When Paul brought the gospel to Athens, he ‘preached to them Jesus and the resurrection’ (Acts 17:18). But when he moved on to Corinth, his sole message was ‘Christ and him crucified’ (1 Corinthians 2:2). Does this mean the apostle somehow changed his emphasis, from the resurrection to the cross? This seems doubtful. It is much more likely that, for Paul, the one implied the other. A crucified Christ was a risen Christ. A risen Christ was one who had first given his life, ‘the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God’ (1 Peter 3:18).
Either way, Paul’s gospel was firmly centred in the events of the first Easter. So should ours be today. The death and resurrection of Christ are two sides of the same coin, and we do a disservice to the gospel if we allow them to become separate in our thinking or our preaching. Nowhere is this truth more clearly stated than in Romans 4:24-25. Righteousness, we are told, is imputed to those ‘who believe in him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was delivered because of our offences, and was raised because of our justification’. The italicized words make an important statement because they emphasize the essential interplay between the death and resurrection of Christ.
The first thing to notice is that the resurrection of Christ was a declaration. It was a statement by God that Jesus of Nazareth was his own Son. The apostle Paul begins his great epistle to the Romans in these ringing terms: ‘Christ … was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, and declared to be the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead’ (Romans 1:3-4). Peter makes essentially the same assertion in his pentecostal sermon when he speaks of Jesus as the one ‘whom God raised up … because it was not possible that he should be held by [death]’ (Acts 2:24). Why could he not remain dead? Because he was the Christ, the Son of God, who has ‘life in himself’ (John 5:26). Thus the resurrection of Christ is the ultimate authentication of his divine nature. There were many other evidences, of course, to this effect: his miracles, his power over the elements, his teaching that revealed that he alone knew the Father. But nothing proves his divine Sonship as does the resurrection. Only God himself could claim, ‘I have power to lay [my life] down, and I have power to take it again’, and then proceed to make that claim good (John 10:18)!
An infinite value
But what has this to do with the death of Christ for the sins of his people? The answer is, ‘everything’. For the meaning of that death turns upon who it was that died! If Jesus was indeed the incarnate God, then his death has an infinite and eternal value. No greater price could have been paid to ransom the lost. No greater efficacy can be attributed to the cross. No greater power could reside in the gospel. But only if Jesus is God. What is the alternative? If, as some maintain, Jesus was a created being, of what value is his death? Creatures are dispensable. Even the mightiest angels are but servants (Hebrews 1:14). A sinless man (if such there were) might substitute for another man. But to redeem a multitude that no man can number, from the penalty and power of an infinitude of sins, requires an altogether greater sacrifice. Only an infinite being could save us from infinite guilt. Only an eternal Saviour could secure eternal life. Jesus prayed, ‘You have given [your Son] authority over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as you have given him … now, O Father, glorify me together with yourself, with the glory which I had with you before the world was’ (John 17:2-5). Surely that says it all.
The deity of Christ is continually under attack. The spirit of unitarianism is ever alive. There are always those who claim to exalt the Father by debasing the Son. Yet Scripture says that ‘He who does not honour the Son does not honour the Father who sent him’ (John 5:23). The resurrection of Jesus Christ is God’s last word on the subject. Christ is the only begotten Son and, having been raised and exalted to God’s right hand, he has been given the Name that is above every name (Philippians 2:9-11; compare Isaiah 45:22-25).
Justified by the resurrection
But there is a second declaration implicit in the resurrection of Christ. ‘He was delivered for our offences, and was raised for our justification.’ To ‘justify’ means to ‘declare righteous’. Who has pronounced any such declaration, and when was it made? Only God, the judge of all men, has the authority to declare a man righteous. It is his righteousness that must be satisfied; his standard that must be met; and his approval that must be won. No one else can speak on his behalf. As Paul asserts with confident finality: ‘It is God who justifies’ (Romans 8:33). None but God himself can make such a pronouncement.
So when was such a declaration made? And of whom was it said? Obviously, it was made when Jesus Christ ‘was raised for our justification’; when he ‘was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father’ (Romans 6:4). The resurrection itself was God’s silent yet eloquent declaration that Christ’s death had atoned, fully and finally, for the sins of the elect. That those he ‘chose … in Christ before the foundation of the world’ had indeed been made ‘holy and without blame before him in love’ (Ephesians 1:4). Was there ever such a pronouncement as this? Have the courts of heaven ever witnessed such a verdict? Could the angelic hosts ever have imagined such a declaration as was made when Jesus wrapped the mantle of resurrection glory around himself and stepped out from the garden tomb? This is both a glorious and a practical truth. It tells us where to look for our assurance of salvation. We are not to look solely to the death of Christ, but also to the vindication of his death. Not just to the ransom paid, but to the acceptance of that ransom as sufficient and effectual. Not only to Christ’s suffering, but also to his success. ‘I have finished the work which you have given me to do,’ he reported to his Father (John 17:4). That finished work means that ‘he has perfected for ever those who are [even now] being sanctified [set apart]’ (Hebrews 10:14). We are to trust not only in the one who died, but in the one who ‘ever lives to make intercession for us’ (Hebrews 7:25).
The power of his resurrection
‘Christ crucified’, writes the apostle, is ‘the power of God and the wisdom of God’ (1 Corinthians 1:23-24). Elsewhere, he expresses the desire to ‘know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death’ (Philippians 3:10). Again we see the vital juxtaposition of the death and resurrection of Christ, this time as it affects the life of the believer. There is power in the blood of Christ to redeem the sinner, and there is power in the resurrection of Christ to apply that redemption to his life. The power of Jesus’ death and resurrection reside in the believer’s identification with the crucified and risen Christ. Paul makes this very clear in Romans 6:4-5: ‘We were buried with him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.’ Baptism is simply a picture of a spiritual reality, namely our dying and rising with Christ. As those who are dead, we are dead to sin and free from its guilt and power (Romans 6:7). As those who are risen, we are alive to God.
A special people
What does this mean? It means that believers are indwelt and led by the Spirit of Christ, bearing the fruit of the Spirit, to the glory of God. It means that we have the seal of the Spirit, marking us out as God’s ‘own special people, zealous for good works’ (Titus 2:14). Furthermore, Paul reminds us that, ‘if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you’ (Romans 8:11). Christ’s resurrection anticipates our own physical rising from the dead when he will gather all his own to glory. May we know the power of his resurrection, now and then!