Part three examined the suffering servant passages in Isaiah and posited that suffering is a part of human life.
So is death.
Overcoming death is the ultimate goal of the kingdom and there are echos of it throughout the Old Testament.
In the book of the Psalms,
“I love the Lord, because he has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy. Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live. The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish. Then I called on the name of the Lord: “O Lord, I pray, deliver my soul!” Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; our God is merciful. The Lord preserves the simple; when I was brought low, he saved me. Return, O my soul, to your rest; for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you. For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling;”
Psalm 116:1-8 ESV
In the book of Isaiah,
“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.”
Isaiah 25:6-8 ESV
These echos began to reverberate louder after the resurrection of Jesus. At first the disciples were at a loss to understand what had happened much less explain it to others. Indeed — just what had happened?
Weeks later at the annual Jewish Pentecost festival in Jerusalem, the spirit is poured out on the disciples and it all began to click as they connected the dots. The impossible had happened — the messiah they thought had failed had risen from the dead. In the New Testament book of Acts, Peter addresses the crowd that had gathered and explained that what had happened weeks ago and what was happening now was a fulfillment of the echos in the Old Testament.
Peter begins by quoting yet another echo from the Old Testament, the prophet Joel,
“But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: “‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams…And I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day…“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.”
Acts 2:16-24 ESV
According to Peter, the end had come — the “day of the Lord” had arrived, and the Old Testament prophecies had been fulfilled. But this wasn’t a messiah reboot or do-over. Things had changed. The old was gone and something new had taken its place. A new age had dawned and death itself had been overcome through the resurrection of Jesus
One of the first echos in the Old Testament for the manner of the resurrection itself is found in the book of Ezekiel.
“The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones…And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them…and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army…Say to [the army], Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live…
Ezekiel 37:1-14 ESV
The vision is strange, to say the least, but what the images point to is clear enough. The bodies of the dead will be raised and somehow reconstituted and the spirit of God put in them. Fantastic images such as these would have been in the back of Peter’s mind as he delivered his speech.
But wait. The end hadn’t come. There was no smoke or fire. The sun hadn’t gone dark and the moon hadn’t turned to blood. The bones of the dead hadn’t rattled around and come together. Graves hadn’t been opened and everyone raised. The resurrection as it was understood at the time was something that happened at the end of time — the “day of the Lord” — but it seemed pretty clear that “the day” hadn’t arrived. Why did Peter claim it had?
To begin with, the raising of Jesus was, as the Apostle Paul later wrote, actually the “first fruits” of the resurrection. In First Corinthians he writes,
“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
1 Corinthians 15:20-26 ESV
As it turned out people still died and things seemed to be as they were before. So, what is Paul taking about? Had the kingdom come or not?
The answer is simple: yes, and no.
The kingdom was inaugurated at the resurrection but was not fully realized. This is what is loosely known in theological circles as the “already but not yet” or the “now but not yet” understanding of the kingdom of God. This seems a bit wishy-washy to the modern mind. You can’t have it both ways — either it has or it hasn’t.
Perhaps the best way to understand this dynamic is by way of an analogy from the modern world.
On August 28, 1963, in the midst of the civil rights struggle, Dr. Martin Luther King gave a speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. About 200,000 people had come to the nation’s capitol for the March for Jobs and Freedom. Towards the end of the speech, King uttered these famous lines:
…I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.
That “one day” King spoke of had not yet arrived. It was still a dream. But it’s realization was at hand in the hearts and minds of those listening. The speech became known as the “I Have a Dream” speech and inspired the civil rights movement to continue the struggle…and there was more struggle to come, much more — more protests, more conflict and unrest, and more injuries and death. King himself would be assassinated five years later.
But on that day in August, the first fruits were present as embodied in the crowd. In the coming years the “separate but equal” facilities throughout the south would vanish as would the “whites only” signs. The dream was unfolding before their eyes; its fulfillment was “already there” but “not yet” complete. It still is and isn’t to this very day.
The same dynamic was a work in Acts. The end had come with the resurrection but it had not yet been fully realized. The messiah’s kingdom had come in the hearts and minds of those listening. It was unfolding before their very eyes.
Today, we live somewhere between the beginning of the end and the end itself. The kingdom’s final chapter has yet to be written. According to the Old and New Testaments the ultimate destiny of humanity is not the grave — there is something beyond it.
The biggest irony in all this is the suspicion and skepticism in the hearts and minds of modern people regarding such things. “Well, ancient people, you may have believed such nonsense but we cannot.” After all, modern people are more knowledgeable and sophisticated than their ancient counterparts. And yet, it is the nature of those same modern hearts and minds to wonder about, long for, and seek meaning and purpose to life — a life that ultimately ends in death. “Well, modern people, if this is so, why bother?”
Ancient people were just as suspicious and skeptical as modern ones. It has been noted elsewhere that ancient people were much more aware of the reality and finality of death — there were no visitations and funerals with the deceased dressed in their Sunday best. Death was an ever-present reality to ancient people. But they also knew that there had to be more to life than just death, as the writer of Ecclesiastes notes.
“He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.”
Ecclesiastes 3:11 ESV
Paul too recognized the irony of the suspicion and skepticism, on one hand, against the human longing for meaning and purpose on the other.
“What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.””
1 Corinthians 15:32 ESV
Just like modern people ancient people knew the futility of it all. If the resurrection isn’t true why bother about anything?
The chasm between then and now seems not so great.