It’s Holy Saturday again, the day before Easter Day! (This time according to the Eastern church calendar.) But what if it were still the original Holy Saturday? What if the original Good Friday had been followed not by a single day, but by an extremely long ‘Holy Saturday’, continuing up to the present and into the future, and lasting until a grand ‘Easter Day’, on which not only Jesus but all the dead will be raised? In other words, what if Jesus’ body were still in the tomb, and will remain there until the day when God ushers in his eternal kingdom? What difference would that make?
One answer would be to say that, if Jesus had not been raised from the dead, we would have no way of knowing that the Friday on which Jesus died was in any sense ‘Good Friday’. There were lots of would-be Messiahs around at the time. All of them lived and all of them died without ushering in the Kingdom of God. A dead Messiah is a failed Messiah – especially if he was betrayed by his own people, and especially if he died a shameful death at the hands of the very Romans over whom he was supposed to triumph. If Jesus had not been raised from the dead, we would have never even heard of him.
But is that an adequate answer? In order for us to know that Jesus was the Messiah, was it necessary for him to be raised from the dead?
I think not.
For example, it seems that certain things happened on Good Friday itself that did convince some people that Jesus was who he had claimed to be:
When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, ‘Surely he was the Son of God!’ (Mt 27:54, all quotes from the NIV)
But, more fundamentally, could God have not vindicated Jesus in some other way? What if the disciples had all seen visions? What if God had spoken to them, and explicitly told them that Jesus’ death had paid for our sins? What if God had sent a mighty angel to announce the good news: that if anyone puts their trust with Jesus, their sins will be forgiven, and that, together with Jesus, they will share in the resurrection when God brings in his kingdom? What if this message had been accompanied by many signs and wonders? Would that not have been enough to convince us? Clearly it would.
So why raise Jesus from the dead? Surely there must have been a reason?
Perhaps the answer comes when we think about what it would be like to have Jesus’ tomb in Jerusalem. Can you imagine the conflicts and superstitions that would have resulted from that! Perhaps it was necessary for Jesus to be raised, in order to free us from the burden of keeping his body safe?
But this answer won’t do either. Think of Moses’ body, for example:
[The Lord] buried him in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is (Dt 34:6).
If God had wanted to hide Jesus’ body from us, he could have simply done exactly that. The women could have found the empty tomb, and the angel(s) could have told them that Jesus’ body had indeed been taken away, as Mary Magdalene had initially assumed (Jn 20:13).
So where does that leave us? Why did God raise Jesus from the dead? It wasn’t (primarily) to convince us that Jesus death had paid the price for our sins and that he was indeed the Messiah; that could have happened just as easily with angels, visions, messages, signs and wonders. Nor was it (primarily) to prevent Jesus’ body from being subjected to inappropriate devotion or abuse; God could have easily hidden Jesus’ body, as he did with Moses’ body. So why did God raise Jesus from the dead?
The answer comes when we think about the significance of the resurrection of the dead.
Many of the Jews in Jesus’ time were looking ahead to the day when all the dead would be raised. Martha is an example of this:
‘Lord,’ Martha said to Jesus, ‘if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.’
Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’
Martha answered, ‘I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day’ (Jn 11:22-24).
They realised that death was an enemy in God’s good creaton, and that one day God would ‘swallow up death for ever’ (Is 25:8), that the dead would be raised, and that God would fill the earth with his glory. So, for these Jews, the resurrection was the sign of the arrival of God’s eternal kingdom.
Jesus himself spoke of ‘this present age’ and of ‘the age to come’ (Mk 10:30, etc). And the resurrection of the dead was the sign that the ‘age to come’ had begun. It’s not insignificant that all four gospels describe Jesus’ resurrection as happening on ‘the first day of the week’. Jesus’ resurrection is the ‘eighth day’: the first day of the new ‘week’, and the first day of the new creation. Even while ‘this present age’ continues, ‘the age to come’ has dawned. We now live in the ‘overlap of the ages’ – in the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’.
Paul describes Jesus’ resurrection as the ‘firstfruits’:
But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep (1 Cor 15:20).
The arrival of the firstfruits means that the time of waiting is over, and the time of harvesting has begun. It signals a new era in how God relates to his creation.
After his resurrection, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me’ (Mt 28:18). This authority was demonstrated most clearly when Jesus was taken up into heaven, and was given the authority to do what only God could do: to pour out the Spirit of God into the world. As Peter said on the day of Pentecost:
God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said,
‘The Lord said to my Lord:
“Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies
a footstool for your feet”’ (Acts 2:32-35).
So Jesus’ resurrection has inaugurated a period of time in which God is putting everything under Jesus’ feet. As Paul expressed it:
But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet (1 Cor 15:20-25).
What does this look like in practice?
First, it means that many people who were God’s enemies will be brought to acknowledge Jesus as Lord. That day of Pentecost alone saw about three thousand converts (Acts 2:41), ‘And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved’ (v.47). Paul himself was eventually added to their number, and his account of his conversion in 1 Corinthians 15 seems to be an excellent example of one of Jesus’ enemies being put under his feet:
For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them – yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me (1 Cor 15:9-10).
Second, the resurrection of Jesus, along with his exaltation and the outpouring of the Spirit, means that these former enemies of Jesus will bear fruit. In other words, the inaugurated ‘age to come’ is not characterised simply by Jesus being the ‘firstfruits’, but we share in that:
He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created (James 1:18).
Filled with the ‘firstfruits of the Spirit’ (Rom 8:23), we are then ‘rescue[d] from the present evil age’ (Gal 1:4) and enabled to bear fruit:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal 5:22-23).
We then become living signs of the presence of God’s new creation:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here! (2 Cor 5:17)
God’s purpose is for the present age to be ‘invaded’ by Spirit-filled agents of his new creation, eager to do what is good:
For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope – the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good (Titus 2:11-14).
So Christ’s resurrection is a call to confident and hope-filled action:
Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain (1 Cor 15:58).
Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers (Gal 6:9-10).
Too often we live as though it was still Holy Saturday. Too often we live as though Pentecost hadn’t happened and as though God didn’t care about our good works. Too often we think of Jesus’ resurrection as nothing more than the proof that he is the Messiah and that his death paid for our sins. It is that. But it is so much more than that. It means that it is no longer Holy Saturday. The new creation has begun, all authority has been given to Jesus, God’s enemies are being transformed into his children, and Jesus is pouring out the Spirit of God into the world to bring healing and renewal to all nations.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!