By Stephen A. Seamands –
“Easter was when Hope in person surprised the whole world by coming forward from the future into the present.”
— N.T. Wright
It makes all the difference in the world whether someone is dead or alive. That’s why, according to New Testament scholar, Luke Timothy Johnson, the most important question about Jesus is whether he is dead or alive. If he is dead, the memory of his life and accomplishments may still exert a significant influence, but his words and actions have ended. His life is over. Finished. Complete. The dead lie still.
But if he is alive, then everything is radically different. He can show up on our doorstep. Do new things. Surprise, confront, encourage, instruct us. Encounter us as one living person encounters another.
To be a Christian is to believe and confess that Jesus is alive. For everyone else, no matter how much he is admired, Jesus is still a dead man. For Christians he is the Living One. On this point, there can be no equivocating. It’s either one or the other. “There is no middle ground between dead and alive,” Johnson insists in his book Living Jesus. “If Jesus is dead, then his story is completed. If he is alive, then his story continues.”
Every New Testament writer is firmly convinced that the story of Jesus continues. And they stake this cardinal conviction on the resurrection of Jesus. He is alive because God raised him from the dead. That’s why the resurrection is front and center in the earliest apostolic preaching (check Acts chapters 2, 3, 5, 10, 13, and 17). Instead of following the logical order of the Christian year (Advent, Lent, Easter), they insist on preaching the gospel backwards by beginning with Easter. Only then do they proceed to Christ’s life, ministry, and death, interpreting them in the light of his resurrection.
For the apostles, then, everything hinged upon Christ’s resurrection. It was the first article of Christian faith and the foundation of all the rest. As Paul contends, take away this cornerstone and the whole building collapses. Everything we’ve based our lives upon – our present faith in God, the forgiveness of sins past, our future hope – is an empty sham, nothing but smoke and mirrors, and we are “more to be pitied than anyone in the world” (1 Corinthians 15: 19).
Most Christ-followers and churchgoers today understand that the resurrection of Jesus matters. When they sing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” “Lord, I lift your name on high,” or “Christ is Risen from the Dead” on Easter Sunday, like Americans in general, they mean it. According to a 2016 Rasmussen poll, three-quarters of Americans believe in the resurrection. But if you were to ask them why it matters and what it means, their answers would generally have little to do with the teaching of the New Testament.
In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, when Aslan comes back to life after being killed by the White Witch, Susan and Lucy, aren’t sure at first if he’s really alive: Like the early disciples (Luke 24:36-37) when the risen Christ stood in their midst on the first Easter, they wonder if he is a ghost:
“You’re not—not a —?” asked Susan in a shaky voice. She couldn’t bring herself to say the word “ghost.” Then Aslan licked her on the forehead and when Susan felt the warmth of his breath and smelled his hair, her doubts vanished. Immediately “both girls flung themselves upon him and covered him with kisses.” His unmistakable presence quickly dispelled their doubts and what a joyful reunion it was! Yet when they had calmed down, Susan, like a good theologian, wondered, “But what does it all mean?”
Confronted by scientists and philosophers outside the church who vehemently deny the resurrection, along with theologians within the church who reinterpret or demythologize it, we have spent so much time and effort defending the resurrection we’ve hardly done anything else. To be sure, given the critics without and revisionists within the church, the apologetic task of making the case for the resurrection is something we have to do. Moreover, we owe a great debt to those biblical scholars, philosophers, and theologians who have felt particularly called to do it.
But in the face of its negative critics – ancient and modern, our preaching and teaching can get so caught up in defending the resurrection, making the case for the what, that we fail to adequately proclaim the so what, its positive meaning and significance for Christian faith today.
We also need to be careful not to fall for the common cultural understanding that the resurrection is merely proclaimed as a timeless symbol for life and the triumph of life over death. Indeed, ask the average Christian to tell you what Jesus’ resurrection means and he or she will probably say, “Because Jesus died and rose, we know we will live after we die too.” Easter thus becomes a spring festival associated bunnies and eggs, with the leaves breaking forth after the dead of winter, butterflies emerging from chrysalis’, or tadpoles from dormant eggs. As a result, the resurrection is no longer seen as a unique and singular event on a par with the event of original creation itself, but is viewed as another instance and piece of evidence for what has always been — that our souls are immortal so we live on after we die.
According to the New Testament, however, if there is one thing Christ’s resurrection does not signify, it is that. “But there is not in Scripture the faintest suggestion that the resurrection was new evidence for something that had in fact been always happening,” writes C.S. Lewis in Miracles. “The New Testament writers speak as if Christ’s achievement in rising from the dead was the first event of its kind in the whole history of the universe…. He has forced open a door that has been locked since the death of the first man. He has met, fought and beaten the King of Death. Everything is different because He has done so. This is the beginning of the New Creation: a new chapter in cosmic history has opened.”
Of course, we shouldn’t be shocked or surprised that many Christians are unaware of this. Nature abhors a vacuum. So when we fail to communicate the meaning and significance the New Testament attaches to Easter, soon other meanings, some cultural, others common to religion in general, will get attached to it.
Resurrection and New Creation
When the apostles proclaimed that Jesus was raised from the dead, it was not to announce there was a heavenly hereafter or a life beyond. After all, they were devout Jews and like most devout Jews in their day, they already believed that. At death, they had been taught, that the human soul was separated from the body and went to a shadowy world of the afterlife called Sheol.
When they did talk of “heaven” in terms of the particular place in Sheol where the souls of the righteous (as opposed to the unrighteous) lived on, it was never understood as their final destination or resting place. Instead, according to N.T. Wright in Surprised by Heaven, it was understood “as a temporary stage on the way to the eventual resurrection of the body.” Consider, for example, when Jesus assures the thief on the cross that he will be with him in paradise (Luke 23:43), or when he declares to his disciples that there are many rooms in his Father’s house (John 14:2), or when Paul expresses his desire to depart and be with the Lord (Philippians 1:23). In each case, they are referring to that blissful place of life with the Lord beyond death. But they never associated or equated it with the resurrection of the dead. In their minds, this place was only a prelude to it.
In keeping, then, with the commonly held Jewish belief of their day, the early Christians adhered to “a two-step belief about the future.” First, life after death; then the resurrection of the body and the renewal of all creation (what Wright likes to call “life after life after death”). Furthermore, they certainly never mixed up these two steps or equated them with each other.
Thus before Jesus’ resurrection, they already adhered to a firm belief in the resurrection of the dead. However, it had little to do with the realm of the dead and the transitional place where the souls of the righteous go after they die. Rather, they associated resurrection of the dead with the Day of the Lord, the Last Day, the age to come, and the final restoration of all things. When Jesus, for example, assures Martha that her brother, Lazarus will rise again, her initial response reflects the typical Jewish view: “Yes…he will rise when everyone else rises, at the last day” (John 11:24).
What, then, was so stunning to the early Christians about the resurrection of Jesus was not that God could raise the dead. Like Martha, they already believed in a general resurrection when God would raise the righteous at the last day. What stunned them and sent them reeling was the timing of it. In the case of Jesus, the general resurrection, which was supposed to happen on the last day, had moved forward from the end into the present. What was supposed to happen on the final day had happened now. In other words, tomorrow had happened today!
God’s new world, the new heavens and new earth, had come into being through the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The promise of a renewed covenant, which Jeremiah (Ch. 31) and Ezekiel (Ch. 36) described, where sins would be forgiven and death would be no more, had actually begun. The transformation of the whole cosmos, the new creation, foretold by the prophet Isaiah (cf. Isaiah 60-66) to happen at the end of time, had already started. The resurrection of Jesus was therefore not only one miracle – extraordinary no doubt – among others. Nor was it simply the final guarantee of life after death. Rather, it was the decisive start of the general resurrection, God’s final redemption of all things!
Those who belong to Christ live between the beginning and the end of the end times, between the already future and the not yet future. Because Jesus has been raised, the future, the life of the age to come, has already dawned. Through the certainty of sins forgiven, the presence of the Holy Spirit, the joy of life in Christ and fellowship in his body, we have been given a foretaste of that future now.
But we also live in hope and anticipation of the not yet future. Jesus has not yet returned or descended from heaven with a shout (1 Thessalonians 4:16). Suffering, evil, death, and decay are still all around. As Paul expresses it, “While we are in these earthly bodies, we groan and sigh…” (1 Corinthians 5:4). The enemies of Christ rage against us and refuse to acknowledge he is Lord. They have not yet been made into a footstool for his feet. So we long for the completion of final resurrection, the redemption of our bodies, the fullness of new creation, the subjugation of all Christ’s enemies, the restoration of all things. And our hearts cry, “Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22: 20).
At the same time, God’s plan of redemption in Christ is not primarily about you and me and our personal redemption. It’s about the redemption of all creation. Our individual future, as significant as that is, must be understood in the context of the whole creation’s future, not the other way around. Understanding this, in turn, has profound implications for our present lives. Our purpose is not only to live righteously so we can attain our personal heavenly reward in the afterlife. Our purpose is to be engaged in preparing ourselves, yes, but also our community and our world – indeed, the whole world for its destined future.
Jesus is Lord and God
The early Christians boldly proclaimed that “Jesus is Lord.” Through these simple, straightforward words, a group of devout, fiercely monotheistic Jews dared to transfer to Jesus of Nazareth the divine name and title, “Lord,” previously reserved exclusively for Yahweh, the God of Israel. This was the earliest, most primitive, Christian confession, and what distinguished a believer from an unbeliever. A Christian was one who had called upon the name of the Lord (Romans 10:13; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 6:11) and confessed “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9).
From the very beginning, they staked their belief in Christ’s Lordship on his resurrection from the dead. As Peter declares in his Pentecost day sermon, “God raised Jesus from the dead and we are all witnesses of this. Now he is exalted to the place of highest honor in heaven, at God’s right hand…So let everyone in Israel know for certain that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, to be both Lord and Messiah!” (Acts 2: 32-3,36).
Paul makes the same point throughout his letters. In Philippians, citing what many believe was an early Christian hymn, he declares that “God elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11).
Notice too, in his letter to the Romans, how he makes the connection between Christ’s Lordship and his Resurrection: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (10:9).
In many different languages, Christians throughout the world today sing a simple little chorus: “He is Lord, He is Lord! He has risen from the dead, and he Jesus is Lord. Every knee shall bow, every tongue confess, That Jesus Christ is Lord.” Whenever they do, whether they realize it or not, they are making the connection too.
Lordship not only signifies God’s unconditional claim but also God’s absolute claim on us. He is Lord in all things and in every situation. Lordship and divinity, like two columns of a magnificent arch, are therefore inseparable and dependent upon each other. And the keystone of the arch is the resurrection of Christ. Take that away and both columns, in fact, the entire structure tumbles down.
How fitting it is, then, on Easter and the Sundays that follow, to proclaim the Lordship and Divinity of Christ. What better time then, to raise the all-important question, Who do you say that I am? (Mark 8:27-30). And to let the empty tomb, the reality of the resurrection, provide the indisputable answer: He is Lord and God.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ “assures us that God will win in the end and that accordingly the world is not mad,” writes philosopher Stephen Davis in Risen Indeed. “Events do happen that we cannot explain. Irrational tragedies and horrible outrages do occur. But because God raised Jesus from the dead after the catastrophe of the cross, we can be sure that God will one day overcome all catastrophes… The resurrection is proof that no matter how bad things get, we can trust in God. God loves us. God has our interests at heart. God works to achieve what is beneficial to us. And in the end God will win.”
Stephen A. Seamands is Professor of Christian Doctrine at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is the author of numerous books, including Give Them Christ: Preaching His Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension and Return (IVP). Taken from Give Them Christ by Stephen Seamands. ©2012 by Stephen Seamands. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com.