EASTER SEASON has just past for the year. So from Christian pulpits across the world, topics other than the Lord's resurrection will now be regular themes again. But please permit one more observation about the significance of Jesus rising from the dead — this time, concerning what it tells us about Jesus himself.
For the most skeptical who read what follows, I ask that you grant — for the sake of discussion — that it actually happened, that Jesus really died and then miraculously came alive three days later. If such a concession is too much for you, then at least acknowledge that the reality of the resurrection is assumed in the New Testament. Even this slight allowance should be enough to make our conversation meaningful.
The question we will consider is, what does it mean? What does the raising of Jesus from death signify — about Jesus?
In attempting an answer, we find that we are engaged in controversy just as we are with about any topic that comes up concerning this man.
Our discussion will be in the form of a response to an opinion recently expressed by an expert on early Christianity, who is moderately skeptical — Dr. Larry Hurtado. As you will see, it seems to me that professor Hurtado is unclear, if not inconsistent, on the matter.
During the week prior to Easter, he publicly objected to the belief that the resurrection of Jesus demonstrates his deity. He asserted that he found no such statement in the New Testament.
However, he then added that the Bible does affirm three amazing characteristics that are attributed to Jesus alone: (1) that he is the divine Logos (the Word who was with God and was God) (2) that he is the fullness of God in bodily form and (3) that — prior to his existence on earth as a "servant" — Jesus had previously existed in the form of God. (Even though Dr. Hurtado doesn't take this view, I think we can make a good case that all these characteristics consist of clear assertions of Jesus' deity.)
He then seems to balance these three profound declarations about Jesus with the other side of what the Bible says about him. Hurtado states that the New Testament also insists "just as firmly" that "Jesus of Nazareth was a real first-century Jewish male from Galilee, genuinely mortal."
So far, you might conclude that the professor has just expressed the tension between the two poles of the orthodox Christian view concerning Jesus. Early Christian councils declared that he carries within him both the nature of God (and is, therefore, fully God) and the nature of man (and is, therefore, fully man). However, Hurtado doesn't see it this way. He modifies assertions that Jesus is God into something less. You must determine for yourself whether or not he is justified in this move. I don't think he is. So you might say, I agree with him on what the New Testament states on this matter, but I don't agree with him on what the New Testament means.
So for him, what does the resurrection prove about Jesus? In his answer, he appeals to what he considers the earliest testimony of the first century church. But again he seems to be in conflict with himself. On one hand, Hurtado speaks of Jesus as if he were — only — a mere mortal who was resurrected. He declares, "The NT writings portray a truly dead and helpless Jesus raised from death by God." (Note his use of the word "helpless.")
On the other hand, in the same paragraph, he says that the resurrection indicates that "God validated Jesus as the true Messiah and Son of God" and exalted him "to the position of 'Lord,' sharing the divine name, divine throne and divine glory," in short, validating Jesus as "the unique Son and Lord."
In light of his earlier statements, if we take them seriously, we could legitimately add that the resurrection validates that Jesus is the eternal Logos, God's fullness in bodily form, and the one who had previously existed in the form of God.
Now all that Hurtado has said about Jesus — that can be incorporated into his understanding of the resurrection — sounds to me like deity. Therefore, it communicates to me that Jesus is not someone who was "helpless" at any point — whether prior to his coming to earth, while he lived and served here, when he died and was buried, or when he was resurrected and exalted to his former place.
God, his Father, raised Jesus from the dead because he was compelled to do so — compelled by Jesus' own nature and by his own eternal purpose.
As Peter told the crowd on the Day of Pentecost, "it is not possible" that Jesus could be held in death's power (Acts 2:24). And as he later told the religious leaders, you cannot permanently kill "the Holy and Righteous One" who is also "the Prince of Life" (Acts 3:14-15).