In the New Testament and in Christian history the sacrificial death of Christ is of central importance. The Cross is as crucial in the Christian message today as it was when the Lord’s own apostles first proclaimed the Gospel. Christ’s gospel is a cry from the Cross that all is finished. The New Testament view of man’s sin and guilt requires, and its conception of forgiveness and salvation explicitly provides, adequate propitiation through the merits of the divine Saviour’s sacrificial death. How eternally appropriate that the cross of Christ has become the universal symbol of our faith.
But we err in our day when we consider the Cross chronologically. We must look backward to the death of Christ at Calvary. Only as we look in retrospect on Calvary and view it through the Resurrection do we have proper perspective. The sacrifice of the Cross is meaningful only in the light of the triumph of the Resurrection. Beyond death is life. Beyond sacrifice is glorious victory. Beyond the Cross is the risen Christ. Beyond Calvary is the central fact of human history: He “is risen indeed” (Luke 24:34)!
CHRIST IS ALIVE
In his very helpful volume Christ Is Alive! Professor Beasley-Murray relates an intriguing incident from the travels of W. Y. Fullerton. Fullerton was visiting the mimic Calvary in the tiny Swiss village of Dono d’Ossala. The shrine there consisted of a series of chapels in memory of various scenes in our Lord’s Passion. The first depicted Christ before Herod; the second, Christ receiving the cross; the third, Christ taking the cross on himself; the fourth, Christ bearing the cross, and so on. Beasley-Murray writes:
The climax of the scenes was in the Church itself where there was a great picture of the cross raised, with Christ upon it, and in the skies astonished angels gazing down at the tragedy of human sin and divine love. Up to this point the path was well worn by the feet of the devout pilgrims. For years they had come to witness anew the sufferings of their Saviour, and doubtless had mourned and wept at the sight of His agonies. But there they stopped. Their Christ was dead. “Beyond the church there was another shrine,” wrote Fullerton; “but the singular thing was that the path, well worn up to this point, now became grasscovered. Evidently nobody went any further. Though it was a wet day, and the grass was long, I went to the summit, and there, behold! was found the chapel of the Resurrection! The builders of Calvary … did not stay with the dead Christ, but the people, the worshippers, never got any further.… The grass-grown path was a witness that could not be disputed.”
Professor Beasley-Murray feels, and many of us believe he is correct, that this incident is a “perfect reflection of the mind of the CHURCH of the ages.…” The Resurrection which was at first a germane and essential part of the Christian message has often been of little importance to the average Christian. “It is not talked about, it is not preached on, it is not even wondered at; it is simply ignored.” Beasley-Murray is correct when he asserts that the effect of this oversight on Christian thought has been tremendous. “It has affected the whole gamut of theology.… It somehow seems to have been overlooked that the resurrection is an integral part of our Lord’s works for us, so that salvation is essentially a deliverance from living death in sin to a new life of righteousness in God” (G. R. Beasley-Murray, Christ Is Alive!, Lutterworth Press, London, 1947, pp. 11–12).
OBSCURING HIS RESURRECTION
That the Church’s neglect of the doctrine of the Resurrection has affected its own life deeply is beyond question. The doctrine of the Church itself is a vital doctrine only when the Church is headed by the risen Christ. Eschatology hinges on this doctrine completely. The practical, applied side of Christian truth is rendered insipid and negative without the truth of the Resurrection. Christian hope is vain, as Paul was at pains to point out, except Christ be risen (1 Cor. 15:14). Christian theology in general and the doctrine of salvation in particular suffer most when the Resurrection is forgotten.
The decisive importance of the Resurrection to the theology of the Atonement is actually only a part of a larger truth, that Christ’s entire career was a soteriological career. Every event relates to his saving purpose. Thus it is that the evangelist records Christ’s words to the Baptist on the occasion of his baptism. “Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15). The miraculous and divine conception and birth, the sinless life, the perfect teaching, the sacrificial death, and the victorious resurrection of Christ must be taken together or we strip the Gospel of its glory, its power, and its adequacy. “As by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19). The obedience of Christ was his conformity to the Father’s will at every point in his career. Calvin interprets:
When it is asked then how Christ … removed the enmity between God and us, and purchased a righteousness which made him favourable and kind to us, it may be answered generally, that he accomplished this by the whole course of his obedience.… In short, from the moment when he assumed the form of a servant, he began, in order to redeem us, to pay the price of deliverance (Institutes, II, xvi, 5).
Let not those who have isolated the death of Christ despise those who have isolated other epochs, be they Incarnation, teaching ministry, or some other, to the exclusion of all else. For the first Christian preachers, the Gospel was primarily a declaration of Christ’s resurrection. Peter proclaimed it at Pentecost and said he and the other preachers were primarily witnesses of the Resurrection (Acts 2:24, 32, 36). All the apostles preached it (Acts 4:33). Christ himself commissioned his apostles to bear witness to his resurrection (Luke 24:45–48). In the early Church a witness of the resurrected Christ was peculiarly obligated to preach. The Apostle Paul defended his authority to preach on the basis of his encounter with the risen Christ. Peter attributed the death of Christ to the Jews under God’s foreknowledge, but he plainly attributed the resurrection of Christ to God (Acts 2:23, 24; 3:14, 15; 4:10). In 1 Corinthians 15:1 and following, Paul gave his summation of the Gospel. His exposition of the Gospel (vv. 5 ff.) centered on the veracity of the Resurrection.
A simple look at the Passion Week will reveal that the Crucifixion put Jesus’ disciples to flight. They were discouraged, distraught, despairing. How different was the effect of the discovery He was alive. It transformed them into zealous, fearless, and tireless witnesses. It is no wonder the Christian message was early called a “gospel,” for it was indeed “good news.”
The Resurrection was good news, for it convinced the disciples and declared to the world that he was no ordinary man they hung on the cross between two criminals. He was the very Son of God. Throughout the New Testament, the principal support of the deity of Christ is the reality of his resurrection. The apostolic preachers viewed the death of Christ through his resurrection and knew he was the “Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Without the Resurrection the Cross seemed to be the work of cruel men; with the Resurrection it became gloriously evident that it was the supreme work of God to redeem many from sin. Paul spoke of the “gospel of God” which concerned “his Son Jesus Christ our Lord,” who was “declared to be the Son of God with power … by the resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:1–4). He declared, “If Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain” (1 Cor. 15:14). The death of Christ is bereft of revelance and meaning apart from his Resurrection from the dead.
The Resurrection was good news because it fulfilled innumerable promises and prophecies by Christ himself that he would be raised in power (e.g., Matt. 16:21 and John 2:18–22). The entire episode on the Mount of Transfiguration was a dramatic prediction of Christ’s triumphant resurrection.
The Resurrection was good news because it combined logically with the sacrifice on the Cross to complete the divine assault on sin. The soteriological career of Christ must be seen as a cosmic struggle between goodness and evil, light and darkness, life and death, God and the forces of wickedness. The Resurrection turned seeming defeat into consummate victory for the forces of righteousness. The great Apostle declared, “If Christ be not raised, your faith is vain: YE ARE YET IN YOUR SINS” (1 Cor. 15:17). The final victory over sin was not at Bethlehem where the Word “was made flesh” (John 1:14), nor did it occur at Golgotha where God judged sin “in the flesh” (Rom. 8:3), but victory was won at the tomb in the Resurrection of the flesh. The Cross paid for man’s sin. The Resurrection defeated sin and abolished death, sin’s victory (Rom. 6:9, 10).
The Resurrection was good news because it assured the believers of their own victory over sin and death. “But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept” (1 Cor. 15:20). “But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:57; see also John 11:25, 26). “Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him” (Rom. 6:8).
The Resurrection was good news because it disclosed that there were new powers, new resources for life available in the living Christ. Life-giving bread and life-giving water, which Christ had spoken of in cryptic terms, were now accessible to all who would receive (Rom. 5:10; 6:4–6; Phil. 3:10). The powers of the age to come were now in reach of all. Resurrection power was to the disciples power for a new life in Christ, infinitely rich and infinite in duration.
Eugene H. Stockstill is Associate Professor of Religion at Judson College, Marion, Alabama. He holds the B.A. degree from Mississippi College, and the B.D. and Th.D. from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Formerly he was Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church at Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
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