The resurrection from the dead

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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.’

peter wilkinson | Sat, 08/11/2012 - 20:50 | Permalink

Observant travellers in the blogosphere will notice something curious about Andrew’s reframing of the biblical narrative — that while the resurrection has implications for all humanity as the life of the new creation in which they can share, the death of Jesus has significance for historic Israel alone. So we have a narrative which includes the cross which is relevant to Israel alone, and a resurrection which is relevant to everyone: the beginning of a cosmic renewal in which all may participate. The missing middle for us is Jesus on the cross — which is just as much part of a personal encounter with the Jesus who died on it as the resurrection which followed it (Romans 6:3-7, addressed to Jews and Gentiles).

Is Andrew’s retelling of the biblical narrative accurate? In the narrative of Abraham which framed the story of Israel, Abraham was to be made into a great nation, to be blessed, and to bring blessing to all peoples of the earth. This was to come through his seed, which in its singular sense referred to the coming messiah, Jesus, and in its corporate sense, to all who were joined with him as the renewed people of God — the great nation. The nation referred to in Ezekiel 37, and also in Hosea 5 & 6, found its fulfilment in this prophecy — which included the believing part of ethnic Israel, but was not limited to her, and when set alongside it, the Roman Empire and Caesar became its grotesque parodies.

Jesus was the fulfilment of the promise to Abraham — the outer boundaries of which encompassed all peoples. This fulfilment of the promise comprised Jesus’s entire history, including his death on the cross, by means of which “one died for all, and therefore all died” — 2 Corinthians 5:14; “all” meaning the occupants of the old creation, Jew and Gentile, as becomes clear in verse 17: “Therefore, if anyone (Jew or Gentile) is in Christ, he is a new creation: the old has gone, the new has come!”

The main thing which is ‘truncated’ here is not ‘a mythology of personal salvation’ but the missing middle to Andrew’s reframed biblical narrative — the death of Jesus on the cross. It is truncated in Andrew’s scheme because it is detached from the wider narrative, in which it became the means of reversing the Genesis catastrophe. In this narrative Abraham and ethnic Israel were forerunners of the main act. The narrative was ultimately that of Jesus, the crucified and risen messiah.

Peter came to understand this wider narrative slowly, the conversion of Cornelius and his household being a defining moment. Paul understood the narrative early and from all parts of the scriptures: from Genesis 1-3 (as recounted in Romans 5:12-19); from Abraham (as recounted in Galatians); from Isaiah (as recounted in his frequent allusions to Isaiah and his own divine mandate (eg Acts 13:47).

The life, teaching/ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, outpoured Spirit and on-going life of Jesus in the people of God are a continuum which is of direct relevance and application to all who believe in him. The death of Jesus on the cross, vindicated and interpreted by his resurrection, was never detached from the rest of the narrative in its wider relevance.

Originally posted on

I’m having trouble seeing your central point for all the verbage, Peter. Would you care to summarize your central contention in fifty words or less?

(By the way, for anyone else looking on, this is Wilkinson’s attempt to restart a three-year-dead conversation from scratch.)

Mitchell, I’m not sure why Peter has resurrected this comment now, but he’s an old friend and I cannot allow it to be dismissed as “verbiage”. It’s simply a good example of how you can make biblical texts tell whatever story you like when you take them out of context and ignore the actual argument. He won’t like me saying this, but I think he does what most evangelicals do. He starts with an idea in his head of what he believes the story ought to be, then he picks verses that appear to support it. I think we need to wean ourselves off this bad habit and develop a ground-up approach to interpretation that allows the texts to say what they want to say. I will take the opportunity of a train journey to Edinburgh to examine the points that he makes.

First, there is no “missing middle”. The middle is simply constructed differently. Jesus’ death because of the sins of Israel (“he will save his people from their sins”: Matt. 1:21) resulted in the salvation of Gentiles. This is how the narrative works both in Isaiah and in the New Testament. It can be compressed down to “Jesus died for the sins of the whole world”, but that is not a lossless compression.

Jews and Gentiles alike buy into the dynamic of Jesus’ death and resurrection when they are baptized (Rom. 6:3-7). Gentiles cannot become part of the people of God at a time of eschatological crisis without becoming participants in a story of suffering and vindication—and one of the consequences of that is that they are set free from sin. Just as Jesus “died to sin”, so believers die to sin. This is not the same as saying that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world.

Nothing in the patriarchal narratives, as far as I am aware, can be interpreted as a prophecy of a coming messiah as the singular “seed” and the inclusion of Gentiles in the family of his descendants. Nor do the “resurrection” passages in Ezekiel and Hosea have such outcomes in view.

2 Corinthians 5 is not about Jews and Gentiles. Paul is speaking about the role of the apostles with respect to the rebellious Corinthians. They must “all” appear before the judgment seat of Christ, which is why the apostles seek to persuade the Corinthians to change their ways and be reconciled to God (5:10-11). The apostles take the way of weakness and suffering because they have judged that Jesus died for all who have died so that those who have died might live for Jesus and not for themselves. The underlying point is basically the same as in Romans 6:3-7: those who have been baptized into Christ have taken upon themselves the pattern of suffering, service and eventual vindication. In verse 17 “anyone” does not mean “Jew or Gentile”. Paul’s point is simply that if “a person” (tis) is in Christ, he is a new creation and, therefore, should not react to this conflict in the old fleshly manner. If anything, he means by tis not “Jew or Gentile” but “apostle or Corinthian believer”.

I don’t understand why Peter thinks that in my narrative-historical reading the cross is “detached from the wider narrative”. The whole point of the piece above on resurrection was that the death and resurrection of Jesus are part of a “whole unrolled cloth”. The story about Jesus is integral to the story about Israel, which is integral to the story about creation. What I guess he really means is that it doesn’t conform to his understanding of the wider narrative.

The wider story is not the general reversing of the Genesis catastrophe. It is the story of God’s people, of their long struggle against sin and faithless within and against the nations without. Israel ultimately failed because it could not escape from its bondage to sin: the Law was powerless to change this basic existential reality. This is what Romans 5:12-19 is about. So the death and resurrection of Jesus brought about the reversal of the Genesis catastrophe for Israel. Israel died to its subjection to the old order (historically AD 70 was a major part of what this meant) and came alive as new creation. This solves Israel’s problem; it does not solve humanity’s problem. This is why, I think, when we get to Revelation 20 there is no final redemption of the old creation: sin and death survive all the way through to the end. What happens is that this old world disappears, and John sees a new heaven and new earth, “for first heaven and the first earth had passed away” (Rev. 21:1).

Finally, Paul understood his mandate to be to proclaim to the nations that the God of Israel had put forward his Son as a propitiation for the sins of his people, that he had raised his Son from the dead, making him king, and that through him he would judge and rule the pagan world. The argument is encapsulated in Roman 15:8-18: Christ became a servant to Israel; the Gentiles hear of this and praise God for his mercy towards his people; a root of Jesse will rise to “rule the Gentiles”; and Paul sees it as part of his apostolic role to ensure that the response of the Gentiles to what God has done for his people is fitting.

Given that I can’t seem to spell verbiage right, I probably shouldn’t use the word. But I will admit that I have trouble cutting through the resurrected comment to its core. There’s some sort of mismatch between the way Peter Wilkinson writes and the way I read that makes it difficult for me to understand what he’s getting at sometimes. Adding to this that Wilkinson did not seek to in any way hone this comment in light of the back-and-forth that it elicited a few years ago makes understanding the whole interaction even stranger.

But thank you for taking the time to address the issue again. As for myself, I don’t know enough about what should fall in the middle of the narrative to know whether anything is missing here. All I know is that if I pick up a couple verses of the N.T. at a time and read them, my first instinct as to what is going on is usually in need of serious revision.

Mitchell — In the middle of a current discussion on Sheol,  a three-year-old comment on the resurrection rises from the dead. Maybe it’s not totally inappropriate.

Having re-read my comment, maybe the difficulty you had in understanding it was to do with it appearing out of the context of the original discussion. I wasn’t trying to restart the discussion, so it was probably unwise, even mischievous, to post it.

Also, in the post, I notice my tendency to jump from Andrew’s position to mine, perhaps without making it clear enough whose position is whose, which may be confusing if you are not familiar with the arguments.

I don’t know what you mean about the ”pick up a couple of verses of the N.T. at a time and read them”  approach. Who was doing this?

Thanks for defending me against the charge of ‘verbiage’, Andrew. Please come and do the same with my church congregation! There is such a rich mine of material on the website, that some of it repays revisiting. I thought the original exchanges following your historic post were also worth such a visit. I don’t think my argument can be dismissed quite so easily as you do in your opening paragraph, though.

Apart from anything else, I think I’m pointing out, from a different angle,  some central weaknesses in your radical narrative interpretation of things.

It is as yet unexplained how events such as the death and resurrection of Jesus, which were foundational for the transformative effect of the Spirit in the lives of 1st century believers, have any continuing relevance for believers beyond that era, except as an inspiring historical story. Hence the ‘missing middle’.

1st century believers may have been baptised into a narrative, as you say, though that in itself provides no explanation for their personal transformation. It provides still less of an explanation for anyone baptised beyond that era, since the events and story into which they are supposedly baptised are exclusively for those participating as 1st century national Israel. Even less is there any explanation of the relevance of this for Gentile baptised believers, unless they become 1st century Israel through their baptism.

Without transformation, or participation in the life of the new age, there is little that the story has to offer anyone outside national Israel beyond the 1st century, except perhaps as an inspirational aid arising from what God did for a particular nation at a particular time. The cross has become in your interpretation a ‘missing middle’ for those beyond the 1st century, since it is an essential pre-requsite for what believers may expect to enjoy and obtain through their faith. This applies under under any interpretive scheme — narrative, orthodox, evangelical or whatever.

There is a wider narrative, to which my post was alluding, which does not appear in your narrative scheme. The promises to Abraham, and promises of the latter prophets, find no adequate fulfilment anywhere except as part of this wider narrative.

To put it in a nutshell, and for Mitchell’s sake, your radical revisionary interpretation has yet to provide adequate anwers when it is exposed to the question of what difference, if any, it makes to the lives of believers beyond the historical era to which it limits the biblical material. This will continue to be the central criticism until better ways are found of exegeting the material.