Sunday, April 24, 2011

Resurrection: who dun it?

Today Christians worldwide celebrate the awesome truth and reality of Jesus' resurrection. This is the cornerstone of the Christian faith, and an equally powerful counterpoint to the cross. Paul is absolutely right: without the empty tomb, the Christian faith is in vain. Jesus resurrection has great theological significance: just as the cross dealt with sin, the resurrection brings life, hope, peace, and joy. Further, the resurrection is the capstone to Jesus' earthly ministry: it proves he wasn't a lie, it proves he was who he claimed to be: Messiah, the eternal Word of God, the Son of God.

But there's been one question that's been nagging at me for awhile: who is responsible for it?

Sunday school answers are appropriate here: God. Obviously so. But some argue more specifically: Jesus is responsible for it. This is a bit troubling, because by and large the New Testament places emphasis on the Father as the agent of the resurrection. Paul consistently teaches this, it's all throughout Acts, and shows up in Hebrews and 1 Peter.

For example, Paul consistently and regularly makes the Father the agent of the resurrection, (Rom. 4:24; 6:4; 10:9; 1 Cor. 6:14; 15:12-20; 2 Cor. 4:14; Gal. 1:1; Eph. 1:20; 2:5-6; Col. 2:12; 1 Thess. 1:10), Acts repeatedly names the Father (Acts 2:24; 2:32; 3:15; 4:10; 5:30; 10:40; 13:30; 13:33-34; 13:37; 17:31), and Hebrews and 1 Peter also echo this idea (Heb. 13:20; 1 Pet. 1:21).

Further, there are a number of passages where Jesus is “raised” without an agent mentioned, and most biblical commentators refer to these as “divine passives”, i.e. a passive verb where it is implied God is the agent. These are mostly in the Gospels before the resurrection. Some examples of this: Matt. 16:21; 17:9; 17:23; 20:19; 26:32; Mark 14:28; Luke 9:22; John 2:22; 21:14; Rom 6:9-10; 7:4; 8:34; 1 Cor. 15:4; 2 Cor. 5:15

This idea of Jesus raising himself is largely rooted in John 2:19: "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up."

This might mean that Jesus was saying he himself by his own divinity would raise himself (that certainly is the more clear meaning from the words), but John explains Jesus’ statement in John 2:22 by using a divine passive: the disciples understood what Jesus was saying after “He was raised from the dead”. Further, given the overall context of John (that Jesus was living in submission to the Father’s will, John emphasizes this far more than the synoptics), I think Jesus’ point was more inclusive: he was going to be raised because he was doing the work of the Father and the resurrection was a part of God’s will.

His resurrection, just like his life, was in accordance with the Father’s will, and just as the Father on several occasions declared audibly to those around Jesus of this association, the resurrection is the ultimate vindication by the Father. There are parallels here with how the OT prophets functioned: they were commissioned by God, and on earth were representatives for God with such a unique and close association that their actions were considered the work of the Father. John 10:17-18 carries the same idea: we could say Jesus is saying he himself lays down his life and will take it again, but John explains that this isn’t a matter of agency but authority: the Father gives him the authority, and Jesus acts in accordance with the Father’s will.

Theologically this is important for a number of reasons:

1) Jesus’ identity or divinity wasn’t proven by his agency in the resurrection, but rather Jesus’ connection and association with the Father. The Father raised Jesus as a sign that Jesus was bringing the message of the Father, Jesus was doing the work of the Father, and ultimately Jesus was bringing redemption that the Father willed.

2) As a part of this, Jesus entire earth ministry was an act of humility and submission to the Father’s will (Phil. 2:5-11). By and large this is because Jesus on earth serves as a model for what discipleship looks like: in many ways we are continuing his work in his footsteps, with his triumph and victory in life as a source of hope for what God can do in our lives (e.g. Heb. 14:14-16).

3) Further, Jesus, as our great high priest, is the only mediator between God and man. I think a big point that Paul hits on repeatedly is that in Christ we not only have direct relational access to God, but also because of the Father raising Jesus from the dead, in Christ we have access to that same resurrection and life (e.g. Rom 6:1-11)

4) Finally, although this view sounds like it diminishes the divinity of Jesus on earth, I think it's his humanity which is the main focus of Jesus' earthly ministry. Theological balance is found in the reality of his pre-incarnation divinity, and the combination of both in his glorification. I know some like to argue that the entire trinity was involved with the resurrection (the Spirit could be argued from Rom. 8:11, although this could also apply to the Father). This certainly is true, and we don't want to overemphasize the division of the persons of the Trinity. However, the fact that the Scripture's reflection on the resurrection makes a point to emphasize the Father's agency leads me to think we do the text a disservice to make it all about the unified Godhead. We diminish the distinctions amongst the persons of the Trinity and their distinctive roles, we loose the primacy of the Father's will and his action, and especially we de-emphasize the humanity of Jesus while he was on earth.

At the end of the day, this is a minor theological point. The real important point is the historical reality of the empty tomb, but it's also important to emphasize that Jesus' ministry on earth wasn't as a loan ranger: He came at the behest of the Father's will, in submission to the Father's will, to model true submission and discipleship so that in Him, we might also know and glorify the Father.

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