Now the chief priests and the whole Council kept trying to obtain false testimony against Jesus, in order that they might put Him to death; 60 and they did not find any, even though many false witnesses came forward. But later on two came forward, 61 and said, "This man stated, 'I am able to destroy the temple of God and to rebuild it in three days.'" 62 And the high priest stood up and said to Him, "Do You make no answer? What is it that these men are testifying against You?" 63 But Jesus kept silent. And the high priest said to Him, "I adjure You by the living God, that You tell us whether You are the Christ, the Son of God." 64 Jesus said to him, "You have said it yourself; nevertheless I tell you, hereafter you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven."
Why should you take the resurrection of Jesus any more seriously than you take the arrival of a UFO behind the Hale-Bopp Comet? Or another way to ask the question would be, What's the basic difference between the Christian Church - or this local church in particular - and the Heaven's Gate cult of 39 people who committed suicide together last Thursday? We believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, is alive today, and is coming again to save his people and to rule the world; and we build our lives around this reality. They, evidently, believed that apocalyptic circumstances were developing around the Hale-Bopp comet and they built their lives - and their deaths - around that belief. What's the difference? Pick your myth, right?
Differences Between Christianity and a Cult
There are differences between cults and historic Christianity. Let me mention a few before I tackle this question about the resurrection more directly.
1. Christianity is rooted in several thousand years of God's acts in history, not merely in the speculations of a charismatic leader. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob experience a covenant with God which leads to the establishment of the people of Israel. This people escapes from Egypt by God's mighty deeds, and receives a law and a land and prophets. Two thousand years of recorded history dealing with God's word and work leads to the fulfillment of prophecies in the coming of the Messiah, the Son of God, into a particular historical place at a particular time connected to secular, historical people like Herod and Pontius Pilate. This fulfillment is not narrated in the New Testament by one leader in a trance, but by nine reluctant and, at first skeptical, men who were surrounded by people who were so close to the events recorded that they could easily have falsified wild and crazy claims because it was all so public. Christianity is rooted in real history.
2. Because of this connection with history, Christianity has produced 2,000 years of schools and scholarship that are accessible to secular scrutiny and debate. Christianity is not private knowledge. It is public knowledge. Our documents are public and open to a natural reading for anyone. We do not claim to have a holy man somewhere who dispenses impossible meanings for clear texts. The book is rooted in real history, not mythology. And therefore it has unleashed real scholarship and real schools and has held its own for 2,000 years of public controversy in the marketplace of ideas.
3. Paradoxically, this most historical of all religious movements - Christianity - has no cultural center, no holy place, no single cultural identity, and no single leader on earth. It is the most multicultural of all religious faiths. In other words, it has universal validity and relevance across all cultures. It is not attached to any place or people. It has found an indigenous home in every country of the world, and in thousands of ethnic groupings.
4. Christianity has endured the test of time. Again and again people have predicted that Christianity will vanish with the vanishing of a particular era. But again and again it has shown that it is as relevant and powerful in each new time period as the ones before, even the radically modern ones that many thought would banish all religion.
5. At the center of historic Christianity is the absolutely unique Person Jesus Christ. There is no one comparable at the center of any other cult or religion. He is unique in his teaching about God and life. He is unique in his love and his mingling of tender mercy and tough justice. He is unique in his wisdom and his miracles and his death and resurrection and appearances to hundreds of people to show that he was alive. Jesus is simply in a class by himself among all movements.
6. Interestingly, among the thousands of cults in America, the cults that seem to last the longest (say, Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons) do so by piggybacking on biblical Christianity and keeping their unbiblical views of Christ hidden at the beginning of their inroads.
So when I ask the question about the difference between believing in the resurrection of Jesus and in a UFO behind the Hale-Bopp comet, it's not as though the cult of Heaven's Gate and historic Christianity stand on level ground when they lay claim to our belief. There are good reasons for believing that historic Christianity should be given far more serious consideration. But the sad thing is, in many secular minds today they do stand on level ground. Marshall Applewhite, the leader of Heaven's Gate, and Jesus Christ were both deluded apocalyptic fanatics who were out of touch with reality. Because there simply is no God. We have moved beyond that. The universe is the product of matter + time + chance. So any claim to speak for God, or lead a people to God, much less to be God, is impossible. They are all in the same category. There is no God.
If He Appeared, Then I Would be Convinced
Take, for example, Norwood Russell Hanson, a philosopher of science at Yale until his premature death. He wrote a well-known essay entitled "What I do Not Believe," about why he was an atheist.
Suppose . . . that on next Tuesday morning, just after breakfast, all of us in this one world are knocked to our knees by a percussive and ear-shattering thunderclap. Snow swirls; leaves drop from trees; the earth heaves and buckles; buildings topple and towers tumble; the sky is ablaze with an eerie silvery light. Just then, as all the people of the earth look up, the heavens open - the clouds pull apart - revealing an unbelievably immense and radiant Zeus-like figure, towering above us like a hundred Everests. He frowns darkly as lightening plays across the features of his Michelangeloid face. He then points down - at me! - and exclaims for every man, woman, and child to hear, " I have had quite enough of your too-clever logic-chopping and word-watching in matters of theology. Be assured Norwood Russell Hanson, that I do most certainly exist!"
Then he remarks, "The conceptual point is that if such a remarkable event were to transpire, I, for one, would certainly be convinced that God does exist."*
Now here's the connection with our text. Jesus says, as it were to all the Norwood Russell Hansons of the modern world, this great sky-demonstration of God's truth and reality is going to happen, much like you have demanded that it happen. Look at the second half of verse 64: "You shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven." That means that in the future the sky is going to split, as it were, and Jesus is going to appear, alive and real, at the right hand of God - above us like a hundred Everests."
But that demonstration of the resurrection of Jesus and the truth of God in him, that will persuade every person on this planet, is future and not present. Which puts Norwood Hanson, and all of us, in a predicament doesn't it? If we wait to see it before we believe in Christ and surrender our lives to him, it will be too late (Matthew 25:11-13). But if we act now, what is the basis?
The Whole Universe Will See Him
Well, let's stay right here in this text and back up to ask, Why did Jesus say what he said about this great future appearance of the Son of Man? He said it because in verse 63b the High Priest, at Jesus' trial, said, "I adjure you by the living God, that you tell us whether you are the Christ, the Son of God." To this Jesus responded, "You have said it yourself; nevertheless I tell you, hereafter you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven." In other words, Jesus says, Yes, you put it that way; I put it this way. In other words, I am not only the Messiah, the Son of God as you understand him to be, but I am more: I am going to die and then afterwards there will come a time when the whole universe will see me sitting at the right hand of God in glory.
But what prompted the High Priest to ask this man Jesus such an outrageous question: are you the Messiah, the Son of God? Nobody has ever asked me such a question. We move back another step in the text. In this midnight sham-trial, false witnesses were brought in and said, (in verse 61), "This man stated, 'I am able to destroy the temple of God and to rebuild it in three days.'" This is what triggered the question of the High Priest. He said (in verse 62), "Do you make no answer? What is it that these men are testifying against you?" What is this? Do you intend to destroy the temple of God? And do you think you can build it in three days? What kind of talk is this? What kind of person are you? Are you crazy?" But verse 63 says, "Jesus kept silent."
What were these false witnesses referring to? The rumor was out that Jesus aimed to destroy the temple of the Jews and rebuild it in three days. At the cross, for example, Mark tells us that as he hung there, "Those passing by were hurling abuse at Him, wagging their heads, and saying, 'Ha! You who are going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save Yourself, and come down from the cross!'" (Mark 15:29-30). It was ludicrous. What did it mean? Where did this idea come from? Does it tell us anything about why we should believe in this man Jesus and his resurrection before he comes in glory at the right hand of God?
Destroy the Temple?
The answer is found in John 2:18-22. Jesus comes to Jerusalem and finds the temple filled with money changers and merchants turning the house of God into a market. He weaves a whip and drives them out, saying, "Don't make my Father's house a house of merchandise" (verse 16). The people are indignant and say to him (in verse 18), "What sign do You show to us, seeing that You do these things?" In other words, they want some evidence that he has authority to act like this, calling God his Father in some special sense and taking charge of the temple which is the place where people meet God. What's your authority? What's your evidence that we should yield to you and not kill you?
Then comes the answer in verse 19: "Jesus answered and said to them, 'Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.'" The people are flabbergasted by such an outrageous response. Verse 20: "The Jews therefore said, 'It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?'" Then the writer, John, comments in verse 21 "But He was speaking of the temple of His body."
Yes, but don't miss the point and the meaning of shifting from the temple in Jerusalem to the temple of his body. He had just purged the temple in Jerusalem with a whip. He had called it his Father's house. The disciples had recalled Psalm 69:9, "Zeal for thy house will consume me." They want a sign for this behavior. Jesus does not say, "I have nothing to say about your temple. I have only a word about my body. No. No. He does have something to say about their temple. He says, Destroy this temple . . . this temple, the one I just purged, the one you have turned into a market place. The one for which I am consumed with zeal.
But how? How will they destroy it? How will they bring the entire sacrificial system of the Old Testament, centered in the temple, to an end? How will they bring the entire Old Testament priesthood ministering in the temple to an end? How will they destroy the meeting place with their God?
The answer is: by rejecting Jesus, the Messiah, and putting him to death. When Christ died, Judaism - as it was enshrined in the Temple - died. The final sacrifice was made. The sacrifice of Jesus ended all sacrifices. The final High Priest offered himself for the sin of his people. The priesthood came to an end. Forty years later the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem. But the decisive end came at Calvary when Jesus was destroyed.
Rebuild it in Three Days?
Then, and only then - when that point has been made - does Jesus say in verse 19, "In three days I will raise it up." Now he himself speaks only of his body. >From that day on - the day of that destruction in my death - he says, I will be the temple. No building and no place will ever be the focus again of where and how to meet God. I will be the place and the way to meet God. I am the Sacrifice needed to cover sin. I am the Priest, the only Mediator between God and man. I am the habitation, the dwelling place, of God.
Henceforth wherever men and women and little children want to meet God they may come to me - anywhere, anytime. The forgiveness they need, they find in me. The intercession they need, they find in me. The God they need, they find in me. I am the new Temple, and there will be no other.
One last observation. Jesus gave this awesome word in response to the question in John 2:18, "What sign do You show to us, seeing that You do these things?" What sign? What evidence? That you take such authority and make such claims? His answer: "Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up."
These Things are History, not Delusion
So to all atheists and agnostics and skeptics we urge this sign, this evidence. It has three parts:
First, they did destroy the temple. Jesus was killed, just like he said.
Second, Jesus did build the temple again in three days. He rose from the dead, and for forty days appeared to many varied witnesses, even five hundred at one time, many of whom were still living, according to the apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 15:6) - a claim that could have been easily falsified in those days so soon after the event. But it was not, nor could the adversaries ever produce the dead body of Jesus. He had raised up the new temple.
Third, the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed (in A.D. 70), the sacrificial system of the Old Testament did come to and end. The Old Testament priesthood did pass away.
These things happened. They happened in history. They are not the delusions of a cultic leader. They are written large all over 2,000 years of history, both Christian and Jewish.
So I say to every Norwood Russell Hanson on the one side, and every cultic dreamer on the other side, Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God. He is alive and reigning at the God's right hand in heaven. He will come one day in power and great glory and everyone will bow and admit that he is God. But, in mercy, Jesus has given a sign before that day, that we may get ready, by believing in him. He has died, and risen and replaced the Old Testament system of meeting God in the temple.
He is the temple. And he is the place - the only place - where human beings can meet God. He is the sacrifice you need, the priest you need, and the God you long for. Come to him.