On Easter, Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. That much is clear. What is not clear to many people, however, is what the resurrection means to Christians and why we would make such a big deal of it.
The resurrection only makes sense if we first understand what the Christian “gospel” is. In the ancient world, the word “gospel” was a media term referring to the announcement of an important or happy event. Christians adapted the word to refer to a world event they consider the most important and joyful.
What is the Christian gospel? It is the good news that, at a certain point in this world’s history, God became present to us in the man named Jesus, who we can know, love, and serve.
Through Jesus’ incarnation (“God taking on flesh”), life and ministry, death and resurrection, he defeated the worldly powers that oppress us, and made a way for we who are sinners to live in unbroken fellowship with God who is holy.
The Christian gospel is a factual statement. You can believe it or not believe it. But as Christians, we believe that it is not merely true; it is the most important truth in the world.
It is one that we cannot relegate to the private dimensions of life; it radiates outward into our public speech and actions.
It cannot be hidden within the four walls of our churches; we must make it known to the world.
In fact, immediately after he rose from the grave, Jesus appeared to his followers and gave them a command that Christians call the “Great Commission.” In this commission, he reveals three powerful truths about the resurrection:
1. The resurrection reveals Jesus as the final authority in this world.
When Jesus appeared to his followers immediately after his resurrection, the first words out of his mouth were “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18). The resurrection was decisive proof of his divinity, of the fact that he was in fact present when heaven and earth were created, and that he retains sovereign authority over them.
This reality is important because all of us need to know who is finally in charge of this world.
A great many people think the final authority is the free market.
Others think the final authority is the United States, NATO, or the United Nations.
Still others think the authority is some sort of “deep state.”
But none of these entities are final authorities. Jesus is the sovereign authority and greatest power in public life; he is the authority against which even the largest governments and coalitions are ultimately powerless.
2. The resurrection compels us to tell the world about Jesus.
The second thing Jesus told his disciples is that they should tell the whole world about his crucifixion and resurrection, and invite them to follow him, too (Matthew 28:19-20a).
If it is true that Jesus is the world’s final authority, and that through the cross and resurrection he has overcome the evil powers that seek to control us, then for us to refrain from telling the world about Him would not only be a crime toward humanity but a collusion with the evil powers.
We must not collude. We must be witnesses of his resurrection. Our witness must be prophetic: a declaring to the world that Jesus is Lord and the world’s reigning powers are not.
Our witness often will need to be sacrificial: just as Jesus ministered as a homeless itinerant teacher, we must be willing to witness from a position of cultural weakness rather than power, and in the face of disapproval instead of applause.
Our witness should be humbly confident: we should be confident because we work in the service of the world’s final authority, and we should be humble because we are only servants.
3. The resurrection reminds us that world history will end on a joyful note. (Matthew 28:20b)
The third and final thing Jesus told his followers is “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20b).
In effect he was saying, “I will walk alongside of you as you bear witness, and, always remember that at the end of the age, I will return to set the world aright. I will establish a world-wide kingdom in which justice will roll down like the waters, in which my authority will be recognized, and in which people from all nations, ethnic groups, and social classes will live together in peace, love, and unity.”
J. R. R. Tolkien, author of "Lord of the Rings," was captivated by the Bible’s teaching about the resurrection, and wished to reflect it in his writing.
He knew that Westerners tend to be disillusioned with “fairy tale endings” and prefer endings that are more “realistic,” but he wanted them to understand that, because of the resurrection, a deeply joyful ending is the most realistic. To borrow a phrase from "Lord of the Rings," Tolkien wrote, “Everything sad becomes untrue.”
And immediately following this phrase, a pressing question arises from Sam Gamgee as he speaks to Gandalf: “What’s happened to the world?” To which Gandalf responds, “A great Shadow has departed.”
Christians celebrate the bodily resurrection of Jesus, because we are happy that, in the future, the “great Shadow” of death and sin will finally depart (Romans 8:18-25).
Something momentous and good has “happened to the world,” which is why we invite the world to celebrate with us by embracing Jesus as the resurrected Savior.
Bruce Ashford is the Provost and Dean of Faculty at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also serves as Professor of Theology and Culture. Follow him on Twitter @BruceAshford.