I have often wondered what inspired the apostles to preach the gospel of Christ’s kingdom as boldly and brashly as they did. What made them so intrepid in this cause? What would make them so willing to face hardship, death even, for the sake of this message? This, I think, is especially curious when you consider the bona fide denseness of the apostles throughout the Gospels. The same motley crew who would eventually turn the world upside-down were initially among the upper echelon of historical thick-headed-ness. The apostles misconstrued and misunderstood Jesus’s mission and message at nearly every turn. They clung to their nationalistic notions regarding the promised Messiah of Israel, who, they believed, would be one who would come to bring an end to Roman tyranny and order back to the throne of Jerusalem.
This frame of mind makes it slightly more understandable when we read of the apostles’ crushing despair in the aftermath of the cross. Their Teacher was tried and convicted and crucified as a blasphemer. Those events spelled their defeat and devastation. I have to imagine that the apostles must have felt like they were living in a nightmare. Their plans, dreams, intentions were destroyed. When Jesus died, so did their expectations. The fever dream in which they now found themselves disabused them of Jesus’s previous teachings, especially those which concerned his impending death and resurrection.
The apostles were transfixed on the fact their supposed Messiah was now dead. Their Teacher’s ignominious death meant no kingdom, no glory, and certainly no power. Their messianic assumptions were reduced to rubble. All was death and defeat. Such is what makes the scene at the end of John 20 so revealing. As the horrors of the crucifixion still echoed in the apostles’ minds, they barricaded themselves behind locked doors “because they feared the Jews.” Rumors had already begun to swirl about the missing body of Jesus of Nazareth, and the apostles were the prime suspects. It is precisely in the middle of that room of vanquished hope that Jesus suddenly manifests, that he “came, stood among them, and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’” (Jn 20:19)
The indication of John’s text is that the risen Christ transported himself through the walls and the locked doors in order to be present with the apostles. But despite this supernatural scene, it is vital to note that Christ’s retains his bodily form. He displays his body, still marred with the scars that hours before purchased the world’s redemption. (Jn 20:20) Jesus is, here, giving demonstrable proof that even though he is in his resurrected body, he is still the God-Man. The body that walked out of the grave is the same body that was put in the grave. The same human-yet-divine body that was birthed in a manger decades before is the one that was standing before them now. The risen Christ inhabited the same body post-rising as before, wounds and all. Such is what inspired these same fearful fishermen and blue-collar-joes to turn the world upside-down through their fervent proclamation of Christ crucified and risen again for them and the whole world. Such, too, is what forms one of the most precious tenets of our Christian faith.
What confounded those in the first century — and what confounds the world still — is the idea that anyone would spend so much time, effort, and energy on some hokey system of religion. But what the world doesn’t understand and, likewise, what we are called to testify is that we aren’t Christians because we believe in a religious system. We are Christians precisely because we believe in a Person. Like the apostles before us, our message is concerned with something of far more resonance than a mere system of religion or set of dogma. We preach a living, breathing hope whose name is Jesus. “Because of his great mercy,” writes St. Peter, “he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.” (1 Pt 1:3–4) Similarly, the 19th century lecturer Richard Trench declares:
The prerogative of our Christian faith, the secret of its strength, is, that all which it has, and all which it offers, is laid up in a living person. This is what has made it strong, while so much else has proved weak, that it has Christ as its middle point — that it is not a circumference without a centre — that it has not merely a deliverance, but a Deliverer — not a redemption only, but a Redeemer as well. This is what makes it fit for wayfaring men; this is what makes it sun-light, and all else compared with it but as moon-light — fair it may be, but cold and ineffectual; while here the light and the life are one; the Light is also the Life of men. Oh how great the different between submitting ourselves to a complex of rules, and casting ourselves upon a beating heart; between accepting a system, and cleaving to a person . . .
They felt this, that help must lie in a person, that only round a person souls would cluster . . . For, brethren, had we a system only, it would leave us just as weak as other systems have left their votaries. We should have to confess that we found in ours, as they in theirs, no adequate strength — that not merely now and then, and at ever rarer intervals, we were worsted in our conflict with the sin of our own hearts, but evermore.1
In similar fashion, Renowned Scottish expositor Alexander Maclaren declares:
The one thing which faith grapples is not a thing but a Person. Christian faith is only human trust turned in a definite direction. Just as our trust lays hold on one another, so the object of faith is, in the deepest analysis, no doctrine, no proposition, not even a Divine fact, not even a Divine promise, but the Doer of the fact, and the Promiser of the promise, and the Person, Jesus Christ.2
The “sound doctrine” with which the apostles were enamored and with which they set about enamoring the churches was not a stiff code of ethics or philosophies or virtues. It is the doctrine and teaching of a Person — a living, breathing person, with oxygen-breathing lungs and blood-pumping veins. In that same lecture, Trench maintains,
Our blessedness, and let us not miss that blessedness, is, that our treasures are treasured in a person, and are therefore inexhaustible — in one who requires nothing but what first He gives — who is not for one generation a present teacher and a living Lord, and then for all succeeding a past and a dead one, but who is present and living for all — as truly for us in this later day, as for them who went up and down with Him in the days of His flesh. Our strength and blessedness is, that what we have to know is “the truth as it is in Jesus”; that what we have to learn is to “learn Christ”; that what we have to put on, is to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” and the righteousness which is by Him.3
A system can fall. A tradition can be lost. A rule can be broken. The Person of the Christian, however, faith never falls, never wavers, never falters. He is “the same yesterday, today, and forever.” (Heb 13:8) He is “before all things” (Col 1:17), the “Alpha and the Omega,” the One “who is, who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Rv 1:8) The life of faith is inextricably bound to a Living Person.
Christians are those who believe that a person named Jesus came and absolved them of their sin by becoming sin himself. (2 Cor 5:21; Gal 3:13) This person is the God-Man, the Christ, the Holy Lord of all. He is, therefore, more than worthy of our lives. In fact, he’s most worthy of our deaths. “Only He who tasted death for every man has the right to assume the captainship over men,” says Maclaren elsewhere.4 Or as I like to say it: The only person who is worth your life is the One who wears the insignia of your sin on his death. Because of Jesus, we suffer and strive in a whole new way. Not as those who have no hope nor as those whose hope is ethereal or abstract, but as those whose hope is alive. The basis of our faith is, yes, a living hope — but more specifically a Living Person.
We have as the focal point of all our doctrine and devotion and preaching and ministering a Person — One who assumed a body just like ours that he might die and rise again to remake our bodies just like his. The gospel offers us something entirely different than any other religion. It is entirely centered around a God who made himself a man in order to make man the sons of God. It does not present to us a set of data but a Deliverer. Not a force, but a Face. Not a philosophy, but a Person. Faith binds us to a Person who lived and bled for us, and who is living for us even now. Amen.
Richard C. Trench, The Hulsean Lectures for 1845 and 1846 (Cambridge: Macmillan, Barclay, & Macmillan, 1847), 243–45.
Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, Vols. 1–17 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1944), 16:2.172.