The build-up to Easter Sunday is always poignant and dramatic. We do our best to relive all the events leading up to the resurrection—Palm Sunday, the Last Supper, the betrayal, the trial, the scourging, the carrying of the cross, the crucifixion, the suffering, death and burial. Even though we already know the end of the story, we do what we can to get into the right headspace, letting the magnitude of Christ’s sacrifice and the travesty of our sin penetrate as deep as possible.
Then, after simmering in all that negativity for an entire week, we show up on Easter Sunday ready to release it. We wear bright colors. We shout, announcing that he is risen. We sing our favorite hymns. We laugh when the worship leader makes some comment about the devil being foiled again. We cheer when the pastor talks about how God can redeem the most awful tragedies, using his unfathomable power to bring life to the lifeless, hope to the hopeless.
But after the service, while everyone is hurrying off with their families to take pictures, enjoy a big lunch, and hunt Easter eggs, I’m still sitting there trying to figure out why it was necessary for Jesus to actually come back from the dead.
What’s the point?
Let’s be honest. From God’s perspective, no one really dies. It’s more like spirit relocation. Why would it matter to God if his Son rejoins him the most natural way, through death, rather than physically bringing him back and then having him float up to heaven like a human hot-air balloon?
The story would make so much more sense if Jesus was more like Neo from the Matrix. He could have walked straight from the tomb to the temple, announcing himself as the immortal king of Israel. With his resurrection power, he could have easily overcome his foreign overlords, condemned the religious leaders, and started his new kingdom, a kingdom that would fill the earth with righteousness and peace, checking-off all the Messianic prophecies one by one.
Instead, Jesus appears to a select few, talks to them for a while, then disappears, making it difficult for anyone to prove that he was really there. I suppose we could argue that Jesus came back to encourage his disciples before sending them on such a difficult and dangerous mission, but he probably could have done that in a vision or a dream.
The more I studied the New Testament, the more I realized that there was a significance to the resurrection that I was missing.
My salvation and hope had always orbited around the crucifixion. In my mind, when Jesus says something is finished, it’s finished. But that’s not what Paul seemed to think. When discussing the resurrection, Paul makes it sound as if Jesus was saying that his ordeal was finished, but not the complete act of redemption. Apparently, when it came to our salvation, Paul believed that the resurrection was just as necessary as the crucifixion, maybe even more so.
If Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless. And we apostles would all be lying about God—for we have said that God raised Christ from the grave. But that can’t be true if there is no resurrection of the dead. And if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins. — I Cor. 15:14-17
Still guilty of our sins? Is Paul saying that if Jesus didn’t physically walk out of that tomb our faith and preaching would be useless? Was the crucifixion really not enough?
A new kind of creature
Back in my late twenties, I was teaching a home Bible study, and we decided to study the book of Romans. While I was eager to explore the book, knowing how important it was, I was intimidated by certain parts, especially the meaty parts toward the middle. I understood the benefit of marinating my brain in the text, so I decided to take a giant leap and try to memorize the entire book.
I memorized, then taught, then memorized some more, trying to stay ahead of the group. The first five chapters were interesting, but not revolutionary or controversial. But then I came to chapter six, and found myself shoving words into my head, but the words were not digesting. Here’s a sample:
We are those who have died to sin. How can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin, because anyone who has died has been set free from sin. — Rom. 6:2-7
First, Paul claims that believers are dead to sin, which contradicts everything I experienced or believed about sin. Then Paul claims that believers have been baptized into Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection, somehow sharing those experiences with him, which didn’t make any sense to me, at least not practically. I always believed that Jesus had done all of those things for me, not with me.
I knew that I couldn’t explain these concept to my Bible Study. I couldn’t explain them to myself.
So I kept studying chapter six, running the words over and over in my mind, trying to hear what Paul was saying, asking God for insight. Then, in a moment of clarity, everything clicked. The moment was so vivid and dramatic that I actually got goosebumps. I remember exactly where I was standing—a small balcony behind our third-story apartment in Glendale, California.
The logic was fairly simple. Paul was saying that Christians share in the death, burial and resurrection of Christ in a mystical sense, as if believers of all centuries could somehow travel back through time and merge with Christ as he lived, died and came back to life, somehow absorbing all of the benefits of that metamorphic process.
In the movie, Pretty Woman, a wealthy businessman falls in love with a prostitute. He just can’t help himself. He takes her off the streets. He shares everything with her. He gives her a whole new identity. In a way, by allowing her to live in his house, use his name, and spend his credit cards, the man is sharing all of his previous business deals with her, even though she didn’t even know him when he made those deals.
I finally understood why Jesus would say, “I am the way the truth and the life,” instead of saying “I’ll show you the way, I’ll tell you the truth, I’ll give you the life.” In a sense, he didn’t give us our salvation. He became our salvation.
As a genuine human being, he earned the highest honors without shortcuts, from the deepest pain to the greatest glory, so that he could share the entire spectrum of those earnings with any human being that was audacious enough to believe what he had done and accept the reality of it.
We are the bride of Christ. But that union is not about wealth or prestige. It’s about entering a whole new kind of existence, one that shares life with a man who has been reborn and reconstituted, like a butterfly. And somehow, even though we’re all still a bunch of caterpillars, crawling around in the dirt, his wings give our spirits a lift, allowing us to share a taste of the sky before we actually crawl into our own cocoons, spread our wings, and join him.