You Will Be Witnesses

As I noted in a previous post, the Old Testament contains a strong Messianic undercurrent.  In the first century, the men who followed Jesus of Nazareth claimed He fulfilled the predictions of Moses, Samuel, and those prophets who followed.  The antiquity of these documents and the faithfulness of their transmission down through the centuries assure us that the disciples of Jesus did not alter the prophecies in order to fit Jesus.  The number of instances where these Scriptures predict the life events of Jesus rules out the probability of coincidental fulfillment.  This leads us to the integrity of the eyewitnesses.  Perhaps the disciples of Jesus fabricated their story to match the prophecies and thereby lend their narrative of Jesus a measure of credibility. The New Testament portrays the key eyewitnesses of Jesus in a somewhat unflattering way.  James and John offered to call down fire from heaven to destroy an entire Samaritan village (Luke 9:51-56).  All four gospels record Peter’s denial of Jesus on the night of the betrayal and trial (Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 22, John 18).  Luke portrays the campaign of Saul (later Paul) against the early disciples, sins that Paul himself confesses in Galatians 1 and 1 Timothy 1.  The apostle John depicts James — the brother of Jesus who later became a pillar of the church and penned the book that bears his name — as a skeptic of his brother’s claims though he grew up alongside Him and witnessed portions of His ministry (7:1-5).  The sins and follies of Christ’s key disciples are on full display throughout the historical accounts of Jesus and the early church.  Their inclusion suggests that these were men of integrity; men who could have left posterity with a far more flattering portrait, but chose to be honest instead.

The honesty of the gospel accounts reveals even the ignorance of these men.  In Matthew 16:16, Peter confesses that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  After three years of witnessing the power of Jesus, of viewing His compassion for the lowly regarded, of hearing His authoritative teaching, and interacting with a man of unimpeachable character, Peter drew the conclusion that this must be the prophesied Messiah.  However, the same collection of Scriptures from which Peter drew His conclusion about Jesus also testified of the Messiah’s eventual demise at the hands of sinners.  In His death, the Scriptures predicted, the Messiah would bear the iniquity of all humanity.  Matthew tells us in verse 21 that from Peter’s confession on, Jesus began to explain His upcoming crucifixion.  Incredulous, Peter rebukes Jesus saying, “Never Lord!  This shall never happen to You!”  Seven verses after Peter’s confession, Jesus calls him “Satan,” a potential stumbling block that threatened to deter Jesus from the cross (Matthew 16:23).  Peter did not understand the Messiah’s death and resurrection, therefore he strenuously objected when Jesus forecast His grisly destiny.  It was not until Jesus rose from the grave and opened their minds to understand the Scriptures that they knew “it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day” (Luke 24:46).  These men freely admit that even they did not fully understand the prophetic testimony to which they later appealed.

What the apostles endured further supports the integrity of their testimony.  In a day when most leaders of religions live in relative luxury and give little thought to hardship or persecution for the sake of what they believe, the apostles stand apart.  Mere weeks after Jesus’s crucifixion, the Sanhedrin put the apostles on trial and flogged them for their testimony.  Undeterred, the apostles rejoiced for their sufferings and continued “teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ” (Acts 5:42).  Men who scattered at the arrest of Jesus now welcomed the opportunity to carry His message to the world in the face of persecution.  They did so because they were fully convinced that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ.  Tradition tells us that all of them – with the exception of John – died for that conviction.  As Paul says to the Corinthians:

For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena.  We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ!  We are weak, but you are strong!  You are honored, we are dishonored!  To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless.  We work hard with our own hands.  When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly.  Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world (1 Corinthians 4:9-13).

If your beliefs make you the garbage of the earth, why hold onto them at the cost of your life?  Do charlatans conduct themselves in such ways?  Do liars abandon all comfort, security, honor, and anonymity to keep the lie alive?  On the contrary, these were men of conviction, men who were fully persuaded that they had lived in the presence of the Messiah long predicted by the Scriptures.  They were willing to proclaim this even at the cost of their life.

As Peter writes his second epistle, he knows he is close to death.  After His resurrection, Jesus predicted that Peter suffer crucifixion just as He did (John 21:18-19).  Sensing that the time had drawn near to “put off my tent, just as our Lord Jesus Christ showed me,” Peter offers a perpetual reminder of what he witnessed:

We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.  For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”  We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.  And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.  Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation.  For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:16-21).

Peter was at the Mount of Transfiguration when Jesus’s appearance was altered and the voice of God identified His Son.  He saw and heard this amazing display; it was no story.  He tells us to pay attention to the prophecies made concerning Jesus, prophecies whose origins and interpretations are determined by God, not by men.  These prophecies are capable of convincing, convicting, and sustaining a believer in Jesus.  And ultimately, Peter implies, the truth they reveal is worth dying for.

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