The death and resurrection of Jesus, locked together in a brief three-day period, constitute the defining moment of Christian belief. It is here that the light of God’s love for humanity burns most brightly through the dingy fabric of history. But the light of the Easter event can be so intense at times that we fail to see the surrounding context, the whole unrolled cloth, the long narrative of which the cynical execution and ambiguous resurrection appearances are an integral part - and without which they so easily become misappropriated by a truncated mythology of personal salvation. This simple contribution to our Easter reflections highlights four of the narrative insights that foreshadow and explain the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
Ezekiel’s vision of a valley of dry bones
Ezekiel is told that the dried, sun-bleached bones of the house of Israel will live; they will be raised from their graves in exile, raised from the death of judgment, and restored to life, brought back to the land (Ezek. 37:1-14). Resurrection is the hope of a nation that has suffered punishment for its failure to observe the terms and conditions of the Law; it is a metaphor for the renewal of the createdl microcosm of Israel through the Spirit of God: “And they will say, ‘This land that was desolate has become like the garden of Eden, and the waste and desolate and ruined cities are now fortified and inhabited’ ” (Ezek. 36:35).
Resurrection on the third day
Hosea calls rebellious, idolatrous, unrighteous Israel to return to the Lord. The nation has been politically wounded, ‘oppressed, crushed in judgment’ (Hos. 5:9-13), but God will heal it; Israel has been struck down, but he will bind up the people. After two days, the prophet says, God will revive his people; on the third day he will raise them up from death, so that they might live before him (Hos. 6:1-2). Resurrection - indeed, resurrection on the third day - is again a metaphor for the restoration of the people following judgment.
The righteous will shine like stars
At the climax of the crisis of national faith provoked by the Syrian tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes, there will be a time of suffering unlike anything that the nation has experienced before. But the righteous are given hope: the people of YHWH will eventually be delivered from the oppressor; those whose names are written in the book will live. Many of the dead will be raised. Those who have been disloyal to the covenant will be raised to receive ‘shame and everlasting contempt’; but those who suffered because of their faithfulness and who helped to preserve Israel through the crisis by turning many to righteousness will be raised to the life of the coming age: they will ‘shine like the brightness of the sky above…, like the stars forever and ever’ (Dan. 12:1-3).
So Jesus tells a simple but devastating story about a harvest at the end of the age of second temple Judaism, when the weeds of sin and lawlessness will be burned up in the fires of divine judgment, and ‘the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father’ (Matt. 13:43). Resurrection is the culmination of the crisis of pagan aggression against Israel: it does not mark the end of history; it marks the historical deliverance and vindication of the righteous.
The resurrection of the martyrs
The Maccabean literature also illustrates how this hope of vindication developed under conditions of intense pagan hostility. When the nation is suffering under the brutal hand of the foreign invader because it has sinned against God, resurrection is the hope of the righteous who refuse to renounce their faith even under extreme torment. The fourth of the seven brothers savagely tortured by Antiochus, now at the point of death, upbraids the tyrant: ‘It is desirable that those who die at the hands of human beings should cherish the hope God gives of being raised again by him. But for you there will be no resurrection to life!’ (2 Macc. 7:14). In language that foreshadows Paul, the martyrs are spoken of as athletes in a divine contest:
Truly the contest carried on by them was divine, for then virtue, testing them for their perseverance, offered rewards. Victory meant incorruptibility in long-lasting life. Eleazar contended first; the mother of seven boys entered the fray, and the brothers contended. The tyrant was the antagonist; the world and human society looked on. Godliness won the victory and crowned its own athletes. Who did not marvel at the athletes contending for the divine law code? Who were not astonished? (4 Macc. 17:11-16).
The fulfilment of hope
In his death at the hands of Rome, betrayed by a nation on the brink of apostasy, Jesus suffered for the sins of his people, anticipating the faithfulness of those who would take up their own cross out of loyalty to him during this protracted eschatological crisis. In his resurrection from the dead through the power of the Spirit, he anticipated the restoration of the people of God and the eventual vindication of the community that would take the risk of following him down a narrow and dangerous path leading to life.
The story would soon clash with the dominant religious conceit of the pagan world. Unlike the lawless, blasphemous, self-aggrandizing type of Caesar, Jesus did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped. He embarked on an entirely different trajectory, downwards towards servanthood, humiliation, suffering and death. But God raised him from the defeat of death - he did not abandon his soul to Hades (Acts 2:27) - and gave him a name far above all the governors and kings and emperors of the earth; and because of his faithfulness and obedience, all the ends of the earth would come to see that YHWH alone is God, that he is sovereign over the nations and cultures of the world.
Firstborn of all creation
In overcoming the enemy of righteous Israel, Jesus also overcame the final enemy of all creation - and thus opened up the unprecedented possibility that not merely the microcosm of Israel but the whole cosmos might be rescued from corruption and made new. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead was the hoped-for renewal of the life of the people of God. It was the re-creation of a nation that, for all its good intentions, had simply failed to escape from the law of sin and death that ruled over the macrocosm. It provided the assurance that those who would lose their lives for his sake and for the sake of the gospel in that time of eschatological upheaval would find their lives again - that those who would enter the fierce contest against pagan tyranny would win a crown on the day of their vindication.
But the resurrection of Jesus also inaugurated a new incorruptible ontology; and the whole of creation came to find in the imminent vindication of the suffering community the promise of its own eventual liberation from a bondage to decay (Rom. 8:19-22). Hope jumps from the microcosm to the macrocosm, from the small, condensed story of Israel to the grand, expansive story of the cosmos. Jesus is not merely firstborn from the dead for the sake of his body; he is firstborn of all creation, the image of the Creator, through whom ‘all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities’ (Col. 1:16; cf. Jn. 1:1-3; 1 Cor. 8:6). So the New Testament came to imagine a final resurrection of all the dead, a final accounting for all that has been done, and a final destruction of everything that stands in opposition to the good work of the Creator God (Rev. 20:11-21:8).
In the light of this extraordinary transposition of the resurrection motif, as Tom Wright wrote in an opinion piece in today’s Times, notwithstanding a couple of details, ‘We who live in the interval between Jesus’s Resurrection and the final rescue and transformation of the whole world are called to be new-creation people here and now. That is the hidden meaning of the greatest festival Christians have.’