The efforts of the various Powers coalesce in the events leading to Jesus’ death.
The religious leaders initially seek to destroy him because of his perceived threat to the Pharisees’ project. They sought a higher level of holiness among the covenant community in order to sustain Jewish identity in face of pressures from the Roman Empire and other syncretistic forces.
Their hostility toward Jesus emerged in part because he entered the scene from outside the official channels as a kind of freelance prophet. He took upon himself the authority to challenge pharisaic interpretations and standards. Even worse, he violated the holiness regulations of the oral Torah by welcoming into his fellowship various people considered by the strict interpretation to be unclean. Jesus seemed to scorn important public expressions of commitment to holiness regulations such as ritual cleansing and separation from unclean persons.
Jesus also violated the Pharisees’ understanding of Sabbath regulations by doing his works of healing on the Sabbath. Besides operating outside the official channels with his public ministry, claiming to operate according to a higher authority outside the Pharisees’ circle, Jesus, in ignoring the Sabbath restrictions, also weakened the strictness of one of the major boundary markers that the Pharisees saw as separating Judaism from the threatening outside world.
Exacerbating the tensions, Jesus openly acted in ways that infuriated the Pharisees. His being a threat increased as he gained notoriety. As his following increased, the sense that he could be severely undercutting the whole pharisaic project grew more acute.
Jesus did directly threaten the Pharisees’ belief about the best approach for Palestinian Jews toward life in order for their identity as people of God’s promise to remain intact. Hence, the Pharisees only naturally perceived the importance of acting against this threat. Jesus threatened their ideals, and he did so by violating many of their central convictions—strict adherence to the Sabbath laws, clear separation from unclean people, following closely cleansing rituals, submission to the oral Torah. Jesus made himself worthy of punishment because of his actions and the way his actions threatened the covenant community.
From the stories in the Gospels, we get the impression that the Pharisees were not in a position politically to carry out their punitive response to Jesus beyond simply heightening the level of tension. We are nonetheless made to understand that the Pharisaic response to Jesus was governed by the logic of retribution—an understanding that those who violate God’s holiness are deserving of violence, a violence that Pharisees understood to be God’s will.
Jesus apparently from fairly early on understood that his conflict with the religious leaders would move beyond the “on-the-ground” differences with the Pharisees. Luke tells us that he purposed to “turn to Jerusalem,” and that as he did so his language took on a more ominous tone. He began to speak of suffering and being killed, and to instruct his followers on their calling to take up their crosses and follow him on the same path.
This move toward Jerusalem meant a move toward a conflict with the leaders who ran the Jewish temple. The actual events that led directly to Jesus’ arrest and ultimate execution were initiated by Jesus when he confronted those who exploited temple attenders for economic gain in the “cleansing of the temple” incident. Jesus joined the temple incident with other provocative acts, including directly challenging the temple leaders with his parable that portrayed them as rebels against God.
If Jesus’ challenge to the Pharisees’ cultural exclusivism threatened their project, his taking the challenge to the very heart of the Jewish religious and political establishment in confronting the temple stood as an even bigger threat. As reflected in the chief priest, Caiaphas’s words reported in John eleven, Jesus’ actions promised to ignite a firestorm of Roman violence should the occupiers perceive that he was gaining a following that would heighten resistance to tenuous and unpopular Roman control.
Perhaps even more seriously, Jesus words and actions, given the popular support he was gathering, threatened to undercut the legitimacy of the temple among the Jewish population. On one level, this threat challenged the power, wealth, and prestige of the ruling elite among the Jews who made up the temple rulers and benefited greatly from their status. On a deeper level, for many Jews the temple did serve as the locus for God’s presence among the people.
A great deal was at stake in walking the fine line of sustaining the temple religious traditions while also remaining in good graces with the Roman occupiers. Jesus, in challenging the religious legitimacy of the temple, and, more directly, its present leadership and exploitative economic policies, jeopardized the order of the entire Jerusalem culture.
So, Jesus threatened the status quo in relation to the temple and its leadership, the religious insititutionalism of the time, in parallel ways to how he threatened the status quo in relation to the cultural exclusivism of the Pharisees. In doing so, he did violate the peace surrounding the temple establishment. And, as when challenged by the Pharisees, he responded by openly defying their authority to determine God’s will, so with the temple leaders. After he drove out the moneychangers and merchants, he told a parable that directly refered to the temple leaders as enemies of God.
So, here again we see how the logic of retribution enters the picture. Jesus violates the assumptions temple leaders would have had about ensuring the security of the religious institution in the face of the Roman threat. He also undermines the dynamics whereby the Jewish people continue to seek God through temple processes. This violation threatens the community and its faith-system. Consequently, the violator deserves to be punished—partly to satisfy the requirements of the God of the religious institution, partly to deter others from trying to follow that path, partly (in all likelihood) to mollify the concerns of the Romans.
After the temple leaders pass their judgment on Jesus, ascertaining that “justice” would require his punishment, they turn the case over to the governing officials—first (according to Luke’s unique version) to the Roman client-king of Jesus’ home area, Herod Antipas. Herod then sends Jesus on to the governor of the occupying Romans, Pontius Pilate.
The element of the story dealing with Jesus before Pilate comes down to us in quite subtle shades. From other hints in the gospels and other sources, we know that Pilate was an ambitious official with little reluctance about exercising massive punitive bloodletting force. In our stories, Pilate does not display strong antipathy toward Jesus. More, he displays disinterest and scorn, utilizing the opportunity to use Jesus as a means to make some political points over against the religious leaders. When the time comes, after Pilate has made his points, he simply orders Jesus away to be executed.
However, the broader understanding of crucifixion, when linked with the stated charges that Jesus claimed to be “king of the Jews” (= Messiah), points toward a direct application of the logic of retribution on the Empire’s part.
Jesus, in organizing a social movement with a messianic consciousness, did indeed violate the standards of order adhered to by Rome in its policies over occupied territories. Jesus indeed posed a threat to Roman hegemony, even as he refused to take the expected path of violent insurrection. Jesus pointed to an alternative political consciousness that chose to give ultimate loyalty to Yahweh’s kingship over Caesar’s (the meaning of his saying to give to God that which is God’s and to Caesar that which is Caesar’s).
Because of Jesus’ commitment to obey God, obedience that included powerful efforts to make human life humane in face of all too common inhumanity, he posed a threat to the religious and political status quo. The leaders of the establishment failed to recognize the validity of Jesus’ vision of the God’s authentic kingdom. They served their own self-interests and obeyed what they understood to be God’s will when they condemned Jesus to death.
If the logic of retribution would lead the Powers of cultural exclusivism to seek to destroy Jesus (even if they ultimately were unable to do so) and lead the Powers of religious institutionalism actually to take the step of arresting Jesus, trying him, and turning him over to the state for punishment, the Powers of political authoritarianism actually took the final step and used the state’s ultimate tool of punishment to convict and execute Jesus.
The collaborative work of the Powers succeeded in eliminating Jesus. His counter-cultural movement that had sought a Torah-centered renewal of the way of mercy and shalom in Israel lay in ruins. We are told in general terms of Jesus’ followers deserting him in his time of crisis—with the representative, and deeply tragic, example of Peter driving home the depths of these ruins. Peter, who generally stood most closely with Jesus through the teachings and mighty works, and who joined Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, seeks desperately to separate himself from the whirlpool of retribution that swept Jesus up. Peter’s denial of “ever knowing Jesus” underscores vividly that Jesus’ movement approached its death as he neared his.
It would appear at this moment, also illumined by the crowds’ turning from Jesus to cry for his death, that the powers of death had overwhelmed the powers of life. We do read of a tiny spark of life remaining for Jesus’ community—though not so much a spark of hope for a future as simply a spark of loyalty. Several women stay in Jesus’ vicinity, remaining nearby as he suffered his final breaths and then attending to his burial.
As we all know, though, death does not have the final word in this story.
God Vindicates Jesus
Jesus’ followers experienced his arrest and crucifixion as a devastating blow to their hopes and beliefs. As reported by Luke, they “had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel” (24:21); in the days following the shattering of those hopes they scattered and wandered around Judea.
Jesus’ most prominent disciple, Peter, led the mass desertion of Jesus’ followers during his trial and before his crucifixion. They fled Jerusalem, returning to their homes in Galilee. They concluded by the nature of his fate that God had abandoned their leader—in line with Deuteronomy 21:23: “For a hanged man is accursed by God.” His mission ended up for naught. His message about God’s mercy proved to be no match to the forces of true power in their society. Whatever they may have thought about resurrection, they clearly seemed not to have imagined that it would apply to Jesus.
We are not told about Peter’s internal processes in the time following his denials of knowing Jesus, but we may assume he was especially devastated—both at Jesus’ apparent failure to carry through on his promises of bringing a new order into being and at his own failure to stand with Jesus when everything came crashing down.
The few of Jesus’ followers who remained close to him—Jesus’ mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, a couple of others—seem to have remained simply out of love for him and as an expression of solidarity in their grief.
Though the story tells of Jesus alluding to resurrection when he discusses his likely death, it seems clear that no one actually understood him to be speaking of his personal resurrection prior to the general resurrection at the end of time. Even if his followers did understand him, in some sense, to have been the Messiah in the days before his execution, we have no clear evidence that anyone would have associated a messianic identity with personal resurrection. That is, the events of Easter Sunday took everyone by total surprise.
After Jesus breathed his last, according to Luke’s account (23:50-56), a member of the temple leadership (the Sanhedrin) named Joseph, from the nearby town of Arimathea, managed to get permission from Pilate to remove Jesus’ body from the cross and bury it in a tomb he owned. The two Marys learned where the tomb was and planned, following the Sabbath, to go to it with spices and ointments to anoint Jesus’ body for burial.
However, when they arrived on Sunday morning to do their work, they discovered that the stone sealing the tomb was rolled aside and the tomb was empty. Underscoring the reality that no one expected Jesus’ personal resurrection at this point, we read that the women were absolutely terrified. Mark’s Gospel ends with their terror, as they flee from the empty tomb (Mark 16:8).
Luke tells of the women’s terror, but continues to tell of the women encountering “two men in dazzling clothes” who tell them that Jesus has risen (Luke 24:5). The women then tell the other disciples what they had seen. Again, underscoring the lack of expectation of Jesus’ personal resurrection, the disciples treat the women’s report scornfully—“these words seemed to them an idle tale, and [the disciples] did not believe [the women]” (24:11). However, Peter then does take the story seriously enough to go to the tomb himself to investigate. He finds “the linen clothes [that Jesus had worn] by themselves” but no body. He returned home, amazed (24:12).
After this, Luke tells of several direct encounters that the risen Jesus had with his followers in the days to come, culminating, in the Book of Acts, with Jesus’ commissioning his followers to witness to Jesus’ message to the ends of the earth and then ascending to be with God (Acts 1:3-11). Matthew’s and John’s Gospels also contain a number of stories of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances.
All these stories present Jesus’ resurrection as his physical return. He lives with his followers for forty days before departing again. On the one hand, as mentioned above, no one expected Jesus as an individual to be raised from the dead. This was not an anticipated characteristic of the Messiah, but came as a complete surprise to everyone. Yet, on the other hand, such an event would not have been unthinkable for people who, as Jesus’ followers and the Pharisees at least would have, believed in the eventual bodily resurrection of people of the covenant. “The evidence suggests that by the time of Jesus, most Jews either believed in some form of resurrection or at least knew it was standard teaching.” What surprised believers was that Jesus alone would have been resurrected immediately following his death, not that resurrection could happen.
What does this all mean?
Jesus’ Resurrection Vindicates His Life
First of all, and perhaps most fundamentally, when God raised Jesus from the tomb, against all expectation, God vindicated Jesus’ life as fully reflective of God’s will for humankind. “By raising Jesus Christ from the dead, God revealed, confirmed, verified, and enacted the mission of the life and death of Jesus. The resurrection is God’s concrete and unconditional ‘yes’ to Jesus’ life and death.”
When God raised Jesus, God vindicated his faithful life, including his faithfulness unto death. The story of this life does not end with his death. Contrary to how some might have seen it, Jesus’ death was not an expression of God’s judgment about Jesus. By raising Jesus, God reversed any negative implications people might be tempted to draw from Jesus’ life and draws the crucifixion itself into God’s working on behalf of life.
God shows God’s approval of Jesus’ way of life by raising him. The message of healing justice that Jesus embodied is revealed to be a message from the heart of God through this vindication and affirmation. When Jesus proclaimed God’s immediate presence in his ministry of challenging the Powers and serving the vulnerable, he asserted that God’s Spirit filled him and empowered him. The resurrection confirms that message as God’s message.
Jesus’ basic strategy for bringing salvation to the world included (1) welcoming all people even across the boundary lines of the cultural exclusivists, (2) reiterating the core message of Torah concerning God’s mercy and human responsibility, (3) challenging directly the Powers of cultural exclusivism, religious institutionalism, and political authoritarianism and seeking to loosen their holds on people’s loyalties, and (4) simply proclaiming and demonstrating God’s love. This strategy led to his being killed in the most public, physically torturous, and humiliating way possible.
The basic story of Jesus’ life and death, should it have ended with the scattering of his followers and the triumph of the Powers that corroborated to kill him, would not ultimately have provided much hope. In fact, the basic lesson of that story would have been that the Powers of violence, oppression, and death are more than likely to use whatever means necessary to eliminate those who challenge their hegemony. Jesus’ life, morally exemplary as it may have been, would not likely have seen as reflecting God’s will for human beings by very many people. His life would more likely have been seen as tragic, an approach that was admirable to the few who might remember it but also a warning to all who might be tempted to follow his example. Walk this path and you too will end up abandoned.
However, the events recounted in the Gospels and the early chapters of Acts tell of a very different kind of conclusion to the story. They speak of the regathering of Jesus’ followers and their transformation into people who came to believe (and live in light of the belief) that Jesus’ life indeed expressed God’s will—and that God did not abandon the one who lived that way.
Jesus took sides in his ministry. Had he simply withdrawn into neutrality or affirmation of the present status quo, he would never have faced crucifixion. He stood against the Powers, though, by showing partiality toward the vulnerable, the poor, and the outcasts—to the point of putting his life in jeopardy. “By raising this Jesus from the dead, God affirmed and effectively enacted the partiality of Jesus.”
When Jesus died, God did not abandon him. The cross, with its extreme violence and public humiliation, called into question all the ways Jesus had stood for life in the face of death. “The resurrection counter-acted the catastrophe of the cross. Jesus had been vindicated. His death did not mean rejection by God.”
Due to God’s unprecedented act of raising Jesus, the message that emerges from the story of his life is one of hope and empowerment, not defeat and despair. The very way of God is even more clearly than before revealed to be the way of welcome, of seeking healing for the vulnerable people of the world, of standing against all types of violence and oppression. The basic thrust of Torah found concrete expression in this life—and was vindicated in Jesus’ resurrection.
Jesus’ resurrection led to profound clarity concerning his identity on the part of his followers. When they realized he still lived they concluded that he was indeed Israel’s Messiah. They did so not because of the some pre-existing belief that the Messiah would be resurrected. Rather, they concluded that Jesus was the Messiah because of the way the resurrection validated his life. They had hoped he was the Messiah. They had their hopes shattered, momentarily, but with the joy of Easter they realized that the Jesus they had followed indeed had been tried and executed as the Messiah—and that indeed he truly was, contrary to the conclusions of the religious and political leaders.
Jesus’ life gave hope that healing for the world may be found through persevering love even in the face of profound resistance to that love. This hope found vindication in an act of God that actually went beyond the dreams of Jesus’ followers.
God ratified Jesus’ life and teaching by raising him. The message he brought turned out indeed to be true—and would now be remembered as such. Jesus could wholeheartedly be affirmed as a true prophet who genuinely spoke for God. “It is through the raising of Jesus that God once and for all identified the whole earthly ministry of Jesus as the work of him who inaugurates the kingdom of God by his preaching and actions.”
Jesus’ Resurrection Rebukes the Powers
When God raises Jesus from the dead, God does not only endorse Jesus’ way as God’s way, but also rebukes the Powers that put Jesus to death. The law as interpreted and applied by those committed to cultural exclusivism, the temple as understood and defended by those committed to religious institutionalism, the state as operated by those committed to political authoritarianism all act against God’s will for those structures. The law, the temple, and the state need not be forces for violence. However, in how they responded to Jesus they were.
Jesus’ resurrection makes the point that the critique of those Powers for usurping God came not only from some disaffected prophet railing against the status quo. Rather, Jesus’ resurrection proves that Jesus’ critique reflected the will of the God of the universe. Each of these Powers, in their own way, had claimed to represent God. The loyalty they asked of people was justified by these claims. The law as represented by the keepers of cultural exclusivism was said to be direct communication from God. In establishing and defending (with violence if necessary) strict boundary markers for the people of the covenant, the keepers of the law understood themselves to be God’s agents, sustaining the people God had called in their identity as God’s people—and protecting this identity fully in accordance with God’s will.
These keepers critiqued Jesus’ violation of the legal restrictions on working on the Sabbath and Jesus’ sloppiness about who he fellowshipped with in the name of God, because they believed they were speaking for God when they did so. Jesus, of course, strongly disagreed. Jesus claimed that, instead, he embodied God’s true will.
In this conflict over who indeed did represent what God wanted, Jesus initially seemed to be the loser because of his conviction and execution. However, God acted decisively to vindicate Jesus and thereby sharply to rebuke those who understood the law to justify the violence and hostility visited on Jesus. Along with rebuking the Powers for what they did to Jesus, his resurrection also rebukes the Powers for presenting the law in such a way that fostered violence and oppression toward all the people allegedly not measuring up.
Jesus does seem explicitly to align himself with the law-as-it-should-be- understood. He challenges the keepers of the oral tradition because he believes they misunderstand and misapply Torah. In this sense, then, Jesus rebukes the misuse of the law; he clearly teaches that the actual law-as-it-should-be-understood remains valid and its application needed to be taken away from those who used is as a tool to oppress rather than liberate.
The other two structures, the temple and the state, do not command the same level of respect from Jesus. He does accept that the temple has a legitimate vocation—to be “a house of prayer for all the nations.” And he is portrayed, in Luke at least, as coming from a family that respected the temple traditions. However, he seems ultimately to view the temple as extraneous to God’s saving work.
So, the rebuke to the temple would seem to be more generally that such a structure typically fosters distortions of God’s will. The temple could have served a legitimate role if it actually had been a welcome beacon to the nations. Since it was not, to its shame, other beacons to the nations (specifically, Jesus and his community) would arise. The temple, insofar as its leaders resisted God’s work to bring light to the nations, became not the center of God’s presence in the world but the center of rebellion against God.
When God raised Jesus from the dead, borrowing from Jesus’ own enigmatic words as reported in John’s Gospel (2:19), in a real sense God raised up God’s authentic “temple,” God’s authentic beacon to the nations. Such a raising up rebukes the failed institution that had not fulfilled its vocation to be such a light.
Jesus seems to have had a somewhat parallel view of the state. On the one hand, as with his saying about rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s, he seems to allow for a legitimate role for human government. There are things we do rightly give to Caesar; though our ultimately loyalty belongs to God. Jesus is said to have had some positive encounters with members of Rome’s occupying military forces.
On the other hand, the Gospels speak mostly negative about human government—linking Satan with political power in the story of Jesus temptations in the wilderness, labeling its typical style of leadership as a type of “lording it over” that is forbidden to Jesus’ own followers. And, most seriously, government leadership as characterized by Pontius Pilate treated Jesus with disdain and issues the orders to put Jesus to death.
So, for Jesus not to stay dead serves to rebuke those forces that killed him. They were not all-powerful; more importantly, they actively rejected God’s Son. The alternative type of politics Jesus embodied, servanthood instead of lording it over, treating each person with respect rather than disdain, highlights the flaws in authoritarian politics. “That God had vindicated Jesus by resurrection…was empowering evidence that God was indeed engaged in the broader agenda of judging the empire.”
The ultimate rebuke toward the empire, the state turned authoritarian, came with the endorsement of Jesus as true king (Messiah), true lord (Caesar) at the end of his life. God’s raising Jesus from the dead definitively challenges those who trust in God to turn from giving higher loyalty to nation-states. The nations lord it over others and kill prophets—they tend to be Powers run amok which go far, far beyond their legitimate role of providing for the order and justice necessary for all human societies to function.
Rome exercised its “almighty” power in ending Jesus’ life, just as it did with countless others crucified as political offenders. However, in this case the power turned out to be limited. Rome cannot keep Jesus dead. The most extreme act of violence the empire could take was unable to defeat God’s purposes. “Even soldiers and stones (Matthew 27:62-66), lies, imperial propaganda, and bribe money—a veritable catalog of elite manipulative strategies—can not do it (Matthew 28:11-15).” The empire’s governor, Pontius Pilate had the power to bring about death. In this case, though, that power was not allowed the final word.
In rebuking the Powers, Jesus’ resurrection serves to unmask their use of the logic of retribution as antithetical to salvation. God does not operate according to the logic of retribution in bringing salvation to the world. Rather, the Powers operate according to this logic in trying to destroy the saving efforts of God.
When Jesus sought faithfully to live out the Torah approach to embodying salvation by caring for the vulnerable ones in the community and placing the mercy of God as the heart of human life, he ended up in conflict with the rules and expectations of the main cultural, religious, and political structures of his world. Due to his “breaking the rules,” these structures responded with deadly retribution. The upholders of the law and sustainers of the temple would clearly have understood their retribution to reflect God’s will.
Hence, according to the standards of the keepers of public order, Jesus did deserve punishment. Because of the high stakes in the Pharisaic quest to renew Israel in this time of great threat, this punishment would need to be severe. And because of the high stakes in volatile Jerusalem, seething with barely contained conflicts between the Roman occupation forces and various insurgents, Jesus’ punishment for exacerbating the tensions with his acts and words needed to be deadly—all following the logic of retribution that required violators to be repaid with pain.
When God raised Jesus from the dead, God made it clear that this logic of retribution was not God’s will. “God, in raising Jesus, was not merely showing that death has no power over him, but also revealing that the putting to death of Jesus showed humans as actively involved in death.” Jesus’ resurrection makes clear that salvation is rooted in God’s deep, persevering love, not God’s inviolable holiness and anger that must be appeased when holiness is violated. The punishment that followed Jesus’ actions, though meted out in the name of God and in the name of peace and order ends up being exposed as an act of hostility toward God.
Even with their trauma and despair, those who had followed Jesus and affirmed his message ended up realizing that he indeed embodied God’s healing justice and transformative power—precisely in his path leading to the cross. God emerged victorious against the onslaught of the violence of the Powers. “Belief in Jesus’ resurrection implied that Jesus was God’s last word.”
Jesus’ Resurrection Points to His Followers’ Vocation
From the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus explicitly linked God’s merciful gift of salvation with recipients’ vocation of actively living merciful lives themselves. In so doing, he merely reinforced the message of Torah—as we have seen.
The purpose of God’s gift of healing has from the time of Abraham and Sarah been to “bless all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3). The purpose of the exodus from Egypt was for the Hebrew people to mediate God’s mercy to the world (Exodus 19:6). The giving of the Commandments followers directly from God’s mercy (Exodus 20:2), with the purpose of guiding the people in merciful living. The very heart of the Levitical holiness code emphasizes the Hebrews’ responsibility to care for each other, especially the vulnerable ones in their community, but also to love the outsiders in their midst (Leviticus 19).
Jesus simply reemphasized this basic portrayal of God’s purpose in intervening in human history—to bless all the families of the earth through a community of faith that embodies God’s mercy in overtly expressing love for God and neighbor. One does not gain salvation without embodying its presence in merciful living. That is to say, the purpose of salvation is not simply to bless the recipient; the purpose is to move the blessing out into the world.
Let’s look at Jesus’ resurrection with the question of what the implications from it are for how we might understand the relationship between salvation and the effect of salvation on its recipients. When we do so, we should not be surprised to see that the accounts of Jesus’ post-resurrection teaching emphasize that the main implication of Jesus’ resurrection for his followers is not that they therefore will also be resurrected and go to heaven. Rather, the main implication is that because Jesus was raised, his followers are commissioned to go out into the world sharing the good news of the presence of God’s healing mercy. The Gospels say nothing along the lines of Jesus is risen, therefore you will be too. “Instead, we find a sense of open-ended commission within the present world: ‘Jesus is risen, therefore you have work ahead of you.’”
Jesus’ resurrection provides his followers with a vocation. This vocation links completely with the content of Jesus’ life and teaching; the resurrection does not redirect the content of the message. The resurrection itself does not provide the content. The content remains what had been revealed in Torah and re-emphasized by Jesus: God is merciful, join with others who have experienced God’s mercy in a community of faith that will seek to bless all the families of the earth.
The Gospel of Matthew emphasizes this point with Jesus’ words that complete that Gospel. Matthew tells briefly of Jesus’ return to his followers after his death. He met with them in Galilee, and before he left them again he is reported giving them one last exhortation that may be understood as a kind of summary of what it now means for them that he had returned from death.
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:18-20)
This statement carries many implications concerning the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection for his followers. It speaks of his vindication and the final expression of his power. The Powers did not defeat him. It speaks of the main ramifications for his followers without even alluding to their own promised resurrection and eternal life (quite likely because this was already assumed by many Jews, especially those in the Pharisaic tradition; Jesus’ own resurrection did not challenge that assumption). The main point, we could say, is this: now, get to work.
The primary meaning of Jesus’ resurrection does not lie in the personal future of individuals after we die. The message is not, “you too can have life after death.” Rather, what the story tells the believer is that God has a plan for transforming the entire creation through the vocation of God’s people—and you are to be part of this task. Jesus is raised, so now get involved in blessing all the families of the earth!
Because Jesus has been raised, he says to his followers, you may go out boldly and spread the message of the gospel to “all nations,” “teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” Jesus will remain present with his followers as they carry out their vocation. “Witnesses are authentic and credible when their existence matches that to which they are witnessing, namely the story of Jesus as it is present in the power of the Spirit.”
So, the resurrection is linked inextricably with Jesus’ life and teaching. Its meaning lies primarily in its reiteration that the content of Jesus’ life does indeed reflect God’s will for human beings and that the calling of Jesus’ followers is to do as he did—with the great likelihood of facing the same consequences.
Jesus’ resurrection, according to his words in Matthew, promises that those who do take up their crosses and confront the Powers in the same way he did, will enjoy his presence with them. Because of God’s faithfulness to Jesus even in death, they can count on God’s faithfulness to them as well.
Luke’s account in the beginning of the Book of Acts echoes many of the same points. Jesus, after rejoining his disciples, gathers them together for forty days of instruction (Acts 1:1-3). He promises the presence of his Spirit with them and enjoins them to “be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). These were his last words. Here, too, then, the main significance of Jesus’ resurrection for his followers is presented not in terms of their own blessing but of their vocation to share their blessing “to the ends of the earth.”
We could add one other piece of evidence to link Jesus’ resurrection with his followers’ vocation to spread the blessing to others, the account in the Book of Acts of Paul’s encounter with the risen Jesus.
Acts 7–9 tell of an early Christian leader named Stephen who did take up his cross in imitation of Jesus, who echoed Jesus’ direct confrontation with the Powers of cultural exclusivism and religious institutionalism and faced deadly consequences as a result. At Stephen’s execution, “a young man named Saul” was present, and “approved of their killing” Stephen (Acts 7:58; 8:1). This Saul then became a leader in the active and violent hostility expressed toward this emergent group of Jewish followers of Jesus. Then Saul met Jesus himself and had his life turned around.
With Saul’s encounter with Jesus, we have a reiteration of the basic message about the ramifications of Jesus’ resurrection that we saw above. Saul meets the risen Jesus and has his life turned around (In Acts, Luke changes from “Saul” to “Paul,” likely due to Paul’s Gentile mission.). But the point is not that Paul now knows he will get to go to heaven after he dies (as a Pharisee, he already believed that); the point is that now Saul/Paul himself has a new vocation—one that he follows with unmatchable commitment for the rest of his days. This new vocation was to be part of the spreading of the message of God’s healing love to the ends of the earth (significantly, the Book of Acts ends with an account of Paul spreading this message to Rome—likely with the implication that the gospel now had reached “the ends of the earth”).
Jesus’ Resurrection Reveals the Nature of Reality
The resurrection of Jesus indeed has cosmological ramifications. Most basically, it reveals the true nature of reality. The creator and sustainer of the universe is understood to be the one who brought Jesus back from the dead. In so doing, God underscores that as the recipient of such an unprecedented act, Jesus inextricably connects with God. When the early Christians confess Jesus as Messiah, Lord, and Son of God—titles that seem to have been fully only understood as a consequence of the resurrection—they affirm that Jesus’ way is God’s way is the way of the cosmos.
Jesus’ resurrection verifies that suffering, persevering love constitutes the heart of the universe. This verification is of apocalyptic proportions. However, the nature of this apocalypse (= “revelation”) is not that suddenly the world has changed. To the contrary, when linked with Jesus’ life that is inextricably linked with Torah and the prophets, the revelation the resurrection gives makes clear that the universe (and God) have always been this way—it is just more clear now.
Jesus’ resurrection, then, serves as a strong statement that the logic of retribution, based as it is on an understanding of God’s holiness as inflexible, does not cohere with the nature of the cosmos. The God of Jesus, the God who revealed the divinity of Jesus through raising him from the dead, responds to violence with mercy. The God of Jesus seeks to break the cycle of violence leading in turn to more (punitive) violence that thereby foster an ever-repeating spiral of violence. As reflected in the vocation of the servant of the Lord in Isaiah’s prophecy, and as reflected in the vocation of Jesus, the God of the Bible breaks this downward spiral by offering healing to sinners, not retributive violence.
God’s response to the powers of death and their human agents, even after the enormity of their rebellion against God seen in their murdering God’s son, is confirmed in the resurrection to be a response of reconciling love. God’s nonviolence in the face of the worst of human violence underscores that God’s intent in vindicating Jesus is healing not vengeance. As James Alison writes, “Jesus’ resurrection is not revealed as an eschatological revenge, but as an eschatological pardon. In happens not to confound the persecutors, but to bring about a reconciliation.”
The resurrection of Jesus confirms the argument in this book that the biblical portrayal of salvation provides a strong basis for rejecting the logic of retribution. Jesus lived and taught mercy, not retribution. Doing so alienated the Powers of his time to the point of their coalescing in deadly retributive violence. In his life and teaching, Jesus merely reiterated the basic salvation message we see in Torah and the Prophets. For God to vindicate Jesus so decisively underscores that the Powers are the enemies of salvation, not its agents. God’s vindication also underscores that the universe itself rests on mercy, not retribution.
The holiness of God that transforms the world from brokenness to wholeness does so by healing, not by punishing. This is the basis for our hope for wholeness.
 Thorwald Lorenzen, Resurrection and Discipleship: Interpretive Models, Biblical Reflections, Theological Consequences (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1995), 244.
 Lorenzen, 184.
 N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 129-130.
 We will focus on the story of Jesus’ resurrection and its meaning as part of the biblical portrayal of salvation. We will not focus on the difficulties within our modern worldview of accepting the historicity of Jesus returning to physical existence following his death. I believe that the issue of the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection is beyond our ability definitively to resolve. Significantly, the evidence of the past 2,000 years seems to indicate that belief that Jesus’ resurrection happened in history has not hindered Christians from virtually ignoring the main thrust of Jesus’ own teaching about salvation, not to mention ignoring the anti-retributive justice message of the story of Jesus’ death. That this would be so supports the conclusion that focusing on the historicity issue provides little assistance for understanding the role of Jesus’ resurrection in the biblical portrayal of salvation.
The relevance of the story of Jesus’ resurrection for the concerns of this book lay elsewhere than the affirmation (or non-affirmation) of its historicity. The meaning of Jesus’ resurrection must be linked inextricably both with his life and teaching and with the events surrounding his death. The point is the meaning of the story, not provable “scientifically” historical “facts.”
 Lorenzen, Resurrection, 242.
 Donald J. Goergen, The Death and Resurrection of Jesus (Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier, 1988), 161.
 William R. Herzog, Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God: A Ministry of Liberation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000), 250.
 Lorenzen, Resurrection, 103.
 Goergen, Death, 161.
 Wright, Resurrection, 576.
 Goergen, Death, 162.
 Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 132.
 Warren Carter, Matthew and Empire: Initial Explorations (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2001), 167.
 James Allison, The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes (New York: Crossroad, 1998), 117.
 William Placher, Jesus the Savior: The Meaning of Jesus Christ for Christian Faith (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 164-165.
 Wright, Resurrection, 603.
 Wright, Resurrection, 24-25.
 Wright, Resurrection, 649.
 Loerenzen, Resurrection, 212.
 Allison, Joy, 98.
It seems to me that another way of looking at Jesus death is to see his sacrifice as a critical step in God’s plan for the redemption of man.
From a systems view of mankind as critically wounded by the decision to sin (seek life/wisdom outside of obedience to the God of creation). God’s salvation plan starting with at creation through Abram to Jesus was continued by the work of God’s Spirit in his community of disciples. Our prayer “Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven” implies a continuing work of redemption that continues as our responsibility as Christ’s body today. That’s why there are 23 out of 27 books in the New Testament devoted to that continuing work of redemption by the Spirit filled communities of disciples.
Good point, Al. I’d say, though, that what you identify (the “continuing work of redemption by the Spirit filled community of disciples”) is precisely the way God began working with the world with the calling of Abraham and Sarah.
Jesus’ death main meaning in this context is to underscore God’s style of bringing salvation that has been present all along, not to bring a new means to salvation. If we call Jesus’ death a “sacrifice,” it’s a self-sacrifice that is meant to open humanity’s eyes to the love of God, not a sacrifice that God needs in order to make salvation possible.