April 20, 2014


From Jesus to Christ: How did a Jewish prophet come to be seen as the Christian savior? The epic story of the empty tomb, the early battles and the making of a great faith. (Jon Meacham, 3/28/05, Newsweek International)

The story, it seemed, was over. Convicted of sedition, condemned to death by crucifixion, nailed to a cross on a hill called Golgotha, Jesus of Nazareth had endured all that he could. According to Mark, the earliest Gospel, Jesus, suffering and approaching the end, repeated a verse of the 22nd Psalm, a passage familiar to first-century Jewish ears: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" There was a final, wordless cry. And then silence.

Why have you forsaken me? From the Gospel accounts, it was a question for which Jesus' disciples had no ready answer. In the chaos of the arrest and Crucifixion, the early followers had scattered. They had expected victory, not defeat, in this Jerusalem spring. If Jesus were, as they believed, the Jewish Messiah, then his great achievement would be the inauguration of the Kingdom of God on earth, an age marked by the elimination of evil, the dispensation of justice, the restoration of Israel and the general resurrection of the dead.

Instead, on the Friday of this Passover, at just the moment they were looking for the arrival of a kind of heaven on earth, Jesus, far from leading the forces of light to triumph, died a criminal's death. Of his followers, only the women stayed as Jesus was taken from the cross, wrapped in a linen shroud and placed in a tomb carved out of the rock of a hillside. A stone sealed the grave and, according to Mark, just after the sun rose two days later, Mary Magdalene and two other women were on their way to anoint the corpse with spices. Their concerns were practical, ordinary: were they strong enough to move the stone aside? As they drew near, however, they saw that the tomb was already open. Puzzled, they went inside, and a young man in a white robe--not Jesus--sitting on the right side of --the tomb said: "Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here, see the place where they laid him." Absorbing these words, the women, Mark says, "went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid."

And so begins the story of Christianity--with confusion, not with clarity; with mystery, not with certainty. According to Luke's Gospel, the disciples at first treated the women's report of the empty tomb as "an idle tale, and... did not believe them"; the Gospel of John says that Jesus' followers "as yet... did not know... that he must rise from the dead."

For many churchgoers who fill the pews this Holy Week, re-enacting the Passion, contemplating the cross and celebrating the Resurrection, the faith may appear seamless and monumental, comfortably unchanging from age to age. In a new NEWSWEEK Poll, 78 percent of Americans believe Jesus rose from the dead; 75 percent say that he was sent to Earth to absolve mankind of its sins. Eighty-one percent say they are Christians; they are part of what is now the world's largest faith, with 2 billion believers, or roughly 33 percent of the earth's population.

Yet the journey from Golgotha to Constantine, the fourth- century emperor whose conversion secured the supremacy of Christianity in the West, was anything but simple; the rise of the faith was, as the Duke of Wellington said of Waterloo, "the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life." From the Passion to the Resurrection to the nature of salvation, the basic tenets of Christianity were in flux from generation to generation as believers struggled to understand the meaning of Jesus' mission.

Jesus is a name, Christ a title (in Hebrew, Messias, in Greek, Christos, meaning "anointed one"). Without the Resurrection, it is virtually impossible to imagine that the Jesus movement of the first decades of the first century would have long endured. A small band of devotees might have kept his name alive for a time, even insisting on his messianic identity by calling him Christ, but the group would have been just one of many sects in first-century Judaism, a world roiled and crushed by the cataclysmic war with Rome from 66 to 73, a conflict that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem.

So how, exactly, did the Jesus of history, whom many in his own time saw as a failed prophet, come to be viewed by billions as the Christ of faith whom the Nicene Creed says is "the only-begotten Son of God... God of God, Light of Light, Very God of very God... by whom all things were made"? And why did Christianity succeed where so many other religious and spiritual movements failed? [...]

Though many scholars rightly raise compelling questions about the historical value of the portraits of Jesus in the Gospels, the apostles had to arrive at their definition of his messianic mission somehow, and it is possible that Jesus may have spoken of these things during his lifetime--words that came flooding back to his followers once the shock of his resurrection had sunk in. On historical grounds, then, Christianity appears less a fable than a faith derived in part from oral or written traditions dating from the time of Jesus' ministry and that of his disciples. "The Son of man is delivered into the hands of men, and they shall kill him; and after that... he shall rise the third day," Jesus says in Mark, who adds that the disciples at the time "understood not that saying, and were afraid to ask him."

That the apostles would have created such words and ideas out of thin air seems unlikely, for their story and their message strained credulity even then. Paul admitted the difficulty: "... we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and folly to Gentiles." A king who died a criminal's death? An individual's resurrection from the dead? A human atoning sacrifice? "This is not something that the PR committee of the disciples would have put out," says Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. "The very fact of the salvation message's complexity and uniqueness, I think, speaks to the credibility of the Gospels and of the entire New Testament."

Jesus' words at the last supper--that bread and wine represented his body and blood--now made more sense: he was, the early church argued, a sacrificial lamb in the tradition of ancient Israel. Turning to the old Scriptures, the apostles began to find what they decided were prophecies Jesus had fulfilled. Hitting upon the 53rd chapter of Isaiah, they interpreted the Crucifixion as a necessary portal to a yet more glorious day: "... he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities... and with his stripes we are healed." In the Book of Acts, Peter is able to preach a sermon in which Jesus is connected to passages from Isaiah, Joel and the Psalms.

Skepticism about Christianity was widespread and understandable. From a Jewish perspective, the first-century historian Josephus noted: "About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man. He worked surprising deeds and was a teacher... He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks... And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, has not disappeared to this day." In a separate reference, Josephus writes of "James the brother of the so-called Christ." A good Jew of the priestly caste, Josephus is not willing to grant Jesus the messianic title. In Athens, Stoic and Epicurean philosophers asked Paul to explain his message. "May we know what this new teaching is which you present?" they asked. "For you bring some strange things to our ears..." They heard him out, but the Resurrection was too much of a reach for them. In the second century, the anti-Christian critic Celsus called the Resurrection a "cock-and-bull story," and cast doubt on the eyewitness testimony: "While he was alive he did not help himself, but after death he rose again and showed the marks of his punishment and how his hands had been pierced. But who say this? A hysterical female, as you say, and perhaps some other one of those who were deluded by the same sorcery, who either dreamt in a certain state of mind and through wishful thinking had a hallucination due to some mistaken notion... or, which is more likely, wanted to impress others by telling this fantastic tale..."

But why invent this particular story unless there were some historical basis for it--either in the remembered words of Jesus or in the experience of the followers at the tomb and afterward? "Once a man has died, and the dust has soaked up his blood," says Aeschylus' Apollo, "there is no resurrection." Citing the quotation, N. T. Wright, the scholar and Anglican Bishop of Durham, notes that various ancients may have believed in the immortality of the soul and a kind of mythic life in the underworld, but the stories about Jesus had no direct parallel. And while Jews believed in a general resurrection as part of the Kingdom (Lazarus and others raised by Jesus were destined to die again in due course), Wright adds that "nowhere within Judaism, let alone paganism, is a sustained claim advanced that resurrection has actually happened to a particular individual."

The uniqueness--one could say oddity, or implausibility--of the story of Jesus' resurrection argues that the tradition is more likely historical than theological. Either from a "revelation" from the risen Jesus or from the reports of the earliest followers, Paul "received" a tradition that the resurrection was the hinge of history, the moment after which nothing would ever be the same. "If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain..." Paul writes. "Lo! I will tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet."

The Resurrection may have been necessary to convince the doubters, but the Crucifixion itself is the point of the tale, as the following reminds, Jesus' Reminders (Philip Yancey)
Jesus, who said he could call down the angels at any moment and rescue himself from the horror, chose not to - because of us. For God so loved us, that he sent his only Son to die for us.

What practical effect does Christ's identification have on the person who actually suffers? A dramatic example of the effect of this truth was seen in the ministry of Dr. Paul Brand while he was working among leprosy patients in Vellore, India. There he preached a sermon, one of his best known and best loved. At the time, Brand and his workers were among the few in the area who would touch or closely approach a person with Hansen's disease - townspeople quarantined them. Brand slipped in late to a patients' gathering, sitting on the mat at the edge of an open courtyard. The air was heavy with combined odors of crowding bodies, poverty, stale spices, treated bandages.

The patients insisted on a few words from Dr. Brand, and he reluctantly agreed. He stood for a moment, empty of ideas, looking at the patients before him. His eyes were drawn to their hands, dozens of them, most pulled inward in the familiar "leprosy claw-hand," some with no fingers, some with a few stumps. Many patients sat on their hands or otherwise hid them from view.

"I am a hand surgeon," he began, and waited for the translation into Tamil and Hindi. "So when I meet people, I can't help looking at their hands. The palmist claims he can tell your future by looking at your hands. I can tell your past. For instance, I can tell what your trade has been by the position of the calluses and the condition of the nails. I can tell a lot about your character; I love hands."

He paused and looked at the eager faces. "How I would love to have had the chance to meet Christ and study his hands! But knowing what he was like, I can almost picture them, feel them."

He paused again, then wondered aloud what it would have been like to meet Christ and study his hands. He traced the hands of Christ, beginning with infancy when his hands were small, helpless, futilely grasping. Then came the hands of the boy Jesus, clumsily holding a brush or stylus, trying to form letters of the alphabet. Then the hands of Christ the carpenter - rough, gnarled, with broken fingernails and bruises from working with saw and hammer.

Then there were the hands of Christ the physician, the healer. Compassion and sensitivity seemed to radiate from them, so much so that when he touched people they could feel something of the divine spirit coming through. Christ touched the blind, the diseased, the needy.

"Then," continued Dr. Brand, "there were his crucified hands. It hurts me to think of a nail being driven through the center of my hand, because I know what goes on there, the tremendous complex of tendons and nerves and blood vessels and muscles. It's impossible to drive a spike through its center without crippling it. The thought of those healing hands being crippled reminds me of what Christ was prepared to endure. In that act he identified himself with all the deformed and crippled human beings in the world. Not only was he able to endure poverty with the poor, weariness with the tired, but - clawed hands with the cripple."

The effect on the listening patients, all social outcasts, was electrifying. Jesus - a cripple, with a claw-hand like theirs?

Brand continued. "And then there were his resurrected hands. One of the things I find most astounding is that, though we think of the future life as something perfected, when Christ appeared to his disciples he said, 'Come look at my hands,' and he invited Thomas to put his finger into the print of the nail. Why did he want to keep the wounds of his humanity? Wasn't it because he wanted to carry back with him an eternal reminder of the sufferings of those on earth? He carried the marks of suffering so he could continue to understand the needs of those suffering. He wanted to be forever one with us."

As he finished, Paul Brand was again conscious of hands as they were lifted, all over the courtyard, palm to palm in the Indian gesture of respect, namaste. The hands were the same stumps, the same missing fingers and crooked arches. Yet no one tried to hide them. They were held high, close to the face, in respect for Brand, but also with new pride and dignity. God's own response to suffering made theirs easier.

[Originally posted: March 25, 2005]

Posted by at April 20, 2014 5:22 AM

Note well: "Only the women stayed."

Posted by: ghostcat at March 25, 2005 9:02 PM

If 78% of America really believed in the resurrection, things would be quite different. People would be quite different.

Posted by: ratbert at March 25, 2005 10:13 PM


We can't change our nature.

Posted by: oj at March 25, 2005 11:45 PM

No, but belief in the resurrection compels us to leave it behind.

And taking God's name in vain has much more gravity than merely using it in everyday cursing. The Pharisee in Luke 18 who prayed to himself, "thanking" God for his righteousness, was claiming something that was not true (i.e., his justification). So Jesus condemned him, while the broken sinner was justified.

Posted by: ratbert at March 26, 2005 9:09 AM


Leave it behind? What do we become if we aren't human?

Posted by: oj at March 26, 2005 9:13 AM

a person can believe in something but not have the strength to change their behavior in spite of that belief. maybe some overweight people don't care about the harmful effects of obesity, but many do care but just can't help themselves.

Posted by: cjm at March 26, 2005 4:09 PM

Do you know the meaning of the word repentence?

It is only in turning from sin and temptation that we 'become' fully human. Our current state is not permanent, nor is it desirable. And the tug downwards is gravitational (i.e., constant and irresistible).

Remember that only a 'bad' man needs to repent, but only a good man will repent. The 'goodness' that makes a man repent comes from outside himself, as Paul wrote in Romans 7. And only a 'perfect' man can repent perfectly, which is why Christ was sinless - his obedience covers all believers.

The resurrection gives all believers a clean slate, but not just a slate that is wiped once, but a life that is (can be and will be) truly clean.

Posted by: ratbert at March 26, 2005 6:49 PM

Having repented we immediately begin to sin again.

Posted by: oj at March 26, 2005 6:57 PM

True enough - but if sin continues on (and on) as before, is there repentence?

Faith and works, together again.

Posted by: ratbert at March 26, 2005 8:27 PM

Even genuine repentance won't keep you from sinning again.

Posted by: oj at March 26, 2005 8:30 PM


I took the liberty of linking to this entry. Have a happy Easter!

Posted by: Brent at April 15, 2006 2:32 PM

Much obleeged to you fer posting this beautiful sermon, OJ.

Ol' Slim was crying to himself as he read it.

And he's a gonna be visitin' it in his dusty ol' head again and gain this Holy Saturday as he does his chores.

By the way, I read a purty special book a long time ago, written by this here Yancy feller. It's called "The Jesus I Never Knew" and I reckon it's one of the most different books a cowboy can find out there on Our Lord and Saviour. I humbly recommend it to you. Mebbe you done already read it -- wouldn't surprise me a lick, the way you go through books -- mebbe you'll see fit to write us a ree-vue of it. I'd like to hear what ya think, pardner. You run a real good ranch here at the Brothers Judd. Happy Easter, OJ! Yaaa-hoo!

Posted by: Slim at April 15, 2006 3:00 PM

oj remarked: "Even genuine repentance won't keep you from sinning again."

"My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have One who speaks to the Father in our defense - Jesus Christ the Righteous One." - 1st epistle of John, Chapter 2, verse 1. (NIV)

Posted by: Henry IX at April 15, 2006 9:54 PM
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