The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is a central tenet of the Christian faith. One of the earliest creeds (concise summaries of Christian beliefs), the nicene creed, declares that Jesus "for us … and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures."
Resurrection is often misunderstood as merely a metaphor for a spiritual afterlife. But as prominent New Testament scholar NT Wright explains, the word "resurrection" had a very specific meaning in the ancient world:
"Resurrection" denoted a new embodied life which would follow whatever "life after death" there might be. "Resurrection" was, by definition, not the existence into which someone might (or might not) go immediately upon death; it was not a disembodied "heavenly" life; it was a further stage, out beyond all that. It was not a redescription or redefinition of death. It was death's reversal.
For Christians, resurrection isn't just a way of expressing a spiritual truth. We believe that in the first century something happened that was completely unique in human history up to that point: a man actually, physically died; he was buried in a tomb for three days; and then he actually, physically was raised back to life, never to die again.
Without the resurrection, there would be no Christianity, as the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians: "If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. . . . If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins" (1 Corinthians 15:14). Paul saw the resurrection as the lynchpin of the Christian faith.
Put bluntly, if Jesus Christ claimed to be the Savior but remains dead in a tomb after a brutal crucifixion, his claims were, and are, meaningless. However, if Jesus did rise from death, then his claims to be God, his bearing the penalty of our sins in our place on the cross, and his teachings about the kingdom of God and life after death are vindicated.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus predicted numerous times that he would be killed and then rise from the dead.
· As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, "The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day." And they were greatly distressed. (Matthew 17:22)
· "The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised." (Luke 9:22)
· And taking the twelve, [Jesus] said to them, "See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise." (Luke 18:31)
Around 33 A.D., Jesus' prediction came true. He was captured, put through a series of false trials under cover of night, and sentenced to death. He was executed by crucifixion, and when the Roman soldiers had verified that he was dead, he was buried in a nearby tomb, with a heavy stone covering the entrance and a Roman guard posted to ensure no interference with the body. His followers gave up hope. But on the morning of the third day, they returned to find the guards gone, the stone rolled away, and the tomb empty. Soon, Jesus began to show himself to his followers, fully and physically alive again. As Paul records, Jesus showed himself to Peter, to the twelve disciples, and even to hundreds of his followers at a time (1 Corinthians 1:3).
Unlike the pagan religions of the ancient world, Judaism had a belief in bodily resurrection. But it was a resurrection that would occur at the end of time. There was no expectation in Jesus' culture that one man would be resurrected as a precursor to the general resurrection. Even when Jesus himself predicted his own resurrection, his followers were confused. When Jesus was crucified, they were devastated; when he rose from the dead, fully present in flesh-and-blood again, their whole world was changed. Empowered by the belief that Jesus' resurrection signaled the start of a new era of God's kingdom, they went out preaching the good news about what Jesus had accomplished by dying for sins and rising in victory over death.
Jesus' resurrection is the central miracle of his life. In triumphantly rising from death, just as he promised, he vindicated his claim to be the Son of God, sent to deliver the world from sin and death. His resurrection showed that he had successfully paid the penalty required for human sin and had overcome the curse of death that has held humanity in bondage since the Fall.
His resurrection paves the way for all those who trust him to look forward to a resurrection patterned after his. As Paul writes, "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. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive" (1 Corinthians 1:3).
Because Jesus was raised from the dead, Christians live with the hope and expectation that death is not the end for us, because we look forward to being raised like Jesus was and living forever with him.
Justin Holcomb is a pastor at Mars Hill Church and Director of the Resurgence. He is also an adjunct professor of theology at reformed theological seminary. He holds two masters degrees from Reformed Theological Seminary and a PhD from Emory University. Justin and his wife, Lindsey, wrote rid of my disgrace, a re:lit book on gospel hope and healing for sexual assault victims. His edited volume, christian theologies of scripture, explores various views of the authority and nature of Scripture throughout the Christian tradition.
Since 2001, Justin has traveled to southern Sudan to teach chaplains in the Sudanese People's Liberation Army. Justin and Lindsey founded and direct mosaic, which is a non-profit organization that initiates projects in southern Sudan and Uganda that serves those who are suffering in these areas.
Follow Justin on Twitter @justinholcomb.