Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 17 - Christ’s Resurrection
Question 46: How does Christ’s resurrection benefit us?
Answer 45: First,
by his resurrection
he has overcome death,
so that he could make us share
in the righteousness
which he had obtained for us
by his death.
by his power
we too are raised up
to a new life.
is to us a sure pledge
of our glorious resurrection.
Jesus has risen from the dead. The Bible is crystal clear about that fact. The Catechism concurs and so it immediately pushes deeper into the significance of this fact. It therefore assumes that everyone accepts the resurrection messages without question. In all the strife in the days of the great Reformation, people agreed on this.
Later this changed. People found the resurrection stories of the NT too naive to still believe in them. Had the dead Jesus really risen physically? In that tomb? And did he subsequently leave it? And did he then appear in the flesh to all kinds of people? People no longer wanted to believe that it had all happened as the NT tells us. The reports would contradict each other and assumed to be partly based on error or imagination.
Is there then something wrong with the reporting?
Imagine for a moment that the biblical information was not completely reliable! Then the foundation of our belief in the resurrection would be undermined.
It is certain to us that theologians who think this way do not have a leg to stand on. To demonstrate this, we will check some of the arguments that they use most of the time. But we do so primarily to convince ourselves even more deeply how reliable the NT is about this indispensable article of faith.
False Accounts of Jesus' Resurrection
It has been claimed that Jesus would only have appeared to be dead. Then his resurrection was also a sham. Others, in an effort to explain the empty grave, have said that the body was stolen. These two explanations are so strongly at odds with all the reports that they have virtually no defenders nowadays.1
There are also those who point out that after his death Jesus was seen only by his followers. Was that not suspicious? If only Caiaphas would have seen him! Or Pilate! But his followers imagined that they saw him. They simply could not separate themselves from him. They were always talking about him and their minds were full of him. As a result, they eventually made themselves and each other believe — in all sincerity — that they had seen him from time to time. The wish became the father of the thought. And so the stories came about that he had risen.
But the NT tells us that for each of them it was unshakably certain: Jesus is forever dead. And it took a lot to convince each of them that he was in fact alive. That this had occurred to them mentally is contrary to everything.2
It is also not true that the outside world knew nothing about this resurrection. Indifferent soldiers had been standing guard at the tomb and were frightened almost to death.3
This had nothing to do with imagination. It is true that they had not seen Christ, but they were instructed to lie through their teeth in order to hide the truth. Finally, some have wanted to play off Paul against the four evangelists. They reasoned like this: Paul did indeed believe that Jesus was alive. And that this was indispensable for true faith, because if Christ has not been resurrected our faith is without substance.4 But this same Paul would consider it as unimportant what the four Gospels tell us about the how, where and when of all this.5
Quite possibly he would not stick out his neck for it. Take the empty tomb, they said. All four evangelists consider the empty tomb to be an important piece of evidence that Jesus has truly risen. In their accounts the place of the resurrection plays an indispensable role. However, that is not the case with Paul. For when he lists strong evidence in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 that Jesus has in fact been raised, the empty tomb does not count. He does not even mention it. The only thing that counts for him is the fact that Jesus appeared to various kinds of people after his resurrection. But Paul would leave it as an open issue whether Jesus had really risen physically and had in fact left his tomb.6 And this would at least prove that, following Paul, we should not take the stories of the four evangelists too seriously in all their details. It would only concern the core. However, we are not impressed by this view either. It is true that Paul does not mention the empty tomb. But that in itself is no proof that he knew nothing about it or even did not want to know.7
After all, it was obvious that after so many years he could not convince his readers in Greek Corinth by referring to an empty tomb. Instead it would be better to let them inquire with people who had seen Jesus after his resurrection. That is why he must have kept silent in that letter about the tomb, but by doing so he certainly did not deny that Jesus had really risen bodily in that particular place. The NT is not only reliable insofar as it claims that Jesus is alive, but also when it gives us historical details about and around his resurrection itself. We want to discuss the latter a bit more. Does the NT actually give us a complete picture of what happened? The accounts make such an incoherent impression on us here and there. Why is that?
Reliable But Not a Complete Reporting
The news about the resurrection comes to us via five channels: the four Gospels and Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8.
As we collect all that has been reported, it is not possible to assemble a continuous story out of it. It has been tried many times, but in the case of each attempt one can continue to ask questions. That is because the day of the resurrection was overflowing. It was the most shocking event of all time. No one expected it. So much happened at once, and everyone reacted differently. The news spread along at least four different paths: women heard it from angels.8 The truth began to dawn on John when he saw the empty tomb, while Peter had not yet come this far. 9
But that same empty tomb panicked Mary Magdalene, who was only convinced when Jesus himself spoke to her.10
The disciples became convinced when they saw Jesus, but Thomas first wanted to feel his scars.11
The one person became convinced in a different way and by a different fact than the others. Each got his or her own experience. This resulted in the overall picture of a very varied collection of testimonies12 — spontaneous and true to life. And that is precisely why they are historically reliable!
In this way we also know enough “to be saved”.13 Of course, much more had happened on that day and during the forty days after, when Jesus prepared his disciples for their task. Hefty volumes could have been written about that. There was plenty substance! Twice John wrote outright that he could have told much more about that time; the world would not be able to contain the books to be written. But he also says that this relatively short account was written — and is therefore sufficient — to make us believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.14
God did not give us an objective and detailed account by which we could follow the events closely. Apparently he did not think that was necessary. But then, for our part, we should not treat those testimonies as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle from which we are to attempt to make one whole. This is not to say that we are not allowed to try to combine the messages into one harmonious whole. But we should not lose sleep over it when we do not succeed in making it a flowing story. For that was simply not God’s intention. He did not provide us with fragments or shreds of information, but with true-to-life testimonies.
The Entire Bible is Easter Gospel
Why did Jesus stage a victorious entry into Jerusalem on that first Easter morning? He could have gone to the temple — or to Golgotha. It could have been a mighty spectacle. The lie that fanatical followers stole his body would then have been impossible. The scoffers who had still claimed at the end of the previous week that they would believe in him when he took himself off the cross would then have been answered.15 Even Caiaphas and Pilate would have been convinced of the authenticity of his resurrection. But they would never see him again.
Perhaps we are thinking they would have come to faith in him if this had happened. If only Jesus had shown himself to all those Jews. To Caiaphas, to Pilate, or to Amsterdam or any other place today! Would that not help?
The rich man in the parable also thought along these lines: if someone from the dead would go to see my brothers on earth they will repent. But he was told: if they do not listen to Moses and the prophets — the Old Testament — neither will they be persuaded when someone rises from the dead.16
No one can come to faith in Christ apart from Moses and the Prophets. Even a very sudden visit of the risen Christ to Jerusalem would not have brought anyone to faith in him. It would have shocked the people deeply and convinced everyone of his resurrection. But even then they would not have accepted him as the Saviour of the world sent by the Father.17 To believe in him in this way, we must know him from the Bible. Otherwise he still remains a stranger to us. The resurrection as an isolated fact — no matter how impressive — does not bring anyone to true faith in Christ. Not even the disciples. Of course they had to be sure that Jesus had really risen from the dead. That is why he ate a piece of fried fish “before their eyes” to convince them that he was not a ghost.18With that, the fact of his resurrection was established for them and they knew for sure that he was alive. Yet Jesus did not think that was enough because then he opened their minds so that they understood the Scriptures.19
They had to realize that his resurrection was not an isolated fact but the fulfillment of all that was written about him in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms.20 They had to come to know Jesus from all of the Scriptures.
Jesus did the same to the two on their way to Emmaus. He walked beside them on the road. He could have simply said: “It is I, just look at my hands.” But he did not. Instead he explained the Bible to them. Starting with Moses. In this way they discovered that his resurrection was not a sudden event but had been foretold throughout the OT and that therefore he was the Christ.21
The detour that Jesus seemed to follow was nevertheless the shortest and the unavoidable way to get to know him.
The disciples understood that very well. Peter gave proof of it fifty days later in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost. He had seen Jesus repeatedly and could therefore testify that he had risen and was alive. So he did. But he did more!
He opened the Scriptures. He pointed to Psalm 16, then already an ancient song. But from it he unearthed before the astonished Jews the resurrection of Christ. For that was really what was contained in David’s Psalm! He was speaking there of the resurrection of the Christ.22
Peter opened all kinds of doors to the OT. He took his audience inside the Scriptures and showed how all of it testifies about Christ. This especially struck home to the Jews.23
About 3,000 people suddenly recognized Christ from God’s word. That became a shocking discovery. But this is how they became convinced and came to faith.
We come to the following conclusion: we believe that Christ is alive. For this there are five direct testimonies: four from the evangelists and one from Paul. But in turn, these five are the fulfillment of what all Scripture has foretold starting from Moses, that is Genesis. So our faith in the living Christ rests not only on five accounts of the resurrection but also on the indivisible gospel of Easter, from Genesis onward.
Christ’s Resurrection Guarantees Ours
Jesus has risen from the dead. But what does that mean for us?
What Paul writes about this in 1 Corinthians 15 is extraordinary. The letter dates from approximately 53 or 54 AD.24 Although the NT opens with the four Gospels because the events mentioned therein took precedence, this does not mean that they were written or circulated before Paul’s letter. When Paul sent it to Corinth, the four Gospels had yet to appear.25 Their resurrection narratives still needed to be recorded at that time. Seen in this way, 1 Corinthians 15 contains the oldest recorded written message for us about the resurrection. This event had taken place rather recently — approximately 20 years earlier. The “majority” of the 500 brothers who had seen Jesus were still alive.26 Two things stand out in this ancient message. The apostle attaches great importance on the factuality of the resurrection. Therefore, he gives an extensive account of various encounters with Jesus after his death.27If desired, one could inquire from people who had seen Jesus with their own eyes at the time. In addition however, it is significant that he calls Jesus the “firstfruits”. This word is derived from the sacrificial service. The first fruits of the field were given to the LORD but they represented the entire harvest. That is why they were called firstfruits. Paul calls Jesus the firstfruits because he is the first of a long line. As the Risen One, he is not alone but he draws all his followers along with him.28
But how does this become evident? Christians also have to die and they also do not reach remarkably high ages. What then does it mean to them that Christ rose from the dead as their firstfruits?
Death Has Been Disarmed
Death has no place in creation. It is an enemy.29 Yet it did not enter the world in an illegal capacity. God gave death the right and even the command to act. For he had said that Adam would surely die if he were to eat of the forbidden fruit.30 Death was thus ordered to strike wherever God’s law was broken and sin reigned. That was the allotted field of its activity. There it had to make its victims. Where there is sin there is death. There it is legally present31 as a punishment for sin.
Death is like an insect with a deadly stinger. But that formidable weapon is made of our own sin. The sting of death is sin, says Paul.32 There is therefore only one way to disarm it: our sin will have to be radically removed. Only then will it lose its deadly effect. Until that happens, we will not be able to undertake anything against death. Sooner or later it will then have the last word.
But now, Christ has conquered death once and for all. On Golgotha. There death assaulted him. Never did he find so much sin in one human being. Never was its sting therefore so deadly strong as it was then. This was its final attack. But what happened? The day when death was at its strongest became the day of its downfall. As Christ was struck on the cross by God's burning wrath, the burden of sin slunk away — until all was accomplished and sin was paid off to the last penny. But it was our burden of sin. And therefore death has no more claims on us. Where there is no sin death can make no entitlements and is powerless. It is without its fatal weapon.
That is why Paul calls out: O death, where is your victory? Where your sting?33And yet everyone is put on the death list. How about that?
Raised Up To a New Life — Already Now
According to the Catechism we are already being raised to a new life. For this grand transition our own strength falls short completely. For us it is already difficult to break with wrong habits, let alone that we would be able to start a new life. This is only possible through the power of Christ. However, we should not wait for it passively, as we might do for nicer weather. We have to seek this power. After all, it is not unattainably far away, but is to be found in the gospel. That is the source of energy that gives us this superhuman ability. Paul calls the gospel the power of God for salvation.34
It proclaims the news that Christ has risen from the dead, not as a lonely exception but as the firstfruits. That gives new hope: living hope, as Peter writes. The message of Christ’s resurrection gives us new life. On account of it we are born again.35
We begin to live a new life,36 already now — in a mortally threatened world, we walk in newness of life as people who have been raised with him. We are not on the way from life to death. We are following the exact opposite route. For those who believe have in fact passed from death to life.37
But how definitive is this?
Doesn’t our existence here also end in a funeral?
Our Glorious Resurrection
No one prefers to be thinking about his or her funeral and what will happens to the body afterwards. But there is good news for our fragile bodies. Christ does not surrender it to death. My body too remains his property. He has paid for that too.
Even for a body that has turned to dust, glory is guaranteed. For Christ’s resurrection is a sure pledge of our resurrection in glory. His resurrection is a guarantee of ours. We get our own body back. It will be a perfect body, delivered from all ills. Then that ancient word will have become reality: death is swallowed up in victory.38