The Bible has ‘many convincing proofs' (Acts 1:3, NIV) of the resurrection of Jesus, but what does it mean?
The Bible's first answer is that Jesus ‘was declared to be the Son of God in power … by his resurrection from the dead' (Romans 1:4). His resurrection did not make Jesus the Son of God, as he has always been so; it proved that he was. It was a declaration of his deity. It showed him to be everything he claimed to be. Before Jesus died his deity had been ‘veiled' by his humanity, so that, in spite of his character, his teaching and his miracles, he was in many ways no different from others. His resurrection changed everything, and his divine power over death proved that he was exactly who he claimed to be. When he invited a disciple (ever since known as ‘Doubting Thomas') to examine the wounds caused by his crucifixion so as to confirm that he had indeed risen, Thomas was convinced and cried out, ‘My Lord and my God!' (John 20:28).
Yet his resurrection also proved that his death was not a defeat but a glorious victory. About a year before his death three of his disciples were given a glimpse of his divine glory and Jesus ‘spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem' (see Luke 9:28). Nobody speaks of ‘accomplishing' their death, but Jesus did. His death did not conclude his life; it crowned it. Although he was crucified ‘by the hands of lawless men', his death was ‘according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God' (Acts 2:23). Far from being something over which God had no control, or a knee-jerk reaction to an unforeseen crisis, it was something he had planned ‘before the foundation of the world' (1 Peter 1:20).
This explains why, as he was dying, Jesus cried out, ‘It is finished' (John 19:30). This was not a terrified cry of defeat, but a triumphant cry of victory. It meant ‘mission accomplished', not ‘mission abandoned'. Immediately prior to his arrest and execution he told his disciples, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified,' and went on to say, ‘for this purpose I have come to this hour' John 12:23). In his death he achieved exactly what God the Father had sent him into the world to do (see John 17:4). Death did not annihilate him; it glorified him in what it achieved.
But how can we be sure of this? How do we know the price Jesus paid was accepted and the debt paid? Many years ago in Britain there were ‘debtors' prisons', where those who could not pay what they owed were held under arrest. If someone had agreed to stand as a guarantor for the debtor and the debtor could not be found, the guarantor could be jailed in his place. If you had been the debtor and had left the country owing a large sum of money, your guarantor would have been jailed until the debt was cleared. If you returned and saw your guarantor walking the street as a free man you would know that the debt you had incurred had been paid in full on your behalf.
The illustration is not perfect, but the main point is clear. Jesus was ‘imprisoned' by death on behalf of those in whose place he was acting, but when he had paid sin's penalty in full, ‘God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him' (Acts 2:24, NIV). The one who paid the debt was released from the prison of death. In the original language used, Jesus' last cry, ‘It is finished', is just one word — tetelestai — a word that was often written across a bill when it had been paid in full. His resurrection is all the proof we need that those in whose place he died can never be asked to pay sin's debt again. As the twentieth-century American theologian Donald Grey Barnhouse put it, ‘The resurrection of Christ is our receipted bill.' The person in whose place Jesus died can never be asked to pay the bill again.