Easter And The Secular Mind
April 15, 1990
I’m going to tell you an Easter story this morning about a man you probably don’t know much about. When I tell you his name, you’re going to think of something else, and some of you are going to think I’m just making it up.
But I’m not. This man is in the New Testament. And what he said and did has everything to do with Easter Sunday.
The man’s name is … well, I’ll wait a second on that. Let’s put some other pieces of the puzzle together first. The year is A.D. 60. The place is Caesarea on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. This man has come to Caesarea to take over for his mostly-inept predecessor as the governor of the Roman province of Judea. The situation is tense and unsettled, for the Jews were a fractious bunch not noted for the art of gentle submission. As this man sets up shop in Caesarea he has one basic goal: Keep the peace, keep the lid on, don’t let things boil over. It’s not easy because already powerful winds of revolution are blowing across the land.
The man hardly steps off the boat from Italy when he runs into his first problem. There’s a fellow in prison in Caesarea. Seems he did something to upset the Jewish leaders. Well, upset is hardly the right word. They want this fellow dead. It’s all vague and confusing. And so three days—just three days—after he takes office he makes the 60 mile trip to Jerusalem to pay his respects to the Sanhedrin and also to find out why they are so hot after this fellow in jail. The man in jail was named Paul. He had been there for two years. And lucky to be alive, frankly.
The other man—the new governor—will shortly hear from this fellow Paul. The governor’s name? Festus. I told you it would make you think of something else. But it’s all there in Acts 25-26. More about that in a few minutes.
According to Acts 25, when Festus went down to Jerusalem the Jews made all kinds of charges against Paul. And they asked Festus to transfer the case from Caesarea to Jerusalem. Now it was all pretty transparent. They wanted to set up an ambush and kill Paul en route. Failing that, they would at least get home field advantage to press their charges.
It didn’t work out for various reasons so several of the influential Jewish leaders went with Festus back to Caesarea. Paul was brought in for a confrontation with the Jews. Acts 25:7 explains what happened then. “The Jews who had come down from Jerusalem stood around him, bringing many and serious charges against him which they could not prove.” They couldn’t prove them because they weren’t true.
So Paul simply says to Festus, “I’m not guilty of anything. I committed no offense against the law of the Jews or against the Temple or against Caesar.” But Festus wanted to do the Jews a favor so he asks Paul if he is willing to go to Jerusalem and stand trial there.
Now please understand. Festus is not a bad man. He’s basically a new man. He doesn’t know Paul, he doesn’t know the Jewish law, he a Roman governor. This whole case is mysterious to him. Transferring the trial to Jerusalem is a kind of compromise. But Paul is about as willing to go back to Jerusalem for a trial as he is to let a blind man do brain surgery on him. The prospects were not very encouraging.
So he says, “I’m a Roman citizen and I ought to be tried right here. If I’m guilty, punish me. If I’m innocent, I shouldn’t be handed over to these men.” And then he says something that will change the course of his life forever. He says the words, “I appeal to Caesar.” (25:11)
In the days of the Roman Empire, every Roman citizen had the right to make that appeal. If a Roman citizen felt he wasn’t getting a fair hearing, he could appeal to Caesar and skip all the lower courts. Such a person would be sent directly to Rome along with a statement of the facts in the case. It was like appealing to the Supreme Court. There was only one catch. Once you made such an appeal, you couldn’t change your mind later.
A Dead Man Named Jesus
At this point two other people enter our story—a man by the name of King Agrippa and his sister Bernice. We know him as Herod Agrippa the Second. He was the last of the line of the Herods. His great-grandfather was Herod the Great, the man who tried to kill the baby Jesus and had the infant boys of Bethlehem slaughtered. His granduncle was Herod Antipas before whom Jesus was tried on that fateful night in Jerusalem. His father was Herod Agrippa the First who murdered the Apostle James and put Peter in jail.
And now Herod Agrippa the Second is king of a tiny territory northeast of the Sea of Galilee. He is a relatively young man, well-versed in the Jewish religion and a loyal friend of Rome. He and his sister have come to Caesarea to pay their respects to the new governor.
While they are there, Festus decides to ask for Agrippa’s help. He doesn’t have to. This isn’t Agrippa’s territory. He is more or less a friendly consultant in the matter.
Now listen to how this new governor states the case against Paul. It’s been 2,000 years but the struggle still comes through. In these words you get an insight into how the secular mind deals with Easter.
There is a certain man here whom Felix left as a prisoner. When I went to Jerusalem, the chief priests and elders of the Jews brought charges against him and asked that he be condemned. I told them that it is not the Roman custom to hand over any man before he has faced his accusers and has had an opportunity to defend himself against their charges. When they next came here with me, I did not delay the case, but convened the court the next day and ordered the man to be brought in. When his accusers got up to speak, they did not charge him with any of the crimes I had expected. Instead, they had some points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive. I was at a loss how to investigate such matters. (Acts 25:14-20)
Did you get that? “A dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive.” And the clincher: “I was at a loss how to investigate such matters.” You see, Roman law didn’t cover resurrections. Insurrections, yes. Resurrections, no.
To Festus, it’s all incomprehensible. He’s never heard anything like this before. He doesn’t know what to say or even where to begin. Paul isn’t guilty of anything. He’s not a murderer or a thief. He’s not a criminal. A little kooky maybe with this resurrection thing. But that’s it.
Festus represents all the broad-minded people of the world. He himself doesn’t believe in the Resurrection but it’s okay with him if someone else does. And when the man of the world comes face to face with a true believer, he doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t even know where to begin. He doesn’t believe it but he doesn’t know what to do with it either.
And for 2,000 years the men of the world have looked at Easter and shaken their heads. They hear the words, they know what we believe, but they don’t know what to do with it all. It’s just too much to comprehend. The words of Festus ring across the centuries—”I was at a loss how to investigate such matters.” Of course he was. And every modern-day Festus stumbles over Easter and walks away scratching his head.
You’re Out Of Your Mind
Agrippa is a different sort of fellow. He understands the Jewish law and he also knows quite a bit about the story of Jesus. In fact, he was born about the time Jesus began his public ministry. So he says, “I would like to hear this man myself.” And Festus says, “Tomorrow you will.” (25:22)
Tomorrow comes and it turns out to be a great occasion. The Romans were always good at pomp and ceremony and they did it up right this time. The hearing was held in the splendid Hall of Audience in Caesarea. In come Agrippa and Bernice dressed in their royal purple robes. In comes Festus in the scarlet dress of the Roman governor. In come the Roman Legionnaires, in come the lictors, in come the civic officials, in come the interested onlookers. It is a vast and impressive sight.
Finally, lastly, in comes the Apostle Paul, a slight, stooped, unimpressive man wearing a threadbare tunic. Chains dangle from his gnarled hands. But his look is magnetic, his eyes flash with power. From the moment he speaks, it is Paul who holds the stage.
What follows is the greatest defense of the Christian message in the New Testament. It is in many ways the climax of the book of Acts. The record of what Paul said to Agrippa is found in Acts 26.
And as the hearing proceeds, an amazing fact becomes apparent: It is not Paul who is on trial, but Festus and Agrippa. Paul retells the story of his conversion and proclaims the power of the Resurrection. These are his words in verse 7: “Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?” That is the question of the ages. Is it incredible to think that God would raise the dead?
Then he adds these words in verse 22: “But I have had God’s help to this very day, and so I stand here and testify to small and great alike. I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen—that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles.”
At this point Festus has heard enough. He interrupts Paul and shouts, “You’re out of your mind, Paul! Your great learning is driving you insane.” (26:24)
You see, Festus reacts the way all secular men react. First, it’s visions and revelations, then prophets, and finally a resurrection. It’s just too much to take. No sane man can talk that way. It is the final verdict of the secular mind. Festus simply has no other category. Truth or the possibility of truth doesn’t enter in because everyone knows that dead men stay dead. No, there simply was no category for this strange doctrine. And Festus, the Roman governor, reluctantly concludes that Paul, who is obviously a well-educated, brilliant man, has quite simply gone nuts. Crazy as a loon. Two bricks short of a full load. His study of the prophets has driven him bonkers. There is no other charitable explanation.
The Horns Of A Dilemma
Please understand. Festus doesn’t really think Paul is literally insane. You don’t shout at someone you think is crazy. You speak softly and pat them on the head. Maybe you turn to the King and wink. And you would never send a lunatic to the Emperor’s court in Rome. That’s a bad career move. No, Festus doesn’t literally mean it. But he can’t think of anything else.
For Festus, only two alternatives are possible. Unless he is ready to become a Christian, he must say Paul is nuts. If Paul is right, Festus is wrong. He would not, could not, dare not admit that. Festus rightly senses that madness is in the air. But if it’s not Paul, it must be him. But it can’t be him so it must be Paul. That’s all there is to it. Paul is crazy.
Thus the secular mind confronts the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In the greatest question of life, the question of Jesus Christ and my relation to him, there are only two possible answers. Either I believe him for who he is. Or I reject him and his claims. Yes or no. Life or death. And a man, depending on his answer, is either wise or a fool.
Give Festus credit. At least he saw the issue clearly even if he didn’t give the right answer.
Still the question plagues modern man. Who is this Jesus of Nazareth? In the December, 1986 issue of Atlantic Monthly one man attempted an answer. The managing editor, Cullen Murphy, wrote the lead article that month entitled, “Who do Men Say that I Am?” Subtitled “A Traveler’s Question,” it is one man’s long, learned, thorough attempt to examine the religion of his childhood.
He takes the question Jesus asked, “Who do men say that I am?” and comments:
This is the most resonant question in the New Testament. It is the question, it seems, of a man who wishes to understand but who is also himself disturbed, of a man who finds himself in deeper waters than anticipated, of a man at once baffled and intrigued by a destiny that he may have begun to glimpse but of which he is not fully sure. (p.37)
It may be that Jesus went to his death not knowing quite who he was, regardless of what other men thought. He certainly went to his death with public opinion sharply divided and with his own disciples profoundly confused. There is obviously no consensus—even today—even among Christians—as to what the real message of Jesus was and how it should apply to our lives, if at all … Despite the creedal affirmations of the mainline churches, there is no consensus—not if one looks at what real people actually believe—as to the identity of Jesus. (p.38)
And Cullen Murphy lists the possibilities: 1. He was God and man—the Word made flesh. 2. He partook of the divinity in some lesser sense. 3. “Was he simply another of those charismatic leaders who appear from time to time, destroy some complacency, do some good and bequeath to the human race the example of an exemplary life?” (p.38)
With that introduction, Cullen Murphy begins his survey of what can be known of Jesus in the light of modern historical research. He says of himself: “It would be fair to describe me as a person who wants to believe.” (p.38)
He starts with the Gospels and says they have limited value as historical documents and were almost certainly not written by the men whose names are attached to them. There is truth in them, he says, but you have to rely on modern scholarship to dip it out.
Of Jesus’ birth, he simply says, “No one really knows when he was born.” (p.51) He says we can’t rely on the record of Matthew 2 and Luke 2 because they were inserted later to teach certain truths about Jesus. He was probably the son of a carpenter named Joseph.” (p.51)
Finally, the Resurrection. He notes first that there were no eyewitnesses. Then he says there is nothing to justify the common idea of the stone rolled away and Jesus, clad in a winding sheet, bursting forth in glory from his grave. He even suggests the early church simply picked out an empty tomb and showed it to visitors as a devotional aid. And that is why the empty-tomb tradition was later incorporated into the Gospel accounts.
What about the appearances of Jesus? They can’t be taken at face value. They were more like visions or apparitions. Not, he says, actual sightings.
Only one thing bothers him. All the disciples were profoundly convinced that Jesus who died had come back from the dead. And all save one went to a violent death for that belief. How do you account for that?
He simply has no credible answer. Something happened. Something converted those grieving, guilt-ridden disciples into flaming missionaries ready to die for their faith. What happened between Friday night and Sunday morning?
And when you get right down to it, these are Cullen Murphy’s exact words: “Precisely what happened, of course, one can’t describe.” (p.56)
Haven’t we heard that before? “A dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive. I was at a loss how to investigate such matters.”
It’s been 2,000 years but Festus is still with us. Secular man has an answer for everything, but he is still baffled by the empty tomb.
But there are exceptions. If you want a truly hard-bitten, secular man, then go back about 19 years and visit 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. Ask for the office of the Special Counsel to the President. The name on the desk reads Charles W. Colson.
They called him the “Hatchet Man” because he specialized in doing the dirty work of politics. Need to pull a dirty trick? Call Chuck Colson. Need to leak a damaging story? Call Chuck Colson. Need to find out what the Democrats are up to? Call Chuck Colson. Need someone to put the brakes on a Justice Department investigation? Call Chuck Colson.
By his own admission, he was a tough guy, a man who once boasted he would run over his grandmother if it would help re-elect Richard Nixon. Religion to him was a church. And Jesus Christ? He didn’t figure in.
But then 1972 came and with it came Watergate and the landslide victory and a deep inner emptiness that wouldn’t go away, a longing for something that even the White House couldn’t provide.
And that’s why he left the White House and the limousines and the limelight. He was looking for something more. At length he visited a client and friend, Tom Phillips. He was wealthy, successful, with a happy family, a huge house and a Mercedes in the driveway. Someone warned Chuck Colson that Tom Phillips had found religion.
Well, not exactly. Tom Phillips had met Jesus Christ. “This was surprising news. Tom Phillips had always been such an aggressive businessman. It was hard for me to see him teaching Sunday School. Once he had told me he was Congregational in the same way I labeled myself Episcopalian. Nothing important—just another membership.”
This is what Tom Phillips said to Chuck Colson: “I have accepted Jesus Christ. I have committed my life to Him and it has been the most marvelous experience of my whole life.”
Colson says, “My expression revealed my shock. I struggled for safe ground. ’Uh, maybe sometime you and I can discuss that, Tom.’ If I hadn’t restrained myself, I would have blurted out, ’What are you talking about? Jesus Christ lived two thousand years ago, a great moral leader, of course, and doubtless divinely inspired. But why would anyone “accept” Him or “commit one’s life to Him?” as if he were around today.’”
Tom Phillips gave Chuck Colson a book to read, a book by C.S. Lewis entitled Mere Christianity. In that book, Lewis talks about what it means to believe in Jesus Christ. Particularly, what it means to believe that Jesus Christ really is God in human flesh, who lived and died and rose again and ascended to heaven where He sits at the right hand of God. What does it mean to believe in that Jesus? Lewis says:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a great moral teacher and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this Man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up as a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that option open to us. He did not intend to. (pp. 55-56)
And Chuck Colson, Hatchet Man, made his choice. In his own words, “Early that Friday morning, while I sat alone staring at the sea I love, words I had not been certain I could understand or say fell naturally from my lips: ’Lord Jesus, I believe you. I accept you. Please come into my life. I commit it to you.’”
He wrote a best-selling book about his story called Born Again. He says in the book that when news spread of his conversion, people couldn’t believe it. They thought he was kidding. He says one relative thought the strain of Watergate had been too much. She wrote to a mutual friend: “I’m afraid poor Chuck has snapped, gone over the edge. This kind of religious fervor is often the sign of mental instability.”
No Middle Ground
When it comes to Easter, there are two things the people of the world cannot understand. First, they cannot understand the Resurrection. It is a miracle which baffles the mind. Secular man cannot deal with it. Second, because they can’t deal with the Resurrection, they can’t figure out anyone who can. They think we’ve all gone nuts.
But in the words of Paul when he replied to Festus, we are not mad. What we believe is both true and reasonable. This thing was not done in the corner. The evidence is there for all to see. The empty tomb is still empty. No one has ever found the bones of Jesus. No one ever will. So far from being a myth or legend, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ stands as the best-attested fact in all human history. And we invite everyone—skeptics and scholars alike—to examine the evidence and come to their own conclusions.
What should we do with all this? If you’ve never made the choice, it’s time to come to grips with it. Where do you stand on the question of Jesus Christ? With Festus or with Paul? With Cullen Murphy or with Chuck Colson? With secular man or with the church of Jesus Christ? No question is more important, more crucial, more vital.
In the greatest question of life, the question of Jesus Christ and your relation to him, there are only two possible answers. Either you believe him for who he is or you reject him and his claims. Yes or no. Life or death. You believe or you don’t. There is no middle ground.
Whatever else this day may be, Easter will not really be Easter for you until you make your choice and take your stand for Jesus Christ.