Eye-witnesses to the Gospel

So many people today are attacking Christians and Christianity by saying that the bible isn’t true – that it is filled with contradictions and discrepancies; that there are no original autographs so we don’t know whether the bible we have today is what was originally written; that we don’t know who wrote most of the books within its covers; and therefore the bible we have today is just a fraudulent document written by men, and Christianity a religion invented by men.  Many Christians are feeling under pressure because of this, some of them having been so thoroughly deceived by these attacks that they have abandoned Christianity altogether. 

There are several prominent authors who used to profess Christianity, but because they have themselves been deceived by the lies promoted by enemies of Christ, have denied him and abandoned Christianity, have made it their mission in life to denounce and deny Christ, and to get as many Christian believers as they can to also deny him.  They write books, publish articles in magazines, have guest spots on popular TV shows, have web sites and blogs, and generally do as much damage as they can to Christ and his people.  They are the darlings of the sceptics and “scientific” atheists.  Their main target is the authenticity of the bible.  And their main tool, and the place from where they draw their arguments, is German theology of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, also known as Higher Criticism, liberalism, progressive, and Modernism.  Even Muslim apologists use the liberal theology in their attacks on Christianity.

It matters not to the liberals that this theology was debunked decades ago by competent evangelical scholars and theologians.  This liberal theology even provoked the beginning of Fundamentalism as a reaction against it by two wealthy bible-believing laymen who arranged and gathered together articles by some of the leading bible-believing scholars of the day, printed them in a series of books entitled “The Fundamentals”, and gave them free of charge to every Christian pastor.

But the liberals persisted in their denial of the truth of the bible, and today there are theological colleges which teach and promote liberal theology.  This theology has even permeated Protestant theological and bible colleges, eroding the once evangelical theology of the general Baptists of New South Wales, has generally become the dominant theology of the Church of England, and much of it has become the theology of the Roman Catholic Church.  Whilst these organisations give lip service to the bible, their theology denies it; and anyone who allows themselves to be immersed in it will also deny the authenticity, inerrancy, and authority of the bible.

The eye-witnesses for the New Testament

The liberals don’t regard the writers of the New Testament as legitimate or genuine; they either don’t see, or choose not to acknowledge, that the NT started life as written accounts of the ministry, life, death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, the most remarkable and most wonderful person who ever walked on this earth; and that he was God manifest in the flesh.  These accounts were written by eye-witnesses, or were recorded by those whose sources were eye-witnesses.  They didn’t conspire to invent a religion.  If they did, it was a pretty dismal one because its followers were persecuted by the state, with multitudes being tortured, burnt alive, beheaded, thrown to wild animals in the arena for the entertainment of the masses, and generally hated or regarded as atheists because they refused to worship the Roman emperor and the traditional gods allowed by the state.  And those early founders of Christianity who today are accused of inventing this new religion (or “spin doctored” the facts, as some critics accuse), gladly gave up their lives rather than sacrifice to the Emperor cult and gods and renounce Christ.  They could have preserved their lives by renouncing him but they refused to.  Why would they do that for something they knew wasn’t true?  It’s ludicrous to suggest such a thing, and indicates a disconnect from reality.

No, the writers of the NT recorded the facts and events of the most astonishing nature.  A man claimed to be the fulfilment of the prophecies of the Old Testament, the Messiah who was to come, the Son of David who would rule over the people of God – he made these claims and demonstrated his power and authority by many astonishing miracles and then, when he was killed by the state, rose to life on the third day as he promised, walked with his disciples for 40 more days while giving them ample proofs that he was truly alive and that he was indeed the Jesus they knew; and then ascended to heaven after promising he would be returning in judgment and power.  Why wouldn’t somebody record that?  It would be more remarkable if somebody didn’t record it than the fact that it was recorded. 

So the NT is a collection of accounts of Jesus Christ, letters to some of the first churches, and prophecies of what is yet to come, which, in the plan and providence of God who guided the churches to recognise that these documents were the inspired and infallible word of God, came to be enshrined, or canonised as such for the church for all time.  There were many other documents inspired by the life and ministry of Jesus in circulation and use among the churches at the same time, but they were recognised as not having been inspired scripture, and were not included in the canon.

This compilation of the documents written by those eye-witnesses is known as the New Testament, and contains the basis for the Christian religion; it is the written word of God, and is God’s revelation of himself to the world.  However, even before this written word of God, there was the living Word of God, Jesus Christ.  Although there was no New Testament as such in those first years of the Christian Church immediately following the ascension of Christ to heaven, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the assembled believers in Jerusalem, there was the Rule of Faith.  People were being “born from above” (John 3:3, 5) as they heard the gospel from other Christian believers and encountered the risen Lord Jesus in a personal and spiritual way.  The Rule of Faith found expression in early creeds which were formulated from the basic facts of the gospel, a summary of Apostolic Tradition, and every new believer who presented himself as a candidate for baptism had to know this Rule of Faith.  And then they too would tell the gospel to all and sundry.  With the Rule of Faith in their minds and understanding, and the presence of Jesus through the Holy Spirit in their hearts, they were more than sufficiently equipped to tell their neighbours about him, and to live and die for him.  Before the end of the first century though, the New Testament documents had been written and the Church, both laity and clergy, recognised by the Holy Spirit that they were inspired by God and given to the churches for all time.

And now the liberals want to rob God’s people, the Church, of this most precious and life-giving, living word.  It has been the target of their attacks for over a century, but although they have had a few victories in deceiving people away from it, God is still there, the bible still continues its work of giving new life to those who receive its message, and Christian believers are encouraged and strengthened every day and in every place as they read it in their personal space, or with other believers as they gather together to read and study it, and in the worship services of their individual churches each week as it is read and expounded.  The New Testament can never be destroyed because it is the living and abiding word of God, and it will never return to him empty (Isa 55:11).

The Apostle John – eye-witness

John opens his gospel with a remarkable statement: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made.  In him was life; and the life was the light of men.  And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not” (Jn 1:1-5).  With these words he sets the tone of his gospel.  What he says is not open to debate.  He is not trying to curry favour with any person, high or low.  He is setting the scene for what he saw over a period of three years.  His statements have the first chapter of the bible as a backdrop.  There we have this simple but all-encompassing statement: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” (Gen 1:1).  There is no explanation, no apology.  It is a bald statement that God is and that he created everything in existence through his divine Son.  It expects that we accept it.  And John, moved by the Holy Spirit (2 Pet 1:21), does the same thing as he opens his gospel. 

He goes on to tell us more about this being, the Word, who is with God and who is God.  And this is the astonishing part of what he says at the beginning of his gospel; he writes “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14).  John says here that he saw the Word who was made flesh; he saw God manifest as a man.  John is writing what he saw and knew.  He was a witness of this literally earth-changing event, and of the long-awaited fulfilment of the prophecies that the light had dawned; the Messiah had come to rescue a benighted world sunk in the darkness and despair of sin and alienation from God.

But what does John do with this?  He doesn’t try to appeal to sceptics.  The religious leaders, the Pharisees, were such, and of them he writes that they were liars and murderers, and whose father was Satan, a liar and murderer from the beginning (Jn 8:42-47).  No, he is stating facts, of which he was a witness, and telling people so that they, too, could know this same Son of God whom he had discovered (1 Jn 1:1-4).  He tells us this at the end of his gospel, where he says, “And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name” (Jn 20:30-31).

The Apostle Peter – eye-witness

In his first letter, Peter tells us he was “a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed” (1 Pet 5:1).  He describes what happened in his preaching and teaching; and his close friend Mark recorded it, including Peter’s shame during the night of Jesus’ arrest, and the kangaroo court at which he was tried, and Peter’s presence there in his gospel (Mk ch. 14).  This is confirmed by Matthew in his gospel (Matt 26:36-75).

When, following the descent of the Holy Spirit on the assembled disciples and believers and they all spoke in tongues, Peter accused the Jews and condemned them for murdering Jesus, telling them, “This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses” (Acts 2:32). 

When he addressed the crowds after he and John had healed the crippled man outside the temple, he said, “But ye denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer to be granted unto you; And killed the Prince of life, whom God hath raised from the dead; whereof we are witnesses” (Acts 3:14-15).

And when he was hauled before the religious leaders for healing people, he condemned them and said, The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree.  Him hath God exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins.  And we are his witnesses of these things; and so is also the Holy Ghost, whom God hath given to them that obey him (Acts 5:30-32).

Peter also tells us in his second letter: For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Pet 1:16).  He’s referring to the occasion when he, along with James and John, saw Jesus transfigured on the mountain, his clothes becoming brilliant shining white, and speaking to Moses and Elijah; the voice of God spoke to them from a cloud, and they were overcome with the glory of it (Mark 9:1-13).

The fact that Peter was an apostle proves he was a witness to Christ and all that he did, as Luke tells us in his Acts of the Apostles, because this was a necessary qualification for the apostleship (Acts 1:15-26).

The apostle Paul also confirms that Peter was a witness.  In his first letter to the Corinthian church, Paul says of Peter (whom he calls Cephas): “he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve” (1 Cor 15:5).

The Gospel of Mark – record of an eye-witness

 Mark, the close friend of Peter the apostle, wrote a gospel of Jesus Christ.  He was not an apostle but he received his information from Peter; Mark’s gospel is also traditionally known as Peter’s gospel.  We know this from the writings of the church historian Eusebius, who has preserved in his writings the only fragments we have of the five books of Papias, an early Christian writer who had heard the presbyter (i.e. apostle) John.  Of the gospel of Mark, Papias writes “And the presbyter said this.  Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately everything whatsoever he remembered.  It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ.  For he neither heard nor accompanied Him.  But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities (of his hearers), but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord’s sayings.  Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them.  For of one thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements” (“Ante Nicene Fathers”, Volume 1, “Fragments of Papias” ch. VI, page 154-155, Hendrickson Publishers).

Papias’ statement has been disregarded by the liberals because they say he said a lot of outlandish things; but the historian Eusebius (260-265 to 340 AD) is the one who has preserved what we have of Papias’ writings, and acknowledged that some of what Papias said were “strange parables and instructions of our Saviour, and some other things of a more fabulous nature” (“Fragments of Papias”, as above); and yet said nothing at all concerning Papias’ statements about Mark’s gospel being strange in any way……and the Church has always considered that Mark wrote down what Peter spoke.

The Gospel of Matthew – eye-witness

The apostle Matthew, also known as Levi the tax collector (Matt 9:9 cf Mk 2:14), was also a disciple of Christ and an apostle.  He was with Jesus almost from the beginning, and he wrote down many details of Jesus’ ministry, and of his death, burial, resurrection and ascension.  Some things he tells us are not found in the other gospels e.g. the earthquake that occurred at the moment of Jesus’ death; this alone makes his work valuable and precious to the Church.  His account says: Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost. And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many. Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God” (Matt 27:50-54).

The apostle Paul confirms that Matthew was a witness.  In his first letter to the Corinthian church, Paul says of Matthew: “he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve…..then of all the apostles (1 Cor 15:5, 7).

The Apostle Paul – eye-witness

Paul was a highly educated rabbi and Pharisee, and knew the Jewish law backwards.  He was not with Jesus for any part of his life and death, but became a deadly persecutor of Christians, and sought to stamp out Christianity altogether.  However, one day, as he travelled to Damascus to hound the Christians in that city, he had an encounter with the risen Jesus Christ which totally changed his life.  The account is recorded 3 times in The Acts of the Apostles – 9:1-22; 22:6-21; and 26:9-23.  Paul tells King Agrippa and us that on the way to Damascus, At midday, O king, I saw in the way a light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun, shining round about me and them which journeyed with me.  And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.  And I said, Who art thou, Lord? And he said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest.  But rise, and stand upon thy feet: for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee; Delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee, To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me (Acts 26:13-18).  From that time he became a champion of the gospel.  The authority he claimed by which he was able to instruct the churches was that he had seen the resurrected Jesus, and had received instructions from him.

The Gospel of Luke – record of eye-witnesses

Luke was not a witness of the sufferings of Christ but he has written an account of him.  He gathered his information by speaking to those who had seen Jesus; he doesn’t specify who these witnesses were but it is clear from his opening statements that some of them would have been apostles; and the first chapters suggest that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was also one of those from whom Luke gathered his information.  He writes Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word; It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, That thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed (Lk 1:1-4).

However, as author of the book of The Acts of the Apostles and travelling companion of Paul the apostle, he did witness much of what occurred in the events of that book.  Luke describes details of their travels and people they met, and in chapter 27 vividly describes the shipwreck, placing himself on the ship as it gets pounded by the storm and waves.  His description is so graphic and detailed that only one who was there could have described it in the way that Luke does.  This is just a small selection of evidences that Luke wrote what he saw.

Stephen, the first martyr – eye-witness

Stephen was one of the Seven; men who were “of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom” chosen by the Church to serve widows at “the daily ministration” of food.  Stephen himself was described as “a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 6:5); and who, “full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people” (Acts 6:8).  When those in the synagogue tried to dispute with him, “they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spake” (Acts 6:9-10); subsequently he was arrested for blasphemy and brought before the council of leaders.  Stephen then gave his defence and, beginning with Abraham, gave a basic history of Israel.  When he reached his own period of time, he accused the Jews, not only those before him but the whole nation, of being as guilty as their forefathers of breaking God’s law.  When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth.  But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.  Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, And cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul.  And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.  And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep (Acts 7:54-60).

Without faith it is impossible to please God

But for all of this – the eye-witnesses, the details, the descriptions, the accounts – in the end, the Gospel is received by faith (Heb 11:1-2).  The evidence is there but, despite that, only those whose hearts and minds God has opened can believe it and live it (Jn 6:37, 44, 65).  And such testimony demonstrates that it is not blind faith to believe in the existence, the death and the resurrection of Jesus; it is faith based on evidence.  Without faith it is impossible to receive the truth of the gospel, no matter how much evidence there is.  When the rich man was being tormented in hell, he pleaded with Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers to repent and turn to God.  But Abraham replied: “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.  And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent.  And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead (Lk 16:29-31). 

I remember an occasion on which I was talking to a work colleague about Jesus.  She was adamant that even if somebody came from the dead to warn her, she wouldn’t believe.  While I’m well aware that unbelief such as that exists, it is terrifying to actually meet someone who could defy God like that.  I say “terrifying”, not for my sake but for hers, knowing what awaits her.

On the other hand, there are those who have received the testimony of the writers of the New Testament and who walk by faith in Jesus.  These people prove the bible by its effects on them.  For example, I heard of a man who was so desperate over the state of his life that he rented a room in a motel one night so that he could take his own life.  As he sat on the bed before doing it, he opened the bedside drawer and saw a Gideon’s New Testament there.  Almost absent-mindedly he took it and opened it and started to read; before long his whole attitude had changed and he dedicated his life to Jesus, “Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever” (1 Pet 1:23).  This account was given by a speaker from the Gideons at my local church, and is a documented account.  It is just one of countless thousands of stories of people whose lives have been changed through the power of God’s word, the bible.