Christian LivingChurch History

Easter: It really happened! But so what?

When it comes to the resurrection of Jesus, most contemporary Christian writing has been centred on its historicity. Preaching often tends to focus on the historical details and the fact that it really happened, rather than its meaning. As a result, the average pew sitter might have a robust apologetic in response to the historical claim of the resurrection, but be somewhat cloudy when it comes to its theological significance.

Partly this is right and necessary in our modern age of scepticism. Furthermore, Christianity is rooted in historical events and therefore cannot be separated from those events. As BB Warfield states, “If Christianity is entirely indifferent to the reality of this fact, then ‘Christianity’ is something wholly different from what it was conceived to be by its founders”. [1]In this sense, we must continue to affirm that Jesus really did rise bodily from the dead. The historical is of great importance.

Yet in emphasizing the historical, the theological can often be neglected or underplayed. In this article, I want us to think through the theological significance of Jesus’ resurrection by making five points. These will by no means cover all of the important truths the resurrection affirms, but hopefully they will encourage you to think and talk about the importance of this event.

1. Jesus’ resurrection shows that his work in dealing with our sin was successful and effective

The New Testament makes some pretty bold claims about what Jesus’ death achieves. It claims that his death for sin was once for all (Rom 6:10; 1 Pet 3:18) and that in his death, he satisfied God’s right anger at sin (Rom 3:25; Heb 2:17; 1 John 2:2, 4:10). It also claims that by the death of Jesus, we are reconciled to God (Rom 5:10; Eph 2:12-13; Col 1:22). These are some pretty big claims!

But how do we know if Jesus’ death was actually effective? How can we be assured that, in his death, the price for sin has been paid and that we are reconciled to God? If there was no resurrection of Jesus, then all we can be confident about is that Jesus was willing to die and that he did die. Without the resurrection, we have no way of knowing if his death actually worked!

The confirmation of the work of Jesus on the cross is given by his resurrection: by rising from the dead, his death on the cross is declared effective. As Romans 4:25 declares, “[he] was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification”. The same idea is found in passages like Philippians 2:5-11 and Ephesians 1:20-23, where Jesus’ exaltation and lordship are in view. It is because Jesus’ death was effective that he was exalted to the highest place, raised from the dead and given “the name that is above every name” (Phil 2:9). The resurrection shows that Jesus’ atoning work actually worked. As Paul declares, if there is no resurrection “you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 15:17).

This means that the believer can have complete assurance: our sins have been paid for. God’s right anger has been satisfied. Our guilt because of our sin no longer needs to reign in us. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, we have forgiveness of sins and we can be confident of that forgiveness. As Bruce Milne helpfully points out, “real atonement has been attained and hence righteousness, reconciliation and freedom are truly brought to sinners”.[2]

2. Jesus’ resurrection declares the death of death

Death is one of those things in our modern western world that people like to ignore—until a friend or family member dies. For the majority of the human race who live in the rest of the world, however, death is often front and centre, with many regularly losing family and friends to disease or famine. Those outside the west seem to take death more seriously. Perhaps this is why they take Jesus more seriously as well!

The Bible presents death as a necessary consequence of sin. Paul tells us that death came through the sin of the one man—Adam (Rom 5:12-14; 1 Cor 15:21-22)—and that “death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom 5:12). Romans 6:23 declares that “the wages of sin is death”. Death, then, is a result of human sin. It’s a reality for all humankind, and even though many today wouldn’t like to admit it, death scares us. For many, death is the end and brings with it great mystery and uncertainty. The Bible’s analysis here lines up with our experience: human beings are held in slavery by their fear of death (Heb 2:15). We express this fear by spending all the money we have on the ‘now’ and trying to stay alive for as long as we can.

But again, this is where a proper understanding of Jesus’s resurrection helps. The resurrection of Jesus declares the death of death! Hebrews 2:14 says, “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil”. The reason why we can so triumphantly announce that death has been defeated is because Jesus has risen. Jesus didn’t simply go to death, but through death. By rising from the dead, Jesus showed that death could not hold him down and that he has abolished it (Acts 2:24; 2 Tim 1:10). At the very moment when it looked as though the powers of evil had won in crucifying Jesus, three days later he was raised!

Not only that, but as Hebrews 2:14 proclaims, the devil himself has been defeated. Figuratively speaking, Jesus has invaded the strong man’s fortress, disarmed and bound him, and robbed him of his spoil (Luke 11:21-22). The devil and his entourage have been disarmed and his work destroyed (Col 2:15; 1 John 3:8).

This means that death is no longer the end for those who are in Christ. Death and the devil are no longer to be feared. We do not need to “eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Cor 15:32), because the dead are raised! As Herman Bavinck puts it, “His resurrection was a birth from death and hence a victory over death and over him who had the power of death, the devil”.[3]

3. Jesus’ resurrection is a precursor to ours

Jesus’ resurrection really was bodily: Thomas was able to observe and touch Jesus’ hands and side (John 20:27); Jesus himself declared that he was “flesh and bones” and not some ghost (Luke 24:39); and Jesus was even able to eat (Luke 24:43). Also, let’s not forget that the tomb itself was empty.

In a world that has always been sceptical about the resurrection, this great truth must continue to be proclaimed. The temptation to alter what the Scriptures say must be resisted just as strongly. And so even though most find it absurd to think that Jesus rose from his tomb, attempts to make the message more palatable should be rejected; Jesus rose bodily! And one day we will too.

Who wouldn’t love a new body! It seems that most of the world today is in search of a newer, better, stronger, younger-looking body. From the latest CrossFit seminar to yoga paddle boarding (yes, yoga paddle boarding!) to mums and bubs work-out groups, most of us are trying to stop the natural ageing process of our bodies. The problem is, we’ll never be able to stop our perishable bodies from doing exactly that: perishing. But what if someone was to guarantee us a body that was not only perfect, but also immortal? Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? But this is exactly what Paul claims in 1 Corinthians 15.

In verses 42-44, Paul declares that our perishable bodies will be raised imperishable and changed from dishonoured to glorious—from weak to powerful. Our natural bodies will be raised as spiritual bodies. Furthermore, in verses 52-53, Paul tells us that when the dead are raised, our mortal bodies must put on immortality. Sounds unbelievable, doesn’t it? But Paul insists that on the day of our resurrection, our bodies will be perfected and made immortal. Just as a seed becomes a plant, so will our current bodies change (vv. 36-39).

It is important to notice that it is our current bodies that will be transformed; we won’t be some new creation. This means that our eternal state will be a physical, bodily affair. We will not be in some fluffy spiritual existence, but rather a perfected bodily existence. As Michael Horton puts it, Paul’s point here is “not disembodiment versus embodiment, but this body in its mortality versus this body in its immortality”.[4] Our decrepit, decaying, wrinkly bodies (well, wrinkly, depending on how old you are!) will be perfected and made immortal!

Now, what gives Paul the confidence to make such a bold claim? Well, it’s because of Jesus’ bodily resurrection: it is because Jesus is risen that we can be confident of our resurrection to come. Jesus’ resurrection is the firstfruits of our resurrection (1 Cor 15:20). That is, just as the firstfruits of the harvest guarantee the rest of the harvest, so too does Jesus’ resurrection guarantee our resurrection to come. Jesus’ resurrection begins our resurrection: it is not that there are two resurrections; there is only one. Jesus’ bodily resurrection marks the beginning of the great end-time general resurrection.

We get hints of this general resurrection in Old Testament texts like Job 19:25-27 and Daniel 12:2. Job tells us that at the last, the Redeemer will stand upon the earth: “And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God” (19:26). Daniel also declares that “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (12:2). Furthermore in the New Testament, John 11:24 indicates that people expected there to be an end-time general resurrection.

What we have in Jesus, then, is the arrival of this end-time expectation. His resurrection marks the coming of the last days. Thus the resurrection has now begun with Jesus. As BB Warfield puts it, Jesus’ resurrection from the dead “drags ours in its train”.[5]

4. Jesus’ resurrection is a precursor to the renewal and redemption of creation

It may come as a surprise, but Jesus’ bodily resurrection actually says something about creation. This was especially important in Jesus’ day: at a time when some taught that matter was inherently evil, Jesus’ bodily resurrection spoke a different message. Instead of teaching that all things material were to be rejected in pursuit of the spiritual, the bodily resurrection affirmed the material.

What we have in Jesus’ physical resurrection is an affirmation and approval of God’s creation. Contrary to the teaching that humanity needs to be redeemed from creation, Christianity teaches the redemption of creation. The bodily resurrection shows that God has not abandoned his good creation, but rather has redeemed it in the person and work of Jesus. God is not in the business of writing off creation or humanity. This becomes even clearer when we consider God’s commitment throughout the Scriptures to rebellious humanity. So the bodily resurrection of Jesus reveals God’s commitment to what he has created: God will not do away with human physicality or creation; rather, he will transform and renew it.

One of the best places to see this truth is in Romans 8:19-23. Here, Paul describes creation as being subject to frustration—in “bondage to corruption” and “groaning”. But Paul also says that creation is waiting “with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Rom 8:19). That is, tied up with the revealing of the people of God and the redemption of our bodies on the last day is the renewal of the whole creation. So just as we will be changed and clothed with the imperishable upon our resurrection (1 Cor 15:51-54), so too creation, along with us, will be liberated and made new on the last day. So because Jesus’ bodily resurrection is the firstfruits of our coming resurrection (1 Cor 15:20), Jesus’ bodily resurrection is then also a guarantee of the renewal of creation to come.

At this point, though, it is important to remember that creation still groans and has not yet been redeemed. Jesus’ bodily resurrection simply affirms that it will come and that it is guaranteed to come. On this point, there are two potential errors.

One is to say that because creation will be renewed and is passing away and will be made ‘new’ (2 Pet 3:10; Rev 21:1), we can use and abuse creation all we want. But this misunderstands the responsibility we have to rule and subdue creation (Gen 1:28-31). It also misunderstands what it means to love our neighbour (Mark 12:31): if we abuse creation and ruin it for others, this isn’t loving towards our current neighbours or future generations.

On the flip side, however, the eternal value of creation must not be so over-emphasized that the value of works done now for eternity is misplaced. Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 15 is to highlight the eternal value of the work of proclamation and edification in light of the resurrection, not the eternal value of all work (1 Cor 15:58). Creation will be made new. This puts the things done now and the time spent doing them into eternal perspective. We must not get so caught up in the problems associated with creation in the present that we forget that God will set the creation free from bondage at the resurrection of our bodies. God is bigger and far more powerful than the problems we have created in creation. If God is able to give us renewed, glorious bodies (1 Cor 15:35-44), then surely he will also be able to renew creation gloriously.

Again, this is not to say that we can abuse and misuse creation. But care needs to be taken about the ethic drawn from Jesus’ bodily resurrection. What can be affirmed with all confidence is that God is committed to his creation and will not abandon it.

5. Jesus’ resurrection declares him the judge on the day of judgement

God has assigned a day when he will judge the world by the man he has appointed, and he has revealed who that man is by raising him from the dead (Acts 17:30-31). Jesus himself declared this truth when he said in John 5 that “The Father judges no-one, but has given all judgement to the Son” (v. 22). What the resurrection does, then, is affirm that Jesus is the one who will judge all the earth. He is the one who will gather all the nations before him and separate the sheep from the goats (Matt 25:32). It is because of the resurrection that we can be assured of the coming of judgement day.

The second thing to notice is how this revealing of Jesus as judge in Acts 17 is tied to God’s command for all people to repent:

The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead. (Acts 17:30-31)

In light of Christ’s resurrection, now more than ever there is no excuse for continued defiance. Judgement is coming and the sins of the world will be held to account.

Yet we have to ask ourselves: has this godly command slipped from gospel proclamation today? In trying to be sensitive to our world, have the implications of the death and resurrection of Jesus been diluted or, worse still, forgotten? Are people made aware of their need to turn from sin and of the eternal importance of responding correctly to Jesus? Does ‘repent and believe’ still resound as part of gospel proclamation today? If not, can we still call that ‘the gospel’?

How people respond to Jesus now is of eternal significance. As Jesus declares in John 3:36, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him”. The way in which people respond to God’s appointed judge now will determine whether God’s wrath remains on them or not. It is a question of true life or true death. And so it is of absolute importance that the call to repentance and the reality of the coming judgement remain a part of our gospel proclamation. God has appointed Jesus as judge, this judge will judge the world, and he will separate those who love him from those who have rejected him.

One final implication is that with the resurrection, judgement has already begun: those who know Jesus and confess faith in him have already passed over from death to life. As Jesus declares in John 11:25-26, “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”. Those who are in Jesus now already know the verdict of the judge! They have been declared righteous before God. This is a great truth that all Christians can find abundant comfort and assurance in.

This great truth is, of course, only a comfort to the believer; the verdict for the non-believer is not so positive. In fact, the verdict for the non-believer is ‘guilty’, which means an eternity spent in hell. This truth should grip our hearts, bring us to tears and lead us to gospel proclamation. That is why Paul exhorts us to abound in “the work of the Lord” (1 Cor 15:58)—the specific work of proclamation and edification that brings people from death to life. The same is true for us today: the resurrection gives us a task to do. It declares that Jesus is risen, that he is Lord and judge, and that by this judge, God will judge the world. It is through this gospel that Jesus draws people near to him so that they too can know the comfort and assurance of salvation in him. The resurrection teaches us that the judgement day is coming and that only those who hear and trust in the risen Jesus through the gospel will be saved.

The historical truth that Jesus rose from the dead is important. Yet without understanding its theological significance, Jesus’ resurrection has no meaning for us. As I’ve demonstrated in these articles, Jesus’ resurrection shows that his work in dealing with our sin was successful and effective; it declares the death of death; it is a precursor to our resurrection; it is a precursor to the renewal and redemption of creation; and it declares Jesus the judge on the day of judgement. Such theological truths cannot help but leave us both rejoicing and trembling with godly fear, and drive us to share the good news with the lost.

This article was originally published in issue 4 of Vine Journal and is re-published here with the kind permission of Visit GoThereFor for a range of ministry ideas and resources.

[1] Fred G Zasper, The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary, Crossway, Wheaton, Illinois, 2010, p. 320.

[2] Bruce Milne, Know the Truth: A Handbook of Christian Belief, third edition, IVP Academic, Downers Grove, Illinois, 2009, p. 219.

[3] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 3, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, 2003, p. 438.

[4] Michael Scott Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2011, p. 707.

[5] Fred G Zasper, p. 323.