RESURRECTING EASTER (PT. 2)
Written by Doug Ponder on April 13, 2014
This is the second of a two-part post. Click here to read “Resurrecting Easter (Part One).”
Easter: The Greatest Holiday
Every year on the Friday before Easter, Christians around the world observe “Good Friday.” It’s a special day set aside to commemorate the crucifixion and death of Jesus for us. Good Friday is “good” because it marks Jesus’ sacrificial death that cleanses, forgives, and makes us ‘at one’ with God. Good Friday beckons us to pause and remember God’s utter hatred of evil and the deadly wages of sin.
But the obvious truth is that without Easter, Good Friday wouldn’t be good at all. In every way, Easter is central to the Christian faith. For without the resurrection, the cross is emptied of its power (1 Cor. 15:17-19). Without the resurrection, Christmas would merely mark the birth of a man who is dead in the grave. Such is the Significance of Easter, and the resurrection of Jesus, which it celebrates!
Why We Misunderstand the Resurrection
If the resurrection is so important, why is its role in the Christian faith so often misunderstand? As we said in Resurrecting Easter (Part One), it seems the widespread failure to understand the big picture of what God is doing in the world is a major reason why many people struggle to understand the purpose (and importance) of the Easter celebration of Jesus’ resurrection.
We saw in the first article that there’s more to the resurrection than just the fulfillment of prophecy, the confirmation of Jesus’ divinity, and the proof of his victory over sin. In addition to all of that, the Scriptures tell us that God’s redemptive plan for the world is something that couldn’t be accomplished without raising Jesus to new life. In other words, the resurrection was necessary for the fulfillment of the mission of God.
What God Is Doing in the World
When we talk about “God’s mission,” we are simply referring to what God is doing in the world, including how and why he is doing it. Unfortunately, many people don’t know what God is doing in the world to begin with. And because many churches have focused so much on “going to heaven when you die,” there will be many people who will be quite surprised at Jesus’ return to discover that heaven and earth will coexist in the same space. That “space” is not some ethereal realm in the clouds; it’s a very physical, very earthy, Earth. Not the old Earth, of course, with its bondage to corruption and temptations to sin, but the New Earth, fully renovated by the transforming power of God.
If all of this sounds shocking, it may be because you haven’t read the end of the Bible. There (in Revelation 21) John describes heaven descending to earth, with Jesus seated on his throne victoriously declaring that he is making all things new. That is what God is doing in the world. He is at work to make all things new, including us, so that his creation will flourish under the co-regency of Jesus and his blood-bought brothers and sisters (Rev. 5:8-10).
But why would God care about making the world new, and what has any of this got to do with the resurrection?
One Man to Rule Them All
The answer is that in the beginning God created us to be his stewards of all that he has made. “Steward” is an old school word that means to manage and protect someone else’s possession.
If you have read the book (or seen the movie), The Return of the King, you may recall that the realm of Gondor had a steward who managed the kingdom until the true king returned to reclaim his rightful place on the throne. To remind them of their task, the official seal of the stewards bore an inscription which read, “Servant of the King.”
Unfortunately, humanity has proven to be just as corrupt and destructive in our stewardship of God’s world as the stewards of Gondor were in Tolkien’s story. Following in the footsteps of the earth’s first steward, Adam, everyone one of us is rebellious by nature and by choice. So instead of being “Servants of the King,” as we were created to be, we are hardhearted toward God, foolishly resisting his wise and loving rule in virtually every sphere of life.
But God didn’t scrap his creation or abandon his plan just because the people made in his image rebelled against him. No, with limitless grace and unstoppable power God set about making known his rightful claim to creation as its maker and ruler.
But how would God make everything alright again? The prophecies of old had spoken of a Messiah, a Redeeming King anointed by God himself, who would come to rescue his people once and for all. God’s people, Israel, were called to trust God and live as people who knew that God was willing (as the gracious Savior) and able (as the Lord of heaven and earth) to put the world to rights.
That is precisely what is happening through the work of Jesus. He is God’s anointed Messiah, the rightful Ruler of the world, who came not just to rescue Israel—as some of the people thought in Jesus’ day—but to rescue everyone who submits to his loving rule.
Salvation Is an Easter Hope
This is where the resurrection comes in. The consequences of sin are the double-punishment of bondage to corruption or decay, which leads to death, and slavery to sin, which leads to the rejection of God and separation from him forever. Jesus came to deal with both sin and death. After all, what good would forgiveness of sins be if you’re still dead in the grave? What good are forgiven stewards if they aren’t raised to live in God’s world as he created them to do? Not much good at all.
That’s the “point” of the resurrection. It marks the beginning of God’s new world, a world in which he is settling all accounts, righting all wrongs, and stamping out every cause of evil.
But, amazingly, there’s still more. As Paul the apostle wrote, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, then he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you” (Romans 8:11). Don’t miss what Paul just said: God will give life to your mortal (i.e. physical) body through the same powerful working of his Spirit, who raised Jesus himself from the dead. To put this another way, Paul is saying that if you are a subject of the King you will not spend eternity in choir robes on clouds with harps in hand. Just like Jesus, your whole self—including your body—will be raised to live with God as a servant-ruler (steward) in God’s new world.
The apostle Paul put it like this: “The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom and the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.” (Rom. 8:19-25)
When Paul says, “in this hope we were saved,” what hope is he talking about? It’s the hope that God will redeem us from sin and death (Rom. 8:2). It’s the hope that all of creation will be liberated from its “bondage to corruption” through the redemption and renewal of God’s own children (Rom. 8:21). In other words, God redeems us through the work of Jesus in order that we might become Servants of the King, just as he created us to be in the very beginning.
Easter Changes Everything
How does any of this impact our lives today? Well, notice how Paul finishes the longest section on the resurrection in the entire New Testament (chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians). He doesn’t end by saying, “Jesus is risen, therefore sit back, relax, and know that everything will be alright.” Instead he says, “Therefore, my beloved brothers and sisters, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).
Don’t you see what this means? In the words of one New Testament scholar, “A proper grasp of the future hope held out to us in Jesus Christ leads directly to a vision of the present hope that is the basis of all Christian mission. To hope for a better future in this world—for the poor, the sick, the lonely and depressed, for the slaves, the refugees, the hungry and homeless, for the abused, the paranoid, the downtrodden and despairing, and in fact for the whole wide, wonderful, and wounded world—is not something else, something extra, something tacked on to the gospel as an afterthought. And to work for that intermediate hope, the surprising hope that comes forward from God’s ultimate future into God’s urgent present, is not a distraction from the task of mission and evangelism in the present. It is a central, essential, vital, and life-giving part of it.” (N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, 192)
In other words, we’ve got work to do. The resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit who lives within us mean that we are called to bring signs of God’s renewed creation to life in the present age. That is to say, what you do in the present—whether painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—these are not simply ways of making the present life a little more bearable until the day when we leave it behind altogether. No, those activities ought to be like a preview of coming attractions, an appetizer before the main course, a sign and a foretaste of what God is going to do when Jesus returns.
The resurrection is more than proof that all of this will happen; it is the beginning of it all. As the resurrected King who lives and reigns even now, Jesus continues to act within the real world to bring about the renewal that restores what God has made through the powerful working of the Spirit who liberates us from our slavery to sin and death, and he calls us to proclaim his redeeming reign in all we say and do.
Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. . . Behold, I am making all things new.” (John 11:25; Rev. 21:5). He is, and he is. And that’s what we celebrate every Easter.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.