Our family created a game to play in the car when our boys were young to make the time pass more quickly on long trips. We called it: “Guess Who?” One person in the family would pick someone who they were going to be—either a person from a book, a movie, or real life. The person could be anyone from all human history, but we usually tried to pick people whom all of us would recognize.
One day in the car, Jonathan picked out who he was going to be and we all tried to guess who he was, but it was a real stumper. The first questions we usually ask in this game are: are you male or female? Child or adult? Living or dead? Real or fictional? These questions yielded the answer that Jonathan’s identity was that of a real, living, adult, male. When we asked if this person lived in the United States, Jonathan said “yes”. After we exhausted all the people we could think of in the USA, both people known to us and those known to many, we finally gave up. And Jonathan revealed that he was…Jesus!
At that point we all cried “foul!” I wanted to say, “Jonathan, you led us astray by saying that you were alive and living in the United States.” But as Jonathan’s preacher father I couldn’t say that, because he was, in fact, right. Jesus is alive and living in the United States, just as he lives in every part of our world by his Spirit.
Furthermore, that fact, when embraced by a person’s heart, mind, and will, makes all the difference in the world. That fact made all the difference to the Apostle Paul. So much so that Paul’s faith in the living Lord Jesus Christ was the defining characteristic of his life.
Listen to what the Roman governor Festus had to say about Paul in Acts 25 and I think you will see what I mean….
Three days after Festus had arrived in the province, he went up from Caesarea to Jerusalem where the chief priests and the leaders of the Jews gave him a report against Paul. They appealed to him and requested, as a favor to them against Paul, to have him transferred to Jerusalem. They were, in fact, planning an ambush to kill him along the way. Festus replied that Paul was being kept at Caesarea, and that he himself intended to go there shortly. “So,” he said, “let those of you who have the authority come down with me, and if there is anything wrong about the man, let them accuse him.”
After he had stayed among them not more than eight or ten days, he went down to Caesarea; the next day he took his seat on the tribunal and ordered Paul to be brought. When he arrived, the Jews who had gone down from Jerusalem surrounded him, bringing many serious charges against him, which they could not prove. Paul said in his defense, “I have in no way committed an offense against the law of the Jews, or against the temple, or against the emperor.” But Festus, wishing to do the Jews a favor, asked Paul, “Do you wish to go up to Jerusalem and be tried there before me on these charges?” Paul said, “I am appealing to the emperor’s tribunal; this is where I should be tried. I have done no wrong to the Jews, as you very well know. Now if I am in the wrong and have committed something for which I deserve to die, I am not trying to escape death; but if there is nothing to their charges against me, no one can turn me over to them. I appeal to the emperor.” Then Festus, after he had conferred with his council, replied, “You have appealed to the emperor; to the emperor you will go.”
After several days had passed, King Agrippa and Bernice arrived at Caesarea to welcome Festus. Since they were staying there several days, Festus laid Paul’s case before the king, saying, “There is a man here who was left in prison by Felix. When I was in Jerusalem, the chief priests and the elders of the Jews informed me about him and asked for a sentence against him. I told them that it was not the custom of the Romans to hand over anyone before the accused had met the accusers face to face and had been given an opportunity to make a defense against the charge. So when they met here, I lost no time, but on the next day took my seat on the tribunal and ordered the man to be brought. When the accusers stood up, they did not charge him with any of the crimes that I was expecting. Instead they had certain points of disagreement with him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus, who had died, but whom Paul asserted to be alive. Since I was at a loss how to investigate these questions, I asked whether he wished to go to Jerusalem and be tried there on these charges. But when Paul had appealed to be kept in custody for the decision of his Imperial Majesty, I ordered him to be held until I could send him to the emperor.” Agrippa said to Festus, “I would like to hear the man myself.” “Tomorrow,” he said, “you will hear him.”
So on the next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp, and they entered the audience hall with the military tribunes and the prominent men of the city. Then Festus gave the order and Paul was brought in. And Festus said, “King Agrippa and all here present with us, you see this man about whom the whole Jewish community petitioned me, both in Jerusalem and here, shouting that he ought not to live any longer. But I found that he had done nothing deserving death; and when he appealed to his Imperial Majesty, I decided to send him. But I have nothing definite to write to our sovereign about him. Therefore I have brought him before all of you, and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that, after we have examined him, I may have something to write—for it seems to me unreasonable to send a prisoner without indicating the charges against him.”
I want to focus with you in this chapter on one phrase from Acts 25: a certain Jesus, who had died, but whom Paul asserted to be alive. I believe this text demands that we ask the question: Is Jesus dead or alive to us?
To Festus, as to many people today, Jesus was simply a dead man from the past. Is that what Jesus is to you? I recognize that there are many dead people from the past whom we admire, want to emulate, and we are grateful for their lives—but they are still dead. They do not have any real effect on our daily lives—not like the effect of someone we live with day in and day out. To many people, as to Festus, Jesus is just like that.
Such people, like Festus, may have even heard the reports of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. But they consider such reports to be mere fables. After all, dead people don’t come to life again. I’m sure that is what Festus thought.
So what if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead? Why does it matter? The bottom line is this: if Festus was right and Jesus was and is dead—then there are certain things which follow from that fact which must be faced. Paul faces us with these facts in 1 Corinthians 15:12-19. He says,
But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.
These are sobering facts to face. Yet, thankfully, Paul does not end 1 Corinthians 15 on that note. He continues and says, “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”
You see Paul, as a Pharisee, held to faith in the resurrection of the body before he became a follower of Jesus. Belief in the resurrection was a relatively new idea among the Jews. The Sadducees held to the old belief in Sheol—that at death all people go to some sort of shadowy underworld from which no one will ever return. But the Pharisees held to a new idea—that at the end of time all believers in the Lord would be raised bodily—to live in God’s new kingdom forevermore.
Paul held to this belief before he became a follower of Jesus. But what no Jew of the first century ever expected was that one person would be raised from the dead in the middle of human history. And this is what Paul and the other early Christians had come to believe had happened to Jesus.
Why was Paul so sure that Jesus had risen bodily from the grave? Because he met him on the road to Damascus in some fashion more like Jesus’ other resurrection appearances than it was like a vision. It was on this basis that Paul claimed to be an apostle just like Peter, James and all the rest. Paul testifies in Acts 26: “I saw a light ... I heard a voice ... I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven.” Thus, to Paul, Jesus was a living presence in the present. And that living presence made all the difference. The living Jesus gave to Paul:
1. Forgiveness for the past. On the road to Damascus Paul realized how wrong he had been, and that he needed the Lord to put his life right again.
2. A purpose for living in the present—to proclaim the good news of Christ’s death for our sins and his resurrection from the dead.
3. Hope for the future. Paul could “be of good cheer” because he knew that Jesus had overcome the world and therefore he, Paul, would be more than a conqueror in Christ.
Two questions remain: have we met Jesus on our own “road to Damascus”? Is Jesus a living presence in our life today? If we can say yes to these two questions, then we, like Paul, have forgiveness for the past, a purpose in the present, and a hope for the future.
St Paul’s Cathedral in London was the site of the state funeral for Sir Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during World War II, and again, from 1951 to 1954. Churchill planned his own funeral, including many of the great hymns of the Church and the incomparable Anglican liturgy. But the most unique part of the service of worship came at the end. After the benediction, Churchill had instructed that a trumpeter, positioned up in the whispering gallery, high inside the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, should play Taps, that great military song indicating the end of the day. And then when Taps was finished, another trumpeter played Reveille, that other great military tune signaling the beginning of the day—“It’s time to get up. It’s time to get up. It’s time to get up in the morning.” That was Sir Winston Churchill’s final testimony to his faith in the resurrection, his belief that at the end of history the final song will not be Taps but rather Reveille.
It is only because of the risen Lord Jesus Christ that we can have such a hope for the end of history. It is because of the Jesus who was raised in the middle of history that we have hope for our resurrection at the end of all things.
Tyrants down through the ages have wielded power over their subjects with the threat of death. That threat is what many religious and political leaders in the first century hoped would put an end to the followers of Jesus of Nazareth. But what they didn’t count on was the power of faith in a living Lord. Because Paul believed in a risen Lord Jesus Christ, a living Lord who had forgiven his past, lived with him in the present, and would raise his own body in the future, Paul was no longer afraid of death. Therefore, Paul and the other early Christians could no longer be bullied by the tyrants of the world. It was this faith in a living Lord which mystified Festus, intrigued Agrippa, and propelled Paul to testify for Christ unto his dying breath.
If we have faith in a living Jesus then we too have forgiveness for the past, a living Lord with us in the present, and a hope for the future.