The scriptures are clear that Jesus died on a Roman cross and that three days later, he rose from the dead, appeared to his disciples for 40 days, and then ascended into heaven. Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection both have great significance beyond a simple execution and restoration to life.
Jesus died as an atoning sacrifice for our sin and to defeat the spiritual forces arrayed against us. But what was it that happened on the first Easter roughly 2000 years ago when Jesus rose from the dead?
The Empty Tomb
The first thing that anyone noticed about that day was the empty tomb. Jesus had been taken off the cross and placed into a tomb/cave, and a massive stone rolled across the entrance to seal it up.
And a few of his followers had taken note of the location. Yet when they went out early the following Sunday morning, the stone was rolled away, and Jesus’ body was missing.
There have been many attempts over the years to explain away the empty tomb. And many today carry on that tradition or deny it altogether. Yet few serious Bible scholars, regardless of their religious beliefs, deny that Jesus died on a Roman cross, was buried, and his tomb was later discovered empty.
That the tomb was found empty demonstrated to his first followers that he had defeated death. And it continues to give witness to us today that the grave could not hold him. That he had conquered death.
Resuscitation Vs. Resurrection
Several times in both the Old and New Testaments, we find accounts of people who had died and then were restored to life. But they were fundamentally different than what happened to Jesus.
All these other people were indeed restored to life. But they were no different after their restoration than before their death. And each of them ultimately died again. They were simply resuscitated.
But Jesus’ restoration to life was fundamentally different. Jesus’ body was different. He could appear and disappear at will. He could pass through closed doors. And he seemed to appear unrecognizable to those who knew him.
And, most importantly, he did not experience death again at some later time. His body was immortal. What Jesus experienced was a resurrection. The same resurrection that Jesus’ followers look forward to at the end of the age.
He Conquered Death
Romans 6:9 says that because “Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him.” In Jesus’ resurrection, he defeated death, humanity’s greatest enemy and fear. Death is our final act on this earth. And for many people, what comes after death, if anything, is a great unknown.
Hebrews 2:15 refers to this fear of humanity, “Who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” But, according to Hebrews 2:14, Christ, in his death, broke the power of Satan, the one who holds the power of death. And he freed us from our fear of death.
Death is a defeated enemy. While we still face death, it should no longer hold any fear for those who belong to Christ. What lies on the other side of death is still largely unknown to us.
But we can have confidence that death is not the end. After death will come resurrection into the new life that God has prepared for us.
The First Fruits of a New Humanity
In 1 Corinthians 15:20, Paul said that “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”
Later in this chapter (1 Corinthians 15:35-49), Paul describes what our resurrected bodies will be like. They will be totally unlike what we have now, but they will be like Christ (1 John 3:2).
At Jesus’ resurrection, he took on the humanity that each of his people will have at our own resurrection. He was the first. And many more of us will eventually follow him.
Sent the Holy Spirit
In John 16:7, Jesus told his disciples that it was necessary that he go away. But that when he did, he would send the Holy Spirit to them. Scripture records this event in the second chapter of Acts, 50 days after Jesus’ crucifixion.
When Jesus was among his disciples, he was only in one place at a time. And the relationship he had with his disciples was a human friendship. But when Jesus returned to the Father, he sent the Spirit to them.
And the Holy Spirit indwelt the believers, resulting in a more intimate relationship. And the Spirit was not limited to a single place at a single time. The Holy Spirit that Jesus sent to us enables us to walk in fellowship with God. The Holy Spirit transforms the lives of believers.
Enthroned at the Right Hand of God
Philippians 2:9-11 tells us that because Jesus was obedient even to death, God has exalted him to the highest place. Hebrews 7:27 and 8:1 say that Jesus, our great high priest, offered himself as a sacrifice for us. And he has now set down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Did Jesus simply reclaim his position as Son, the second person of the Trinity? Or is there more to this? I believe it is more than a simple return to his pre-incarnate place as Son. Jesus’ favorite term for himself is Son of Man.
This is an illusion to Daniel 7:13-14, where one, like a son of man, comes into God’s presence and is given authority over all peoples and a kingdom that will never end. Jesus is eternally the Son. But he is more than that now. He still retains his humanity, albeit in its resurrected form.
What does Jesus do at the right hand of God? He rules over his kingdom (Colossians 1:13). He is exalted by all creation (Philippians 2:9-11). And he is making intercession for those who follow him (Hebrews 7:25).
He Led a Victory Parade
In the Roman world of the New Testament, it was common for a conquering general to lead a triumphal parade into the capital of Rome.
This parade would include some of the captives from the opposing army. And it would often include entertainment and feasting for the people who were privileged to participate.
In Ephesians 4:8, Paul alludes to this practice. But rather than honoring a victorious Roman general, it is Jesus leading the victory parade.
Colossians 2:15 would seem to identify the captives as the spiritual forces in opposition to Jesus. He defeated them in his death. And in his ascension to the throne, he made a public spectacle of them.
The Ephesians passage also says that he gave gifts to his people. The gifts mentioned here included apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors/teachers.
These are leadership gifts for his newly established church. And he continues to this day to give his people the gifts we need to serve him effectively.
When Jesus rose from the dead, he conquered death, becoming the firstborn of a new humanity. He defeated the spiritual forces of evil and took them captive.
He ascended to the throne of God, where he now rules over his kingdom. And he sent to us the Holy Spirit to teach and guide us in the life he has called us to.