The First Resurrection
It was a dark and lonely night. The place was called Gethsemane. It was a time to pray, for there was no one on earth to whom He could turn. The forces of envy and fear were coming together against Him. The arresting party would soon appear, and events would rapidly lead toward death by crucifixion. Into the darkness He spoke,
“My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.” Matthew 26:39 NASB
Would He be heard? If not, it would not be for lack of volume, for another passage in the New Testament describes His manner of praying that night:
In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death… Hebrews 5:7 NASB
What silence hung over that garden was being broken by His pained cries.
The disciples were close by. They were all He had left. The multitudes He had healed and fed would be swayed to shout, “Crucify Him,” just a few hours from now. The authorities, far from protecting His civil rights, would be the ones stirring the multitude into a mob. The disciples were all the following He had remaining…and He was about to lose them, too. They actually heard His cries, but it wasn’t enough to keep them from dozing off. He kept having to stir them. The undying loyalty they had professed at supper was in the process of dying before breakfast.
What was at stake here? What was going on? No one seemed to know but Jesus. He was either silent, or else when He did explain, no one seemed able to grasp His meaning. But you and I have a glimmer of what is going on. All the Scripture that we have studied to this point has given us an understanding allowing us to see that there is nothing less at stake here than the redemption of the human race, the challenging of death itself in a way that it had never before been challenged. What Jesus was asking for in His prayers that night was not to be delivered from the cross, but to be delivered from the death that would follow it. That’s why, at first, the disciples thought His prayers had gone unheeded. It was only later they would learn that He had received exactly what He asked for: deliverance from Sheol/Hades.
In one sense, it was a very risky venture. No one who entered those gates of death had ever come back alive. Oh, we have talked about those exceptions that were temporary reprieves. But there would be no Elijah or Elisha waiting above to call Him out on the third day. Peter was too scared and too demoralized to do it. Paul wasn’t even a disciple yet. If He was going to come out of the grave on the third day as He promised, God Himself was going to have to do the raising. Besides, this was to be a resurrection unlike any other. For once raised, Jesus was never to die again. This was the kind of resurrection for which the faithful had been hoping for ages. This, then, would be the very first resurrection that completely defeated death. The very first resurrection through which someone would escape from Sheol/Hades permanently. Would it work? Jesus had no doubts. Before letting go of this life, He said on the cross,
“Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.” Luke 23:46 NASB
The words of trust seemed out of place in the sea of evil that had surrounded Him. Yet trust was the only way of life He knew. Though the human race had rejected Him, He knew deep inside that God would not forget the request He had made the night before.
This plan had been set in motion ages before when Adam and Eve first sinned. God spoke to the serpent who had tempted them and said,
“And I will put enmity
Between you and the woman,
And between your seed and her seed;
He shall bruise you on the head,
And you shall bruise him on the heel.” Genesis 3:15 NASB
In fulfillment of this promise, Jesus had been born of a woman, as had been all His human ancestors, David and Abraham included. His crucifixion would be Satan’s “bruising of his heel.” His resurrection, however, would be the “bruising of the serpent’s head.” A blow to the heel is painful, but a blow to the head is disastrous. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ may appear a great tragedy, but it was only a bruise to God’s heel. And through the resurrection that followed, Satan’s power, which lay ultimately in the power of death, was dealt a blow from which it will never recover. The iron grip of Sheol/Hades would finally be broken by this Divine One.
Let us now quote in its entirety a verse partially quoted above:
In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety. Hebrews 5:7 NASB
That “He was heard” confirms that what Jesus’ prayers envisioned was not a “putting off of death until a later time” as Israelites in the past had prayed for (such as King Hezekiah), or as we ourselves might have sought. Nor did he desire one of those partial and preliminary resurrections (resuscitations) we have seen described in our review of Scripture. What Jesus desired was to “pass through” death to the other side. Life never ending. Life no longer able to be threatened by death. A completely new kind of life that was completely inoculated against death because it was born from death. This was His desire…and this is what He was granted. And because of His grace, all humanity now receives it. However, since we explained the problem step-by-step, we should also explain the solution step-by-step. The first step is to better understand the nature of this new kind of resurrection Jesus was inaugurating.
The Hope of Resurrection…Alive and Well in the New Testament
You have seen how the Old Testament aroused the hope of resurrection. That hope is demonstrated in the New Testament in various ways. In one case, Jesus informed the sisters of a deceased man named Lazarus that He would raise Lazarus from the dead. One of the sisters, thinking that Jesus was speaking not of one of those partial and preliminary resurrections but of the great resurrection to come, said,
“I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” John 11:24 NASB
Her faith in a great resurrection of the dead was typical of devout Jews in that time.
Just because there was a hope for a resurrection, however, does not mean there was clarity and certainty about the shape that resurrection would take. For example, Jesus told His disciples on several occasions that He would rise from the dead. At one of those times their response was described this way:
And they seized upon that statement, discussing with one another what rising from the dead might mean. Mark 9:10 NASB (1973)
Again, just because there was a prevailing view among many people that resurrection would come, there was great uncertainty about its details because the Scriptures had not spelled those out, at least not in any easily discernible form. This is all the more reason people hung on Jesus’ words when He began to describe what it would be like.
Jesus Confirms That There Will Be a Resurrection…and Makes News in the Process
You’ll recall that the Sadducees represented a minority opinion in Israel that there would be no resurrection. They were a small but powerful group. Though they disagreed with the Pharisees on resurrection, they fully agreed with the Pharisees that Jesus of Nazareth was a menace. Both parties sought to discredit Him as He taught before large crowds in the temple area by asking Him questions designed to embarrass Him. On one such occasion, some of these leaders approached Jesus with a question that they were sure would cause Him to lose face in front of the multitude that was listening to Him. It is taken from Matthew 22:23-33 NASB.
On that day some Sadducees (who say there is no resurrection) came to Jesus and questioned Him, asking, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies having no children, his brother as next of kin shall marry his wife, and raise up children for his brother.'”
First they give Him the respectful greeting of “Teacher” (this is, of course, to set Him up in front of the crowd). Then they begin describing the problem. They quote a passage from Moses. This marital regulation may seem unusual to us today, but let’s avoid the temptation to study it because that would be a digression. Suffice it to say that it was indeed a part of Moses’ law to the Israelites and therefore was to be obeyed by them. Since Moses was considered authoritative by everyone present, this allowed them to now describe the dilemma:
“Now there were seven brothers with us; and the first married and died, and having no children left his wife to his brother; so also the second, and the third, down to the seventh. Last of all, the woman died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife of the seven will she be? For they all had married her.”
You see now that it was not the regulation itself that was being questioned, but its seeming inconsistency with the idea of resurrection. The Sadducees were pointing out that if a Jewish family tried to obey God in a case like this, they would have quite a family problem on their hands come resurrection day. Of course, the “seven” brothers exaggerates and dramatizes the dilemma but that’s fair game in a discussion like this. Their point is that the Scriptures are not implying resurrection, but rather that this life is all there is. We can suppose that the Sadducees considered their argument airtight, and that it was their very best one. People usually go up against the best with their best. To the amazement of everyone present, Jesus hardly blinked an eye as He responded,
“You are mistaken, not understanding the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.”
Can’t you hear the crowd gasp, jaws drop, and don’t you even feel your own heart in your throat as you hear the word “heaven”? Heaven, did He say? Yes, dear, I think He said heaven. Oh my God!
Being two thousand years from the scene and having some exposure to the good news of Jesus Christ, we today are somewhat insulated from the wonderful shock they felt as they heard that the dead would not merely rise to earth again, but all the way to heaven! This was unexpected and unheard of. These folks were doing good to maintain hope that the dead would be raised at all, especially in the face of disapproval from respected scholars such as the Sadducees. To hear that they and their loved ones would be in heaven once the resurrection occurred was more than anyone had hope for (and certainly more than the Sadducees had ever contemplated). In the swirl of events of that week, this deliriously joyful hope would momentarily be lost. But when the crucified Jesus of Nazareth came bolting out of the grave three days after His death, that hope came bolting out with Him. And when He ascended into heaven forty days after that, hearts were ablaze with excited hope that indeed this resurrection led to…heaven.
The rest of the episode with the Sadducees is an anticlimax, so let’s finish it quickly so we can get back to the mind-boggling point.
“But regarding the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”
The passage Jesus is quoting, like the one about the widow remarrying, comes from the Law of Moses. Since the Sadducees had invoked Moses to start the challenge, Jesus invokes Moses to drive home their error. At the burning bush, God identifies Himself to Moses by His present relationship (“I am the God of…”) with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Since all three of these men were dead by the time of Moses, the Scripture is implying that these three still exist. They were, of course, in Sheol/Hades below with everyone else – waiting on resurrection. The Sadducees were right to try to infer things from the Scriptures, they were just inferring the wrong thing.
Our episode concludes with this statement:
When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at His teaching.
“Astonished” for sure! The multitude had been taken aback by Jesus’ bold declaration that the dead would be raised, not to earth, but to heaven. Let’s let the magnitude of this revelation sink in on us.
The Resurrection Leads to Heaven of All Places!
As you can tell from all that I have shown you in the first six chapters of this book, there was an expectation for an eventual resurrection from the dead, but not all the way to heaven, for pete’s sake! Heaven was for God and the angels. It was not a place to which man entertained hopes of going. We really ought to make some attempt to understand and appreciate the excitement that must have gripped people when they heard that resurrection would lead not merely back up to earth, but all the way to heaven. Now that’s what you call being RAISED from the dead!
We have become jaded by so much use of the word “heaven.” We have thus become dulled to the extravagant benefit God is pouring out on humanity to even consider heaven as a destination for us! Going back to the Bible’s view, however, allows you feel what believers in Jesus’ time felt as they heard the “good news” about heaven. Indeed, from their point of view, it was staggeringly good news. And their humble point of view is the one we ought to adopt.
Adopting this humble perspective, you can now see more clearly why all those partial and temporary resurrections were inferior to this one. Those resurrections only brought a person back up to earth. The resurrection Jesus was speaking of would take people all the way to heaven. Also, those resurrections only put off death for a while longer. The resurrection Jesus was talking about passed through death and lived forever on the other side of it. Every time we saw an individual raised from the dead in the Scripture, it was only a hint and foreshadowing of the more permanent (that is, eternal) resurrection that God had in mind.
As you have seen, the Old Testament books outlined the resurrection; it never cataloged the details. The New Testament books, since their writing coincided with Jesus’ resurrection, does give details as we have just begun to see. Without details, the Sadducees could complain that it just didn’t make sense for all those dead people to pop up (here on earth) – it would only be crowded and confusing. The Pharisees and others might not have had an answer for such an objection, but they weren’t about to let go of an idea that was clearly scriptural in origin. Jesus solves the puzzle by explaining that the resurrection leads to heaven where the problems of getting married, having children, and lack of elbow room are not issues.
Hundreds of years before Christ, Jeremiah had prophesied for the Lord,
‘For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. Jeremiah 29:11 NASB
In this way, God gave hope to a human race whose every member faced an ultimate destiny of death. This vague hope, however, was gloriously transformed into the specific hope of heaven through Jesus Christ. This demonstrates the truth that the apostle Paul proclaimed to those who believed in Ephesus – specifically, that God is
…able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think… Ephesians 3:20 NASB
People had longed for a reunion with their loved ones, and even ancestors. God responds, “How’d you all like a trip to heaven – and I’ll pay the tab!” Certainly no one has the power of God, but neither does anyone have His grace.
A New Kind of Body
Though Jesus had told His disciples on at least three different occasions that He would rise from the dead on the third day after His crucifixion, the gospels record no all-night vigils in anticipation of the moment. The disciples were too scared and depressed. Some women dutifully went to the tomb the morning after the Sabbath in order to more permanently prepare the body for burial. They hadn’t had much time before sundown on Friday. They were the first to see that the stone securing the grave had been moved. Angels appeared telling them that the Lord had been raised just as He said. Just as He said.
Jesus began making appearances to the women and His other disciples. It was “show and tell” time. They had wondered “what ‘rising from the dead’ might mean.” He was going to let them see first hand. Nothing like hands-on training – especially when the mission of these witnesses would be to communicate to the world what they had seen and heard for the last few years, and particularly for the last few days.
That first Sunday morning He began appearing to the apostles He had chosen and
…presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days… Acts 1:3 NASB
Don’t forget – He had been in that tomb since before Friday evening. The whole Passover Sabbath had passed. The disciples had had plenty of time to think. They needed no further proof that He was dead. They needed solid evidence if they were to believe He was alive. Three days to prove you’re dead and forty days to prove you’re alive forevermore – mmm – sounds about right.
Paul catalogs the appearances this way:
…He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also. 1 Corinthians 15:5-8 NASB
Jesus was leaving no doubt as to His status as the first permanent escapee of Sheol/Hades. One of the things that became clear to the disciples during these forty days was that His body was different. It was what you might call…heavenly. His disciples did not always immediately recognize Him and could be startled when He appeared among them. In one of these instances He said,
“Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” Luke 24:38-39 NASB
Obviously, some of them were afraid they were just seeing a ghost. One of the disciples named Thomas had not yet seen Him and refused to believe unless he himself got to feel the crucifixion’s nail scars in His hands and feet. To his shame, Jesus obliged him about a week after his defiant remark. Here was their exchange:
Then He said to Thomas, “Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing.” Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” John 20:27-28 NASB
The nail scars existed only as identification markers and obviously not as open wounds, for He appeared and vanished at will. He was no longer restricted by doors, locks, and walls. He did eat in front of them but you get the impression it was more to calm their nerves than to satisfy His hunger. This body was obviously not bound by the same laws that bind a normal human body.
The final act they saw Him perform in that body was to ascend into heaven – the very thing you would expect a heavenly body to do! At this point, it seemed clear that the forty days were merely a brief stopping off point on the way to an ultimate destination. Jesus had said that day in front of the temple that in the resurrection “they are like angels in heaven.” Thus He continued His resurrection when He ascended into heaven. That had been the intended destination all along. It’s where the resurrection leads!
Heaven, Our New Home
When Jesus ascended into heaven, He was fulfilling His promise that He had spoken on the evening before His death:
…I go to prepare a place for you. John 14:2 NASB
Prior to this, as you have seen, there had been no place for humanity in heaven. And, not that it needed confirmation, Jesus had said earlier in His earthy ministry,
“No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man. John 3:13 NASB
He is speaking of Himself, of course, when He says “Son of Man.” He is thus confirming that no one else had ever ascended into heaven. But He didn’t need to, for, as we have seen, everyone understood that heaven was the domain of God and angels – not people. To “prepare a place” for us there was to do something wonderfully beyond human imagination.
We have seen that there is order in the creation. In the physical realm, some creatures live primarily in the sea, some on the land, and some are designed for the air. Human beings had been designed to live on the earth. And when they died, there was nothing to do but have their bodies return to the ground from which they had come while their spirits descended to Sheol/Hades – the place designed for their indefinite confinement. But resurrected human beings are not designed for the earth or made from its dust, but rather for heaven. They are equipped to live there with a body designed for the heavens, not for the earth, and certainly not for the regions below the earth. That was a place for disembodied spirits.
Given all this, it is not hard to understand the intense excitement and hope of these disciples about whom we read in the New Testament. They had heard some good news that was immeasurably good and immeasurably new! We share their excitement when we believe what they did – that God raised Jesus from the dead in order to make heaven above a permanent home for all those who have died.
The First-Born from the Dead
We are seeing that Jesus was the first person to rise from the dead…the way He did. That is, all the way to heaven with a new body to suit the new environment. Therefore, the Bible speaks of Him being the “first-born from the dead.” This is a beautiful word picture and truth. The lower parts of the earth had been a tomb. Through Jesus, it became a womb. Jesus became the first-born of a whole new species of being: resurrected humanity.
People had come back from the dead before but no one had ever gone forth from it. That is, no one had ever been birthed from it. Because Jesus was born from the dead he will therefore never die again. Death is no longer a threat to Him. He was raised not to live more of an earthly life, but to live forever a heavenly life. We do not know what life is like in heaven, but we do know that it is God’s home. His presence fills the earth, yes – but His home is in heaven! If in the resurrection humans live like angels in heaven it means that they are that much closer to God – a thrilling thought for anyone who wishes to know Him better.
For all those who believed that God would not forget the dead, this news brought a joy that could not be contained. It brought an excitement to a hope that had only been vague. To be comforted that your loved ones still existed somewhere below was one thing, but to be told that you will enjoy eternity with them forever in heaven is quite another. Jesus’ status as “first-born from the dead” implied that His was just the beginning of what God was doing.
The birth of Jesus from the dead had been promised in the Old Testament, but only His actual resurrection made the promise recognizable. The second psalm had read:
‘You are My Son,
Today I have begotten You. Psalm 2:7 NASB
We might have thought that this applied to Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem to Joseph and Mary. But in the New Testament Paul explains that it applies to Jesus being raised from the dead. Listen:
“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.’ Acts 13:32-33 NASB
The resurrection of Jesus from the dead was a new birth, a new creation, a new beginning for the human race. Through Jesus, there is now a heavenly prototype for these new creatures – resurrected (that is, heavenly) human beings.
A Heavenly Prototype
We have seen how Jesus first stated, and then demonstrated, what had been hidden from so many generations of mankind – the exact nature of the resurrection. That is, He explained God’s long-awaited solution to the problem of death. His solution is not to eliminate death’s existence but to redirect its results.
In Jesus we have the heavenly prototype. He is the beginning of the solution. Jesus is in heaven, sure. But that’s where He was before. So far, we haven’t gotten any net gains. The rest of the dead are still where they have been all along. In the next chapter, however, you will see how quickly things changed.
In the physical creation, everything reproduces after its own kind: people, animals, plants. Before God could have a new human race, He needed a new Adam after whom and in whose image He could reproduce it. Once He did that, everything else would be a matter of due course. Jesus was that new Adam. His is the first resurrection. Now that we see Jesus safely back in heaven, let’s see how He’s going to get everyone else there.
End of Chapter Seven