The Resurrection: So What? Part II


After years and years of hearing sermons and reflections on Resurrection Sunday, I thought it would be helpful to reflect on the resurrection of Jesus according to what the NT says on the issue.

In Part I we briefly covered historical precedents for the concept of resurrection. In Part II let’s look at the way early Christians reflected upon the resurrection. That is, we’re exploring the ways the NT documents offer theological reflection concerning the resurrection of Jesus. To do this, I looked up every reference to the resurrection of Jesus in the NT.

Now, I’m not suggesting, for modern application, that we today can only reflect on the resurrection within the limits of NT precedent (one thinks of Rowan Williams' work, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel, which uses NT exegesis quite sparsely). However, I am convinced that our reflection concerning the resurrection must be grounded in how the earliest Christians reflected upon it. Our reflection should be within certain NT parameters, one might say. The following is what I discovered in the NT.

Resurrection as Mere Fact
This is the most dominant presentation of the resurrection. The primitive Jewish-Christian preaching to nonbelievers simply contained the fact of the resurrection as part of their gospel proclamation (Acts 2:24, 32; 3:15; 4:1-2, 10, 33; 5:30; 10:40; 13:30, 34, 37; 17:18, 31; Rom 1:4; 6:9; 8:34; 10:9; 1 Cor 15:13-14; Gal 1:1, 1 Thess 1:10; 2 Tim 2:8; 1 Pet 1:21). What’s interesting to me about these references is the fact that there is no theological reflection offered. That is, the resurrection is mentioned simply as a matter of fact, as one might talk about the weather or what time it is. It is part-and-parcel of the gospel: God’s covenants with Israel, Jesus as God’s emissary (Messiah), His teachings, His death, and His resurrection. Now, we don’t know that they didn’t offer some reflection with their preaching. All we know is that in almost every reference to the resurrection of Jesus in the NT, there is no theological reflection recorded in the documents. Therefore, it seems likely to me that even if they did offer some reflection, it must have been very little (or one might expect more recorded).

What do we say of this? A few things:
1.      The resurrection is part of the very first, ancient proclamation of the primitive Christians. You cannot get to an earlier stratum of Christian belief that is devoid of the resurrection.
2.      There is reason to believe that without the resurrection, nothing else Jesus did would have mattered that much. Instead, he would have been considered a good teacher to some, but in general, a false prophet and deceiver of people (as he is considered in the Talmuds). Therefore, it would seem as if the resurrection corroborated the ministry of Jesus to His Apostles. This seems to be what Peter (and the Apostles?) believed: “Therefore let all the house of Israel know beyond a doubt that God has made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ” (Act 2:36 NET). That is, even though Jesus was crucified, God the Father “has made”(ἐποίησεν) (= i.e., as demonstrated via the resurrection) Jesus both Lord and Messiah.

As Criteria for Apostleship
Witnessing the resurrected Jesus was one of the chief criteria used to determine who should replace Judas as Apostle (Acts 1:22).

As Evidence of the General Resurrection of the Faithful
As I stated in Part I, not everyone believed in the general resurrection of the dead at judgment. Yet, the general resurrection of the dead was a basic teaching of the church. Jesus’s resurrection seems to have been the reason for that assurance of general resurrection of the dead (Rom 6:4-5; 1 Cor 6:14; 15:13, 21, 23, 29; 2 Cor 1:9; 4:14; probably Phil 3: 10-11; Hebrews 6:2; 11:35; Rev 20:5-6). That is, because Jesus was raised from the dead, it demonstrated to the earliest Christians that there will be a general resurrection for the faithful. This is probably what Peter means in 1 Peter 1:3: Jesus’s resurrection gives us a “new birth into a living hope” (= i.e., hope of final resurrection, which means entrance in to the World to Come).

Indirectly Related to Baptism
This is where people typically go to speak of participating in Jesus’s resurrection. In Col 2:12; 3:1, and 1 Peter 3:21, Jesus’s resurrection is linked with baptism and our “being raised with Christ” with the same power that raised Him from the dead. (Notice how Christians did not get baptized because Jesus was baptized. He is not our model on this issue. Rather, Christian baptism is modeled after the death and resurrection of Jesus.)

Being united with Christ in His resurrection has to do with the enabling of the Christian to behave according to the will of God. It’s to be “spiritually alive” in this life time. This theology is also represented in Rom 8:11, where Paul states that if the Spirit  “of the one who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will also make your mortal bodies alive through his Spirit who lives in you” (Rom 8:11 NET). Though Paul’s sentiment here is not linked to the ritual of baptism, the same theology is represented = we are raised to new life by the same power that raised Jesus from the dead.

Linked with Atonement and Righteousness
Paul makes a hymnic/poetic comment concerning Jesus’s death and resurrection in Rom 4:25: “He was given over because of our transgressions and was raised for the sake of our being made righteous” (ἠγέρθη διὰ τὴν δικαίωσιν ἡμῶν). I wouldn’t make too much of the distinction, as if being “given over” (= to die) is strictly about dealing with our “transgressions,” while the resurrection is strictly about our being made righteous. Rather, it is in the dying and rising that one’s sins are atoned and one is made righteous.

One might add a possible last significance, though I don't included it in red in this list because it's not made explicit in the New Testament. The resurrection certainly led to, or at least supported, the belief that Jesus was ascended/enthroned. That is, either the resurrection led them to believe that Jesus was reigning Lord and/or it supported their belief they already had because of their religious experience of His Spirit within their community. In any case, the resurrection seems intimately connected with Jesus's ascension and enthronement.

That’s it. I’m quite surprised. Frankly, I’d expect much more about it. I’d expect it to be on nearly every page with tons of theological reflection commensurate to this momentous event.

But it’s not there. Very little theological reflection is offered. What is certainly not there, as is preached and taught by so many preachers/teachers is the belief that because of the resurrection of Jesus, “we get to go to Heaven.”

The only reference to the resurrection that is applicable to Christian living is by indirect reference. Paul believed that the power that raised Jesus is at work in us.

It is also clear that the resurrection of Jesus is really only about Jesus. I.e., the resurrection of Jesus is not applied to the life of the believer much (if any) at all. (This is different for the death of Jesus, which the Christians routinely applied to believers, but that’s another blog post!).

This Resurrection Season, let us not bother about trying to re-feel anything about the resurrection, as if we could conjure up the same feelings many of us had when we first believed. We should celebrate, and be happy! It's just that our feelings or excitement is not the goal of Resurrection Season.

Instead, let us reflect upon the significance of the resurrection according to the NT: Jesus’ resurrection is (1) a non-negotiable fact of Christian proclamation (as properly understood in a first-century context), (2) a chief criteria for apostleship (which is why we should not call anyone today an Apostle by title unless they’ve seen the risen Lord), (3) evidence that the general resurrection is coming for the faithful, (4) evidence that the same power that raised Jesus is available for the Christian, and (5) is linked with the saving act of Jesus.

So many other issues to be considered: (1) more exploration for why the resurrection is primarily applied to Jesus, while His death is primarily applied to believers; (2) how the early church (2nd cent.+) used/interpreted the resurrection (so far, my cursory exploration has given very few results); (3) why the earliest church reflected so little on the resurrection, especially as it relates to early Christian apologetics (e.g., why don't the earliest apologists spend more time on the resurrection and eye-witnesses, etc. than they do?); (4) does the dearth of  resurrection comments have to do with mission work to Gentile territories? (Paul's Epicurean and Stoic audience didn't understand what "resurrection" meant in Acts 17) Perhaps it didn't help the Gentile mission - but really?; (5) Application - how does this exploration affect modern proclamation and apologetics?