There was an incident recently, in our town, that resulted in some significant injuries to a young man. In an attempt to piece together what actually took place, the police asked for eyewitnesses to come forward and tell about what they saw. Eyewitness accounts are often used to verify what happened or to fill in details that are not readily obvious.
As I was reading in the Gospel of John today, I ran across a statement that made me stop and think. It is in John 19:33-35; part of the account of Jesus’ death on the cross. Here it is.
But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus' side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe.
Did you see it? “The man who saw it has given testimony.” John wants us to know that this account was verified by an eyewitness.
Many people struggle with the validity of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life. They question if they are accurate or just made up to support a religious system. If a person will look closely, they will discover the telltale signs of an eyewitness account. Some of these signs are obvious, like John 19. Some are more subtle. But they are there throughout the gospels. Together they build a solid case for the truth of the gospel accounts. Here are some things to look for.
There are details given that do not add to the story line. They could be left out and not change anything. The only explanation for them is that they really happened. Keep in mind that literature of the first century is not like literature of the 21st century. Today, when we write a story, we put in much detail to create an environment for the story and to keep the reader engaged. In the 1st century, this was not the case. Writing was more plain and to the point. That is what makes these extra details stand out. One of my favorite examples of this is found in Mark 14:51-52. It is a part of the account of Jesus’ arrest in the garden.
A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind.
Another thing to look for is references to specific people, by name, who are not primary characters in the story. There is only one reason to name these people. They were real and they were known by those who would be reading the story. We expect to see the names of the disciples or prominent people, but not the names of people in the crowd. Here is a telling example.
A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross. Mark 15:21
Notice that Simon is very specifically identified. He was from Cyrene and he was the father of Alexander and Rufus. The story would have proceeded well if it just said a man from Cyrene, but it doesn’t. Instead, Mark wanted people to know exactly which man from Cyrene this was. We can assume that the readers of this gospel knew Alexander and Rufus. There would be no other reason to include them.
The obvious thing to look for are straightforward eyewitness testimonies. I have already included the account in John 19, but there are others as well. There are three that stand out for me as bedrock. One is by John, one is by Peter and one is by Paul. Each claims to be eyewitnesses to the truth of Jesus.
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched--this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.
1 John 1:1
We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain. 2 Peter 1:16-18
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8
We have a pair of Barred Owls living in the ravine by our house. We can hear them calling to one another, by they are hard to see, because they blend in so well with their surroundings. This morning, as I was eating my breakfast, I looked out the window and saw the owl sitting in a tree in our front lawn. I was able to get a long distance picture of it before it flew away. But I assure you that it was there. I saw it with my own eyes.
We can trust the accounts of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, because the people who were there have recorded for us their eyewitness accounts. They saw him with their own eyes.