I’ve been dipping back into the book Jesus Freaks again. It gives short stories of people who have suffered for the faith, in just a couple of pages each. These are people across the ages, including the present, and across the world who have lost their possessions, or their homes. They have been imprisoned, and some tortured, even killed. You would think that it would be a fantastically depressing book and it is hard hitting – but it is also uplifting. The love of Christ and the joy, and quiet peace, of living for him in the darkest of days, shines through every page.
The strength that some people have in staying true to the faith is staggering to me. But I can understand their fervor. Faith in Christ is all encompassing. It is a full and rich relationship with the risen Lord. And when under pressure, that faith can be at its most active and sharp.
As Peter said in one of his letters to the persecuted Gentile Christians, “You love Him, though you have not seen Him. And though not seeing Him now, you believe in Him and rejoice with inexpressible and glorious joy.” (1 Peter 1:8). Peter had seen Jesus. Peter had sat under his teaching. He had seen the death and resurrection. The people he was writing to had not. And yet their faith was strong.
And herein lies the difference. Those who had not been witness to Jesus’ death and resurrection abide in Christ by faith alone. That is how it should be and is powerful. Those before Christ were witness to his coming and lived by faith never seeing the fruition of the promise (Hebrews 11).
But there is one group of people who lived beyond faith – they also lived by cold hard fact. The disciples knew Jesus. They travelled with him. They were there at the crucifixion and they saw the risen Christ. They were the first witnesses. They were the first persecuted. They were the first martyrs.
In Acts 4, Peter and John were arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin – the very same body that had condemned and executed Jesus. They were not to know that they would not get the same treatment. And yet they stayed true.
Stephen was arrested in Acts 7 and stoned to death, in the same year as Jesus’ death and resurrection (c. 34 AD). In Acts 12 we are told that Herod had executed James son of Zebedee in what would have been about 10 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Outside of the Bible, Jewish historian, writing in around 94 AD tells us that Jesus’ brother James had been executed by the Pharisees:
“Festus was now dead [the Roman ruler of the region attested in the book of Acts], and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the Sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.” (Josephus Antiquities of the Jews 20:9:1)
The martyrdom of the apostles Peter and Paul are attested by Clement who was born in around 33AD, was known to Paul and was bishop of Rome from about 88 AD – his letter, 1 Clement (the earliest Christian writing outside of the Bible) was written about 96 AD:
“Let us set before our eyes the illustrious apostles. Peter, through unrighteous envy, endured not one or two, but numerous labours, and when he had finally suffered martyrdom, departed to the place of glory due to him. Owing to envy, Paul also obtained the reward of patient endurance, after being seven times thrown into captivity, compelled to flee, and stoned. After preaching both in the east and west, he gained the illustrious reputation due to his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world, and come to the extreme limit of the west, and suffered martyrdom under the prefects. Thus was he removed from the world, and went into the holy place, having proved himself a striking example of patience.”
All of these disciples died (some in excruciatingly horrible ways) knowing for a fact that Jesus was resurrected. I am in awe of people who die for the faith having never seen Jesus in the flesh. These men died knowing the truth of their own eyes and their own experience. And not one of them recanted.
Now it has been said that people who “will not die for a lie” is a fallacy as it is predicated on their belief that what they saw was true. The implication is that Jesus was not resurrected and that the disciples were subject to a clever and elaborate scheme that truly made them believe that Jesus was resurrected.
I just don’t buy it.
The disciples were Jesus closest friends and followers. They did everything and went everywhere together. They knew who he was when he appeared to him after his resurrection – and remember, Jesus was dead and gone, they were not expecting him to be resurrected. But when he appeared to them, they knew without a shadow of doubt that it was him.
To pull off a scheme of such intricacy and brilliance relies on there being a sub-set of workers to set it up and execute the plan so perfectly that people who had known Jesus for years, could not tell it wasn’t him.
The fact that these people who had seen and knew that Jesus had died and had risen again, all went to their deaths without ever recanting, is the single biggest reason I believe.
Again, the disciples after Jesus death are gathered in an upper room – depressed and scared that everything they thought was about to come to fruition, had failed. Their Messiah, their saviour, was dead. It was over. Throughout the gospels we see Jesus foretelling his own death and the disciples not understanding. They really thought the kingdom of God had come. They didn’t understand the Old Testament prophecies to mean that the promised saviour would be tortured and killed as part of the salvation plan.
They had no reason to carry on – unless he wasn’t dead. Unless it was true. These frightened, disillusioned followers were suddenly galvinised into passionate urgent witnesses willing to die for Christ.
I don’t believe that an elaborate plan was hatched with a silent and secret sub-set of Jesus’ followers to hoodwink not only the Romans but also – and principally – the very disciples who would then spread the message and ultimately die for it. I don’t believe that some kind of inner sanctum executed the perfect plan without any hint of suspicion, and without anyone giving it away, and then they melted into the background and disappeared to history as the the poor deluded disciples spread the word. What would be the point? If Jesus had died, what would be the point of pretending he was the resurrected Messiah?
I do believe that the disciples saw Jesus fully alive after he died. I do believe that they fully realised that everything Jesus had said about himself was true. And if he was the Christ, the kingdom of God had come and people needed to know – and they would die for it. If you knew you had met the risen God himself, you would proclaim his message to your death.
They saw him. They knew it was true. They knew it for a fact. And that’s why they died without recanting. And that’s one of the main intellectual reasons I believe the gospels, and the resurrection of Christ.