HOW are we to think of the death and resurrection of Jesus as we approach the first Good Friday and Easter Day of the 1970s? The radical challenge to traditional orthodoxy has not left even these foundational Christian truths unscathed. But at least it has this value: that it sends us back to the New Testament to re-examine the teaching of the apostles. They seem to portray Christ’s death and resurrection in at least five ways.
(1) The apostle Paul delivered to others the gospel he had himself received: “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared . . .”
It is sometimes asked what form the “appearance” of the risen Lord took, and what would have been seen on film if a photographer had been present with his camera handy. Those who ask this question usually imply that the picture would not have come out, and that, even if the resurrection appearances had some objectivity, it was not a physical objectivity which a camera could have captured.
Some have argued this position from I Corinthians xv, pointing out that the last resurrection appearance in Paul’s catalogue is that to himself on the Damascus Road, which (because it happened after the Ascension) they suggest was more a vision than an appearance. May the other “appearances” have been similar?, they ask.
It would be more natural, however, to assimilate Paul’s experience to the others than vice versa. His concise statement of the gospel seems to require this. He declares not only that Christ died but that he was buried, not only that he was raised but that he was seen. If the burial vouched for the reality of the death, then the appearances vouched for the reality of the resurrection.
At least the witness of the evangelists is clear: that the risen Lord allowed the apostles to assure themselves of the objectivity of his appearances by sight, hearing and touch.
(2) The Lord’s death and resurrection are presented in the New Testament as more than simple history. They are significant history, indeed salvation history. It is often claimed that the apostles’ focus of interest was the resurrection, not the cross. Certainly the burden of the Acts sermons is on God’s reversal of men’s sentence by raising Christ from the dead.
Nevertheless, it was by his death that the Saviour dealt with our sins. “He died for our sins,” the witness runs. The New Testament never says “He rose for our sins.” It is his “blood ” which cleanses from our sin, and his blood is the symbol of his life laid down in violent death.
The Church should be more faithful than it customarily is to those uncomfortable words of Scripture which say that in his death he was actually “made sin” and “a curse” for us (II Cor. v, 21; Gal. iii, 13). I remember reading as a schoolboy Bishop Blunt’s comment on the latter verse in the Clarendon Bible: “the language here is startling, almost shocking. We should not have dared to use it.” Maybe. But the point is that the apostle Paul did use it, and that we have no authority to disregard his authority.
The resurrection endorsed the achievement of the Saviour’s sin-bearing death. It is not so much that he “rose” as that he “was raised”. The resurrection is portrayed as a mighty deed done to him, powerfully designating him the Son of God (Rom. i, 3) and publicly vindicating his finished work of redemption (Rom. iv, 25). Without the resurrection there could be no assurance of salvation “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins ” (I Cor. xv, 17).
(3) The death and resurrection of Jesus are also presented as events in which (by faith and baptism) his people share. They are not history and theology alone, but vital Christian experience. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? . . . But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. . . The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. vi, 3, 8, 10, 11).
Romans vi is a closed chapter to many Christians. But, once it has yielded up its secret to us, it is marvellously conducive to holiness of life.
(4) Christ’s death was a death “to sin” once for all, in that he bore its penalty when he died. By his resurrection he “lives to God.” If we have become personally and organically united to Christ, then we have died to the old life and we have risen to an altogether new life. The benefit of his death and the power of his resurrection have both become ours. It is inconceivable, then, that we should fall back into the old ways from which we have been set free.
Christ’s death and resurrection are to be imitated as well as shared. It is written of Christian believers in the New Testament not only that we have died but that we must die, not only that we have been crucified with Christ but that we must take up our cross daily and follow Christ to the place of execution.
This death is a daily dying to self. “When Christ calls a man, he bids him die,” wrote Bonhoeffer. Cross-bearing is our Lord ’s dramatic figure of speech for self-denial, taking our slippery self and nailing it to the tree. It is the practice of “mortification”, of which we hear too little in the contemporary Church. Yet Jesus told us to be ruthless with the causes of sin, plucking out or cutting off our offending eyes, hands and feet. We tend to be too gentle with ourselves, too permissive.
This death is the way of life. “Whoever would save himself (holding on to his old life and refusing to die) will lose himself, but whoever loses himself (dying to himself and giving him self away for Christ and others) will find himself.”
It is urgent that the younger generation, hungry for freedom and searching for meaning, should grasp this Christian paradox. A radical theological student in the University of Helsinki said to me earlier this month: “I’m longing for freedom. I am getting more free since I gave up God.” He had not learned that it is in submitting to Christ’s yoke, not in discarding it, that we find rest (Matt. xi, 29, 30).
So Paul writes: “If you according to the flesh (yielding to the desires of your fallen nature) you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live” (Rom.viii, 13). This statement has been extremely important in my own Christian life. It is hard to die. It is painful to crucify one’s lower nature. But the promise is sure, and its truth is abundantly proved in experience, that, if we are willing thus to die, and only then, we shall live.
(5) A recent edition of the Observer magazine referred to death as “the great unmentionable”. “Far from being prepared for death,” it said, “modern society has made the very word almost unmentionable . . . and, when the time comes to die, we may react with anything from excessive triviality to total despair.”
But, if we have believed (in history and doctrine) that Christ died and rose again, and if we have known (in personal experience) the reality of dying and rising with him, then we shall be able to look forward to physical death with equanimity, indeed with joyful confidence. For we shall be assured of the life and the resurrection which are going to follow it.
True, Scripture still calls death an “enemy”, whose final destruction lies in the future. Yet already it has been deprived of power. It has become for the believer such a trivial episode (being a mere door from life into life abundant) that Jesus could even say: he “shall never die.”
Death is “ours” if we are “Christ’s”. For all those for whom life means Christ, death will mean “gain” because it will bring more of Christ. No wonder Henry Venn’s doctor could say that his joy at the prospect of dying kept him alive another fortnight!
I fear the Church will never make any impact on the secular community if it continues to mute the gospel of Christ crucified and risen. Our calling is to proclaim his death and resurrection as historical events and saving truths, to manifest in our own behaviour that the only way to live is to die to ourselves, and to demonstrate Christ’s conquest of physical death by our joyful anticipation of the resurrection.
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