Jesus’ resurrection, exile, and new creation
Jesus died. Most people’s story ends there. In fact, we can safely say that death sticks for everyone.
So, a valid (but not necessarily sound) argument is: death sticks for everyone. Jesus died. Ergo, Jesus stayed dead.
However, there are three inconvenient facts when it comes to Jesus. One: His tomb was empty a few days later. Two: Jesus appeared to people—some individuals, some groups—even up to 500 people at once (1 Corinthians 15:6). And in numerous times in different places and contexts. Three: the people who experienced these appearances believed Jesus had risen from the dead. How do we explain that?
First, Jesus left an empty tomb. Women were the first witnesses. That is not something they would’ve made up. Why? Women weren’t trusted as witnesses at that time. For instance, in Luke and John, men had to verify the empty tomb for themselves. Luke even says the men thought the women were speaking nonsense! Plus, there are several independent testimonies to the empty tomb. Paul implies it in 1 Corinthians 15. Mark mentions it. Matthew alone has the guard story (28:11–15), which shows disciples and enemies alike assumed the tomb was empty. Luke mentions women at the tomb nobody else does. He didn’t make them up, because he alone said the men thought the women’s testimony was nonsense. And John’s account is so different that it has to be independent.
Second, they believed they saw Jesus after he died. 1 Corinthians 15:3–8 is a creed. It lists appearances of the risen Jesus to different people. Individuals. Groups. Different places. And this creed is the earliest on record; it arose within 5 years of Jesus’ death. They had standardized their story within 5 years of Jesus’ death! And some of those claiming to have seen Jesus died for their message. James son of Zebedee. Peter. Paul. James the brother of Jesus. If they didn’t believe they saw Jesus, don’t you think they would’ve given up before it got to torture? Liars make for bad martyrs.
Third, resurrection was the story from the start. 1 Corinthians 15:3–8 says Jesus died, was buried, and was raised the third day. They didn’t think they just saw visions of Jesus. They thought a body got back up from the grave. And 1st century Jews didn’t go around making up myths that a crucified Jewish rebel got back up from the grave and now rules the world. It was foolishness to Greeks and a stumbling block to Jews (1 Corinthians 1:23). But if you see a vision of a loved one after death, you don’t say ‘they’re raised from the dead’! It’s evidence that they are really dead. You’re seeing a vision, ghost, or whatever. Also, the appearances stopped for everyone but Paul after 40 days. Consistent with His ascension, but hallucinations would not stop. Resurrection wasn’t a likely story for them to start with, even with the appearances. But it was the story from the start.
Put all this together. Empty tomb. They saw Jesus afterwards. They proclaimed resurrection from the start, even in the face of persecution and death. And you’ve got a good case for Jesus being raised from the dead.
Ezekiel 37 and the end of exile
However, knowing Jesus’ resurrection happened is just the start. What does the event mean? As Paul tells us, Jesus’ resurrection was “according to the Scriptures”. Thus, it’s the Scriptures that give it meaning. A good place to start looking at how is the longest passage on resurrection in the Old Testament: Ezekiel 37:1–10:
The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry. And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the LORD.”
So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.
Can the bones live? Ezekiel gives the right answer: “O Lord GOD, you know.” And God tells him to prophesy to the bones. They respond. Then God tells him to prophesy to the breath, and the reconstituted bodies come to life. But in the context of Ezekiel 37, does this passage refer to literal resurrection? Not exactly. Ezekiel 37:11–15:
Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the LORD.”
God is reacting to a saying the Jewish exiles commonly uttered. Clearly, there wasn’t a bunch of Jewish skeletons walking around Babylon moaning about their missing flesh! But they were complaining about a sort of death. The death of exile in Babylon. They felt hopeless and lost—like they were dead. In a sense, the nation had died. The throne, the city, and the temple were all gone. So, what would coming back to the land be? What would the end of exile be? Life from the dead!
But this sets Israel up as the pattern. Their sin led to exile. Their return to the land was a resurrection. And in Matthew 2:15 we see the connection between Jesus and Israel:
“This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
Matthew quotes Hosea 11:1. The rest of the verse pictures Israel as God’s son: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” Israel is God’s son. Jesus is God’s son. Jesus is identified with Israel.
But Jesus isn’t just a replay of Israel. He’s what Israel was supposed to be. In the wilderness, Israel fell to temptation. In the wilderness, Jesus resisted temptation. Israel was sinful. Jesus was sinless.
So, when we come to Jesus’ death, He dies in exile. “My God My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34, cf. Psalm 22:1). But unlike Israel, He didn’t deserve exile. Unlike Israel, “he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth” (Isaiah 53:9). Jesus was righteous. Israel was exiled for their own sins. But Jesus was exiled “for the transgression of my people” (Isaiah 53:8). Jesus was exiled for our sins. He bears the exile we deserve for our sins so that we can come home.
But Jesus leads us home. So, He can’t stay exiled. For Jesus to end our exile, He can’t stay dead. If he is dead, our exile is still going. So, He must rise from the dead. Literally. Ezekiel 37 gave us the image. Jesus fulfilled the image literally.
The end of exile, the beginning of new creation
But what comes after the exile ends? A new beginning. A new beginning for everything. ‘Genesis 1:1’ levels of everything. New creation.
Jesus is first in creation and new creation: Colossians 1:15–20
Consider Colossians 1:15–20:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
In verses 19–20 all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell in Jesus. God reconciled all things to himself through the cross. Things in heaven and things on earth. In other words: all creation. Paul refers back to Genesis 1.
But why was all the fullness of God pleased to dwell in Jesus? Verses 15–17: He was the firstborn of all creation. Jesus isn’t the first thing made. Rather, God made everything through Jesus. Jesus is on the ‘creator’ side of the creator/creation distinction. But notice verse 17: Jesus was before all things. And also all things were made for him. He’s before it all, and it’s all for him. The term ‘firstborn’ means ‘having all the rights and prerogatives of the literally oldest son’. This is shown by its application to several people who were not literally first born: Jacob/Israel (Exodus 4:22), Ephraim (Jeremiah 31:9), and David (Psalm 89:27).
But this is just the lead-in to the real point of verse 18:
And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.
Jesus is the beginning of creation, so He is the beginning of resurrection. God began creation through Jesus, so He began new creation through Him by raising Him from the dead.
Resurrection as new creation in 1 Corinthians 15:35–45
This theme of new creation is reflected in the most important chapter on resurrection in the New Testament: 1 Corinthians 15. But Jesus was the beginning of this. The firstborn from the dead. And it is indeed a new creation. The first new thing to sprout since the end of Creation Week. And this is what 1 Corinthians 15 tells us. We can see how this works through verses 35–45:
But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?”
Some Corinthians struggling with the idea of resurrection.
You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain.
The seed ceases to be so that the plant can be. But what comes forth from the seed isn’t the same as the seed.
But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. For not all flesh is the same, but there is one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is of one kind, and the glory of the earthly is of another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory.
The crucial point is verse 38: “But God gives it a body as he has chosen”. What makes resurrection possible? God gives everything the body he wants it to have.
But how? He creates them so. Paul uses Genesis 1 to make this point. The order of the things he mentions shows this: humans, animals, birds, fish. Days 5–6 of Genesis 1 in reverse order. Sun, moon, stars—Day 4 in direct order. He contrasts between earthly (Days 5–6) and heavenly (Day 4). But even heavenly bodies differ. All of this—why? Genesis 1: God is the creator—resurrection is done by the same power God created all things.
So is it with the resurrection of the dead.
As with creation, so with resurrection. Resurrection is new creation.
What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a soulish body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a soulish body, there is also a spiritual body.
Resurrection is better than Genesis 1. New creation trumps old creation.
Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living soul”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.
Genesis 2:7. Adam was made a living soul. So he had a soulish body. But the last Adam? A life-giving spirit. Not just living. He can give life. And not powered by Adam’s soulish life principle. But instead powered by spirit. The almighty Holy Spirit himself! No wonder this body is “imperishable”, ‘glorious’, ‘powerful’. The Holy Spirit is within, knits the body together, and holds it together forever.
But this is Genesis 1, Mark II. Jesus’ resurrection is the first instance of new creation.
New creation as the answer to the Fall
Why, though, is there a need for new creation? The Fall. In Romans 8:19–23 creation groans:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons,
Creation waits for liberation and renewal. Even we do! But what will usher in that renewal? Verse 23: “the redemption of our body”.
So, the redemption of the cosmos, i.e. the new creation, is culminated at “the redemption of our body”. The final resurrection. But why will we be raised? Romans 8:11:
If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.
If you believe in Jesus, you have the Holy Spirit. If you have the Holy Spirit, you are connected to Jesus. So, just as God raised Jesus by the Spirit, so He will do the same for you. A great hope! But notice the link. We will be raised as Jesus was raised. Jesus came first. We come later. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:20–23:
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.
Jesus’ resurrection is the firstfruits. We’re the harvest. And in Romans 8, the whole creation awaits our resurrection. That’s when it will undergo its own ‘resurrection’. New Creation!
Jesus’ resurrection is as much history as 9/11 and the moon landing were. But it’s not just some event. Nothing in the history of the world since its first week is like Easter Sunday. In the first week of the world, God created it all. On Easter Sunday, for the first time in history since God said “very good” He made something new. Jesus’ resurrection isn’t just the proof that Jesus died for us. It isn’t just another miracle. It’s Day 1 of new creation.