by Matthew W. Bassford
During our week and a half of vacation, we drove for more than 3000 miles. About 400 of those miles were through the state of Nebraska. I am sure that Nebraska is a great state for growing corn in, but when it comes to scenery, I’ve seen better. There’s not much to look at but corn and roadside signs.
This being Nebraska, a fair percentage of the signs had some religious message. Generally, they weren’t particularly profound, but there was one that I particularly liked. It said, simply, “They wrote what they saw,” and provided a number that you could call for more information.
I have no idea what kind of information you would get if you called the number, but that’s a great point! It speaks to one of the key issues underlying our faith: the reliability of the Scriptural accounts of Jesus. If, on the one hand, the stories of Jesus’ life were sourceless legends written down hundreds of years after the events they contain supposedly occurred, that’s not much to build our faith around. If, on the other hand, the stories we have come from eyewitnesses who demonstrated their sincerity, we have strong reason to remain disciples. This evening, then, let’s consider what it means that they wrote what they saw.
The first eyewitness we will consider is the apostle Peter. We see his eyewitness testimony in II Peter 1:16-18. Apparently, at this point in time, there is some question about whether the events of the Transfiguration occurred. In response, because Peter knows that he is going to die soon, he feels compelled to set the record straight.
He affirms that he, along with James and John, saw Jesus transformed in a way that revealed His divine glory and majesty. He heard the voice of God Himself confirm that Jesus was His Son. He says this is not a made-up legend or myth. This is fact.
That’s what Peter claims. Is Peter a reliable witness, in this and the other claims he made about Jesus? The evidence points to yes. If this is a lie, it certainly did not benefit Peter. Indeed, the opposite is true. Because he proclaimed Jesus as Christ, Peter was arrested, beaten, imprisoned, and condemned to die. All that happened in just the first 11 chapters of Acts. Even though the rest of his life story is not recorded for us, it probably went about the same. He could have avoided all of that pain by recanting or even just shutting up.
As he is writing II Peter, he is convinced that he is about to die. Even though he doesn’t specify the manner of his coming death, John 21 reveals that he was going to be killed for his faith in Christ. Once again, if he is lying, all he has to do to get out of trouble is to give up on the lie.
Even beyond that, if he believes he’s about to die, what’s the point in lying, anyway? In the law of our country, dying declarations are given particular evidentiary force because it is presumed that someone on their deathbed will tell the truth.
And yet, what do we see Peter saying at the end of his life? It’s the same story. He is still claiming to be an eyewitness to proofs that Jesus is the Son of God.
Next, let’s consider John. Look at what he says in I John 1:1-2. This is nothing less than a claim of John’s involvement in the ministry of Jesus from beginning to end. He says that he heard, he saw, he carefully examined, and he even touched. His conclusion from all that is that eternal life is attainable through Jesus.
In the gospel of John, John goes into much greater detail. Everything that the book contains is his eyewitness testimony, but at particular points of the narrative, John emphasizes his personal involvement. During the Last Supper, John was the one who asked Jesus who would betray Him. John was present for Jesus’ show trial before the Sanhedrin. He watched when the Roman soldiers came to the body of Jesus on the cross, concluded that he was already dead, and stuck a spear into his side to prove the point. On the morning of the resurrection, he and Peter looked into the empty tomb. He was the first to recognize Jesus standing by the shore of the Sea of Galilee.
These are the claims that John makes for himself, and once again, he lived his whole life as though those claims were true. He was arrested, beaten, and imprisoned right next to Peter. He too had to hide from the persecution of Saul. When he writes the book of Revelation, he does so as a prisoner on the island of Patmos.
Basically, from beginning to end of his long life, John gets nothing but misery because of his testimony about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Frankly, if John was a liar, he was the dumbest liar ever to walk the face of the earth. He didn’t write what he made up. He wrote what he saw.
Finally, let’s consider Paul. We see his eyewitness testimony in 1 Corinthians 15:8-9. The event that he describes here leads to one of the most dramatic life changes in all of human history. On one side of the event is Saul of Tarsus, a proud persecutor of the church, a foremost enemy of the gospel of Christ. On the other side of the event is Paul the apostle, servant of the church, proclaimer of the gospel of Christ.
What could cause such a profound change? In Paul’s own words, Jesus appeared to him just as He had to the other apostles. That event on the road outside Damascus changed Paul’s life and the future of Christianity forever.
This is what Paul claims. Is there reason to accept him as a reliable witness?
The reasons start, I think, with his conversion himself. As a Hebrew of Hebrews, probably a member of the Sanhedrin already, Saul had prosperity, comfort, respect—everything that people want. He gave all that up to join with a poor, hated, persecuted minority sect.
During the time of his apostleship, he himself suffered greatly. He went throughout the Mediterranean world and got beaten, shipwrecked, imprisoned, and stoned for his pains. He was so poor that sometimes he didn’t even have enough to eat.
Like Peter, Paul also writes a book at the end of his life, 2 Timothy. He’s not dying peacefully in bed. Instead, he is back in prison—again—and he is about to be executed for the cause of Christ. And yet, what does he keep proclaiming? In 2 Timothy 2:8, it’s the same old story. Jesus rose from the dead. What’s more, he even encourages Timothy to suffer for Christ like he has suffered!
This is not the behavior of a liar. Instead, this is the behavior of an intelligent man—and Paul was extremely intelligent—who considered the evidence before him and was so sure that Jesus was Lord that he staked his life on it, even at the cost of everything else. As with Peter and John, Paul’s testimony shows all the signs of a genuine eyewitness account.