Sermon Text: Mark 16:1-8
Easter Sunday, Series B
Most any day I can hear from my office a long train whistle, coming from 3/4s of a mile west of here, where the CSX trains cross Franklin Street next to Pigeon Creek.1 If you haven’t got stopped there on Franklin by the long, slow trains going into, or coming out, of Howell Yard, you will someday! More often than not, you can’t even see the engines when you first see the train at the crossing, because the engines have already passed. All you see is a wall of cars–clickety-clack, clickety-clack–bearing witness to the fact that somewhere up the line the engines are pulling the train, and somewhere down the line the end is coming.
When we talk about the resurrection of our Lord, it is like waiting at the Franklin Street train crossing. You can’t see the engine at the front end pulling the whole Christian church for two thousand years. All you see and know, from your own experience, is the Bible and the people that have told you about Jesus–people like your mom and dad, your pastors, your spouse, maybe a best friend. Those witnesses to Jesus are connected to Christians a little farther up the train who told them about Jesus, etc., etc.. They are all moving through history–clickety-clack, clickety-clack–bearing witness to the fact that somewhere up the line an engine is pulling the train of witnesses, and somewhere down the line the end is coming.
Do you know what that engine is, which has been pulling that train of witnesses, i.e., the Christian church, for two thousand years? That engine is our Gospel lesson this morning. The Easter engine is the true story of the empty tomb and the resurrection of Jesus our Lord. Its power is found in the hope that erupts in the human heart, when it hears of the forgiveness of sins, salvation from death and the devil, and the promise of life everlasting found in Jesus.
The first witnesses coupled to that Easter engine are the three ladies at the tomb and the train of witnesses recounted in our Epistle lesson, I Corinthians 15:1-11. Just look at that list of names of the people who saw the resurrected Jesus! In the Gospel lesson, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome saw the empty tomb and the angel’s announcement that “Jesus is risen.” In the Epistle lesson, there are Cephas, i.e., Simon Peter, the twelve apostles, more than five hundred brethren at one time, James, all the other apostles, then finally Saul of Tarsus. In the latter half of the first century, most of these people were still living and testifying to the fact that they had seen the risen Lord. And they maintained that testimony, even in the face of persecution, torture, and gruesome death.
Today many scholars, atheists, and non-believers maintain that the resurrection of Jesus was a fabrication and not a historical fact. They often argue that the books of the Bible, if authentic to some degree, were altered by later editors to fit the needs of Christian propaganda. The truth is that the Bible is a kaleidoscopic collection of individual books by many different authors, each written at different times and locales. There is no historical evidence that any of these books were altered after their authors finished them. For the biographies of Jesus, we have four different authors who wrote four quite different books, based on the same events in the life of Jesus. These are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and they all testify to Jesus’ resurrection. This is known as “independent testimony.” For historians, it is the most reliable form of evidence when it is in substantive agreement.
Besides the Gospels, we also have testimony, from the next part of the train of witnesses, to Jesus’ apostles and their testimony about him. Papias, Bishop of Heirapolis in the second century, witnesses2 that he had seen and heard the “disciples of the elders,” who had personally seen and heard the teaching and witness of the Apostles Andrew, Peter, Philip, Thomas, Matthew, and John. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons in the late second century, witnesses3 that he had seen and heard Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna in the second century, who had personally seen and heard the teaching and witness of the Apostle John. In addition to these witnesses, we also have the writings of the Christian “Apostolic Fathers” in the early second century, including the Didache, Ignatius, Clement, Barnabas, and the Shepherd of Hermas, who were all second or third generation Christians.
The Christians of antiquity are not the only ones to witness to Jesus. Thallus, a Roman historian of the first century, refers to the darkness which occurred at the time of the crucifixion.4 Pliny the Younger, a Roman governor in the second century, testifies that Christians met regularly and sang hymns to Christ as to a god.5 Tacitus, a Roman historian of the early second century, testifies that Christ had been executed by Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberias Caesar.6
In the Palestinian Jewish Talmud, a third century rabbi warns his students about the threat of a man who will say he is God, a Son of Man, and that he will go up to heaven.7 This was evidently a response by the rabbis to their experience with Jesus. In the Babylonian Talmud, a rebellious disciple is compared to Jesus of Nazareth.8 This Talmud also testifies that Jesus of Nazareth practiced magic, that he led Israel astray,9 and that he was executed on the eve of the Passover.10
The most interesting non-Christian witness, from the late first century, is Josephus. Josephus in his Jewish Antiquities, mentions John the Baptist,11 James the brother of Jesus,12 and then says this about our Lord:
About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared to them, restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these, and countless marvelous things about him. And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.13
You may wonder, as I do, how Josephus could testify to Jesus’ miracles, Messianic status, and resurrection, yet still not believe in Christ as his Lord. It is simple. As a historian, he simply had to state the facts, because those who knew the facts were still living. Josephus may also represent some Jews of his generation who believed that Jesus fulfilled the Scriptural prophecies of the Messiah, but that his mission failed in establishing the state of Israel. No Jew would have believed that Jesus was the Son of God without becoming a Christian, and neither did Josephus. Yet his witness to Jesus’ resurrection is the strongest evidence we have, outside of the Scriptures themselves, to Easter morning.
The case of Josephus proves that believing the mere historical fact of the resurrection is not enough to be saved. You must also repent of your sins, be baptized, and believe the Gospel that explains what Jesus has accomplished for your salvation. This is what Paul means in our Epistle, when he writes:
I would remind you, brothers, of the Gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you–unless you believed in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:1-2).
The Gospel Paul preached is found in summary form in our creeds: the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds. It is found in detail in Paul’s Epistles, the other Epistles, in the Acts and Revelation, and the Gospels. Holding fast to this Gospel is the “coupler” that connects you to the train of witnesses ahead of you. That train heads all the way up the line to the empty tomb and the resurrected Lord.
So hold fast! Hold fast to the Gospel, dear brothers and sisters, because the end of the train is coming soon! Christ is risen! [wait for response] Amen.
- This is located on the “west side” of Evansville, Indiana, 3/4 mile west of Trinity Lutheran Church (LCMS), founded in 1841.
- Papias’ testimony is found in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical Histories, 3.39.3-4.
- Irenaeus testimony in his “Letter to Florinus,” is found in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical Histories, 5.20.4-7. Also significant is the testimony of Polycrates, Bishop of Ephesus in the late second century, in his “Letter to Victor,” found in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical Histories 5.24.2-7. On the significance of Papias, Polycrates, and Irenaeus and others for establishing the historical evidence of the New Testament eyewitnesses, see Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmanns, 2006).
- There are eight extant fragments from Thallus found in the historian Julius Africanus of the 3rd century. They may be found in F. Jacoby, Die Fragmente der griechischen Historiker IIB (Berlin: Weidmann, 1929).
- See Pliny the Younger, Letters 10:96.7.
- See Tacitus, Annals 15:44.
- See p. Ta’anith, 65b.
- See b. Sahnhedrin, 103a.
- See b. Sahnhedrin, 107b.
- See b. Sahnhedrin, 43a.
- See Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 18:117.
- See Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 20:200.
- See Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 18:63-64.