It's a strange irony. One of the great doctrinal misunderstandings--one that goes unrecognized and, therefore, uncorrected in some Christian circles--is connected to something that the church has always claimed is at the very center of its faith: the resurrection of Jesus.
Reading the religion section of a newspaper last week, I was reminded that even Christian preachers are unaware of a distinction that is essential to a genuine understanding of what believers call "the greatest miracle ever."
I'm talking about the difference between mere resuscitation (something that occasionally happens in the biblical story) and resurrection, which, so far, has happened only once, namely in the case of Jesus of Nazareth. Take two examples of what I'm calling "mere resuscitation."
First, in Luke 7, Jesus raises the dead son of a widow. Second, in John 11, Jesus calls Lazarus out of his tomb four days after he died. These events are almost entirely different from from what happened to Jesus on the third day following his crucifixion. What they all have in common is that they all start with a dead person. But most everything else is different.
That's because people like the widow's son and Lazarus were brought back to the life that they had before. Eventually, they did their dying all over again. But in the unique case of Jesus' resurrection, coming to life meant quite another thing.
Christianity says that on that first "Easter Sunday" Jesus was not resuscitated. He was not restored to ordinary human existence. He did not come back to the life that you and I now know. What did happen was this: God the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit transformed Jesus' body into a never-decaying (incorruptible) never-dying (imperishable) body, the sort of body that makes eternal life with God a possibility for someone who was once like we are now.
Think of it this way. In John 11, Jesus finally comes to Bethany where Lazarus has recently died. Before he performs the miracle, Jesus has an interesting discussion with Martha, one of Lazarus' sisters: "Jesus said to her, 'Your brother will rise again.' Martha answered, 'I know he will rise again, in the resurrection at the last day' " (verses 24-25).
In her response, Martha refers to an expectation about the end of the world, one that was commonly accepted by many Jews of the day. (According to Mark 12:18, a group called the Sadducees did not accept this teaching). As Martha understood it, when God brought down the curtain of history, all the dead would be raised. Jesus expresses the same conviction in John 5. He said that a time is coming "when all who are in their graves . . . will come out--those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned" (verses 28-29).
What Christianity asserts is that in the unique case of Christ, that future resurrection of which Jesus and Martha spoke has already happened. "The resurrection of Jesus," therefore, does not refer to his resuscitation. Again, Jesus did not merely "come back to life." Instead, he was resurrected. It's a vast difference. Christianity also asserts that what has already happened to Jesus at his resurrection back then will also happen to all of God's faithful people in the future:
"I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed--in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: 'Death has been swallowed up in victory." --1 Corinthians 15:50-54
Paul clearly believed that what he was describing had already happened with Jesus. And, what he was describing was still future for everyone who belonged to Jesus. This probably created some confusion. Why? Because it seems that the Jewish expectation was that the resurrection of the dead would happen to all people all at once. Going back to the words of Martha, her hope was that Lazarus would rise again "in the resurrection at the last day" (John 11:25).
The fact that, in the case of Jesus, the resurrection of the dead has already occurred, but that it is yet to happen for everyone else, is precisely why Paul goes out of his way to explain this in 1 Corinthians 15:22-23. In Christ, he says, "all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him" (emphasis added).
What is to happen at the last day has already begun. Jesus, the great pioneer of the Christian faith, has already been raised to new and unending life. Just as the firstfruits, that first installment of a harvest, guarantees a complete harvest in the future, so the resurrection of Jesus guarantees that we too will be raised at some point in the future. When that happens, everyone will realize that the only thing that matters now is our attitude and response to the work of God through his Son, Jesus Christ.