Posts Tagged ‘resurrection’

empty tombTHE EASTER EVENTS

So many of our gospel presentations today are content to end the story with Jesus’ death, then switch their focus to our repsonse. But it is notable that none of the four apostolic gospel presentations is willing stop there. They all press on to reach their climax and denoument at the resurrection.

Jesus, having announced his intention to live out Israel’s prophetic hope of resurrection, then goes and does it. He allows himself to be cast out and killed. He bears Israel’s exile in crucifixion, and then undergoes their resurrection. The tomb is found empty, and his disciples begin to speak of ‘what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands’ (1 John 1).

In the context of Jesus’ ministry the meaning of his rising is clear: he has entered into the new age, and done it on Israel’s behalf. ‘We have seen it … and declare to you that the age-to-come life that was with the Father…has now been revealed to us’ (1 John 1). Now all his people can enter the new age also, restored to God and to their inheritance as his people.

In other words, Jesus’ resurrection was this sort of resurrection: an eschatological event of epoch-making proportions. And the salvation it achieved was this sort of salvation. At his death Jesus closed off the path of sin that humanity had been travelling since Adam (see Post 3). Now at his rising he achieves a way forward for mankind, a future: “In Christ shall all be made alive.”

THE APOSTOLIC WITNESS

In the earliest apostolic preaching, it was the resurrection which established Jesus as redeemer and judge of Israel:

“God has exalted him to his right hand as Leader and Saviour that he might give repentance to Israel and release from sins.”  Acts 5:31

The Jewish title for this saviour/leader was Messiah. Israel expected this Messiah would be a new David-figure, the king sent by God to bring the nation back from exile. Peter, after describing how Jesus was murdered, announces to the crowd at Pentecost that God has appointed Jesus to this kingly office.

“David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying, ‘He was not abandoned to Hades…’. Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”   Acts 2:31, 36

What Peter is announcing, of course, is Jesus’ resurrection. In his view this was quite simply Messiah’s coronation – an  enthronement which secures blessing for his people. For now Messiah is ushering in the age of the Spirit, bringing Israel release from their old captivity and return to live in God’s presence in the new kingdom:

“Be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for release from your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”          Acts 2:38

Paul shares this view of resurrection-as-enthronement: at the opening of his master-epistle, to the Romans, he uses another traditional title for the Davidic king: son of God.

…the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was appointed to be son of God with power according to the Holy Spirit by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through who we have received grace.          Romans 1:3-5

He rose to reign in the Spirit-filled new life of God’s kingdom. But because he does this as Israel’s leader, he opens up that new existence for the whole nation.

In other words, Jesus’ resurrection is being shared with his people. They become a resurrection community enjoying the blessings of the new age, here and now. Or, to use Isaianic terms, enjoying salvation:

By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead… Although you have not seen him, you love him… you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are already receiving the goal of your faith: salvation for human people.      1 Peter 1:3-9

THE CHURCHES

The NT epistles are written with the express purpose of helping this new community grasp and live out its resurrection life to the full together.

But God, who is abundant in mercy…made us alive with the Messiah even though we were dead in trespasses. …He also raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus… For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them…So I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle… Ephesians 2, 4.

Of course the key-word here is ‘so’: their community life springs out of the reality of resurrection. All Paul’s ethical instruction is given on this same basis: the people are already part of this resurrection community. Indeed it only makes sense with that as its premise:

No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.   Romans 6:13

The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never!    1 Corinthians 6:13-15.

He died for all, so that those who live might live no longer to themselves, but to him who died and was raised for them… So if anyone is in Christ, new creation! – the old has passed away; see, new things!      2 Corinthians 5:14-17

This view of the Christian communities is not unique to Paul but common to all the apostolic writers.  Their letters are written to encourage and admonish resurrection-gatherings:

Through Jesus you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God. Now you have purified yourselves by obedience to this truth that leads to genuine brotherly love. So love one another deeply from the heart. For you have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring Word of God.  1 Peter 1:22

We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love remains in death.  1 John 3:14

The letters to the churches hardly ever mention Jesus’ resurrection without linking it to the present life-experience of the recipients. The two things – his resurrection life and theirs – are not treated as two but as one and the same thing.

In summary, Jesus’ expectation had been realised: in his resurrection as Messiah, he had raised up Spirit-filled communities which began living the new life of the age to come, even in the present. Those far away had released from sin and brought near, to enjoy favour with God and peace with each other. Isaiah’s ‘salvation’, Ezekiel’s ‘resurrection from the dead’, or Jesus’ ‘kingdom of God’ (see Post 4) – whichever name you want to call it by, it had arrived.

CONCLUSION: A Better Theory of the Atonement

We have suggested that Jesus achieved two things at the Cross: a death and a resurrection. Both of which we needed. Satisfaction Theory finds little atoning value in the resurrection: how can rising from the dead satisfy anything? But now that we have told the story the apostles were always telling, it should be apparent why they place the greater share of the theological weight on the resurrection. It was essential that our sinful human flesh be put to death, and Jesus accomplished that. But this was really just the ground-clearing. The real goal was the building which God had planned in its place: the kingdom of God.

The death of Christ was God’s ‘No’ to sin and sinful mankind. But that was not his final word. God’s ultimate word to us was given in the resurrection: and it was ‘Yes’. This is why all four gospels push on beyond Good Friday, to land on Easter Sunday.

THEOLOGICAL AND BIBLICAL-THEOLOGICAL PAY-OFF

What have we done? We’ve reconnected the doctrine of justification with the gospel story. Simple as that. Where does that leave us, theologically? What’s the payoff of this approach to justification? Does it help us practically? A few suggestions.

1. Seen in this light, justification becomes a thoroughly Trinitarian act. One of the disturbing things about the classic evangelical exposition of ‘justfication’ is the relative absence of the Holy Spirit in the whole matter. Justification is seen as an act of God the Father, imputing righteousness to us for the sake of his Son. The Spirit has little role here. And since this is ‘the doctrine on which the church stands or falls’[1], ‘the hinge on which the whole faith turns,’[2] the result is a dangerously non-Trinitarian centre to modern evangelicalism.

But once the doctrine of justification is restored to its proper place as an explanation of Jesus’ resurrection, all this changes. Justification is clearly seen as the work of the Father by his Spirit towards his Son, proclaiming over him the verdict of ‘life’. ‘He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the Spirit’ (1 Peter 3:18). Our justification is likewise understood to be our sharing in this positive verdict, when we are united to Christ by the Spirit and receive the new life of the Spirit in him.

2. The apostolic view of justification cuts through our evangelical debates about imputation. We need to remember that the imputing of righteousness is the act of a judge when he declares one party to be in the right; so then this imputation is equivalent to justification, simply another way of saying the same thing (Rom. 4:5-7). Every judge imputes righteousness (and guilt): that is his job. Everyone who believes that God is the judge, believes in imputation by definition. So much of our confusion over imputation comes because we lose sight of the courtroom imagery which gives meaning to the word, and overplay the idea of abstract accounts into which ‘righteousness credit’ is placed by God. The forensic setting of the term is easily obscured in much of our justification talk. Justification is not primarily a mercantile image.

But once it is grasped that imputing righteousness is a declarative act of the court, the question, whose righteousness is imputed, becomes a strange one. It is difficult to give the question any clear meaning in a judicial context. Righteousness is a status created by the court, it is the court’s righteousness if it is anyone’s. A more natural and helpful question, the one frequently asked in the New Testament, is whose justification? Who is the object of God’s justifying verdict? The apostles’ answer is, Christ. It is to Christ that God imputes righteousness. God declared him righteous because of his righteous life. Our justification need not be seen as a separate verdict given to us on the basis of some transfer of merit. It is simpler and closer to NT thought to speak of our sharing in the one verdict given to Jesus at his resurrection. Righteousness is imputed to us because it was imputed to him.

To put it another way, the only person justified on the basis of Christ’s righteousness was Christ himself. The apostles do not teach that we share his righteousness: they teach that we share his justification. So we can stop arguing about the details of imputation.

3. This Gospel-based view of justification also helps reveal the essential unity between Paul and Jesus on a central gospel issue. Paul’s teaching at this point is in no way a departure from that of the Gospels. Much modern scholarship is on entirely the wrong track here. On the contrary, Paul’s doctrine of justification, like all his teachings, is nothing but an explanation of the meaning of the gospel events – or, if you like, it is his working-out of the significance of his encounter with the risen Jesus on the Damascus road.[3]

In other words, we are left with one gospel, not two. That’s a big achievement. For a long time we’ve put up with two gospels. One is a story about Jesus, including past, present and future elements. The other is a set of ideas, teachings, or propositions about salvation, which we derive from Paul’s epistles. The two have little overlap: they are very different sorts of thing. A narrative view of justification reunites these two, so we have just one gospel again. That’s enough gospels, don’t you think?

[1] Luther

[2] Calvin

[3] on which see Pannenburg, Jesus, God and Man

Evidence That Demands a Verdict, 2

Poking around among evangelical books and websites that deal with the resurrection of Jesus is a pretty disappointing business. The things the NT has to say about Jesus’ resurrection are routinely ignored. The significance of the resurrection is rarely explained from a biblical theology standpoint. The significance of the resurrection is rarely explained at all. There is a strong assertion that it matters, but little on why it matters.

What is the issue that dominates evangelical discussion of the resurrection? Proofs. Historicity is the obsession. On the web, over 90% of the space seems to be given to this question. Can we believe it?  Is it ridiculous? Etc. The resurrection is largely an apologetics issue.

Where significance is assigned to the resurrection, it is nearly always viewed as a proof. Jesus’ resurrection proves something else about him. His divine identity. Or maybe that his death was ‘successful’. That sort of thing. It doesn’t have theological content of its own, but it guarantees the truth of other things that do have such content.

So really, we’re spending our time on this giving proofs for something which is itself a proof of something else. That’s a few steps removed from the realities involved, isn’t it.

How much space does the NT give to proofs for the resurrection? Very, very little. Even in the preaching in Acts, there’s almost nothing. ‘We are witnesses’ – that’s about as close as it gets. But Paul, of course was not a witness, so he doesn’t bother with this ‘witness’ theme much at all (one mention in Acts). But ‘we are witnesses’ is not adduced primarily as a proof. It is not answering the question ‘how can we know these things really happened.’ True, it does encourage confidence in the message, but it serves a wider function. For one thing, it identifies the nature of Jesus resurrection as something physical and concrete, that could be seen. Also, it identifies the apostles as the ‘ones chosen’ (Acts 13) for the job of announcing Jesus. What they have to say about Jesus is uniquely authoritative. For they are the witnesses.

But there is no attempt to take the ‘proof’ angle on this. No guided tours of the empty tomb. No Exhibit A: the leftover graveclothes. People are simply invited to trust the apostles’ announcement.

In fact, throughout the NT, Jesus’ resurrection is not argued for, not defended or backed up. It is announced: boldly, joyfully declared. It is unpacked, dwelt upon, taught about, celebrated, explained, linked to the OT scriptures. We are told why it is important (1 Cor 15). We are not told why we should believe it, beyond this basic assertion of the witnesses. In other words, for the apostles the resurrection is largely a theological matter, rather than a narrowly apologetic concern.

The resurrection is sometimes treated as a sign or proof of something else about Jesus, especially in John’s Gospel. But this is only one angle on it out of many in the NT. And certainly not the main one. Paul isn’t really interested in this angle. Rather, the resurrection is loaded with its own theological content. There’s plenty of that to chew on, which Paul does at length.

In summary, there is a high degree of discontinuity between apostolic talk about Jesus’ resurrection, and evangelical talk about it today. We are not capturing the apostles’ witness or message. We’re not even trying. We’re off doing our own thing with the resurrection, scratching our own intellectual itches. The resurrection has been highjacked by the apologetics people, and doesn’t seem to be available for discussion outside that framework.

This amounts to a distortion of the gospel message in the evangelical tradition, at the point which biblical theology suggests should be the heart of the matter. In fact, we don’t seem to have taken on board the insights of Biblical theology at all, after a whole century. This is concerning.

Check out your favourite intro to Christianity course. What does it say about the resurrection, beyond apologetic defence of it? Is there any theological content given to it?

I took a look at 2 Ways to Live, and I’m pleased to say that it’s better than most at this point. It manages some content for the resurrection. The resurrection means that Jesus is now Lord and King over the world. That’s pretty good, as far as it goes. It’s narrowly focussed on the issue of rule. But it’s a good start! And at least they say something about what the resurrection means! Most evangelicals don’t manage even that.

In the prayer to pray, you say

Thank you for sending your son to die for me that I may be forgiven.
Thank you that he rose from the dead to give me new life.
Please forgive me and change me, that I may live with Jesus as my ruler. Amen.

That’s pretty good, isn’t it. It responds to Jesus’ death and resurrection, twice each. Hints of the new-age transformation which Jesus’ resurrection brings, even. There’s biblical theology shaping this, even though it doesn’t come through heaps clearly or richly.

Christianity Explored, by contrast, is very poor. In the prayer of response in Tice’s book, you say

I now understand who Jesus is. I understand that when he died on the cross, he was being punished in my place, so I could be forgiven and have eternal life. I gratefully accept that gracious gift.

And that’s it. That’s ‘who Jesus is’ – the one who died. The resurrection does not function at all. There’s nothing to respond to in it. Seems it plays no part in ‘that gracious gift’. The CE website page on Jesus’ resurrection sticks to historicity, issues – there’s not really any meaning given to the resurrection.

That’s a serious distortion. But it’s perfectly in line with how evangelicals everywhere are always presenting Jesus.  Alpha is worse again. In reviews of Christianity Explored, I haven’t seen any evangelicals criticise this aspect of the course. Apparently people are pretty happy…

Don’t you think it’s time we evangelicals repented of these distortions, and let ourselves be challenged and guided by Biblical Theology? Because we know where it would guide us to: to the apostolic gospel – centred as it is around what God has done in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

Relocating the resurrection

Posted: April 24, 2013 by J in Bible, Theology
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Something’s happened to the resurrection of Jesus in modern times, and Reformed people are partly responsible.

Here’s the story: In the late c.19th – early c.20th scholars like Vos and Ridderbos pioneered a new way of reading Scripture: they read it as a theological story. The message (or theology) they found in Scripture was the message of the Bible’s narrative, rather than the more abstract and propositional theology which had prevailed in the Western Church up till then. This new approach came to be called Biblical Theology. In Biblical theology the links between things are first and foremost narrative links, rather than logical ones. Biblical theology tied our understanding of the Christian faith more closely to the history of redemption, or salvation history as it is often called. I.e., the story of the OT and NT.

The content of Christian theology was not much disturbed or challenged by this new approach. But the shape and structure of theology was. In fact, Biblical theology presents us with a changed theological landscape: all the old elements, but in new places and relations to each other.

In particular one category has emerged as more important than previously realised: the eschatological. The arrival of the future kingdom of God has come into the spotlight in a new way as central to the apostolic message. And one event has emerged as central to that eschatology, and thus central to the apostolic gospel: the resurrection of Jesus.

For most of the history of the church, Jesus has been primarily connected with the event of the crucifixion. Since the 4th century or earlier, the Cross, not the empty tomb, was the standard symbol of Christian faith. The RC church uses the crucifix – the cross with Christ hanging on it. The resurrection was important – but the weight of our theology fell on the death. Jesus was the one who died.

Biblical theology has challenged that structure. Jesus’ death is vitally important, but the event most connected with Jesus, the event uniquely distinctive for the Christian faith, is his resurrection. This was the event the apostles preached, which brought the Christian church to birth (see Acts).  God ‘gave us [his church] new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.’ (1 Peter 1). The resurrection of the dead is one of the ‘foundations’ mentioned by the writer to the Hebrews (ch.6). It is what one must believe to be saved: ‘if you…believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead you will be saved’ (Rom. 10:9). Indeed it is the meaning of the most basic early Christian confession: ‘Jesus is Lord’. To say Jesus is Lord was to say with Peter that God has made Jesus Lord by raising him from death to his right hand (Acts 2:33-36). It is a resurrection confession. The resurrection of Christ was such a defining event for the early church that they began to meet on the Sunday, instead of the Jewish Saturday. For Sunday is Resurrection Day.

How does resurrection come to hold centre stage in NT Theology? It’s like this: biblical eschatology divides history, not into a series of dispensations or covenants, but into two: the old age and the new. The old age is characterised by what Paul calls ‘flesh’: corrupt humanity, distorted creation-order, and above all, death. The old age is symbolised by its founder or father, Adam. “In Adam all die” (1 Corinthians 15:22).

The new age is characterised instead by what Paul calls ‘Spirit’: a new mode of living in which God fills everything and glorifies and empowers his whole creation: “The earth will be filled of the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14). Above all, the new age is the age of resurrection, the age of life. It too is summed up by its founder or pioneer, Jesus. “As in Adam all die, so in Christ will all be made alive.” And it is Jesus’ resurrection that inaugurates the new age.

So strong is this connection between Adam, the old age and death on the one hand, and Christ, the new age and resurrection on the other, that this can be called the large-scale story of the Scriptures. If you pan out far enough to get the big picture of redemption history, the two big events since the creation are: Death – in Adam, and then Resurrection – in Jesus. This is just what Paul does in Romans 5:

Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.  Romans 5:18.

In fact the Old Testament is full of images of death, the most powerful being the ‘exile’ theme.  Whereas the New Testament is saturated with the language and imagery of resurrection. There are significantly more NT references to Jesus’ resurrection and new life than there are to his crucifixion and blood. And most of the references to Jesus’ death are immediately followed by reference to his resurrection.

This is not to say that the death of Christ is displaced from the heart of things. It is still central to our faith and confession: ‘Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures’ is one of the two ‘things of first importance’ (1 Corinthians 15). It still carries core theological weight. But in the structure of the apostles’ thought about Jesus, his resurrection gets more prominence and weight. It is the great new achievement of Christ, the turning point in the whole story of redemption, the great eschatological moment at which the new age arrives. So after the verse just quoted on the death of Jesus, Paul goes on to spend fifty four verses on the other thing of first importance: Jesus’ resurrection. Get the idea?

Jesus is first and foremost the Risen One. And his Father is ‘the one who raised up Jesus from the dead.’

So then, for Christians to live by the sign of the Cross could be considered misleading: the empty tomb, though harder to hang around your neck, would perhaps be a better symbol to reflect the shape of biblical theology.