In honor of Easter, let’s talk about the resurrection. Growing up I heard lots about the cross. I heard a multitude of sermons and classes on the so-called “seven statements from the cross.” Do not misunderstand me. The cross is very important. Reading John Stott’s The Cross of Christ was a foundational moment in my study of theology. The resurrection, however, holds a place of prominence in scripture that has not always been emphasized in church. At least it has not been emphasized in my church experience. If you have heard more about the resurrection, good for you!
For the rest of us, I want to invite you to take a brief expedition into the scriptures and the contexts in which it is read to explore the importance of the resurrection.
Resurrection is in the Old Testament. You may or may not be aware that resurrection is not a strictly New Testament concept. It began with the first testament; also called the Hebrew Bible or the TaNaKh. The New Testament itself shows us that it did not come up with the concept of resurrection on its own. For example, Acts 23:8 mentions that the Sadducees say there is no resurrection and that the Pharisees say there is a resurrection (see also Acts 4:1-2; 26:8). Another example is found in the second gospel (Mark 12:18) where the author clarifies the context for the question they ask Jesus by remarking that the Sadducees believe there is no resurrection.
So the Sadducees do not believe in the resurrection and the Pharisees do, but what exactly is it that they do not believe in since Jesus has yet to be raised? Jewish belief at this time (and now) was in a general resurrection at the end of time. Scripture pointed to this with hints and murmurings. See Deuteronomy 32:39; 1 Samuel 2:6; 2 Samuel 14:14; 1 Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 4:18-37; Isaiah 26:19; 38:10-20; Ezekiel 37:1-14. These hints or whispers of resurrection are just that: incomplete references to resurrection. The Isaiah or Ezekiel passages, for example, are clearly symbolic visions. Nonetheless, the very inclusion of hints of resurrection among a people who have been so blatantly warned against necromancy is provocative (cf. Leviticus 19:31; 20:6, 27; Deuteronomy 18:9-12; 1 Samuel 28: 7-19; 2 Kings 21:6; Job 19:25-27; Psalms 49:15; 16:10; 73:24; Isaiah 8:19; 25:8; 26:19; Hosea 6:1-3; 13:14) . Probably the most important and most clear example of belief in resurrection in the Old Testament is found in Daniel 12:2. See Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel for an excellent work on the concept of resurrection in the Hebrew Scriptures. In the book, Jon D. Levenson argues for resurrection from the Hebrew Scriptures despite the widespread misconception that they do not speak much if at all about resurrection.
Resurrection is in Second Temple Judaism. The Second Temple Period is the time period after the exile when Israel returned home to rebuild their temple until it was destroyed in 70 AD by the Romans. During this period Israel experienced independence and Persian, Greek, and Roman occupation. There was a vast amount of literature produced during this period that is important for interpreting biblical literature. Some of the material is considered canonical by Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. They call them the Deuturo-Canonical Books but, in Protestant traditions, they are called the Apocrypha.
There was a great amount of diversity regarding belief in resurrection during this time. Some did not believe in resurrection. For example, in Sirach, the author claims that after death a person is in Sheol where they live in eternal sleep and silence (Sirach 17:27-28; 30:17; 37:26; 29:9; 44:8-15; 46:19). In contrast, some believed in life after death, but no resurrection (4 Maccabees 9:22; 10:15; 16:13; 18:23; Wisdom 2:23-24; 3:1-4; 5:5; 6:19; Philo Op. Mund. 135; Gig. 14).
The second temple period book of Enoch has some differing views represented within it in regards to resurrection. Some language sounds like it is describing physical resurrection (1 Enoch 92:3-5; 104:2, 4). On further observation, however, the text clarifies that it is the spirit of the people that will be resurrected (1 Enoch 103:4). Enoch and other texts do speak of resurrection, but only for the righteous (1 Enoch 22:13; 46:6; 51:1-2; Psalms of Solomon 3:11-16; 13:9-11; 14:4-10; 15:12-15). Other writings from this period envision resurrection for the righteous and the wicked just as Daniel 12 does (4 Ezra 4:41-43; 7:32-38; 2 Bar. 49:2-51:12; 85:13). Yet more texts speak of detailed restoration of physical bodies in the act of resurrection (2 Maccabees 7:10-11; 14:46; Sib. Or. 4:176-82).
Resurrection is in the New Testament. The resurrection is explicitly mentioned in 17 books of the New Testament and is implicit in most of the other 10 books [L. J. Kreitzer, “Resurrection” in The IVP Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (Downers Grove: IVP Press, 1993)]. As N. T. Wright has written, “The early Christian belief in resurrection marked a significant mutation in the Jewish belief.” [N. T. Wright, “Resurrection of the Dead” in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 677.)] The manner in which this mutation took place is all based around the resurrection of Jesus.
Jesus spoke about the resurrection in odd or off-handed ways. For example, Jesus discusses the resurrection with the Sadducees in the Synoptics (Matthew 22:23-33; Mark 12:18-27; Luke 20:27-38). Some make more of this passage than they need to by suggesting that since Jesus says we will be “like the angels in heaven” (Mark 12:24), we will have no physical resurrection body. This really goes beyond the text and its purpose. The reference to the angels is in regards to marriage and what role it might play in the resurrected state.
The theme of three plays a major role in Jesus’s talk on resurrection. He speaks three times about raising from the dead after three days (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33, 34; See also: Genesis 22:4; 42:17-18; Isaiah 2:16; Hosea 6:2; Jonah 2:1; Matthew 26:61; 27:40; John 2:19; Mark 14:58; 15:29; 1 Corinthians 15:4). There are also many passages where the resurrection of Jesus is assumed in some form (Mark 9:9; 12:10-11; 13:26; 14:25, 28, 62). Jesus’s resurrection is highlighted by each of the four gospel authors with very similar details (Mark 16:1-8; Matthew 28:1-8; Luke 24:1-12; John 20:1-10).
Resurrection was an important theme in Paul’s thought as well. Justification and resurrection are intrinsically linked in Paul’s mind (Romans 4:25; 1 Corinthians 15:14). To know Christ is in some way equal to knowing the power of the resurrection (Philippians 3:11). The longest chapter in all of Paul’s writings is dedicated to the topic (1 Corinthians 15). Confessing the resurrection is linked to salvation and acceptance of Jesus’s lordship (Romans 10:9).
For the author of Hebrews, the resurrection is part of instruction that moves beyond the basic toward perfection (Hebrews 6:2). Like in Daniel 12, the author of Hebrews seems to envision a resurrection of the dead for the righteous and the wicked. Resurrection (both symbolic and literal) are mentioned in the so-called “faith hall of fame” (Hebrews 11:19, 35). Hebrews ends with a prayer mentioning how God brought Jesus back from the dead (Hebrews 13:20). Resurrection is closely linked to hope for Peter (1 Peter 1:3, 21; 3:18-22). In Revelation, John links the resurrection with his participation in God and consequent rule as king (Revelation 1:8; 2:8; 21:6). John does not specifically mention resurrection bodies, but the envisioned new heavens and new Earth would hardly make sense without them (Revelation 20-21).
Resurrection is in the present. Because of the resurrection, our lives are not “in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:2; 58). Resurrection is a future event, but it is also something experienced in the present. This is part of the “already, but not yet” theme of scripture. For example, the Kingdom of God is here, but also still to come in its fullness. We are being made perfect by the Holy Spirit, but will be fully made perfect in the future. Paul sees the resurrection as playing a role now since we have been raised with him (Ephesians 2:6). Eugene Peterson’s excellent meditation on Ephesians bears the title Practice Resurrection. New life in Christ – resurrection – is something practiced both now and later. N. T. Wright has spent much of his career trying to make this abundantly clear with his major work The Resurrection of the Son of God and his more popular level Surprised by Hope. In sum, what we do now matters because there is some sort of connection between the physical world we experience now and the physical world we are waiting to experience in the future. From baking bread to playing instruments and raising kids, nearly anything we do in this life can be a form of building for the Kingdom that carries over in some sense into the next life. As Dallas Willard was fond of saying, “Eternity is now in session.”
Resurrection is in the future. As the excellent Bible Project video on Heaven and Earth (see this also) has shown: our hope is not to “go to heaven when we die.” Our hope is to live in a renewed creation likened to Eden where heaven and Earth overlap. Our hope is that just as death was unable to hold Jesus down, so it will be unable to hold us down. The resurrection is our hope. N. T. Wright has persuasively argued in multiple writings that the meaning of the word for resurrection used in the New Testament is not “life after death,” but “life after life after death.” That is resurrected, embodied life after the un-embodied life experienced after death. This is our hope. This is our destiny.
All areas of our faith – worship, theology, eschatology, spiritual practices – are greatly impacted by our doctrine of the resurrection. A healthy doctrine of the resurrection leads to a healthy faith. An unhealthy doctrine of the resurrection leads to an unhealthy faith. It is past due to resurrect the importance of the resurrection. May God grant us that we would see the importance of this doctrine. Amen.