By Pastor Glenn Pease
An Irishman on holiday in New York went into a drug store and asked for a small tube of toothpaste. When the clerk handed him a tube he noticed it was marked large. "I'd rather have a small one," he said. "Listen bud," the clerk replied. "In this country toothpaste comes in three sizes: Large, giant, and super. So if you want a small tube ask for large-see?" The mystified traveler found himself caught up in the topsy turvy world of believe it or not paradox where large can be the smallest thing available. There may be limits to what fiction can produce, but most anything can be true in reality.
The proof that truth is often stranger than fiction is the fact that the first Christians were also the first doubters, deniers, and disbelievers in the resurrection of Christ. The paradox of Christian disbelievers is a biblical fact, believe it or not. That first glorious Easter dawn is glorious to us as we look back from our point of view, but for those actually participating in that first Easter it was far from glorious. In fact, as strange as it may seem, the first Easter was the day of the greatest unbelief in history.
We think our day is one of unbelief and skepticism, but it cannot match the unbelief of the first Easter. I doubt is there is any period of history that can match it, for it is the only time in history where all believers were unbelievers. Believe it or not, there was not a single Christian who even showed a sign of belief in the resurrection of Christ until they were compelled to believe by His very appearance. Everyone of them, without exception, was a confirmed skeptic and doubter.
We are so use to making the quick transition from gloomy Good Friday to glorious Easter morning, that we tend to ignore the fact that Jesus had to work all day before He convinced His own disciples that He was really risen and alive. The transition from gloom to glory was not as swift as we have come to make it. It was a difficult process of persuasion, and not an instantaneous transformation. As Christians, we often act as if belief was an easy thing, and an effortless goal to attain, but this is not being realistic about man's nature, and His natural skepticism. When it comes to the matter of death and life beyond the grave, men have deep seeded doubts. All the evidence of our senses is against it, and man longs for evidence of the senses to destroy his doubts. We are so dependent upon physical facts for assurance. Tennyson wrote,
O Christ, that it were possible
For one short hour to see
The souls we loved, that they might tell us
What and where they be.
When James Russell Lowell returned from the funeral of one he loved dearer than life, he said to those who tried to comfort him with the hope of communion in spirit,
But I who am earthly and weak,
Would give all my income from dreamland,
For a touch of her hand on my cheek.
Were these men deniers of the faith? Not at all! They were simply expressing the fact that belief and faith do not come easy. The demand of the human mind for concrete evidence is so strong that the leap of faith is hard to take. The biblical record recognizes this, and so, believe it or not, the first believers were not men and women of faith, but men and women of fact. They would not accept anything by faith. They not only would not take a leap of faith, they would not even take a step of faith. All the critics of the resurrection have failed to recognize that all of their false theories to explain the resurrection away were originated on the first Easter by the Christian disciples themselves. We shall see this as we go along.
A. B. Bruce, the great Bible scholar, wrote, "The disciples were not clever, quick-witted, sentimental men such as Renan makes them. They were stupid, slow-minded persons; very honest, but very unapt to take in new ideas. They were like horses with blinders on, and could see only in one direction,-that, namely, of their prejudices. It required the surgery of events to insert a new truth into their minds. Nothing would change the current of their thoughts but a dam work of undeniable fact. They could be convinced that Christ must die only by His dying, that He would rise only by His rising, that His kingdom was not to be of this world, only by the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost and the vocation of the Gentiles. Let us the thankful for the honest stupidity of these men. It gives great value to their testimony. We know that nothing but facts could make such men believe that which nowadays they get credit for inventing.
Therefore, believe it or not, the most solid historical foundation for our belief is the determined unbelief of the Christians on that first Easter. Our text reveals the climax of the day when they finally came to a point of recognition and rejoicing. But let us look at the record of the rest of the day where we see resignation and resistance.
Not a single Christian greeted the first Easter dawn with a ray of hope. The women made their way to the tomb to finish preparation of their Lord's body. They were obviously convinced that He was dead, and that He would remain dead. The men remained behind weeping in hopeless sorrow. Death was victor, and the forces of evil had conquered. The cross was the symbol of total disaster to them. They held to their despair tenaciously, and rejected any evidence of the resurrection as some kind of hoax. When the women found the stone rolled away, and the angel told them that Christ had risen, their reaction one of fear and unbelief. Mark 16:8 says, "And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had come upon them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
Some of the women were brave, however, and they finally decided to tell the disciples. Luke 24:11 says, "Their words appeared in their sight as idle talk, and they disbelieved them." Mary Magdalene was the first to actually see the risen Christ, and she attempted to persuade the disciples, but Mark 16:10-11 says, "And she went and told them as they mourned and wept. And they, when they had heard that He was alive, and had been seen by her, believe not." The very first preacher of the good news of the resurrection could not even get a favorable response among the disciples of Christ. The first Easter message was a total flop, even though everyone present was a disciple of Christ. Here were dogmatic and determined disbelievers. No hysterical, and emotionally controlled women were going to make fools out of these level headed, common sense directed, realistic fact finding disciples.
It was the disciples that originated the theory that the resurrection was the result of emotionalism, delusion, or hallucination. They were the first to charge the women with an overactive imagination which invented the whole thing. They, no doubt, looked upon these women as pathetic victims of their grief, while they as men, though sorrowful, still retained their grasp of reality. Mary Magdalene was the originator of the theory that the body was stolen. As she wept outside the tomb she said, "They have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid Him." The empty tomb proved nothing to her but that the body had been stolen. Had she not been approached by Christ in person, she would have spent the first Easter searching for the body of Christ, and seeking for clues as to the thieves.
Jesus met two of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and they were still sad and unbelieving, and they said, "We hoped that it was He which should redeem Israel." They had heard all of the stories of the empty tomb, the angels message, and the testimony of Mary, but they were not convinced by any of this. They were willing to believe that some other theory could account for all that had happened without it being a fact that Jesus was a live. They were only convinced by a special act of revelation by which they recognized Christ. When they ran to add their testimony to the increasing evidence we read in Mark 16:13, "And they went away and told the rest; neither believed they them." Their unbelief was not based on their distrust of women preachers, for here were male evangelists that also failed to penetrate their shield of disbelief.
So what do we find at the end of the first glorious Easter? We find a group of fear filled disciples huddled in a room, and afraid for their lives, with no confidence or assurance. They were confused, bewildered, and, no doubt, wondered if they were going mad. They would have been okay with the theory that they were the victims of hallucination, or any other theory. Then Jesus appeared in their midst, and they were terrified. They thought they were seeing a ghost. That first Easter was about as joyful as spending a night in a literally haunted house. They must have been emotionally exhausted from all the sorrow, confusion, and fear.
How realistic the biblical picture is. And inventor would have had them singing the Hallelujah Chorus by the empty tomb, but real life is not like that. David Read writes, "Let me ask you this: If you lost a very dear friend in sudden death, and then after two days you suddenly saw him materialize in front of you, exactly as he was-would you immediately and spontaneously be overcome with joy and delight? Would you really be glad? I believe that you and I would be frankly terrified. We should most likely ring for the nearest psychiatrist."
The realism of the biblical record has convinced many a skeptic of its authenticity. It is so true to life that an inventor would have been unable to picture it apart from the actual fact of its occurrence. All of this determined disbelief was natural, but Jesus did not let it pass unrebuked, for he had labored long to prepare them, and yet it was all in vain. He rebuked them for not being willing to even accept the testimony of eyewitnesses among their own group. This was the basis upon which all other men in history would have to believe, yet, they would not surrender their doubt on that basis.
In Mark 16:14 we read, "Afterward He appeared to the 11 as they sat at meat, and upbraided them with their unbelief and hardness of heart. Because they believe not them which had seen Him after He was risen. And verse 41 of our text says that even when they were convinced, and heard, saw, and touched Him, they still though joyful, disbelieved, and felt it was just too good to be true. If some theory could explain all this, they would have been ready to accept it.
So, believe it or not, the hardest men to ever be convinced of the reality of the resurrection were the very disciples of Christ on that first Easter. No other men in history whoever became believers needed as much evidence and persuasion as did these men. Even then, Thomas was gone and demanded all the evidence the others had before he would believe. The first Easter ended with at least one Christian still in the paradoxical position of being an unbeliever. The Christians resisted belief until overwhelmed with the facts. There is not a hint that a single disciple believed in the resurrection on the basis of the evidence we must believe on today. They all had to see Him before they would believe. That is why Jesus said to Thomas, "You have believed because you have seen me. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe." Our faith must be that of the poet who wrote,
Jesus, these eyes have never seen
That radiant form of Thine:
The veil of sense hangs dark between
Thy blessed face and mine.
Yet, though I have not seen, and still
Must rest in faith alone,
I love Thee, dearest Lord, and will,
Unseen, but not unknown.
We must believe with a greater degree of faith than did the first believers, but we also have a broader historical basis. We have all they had plus the New Testament explanation of the Old Testament prophecies. We have this realistic record of their own journey from darkness to light, and we have the record of a history transformed by the power of the living Christ, plus the personal experience of His presence and power.
Nevertheless, let us not be deceived into an easy believism, and pretend that only the willfully blind and hopelessly ignorant resist belief in the resurrection. It is totally unrealistic to expect the majority of people alive today to respond on a higher level of faith then that possessed by the original disciples of Christ. People are basically materialistic, and they demand visible proof of anything that calls for a sizable investment, or serious commitment of their lives. If they do not see the reality of the living Christ in us who profess to know Him; if they cannot see a visible difference in our character and conduct that suggests the presence of a power which is supernatural, then what evidence do they have to persuade them to make the leap of faith?
The Christian life which is not Christlike is the greatest hindrance to evangelism, and to the growth of God's kingdom on earth. Believers are the body of Christ, and are the only part of the risen Christ men will ever see before the returning Christ appears in glory. Each of us on this Easter morning must ask ourselves if we are convincing proof of the reality of the resurrection, for, believe it or not, it is not the empty tomb, or the stone removed, or the angel voices, or the history of the church, that is the vital evidence for our day. It is, rather, the living evidence of a Christ-filled and Christ-transformed life.
If your picture was published with the caption over it-believe it or not, and underneath was the statement that here is a life which is positive proof of the resurrected and living Christ, would those who know you be more likely to laugh, or give serious consideration to the evidence? It is a frightening responsibility to claim that the living Christ indwells you, but none claim the name of Christ can escape this responsibility.
God respects the craving of the human mind for evidence, and professing Christians are the evidence He grants the world. All other evidence will fall flat without that of Christ likeness in the flesh. People today, like the first disciples, want to hear, see, and handle before they will let down the guard of unbelief, and let the light of truth transform them. Belief comes hard, and so the evidence must be strong. As goes the typical Christian life, so goes the Gospel of the risen Christ. The most effective evidence of Easter truth is you and I, believe it or not.
The resurrection of Christ is more than a fact of history. Facts of history can be ignored, deplored, or adored, and have no significant effect on your life. If I do not believe Caesar was the emperor of Rome, I may be wrong and ignorant, but I am not thereby any worse off. If I do not believe there are pyramids in Egypt, I am misinformed, but I am none the poorer. But if I do not believe Jesus rose from the grave and conquered death, I am lost, and I lose all the benefits that could be mine by faith in, and commitment to Christ. This is a fact that calls for faith, and it is so vital that one come to have faith in it that every person owes it to himself to be a seeker until he finds whatever is necessary to persuade him to put his trust in the living Christ.
Easter means nothing can happen in life to a believer that can rob his biography of a happy ending, for that ending is always eternal life. If you have never put your faith in Jesus Christ, do it today. Ask Him to come into your life, forgive your sin, and be your Savior. He promises you eternal life, and a happy forever.