Message 5, The Gospel as Historical Fact:
The gospel of Jesus Christ is “good news.” It is “good” because it tells the greatest story ever told about how God redeems those who repent and believe in Christ alone for salvation. It is “news” because it is rooted in the historical events of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. In this session, Dr. Albert Mohler explains why the historicity of the biblical record is essential for the truth claims of the gospel.
I’m very, very glad to become a new teaching fellow here at Ligonier Ministries. I’ve had the opportunity to be with you so many times in the past, but now in a particular way, and it is a sign that I want all the world to know of how much I believe in this ministry, and also a sign of my indebtedness to Dr. R.C. Sproul and all that he has meant to all of us as teacher, and mentor, and guide, and encourager, and friend.
I am thrilled to be here because the topic of this conference is the gospel, and there can be nothing more important for Christians, biblically-minded Christians, urgently motivated Christians, to come together to think about, and talk about, and teach about.
I noticed how careful Chris was in describing this event. He said it’s something like Thanksgiving. And he said it’s something like the good parts of a family reunion. And I’ve — the good parts. That that’s what we want; there are the good parts of a family reunion. Crazy uncle Louis is probably here! But that’s alright, it’s a family reunion. That’s what happens.
I ended up in a situation in which I was in a church when it was celebrating its anniversary, and the pastor had saw someone coming at me and he said, “This guy, he just has to come tell you that America was ruined when Jimmy Carter gave away the Panama Canal. That’s the — what he wants to tell you.”
And he came up to me, and he looked at me, and he said, “Preacher, I just want to tell you something.” He said, “You know when this country was ruined?” And I said, “When Jimmy Carter gave away the Panama Canal.” He goes, “Yes.” And he walked away and I thought, “Okay, that was easily handled. There we go. Stuck in the 1970s, but he’s got a message.”
But let me tell you what encourages me about this family reunion in a way that struck me profoundly today. And, that is how many young people are here. Because there are so many young people I saw. There were a couple of very nattily-attired young men holding the door open, just letting people in.
There are, there are young people, high school, middle school, college-age and younger here, and I just want to tell you if you really, urgently care about the things we’re talking about, you care about whether or not there is the transmission from one generation to the next of the faith once for all delivered to the saints. And that’s what makes me particularly happy today, and particularly urgent.
My task is to speak about the gospel as historical fact. And in order to speak about the gospel as historical fact, I want to tell you a tale. There’s a tale to be told here and, in one sense, it’s a very modern tale. It’s a tale of the modern age, of the arrival of modernity and of the worldview that only became accessible to Western peoples in the Enlightenment. And what you’ve got, in this very modern tale, as you would not be surprised, is a very interesting cast of characters. These would include Hermann Reimarus, who’s known to us only because of Gotthold Lessing, a figure who himself lived in 1729 to 1781.
And Lessing, in the early period of the Enlightenment and its understanding of history, came to the conclusion, based upon what he had read from the fragments of Reimarus, that we cannot actually know what happened in the past. History is unknown to us, it’s unprovable. It is impossible, he said, to root what he called the the “facts of reason,” the necessary truths of reason, in what he called “the accidental truths of history.” Lessing said that to understand history right, you should understand that between where we are and historical events, there is what he called an “ugly ditch.”
This ugly ditch is a ditch that makes actual knowledge of the past impossible to us. We can argue over different interpretations of history, but actually nothing argued — we’re arguing over what happened. And his particular argument was that it really doesn’t matter what happened, because the worldview, in his Enlightenment mentality, had to be entirely predicated upon reason; human rationality, autonomous human reason. But Lessing’s ugly ditch sets the stage for the fact that the modern age has become necessarily identified with historical relativity, with the understanding that historical judgments are necessarily relative judgments.
And when we speak of history, we have to speak of the relative likelihood that something actually happened and thus, also relativized, is the necessity of any historical events, in terms of framing a worldview or establishing necessary truths.
Emmanuel Kant, the most significant figure in the Enlightenment, comes along, he’s very influenced by Lessing. Lessing talks about the ugly ditch of history. Emmanuel Kant will talk about the mighty chasm of history, making the very same point. Kant, again, tried to rescue Christian morality by sacrificing Christian theology and, in so doing, Kant tried to argue on the basis of a merely practical reason that he believed was universal to humanity.
And Kant argued that, once again, it’s rationality that will provide the authority, in terms of a worldview. Truths are established, or they fail to establish themselves, upon the operation of reason, and reason alone.
Now, if you’re following this, you’ll understand that the Enlightenment was not just the overthrow of a worldview that came before. The Enlightenment was an intentional overthrow, in terms of especially its secular aspect, as represented by those we are citing here; as an intentional rejection of Christianity.
But specifically, it was an intentional rejection of the Christian truth claim of revelation. And it was a complete rejection of the gospel of Jesus Christ, as that gospel is predicated upon, established upon certain events that took place in space, and in time, and in history; the saving acts of God, through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Well, after Lessing and after Kant came others. And you’ll understand it wasn’t a coincidence. Friedrich Schleiermacher, the founder of liberal theology, came along with the suggestion that, of course, Kant had been right and, of course, Lessing had been right. There is this ugly ditch. There is this mighty chasm. There is no way we can establish the, the Christian religion, as he called it, on the basis of some historical facts and then teahings that are understood to be immutably true by divine revelation based upon those very facts, including the fact of revelation itself.
So Schleiermacher redefined the animating energy of theology as being “feeling,” and this fits within German Romanticism, which was also very much a part of this. But Schleiermacher, coming after Reimarus, and after Lessing, and after Kant, comes along to say that religion is, most of all, the Christian religion specifically, is a matter of feeling, a feeling of utter dependence.
Schleiermacher was arguing in order to defend the Christian faith, as he understood it, over against its cultured despisers, what he called “the cultured despisers of religion,” the secular leading edge of the Enlightenment who’d, they had rejected Christianity as a totality.
He wanted to come back and say, “No, we can rescue Christianity from the Enlightenment and from the the necessary operation of reason because there are parts of Christianity that we can retain, and those parts have to do with emotion, and feeling,” in a way that, in very haunting senses, points to the age we have now, in which people they’re spiritual, but not religious. He argued you can be Christian without being doctrinal, and you can have Christianity even without the necessity of an historical Christ.
Another rescue attempt was attempted at the beginning of the 20th century. After the so-called “quest for the historical Jesus,” when you had so many people in, both in German-speaking Europe and also in English-speaking Europe and elsewhere, they were doing their very best to say, “Look, we, we have to make a distinction between the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history,” making that, that separation.
The Christ of faith is the Christ the church worships, but the Jesus of history is a historical figure to be evaluated and to be considered along with and alongside any other historical figure, any other historical event that might be investigated. By the way, Albert Schweitzer, one of the — a theological liberal himself — but one who at least understood the, the ridiculousness of the quest for the historical Jesus, he pointed, and I’m paraphrasing him here, he pointed to the ridiculousness of how much a liberal, German scholar’s finding Jesus who looks like a liberal German scholar.
And, you know, he said famously that these questers for the historical Jesus are like people who look down a well and see the reflection of their own face and think it’s Jesus. But at the end of the 19th century, there was a great exhaustion in terms of the quest for the historical Jesus. There were many people who, trying to rescue Christianity from its necessary truth claims in terms of orthodox biblical Christianity — that faith, once for all delivered to the saints — and said, “There must be another way to rescue Christianity from these necessary arguments about history.”
Along comes Rudolf Bultmann, one of the most influential figures in New Testament studies, also in theology, especially in the early decades of the 20th century. Rudolf Bultmann comes back to say, of course, of course, modern historical consciousness means that we cannot take the New Testament seriously as history. Of course. Of course it’s impossible to trust sources that are, are, are so ancient, in terms of the modern demands of historiography. It’s impossible to take the New Testament seriously as history.
And, instead, he argued that the New Testament in particular, and the stories of Jesus found in the Gospels in particular, and the teaching of the early church, had to be, in his words, “demythologized.”
And he was suggesting that, if you demythologize the Old Testament, he was arguing for a conception of myth in which what you have here is the spiritual truth is being expressed through apparently historical claims but, even if we don’t believe the history anymore, then we can still extrapolate the myth and then we can revise that myth, we can update that myth, we can bring it into a 20th century context, and so we can rescue some meaning out of the New Testament even if the New Testament is no longer to be taken seriously. It’s either divine revelation or making historical claims.
Again, I’m going to paraphrase Bultmann to say — he said basically this, “You’re going to have to deal with the modern age. The church of the Lord Jesus Christ is going to have to understand the mentality of the modern age.” And as he put it, “People who turn on electric lights and use electric razors don’t believe in heaven and hell. So you’re going to have to demythologize the New Testament.”
Another rescue attempt came later in the form of neo-orthodoxy, especially as represented by Karl Barth. And in the 20th century, Karl Barth argued that history itself had to be recovered if the Christian preacher was going to be able to preach, but it had to be recovered in a way that would reflect the key insights of the Enlightenment and, in particular, of Emmanuel Kant.
Emmanuel Kant divided all meaning, as you know, between two worlds: the phenomenal world that we can see and observe, the phenomenal worlds where we can have a scientific laboratory, the phenomenal world is where we live and experience, and the noumenal world, in which there was the realm of moral meaning and of spiritual truth. And so there was a distinction between the phenomenal and the noumenal.
And, of course, Christianity, in terms of its truth claims, gets shifted up into the noumenal world outside historical rational investigation. It’s all about meaning, and feeling, and spiritual truth. It’s not about fact. It’s not about history. It’s not about space and time, and the space-time continuum.
You may recall that Francis Schaeffer, in the 1970s, trying to explain this to evangelical Christians, said, it’s a two-story theory of truth, going back to the Enlightenment. In Emmanuel Kant, you’ve got the lower story where things are facts, and the upper story where things are merely meaning. But the meaning is separated from facts. The spirituality is separated from truth claims. The truth claims are themselves reinterpreted so that there is no apparent claim that anything actually happened in space, in time, and in history.
So Karl Barth borrowed the phenomenal noumenal distinction. He came up using two different German words for two different kinds of history. There’s Historie, which is history like, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” and then there’s Geschichte. And Geschichte is history in which meaningful events take place, and it’s the meaning rather than the facticity that is most important. And in particular, salvation history, he used the German to call it Heilsgeschichte.
So you’ve got saving history, but it’s not to be confused with history, which is a matter of facts and space and time continuum. Barth allowed that there could be moments when the two could intersect. That’s what’s really interesting. Emmanuel Kant never implied the two could ever intersect. The phenomenal and the noumenal remain ever separated.
But Barth comes along and says, “No, here’s what happens. It is possible, possible at moments for Historie and Heilsgeschichte to intersect, such as in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead.” But Barth went on to say that even as Heilsgeschichte and Historie could intersect in something like the intersection of the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead, it would not be observable, nor provable, nor assertable on the basis of Historie alone.
One of the lessons I hope we get from this immediately is that every rescue attempt of Christianity fails, because Christianity does not need to be rescued. The gospel does not need to be rescued. In, in the modern age or in any other age, every attempt to rescue the gospel ends up in a form of theological liberalism. The theological liberals themselves, going back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries said, “We’ve got the rescue Christianity from these truth claims, especially truth claims having to do with historical fact and eternal meaning, present consequences.” Rescue attempt after rescue attempt has been tried.
But the other thing we need to note is that the pressing of the historical case against Christianity continues. It continues and it continues. So you can go all the way back to Lessing, and then to Kant, and then to Schleiermacher, to the quest for the historical Jesus, and by the time you get to the 1960s you’ve got what’s called “the new quest for the historical Jesus.” And they continue to press the case.
By the time you get to the 1980s, you’ve got an academic establishment that has so secularized itself, and it has become so much not only enamored with, but established upon liberal foundations, that it finds the claim of revelation having to do with historical events absolutely impossible to recognize as credible.
So in the 1980s you get a group called “the Jesus Seminar.” The, you have the quest for the historical Jesus, you get the new quest, and you get the Jesus Seminar. The Jesus Seminar was headed by a man by the name of Robert Funk, a professor of New Testament who gathered together a bunch of scholars and they decided they were going to use, here again, simply the tools of secular historiography in order to determine how much of the New Testament was historically credible. And I’m not making this up.
They met together, and each participant in the seminar had four colored marbles. This is esteemed, elite academia. Four colored marbles. There was a red marble which was to indicate, especially when it comes to historical claims about what Jesus said, “We’re pretty certain He said this.” Then there was a pink marble for “It’s more likely than not Jesus said this.” Then there was a gray marble for “It’s more likely than not Jesus didn’t say this.” And then there was a black marble.
Actually I just told you that backwards. The black marble was “Jesus didn’t say it.” The gray one was “He might have said it.” The, you can follow on through. Let’s just put it this way. There’s very little red in their Red Letter Bible. They came to the end of it and decided that the words of Jesus were, were not historically credible, that Jesus could not have said these things, must not have said most of these things.
And so there’s a lot of black “Jesus never said it,” there’s a little bit of gray “maybe He said it, probably not,” there’s a little bit of pink “Jesus probably said that,” and, if Jesus said that, He sounded like a liberal New Testament scholar in the 21st century, or “Jesus probably did say that. We’re going to have to recognize He said that.” That’s the red letter. It’s very little.
So you’ve got the quest for the historical Jesus, you’ve got the new quest, you’ve got the Jesus Seminar. And, and you would look at that and, and, and here’s what’s tempting. It’s tempting to look at that and say, “Okay. That’s a long way from us.” I mean, we don’t really have to worry about this idea of historical relativity and the dehistoricizing of the gospel, the historical relativizing of Christian truth claims. That’s not something that we have to worry about as getting to close to us. But it is. Frighteningly close. And it is not over. After the quest for the historical Jesus, and the new quest for the historical Jesus, there will be more quests of the historical Jesus.
In the 1980s, I can remember, in seminary, being introduced to the work of Hans Frei and his colleagues at Yale. And this was being introduced as the, “this is another rescue attempt.” This was being introduced as the next new thing in terms of how to rescue Christianity from its historic truth claims.
Hans Frei said that even though the vast majority of the New Testament is not to be taken as historical, he said it’s “history-like.” It’s like history. It should be read as being “like history.” “Well,” you would say, “that’s a long way off. That must influence people in the left wing of Protestantism. There must be some people who would be attracted to that.” It filtered its way down into many evangelical institutions where students were beginning to hear that the New Testament was “history-like,” even if it was not to be understood as history.
A recent book that was published by an evangelical publisher, edited and written by those who claim to be evangelical scholars, entitled Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism, it came out just in the year 2013, and the thesis of this book is that evangelicals, if we are to survive as a movement, must make our peace with historical criticism.
It’s the same kind of argument that Schleiermacher was making over against the culture despisers of religion. It’s the same kind of argument that the theological liberals were making in the early decades of the 20th century. We’re going to have to rescue Christianity from the necessary conflict between our historical claims and modern historical reason. And the way to do that is going to be for evangelicals to make peace with historical criticism.
And so, when you look at the successive essays in this book, they argue, for example, that it’s not historically credible, of course, to believe in an historical Adam, which means that we’re going to have to find a way to ground our biblical anthropology and our biblical theology in something other than an historical Adam. But you’ll notice something. You would say, “Well, this is a consequence of that is that someone’s later going to have to come along and write another article based upon that saying how we’re now going to have to redefine original sin because the fall didn’t happen.”
But, no, you don’t have to wait for that because they do it in the same essay! In a successive essay, they raise the issue of the Exodus, saying that there are “fantastical elements in the Exodus account,” which means they don’t think they happened. Using the modern, secular tools of historiography, they’re, they’re coming to the conclusion that, when you read Exodus, there’s just stuff there that probably didn’t happen that becomes part of the story — the parting of seas and, well, you get exactly what we’re talking about here.
And so, at some point, they say, “It probably is true that there is an historical germ, there’s an historical kernel, an historical cord in the fact that some proto-Israelites did escape from some Egyptian captivity at some period, though not as depicted in the book of Exodus. When it comes to the prophetic literature of the Old Testament, once again, they dehistoricize it.
And then you would think, “Well, if these are evangelicals, certainly as horrifying as all that is, when they come to the, to the Gospels, they’re going to have to stop short. I mean, there’s going to be a firewall there. They’re going to hit that. They’re going to come up against it and they’re going to recognize, ‘We can’t continue this argument when it comes to Jesus.’” But they do. They do. They continue the argument even as it applies to the Gospels. Oh, they do find a firewall, by the way.
They say that they hit the firewall when it comes merely to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. There must be some true, historical foundation, in some sense, to that, otherwise there is no Christian faith. But when it comes to the miracles of Jesus, they say, “It’s all likely that, in all likelihood, again, there’s these fantastical elements that we see we’re going to have to strip away from the story.”
Now, as I said, this is a very modern tale. We’re talking about modernity, and even the the cast of characters I mentioned, these are all part of the Enlightenment and the post-Enlightenment. They’re part of, of modern theological liberalism or neo-orthodoxy. And even what we saw in this latest book, published by an evangelical publisher and supposedly written by evangelicals, what we see is that there is a very modern story.
That’s exactly the whole moral thrust of this new book. It is that we have a moral responsibility simply to abdicate to modern historical relativity and be done with it. “Save what we can so we can preach what we can preach.” But what I want to point out to you is that this is not such a modern heresy after all. As a matter of fact, virtually all heresies are perennial heresies.
As you have your Scripture before you, look to 2 Peter chapter 1. One of the arguments made by Hans Frei and others, that what — he’s the one that said that it was “history-like” so much in the New Testament. It’s “history-like.” It’s because the inference, if not the explicit statement is that these historical questions are ultimately modern questions. No one asked them until modern times; you know, on the other side of the Enlightenment and the rise of autonomous human reason.
People now take history more seriously than they did in the past. They’re asking a different set of questions, and those questions are going to invalidate the historic claims of Christianity. Well, along comes Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, to let us know these are not new questions. In 2 Peter chapter 1 and verse 16, Peter writes:
“For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to Him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,’ we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with Him on the holy mountain.”
“And,” says Peter, we have something more sure:
“the prophetic word to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
So Lessing, and Kant, and Bultmann, and all the rest say, “Look, it’s a modern age. Deal with it. It’s a modern age. We’re, we’re just going to have to separate the historic truth claims the Christian church has traditionally and long-standingly made on the basis of the New Testament about Jesus, and we’re going to have to rescue out of that some spiritual meaning.”
And when you look at what so many, so many denominations, churches, and folks who identify as Christians say when you see them in public, you’ll understand this is the worldview from which they are operating. Trying to rescue a little meaning, a little significance for Christianity when they no longer believe that the New Testament is true. It’s a very modern tale, in terms of the fact that it now comes to us as part and parcel of the modern world, but it is not a new question. The apostles were absolutely determined to make clear that they were not preaching cleverly devised myths.
The New Testament, to be saved, doesn’t have to be mythologized, demythologized. It simply has to be preached. And Peter then goes on, with specificity, to make very clear exactly what he’s saying here. He is saying, “We were eyewitnesses of these events. We saw them with our own eyes. We heard the divine majesty say, ‘This is my Son in whom I am well pleased’ with our ears. We were there.” Space, time, and history.
You know, when you look at the New Testament, it’s clear that this isn’t just Peter. Consider the Gospel of Luke, and how it opens. What does Luke say as he writes to Theophilus, telling Theophilus what he’s doing? — the prologue to the Gospel of Luke. Luke writes, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit — “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us.”
These are things that happened. “Just as those who from the beginning were,” here’s that word again, “eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.”
Now, it’s almost as if we said, “Let’s somehow bring someone back from the New Testament to speak to the quest for the historical Jesus. Let’s bring someone back from the New Testament to tell us what they were intending by what they were doing in writing the New Testament under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Let’s bring someone back to answer Barth, and Bultmann, and Lessing, and all the rest.”
Well, I present to you Luke. And what does Luke say? Luke says there have been many who have been trying to put together a narrative of the things that happened, things that had been accomplished. But now, he says, “Oh most excellent Theophilus.” Look at his words. He speaks, again, of “eyewitnesses.” “Those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word. They’ve delivered them to us.” What’s he doing? “It seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past.” There’s historical investigation. “To write an orderly account for you.” Why? “That you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.”
Well, at face value, in black and white, right there in the text, we have Luke telling Theophilus and, by the gift of God’s revelation, telling us, the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, that these things were written because they happened. And his very purpose, in writing the Gospel of Luke, was to make clear that they happened in such a way that eyewitness testimony was the very basis for what was now to be related to Theophilus in an orderly account so that you would have “certainty,” he writes, concerning the things that happened.
Look at the prologue to the book of Acts. Similarly, Luke writes, “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with” — what? — “with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when He was taken up, after He had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom He had chosen.
To them He presented Himself alive after His suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. And while staying with them” — notice all the historical data, all the historical claims, all written to be understood as history, as taking time in the space-time continuum — “And while staying with them He ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, He said, ‘you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’”
It’s a modern tale, but it’s not really a modern tale. We need to note that the historical claims presented in Scripture do not begin with the Gospels. The historical claims do not begin with the New Testament. We also need to understand that an authentically evangelical, authentically faithful understanding of Scripture begins, that the historical accounts from Scripture begin with Genesis 1:1 — “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
And we come to understand that wherever Scripture makes any historical truth claim, it is to be understood as revealing to us, conveying to us history which is history, as in the space-time continuum, taking place in exact accordance with what was revealed to us, not only in terms of the meaning of the events, but the specificity of the events, the details of the events, and the historical truth claims that are claimed about those very events, including not only what happened, but what was said, because what was said is part of what happened.
And we have to be very, very careful that we don’t all of a sudden shift into a mode where we say, “Well, the first 11 chapters of Genesis, that’s proto-history, that history-like.” And then, when we get to later parts of Genesis, all of a sudden that becomes history. Anything that begins, “In the beginning,” and says this happened, and then that happened, and then that happened in the Scripture, that is what we know as history. And it is presented in just that way, and given to us in just that way; the Exodus, and all the saving acts of God.
You, you realize that, in the New Testament, and even in Jesus’ own self-attestation and self-revelation, He grounds Himself and the historic nature of who He is and what He is doing, His own Person and work, in the fulfillment of prophecy, and in the entire historical flow of the Old Testament, including saving events, and including Noah. You can’t sever history in such a way that you say history becomes important in Genesis chapter 12, or history becomes important only when we get to the New Testament.
Jesus made very clear it’s all history, to be taken as history as it’s presented as history. This happened, and that happened, and that happened. And the bottom line is: thus we are saved. That point is made emphatically clear in the most important text of our consideration, and that is 1 Corinthians chapter 15. In 1 Corinthians chapter 15, Paul writes:
“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel which I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you — unless you believed in vain.”
“For what I delivered to you as of first importance,” he says:
“I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then He appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared also to me.”
Notice that Paul is not only making necessary historical claims here; he is clear that he knows he’s making necessary historical claims. And not only that, he is raising these historical claims to of first importance, for he says, “I received that which was delivered also to me and that is that Christ died for our sins,” space, time, and history, “according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that God raised Him from the dead according to the Scriptures.”
You can say, “Well, the apostle Paul, it sounds like you’re headed to the assumption that, if this didn’t happen, we’re not saved.” Look at the text. 1 Corinthians 15, beginning in verse 12:
“Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised.
For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
“But in fact Christ has been raisen from the dead — has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has also come the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”
Space, time, history. Christ, death, burial, resurrection. Space, time, history, Adam. Space, time, and history. The first Adam, and likewise the Second Adam. Matthew grounds the, the coming of Christ, the incarnation, in prophetic fulfillment, predictive prophecy being fulfilled in such a way that we come to understand that the Bible’s understanding of history is not only that everything must have happened as it is revealed it happened, but the Bible’s understanding of history is also that it must happen as the Scripture says it will happen.
And thus, Matthew will say, “These things took place in order that the Scriptures may be fulfilled.” Luke, by the way, when he’s telling us exactly what he is doing in terms of relating an orderly account of what took place, you’ll notice just even as you Luke chapter 2, it begins with such rich historical data.
“In those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” This was the first registration, “when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Brothers and sisters, that’s not “history-like.” That’s history. And it’s not of importance to us merely because it happened, but because it happened, we are saved.
There are certain things that we get tired of the longer we live, and one of the things that I get tired of is being told that the modern age has changed everything. And I keep being tired of being told that the church is going to have to come to grips and come to terms with the modern age or get left behind by history.
I get aggravated to be told that the people of the New Testament or of the Old Testament, the apostles, were simply historically naive to believe that history is actually what they were claiming. When Peter says, “Look at me. We were not following carefully devised myths.” When Luke says, “Look, Theophilus, these things happened, and I want you to have an orderly account of exactly what happened so that you will be convinced as a believer.” I get tired of it, but it’s not going to stop. It’s not going to pass away.
And the reason for that is that the first, the first subversive question about the historicity of the Word of God was the first subversive question about God in divine revelation: “Hath God said?” Historical relativizing didn’t begin with the Enlightenment. It began in the garden. It was part and parcel of the fall.
So you might think that what I’m telling you is that Lessing was wrong and there isn’t an ugly ditch. The ugly ditch is just an invention of modern secular philosophy. It’s one of the major features of the Enlightenment, but we don’t have to worry about it because the ditch isn’t there. You might think that what I’m going to tell you is, “Look, here’s our confidence. We can place our confidence in history, because history, rightly understood and rightly applied, will come to the right understanding concerning Jesus Christ, His Person, His work, and what it means for us.”
But that is not what I’m telling you. We are not here because of the right operation of our autonomous human reason. We are here because that ugly ditch is transcended by the gift of divine revelation. And, you know, that is exactly the point that Peter makes in 1 Peter, when you look back at that text once again. Peter says:
“For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to Him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,’ we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with Him on the holy mountain.”
But notice where he goes. That was past. That’s the historical claim he’s making. He’s making very clear that the life of Jesus, the incarnation of Jesus is exactly as it is declared in Scripture; that the virgin conception of Jesus is exactly as it was revealed in Scripture, and is part and parcel of who Jesus is, and what He has come to do for us. His sinless life, exactly as it is revealed. Everything He said is revealed in the New Testament, and everything He did is recorded in the New Testament.
And ultimately, most important as that which is of first importance, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures and that God raised Him from the dead according to the Scriptures. And also that, in the same sense, that Matthew says, “These things happened in order that the Scriptures might be fulfilled,” we are looking for a return of the Lord Jesus Christ, bodily, in glory, in space, and in time, and in history!
But you’ll notice that Peter turns from his absolute unconditional assertions about what happened to what we have now. Writing to the church, he says, “And we have something more sure: the prophetic word to which you will do well to pay attention.” Do you understand what he’s saying there? He’s saying, “I was there on the mountain. I saw Jesus with my own eyes. I heard the Majestic Glory with my own ears. But you have something better! You have the Scripture! You have the prophetic Word!” We don’t have less than the apostles had; we have more!
And it isn’t that we are in an inferior position, even to the eyewitnesses eyewitnesses to these events; we are actually in a spiritually superior position because we have the entirety of all that God has given us in the Scripture, in the prophetic Word. And this, just in case we might miss the point, Peter goes on to say:
“Knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
When I arrived at seminary in 1980 — a very different age — in one of my first classes I was handed a book by a man by the name of — I was handed a book by a man by the name of Van Harvey. He was the author. And the book was entitled The Historian and the Believer.
As a 20-year-old young believer, I read the book, and what Van Harvey was saying — kind of the left wing of the left wing of the left wing — what he was arguing is that, given modern historical consciousness, it’s immoral to claim more of what happened in terms of Christ and what is claimed in the New Testament than modern history can assure us actually took place. He actually makes the charge that it’s immoral to preach what we preach and to believe what we believe.
But, you know, I can remember reading that book and having to mark it up knowing I was going to be tested on it and knowing I was going to have to talk about it, I can remember reading that book and then thinking this: “You know, if it didn’t happen, it would be immoral to claim that it did.
But if, by God’s gift of revelation, we know that it did happen, and we know that that’s the gospel of Christ, received as of first priority; if we know that salvation comes to those, to those who hear that gospel and, hearing that gospel, believe, and, believing, are saved; we know that the gospel is true and we know that Jesus Christ really was crucified for our sins and that He really was raised on the third day, then, brothers and sisters, it’s immoral not to preach it. It’s immoral not to tell it. It’s immoral not to teach it.
You know, at the end of the day, what rings in my ears more than anything else, is Paul saying, “If Christ was not raised from the dead, if we have hoped for Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.” And I’m so thankful that the next word Paul writes is “but.” But He is. Let’s pray.
Our Father, we are so thankful that we come in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, whom we know was crucified for our sins as our substitutionary Savior, who paid full atonement for our sins, and who whose atonement was received as paid in full, even as You vindicated Him, as You raised Him bodily from the dead on the third day.
Father, may we be filled with confidence to preach this gospel, and none other, knowing that it saves, that it’s true, that it happened. And may we teach it, and may we preach it until Christ returns in space, in time, in history, in fullness. We declare this, and pray this, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.