Resurrection of Jesus

April 21, 2019

The Reality of the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth

Bishop Timothy Whitaker

Bishop Timothy Whitaker (Photo credit: Kathy Gilbert / UMNS)

Timothy W. Whitaker is a Retired United Methodist Church bishop who served the Florida Area.

UM Voices is a forum for different voices within the United Methodist Church on pressing issues of denominational concern. UM Voices contributors represent only themselves and not IRD/UMAction. This post was originally shared by Bishop Whitaker in an email. It is reprinted with his permission.

A suggested greeting for the Sunday Service in The United Methodist Book of Worship on Easter Day, the Resurrection of the Lord, is as follows: Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!

This greeting appears in somewhat different forms in modern Easter liturgies, such as the following: Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! It may include an alleluia!, or the exclamation, Christ is risen indeed!, may be repeated following a doxology with the addition, Alleluia!

I do not know the antiquity of this acclamation in liturgies for Pascha or Easter. However, the employment of the word indeed in these responsive verses is derived from Luke 24:34. According to BDAG, the Greek ontos is an adverb meaning really, certainly, in truth. Ontos in Luke 24:34 may be translated as indeed, as in the NRSV: “They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed; and he has appeared to Simon’!” The NRSV follows the tradition of the KJV or Authorized Version of the Church of England in the seventeenth century. Even the New Jerusalem Bible, a version which is not in the tradition of the KJV, translates ontos as indeed. The Common English Bible uses really as does the paraphrase, The Message.

The English word indeed is an adverbial phrase consisting of two words. Originally the phrase was written as in deed, just as we continue today to write or say in very deed. Usage of this phrase can be traced back to the fourteenth century; since the sixteenth century the phrase has been written as one word. The OED defines indeed as meaning “In actual fact, in reality, in truth, really, truly, assuredly, positively.”

The statement in Luke 24:34 is what the apostles and disciples of Jesus in Jerusalem told Cleopas and another disciple who had also encountered the risen Jesus as they were going to a village called Emmaus. Cleopas is usually understood to be the same person as Clopas, the uncle of Jesus–the brother of Jesus’ father Joseph (cf. John 19:25). Clopas’ son Symeon succeeded James the brother of the Lord as the bishop of the church in Jerusalem after James was martyred in 62 C.E. The information about Clopas and Symeon is from Hegesippus, a researcher in Palestine on the family of Jesus, who lived in the generation immediately following that of the apostles and who is quoted by Eusebius, The History of the Church, 4.22.

The significance of the word indeed ought not be overlooked.

The word is a sign that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead was a deed, a happening in space and time, in nature and history.

Because his resurrection was a happening, it cannot be rightly understood as a mere spiritual experience by the apostles and other disciples. In other words, the resurrection of Jesus was an objective reality although, of course, the disciples’ perception of it involves a subjective appropriation. The objective reality of the resurrection of Jesus is affirmed in the early creedal formulary cited by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5:  notice how Paul first states that “he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures” and then adds that “he appeared to Cephas and then to the twelve.” The event of the resurrection first occurred, and then there were appearances or seeings of the risen Christ. There were and could not have been any appearances unless Christ had already been raised from the dead.

The notion of being “raised,” “rising,” or “resurrection” constitutes a metaphor. The metaphor expresses that what happened to Jesus of Nazareth is like rising from sleep. The book of Daniel speaks of resurrection from the dead as being like a rising from sleep. Daniel 12:2 states, “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” Just because “resurrection” is a metaphor does not mean that it was not a real event in nature and history. “Resurrection” is a metaphor because the only way to speak about a transcendent act of God is by using an analogy from human experience. Whatever happened to Jesus was unprecedented and unique. Being something new rather than a part of a series of the same kinds of events, resurrection has to be described in terms of being like something already known, such as an awakening and rising from sleep. This metaphor already existed among the Jews as a way of expressing hope that the righteous dead would live again in the future. When Jesus appeared to his disciples, what had already happened to him was described “in accordance with the scriptures” and thus was called a resurrection, albeit an astonishing resurrection of one man in advance of the general resurrection of the dead in the future.

The language of resurrection makes clear that what happened to Jesus was not mere spiritual survival of death. The witness of the New Testament is emphatic that the risen Jesus was no ghost or apparition. What happened to Jesus was unprecedented and unique. There would have been nothing unique about the disciples having a dream, a vision, or a perception of an apparition of a soul that survived death even though his body lay in its tomb. The idea of soul survival was quite common in Greco-Roman culture, and there were many stories of people experiencing perceptions of apparitions. Therefore the disciples of Jesus would not have considered Jesus’ appearances to them as unprecedented or unique if they were manifestations of Jesus’ mere spiritual survival of death.

The words raised or resurrection must be understood as denoting a bodily new form of being. The very metaphor of resurrection denotes a bodily life after being dead. While resurrection sounds like a mere resuscitation, it is actually a transformation from one bodily form of being to another, superior bodily form of being. As the apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 3:21, “He [our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ] will transform the body of our humiliation [or, our humble bodies] that it may be conformed to the body of his glory [or, his glorious body], by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.”

The bodily resurrection of Jesus signifies that in the future the Creator will transform the entire creation so that there will be a consummation of the divine purposes for all that has been made.

Within this future new creation there will be a place for those who have lived and died as part of the present form of the creation. The resurrection of Jesus was not only for himself, but it was for others. The typical formula to describe what happened to Jesus is not that he was raised “from death,” although that is true, but that he was raised “from the dead.” He is the “first fruits of those who have died,” as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:20. The future resurrection of the dead is corporate, but it is also personal because it entails the raising of particular persons who have died so that they shall be participants in God’s new creation. So then, resurrection of Jesus is not only a cosmic hope, but it is also a personal hope to all who hear and believe in the gospel that is proclaimed.

Often the resurrection of Jesus is called a “miracle.” There is nothing objectionable about this, but is the word “miracle” really adequate to denote the resurrection of Jesus? Miracles are occurring somewhere all the time. They represent the purposeful involvement of a personal, transcendent God in God’s creation. Yet the resurrection of Jesus is not a miracle in the sense that it is just one in a series of divine actions in creation. Instead of being part of series of divine actions in creation, the resurrection of Jesus is the event in space and time of the coming of the new creation of the future. A miracle occurs in the present creation, but the resurrection of Jesus is the beginning of an entirely new creation. It is as if Jesus appears to his disciples from the ultimate future. The best analogy to the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is not some miracle, no matter how spectacular, but the first day of creation; that is why the church fathers called the day of the Lord’s resurrection “the eight day,” the beginning of the new creation.

In theological jargon, we may speak of the resurrection of Jesus as the impinging of the eschatological future on space and time as a sure sign to all humankind.

If the resurrection of Jesus has all this significance, then the resurrection is also a revelation of the identity of Jesus himself. In Romans 1:1-4, the apostle Paul cites an early, common apostolic formulary which he and the church in Rome undoubtedly received from the original apostles in Jerusalem. Only 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, another early apostolic formulary, is as important as Romans 1:1-4 as an artifact of the original message of the first apostles of Jesus. It is clear in Romans 1:1-4 that the news which is the “gospel” (euangelion) is news about the identity of Jesus. He is the “Christ” or the Messiah of Israel. As Messiah of Israel, by definition according to the prophets, he is also the Lord of the nations and of the whole world. Jesus is not only our Messiah and Lord, but he is also God’s Son, the Son of God. This identity is what was revealed to the apostles “by resurrection from the dead.” It is not that Jesus became Messiah, Lord, and Son of God by his resurrection. He was all this from his conception as a descendant of David. But his identity as Messiah, Lord, and Son of God has now been revealed to us “with power” [literally, “in power”] by the reality of his resurrection from the dead. This is why the Easter liturgies do not begin with the exclamation, Jesus is risen, but with Christ is risen or The Lord is risen. If any another human being like us were raised from the dead, it would be interesting but ultimately not necessarily relevant to anyone else. But if this human being is also the Messiah, Lord, and Son of God, then he is the representative of all humankind and what happens to him marks the turning the ages and the beginning of the new creation of all of humankind and all of creation.

We human beings often speak of death as a “mystery.” To many people, this probably merely means that our death is something which we do not comprehend simply because it has not yet happened to us. To the secularist, death is perceived as merely an “off switch,” as the late Steve Jobs said. For those of us who embrace a tradition of faith the term “mystery” carries more meaning that that of not having yet experienced the “off switch.” Empirically speaking, we do not yet know any more about death than those who have no faith, but we expect that there is more to the experience of dying that utter oblivion.

There has been much written down through the centuries about the mystery of death both before and after the coming of Jesus Christ, mostly concerning the passage of the human soul from one dimension of existence to another and how such an idea seems to have been planted within the depths of our being and how this idea is not irrational if one affirms that there is more to reality than what one can discern through one’s senses.

Despite all the inspiring and hopeful things that have been written and said down through ages about the mystery of death, in truth the only real foundation for hope in the face of death is the happening of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Words and ideas are fine, but they may be nothing more than flights of the human imagination or delusions. However, the resurrection of Jesus is something that happened in space and time, and what happened to Jesus happened for us. We may not be able to fully understand the hope of resurrection, but it is based on the reality of what happened to Jesus. The only answer to the mystery of death is the mystery of the resurrection of Jesus. While Jesus’ resurrection is a mystery, it is no fairy tale. As we exclaim on Easter Day:  Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

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