A Harrowing Saturday for Jesus

What was Jesus doing on Holy Saturday, the day between his death by crucifixion and his first Resurrection appearances that Easter Sunday? I started to suggest an answer in my post When did Jesus come back to life?, but I realise that my proposal raised more questions than it answered. I also touched on the issue in yesterday’s post The Communal Resurrection of Jesus. But there is more that needs to be said here, partly in response to the comments on those two posts. So, although Holy Saturday has passed for another year (except for Eastern Orthodox believers who celebrate it this coming Saturday), here is another post about what Jesus might have done on that day.

First, what happened on Friday afternoon? After hours on the cross, Jesus cried out “It is finished!”, and committed his spirit into the hands of God. His body then died, and its death was proved by the Roman soldiers. The lifeless corpse was taken down from the cross and buried in a tomb. The tomb remained sealed until Sunday morning.

The Harrowing of Hell, from a fourteenth century manuscriptBut this does not imply that the soul and spirit of Jesus were dead or annihilated. The biblical picture seems to be that when humans die their souls leave their bodies and go to a place of the dead, known as Sheol or Hades. This is not a place of punishment, but one of shadowy but apparently conscious existence. And the Christian tradition reflected in the Creeds, with somewhat obscure biblical support (Acts 2:31, 1 Peter 3:19, 4:6), is that the soul of Jesus also went to Hades (for which “hell”, in older English versions of the Creeds, is a misleading translation). But apparently Jesus went there not to rest like the other dead, but to announce his victory, to preach the gospel, to break open the gates of Hades (compare Matthew 16:18), and to set free at least some of those held captive there.  He seems to have transformed Hades into the Paradise which he promised to the repentant thief on the cross (Luke 23:43). This is the traditional doctrine of the Harrowing of Hell.

But when he did this, was Jesus dead or alive? Or is that question meaningful? Clearly his body did not go to Hades, which is not a place for material bodies. But his soul never died, for human souls never die when their bodies do. The apostle Peter seems to teach that Jesus went to Hades after he had been “made alive in the Spirit”, or “… the spirit” (1 Peter 3:18-19). Perhaps Peter means that Jesus was spiritually alive while this happened, but his body was still dead. Or Peter could mean that this took place after his Resurrection, but this would make the sequence of events even more obscure.

So what did happen to Jesus’ body? A normal human body would have started to decay immediately, and would soon have started to smell (compare John 11:39). But we read that the body of Jesus did not decay (Acts 2:31). Instead, as the apostle Paul writes, it seems to have been transformed into a new resurrection body, in a process analogous to a seed being planted and growing into a new plant (1 Corinthians 15:36-38). But just as in the natural this process takes time, so we can understand that time may be needed for this spiritual transformation of a body.

Meanwhile what happened to those whom Jesus released from Hades? At least some of these people can probably be identified with the “holy people who had died” who appeared in Jerusalem after Jesus’ Resurrection (Matthew 27:52-53). Now these people, unlike Jesus, had presumably mostly been dead for a long time, so their bodies would have decayed, and their bones had most likely been collected into ossuaries, according to the practice of the time. I suppose we must imagine these ossuaries breaking open, and the bones arranging themselves into skeletons and then putting on flesh, as in Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones coming to life (Ezekiel 37:7-8). But this was a process which might have taken some time.

So perhaps I will take back my suggestion that on Holy Saturday Jesus and these “holy people who had died” were simply resting and waiting for Sunday morning. Rather, the living soul of Jesus was busy freeing the souls of these saints from Hades, while in tombs on earth he was preparing their new resurrection bodies along with his own. To take the idea from Phil Groom’s comment, that day was a time not for “Rest in Peace” but for “Resurrection in Progress”. Then on Sunday morning the souls of Jesus and the other departed came together with their new bodies, and the great Resurrection took place, of Jesus and together with him of the Old Testament saints.

The Communal Resurrection of Jesus

An Eastern depiction of the ResurrectionThe Irish theologian John Dominic Crossan is not one I would normally read or agree with. But for Easter last year he wrote an article which makes an important point for the Huffington Post, The Communal Resurrection of Jesus.

In this article Crossan contrasts the Western and Eastern Christian understandings of the Resurrection, as depicted in their works of art. He starts with a depiction of the Resurrection which he saw at its traditional site, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem:

That image does not show Jesus arising in splendid triumph from an opened tomb. This is not — even in miniature — a Titian or a Rubens with Jesus emerging in muscular majesty. But emerging, however majestically, in magnificent and lonely isolation. Instead, four other individuals are with him in this parabolic vision. …

… But is not Easter about the absolutely unique resurrection of Jesus alone, so why are any others involved and, if others, why precisely these others? The answer reveals a major difference between Easter Sunday as imagined and celebrated in Eastern Christianity as opposed to Western Christianity. It also reveals for me the latter’s greatest theological loss from that fatal split in the middle of the eleventh century.

Crossan doesn’t properly explain this theological loss – and if he did, I might not agree with him, as he is reported as rejecting the bodily Resurrection of Jesus. But he is clearly hinting that the Western tradition has lost sight of the communal aspects of the Resurrection. As the Eastern tradition correctly remembers, Jesus did not rise from the dead alone, but he raised to life with himself all those who believe in him, right back to Adam and Eve.

This of course ties up with the odd story of the resurrection of the Old Testament saints in Matthew 27:51-53, which I discussed yesterday in my post When did Jesus come back to life?

What does this mean for us, as believers in Jesus? As the Apostle Paul wrote:

… we were by nature deserving of wrath. 4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, …

Ephesians 2:3-6 (NIV)

So, when Jesus rose from the dead he raised with himself not only the Old Testament saints but also, in anticipation, all of us New Testament believers. We may not yet have our Resurrection bodies, but we already have within us the Resurrection life of Jesus. The time is past when “we were by nature deserving of wrath”. Now we are alive and seated with Christ in the heavenly realms. We must not forget that, but live according to that truth.

When did Jesus come back to life?

On this holy Saturday, as we wait before rejoicing on Easter Sunday, I was thinking about the timing of the Resurrection. This was prompted in part by Jeremy Myers’ post Why Did Jesus Wait Three Days to Rise from the Dead? Also I had been thinking about this enigmatic Bible passage, talking about what happened immediately after Jesus died:

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split 52 and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. 53They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.

Matthew 27:51-53 (NIV)

Domenico Beccafumi's depiction of Jesus leading the patriarchs out of limbo, c.1530-1535From the next verse it is clear that the earthquake took place immediately after Jesus died, and before he was buried. But the timing here is hard to pin down. The most straightforward interpretation would be that the opening of the tombs and the raising to life of the dead holy people took place at the time of the earthquake. The timing of them coming out of the tombs is unclear, but it is only after Jesus’ resurrection, so at least 36 hours later, that they appeared to many people in Jerusalem.

Now I know that many scholars, including some evangelicals, consider this story to be a myth. Last year there was a major controversy when evangelical author Michael Licona suggested the possibility that this passage is “apocalyptic imagery rather than describing historical events”, and Norman Geisler and Albert Mohler condemned him for abandoning biblical inerrancy. This is in fact irrelevant to my point here. What is important is the use that the author of this Gospel makes of the story.

The interesting issue is that, according to Matthew, these Old Testament saints seem to have been alive but in their tombs for the whole of the period that Jesus was in his tomb. But only after Jesus left his tomb did these others leave their tombs and, like Jesus, appear to others in Jerusalem. Wikipedia notes that

Nolland speculates as to what happened after to the risen saints. He considers it unlikely that they simply returned to the grave after a brief time among the living, he also does not think it likely that the saints resumed their normal lives on Earth. Thus Nolland feels that Matthew probably imagines the saints being translated directly to heaven after a short time on Earth, similar to Elijah.

We could also end this quotation “similar to Jesus”, although these saints probably ascended to heaven not as many as 40 days after the Resurrection. But on this interpretation, the raising of these saints was not a temporary resuscitation like that of Lazarus, but a resurrection like that of Jesus, and like the one which we Christian believers can expect on the last day.

But there is a theological problem here. If Jesus was indeed raised from the dead as “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep”, the first in time to be resurrected (1 Corinthians 15:20,23), then how could others have risen before him, even if they had to wait for his resurrection before appearing publicly?

Or could it in fact be that the resurrection of Jesus was just like that of the Old Testament saints, in that he too came back to life immediately after he died, but only came out of the tomb on the third day afterwards? Yes, Paul does write that “he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:4), but that could mean only that he first appeared on that third day.

To go back to Jeremy Myers’ question Why Did Jesus Wait Three Days to Rise from the Dead?, in my opinion the best answer to that question is given by Kurt Willems in his post The Easter Surprise – Resurrection Changes Everything (reposted at Red Letter Christians as The Easter Surprise: Celebrating the first day of a new kind of week). Jesus by rising again is inaugurating a new creation. So it is significant that his work in the old creation was finished on the sixth day of the week he had spent in Jerusalem (here reading the gospel chronology in the traditional way); he rested in the tomb on the seventh day; and then he rose again for the new creation on the first day of a new week.

But on the seventh day of the original creation week God was not dead, only resting. Jesus too would have had plenty of reason to rest after his work on the cross was finished. So within this framework it makes sense if Jesus was also not dead but resting.

Now I am certainly not denying that Jesus truly died. The New Testament makes this clear. It also seems clear that he was dead when his body was put into the tomb and sealed up. On that basis the Old Testament saints could have come to life immediately after Jesus, slightly out of chronological order in Matthew. But we don’t know what happened between then and Easter morning. So we don’t really know if Jesus was dead, or was alive and resting. But theologically it might make sense that he was already alive, and waiting for the right time to present himself as such and start his work of new creation.

Cameron and Obama on the Resurrection

Barack Obama and David CameronPrime Minister David Cameron and President Barack Obama, who met recently in Washington, have both taken the opportunity of the run-up to Easter to talk about their Christian faith, including their position on the Resurrection.

Gillan Scott gives the text of David Cameron’s Easter message at a reception for Christian leaders. Gillan highlights some positive points in this message. Like Phil Groom in a comment, I am far from convinced that Cameron is really signalling a change of policy on gay marriage; rather, I would suggest, by insisting that the government proposals are only about civil marriage, he is asking Christians to choose different battles to fight.

But the main point I want to make here is not about gay marriage at all, but about Cameron’s Christian faith, or lack of it. Last year I wrote about how seriously he misunderstands the Bible, as centrally “about leading good lives and helping each other as best we can”. This week’s message shows all the more clearly how little true faith he has:

… actually, really, Easter in many ways is the one that counts. Even those of us who sometimes struggle with some parts of the message – the idea of resurrection, of a living God, of someone who’s still with us – is fantastically important even if you sometimes, as I do, struggle over some of the details.

So what Cameron seems to be saying, in somewhat confused words that are surely his own and not a speech writer’s, is that he doesn’t really believe in the Resurrection or in a living God who is still with us. For him, it seems, Christianity is merely “about leading good lives and helping each other as best we can”. But that is not Christian faith at all; it is no more than what the best of atheistic and deistic philosophers thought. Indeed, if Cameron doesn’t even believe in a living God, he really should call himself a deist or an agnostic, and make no claim to be a Christian.

So it came as a pleasant contrast to read these words spoken today by Barack Obama, quoted by Joel Watts from a speech at the White House Easter Prayer Service:

It is only because Jesus conquered His own anguish, conquered His fear, that we’re able to celebrate the resurrection. It’s only because He endured unimaginable pain that wracked His body and bore the sins of the world that burdened His soul that we are able to proclaim, ‘He is Risen!’

These are the words of a true Christian. Mr Cameron, will you be able to join Mr Obama this Sunday in proclaiming, with genuine faith, “He is risen!”?

Cross or Resurrection 8: Finding the Balance

With this post I conclude this series. Perhaps “Cross and Resurrection” was not the best title for it, as it has in fact ranged much wider than these two events. Here are the previous posts:

In each of the preceding posts, apart from the opening one, I warned against the dangers of taking one aspect of the faith, and of the New Testament narrative, as the central focus of Christianity and as determinative for the Christian life. In each case I named a particular stream within the church which sometimes strays too far in focusing on one aspect to the neglect of the others.

The key to the Christian life is to find the right balance between these matters. Each of them is important and indeed necessary for a proper Christian life. Tightrope walker Ramon Kelvink Jr.But no one of them is important enough to be the central focus, or to cause the others to be neglected. The Christian life must begin with repentance and forgiveness, made possible through the Cross, and continue with the new life inaugurated by the Resurrection and empowered by the Holy Spirit – always taking Jesus’ life on earth as an example but remembering that he is now reigning in heaven and will come again at the end. If anything here is missed out, there is a serious imbalance which needs to be corrected. But if we keep the right balance, the Christian walk is a straightforward, if not always easy, one.

Cross or Resurrection 5: Risen and Ascended Lord

This series on what is determinative for the Christian life started with John the Baptist and continued with the life and teaching of Jesus and with his death on the Cross. Now I want to consider whether the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus Christ should be considered the central focus for the Christian life.

Christ Pantocrator - detail from Deesis mosaic, Hagia Sophia, IstanbulThis is an emphasis which is sometimes seen as characteristic of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, in contrast to the western churches which tend to put more emphasis on the Cross. To be honest I don’t know how true this is of Eastern Orthodoxy in general, but it does seem to be reflected in the prominence of the image of Christ Pantocrator in Byzantine and more modern Eastern church buildings. The Jesus in these images is not living on earth or dying on the Cross; he has risen and ascended and is reigning as the Lord Almighty.

Now it is certainly true to biblical teaching that Jesus Christ rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, and that he is enthroned there as King. Indeed today, at least in many western churches, we celebrate the feast of Christ the King. But he is not the heavenly counterpart of an earthly emperor, as seems to be implied by the Orthodox iconography and theology. Jesus’ idea of rulership is very different:

You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Mark 10:42-45 (NIV)

The Christian life, therefore, is not to be one of subjection to a heavenly tyrant, ruling through his regent on earth the emperor. Yes, the emperor may reign, and Christian people are to honour this rule in earthly matters. But in spiritual matters, although Christ is indeed King, his reign has a very different character, one which involves humility and self-sacrifice, demonstrated and shaped by his life on earth and his death on the Cross. If these are lost sight of in worship of the heavenly Christ, again the Christian faith has lost its proper balance.

Nearing the end of this series, continued in Cross or Resurrection 6: New Life After Pentecost.

Cross or Resurrection 3: What about Jesus' life?

Tim ChestertonI want to start by thanking my blogging friend Tim Chesterton for naming Gentle Wisdom as the first of his ten favourite Christian blogs. His own blog Faith, Folk and Charity is one of my favourites, when he finds time to post in his busy life. It is hard to believe that it is more than four years since I met Tim, when he was on sabbatical here in England. I regret that much of the excellent material from his former blog An Anabaptist Anglican was lost when that blog was closed after his sabbatical.*

I also want to thank Tim for a comment on my post on the central message of the Bible, in which he pointed out an issue with how I have set up the series of which this post is the third part. I started the series by posing a binary question: which is determinative, the Cross or the Resurrection? But in fact there are other choices which could be made on the basis of the New Testament. The one which I dismissed in part 2 of this series, that the example of John the Baptist is normative, is hardly a Christian one. But, as Tim reminded me, it is a Christian position to take the life and teaching of Jesus Christ as the basis for Christian living. This is in some ways a third alternative to focusing on the Cross or on the Resurrection. It is one especially associated with the Anabaptist movement, as well as with the strand of Catholic spirituality associated with the classic book The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. So in this post I will look at that alternative focus.

I want to affirm strongly that the life of Jesus is a good and important example for Christian living today. This has been a consistent theme on this blog. Five years ago I wrote that Jesus is Our Fully Human Example. Three years ago I suggested, rather controversially perhaps, that the faith of Jesus Christ should be a model for our Christian faith. I would also affirm, against some dispensationalists, that the teaching of Jesus is directly relevant for Christians today. We are even expected to live according to the Sermon on the Mount – although there is grace for us when we fail.

"The Sermon On the Mount" by Carl BlochBut this mention of grace illustrates the inadequacy of making the life of Jesus the centre of Christianity. Can we really be expected only to follow the teachings of the Great Teacher and to live as he lived? It is for good reason that many have concluded that the Sermon on the Mount was intended as an impossible standard to live by. It is indeed impossible if we try to live by it in our own strength, treating it as a new law to replace the one given through Moses. But the Sermon is surely intended as more than an unattainable standard given to force us to repentance.

While some might just be able to live for a time in obedience to Jesus’ teaching, there are clearly ways in which no one can hope to do as he did in their own strength. Jesus was best known in his own time, and perhaps in ours, for the healings and other miracles which he performed. As I have argued before, he was able to do such things not because he was God but because after his baptism he was filled with the Holy Spirit. And he expected his followers to do not just similar works but also greater ones (John 14:12). That is clearly impossible for ordinary human beings without the power of God.

Thus both the teaching and the miracles of Jesus point us beyond his life on earth. It is only through his death on the Cross that men and women can receive forgiveness, without which even a perfectly amended life is pointless as it cannot atone for past sins. It is only through his Resurrection that people can receive a new life with the ability to overcome evil and live according to Jesus’ teaching, even in the Sermon on the Mount. And it is only through Pentecost which followed them that anyone can receive the power of the Holy Spirit to perform the even greater works which God has prepared in advance for them to do (Ephesians 2:10).

So we have to conclude that, important as the life and teaching of Jesus are for the Christian life, they are not its central focus. True Christians need to look beyond following his example and his instructions to what follows, which alone is able to effect achievements with eternal consequences.

Continued in Cross or Resurrection 4: The Centrality of the Cross?

* UPDATE: Tim tells me that all the significant posts from Anabaptist Anglican have been transferred to his main blog Faith, Folk and Charity, where they can be found in the April, May, June, and July 2007 archives.

Cross or Resurrection 2a: Stop confessing your sins!

This post is part of the series which I started with Cross or Resurrection 1: Which is Determinative? But I am not numbering it as the third in the continuing series as it is not really new material. Instead I am writing to highlight one of my main points in Cross or Resurrection 2: Greater than John the Baptist.

In that post I wrote that

The ancient Jews offered regular sacrifices and sin offerings as a sign of their repentance. But these animal sacrifices had no power to change them

and backed that up from Hebrews 10:1-4. I continued:

Sadly we see the same attitude in many of our Christian churches. Roman Catholics are encouraged to confess their sins regularly to a priest in private. Anglican worshippers, among others, are expected to repeat at least every week words such as the following …:

We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness …

When the priest offers the absolution, they believe that their past sins have been forgiven – but also that they are expected to continue to sin, so they have something to confess the next Sunday. Clearly this kind of repeated ritual is no more effective than Old Testament sacrifices …, as it cannot “make perfect those who draw near to worship”.

The biblical picture of the true Christian believer is very different …

Traditional confessional in Saint-Thiébaut Church, Thann, FranceSo I would appeal to Christians to stop dragging up and confessing trivial or imaginary sins, and to churches to stop expecting them to do so. Yes, there is a place for Christians to confess their sins, when they have gone seriously astray and need to be brought back into God’s path. In such cases it may well be appropriate to confess privately to a church leader, and receive personal counsel and assurance of forgiveness. But if a Christian needs to do that regularly, there is something seriously wrong with their understanding of the Christian life. And if a whole congregation is expected to recite a weekly General Confession like the Anglican one, then they are being taught that wrong understanding.

As Christians, we shouldn’t expect to sin, and we shouldn’t let others teach us that expectation.

So, I appeal to churches, especially Anglican ones, throw out your lengthy prayers of General Confession. Instead, expect most of your congregants to be living good Christian lives, and encourage those who do need to put something right to deal with the matter individually, either alone with God or with the help of one of your ministry team.

Cross or Resurrection 2: Greater than John the Baptist

This is a continuation of the series starting with Cross or Resurrection 1: Which is Determinative? Sorry this has taken some time to appear.

A Mandaean baptismI was interested to read a news article, linked to by Joel Watts, about Mandaeans who have found refuge in the USA. It seems that the little known religion of Mandaeism, until recently most widespread in Iraq, is now flourishing in a small way in Massachusetts. The chief prophet of their religion is none other than John the Baptist, and they practice baptism, weekly in rivers. However, they reject Jesus as a false Messiah, and the Holy Spirit as an evil being. Mandaeism in fact seems to be a surviving Gnostic sect with its roots in the early centuries AD.

Already in the time and region of Paul’s journeys related in the book of Acts there seem to have been widespread groups of “disciples” who “knew only the baptism of John”, among them Apollos (Acts 18:24-25) and a group Paul met in Ephesus (19:1-6). These were not Mandaeans, as Apollos already knew about Jesus, and the Ephesus group were quick to listen to Paul’s teaching about him and accept the Holy Spirit. But it is not fanciful to see a real continuity between those among these groups who never accepted the Christian gospel and the modern Mandaeans.

So what can we say about followers of John the Baptist, in ancient times and today? Jesus’ commendation of John had something of a sting in the tail:

Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Matthew 11:11 (NIV)

So, for Jesus, John is greater even than the Old Testament saints, but he is still outside the kingdom of God. And I would suppose that Jesus would say the same about his followers, those who only know his baptism, whether ancient “disciples” or modern Mandaeans. Indeed that seems to have been Paul’s understanding, for he baptised the “disciples” again, this time in the name of the Lord Jesus (Acts 19:5). It was only after that that the Holy Spirit came on them, with gifts indicating that the kingdom of God was breaking into their lives.

The baptism of John was for repentance, as he declared himself; indeed he recognised that Jesus would bring a greater baptism, “with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11). Christian baptism is far more than just a sign of repentance: it is a sign of death and resurrection, as Paul explained:

We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

Romans 6:4 (NIV)

The ancient Jews offered regular sacrifices and sin offerings as a sign of their repentance. But these animal sacrifices had no power to change them:

The law … can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. 2 Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. 3 But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins. 4 It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.

Hebrews 10:1-4 (NIV)

Similarly, baptism for repentance has no power to change those who repent, if they do not go on to accept the message of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Mandaeans clearly do not believe that through being baptised once they have been “cleansed once for all”, as they undergo baptism as a weekly ritual.

Sadly we see the same attitude in many of our Christian churches. Roman Catholics are encouraged to confess their sins regularly to a priest in private. Anglican worshippers, among others, are expected to repeat at least every week words such as the following, from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer liturgy for The Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion:

We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we from time to time most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us.

When the priest offers the absolution, they believe that their past sins have been forgiven – but also that they are expected to continue to sin, so they have something to confess the next Sunday. Clearly this kind of repeated ritual is no more effective than Old Testament sacrifices or Mandaean baptisms, as it cannot “make perfect those who draw near to worship”.

The biblical picture of the true Christian believer is very different:

No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God.

1 John 3:9 (NIV)

John Meunier offers an interesting discussion of this verse and how it was understood by John Wesley – not, as I expected, as the basis of his controversial teaching on sinless perfection. Indeed, as the apostle John writes earlier in the same letter, we should not claim to be sinless and perfect:

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.

1 John 1:8-10 (NIV)

But note those words “purify us from all unrighteousness”. Neither animal sacrifices nor repeated baptisms can do this. Nor can a declaration of forgiveness which comes with an expectation that more sins will follow. The Cross of Christ can bring forgiveness of sins, but apart from the Resurrection the only righteousness it can bring is that of death, of someone who cannot sin because they are dead. As John the apostle writes, a person can live a righteous life if and only if they are born again of God, if the life of the risen Jesus is within them.

So if we live by the Cross without the Resurrection, we are no better off than John the Baptist, forgiven our sins but still outside the kingdom of God. But if we leave our expectation of continuing to sin at the Cross and move on to take hold of the life of the risen Jesus, the kingdom of God is within and among us, and we can bring it to the world around.

Continued in Cross or Resurrection 3: What about Jesus’ life? See also Cross or Resurrection 2a: Stop confessing your sins!


So what is the central message of the Bible?

Yesterday, in my post No, Mr C, that’s not the central message of the Bible, I wrote that Prime Minister David Cameron doesn’t seem to know what that central message is. But I made no attempt to state what I think it is. So it is with good reason that Archdruid Eileen, in her own post The Central Message of the Bible, asks:

But if some nice words about being good aren’t the central message of the Bible, what is? Is there a central message at all?

A family Bible from 1859Now those are very good questions, especially the second one. Does the Bible have a central message? Or is it just a collection of different documents each with their own central message? It certainly is such a collection. But it is not a random collection: the books were chosen, under God’s providence, to convey an overall message, the story of God’s dealings with humanity from the beginning to the coming end. And this message, as it is a coherent one, can be summarised and its central point can be found.

So what is this central message? The Bible does include the words which Cameron chose to write out, and also some rather different sentiments which the Archdruid notes. How can we say which, if any, of these are central? I suppose that is a matter for literary analysis, a subject in which I would not consider myself an expert. But I can still offer my tentative opinion. And this is based on the idea that the focal point of a narrative is usually not at the centre but towards the end, after an extended build-up, but also not at the very end because there is usually some kind of epilogue.

On that basis, the focus of the Bible is not on the Old Testament, which is an extended build-up, but also not in the latter parts of the New Testament. That tends to suggest that it can be found in the four gospels. Then within each of these gospels we can look for the central message. Each of them (at least if we include the longer ending of Mark) consists of a long build-up and a short epilogue, and in the focal position there are two climactic events, the crucifixion and the resurrection.

Is one of these two more central than the other? Well, that is the point of the series which I recently started, and intend to continue, Cross or Resurrection. So here I will only give a sneak preview of the conclusions I expect to reach in that series, that these two are equal in importance, in the Bible as well as in the Christian life.

I note also what the Apostle Paul considered too be “of first importance”, with the cross and the resurrection given equal place:

that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.

1 Corinthians 15:3-5 (NIV)

So, I would conclude that the central message of the Bible is very simple: Jesus was put to death on the cross and rose again from the dead.