The Resurrection of Christ: Theological ImplicationsRelated Media
Shirley McLaine celebrated her birthday this past spring: she turned 62 and 162 and 262 . . . Many folks in our society today would think that belief in the resurrection is just as looney as belief in reincarnation. Hence, it would be beneficial to look at the historical evidences for the resurrection of Christ. We may well wish to do that in a future essay. In this essay, however, we want to turn our attention to the theological implications of Christ’s resurrection.
A number of Christians feel that their gospel presentations should include simply the fact of Christ’s death, but not his resurrection. Some go so far as to have a crucifix in their homes or around their necks with a corpse hanging on it. Certainly such a picture elicits remorse and pity. But does it offer hope? Does it suggest that sins are forgiven, or just that they are the cause of such a vile punishment, of the innocent dying in the place of the wicked?
I don’t mean by this that we should not focus on or think about Christ’s death. After all, even Paul said, “I preach Christ, and him crucified.” But he also preached Christ risen from the dead. If we neglect this part of the gospel, we offer a powerless gospel--one that cannot change lives.
We will begin this brief study with a quick look at the resurrection in the Old Testament, followed by the resurrection of Christ in early Christian preaching.
(1) The Resurrection in the Old Testament
The resurrection of the dead was not plainly revealed in the OT until very late in salvation history. It was not until the Jews were taken in captivity, in the sixth century BC, that this was clearly articulated. Daniel 12:1-2 is the principal text: it speaks of the resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous:
At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time; but at that time your people shall be delivered, every one whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. (RSV)
Why was it not clearly revealed till then? It was not revealed until there was a felt need for it. When the Jews had no present (because of the captivity) they had to look to the future. The revelation of the resurrection came at precisely the time when the people of God needed hope for the future.
What is significant about this is how masterful are God’s insights into human nature. In the NT era, one religious group in Palestine did not embrace the resurrection as a true doctrine: the Sadducees (cf. Mark 12:18)--that is why they were “sad, you see!” The Sadducees were in charge of the temple. They derived their income from the sacrifices. In a sense, they were the precursors to modern TV evangelists. They had it good! They were the rich aristocracy that ran the place.
Those who have it good in this life don’t often long for the next. The Sadducees illustrate this. The resurrection is a truth especially precious to those who are poor and those who are hopeless. It is precious to those who long for heaven enough that earth holds no sway over them.
Nowadays, the new elite are the intellectual elite. They, even more than the wealthy, are the ones who typically reject the supernatural. (Just note the majority of professors in the American universities today.)
But Christians--whether poor or rich, smart or otherwise, well-educated or not, should prize the resurrection as much as anything else. To the extent that the resurrection is not significant to you, to that extent you are not considering yourself a citizen of heaven. As Paul told the Colossians (3:1-2), “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”
(2) The Resurrection of Christ in Early Christian Preaching
Some of us put so much emphasis on the death of Christ that we neglect his resurrection. But to do that is to make the gospel less offensive than it was intended. The gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing. Why? Both because it is a message about a dead Jew hanging on a Roman cross that purports to have some relevance to my life; and because that dead Jew allegedly came to life again. And precisely because of this, he can forgive my sins! Now that, my friends, is a foolish message . . . to those who are on their way to hell. And admittedly, it took plenty of persuasive powers for God to convince us otherwise.
The early church took the resurrection of Christ seriously. It was the cornerstone of their preaching. Look at the sermons in Acts:
Acts 1:22 (criterion for selection of an apostle)--”one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.”
Acts 2:23-24, the keynote in Peter’s first sermon on the day of Pentecost: “this Jesus, who was delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. But God raised him up, having destroyed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.”
Acts 3:15 (Peter’s second sermon)--”you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.”
Note also the following: Acts 4:2 (“they were preaching in Jesus the resurrection from the dead”--that is, that because of him we too can be raised!); 4:10; 4:33; 13:30, 34; Acts 17:3; 17:18, 31; 23:6; 24:21; 26:23 .
Also, note 1 Thess 1:9-10 and 1 Cor 15: 3-5. The church embraced the resurrection as both true and central to the preaching of the gospel.
(3) What’s at Stake?
What’s at stake? Everything! (Rudolf Bultmann, the most influential NT scholar of this century: he wanted to salvage Christianity for the modern man, but by evacuating from the gospel any semblance of the supernatural. The cost was too great. The apostle Paul could not agree less with Bultmann: note 1 Cor 15:12-19). (As a young man, I had a pastor who argued that even if Christ were not raised from the dead, Christians were better off than others because we have embraced a great ethical system that kept our lives clean. Paul argued that we, of all people, should be pitied the most. For him, ethics meant nothing if Christ were still dead. To Paul, truth was the cornerstone of ethics, not a lie.)
I think it is safer to side with Paul than with Bultmann. But it may be helpful to think through the importance of the resurrection. What are the ramifications of the resurrection? Why does it matter?
Significance of the Resurrection of Christ
I’m just going to touch on a few points. No one can do an exhaustive treatment of this great theme. We will never be able to plumb the depths of what Christ’s death and resurrection mean for us, but in the least we can offer a few key points. This is a simple, straightforward message. There’s really nothing fancy about it. For the most part, I’ll just read the biblical text and trust the Holy Spirit to stir up your hearts. If you have not put your faith in Christ, now is certainly an appropriate time to do so.
(1) The Ultimate Apologetic: Validation of the Miracles of the Bible
George Eldon Ladd, in his A Theology of the New Testament (p. 354) states: “God did not make himself known through a system of teaching nor a theology nor a book, but through a series of events recorded in the Bible. The coming of Jesus of Nazareth was the climax of this series of redemptive events; and his resurrection is the event that validates all that came before.”
The Bible speaks of creation as virtually the finger-painting of God, while the resurrection of Christ required the strong arm of God! It is his mighty work! In other words, the resurrection of Christ implicitly contains an argument from the greater to the lesser. If we can embrace this miracle, what is to prevent us from embracing lesser ones?
(2) Proof that God is the God of the Living and is a Living God (cf. Matt 22:32; Luke 20:38; Rom 1:4; 6:9; 1 Cor 15:20-26, 54-57)
Several texts prove this point, but none so eloquently as 1 Cor 15:20-26:
(20) ¶ But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
(21) For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.
(22) For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.
(23) But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.
(24) Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.
(25) For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.
(26) The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (RSV)
As Ladd pointed out (p. 354): “If Christ is not risen from the dead, the long course of God’s redemptive acts to save his people ends in a dead-end street, in a tomb. If the resurrection of Christ is not reality, then we have no assurance that God is the living God, for death has the last word. Faith is futile because the object of that faith has not vindicated himself as the Lord of life. Christian faith is then incarcerated in the tomb along with the final and highest self-revelation of God in Christ--if Christ is indeed dead.”
But if Christ is raised from the dead, then God is sovereign over all things, even death.
(3) Fulfillment of Jesus’ Predictions and of Scripture (cf. Matt 17:9; Luke 24:46; John 2:22; 20:9; 1 Cor 15:4)
Again, several texts point in this direction. Note two in particular: John 2:22; 1 Cor 15:4:
John 2:22 “When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken.” (RSV)
1Cor. 15:4 “that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures” (RSV)
Thus, if Christ is not raised from the dead, he is a liar. And if he is a liar, then his death did not pay for our sins.
(4) An Essential Part of the Gospel (cf. John 11:25, 26; Acts 1:22; 2:31; 3:15; 4:2, 10, 33; 13:30, 34; 17:3; Rom 10:9; 1 Cor 15:4; 2 Tim 2:8)
We have seen some of the passages in Acts. Note now two other texts: John 11:25 and Rom 10:9:
John 11:25 “Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” (RSV)
Rom. 10:9 because, if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (RSV)
(5) Implicit Demonstration of Christ’s Deity (John 2:19-22)
The resurrection of Christ is unique in two major ways:
All others who were raised from the dead returned to their graves (e.g., Lazarus, Jairus’ daughter, Eutychus);
Christ’s is the only resurrection to take place without a human agent.
Also, note who participated in Christ’s resurrection: the Father (Gal 1:1), Holy Spirit (Rom 8:11), and the Son (John 2:19-22).
Clearly, if Christ raised himself from the dead, he must be more than a man! His resurrection without human agency is an implicit affirmation of his deity.
(6) Guarantee of Believers’ Resurrection (cf. Rom 8:11; 1 Cor 15:12-14, 20; Col 1:18; 1 Pet 1:3; Rev 1:5)
Again, note a few key texts: 1 Cor 15:12-14; Col 1:18 (“firstborn from the dead” does not mean chronologically first, but in terms of preeminence--cf. 1:15).
(7) Balanced Perspective on the Spiritual Status of the Human Body (Rom 8:23; 1 Cor 6:13-20; 15:32-34; 2 Tim 2:18)
The bodily resurrection of Christ speaks volumes about the spiritual status of the body: it is not inherently evil, with the mind being inherently good. Both were created good by God; both were corrupted in the fall of man. The ancient gnostics felt that only the mind was good. Some Christians have adopted this stance and have taken on an ascetic lifestyle, trying to deny the body its natural functions and pleasures. Others are hedonists: they believe the body is bad, but decide: “Why fight it?”
But if our bodies will be raised from the dead, as Christ’s was, then our bodies will be fully redeemed. And if they will be redeemed, then there is something salvagable about them. . . . Not only this, but they can be dedicated to God and used for his glory NOW! (Rom 12:1--”Present your bodies as a living sacrifice which is acceptable to God”). (But the fact that they need to be redeemed means that they are utterly sinful.)
Note 2 Tim 2:18, which condemns those who embrace other than a bodily, future resurrection of the saints. Note also Rom 8:22-23 (“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” [RSV]).
(8) The Indwelling of the Spirit and Resurrection Power (John 14:17; Acts 2:38; Rom 6:4; 8:11-14; Eph 1:13-14, 20; Phil 3:10-16)
The Spirit was promised to those who put their trust in Christ. It is vital for us to understand that apart from the Spirit in our lives we would not believe. He seals us to God and grants us the power necessary for sanctification.
(9) Forgiveness of Sins (John 19:30; Acts 2:32-38; Rom 10:9; 1 Cor 15:3-4, 17)
Note especially John 19:30. Jesus’ cry from the cross is “It is finished.” This the Greek word tetelestai. This word was used in commerce at the time. It was often written across a bill to indicate that the bill was paid in full. The resurrection is the receipt that God gave humanity that Jesus’ death did, indeed, pay the full price of our sins. (The world’s sins are not enough to keep Christ in the grave! His resurrection is proof that our sins are forgiven!)
Two points: First, forgiveness was costly (the cross), but because of the resurrection, there should not be lingering guilt for sin. If God slew his own son and kept him in the grave, every time we sinned the guilt would be too much! We’d say, “It’s because of sins like this that Jesus is no longer with us!”
But the resurrection means that no sin is so heinous that we cannot forgive ourselves. Some of you have done some pretty foul things in your time. The empty tomb means that they’re forgotten and forgiven!
Second, you have no right to withhold forgiveness from someone else. You need to forgive your spouse, your friend, your boss, your neighbor, and even your enemies. If God in Christ has forgiven all people, for me to withhold forgiveness says that I am more righteous than God! And it’s to say that Christ’s death was not adequate. Friends, that’s blasphemy. You’ve got to let it go! You’ve got to forgive that person his pocket change because God has forgiven you your millions!
To sum up: life, relationship, forgiveness, sanctification, the future, sanctity of the body. A whole philosophy, an entire world view, is wrapped up in the resurrection of Christ. Act as if your life depends on the resurrection of Christ--because it does!
He is risen! He is risen! That is the best news we can possibly tell a dying world!