The Importance of Resurrection in the Bible

The Importance of Resurrection in the Bible March 31, 2024

Christ is Risen!  The cry of Easter Sunday brings with it hope for us as we face a World of death and pain.

Life is itself a terminal condition, so we might be forgiven for arguing that resurrection is the most important theme in the Bible—at least practically for us.  That is how this fifth chapter of my book Raised With Christ ends, I hope you will join me as I build towards that conclusion this Easter Sunday.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.

1 CORINTHIANS 15:3–4

Have you ever met a wise person who seems to say very few words? Some people use many words, of which we remember very few. Others will remain silent, perhaps even while watching a debate, saying nothing at all. Then, when everyone else is finished, they may finally add a sentence that dramatically cuts through everything that has been said. The theme of resurrection in the Bible is a bit like that wise person. We read patiently through many other subjects, and then suddenly a single phrase interjects, illuminating everything and bringing a hope that goes beyond death itself.

Despite first appearances, the concept of resurrection is stressed throughout Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. The emphasis is placed on the subject, not by repetition, but by the way in which we are made to anticipate it.

The Bible is, in many ways, a book about death. It begins in Genesis, when Adam and Eve sinned and death entered the world. It ends in Revelation with the judgment of sin and the celebration of the end of death for all believers. The Bible constantly reminds us of the human predicament and of the inevitability of our mortality. So, whenever resurrection is mentioned, it is a shaft of light penetrating our helplessness and hopelessness. Because of the repeated discussion of death, the subject of resurrection assumes a dramatic prominence whenever it appears.

As we remind ourselves that resurrection is the only answer to the problem of death, we will appreciate its important place in the biblical message of hope to a helpless world. Jesus’ resurrection shouts out that this hope is real, that we can fully trust God to resurrect us.

Let’s consider a few illustrations to underline this point. In art, contrast is often used to highlight the focal point of a painting or photograph. Sometimes that feature will not be the largest one. In a dark scene, the illuminated object stands out more than if it had been surrounded by other bright objects. In the Bible, resurrection benefits from a similar type of contrast.

Suppose a doctor spends a long time telling you about a life-threatening cancer they had just diagnosed you with. If toward the end of the conversation they say, “But all you need is an operation and you will be fine,” this hope would be the most important thing said. The detailed explanation of the problem only increases the impact and appreciation of the solution.

Again, in a compelling film or book, the plot builds, leading to a critical point. There seems to be no way out. Things are on the edge of disaster. Then, at the last minute, a solution is found, a happy ending. The Bible is like that, showing first man’s total inability to save himself. The turning point is Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. This good news of salvation provides the treatment for the illness that the rest of the Bible has been diagnosing. Thus, resurrection is at the very core of the Christian message. It is only because of Jesus’ resurrection that Paul was able to say, “‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’” (1 Corinthians 15:55).

WE MAY MISS HOW THE BIBLE SUBTLY IMPLIES RESURRECTION

The Bible often hints at or implies resurrection rather than referring to it directly, much like the foundation of a house. To demonstrate how easily resurrection can be missed, let’s look at the first chapter or so of 1 Corinthians. On a quick read, it appears that these verses center all their attention on the cross of Christ. If we only focused on the following phrases, we might easily miss the theme of resurrection:

Was Paul crucified for you? (1:13)

The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing. (1:18)

We preach Christ crucified. (1:23)

I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. (2:2)

This strong emphasis has led to these verses being widely and correctly used to uphold the centrality of the cross. But if we look more closely at this passage, we will see that the resurrection underpins and authenticates everything that Paul teaches. It is precisely because of the resurrection that the following things are possible:

We can be “sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1 Corinthians 1:2). To be sanctified in Jesus requires being in union with one who is able to sanctify. If Jesus had not risen from the dead, there would be no holiness or any other benefit to be gained from union with him.

We can “call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:2). Our prayers can be directed to the risen Christ who still acts on our behalf, receives worship, and directs us as Lord. The first disciples had been taught to worship one God but began calling Jesus “Lord”—the name used for God. It is impossible to imagine them doing this if the resurrection had not confirmed for them beyond all doubt that Jesus was indeed divine.

We can receive “grace . . . and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:3). Christians are to be marked by both receiving and giving inexplicable grace and peace, which is a direct gift from both God and the living Christ.

We can be “in every way . . . enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge” (1 Corinthians 1:5). It is the risen Jesus himself who is the source of all knowledge and wisdom.

The apostles’ “testimony about Christ was confirmed among you” (1 Corinthians 1:6). This risen Jesus dwells within believers. He transforms us, and without this confirming work of his Spirit, we cannot be saved.

We are to “wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:7). Christians are to be a people of anticipation, looking forward to the return of the resurrected Lord Jesus in all his glory. The Christian lives within an interlude between Jesus’ glorious resurrection and his triumphant return. We will fully enjoy some aspects of what he has achieved for us only when we meet him in glory. We live with such a hope for the future that it changes us, but we also begin to experience some of the benefits here and now.

We are “called into the fellowship of his Son” (1 Corinthians 1:9). Christians are offered a true relationship with the resurrected Jesus.

Like Paul, we are called by the living Jesus to a mission. He writes, “Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel” (1 Corinthians 1:17). It was the living Jesus who intervened in Paul’s life on the road to Damascus, changing him from murderous persecutor to preacher. Every Christian is called to this mission of sharing the good news.

Paul summarizes his work as “we preach Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23). This initially seems to suggest that the entire focus of his preaching is on the cross of Jesus. However, he then immediately says that the message of the cross is “Christ the power of God” to believers (1 Corinthians 1:24). The message of the crucifixion must include the resurrection, for it is impossible to conceive that Christ is revealed as the power of God unless it is proclaimed that he has defeated death.

Just in case we missed the point, Paul then becomes even more explicit when he says, “And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30). A dead man cannot be a source of wisdom, righteousness, or sanctification! From the context, therefore, there is no doubt that Paul preaches Christ and him crucified; yet in these very words he implies a death that was not permanent and over which Christ triumphed.

While these references in 1 Corinthians 1 are subtle, it’s clear that both the death and resurrection of Jesus are central to Paul. His gospel hinges on the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead. This is also consistent with Paul’s emphasis in 1 Corinthians 15.

There is obviously a direct link between death and resurrection. Without Jesus’ death, there could not have been a resurrection, but equally, without the resurrection even the death of Jesus would have been a meaningless tragedy. In order for Jesus’ death to be of any benefit to us, he had to emerge from the grave alive, and as we have seen, Paul repeatedly confirms that fact for us.

THE BIBLE SEES JESUS’ DEATH AND RESURRECTION AS ONE SAVING EVENT

I argued earlier that when Paul said “Christ and him crucified,” he meant us to understand “Christ and him both crucified and raised.” For Paul, the death and resurrection of Jesus were inseparable. I would go so far as to suggest that when he referred to either the death or resurrection of Jesus individually, he usually intended to refer to both events, as a form of shorthand.

Other writers argue similarly:

“We consider both the death and resurrection of Jesus as intimately related truths that are a singular event. Thus when we speak of Jesus’ death or cross, do assume that we are including Jesus’ resurrection and empty tomb, because apart from his ongoing life the cross is without any power.”[1]

This notion also becomes apparent when we examine some verses in 1 Peter, where at first glance Peter seems to say that it is the resurrection rather than the death of Jesus that saves us:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. (1:3)

We are to have a living hope that can only be given to us because of the resurrection of Jesus. It is God himself who works in us to give us this hope. This power that works actively in the Christian’s life is the same power God used when he raised Jesus from the dead (see Ephesians 1:19–20).

It is the resurrection itself to which salvation is attributed. The emphasis in this passage is on the saving nature of Jesus’ resurrection. Have you ever stopped to consider how Jesus’ resurrection saved you? Or do you think only of Jesus’ death in that way? In another chapter, Peter attributes salvation to “an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21). There is no mention at all in this verse of the cross.

All this cannot mean that Peter attributes our salvation solely to the resurrection of Jesus, since he would then be contradicting himself elsewhere in the same letter. In 1 Peter 1:2 he says it is “sprinkling with his blood” that saves us, and in 1 Peter 1:19 it is “with the precious blood of Christ” that we are ransomed. In these two verses there is no mention that the resurrection makes our salvation possible; instead the focus is on Jesus’ death.

So which is it, Peter? Is it Jesus’ death or his resurrection that saves us? The only way we can understand this apparent contradiction is if, when Peter refers to the cross, he also implies that Christ rose from the dead, and when he refers to Jesus’ resurrection he also implies his death. Without this understanding we could get very confused, attributing our salvation first to the death, then to the resurrection of Jesus. Could our failure to understand this point have led to our tendency to attribute salvation solely to Jesus’ death? The truth is that we are saved by both the death and resurrection of Jesus working together.

Peter does connect these two events explicitly himself. When he describes the prophecies concerning the work of Jesus, he speaks of “the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories” (1 Peter 1:11).

In view of all these verses, we can argue that when Peter speaks of either the death or resurrection of Jesus, the two are so entwined in his mind that when he refers to one he means to include the other. The same thing seems true of other New Testament writers. I am essentially arguing that they so presuppose that the death and resurrection of Jesus are entwined that they refer to either one of them and intend for us to understand that they mean both of them. If this is the case, straightforward sentences that tell us “Jesus died to save us” or “Jesus was raised to save us” actually mean exactly the same thing.

This might sound like a radical new idea to some. If it actually was novel, you would be quite correct to be wary of it. After two thousand years of Bible study by many godly people, what makes us think we have the ability to construct a new, correct interpretation? Few of us will do this even once in our lives, and none of us can expect to do so on a regular basis. But this idea is far from new, and others of you are probably dumbfounded that I only recently stumbled upon it! Centuries ago John Calvin identified the same phenomenon:

Let us remember, therefore, that when [in Scripture] death only is mentioned, everything peculiar to the resurrection is at the same time included, and that there is a like synecdoche in the term resurrection, as often as it is used apart from death, everything peculiar to death being included.[2]

Calvin is implying that Jesus’ death and resurrection are so closely interrelated and connected to each other, they constitute one saving event, and when the Bible mentions one of them, the other one is usually also intended to be inferred.

If, like me, you enjoy collecting unusual words (much as some might collect rare stamps or coins), the word synecdoche may be an interesting addition to your vocabulary. Not very commonly used today, this word basically means what I have been describing. It is a figure of speech in which a word usually used to refer to a part of something is used to refer to the whole.

For example, we might say, “I need to rest my weary head” when what we really mean is “I need to rest my entire body.” In 2 Corinthians 7:5 Paul says, “For even when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest.” Vine argues that it is obvious that he is referring to their whole beings rather than just their physical bodies.[3]

Paul actually explains another biblical synecdoche in Ephesians 4:8. In speaking about gifts apportioned by the risen and ascended Jesus, he quotes Psalm 68:18: “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” He continues, “In saying, ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth?” (Ephesians 4:9). Paul explains that in the one word “ascension,” the descent from heaven is also implied.

Another good example of synecdoche is found in Romans 5:18. Here Paul says, “one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.” It appears from the context that he is speaking about Jesus’ death. Since so many verses refer to the resurrection as the event that gives us life, it seems very likely that he had both death and resurrection in mind at this point. Just a few verses later he says, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).

The clearest example of all is 2 Corinthians 5:15, “And he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” Here the first “died functions as shorthand for the more complete phrase “died and was raised.” Paul expands his own synecdoche. Since he used the word “died” here and intended us to infer the crucifixion and resurrection, then we can conclude that he may well have done the same thing elsewhere.

In 1 Corinthians 2:2 Paul summarizes his message by saying that he preaches “Jesus Christ and him crucified.” This would seem to contradict the description of Paul’s message in Acts 17:18, where Luke says that Paul preached “Jesus and the resurrection.” Either Luke and Paul disagreed about what was at the heart of Paul’s preaching, or the cross and resurrection of Jesus were considered so intermingled that they meant essentially the same thing and one could be used while inferring the other, making it almost impossible to talk about one without implying the other. Luke also describes the original Apostles teaching as “with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” (Acts 4:33). Calvin argues that such phrases are synecdoches:

Whereas he doth only name the resurrection of Christ, it is synecdoche; for this part is put for the whole gospel. But Luke maketh mention of the resurrection alone, because it is, as it were, the furnishing or fulfilling of the gospel;[4]

Therefore, both descriptions of Paul’s preaching mean essentially the same thing. Without the resurrection, the cross was just another senseless death perpetrated by the Romans, and without the cross there would be no need for a resurrection. Both must be preached, and they must be preached together.

The biblical language surrounding the death and resurrection of Jesus is, therefore, easily misunderstood by today’s reductionistic approach to understanding language. We can agree that when the biblical writers spoke of either Jesus’ death or his resurrection, they were often using one of these events as shorthand for both of them. An inadequate understanding of this point may very well have contributed to our neglect of the resurrection.

The perfect life, obedient death, life-giving resurrection and ascension of Jesus should be thought of as one saving work—a combined and inseparable act of God. It is only through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that salvation is possible. There is a single complete arc of movement down through incarnation, death, and burial and then up through resurrection, ascension, and enthronement. Christ Jesus himself is our salvation. Paul says of his own ministry:

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation. . . . For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 3:10–11)

It is indeed Jesus himself and all that he has done that provides the only sure foundation for our lives. He himself is the only way of salvation. The saving effects of his death and resurrection are combined. As Ridderbos[5] said:

It is, moreover, of the greatest importance to see the significance of Christ’s death and resurrection, which are the center of Paul’s proclamation, as an inseparable unity; and particularly to keep in view how the significance of Christ’s resurrection is determined by that of his death and vice versa.[6]

All this is not to say that it is never appropriate to talk of either the death or the resurrection of Jesus independently. Nor is it to deny that the cross and resurrection contribute to our salvation in distinct ways. Sometimes, even with a very well-known synecdoche, the constituent part may actually be what someone is speaking about. For example, I might say, “I have a new set of wheels,” and most people would immediately understand that I meant I had bought a complete car. If I added more information to that statement and instead said, “I went to the tire shop after driving over glass and got a new set of wheels,” you would immediately understand that what I actually meant was that I had purchased new tires, not a new car. We therefore need to be especially careful as we seek to understand the use of synecdoche in the New Testament.

CONCLUSION

We tend to pay little attention to the reality of our own future death. We have somehow learned to ignore the fact that someday we will die, thinking of it as a long way off, far away from the overriding concerns of our day-to-day lives. The truth, however, is that the only difference between those of us who are healthy and those who know they are dying is that we act as if we are immortal, thinking of our death as a remote and almost unreal occurrence. One of the tragedies of life is that in this we are sometimes mistaken. Statistically speaking, it is highly likely that some of the readers of this book will one day be surprised that their own death came much earlier than they expected, and with little or no warning. Since death seems so distant to us, is it any wonder that we speak so little of resurrection?

As you can imagine, when I was diagnosed in May 2017 with a blood cancer during a life threatening episode of pneumonia the prospect of my own death became much more real to me. I have written extensively on my Patheos blog about how I asked myself did I really believe the gospel at that times, and how the hope of resurrection was the only thing that kept my faith alive. I’m still very much alive as I revise this book in 2024 but one thing is for sure the day of my death is closer now than when I wrote the first edition. But every day brings all of us closer to our deaths, whether we realize it or not.

By its emphasis on both death and resurrection, the Bible urges us to answer these crucial questions: Are you ready for your own death? Do you have a hope that goes beyond the grave? As we consider our own mortality, the truth of the resurrection of Jesus prepares us to face death and assures us that we have a secure place in heaven that is being prepared for us by Jesus (see John 14:2). Christians approach death very differently than others because we have already begun to truly live. We have a foretaste of that heavenly life already, and God gives us life to the full that will never cease (John 10:10).

A disembodied heavenly state is not our final resting place. One day we too will be like Jesus, living in God’s presence, but with a new, glorious resurrection body. For anyone with the diagnosis of a terminal illness, the message of the resurrection will provide more comfort and reassurance than any other doctrine.

Life is itself a terminal condition, so we might be forgiven for arguing that resurrection is the most important theme in the Bible—at least practically for us.

 

REFERENCES ARE FOUND AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS PAGE

 


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READ MORE

 

Chapter One:

Chapter Two:

The Resurrection Appearances

Chapter Three:

Resurrection: Fact or Fiction? Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?

Chapter Four:

Resurrection Neglected: Without it Good Friday is not Good

 

REFERENCES

 

 

[1]Mark Driscoll and Gary Breshears, Death by Love (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 13–14.

 

[2]John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1997), II, xvi, 13.

 

[3]W. E. Vine et al., Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1996), 2:242.

 

[4] Calvin, J. and Beveridge, H. (2010) Commentary upon the Acts of the Apostles. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, p. 191.

[5]Former Professor of New Testament at the Theological School of the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands.

 

[6]Herman Ridderbos, Paul, an Outline of his Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 54.

 

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