The two meanings of Easter and what they tell us about the mission of the church today

Read time: 11 minutes

We think of Easter week as one story: entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, Last Supper, arrest and trial, crucifixion, and resurrection. Liturgical performance, with a convenient hiatus between Palm Sunday and the long East weekend, reinforces the point. But I will suggest here that it is actually two stories—interconnected obviously, but playing out on very different levels—and that this narrative distinction may have some relevance for how we think about the mission of the church today. We’ll confine ourselves to Luke’s account, but the same point could be made from Mark and Matthew. John seems to be doing something different altogether.

Jesus tells his followers on more than one occasion that the Son of Man must be rejected by this generation of Jews, suffer many things, and be raised on the third day (Lk. 9:22; 17:25; 22:15; 24:26). But this is never the content of his public programme. His public mission is to “preach the good news of the kingdom of God” in the synagogues, throughout Galilee and Judea (Lk. 4:43), which will be good news for some in Israel and bad news for others. He does not go about from village to town urgently telling people that he is going to die and be raised from the dead.

These two themes, the suffering of the Son of Man and the kingdom of God, collide dramatically in the last week in Jerusalem. But I suspect that the nature and outcome of that collision is not very well understood, so let’s have a look at it in slow motion, so to speak, and see if we can trace the trajectories.

The public significance of Easter

Let’s start where we left off a couple of weeks ago. Jesus is at the house of Zacchaeus. People are beginning to wonder whether the kingdom of God is about to “appear immediately,” so he tells a parable about a well-born person (anthrōpos… eugenēs) or nobleman who must go to a far country to be made king over his people and then return—as, indeed, Herod and Archelaus had done (Lk. 19:11-27). This was a well known, and probably rather sensitive, political trope.

The citizens of his country hate the nobleman, so they send a delegation after him, saying, “We do not want this man to reign over us.” When eventually he returns, he issues a command that his enemies, who did not want him to reign over them, be brought before him and slaughtered.

What’s that all about? It must be a reference to the parousia, to the coming of the Son of Man, to the inauguration of a new régime in Israel following the destruction and slaughter of the war against Rome. The nobleman does not die; the kingdom story can be told without reference to Jesus’ death and resurrection.

We then have the account of the carefully staged entry into Jerusalem. Jesus rides on a colt and is acclaimed as a peaceful king coming to his city (19:28-40). No mention is made of the prophecy in Zechariah 9 (cf. Matt. 21:4-6); rather, Psalm 118:26 is proclaimed by his followers: “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Lk. 19:38). The psalm provides an implicit commentary on events, as we will see in a moment.

Notice that Jesus and the disciples are acting out a public drama here, they are making a spectacle of themselves, and the Pharisees are offended by it: “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” Jesus’ response is that if the disciples will be silent, the stones will cry out in witness against a city that will soon be left in ruins. This is Jesus’ own immediate testimony. He weeps over the city. His theatrical arrival symbolises the offer of peace, deliverance from enemies, but the offer will be rejected (19:42). Therefore, “the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation (Lk. 19:43–44).

Then in transparent imitation of Jeremiah, Jesus enters the temple (cf. Jer. 7:2) and condemns the institution as a “den of robbers” (Lk. 19:46; cf. Jer. 7:11). The implication is that it will suffer the fate of the sanctuary at Shiloh (Jer. 7:14), and Jerusalem’s dead will be thrown into the Valley of the Son of Hinnom or Gehenna (7:32-33).

Again, this public message about the kingdom of God, about what YHWH will do in history on a grand scale, is challenged by the Pharisees: “Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority” (Lk. 20:2). Jesus’ answer is evasive, but by referencing the “baptism of John,” who was a prophet, he makes it clear enough that he has been authorised to speak prophetically—that is, publicly—about the fate of the nation.

The significance of this public message or “gospel” is brilliantly summed up in the parable of the vineyard (20:9-17). The purpose is to secure righteousness after a long period of neglect and mismanagement. The son is sent, not to die, but to do the work of a servant. But the tenants think that they can get the future inheritance for themselves, so they kill him. Therefore, the owner of the vineyard will come and destroy the lawless tenants and hand over management to others.

This is addressed to the chief priests, scribes, and elders. Jesus looks them in the eye and quotes a line from Psalm 118: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”

It appears, as I said, that Luke is using the psalm as a commentary on this public narrative. Jesus is in the position of the king, who embodies the security and integrity of the nation. He is surrounded by his enemies; in distress he calls out to the Lord, who acts to safeguard his righteous one. He will not be given over to death. On the contrary, the “stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” Therefore, he is acclaimed: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Further disputes with the leadership in Jerusalem end with the implicit claim that Jesus will be seated at the right hand of God, in a manner that will transcend the rule of David, and will preside over the defeat of his enemies, perhaps both internal and external (20:41-44).

We then have Luke’s version of the apocalyptic discourse, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Gentiles (21:5-24) and the public demonstration of the “power and great glory” of the Son of Man (21:25-27). Jesus takes Daniel’s symbolic account of the vindication and exaltation of persecuted righteous Israel and applies it to himself and to his followers. That brings the overarching public story to an end.

The insider significance of Easter

Jesus has already warned his followers that, in the period of their public mission to Israel leading up to the war, they will face violent opposition but will gain their lives by their endurance (21:12-19). They are to flee the city before the siege (20:21). They are to stay hopeful and expectant (21:28-33). They must take care not to succumb to “dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life,” or they will suffer the same fate as the rest of the nation; they will not share in the vindication of the Son of Man (21:34-36).

So now we are turning to the private or insiderstory about how first Jesus and then the disciples will get to the moment of public fulfilment. The wicked tenants will not respect the son sent to them, and Jesus knows that his public mission will end in his arrest and execution.

The Last Supper narrative provides one frame for interpreting the experience of this righteous community (22:7-23). Until the public fulfilment of the prophetic message concerning the government of God, the disciples must repeatedly remind themselves, whenever they break bread together, that they are participating in the story of the Son of Man. They will suffer with him for the time being, but within a generation they will be vindicated with him; and they will sit on thrones alongside Jesus, in some sense, judging the twelve tribes of Israel (22:28-30). The “now” will be painful; the “not yet” will be the eventual widespread recognition, first by Israel, then by the enemies of Israel, that they were right all along.

They struggle to understand, however, what this will mean in practice. They argue about who will be the greatest (22:24-27). Peter’s faith will be severely tested (22:31-34, 54-62). They must play the part of “transgressors” or insurgents (22:36-38). Even Jesus reconciles himself to his fate only with difficulty, and he knows that his followers will face the same “testing” (22:39-46).

The story of the trial, death, and resurrection of Jesus is told at great length, not for the benefit of the watching world but so that his followers, when they are arraigned in the synagogues and courts, will have this compelling antecedent in mind. In the words of the writer to the Hebrews:

let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. (Heb. 12:1–4)

We are perhaps given a glimpse of the redemptive significance of Jesus’ death in the penal substitution for Barabbas and his crucifixion alongside two “evildoers.” He took upon himself Israel’s sinfulness and rebellion. He was the Son sent to the vineyard of Israel “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom. 8:3). But this is more effect than cause, even if ironically. He has dared to act the part of the righteous deliverer and king of Israel, but he cannot now save himself from death (Lk. 23:35, 37, 39).

The centurion at the cross is impressed by the manner of the death of this righteous Jew (23:47), but only the disciples will see the resurrected Lord, and then only in fleeting and ambiguous fashion (24:1-43). They need to know that he is alive so that they can embark with confidence on their mission to Israel and the nations in his name. Jesus’ public mission has not ended in failure; Israel will indeed have a new king seated at the right hand of God.

But also the overarching gospel message has not changed: the wrath of God is coming against this “crooked generation” of Galileans and Judeans, but if they repent and are baptised in the name of Jesus, the messianic king seated now at the right hand of God, they will be forgiven 24:47; Acts 2:38-40). There is little suggestion in Luke’s writings that the public message has been modified in the light of the secondary insider meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The meanings of Easter today

The controlling or overarching Easter narrative was the public one concerning the coming kingdom of God—the prophetic enactment of the significance of future catastrophic events, climaxing in the public vindication and exaltation of Jesus as Israel’s judge and ruler. For this narrative, the key images come from the beginning of the week: the entry into the city, the action in the temple, the cursing of the fig tree.

In Acts, Luke takes this public story a step further and asserts the transformative impact that these “kingdom of God” developments will have subsequently for the Greek-Roman world (cf. Acts 17:30-31). The fundamental historical truth that we have as believers is the fulfilment of the public story, and this should be the ground for Christian apologetics.

The secondary meaning of Easter was that the public outcomes would come about only by way of the suffering of the Chosen One and of those chosen in him. In this case, the key image are the crucifixion and empty tomb. The truthfulness of the resurrection was a matter of immediate concern, in the interim period, only for the disciples and churches: if Christ was not raised, then their faith in the future public event was in vain (cf. 1 Cor. 15:12-19). Israel and the nations would see the exalted Jesus only when he came in glory as judge and ruler.

That whole story changed the ancient world; it established the reputation of Israel’s God among the nations; it brought pagan worship to an end; and where we are today is, in complicated ways, the product of that transformation.

But we have gone through a huge theological supercycle (I came across that word in a different context recently and may make use of it for a while) over the last two thousand years, and we are having to ask again about where the God of history will be found. If we can begin to answer the difficult public questions about the future presence of God of the biblical storyline, we will understand better how to answer the no less challenging insider questions about what the church needs to be in order to uphold his reputation as a wholly new cosmic-anthropic order unfolds.