“. . . and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also” (1 Corinthians 15:5-8).
I would like to sharpen our focus on two different eyewitness accounts: the embarrassing eyewitness accounts and the enemy eyewitness accounts. I’ve found that this approach seems to capture the attention of the skeptics, causing them to want to listen to what I am about to say. Below is a quick review of the eyewitness accounts as we find them in sacred Scripture:
- • Mary Magdalene – John 20:11-18
- • Other women – Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:1; Luke 24:10
- • Simon Peter – Luke 24:34; 1 Corinthians 15:5
- • Clopas & companion on the road to Emmaus – Luke 24:13-35
- • Disciples (without Thomas) – Luke 24:36-43; John 20:19-25
- • Disciples (including Thomas) – John 20:26-29
- • Seven disciples at the Sea of Tiberias – John 21:1-23
- • Disciples and a large gathering on a mountain in Galilee – Matthew 28:16-17; 1 Corinthians 15:6
- • James, the unbelieving brother of Jesus – 1 Corinthians 15:7
- • Disciples before ascending into heaven – Luke 24:49-53; Acts 1:3-11
- • Saul on the road to Damascus – Acts 9
Embarrassing Eyewitness Accounts
When you consider the low social standing of women in the ancient world, coupled with the inadmissibility of a woman’s testimony in a court of law, why would women be recorded as the first to see the resurrected Jesus? Because it was true! We find this embarrassing truth in all four gospel accounts. We will look at only the earliest gospel written by Mark, who provided a simple, straightforward account of the first appearance of Jesus to a woman.
“When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons” (Mark 16:9).
It’s remarkable that Jesus chose to show Himself to the women before the men. Perhaps the very reason that this would be an embarrassing eyewitness account explains why Jesus did what He did. Just like no one would fabricate a story of women being the first to find the tomb of Jesus empty (which they did), no one would fabricate a story of women being the first eyewitnesses to the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ. Embarrassing eyewitness testimony is an earmark of the truth of the account of seeing a risen Jesus Christ.
Enemy Eyewitness Account
We need look no further than Saul of Tarsus to find a man who was an avowed enemy of Christ. Here was a man totally committed to wiping out the early advancements of the Christian church by any means necessary. Saul was present for the death of Stephen, the first reported Christian martyr (Acts 7:54-60). And Saul approved of their killing him [Stephen]. (Acts 8:1)
After the murder of Stephen, the persecution against the church in Jerusalem intensified, scattering all except the apostles. Saul’s hatred for Christians swelled and sent him on a rampage throughout the area, arresting and imprisoning every follower of the Way he could get his hands on.
Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison. (Acts 8:3)
But something happened to this great persecutor of the church on his way to Damascus.
The Number One enemy of the church was transformed into an evangelist for the church. Saul went from persecutor to preacher . . . from murderer to missionary . . . when he had a personal encounter with the risen Lord Jesus Christ.
“Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked. ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. ‘Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do’” (Acts 9:1-6).
It is one thing to say that the followers of Jesus made up the story of the Resurrection, but how can anyone rationally explain the transformation of Saul to Paul? Clearly, the resurrected Lord appeared not only to those who loved Him, but also to those who hated Him! I have never heard anyone even attempt to explain this away. Saul, once a violent persecutor of the church, became the great apostle Paul — pastor, preacher and evangelist of the church. What other rational explanation can there be for this supernatural conversion other than the fact that Saul had an encounter with the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ?
The Damascus Road encounter between Jesus and Saul — and Saul’s subsequent conversion — stands as one of the most convincing proofs of the Resurrection, simply because it falls under the heading of enemy eyewitness testimony. It cannot be explained away by a hallucination caused by a broken and grieving heart. Saul was not grieving the death of Jesus; to the contrary, he was grimly determined to destroy the church. The only plausible explanation for the momentous change from Saul to Paul — Paul, who was beheaded in Rome in 67 AD for advancing the cause of the kingdom of Christ — is an encounter with the resurrected Jesus.
The truth claims of Christianity stand or fall on the bodily resurrection of the historical figure Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, died and was buried in a grave by Joseph of Arimathea. Here we have seen both embarrassing and enemy eyewitness testimony to the resurrected Jesus. There can be no doubt that Jesus rose from the dead. There are now two questions that need to be asked and answered:
- Do you believe it?
- Have you trusted in Jesus as your Lord and Savior?
These eyewitness accounts of Jesus Christ form a solid foundation upon which the Christian faith expanded and exploded out of first century Israel. No scholar denies the rapid growth of the Christian church within a generation of the death of Jesus Christ, spreading to Europe, Asia and Africa. The skeptical scholars can offer no plausible explanation for the spread of Christianity. But the Christian certainly does: God raised Jesus from the dead, just as He said he would!
He is risen! He is risen indeed!
May you and yours have a blessed Easter.
Tommy Boland is senior pastor of Cross Community Church in Deerfield Beach. He blogs regularly at tommyboland.com.