How the Resurrection Proved Jesus was King

How the Resurrection Proved Jesus was King April 25, 2023

Image Credit: Markus Spiske / Unsplash

Only a few short weeks ago, most Christians celebrated Easter. Churches were packed as congregants came to celebrate the glorious resurrection of Jesus and the implications that has for his people. Sermons focused on the defeat of death, the future hope of our own resurrection, and the dawning of a new creation. And yet I suspect one topic likely got very little coverage: the relationship between Jesus’ resurrection and his identity as the king.

If we turn to the New Testament, however, we find that the association between resurrection and kingship is a frequent theme. For example, as Paul summarizes the gospel in Romans 1:4, he writes that Jesus was “declared to be the Son of God in power… by his resurrection from the dead.”

For the Jews, the “Son of God” was, of course, the king. When God made his covenant with David in 2 Samuel 7, he promised to raise up his offspring after him and give him an everlasting kingdom. And then he said “I will be to him a father, and he will be to me a son.” And Psalm 2 clearly picks up on this idea—God speaks to the king of Israel and says, “You are my son, today I have begotten you.”

So when Romans 1:4 says Jesus was declared to be the “Son of God” by his resurrection, it means that he was declared to be the king. The fact that the prior verse emphasizes that he was “descended from David according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3) only underscores the point.

So, according to Paul, we know Jesus was “declared to be” the king because he was resurrected. But the question many of us might ask is why? Why does the resurrection prove his kingship? And why is that a big deal?

The Wow Factor

Our first intuition for why Jesus’ resurrection would prove that he was the king is that it validated all of the claims he made about himself—including his claim to kingship.

After all, Jesus was put to death for claiming to be the king of the Jews. In the last week of his life alone, he rode into Jerusalem like a king on Palm Sunday, was accused of claiming kingship at his trial, mocked as a pretend king by Roman soldiers, and crucified underneath a sign which displayed the charge “King of the Jews.” And we don’t have the space to list the many other moments throughout his ministry in which he made claims to kingship.

Moreover, most Christians would be quick to affirm that Jesus’ resurrection proved his power, and thereby proved that he was who he said he was. The resurrection is, after all, the granddaddy of all miracles. Anybody, in any culture, who is executed for making outlandish claims and then comes back from the dead is likely to be taken a lot more seriously after their rising. We shouldn’t expect things to be any different for Jesus.

So, Jesus claimed to be the king, got executed for it, and rose after his death. Perhaps we should assume that he was more than just an ordinary man! Perhaps, just perhaps, he might be God in the flesh, come to fulfill prophecy about a messianic king.

Ultimately, there’s definitely truth to this line of thinking. But I don’t think it’s the whole story. In fact, I think there are two things in the Jewish scriptures and Jewish history which can give us a much deeper understanding of how the resurrection proves Jesus’ claim to be the king.

Fulfilling Prophecy

The first of these is that the New Testament clearly views Jesus’ resurrection as a fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy concerning the Davidic king. In Psalm 16, David writes, “[God] will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.” In other words, God would not abandon his soul to the grave, nor let his body rot.

Of course, as everyone in Jesus’ day knew, David had died and his body had rotted. Peter points out this very thing in his sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2. In fact, having quoted from Psalm 16 at length, Peter says the following.

“Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption.”

In other words, Peter says, David was speaking of the resurrection of Jesus when he spoke of God not letting his holy one see corruption. Thus, Peter concludes, Jesus must be the descendant that David knew God would set on his throne.

And Paul makes the exact same argument in a sermon in Acts 13. In the eyes of the early church, then, Jesus’ resurrection clearly fulfilled the prophecy of Psalm 16, thereby marking him out to be the messianic king from David’s line.

Resurrection in Jewish Thought

But there’s a second historical feature of the resurrection that helps us to understand the relationship between the risen Jesus and his status as king. And to see it, we need to understand ancient Jewish beliefs about resurrection. We need to know what God’s people thought resurrection meant, long before Jesus was ever resurrected.

As I discussed in more detail in an earlier post on resurrection and justification, the Jews of Jesus’ day associated resurrection with final judgment. Following a vision from Daniel 12, they expected that God would one day come to judge the world and that those who were found to be righteous would be resurrected to everlasting life. To be resurrected, therefore, was to have God judge in your favor.

Moreover, this hope of resurrection at the final judgment also carried a sense of vindication for the Jews. God’s people could be martyred at the hands of evil kings (Roman or otherwise), but they had hope that God would one day vindicate them against their enemies by raising them to everlasting life. In other words, God would prove that they were in the right all along, and their enemies were in the wrong. (For an example of this kind of Jewish thinking, you might read 2 Maccabees 7—no need to accept it as inspired, just as context.)

Under the framework of this worldview, it’s easy to see why a Jew in Jesus’ day might suspect that his resurrection had proved his kingship. After all, as we said earlier, Jesus was martyred specifically for claiming to be the King of the Jews. Thus, if resurrection represents the vindication of God’s people against their enemies, then God had vindicated Jesus’ claim to be the king by resurrecting him from the dead. God had shown that he was in the right and his enemies were in the wrong all along.

Moreover, if resurrection is one possible verdict in the final judgment, then Jesus’ resurrection serves as a sort of reversal of the verdict of the earthly court. Jesus is found guilty of claiming to be the king and sentenced to death. But God reverses the court on appeal by resurrecting him from the dead.


In the end, I hope that these thoughts help to make a little bit more sense of Paul’s declaration in Romans 1 that Jesus was “declared to be” the king by his resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection proved that he was who he said he was, it vindicated the claims to kingship for which he was executed, and it fulfilled the prophecy in Psalm 16 concerning the resurrection of the coming Davidic king. Thus, as we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection, we celebrate not only the defeat of death, but also the breaking in of God’s kingdom into this world, ruled benevolently by an all-loving savior.

Thinking a little more broadly, it’s worth pointing out that this post is the latest in a series I’ve done on the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection. As I’ve written before, I’m concerned that there’s a “resurrection-shaped hole at the heart of evangelical theology.” We’re very adamant about the meaning of Jesus’ death, but we often tend to neglect theological import of the resurrection.

If you’d like to understand a little bit more about the theology of the resurrection, you might check out my prior posts on resurrection and justification or resurrection and our sanctification. I won’t claim to be an expert on these matters, but I will claim to be somebody who has read several experts in my own search for understanding and summarized some of the things that shaped my thinking the most!

(Note: I am heavily indebted to N.T. Wright for many of the ideas in this series on resurrection. If you’d like to understand the resurrection better, I recommend his The Resurrection of the Son of God. It’s quite an undertaking to read, but the payoff is worth it.)

Questions or comments about resurrection and Jesus as king? Please reach out below. I’m always excited to engage with thoughtful comments!

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