Good Friday, April 6
The Bridegroom is Taken Away: If we paint the subject with a large brush, we may be prompted to see two major kinds of Christology abroad in this country: Christ as Teacher and Christ as Savior.
It is no surprise that non-Christians prefer to concentrate on Christ as Teacher. This picture of Christ is attractive, not only to devout Hindus and Buddhists, but even to secular people who are ethically serious.
Such folk find comfort and support, for example, in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. They reason—not without cause—that world peace would certainly be attained if everyone simply turned the other cheek when offended and refused to return evil for evil. In this view, Jesus becomes a great teaching of universal morality. His maxims are compared favorably with those of Gautama, and Socrates, and Confucius.
This is rather often the case among non-Christians who are attracted by the picture of Christ as Teacher. If he is conceived as Savior, it is in only in the sense that he instructs human beings how to live a moral life.
This view is very far off-base, because the teaching given by Christ is inseparable from the salvation given by Christ. The attempt to extract the teaching of Christ from the person, work, and vocation of Christ infallibly leads to a misunderstanding of that teaching.
Stating the thesis in another way, let us affirm that the Mount of the Beatitudes cannot be correctly understood apart from Mount Calvary. Since both hills are presented in the Gospel of Matthew, let us examine the question as Matthew presents it.
Matthew’s description of the Passion of Christ is the consummate illustration of his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. The particulars of this demonstration are clear and unmistakable, leaving no doubt about Matthew’s intention.
We may consider these particulars in two respects, one formal, and the other material.
First, there is the formal perspective of Matthew’s presentation of the moral life. Here we are faced with the motif of Jesus’ heavenly Father. In the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, the believer’s consciousness of the heavenly Father is the formal, determining principle of the moral life.
The disciple’s constant thought and remembrance is the heavenly Father. In all things—whether in fasting, prayer, or almsgiving—he endeavors to please this Father, “who sees in secret” (6:4,6,18). It is in Him that the believer puts his entire trust, convinced that the heavenly Father knows his every need (6:8,32). It is the heavenly Father’s glory that he seeks above all things (5:16). The disciple’s love for others is simply his endeavor to imitate the perfection of his Father in heaven (5:48).
If he forgives, it is for the sake of being forgiven by his Father in heaven (6:14-15). His sole interest is in doing the will of the heavenly Father (6:10; 7:21), to whom he prays (6:9; 7:11). He does all of these things for the purpose of being a child of the heavenly Father (5:45). He seeks his reward only from the Father in heaven (6:1). The sustained consciousness of the heavenly Father—all through the three chapters of the Sermon on the Mount—is the formal, determining principle of the moral life. Christ’s teaching in that sermon cannot be abstracted from that formal principle.
Now, it is a fact that such a preoccupation with the Father in heaven is exactly what we find in Matthew’s description of Jesus’ Passion. He is aware that the heavenly Father would answer his slightest wish to be supplied with twelve legions of angelic warriors, were he to request it (26:53). He will not request it, however, convinced that this is not the Father’s will.
Indeed, the resolve to do the will of his Father is obviously what most deeply moves and strengthens Jesus in the Passion. Having instructed His disciples—in the Sermon on the Mount—to pray that the Father’s will should be done on earth as it is in heaven, Jesus models this petition when he prays at the beginning of the Passion. Three times, Matthew tells us (26:44), Jesus makes the same prayer: “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will”(26:39,42).
Indeed, the Greek text for “Thy will be done”—genetheto to thelema Sou—is identical in the Sermon on the Mount (6:10) and the Agony in the Garden (26:42). In both cases this prayer is specifically addressed to the Father (6:9; 26:39,42). Thus, the prayer of Jesus in his Passion exemplifies the prayer given in the Sermon on the Mount. In the conscious intention of his Passion, he illustrates the formal moral principle of the Sermon on the Mount.
Second, let us consider the material content of the Sermon on the Mount. In that Sermon Christ instructed his disciples on the blessedness of “those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (5:10) and suffer the pain of false accusations (5:11). He warned the disciples against retaliation against evil and exhorted them not to resist those who use violence against them (5:38-42). He cautioned them against holding grudges against injuries (6:12,14).
In his Passion Jesus illustrates and exemplifies these components of his moral teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. Thus, when one of His disciples grabs a sword to resist those who came to arrest the Savior, Jesus immediately puts a stop to the violence, because “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (26:51-52).
Resolved to live and die by the rules that he laid down in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus endures without complaint the manifold injuries and injustices inflicted upon him: the unwarranted arrest, the false witnesses, the accusation of blasphemy, the beatings, mockery, and insults, the scourging, the crowning with thorns, and the manifold sufferings of the Cross.
We misunderstand the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount if it is reduced to an abstract and idealistic ethical code—something separable from the life, work, and vocation of the one who preached it. It must be understood and interpreted, rather, in the way Jesus modeled it in his Passion.
It is imperative that those resolved to follow the Sermon on the Mount be conscious that nothing less is involved than the mystery of the Cross, in which God’s Son gave himself in selfless obedience to the will of the heavenly Father. From the Mount of the Sermon it is but a short step to the Mount of Golgotha.
Holy Saturday, April 7
Psalm 16 (Greek and Latin 15): In addition to showing His disciples the truth of His Resurrection “by many infallible proofs, being seen of them for forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the Kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3), the newly risen Lord took special care likewise to explain to the Church the authentic meaning of Holy Scripture. Indeed, we know that the day of Resurrection itself was partly devoted to this task (cf. Luke 24:25–27, 44, 45).
Thus, the Church’s proper interpretation of Holy Scripture down through the centuries is rooted in what the Lord Himself taught her during those forty days spoken of in Acts 1:3. The correct—that is to say, the orthodox—understanding of the Bible is based on what the Church learned directly from the risen Christ. Her interpretation of Holy Scripture is inseparable from the hearing of the living Lord’s voice (John 20:16), the handling of His flesh (Luke 24:39, 40; 1 John 1:1), the touching of His wounds (John 20:27). The Church’s experience of the risen Christ is the source of all correct understanding of Holy Scripture.
These considerations, moreover, bear a special relevance to the interpretation of the Book of Psalms, for this section of the Bible, which became the Church’s official prayer book for all times, was singled out for specific consideration (Luke 24:44). On Pascha, the Sunday of the Resurrection, when the Lamb came forward and “took the scroll out of the right hand of Him who sat on the throne” (Rev. 5:7) and began forthwith to open its seals (6:1), the Church commenced likewise her understanding of the psalms. From that day forward, the prayer of the Church would be rooted in the vision that the Lord gave her in His opening of the Psalter.
We may be sure that Psalm 16 was among the psalms interpreted to the Church by the risen Christ, for this was the first psalm that she exegeted in her very first sermon when she came rushing with power from the upper room on Pentecost. According to the Apostle Peter, who preached that sermon, Psalm 15 describes the Resurrection of Christ:
Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves also know—Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death; whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it. For David says concerning Him: “I foresaw the Lord always before my face, / For He is at my right hand, that I may not be shaken. / Therefore my heart rejoiced, and my tongue was glad; / Moreover my flesh also will rest in hope. / For You will not leave my soul in Hades, / Nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption. / You have made known to me the ways of life; / You will make me full of joy in Your presence” (Acts 2:22–28).
Even though it was King David saying these things, the voice speaking more deeply in Psalm 16, according to St. Peter, is the voice of Christ. As the forefather and type of Christ, David was speaking in the tones of prophecy. Peter goes on to explain:
Men and brethren, let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Therefore, being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that of the fruit of his body, according to the flesh, He would raise up the Christ to sit on his throne, he, foreseeing this, spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ, that His soul was not left in Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption. This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses (Acts 2:29–32).
Psalm 16 may thus serve to prepare for the celebration of the Lord’s Resurrection each following Sunday, when the Lamb begins to open the seals.
And as David prayed Psalm 16 in persona Christi, looking forward to the one who was to come, so do Christians, when they pray this psalm, identify themselves in hope with the risen Christ, for we too will rise with Him: “And God both raised up the Lord and will also raise us up by His power” (1 Cor. 6:14); “He who raised up the Lord Jesus will also raise us up with Jesus” (2 Cor. 4:14); “He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies” (Rom. 8:11).
Easter Sunday, April 8
The Resurrection of Jesus: The revelation of God’s purpose and power in the Resurrection of His Son was accomplished, not only through the event itself, but also in the altered awareness of those to whom it was revealed. Moreover, our own knowledge and understanding of the Resurrection is determined by the historically effected consciousness of its original witnesses. For this reason, it seems important to reflect on the manner in which the Resurrection was revealed to them.
We must first remark that none of those witnesses actually saw the Resurrection. They did not watch it happening; the significance of their witness did not consist in their objective observation of it. Although we Christians hold the Resurrection of Christ to be an objective historical fact, Holy Scripture does not present its plain and unadorned objectivity as the form of its revelation. Not one of those original “saints,” to whom the faith was once delivered, was permitted to view the Resurrection as one might view a waterfall or the flight of a bird.
I want to inquire what this circumstance—well known to readers of Holy Scripture—means with respect to revelation and faith. After all, it was undeniably possible for God, if He wished it, to arrange the Resurrection in such a way that the Apostles and the holy women would be eyewitnesses to the act itself. Precisely because God chose not to do so, I propose to consider the possibility of it, hoping to throw light on what we do mean when we speak of “revelation” and “faith” with respect to the Resurrection:
So, let us fancy, for a moment, that the Resurrection was presented to the saints simply as an objective fact, a thing they empirically observed like any other historical occurrence. Let us suppose the Apostles knew the Resurrection pretty much the same way, for instance, Dr. David Hosack, an eyewitness to the event knew that Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton: Hosack saw the event as a self-contained fact, an “it” to which his testimony remained external.
If the original believers had observed the Resurrection in this way, I submit—if the saints had known the Resurrection the same way Hosack knew what happened in the Burr-Hamilton duel—we would mean something quite different when we spoke of the Resurrection as “revealed.” The witnessing saints would have remained merely external observers of it. Their testimony would have remained independent of their identity.
The Resurrection of Jesus, however, was not revealed this way. The truth of it was conveyed, not by the factual observance of an “it,” but through the personal encounter with a “thou.” The fact of the Resurrection was conveyed to the saints in a completely interpersonal context. Believers learned the objective fact of it through their encounters with the risen Christ. The fact of the Resurrection was subsumed into a personal presence.
The consciousness of the chosen witnesses, then, was altered, not by the observance of an event external to themselves, but by seeing, hearing, and touching the beloved Savior, who called them by name and forcefully intruded his person into their conscious experience. The revelation of the Resurrection was inseparable from this transpersonal intrusion, in which the risen Lord, whose overpowering presence was brought to bear on their attention, effected a new and non-negotiable awareness.
I submit, moreover, that this mode of the original revelation qualifies also its transmission; our own knowledge of the Resurrection is rooted in—and determined by—the historically effected consciousness of the “saints.” The risen Jesus is conveyed to us, not as a known external object, but as a personal presence: “what we have seen and heard we declare to you” (1 John 1:3). This is what we mean when we speak of “the faith once delivered to the saints.”
Moreover, in the apostolic writings we also perceive how the historically effected consciousness of the saints prompted their immediate reflection on the theological significance of the Resurrection. That is to say, a “theology” of the Resurrection began to develop within the revelation itself. We observe, for instance, how the encounter of the risen Jesus with the two Emmaus-bound disciples assumed a theologically reflective form, relating the experience to the understanding of the Scriptures. Their hearts burned within them as they listened to the explanation of biblical prophecy (Luke 24:13-28).
We find this pattern throughout the New Testament. Even the first apostolic sermon developed a theology of the Resurrection through the exegesis of certain specific psalms (Acts 2:24-36). Jesus did not simply “rise.” He “rose again the third day according to the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:4).
Monday, April 8
The Resurrection and Human Expectation: From the beginning, the proclamation of the Gospel has always involved a claim that the full weight of universal human wisdom declares to be impossible: the resurrection of a man who had been dead in his grave for a couple of days—as distinct from the mere resuscitation of someone who was presumed to be dead.
This claim—without which there is no Gospel—is the primary component of the “folly” mentioned by the Apostle Paul as inevitably characteristic of the Christian message. That is to say, those who proclaim the Gospel must face the fact that everybody knows it cannot be true!
For this reason, those who believe the Gospel inevitably find themselves separated from what the rest of the human race considers normal and sane. They willingly place themselves outside of every premise and expectation common to the race of men. From the minute they accept the Gospel thesis, they implicitly declare that they no longer care a fig about what the rest of the world thinks; they are prepared to be regarded as fools on the earth. Believers go for broke. They have burned their bridges with respect to this world. All their eggs are in the Easter basket.
This detachment from the expectations of the world is the source of an immense practical freedom for the Christian people. Believers are aware that the world—if it is wrong with respect to its most fundamental premise and most tenacious preconception—may be wrong with respect to just about anything. Consequently, they may now start from scratch with respect to human opinion on any matter whatever. If they cannot concede to human wisdom at least that point—the physical finality of death—there is never again a compelling reason to concede any point to human wisdom. They have nothing to fear from the world!
The first preachers of the Gospel were well aware of this fact, being quite familiar with the world’s ingrained prejudice about death. They faced the problem squarely, armed only with the convictions of conscience.
They were especially careful not to let the Resurrection of Christ be interpreted as referring to some sort of “spiritual” experience. Had they spoken of the risen Christ as a kind of incorporeal vision or phantom, someone who spiritually “lived on” after death, their message would surely have met acceptance from many of their contemporaries. The world would—at least—have tried to make an accommodation.
Christians did not succumb to that temptation, however. They insisted that Jesus rose in his very body, the body numerically identical to the one in which he died on the cross.
The Gospel accounts—in the measure they reflect Christian apologetics—are emphatic on this point. The risen Jesus commands his friends: “Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Handle me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have” (Luke 24:38). The post-Resurrection accounts depict Jesus as being touched (John 20:27), embraced (Matthew 28:9), and clung to (John 20:17).
These experiences were physical. The Apostle Peter later described them to the friends of Cornelius: “God raised him up on the third day, and showed him openly, not to all the people, but to witnesses chosen before by God—to us who ate and drank with him after he arose from the dead” (Acts 10:41). One of those meals was a hot breakfast, which the risen Jesus prepared for his friends (John 21:9). There was nothing incorporeal or visionary about that breakfast picnic on the beach.
At the same time, those who preached the Resurrection of Christ did not think he had simply been restored to what he was before. He was not a resuscitated corpse. They knew him to be alive in an entirely new way—alive beyond the reach of death. He was risen, said the Apostle Paul, “in power” (Romans 1:4). To those who believed in the Gospel, the physical body of Jesus, risen from the grave, was proof that death had been definitively conquered: “Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. In that he died, he died to sin once for all; but in that he lives, he lives to God” (Romans 6:9-10).
Even though Jesus’ risen body was physical, therefore, those who bore witness to it also mentioned that it had been set free from the usual physical limitations. Just as it was free from the domination of death, so it was liberated from ordinary physical restrictions, such as those imposed, for example, by closed doors. That is to say, rising from the dead, Jesus showed himself completely free from every human expectation—not only death, but even the laws of physics.
Tuesday, April 10
The Resurrection and Jewish Expectation: Having reflected that human beings—generally considered—have never expected that the dead should rise, we must at once recognize an exception to this rule among certain Jews. In several places in the New Testament it is clear that some of Jesus’ contemporaries did expect a resurrection of the dead. Thus, Martha of Bethany said of her brother, Lazarus, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (John 11:24).
This expectation seems to have taken its rise, in an explicit and unmistakable way, during the Maccabean period in the second century before Christ, in the context of the Seleucid persecution of faithful Jews. The Book of Daniel provides what may be our earliest text on this theme: “And at that time your people shall be delivered, / everyone who is found written in the book. / And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, / some to everlasting life, / some to shame and everlasting contempt. / Those who are wise shall shine / Like the brightness of the firmament, / and those who turn many to righteousness / Like the stars forever and ever” (Daniel 12:1-3).
This hope was reflected in the words with which a devout Jewish mother exhorted her sons, who were suffering martyrdom for their fidelity to the Torah: “But the Creator of the world, who formed the birth of man, and who discerned the origin of all—He will, in His mercy, restore to you again both breath and life, inasmuch as you now despise yourselves for the sake of His laws” (2 Maccabees 7:23). This persuasion of a future resurrection is found in several other verses of Second Maccabees, especially in chapters 7, 12, and 14, as well as in the Qumran manuscripts and other intertestamental sources (cf. 1 Enoch 102-104, but especially 108:11-15; Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch 32:3-5; 49:1-52).
At the time of Jesus, the hope of a future resurrection was chiefly preserved by the Pharisees. Indeed, the Apostle Paul, a self-described Pharisee (Philippians 3:5), argued that the Resurrection of Jesus provided the necessary historical warrant for that hope and expectation. In this respect he viewed his Christian faith as an extension of his hope as a Pharisee. Thus, accused of false teaching before Israel’s high count, Paul pleaded, “Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee; concerning the hope and resurrection of the dead I am being judged!” (Acts 23:6).
This line of argument produced the effect Paul evidently had in mind: it divided the judicial assembly into those who expected a resurrection and those who didn’t: “And when he had said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees; and the assembly was divided, because the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection” (23:7).
Later on, Paul’s appeal to this belief of the Pharisees was less successful. This was the incident in which the Apostle was being jointly questioned by King Herod Agrippa and the Roman Procurator, Porcius Festus. Addressing himself directly to Agrippa, Paul once again argued for the hope of the Pharisees, a hope which he suspected Agrippa to favor. Before recounting his Christian conversion, Paul inquired, “For this hope’s sake, King Agrippa, I am accused by the Jews. Why should it be thought incredible by you that God raises the dead?” (26:7-8).
When, however, the Apostle finished his narrative, the pagan Festus blurted out his incomprehension and complete incredulity on the matter of the resurrection: “You are mad, Paul! Too much book learning is driving you to madness!”—Mainei, Pavle, ta polla se grammata eis manian peritrepei (26:24).
It is significant that the pagan Roman, not the Jewish king, took offense at the idea of resurrection from the dead. It seems clear, in fact, that Agrippa felt favorably disposed to Paul’s message, for his response to it was vastly different from that of Festus: Then Agrippa said to Paul, ‘You almost persuade me to become a Christian’” (26:28). Moreover, Agrippa was persuaded, if Paul had not already appealed to a court at Rome, “he might have been set free” (26:32). For all that, however, Agrippa was not prepared to argue with his Roman counterpart with respect to the resurrection of the dead. He, too, would have been thought crazy!
There is no doubt that this Jewish expectation was a source of embarrassment for those Jews who wanted to make a favorable impression on pagans. Such Jews did not relish the idea that pagans would accuse them of holding weird, unfashionable ideas. They wanted “fit in” with pagan expectations.
For example, when the Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus—a writer contemporary to the New Testament—came to describe for his pagan readers the beliefs of the Pharisees, he deliberately distorted their view of resurrection. He expressed the Pharisaic belief, rather, in terms of the immortality of the soul and the transmigration of souls into other bodies. This was, after all, a notion with which Greco-Roman culture was more familiar, and with which, he could presume, it felt more sympathy. Josephus wrote of the Pharisees, “They say that every soul is incorruptible, but that only the soul of the good passes over (metabainein) into another body, and that of the wicked is punished with eternal retribution” (The Jewish Wars, 2.14.163). Josephus thus avoided what might be called “the scandal of the resurrection.” He was one of those many Jews who coveted the approval, or at least the tolerance, of the pagan world, and for such Jews the Pharisees’ expectation of a bodily resurrection was a genuine embarrassment.
Wednesday, April 11
The Resurrection and Pagan Persistence: When Flavius Josephus misrepresented the faith of the Pharisees—claiming they believed in the transmigration of the soul, instead of the resurrection of the body—he did so to avoid ridicule from contemporary Greco-Roman pagans. Although the latter differed among themselves with respect to an after-life, none were disposed to take seriously a belief that the dead would really rise.
Even the most broadminded of pagans—those Athenians who “spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing”—were unable to tolerate the notion that the dead would rise. It is true that they were prepared to sit and listen patiently while the Apostle Paul discoursed on every aspect of God and man, but “when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, ‘We will hear you again about this’” (Acts 17:22-32). Paul had strayed well past the wide boundary of their tolerance. What he had to say was a bit too new.
From Athens, Paul journeyed to Corinth, where his efforts met with apparently better results. He catechized the Christians there for eighteen months (18:11). Yet, five years or so after leaving them, Paul discovered that some of those Gentile Christians still did not truly believe in resurrection! He questioned them, “Now if Christ is preached that he has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?”
Paul went on to argue that this belief was absolutely essential to Christian faith: “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty” (1 Corinthians 15:12-13).
At one time those Corinthian Christians had confessed the Resurrection of Jesus. Otherwise, they would not have been baptized. Paul had handed on to them, as a matter of highest importance, that Christ “was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the Scriptures” (15:4). They knew this.
Yet, these same Christians still persisted in the pagan persuasion that resurrection from the dead was impossible! Elementary logic had not yet disclosed to them the massive inconsistency in their minds.
It was necessary, then, for Paul to take them through a simple series of hypothetical syllogisms, a list of “if” clauses: “If the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable” (15:16-19).
Had these Corinthians “spiritualized” the belief in the Resurrection of Christ, regarding it as simply a metaphor for the immorality of the soul or some other form of spiritual survival? Perhaps. We do know that some members of that church regarded themselves as pnevmatikoi, “spiritual people” (2:14-16). Perhaps these were the ones whom Paul accused of denying the resurrection from the dead.
Whoever they were, Paul regarded these people as courting spiritual danger. Had their original belief been in vain? Paul recognized the possibility: “I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you—unless you believed in vain” (15:1-2). “In vain” here means “empty words.”
The merely verbal declaration of the Lordship of Jesus was insufficient for salvation without the doctrinal affirmation—inwardly seized and adhered to—that God raised him from the dead: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). Belief “in the heart” means that the believer’s mind grasps and adheres to the doctrinal content of the verbal affirmation. In this case, the heart knows and holds fast to the fact of Jesus’ Resurrection.
This fact, Paul argued, was not simply a matter of history; it necessarily implied certain truths of metaphysics, psychology, and cosmology. Specifically, the fact of the Resurrection denied, at a radical level, the widespread pagan persuasion that only the soul was ultimately important.
As a Pharisee, Paul had always believed in a resurrection from the dead. At Corinth, however, he discovered certain Christians who believed less than the Pharisees!
Thursday, April 12
The Resurrection and the Creed: Discussing the earliest theology of the Resurrection, we are restricted mainly to the sermons and discourses in the Acts of the Apostles. The theological horizon is broadened considerably, however, when we turn to the Church’s first literary theologian, St. Paul. His epistles, composed over a dozen or so years and addressed to a variety of pastoral circumstances, demonstrate how the power and purpose of the Resurrection took theological shape in Paul’s mind. As we move through these epistles in their chronological order, it is proper to speak of a “development” in his understanding of the Resurrection.
It appears that three chief factors served as impulses for this development:
First, there was Paul’s continued scrutiny of the Hebrew Scriptures through a Christological lens. In this respect, the evolution of Pauline theology should be regarded as continuing the interpretive patterns in the apostolic preaching (e.g., Acts 2:14-36).
Second, the development of Paul’s theology of the Resurrection was stimulated by the need to address the sustained opposition this doctrine provoked among those to whom he preached it. According to St. Luke, Paul encountered this opposition near both the beginning and the end of his ministry to pagans (cf. Acts 17:18-32; 26:23-24).
Third, Paul’s theology of the Resurrection took shape as an aspect of his ongoing experience of its effective power in his own life and in the lives of those he instructed (cf. Ephesians 1:19-20).
We suspect that this third impulse was rarely separated from the other two. That is to say, it seems likely that Paul’s experience of the Resurrection’s transforming power was integral to the other components of his ministry: the study of Holy Scripture and the defense of sound doctrine.
In 1 Corinthians 15 we perceive a concrete example of how these three impulses were joined: In the spring of A.D. 55 (1 Corinthians 15:8), two groups of emissaries from Corinth (1:11; 16:17) arrived at Ephesus, bearing reports of sundry problems that had arisen during Paul’s absence. Among those problems was a denial of the bodily resurrection by some members of the Corinthian church (15:12-17). In the course of answering this denial, Paul provided for all Christians the fruit of his Spirit-filled thinking on this subject.
He began by reminding the Corinthians of the catechesis they had received from his mouth during the eighteen months he had been with them several years earlier: “I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures’ (15:3-4).
This message—the significance of the death and Resurrection of Christ—was nothing less than “the Gospel which I preached to you”—to evaggelion ho evaggelisamen hymin (15:1). That was the task that had brought Paul to Corinth in the first place.
He insisted that he had handed down only what he had received: the foundational proclamation common to all Christian believers. In short, Paul was giving the Corinthians a message they had already heard and—presumably—believed. By mentioning this fact, he had in mind to preclude any misunderstanding: A denial of the coming resurrection was a repudiation of the Gospel and the process of salvation (15:2).
In this brief notice at the beginning of 1 Corinthians 15, we observe that the Gospel was proclaimed as a narrative of the Lord’s death, burial, and Resurrection, the same sequential account later included in the four written gospels.
That narrative about Jesus, however, was integrated into a longer history and larger corpus of literature: the Hebrew Scriptures. All that happened to Jesus, Paul wrote, happened kata tas graphas, “according to the Scriptures.” That is to say, the very proclamation of the Gospel included a Christological understanding of salvation history and the Old Testament. This larger narrative was part of the Gospel itself. For this reason, the Gospel mandate was given immediately after the Lord “opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45).
Friday, April 13
The Resurrection and the Christian Hope: Jews at the time of Jesus—particularly those represented by the Pharisees—looked forward to a resurrection from the dead as part of God’s final judgment of history. The early Christians believed the Resurrection of Jesus was a vindication of that hope. Thus, at one of his trials Paul declared, “I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee; concerning the hope and resurrection of the dead I am being judged!” (Acts 23:6; cf. 24:15, 21; 26:6-8).
Because the Resurrection of Christ was seen to vindicate the Jewish expectation of a general resurrection, it served as the basis of Christian hope. In our extant literature the earliest testimony to this thesis comes from about A. D. 50, when Paul wrote to the new congregation at Thessaloniki, “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 4:14).
Paul wrote in similar terms to the brethren at Philippi: “We also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to his glorious body” (Philippians 3:20-21). To the congregation at Corinth, he wrote, likewise, “But now Christ, risen from the dead, has become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:20-22).
The hope of the early Christians, therefore, was very different from the hope entertained by many of their contemporaries, particularly the disciples of Plato. These latter looked forward to a spiritual afterlife, following the dissolution of the body. The more fervent among them longed to be set free from the body, as from a garment no longer needed. Theirs was an immaterial hope.
Not so the Christians. Paul declared,
For we know that if our earthly house of skin is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, everlasting in the heavens. For at the present we groan, earnestly longing to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven—if indeed, having been clothed, we shall not be found naked! For we who are in this tent groan, being burdened, not because we want to be unclothed, but further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (2 Corinthians 5:1-4).
The object of Paul’s hope was not to be stripped naked—to become an immaterial spirit—but, rather, to become “further clothed” (ependynasthai). That is to say, “what is sown in corruption is raised in incorruption. Sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. Sown in weakness, it is raised in power” (1 Corinthians 15:42-43).
Those possessed of such a hope, Paul believed, should manifest it in their lives—even in their lifestyle. They should not mourn, for example, “as others who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Most of all, they must eschew the sort of dissipation that is rooted in despair. Paul found an illustration of this in the Book of Isaiah. That eighth century prophet, describing the despondency that descended on the citizens of Jerusalem as they faced a siege of the Assyrian army, quoted them as saying, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die “ (Isaiah 22:13).
Paul, who saw signs of this despair in the fun-loving attitude of some of the Corinthians (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:21-22; 11:20-22), quoted this verse of Isaiah by way of warning. It was no wonder, the Apostle reasoned, that they lived such worldly lives, if they had lost hope in the coming resurrection (15:12; cf. Luke 12:19).
The word “resurrection,” in short, meant more than an assent to an event in the past; it conveyed also a hope for something in the future. Belief or unbelief in the Resurrection of Christ was not a purely speculative decision; it was weighted with practical consequences regarding how the believer, or unbeliever, conducted his life.
Unbelief induced a life of dissipation born of despair, the sort of feasting described by Herodotus as a celebration of death itself: “Drink and have fun—pine te kai terpev—for you will be dying like this” (Histories 2:78). Those who professed faith in the Resurrection of Christ, Paul was convinced, would not live this way. Their manner of life would be characterized by a patience and discipline born of hope.