“If Someone Should Rise from the Dead”

Today, I want us to consider a couple of texts and what they share. The first text is the conclusion to the parable, The Rich Man and Lazarus, in Luke 16: “And he [the rich man] said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him [Lazarus] to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead’” (Luke 16.27-31).

The second is from John 11, right after Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead: “Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him, but some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, ‘What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation’” (John 11.45-48).

The texts share something important, more than just a man named Lazarus. Both show us faithless reactions to resurrection. In fact, it is almost as if Jesus’ parable in Luke foretells the reaction of the Pharisees in John 11. Abraham tells the rich man that the resurrected Lazarus will not sway men who ignore the Law and the Prophets, and, lo and behold, the resurrected Lazarus does not sway the Pharisees.

I want us to balance this point against the way we sometimes treat the Resurrection of Christ. Paul writes of the Resurrection, “For 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” (1 Cor 15.3-8). Paul presents the Resurrection not only as a central confession of the Faith but also as an historical event with hundreds of witnesses.

This statement, that “he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time,” piques our modern interests, because we seek empirical proof above all else in matters of belief. Empiricism, the legacy of David Hume and John Locke, demands that something must be observable and repeatable to be believed. Modern men place their trust in scientific facts which can be seen and felt, over and against religion based on faith. (The dichotomy between science and faith is false, but that is outside the scope of this essay.)

We see so many turning away from the Faith because of empiricism, so we are tempted to conduct our apologetics by the rules of empiricism. We like Paul’s telling us that there were hundreds of witnesses to the Resurrection, because it gives us empirically acceptable proof that Jesus rose from the dead and is thus the Son of God. With this kind of proof, we should be able to convert all the atheists to Christianity easily, right?

The gospels warned us that men would reject the Resurrection, because it has been happening since before the Resurrection. The Resurrection is not, first and foremost, an apologetic trump card. Before everything else, it is a key part of the Good News about Jesus. Paul opens his argument about the Resurrection this way: “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel 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” (1 Cor 15.1-2).

The Resurrection is a critical part of the Gospel. It is not about proving that we’re right and everyone else is wrong. It is about providing hope and direction to God’s people. It is about showing us the extraordinary love of God. Jesus raised Lazarus to show God’s glory, but also out of His love. He loved Lazarus. He loved Martha and Mary. His love overcame death.

The Resurrection is the promise of the Faith. Mary and Martha were faithful, confessing to the Lord that “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Their faith got them their brother back (Heb 11.35a). Our God keeps His promises, and He has promised us eternal life with Him in glory. That promise comes through the Resurrection of Christ, “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor 15.20). May our faith in the Resurrection of Jesus bear fruit a hundredfold.


Binding Where God Has Not Bound

The following was published in the 14th Ave. Church of Christ bulletin on 7 January 2018.

Jesus proclaimed a ministry of liberation, “to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18), so we are unsurprised to find Jesus in Luke 6 being more “liberal” than the Pharisees can tolerate:

On a Sabbath, while he was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked and ate some heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands. But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?” And Jesus answered them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those with him?” And he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath” (Luke 6:1-5).

This passage gives us fits if we think that Jesus is flexing His muscle as “Lord of the Sabbath,” carving out exceptions in the Sabbath law. The arbitrariness that such an interpretation requires should make us uneasy. It is true that God the Father has the authority to change His mind arbitrarily if He wants, but an important part of His character is that He doesn’t (Num. 23:19). Is God the Son really just brushing aside the Sabbath law because His disciples are hungry?

Such an interpretation of this episode requires us to believe that the Pharisees are correct in their interpretation of the Law. We must take care when we consider what captor Jesus came to defeat in Luke 4:18. Equating Pharisaism with the Law makes the Pharisees and the Law of Moses the oppressor holding Israel in bondage.

Let us study the question and see whether the Law is really as oppressive as the Pharisees’ interpretation of it.

What does the Law itself say about the disciples’ actions? The general Sabbath laws are rather vague; they require that the people abstain from “any work” (Ex. 20:8-11; 31:12-17; Lev. 23:3). Exodus 34:21 comes closest to addressing this situation: “Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest. In plowing time and in harvest you shall rest.” The Law therefore prohibits sowing or harvesting on the Sabbath day, which is consistent with the restrictions of the Sabbath year and the year of Jubilee (Lev. 25:4-5, 11).

Is this the legal basis for the Pharisees’ condemnation? Not quite. Calling the disciples’ actions “reaping” is a stretch. The Pharisees must interpret the Law through scribal tradition to reach this judgment. As we have seen, most of the Sabbath laws are vague. The Jews of the Second Temple period wanted to know just what constituted “work” under the Law, so the scribes created standards for the people to operate under. The scribal tradition for the Sabbath equated“plucking” with “harvesting” and “rubbing” with “threshing,” which is how the Pharisees arrive at their conclusion that Jesus’ disciples are doing work in violation of the Sabbath.

Let us return to the Law to see if it informs this scribal reading. In Deuteronomy 23:24-25, Moses distinguishes between plucking and eating out of a vineyard or a field of grain on the one hand, and putting in the sickle and gathering into a bag on the other. The laws for the Sabbath year and the year of Jubilee carry this idea forward. The people of Israel were not to reap the “wild” produce of the field; to do so would violate the land’s Sabbath rest (Lev. 25:5, 11). They could, however, eat from the field or the vineyard directly, which would not violate the land’s Sabbath rest (Lev. 25:7, 12).

Thus the Law shows us that the Pharisees’ interpretation is wrong on both counts: “plucking” is not the same as “reaping,” and eating directly out of a field does not violate Sabbath rest. The Pharisees’ scribal reading of the Law led them to restrict the Sabbath in a way which God Himself did not do. In other words, they bound where God did not bind.

The Law condemns such behavior. God tells Israel, “You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you” (Deut. 4:2). Disobedience to the Word is not just a matter of ignoring what God has said; it is also a matter of making things up which God never said.

We must understand the Pharisees’ motives for restricting the Sabbath and beware. The scribal tradition likely started with a desire to follow a vague law well. Surely we can sympathize. Take care, Christian, for the Adversary still uses this trick to lure people away from the pure Word of God. What begins as a set of standards to clarify a vague command morphs into an unbiblical restriction that we place not only on ourselves but on others. Woe to the man who puts his standard on the same level as Almighty God’s!

Header: detail from Gustav Doré, “The Disciples Plucking Corn on the Sabbath”