What is resurrection? What did it mean for Jesus’ disciples to claim that he had been “raised” from the dead? Why did so many Jews in the first century believe that Jesus really was raised from the dead?
When the Jewish disciples of Jesus spoke about his resurrection, they were not claiming he had simply returned to earthly life and Jesus’ soul was “alive” with God. Many Jews in the first century believed death was the separation of the “soul” from the body, and the soul could live in “immortality”. But the disciples of Jesus were not just talking about the immortality of Jesus’ soul, rather they proclaimed the “resurrection of Jesus’ body — something radically, fundamentally different had happened to Jesus’ corpse from ordinary corpses, and did not claim he was “exalted to heaven” after he died.
There is a clear distinction between the resurrection of Jesus from the tomb and the ascension of Jesus into heaven. The resurrection refers to Jesus’ dead body in the tomb, and the ascension refers to Jesus’ living body after it exited the tomb.
While they were still speaking about this, he stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” But they were startled and terrified and thought that they were seeing a ghost. Then he said to them, “Why are you troubled? And why do questions arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have.” And as he said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While they were still incredulous for joy and were amazed, he asked them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of baked fish; he took it and ate it in front of them.
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”
And he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God. (Luke 24:36-53)
The resurrected Jesus has a real human body — the same body while he was alive — bearing the wounds of the cross. The risen Lord has not discarded his human body like an old garment. The resurrected Jesus has a transformed body possessing new and extraordinary qualities — a glorified body (1 Corinthians 15:42-51) — that would never die again. For instance, he can walk through walls, veil his presence, and appear when and how he will.
Now that very day two of them were going to a village seven miles from Jerusalem called Emmaus, and they were conversing about all the things that had occurred. And it happened that while they were conversing and debating, Jesus himself drew near and walked with them, but their eyes were prevented from recognizing him. (Luke 24:13-16)
The belief in Jesus’ resurrection swept fast from Jewish Synagogues till the Ends of the Earth. Ancient people knew that ordinarily people stay dead … why then did the disciples come to believe in the resurrection?
First, it was because of the empty tomb.
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go and anoint him. Very early when the sun had risen, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb. They were saying to one another, “Who will roll back the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back; it was very large. On entering the tomb they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a white robe, and they were utterly amazed. He said to them, “Do not be amazed! You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Behold, the place where they laid him. But go and tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.’” Then they went out and fled from the tomb, seized with trembling and bewilderment. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (Mark 16:1-8)
The Jewish elders and the Romans do not deny the fact of the empty tomb, instead they simply try to explain it. Their explanation is extremely difficult to believe that the disciples came together at night to a sealed tomb guarded by Roman soldiers, rolled the stone away, and hauled off Jesus’ corpse … without anyone ever waking up!
Second, there are so many accounts of the risen Jesus to those his disciples.
The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them. When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted. Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:16-20)
After that, he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at once, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. (1 Cor 15:6)
Third, Jesus’ resurrection from the dead was the fulfillment of Jewish Scripture. Writers of the New Testament stress this point.
After that, he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at once, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. (Luke 24:45)
Then the other disciple also went in, the one who had arrived at the tomb first, and he saw and believed. For they did not yet understand the scripture that he had to rise from the dead. (John 20:8-9)
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; 4 that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures. (1 Cor 15:3-4)
In the Gospels, there is only one passage from Jewish Scripture that Jesus cites as a direct prophecy of his resurrection on the third day: the sign of Jonah. (Matthew 12:38-40)
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” He said to them in reply, “An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it except the sign of Jonah the prophet. Just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. (Matthew 12:38-40)
The author of the book of Jonah never claimed that Jonah remained alive for three days and three nights in the fish — Jonah died and went to the realm of the dead — the fish vomited Jonah’s corpse.
The climax of the book of Jonah is the repentance of the gentile city of Nineveh … the conversion of the Gentiles. The sign of Jonah is both the resurrection of the Son of Man on the third day and the ensuing repentance of the Gentiles. In Jonah’s case, only one Gentile city repents, whereas in Jesus’ case, countless nations repent, cast away their idols, and turn to the God of Israel.