The Meaning of Easter

Easter is more than a commemoration; it is a celebration of victory. Death no longer has the final word, for it was defeated centuries ago.


empty_tomb11

Each year, Christians celebrate Easter, which marks the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. According to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Jesus was a Jewish religious teacher who lived in the first century AD, preached a message centred on the Kingdom of God, and announced he was the long awaited Messiah. He was arrested and condemned by the Jewish religious leaders, and crucified by the Roman authorities. He was subsequently killed outside the city of Jerusalem and buried later that day. On the third day, however, he rose from the grave, appearing to many of his disciples over a period of forty days.

A Life Foretold

The coming of Jesus was a fulfilment of divine prophecy. Isaiah, a Jewish prophet of the eighth century BC, had written of the expected Messiah who would be ‘despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief’. (Isa. 53:3). He went on to describe the life of this Messiah thus:

 

Surely he has borne our griefs

And carried our sorrows;

Yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our transgressions;

He was crushed for our iniquities;

Upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,

And with his wounds we are healed.

All we like sheep have gone astray;

We have turned—every one—to his own way;

And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

(Isa 53:4-6)

But the Messiah was to be more than just a suffering servant; he was to be a conquering king. He was born to rule.

Speaking of him, King David wrote:

The Lord said to me, “You are my Son;

Today I have begotten you.

Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,

And the ends of the earth your possession.

You shall break them with a rod of iron

And dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel”

(Psalm 2:7-8).

Interestingly, the passage quoted earlier from Isaiah was preceded by a declaration that the coming of the Messiah meant that God’s reign had begun:

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

(Isaiah 52:7)

Later in the same chapter, the people are summoned to ‘break forth together into singing’ (v. 9). Why? Because the Lord had ‘comforted his people; he has redeemed Jerusalem.’ ‘And all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God.’ (v. 10)

Thus, the entrance of the Messiah is an announcement of victory. The Messiah is the ruler over the nations.

To those who are familiar with the life of Jesus Christ, this point about the victorious reign of the Messiah might seem confusing. Wasn’t Jesus killed by the Roman authorities? Weren’t the Jewish authorities pleased that they had got rid of him and his disruptive preaching? That sounds more like defeat than a victorious conquest.

Yes, he was killed. And, yes, he was buried. But in that seeming defeat lay the power to transform creation. For on the third day after his death, he rose again. And with his resurrection, the new age known as God’s kingdom, and which all the prophecies point to, was inaugurated. The death and resurrection was a defeat, but not for Jesus and his message; it was a defeat for Satan and his rule over the earth. With the coming of Christ, God announced that the universe had entered a new phase in its history – the era of God’s rule.

Why the Resurrection matters

According to the apostle Paul, the resurrection of Jesus – which we celebrate today – is the high point of the Christian story. As he wrote in his letter to the Corinthians:

For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.

(1Cor. 15:16-17)

Thus, the resurrection of Jesus was more than a mere historical curiosity; the genuineness of the Christian’s faith depends on it. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, your faith is a sham. Period.

However, Paul was convinced of the truth of the event. And he included a list of witnesses who had seen the risen Jesus, among whom was himself (1 Cor. 15:5-8).

Aside from being the crucial determinant of the truth of Christianity, the fact of the resurrection is a motivation for much in the Christian way of life:

  • It is the ground for hope in the future resurrection of every dead believer. And this will not be to their former state of existence; they will be receiving a greatly transformed body (1 Cor. 15:35-49).
  • Countless individuals have died since the event of that Palestinian evening 2,000 years ago. Yet the resurrection of Jesus on the third day gives us assurance that Death itself will finally be destroyed (1 Cor. 15:26, 54-55).
  • The Resurrection is a motivation for extraordinary courage in spreading the gospel (1 Cor. 15:32) and for faithful service to God (v. 58).

Conclusion

The resurrection was the emergence of a new creation, a new order of things. The earth had lain in corruption, with the entire creation groaning in decay and waiting for the revealing of the sons of God (Rom. 8:19). On the third day of his death, Jesus emerged from the grave as the head of God’s new creation. With this, the kingdom of God, which was his mission and message, was finally inaugurated. And his disciples would go on to proclaim this victory of God among all nations, teaching them to obey all that Jesus had taught (Matt. 28:19, 20).

Without the resurrection, the crucifixion of Christ would have been just another death at the hands of the Roman government. It might have been an unlawful death, and, yes, it was a perversion of justice. Nevertheless, his ministry would have been a failed mission – another incident in the great chain of lost causes.

But with the empty tomb on Easter morning, we realize that this was no ordinary death. In fact, it was the death of Death itself. And through that historical occurrence, the world has forever been altered. God’s kingdom has broken loose and the world is never the same again.

The resurrection of Jesus is the assurance that all who trust in Jesus will one day rise from the dead like Him. They would not rise to the same order of things (that would not be something to rejoice over), but to become partakers in a new creation. No more death, no more sickness, and no more pain (Rev. 21:4). All men would worship Jesus and would live in harmony and fellowship with the triune God (John 14:23) forever and ever.

This is the reality and the promise of Easter.


This article was originally published on March 27, 2016.

Living in God’s Future – Now! by N.T. Wright

A sermon at the Easter Vigil in Durham Cathedral, Easter Morning 2009 by the former Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright.


‘If we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him . . . so you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.’

NT Wright 2With those words, St Paul sets out what you might call the Easter agenda, the bracing regime which all newly baptised and/or confirmed Christians have to face up to. This isn’t, to put it mildly, how people normally think about how to behave; so it’s probably worth going straight for the heart of it. Getting up early on Easter morning is itself bracing, exciting and unexpected, and we might as well carry on in the way we’ve begun.

Actually, carrying on what we’ve begun is one good way of describing what living the Christian life is all about. It’s an image Paul uses elsewhere: God has started something off in you, in your hearts and minds and lives, and God is going to carry it on until he’s finished the job. Be prepared for some surprises, and some challenges, as God does that! You’ve been baptised and confirmed into the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the power of the Spirit – so expect those events and that reality to shape your life from now on! But, equally, it’s important to see it from the other end of the telescope, to see your life now from the perspective of the end, the goal. This is a trick management consultants sometimes employ, to get executives to imagine what it’s going to be like when the firm has developed in new ways, how the product will have improved, the new office they’ll have, and so on: think, they say, how it’s going to be in (say) 2020, and then work back and tell yourself the steps by which you got there.

Actually, that management trick is a downscaled version of the ancient vision of virtue. The old philosophers suggested that you should hold in your minds a vision of the future you wanted to attain, a vision of ultimate happiness, completeness, the sort of person you’d want to become; and then they encouraged you to learn and practice the qualities of character you would need to be working on in the present to shape yourself into that sort of a person. The philosophers who taught that sort of thing got two things absolutely right which we as Christians need to sort out in a fresh way for ourselves, but there are two other things which for us are quite different, and Easter is a brilliant time to get our minds and hearts, and particularly our lives, around them all.

First, the old philosophers were right that the way to live your life is from the future backwards. If you start off where you are now, and imagine what you’d like to do, you’ll get muddled and find yourself being driven by different impulses in different directions. If you just go with the flow of what comes naturally, you will look back in ten years, or thirty, or sixty, and shake your head and realise you were going round and round in confused circles. But if you have a goal and are consciously trying to work towards it your character will develop, so that you actually start to want new things, to enjoy new things, to develop new habits. And that’s the second point they got right. Virtue isn’t about struggling to obey a whole bunch of rules. It’s about practising the habits of heart and mind and life which will form your character so that, eventually, you do naturally – though it will be a kind of second nature, one you’re not born with but which you choose to develop – the things which reveal that your character is developing into that of a whole, wise, well-rounded human being.

But the Easter message generates two other things which are quite new. Yes, we must live our lives from the coming future – but we now know much more clearly what that coming future is, and that gives particular point and direction to the people we are to choose to become, to the habits we are to choose to develop. And yes, forming habits of character is vital, even though it’s difficult, but for the Christian the all-important difference is that we don’t do it alone. We don’t develop these habits all by ourselves. We do it, basically, with the help and energy of God’s spirit; and we do it in company, all of us together. After all, the most basic Christian habit is love, and you can’t do love all by yourself.

Let’s think about these two things for a moment. The resurrection of Jesus, the great fact at the heart of the Easter faith, means that we now know, suddenly and in a blinding flash, what our ultimate future will be. Our ultimate future isn’t just that we bumble along trying to live the present life a little bit better until one day we decay and die, and end up either in the grave or in a disembodied heaven or perhaps both. Our ultimate future is that we will be raised to new life in God’s new world, not only to inhabit God’s new creation, a world full of beauty and life and justice and freedom, but actually to run it on God’s behalf. That’s a solid New Testament truth which the church usually keeps quiet about, but it’s time to get it out of the cupboard, blow the dust off it, and see what it means for today. Running God’s world won’t mean, of course, arrogantly imposing our own will on it; it will mean being God’s stewards, and ruling with his gentle, wise love. To be Easter people, we are called to anticipate, here and now, that future vocation, to look after God’s world on his behalf, and to gather up the praises of creation and present them before the creator. Stewardship and worship, the practice of being kings and priests, are the habits of heart and life that Easter people must acquire.

Stewardship and worship take a thousand different forms. Stewardship means working for God’s justice in the world, for the health and flourishing of the planet and all who live on it, for God’s wise order and exuberant freedom to come to birth in all directions. Pray, in the days to come, about the ways in which God wants you to be a steward in his creation. That’s what you’re going to be doing in the resurrection life; start practicing now. Worship means celebrating God’s powerful deeds in history, in your own history, in your community; it means summing up the praises of the whole creation and expressing them, articulately and with understanding and delight, in the presence of the God who made you, loves you and has redeemed you. Pray, in the days to come, about the ways in which God wants you to worship him, where that should be, how often you should come to the eucharist, and how to worship in private as well. Worship is what you’re going to be doing in the resurrection life; start practicing now.

The second point at which Christian virtue, resurrection living if you like, is different from the ancient pagan dream of a good life is that we don’t do all this by ourselves. One of the mysterious but essential realities at the heart of our faith is that the Holy Spirit, God’s own Spirit, Jesus’ own breath, comes to live in our lives so that we discover, bit by bit, that we have a new kind of moral energy and sense of direction. But here’s the thing. Some people, when they realise they are promised the Holy Spirit to help them live as God wants them to do, imagine that therefore all you have to do is to go into neutral and let the Spirit take you wherever he wants. They then sometimes either complain that the Holy Spirit hasn’t done what it said on the tin, or, more darkly, that this or that particular call to holiness can’t be meant for them because they tried it and it didn’t work so the Spirit can’t require it of them. This is a complete misunderstanding. As Paul makes it very clear in today’s reading and elsewhere, the struggle for holiness will remain a struggle, even when the Holy Spirit is giving you the energy, and one of the key elements in that struggle is precisely that you should learn to understand what is going on, to think it through, to be, as he says, ‘transformed by the renewal of your mind, so that you may discern in practice what God’s will is’. In fact, the early signs of the Spirit’s work are that you start to be puzzled by habits of life that you’d taken for granted, and you begin to be startled by ways of life to which God seems to be calling you but which appear difficult if not impossible. The answer then is, Think it through, Pray for wisdom and strength, and Start learning the habits. They don’t come naturally at the moment, just as when you’re learning a musical instrument or a foreign language. But eventually, when you practice them, they will come naturally. You will gradually acquire fluency in the language. That’s what resurrection living is all about.

But if it’s true that we don’t live as Christians all by ourselves in the sense that we are promised the Holy Spirit within us, it’s also true that we don’t do it all by ourselves in the sense that there is no such thing as a solitary Christian. Christianity is a team sport. The ancient pagan virtues were designed to produce great individuals, hero-figures who would lead nations in politics and war. The Christian virtues, supremely faith, hope and love, the great signs of resurrection that well up within us, are designed to produce communities in which each individual has their own unique part to play but within a much larger whole. And the point of it all is not to draw attention to ourselves, but rather to put ourselves out for everyone else, to spot what needs doing in God’s world and to get on and do it, without making a song and dance about it. Thank God that so many Christians in our society are doing just that – so many, in fact, that if they all suddenly stopped doing it our whole country would feel the draft. But you, newly baptised and confirmed Christians today, you need to pray for God’s wisdom and direction to see where you belong in this work. You are part of the family and you will have your tasks to perform, the things God wants to do in this community which we’ve been needing you to do, to make your unique contribution.

So the life into which you are baptised and confirmed is the resurrection life, the kings-and-priests life, the life lived from the future back into the present, the life of thoughtful, discerning, habit-forming faith, hope and love. You may well find that very challenging, especially at six o’clock in the morning. And it is. You may well feel like the women at the tomb, shocked and astonished by the great truth that is starting to dawn on you, the great drama into which, suddenly, you find yourself incorporated. You may well need, as the women seem to have done, to take some time to get over the shock. But Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, and we who find ourselves caught up in that great, earth-shattering event have no choice but to learn to live, right now, already, in the light both of that event itself and of the future which it unveils. Pray; think; learn the resurrection-habits of stewardship and worship, of faith, hope and love; and take your proper place in our growing family as we make Easter a reality in our world.


Source: NT Wright Page

The Meaning of Easter

Easter is more than a commemoration; it is a celebration of victory. Death no longer has the final word, for it was defeated centuries ago.


empty_tomb11

Each year, Christians celebrate Easter, which marks the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. According to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Jesus was a Jewish religious teacher who lived in the first century AD. He was arrested and condemned by the Jewish religious leaders, and crucified by the Roman authorities. He was killed outside the city of Jerusalem and buried later that day. On the third day, however, he rose from the grave, appearing to many of his disciples over a period of forty days.

A Life Foretold

The coming of Jesus was a fulfilment of divine prophecy. Isaiah, a Jewish prophet of the eighth century BC, had written of the expected messiah who would be ‘despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief’. (Isa.53:3). He went on to describe the life of this messiah thus:

 

Surely he has borne our griefs

And carried our sorrows;

Yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our transgressions;

He was crushed for our iniquities;

Upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,

And with his wounds we are healed.

All we like sheep have gone astray;

We have turned—every one—to his own way;

And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

(Isa 53:4-6)

 

But the Messiah was to be more than just a suffering servant; he was to be a conquering king. He was born to rule. Speaking of him, King David wrote:

The Lord said to me, “You are my Son;

Today I have begotten you.

Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,

And the ends of the earth your possession.

You shall break them with a rod of iron

And dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel”

(Psalm 2:7-8).

 

Interestingly, the passage quoted earlier from Isaiah was preceded by a declaration that the coming of the messiah meant that God’s reign had begun:

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to ZIon, “Your God reigns.”

(Isaiah 52:7)

 

Later in the same chapter, the people are summoned to ‘break forth together into singing’ (v. 9). Why? Because the Lord had ‘comforted his people; he has redeemed Jerusalem.’ ‘And all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God.’ (v. 10)

Thus, the entrance of the messiah is an announcement of victory. The Messiah is the ruler over the nations.

To those who are familiar with the life of Jesus Christ, this point about the victorious reign of the messiah might seem confusing. Wasn’t Jesus killed by the Roman authorities? Weren’t the Jewish authorities pleased that they had got rid of him and his disruptive preaching? That sounds more like defeat than a victorious conquest.

Yes, he was killed. And, yes, he was buried. But in that seeming defeat lay the power to transform creation. For on the third day after his death, he rose again. And with his resurrection, the new age known as God’s kingdom, and which all the prophecies point to, was inaugurated. The death and resurrection was a defeat, but not for Jesus and his message; it was a defeat for Satan and his rule over the earth. With the coming of Christ, God announced that the universe had entered a new phase in its history – the era of God’s rule.

Why the Resurrection matters

According to the apostle Paul, the resurrection of Jesus – which we celebrate today – is the high point of the Christian story. As he wrote in his letter to the Corinthians:

For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.

(1Cor. 15:16-17)

Thus, the resurrection of Jesus was more than a mere historical curiosity; the genuineness of the Christian’s faith depends on it. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, your faith is a sham. Period.

However, Paul was convinced of the truth of the event. And he included a list of witnesses who had seen the risen Jesus, among which was himself (1 Cor. 15:5-8).

Aside from being the crucial determinant of the truth of Christianity, the fact of the resurrection is a motivation for much in the Christian way of life:

  • It is the ground for hope in the future resurrection of every dead believer. And this will not be to their former state of existence; they will be receiving a greatly transformed body (1 Cor. 15:35-49).
  • Countless individuals have died since the event of that Palestinian evening 2,000 years ago. Yet the resurrection of Jesus on the third day gives us assurance that Death itself will finally be destroyed (1 Cor. 15:26, 54-55).
  • The Resurrection is a motivation for extraordinary courage in spreading the gospel (1 Cor. 15:32) and for faithful service to God (v. 58).

Conclusion

The resurrection was the emergence of a new creation, a new order of things. The earth had lain in corruption, with the entire creation groaning in decay and waiting for the revealing of the sons of God (Rom. 8:19). On the third day of his death, Jesus emerged from the grave as the head of God’s new creation. With this, the kingdom of God, which was his mission and message, was finally inaugurated. And his disciples would go on to proclaim this victory of God among all nations, teaching them to obey all that Jesus had taught (Matt. 28:19, 20).

Without the resurrection, the crucifixion of Christ would have been just another death at the hands of the Roman government. It might have been an unlawful death, and, yes, it might have been a perversion of justice, yet his ministry would have been a failed mission – another incident in the great chain of lost causes.

But with the empty tomb on Easter morning, we realize that this was no ordinary death. In fact, it was the death of Death itself. And by that historical occurrence, the world has forever been altered. God’s kingdom has broken loose and the world is never the same again.

The resurrection of Jesus is the assurance that all who trust in Jesus will one day rise from the dead like Him. Not to the same order of things (that would not be something to rejoice over), but they would rise to be partakers in a new creation. No more death, no more sickness, and no more pain (Rev. 21:4). All men would worship Jesus and would live in harmony and fellowship with the triune God (John 14:23) forever and ever.

This is the reality and the promise of Easter.

The King who rode on a Donkey

“Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Luke 19:38)

Triumphal entry

I wrote in an earlier post about how Jesus turned the world upside-down, especially in relation to power. And there are few incidents in his earthly ministry which portray this like his triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

Here was the King of the Jews about to make an entrance into the capital city of his nation. His preferred vehicle? A donkey. Kings in the ancient world don’t ride on donkeys; they ride on stout, well-maintained horses. Their vehicle was a symbol of their glory, power, and prestige. Just imagine a modern president riding a bicycle to a state function.

The procession of Jesus into the city was no doubt as subversive as his entire teaching was. He was going against established customs and traditions which were contrary to God’s revelation. And one such area was in the use of power. He had warned his disciples to avoid the oppressive use of power:

“The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.” (Luke 22:25-26)

Power was not a tool for oppression but for service. God though He was, Jesus had come to serve and not be served (Matt. 20:28). After he had ascended into heaven, his disciples would recall how he went about healing people oppressed by the Devil (Acts 10:38). For Jesus, power was a tool for liberating the captives, and not for enriching or promoting oneself (Isaiah 61:1). He was a King, but a different kind.

And this was precisely what he demonstrated on that first Palm Sunday. A King on a donkey was a contradiction in terms. Yet, here was the power of God’s kingdom. It advances through the humble and faithful efforts of Christ and his disciples, not the machinations and strategies of earthly power. And the redemption which Christ accomplished was itself the climax of a lifetime of selfless service. Can we attempt to do otherwise?