When speaking of Jesus, this is what the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church means by his resurrection: that it was a concrete, historical and vindicating fact, and that the once-crucified and thoroughly dead body of Jesus of Nazareth now stands thoroughly alive and transformed by God. What is more, what the Church means by the current state of Jesus’ redeemed flesh asserts that his transformed-by-the-resurrection body moves seamlessly and predictably between heaven and earth wherever the gospel is purely preached and the sacraments are administered according to the gospel. Jesus—true Son of God, true Son of Mary—is already outfitted with the kind of body necessary when heaven fully manifests on earth.
Now, I know that’s not a concise definition. But that’s part of the point. When we speak of Jesus’ resurrection, we are not saying that he was resuscitated, as if after an unpleasant (Good) Friday, now on Sunday he’s feeling much better; thank you very much. No. Neither are we saying that he was reincarnated, meaning his spirit was recycled in another body or species. Nor are we saying that he’s alive again after being dead, which is sometimes understood by our saying that “He lives” or “He arose” — sort of like “Jesus the Friendly Ghost.” That’s not it either. Instead, we are talking about a particular human who was dehumanized through death (meaning: the separation of spirit and body; that is, the rending of the human soul), only to be rehumanized through divine revivification (raised up, made alive) that essentially entails the transformation of mortality into immorality, from corruption to incorruption, from perishability to imperishability.
The resurrection of Jesus encompasses the total and comprehensive glorification of a human being, not merely his restoration. That’s not a concise explanation either. And that’s part of the point: Because of widely circulating misunderstandings, a comprehensive clarification is needed. Jesus’ resurrection doesn’t merely pertain to spiritual life after death. Instead, in the words of N. T. Wright, “there is life after life-after-death.” That life is understood Christologically — Jesus determines the paradigm. Eternal life will be transformed-by-resurrection embodied life. Jesus Christ is resurrection life itself. To share in his life, to be united to him, is to participate in the resurrection.
The point of contact with you is threefold: (1) as Christ is, so you shall be; (2) just as he was vindicated or, better, justified by the resurrection, so too you are saved by the cross and justified by the resurrection; and, (3) you’ve already participated in his resurrection in Holy Baptism — your spirit has been resurrected. Up next: your bodily resurrection. Jesus promises his people not only spiritual regeneration but an extreme body makeover: Resurrection-embodied life. Eternal life will be embodied-resurrection life.
So, then, with this understanding, there are life-defining ways the reality of the resurrection is used in Scripture that pertain to you and me. Let me begin with the resurrection of our spirits. This is something that did not take place with Jesus; his spirit was not resurrected (although he illustrated spiritual regeneration while undergoing John’s baptism of repentance). Instead, spiritual regeneration or, better, spirit resurrection is a result of Christ’s redeeming work. He resurrects our spirits. He brings them alive to God by uniting them with his Holy Spirit. The implications are far-reaching concerning who we are and what we’ll become: He has made us his own and through the Spirit will ever strive to transform us into his likeness in holiness and righteousness. Theologians sometimes call this “sanctification,” but truer to the reality is the term “Christification.”
Our spirits, however, are not entirely synonymous with our “souls” because the biblical formula for a human being isn’t body + soul = a human being. Rather, according to Genesis 2:7, a divinely-given or, better, created spirit plus a physical body equals a living soul. Following Jesus’ historical resurrection, the “first resurrection” that occurs to humanity, such that we read about in Revelation 20:5, pertains to our spirits in Holy Baptism. We are united to the Resurrected One, gifted with his Spirit, so that what holds true for the Messiah becomes true for us. This, says Saints Peter and Paul, is the basis for our justification (1 Peter 3:21; Rom. 4:25). This resurrection concerns our spiritual transformation from death to life: We are “born anew,” “regenerated” — spirits that were once dead in trespasses and sins, now resurrected, raised up, made alive, transformed by the indwelling of the Spirit of God. This normatively takes place in Holy Baptism or, at least, stands as the fixed, graphic, and objective reference point for the resurrection of our spirits even if salvation initially occurred in the hearing of the gospel. The resurrection of our spirits in Holy Baptism is the second sense in which we are to understand biblical references or allusions to resurrection, with Jesus’ bodily resurrection being the first. Paul loves to speak of our baptismal resurrection with Jesus’ bodily resurrection as both the cause and paragon for it:
“God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him” (Eph. 2:4-6).
“For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:141-7).
That’s spiritual regeneration, which always comes with justification. The two effects of Christ’s redemption absolve us of all sin and guilt, but simultaneously instantiates an initial transformation — the revivification (resurrection) of our once-dead-now-made-alive-unto-God human spirits.
The third sense in which resurrection pertains to us concerns the resurrection of our physical bodies. The Lord Jesus does not merely save our spirits only to scrap our bodies into the cosmic waste bin. Since our bodies are an essential constitutive part of who and what we are as human beings, they too must be redeemed, restored, regenerated, recreated. In a word, they must be resurrected. Our guarantee that this will take place is the fact that Jesus’ body was resurrected. The paradigm for understanding embodied resurrection life is Jesus himself, even though it may be like looking at a mystery (1 Cor. 15:51-54).
I was resurrected in baptism, I commune with the Resurrected One. I will be resurrected on the Last Day.
In the Apostles’ Creed we confess in the second article the resurrection of Jesus: “The third day he rose again from the dead.” But in the third article we confess belief in our own bodily resurrection, like unto Jesus’: “I believe in … the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” Whose body? Our own bodies. We affirm that ‘everlasting life’ is intended by God to be embodied life: “I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” That is the complete salvation of you in the totality of your humanity. Hence the chronologically staged language of Scripture regarding our salvation built into the Creed itself: I am saved. I am being saved. I will be saved. Restated as, I was baptized. I commune with Christ. I will be raised from the dead. Past, present and future. It could also be restated this way: I was resurrected in baptism, I commune with the Resurrected One. I will be resurrected on the Last Day.
Paul makes good and clear use of this third sense, quite famously in 1 Corinthians 15, the longest chapter in the New Testament and the most sustained argument for both the bodily resurrection of Jesus and our own physical resurrection. But I want you to consider how he makes reference to both our spiritual and bodily resurrections in 2 Corinthians 5:1-5:
For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.
These are the three uses with which we concern ourselves within Christian discipleship, evangelism and apologetics. We talk of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. We experience the baptismal resurrection of our spirits. And we look forward to the resurrection of our bodies, when they shall be transformed from mortality into immorality, from corruption to incorruption, from perishability to imperishability, from a body empowered by physical elements to ones empowered by the Holy Spirit of God, which is what Paul means when he says what is sown is a physical body but what is raised is a spiritual body.In fact, all three are referenced for us in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed: “On the third day he rose from the dead…I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins (the resurrection of our spirits); and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come (that is, the transformation of our bodies in their own spectacular reversal of death when we are rehumanized like unto Christ: for as He is so we shall be).” These related, intertwined but necessarily distinct uses and definitions of “resurrection” will serve us well throughout each day as we walk with Christ and in the Spirit of God.