Raising the stakes: Why the resurrection matters

In this article, we explore the meaning of the resurrection. Too often evangelicals speak of it as if it were just tacked on to the end of our doctrine of the cross. But the Bible speaks of the resurrection as the event upon which faith stands or falls. This first of two articles on the resurrection examines what the resurrection achieved; the second article will consider what it means to live as those who are ‘raised with Christ’.

Resting at the core of Christian faith is the doctrine of the resurrection. We evangelicals defend this doctrine energetically against all manner of attacks. No, Jesus didn’t just swoon. No, he didn’t merely live on spiritually in the hearts of his followers. No, his body wasn’t stolen by tomb raiders. And, no, he wasn’t pulled down off the cross and replaced by someone who looked like him, as some Muslims teach.

But having defended the historical truth of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, we often stop there. Rarely do we explore the meaning of the resurrection for our lives here and now, nor do we see its immense implications for how we understand the future.

Furthermore, we sometimes use the resurrection to try to prove certain things that it does not in fact prove—as we will see. In these two articles, we will outline the ‘cash value’ of the resurrection—the way it changes and directs history, the future and our everyday lives. But before launching into those deep waters, picture the following encounter between Grace, the earnest Christian, eager to share her faith with Samantha, a thoughtful but unbelieving work colleague. They have discussed Christianity a number of times before.

[Grace and Samantha enjoy a sandwich together over lunch in the park.]

Samantha: Grace, I’ve been meaning to ask you how come you are so sure that Jesus is God?

[Grace frantically runs through in her head everything she can remember from her Josh McDowell reading as a teenager.]

Grace: We-ell, to start with, he did a lot of miracles which you can’t really explain.

Samantha: But we can probably explain them now with science.

Grace: Um, maybe some of them, but he rose from the dead, didn’t he? Explain that!

Samantha: Okay, yes, but even if you believe that happened, it doesn’t prove he’s God.

Grace: [with a touch of sarcasm] Really? How many human beings do you know who have come back from the dead?

Samantha: Well, let’s see, there was Lazarus, and Jairus’s daughter, and that boy who fell asleep while Paul was preaching—what was his name? —oh, yes, Eutychus, and …

Grace: [not pleased] I see you have been reading …

Samantha: Yep, and then there’s people today who ‘die’ for a while, but then are resuscitated. And no-one claims that they are God. So why do you make such a fuss about Jesus’ resurrection?

Grace: I’ll tell you later, Samantha, it’s time to go back to work.

One thing that Samantha understands but that Grace is still struggling with is that the resurrection does not prove that Jesus is God. The New Testament certainly never uses it in this way.

What does the resurrection demonstrate, then? The New Testament provides us with many answers that are worthy of prolonged reflection. Here are three of them.

1. The resurrection demonstrates that Jesus is Lord and Christ

It comes as a bit of a surprise to read passages in the New Testament which suggest that Jesus wasn’t always ‘Lord’ and that he wasn’t always ‘Christ’. There is a special sense in which these titles came to him through the resurrection.

Peter made this clear when he preached to the crowd at Pentecost. The apostle interpreted the meaning of Psalm 16 for the stunned gathering:

Seeing what was ahead, he [David] spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life and we are witnesses to the fact … Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ. (Acts 2:31-32, 36)

Jesus’ Lordship was announced through his resurrection. It demonstrated that he was the ‘Holy One’ who would not see decay, who is mentioned in Psalm 16. He is the Lord whom Israel’s mighty king David spoke of in his psalm. Jesus is the “king of Kings”, who is exalted above all other rulers and authorities to be the supreme Lord over all, to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:9-11). David pales by comparison.

Having risen from the dead, Jesus “keeps going up”—he is exalted to the right hand of God from which position he now rules the universe. His resurrection is the beginning of that process of exaltation. We are now living in the period of Jesus’ lordship, which will be revealed to all in the end when every knee bows and every tongue confesses that lordship (Phil 2:10-11).

The second name granted to Jesus through the resurrection is ‘Christ’, again preached by Peter in Acts 2: “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ”. Romans 1:4 reiterates the idea, introducing Jesus as the one who is “designated son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord”—where ‘son of God’ is another way of referring to Jesus as the Christ, rather than to his position as the second person of the trinity (cf. the way the Messianic king is called God’s ‘son’ in Psalm 2, for example).

Through his resurrection, Jesus is shown to be the worldwide ruler, the Lord, the Messiah/Christ, who according to the prophets, would come to deliver his people, to rule the world, to gather in even the nations to join God’s people. This is why he is in a position to pour out the Spirit of God on all flesh, as Peter points out in Acts 2:33: it is because he has risen as Lord and Christ.

It was no accident, therefore, that the resurrection featured so strongly in the gospel proclamation of the apostles in the book of Acts. The resurrection of Jesus was chief among his credentials as the worldwide Lord and Christ, to whom all peoples must now submit, Jew and Gentile alike.

“Christ Jesus our Lord” is the common way to refer to Jesus in the New Testament epistles. It pulls together the two titles that the resurrection earned him, and it is a summary expression of the Christian faith. As Paul explains in Romans 10:9, “if you confess with your mouth ‘Jesus is Lord’, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved”.

2. The resurrection begins the judgement

Resurrection and judgement are not linked together closely enough in the modern Christian mind. We tend to think of judgement as one of the ‘things to come’ and, in one sense, it is. There will be a day when the time of patiently overlooking sin will end, and God will finally mete out justice. But it is also true that the resurrection of Christ is the beginning of Judgement Day. Since the Australian summer is approaching, let’s use a cricket illustration to explain.

When a new cricket captain is elected, his election is announced some days or weeks before he has to actually take the field and lead his players. Although he doesn’t take the field as captain until that game commences, he is already leading the team. They will begin to look to him for tactics and advice. He will organize his batting order and where he will place his field. But he becomes captain in all his glory when he first leads the team on to the field to a rousing reception from the supportive crowd.

On Judgement Day, every knee will bow before Christ, and his Lordship will be gloriously revealed. For now, we who are part of his ‘team’ already know his leadership and have entered into his glory through his resurrection. The resurrection was his appointment as ‘captain’; the Judgement Day is when this will be revealed for all to see.

Jesus himself gives us a summary of this teaching in John’s Gospel:

I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man (John 5:24-27).

God the Father granted two things to Jesus: “life in himself” and “authority to judge”. Jesus’ hold on life is demonstrated in his words to Martha upon Lazarus’s death (John 11). Martha knows that her brother will rise in the final resurrection at the end of time, but Jesus also makes a profound point to her: those who believe in him have already passed from death to life, because of the fact that the Father has granted “life in himself” to Jesus. “I am the resurrection and the life”, says Jesus. “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25). Jesus raised Lazarus to life to demonstrate God’s glory (John 11:4, 40), but in a greater sense, Lazarus had already passed through death to new life, if he believed in Jesus.

Why does Jesus also have “authority to judge”? John 5 (quoted above) connected it with his identity as the ‘son of Man’. The son of Man in Daniel 7 is granted complete sovereign authority over all people. He is given an everlasting kingdom that will never be destroyed. The right to judge flows from this dominion and kingship—in other words, from Lordship. As we have seen, Christ’s resurrection and ascension, his journey from the grave to the right hand of God, establishes him as Lord of all. With this exaltation comes the authority to judge the world.

What is more, by raising from the dead, judgement has already begun. How is this so?

It has to do with Old Testament expectations of the resurrection. Clearly, there was an expectation in Old Testament times that a day would come when God would restore life to the dead. It is seen in the famous Ezekiel 37 ‘valley of dry bones’ passage, where Ezekiel has a vision of resurrection for the “house of Israel”. In Isaiah, an even greater resurrection is envisaged, where death itself will be destroyed and “The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces” (Isa 25:8) and “The earth will disclose the blood shed upon her; she will conceal her slain no longer” (Isa 26:21). In Daniel 12:2, we learn that people will rise to face judgement at the end of time: “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt”.

Stunningly, then, Christ’s resurrection ushers in the end times: it is the beginning of the end. For in it, God’s victory over death is assured and the resurrection to judgement has begun. Perhaps this explains the strange (to our minds) occurrence in Matthew 27 where “many holy people” arose from their tombs at the crucifixion (vv. 27:52-53). The resurrection age had begun. 1 Corinthians 15:20 describes Jesus’ resurrection as the “firstfruits”—the commencement and sign that the harvest is assured.

Furthermore, the New Testament speaks of our reaction to Christ’s death and resurrection as part of the judgement itself. “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him” (John 3:36). The way we treat Christ now will be reflected in the way he treats us on the day of judgement.

3. The resurrection reveals that God will judge the world by a man

Finally, Scripture has for us a surprising revelation: the universe will be judged by a man. Christ sits at the right hand of God as a man, and it is as Resurrected Man—the Son of Man—that he will judge the world. This fact holds within it some profound insights about the relationship between God and the beings created in his image.

“For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man”, says 1 Corinthians 15:21.

“For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous”, says Romans 5:19.

“For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead”, says Acts 17:31.

By sinning, Adam, and therefore humanity, was enslaved to the power of death. By disobeying God, we suffered separation from him and a future of being condemned by him for eternity. But Jesus reversed the effects of sin by obeying God perfectly, even through suffering. As a result, God raised Jesus from death and ended death’s reign over the world (Rom 5:14-17). Jesus returned to heaven as a man, forever representing humanity to God—our advocate in heaven (1 John 2:1). Since he was righteous, we can be confident that he will be a righteous judge. But that would still leave us in our sins—for we deserve to be condemned. However, to our great joy, Christ was also one of us: he ‘shared our humanity’ and was like us in every way. He is then able to make atonement for our sins, just as the high priests of Israel offered sacrifices of atonement for the people of Israel (see Heb 2:14-18).

We could not be more blessed: we have ‘one of us’ as our judge and our high priest. If we trust in him, our future is secure without a doubt. When Christ was resurrected to God’s right hand as a man, man was destined to be in communion with God for all eternity. There is no fear of condemnation for those who believe in Christ, only the expectation of his favour on the day of judgement!

Perhaps an even more startling truth is that we do not have to wait until the day of judgement to have this security. We enter into resurrection now, when we submit to the grace of God. Although we were spiritually dead in our sins, God raised us to life with Christ and “seated us in the heavenly realms” with him (Eph 2:4-6). Can you think of a greater way of bringing us comfort and assurance, and strengthening our faith?

Grace in the park

Let’s return to Grace and Samantha, who are back in the park for their afternoon tea break. Grace had been pondering the resurrection while she worked, and feels she has a lot more to say to Samantha:

Grace: Samantha, you got me thinking about the resurrection. I’ve really been undervaluing it. I think it is probably the key to my entire faith!

Samantha: You had better explain it to me a bit better then!

Grace: Well, it’s like the election of the Australian cricket captain …

Samantha: Wait! Stop there. I hate cricket.

Grace: Okay, it’s like this: the Jewish nation was expecting a great leader who would conquer all their enemies and even destroy death itself. Christians believe that Jesus was that person, and that he destroyed the power of death by dying himself and then rising from the tomb. Death couldn’t hold him because he didn’t deserve to die; he was perfect.

Samantha: I’m listening.

Grace: But the thing that makes his resurrection amazing is that it demonstrates that he is the ruler of the universe. He is the one with all the power and all the honour. Those other people who rose from the dead in the Bible—they died again. But Jesus stayed alive, and went back to God the Father. He is the beginning of the age where no-one has to die!

Samantha: Grace, this is getting weird, but keep explaining.

Grace: It’s incredible, really. If you and I humble ourselves before Jesus and accept that he is Lord of everything, we can begin the resurrected life now. Death will not defeat us. Sure, we’ll die physically, but we won’t be lost in death. We can know that our life is already safe with God.

Samantha: It’s unbelievable.

Grace: Not unbelievable, Samantha. Just amazing, just amazing.

Samantha: Yes, Okay. All right. [Pregnant pause]. I’d better do some more reading … What about Enoch?

Grace: [*Groan!*]

This article was developed from addresses given by Phillip Jensen at the Club 5 conference in Sydney October 1999.

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