Last month, Christians gathered together in unusually large numbers on account of a singular event that transpired outside the walls of Jerusalem some 2,000 yrs ago. We are among those who continue to gather, drawn by the story of a resurrection— the coming back to life of a person once dead.
We are quite used to dealing with the going of life toward death, as it is a part of human experience. Some die by accident or because of old age. Other deaths result from disease or by unexpected tragedy. But death is no stranger to us. And in common experience, death is the end of things; people do not live again after they die. Death is the final, irrefutable truth at the end of life.
For this reason, the story attached firmly to the end of each of the Gospels runs contrary to the norm. It is not about the movement from life toward death, but rather, a very reversal of that: a movement from death toward life:
“Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.” (Matthew 28:1-6)
Jesus was crucified on a Friday, rested in the tomb on the Sabbath, and as Sunday began to dawn— amidst great phenomena— he rose to life again. The Scriptures tells us that there was an earthquake, precipitated, I am sure, by the coming of the angel (who then rolled away the death-sealing stone and sat on it, his garments and visage radiant, bright like lightening). We are easily prone to think of ourselves grandly: independent, capable, and possessed of considerable prowess. It is almost comical how even a single heavenly visitor (the unexpected; the extraordinary) changes the picture. The keepers of the tomb shook and fell prostrate, now as though dead in the face of the newly living.
It was to this scene, apparently, that the women came. And the angel, seeing them, told them that Jesus was not there; he was risen. They could see the place where he once lay.
Though resurrections were not a part of usual experience in New Testament times any more than they are today, the Word of God says that Jesus rose from the dead. The legacy of Calvary was death; the legacy of the tomb was life. So it was that early on Sunday morning, the women stood at the tomb bewildered and amazed.
The resurrection of Jesus, occupying a crucial place in the plan of God, has tremendous implications for us. It precipitates into our lives a precious residue. I am told that in years gone by, used x‑ray film was quite valuable, not because of bones pictured there, but because the photographic process required for x-ray film required a considerable presence of silver. Some there were who would buy used film and treat it. When the process was done, silver would be found precipitated to the bottom of the tank—a reward, a blessing to the owner.
The resurrection event produces a residue too, a precipitate of great value.
Socrates said death was a friend, but he was wrong. If the raw reality of death has come near you through the loss of a loved one, you know that death is not a friend. We experience grief and anger because we know that life is precious. But the residual truth of Easter is that death’s final power is broken. Because Jesus rose from the dead, we are given to understand that death no longer has the last word—at least not for those who believe. Christ’s resurrection is a harbinger of what will happen to all those who put their faith in God. All through human history we have been caught in battle between good and evil, and that battle has made life hard, especially for the righteous. Think of how Habakkuk, looking out on his world, saw the good trodden underfoot and the wicked prospering. Crying out to God, he said, "Why do the wicked prosper while the righteous are trod down?" It was an acrid question with a sibling in the book of Revelation, where the martyrs are depicted under altar of heaven crying “How long until our vindication?”
It is easy to become tired of well‑doing, but the resurrection injects hope: what happened to Jesus will happen to the faithful. Because Jesus rose, we also shall rise. As Paul says, "This corruptible shall put on incorruption; and this mortal shall put on immortality… And we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump. For the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible” (1 Corinthians 15:53, 52).
Some years ago now my wife and I were asked to return to Zambia, the land of my birth, to travel the camp meeting circuit. We were also able to visit one of the grandest places on earth: Victoria Falls, where the mighty Zambezi thunders down a 350 foot canyon (the local name for the place is Mosi-oa-Tunya—literally “Mist that Thunders”). It was hot while we were there, and so we went out in the morning to walk by the falls. As we walked, its spray was carried on the wind to fall on us, soak us through, and offer us refreshment.
At the cross, Jesus, like the mighty Zambezi, fell but rose again. And the residue of his efforts, like a spray, waft blessings from heaven earthward now—gifts given to humankind, the Gospel carried with power.
Several years ago I heard an old preacher tell of trip he made to Palestine. Early in the morning in Jerusalem, while it was still quiet, he got up and went to garden of the tomb. He went in and laid himself down on the shelf with his Bible in hand, to read and meditate there. The preacher let his mind wander over the events Jesus’ life until he came at length to those last precious hours: the last supper, Gethsemane, betrayal, arrest, trial. He thought a long time about Calvary, the thieves, the nails, insults, crown of thorns, agony and death. This preacher was a veteran of forty years in the ministry, but as he lay there on the stone, his ancient frame suddenly began to tremble. He sat bolt‑upright and reached his hand to steady himself. Tears seeped from beneath his eyelids as a most glorious realization burst upon him: “He is not here, for he is risen.”
Jesus is no longer in the tomb; cold stone is no longer his bed. Christ has risen in triumph over sin and death to intercede for the saints on high. May the residue of this Easter reality fill us with hope through every season of our lives.
Dave Thomas is Dean of the School of Theology at Walla Walla University.