is a fairly long reading, it bears examination in extracting the true disposition of the Jews,

"As they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to them, being greatly disturbed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. And they laid hands on them and put them in jail until the next day, for it was already evening. But many of those who had heard the message believed; and the number of the men came to be about five thousand.

On the next day, their rulers and elders and scribes were gathered together in Jerusalem; and Annas the high priest was there, and Caiaphas and John and Alexander, and all who were of high-priestly descent. When they had placed them in the center, they began to inquire, 'By what power, or in what name, have you done this?'

Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, 'Rulers and elders of the people, if we are on trial today for a benefit done to a sick man, as to how this man has been made well, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead--by this name this man stands here before you in good health. He is the STONE WHICH WAS REJECTED by you, THE BUILDERS, but WHICH BECAME THE CHIEF CORNER stone. And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.'

Now as they observed the confidence of Peter and John and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus. And seeing the man who had been healed standing with them, they had nothing to say in reply. But when they had ordered them to leave the Council, they began to confer with one another, saying, 'What shall we do with these men? For the fact that a noteworthy miracle has taken place through them is apparent to all who live in Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it. But so that it will not spread any further among the people, let us warn them to speak no longer to any man in this name.'

And when they had summoned them, they commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said to them, 'Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.' When they had threatened them further, they let them go (finding no basis on which to punish them) on account of the people, because they were all glorifying God for what had happened." (Acts 4:1-21)

Verse 14 is especially powerful: When presented with the fact of miracles performed through the power of the resurrected Christ, they [the Sadducees] had nothing to say in reply. Furthermore, during this same event about 5,000 men, most likely Jews, came to believe. Why would 5,000 men believe in the resurrection, and Jesus as Messiah, if the Jewish leaders had offered a strong case against the resurrection? The answer, quite simply, is that the attesting case in favor of the resurrection was beyond reasonable doubt.

The Change in the Disciples' Attitude

According to Matthew 26:56, as soon as Jesus was arrested,

"...all the disciples left Him and fled."

They wanted no part of the torturous exercise that Christ was about to endure. And apparently their cowardice did not end there. In his account of the gospel, John records in 20:19 that Jesus found the disciples behind closed doors for fear of the Jews.

"So when it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, 'Peace be with you.'" (John 20:19)

"After eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors having been shut, and stood in their midst and said, 'Peace be with you.'" (John 20:26)

Even after eight days of thinking, reasoning, and considering what had happened Jesus still finds them behind locked doors for fear of the Jews. Even after eight days of pondering the power of the risen Lord they are still trembling.

Why would eleven men that are hiding in a locked room soon be preaching to the people they are hiding from? According to Josephus and other ancient secular historians, eleven of the twelve apostles died as martyrs. Why would these men be hiding one day, and dying the next? I can only explain it one way--stated above by John--Jesus came and stood in their midst.

What about Peter? In Matthew 26, Peter is described as denying Christ to a servant-girl. If he is not willing to proclaim his Lord to a servant, how much less likely would he be to proclaim the Messiah to the Jewish leaders, whom he feared? Why would Peter be preaching to these very people just a few days later? Perhaps the answer is found in 1 Corinthians 15:5,

"He appeared to Cephas..."

What about James?

"For not even His brothers were believing in Him." (John 7:5)

In this passage James, the brother of Jesus, is depicted as an unbeliever, but later we read in James 1:1 that he considers himself a bond-servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ. In Galatians 1:19 Paul refers to James as an apostle. What caused this dramatic change in attitude? Could it be 1 Corinthians 15:7,

"then He appeared to James..."

And then there Was Saul

Perhaps the most dramatic change in attitude came from Saul of Tarsus, a Jewish persecutor of the church. Even if all of the other disciples somehow were fooled, it is clear that Saul was not. Prior to his remarkable transformation from Pharisee to Christian, Saul was completely devoted and loyal to the Jewish leadership, and committed to stamping out Christianity.

"I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and putting both men and women into prisons, as also the high priest and all the Council of the elders can testify. From them I also received letters to the brethren, and started off for Damascus in order to bring even those who were there to Jerusalem as prisoners to be punished." (Acts 22:4-5)

Why would such a man, so zealous for God, so committed to the Jewish tradition, suddenly change his life so dramatically? Why would Saul (who would later be called Paul) change from a life of political power, wealth, and stature, to die a martyr for a lie? Maybe it was not a lie. Perhaps the answer is in 1 Corinthians 15:8,

"and last of all, as it were to one untimely born, He appeared to me also."

There is a personal application here that should not be passed over. Saul's change from Pharisee to Christian was a dramatic one. Suppose someone came knocking on your door peddling a belief system that you passionately oppose. I'm not speaking of something that you don't care about, but something that you heartily oppose. Perhaps Mormonism or Hinduism. Or how about Communism, or Marxism. Here is the application: What would it take to get you to suddenly become a fervent supporter of that belief system? I have asked that question in classes from time to time and the answer is nearly always the same--a miracle.

Saul was not just indifferent about Christianity. He was actively hauling people in and throwing them in jail. He was arduously working to stamp out the cause. Then suddenly and without warning, Saul became a Christian, working just as fervently to promote the cause he once tried to destroy.

"Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea which were in Christ; but only, they kept hearing, 'He who once persecuted us is now preaching the faith which he once tried to destroy.' And they were glorifying God because of me." (Galatians 1:21-24)

The disciples were zealous and dedicated to what they believed in, but it was not a blind faith. They would not easily be swayed, and it is ridiculous to think that these men were stupid enough to be fooled by some fabricated tale of Christ's resurrection. They saw something. They were eyewitnesses to His life and resurrection, in order that they might testify to others that He has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead.

"We are witnesses of all the things He did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They also put Him to death by hanging Him on a cross. God raised Him up on the third day and granted that He become visible, not to all the people, but to witnesses who were chosen beforehand by God, that is, to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead. And He ordered us to preach to the people, and solemnly to testify that this is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead." (Acts 10:39-42)

It Was Taken for Granted in Scripture

When Paul was writing to the Corinthians he laid everything on the line regarding the resurrection,

"For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins." (1 Corinthians 15:16-17)

In this passage Paul makes a rhetorical statement using the fact of Christ's resurrection to support the concept of resurrection. In order to use this argument there could have been no question that Christ had been raised. If there was any disbelief, not only would his argument have been in vain, but he may have caused doubts among them about Christ. Numerous other passages grant the same assumption,

"For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection," (Romans 6:5)

"But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you." (Romans 8:11)

"For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come." (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10)

It was obvious that the readers of these letters knew, beyond doubt, that Christ had been raised. To say that His resurrection was taken for granted is, in fact, a gross understatement--it is the central theme of all scripture, Old and New Testament alike.

The Change to Sunday Worship

For the entire history of Israel the Jews had been absolutely unwavering about their observance of the Sabbath. Suddenly, thousands of Jews abandoned this long-standing tradition in favor of worship on the first day of the week.

"On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to leave the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight." (Acts 20:7)

The writing of Justin Martyr, an early Christian leader of the second century, makes note of this same practice in the early church,

"And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits." 1

Why would thousands of Jews suddenly change from the commanded practice of observing the Sabbath to one that they considered sinful? What happened on Sunday that was big enough to cause this dramatic change? Could it be the resurrection of the Messiah?

The Sacrament of Baptism

Consider Paul's reminder to the Romans,

"Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life." (Romans 6:4)

"Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you--not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience--through the resurrection of Jesus Christ." (1 Peter 3:21)

Peter also links the act of Christian baptism expressly with the resurrection of Jesus. It is through this act of being buried and raised in water, that we identify with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. If Christ's resurrection did not occur, the ceremony of baptism would have no meaning. The letters of Paul and Peter would have been nonsense. Instead, thousands of Jews were performing this very act just days after they had put Jesus to death on the cross.

Disregard for the Tomb

Every year thousands flock to Mount Glenwood Cemetery in Glenwood, Illinois to honor the tomb of Elijah Poole Muhammad, a self-proclaimed prophet and primary activist of Islam in the United States--in other words, just a man. But the tomb of Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God was forgotten immediately after His death.

Today the tombs of many religious leaders have become shrines and honorary places of worship--but not the tomb of Jesus. Why? Why wouldn't His faithful followers at least pay their respects occasionally? Why wasn't some tradition, at least a short-lived one, established in His honor? The lucid answer is that the disciples of Christ disregarded the tomb as an empty meaningless shell in favor of the resurrected Lord.

The Success of the Church

Imagine... from a tiny clan of timid followers in Jerusalem, thousands, tens of thousands, and hundreds of thousands were persuaded that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. Doesn't that strike you as odd? Doesn't it seem strange that Peter, a fisherman who was prone to backing down when the going got tough, was able to speak so powerfully that a whirlwind of frenzy was created so compelling that it spread throughout Palestine and the known world within a few short years?

In spite of ruthless opposition, the church was launched at an explosive rate. Furthermore, it happened right in the heart of Jerusalem, the city of the empty tomb. This was the same city where the enemies of Christ had crucified Him only a few weeks before. And His church was founded on the very fact of the resurrection. If this resurrection was a farce there is no way the disciples could hope to convince the Jewish listeners of the deity of Christ.

The success of the early church should not be underestimated. It is perhaps the most far reaching of all the evidence. Further, it was done in the face of incredible persecution. Peter Gomes of Harvard University considers this to be of great significance,

"What is Christianity's greatest accomplishment in our century? It survived." 2

Even the apostles themselves would have been skeptical if their faith had not been firmly rooted in a point of undeniable historical fact. And here we have the response to the very odd circumstance. People, faced with the question of Jesus as Lord, could not deny this simple yet so profound fact.

Little is known about the apostles beyond the writing of the New Testament, but according to historical church tradition and secular writings all but John died as martyrs. These are torturous and horrific deaths, which they suffered for naming Jesus Christ as Lord.



Peter Crucified upside down
Andrew Crucified
James Killed with sword (Acts 12:1-2)
John Natural Causes
Philip Crucified
Bartholomew Crucified
Thomas Killed by spear
Matthew Killed by axe
James Killed by club
Thaddeus Crucified
Simon the Zealot Crucified
Paul Beheaded
Matthias Stoned and beheaded

Even more amazing is that Jewish followers had to be persuaded in the face of pending persecution. Based solely on the truth of Christ's victory over death, the disciples were convicted to teach of His resurrection and power, and the listeners were compelled to respond. Skeptics will be hard pressed to produce, from the historical facts, an explanation for the three thousand converts at Pentecost. Something amazing and powerful caused that response... something undeniable.

Jesus Foretold His Death and Resurrection

The fact that Christ was to be crucified and resurrected was foretold several times prior to it taking place. For example, Matthew records:

"From that time Jesus Christ began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day." (Matthew 16:21)

In fact, the Jewish leaders were so concerned about it that they petitioned Pilot for guards to protect the tomb. Foretelling of the resurrection shows that not only was it an expected event, but also that it was all part of God's plan. In fact, nearly 1,000 years earlier David had recorded this same event in a prophetic Psalm,

"For Thou wilt not abandon my soul to Sheol; Neither wilt Thou allow Thy Holy One to undergo decay." (Psalm 16:10)

Women Saw Him First

While this seems like a minor point, anyone familiar with Jewish customs in the first century can appreciate it. Women were not viewed as reliable witnesses during the time of Christ and would never have been part of a fabricated story. In fact, had the story been contrived, it would have likely been some high ranking Jewish official that spotted the empty tomb and first saw Jesus. This would have provided superior credibility. Instead the story goes like this,

"And the angel answered and said to the women, 'Do not be afraid; for I know that you are looking for Jesus who has been crucified. He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said. Come, see the place where He was lying. And go quickly and tell His disciples that He has risen from the dead; and behold, He is going before you into Galilee, there you will see Him; behold, I have told you.' And they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy and ran to report it to His disciples. And behold, Jesus met them and greeted them. And they came up and took hold of His feet and worshipped Him." (Matthew 28:5-9)

The Grave Clothes Were Left Behind

In keeping with Jewish custom, Jesus' body had been anointed with spices and bound in linen wrappings in preparation for burial. But these grave clothes tell a story,

"So Peter and the other disciple went forth, and they were going to the tomb. The two were running together; and the other disciple ran ahead faster than Peter and came to the tomb first; and stooping and looking in, he saw the linen wrappings lying there; but he did not go in. And so Simon Peter also came, following him, and entered the tomb; and he saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the face-cloth which had been on His head, not lying with the linen wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself." (John 20:3-7)

First, the wrappings were there, indicating that the body was not stolen. Any robber would simply pick up the body, wrappings and all, and remove it from the tomb. Especially if they were in danger of being discovered by Roman guards. No thief would take the time to remove the binding. Second, the face cloth was neatly folded. This too, is strong evidence that the body was not stolen. What grave robber would take the time to neatly fold a wrapping and set it aside?

Third, the grave clothes were lying in their original location, demonstrating the supernatural nature of the resurrection. This evidence is inferred by the location of the face cloth, which was no longer with the clothes; and by the fact that Peter and John peered into the tomb and believed. If they were to suspect a robbery it would have been characterized by a disheveled mess of sticky binding material. If Christ had been merely mortal there would have been a struggle and a very disturbed look to the linen wrappings. And it is unlikely that the face wrapping would have been neatly and noticeably placed aside. A mess like that would have alarmed them, rather than amazed them. Something about the grave clothes caused them to instantly believe when they saw them.

What Happened on Pentecost

The events at Pentecost are an oft forgotten component of evidence regarding the resurrection of Christ. Similarly, they are also the most misunderstood. Much of the information available regarding the finality of scripture will be helpful here. Remember that Jesus told the apostles at His final Passover feast that it was necessary for Him to leave, but that the Holy Spirit would come to help them,

"But now I am going to Him who sent Me; and none of you asks Me, 'Where are You going?' But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you... And I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of Mine and will disclose it to you. All things that the Father has are Mine; therefore I said that He takes of Mine and will disclose it to you." (John 16:5-15)

Jesus gives a sure sign of His ascent back to heaven - the Holy Spirit will come. As with most of the important events surrounding Jesus, this event was foretold through the prophets in the Old Testament,

"I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son, and they will weep bitterly over Him like the bitter weeping over a firstborn." (Zechariah 12:10)

"It will come about after this that I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind; And your sons and daughters will prophesy, Your old men will dream dreams, Your young men will see visions. Even on the male and female servants I will pour out My Spirit in those days." (Joel 2:28-29)

The prophecy of Zechariah gives me chills, as he points to not only the pouring out of the Spirit, but the death, and even the manner of death, of Jesus. Peter references Joel's prophecy on the day of Pentecost as he recounts what has just happened. Prior to Peter's bold address, however, it is worth noting the cowardice that plagued the apostles, even after the resurrection of Christ. The apostles had previously spent much time behind locked doors for fear of the Jews (John 20:19,26). Matthew records an interesting attitude just prior to the ascension of Christ,

"But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated. When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful." (Matthew 28:16-17)

I find this peculiar. The eleven disciples, those closest to Christ, are all witnesses of His bodily resurrection. They are all convicted enough to worship Him as Lord; but some were doubtful. It's worth noting that this is not a reference to Thomas, the doubter. Thomas simply wanted to see the evidence that the others had already seen. Matthew is noting the doubt of those that had already seen, and had worshipped Jesus.

What were they doubtful about? It couldn't have been the resurrection; they were standing in front of Him. It seems safe to conclude, especially given the faint-heartedness exposed by John, that they were doubtful about what would happen next. Perhaps about their ability to carry on, knowing that Jesus would be gone. This is perfectly in character and calls for the reassuring word that Jesus responds with as He commissions them to go,

"All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." (Matthew 28:18-20)

The great historian Luke records the final words of Jesus on this subject for us,

"The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when He was taken up to heaven, after He had by the Holy Spirit given orders to the apostles whom He had chosen. To these He also presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God. Gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, "Which," He said," you heard of from Me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now." So when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, "Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?" He said to them, "It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth." (Acts 1:1-8)

Notice, as in John, Jesus speaks specifically to the apostles whom He had chosen. He repeats the promise that He gave prior to His death, that the Holy Spirit would come not many days from now. Additionally, He describes the specific purpose for which the power of the Holy Spirit is intended--to be witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth. Shortly after the ascension of Jesus, Luke records the fulfillment of the words of Christ,

"When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance. Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the crowd came together, and were bewildered because each one of them was hearing them speak in his own language. They were amazed and astonished, saying, "Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans? "And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born? "Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs--we hear them in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God." And they all continued in amazement and great perplexity, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" (Acts 2:1-12)

On the day of Pentecost, just as Jesus described, the Spirit was poured forth. The apostles begin to speak to people from many different regions each in his own language. The amazement and great perplexity of the listeners gives credence to the miracle that was occurring. From that day on the apostles would never again be found in fear of the Jews, nor would they be found doubtful. Instead, they would go about the region and the world, making disciples and confirming their testimony with the powerful works of the Holy Spirit.

On this day a change took place in the apostles that defies explanation. They went from cowardly men who would hide and deny Christ, to men who would die for their Lord. The works that they performed were further testimony of the power of the Holy Spirit at work in them. At this great event, Peter preaches the first gospel sermon and underscores this very point in his explanation of what was happening.

"This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses. Therefore having been exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He has poured forth this, which you both see and hear. For it was not David who ascended into heaven, but he himself says: 'THE LORD SAID TO MY LORD, "SIT AT MY RIGHT HAND, UNTIL I MAKE YOUR ENEMIES A FOOTSTOOL FOR YOUR FEET.' Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ--this Jesus whom you crucified." (Acts 2:32-36)

Peter's logic is expected. If the Spirit has been poured forth, then Christ must have been raised. He ascended to heaven and sent forth the Spirit just as promised. The power of the Holy Spirit, poured forth on Pentecost and demonstrated throughout the ministry of the apostles, was concrete proof that Jesus was raised and ascended back to heaven.

Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapter 65.
Life Magazine, 2000 Years of Christianity, December 1999, p.53

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