Bear up, and don’t give way to angry grief;
Nothing will come of sorrowing for your son,
Nor will you raise him up before you die.
(Homer, The Iliad, 24:549–51)
This line from Homer’s Iliad where Achilles speaks with Priam about the death of his son Hector sums up what the ancient world thought about resurrection. Namely, it doesn’t happen.
One of the many parallels between the Greco-Roman people of the 1st Century and people of our own century is that the idea of a person coming back from the dead — when they are really dead — is preposterous. Every person in the ancient world knew that when you were dead, you were dead. Part of the mythology of greco-roman world was that once you entered Hades — you had to stay. Even the gods of Greece, if they ate the food of Hades, they were required to make it their home.
There are myths of heroes entering Hades to rescue a loved one only to fail and remain lost in that realm themselves. While Euripides wrote a play about Heracles fighting Thanatos – the god of death — and freeing Alcestis (Ἄλκηστις) from Hades — it was a play — and wondrous and impossible things happen in fiction — for the ancients as much as for us. Today it may be about alien visitors or inter galactic space flight — but essentially it is the same– ideas that exist only as a distant hope among a people who know the difference between fiction and reality.
We are not unlike the ancients. In our world, we all know when we die, we die. Every one of us knows that the great adventure of life is an adventure with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
For people in our time and culture, death is the ultimate ending.
Christianity teaches a very different idea. Christians have believed from the very beginning that Jesus rose from the dead. It is an idea that is not natural in the modern world. In fact, it is opposed to the nature of the modern worldview. This is why it is important to start by saying that the resurrection actually happened.
The Resurrection — It really happened!
When we survey the New Testament, we see over and over again references to this core belief. Paul puts the Resurrection of Jesus at the very centre of our faith. In 1 Corinthians he says:
If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:19, NIV)
For Paul, the resurrection of Jesus was lynchpin that held together every other idea about the Christian hope. Without it everything fell apart.
In Acts 2, we see Peter speaking to a very large crowd and his words are as clear as they are barbed for his audience.
“This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But 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 2:23–24, NIV)
In John’s Gospel, the reality of the resurrection of Jesus is made clear in chapter 21, when Jesus meets his disciples on the beach. It is a strange story for a modern reader — we get it when Jesus reinstates Peter — but the whole breakfast thing is a bit odd. To an ancient Jewish reader, the meaning is clear. It was a pervasive belief that spirits or ghosts do not eat physical food. So when Jesus shares a meal of bread and fish with them, he is broadcasting that he is in the physical world. That he has a physical body. They may have started by thinking they “saw a ghost” but with a meal — it was clear to everyone that Jesus was actually there in flesh and blood and that the Resurrection was real.
“Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.” (John 21:12–14, NIV)
Since the Gospels and Paul make such big deal about this we need to be clear about it. We can’t afford to misunderstand or avoid something that is so important to both Jesus and the Apostles.
The Resurrection: Let’s be clear
It did not take long after Jesus rose from the dead for alternative stories to begin circulating. In a way, that’s to be expected. When we hear something so out of the ordinary that we consider it impossible, we try to explain it in different ways. The first alternative explanation was by Jesus’ own disciples. When the women who saw him at the tomb told them what they had seen, they figured the women making it up — perhaps overcome by grief.
11 But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. 12 Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened. (Luke 24:11–12, NIV)
Only Peter took the claim seriously and ran to the tomb to see for himself. The others — even though they knew Jesus and witnessed his miracles — were content trust in their own understanding of how things work. But Jesus challenges everything we know about how things works.
One of things things I’ve heard and read over the years is that the Resurrection of Jesus was spiritual — that his spirit went back to God but his body stayed dead like dead bodies normally do. Apparently this kind of spiritual resurrection is more acceptable to some people. I’m sure the Corinthians were hoping for to be true — then they could hang on to that Greek idea that the human spirit is trapped inside a flesh and blood body waiting to be released. I know that’s what they were teaching and that’s why Paul wrote a letter to correct their thinking.
It was that body-spirit dualism that allowed the men to keep visiting the local prostitutes — I mean it was just a bodily act and it’s the spirit that matters. It was also the reason those in Corinth who took the idea of holiness seriously began abstain from normal sexual relations within their marriages and once again Paul had to correct them that this was not a good thing. Anytime we separate body and spirit – we misunderstand creation. God created us as physical beings. God saves us as physical beings and he restores us as physical beings. Resurrection is connected to creation and is connected to God’s plan for us.
Jesus raised people from the dead — he raised his friend Lazarus (Jn 11:1-44) he raised the daughter of Jairus (Mk 5:21ff), he raised the only son of a widow from Nain (Lk 7:11–17). He raised them from death — but they died again. These were resuscitations — Lazarus after three days of being dead and the young boy long enough after that his body had been prepared for burial — clearly miraculous but these were different than the kind of event Jesus experienced. Jesus rose from the dead and did not die again. He experienced a different kind of resurrection.
When Jesus rose from the dead, he made a point of having breakfast with his disciples to demonstrate that it was a physical-flesh-and-blood kind of resurrection. It would be one thing if they misunderstood because of their culture and understanding, but Jesus made a point of sharing a morning meal with them. He made a point of showing them it was more than a spiritual resurrection. He even tells Thomas to reach out and touch where the nails and spear had injured his body. Thomas did not do it, but the invitation was real. Jesus resurrection was not just a spiritual resurrection but a whole-person resurrection – Physical/Spiritual – the whole person raised from death in a new way that no one had seen before.
The Jews condemned him, the Romans soldiers killed him — and they were very competent at killing — and God raised him up.
The Resurrection — It Changes Everything
Changes how we understand all of life – it challenges everything at the Worldview level. The prime reason for this is that the resurrection validates Jesus. It validates his fulfilling ancient prophecy. It validates his teachings, it validates the “locus of power” behind all of his miracles, it validates Jesus’ understanding of his own death.
“The resurrection completes the inauguration of God’s kingdom. . . . It is the decisive event demonstrating the God’s kingdom really has been launched on earth as it is in heaven… The message of Easter is that God’s new world has been unveiled in Jesus Christ and that you’re now invited to belong to it.” (N.T. Wright)
The Resurrection of Jesus Christ simply changes everything.
2017 Brent Hudson