By Daniel H. King
“How can people of the twentieth century and beyond be expected to believe that a man walked on water, healed the blind and the deaf, and walked out of the grave three days after his crucifixion?” This is, as it has ever been, the burden of faith.
Faith challenges us to believe that which seems unbelievable, even as it did those of two thousand years ago. On the one hand it expects us to look forward to an unseeable future, toward an invisible heaven, and trust in unprovable prophecies and promises. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1), and again, “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). On the other, it just as remarkably stands between us in the present and those in the distant past. We read the biblical histories and are met with men and women of like passions with us, and yet hear of them experiencing incredible happenings – things which we know we have never known or experienced. We read of Moses and the burning bush, of Moses and the parting of the Red Sea, of Elijah and the chariots of fire, etc.
But most remarkable of all is our confrontation in the text of the New Testament with the Galilean Jesus. The stories of his miracles boggle the imagination of the modem reader. They are stupendous in every way and yet the gospels report them in such a matter-of-fact fashion that we often forget to feel the utter incredulity of the onlookers and witnesses to the events. The writers clearly were convinced that Jesus of Nazareth not only performed such feats of in explicable power, but that this was fully to be expected of that Person who came to say and show and be more than any Old Testament prophet or priest had ever before claimed. The miracles are plainly a declaration of his divine nature as well as the seal of divine approval of his message. Can we believe them today? The answer to this can only Or be given by each individual as he or she analyzes the evidence put forward in the accounts and decides whether to accept it or not. We were not there to see these wonderful incidents, and so are left to judge the case on the basis of the historical information contained in the gospels about Christ. Perhaps we may even say that our decision must rest upon degrees of relative probability. Do the accounts sound credible, aside from the miraculous aspect couched in the stories? Most reasonable people would agree that they do. In other words, there are no “magic dragons” or personages who ordinarily inhabit the environs of fantasy (gremlins or hobgoblins).
The man who appears at center stage is a very ordinary figure in many ways: he is raised in Nazareth in Galilee, pursues the common trade of carpentry till he is thirty, then becomes an itinerant teacher and preacher for some three years or so, and, at the last, when the tide of public sentiment turns against him, is executed for crimes against the state. Were it not for the extraordinary appeal of his teaching and the miracles – we cannot seem to ignore those miracles – then his life and death would probably have gone unnoticed in history.
Are the witnesses trustworthy? This is one of the most crucial of issues in examining their testimony. What kind of men were they? Any unschooled person may quite easily extricate a few simple facts from the text. First, they were men who were just as ordinary as Jesus. They were fishermen, tax gatherers and people of the streets and towns of Galilee. Second, they were men of honesty and integrity. The Christian religion, which they vouchsafed to those of subsequent times, exalted truth and honesty while it condemned all falsehood and lying. Third, they were men who showed no signs of mental incompetence. Fourth, they gained nothing by what they said. In fact, they gave up everything to herald the message of a risen Savior to every corner of the globe. When the story of the apostolic age had been finally written, it was a saga of misery and suffering for each of them, with all but one having to die a cruel death for the cause of their Lord. Where can we find in this history a shred of proof that these men had ought but their desire to meet their Master in another and better land as inspiration for their sacrifices?
Fifth, their testimony is of such a personal and tangible nature as to elicit trust on our part. John describes the demands of “Doubting Thomas” as though he needed for us as readers to appreciate their inability to naively accept such an incredible story as that of the resurrection (Jn. 21:24ff.): “Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.” Whenever I read those words, it is as though I am there with him, doubting as he doubted – but hoping all the while that he might be alive. Moreover, all my doubts and questions are, along with those of the first doubting disciple, put to rest in the Master’s challenge at his appearance to Thomas: “Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.” I can, along with him, feel my own trembling hand reach out and touch the terrible scars left by the driven nails – and with that touch experience the dawning of faith in my own soul. Though we cannot broach he wide centuries personally to see and talk with our Lord after his resurrection, still our thirst for evidence may be abundantly satisfied in this and other accounts of his greatest display of power. Paul even attests that on one occasion he appeared to over five hundred people at one time (1 Cor. 15:6).
John concludes his synopsis of just a few of the Lord’s miracles in this way: “Many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you might have life through his name” (20:30-31). The most important of these, of course, is his resurrection. In his life the miracles display his mastery over sickness and disease, the powers of evil, even the forces of nature. But in his death, and in the resurrection, there is something else again. It brings us face to face with his divinity. It shows us that he cannot die without our hopes and dreams dying with him. And if he lives, then we can also live with him.
Herein we discover our own God-given aspiration for enduring life. As Paul worded it: “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. Here indeed we groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling . . . . For while we are still in this tent, we sigh with anxiety . . . . For we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:1-2,4,7). In this miracle of Jesus we have God’s promise of our own resurrection and the demand for faith on our part. The New Testament is the source of both. If we cannot trust the New Testament, then we can have neither.
Living as we do in an age of television and hypermedia, it is not as easy for us to “stand amazed in the presence of Jesus the Nazarene” as it once was. What is accomplished on film is, at times, nothing short of fantastic. But it is only trickery. Technologically wonderful, yes; but really only slight of hand taken one step beyond the magician’s bag of tricks.
The Book of God, though, confronts us with one who needed no stunts or tricks. He possessed power. And with power he needed only to command a thing to be or to happen, and it did. What we have in the New Testament is the report of this miraculous work, utterly dependable in all its details, amazing though they may sometimes seem! In this chronicle of his life and works there is not only a story of events but also a communication to our hearts and hopes. Some may question whether this is merely conjured up to pull us through the rough spots of life, but as the disciples on the road to Emmaus knew so well when they remarked that “our hearts burned within us . . . while he talked with us by the way,” the Word of God speaks to the needs and hopes of man in a way that is quite unique. It is the key that answers to the lock of our souls, opening up for us the vistas of eternity. Well-crafted it is, exactly as its divine Author planned it!
Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 20, pp. 628-629
October 20, 1989