The oldest book in the Bible addresses the greatest existential questions of every age: “If a person dies, will they live again” (Job 14:14)? The holy Scriptures not only raise the question that is embedded in the heart of humankind, the Bible also answers that question and does so with astonishing and unambiguous directness.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the undeniable centering point of Christianity, the defining doctrine of our faith, and the most audacious claim in the history of the world: a God-Man, sent from heaven, crucified in the most public way, dead and buried in a rich man’s tomb, which sepulcher was sealed with inscrutable security by the mighty military powers of the Roman Empire, and then—a dead man who called Himself Almighty God—lives. The corporal person of Jesus of Nazareth exists today. He is not buried. He lives in a resurrected physique. And even more astounding: because He lives, all who die with faith in Him will also rise body joined to soul.
Was the Resurrection Real or Just a Story to Push Forward an Agenda?
There is no question about whether this resurrection of the Nazarene is metaphorical or physical. Over five hundred people saw Him, many of whom would live to the twilight of the first century. These witnesses could have unmasked Paul, Peter, James, and the others as mad-men had they another story to tell. There would have been profit in doing so, for the message of the resurrected and living Jesus was wrecking entire economies built on archaic, sensual religions of mythology and mirth.
Instead, “the Way” grew by leaps and bounds. Imprison the Apostles and their cells became chapels. Bind them with chains and shackles and their prisons became parishes. Dispatch the most highly-trained and loyal palace guards, and the captors became Christians. To the utter dismay of violent antagonists, lengthy imprisonments following kangaroo court trials were but leisurely catechetical periods resulting in faith in Jesus by the highest officials in the realm. The resurrection changed everything. Nothing would be the same again.
Religion was supposed to be a cultus of rituals based upon folktales, mythological heroes and heroines, representations of the metaphysical and untamed powers, local and national deities designed to explain the mysteries of life and death with sticks and stones. But Jesus was history. You could speak of time, place, his birth, his life, miracles, death, changed lives and new life. In Jesus Christ and his resurrection God entered time. Mankind was no longer alone to create stories to make sense of the inexplicable, but God’s story had intersected with their stories—our stories, to bring Grace and Truth. Everything had changed nothing could ever be the same. You want to know the Gospel in its simplest affirmation? “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.”
The Resurrection Was and Is a Cause to Die For
All of the Apostles would die for the message of the resurrection except for John, who would suffer for it, and die as an old man in the parish of Ephesus. Thomas would go to India and be martyred at modern-day Chennai. Mark went to Egypt and died while preaching eternal life in Christ. Other extra biblical literature of the day would say that Joseph of Arimathea went to Britain. Celtic traditions tell of a Welsh king who was captured by Román soldiers and brought to Rome. While under house arrest, he heard the gospel and brought the Christian faith and its beautiful message of the resurrection back to the British Isles. The Roman empire had built its fortunes on the cult of the Roman emperor, but within years, despite unprecedented persecution, the amphitheaters constructed to kill Christians for bloodthirsty sport became magnificent stadiums—veritable giant pulpits and sanctuaries— to proclaim the risen Christ. I know. I have stood in the underground stone cages built for ferocious bears and seen how the cages were transformed to chapels, with Bible stories embedded into the walls with still-luminous mosaics, and baptismal fonts and Communion Tables of stone.
The Resurrection Overtook Death. The Message Is Unstoppable.
Just years after the resurrected Christ ascended into heaven—again, with witnesses observing—the light of God’s truth that Isaiah had prophesied was going to the ends of the earth. The light of the gospel of Jesus Christ, his crucifixion and resurrection, not only illuminated the plight of human beings but magnified the power of God. Hope replaced resignation. Life could be lived with the assurance of sins forgiven and a new way of living established: with the certainty that “whoever believes in me, though he die, yet he shall live. And whoever believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26).
The entire known world was turned upside down with the message of the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. And every time I have entered a sanctuary where a casket housed a dead body and mourners, I have entered with a loud voice, “I AM THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE . . .” For the resurrection, like a dazzling diamond, never shines so brilliantly as when it is placed in front of the dark pall of death. The resurrection ushers in hope and assures us that what is hoped for is true and lasting.
But there are some who say that the Bible never really taught the doctrine of the resurrection. That whole matter of resurrection was something that was invented by Paul or by Peter or by one of the others. Nothing could be further from the truth. Consider three— only three of so many—biblical categorical affirmations of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Let’s begin with the old testament.
The Resurrection Was Prophesied in the Old Testament (Job, the Psalms and Daniel)
Misguided students and unscrupulous scholars of Scripture have sometimes erroneously claimed that the concept of the resurrection is absent in Judaism; and, therefore, an unknown idea in the Old Testament. Such false teaching (or to be more charitable: “ignorance”) not only denies the very words of the Old Testament but also defies the very teaching of Jesus. For our resurrected Redeemer revealed to the disciples on the road to Emmaus the truth of the Old Testament and His resurrection:
“Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” He asked them. Then, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” (Luke 24:13-27).
If that theory is true then somebody should have told King David that “resurrection of the deceased human body by God was alien to the ancient Hebrew Faith.” For David in the Psalms speaks with spectacular specificity about the resurrection of the One to come:
“Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful one see decay” (Psalm 16:9-10).
The Resurrection in the Book of Job
One of my favorite places about resurrection of the old testament is actually in the oldest book in the Bible: Job. When Job was at the very end of himself, having lost everything and having been ridiculed and question by his closest friends, he turned to God and the hope of the resurrection as he declares:
“Oh that with an iron pen and lead they were engraved in the rock forever! For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me” (Job 19:24-27 ESV)!
The teaching of the resurrection begins in the Old Testament. It is not a novel conspiratorial concept concocted in the minds of desperate disciples after the crucifixion of Jesus. Resurrection has been prophesied, taught, and anticipated, just as Jesus said.
I want to pause here lest doctrinal teaching is not applied personally. Perhaps, you feel as Job felt when all the world came crashing down upon him and death was a dark specter that haunted him day by day. But those dark clouds of despair had to be dispersed when Almighty God implanted the truth of the resurrection in Job. The sunlight bursts through the stormy skies of that great man’s soul and he could not help but proclaim: “I know that my Redeemer lives and that I shall see him with my own eyes.“ This Faith, a gift of God, will bring you the same hope: a “living hope” that dispatches golden beams of hope through the claustrophobic fog of despair.
What a glorious Resurrection truth in the Old Testament. What a wonderful Savior in our hearts. What a solid rock in the storm. But we could go to many other places in the Old Testament. Consider Daniel as he testified in the courts of the Persian empire. Even exile and the humiliation of servitude could not suppress the glorious doctrine of new life that bubbles up throughout all of the Bible:
“And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2).
The Resurrection Was Realized in the New Testament (the Gospels and Acts)
“But,” perhaps, a cynic replies, “these citations are isolated scriptures and could have alternative meanings.” Then let us go to the New Testament. Let us not merely go to the first-hand accounts of the women in the graveyard, crying out, “He is risen!” Those eye-witness accounts may be too obvious. Rather, let us drop in anonymously with the diverse congregation, people from all over the Roman empire, who are listening to Peter preach on the Day of Pentecost in Jerusalem. Read this and tell me what is the centerpiece of Peter's preaching?
“This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. For David says concerning him, “ ‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; my flesh also will dwell in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence’” (Acts 2:23-28 ESV).
“Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. [my emphasis]” (Acts 2:30-32 ESV).
Let us turn to one other significant passage.
The Resurrection Is the Hope of Humankind (1 Corinthians 15)
The Apostle Paul taught that the resurrection is the glorious centerpiece to all the banqueting table of redemptive history. The resurrection is of necessity the gravitational force of divine Truth that holds eternity-past and eternity-future together as one single plan of God. How important is the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah?
“But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:13-17 ESV).
But Paul answers the question and in doing so demonstrates that the resurrection of Jesus the Christ is the truth that transforms everything:
“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:20-21 ESV).
OK. So, the Scriptures say there is a resurrection. So what? So, another Easter. Another Easter egg hunt. Another chocolate bunny. Another sunrise service where I am shivering in the wet cold when I should be warm and in bed. Another sermon on the resurrection. It is one thing to quote Scripture about resurrection and quite another to believe that Jesus is alive; that death will not hold us in the grave; that life has meaning; that relationships are not wasted by the sinister thief called death; that we will know as we are known; and that if there is a resurrection there is a New Heaven and a New Earth.
So what? Well, in a word, everything. So what? I will see my father who died when I was six. I will be with my dear friend who died yesterday. I will see my Aunt Eva who raised this orphan boy. I will see the One who will wipe the tears from my eyes. Because of the resurrection everything has changed. This is the clear teaching of the Bible. This is the gracious offer of eternal life to all who repent and believe and confess, “Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.”
Michael A. Milton, PhD (University of Wales; MPA, UNC Chapel Hill; MDiv, Knox Seminary), Dr. Milton is a retired seminary chancellor and currently serves as the James Ragsdale Chair of Missions at Erskine Theological Seminary. He is the President of Faith for Living and the D. James Kennedy Institute a long-time Presbyterian minister, and Chaplain (Colonel) USA-R. Dr. Milton is the author of more than thirty books and a musician with five albums released. Mike and his wife, Mae, reside in North Carolina.
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