Witnessing the Resurrection
As the season of Easter has come and gone we may often feel disappointed and overwhelmed by the crass commercialism and blatant trivialisation of this sacred Christian celebration. How and when did Easter bunnies begin to dominate the discourse in Australia? Sometimes it seems as though the Christian message of Christ’s death and resurrection is being successfully drowned out by a secular agenda and its propaganda. I wonder if you are sometimes tempted to feel that the great gospel news is destined to go the way of the dodo. Yet, although we may at times be tempted to despair, it is worth us reflecting on the first witnesses to the resurrection of Christ and seeing the dramatic implications it has for us and our world. Reflecting on their testimony and what it entails will embolden us to also be witnesses of the resurrection.
Being sure of this, of course, is no mere triviality. The resurrection of Christ is central to Christianity. In 2 Timothy 2:8 Paul summarises his gospel for his young protégé as Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendent of David . In Romans he makes the point that belief in Jesus resurrection is a salvation issue. He states, 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 (10:9). On the flip side, in 1 Corinthians 15 the apostle points out some of the implications of denying the resurrection. He says without it Christian faith is worthless (vs 14), the apostles would be false apostles (vs 15), there would be no forgiveness of sins (vs 17) and Christians are to be pitied more than anyone else (vs 19). Needless to say, the resurrection is of foundational significance to Christianity, but what witnesses are there to this event?
Witnesses of Resurrection
The first witness I want to highlight may be surprising. It is the Old Testament. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 Paul claims that one of the key truths of first importance in his gospel was that Christ was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures . He is speaking specifically of the Jewish Scripture. Likewise, Jesus himself had been adamant both before (e.g. Luke 18:31-33) and after the resurrection (e.g. Luke 24:44-45) that it must happen in accordance with the teaching of the Old Testament (Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms). Unfortunately, we don t have space here to survey all the Old Testament passages which deal the resurrection. Nevertheless, the fact that this event had been promised centuries before it took place was a tremendous affirmation for those first disciples, just as it ought to be for us.
Secondly we should note Jesus witness to his resurrection. Throughout his ministry, Jesus repeatedly predicted that he would rise from the dead. Matthew, for example, records no less than six explicit predictions (12:38 -40; 16:21; 17:9; 17:22 -23; 20:19; and 26:31 -32). Indeed, when Jesus was challenged to give the Jews a sign of his authority at the beginning of his ministry he answered Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up (John 2:19). John notes that this was recalled by the disciples after he had been raised and they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken. (John 2:22). Jesus testified about his own resurrection.
After Jesus ascension, being a witness of his resurrection became a qualification for apostolicity and a cornerstone of apostolic preaching. When the disciples were seeking to replace Judas, Peter made clear that they must be a witness with us to his resurrection (Acts 1:22). The first witnesses were women. Considering the status of women in the culture of antiquity this was a remarkably counter cultural development, yet, it is unashamedly recorded by each Gospel author. The resurrected Christ went on to interact with the other apostles and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive (Acts 1:3). Indeed, Paul wrote that he appeared to more than five hundred people at the same time, most of whom were still living at the time of writing (1 Corinthians 15:6). Suffice to say, this remarkable event shaped the message the apostles proclaimed. Numerous times in Acts we read the repeated refrain God raised him… we are witnesses (Acts 2:24, 32, 3:15, 4:10, 5:30, 32, 10:39-40, 13:30-31 etc.). The apostles were witnesses (because they saw the event) and they witnessed (by testifying to what they had seen). In other words, Jesus resurrection was central to the apostolic proclamation and it remains the ground for evangelism.
But why was the resurrection so central? What were the implications of this event?
Implications of Resurrection
The first implication to note is that history changed in this event. When Jesus was raised from the dead, history entered into what the Bible calls the last days . Christ is the firstfruits of harvest. Indeed, when Martha expresses her expectation about the eschatological resurrection, Jesus declares that he is the resurrection and the life (John 11:25). This event transforms history, in the sense that the new age has broken in at last. In the person of the resurrected Christ the present age and the age to come meet and begin to overlap. At the moment the resurrection seems like a big deal because only one person has been raised with an eschatological body. At the final resurrection, the full harvest of resurrection will be realised. What we now consider remarkable and unique will become the regular experience of humanity.
Secondly, the resurrection of Christ vindicates his claims about himself and provides God’s verdict on his Son. Jesus staked the claim of his authority on his resurrection (John 2:19) and Paul says this event powerfully declares his nature as Son of God (Romans 1:3-4). The resurrection is God’s endorsement of the death of Christ. Without Jesus resurrection there would be no guarantee that the death of Christ had accomplished the atonement for our sins. Paul says without it we would still be in our sins (1 Corinthians 15:17) and Christ was raised for our justification (Romans 4:25). There is a profoundly prophetic element in Jesus resurrection. God gave proof of who Jesus was by raising him from the dead (Acts 17:31).
Not only is the prophetic office clearly displayed in the resurrection, so also we obviously see his kingly office. Jesus conquered death and its consequences. He reigned over the great enemy of humanity. He triumphed over the punishment for sin. The realm of death had no authority over him. In fact, he reigned over it and he continues to reign over it. In Revelation 1:18 Jesus says I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades. Similarly, in 1 Timothy 1:10 we are told that Christ Jesus has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. There are several reasons why humans fear death. Its apparent finality. The severing of relationships. The mystery surrounding what is beyond. It is the resurrection of Jesus and its entailments for those who belong to him is the only antidote to this fear.
Fourthly, the fact that Christ was raised bodily is very important. Some theologians and church leaders have downplayed Jesus historical bodily resurrection, arguing instead for a spiritual resurrection or an experience of Christ coming alive in the experience of the believer. But the apostolic witness is that Jesus continued to do things humans do. He ate. He asked Thomas to touch him. He carried the scars of his crucifixion. He spoke. He was recognisable. The physical resurrection of Christ is important. A spiritual resurrection would mean only half a victory. Jesus death was physical, therefore complete victory over death required a physical resurrection. The resurrection of human nature in Christ Jesus means that there is a real reconciliation, a real sharing of humanity in the divine nature. Extending this point we can also see the resurrection as God’s affirmation of humanity more generally. Christ did not shed his humanity when he rose. The risen Lord continues to possess full humanity. An implicit corollary of this is God’s endorsement of the material world. God redeems creation in the resurrection of Jesus. The heresy of Gnosticism hoped for redemption from creation, but the resurrection demonstrates God’s redemption of creation. This fact will shape the way we view our own bodies and creation more generally.
Fifthly, the resurrection is also a source of new life for the believer right now. In Romans 6:1-11 Paul links Christ’s resurrection with the sanctified life of Christians. There has been a death to sin and now there is a new life to God. Likewise, in Philippians Paul talks about the transforming power of the resurrection for living the Christian life when he states I want to know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection (Philippians 3:10). It has been the knowledge and experience of Christ’s resurrection that has allowed Christians to face suffering for the cause of Christ. The Apostle Paul said it was the resurrection that put things in perspective and enabled him to face death every day (1 Corinthians 15:31-32). In the last hundred years more Christians have been martyred than in the rest of Church history combined. It is the power of the resurrection that allows Christians to face suffering, persecution and even death with a sure and steadfast hope.
Finally, we see in the Bible that the natural reaction for those who come into contact with the risen Christ is to worship him. Think of Thomas’s response when he touches the risen Christ. He declares Jesus to be My Lord and my God (John 20:28). Likewise, the women as they met Jesus on their way from the empty tomb came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. (Matthew 28:9). This was, and still is, the only appropriate response of sinful humans who meet the one who conquered death on their behalf. I pray this will be our response as we witness (and witness to) the resurrection this Easter.
Ed Loane lectures in Theology and Church History.