I want to begin by asking what may seem like a dumb question: Why did Jesus need to rise from the dead? Why was the resurrection necessary? Obviously it is necessary, after all Paul says as much in 1 Corinthians when he says, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (15:16). And Jesus agrees with Paul, he testifies to the necessity of his resurrection in many and various ways. So we know that it is necessary, but why?
If we think about it, I think that what seems like a dumb question at first actually has something to it. After all, doesn’t Paul say also in 1 Corinthians, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (2:2)? Paul doesn’t seem to feel that it’s necessary to say Jesus Christ and him crucified and resurrected, but just Jesus Christ and him crucified. There’s a certain sense in which our salvation is complete at the cross, when Jesus died. And if the cross is enough for our salvation, then one has to wonder how the resurrection could be necessary in any real sense.
Just think about the way that we often talk about the Gospel. I imagine that if most Christians had to summarize the Gospel message they would likely say something about how God the Father sent his son Jesus to die in our place, that when Jesus was crucified he took the punishment for our sins that we rightfully deserve, and so because of this we are forgiven for our sins when we put our faith in Jesus. This means that when we die we don’t have to worry about facing God’s judgment because we’re already forgiven. And so we know that when we die we will be given a place in heaven with Jesus. Sounds right, yeah?
Note however, that nowhere in my Gospel summary is there any mention of Jesus’ resurrection. I certainly could’ve mentioned it, but the way I told the story of the Gospel, it wasn’t necessary. The story that I told doesn’t logically require the resurrection to function. And I think this might be why: if our problem is our guilt because of our sin and if the cross is where Jesus has taken the punishment that our guilt deserves, then the resurrection becomes little more than a convenient epilogue, a happy ending to an otherwise rather grim and grisly story. But is that all the resurrection is? Something a bit more cheery for us to celebrate since Good Friday is a bit of a bummer what with all the suffering and death? Hopefully not.
Now at this point you might say, “Well of course, our salvation is complete at the cross. The cross alone is more than sufficient to make sure we get to heaven when we die. It’s all said and done, nothing left to be completed. But this doesn’t mean that the resurrection serves no purpose. Of course not. The resurrection is a demonstration that Jesus’ sacrifice worked; it’s a confirmation that what happened at Good Friday was accepted by the Father.”
However, this doesn’t go far enough. Now, it’s certainly true that the historical reality of Jesus’ resurrection does much to confirm for us that Jesus really is who he said he is, that he really is the promised Messiah sent by God the Father. However, I don’t think that Jesus rising from the dead merely confirms that the sacrifice of the cross worked. Jesus is certainly a sacrifice. He’s called the Lamb of God, which means that he is the final and perfect Passover lamb. However, sacrificed animals generally don’t rise from the dead. When the Israelites were escaping Egypt during the exodus, they sacrificed the Passover lambs and painted the blood on their doorposts so that the Angel of Death would pass over them. But not one of those Passover lambs came back to life. Jesus’ death is certainly a sacrifice, but that fact alone doesn’t explain why it’s so important that he rise from the dead.
And so we seem to be stuck. We know that Jesus’ resurrection is important, even necessary, otherwise Paul wouldn’t say that without the resurrection our faith is useless. But we also know that the cross is where Jesus has taken the full punishment that our sins deserve. That doesn’t happen at the resurrection since it was completed at the cross. So then, what really is the point of the resurrection? Why does Paul say that it’s so necessary?
Perhaps, if I can make a suggestion, we’ve not fully understood our problem. If our view of our problem is small, then our view of the Gospel will also be small. Our problem is not merely that we have some sins that need to be forgiven. We certainly do, but our problem is way bigger than that. Our problem is not merely finding a way to get to heaven when we die, but our problem is actually death itself. This is the point that Paul makes in the last verse of our reading for today: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death”.
We are so used to death that we forget that death is an enemy. As we often say, only two things are certain: death and taxes, right? But in the beginning it was not this way. When God created his creation there was neither death nor taxes. Death is a result of the fall, taxes probably are as well. Death is a result of human rebellion against the creator and sustainer of all life. Death is, in the deepest sense, not natural. Contrary to what we and our culture often tell ourselves, death is profoundly unnatural. Contrary to The Lion King, death is not just a part of the circle of life, rather death is an undoing and a destruction of what God has created and called very good: human life.
The way the world works right now tricks us into thinking that death is just a part of life. But death is not just a part of human life, it is the end of human life. Yet we forget this because we assume that the way things are now is the way that they’re supposed to be. But the way things are is not how they’re supposed to be. And when we forget this fact, we develop a distorted understanding of the story of the Gospel.
I remember one time I was helping out with the children’s Sunday school at my field work congregation back in the St. Louis area. The Sunday school teacher asked these very young kids how we get to heaven. She was looking for something like “believing in Jesus,” but one of these kids, a little girl probably only about four or five, answered the question “How do you get to heaven?” with “Die!” Now, this was certainly true, you can’t get to heaven unless you’re dead, but it wasn’t quite what the Sunday school teacher was looking for.
Yet too often, even as Christians, we can treat death as little more than a necessary step before “going to heaven.” Death becomes little more than a doorway through which we enter into paradise. If this is true, if this is all that death is, a means of getting to heaven, then death is really a friend to be embraced, not an enemy that needs to be defeated, as Paul says.
But if Paul is right, if death truly is an enemy, something unnatural, then all of a sudden it makes sense why it’s necessary that Jesus is raised from the dead: because through his resurrection Jesus defeats the power of death. Death has no real lasting power over those who are joined to Jesus in baptism and faith. Jesus rose out of his grave with a new resurrection body, and so we too will one day rise out of our graves resurrected just like Jesus.
This is why Paul calls Jesus the firstfruits of the resurrection. Imagine a field of wheat, the first few pieces of grain harvested from the field indicate that the rest of the field will soon be ready to be harvested. In the same way Jesus’ rising from the dead is an indication that we too will soon rise from the dead. This is Paul’s point in our reading from 1 Corinthians: that Jesus not only died for the forgiveness of our sins, but that he also rose from the dead so that we too would rise out of our graves with new resurrection bodies on the Last Day when Jesus comes again. Jesus’ death and resurrection together seeks to solve our deepest problem as human beings, not just our sin, but death itself as well. In his death and resurrection, Jesus is restoring God’s creation back to the way it was always supposed to be, without death.
This is why the prophet Isaiah talks about a New Heavens and a New Earth. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth and he called it very good. And in the end God will restore, re-create the heavens and the earth. And we will live in this new, very physical creation. Not as spirits floating around in the clouds.
Think about it like this: after Jesus was resurrected he walked and talked with his disciples. He broke bread, drank wine, cooked fish. He was not merely a spirit, a disembodied soul of some sort. He was a real flesh-and-blood human being, doing the sorts of things that human beings were made to do in the place where God made us to live: the earth, his good creation. Likewise, when we are resurrected, we will enjoy God’s good creation forever, we will enjoy the new earth and all the blessings it provides. As Isaiah says, “They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit” (65:21). This is our hope, not a disembodied existence in the clouds in an eternal church service, as fun as that sounds, but real embodied existence as flesh-and-blood human beings on the good earth that God made. Our hope is creation as God always intended it to be from the beginning.
So then we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection on Easter not only because Jesus overcame his own death two thousand years ago, but we celebrate because Jesus’ resurrection gives us a preview of sorts of our own resurrection when Jesus comes again and not only that, but it gives us a preview of the restoration and re-creation of all things: the New Heavens and the New Earth.
He is risen!