In the spring of my senior year in college, I was deeply immersed in the rhythms of Christian life. I was a leader in InterVarsity, participated regularly in a Bible study with other seminary-bound friends, set my Sundays aside for worship and rest, and read more than my fair share of extracurricular Christian books. As Easter approached, I began rehearsing the importance of Jesus' resurrection. I knew that for Paul and the other New Testament writers, there could be no Christianity without it. Yet one day as I was walking back to my dorm, it dawned on me that the gospel as I understood it had no need for Jesus to be raised from the dead.
The story of salvation as I had learned it was, in its entirety, about the Cross. I would teach other students about the Romans Road to salvation and the Romans 6:23 bridge diagram. What each of these captured beautifully was that we had a sin problem that God overcame with the cross of Christ. But each presentation also omitted the Resurrection entirely. And why not? Once our debt has been paid, what else could we possibly need? What is so important about Easter?
Jesus Holds Human Destiny
The most important thing to say is somewhat shocking at first blush. At his resurrection, Jesus becomes something that he was not before. Jesus becomes the enthroned king of the world—the Messiah. But isn't the Jesus we meet on the pages of the Gospels also the Messiah? Yes and no.
Jesus in the Gospels is like David in the Book of 1 Samuel. He has received God's anointing as the chosen king, but another king is currently on the throne. The story of the Gospels is one in which Jesus inaugurates a new reign of God and deals a deathblow to the imposter king through his death on the cross. If the Cross is the defeat of the old king, the Resurrection is the enthronement of the new. Jesus now literally sits in the space that the kings of Israel had figuratively occupied before him: at the right hand of God. Though the preexistent Christ has always been God's agent in the creation and rule of the world, the human Jesus is now joined to that role as Lord and king over all.
This is the logic behind Jesus' claim in the Great Commission: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me" (Matt. 28:18-20). At the Resurrection, Jesus has become the Messiah, the Christ, God's anointed ruler of the earth.
To be God's anointed, the Christ, is to be at least in part the human descendant of David. And so we find Peter, in the first sermon preached after Jesus' resurrection, insisting on three things: (1) During his life on earth, Jesus was a man to whom God testified through wonders and miracles; (2) King David prophesied that the Messiah would be enthroned when God raised him from the dead; and (3) God has, in fact, made Jesus both Lord and Messiah by raising him and thereby enthroning him.
Having vanquished the Enemy, who had usurped authority over all the kingdoms of the world (Luke 4:5-8), Jesus reclaims for humanity its original purpose: to rule the world on God's behalf (Gen. 1:26-28). This is one reason why we find Paul referring to the resurrected Jesus as the second and last Adam. But as the last Adam, Jesus also holds humanity's destiny in his hands.
Intruding on the Present
When we speak of human destiny, we are of course speaking of the future. The New Testament is clear that God has a future for this world, and that the transformation of humans is a crucial component of what lies in store. What are the implications of Jesus being our forerunner in resurrection life? The New Testament leads us to understand that the hopes and expectations of God's people are now hidden in Christ. In other words, the only way to take hold of God's promises for the future is to take hold of the resurrected Jesus in the present.
So, for example, God has promised future embodied life on a new earth. The only way to take hold of this promise is to be joined to the resurrected Lord. Christian hope is more than wishful thinking, because the future on which we have set our hearts has already begun with Jesus' resurrection. He is now what we shall be.
But our present life is also determined by Jesus' resurrection. When we claim that we are even now God's children, that God is growing us up into obedience, and that we are already justified, what we are saying in part is that the future laid up for us in the resurrected Christ is intruding on the present.
Why is it that we Christians can confidently affirm our identity as God's children, members of his family? The short answer is that we have received the Spirit of sonship (Rom. 8:15). But if we continue to probe, we discover that this Spirit is none other than the Spirit who sets Jesus apart as God's Son by raising him from the dead. Jesus' resurrection by the Spirit begins the re-creation of God's family. When we receive the Spirit of sonship, we are receiving the Spirit of Jesus, the resurrected Son of God.
The idea that we are God's children draws us back to Genesis 1. When God creates humans to rule, he creates them to reign in his stead as his beloved children. This is the significance of the language of "image and likeness." So when Jesus reclaims the mantle of lordship over the world, he simultaneously reopens the door into God's family. As we are renewed after the image of the resurrected Son, we are drawn into God's family as God's children and Jesus' sisters and brothers (Rom. 8:29).
As God's children, we are also called to be imitators of our heavenly Father. One of the richest explanations of resurrection that we find in Scripture is the promise that our future resurrection life bears fruit in the present. Jesus' resurrection leads Paul to use turns of phrase such as "walk in newness of life," and "present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead." In the mystery of God's economy, the fact that Jesus' resurrection guarantees our future resurrection means that our present lives already bear signs of the future. God renews us in obedience and sanctification now, but both are foretastes of the life we will know only when we are raised from the dead. That future has begun in the obedience that the Spirit of the resurrected Christ works in us today.
Justification and the Empty Tomb
Somewhat closer to the heart of the gospel, justification is also a function of Jesus' resurrection.
In order to get at this, we need to hold two things together. First, justification is a way of talking about our standing before God's judgment seat. Those who have been justified are those who have been vindicated or acquitted in the judgment. Then we need to see that resurrection was often understood as a gift God would give to those whom he justified. Resurrection is God's reward to the faithful, particularly those who had been faithful to the point of death.
In such a scenario, Jesus' resurrection functions as his justification in the courtroom of God. Jesus was mocked as a would-be king and sentenced to death for claiming to be the man at God's right hand. God vindicates Jesus' claims, judging him to be faithful and true, by enthroning him at his right hand. Thus, as 1 Timothy 3:16 puts it, Jesus was "vindicated by the Spirit."
So when we proclaim that by faith in Christ we have been justified, we are saying two things about ourselves: (1) God's future word of judgment has been pronounced in the present; and (2) this judgment is a foretaste of our resurrection that we receive now because we participate in Jesus' resurrection.
These are a few examples that could be multiplied several times over. When we speak of Jesus' resurrection, we are not talking only about Jesus' present but also about our future and the ways that our future is breaking into the world in which we now live. In between Jesus' present and our future are the lives that play out the drama we will perform with full truth and beauty only when our bodies are raised from death.
Creation with a Future
At a couple of points, we have turned to the creation stories in order to make sense of Jesus' resurrection. This is not a coincidence. Resurrection and new creation are inseparable. The future for which we long and hope is the moment when God recreates this world and populates it with renewed, embodied people. Resurrection tells us that a new creation is coming. The resurrection of Jesus tells us that this new creation has already begun.
We most clearly see the connection between Jesus' resurrection and the coming new creation in Romans 8. There Paul depicts the created order as an active participant in the drama that moves from suffering to resurrection life. Creation groans, says Paul. But these are not the pangs of death, but rather the pangs of new life. Creation groans as it awaits a new birth and the resurrection of God's children.
The idea of groaning connects creation to God's people and the Spirit. Paul says that we ourselves groan while we await our adoption as God's children, which is our resurrection. He then goes on to say that the Spirit groans in prayer. These prayers are uttered in accordance with God's desire that we be conformed to the image of his resurrected Son.
Creation's part in the symphony of groaning tells us that the created order has a future in the coming resurrection. But if this creation is groaning for redemption as we ourselves are, then we discover, to the surprise of many, that the fate of this world is not destruction but redemption.
The implications of this are vast. For one, if creation is to be redeemed, then we are not free to view any of our work in this world as just a lot of brass polishing on the Titanic. Because Jesus is the last Adam, he and those who are his siblings assume the vocation of the first Adam to rule, subdue, and fill the entire created order. The resurrection of Jesus tells us that God has given up on neither humanity nor the creation we were created to rule on God's behalf. In the mysterious economy of God, what we do here on earth is of eternal consequence.
This plea to work in the present as though it mattered for the future is nothing less than the call to take hold of creation's destiny and bring it to bear on the present. What is true of us is also true of the wider order: the future is already dawning.
In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul places followers of Jesus within a new creation that has already begun: "… the old has gone, the new has come!" This is the reality brought about by the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The old powers have been defeated, the old self has been crucified, and the futility of creation is being undone. A new king is lord, the new self has been raised, and the creation is catching a glimpse of an eternity with hope.
There is one more way in which the resurrection of Jesus transforms our understanding of what God has called us to. The resurrected Jesus is the one who has the authority to send us out to the ends of the earth with the assurance that we will not labor in vain.
Matthew is representative of the other Gospels. Only after being raised from the dead can Jesus say, "All authority has been given to me; therefore, go!" From his first appearance to Mary in the garden to his last appearance to Paul on the road to Damascus, when the resurrected Jesus appears, he almost always sends. The vocation and mission of the church as a sent people depends on the resurrected Jesus as our sender.
Together with what we have already seen above, resurrection transforms and empowers Christian mission because (1) the Lord of all the earth is the one who sends us; (2) we are scripted into this Lord's resurrection story such that our own lives and futures are mirrors of his; and (3) the breadth of this mission must encompass the entirety of the created order. This is the Good News: not only a story of forgiveness but also a story of power, of transformation, and of hope.
In Flannery O'Connor's short story "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," the Misfit explains the world-shattering significance of Jesus' resurrection: "He thrown everything off balance. If he did what he said then it's nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow him, and if he didn't, then it's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can."
With these words O'Connor declared, in concert with the New Testament writers, that the Resurrection is everything. Its truth or falsity determines whether the world has been irrevocably shaken by Easter Sunday or whether, instead, God has left Jesus, us, and the entire created order unanswered in our cries for salvation. No less than this is at stake in our affirmation that Jesus is raised from the dead.
J. R. Daniel Kirk is associate professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary and author of Unlocking Romans: Resurrection and the Justification of God (Eerdmans).
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Go to ChristianBibleStudies.com for "A Resurrection That Matters," a Bible study based on this article.
Previous Christianity Today articles on Easter include:
Peace Be with You | Christ's resurrection not only frees us from death, but also frees us from using it. (April 18, 2009)
Hymn for Easter Day | Charles Wesley's 'Christ the Lord Is Risen Today' brings alleluia's historical significance to modern audiences. (March 30, 2010)
'It Is Finished' But It Is Not Over | God's work of redemption continues in the redeemed. An excerpt from Cross-Shattered Christ. (March 24, 2005)
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