Last week we began this two part series on the descent and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. However, it ought to be a three part series, in fact, for the descent, resurrection, and ascension are all part of the same theme: The exaltation of the Person of Christ. While the Cross is the victory over the powers of Satan and the power of sin, the resurrection and ascension are God’s vindication of his Son. But then why include his descent into that category? Surely his descent into Hades is more closely linked to his death upon the cross, as we saw last week, for it fulfils the same themes as the atonement. Yes, this is true. But we must remember that the entire Easter narrative is part of the same theme: the conquering of sin, death, and the devil. Last week we saw Jesus proclaiming his victory over sin by suffering the torments of hell upon the cross in judgment on our behalf, and over Satan by descending into hell and not being held by death. This week we will see how by his resurrection he proclaims his victory over death itself, the great enemy brought about by sin, and through this how he ushers in the new creation.
Jesus’ victory over the power of death
Although Martin Luther believed that the article upon which the church stands or falls is justification by faith, according to Paul it really is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. J.I. Packer writes, “Had Jesus not risen, but stayed dead, the bottom would drop out of Christianity…” But what sort of resurrection are we talking about? Was it physical or spiritual? What did the early Christians believe? In a massive 750+ page scholarly defence of the physical resurrection of Jesus from the dead, N.T. Wright opens by stating, “it has become accepted within much New Testament scholarship that the earliest Christians did not think of Jesus as having been bodily raised from the dead; Paul is regularly cited as the chief witness for what people routinely call a more ‘spiritual’ point of view. This is so misleading (scholars do not like to say that their colleagues are plain wrong, but ‘misleading’ is of course our code for the same thing) and yet so widely spread that it has taken quite a lot of digging to uproot the weed, and quite a lot of careful sowing to plant the seed of what, I hope, is the historically grounded alternative.” I can only refer to the work itself for anyone interested in the subject, but here I will put forward a defence in light of what the Creed affirms, and then what Jesus’ resurrection means for us.
Jesus was raised bodily
When the Creed affirms, “On the third day he rose again,” it is not referring to some spiritual resurrection from the dead, for at the moment of death Jesus would have been in a spiritual resurrection! Rather, what the Creed most emphatically affirms, along with the apostolic teaching on the subject, is that Jesus rose physically from the dead. This was, after all, the testimonies of the early disciples, which was reflected in the writing of the gospels. Jesus appeared in bodily form to many people who knew him well (1 Corinthians 15:1-11); in his resurrected state he ate food (Luke 24:41-43), he had people touch him and feel his body (John 20:27-29; 1 John 1:1-3); Jesus taught and gave instructions (Luke 24:13-35; Matthew 28:16-20; Acts 1:6-8). On the basis of these appearance, Wright argues against three incorrect explanations for this phenomena:
Resuscitation, not resurrection.
One of the objections given to the historical resurrection account of Jesus, is the seeming ignorance of the ancient people to be able to medically determine whether or not someone was officially dead. For this reason, they argue, Jesus was probably not dead, and was resuscitated later. However, Wright points out that “Even if the Roman soldiers, seasoned professionals when it came to killing, had unaccountably allowed Jesus to be taken down from the cross alive, and even if, after a night of torture and flogging and a day of crucifixion, he had managed to survive and emerge from the tomb, there is now way he could have convinced anyone that he had come through death and out the other side. He would have had to be helped through, at best, a long, slow recuperation.” In this sense it would have been impossible for Jesus to be vibrantly present three days later, teaching, eating, and walking about.
Some have speculated that the traumatic experience that the disciples went through after their hopes in Jesus' mission had been dashed by his death, lead to what professional sociologists call “cognitive dissonance.” In other words, they argue that the disciples so believed in Jesus and his mission that they lived in denial and continued to talk about him as if he were still alive. Wright points out that “Nobody was expecting anyone, least of all a Messiah, to rise from the dead. A crucified Messiah was a failed Messiah.” This comes through strongly in the gospel where, rather than speaking about Jesus as if he were still alive, the disciples had locked themselves away for fear that the same fate may befall them (John 20:19). These disciples were not living in denial. They literally thought that this was all over, as reflected by one of the statements by some disciples who said, “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21).
Ancient superstitious beliefs
Another argument that Wright proves is unconvincing is the widely held idea that ancient people were naturally superstitious, and that there were many accounts of various dying and rising gods in the ancient world that Jesus' followers merely adopted as their own. However Wright argues, “But – even supposing Jesus’s very Jewish followers knew any traditions like those pagan ones – nobody in those religions ever supposed it actually happened to individual humans.” Jewish monotheism was so strict, that even Paul initially opposed the church’s teaching about Jesus with the belief that this was leading other Jewish people into idolatry (see Acts 22:3-5). It was not common for Judaism to hold such beliefs, and even Paul had to have a blinding experience encounter with Jesus before he believed this was true (Acts 9).
Ok, so perhaps, if there was a resurrection, it wouldn’t have been falsified for the above reasons. But how can we know that, historically speaking, there ever was a resurrection? Gary Habermas gives ten historical facts which “are agreed to by virtually all scholars (even of differing schools of thought) as historical facts, of which we will only mention 6:
While these historical evidences may not convince all people as to the veracity of the New Testament claims, they nonetheless are agreed upon by scholars that an explanation must be given as to why this happened. It does not do justice to merely dismiss ancient folk as superstitious, for as Wright has convincingly argued in The Resurrection of the Son of God, ancient people were not as superstitious as we might think. People didn’t think that dead people rising are normal occurrences. Rather, we even have the episode in the gospel narratives of Thomas, who would not believe that Jesus had risen unless he could verify it himself (John 20:24-29). The only logical explanation that we have is that the early disciples really did believe that Jesus actually rose from the dead, and had appeared to them in physical form for numerous days after his resurrection, and as we have seen above, this wasn’t because they were living in denial! But the question we have to ask next is, what does Jesus’ resurrection mean?
The meaning of Jesus’ resurrection
But the resurrection is not just something that happened in history alone. It is an event that is laden with meaning. Michael Bird brings out four significant things that we can know as a result of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.
When the Creed affirms Jesus' bodily resurrection from the dead, it is affirming no less than his physical resurrection, but also much more. Because Jesus has been raised from the dead, we can know with certainty that the victory has been won on our behalf. This is what we discussed in the past two weeks. However, it also gives us courage in the present to know that we now can live a new life in Christ, and that we live for a kingdom that will endure. We therefore are to pattern our lives according to this kingdom, and not fall trap to the lie that the present world is all there is. As Christians, we live out the resurrection by our conduct, allowing the resurrection of Jesus to determine our ethics, our moral standard, and, though we build in this present world, we ultimately are to build the kingdom of Christ!
 Packer, J.I. 1994. Growing in Christ. Wheaton: Crossway Books, pg. 59.
 Wright, N.T. 2003. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, pg. xvii.
 See Wright, N.T. 2006. Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, pg. 111-114.
 Habermas, G. 1980. The Resurrection of Jesus: An Apologetic. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, pg. 33-38.
 Bird, M.F. 2016. What Christians Ought to Believe. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, pg. 155-158.
I am the pastor/elder of a small suburban church on the outskirts of Cape Town. I enjoy coffee, theology, and fresh air. We are grateful to have all three in abundance.