Easter changes everything — we saw that yesterday. But one of the most fascinating things about Easter is that the theme of resurrection is not something that takes the New Testament by surprise. In fact, if you study the Old Testament carefully, you will see all sorts of allusions that all point to Christ’s eventual defeat of the grave on Easter Sunday, and here to explain those connections on the phone is Dr. Don Carson, who is kind enough to join us again.
He joins us by way of our partnership with our friends over at The Gospel Coalition. Dr. Carson is the co-founder and president of The Gospel Coalition, and he is the editor of the new NIV Zondervan Study Bible which focuses on biblical theological themes as they develop in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.
Dr. Carson, thanks for joining us again to talk biblical theology. As we move through various major themes in the biblical storyline, it’s fitting that today we talk about the resurrection as we celebrate Easter on Sunday. Take it away and in this session help us appreciate Easter.
In this session, we want to consider the resurrection — first of all the resurrection of Jesus and then our resurrection on the last day — so that we are in agreement as to what terms mean. By resurrection I do not mean something like living forever in a spirit existence or the like, but living again in bodily mode after the body has died, coming back from the dead in real bodies, but, ultimately, in transformed bodies.
Let’s back off just a wee bit. There are lots of passages in the Bible that talk about existence beyond death. But there are some passages that talk about resurrection; that is, bodily existence beyond death. Many people think that there are very few such passages in the Old Testament, and certainly they are not as common in the Old Testament as in the New, but there are more of them than people think.
For example, in Genesis 22, which is, after all, not very far into the Bible, we have the account of Abraham almost sacrificing his son and then God himself provides the sacrifice in a ram. Now that is all that is said. Nothing more is revealed about Abraham’s motives.
But a sensible and intelligent inference is drawn on that chapter by Hebrews 11:17–19. The only way that Abraham could have believed that this instruction came from God to kill his own son, his firstborn son, the son in whom God himself had promised that the line would run, is that he believed that God had the ability to raise his son Isaac from the dead.
“Jesus still has his wounds, but his resurrection is unique from all others. His body has been transformed.”
And that has to be a bodily existence. It is not some sort of mystical or ethereal or non-corporeal new life. It has to be life from the dead, because Isaac would then have to pass on his genes to the next generation and the next generation and so on, or the promise would have been invalid. In other words, there was already some sort of notion of resurrection and its possibility under the mighty hand of God that was grasped by Abraham right at the beginning of the covenant promises to the messianic people.
Then there is a very famous passage in Job. I know that there are problems in translating it, but I think that the NIV has it right. Job, in the midst of his sufferings, still says, “I know that my Redeemer lives and that in the end he will stand on the earth, that after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God. I myself will see him with my own eyes, I and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” (Job 19:25–27).
If you take that at face value, it is pretty dramatic. After his skin has been destroyed, he has rotted in the grave, yet “in my flesh I will see God.” Not just, “I will see God, perhaps in some spirit-to-spirit fashion,” what is later called the intermediate state, but, “in my flesh I will see God,” which presupposes that the flesh has come back to life. “I myself will see him with my own eyes. I, and not another.” That is a personal resurrection with a personal resurrection body. All of that, it seems to me, is presupposed.
Then there are passages which use resurrection language, but which in the first instance are not talking about physical resurrection, but about the restoration of the people of God after they have been swept away into captivity. The most famous one of these is Ezekiel 37:1–14 where the prophet has this vision of the valley of dry bones and from this we get the famous negro spiritual: “Them bones, them bones, them dry bones. Now hear the Word of the Lord.” And in the vision the bones are connected, but they are still not alive. The bones are connected and flesh covers them, but they are still not alive until the Spirit of God comes upon them and they stand up as a mighty army in the valley of what was dried bones, but now is full of life.
Now in the context of Ezekiel 37, this is an imagery having to do with the restoration of the people to the land after they have been banished by God himself from the land in the exile. But the thing to observe is that, although it is talking about the restoration, the imagery is of resurrection. In other words, those that say that the Old Testament saints don’t know anything about resurrection — you have to wait for Jesus before you get that — overlook the fact that, even though Ezekiel 37 is not explicitly talking about resurrection per se, in the immediate context, the imagery that is used to talk about the return from exile is resurrection imagery, which shows that the category is already there in Ezekiel’s mind and in the minds of the people.
And the same is also true in Isaiah 24–27 and to some extent in chapter 56 as well. Isaiah 24–27, these chapters are sometimes called the Isaiatic apocalypse where there is a lot of apocalyptic imagery of one sort there other. And in that context, in Isaiah 26:18–19, for example, we read, “We were with child. We writhed in labor when we gave birth to wind. We have not brought salvation to the earth and the people of the world have not come to life. But your dead will live, Lord. Their bodies will rise. Let those who dwell in the dust wake up and shout for joy. Your dew is like the dew of the morning. The earth will give birth to her dead.”
“All of God’s sovereignty is mediated through Christ, and it hinges on his power over death in his resurrection.”
Now the exact flow of thought in those chapters is, inevitably, somewhat argued about. But even if you conclude that it is talking about return from exile or the like, it is, again, cast most definitely in terms of resurrection from the dead with the bodies rising from the grave and so forth. It is very strong language.
And then the are certain miracles in the Old Testament like the resurrection from the dead and the Shunamite widow’s son, which clearly is flat out miracle (2 Kings 4:8–37).
When you come to the New Testament, Jesus himself raises a small number, but certain specific individuals, from the dead. The son of the widow of Nain, for example, he raises that son from the dead as the son is heading out to burial (Luke 7:11–17). And then there is the remarkable event in John 11 where he raises Lazarus from the dead. And in that case, the man has been in the grave for four days, so that putrefaction has set in. There is no way that you can confuse that resurrection from the dead with a calling somebody back to life who has simply gone into heart fibrillation, is not really dead. There is decay that has taken place. And that is the context in which Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25). In other words, just before that promise in John 11, Martha confesses her orthodox faith. “I believe that there is a resurrection at the end. I believe that my brother will rise on the last day.” And Jesus asks her, “Yes, but I am the resurrection and the life. Do you believe that?” (John 11:24–26).
In other words, Jesus is thrusting himself in the center of everything. It is not just that there is resurrection on the last day, but that there is no resurrection apart from him on the last day. He is the one who makes resurrection possible. And that is finally demonstrated in the spectacular display of his own resurrection.
Moreover, his own resurrection is unique. You see, if it were not unique, you could say that Lazarus was resurrected before Jesus and so he is the ultimate prototype of resurrection. Or the Shunamite widow’s son in the Old Testament is resurrected before Jesus. So he has got to be a prototype before Jesus. And in one sense they are images of what will come.
But they are not the prototype in the sense that Jesus is, because when Jesus comes back from the dead, his resurrection, though it ties his resurrection body with his pre-death body, nevertheless, his resurrection is unique in all resurrections up to that point in that his body has been transformed. There is a connection between his old body, that is, his pre-death body, and his resurrection body in that the stigmata, that is, the marks of the wounds, are still there. That is one of the main points of John 20.
So it is not as if a twin was suddenly brought forth or somebody that looked a lot like Jesus so that there was mass hallucination. In addition to the regular marks of crucifixion that Jesus had, he also had the highly unusual mark of a spear thrust up under his rib cage to pierce the pericardium and, thus, the resurrected body of Jesus that the disciples see in experience after experience — at least ten or eleven of them recorded in the New Testament to one or two, to groups of seven, to groups of ten or eleven, and finally to 500 — all of these depict continuity with the pre-death body. That is to say, this is the Jesus that went into the tomb. The tomb was empty and the resurrected body of Jesus is at some level the same as the body that went in. And this is Jesus — the historical man, Jesus.
“Our ultimate hope is not simply to be with Christ in immaterial existence, but to have resurrected bodies.”
Yet, at the same time, he is now in resurrection glory. He is in resurrection life and he does things now that he never did before, appearing in a locked room, for example. We would say today: Materializing or dematerializing. And in some sense, he exists in another sphere. Exactly what the connection is at some sort of scientific or ontological level, between his pre-death body and his post-resurrection body, we cannot possibly know.
Where this is teased out at greatest length is in 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul draws some analogies, but he himself acknowledges they are analogies. They are analogies, nevertheless, that are meant to tell us something. An acorn doesn’t look like an oak tree, yet with the death of the acorn as the shell rots away and the little life that is bound up inside begins to grow, ultimately it issues in a mighty tree. It is only an analogy, but it is a telling analogy. And he speaks of the different glories of different entities: of stars, of the moon, the sun, and so on. There are different orders of being and so also he speaks of the resurrection body as being of a different order.
And there are two or three other passages that are really important for us to understand. Consider the passage in John 20 that I briefly mentioned where there is a huge emphasis on the stigmata, the marks of the wounds on Jesus.
The stigmata are the things that convince Thomas, who has doubts, about the reality of the resurrection. They are things that convince Thomas that the resurrected Jesus, the resurrection body of Jesus has genuine continuity with the pre-death body of Jesus. This is the wounded, slaughtered Messiah who now is alive and reigning as Lord. And in consequence, he falls before him and cries, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).
Indeed, there is a lot of emphasis on the demonstration of who Jesus really is, the promised one of God, that the eternal Son of God, the one who is Lord of all is precisely grounded in the historical witness of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The cumulative evidence that this New Testament of ours, which speaks so powerfully and frequently of the resurrection of Christ, is not the result of hallucination or some conspiracy by early Christians. The cumulative evidence is very, very strong indeed.
These Christians were prepared to die for what they had seen. “We cannot help but speak of the things we have seen and heard,” they say (Acts 4:20). They take it as a mark of privilege to suffer for this Christ who suffered so much for them. This is not people who talked themselves into it. All the records show how slow and low they were to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead. But if he has risen from the dead — as they came to see, as even Paul came to see, in his vision of the resurrected Christ on the Damascus road — if Jesus really has risen from the dead, then he is approved by God. He is vindicated by God. His death was not to pay for his own sin, or else he would be dead. There is no way he would be vindicated by being raised by God from the dead.
No, no. He paid for the sins of others. And his sacrifice was so acceptable in God’s own plan that the vindication is demonstrated not least in the resurrection of Christ Jesus. This establishes him now as the reigning Lord already. And all of God’s sovereignty is mediated through Christ Jesus, who is the mediator of God’s authority in every domain in this age until he has crushed his last enemy. And the last enemy to be destroyed, we are told, in 1 Corinthians 15:26, is death itself. And all of this hinges on the resurrection of Christ Jesus.
Another passage that is really quite important is 2 Corinthians 5:1–10 where Paul makes it very clear, it seems to me, that his ultimate hope is not simply to die and be with Christ. Paul’s ultimate hope is not to die and be with Christ, as wonderful as that would be. That is something he looks forward to in Philippians 1. But his ultimate hope is not to be, as he puts it in 2 Corinthians 5, unclothed, that is, without a body. His ultimate hope goes beyond what Christians have sometimes called the “intermediate state.” His ultimate hope is to be clothed again with a body, a resurrection body, a body like Christ’s glorious body, that will have the capacity to live and work and eat in this terrestrial, renewed earth, but also to be in the very presence of God. The ultimate hope of the Christian is not simply to be with Christ in some immaterial existence, but to have resurrection bodies in a renewed heaven and a renewed earth.
And all of that then ultimately issues in hope. There is a wonderful passage in 1 Peter:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of his salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now, for a little while, you may have had to suffer grief and all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith, of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire may result in praise, glory, and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him. And even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy. For you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:3–9)
In other words, we are receiving now already the salvation of our souls. But this all issues ultimately in a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead into an inheritance that, for us too, can never perish, spoil, or fade — the promise of a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness, with resurrection existence. So that, although there is in Scripture a resurrection to life — that is, a new heaven and a new earth, and a resurrection to death, to hell itself — yet for believers the confidence, the joy, the anticipation, the hope is tied absolutely to their confidence that Jesus rose from the dead after having offered himself to pay for their sins. And the cross and the resurrection tie together as the turning point of the ages on which all of history swings with the new age already dawning now and ready to be brought to consummation when the master himself returns in all of his glorified, resurrected existence on the last day.
That is a brilliant summary and a timely word for us, Dr. Carson, thank you and have a wonderful Easter weekend.
And a wonderful Easter to you, too. Christ is risen. He is risen, indeed.
Alleluia! Thank you Dr. Carson.
Find other recent and popular Ask Pastor John episodes.