Jesus appears to over 500 at once

THERE IS HOPE!

In this period of lockdown I have written a 66,000+ word MS for which I am now looking for a publisher (prayer for this would be much appreciated!). Entitled There is Hope! A Guide to Preaching at Funerals, I begin my prospective book in this way:-

The good news is that there is hope – for God raised Jesus from the dead! “God”, wrote the Apostle Peter, “has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet 1.3). It was “concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead” that the Apostle Paul was on trial (Acts 23.6: see also 26,6)…..

Christian hope is not a whistling in the dark but is sure and certain. In the Church of England’s committal service, the dead are committed to be buried or cremated

“in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life
through our Lord Jesus Christ,
who will transform our frail bodies
that they may be conformed to his glorious body,
who dried, was buried, and rose again for us”. [1]

Christian hope is not a form of optimism. Indeed, according to the American theologian, Stanley Hauwerwas, optimism is a form of “hope without truth”. [2] Rather Christian hope is based upon a past reality. For the Bible teaches that in rising from the dead Jesus blazed a trail through the valley of the shadow down which those who have put their trust in him may follow too. In the words of Jesus, with which I begin every funeral: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live” (John 11:25)……

What a contrast there is between the Christian hope – and hope as understood by the ancient Greeks. My attention recently was drawn to the story of Pandora. According to a Greek myth found in one of Hesiod’s poems, Prometheus stole the secret of fire from the gods and shared it with humankind. As an act of revenge Zeus ordered Hephaestus to create the first woman, which he did out of earth and water, and ordered each of the other gods to endow her with a ‘seductive gift’. Zeus named this ‘beautiful evil’ Pandora (‘All-gifted’) and sent her off to Prometheus’ brother Epimetheus. Pandora had been warned not to open the jar (today known as a ‘box’ because of a 16th century mistranslation), but her natural curiosity got the better of her. As she lifted the lid, she released every evil onto the earth, bringing the world’s golden age to its close. Aghast, she hastened to replace the lid, but all the contents of the jar had already escaped – all except hope.  “This”, wrote Hesiod, “was the will of aegis-bearing Zeus the Cloudgatherer”. [3]

Down through the centuries there has been much debate about the significance of hope. Does it imply that hope is preserved to make the sufferings of this life more bearable? Or, in what is a story of revenge, does it mean that hope is denied to us, making life all the more miserable? Or, like the other contents of the jar, is hope an evil, which brings torment to us? It is this third interpretation which Friedrich Nietzsche adopted: “Man”, he wrote, “believes the ill which remains within [the jar] to be the greatest blessing… Hope, in reality, is the worst of all evils, because it prolongs the torments of Man”. [4]

Whereas for Christians hope is a positive virtue, in the ancient world hope was viewed as a delusion. In a famous speech recorded by Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War the Athenians declare somewhat cynically:

“Hope, danger’s comforter, may be indulged in by those who have abundant resources, if not without loss at all events without ruin; but its nature is to be extravagant, and those who go so far as to put their all upon the venture see it in its true colours only when they are ruined; but so long as the discovery would enable them to guard against it, it is never found wanting”.[5]

Hope, as far as Thucydides was concerned, deceives and misleads. Or as the agnostic American politician Robert Ingersoll said in a speech in 1894: “Hope is the universal liar who never loses his reputation for veracity”.

By contrast Christian hope is centred on God who does not mislead. In the words of Stephen Travis, a Methodist theologian, “To hope means to look forward expectantly for God’s future activity. The ground of hope is God’s past activity in Jesus Christ…. Thus the believer looks forward to the resurrection of God’s people and the arrival of God’s Kingdom, confident because Jesus has inaugurated the kingdom and has been raised from death.” [6]

CHRISTIAN HOPE IS RESURRECTION HOPE

Paul begins his great chapter on the resurrection by reminding the church at Corinth of the evidence for the resurrection

1 Corinthians 15.3-5

He begins by quoting from an early Christian creed which stated that:

that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,
and that he was buried,
and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures,
and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve

On closer examination, these four affirmations can be reduced to two propositions: “Christ died” and “Christ was raised” – the ‘being buried’ and ‘appearing to Cephas (Peter) and the Twelve’ simply strengthen these two basic propositions.

First, “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures” (15.3). The underlying Greek preposition (huper) translated “for”, normally means ‘on behalf of’ and is usually used of persons: e.g. “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5.8). What we have in 1 Cor 15.3 is probably a form of short-hand, viz. Christ died ‘on our behalf to deal with’ our sins.

Secondly, “He was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures”. The passive mood, “he was raised”, indicates that God is the implied subject: Jesus did not so much rise, as God raised him and in doing so vindicated his death on the Cross. The resurrection is God at work. The tense is perhaps even more significant. In the other three lines of this creed a simple Greek past (aorist) is used: viz. he “died”, “was buried”, and “appeared”; but in this line the verb is in the Greek perfect (egegertai), a tense which expresses a past action with consequences in the present. Christ was raised to life and lives for evermore is the implication. Christ is alive! This Greek perfect is repeated throughout the chapter when Paul is referring to Christ (15.12, 13,14,16,17,20). The reference to “the third day” is in one sense a simple fact of history. Jesus was crucified on a Friday. Yet when the women went to the tomb early on the morning of the first day of the week (Sunday) he had risen. What happened was an event, and not just an experience. This phrase may also underline the reality of Christ’s death: his body lay in a tomb for more than two days, and no doubt in that time began to decompose. By implication, this fact of decomposition offers hope to us: for if God could transform his decomposing body when he raised his Son from the dead, so too he can do the same for us!

1 Corinthians 15.6-9

Paul adds to the creed a number of other appearances known to him from other sources, but interestingly not known to us. Here we have a reminder that the New Testament does not give us a complete record of the life of Jesus, but only a selection of things he did and said (see Jn 21.25).

“Then he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers & sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died” (15.77). The expression “at one time” emphasises the reality of the appearance. Visions may come to individuals, but certainly not to large groups. Synchronised ecstasy on this scale is out of the question! The phrase “most of whom are still alive” may form an invitation to the Corinthians to make enquiries themselves of those who saw the Lord

“Then he appeared to James” (15.7). An appearance to James is recorded in the apocryphal Gospel of the Hebrews. This James is the Lord’s brother, who, along with his other brothers, did not believe in Jesus (Jn 7.5) during the course of his earthly ministry.  Was this appearance of the risen Christ instrumental in his conversion? We can only speculate.

“then to all the apostles” (15.7). This is not just another way of speaking of “the Twelve”, but refers to a larger group, more limited than the 500, who along with the Twelve saw the Risen Lord Jesus and were sent out by him to preach the Gospel.

To this list of appearances of the Risen Lord Paul adds himself:  “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (15.8). The fact that Paul includes this experience within the list of the Lord’s appearances, shows that as far as he was concerned his encounter with the Risen Christ on the Damascus Road was not some kind of subjective vision to be placed on a par with his other “visions and revelations” (see 2 Cor 12.1). The Lord “appeared” to him. As he mentions earlier in the letter, he too is an “apostle” because he had actually “seen Jesus” (1 Cor 9.1). Paul recognises that this appearance was outside the ‘normal’ process. Hence he uses the unusual expression “as to one untimely born”. The underlying Greek word (to ektroma) described any kind of premature birth: e.g. a miscarriage, a still-birth, or an abortion. The fact that in the Greek the definite article is present suggests that Paul may be taking up a term of abuse used of him by some of his Corinthian opponents. Perhaps some called him a ‘foetus-like freak’, referring to the fact that physically speaking Paul was not the most attractive of people (see 2 Cor 10.10). Alternatively, there may be a play on his name, ‘Paulus’ (literally, ‘the little one’): some may have dismissed  him as a “half-formed dwarf” .

HOPE FOR A CHURCH UNCERTAIN OF ITS HOPE

Let me conclude with another brief section from my MS, There is Hope!

It is not only non-Christians who lack hope. Increasingly many Christians are not sure about what they believe about life after death.

A sociological survey in the mid-1990s conducted by Douglas Davies showed that up to a third of Anglicans and a similar number of Methodists said they believed personal life simply came to an end at death, and only a third professed specific belief in a definite spiritual survival. Only 4% believed in a resurrection of the whole person. [7]

A 2017 survey of 2,010 British adults commissioned by the BBC revealed that 25% of those who described themselves as Christians did not believe in the resurrection of Jesus, and that 31% did not believe in life after death. [8]

According to a 2018 survey of attitudes to death in the UK, some 34% of Christians felt unable even to talk about death with their family or with friends. [9] As I later commented: “It may well be that some, even though they know that ‘the sting’ of death can be removed through faith in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus (1 Cor 15.56-57), have yet to learn to truly put their trust in Jesus. For them death is still “the king of terrors” (Job 18.14: see also Psalm 55.4). They have perhaps yet to discover that Jesus, by destroying the one who has the power of death” has freed those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (Hebs 2.15).” [10]

These are remarkable statistics bearing in mind that “Christianity is a religion of hope”. As has often been said, the church is ‘the community of the resurrection’, and yet it would appear that many are uncertain about the difference the resurrection of Jesus makes to those who put their trust in him. All the more reason for preachers to help Christians and non-Christians alike to overcome their fear of death.

[1] Common Worship: Pastoral Services (Church House Publishing, London 2000) 269.

[2] Stanley Hauerwas, Christian Existence Today: Essays on Church, World & Living In Between (Labyrinth, Durham, North Carolina 1988) 211: “Optimism – hope without truth – is not sufficient for dealing with the pretentious powers that determine a person’s existence in the world.”

[3] Hesiod, Works and Days.

[4] Friedrich Nietzsche, Human All Too Human (1878) Section 71: Hope

[5] Book 5.103.1

[6] Stephen Travis ‘Hope’ 321 in New Dictionary of Theology (IVP, Leicester 1988) ed by Sinclair Ferguson & David Wright.

[7] Douglas Davies & Alistair Shaw, Re-Using Old Graves: A Survey of Popular Attitudes (Shaw & Sons, 1995) cited by Vernon White, Life Beyond Death (DLT, London 2006) 74.

[8] Comres survey of 2,010 British adults for BBC local radio conducted by telephone between 2 and 12 February 2017.

[9] ‘Death has a sharper sting for the faithful’, The Times 31 October 2018, 13.

[10] See Paul Beasley-Murray, Make the Most of Retirement (Bible Reading Fellowship, Abingdon 2020) 125.

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