"Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee: of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question ..." (Acts 23:6).
The year was approximately A.D. 59. A lot had happened in the short few years since Christ had died and risen again, and it had happened fast. The number of believers in Christ had gone from 120 to untold thousands. The church, which had once been confined to one location in Jerusalem, was now to be found in far-flung places like Corinth, Ephesus, Laodicea, Colosse, Galatia, Rome and even in Philippi and Thessalonica in what is now modern Europe thanks to Paul's travels into Macedonia. The New Testament was well underway, with the books of Galatians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Romans, Matthew, Mark and possibly Luke already in print and being circulated. Doctor Luke, also a world-class historian and journalist, was already in the process of writing the book of Acts in real time as he traveled along with Paul.
But the devil would not take any of this lying down. Just as he fought Christ tooth and nail, he fought Paul, who had gone from the biggest enemy of Christianity to its biggest advocate.
Paul himself was walking evidence for Christ. He had formerly been known as Saul, and his education was the best of the best of that day. His instructor was the famous Rabban Gamaliel the first, otherwise known as Gamaliel the Elder. His father, Rabban Simeon, had been president of the council, and after h is death, Gamaliel himself held that position. To be educated by this man was equivalent to receiving the highest degree Yale or Oxford have to offer in our day. In addition to that, Paul was also a free-born Roman citizen and a pure-blooded Jew who could trace his lineage generation by generation all the way back to Abraham through the tribe of Benjamin. Paul was riding through life on easy street.
And then came Christ.
Paul absolutely hated him. He regarded him as a fake, a charlatan, an interloper. He most assuredly cheered at his death, regarding it as utterly just. And then, just when Paul and those like him thought they were through with Jesus, word came that the tomb was inexplicably empty.
There was no possibility of mistaking his gravesite, for Jesus was buried in the new tomb of one of the only men around anywhere near as well known as Paul, a rich, notable counselor, Joseph of Arimathea. Nor was there any likelihood at all that the disciples had somehow stolen his body. In order to do so, these untrained, ragtag men would have had to overcome the trained soldiers guarding the tomb. Nonetheless, Paul absolutely refused to believe, choosing instead to go on a frenzy silencing Christians. He got the wheels rolling on a brutal persecution, dragging men and women to prison and torturing them until in their agony they blasphemed Christ.
But it was in that pursuit that Paul found himself heading for Damascus and being interrupted by the very Christ that he refused to believe was alive. Here is how he described it many years later:
Acts 26:13-16: "At midday, O king, I saw in the way a light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun, shining round about me and them which journeyed with me. And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. And I said, Who art thou, Lord? And he said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest. But rise, and stand upon thy feet: for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee."
That meeting changed Paul's life and the entire history of the world. Christ had indeed risen, and Paul now knew it for certain. The other witnesses of his resurrection were already out spreading the Word, but when Paul joined in it was like adding rocket fuel to the effort. And though Paul suffered immeasurably for his Christian work and witness, he never shied away from it a bit. And thus it was that in A.D. 59ish he stood before the council, divided between two rival factions and shouted "Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee: Of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question." You see the Pharisees believed in such a thing as resurrection. They just did not believe that Jesus had risen. And yet, if they believed one could rise from the dead, then why not Christ?
Why not indeed.
Nearly 2,000 years later the name of Christ is known around the world, and he is worshiped as the Son of God by billions. And it is entirely because he rose from the dead. He had no army, no wealth and offered no promise of ease to any of his followers. In fact, he openly warned that to follow him one must take up the cross to do so. This was a clear message that life would hold pain and loss if one followed him.
So why does anyone follow him? For the same reason people have followed him for 2,000 years now: the empty tomb. He defeated death and because of that those who believe in him will march right through death into eternal life in his presence.
And everyone is invited.
Bo Wagner is pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church of Mooresboro, North Carolina, a widely traveled evangelist and the author of several books available on Amazon and at www.wordofhismouth.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chattanooga-area pastors say Easter story of hope has fresh meaning after a pandemic year of fear and uncertainty