Ezekiel 37:1-14; 1 Corinthians 15; Philippians 2:8-11

Two Ways News is a weekly collaboration between Tony Payne, Phillip Jensen and occasionally Talar Khatchoyan – a newsletter and podcast on a topic to encourage gospel thinking for today (subscribe at twoways.news).

This episode is on what the resurrection of Jesus means, and why it can’t be an afterthought in our gospel.


Tony Payne: Australians love the good life. We love our long weekends and our public holidays, we love to celebrate with family and eat and revel in all the good things we have in a very prosperous nation. But Easter is a celebration of what we have and all the good things of life. It’s not a celebration of what’s to come. And for Christians, it’s different that way, isn’t it?

Phillip Jensen: Well yes. We are certainly people who rejoice and celebrate, but not in the way the world does. 

TP: I grew up in a Catholic school and it’s interesting that Easter felt different there as a young person than it does now as an evangelical Christian; it was much more focused on the passion of Christ than on his resurrection.

PJ: Yes, for example, no meat. We’re eating fish on Good Friday. No joy in Good Friday. The time I grew up in wasn’t Roman Catholic, but still had that Catholic overload of how you don’t play games on Good Friday. Good Friday is a serious, sad, and difficult time, and so you must suffer. And, of course, in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, there’s a whole range of ways of making Good Friday–and even Maundy Thursday–bleak. The disciples were fleeing and so Christians leave the church. And everything inside the church itself is shrouded in black and everything is bleak and dark. 

But Protestants like to call it Good Friday. We don’t celebrate the murder of an innocent man. But we should celebrate what this death meant for us. And it’s not called Bleak Friday, Bad Friday or Terrible Friday; it’s Good Friday. Some people have the Lord’s Supper on every day of the year except Good Friday. I would have it on Good Friday more than any other day. 

TP: Yes. It’s bizarre, because Good Friday is about the atonement for our sins. That’s why it’s so good.

PJ: Yes, it’s not that he died, or that he had nails instead of having his hand strapped to the cross or that he had the crown of thorns, which actually might not have been thorns, but we’ve assumed it is. It’s not the physical pain and suffering that matters. It’s the fact that he was cut off from his father. It was the cry of dereliction. It was the bearing of the sins–my sins, our sins, it’s the bearing of our sins in his death. “For he who knew no sin became sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God.” That’s why it’s good. That’s why it’s fantastic. It’s not just a death, it’s the death for sin. It’s so marvellous of God to be that kind to us.

TP: It’s interesting, though, that in my childhood and in many cultures, it’s the blackness of Friday–that passion, that suffering, that kind of almost participating in Jesus’ death–that’s what many cultures focus on and what Easter is about for them. 

PJ: Some friends of mine from Mexico recently told me that the churches are closed on Easter Day.

TP: On the Sunday?

PJ: Yes, on the Sunday. 

TP: That’s really strange for us as Protestants for whom Easter Day is a day of great celebration and rejoicing. But it’s also almost like a parable for my perception or experience of where the resurrection fits. For many of us as Bible-believing Protestants, it’s almost like the death of Jesus is far, far, far more important. The atonement of Jesus is the central truth of the gospel and the resurrection is something of a footnote, something of afterthought. We know it’s necessary and super important and we absolutely affirm it. But we’re not quite sure how it fits with the atonement in some ways. 

PJ: You know better than I do on the meaning of the word ‘denouement’. From what I understand, the crisis of the play takes place, and then there’s a little bit at the end to kind of tidy up the details. That’s the denouement.

TP: Yes, that’s right. After the black moment, after the climax of the story, you have the wrapping up. 

PJ: Yes, the wrapping up. And sadly, for many evangelicals in their gospel preaching, the resurrection is that wrapping up. He died for our sins and that’s fantastic, especially if you’re an old sinner like me. But then he’s not still dead. He’s alive. He came back to life again. And so the story had a happy ending, which is a happy ending for us, because he’s paid for my sins and led the way into eternal life. But the resurrection is much more significant in the New Testament than that. It was significant in the Old Testament as well. 

TP: And that really is one of the puzzles of the book of Acts in particular, isn’t it? That if you want to say, “Okay, let’s preach the gospel. How are we going to preach the gospel? Let’s figure out how we’re going to preach the gospel by imitating the apostle. Let’s go to their sermons in Acts, the great evangelism of the early church, and let’s preach like they did.” 

PJ: Yes. 

TP: And then you find that sometimes they don’t even mention the death. They will often allude to Jesus’ death…

PJ: Well, you can’t preach the resurrection without a death. 

TP: It’s a necessary prerequisite, yes. But the number of times they actually talk about it, and in fact, I’m struggling to think of even one time where they explain the atonement, of Jesus as a substitute for all us … 

PJ: The only time in Acts where the meaning of the death and atoning work of Jesus is mentioned is in Acts 20 when Paul is talking to the Ephesian elders, which is the one non-evangelistic sermon in Acts—where he’s explaining to the elders that they must pay careful attention to themselves and to the flock, which the Holy Spirit has made them overseers of and to take care of the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. That’s a clear atonement reference. But it’s not an evangelistic sermon. Every evangelistic sermon–there’s about 10 or so of them–in the New Testament is about the resurrection. At the day of Pentecost, Peter doesn’t mention the atonement. 

TP: He mentions that Jesus died, yes, but because the holy one didn’t see corruption, he was raised from the dead. And afterwards when they asked, “Well, what shall we do?” He says, “Repent for the forgiveness of your sins.” So clearly Jesus is the one who forgives sins or offers forgiveness. But there’s no explanation of the mechanism of atonement at all, is there?

PJ: No, there isn’t. And it’s a huge puzzle for us. The atonement is a powerful message because many of us are converted on the story of the atonement, and rightly so, because we’re conscious of our sin. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. And the wages of sin is death. But the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus. 

And how is that so? Well, by his being our representative and our substitute. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree. And that is a great message that has moved and motivated many persons to become Christian because it fundamentally answers our problem of sin and death, punishment and justice. It’s like Romans 3:21f that we dealt with only a couple of weeks ago, where he is the atonement for us, the redemption that he won for us by his blood. We’re justified by his blood. So that’s a great way of becoming a Christian and a right way to become a Christian. It’s just that’s not how the apostles preached. 

TP: To balance the ledger, we should also say that when the apostle speak about their preaching, for example when Paul says to the Corinthians, “What did I come and preach to you?” He does mention Christ dying for our sins as a first importance and of being buried according to Scriptures and rising again.

PJ: Isn’t it interesting, because that is the beginning of a fairly long chapter on the resurrection. But he starts off with an atonement statement about the death. And he preached this first of all and puts an importance on it, but when you look up his other sermons, he doesn’t seem to do that. 

TP: At least the ones we know in Acts, even the ones to the Gentile audiences, like in Acts 17. He says in the early part of 1 Corinthians that he knew nothing except Christ and him crucified. So he preaches a crucified Christ, a crucified Lord. But it’s all puzzling for us. And I think it’s partly because we just don’t understand the resurrection.

PJ: I think that is part of it. We have rightly grasped the enormous importance of what Jesus does on the cross. But we haven’t spent as much time and effort working on what the resurrection means. The resurrection is obviously a big miracle. A dead man coming back to life again, that has never happened before. And this marks out Jesus as indeed different from all other human beings. But the obvious miraculous enormity of it is not its meaning.

TP: So for some of us, the natural way of understanding the resurrection is it’s the big miracle that proves that Jesus is God. 

PJ: Perhaps it’s been used for apologetic purposes like that for years, even though we’re warned by Jesus in Luke 16:31 that if people will not believe Moses and the prophets, they will not believe even if someone rises from the dead. So it’s the very thing that will not work as an argument. 

TP: He’s telling us it’s going to be bad apologetics because if people won’t believe God and won’t believe the Scriptures, it doesn’t matter what kind of miracle you’re trying to show them.

PJ: It’s also because without Moses and the prophets, you won’t understand what the resurrection meant. 

TP: So people generally think, okay, it’s the big miracle. It’s the thing that proves God. It’s sometimes seen a symbol of hope, that the gospel lives on. And of course, those more liberal Christians who don’t believe in the bodily resurrection often go to a version of that understanding, as mythology, something that shows us the spirit of Jesus lives on in some fashion.

PJ: But it’s not a myth. In 2 Peter 1, he’s talking about the transfiguration. He’s saying we were there, we saw it with our eyes. We’re not telling you a myth. It’s the exact opposite.

TP: They went to some trouble to demonstrate that this happened physically, they ate fish. So, I guess we’re starting to transition into talking about how the Bible does understand resurrection. It’s not a mythological, metaphorical event.

PJ: And it’s not a spiritual event. It’s a physical event. And the Holy Spirit comes as a result of the resurrection, but it’s not spiritualized. A physical body was killed, was buried, and came out of that same tomb. The tomb was empty, and that person appeared. And he appeared intentionally, physically. So they thought they were seeing a ghost in Luke 24, but Jesus says, I’m not a ghost. Here, see my hands, see my side, give me fish. And he ate the fish in front of them to demonstrate that he was not a ghost. 

TP: And that’s also seen in the emphasis in the New Testament on evidence and on witnesses, of how many people saw him. And the first kind of name for a proclaimer of Jesus is a ‘witness’ of the resurrection, somebody who can stand up and testify: I saw him, I touched him. 

PJ: As John says, this is what I’ve seen with my eyes, touched with my hands. 

TP: This I proclaim to you, Jesus the Christ physically resurrected. 

PJ: Yes, resurrected Jesus is the message. But the key to understanding that is Moses and the prophets. What were they expecting? Why resurrection? Why does the Messiah come to suffer? Why does the Messiah come to rise from the dead? And so that passage in 1 Corinthians 15 is very interesting. He talks about how Jesus died for our sins according to the Scriptures and rose on the third day according to the Scripture

TP: And was buried according to the Scriptures.

PJ: Yes, we don’t have to interpret it because the Scriptures interpreted it for us. The Scriptures are the interpretation of the event. 

TP: So what kind of interpretation do the Scriptures provide? What’s the background to the understanding of resurrection in the Old Testament?

PJ: Well, the fundamental understanding is: the resurrection is the end of the world. The end of the world is going to come with a resurrection; that is, all are going to be raised up. 

The passage that easily shows this is Ezekiel 37, the valley of the dry bones, where Ezekiel sees the nation, all dead. The bones are dead. It’s not even carcasses anymore. And under the inspiration of God, Ezekiel is to breathe on them and speak to them the word of God. And as he speaks, they all come back to life again. That is, the whole nation comes back to life. And the whole nation is united again, all under one king: King David. And so no longer is it going to be northern Israel and southern Judah; it’s going to be one nation, all alive. 

And so that’s the concept that comes across into the New Testament. The Sadducees don’t believe in it because they didn’t believe in the prophets. Whereas the Pharisees did. Usually Pharisees are bad people, but in this, they were right. They were on the right side. And Paul even calls himself a Pharisee because he agrees with them here. There’s going to be a general resurrection. 

So in terms of the end of the world, we talk about dying and going to heaven. They talked about dying and being raised again. And so there is a general expectation of the resurrection. And you see it in the New Testament when Jesus in John 5 speaks off how the day is coming when the voice of God will be heard, and the dead will rise, some to salvation, some to judgment. Or when he interacts with Martha in John 11 where we see that Lazarus has died. And Martha said, “If you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.” And Jesus said, “He will rise again.” To which Martha, not realizing Jesus is going to raise him in a few minutes time, says, “Well, of course, I know he will rise again. He was a good man. He was a godly man. He was a Jewish man, so of course he would rise again.” To which Jesus said, “I am the resurrection.” 

So when the apostles were preaching in Acts 4, it’s interesting how easy it is to misread what they said, because in Acts 4:2 they were “proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead”. Most people read it as they were preaching Jesus’ resurrection. But there is a general resurrection that lies at the background of Jesus’ resurrection. And to understand Jesus’ resurrection, you’ve got to understand the resurrection is the judgment at the end of the world.

TP: So that’s a good bridge to understanding what all this has to do with Jesus’ resurrection, because they were preaching in Jesus the resurrection of the dead. What does Jesus then have to do with this general resurrection? Why do they say that because Jesus has come and we’re proclaiming Jesus, we’re saying something about the judgment of the whole world?

PJ: There’s a series of ways of seeing it. One is that they argue that Jesus has to be the Christ, because the Christ was to rise from the dead. That’s the argument of Pentecost in Acts 2. And so the resurrection is the indication that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the King, the ruler, the judge of the world. 

Another indication is the argument of say, 1 Corinthians 15. With Jesus, the resurrection begins, he is the first fruit of the resurrection. So the age of the resurrection, the age of the Messiah, the age of the kingdom of God has come once man starts to rise from the dead, which is also the kind of argument used in Acts 17, where Paul is speaking to the Greeks. And in Acts 17:30-31, he calls upon people to repent because God has appointed a day in which to judge the world by a man. And he’s given assurance of this by raising him from the dead. Once a person rises from the dead, then the resurrection has started. And that man is rising up to be the Christ, the King, the ruler, and therefore the judge. Jesus is the judge of the living and the dead.

He’s the Lord Christ in power. He’s finally sitting on the throne at the right hand of God in all power and majesty, by his resurrection from the dead. And so, the resurrection is the critical moment of his acclamation in the whole universe and appointment by God to be the Christ who gives out the Spirit and who will judge the living and the dead.

TP: And that’s the whole point of that famous passage in Acts 2 as well, at Pentecost, which we tend to think of as being about the Holy Spirit—but in fact, it’s about the resurrection of Jesus. That’s what the pouring out of the Spirit really is about. It shows that Jesus is the one who is the fulfillment of Ezekiel 36. He’s the one who brings life now, who pours out his Spirit on his people to bring them to new life, to raise them from the dead, to raise them to new life. 

PJ: Yes, that’s right. On the day of Pentecost, the presenting issue is the coming of the Holy Spirit. The explanation is the resurrection of Jesus. 

TP: So we’ve seen a whole series of things here about the resurrection of Jesus, and its the background in the Old Testament, and why it’s significant— because it demonstrates who Jesus is as the Christ, the Lord, the judge, the pourer out of the Holy Spirit, the one who begins the great resurrection age. It means that the new age, the age that comes at the end of the world, has now commenced because Jesus has risen from the dead and the Spirit has been poured out. It’s all happening.. And that’s what they’re proclaiming. 

PJ: That’s the great news. A gospel is a declaration or announcement of a great event that has changed the world and changed the future. And the great event that has changed the world and the future is: Jesus has risen from the dead to be the Christ, in all that the Old Testament meant by the Christ: the Son of David, the King of kings, the Lord of all the nations, the ruler, the judge. But it’s the resurrection that establishes Jesus is the Christ. It even talks about vindicating him. 

1 Timothy 3:16 talks about how he was vindicated by the Spirit. And in John 16, he promised that when the Spirit comes–and the Spirit won’t come until he’s resurrected because his resurrection enables the spirit to come–he will convict the world of sin because they haven’t believed in Jesus. That’s easy for us to answer. It’s obvious. But the next one’s interesting: of righteousness. Because I have gone to the Father, the Holy Spirit comes to convict the world that Jesus is righteous and the Father is righteous because of the resurrection. The resurrection is the final demonstration, proof, exhibition of the righteousness of God in justifying the sinners of the world.

TP: Which kind of takes us back to where we began and the atonement and the relationship of atonement to the resurrection. 

PJ: Yes, because we’ve made it so big, we’re not going to worry about Good Friday. 

TP: Yes, scrap Good Friday, we’ll go straight to Easter. 

PJ: Yes, well, it doesn’t work that way. They go together. You can’t have one without the other.

TP: So what’s the relationship between the two of them? And how can we rightly link the two of them and preach the two of them together and understand the two of them together? 

PJ: Well, the 1 Corinthians 15 passage is very important at this point as it’s the biggest chapter on the resurrection. And it asks this question in the negative: If Christ hasn’t risen from the dead, what would be the consequences? Well, the consequences are your faith is futile and you’re misrepresenting God and we’re the most of all to be pitied because we are without hope. And then it goes back to being like the Epicureans: eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. Life is meaningless and hopeless. So the resurrection changes everything. But what is it that changes if Christ has not been raised from the dead in verse 17? Your faith is futile, and you are still in your sins. 

Because it’s not by his resurrection that we are justified. It’s not by his resurrection that our sins are paid for. It’s not by the resurrection that we are declared right with God. It’s by the death of Jesus that we are declared right with God. And so Paul unites it in Romans 4:25. It’s a fascinating little verse. Why don’t you read it for us?

TP: Okay, so if we remember we’ve been speaking about Abraham and about why Abraham’s faith was counted to him as righteousness. And then Paul goes on in verse 23-25: 

But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.

PJ: It’s a fascinating verse in it, because there’s death and resurrection brought together with the same grammatical construction: He was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. I think the problem for us readers is the word ‘for’ because it goes into a few different directions. ‘For’ can be speaking about the purpose for the future. “I’m getting my bag out now for I plan to play golf this afternoon.” Or it can be referring to the past. “I’m missing the golf ball for I’m half blind and can’t see the ball.”

TP: The reason that this has happened is because of this other thing that happened before in the past.

PJ: Yes. So what do we mean here? It’s the same construction in both sides. We know what the first one is: he was delivered up for our trespasses. It’s not a future sort of reference—he’s not delivered up so that we will trespass. He’s delivered up because of our trespasses. 

TP: On account of the fact that we were sinners, on account of our trespasses. 

PJ: That’s it. And now he was raised on account of our justification. That is, we’re justified in the death of Jesus, by his blood shed for us. How can God declare us to be right with him? We’re not declared right with God because Jesus rose from the dead; we’re declared right with God because Jesus died for our sins. That’s why we declared right with God. But that will mean that Jesus must rise from the dead, because sins have been fully paid for. And so I can be absolutely assured of forgiveness because he has risen from the dead. So sin is no longer in control of Jesus. Our justification is in the death of Jesus. And the atonement is demonstrated by Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. You can’t have one without the other. But it’s the atoning work of Jesus that gives us the resurrection.

TP: It’s a little bit like the way Philippians 2 puts it, that the resurrection of Jesus comes after and as a consequence of the atoning sacrifice. 

PJ: Yes, the ‘therefore’ in Philippians 2 is really important, though, again it’s one of those things people read past without noticing. 

TP: Let me read the verses. 

And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

PJ: It’s because of his death that he is raised, and raised to be King of kings, Lord of lords. Suddenly a man is the judge of heaven and earth. The Son of Man has risen from the dead, and you see him in glory and power and might. And so the resurrection is the outworking of the atonement. And that’s why you’re going to have both Good Friday and Easter Day, and Good Friday is the best day because it gives rise to the resurrection day.

TP: Well friends, I’m not sure what kind of thoughts are going through your mind after the Easter you’ve just had. But I hope these reflections have helped you consider more deeply the connection between the death of Jesus and his resurrection—and why the resurrection is so central to our gospel proclamation alongside the death of Jesus Christ as an atoning sacrifice. 

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