Summary: When I believed in the life boat gospel, I could not explain the importance of the resurrection. The death of Jesus flipped the lever to get me into heaven so the resurrection seemed like a nice but unnecessary postscript. Through the lens of the Kingdom I now realize that the resurrection was the arrival of the Kingdom of God and the first day of new creation.
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The Resurrection: A Postscript?
When I was a pastor, Easter Sunday was a big day. I was guaranteed a packed house. It was my one shot a year at a whole bunch of strangers. I tried to preach my best sermons. This was hard since I was unclear about why the resurrection was so important.
I used to see the cross as the place where God punished Jesus for my sins and earned me a seat on the life raft that would take me to heaven when I died. My ticket was punched on Friday, the day Jesus died. The resurrection was a happy postscript but, honestly, I wasn’t sure why it was so important. Here are four examples of questions and frustrations I had back then:
1. In the original Passover, it would have been strange if the lamb had sprung back to life. In fact, since, as I viewed it, the lamb’s death was what turned away God’s wrath, a lamb that did not die might even be dangerous. Similarly, when it came to Jesus, I wasn’t sure why three days in the grave qualified as dying. I reasoned that maybe those three days were so awful and that they made up for the fact that Jesus’ death was only temporary. Still, it still seemed odd.
2. Jesus told the thief on the cross that they would together in Paradise the day he died. Evidently, Jesus died and went to heaven.1 Other than to reassure me that he had made it to the other side, why was it essential for Jesus to return to earth?
3. I had a leader in my church who was obsessed with the fact that Jesus rose bodily and got into a debate with another leader who said Jesus’ resurrection was spiritual. I wasn’t sure why it mattered. Call it what you like. Jesus was in heaven and would take me there when I died in some sort of form. What was all the fuss about?
4. Since I thought Jesus’ death paid for my sin and made me right with God, I did not understand why Paul said that if Christ was not raised, I was still in my sins.1 Jesus’ death turned away God’s wrath. Jesus went to heaven. Why was the resurrection was necessary?
I watched other pastors struggle with the same issues. They said the resurrection proved that the price for my sins had really been paid. After all, any fool could claim to die for your sins. But how could you know he had really done the job? The resurrection was proof. I also heard Jesus’ resurrection explained as a temporary return from heaven to earth to give me a preview of things to come, to prove that there really was a heaven.
None of this addressed my questions. How did a temporary death pay the price for my sin? And if somehow the three days satisfied God’s wrath, why did Paul say it was essential that Jesus return from heaven?
My confusion was created by the faulty assumptions of the life raft gospel. It went like this:
- The material world will be destroyed, leaving only two places: heaven and hell.”
- Since I’m not worthy of heaven, I’m headed for hell.
- Jesus took the punishment for my sin.
- Since I asked Jesus into my heart, I would go to heaven.
This description is a logical construct that emerges from Plato-Dante cosmology. Verses can be strung together to support this view but it misses the point of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. It turns the New Testament into a puzzle. Since this view springs from unbiblical assumptions it is not wrong in a few particulars; it is false to the core. It cannot be fixed. It must be abandoned and replaced with the Bible’s own perspective.
When the life, death and resurrection of Jesus are seen through the lens of the Kingdom of God their importance snaps into focus. The message of the Bible becomes coherent. The resurrection is no longer a puzzling postscript to the cross. It is an essential piece of the new creation. There are hundreds of places I could go to show this but why not start with the first post-resurrection proclamation of the gospel, Peter’s sermon at Pentecost?
Peter’s Easter Sermon
The first recorded sermon after the resurrection is found in Acts 2. When I read this sermon with my life boat theology I didn’t know what to make of it. It seemed like a bunch of disconnected Old Testament quotations with very little gospel in it. I now realize that this sermon is the gospel. It describes how the death and resurrection of Jesus established the Kingdom of God. Peter made two major announcements that day: 1) That the Kingdom of God had arrived. 2) That the King had been crowned. Here is a summary, but you will get more out of it if you pause to read this great chapter for yourself.
The Messianic Age Has Come! (Acts 2:1-21)
Acts 2 begins with a description of how the Holy Spirit fell with power on a gathering of pilgrims who had come from all over the Roman empire to celebrate the festival of Pentecost. The crowds didn’t know what to make of this. Peter explained that God was breathing life into his new creation.
In our age of electric power it is easy to forget the central place of wind in the ancient world. Our ancestors observed that things did not move unless a mysterious, invisible force made them. When the wind blew, the world came to life. Otherwise it sat still. There were exceptions though. Some things moved even when the wind did not blow. But these all had something in common: breath. They had their own internal wind power. They inhaled and exhale. Breath was life. That’s why in both Greek (pneuma) and Hebrew (ruach) the word for “wind” is the same as the word for “spirit.” Breath is life. So when God created Adam it is described like this:
Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. (Genesis 2:7)
The day I was born, they cut my umbilical cord and I gulped my first breath. I became a living being. One day I will take my final breath. I will “give up the ghost.” Breath is life. No breath, no life.
When Acts describes the Spirit/Wind blowing through the upper room, filling the lives of those gathered there to pray, it’s Genesis all over again. The God who breathed life into first Adam was breathing life into second Adam. The pilgrims were not drunk. They were taking their first breath as a citizens of the Messianic Age.2
They immediately began to behave as citizens of their age. They praised God in various languages. The promise to Abraham was being fulfilled. God was making him the father of many nations. Note the ridiculously long list of nationalities in verses 9-11. Acts is making a point. God’s Spirit was being poured out on the whole world. The curse of Babel was broken and God was creating one human family. Peter went on to describe this as the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy of the Messianic age.
But how could this be? Rome still ruled Israel. There was no descendant of David on the throne. Or was there?
The King Has Been Crowned! (Acts 2:22-36)
Jesus’ disciples did not see the resurrection as a mere postscript to the cross. They saw it as the enthronement of their Messiah. Where was King of the coming age? On his throne at God’s right hand!
Christ, … was neither abandoned to Hades, nor did His flesh suffer decay. This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses. Therefore having been exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He has poured forth this which you both see and hear (Acts 2:31-33).
The rulers of this world thought that the cross proved that Jesus was a fraud. Instead, it proved that they were frauds. The powers of the present age was defeated by the powers of the next. Love, humility, truth, mercy, and self-sacrifice won the day. Let the rulers of this world stomp and snort and wave their useless weapons.3God has chosen his Messiah. The soon-coming King was on his throne. The world belonged to the meek.
The two simple words “Jesus Christ” are shorthand for this. “Christ” means “Messiah.” The only reason you would call Jesus a Messiah is if you believed that the cross was a victory and the resurrection an enthronement. Likewise, “The gospel of Jesus Christ” is another way to say “the gospel of the Kingdom of God.” If you believe Jesus is the Messiah, you believe the Kingdom has come.
Peter’s audience understood him. The Kingdom had come and the Messiah was on his throne. Now what?
Repent! (Acts 2:37-47)
In light of the newly enthroned King and the coming Kingdom, Peter’s instructions make perfect sense.
“Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)
God offers the Kingdom. My sins are forgiven. I can come home! I can repent! I can stop playing the sick games of this fallen world. I am invited to immerse myself into the name of Jesus the Messiah and take my first breath as a newborn child in God’s Kingdom. My lungs are filled with the life of the coming age, God’s Holy Spirit.
Acts goes on to describe people who behave as Kingdom citizens. Their hearts are full of praise to God. They are truly happy. They love each other and give freely. They tell everyone about the Kingdom of God. God’s Kingdom flows to the entire world. People enter the Messianic age and bow to Lord Jesus. The Kingdom has come!
Life in The Kingdom
The New Testament is a collection of writings by Jesus’ first followers. These preserve the events of Jesus’ life and record his teachings about the Kingdom of God. They explain how Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection fulfilled the promise to Abraham.
Try this: Set aside your life raft theology and try reading the New Testament through the Kingdom lens. You will love what you see. I share Romans 8 as an example, hoping to whet your appetite. My aim is to launch you into life in God’s Kingdom.
I begin by coming to God as I am. I receive total forgiveness. I feel the embrace of God.
Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. (Romans 8:1-2)
I fill my lungs with the Spirit of God, the life-breath of the Kingdom.4
For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:15)
I expect that like my Master, I will suffer as I wait for the glory of God’s Kingdom to be revealed.
The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Romans 8:16-18)
I trust that God will use even my suffering for good.
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. (Romans 8:28)
I relax. Victory is certain. Nothing can separate me from the love of God.
But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:37-39)
I no longer see the cross and resurrection as a discount ticket to heaven. I see it as the triumph of Christ and the arrival of God’s Kingdom. I joyfully enter this Kingdom. I do not know how my path will unfold, either in this life or the life to come, but I have had tasted Messianic age and I want more. I trust that my faithful Master will lead me home.
I ran across a prayer by Thomas Merton which captures the life of a Kingdom citizen with its hope and mystery.
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” Thomas Merton
- 1 Corinthians 15:17
- This explains Jesus promise that some of his followers would see the Kingdom come in power before they died (Luke 9:27).
- Psalm 2 was understandably a favorite of the first followers of Jesus. Give it a read and you’ll see why.
- “Spirit” in Paul’s is Paul’s favorite word to describe the Messianic Age. “Flesh” is his word for this fallen world. Too often this has been read through the lens of Plato as if the “spiritual” part of you is good and the fleshly, material part of you is bad. This is a major distortion of his thinking. The battle between “flesh” and “Spirit” in Paul’s writing is not between parts of you or parts of God’s creation. The battle is between the kingdom of this world (“flesh”) and the kingdom of God (“S/spirit”).