About 15 years ago I taught a Bible study on the book of Romans. I had read the book multiple times, but never really followed the logic of it, not point by point.
Truth is, I had always been a selective Bible reader, hunting and pecking for passages that made sense to me or inspired me. I never really asked myself why Paul wrote a certain letter, who he was writing to, or what he was trying to say. Those were questions for theologians. I was just a regular Christian, and the Bible was very personal to me, my own private access to the heart and mind of God.
Intimidated by the prospect of teaching Romans, I decided to memorize a chapter each week to keep my brain saturated in the text. As our study group began to work through the book chapter by chapter, I was feeling pretty good about the whole thing. Until we got chapter 6.
You try to explain what Paul meant about dying with Christ, being buried with Christ and rising with Christ from the dead. Try to explain what he meant about believers being dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. I just wanted to get to verse 23 so I could talk about how the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life. Sadly, when I got there, the context had totally screwed up my theology.
Thanks a lot, Paul. Now my Romans Road was full of potholes.
Before Romans 6, I didn’t have a clear sense of what Easter was all about. I thought I did. I was pretty pumped about Jesus walking out of the tomb, conquering death, shocking his disciples, and sticking it to the devil. Easter Sunday felt like a touchdown celebration.
But the resurrection wasn’t the actual touchdown. The touchdown was the cross, and Easter was all about the redemption of that horrible tragedy and injustice, not about redeeming the human race.
Sometimes my analytical brain would nag me at funerals. No pastor stands before a room of grieving loved ones and says that death has had the last word because there is still a corpse in the coffin. But on Easter Sunday we make a big deal about the empty tomb, as if Jesus’ victory would not be complete without it.
Didn’t he say it was finished on the cross? Couldn’t he have just gone back to heaven? He could have appeared to his disciples the same way he appeared to Stephen and Paul—alive, at the right hand of God. Or he could have appeared to them in the spirit, like an angel. Why was a bodily resurrection necessary? It’s not like he stuck around to use it.
There were other parts of Scripture that didn’t fit neatly into my theology. Here’s a great example: . . . if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile, and you are still in your sins. [I Cor. 15:17]
Was Paul saying that Christ’s sacrifice was not enough? How was Christ raised for our sins?
These were the kinds of question that snarled my brain as I tried to memorize Romans 6. I distinctly remember standing on my tiny balcony in our Glendale apartment when it finally started to click. I literally got goosebumps.
To see Paul’s argument, I had to stop thinking about what Christ did for me, and just think about what he did. I needed to track the whole timeline, then look at the implications. Here is a painfully brief synopsis of a critical, largely-ignored core concept of the New Testament:
Before the incarnation, Jesus was the eternal Son of God, a unique spiritual person, but one with the Father and Spirit in quality, nature and purpose. He was born into his own creation through the body of a woman, and lived as a genuine human being for 33 years. Of all the humans in history, he was the first to live a life worthy of the mandate found in Genesis 1:26-27—a man in God’s image and likeness, expressing dominion over the created world.
When he died, he died a true human death. His heart stopped. His spirit left his body. He was buried, and he stayed buried for three days. Then, as promised, he was raised from the dead.
This is where it gets tricky. This was not like Lazarus, whose resurrection was more like a resuscitation. Lazarus would die again. Jesus was born into a state of existence that had not been true of any person before or since. He was literally the first of his kind—not an eternal spirit being, like God or the angels; not a creature of the natural world, doomed to die. Something new.
Somehow he maintained his biological ties with David, though he had become an eternal son of David, living in an imperishable body, able to exist and function both on earth and in heaven. Christ ascends to his Father in this new state, and because of the quality his earthly life and the value of his sacrifice, he is rewarded with a position of authority over all creation. He exerts this rule through his Church by the Holy Spirit, just as the prophets predicted, working to take back the planet from the devil one soul at a time.
It doesn’t end there. Jesus has promised to return, bringing heaven and the saints with him. He will establish a new government, one of peace and justice. All things will be placed in subjection under his feet, even death itself. How? Because at his coming, there will be a great resurrection, and all flesh, living or dead, will be transformed into the same kind of body that Jesus put on display when he stepped out of the tomb.
We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” I Cor. 15:51-51
Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. I John 3:2
Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. I Cor. 15:20 – 23
We eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. Phil. 3:20-21
I could go on and on, posting verses from all over Scripture, but it would be overkill and probably overwhelming. The hope of the resurrection is something that needs more space than a single sermon or blog post. I plan to devote a few follow-up posts to this one, thinking about the benefits of being joined to a resurrected man, about what happens between this body and the next, what we can know about our resurrection bodies, and how to justify verses about heaven with a future restored earth.
The Church needs to expand its vision to include the full gospel of the New Testament, a gospel that looks forward to the ultimate victory of Christ’s resurrection, one that is still in process.
Then we can all resonate with the Bible’s final words: Come, Lord Jesus.