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.

The God my Ancestors knew but didn’t know

My Yoruba ancestors (along with most African cultures) believe in a supreme being; they call him Olodumare. They revere him as the source of all life and the originator of all that exists. He is too great to come into contact with the universe, so he is somewhat distant and aloof. This task of dealing with the mundane affairs of humanity is handled by the lesser gods, the orisa. Thus in theological terms, we have a transcendent deity who is not immanent, but reigns as the king over a large group of smaller deities, spirits, and forces.

Abstract Africa in a Tiger Camouflage

Abstract Africa in a Tiger Camouflage

Centuries ago, in the very different climate of Palestine, God was unveiling himself to us. Amidst the ruggedness of the middle eastern terrain, and the simplicity of their diet and clothing, Jesus was born. Earlier prophecies about him, as well as his subsequent life and ministry, would reveal that this was no ordinary Jewish prophet; he was God himself. And he revealed a very different kind of God from what my ancestors (and even many Jews) believed. Among others, this difference lies in two key respects: Immanence and Love.

Immanence

The Incarnation (what Christians typically call the act of God in taking up human nature in order to redeem humanity) is the climax of God’s ongoing interaction with his creation. Ever since creation, God has been involved with his universe. He sustains it and animates it by his spirit. Paul wrote of this when he described God as the one ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:25,28). As it were, He has this intimate interaction with us always. This idea about God’s immanence is also spoken of in passages of scripture like Psalm 139:1-10; Jer. 23:23-24; Ephesians 1:11; 4:6; and Hebrews 1:3. Thus it gives a very different picture of God from that of my ancestors. The God revealed in the Bible is not a distant God; he is a God who draws near to his creation. And he has demonstrated this most powerfully in the Incarnation. Here the second person of the trinity left his throne to lodge with humanity. Olodumare has lesser gods in charge of the Human Affairs department, but does not involve himself directly. Some might say it’s just delegation; the way any busy executive might do today. Well, the immanence of God is certainly a comfort for the Christian believer. To know that my God is with me all the time, that I can reach out and call to him, that I never leave my house without walking through his corridor, is an awesome and superior privilege. And clearly, such a view of God answers better to who we are as humans.

Love

The second point ties closely with the first. You cannot love what you have no relation with. By losing immanence, Olodumare loses love. Perhaps, it can love the orisa, but it cannot love humans. This structure of interrelationships between the spiritual realm and the human world thus emphasizes Power rather than Love. And this explains why Power, and the fear of it, is so important in the Yoruba life and world view. The Biblical or Christian view goes against this outlook. Yes, God is powerful; immeasurably so. Yet, when John was to describe God, he identified his character as Love (1 John 4:8). The entire life and ministry of Jesus was a massive demonstration of God’s loving character in defeating sin and establishing the kingdom. And God’s expectation from humans is for just such a relationship based on love (see Deut. 6:5; 7:7; 10:12; 13:13; Joshua 23:11; Psalm 42:8; Matthew 22:36-40). Olodumare is a powerful being, but he is not a God of Love. And that makes a lot of difference.

When Paul met with the philosophers in the city of Athens, he observed that they had a statue to an “unknown God”. In their religious fervour and devotion, they wanted to be sure that they had not left out any ‘god’. So Paul used the opportunity to tell them of the true God who came in human nature rather than have some wooden statue be his reference point.

The ‘God’ which my African ancestors believed in, without fully knowing, has revealed himself. Jesus Christ came to our world several centuries ago and lived among us. His mission was to inaugurate, and ultimately consummate, God’s kingdom on earth. The scriptures describe him as “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15). Therefore, whoever desires to know what the God who created heaven and earth looks like should look to Jesus.

Shortly before his crucifixion, Jesus was speaking to his disciples when one of them, Philip, asked him to show them the Father. To which Jesus responded,

“Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9)

Seeking the Kingdom

When Jesus said we should seek first God’s kingdom (Matthew 6:33), he was simply asking us to imitate him.

Earlier, he was confronted by Satan and forced to choose between satisfying his own interest and pursuing God’s will (Matthew 4:1-11). This was a test exactly along the same line as Adam and Eve had faced in Genesis 3. Jesus, however, triumphed because he consistently made God’s will (his kingdom) paramount. In matters of bodily appetite, personal fame and significance, and material wealth, Christ submitted to God’s will. And he calls us to do likewise.

The Secret Christian

 

Nicodemus and Joseph

I find it interesting that the two men (Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus) who are on record as being so helpful with the burial of Jesus were ‘secret’ disciples (John 19:38-42). They followed Jesus and believed he was the messiah, albeit secretly because they feared the Jews. They didn’t want to be accused of blasphemy by following a man who claimed to be the Son of God. And so they followed him ‘secretly’. Most likely, they saw the burial as the highest act of devotion they could show to Him. They probably said: “Here hangs our ‘secret’ master on the cross; let us prepare Him for a decent burial.” So they brought the spices, and placed him in a new tomb which was owned by Joseph (Luke 23:53). For them, that was the end of a ministry. A great ministry, no doubt, but still it was the end. Their master was dead.

In God’s agenda, however, this was not the end. Something greater was in view – a Resurrection. Life overcomes Death; Resurrection supercedes the Burial. But where were the secret disciples? Devotees to a lost cause, they were no longer around. The task of proclamation was given to those who were willing to identify with Him publicly (though one of them was tempted to become a secret disciple shortly before He was crucified). These were the true followers; they who loved not their lives to the death. They had counted the cost and had decided to pay, by the help of the Holy Spirit. In obedience to Jesus’ command, they were willing to lose their lives for His sake.

And in doing so they became witnesses.

The church needs to ‘come out’. Not to a perverted sexuality nor to a confusion of gender roles, but to her true identity as the people of God and the followers of Jesus. Enough of living by double standards: we serve God in the church and our homes, while serve Man in our workplaces and in the larger society. We are the light of the world; we have a unique vision of human life under the sovereignty of God. We have the truth of the gospel for restoring God’s purpose in the society. God has given us his word , and it is relevant for every aspect of human life be it work, politics, family, or education. It is our responsibility to live by this truth and proclaim it to the world.

God does not need ‘secret disciples’; He wants witnesses.

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross

Once  again, a look at the death of Christ. Isaac Watts’s immortal meditation on this grand and glorious theme.

When I survey the wondrous crossIsaac_Watts
on which the Prince of glory died,
my richest gain I count but loss,
and pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast
save in the death of Christ, my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.

See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
or thorns compose so rich a crown?

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were a present far too small.
Love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.

The weeping God

One of the greatest passages in all the Bible is that short sentence in John 11:35:

Jesus wept.

Here is the great and mighty God, the eternal Word by whom all things were made, the Logos who gives order and meaning to the universe. He enters into our broken world and identifies with human grief. As the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews says:

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” Hebrews 4:15

In order to redeem us, he becomes us. Not in all the Old Testament has God been seen to enter so deeply into human experience. Yes, He loved his people. Yes, He cared for them. And even yes, He provided for them. But to weep with them, this was radically new. And, oh, so amazing!