Resurrection: what it means

Hebrews is written to people who are wondering why they have to die. As far as we can tell, they were primarily Jewish Christians facing the imminent threat of persecution and death. According to chapter 10, verse 32 and following, they had already suffered for the Faith, been publicly humiliated, and joyfully accepted the seizure of their property. But that was nothing compared with what they were about to suffer. According to chapter 12, verse 4, their blood had not yet been shed for the sake of the Gospel, implying that they will soon reach that point. They were now tempted to renounce Christianity and go back to Judaism. This must have been an extremely tempting option, one that could be rationalized all too easily. When I think of some tragedy happening to my children, my heart melts. Imagine how much worse it would be to be given the opportunity to prevent suffering and death not just for yourself but for your family. All you would have to do is renounce the Faith.

To this situation the Holy Spirit inspired the author of Hebrews to begin his exhortation by speaking of the Son of God. But not, not, just the Son in His pre-incarnate divine glory (though that’s mentioned in verses two and three), nor simply of the incarnation (though that is obviously presupposed in this passage), but also of something more: Something that the Hebrews needed to remember if they were to keep the Faith. Something at the heart of the Gospel as revealed in the New Testament. Something we need to think about, if we are to understand God’s plan for our salvation.

Hebrews 1.3: “When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high; having become much better than the angels, as He has inherited a more excellent name than they.”

Wait a minute! “Having become much better than the angels”? Didn’t the he just describe the Son as the one through Whom God created the world? As the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature? Wasn’t God the Son always infinitely greater than the angels? Wasn’t His name always greater?

Yes, the Son always was equal to God because He Himself was and is and ever will be God. But that is not the primary concern of the author of Hebrews. His concern is that the Hebrews realize what the Son achieved in His earthly ministry and how He achieved it. As the second Adam, Jesus had to become something in order to bring about His Kingdom. Look at Hebrews 2.9 and 10:

But we do see Him who has been made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that by the grace of God He might taste of death for everyone. For it was fitting for Him, for Whom are all things and through Whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to perfect the author of their salvation through sufferings.

Jesus became the “author” or “leader” or, perhaps better, “pathfinder” of our salvation through suffering and death. According to chapter 5, verses 8 through 10, Jesus “learned obedience through the things that He suffered, and having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation, being designated by God as a high priest.”

As the pathfinder for the salvation of the Hebrews, Jesus is not only the source of their salvation, but their leader in salvation. He is their example because of what He did in His humanity. The Hebrews are about to suffer. Here they are told that by suffering they are following their savior. He passed through death to life so that they too could pass from death to life. In other words, they can’t attain to the resurrection, without dying first. While the writer of Hebrews initially glosses over Christ’s humiliation and death, that is what he begins to unfold for them as his letter progresses. Christ who was equal with God, put himself not only lower than the angels, but submitted Himself to death.

But while the author of Hebrews does not mention Christ’s humiliation right away, he does mention Christ’s exaltation right in the beginning of his epistle. In fact, he mentions first and foremost the resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus is the basis and cause of the resurrection of believers in glory. But where does he mention the resurrection?. Flip back to Hebrews 1.5. Here, he quotes from Psalm 2. “You are My Son, today I have begotten You.” What does that Psalm mean?

We might think of the conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary so that he is the Son of God. Or we might think of how God the Son is eternally begotten by the Father. But, the author of Hebrews, I would suggest, is using the verse in line with the Apostolic preaching of the Gospel. Flip back with me to Acts 13.32. Here we find Paul preaching in the synagogue in Antioch. And here is His message:

And we preach to you the good news of the promise made to the fathers, that God has fulfilled this promise to our children in that He raised up Jesus, as it is also written in the second Psalm, “You are My Son; today I have begotten You.”

Did you get that? David, inspired by the Holy Spirit, was not primarily referring to the inter-Trinitarian relationships, or to the Virgin Birth, but to the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus being raised from the dead is described for us as God begetting a Son.

And this is not something unique to the Apostle Paul. The Apostle Peter preached the same basic message in that first Pentecost sermon in Jerusalem. Flip back with me to Acts 2.22-24. Hear Peter’s inspired interpretation of what happened to Jesus:

Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know–this Man, delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death. And God raised Him up again, putting an end to the birth pangs of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power.

Now, if your translation says “agony of death” so does mine, but the word means birth pangs and it’s the same word used in Matthew 24.8, Mark 13.8; and 1 Thessalonians 5.3 where it is translated as birth pangs. Somehow it seemed too weird to portray the grave as a mother from which a son is born, but that’s exactly what Peter is presenting to us. This should not surprise us. Twice, Jesus is called the firstborn from the dead–by Paul in Colossians 1.18 and by Jesus himself when He appeared in His Transfigured, Glorified human body to the Apostle John in Revelation 1.5.

Welcome to the to the weird and wild world of the Bible where the tomb becomes a womb for a new glorious creation.

But Peter didn’t originate this message in Acts 2–that resurrection from the grave was the birth of God’s son. He heard that interpretation of resurrection from the lips of our Lord. If you’ll flip back even further a few pages to Luke 20.34 and following, you’ll hear how Jesus explained the resurrection to the Sadducees. The Sadducees, if you remember, were the political/religious party of the priests who ruled Jerusalem for Rome. They did not believe in the resurrection, and in this passage, they try to make the doctrine of the resurrection look stupid by asking about a woman who had been married to seven brothers who each died in turn. At the resurrection, they asked, to which brother would this seven-time widow be married? Listen to Jesus’ reply:

The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry, nor are given in marriage; for neither can they die anymore, for they are like angels, and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.

That is Jesus’ interpretation of what it means to be raised from the dead. One is a child of God by being a child of the resurrection. And if this applies to those who will be raised to life in union with Jesus, how much more must it apply to Jesus himself. That’s exactly the point of calling Jesus the firstborn from the dead. He is firstborn because he has gone through the same process that must occur for all of us who are promised an inheritance of glory by becoming children of the resurrection.

What we need to realize that the term “son of God” does not always mean the deity of Christ. We all know this is true in cases where believers are called the sons of God. It is also sometimes the case when Jesus is called the son of God. For example, when Luke records in chapter three of his Gospel how, at the baptism of Jesus, a voice from Heaven said, “You are my Beloved Son,” he immediately launches into the genealogy of Jesus. And that genealogy goes all the way back to Adam who is called, “the son of God.” Luke is interpreting for us what God was saying from Heaven. Jesus is the second Adam. The title “son of God” is a reference to His humanity. He is going to succeed as the perfect human being, where Adam failed. And just as Adam brought death and destruction to His posterity, so the second Adam is going to bring many sons to glory.

What I’m arguing here, is that the term “son of God” is also used in the New Testament for something beyond what Adam ever experienced. It is used to refer to those raised up from death and glorified by the Holy Spirit. Jesus is the pre-eminent human being who went through that process for us.

No one knew this better than the Apostle Paul. Turn to Romans 1.1-4 with me. In this passage we have Paul’s nutshell summary of His Gospel, which he elaborates, develops, and applies through the rest of Romans.

Paul, a bond servant of Christ Jesus, called an apostle, set apart for the good news of God, which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, who was born by a seed of David according to the flesh, who was appointed the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of Holiness by the resurrection from the dead…

Now some of your versions may say “declared the Son of God,” but the word means to determine something, whether to set a limit, or to make a decision, or to designate an office. It is used in those ways in Luke 22.22; Acts 2.23, where it refers to God’s predestination; Acts 10.42; 11.29; 17.26 and 31, and Hebrews 4.7 where it is said that God has appointed, or fixed, a certain day. Now, “declared” can have that meaning as well, but it’s not the first thing we might think of. So I want you to be aware of Paul’s meaning here, because it is so important to his Gospel.

Indeed, it is his Gospel. The Gospel is about God’s Son (there’s the reference to His Deity, by the way) who humbled himself to be born by the seed of David but was then appointed the Son of God in power by the resurrection (Most English translations change the prepositions so you don’t notice the parallelism which the Apostle Paul is giving us). He incarnated himself according to the flesh, and as a true human being, He was raised, according to the Holy Spirit.

Time would fail if I showed how this two stage view of the work and life of Jesus runs all through the message of Romans. What can I say about the immortal glory promised in Romans 2. Or the resurrection of Sarah’s womb in Romans 4. Or, having been justified by Jesus’ death, the hope of salvation by His life in Romans 5.1-11. Or the two ages in the rest of Romans 5–the first age of Adam, the flesh, the Law, and death; the second age of the Son, the Spirit, grace, and resurrection life. Or about the death to sin and life to God which we have in union with Christ by His death and resurrection, given to us in baptism, in Romans 6.

As I said, time will fail, so lets look at Romans 8, jumping into the discussion at verse 11:

But if the Spirit of Him who raised Christ Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who indwells you.

Notice how this harks back to Paul’s brief summary of His Gospel at the beginning of Romans. Jesus was raised, “according to the Spirit of Holiness.” Now, that Spirit has been given to us and promises us resurrection. The same power which gives you faith in Jesus will burst you from your grave and clothe you in glory.

In the next paragraph, verses 12-17, Paul elaborates this. He begins by talking about the suffering which we undergo in our struggle against our sin. He tells us not to live according to the flesh but to be led by the Spirit. Again, we see the same two stage scheme which Paul gave us in Romans 1. And just as Jesus was appointed the son of God according to the Spirit of Holiness, Paul tells us that we are children of God by virtue of the Spirit of God. Look at verse 17: “and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him in order that we may be glorified with Him.”

Having mentioned suffering, Paul elaborates it in the next paragraph in verses 18 to 25: Paul says in verse 18 that our present sufferings are not even worth considering in comparison to the glory to come. And this time, the sufferings he specifically mentions are the sufferings brought about by the curse. Look at verses 22 and following:

For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.

But wait a minute: Aren’t we already sons? Isn’t that what Paul has already told us up in verses 14 and 16? Let’s keep reading:

For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it.

For Paul, the Spirit is the guarantee of our resurrection. And thus, we who have received the Spirit–who confess Jesus as Lord–have the promise that we will be sons of the resurrection. As he puts it, the redemption of our bodies will be our adoption as sons. But, this involves hope, based on faith in God’s character that He will keep the promise He has made to us.

If you go to a store and buy an item with a check, you have paid for that item, even though no cash has yet been transferred from your possession to the store’s possession. The future promise counts and really is a present reality. God has marked us with His signature by His Spirit and His checks don’t bounce. We are His children because He promises to beget us from the dead, to cause us to be born from the tomb. And we must believe His Word.

Now Paul goes on to elaborate all this all over again in the rest of chapter 8. And that culminates with his famous list starting in verse 35:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written, ‘For Thy sake we are being put to death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Now if you read this as, no matter what happens to us, no matter what we suffer, no matter what trials we experience, still somehow, in some way, we will manage to endure, we will get to Heaven despite all these things, you are not doing justice to Paul’s Gospel. Jesus didn’t get enthroned beside the Majesty on High despite being born in an animal trough, or despite being rejected by men and misunderstood by his disciples, or despite being betrayed with a kiss, or despite being beaten and tortured, or despite being crucified and killed. No, he attained to glory through these things. He attained to glory by means of tribulation, by means of distress, by means of persecution, by means of famine, nakedness, peril, and sword. He has reinterpreted suffering and death forever. Death is supposed to be the curse for sin and a foretaste of Hell, but He has turned it into the glory road.

Look up at verse 28. Paul doesn’t say that even though many things work together for evil for those who love God nevertheless, by God’s grace they manage to endure these things and inherit glory despite them. No, all things work together for good. All things! Whether death or life or angels or principalities or things present or things to come or height or depth or anything else–all these things work together for good because of the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Paul here first speaks of martyrdom, but then includes every other trial as well, including the general curse for sin under which we with all creation are groaning. He is including cancer, and car accidents, and the various painful sicknesses that we get and worse that our children get. He is including even the small things like headaches and colds and the daily physical and mental grind.

I remember once when Calvin was just born. Holding him and rocking him and singing to him, trying to get him comfortable enough to not cry. Nothing would work. And I remember thinking and even praying, “Lord, what is it to you if Calvin should stop hurting and get some sleep.” I wonder if Mary and Joseph ever had thoughts like that when they were up all night with their first crying baby.

In humbling himself, Jesus Christ has made all these things the way to heaven. We are walking in his steps when we suffer, because he loved us enough to walk ahead of us on a road he did not deserve and on which he was not obligated to set his foot. He used the route of the curse to trail blaze a path to glory. Though he was already God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, he became a man under the curse that he might become the son of God, the glorified second Adam, and bring us to glory with Him as sons and daughters of God.

That’s the message of Romans. It begins by telling us that Jesus was appointed as the son of God by the resurrection and then tells us that the way we will be made sons of God is by becoming sons of the resurrection. That is also the message of Hebrews. It begins by telling us that Jesus became greater than the angels and was born God’s son by the resurrection from the dead, and then tells us that we must die in order to be reborn as God’s children. Both writers begin with the record of the prophets, briefly affirm that Jesus was Himself God, but then summarize what He accomplished for us as the man who was born again from the dead. In both books, Jesus is the firstborn bringing us to glory as his brothers and sisters by the resurrection. Paul writes in Romans 8.28 that those God “foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren.” And the author of Hebrews writes in chapter 2, verse 12 that

it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to perfect the author of their salvation through sufferings. For both He who sanctifies and those who are sanctified are all from one, for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news about the resurrection, which transforms the curse of death into the way of life. There are many other places I could turn to show you this basic theme. I haven’t even touched 1 Corinthians 15 where the Apostle Paul talks about how the resurrection is central to the Gospel message and then compares and contrasts the First Adam who was of the Flesh and the Second Adam, Jesus, who was raised by the Spirit. Nor have I mentioned 1 Peter and how we are saved or born again through the resurrection of Jesus. The list goes on and on. Resurrection is the consistent message of the New Testament.

But the power of Jesus’ resurrection is not to be totally relegated to the Day of Judgment. Each one of us, when you or I suffer, is getting a slight foretaste of death. That is disheartening except, if we think about it, we should realize that that means we should also expect to experience foretastes of our resurrection glory which Jesus has acquired for us and the Father has promised us. That’s what the Apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4.7:

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not from ourselves; we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death works in us, but life in you.

The Apostle Paul got to see his suffering result in life and salvation for the churches he formed. He tied this to the death and resurrection of Jesus. In the same way, we see the results of Jesus’ resurrection all around us. Even though we still wait in hope for the resurrection, trusting God to keep his promise and vindicate us from the curse of death, we also see the fruit of Christ’s resurrection all around us if we open our eyes. I’m referring to this church, and all the other Christian churches. I’m referring to the fellowship that we have with one another and the love we get to experience in our congregation and in our families. These things did not come about naturally.

Believe it or not, I’m also referring to the kind of society we live in. It’s getting worse in many ways, and it needs to get much better, but try living in a country without any Christian heritage and see if you don’t notice a huge difference in your quality of life. Think about life for people in the world of first century paganism with chattel slavery and the exposure of infants and the gladiatorial games just to mention of few of the more well-known evils which were taken for granted back then. The resurrection of Jesus changed everything. It is still changing everything. The resurrection of Jesus was the resurrection of the world.

It is interesting that the first real mention of resurrection in the Bible is used to describe reconciliation in society. In Ezekiel 37, God show Ezekiel a vision of dry bones. God puts the bones together, puts flesh on them, and puts His Spirit in them. What did that vision mean? It meant that the tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah were now going to be released from exile among the nations and put back together as one new people. Resurrection means reconciliation. Where people come together as one, there we see the power of God’s Spirit granting new life.

It is no accident then that Paul in Ephesians says that the death and resurrection of Jesus is what made both Jew and Gentile into one new man. The resurrection has implications on this side of the grave and it has corporate implications. We need to deny ourselves and bear one another’s burdens, that we might experience the power of the resurrection in our congregation and in our families. In daily dying to self and putting to death the deeds of the flesh, we collectively show ourselves to be the risen body of Christ inhabited by His Spirit.

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