Love’s redeeming work is done, Alleluia!
Fought the fight, the battle won, Alleluia!
Death in vain forbids him rise, Alleluia!
Christ has opened paradise, Alleluia!
Soar we now where Christ has led, Alleluia!
Following our exalted Head, Alleluia!
Made like him, like him we rise, Alleluia!
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!
- Charles Wesley, “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today”
In our last post we noted that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the literary highlight of each of the four gospels. More than 28 of the 89 chapters in the gospels (32%) are devoted to the period of time between the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem and his ascension back to the Father. Yet this period is less than 1% of Jesus’ entire 3½ years of public ministry.
Martin Kähler, a late 19th-century German New Testament scholar, stated that the four gospels are “passion narratives with extended introductions.” While perhaps somewhat overstated, this assessment does strike at the ultimate goal of Jesus’ earthly career. The Gospels are all about Jesus, and Jesus is all about his resurrection (and the much neglected ascension that followed).
In this post, we take the next step and observe that the resurrection of Jesus is the dramatic highlight of each of the four gospels. While the structure of the gospels highlights the resurrection, so does the storyline itself.
2. The resurrection of Jesus is the dramatic climax of each of the four gospels.
All four gospels deliberately crescendo to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead:
• Matthew 28:1-10 (women, earthquake, angel, stone, guards, not here, go tell, Jesus)
• Mark 16:1-8 (women, spices, stone, man in white, not here, go tell, afraid)
• Luke 24:1-12 (women, spices, stone, men in white, not here, told 11, nonsense, Peter)
• John 20:1-18 (Mary, stone, tells Peter and John, strips of linen, Mary sees Jesus)
Ultimately, the gospels never would have been labeled “good news” had they not concluded with the resurrection and ascension of Christ. Of what value is yet another “messianic pretender” in Israel—a dead and disgraced messiah—which had been the plague of the nation for decades (cf. Theudas, Acts 5:36)?
Death on a tree was a sign of God’s curse, not his blessing (cf. Deut 27:26; Gal 3:10). Had the gospels ended with only the execution and burial of Jesus (cf. the Jefferson Bible, Jesus Christ Superstar, etc.), they never would have received worldwide interest, circulation, loyalty, and devotion.
Moreover, belief in the cross of Christ as “saving” had no biblical antecedent or secular precedent. The affirmative things said of Jesus’ death on the cross by the New Testament writers is totally unparalleled in Jewish history and comparative religions.
In fact, all evidence from antiquity uniformly confirms what Paul asserts in 1 Corinthians 1:23—that for Jew and Gentile alike, death by crucifixion was utterly repugnant and never seen as a positive symbol for anything: “We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block (skandalon) to Jews and foolishness (mōrian) to Gentiles.”
That the cross of Christ was so quickly transformed from a symbol of horror to a symbol of victory—with eternal saving significance—argues for the authenticity of the empty tomb and the resurrection of Jesus. (Cf. the absurdity of an electric chair today becoming the primary symbol of a worldwide movement of hope, salvation, and eternal life.)
The Alexamenos graffito, which is the earliest surviving pictorial representation of a crucifixion (dating to the 1st or 2nd century A.D.), portrays a Roman soldier worshiping the crucified Jesus—who is on the cross featuring an ass’s head. The Latin caption says, “Alexander worships his god.” The purpose of the cartoon is to mock Christians for their pathetic and nonsensical worship of a crucified god. It is representative of the type of derision the early followers of Christ were willing to endure because they were fully persuaded that Jesus had risen from the dead.
The Alexamenos graffito:
Only the resurrection of Jesus from the dead could have motivated the early followers of Christ to face such severe insult, ridicule, marginalization, and, in many cases, death. May our heritage of Christian courage become our legacy of Christian conviction.