The Cross and the Resurrection
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Friday, March 9, 2012 at 10:16am
QUESTION: We talk a lot about Jesus’ death on the cross as the event that brings about our salvation from sin, but was not his resurrection from the dead just as important as the cross? Isn’t his resurrection part of the dying for the sins of the world? In his resurrection did he not take the keys of death and hell away from Satan? If there were no resurrection would we not still be in our sins?
ANSWER: Without a doubt the resurrection of Jesus plays a vital part in the complete work of salvation from sins. In my book, The Faith Once for All, chapter 14 is devoted to “The Work of Christ.” In this chapter I spend almost as much time explaining the resurrection (pp. 272-282) as explaining the cross (pp. 260-272). Regarding the resurrection, I note seven things that it accomplishes toward our salvation:
1. The resurrection demonstrates Christ’s Lordship.
2. The resurrection devastates Christ’s enemies.
3. The resurrection inaugurates Christ’s kingdom.
4. The resurrection validates Christ’s cross.
5. The resurrection originates the new creation.
6. The resurrection reanimates the dead.
7. The resurrection renovates the universe.
In responding to the questions given above, I will concentrate only on the relation between the resurrection and the cross, which is involved in the fourth of these seven accomplishments. Both are an essential basis of our salvation, to be sure. Indeed, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17). However, I think it would be incorrect to lump the two together as if they accomplish the same thing. I would not say that “the resurrection [is] part of the dying for the sins of the world,” even though in a real sense it continues this propitiatory work by finalizing it.
There is a real sense, then, in which he was “raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). One way in which this is true (as I say in The Faith Once for All, 276-277), is that Christ’s resurrection validates the cross. (See also my commentary on Romans, 2005, p. 177.) As F. F. Bruce has said, Jesus was raised “to guarantee” our justification. But in what sense would this be the case? One possibility is that his resurrection demonstrates the validity of his claims and proves that the apostolic teaching about the meaning of the cross is true. Anyone could make lofty claims about his impending death (see Mark 10:45; John 12:32); but if his dead body turned to dust in his grave, we would be inclined to disregard his claims. But in the case of Jesus his resurrection confirms his claims and guarantees the justifying power of his blood; thus we know that our faith in his blood is not in vain. This is the faith that justifies, and because of his resurrection we have a firm basis for it. In this sense Jesus was raised in order to assure us that in God’s sight we are indeed justified. “The Father, by raising Jesus from the dead, assures us that the atoning sacrifice has been accepted; hence, our sins are forgiven” (William Hendriksen, Exposition of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, Baker 1980, I:161).
As another aspect of this validation, Christ’s death was indeed a defeat for his enemies (Heb. 2:14-15; Col. 2:15), but this did not become obvious until the resurrection. His enemies thought they had beaten him through the cross (1 Cor. 2:8), but when he arose they realized it was the other way around (Rev. 1:17-18). Satan cannot automatically drag us down with him to eternal death merely by luring us into sin. The cross has paid that penalty of eternal death for us, and the risen Christ is enthroned at God’s right hand as the constant reminder that the price for our sins has been paid (Heb. 4:14-16; 7:25; 8:1). “Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us” (Rom. 8:34).
In Romans 8:34 the relationship between Christ’s resurrection and his present intercessory work as our great high priest is made clear. If Christ had not risen from the dead and ascended to the right hand of the Father, the atoning work of the cross would have been nullified. The resurrection/ascension is thus in a real sense the completion of Christ’s work of atonement, the continuation of his priestly work.
How is this so? According to the OT pattern, the High Priest not only offered the sacrifice but also sprinkled its blood on the altar in the Most Holy Place (Lev. 16). Likewise, to accomplish our justification, Jesus our Great High Priest not only had to offer himself as a sacrifice by shedding his blood on the cross; he also had to enter heaven itself “once for all by his own blood,” and “appear for us in God’s presence” (Heb. 9:12, 24; see Heb. 6:19-20; 10:19-22). Therefore it was necessary for him to be raised from the dead so that he could ascend bodily into heaven and complete the work of atonement on which our justification is based.
That Christ’s enthronement at the Father’s right hand would involve not only his kingship but also his priesthood is prophesied in Psalm 110:1-4. Verse 4 says, “The LORD has sworn and will not change His mind, ‘You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek'” (see Heb. 5:10; 6:20; 7:1-25). Christ began his work as priest by offering himself as the perfect sacrifice for our sins, and he continues his work as priest by presenting himself before the Father as our perpetual intercessor (1 Tim. 2:5).
Scripture makes clear that Christ’s humanity and sinlessness are prerequisites for his work as priest (1 Tim. 2:5; Heb. 2:14-18; 4:14-16; 7:26-28). But it also teaches that his resurrection from the dead is what enables him to be our heavenly high priest who can make eternal intercession between us and the Father. What qualifies Jesus to be our high priest is not physical descent from the line of Levi and Aaron, but “the power of an indestructible life” (Heb. 7:16). This is how he can be “a priest forever” (Ps. 110:4; Heb. 7:21). All OT priests were only temporary “because they were prevented by death from continuing, but Jesus, on the other hand, because He continues forever, holds His priesthood permanently” (Heb. 7:23-24). This is why “He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:25).
Thus, even though the cross and the resurrection are distinct aspects of the saving work of our Lord Jesus, they are so intertwined and inseparable that we can think of them as two parts of one comprehensive event, the “one act of righteousness” that “leads to justification and life for all men” (Rom. 5:18). [The primary focus of this verse, Romans 5:18, is the cross, to the exclusion of Christ’s entire sinless life. See my discussion of this in my commentary on Romans.]