Easter and the Unchurched Mind

// April 21st, 2019 // Sermons

I’m going to tell you an Easter story…  You can listen online or download it and listen later…Easter and the Unchurched Mind…this morning about a man you probably don’t know much about.  When I tell you his name, you’re going to think of something else, and some of you are going to think I’m just making it up.

But I’m not.  This man is in the NT.  And what he said and did has everything to do with Easter Sunday.  The man’s name is…well, I’ll wait a bit on that.  Let’s put some other pieces of the puzzle together first.

The year is A.D. 60.  The place is Caesarea on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.  This man has come to take over the task as the governor of the Roman province of Judea.  The situation is tense and unsettled – the Jews were a fractious bunch not known for their submission.

As this man sets up shop in Caesarea he has one basic goal:  Keep the peace, don’t let things boil over.  Which is not easy because the winds of revolution are blowing across the land.

The man hardly steps off the boat from Italy when he runs into his first problem – a prisoner in Caesarea.  His information sources tell him the man did something to upset the Jewish leaders, and they want him dead.

And so three days after he takes office he makes the 60 mile trip to Jerusalem to pay his respects to the Sanhedrin and also to find out why they are so upset about this fellow in jail.  The man who had been in jail for 2 years, was Paul.

The other man—this new governor—will soon hear Paul’s story.  Now, the governor’s name?  Festus.  You can read the whole story in Acts 25-26.

According to Acts 25, when Festus went down to Jerusalem the Jews made all kinds of charges against Paul, and they asked to have the case transferred from Caesarea to Jerusalem.  They wanted to set up an ambush and kill Paul en route, or find a way to make their charges stick.

But, their plan failed, and so, Paul was brought in for a confrontation with the Jews.  Acts 25:7 tells us what happened next:  “The Jews who had come down from Jerusalem stood around him, bringing many and serious charges against him which they could not prove.”  They couldn’t prove them because they weren’t true.

So Paul tells Festus, “I’m not guilty.  I committed no offense against the law of the Jews or against the Temple or against Caesar.”  But Festus was hoping he could get on the good side of the Jews, and avoid further trouble, so he asks Paul if he is willing to go to Jerusalem and stand trial there.

Now, Festus is not a bad man.  He doesn’t know Paul, he doesn’t know the Jewish law…he’s a Roman governor.  This case doesn’t make sense to him and so transferring the trial to Jerusalem is a good compromise.  But Paul wants no part of this plan.

So he says, “I’m a Roman citizen and I ought to be tried right here.  If I’m guilty, punish me. If I’m innocent, I shouldn’t be handed over to these men.”  Then he makes a statement that changes the course of his life – he says, “I appeal to Caesar.”

During the Roman Empire, every Roman citizen had the right to make that appeal.  If a Roman citizen felt he wasn’t getting a fair hearing, he could appeal to Caesar and skip all the lower courts.  He would then be sent directly to Rome along with a statement of facts in the case…like appealing to the Supreme Court of Canada.  There was only one catch.  Once you made that appeal, you couldn’t change your mind.

At this point two other people enter the story — King Agrippa and his sister Bernice.  He is actually Herod Agrippa II – the last of the line of the Herods.  His great-grandfather was Herod the Great, the man who tried to kill the baby Jesus and had baby boys in Bethlehem killed.  His granduncle was Herod Antipas before whom Jesus was tried, the night before the crucifixion.  His father was Herod Agrippa the First who murdered the Apostle James and put Peter in jail.

And now Herod Agrippa II is king.  He is a young man who, together with his sister have come to Caesarea to see how the new governor is doing.   While they are there, Festus asks for Agrippa’s help.  He doesn’t have to, he is asked to be a friendly consultant in the matter.

I want you to notice how this new governor states the case against Paul, in Acts 25:14-20:  “There is a certain man here whom Felix left as a prisoner. When I went to Jerusalem, the chief priests and elders of the Jews brought charges against him and asked that he be condemned. I told them that it is not the Roman custom to hand over any man before he has faced his accusers and has had an opportunity to defend himself against their charges. When they next came here with me, I did not delay the case, but convened the court the next day and ordered the man to be brought in. When his accusers got up to speak, they did not charge him with any of the crimes I had expected. Instead, they had some points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive. I was at a loss how to investigate such matters.”

Did you hear that?  It’s all about, “A dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive.”  Festus says: “I was at a loss how to investigate such matters.”  Roman law didn’t cover resurrections.  Insurrections, yes. Resurrections, no.

This doesn’t make sense to Festus. He’s never heard anything like this before.  In his mind, Paul isn’t guilty of anything.  He’s not a murderer, thief or criminal – a little kooky maybe with this resurrection thing.  But that’s it.

Festus represents all the secular-minded people of the world.  He doesn’t believe in the Resurrection but it’s okay with him if someone else does.  When his worldview comes face to face with a Christian worldview, he doesn’t know what to say.  He doesn’t believe it but he doesn’t know what to do with it either.

And for 2,000 years people of this world have looked at Easter and they have no answer.  They hear the words, they know what we believe, but they don’t know what to do with it all.  It doesn’t make sense to them.

The words of Festus ring across the centuries—“I was at a loss how to investigate such matters.”  And, many in our world, are in the same boat.

Agrippa is a different kind of guy.  He understands the Jewish law and he knows quite a bit about Jesus.  So he says, “I would like to hear this man myself.”  And Festus says, “Okay! Tomorrow you will.”

The Romans were always good at pomp and ceremony and so they did it up right.  The hearing was held in the splendid Hall of Audience in Caesarea.  Agrippa and Bernice enter, dressed in their royal purple robes.  Then, comes Festus, dressed in the Roman governor’s garb.  Then, the Roman Legionnaires, the civic officials, and the interested onlookers.  What an impressive sight!

When all is ready, the Apostle Paul is brought – a slight, stooped, unimpressive man wearing a basic tunic.  Chains dangle from his gnarled hands.  But his look is magnetic, his eyes flash with power, and immediately Paul holds the stage.

In Acts 26, Paul gives the greatest defense of the Christian message in the NT.

As the hearing proceeds, an amazing fact becomes apparent:  It is not Paul who is on trial, but Festus and Agrippa.  He shares his testimony of his conversion and proclaims the power of the Resurrection.  Listen to v. 8:  “Why does it seem incredible to any of you that God can raise the dead?”  That is the question of the ages.  Is it incredible to think that God would raise the dead?

Then, listen to v. 22:  “But God has protected me right up to this present time so I can testify to everyone, from the least to the greatest.  I teach nothing except what the prophets and Moses said would happen-that the Messiah would suffer and be the first to rise from the dead, and in this way announce God’s light to Jews and Gentiles alike.”

Festus has heard enough.  He interrupts Paul and shouts, “You’re out of your mind, Paul!  Your great learning is driving you insane.”

Festus reacts the way all secular-minded people react.  This is just too much to take in.  For him, there simply was no way this could be true, so he concludes that Paul – an educated, brilliant man, has simply gone nuts. All his study has driven him bonkers.

Now, Festus doesn’t really think Paul is insane or he wouldn’t shout at him.  And you certainly wouldn’t send a lunatic to the Emperor’s court in Rome.  But he can’t think of any other explanation.

Festus has two options:  Either he believes Paul’s testimony and chooses to become a follower of Jesus like Paul, or he must conclude that Paul is nuts.  If Paul is right, Festus is wrong, and he could never admit that.

This same dilemma hits every person at some point in their life…in the greatest question of life, the question of Jesus Christ and my relation to him, there are only two possible answers:  Either I believe Him for who He is, or I reject Him and His claims.  Every person, depending on the answer to this dilemma, is either wise or a fool.

Festus saw the issue but chose the wrong response.  The struggle on earth is mostly about the issue that Festus faced – “A dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive.  I was at a loss how to investigate such matters.”

This still plagues modern man.  Who is Jesus of Nazareth?  It is the question that the secular mind has trouble answering.  They look around and conclude that there is no consensus—even among Christians—as to the identity of Jesus.

It’s been 2,000 years but Festus is still with us. Secular man has an answer for everything, but he is still baffled by the empty tomb.

I recently read about Chuck Colson – Richard Nixon’s “Hatchet-Man” – coming to faith.  By his own admission, he was a tough guy.  Religion to him was a church.  And Jesus Christ didn’t really figure in anywhere for him.

After 1972 and Watergate he experienced a deep inner emptiness that wouldn’t go away.  He left the White House, looking for something more.  After some time, he visited a client and friend, Tom Phillips – a wealthy, successful, family man.  Colson had been warned that Tom Phillips had found religion – the truth was, he had met Jesus Christ.

He told Chuck Colson:  “I have accepted Jesus Christ. I have committed my life to Him and it has been the most marvelous experience of my whole life.”

Colson says, “My expression revealed my shock.  I struggled for safe ground.  ’Uh, maybe sometime you and I can discuss that, Tom.’” Colson admitted, “If I hadn’t restrained myself, I would have blurted out, ’What are you talking about?  Jesus Christ lived two thousand years ago, a great moral leader, of course, and doubtless divinely inspired.  But why would anyone “accept” Him or “commit one’s life to Him?” as if he were around today.’”

Tom Phillips gave Chuck Colson a book to read, C.S. Lewis’ book called, Mere Christianity.  In that book, Lewis talks about what it means to believe in Jesus Christ.  Particularly, what it means to believe that Jesus Christ really is God in human flesh, who lived and died and rose again and ascended to heaven where He sits at the right hand of God.  What does it mean to believe in that Jesus?  Lewis wrote:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a great moral teacher and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this Man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up as a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that option open to us. He did not intend to.

Chuck Colson read the book and faced a choice.  In his own words he wrote, “Early that Friday morning, while I sat alone staring at the sea I love, words I had not been certain I could understand or say fell naturally from my lips: ’Lord Jesus, I believe you. I accept you. Please come into my life. I commit it to you.’”

In his best-selling book about his story, titled Born Again – he says that when news spread of his conversion, people couldn’t believe it.  One friend wrote about him: “I’m afraid poor Chuck has snapped, gone over the edge.  This kind of religious fervor is often the sign of mental instability.”

When it comes to Easter, there are two things the people of the world cannot understand.  First, they can’t grasp the Resurrection.  It is a miracle that baffles the mind.  The average person cannot deal with it.  Second, because they can’t deal with the Resurrection, they can’t figure out those who truly believe.  They think we’ve all gone nuts.

But in the words of Paul when he replied to Festus, we are not mad.  What we believe is both true and reasonable.  Paul said, “…for this has not been done in a corner.”

  • The evidence is out in the open for all to see.
  • The empty tomb is still empty.
  • The bones of Jesus have never been found – will never be found.
  • The Resurrection of Jesus is the best-attested fact in all human history. Go ahead…examine the evidence and come to your own conclusion.

So, the question remains – if you’ve never made the decision to believe in Jesus, now is the time to come to grips with it.  Where do you stand on the question of Jesus Christ?  Are you with Festus or with Paul?  With secular-minded people or with true believers in Jesus?  No question is more important, more crucial and more vital.

The question of Jesus Christ and your relation to Him, has only two possible answers…either you believe Him for who He is or you reject Him.  It’s a matter of life or death, believing or not believing….there is no middle ground.

Easter will not really be Easter for you until you make your choice and take your stand for Jesus Christ.

Let’s pray…

Benediction:      “May the loving power of God,                                                                                                                                                              the same power that raised Jesus to new life…                                                                                                                                may it strengthen you in hope,                                                                                                                                                              may it enrich you with his love,                                                                                                                                                            and may it fill you with abundant joy                                                                                                                                                so that you can live by faith in Him.  Amen.

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