I have been discussing an apocalyptic understanding of Jesus’ resurrection. For the earliest followers of Jesus, coming to think that Jesus was raised from the dead provided both a confirmation and an elaboration of their understanding of the end times. Prior to Jesus’ death they had come to think that they were living at the end of the age and that God was soon to bring history to a climactic end through a cataclysmic act of judgment; this final event in history would involve a resurrection of all those who had died to face judgment. When these disciples came to think that Jesus himself had been raised, they naturally concluded that the resurrection had begun. Jesus was the first to rise; he had been exalted to heaven; he himself was to return to earth as the powerful Son of Man to raise all people from the dead. All this would happen very soon.
As it turns out there were other apocalyptic lessons that could be drawn from Jesus’ resurrection. One of the most interesting – and, oddly enough, least generally known – is one that comes to us from the writings of the apostle Paul. Most readers of the New Testament know that the resurrection of Jesus was inordinately important for Paul. But few (in my experience, at least) understand why the resurrection was so central to Paul’s understanding of salvation.
Paul was a die-hard apocalypticist, but he was a very different kind of thinker than the original disciples of Jesus. They were all lower-class, uneducated, Aramaic-speaking peasants from rural Galilee. He was a highly educated, literate, Greek-speaking Jew from the Diaspora. It’s true that he almost certainly did not have the highest level of education available in the Roman empire – he was not a great philosopher or one of the elite literata trained in advanced rhetoric – but by comparison with virtually all the other Christians of his day, he was in the top 1%. As a result, as you might suspect, his views and understandings of things were much more sophisticated than those of Jesus’ Galilean followers.
Paul’s apocalyptic views are complicated and not easy to explain – especially in a short blog post (the views I’m summarizing here can be seen in Paul’s letter to the Romans, especially chs. 5-8). For one thing, his views were more cosmic and all-embracing than we would find among other early Christians. For him, the forces that are aligned against God are not simply embodiments of evil such as demons and the Devil. They are great powers that hold sway over the world, including the powers of sin and death.
Sin, for Paul, was not simply an act of transgression, an action that was opposed to the will of God. It was that, for sure; but Paul had a view of sin that was much bigger and all-encompassing. Sin for Paul was also a kind of demonic power that existed in the world, a force that was trying to enslave people and make them do what was contrary both to their own will and contrary to the will of God. Sin came into the world with the transgression of Adam, and it dominated the human race. Everyone was enslaved to sin, which is why people were alienated from God. This did not simply mean that everyone did things that were wrong. It meant that they were helpless to do otherwise because they were under the power of an alien force opposed to God.
So too with the power of death. Death, for Paul, was not simply something that happened to people at the end of their lives, when they stopped breathing. It certainly was that, but it was, again, also much bigger and powerful and cosmic. Death for Paul was an alien force that was opposed to God and all he stood for. It was a power that – like sin – was trying to enslave people. When death captured a person, it annihilated her, destroying her existence.
The powers of sin and death were closely related. Being enslaved to sin led to being conquered by death. This was a hopeless situation for humans, since these were cosmic forces far more powerful than any man or woman could withstand. And there was nothing that could be done about it. Because we are humans, we are enslaved to sin and will be conquered by death.
That’s where Jesus comes in. Humans have to be delivered from the powers of sin and death, but they are powerless to deliver themselves. Someone (else) needs to conquer these powers and provide the benefits of this conquest to others Jesus did that.
For Paul, the resurrection of Jesus showed beyond all doubt that he conquered the power of death. Death could not keep Jesus in its grip. He was more powerful than death and defeated it. Moreover, since he conquered this, the ultimate and greatest power, he had obviously conquered the other powers aligned against God as well, including the power of sin. For Paul, Jesus defeated sin by his death: he took sin upon himself (even though he did not deserve it) and nailed it to his cross. In him, sin was defeated, at the crucifixion, just as death was defeated at the resurrection.
If all this had been done by Jesus, it would show why *he* had escaped sin and death. But how can others participate in this victory? Here especially is where Paul’s theology is not widely known, but he lays it out in Romans 6 (esp. vv. 1-6). The reason followers of Jesus have also escaped the powers of sin and death is because they have been … baptized.
When a person becomes a follower of Jesus and undergoes the ritual of baptism, for Paul, something actually happens. The person goes under the water, just as Jesus at his burial went underground. “We have been buried with him in baptism.” For Paul, at this moment in the baptism ritual, the believer is “united with Christ,” so that the victories that Christ experienced are shared by the believer. The believer too, then, has participated in the victory over sin and death. The person is then, and only then, freed from the power of sin and placed under a different power, the power of righteousness. Moreover, the person is freed from the power of death and will now have eternal life.
The resurrection of Jesus, then, had enormous apocalyptic consequences for Paul. It represented the defeat of the cosmic forces aligned against God, and it made it possible for people to escape the powers that have enslaved this world in order to be transferred into the realm of God, to live forever more apart from the forces of sin and death.
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