“…According to the Scriptures:” The Resurrection of the Messiah

The Christian faith rests on a singular event— the resurrection of Jesus. The modern mind has great difficulty accepting this. Materialists and atheists simply reject it out of hand as sheer nonsense. For others, many attempts have been made over the years to bypass the issue by “spiritualizing” it in some form or fashion. But the Christian scriptures are very clear: Jesus died and rose again according to the scriptures. There is no getting around it.

Apart from the concept of resurrection itself what is not so clear is the “according to the scriptures” part. The New Testament claims this over and over again but even a thorough perusing of the Old Testament by the modern reader returns very little to support the claim.

In one post-resurrection appearance Jesus walks alongside two disciples traveling from Jerusalem to Emmaus, a small town nearby. He strikes up a conversation and asks them why they are so glum. They go on to explain the things that just happened.

…And [Jesus] said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.”
‭‭Luke‬ ‭24:19-24‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Jesus responds:

And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself emphasis added).
‭‭Luke‬ ‭24:25-27‬ ‭ESV‬‬

It is important to note from the outset that resurrection was as hard to believe for ancient people as it is for modern ones, perhaps more so. First century Jews did not embalm bodies. They were left in tombs until the flesh rotted away. After a year or so the bones were collected and placed in a ossuary, a box carved from stone. There was no visitation and no funerals with the deceased dressed in their Sunday best. Dead was dead and there was no way of getting around it.

In the text, the two disciples refer to Jesus as a man and a prophet and, although they don’t come out and say it, their expectation was this prophet was or would become the messiah and that his death dashed their hopes for Israel’s redemption. The messiah was understood to be an earthly king by the pair as that was the general understanding in the culture at the time.

Jesus scolds them a bit as he explains how his death and resurrection followed along the trajectory of the Old Testament — their expectations of the messiah were all wrong. He also implies that they should already know and understand this but goes on to explain it to them any way. At least for modern readers one wishes the two disciples had taken better notes.

Different English versions of the Bible translate Jesus’ word “interpreted” differently (the English Standard Version translation is above). The King James Version says “expounded.” Others just say “explained.” Note that none of the translations say that Jesus “referenced” the writings of Moses (the law) and the prophets. From the context it appears that one cannot understand the resurrection of the messiah from a plain reading of Old Testament text or by simply by looking up references in the margins. Interpretation or explanation is required.

Ideas emerge and evolve over time and the notion of “messiah” did as well. The word itself simply means “anointed” or “the anointed one.” It originally referred to a future king along the lines of Israel’s greatest king, King David, who ruled Israel around 1,000 BCE. The kingdom split into two shortly after David’s reign and both eventually crumbled in the face of invasion and occupation by larger regional powers. The northern kingdom ceased to exist but the southern kingdom was captured and exiled to Babylon.

A remnant of the southern kingdom survived captivity and eventually resettled Palestine. But the nation was always subservient to foreign powers. By the first century CE, the occupation of Palestine was in the hands of the Roman Empire. From the time of the exile to the first century CE the notion of messiah solidified into an expectation of a liberator or savior from foreign powers — an earthly king.

Ideas were understood and expressed differently in an ancient oral culture. There were no dictionaries and no Wikipedia to “look things up.” Rather than residing on the pages of books ideas were thought of residing in the mind of their creators. They were, in a sense, “embodied” in a person rather than a book. The difference between the modern and ancient worlds is clear in their respective ways of handling new ideas. The modern world rids itself of ideas by burning books by the creators. In the ancient world it was done by killing the creators themselves.

The writings that did exist in the ancient world were written in sometimes hostile environments and made use of euphemisms to veil the meaning from enemies and critics. In the book of Revelation, for example, Babylon is a placeholder for Rome to avoid persecution from authorities. The genres for the literature of the Bible often defy tight categorization for this very reason. For example, Jesus often spoke in parables to mask the truth from his enemies as he explains in the Gospel of Matthew.

“Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.”
‭‭Matthew‬ ‭13:10-13‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Much of the Old Testament is narrative literature and is written in verse. While an ancient audience may have understood references to the people and events of the time and the cadence of its poetry with little difficultly modern readers often struggle with it. Passages considered prophetic by ancient people are opaque to modern readers.

Regarding the messiah, writing in the 8th century BCE, the prophet Isaiah etches out the expectations.

You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil. For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
‭‭Isaiah‬ ‭9:3-7‬ ‭ESV‬‬

The prophet Isaiah’s vision is clearly of an earthly king but at the same time his rule is over an eternal kingdom. Amongst the titles Isaiah mentions there is one hint that associates the messiah with God (mighty God).

Writing more than 200 years later, the prophet Daniel echos Isaiah’s vision of an everlasting kingdom but describes the future king with a new term, “the son of man.”

I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.
‭‭Daniel‬ ‭7:13-14‬ ‭ESV‬‬

The vision is of a man coming out of heaven that rules the earth. Daniel can’t quite bring himself to treat him as an ordinary human being falling from the sky but one “like” the “son of man.” The same but different in ways that are not explained.

The two disciples on the road to Emmaus would have been familiar with this passage and, presumably, this was the reason for their despair. From this passage alone it would seem their expectation that Jesus was the Son of Man had been in vain.

And rightly so.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus himself had referred to himself as the Son of Man. There is some scholarly disagreement about Jesus’ use of the term, but at his trial he is asked if he is the Son of God and Jesus’ reply lines up with Daniel’s concept of the Son of Man written centuries prior.

“But he remained silent and made no answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” And the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further witnesses do we need?”
‭‭Mark‬ ‭14:61-63‬ ‭ESV‬‬

From this passage it seems that Jesus is linking the notion of the messiah, the Son of God and the Son of Man together. The high priest asks if he is the Christ (the Greek word for messiah). Jesus replies that he is but uses the term Son of Man in his reply

Earlier in his ministry Jesus again refers to Daniel’s vision of the messiah as the Son of Man. In his conversation with Nicodemus (recorded in John’s Gospel) Jesus scolds him as though what he is saying is common knowledge.

“Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
‭‭John‬ ‭3:9-15‬ ‭ESV‬‬

The very next verse is the most famous in all of scripture and creates a tie between the Son of Man and the Son of God. It also implies that this Son was not just an earthly king but a savior — someone who would right wrongs and transform the society, upholding it as Isaiah put it, with justice and righteousness.

““For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
‭‭John‬ ‭3:16-17‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Note that the reference in the passage is to “the Son.” The context implies that Jesus is referring to himself as the Son of Man. So God’s “only Son” is the Son of Man. Note also that the notion seems to have expanded. The “world” is the target and not just Israel.

Nothing in Isaiah or Daniel explicitly spells out how the Son of Man would rule with “justice and righteousness” but the righteousness part has to do with the forgiveness of sins. In an episode in Luke’s gospel Jesus heals a paralyzed man in front of some scribes and Pharisees.

“And when he saw their faith, he said, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.” And the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, saying, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” When Jesus perceived their thoughts, he answered them, “Why do you question in your hearts? Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” —he said to the man who was paralyzed— “I say to you, rise, pick up your bed and go home.” And immediately he rose up before them and picked up what he had been lying on and went home, glorifying God.”
‭‭Luke‬ ‭5:20-25‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Upholding justice and righteousness involves not just punishment of sin (justice) but restoring those same sinners back into the society (righteousness). Another example: Prior to this episode Jesus heals a man with leprosy.

“While he was in one of the cities, there came a man full of leprosy. And when he saw Jesus, he fell on his face and begged him, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him. And he charged him to tell no one, but “go and show yourself to the priest, and make an offering for your cleansing, as Moses commanded, for a proof to them.””
‭‭Luke‬ ‭5:12-14‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Both men would have been excluded from the temple because of their conditions — paralysis and leprosy. The purpose behind Jesus’s healing is not just to restore physical health but includes restoration to the community as he clearly tells the man with leprosy to show himself to the priest which would allow him (as an outcast) to reenter society.

The Gospel of Luke records the story of Zacchaeus. He was a tax collector and another example of an outcast. Tax collectors were considered traitors and collaborators in Jewish society, so much so that they were given their own category. Throughout the Gospels Jesus is criticized for associating with “…sinners and tax collectors.” Murder, adultery, stealing, etc., were all covered by the word “sin” but tax collecting? That’s in a category all by itself. As with the paralyzed and leprous, Jesus as the Son of Man offers restoration to him.

“And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.””
‭‭Luke‬ ‭19:9-10‬ ‭ESV‬‬

In another episode, Jesus adds yet another twist to the expectations of the messiah. The mother of the disciples James and John approaches Jesus and lobbies for exalted positions for her sons in Jesus’ coming administration.

“Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.””
‭‭Matthew‬ ‭20:20-28‬ ‭ESV‬‬

The Son of Man is not to be the sort of ruler outlined in Daniel with all the nations serving him but a servant himself. The very notion of a messiah-king is turned on its head.

So, Jesus not only fulfills the notion of messiah as developed in the Old Testament but clarifies and expands it as well. Jesus appears to have fused the notions of messiah, Son of God and Son of Man together and, in a sense, redefined them at the same time. The three are now one and embodied in the person of Jesus.

It is difficult for the modern mind to come to terms with all of this. People living in the modern world don’t think in the same categories as ancient people. Our notions of what (if anything) transcends the physical world are rooted in scientific and philosophical terms. Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that explores what lies above (meta) physical reality (physics). As a discipline it has been out of vogue for more than a century. And science by definition deals with the physical or material world and simply does not have the tools to consider anything beyond, despite what certain scientists may think.

The transcendent realm is one that cannot be described in concrete language and is not subject to empirical study and analysis. It can only be explored through more literary means, symbols, images and metaphors. Literature and poetry are the “language of the transcendent.” To really understand the Bible the modern mind needs to understand this language.

Next, a new sort of kingdom for the new king…

2 thoughts on ““…According to the Scriptures:” The Resurrection of the Messiah

  1. Nice connecting of the dots between the concepts of the old testament and Yeshua’s teachings in the new testament

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