Many children raised in Christian homes do not understand the meaning of Resurrection Sunday. They might choose the correct answer on a multiple-choice test, but most would flunk an open-ended question (“Why do we celebrate Easter?”). Open-ended questions provide the best measurement of understanding.
Fortunately, some of these kids will later appreciate the meaning of the holiday. They will learn that Easter is not about bunnies, baskets and ham, but the resurrected Savior. There were no bunnies at the tomb as far as we know. The women may have carried baskets, but we know that Jesus never tasted ham.
Similarly, Jesus’ disciples understood many of His teachings only in retrospect. After the resurrection, the disciples finally understood that He had to die an atoning death and then be raised.
In Luke 24:25-27, the resurrected incognito Jesus discusses matters with some disciples hiking the road to Emmaus:
“How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (NIV 2011)
John 2:19-21 is another case in point. Yeshua’s talmidim (disciples) recalled His words and finally understood their meaning after He was raised:
The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”
Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.
Although the documentation about Jesus speaking these words (about destroying “this temple”) is only preserved for us in John’s Gospel, His enemies remembered them. In Matthew 26:61, during Jesus’ bogus trial, false witnesses stated, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.’” Mark 14:58 records similar testimony.
Since many Jews came to believe in Jesus early on (these believers were sometimes called Nazarenes), and since Christians sought to announce Jesus as the long-expected Jewish Messiah, the unbelieving rabbis gnashed their teeth at such teachings. They dug in and fabricated alternative scenarios—though they took their time doing so.
The Talmud added layers of justification for the execution of Jesus as the centuries passed, creating an alternate narrative over several hundred years. We read in the Talmud that the Jewish authorities supposedly issued a decree allowing a 40-day period for witnesses to come to Jesus’ defense before He was sentenced to die, but none did. They later claimed that Jesus worshiped a brick and suggested a number of other blasphemous charges I will not detail here. Rejecting Jesus’ conception by a virgin (Greek, parthenos), they claimed that He was an illegitimate child whose father was a Roman soldier, Panthera (pantheros)—simply reversing the “r” and “n.” Later, they even altered the crucifixion story by suggesting that Jesus was legally stoned to death as a heretic by Jewish authorities and then hung on a tree for display (Peter Schafer, Jesus in the Talmud Princeton University Press, 2007).
In contrast, the biblical account not only dates back to the first century, but is also the only account grounded in actual history. Our faith is historically based.
Meandering back to John 2, please note three important theological truths evident in these verses:
- Jesus resurrected His own body.1 He said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” In Scripture, only God is said to raise the dead (2 Cor. 1:9). Thus this verse is one of many evidences for the deity of Christ, the reality that the man Christ Jesus is also God the Son.
- Jesus was speaking not just of His spirit—but His body—being resurrected: “But the temple he had spoken of was his body.” John’s statement is as clear as crystal, except to those who have agendas contrary to the plain sense of Scripture. At our resurrection, we too will have a transformed, resurrection body. Philippians 3:21 reads, “who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”
- Although His disciples believed Him to be the Messiah before His death and resurrection, there is a sense in which they did not believe in Him until after they had grasped the gospel facts: “Then [after the resurrection] they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken” (John 2:22). Here we see a direct link between understanding and believing; understanding is the prerequisite to believing. You may understand but not believe, but you cannot believe if you do not understand. Modern attempts to minimize the importance of biblical knowledge for the believer are devastating to true faith.
Although the second temple was in its fifth decade of renovation, they destroyed Jesus’ temple (by death) that first Good Friday. But Jesus rebuilt that temple on the third day (1 Cor. 15:4)—that first Resurrection Sunday—by returning to physical life. Since Jesus’ resurrection is the prototype or first fruits for our own (1 Cor. 15:20), we can anticipate our own bodily resurrection.
Because the believer’s soul enjoys the bliss of heaven upon death, there is a part of us that would “prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). Still, our long-term hope is that we will be physically resurrected from the dead in a body of flesh. This belief is not unique to the New Testament, but dates back at least 4,000 years to the time of Job, considered a contemporary with Abraham. Job knew his body would be resurrected, and this based upon the work of God’s promised Redeemer. Job prophesies, “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” (Job 19:25-27).
The resurrection of Jesus is the foundation for our hope. As the Savior said, “Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live” (John 14:19). That is the real message of Resurrection Sunday.
1 The Scriptures speak of the Father and Spirit as being involved in the resurrection. The Father raised Jesus (Rom. 6:4), the Son (Jesus) raised Jesus (John 2:19-21, 10:17-18), and so did the Spirit (Rom. 8:11).