I had the opportunity yesterday to lead three classes of high school students at a local Christian school in a study on the reliability of the resurrection of Jesus. The students were attentive and had many great comments, questions, and even criticisms. One powerful fact that lends credence to the claim that Jesus of Nazareth was supernaturally raised from the dead like he said would be is the radical transformation his followers had after the event. If one reads the Gospels, you clearly see the disciples are not perfect models of love, truth, and goodness. Thomas doubted (John 20:24-29). John and James desired to have fire fall down from heaven because of their racist hatred of the Samaritans (Luke 9:51-56). Peter, oh my word, was one of the most brash, arrogant, and foolish men among them (Matt. 16:22-23, 26:35, 58-75). The disciples are presented as slow (Luke 24:25), ignorant, sheepish (Matt. 8:26), and even faithless at times (Luke 9:41). These men would not be the first choice of people to lead large ministries, megachurches, or mass crowds of people.
Yet, something amazing occurred that altered their disposition. The early disciples went from timid, fickle people to bold, single-hearted followers of Christ. They flew like doves from doubt to confidence, from depression to joy, and from defeat to victory. Ultimately, they ended up giving their lives for the sake of their beliefs. Church history records they died in gruesome ways. James was killed by Herod’s sword (Acts 12:2). Peter was crucified upside down. Andrew was hanged on an olive tree at Patrae, a town in Achaia. Thomas was thrust through with pine spears, tormented with red-hot plates, and burned alive. Philip evangelized in Phrygia where hostile Jews had him tortured and then crucified. Matthew died by beheading at Nad-Davar. Nathaniel (Bartholomew) was flayed and then crucified. James the lesser (son of Alpheus) was cast down from the Temple and finally beaten to death with a fuller’s club to the head. Simon the Zealot was crucified by a governor in Syria. Judas Thaddeus was beaten with sticks by pagans. Matthias was stoned while hanging upon a cross. Paul was beheaded under Nero. John died a natural death after being released from Patmos, a work island in Asia Minor. They were all honest men and women who avoided sex before marriage, idol worship, and greedy practices. What made the difference? The New Testament answers the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. On the third day, God raised Jesus from the dead and he went on to teach, empower, and lead these men forty days until he ascended. The disciples were different because the tomb was empty and the resurrected Lord was alive before them.
This fact is one of many used to argue for the validity of the resurrection of Jesus. As I shared this with a class, I immediately had a student offer a criticism. “Radicalism does not equal truthfulness. The disciples were willing to die for their beliefs but so are Muslims. Extremism does not mean you are correct. What’s the difference between a radical Muslim dying and a Christian dying? ” I thought this was a wonderful response and it gave me an opportunity to share. He is right. Sincerity is not a judge of truth. Yet, the disciples were not just sincere. They were religiously, culturally, socially, and psychologically predisposed to not do what they did. Something transformed them. I responded that we are all radicals or extremists for something. The question is whether we are the right kind of radical. When Martin Luther King Jr. was imprisoned in a Birmingham jail for his work of seeking racial justice, he asked a very fitting question. He remarked,
Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists
Dr. King is correct. We must choose what type of extremism is right, true, good, and beautiful.
I went on to tell the student that there is a vast difference between a radical Christian and a radical Muslim. A radical Muslim says I will kill you for my faith. A radical Christian will lay his life on the line for you. A radical Muslim says convert or die whereas a radical Christian says die to yourself so you can live forever. The radical Muslim says you will convert or be killed whereas the Christian lovingly says there’s a new way of being human. Jesus is raised. You can become whole again. What happens when Christians take their faith seriously? They love their neighbors as themselves. They treat others as they would like to be treated. They avoid anger and lust. They are open-handed and serve the poor, the orphan, and the widow. They preach a message of love and grace to a world that desperately needs it. They accept each other and joyfully look to Jesus to satisfy them. There’s a huge difference between the two radicalisms.
The choice stands before you today. Which way will you choose? For two thousand years, Christians have said there’s a gate wide open to rebel sinners who have offended the glory and name of God. We don’t deserve one way of salvation but God has graciously and lovingly provided just one. Why is this gate wide open? Jesus of Nazareth lived a sinless life, he died a criminal’s death on a cross, he bore the wrath of God for sin, and he was supernaturally raised by God on the third day. Everything you’re not because of sin, he is for your salvation. He can make you whole, remove your guilt, give you peace, fill you with joy, and make you who you should have been. The disciples laid down their lives for the Gospel. Why? The Gospel is true, it is good, and it is beautiful.