Easter weekend is upon us again. I don’t much like the term ‘Easter’, but so many people refer to Passover Weekend by that name that I will let it stand … for now.
The Sunday Service
See the scene played out at countless Easter Sunday services throughout the world. The place is packed with three types of attendees. There are the:
- Committed followers of Jesus,
- Christmas-and Easter-attendance-only religious folks,
- Reluctant agnostic relatives.
Some services are preceded by a hushed time of religious respect, but most are abuzz with happy and vocal people. The place is full of, “He has risen” with the response “He has risen indeed” accompanied by a brotherly hug, or the simple “Happy Easter” and a brisk handshake. There are happy hymns or clapping-accompanied spiritual songs, and then the preacher takes centre stage. Likely as not, he (or she) speaks about how Christ died for our sins and rose from the dead so that we might have life … or variations on that theme. Now my question is, how do the three types of attendees respond to this sort of message?
Different Responses to the Easter Message
The, hopefully, largest, group will respond with nods, beaming faces, and silent or proclaimed “Amens”. The Christmas and Easter brigade will most likely respond with self-satisfied semi-smiles manifesting a comfortable and pious “I don’t really care because I am a good religious person” attitude. The third group, the reluctant relatives, either doesn’t care or silently disagrees with the ‘gospel’ message. Members of both of the last two groups do not believe that they are sinners (Can’t even define true sin), doubt or repudiate the reliability of scripture, and don’t care much anyway.
So, what should the preacher be telling them that will cause them to comprehend and be open to accepting? Closer to the bone, what can you be saying to them when you, a believer, sit at lunch with them afterwards?
A Funny Story with a Powerful Message.
A dear friend of mine sent me a dated video clip of a man telling the following story:
One of the two thieves crucified to the left and right of Jesus arrives at the Pearly Gates. The angel on duty asks him why he should let him into heaven. The man replies that he really doesn’t know why. He had not read the scriptures, nor had he mixed with ‘church’ folk in Jerusalem. He hadn’t been baptised and he wasn’t even Jewish, so he just stared blankly at the angel. This flummoxed the angel who called for his supervisor. An important-looking angel arrived and asked the man: “Are you not clear on the doctrine of justification by faith?”. The man gave him the same confused look and so the Boss-angel said, “So why should I let you in?” And the man responded “I don’t know, but the man on the middle cross said I should come!”
Jesus – It’s All About Jesus
OK, so it’s a mildly funny story (especially in the way the man in the video clip told it) but it conveys a profound truth – It is all about Jesus. It is not about church attendance, observance of sacraments, family affiliation, or correct doctrine – its about Jesus!
The Easter message is, or at least should be, about Jesus. Not the horror of the cross, nor the wonder of the empty tomb, but about the man who hung on the cross and who walked out of the open tomb – Jesus Christ of Nazareth.
What Paul Has to Say
In 1 Corinthians 1:18 – 2:5 the Apostle Paul develops some of the things I have been pointing to so far in this article. Here are parts of three verses cobbled together for effect:
In my example of the Easter Sunday service, Paul’s Jews would equate to the Christmas and Easter religious people and the Gentiles to the reluctant agnostic relatives. To religiously half-asleep people, nothing short of a palpable miracle will wake them up. To the agnostics the ‘Jesus died for our sins because the bible tells us so’ is foolish naivety bordering on delusion. They need persuasion that relies on more than what to them is an ancient set of stories. I understand both states of unbelief because before I was born again of the Spirit at the age of thirty I was an agnostic with a religious family background.
Well, here is the thing; both the wanted miracle and the persuasively compelling wisdom is found only in … Jesus.
Consider how Paul counters the two statements that I have quoted above. He writes in 1 Cor 1:18 ‘For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God’, and ‘When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified’ (1 Cor 2:1-2). And again, ‘My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power (1 Cor 2:4-5).
Jesus followers will understand the profound doctrines of Easter, but the religious and the agnostic need the simple truth of Jesus Christ accompanied by the miraculously transforming power of Holy Spirit.
Three Questions to Ask
Here are some questions to ask as part of either a sermon or a one-on-one discussion about the Easter message:
The first question is: “Do you believe that Jesus was a real historical figure who lived in Palestine who taught and performed wonderful deeds?” The initial response might be scepticism concerning both his existence and his miracles. However, there is quite a bit of non-biblical evidence to offer. For instance, here are just some of the things early historical figures said about Jesus:
Cornelius Tacitus (AD 109) makes the following reference to Christians and to Jesus: “Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius …”
Lucian of Samosta (second century satirist) wrote scornfully of Christians in the following terms: “The Christians, you know, worship a man who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account …”
Pliny the Younger wrote to Emperor Trajan in AD 112 that the Christians “… were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verse a hymn to Christ as to a god …”
Celsus (AD 150) wrote, “First, however, I must deal with the matter of Jesus, the so-called saviour, who not long ago taught new doctrines and was thought to be a son of God …”
Mara Bar-Serapion, a Syrian philosopher, wrote to his son in AD 70 and referred to the ‘wise King’ of the Jews whom they put to death.
Josephus, the Jewish historian for the Romans, referred to Jesus in his Jewish Antiquities (AD 93): ‘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 among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at 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.’
So, as you can see, there is quite a bit of non-biblical confirmation that Jesus existed and was extraordinary in many ways and these historical facts can be helpful for you to draw on when speaking to folk who dont accept the authority of the bible.
The second and follow-up question to ask is: “Do you believe that the bible is a trustworthy record of what Jesus said and did?” Again, there may be push-back and comments about the bible’s mythical nature. However, once again, there are simple rejoinders to this. For instance:
Third question: “What then does the bible record Jesus as saying about himself?”
Well, he said:
- “I and the Father are one.” Again the Jews picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus said to them, “I have shown you many great miracles from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?”. “We are not stoning you for any of these,” replied the Jews, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.” (John 10:30-33)
- ‘Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:8-9)
- “I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.’ (John 8:58-59) Lest some miss the point of the last quote above, the ascription “I AM’ was an ancient Jewish divine ascription.
The most personally relatable of the above quotes is Jesus’ response to Philip and this would be a good example to tell in full to a congregation or in a one-on-one conversation – John 14:8-11
So, despite what critics claim, Jesus did declare himself to be God incarnate.
So, there is compelling evidence that Jesus Christ lived, ministered, taught and died as reliably recorded in the bible, and that he declared himself to be God himself on Earth. To back up his claims Jesus healed the sick, cast out demons, created substance from nothing (wine, bread, and new eyes), and even raised the dead. This is why he said, “Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves.” (John 14:11)
The logical observation to make is: “So, surely then we must believe what Jesus, God incarnate, said about things like salvation, eternity, commitment, love, faith, hope, and so on.” Well here are just some of the things he said about salvation:
- “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.” (John 10:9)
- “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:27-28)
- ‘Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26)
- ‘Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”. (John 14:6-7)
Once again, the most personally applicable account in that of John 3:1-21 where Jesus explains to Nicodemus that he must be Born Again if he is to be saved.
I realise that I have not explained terms like Salvation, Rebirth and so on, but I have written extensively on this HERE. The main point of this article is not to teach doctrine, but to point out that:
- The focus of Easter is the ‘man on the middle cross’ and his invitation to all who will listen, and
- The most effective and compellingly simple way of applying the Easter message to both religious people and agnostics is to explain who Jesus really is, that the bible is reliable, and that what it records of what Jesus said and did is of the uttermost significance and importance.
However, there is one more thing I must point out before I end this article: The anointing of the Holy Spirit in the whole process of explaining and interacting is VITAL! It is the Holy Spirit who breathes life into our words and backs them up with convicting clarity and power.
This is why Paul wrote, “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.”
Remember, the man in the middle is the real focus of Easter.