According to Carl Braaten, the gospel’s claim that God raised Jesus from the dead requires us to address two questions: the question of whether it happened and the question of what happened.
The former question–what we might call, “the apologetic question,” is vital for if God did not raise Jesus from the dead, then our faith is futile and we are still in our sins, as Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15.17. The latter question–what we might call, “the theological question,” is vital as well. Unfortunately, this question is often left unaddressed in Christian preaching and teaching, to the impoverishment of popular Christian understanding.
What follows is a sketch of biblical teaching regarding “the theological question” of the resurrection. What is the theological significance of Jesus’ resurrection? Or, to put the matter in Pauline terms, what does it mean that we are “saved by his life” (Rom 5.10)?
(1) Jesus’ resurrection manifests his victory over death, our great enemy. While God’s saving grace was, in some sense, given to us in Christ Jesus “before the ages began” (2 Tim 1.9), it is through the resurrection of Jesus that God’s gracious, death-defeating, life-giving purpose shines forth in triumphant splendor. Through his resurrection, Jesus has “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light” (2 Tim 1.10).
(2) Jesus’ resurrection manifests our justification. Just as Adam’s disobedience constituted us sinners, worthy of death, so Jesus’ obedience constitutes us righteous, worthy of eternal life (Rom 5.12-21). Accordingly, Jesus’ resurrection manifests our justification. Jesus’ resurrection is the divine sentence that follows from the divine verdict that declares us righteous. Jesus was “delivered up because of our trespasses and raised because of our justification” (Rom 4.25).
(3) Jesus’ resurrection serves as the pattern, power, and presence of our sanctification. Jesus’ resurrection is the pattern of our sanctification: in sanctification God is working to conform us to Jesus’ glorious, resurrection image (Rom 8.29a; 1 Cor 15.48-49; 2 Cor 3.18). Jesus’ resurrection is the power of our sanctification: the immeasurably great power whereby God raised us in Christ and whereby he is conforming us to Christ accords with “the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead” (Eph 1.19-20). The risen Jesus is the operative presence in our sanctification. Thus Paul declares, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2.20).
(4) Jesus’ resurrection guarantees our glorification, which is the precondition for eternal fellowship with God. “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God,” Paul tells us (1 Cor 15.50). However, the Son of God assumed our miserable human nature in the incarnation (John 1.14) in order that he might raise and glorify our human nature through his resurrection (1 Cor 15.51-54), making us fit to behold and enjoy the glory of God forever and ever and thus to realize the purpose for which we were created: “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we will be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3.2).
Why is it that Jesus’ resurrection manifests and guarantees all of these wonderful saving benefits for us? The reason lies in the relationship that obtains between Jesus Christ and his people: he is our husband, we are his bride; he is the cornerstone, we are his temple; he is the head, we are his body. Peter Martyr Vermigli eloquently illustrates the mystical, covenant bond that obtains between Christ and his people: “Since he is risen and is our head, we are also risen in him. Tell me, I pray you, when one holds his head above the deep and deadly waters of a fast-flowing stream, do we not say that he has escaped death even though his other bodily members are yet below the surface? The same holds true for us, who are all one body in Christ. Our head is risen from the depths of death. Even though we may appear to be overwhelmed in the mortal stream, yet we are risen in him.”
Our beloved is ours, and we are his (Song 2.16). Therefore we are “saved by his life.” Let’s remember and rejoice in that this Sunday as we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection.
This article first appeared on Reformation 21