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A THING INCREDIBLE
All Bible references are to the Anglicised New International Version (NIV-UK)
Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?
Acts 26: 8
THE APOSTLE PAUL poses the challenging question. In chains for two years while the vindictive Jews parley with Felix, the obnoxious Procurator of Judaea, to have the troublesome preacher sentenced to death, Paul is brought in AD 60 before the new Procurator, Porcius Festus, reputed to have been just in his administration of the province. But Festus has some difficulty in understanding what charges are being levied against the prisoner. Unfamiliar with Jewish religious laws and traditions, he feels that while the dispute about a man called Jesus who had been put to death, but was alive again, seems ludicrous, the preaching of such a belief does not appear to be an offence worthy of death.
Perplexed, but wanting to please the Jewish hierarchy, Festus asks Paul if he is willing to be tried in Jerusalem, but as a Jew with Roman citizenship Paul demands his rights and answers: ‘I appeal to Caesar!’ And after Festus confers with his council, he declares: ‘You have appealed to Caesar. To Caesar you will go!’
However, the occasion of a courtesy visit by King Agrippa II and his wife, Bernice, to the new Procurator affords an opportunity for Festus to get a further opinion. On what specific charge can he send the prisoner to Rome for trial? Agrippa is intrigued and wants to hear for himself what Paul has to say in his own defence. The next day Agrippa and Bernice come with great pomp and enter the audience room with the high ranking officers and the leading men of the city, and at the command of Festus, Paul is brought in.
Festus says (Acts 25: 13–27):
‘King Agrippa, and all who are present with us, you see this man! The whole Jewish community has petitioned me about him in Jerusalem and here in Caesarea, shouting that he ought not to live any longer. I found he had done nothing deserving of death, but because he made his appeal to the Emperor I decided to send him to Rome. But I have nothing definite to write to His Majesty about him. Therefore I have brought him before all of you, and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that as a result of this investigation I may have something to write. For I think it is unreasonable to send on a prisoner without specifying the charges against him.’
The record of the hearing is brief, though Paul very likely took the opportunity to state his case thoroughly, not only for Agrippa and Festus, but for the powerful admonition of the influential Jews avidly demanding his death. Also present would certainly be some loyal supporters of the accused, praying for Divine justice to overrule, a loving support at that crucial point in the Apostle’s ministry.
‘Then Agrippa said to Paul, “You have permission to speak for yourself.” So Paul motioned with his hand and began his defence: “King Agrippa, I consider myself fortunate to stand before you today as I make my defence against all the accusations of the Jews, and especially so because you are well acquainted with all the Jewish customs and controversies. Therefore, I beg you to listen to me patiently”’ (Acts 26: 1–3).
As to the argument that God should raise the dead, the doctrine was rooted in Jewish faith and belief. It was implicit in Jehovah’s promises to Abraham and in the testimony of the Prophets, explicit in the witness of many holy men of old who wrote under the inspiration of the holy spirit. Paul’s explanation to the assembly is quite simple. As a Jew and a Pharisee he shared in the hope of all that God had promised to the Jewish people, and embodied in the immensity of those promises was the inescapable assurance that men must be living in order to receive the fulfillment of those promises. Their God was not a God of the dead, but the God of the living, and as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had died long since, a resurrection was an obvious necessity.
At one point Festus became exasperated. ‘“You are out of your mind, Paul!” he shouted. “Your great learning is driving you insane”.’ Paul appealed to Agrippa for confirmation of his reasoning. ‘King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.’ In some alarm at being drawn into unwilling support of the prisoner, the King retorted: ‘Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?’ Paul replied, ‘Short time or long — I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains’ (Acts 26: 24-29)
Persuading the Ungodly
Festus was, of course, at a great disadvantage. Raised in pagan Rome and accustomed to offering routine ritual homage to various minor deities, the concept of an all-powerful God who could raise the dead was utterly foolish. Short of a miracle, Paul had little hope that Festus, proud appointee of Caesar, would take him seriously.
Countless Christians have faced the same rejection and ridicule from the ungodly as generations have passed, perhaps never more mockingly than at the present time. Unbelievers are not necessarily to be blamed. ‘The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned’ (1 Corinthians 2: 14). It is excusable that many cannot reconcile Bible teachings with the ever-increasing scientific knowledge of our day. Their time will come.
Paradoxically, in some who profess disbelief in a God who created all things and breathed the breath of life into humankind, there is a curious reluctance to accept that when that breath has ceased, existence is forever at an end. An innate instinct militates against the idea that life and learning are transient, subject to random forces, having no lasting value. Thus the false doctrine of the immortality of the soul has its adherents even among dissenters, unaware of the malign influence of an Adversary who long ago suggested that ‘you will not surely die’ (Genesis 3: 4).
Persuading the Godly
Though the ungodly, the unbeliever, may sometimes be persuaded and the remnants of ancestral faith may be stirred to life, the Christian ministry is most profitably directed towards those who love God, but may be hindered by misconceptions and fettered by false doctrines and superstitions.
Though church attendance in the western world has greatly declined, Christianity is still the most populous religion on earth, with two billion believers worldwide ― one-third of the Earth’s population. Evidently the Divine purpose continues to focus on a worldwide gathering work in preparation for the time when Christ’s Kingdom will be established on earth. How vital it is, therefore, that we who believe are as well instructed as possible in our understanding of God’s plans and purposes for the future of mankind.
And yet, sadly, we may meet with opposition, kindly or resentful, from some whose faith is not securely based on the Word of God. When St. Paul was persecuted for teaching the resurrection of the dead he must scarcely have believed it possible that God’s chosen people, custodians of the oracles of God, could choose to deny such a fundamental truth. Perhaps some of the more honourable had misgivings as to the charge against Paul, but how else could they rid themselves of the troublesome preacher who threatened their authority and disturbed their consciences?
Doubtless most of the people accepted the instructions of the doctors of the law, paying their tithes and observing the set feasts. Yet among them were those whose lives were much more deeply committed to keeping the spirit of the law; and the essence of it, expressed by Jesus, was love ― supremely toward God, and justly toward fellow men and women. We still meet those with that spirit, and they are surely those whom the Lord is training for future service when earth’s millions are restored to earthly life.
Satan’s original lie is still believed. The dead are not really dead, but have merely shed the earthly body, while the ‘soul’ survives, invisible to those on Earth. Thus the Almighty, having created humankind with immortal souls, is powerless to end their existence. The departed good are kindly assumed to be in Heaven, while the not-so-good are also regarded as safe. Rarely are evildoers consigned to a hell of torment.
But such views are not accepted by all Christians, many believing that immortality is conditional. Notably, William Tyndale in 1530 declared: ‘And ye, in putting them [the departed souls] in heaven, hell, and purgatory, destroy the arguments wherewith Christ and Paul prove the resurrection. . . . And again, if the souls be in heaven, tell me why they be not in as good case as the angels be? And then what cause is there of the resurrection?’[fn1]
The Testimony of Holy Men of Old
St. Peter reminds us that ‘prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit’ (2 Peter 1: 21). What did they say on the subject of death?
‘If a man dies, will he live again? All the days of my hard service I will wait for my renewal to come. You will call and I will answer you; you will long for the creature your hands have made’ (Job 14: 14, 15).
‘I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes (Job 19: 25–27).
‘What man can live and not see death, or save himself from the power of the grave?’ (Psalm 89: 48).
‘It is not the dead who praise the LORD, those who go down to silence’ (Psalm 115: 17).
‘Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save. When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing’ (Psalm 146: 3, 4).
‘But your dead will live; their bodies will rise. You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy. . . . The earth will give birth to her dead’ (Isaiah 26: 19).
New Testament Evidence
And what did Jesus and the Apostles teach concerning death? That there would be a resurrection to new life! Jesus said: ‘Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out’ (John 5: 28, 29). Special promises relate to the members of the Body of Christ (which must be the subject of another study), but Jesus clearly taught that the unbelieving world would be restored to life, not to be immediately condemned again, but to experience a trial for life everlasting. Castigating the unfaithful in Israel, Jesus warned them that ‘The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here’ (Matthew 12: 41, 42).
Jesus Himself restored the dead to life, most significantly His friend Lazarus, whose body had lain four days in the tomb. Martha, the sister of Lazarus, confidently expected her brother to return in the resurrection at the last day, but in her grief felt that Jesus ought to have saved him. The raising of Lazarus, more than all else, demonstrated the power of God’s Son, and drew upon Him the fear and enmity of the faithless Jewish hierarchy. His avowal at that time, ‘I am the resurrection and the life’, foreshadowed His role as the world’s Redeemer, the prospective Giver of new life to every member of the human race (John 11).
That Jesus Himself was raised from the dead by the power of the Father became the focus of the Apostle Paul’s ministry ― that ‘incredible’ message that so angered the Jews, and which would lead to his own sacrificial death in Rome. The Scriptures do not record the details of Paul’s trial before the Roman judiciary, or indicate the details of his death, and there are no historical records of the event. Christian tradition, however, holds that Paul was beheaded in Rome in about AD 66, by which time the Christians were suffering persecution under Nero. Near the end, sure of his own resurrection, Paul wrote to his beloved friend Timothy (2 Timothy 4: 6-8):
‘I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day — and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing’.
Copyright March 2010 UK Bible Students. You are free to reproduce this article in whole or in part, but please let us know if you do so.