Over Easter weekend, we finished up a series at Seacoast Church called Vantage Point. The basic idea is simple: to look at the last days of Jesus’ life through the eyes of s few people who were there. Normally, we read the Easter story from the perspective of an outsider looking in. We view the events from a distance and that can make it hard to relate to what happens to Jesus and his disciples. And that is why I think vantage points can help us see Easter in a new way. Watching a news report about a car wreck is one thing—hearing the story firsthand from several friends who were two cars back when it happened is something else. It makes the story more real, more personal. When they tell you how sudden and scary the wreck was, you can almost feel their surprise and fear.
This is what Vantage Point can do for us: it makes the story of Easter personal. The reason it can do this so well is the simple fact that the gospels were based on eyewitness testimony. It is always fashionable for scholars and critics to declare that the New Testament is nothing more than a collection of stories. At best, those stories were oral traditions that were changed and adapted from community to community. We are told that what we have in the New Testament has been changed too much from the originals; we cannot know what really happened to Jesus and his disciples.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Richard Bauckham recently wrote a book entitled Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. It is a massive work with massive implications, but here is Bauckham’s point: the gospels are made up of eyewitness testimonies. These accounts were considered oral histories, which are different from oral traditions in many ways. One difference is particularly important however: oral histories were not allowed to be changed. In other words, the claim that the New Testament’s stories were changed often from community to community is not correct—they would have been preserved, intact, with as little change as possible.
Why? Because they were not just stories that others felt free to massage and tweak: they were the eyewitness testimonies of people who were there. How do we know this? The gospel authors give us clues.
Here is an example: in Luke’s gospel, he tells the story of two men on the road to Emmaus. They are talking about the death of Jesus, when he walks up next to them—they do not recognize him—and chats with them the rest of their journey. In 24:18, we read that one of them was named Cleopas, but never learn the other man’s name. It might seem strange that Luke only names one of the men, but here is the reason: he heard the account from Cleopas himself. Including his name is like a footnote: it points the reader to the source of the account.
Or in Mark 15:21, we read that Simon of Cyrene was made to carry Jesus’ cross for him. That part we all know, but have you ever noticed the second part of the verse, that Simon of Cyrene was “the father of Alexander and Rufus”? What a strange and unnecessary detail! Who in the world are they? They have nothing to do with the rest of the story. What Mark is doing by including their names is this: he is telling the reader, “what I am writing is true and you can talk to Alexander and Rufus if you want proof.”
Here is my point: the gospels are more than just stories. They are the personal eyewitness accounts of the people who were there. The writers of the gospels found these people because they wanted to tell exactly what happened to Jesus. We can trust their words and during the Vantage Point series, we want to look very closely at their stories. We want to see what they saw, to feel what they felt. Their eyewitness testimonies have been preserved so that billions of people who were not able to see what happened with their own eyes could fulfill Jesus’ words to Thomas: “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”