A few nights ago, for my daily quiet time, I was reading Matthew 16:24-28. Jesus tells his disciples that following him means carrying a cross, possibly even giving up one’s life. But, in the end, it will all be worth it, for the Son of Man will return and reward each person for what he or she has done.
Jesus could be talking about martyrdom, since that was a reality for Christians in the first century. Or he may be saying that self-denial in general is a big part of the Christian life, in the sense that Christians are not to yield to their fleshly desires. Being a Christian involves a degree of self-sacrifice. Followers of Christ do not always thrive in this life. Rather, the act of obeying Jesus can often lead to the opposite effect.
Being a Christian–and by this I mean truly doing what Christ says–would be very difficult if this life were all there is. Jesus tells us to be humble, not to focus so much on money, to put his kingdom first, and to love the poor and powerless, not just the wealthy and influential people who can help us. In a world that encourages self-promotion and getting all that we can, such commands can inhibit us. Doing the right thing does not always bring positive results.
But what we need to help us do the right thing is a sense that God truly will reward us, that, in the end, he will be the only one whose opinion of us truly matters. In the here and now, there are all sorts of elites and prominent people we feel we have to impress. Sometimes, impressing them may require us to compromise important values, and sometimes it does not. But, in the end, their opinions of us will not be important, for their power will eventually cease to exist.
And what is the assurance we have that Jesus’ kingdom values will become the status quo? His resurrection from the dead. Through the resurrection, God has exalted Jesus above every principality and power (Colossians 2:15). And God has proven that Christ will judge the world by raising him from the dead (Acts 17:31).
But how do we know that Jesus really rose? On this, I’m in the mood to fall back on some well-known evangelical arguments, although they are not perfect. One proof that the New Testament cites is the many witnesses to the risen Christ (Acts 2:32; I Corinthians 15:3-8). The fact that the early Christians were willing to die tells me that they didn’t make up Jesus’ resurrection. The empty tomb is another important item of evidence.
N.T. Wright argues that Messianic movements in the first century died with the death of their founder, so the fact that the Jesus movement continued attests to Jesus’ resurrection. Well, I don’t agree with everything N.T. Wright says, but something must have given the Christian movement hope after the crucifixion of Jesus. What was it? I think it was Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation. What else could have revived their shattered spirits, which were perplexed with disappointment?
Many scholars say that the disciples had a case of cognitive dissonance. They were so sad that Jesus died, yet they doubted that they were wrong to sense something special about him. And so they saw a vision that convinced them that Jesus was still alive. Such scholars usually point to I Corinthians 15, which calls Jesus’ resurrection spiritual. For them, that eliminates the historicity of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. Consequently, the empty tomb stories are not necessarily historical, as far as they’re concerned. Jesus could have been eaten by dogs, yet the apparition that the disciples saw (which probably has some scientific explanation) convinced them that Jesus was still alive. So, for them, a hallucination flowing from their cognitive dissonance is what gave them hope.
But, as N.T. Wright has often pointed out, Paul asserts that Jesus was resurrected. Resurrection entails an empty tomb, for at the very least it is the revival of the body. In my opinion, I Corinthians 15 is not just saying that Jesus’ body was revived, but also transformed into something immortal and different from the corruptible flesh most humans possess. That’s what I think he means by “spiritual body.”
Here’s another thought: suppose the disciples saw a ghost of Jesus. Would that impress them? In Luke 24:36-39, when the disciples see the risen Christ, they are initially scared because they think Jesus is a ghost. But Jesus assures them that it is him, for a ghost doesn’t have flesh and bones, as they see that he does. Maybe the disciples believed at first that the risen Jesus was some spirit, like a demon, someone who was appearing as Jesus. Jesus, after all, tries to convince them that it is him, not a spirit.
But could they have initially believed they were seeing Jesus’ disembodied soul? In their minds, all people had souls, which went somewhere after death. Hellenism had its influence on first century Judaism, after all. At the very least, they expected Jesus to have a soul that survived death, as all people had. Seeing it would not be that much of a surprise to them (although it certainly would be scary!). But a disembodied soul is no evidence that someone has defeated death by returning back to life. It’s no proof that someone is special, for everyone’s soul survives death. A resurrected body, however, does constitute such evidence.
So I think that Jesus’ resurrection is what convinced them of his exaltation as king. That’s what gave them the courage to endure persecution and even death. And that’s what can give us strength for the Christian life.