Resurrection, part 5
Before, I mentioned that the common belief in resurrection among Jews included the belief that the resurrection was general and eschatological. That is, it was one resurrection of all the dead that would happen on the last day. Now I want to look at two passages in the New Testament that reflect this understanding.
The first reference comes from John 11. In this passage, Lazarus died and Jesus went to raise him back up. When Jesus got there, Lazarus had already been dead for four days. His sister, Martha, went out to meet Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Your brother shall rise again.” Now listen carefully to Martha’s response, because it shows her expectation of Lazarus rising again. She said, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (John 11:23-24). Her reference to “the resurrection,” shows that she expected a general resurrection in which everybody would be raised together. She expected Lazarus to take part in it. And she expected this general resurrection to happen “on the last day.”
Since the resurrection was supposed to be general and eschatological, Jesus’ resurrection must have been completely unexpected. This is one reason I think Jesus’ resurrection actually happened. On the face of it, it was contrary to everything Jews understood about the resurrection. They never expected any individual to be resurrected apart from the general resurrection of all the dead, and they never expected anybody to be resurrected prior to the last day. Jesus seemed to violate both categories. If they were to make up the story that Jesus was raised from the dead, they would have to have given up both their belief that resurrection was general and that it was eschatological. But instead, we see them holding on to their previously held beliefs and struggling to reconcile Jesus’ resurrection with them. The real event forced them to change their categories. A good example of this is Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians 15:20-26:
But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at his coming, then comes the end, when he delivers up the kingdom to the God and Father, when he has abolished all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy that will be abolished is death.Paul did not completely give up his belief in a general resurrection. Instead, he managed to figure out how Jesus’ resurrection fit into it all. He divided the general resurrection into two stages. Jesus is the first fruits of the general resurrection. In other words, we’re still talking about a general resurrection of all the dead, but Jesus was the first one up. His resurrection marked the beginning of the general resurrection. The rest of the general resurrection, though delayed in time, would culminate in the final abolition of death. In the meantime, Jesus reigns. The Christ has been enthroned, and the resurrection has begun. So Paul also continues to carry the Jewish belief that the resurrection would be ushered in by the Messiah as 1 Enoch indicates or that it would at least be accompanied by the Messiah which Ezekiel indicates.
Since Christ has been enthroned and the resurrection has begun, we are already in the last days. That’s why we get the sense throughout the New Testament that they thought they were already in the last days. Peter defended the Christian’s behavior on Pentecost by quoting Joel who said, “And it shall be in the last days, God says, ‘That I will pour forth of my spirit upon all mankind; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy…” (Acts 2:17). In Hebrews, the author said that while God had spoken through prophets in many ways in times past, yet, “in these last days he has spoken to us in his Son” (Hebrews 1:2). Paul said, “The night is almost over, and the day is at hand” (Romans 13:12). Peter said, “The end of all things is at hand” (1 Peter 3:7). John went so far as to say, “Children, it is the last hour” (1 John 2:18). Jesus’ resurrection from the dead indicated that they were in the last days because it marked the beginning of the general eschatological resurrection.