If you’re a Christian, have you ever wondered, ‘Is Christianity really true’? For example, have you ever thought to yourself, ‘If it is, why do so few people seem to believe it? And why do so many find it unbelievable and unacceptable?’ Well, we’re starting a new series today covering part of the Bible that was originally written for someone asking exactly that. He was a man called Theophilus, and Luke wrote both his Gospel and the book of Acts to reassure Theophilus that what he’d come to believe about Jesus was really true. And this series is going to cover from Jesus’ resurrection that first Easter (in Luke 24), to when the apostles first started preaching Jesus to the world seven weeks later at Pentecost (in Acts 2). But first let’s remind ourselves how Luke begins his Gospel. Luke 1.1-4:
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us…
So when Luke wrote, there were already many written accounts of Jesus – almost certainly including Mark’s Gospel – but also other writing that didn’t make it into the New Testament. And those accounts were written:
just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us…
So the information about Jesus was handed down by the eye-witnesses who actually saw and heard him. And Luke has the integrity to say he wasn’t an eye-witness himself, but got his information from the apostles, and some of the others who were involved in the events he’s describing. And:
it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.
Now most excellent (Theophilus) was a term of address for a high ranking Roman citizen. So Theophilus would probably have gone to the Eton and Oxbridge of his day, and ended up working for the Roman foreign office. And from hints in Luke and Acts, it seems he’d first been attracted to Judaism, and then some Jewish Christians took him through Christianity Explored, and he’d come to faith in Jesus. Which would have raised eyebrows considerably in the foreign office. Imagine the comments; ‘But Theophilus, these Christians don’t believe in any of our gods – they’re narrow and intolerant’, ‘But Theophilus, this Jesus character was crucified by our own government – so Rome doesn’t believe in him, and nor should you’, ‘But Theophilus, these Christians are such a disliked and persecuted minority. Surely if Christianity was true it wouldn’t be so unpopular’. Which would have unsettled Theophilus.
Just like today it’s unsettling that we’re the minority, and our culture now thinks we’re the ‘intolerant bad guys’, and we’re completely out of step with ‘British Values’ and what’s politically correct. Of course, none of that proves anything about the truth or untruth of Christianity – it just makes it feel untrue, doesn’t it? And so Luke wrote, Luke 1.4:
that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.
In other words, that you may know the solid reasons for believing it is true. So now to our series in Luke 24 to Acts 2. If you were with us over Easter, you’ll know that Luke 23 is about Jesus’ death on the cross. And as we come to Luke’s evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, we need the end of that chapter for background. So, Luke 23.50-55:
Now there was a man named Joseph, from the Jewish town of Arimathea. He was a member of the council [that is, the Jewish leadership council that condemned Jesus to death], a good and righteous man, who had not consented to their decision and action; and he was looking for the kingdom of God. This man went to Pilate [the Roman governor who’d had Jesus crucified] and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down and wrapped it in a linen shroud and laid him in a tomb cut in stone, where no one had ever yet been laid. It was the day of Preparation [that is, the day for getting ready for the Jewish Sabbath], and the Sabbath [which was Saturday] was beginning. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed and saw the tomb and how his body was laid.
And that’s why I said earlier that Luke got his information from the apostles and some of the others who were involved in the events he’s describing – in this case, directly or indirectly, he’d got his information from these women who’d followed Jesus alongside the apostles. Which is one of several details which show that Luke didn’t make this up, because in that context, the testimony of women, sad to say, didn’t count. So the last thing you’d invent was a story with them at the centre. And I guess the way the Lord made them the key players here was his way of levelling things up.
And in the events in Luke 23.50-55, the Lord was ‘setting things up’ for Jesus’ resurrection – to make what was about to happen as clear and well-evidenced as possible. Because by the end of Luke 23, instead of being thrown into Jerusalem’s open, common grave with all the others who were crucified, Jesus’ body was on its own, in a new tomb, with witnesses who saw exactly which tomb it was, and exactly how the body was laid in it. And the chapter ends, Luke 23.56:
Then they returned and prepared spices and ointments. [That is, to finish off the Jewish burial customs]. On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.
So on into Luke 24.24 and the first thing we find is the same group of women:
1. Expecting a dead Jesus
But on the first day of the week [so it’s now Sunday] at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared.
Why? To finish off the Jewish burial customs. Which shows they were fully expecting to find a dead Jesus. They had no expectation of his resurrection. And that’s important because it tells us what kind of eye-witnesses we’re dealing with, because they’re often caricatured as being gullible and pre-scientific and prepared to believe anything. But they were no more prepared to ‘believe anything’ than we are. And this trip to the tomb shows they worked on the same assumption we do – namely that dead people stay dead. And if you’re just looking into all this maybe so far you’ve thought of Jesus as just a dead figure of the past – just a good (but dead) moral teacher and example. In which case, you’re as wrong about Jesus as these women who went to the tomb. Because next we see them:
2. Finding a missing Jesus
Look on to Luke 24.2-3:
And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.
So the stone had been rolled across the entrance to the tomb to make it secure – so no-one could tamper with the body or move it. And Matthew’s Gospel says the tomb was also guarded by the authorities because they wanted to make doubly sure that no-one did anything with this body that would help the claims of Jesus somehow live on. But now the guard is gone. The tomb is open. And the body is missing. And Luke 24.4, that left them:
…perplexed about this
And the puzzle is, who’s moved the body? Because the only people who could have done (namely the authorities guarding the tomb) are the only people who wouldn’t have done. So we’ve now seen two crucial parts of the evidence for the resurrection. One is the fact that Jesus was really dead, and the other is the fact that his body left the tomb. Now that by itself doesn’t prove a resurrection, some human player could have moved it. But along with what we’ll see next week, it does prove a resurrection, because next week we’ll see Luke’s first account of how Jesus appeared risen from the dead. And when you put that together with the empty tomb, it shows that the resurrection wasn’t something that happened to the first disciples – it wasn’t a hallucination, or Jesus living on in their minds. It was something that happened to the body of Jesus. It was Jesus being bodily raised from death to life beyond death.
But right now, in Luke 24.4, these women didn’t get that. And right now, if you’re just looking into this, you may not get it, either. You may be thinking,
‘I can see that these facts might be true – this might have happened. But I don’t get what they mean.' So it’s good that the next thing we see is these women…
3. Hearing an explanation from Jesus
Look at Luke 24.4-8 again:
While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. [And later in this chaper, Luke makes clear that they were angels – God-given messengers, because God knew this wasn’t going to make any sense without explanation]. And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee: [and then they quote what Jesus himself had said back in Luke chapter 9:], that the Son of Man [which was one of Jesus’ titles for himself] must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” And they remembered his words
So Jesus wasn’t there to explain what was going, but the angels quoted what Jesus had said before his death and resurrection about his death and resurrection. And it’s as if they’re saying to the women, ‘Your problem is that you’ve forgotten what he said.’ Actually, the problem was not just that they’d forgotten these words but that they’d filtered them out – because they didn’t fit with their expectations of what the Christ, the Messiah, was going to do. So look at Luke 24.7 again. Jesus had said that he:
must be delivered into the hands of sinful men
But they weren’t expecting that sinful people would get rid of the Christ – which is what the Jewish leaders and Pilate just seemed to have done. They were expecting that the Christ would get rid of sinful people. But that of course would mean getting rid of us all. Which would certainly solve the problem of evil in the world. But where would it leave us? So, instead, in his love, God sent his Son a first time to offer us, by forgiveness through his cross, a new start where we accept him as God in our lives, as we should. But that of course leaves us the freedom to reject him. And Theophilus didn’t expect that – and nor do we, because we look around at all the rejection of Christ and Christianity and Christian influence in our culture – and we never expected God to give people such freedom to reject him. But he does because he’s not the God we expect. Back to Luke 24.7 again, and the next thing Jesus had said was that he:
But they weren’t expecting that the Christ would die – still less die the ultimate Roman death-penalty. But they didn’t realise that God chose that kind of death because it would point to the real meaning of what was going on. That Jesus wasn’t just an innocent man undergoing a penalty he didn’t deserve at the hands of Rome. But that Jesus was the sinless Son of God undergoing a penalty he didn’t deserve in our place – taking on himself the judgement for our sin, so that we could be forgiven, and yet justice could still be clearly and obviously done. And Theophilus didn’t expect that, either, and nor do we because we don’t naturally see ourselves as sinners standing in desperate need of forgiveness before a God we’ve offended unimaginably. And we don’t really think that forgiveness is that big a deal to God; we don’t really think God could only forgive us without compromising his justice through something as awful as the cross. Because he’s not the God we expect. Back to Luke 24.7 one last time, and the other thing Jesus had said was that:
on the third day [he must] rise.
But they weren’t expecting his resurrection, either. They had some idea that people would rise from the dead at the end of history. But right here and now, dead people stay dead, don’t they? That’s our 100% experience of human death, isn’t it? But what if this wasn’t just an ordinary human being?
What if they’d listened more closely to Jesus’ claims – that he was God’s Son, that he was from heaven? What if Jesus was a person who’d entered the human race from outside it, to go through death for us, but who could not possibly stay dead because he was God-become-man? And Theophilus didn’t expect that – and nor do we. And the lesson is that if we’re going to deal with the God of the Bible, and with the Lord Jesus his Son, we have to face the fact that he’s not what we expect him to be. And whether you’re not yet a Christian and just looking into all this, or you’re a Christian of many years’ standing, then, like me, your mind is full of wrong ideas about what God must be like and what his plan for the world and for our lives must involve. And we need to suspend our wrong ideas and listen to God tell us what he’s like and what his plan is – above all by listening to Jesus in the pages of the New Testament – as these angels were getting the women at the tomb to do.
So we’ve seen them; Expecting a dead Jesus, Finding a missing Jesus. Hearing an explanation from Jesus, and lastly we see them:
4. Facing unbelief in Jesus
Look on to Luke 24.9-11:
and returning from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven [that is, the remaining apostles mius Judas] and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, but these words seemed to them an idle tale [other translations say ‘nonsense’ – it was the word they used for the kind of thing people say when they’re sick and delirious] and they did not believe them.
So notice in Luke 24.12 it’s not that the apostles have checked the facts and found them wanting. And it’s not that they’ve thought about the angel’s explanation and come up with three good reasons why it’s implausible. It’s that in their present state of mind, with their present view of things, it just seems nonsense and they just can’t believe it. And you can understand that because their ability to trust in Jesus has been all but destroyed by his crucifixion.Just like for some of us, our ability to trust in anyone (let alone Jesus) has been damaged by things we’ve been through. And that’s one reason why we find unbelief in ourselves, and face unbelief as we try to tell others about Jesus.
Someone’s present state of mind can just filter the gospel out, like in Luke 24.11. And so can someone’s present worldview. So for example, the person whose worldview is that miracles can’t happen is bound to look at Luke 24 and say, ‘This didn’t happen’ and there’s no way forward unless that person is open to the possibility that their worldview might be wrong, and is willing to look into what at first seems unbelievable. Which is how this passage ends. Luke 24.12:
But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home marvelling at what had happened.
So, along with Theophilus, the first person this was written for, have you ever wondered, ‘Is Christianity really true’? Do you find yourself unsettled by the way the culture makes it feel untrue, by the unbelief you face as you share the gospel, and by the residual unbelief you still find inside yourself? Well, Luke wrote what he wrote, so that in the thick of all that Luke 24.4:
you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.