Six years ago a film was released about Jesus called The Miracle Maker. After seeing His baptism, miracles, and parables, we’re taken to Gethsemane, Calvary and then the tomb. Once the tomb is shut, we see Mary Magdalene sitting on the floor, weeping inconsolably. As the camera pans away from her tear‑stained face, behind her is a man with his hand on her shoulder. Only his white robes and his sandals are visible, his face is yet to be revealed.
I’m sure you know who that man is. But when my wife watched that film in the cinema in Bridgend, there was at least one little girl who apparently did not know what was about to happen. As she watched the camera pull away from Mary, the man behind was revealed. The little girl could contain her excitement no longer: ‘Mum’, she shouted out for all the cinema to hear, ‘It’s him! He’s alive!’ That little girl discovered for the first time something that most of us have long forgotten. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is astonishing, and it changes everything.
The necessity of the resurrection
Imagine a good book where just a few pages from the start a terrible enemy is introduced with devastating consequences. As you continue to read, the enemy is always there in the background; indeed he permeates the entire book. The drama lies not in the inevitable defeat of the enemy, but in the fact that you’ve not the slightest clue how victory is to be achieved. That’s exactly what happens in the Bible. In the early chapters a terrible enemy is introduced. One writer describes it as:
…the greatest of humankind’s enemies, a relentless Grim Reaper that shows not respect for age or wealth. It robs parents of a precious child, leaving them to mourn their loss for the rest of their lives. It deprives wives and children of their breadwinner and protector, leaving them vulnerable in a hostile world. It takes away the ageing spouse, leaving a grey-haired senior citizen without a lifelong companion and closest friend. Sometimes it arrives suddenly and unannounced; at other times it approaches slowly, as if stalking to taunt its helpless victim. Sometimes it hauls away its victims en masse; on other occasions it targets individuals. It uses a variety of methods and weapons, but only rarely does it capture its prey without inflicting pain and terror. Power, beauty and wealth can usually overcome any obstacle, but against this enemy, they meet their match.1
The enemy of course, is death. In Genesis 1 (before the first sin), almost every paragraph ends with these words: ‘And God saw that it was good.’ What difference does Adam’s sin make? Genesis 5:5 tells us: ‘And then he died’. Verse 8: ‘And then he died’. Verse 11: ‘And then he died’. Verse 14, verse 17, verse 20, verse 27, verse 31, ‘And then he died’, ‘And then he died’.
That should kick us in the stomach! Surely it is not possible for the Bible story to end satisfactorily unless this great enemy is to be defeated? If God cannot defeat death, then He is not God at all. This is how one theologian puts it:
It was this intruder, death itself, that had to be defeated. To allow death to have its way —to sign up, as it were, to some kind of compromise agreement whereby death took human bodies, but the creator was allowed to keep human souls—was no solution.2
The scandal of the resurrection
For the Jews, the resurrection of Jesus was a scandal of immense proportions. They could not believe that their Messiah could die. The Greeks and Romans had the opposite problem. They could not believe that a Son of God would want to be resurrected—many of them thought that men’s hope lay in escaping their bodies through death and becoming a spiritual being like the gods. The Christian message of God becoming a man and having an everlasting resurrection body made no sense at all.
The idea of a resurrection was so shocking that it was impossible to ignore those who believed it. You either condemned them as madmen or heretics, or you joined them wholeheartedly. But if today you say you believe in the resurrection, few will call you a madman or a heretic.
Yet it is a scandal today to say that the resurrection actually matters. It is a scandal to claim that men and women should change the way they live because 2,000 years ago someone was raised from the dead. And it is certainly a scandal to say that the only hope of resurrection for men is found in the resurrection of Christ.
The uniqueness of the resurrection
The Bible does not say that the resurrection of Jesus is an unusual event, or even a rare event. The resurrection of Jesus stands in history as an unique event, unmatched and unparalleled, before or since.
We do occasionally hear stories of people who have been raised from the dead, either by the miracle of modern science, or some other kind of miracle. Perhaps many of these stories are not true, but even if they were, this would not lessen the claim of Christ that his resurrection was unique. We could put it like this: there may have been many raisings from the dead, but there has only ever been one resurrection. (Of course, it’s a great exaggeration to say that ‘there have been many raisings from the dead’. But the Bible does give us a handful of occasions when it does happen, and it’s just possible it may even have occurred outside Scripture.)
How is the raising of someone like Lazarus different from the resurrection of Jesus Christ? When Lazarus was raised from the dead, his old life was returned to him. Miraculously his body had not decayed, but it was still his ordinary human, mortal, fallen body. Not so with Jesus. When he returned from the dead, he was different. He was still Jesus, but His body was no longer mortal; it was now immortal. He could enter locked rooms without need of doors or windows. He was not recognized by the travellers to Emmaus, yet he could still show his wounds to Thomas, and He could still eat fish with His friends.
Far more important than breakfast on the beach, is the fact that Christ’s new body was free of the decay, illness, and death that so pervades this world. No one else in history has ever died, then conquered death for ever. There are those like Elijah and Enoch who sidestepped death, and did not die. There are those like Lazarus and Tabitha who postponed death because their life was returned for a short time. But no one has taken the blow that death has given, shaken it off, and gone on to be clothed in an immortal body. Finally, Jesus proved that death could not only be sidestepped, not only postponed, but actually defeated.
But let’s not get the impression that Christ wrestled for three days in hell with the forces of evil before finally defeating them and returning to planet earth. Far from it. Christ had endured hell in His body, on the cross. There was no need for three days of purgatory to achieve salvation; no need for a continued struggle against the forces of evil—they were defeated at the cross, not in the grave. His work was finished there at Calvary. The Bible tells us that after His death He was in paradise, and that ‘death could keep no hold on him’ (Acts 2:24).
The declaration of the resurrection
Yet if Christ was already in paradise, why did He return to planet earth? His job was done. It was finished. He could have enjoyed His resurrection in heaven.
When I was in school, there was one scientific theory I just didn’t get. My teacher had tried logic, equations, and elaborate theories, but it didn’t help me. However, a few months later she left the school, and we were given a new teacher. When I told him I didn’t understand, he simply said: ‘Let me show you’. He rushed into his lab, brought out some apparatus and within a few seconds I was convinced.
God’s power over death could have been communicated through logic or elaborate explanations. But it is not the way that God had chosen. In other words, Jesus returned to planet earth so that He could answer all our questions about His power and His claims with that one simple phrase: ‘Let me show you’ (John 20:25–28, cf. Rom. 1:4).
The glory of the resurrection
The Bible teaches that Christ died for those who believe: ‘While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ (Rom. 5:8); “[He] gave himself for our sins” (Gal. 1:4); “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Eph. 5:2), are just some of the verses that could be quoted. Yet it is equally clear that Christ rose for those who trust in Him, too. Without Christ’s resurrection, our resurrection is impossible. Without our resurrection, Christ’s resurrection is meaningless.
Christ’s resurrection is unique because no one else has defeated death in the way that He did, and that will always be true. At the moment, Christ’s resurrection is also unique because no-one else has this glorified resurrection body. But that will not always be true, because we will become like Him: ‘For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when He comes, those who belong to Him.’ (1 Cor. 15:22-23)
How can this happen? How can one man’s resurrection bring about a resurrection for others? It is because He died on behalf of others. He took the punishment of all who trust in Him when He died. He fought on our behalf, and that means His tremendous victory is for us too!
Do you remember the story of David and Goliath? Goliath was a representative of the Philistine army, and in 1 Samuel 17 he demands that Israel sends a representative to fight. ‘If he is able to fight and kill me, we will become your subjects; but if I overcome him and kill him, you will become our subjects and serve us.’ It was David who became that representative, but the people had to stand behind him. They had to trust him, because if David was to fail, then together with him they would suffer the consequences. Of course David did not fail, and his victory over Goliath meant that all who put their faith in him shared in that victory. The same is true of Christ. Those who choose to put their faith in Christ will share in His victory over death. They too will be resurrected in Him. It is no wonder we describe the resurrection as glorious!
The implications of the resurrection
Facing death is no easy task even for those of us who understand that death has been defeated. Facing the death of a loved one is harder still. Perhaps more than anyone else, the Christian understands the tragedy of death, this terrible intrusion into God’s created world. For the Christian too, death brings grief, pain, and loss. There should never be platitudes at something as solemn. Yet despite all this, the Christian is unique in that he can also see the death of death. He is unlike those who see death as normal, and those who see death as something to be avoided at all costs. Instead, he can look his foe squarely in the eye, recognizing it for what it is: a terrible, yet crucially, a defeated enemy.
Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? …thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.
(1 Cor. 15:55-58)
1) Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Leicester: Inter-varsity Press, 1998), ed. by Leyland Ryken et. al., pg 198.
2) The Resurrection of the Son of God (London: SPCK, 2003), N T Wright, pp 727–8.