D. Patrick Ramsey
In Greek mythology, a king named Midas was given by the gods a gift of much wealth: whatever he touched turned to gold. His gift came to be called the Midas touch, or the golden touch. In a similar way, we could say that Jesus has the “resurrection touch.”
Jesus has come and has conquered sin and death by his own death and resurrection, so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. Whatever Jesus touches is given life—and not just life, but resurrection life, because he has power over death.
To understand and appreciate resurrection, however, we must first understand and confront death. There wouldn’t be a need for, let alone a possibility of, resurrection without the prior reality of death. Death is the necessary and inevitable counterpart to resurrection. Indeed, our Lord’s resurrection shines brilliantly against the dark background of death.
The seventeenth-century English poet John Donne famously wrote, “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” In his day, the church bell rang at funerals to mark a recent decease. By saying that the bell tolls for “thee,” the living, breathing reader, Donne is noting that the bell’s ring is a reminder and confirmation of the reader’s end, as well as the deceased’s. Death is universal. Until the Lord returns, “it is appointed for man to die” (Heb. 9:27).
Besides being universal, death is cruel. The Bible calls it our enemy. It is the great destroyer. Death rips the soul from the body and disintegrates it, returning the body to dust. Death wreaks havoc on relationships. It tears us from our loved ones and our loved ones from us. A husband is left without his wife, a daughter without a mother, a father without a son, and a man without his best friend. Worst of all, death, in its most significant form, eternally separates all who are outside of Christ from the presence and blessing of God.
The harshness and cold reality of death was not ignored by our Lord. In John 11, death is knocking at the door for Lazarus, whom Jesus loved. Lazarus’s sisters, Mary and Martha, quickly send word to Jesus so that he might come and heal his dear friend and their beloved brother. But they are too late—or rather, Jesus is too late. By the time he arrives, Lazarus has already been dead four days. Martha and Mary are overcome with grief and sorrow. When she discovers that Jesus had come, Mary runs to him, weeping. Jesus himself weeps.
This scene of grief over death has played itself out again and again throughout the centuries. Benjamin Morgan Palmer, a nineteenth-century Presbyterian pastor, wrote a similar account about his daughter, Marion Louisa Palmer, a godly young woman who died from tuberculosis at the age of seventeen. As she was lying on her bed suffocating, Palmer picked up her “skeleton frame” in his arms, while she made one last “cry of distress…one despairing look…one feeble clutch of the thin fingers at the neck of her dress.” Her mother, utterly heartbroken, burst out, “Oh, my God!” Marion died in her father’s arms. (B. M. Palmer, The Broken Home, Reformed Academic Press).
More recently, Frank A. James III, president of Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield, Pennsylvania, wrote a poignant article about the grief he experienced over the death of his brother Kelly. He describes the news of his brother’s mountain-climbing accident as “a blow to the solar plexus, knocking the breath out of me.” But that was nothing compared to what happened when he told the news to the family. The heartache he felt was beyond anything he had previously experienced, and the weeping he heard was something he hoped to never hear again (“In the Shadow of Mount Hood,” ChristianityToday.com, September 2010). Death is cruel.
Death is also deserved. Death is punishment for our rebellion against God: “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). God did not make us in his image to live a short while and then die. Death is not natural or “just the way things are.” It is not unfair or bad luck. We all die because we are all guilty and have done things worthy of death. God returns us to dust and brings us to an end because of our sins (Ps. 90:3–8).
Death is universal, cruel, and deserved. It is therefore a stark and constant reminder that all is not well in this world, and that all is not well with us. But it’s not the end of the story. The rest is wonderfully glimpsed in John 11, when death barged into a home in Bethany.
When a grief-stricken Martha confronts Jesus over the death of Lazarus, he tells her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25–26). Jesus is making the bold claim that he possesses in himself resurrection life. This life is not the same thing as simply being raised from the dead. Lazarus was raised from the dead only to one day die again, but resurrection life is life that overcomes death in all of its forms. It is the life Jesus described to Martha. It is eternal life with an immortal and incorruptible body. This is the kind of life Jesus possesses in himself and the kind he gives to his people.
Resurrection life was not something Jesus possessed from the beginning. He had to work for it. He had to be delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification (Rom. 4:25). He had to die for our sins and be raised on the third day (1 Cor. 15:3–4). He had to conquer death by his own death and resurrection. Now that he has risen victoriously over death, the Bible says that Jesus holds the keys to Hades and death (Rev. 1:18). He is the resurrection and the life.
Jesus, of course, didn’t become resurrection life merely for himself. He died and rose again so that we might have resurrection life in him. This is why Jesus says repeatedly that he came down from heaven to give eternal life (for example, John 6:38–40). “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord ” (Rom. 6:23, emphasis added).
The gift of eternal life, however, is not like a one-way ticket that we can hand out to people. Jesus himself—not a piece of paper, not a set of words—is the resurrection. Life is found in him. You need to be joined to Jesus, like a woman is joined to a man in marriage, in order to share in his resurrection. You need to be “in Christ,” to use a favorite expression of Paul’s.
And the means by which we are united to Christ is faith. That is why the Scriptures repeatedly state that you need to believe in Jesus in order to have eternal life. In fact, believers have eternal life the moment they believe. Jesus says that believers have passed from death to life: “Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24).
If this is true, we are bound to ask, “Why do believers die?” Since our sins have been put away and we have been given resurrection life, why must we still die? The answer is that although we have received eternal life, we have yet to experience that life in its fullness. In one sense, we who believe have already been raised from the dead to eternal life, and in another sense, we are yet waiting for that resurrection.
Paul puts it this way in 2 Corinthians 4:16: “Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.” Our inner self has been raised from the dead and is being daily renewed. Our hearts of stone have been removed, and we have been given hearts of flesh. We have been born again by the Spirit, and we are being sanctified by the Spirit. Our outer self, however, has not been raised. Our bodies are decaying, and we will die. We must suffer the curse of sin in that limited sense. But though we die, it is not to our condemnation. At death we enter the presence of the Lord in heaven and remain there with him until the final day when our bodies will be resurrected to eternal glory and honor.
Thus, our resurrection takes place in two stages: inner resurrection in this life, outer at judgment day. This is why Jesus can say: “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25–26). Our inner self does not die and shall never die. Nothing shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. But our outer self will die—though it, too, shall be raised in the future: “Though he die, yet shall he live.”
Although Jesus has administered the final blow to death, it has yet to be put under his feet (1 Cor. 15:25–26). One day in the future it will be, and then death shall be no more. But in the meantime, we walk by faith and not by sight. We wait eagerly for the redemption of our bodies (Rom. 8:23). We, through the Spirit, by faith, “eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness” (Gal. 5:5). And when death does come and take away our loved ones in the Lord, we grieve, but we do not grieve as those who have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13). We grieve with a hope that does not disappoint, because Jesus is the resurrection and the life.
The author is pastor of Nashua OPC in Edinburg, Pennsylvania. New Horizons, April 2018.