Raised from the Dead
When we talk about Jesus being raised from the dead, we need to be clear what we're talking about. The big deal isn't ultimately that Jesus came back to life after dying. Lots of people have done that. The big deal is that Jesus' resurrection is unique among resurrections.
It's actually kind of easy to believe in resurrection, at least in SOMEONE coming back to life, isn't it? How many times have we seen a movie or TV show with some declaration of love to a flatlining patient followed by new beeps on the heart monitor? And then there's the resurrection scenes in The Matrix and Lord of the Rings and Narnia and Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica and Lost. In sci-fi and fantasy stories, nobody stays dead!
But it's not just in the world of make-believe. The Bible is full of stories about the dead coming back to life. Elijah prays to God to bring a boy back from the dead and God does it. Elisha does the same thing: prays to God to bring a boy back from the dead and God does it. (As I noted in an earlier blog post, even Elisha's bones bring someone back from the dead.) Peter brings Dorcas back from the dead. Paul brings Eutychus back from the dead. Jesus brings the daughter of Jairus back from the dead. And then of course there's Lazarus and the "many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep" that were raised at Jesus' crucifixion. (Mt. 27:52-53).
In saints' hagiographies, raising the dead is a big deal. But it's pretty common. Try to find a hagiography without a resurrection. It's awfully hard. Read a dictionary of saints and you'll start with St. Anastasius, a heathen by raised by St. Julian of Antioch who "told such a mournful tale about the way to Hell as never came to man before nor after since. Anastasius and Julian were later reportedly martyred together around the year 311. Shortly thereafter you'll meet St. Archelides, who came to life for the span of one sentence, settling a dispute between his fellows over whether his mother could be buried next to him even though she was a woman.
Hundreds of resurrection stories later, as you near the final pages, you'll encounter St. Winifred, beheaded around 650 by the son of a prince for spurning him. She was reportedly raised to life by the prayers of her uncle, St. Beuno.
Want only the resurrection stories? Track down Albert J. Hebert's extremely credulous Saints Who Raised the Dead: True Stories of 400 Resurrection Miracles, in which even the most unreliable hagiographic accounts of resurrections by Patrick, Joan of Arc, Francis of Paola, Stanislaus of Krakow, and other saints are treated authentically.
I'm skeptical of most of these stories, as I am of several of the more recent resurrection claims I've been sent while overseeing Christianity Today's news functions. But I'm not dismissive of the phenomenon in total. It's hard to say something never happens when my Bible says it did.
But Jesus' resurrection isn't just one important resurrection story among several in the Bible. He's the first of a new kind of resurrection. Which may be why everyone seems to be so confused when they meet the resurrected Christ. Remember: Jesus' disciples had seen people come back from the dead before. They had seen Jesus raise Jairus's daughter. They knew Lazarus personally. But Jesus coming back? That was different. His resurrection was not like the others. Examine, for example, the attention John's gospel gives to difference between Lazarus coming out of the tomb bound in his burial clothes and Jesus leaving the tomb with his "linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth ? folded up in a place by itself."
Jesus reveals the key difference outside Lazarus's tomb.
"Your brother will rise again," he told Martha.
Martha said to him, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day."
Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?"
She said to him, "Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world." (John 11:21ff)
Martha's declaration is dramatic: You are Lord; You are the Christ, You are the Son of God, who is coming into the world. But at the same time, it seems she doesn't believe that Jesus is going to raise her brother from the dead right then and there.
What's important isn't that Jesus really did raise Lazarus right then and there. It's that Jesus all of a sudden changed resurrection from a what-and-when question to a who question. He changed it from a passive verb - someone was raised from the dead - to an active and personal noun. I AM the Resurrection.
We're still waiting for the resurrection on the last day. But he still is that resurrection. Right now. Acting. Saving. Redeeming. Setting things right. Remaking creation into something better than ever.
And in remaking creation into something better than ever - in starting a New Creation made out of this one, a spirit-powered creation made from the dust of this first, fallen creation, like a stalk of wheat made from a cracked kernel - Jesus himself is where it starts. He is the firstborn of all creation, and the firstfruits of the new creation, the firstborn from the dead.
And even if we've seen people rise from the dead, like the disciples, we haven't seen anything like him.
* * *
Vincent Van Gogh's The Raising of Lazarus (after Rembrandt) (1889-1890) courtesy of Wikimedia.