Monday, April 21, 2014

The Meaning of the Resurrection

Yesterday we celebrated Easter, also known as Resurrection Sunday, the most important day in the Christian year. But have you ever wondered what it is about Jesus rising from the dead that makes it so significant? What does a resurrection prove?

Here's a little confession: when I was a little kid, growing up catholic, I thought of Jesus as a kind of religious superhero and his resurrection was his mightiest super-deed. By coming back from death he somehow blew open the doors to Heaven so we could all go there when we died.

When I got a little older I thought of it more as a wager. You probably remember this episode from one of the times Jesus and the Pharisees clashed:

"Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law answered Jesus. They said, “Teacher, we want to see you do a miracle as a sign from God.”

Jesus answered, “Evil and sinful people are the ones who want to see a miracle as a sign. But no miracle will be done to prove anything to them. The only sign will be the miracle that happened to the prophet Jonah. Jonah was in the stomach of the big fish for three days and three nights. In the same way, the Son of Man will be in the grave three days and three nights.
(Gospel of Matthew chapter 12 verses 38 - 40, ERV)

In other words, "So you don't believe I'm the Messiah, eh? Tell you what I'm gonna do: you guys kill me. Then if I can come back to life in three days, I'm the Messiah. If I don't, I'm not. Deal?"

That's how I thought of it -- sort of an ancient David Blaine stunt. And I don't think I was alone, although most people wouldn't put it in these crass terms. (Side note: If you've ever wondered about the various ways Jesus' time in the tomb is described -- three days, after three days, three days and three nights, etc. -- I'll cover that in a future post.)

But it wasn't a stunt and it wasn't just a mighty deed (although it is that).

What is a Resurrection?

Think about the word "resurrection;" what did it mean to the average first century Jew? True, there were lots of ideas about the afterlife among them, including that there wasn't one. But for the people back then who spoke of a resurrection (which included the Pharisees, interestingly enough, and most of the devout common folk), it meant a specific thing.

We've talked before here about what the Messiah was supposed to do. There were different ideas about him too of course, but broadly speaking most people agreed he would: be a warrior, ride into Jerusalem, defeat the enemies of God (i.e., the Romans, naturally), purify the temple, and set up the Kingdom of God, which ushered in an age of unending bliss.

"I Am the Resurrection"

For people who believed in a resurrection, every righteous Israelite would come back to life, body and soul, when the new age began. You can see this belief for yourself in that famous scene where Jesus and Martha talk at the grave of her brother Lazarus.

When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to greet him. But Mary stayed home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you anything you ask.”

Jesus said, “Your brother will rise and be alive again.”

Martha answered, “I know that he will rise to live again at the time of the resurrection on the last day.”
Raising of Lazarus
She was expecting her brother to come back to life, along with everyone else, "on the last day" of this age. And incidentally, no one was expecting some sort of mass hallucination when this resurrection happened. Believers in a resurrection meant a real, honest to goodness coming back to life in a body in the Kingdom of God. In our day, of course, some speculate that Jesus' resurrection was just a nice, comforting vision, or a feeling that Jesus was still alive somehow beyond the grave. Visions and spiritual feelings were quite familiar to the Jewish people. They happened regularly. Neither one would convince them that a resurrection had occurred.

But back to Lazarus' grave, notice how Jesus answers Martha.

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection. I am life. Everyone who believes in me will have life, even if they die. And everyone who lives and believes in me will never really die. Martha, do you believe this?”

Martha answered, “Yes, Lord. I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God. You are the one who was coming to the world.”
(Gospel of John chapter 11 verses 17 - 27, ERV)

Here and Now

Here's the point: to Martha and other faithful Jews like her whenever the resurrection finally happened it would mean that the Messiah had come and defeated God's enemies, that the Kingdom of God was here, that the end of this evil age had arrived.

But for the the resurrection to happen now, in the case of Jesus, meant that the Messiah and his Kingdom were here now -- in the middle of history. And that was unexpected to say the least. The Apostle Paul wrote:
God promised long ago through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures to give this Good News to his people. The Good News is about God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. As a human, he was born from the family of David, but through the Holy Spirit he was shown to be God’s powerful Son when he was raised from death.
(Letter to the Romans chapter 1 verses 2 - 4, ERV)

He is "the resurrection" indeed!

At the beginning we asked, "What is it about Jesus rising from the dead that makes it so significant? What does a resurrection prove?"  As the Christian Movement has always proclaimed in the Great Announcement (a.k.a., the Gospel) it means that the Messiah has been crowned, God's Kingdom is here, and we are those upon whom "the ends of the ages have come."

"Repent and believe this Good News!"

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