‘For as yet they knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead’ (John 20.9). In this verse there is a small but vital word that is the foundation of this short article – the word must. It means that the resurrection was binding, or obligatory, as we shall see. Early on the first day of the week Peter and John were alerted by Mary Magdalene that the Lord’s tomb was empty, Mary putting into their minds the idea that he had been taken away to some unknown place.
The two men ran to the tomb, John arriving first, stooping low to look in. He saw, ‘the linen clothes lying; yet went he not in’. Some think that the grave clothes, the long ‘bandage’ or strips of wide cloth that Christ’s body had been wrapped in, interlayered with spice ointments, had kept to a bodily shape, as if defying the law of gravity. We do not believe the text supports this idea. Its proponents are looking for a unique type of miracle. The text rather suggests that the grave clothes had been removed and laid aside, perhaps folded, in a very orderly manner. This is miraculous enough, because an ordinary man would have been unable to remove them, stiffened by a great quantity of ointment, and leave them in an orderly form.
The narrative tells us that soon Simon Peter caught up with John, and was the first to enter the sepulchre. He first noted the linen clothes lying, then ‘the napkin’, not a napkin for the table, but a rectangular piece of cloth that had been wrapped around the Lord’s head. It was not lying with the linen clothes, but folded in a place by itself. Some people imagine a message in this, based on fanciful ideas about how table napkins were used, but the true lesson is that something very orderly took place in that tomb, making it clear to the disciples that the body had not been removed either by the authorities or by robbers. These would not have wasted time laboriously removing the grave clothes and leaving them neatly arranged. This was an act of the divine Christ.
John followed Peter in and – ‘saw, and believed’. His first look through the opening of the sepulchre had stirred his thinking. Perhaps he remembered even then that the Lord had repeatedly said he would rise again on the third day. Several different passages in the Gospels speak of how Christ prepared the disciples for his crucifixion and resurrection. Once John was inside the sepulchre full realisation dawned, and he believed. An explanation is added for his delayed belief: ‘For as yet they knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead.’
We note that the prophecy that he must rise again from the dead is singular, and yet there are a number of such prophecies and passages that either state or imply that the coming Messiah would rise from the dead. Here, just one text is in mind. John does not tell us what it is, but it is not difficult to guess, because a few weeks later on the day of Pentecost, in the first sermon of the Christian church, Peter would proclaim the resurrection prophecy of Psalm 16. This, the most explicit of all, is surely the one that is in mind for Peter and John.
This brings us to the words, ‘that he must rise again’. That little word ‘must’ actually derives from the verb ‘to bind’. He must, in the sense of – he must needs rise again. This brings out the binding element: he is bound to rise. Here is the element of necessity. It is essential for Christ to rise. It is obligatory. It is inevitable. It is inescapable. But why?
1. Christ’s divine identity
Here are a number of reasons, the first and most obvious being this:– Christ must rise again from the dead because he is God, a member of the triune Godhead, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He is equally God with the Father, equally infinite and eternal. He cannot change and he cannot die. He cannot deteriorate, he cannot wear away. He is everlasting God. That is the first and most obvious reason. Christ the Lord may taste death, but he cannot be finally overcome by death because he is God. He truly tasted death, and truly died, and yet he never lost the power of life. He suffered our separation from the Father, and lay under the ignominy and load and guilt of sin, but he could not be extinguished by it. ‘I lay down my life,’ he said, ‘that I might take it again…I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.’ Of course, because he is God.
Death could not hold him
There were repeated attempts on the life of Christ, as we know, to assassinate him, especially when he walked in Jerusalem. Sometimes officers sent from the temple sought to take him, but they could not do it. He would just pass through the crowds or they would find themselves unable. On one occasion the arresting officers were overcome by the power of his ministry, saying, ‘Never man spake like this man.’ They could not take him because his hour was not yet come. When the time did come for him to voluntarily allow himself to be taken and crucified, so that the Father would punish our sin in him, death could not hold him. His divinity is the first reason.
2. Scripture says so
The second reason why he must rise again was because Scripture said so, and the Scripture cannot fail; cannot be broken. We could go right back to Genesis 3.15 where a coming great descendant of Adam and Eve would fatally bruise or crush the serpent’s head, and suffer the bruising of his own heel. The serpent would be killed, but the Saviour would live. That is the first, if rather oblique, prophecy of resurrection.
When Peter preached at Pentecost the prophecy of Psalm 16, the reference to resurrection was made obvious to them. Speaking of Christ (Acts 2.23-27), Peter said – ‘Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain: whom God hath raised up, having loosed the pains of death: because it was not possible that he should be holden of it. For [and here is the prophecy] David speaketh concerning him, I foresaw the Lord always before my face, for he is on my right hand, that I should not be moved [David was meditating about the Messiah who would one day be incarnate, and he speaks of him]: therefore did my heart rejoice, and my tongue was glad; moreover also my flesh shall rest in hope [obviously in hope of a future resurrection]: because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell [that is: in the grave], neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.’
Peter showed that the ‘Holy One’ is distinct from David, for he is Christ, the Messiah. ‘His soul was not left in hell [the grave], neither his flesh did see corruption’ (Acts 2.31).
Among other resurrection prophecies Psalm 22 is unmistakable. Most of the psalm is about the sufferings of Messiah. It reads as though these were the sufferings of David who composed the psalm, but he never suffered the terrors he describes, a level of rejection and humiliation far beyond anything he knew. From of old everyone has realised that David speaks here as a prophet, seeing the atonement of Christ. However, the closing verses of the psalm strike a very different note, of a triumphant, living Lord, who would be blessed by all his followers. The Crucified One would reign.
We often sing the Christianised version of Psalm 24 – ‘Our Lord is risen from the dead,’ a psalm about securing the righteousness of God: ‘Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place?’ Who will be our representative, offering up his righteousness on our behalf and dealing with our sin? The answer is: ‘He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully.’ Only a perfect Saviour is qualified to make such an offering. So David asserts – ‘He [this divine Saviour] shall receive the blessing from the Lord.’ He will secure from the Father pardon for all his people, ‘and righteousness from the God of his salvation. This is the generation of them that seek him [the divine Saviour], that seek thy face, O Jacob.’ Then the psalm takes off like an aircraft, using exalted language and naming the divine Saviour – ‘Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle…he is the King of glory.’ It is so clearly prophesying the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In Isaiah 53, the greatest Old Testament prophecy of the atoning death of Christ, we are told that the Saviour lives again to see the fruit of the travail of his soul; to see all his redeemed people, to be their Lord, and to lead them home. Again, the resurrection is obvious and inescapable. Here as in other passages Scripture emphatically shows the resurrection of a dying Messiah.
3. The Living Christ must be seen
A third reason why Christ must rise from the dead is that the ongoing life of Christ the Lord must be publicly demonstrated as a reality even on earth. Supposing Christ had expired on Calvary’s cross and gone directly to Heaven to sit in glory, clothed with his own glorified body at the right hand of God the Father. Throughout ensuing history people would say to us – ‘How do you know he is alive? How do you know he defeated death?’ Of course he had to prove and exhibit his risen life and conquest of death openly in the world before he ascended to the Father. By doing so he gives in his kindness this tremendous assurance of his ongoing life. He must rise from the dead and be seen by Mary Magdalene, by the other women, by Peter, by the ten disciples, by the two disciples on the Emmaus road, and then by the eleven disciples including doubting Thomas. He must be seen on the shores of Lake Galilee, and with the eleven in a mountain that would be shown to them, where he would give the great commission. He must be seen by over 500 brethren at once, and by James, and then by the crowd who witnessed the ascension. The disciples would then give their lives to him, and die for him, and we would be certain also.
4. The Father’s approval must be seen
The fourth reason why Christ must rise from the dead is that the Father’s approval of him must be seen. The Father is vitally involved. Christ rises by his own power, also by the power of the Spirit and of course by the power of the Father. And his resurrection is the Father’s endorsement of his righteous offering and atoning work for his people. Now the wrath, the righteous indignation of the Father against sinners, has been fully satisfied. The Saviour must be seen to be accepted by the Father, because only by this may we know that Calvary was entirely successful, all the sins of those who would be forgiven having been completely purged away. Only by his acceptance by the Father are we assured that all the righteousness we need in order to be rewarded with everlasting bliss was offered by Christ. The resurrection is the Father’s signal that sin and the Fall have at last been remedied for the redeemed.
5. The resurrection of believers assured
A fifth reason why Christ must rise is to impress upon believers that their future personal resurrection is a major objective of their lives. He who is our forerunner, representative and example, who leads his people home, is raised before us. By this God fixes our eyes upon our resurrection. Most of our troubles and failings in the Christian life, when faith fails, and peace and joy are eroded, or we find ourselves drawn aside to worldly things, take place because we have lost sight of the future, of our translation into glory, and of our future bodily resurrection and everlasting bliss. Our Saviour leads the way to reveal to us our future, drawing our gaze and our thoughts and hopes to that coming miracle of bodily renewal. It is this hope that establishes our values, our priorities, our perspective and our resilience in the Christian life.
6. Christ’s attributes to his own revealed
Our final reason why the Lord must rise from the dead is to provide insight and assurance about our relationship with him. If there had been no resurrection, and Christ had gone directly to glory to take up once again his eternal reign in power and glory, surrounded by ministering angels, how would we know what his attitude to us might be? Would he be the same Saviour, having the same kindness and familiarity with his disciples, that he demonstrated on earth? We all know people who were once our familiar friends, but were promoted up and beyond our reach, and they inevitably changed. They became preoccupied with responsibility and station and authority. They were not our close associates any more. How can we be sure that the glorified Lord will not have ascended to heights beyond our access?
The resurrection appearances are marvellous in putting our minds at rest, and causing our spirits to soar. He is the risen Lord, and yet we see how he behaves towards his disciples, just as if he was still with them. There is Mary: ‘Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master.’ And we read the record of the powerful bond of care and sympathy that comforted Mary.
Then we read: ‘The same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you.’ Were the authorities coming after the disciples? Of course they were. Would they be brutally arrested the following day? Were they saying goodbye to each other, certain of being seized? In this climate of fear the risen Lord calms their fears, settles them and shows them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad. All was now well, for the risen Lord would be with them.
Doubting Thomas was melted and corrected by his presence, crying out, ‘My Lord and my God.’ The two disciples on the Emmaus road were confused and doubting when Christ approached, so teaching and reassuring them that they said, ‘Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?’ Jesus Christ is still the same Lord.
If there were no resurrection, we could not be absolutely sure, but with the resurrection and subsequent appearances, despite the Lord’s triumph and rule, he sees and cares for each one with affection beyond our understanding. The resurrection appearances give immeasurable certainty and assurance. Henry Francis Lyte in his most famous hymn speaks about the Christian walk, encapsulating this very purpose of resurrection perfectly:–
Not a brief glance I beg, a passing word;
But as thou dwelt with thy disciples, Lord,
Familiar, condescending, patient, free,
Come not to sojourn, but abide with me.
We have considered only six reasons why our Lord must be raised from the dead, and there are others, but these are precious. First, he must rise because he is God; then, because the Scripture says so; then, because his ongoing life must be demonstrated on earth as a reality; then, because the approval of the Father of his accomplished work must be exhibited and revealed; then, because our future resurrection is a key objective of the Christian life; and finally, because our familiar communion with Christ day by day must be assured. Christ the Lord ‘must rise again from the dead’.