After precipitating a riot in Jerusalem, Paul was seized by the Romans (Acts 21:17-40). This launched him into a series of imprisonments and eventually a situation of house arrest in Rome itself (Acts 28). During a series of informal and formal trials, Paul had the opportunity to present his case, and it became clear that, at least in Paul’s mind, he was on trial for the “resurrection of the dead” (Acts 23:6, 24:14-21, 26:4-8).
Now it must be said, if you were to invent a new religion or philosophy in those times, it was not a particularly shrewd move to centre your movement on the resurrection of the body. This would certainly make Christianity, along with the Jews who shared this hope, stand out. This message was in stark contrast to every other religion or philosophy. It wasn’t that the Greeks and Romans couldn’t conceive of a resurrection—of a body returning to life again; they just considered it to be impossible (apart from in mythology!). In addition, at least for those Platonists who believed in the immortality of the soul, it was extremely distasteful. They spent their lives trying to get rid of the encumbrance of the body; so why would you want to have it in the afterlife? It is no surprise at all that Paul’s message of resurrection was met with mockery in Athens (Acts 17:32).
But Paul also found himself at issue with the Jews. This is surprising because, as Paul reminded people at his various trials, apart from the Sadducee party, the Jews themselves already shared this hope. As even the Roman official Festus was able to discern, the debate seemed to turn on a dead man named Jesus who, in Paul’s opinion, had already come back to life (Acts 25:19). But the debate was even bigger than the simple assertion that Jesus had risen. It turned on the significance of this thing that Paul, the former Pharisee, was now proclaiming as fact. Paul proclaimed that Jesus’ resurrection showed that he was the Messiah, and, as the Messiah, he was the first to rise from the dead (26:23). As we saw in the previous Briefing article, if Jesus had risen, this meant that the resurrection at the last day, which was the hope of their fathers, had already begun in the midst of human history. Paul joined the other early Christian preachers in proclaiming “in Jesus, the resurrection of the dead” (Acts 4:2).
Isn’t it interesting to notice how Paul summarizes the Christian message and the Christian movement? His preaching can be boiled down to the hope of the resurrection being realized in Jesus. The movement can be defined by this proclamation of resurrection: the Messiah has risen from the grave, and therefore …
But that is the major question. Therefore … what?
Therefore … life is not in vain
The resurrection is so important that Paul argues that if it is not true, then all else in life is vanity: “If Christ has not been raised, our proclamation has been in vain, and your faith has been in vain … your faith is futile and you are still in your sins … we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:14, 17, 19). In the Jewish wisdom tradition, writers such as the Preacher of Ecclesiastes had seen this point clearly—that if death was the end, then all else in life was vanity. There was an ancient and crosscultural view of life picked up as something of a slogan by the Epicurean philosophers who were still influential in Paul’s day, which proclaimed “eat, drink and be merry, because tomorrow we die” (cf. 1 Cor 15:32). The grave empties life of ultimate meaning. Paul proclaims the resurrection as something that gives life meaning. Because Jesus the Messiah has been raised, then there is a future resurrection. Death will be defeated in the future, because death has already been defeated by Jesus.
Therefore … no more fear of death
When death is defeated, this brings a tremendous liberation. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that we are held in slavery to the fear of death all our lives (Heb 2:15). Adam bequeathed death to the world, but Christ brings eternal life (Rom 5:12-21). Adam’s bequest meant that life was spent serving sin as a tyrannical master and, in the end, after working its destructive influence throughout life, death was his terrible wage, and it was paid in full (Rom 6:23).
But in stark contrast, because Christ has been raised from the dead, “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:23). This means that life is lived under the ‘mastery’ of grace, in ‘slavery’ (and how foolish it is to call it this!) to justification and life in Christ Jesus! This is freedom indeed.
Therefore … no more fear of the dead
But this victory over death came through Christ’s victory over the evil powers of this world. Hebrews tells us that Jesus took on our mortality—our ‘flesh and blood’—“so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (Heb 2:14-15). To defeat death, Jesus had to defeat the devil, the one who held the power of death—and this is exactly what happened! It may sound strange to our modern ears, but the New Testament tells us that Jesus’ resurrection was a moment of great victory over the evil powers of the universe. God raised Christ from the dead “and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet” (Eph 1:20-22).
The ancient world was filled with all kinds of beliefs in the afterlife, and it was commonly believed that the beings of the afterlife could exert influence on this life too. Ghosts were unhappy spirits in search of restitution; they could torment the living. They were angry, they were deceptive, and they were everywhere. There were also those who could tap into the powers of the grave and use the energy of the dead to wreak havoc on the living. Magicians would curse people for a fee, unleashing the powers of the underworld against their client’s rivals in business or court or personal relations or sport or love. In order to keep such forces at bay, the magicians would also supply their clients on the other side with protective charms to wear, or with spells that could be used to ward off the evil of the grave. As a harm minimization strategy, both Greece and Rome had days set in the calendar when the spirits of the dead were to be placated, making the ordinary calendar of events a constant reminder of the fear under which people lived. Not only did people fear meeting the powers of the dead in the afterlife, they lived in fear of the evil power the dead already wielded over the living.
When the new Christian movement began to proclaim its startling new message about the man who had already risen from the dead, they confidently proclaimed that the power of the underworld had been broken. For those in Christ, there was no longer anything to fear beyond the grave: Christ was now on their side. They could throw away their magic books (Acts 19:18-20). They could forget about the slavery to the ghosts expressed through the rites and rituals required by the calendar (cf. Gal 4:9-10; Col 2:16, 20-21). Christ had descended to the depths of the earth, and had then ascended to the right hand of God. He had filled the universe with his resurrection victory (Eph 4:8-10). Christ’s defeat of the devil and the spirits of the afterlife brought a ringing note of confidence: “for I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39).
Therefore … the restoration of life
With no future, the Epicurean chose the life of pleasure to dull the pain: “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die”. If there is no future beyond this world, then this world must be plundered while we have the time. Such hedonism is, of course, closely related to what we call materialism, in which the world is there simply for the taking. James notices that the materialist pursues wealth as if he is guaranteed tomorrow—as if he is immortal—and yet he does not know what tomorrow will bring, and he doesn’t even know if he has a tomorrow (Jas 4:13-15). And what is this wealth all about? It is to be spent upon pleasures (4:3), and this pursuit of pleasure is the cause of the wars and battles that rage in every human society.
The Corinthian case study provides a sober warning: this church had forgotten their eschatology. They had forgotten that Christ’s resurrection guaranteed their own. As a result, their focus fell on the present, and this led to all kinds of distortions amongst them. They should have said “because God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power” (1 Cor 6:14), therefore “the body is not meant for fornication but for the Lord”. But instead, their sin meant that God’s good gift of sex was distorted so that sex outside of marriage was promoted, and sex within marriage was denied—all in the name of spirituality! The focus on the present, which is completely natural to sinful human beings, meant that they were fixated with questions of status and power, expressed through deeming some spiritual gifts more important than others, through forming themselves into various groups that were supposed to be more spiritual than others in the church, and through judging their rivals mercilessly.
Paul reminds them of their eschatology. Christ has risen, and so there is a resurrection to come. Christ’s resurrection was not a separate event from that future resurrection, but he is the first fruits of the resurrection harvest still to be completed (1 Cor 15:20). It is a package deal; you can’t have the one without the other.
The resurrection of Jesus gives us back our future and, by doing so, it gives us back real life in the present. Rather than desperately seeking to gain life from this world, life has been given already: “For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all things belong to you” (1 Cor 3:21-22). Even though worldly ‘common sense’ says that it is foolish to lose everything for the sake of following Jesus, he promised his followers that they would be adequately supplied in this age, along with eternal life in the next (Mark 10:28-31). The desperate pursuit after wealth, driven from the prospect of our own grave, is no longer a necessity. The relaxed pursuit of the kingdom, driven by the fact of the empty grave, is now a glorious privilege for all in Christ (cf. Matt 6:33-34).
Therefore … we live in hope
The gospel offers a real hope to the world: “by his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet 1:3). How different this was to the ancient world, which was described as having “no hope” (1 Thess 4:13; Eph 2:12), and in which hope was not trusted because it always let you down. But Jesus’ resurrection means that we have a “hope that will not disappoint” (Rom 5:5)—hope that can never be taken away.
This hope is a big hope. The whole world is “groaning” in expectation of the day of resurrection, when the children of God will be revealed, and our bodies will be redeemed (Rom 8:18-23). But it is also a hope for individual redemption. Christ’s resurrection means that he now lives to God (Rom 6:9-10), and, if we have died with him, then we will also live with him. One amazing implication of this is that we don’t yet know who we really are, because we are yet to be revealed in all our glory: “For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory” (Col 3:3-4). “What we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (1 John 3:2-3).
Living the resurrection life
And so “all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure” (1 John 3:3). Hope generates a new way of life. It is a life of faith, because we keep clinging to Jesus Christ and waiting for him to come from heaven (1 Thess 1:10). It is a life of love, because we know that love will abide into the next world (1 Cor 13). But the transformation to live the resurrection life is not instantaneous. It will be on the last day, when we are all changed in a twinkling of an eye (1 Cor 15:50-55), but until that time, the resurrection of Jesus issues us with a constant call to put off the old life and put on the new. The resurrection sets the pattern of life (Rom 6; Col 3). It also enables the endurance of suffering, for we now serve “the God who raises the dead” (2 Cor 1:9). We now endure all, desiring to become the person we will be. We are being conformed into his image (Col 3:10), so that Christ might be the firstborn amongst many sons (Rom 8:29).
A purpose in the present: gospel work
And in the meantime, the resurrection gives us a task to do. Knowing that Christ has been raised from the dead to guarantee the future resurrection means that there is a work to do that will never be in vain. Jesus promised that he would be raised up as Son of Man so that he might draw all people to himself (John 12:32). When, as Son of Man, he had been given all authority in heaven and earth, he immediately launched his apostles on a mission to the nations (Matt 28:18-20). God raised up his Messiah so that light might be proclaimed first to the Jew and then to the Gentiles (Acts 26:23). This means that those who share in the hope of resurrection can always give themselves to the work of the Lord, knowing that it is never in vain (1 Cor 15:58), because through the gospel, Christ is drawing people to himself, so that they too might be raised up to life eternal. Knowing how terrible the prospect of judgement will be, we seek to persuade people to believe (2 Cor 5:11). Knowing the glorious hope of the resurrection, we are constrained by the love of Christ (2 Cor 5:14), and we seek to tell others that “he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them” (2 Cor 5:15).
That’s why the resurrection of Jesus matters.