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JESUS, A FRAUD, A LUNATIC OR THE MESSIAH? Part 13: the Reaction of Jesus’ Followers — His Disciples

a. From cowards to bold witnesses

How could one explain the transformation in Jesus’ followers?  One day they are cowering in fear, hiding themselves from the public, the next they are all boldly proclaiming that Jesus is alive!  What happened?

At his arrest, all of his disciples fled away and were scared for their lives:

Mark 14:50 “Then everyone deserted him and fled.”

Matt 26:56 “Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.”

The day of Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples were still hiding for fear of the Jews.

John 20:19 “On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews…”

Jesus’ disciples were clearly cowards and were trying to preserve their lives.

However look what happens a few weeks later:

Acts 4:31, 33 “After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly…With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.”

They all of a sudden were not scared for their lives any longer and risked imprisonment, persecution and certain death for testifying about the risen Saviour. 

Eleven of the twelve apostles died a martyr’s death! Look at the way the following followers of Jesus died:

Andrew was crucified.

Bartholomew was crucified.

James, brother of Jesus was stoned.

James, son of Alphaeus was crucified.

James, son of Zebedee was killed by the sword.

John died naturally.

Matthew was crucified.

Peter was crucified upside down.

Philip was crucified.

Simon was crucified.

Thaddeus was killed by arrows.

Thomas died of a spear thrust.

Who in their right mind would die for a lie?  Maybe if that person was a lunatic.  But how can one explain a group of people being willing to die for a lie?  This is just impossible.  What compelled these disciples to preach the message of a risen Saviour is the fact that they had witnessed with their own eyes that Jesus had been risen indeed! Their changed lives provide a solid testimony that Jesus is alive!

Peter affirms this in 2 Peter 1:16 “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”

The apostle John confirms this as well: 1 John 1:1-3 “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched-this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.”

Luke, although not a direct eyewitness of the risen Saviour, investigated the claims of the Christians carefully. He ended up writing the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts.  He had no doubts either that Jesus was indeed risen!

Luke 1:1-3 “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you…”

Acts 1:1-4 “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.”

These disciples were willing to be mocked, persecuted and put to death because they had witnessed firsthand that Jesus had been risen.

Let us take two examples. 

i. Peter

Peter denied Jesus three times during his trial and then deserted him.

Matt 26:69-75 “Now Peter was sitting out in the courtyard, and a servant girl came to him. “You also were with Jesus of Galilee,” she said.

But he denied it before them all. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.

Then he went out to the gateway, where another girl saw him and said to the people there, “This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.”

He denied it again, with an oath: “I don’t know the man!”

After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, “Surely you are one of them, for your accent gives you away.”

Then he began to call down curses on himself and he swore to them, “I don’t know the man!”

Immediately a rooster crowed. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: “Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.”

He wasn’t too brave for a man who vowed never to abandon Jesus (see Matthew 26:35). Three days later when women announce to him and the other disciples that Jesus had been risen from the dead, neither he nor the others believed them.

Luke 24:11 “But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.” 

Forty days later, he was the first one to proclaim of a risen Saviour in front of a large Jewish audience:

Acts 2:14, 22-25 “Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say… Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.”

Peter had been changed.  From a coward he was transformed into a bold believer.  Why?

Because Jesus had 1 Cor 15:5 “appeared to Peter”.

His testimony was poignant and many believed what he testified. Acts 2:41 “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.”

Hid bold testimony continued until his martyr’s death.

“Thus Peter, as our Lord had prophesied, was `girt’ by another, and `car­ried’ out to die along the Aurelian Way, to a place hard by the gardens of Nero on the Vatican hill, where so many of his brethren had already suf­fered a cruel death. At his own request he was crucified head downwards, as unworthy to suffer like his Master.”

Workman, Herbert B. The Martyrs of the Early Church. London: Charles H. Kelly, 1913, p. 18-19.

How can one explain this radical transformation in Peter’s life?  There is only one explanation: he had witnessed the risen Saviour.

ii. Thomas

Thomas also fled when Jesus was arrested.   When his friends testified to him that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead, he didn’t believe them.  He was a hardcore sceptic and needed ample proof that Jesus was indeed alive.

John 20:24-25 “Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”

He received his proof:

John 20:26-28 “A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”  Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” 

Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

His life was turned upside down and he became a bold believer as well. He died a martyr’s death as well.

Why the change from a hardcore sceptic into a bold believer?  The only explanation is that he had witnessed with his own eyes that Jesus had indeed been risen from the dead.

The apostles sealed with their own death the veracity of their testimony. Would you be willing to die for a lie?  I sure wouldn’t!  Neither would these men of faith!

b. James and Saul of Tarsus

i. James

James was Jesus’ brother.  He didn’t believe in Jesus when he was alive.  How would you feel if your brother proclaimed John 14:6-7 “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”

John 7:5 “For even his own brothers did not believe in him.” 

Although he was not part of the original twelve apostles (no wonder he didn’t believe in his own brother! See Matthew 10:2-4), he was later recognized as an apostle of Jesus.

Gal 1:19 “I saw none of the other apostles-only James, the Lord’s brother.” 

What happened?  Why did James not believe in his brother while he was alive and after his awful death on the cross, he became an ardent believer of him?  Why the sudden transformation?

Because James witnessed that Jesus had been risen from the dead!

1 Cor 15:7 “Then he appeared to James.”

James eventually became a bold witness of Jesus and proclaimed that he was the Messiah!  He became also a leader to the Jerusalem church and wrote the letter of James that is found in our Bible. He starts his letter with the following words:

James 1:1 “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

The Jewish historian Flavius Jospehus tells us that James, brother of Jesus was stoned to death because he believed in his brother Jesus!

“He assembled the Sanhedrin 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.” 

Antiquities of the Jews, book XX, Chapter 9.1

Why would James be willing to die a horrible death?  He wasn’t willing to die for a lie.  In fact while Jesus was alive he sure didn’t believe in him.  He was willing to die a martyr’s death because he had witnessed the risen Jesus Christ!

ii. Paul

Paul was born in Tarsus.  As his father he was a Roman citizen. He was also Jewish and was deeply involved with the sect of the Pharisees. He studied under Gamaliel, one of the greatest rabbis of his time. He proclaimed: Acts 23:6 “I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee.” 

He was advancing in great strides in Judaism and was zealous for his religion. Gal 1:14 “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.” 

He was opposed to the Christians.  He despised them so much that he set out out to annihilate them. He witnessed Stephen’s stoning. Acts 8:1 “And Saul was there, giving approval to his death.” 

Persecution started that day against Christians. Acts 8:1 “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.” 

Paul, named Saul at that time was zealous in persecuting these Christians. Acts 8:3 “Saul began to destroy the church.  Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.” 

His goal was the destruction of all the Christians! Gal 1:13 “I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it.” 

Acts 26:9-11 “I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth.  And that is just what I did in Jerusalem.  On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the saints in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them.  Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme.  In my obsession against them, I even went to foreign cities to persecute them.” 

He went out to Damascus with the intentions of taking Christian men and women prisoners.  These Christians had to be eradicated!

Acts 9:1-2 “Meanwhile, 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.” 

He never reached his goal.  On his way to Damascus something happened to him that changed his whole life around.  Let us see what he wrote in his own words about this:

Acts 22:6-16 “About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, ‘Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?’

“‘Who are you, Lord?’ I asked.

“‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied.

My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me.

“‘What shall I do, Lord?’ I asked.

“‘Get up,’ the Lord said, ‘and go into Damascus. There you will be told all that you have been assigned to do.’ 

My companions led me by the hand into Damascus, because the brilliance of the light had blinded me.

“A man named Ananias came to see me. He was a devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews living there. He stood beside me and said, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight!’ And at that very moment I was able to see him.

“Then he said: ‘The God of our fathers has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth. You will be his witness to all men of what you have seen and heard. And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.’”

After this experience he stopped persecuting the Christians and instead embraced them as his own brothers and sisters.  Instead of their foe, he had become their friend and started to proclaim the Christian message that Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead three days later.  Why the sudden transformation?  He had witnessed the risen Saviour personally!

He later wrote:

1 Cor 9:1 “Have I not seen Jesus our Lord!”

1 Cor 15:8 “…last of all he appeared to me also…”

His message changed from “Destroy these Christians!” to “Jesus is the Messiah!”

Acts 9:19-20 “Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.”

Acts 17:3 “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ (or Messiah)”

People who heard him were astonished.  Who wouldn’t be!

Acts 9:21 “All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?”

Acts 9:22 “Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ.”

He changed from a Jewish zealot into an evangelist to the gentiles.  Quite a radical change for a Jewish zealot! Rom 11:13 “I am talking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles.”

Historian Philip Schaff wrote the following about Paul’s conversion:

“The conversion of Paul marks not only a turning-point in his personal history, but also an important epoch in the history of the apostolic church, and consequently in the history of mankind.  It was the most fruitful event since the miracle of Pentecost, and secured the universal victory of Christianity.”

Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church,Vol. I. Apostolic Christianity, A.D. 1-100. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1910, p. 296.

According to tradition the Romans executed Paul for his beliefs of the risen Saviour.  Would Paul be willing to die for a lie?  Absolutely not!  He didn’t believe the message of these Christians at first.  It’s only after he met Jesus face to face that he became a Christian himself. He was willing to die a martyr’s death because 1 Cor 15:8 “…last of all he appeared to me also…”

Part 14