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History, Reality and the Resurrection

9 February, 2008

b and lilyPhil sent me an article the other day that began as follows:

“LONDON (AFP) – Britons are losing their grip on reality, according to a poll out Monday which showed that nearly a quarter think Winston Churchill was a myth while the majority reckon Sherlock Holmes was real…”

This is more surprizing, of course, for Britain — a US equivalent, for example, would be that a quarter thought John F. Kennedy was a myth and The Hardy Boys were real. Part of this is just historical ignorance, part of it just trouble distinguishing between the fictional and nonfictional stuff we see and hear churchillon the same TV — but both of these things together (and they often come together!) are problematic and dangerous. Case in point: Phil sent the article with the following comment, “Can you imagine proclaiming the historical Jesus and his resurrection in this context?”

Good question. But this isn’t only about whether something is historical reality or not, but also about whether that means anything. I’m not sure about Britain, but I’d guess that there are actually quite a lot of people in the US who would say they believe that Jesus is a real person rather than a myth, and there are probably a lot who would even say the resurrection really happened. But the meaning and importance of the events is lost in the mix.

When C.S. Lewis said that Christians should say “Jesus was raised from the dead” with the very same certainty that we would say “I saw a crocus yesterday,” he was assuming that we would recognize the meaning of the resurrection as the Bible itself interprets this real historical occurrence, and the rock-solid certainty that the resurrection lends to everything else Jesus said and commissioned his apostles to say on his behalf. Jesus’ words in space and time concerning himself and his work were proved true in his resurrection from the dead in space and time, and in his resurrection that real and true historical work was accomplished and vindicated as utterly real and true.

But the mission of Jesus was to bring redemption from a historical rebellion into sin and misery through the proclamation of an equally historical gospel announcement. In this light, the problem with recognizing the meaning and importance of historical reality isn’t primarily a problem with Britons or the like — it is mainly a problem with and for the church.

John Murray did a great job in addressing the importance of ‘the historical’ for the Christian gospel, and the modern church’s frequent failings here. He said,

If the gospel is, first of all, one of salvation from sin in its guilt, defilement, misery, and power, it must have at its centre provision for sin in just these terms. And if the gospel is to meet us where we are, not in terms of our conception but in terms of God’s judgment, it must be a gospel of God’s doing, of God’s action, of God’s action with reference to his judgment upon sin….

It is here that we are in contact with the fatal denial of the gospel in current Protestantism. What I have in mind now, in respect of the gospel, is the significance of the historical, and the undermining of the same in the theology of the present. If the only message that meets the need created by our sin is the message of what God has done in reference to his own judgment upon sin, then it must be what God has done in the realm that is as truly, as strictly, as critically historical as is our sinful situation and the judgment of God upon it. Here, brethren, is the glory and grandeur of the gospel.

Murray’s point here is amazing in that it broadens the scope of the whole question of the historical Jesus and his resurrection, at least as far as bringing this proclamation to the contemporary Western world goes. If the church is going to defend and explain the historicity of the resurrection, and its revolutionary meaning, then we at the same time have to defend and explain a historical doctrine of creation, a historical fall, a historical covenant people of God’s favor, and so on.

In all this historical richness and reality, it is also only faithful preaching that addresses that other fundamental need, that we recognize and embrace the meaning of the particular historical reality of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ, which can only be accomplished as the Spirit accomplishes all the purposes for which he carries forth the Word (Is 55:11). People can be taught that Sherlock Holmes and The Hardy Boys are literary creations, just like they can be taught Winston Churchill, JFK, and Jesus are actual historical persons. But only Jesus exposes our sin and rebellion, only Jesus takes away our hope in ourselves and offers us hope only in him — and therefore only Jesus motivates us to twist that knowledge, and hide from the reality of all he is and has done and will do. Listen to how ‘historical’ Peter’s pentacost sermon is:

Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know — this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it….This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you are seeing and hearing….Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified. (Acts 2:14ff.)

Peter unabashedly and powerfully weaves the historical events and their cosmic significance together into a seemless whole, the power of God unto salvation. In Murray’s terms, a lot of preaching nowadays really falls so far short of such ‘relevance’ it so earnestly craves. The abstract, individualized, historically disconnected nature of worship, teaching and preaching in the West is a pretty well worn criticism I won’t go into; but at the end of the day, a fuzzy and ephemeral gospel meets fuzzy and ephemeral ‘felt needs’, while a historical gospel makes no sense unless it meets historical needs (which are ironically the most deeply ‘felt needs’).

The gospel of Christ and his work on Golgotha is only good news in response to human covenant rebellion from God in the Garden. But this historical gospel makes so much sense to us by grace through faith, because it comes to us in the space and time reality of our sin and misery and meets us exactly where we are. And it doesn’t leave us there, but ushers us into the life of the age to come, which is certainly no less real and true than the existence of Winston Churchill or the crocus Lewis saw. Jesus’ work on our behalf really happened, and it means everything — and in turn it gives everthying meaning.

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