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The Big Question

What does it mean that Jesus rose on the third day?

By David Ewart

In Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, historians Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh provide a very helpful explanation of the first-century Israelites’ burial customs. First, the body would be placed in a stone tomb for a year while the flesh rotted away. The person’s sins — believed to be embedded in the body — were purged away with the flesh. Then, at the end of the year, the bones would be collected and reburied in an ossuary, or bone box. The belief was that at the dawning of the age to come, when God’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven, the bones would be used to create, or resurrect, a new body.

In keeping with the custom, Jesus was also buried with the full expectation that he would be resurrected — in the unknown future. Imagine the disciples’ surprise when he was resurrected so quickly. On the third day! What could this mean?

To understand what Jesus’ express-lane resurrection meant, we first have to understand what his execution meant.

Crucifixion is extremely rare in today’s world, and so the word does not convey the visceral impact of fear that it held for everyone alive at the time of Jesus. The Romans could have killed Jesus quickly and easily after he was arrested. No need for a show trial and all the time and expense of whipping, mocking, stripping naked, marching him through the city carrying the means of his own execution, and nailing him alive to a wooden cross to die.

But the Romans were not just trying to kill Jesus. They were trying to kill what he stood for. To kill the bonds of loyalty with his followers. To kill any desire to continue to follow Jesus. And so, for cases like this, they had developed a form of public execution that was designed to have the maximum amount of humiliation and the maximum amount of pain for the longest possible time. The sign that was posted over Jesus on his cross may as well have read, “Look what we did to Jesus. Imagine what we will do to you.” They wanted everyone to know that Rome was the way and the truth and the life. And the truth of this could be seen in the way they mortified Jesus’ body with impunity.

That was the point of Jesus’ brutal execution. And for about three days, it worked. Knowing his execution was at hand, Jesus’ followers betrayed him, denied knowing him, and abandoned him. Afterwards, they hid in fear behind locked doors.

But then Jesus showed up way ahead of schedule. What could this mean? Malina and Rohrbaugh tell us that Jesus’ followers would have understood his speedy resurrection as evidence that his earthly flesh contained no “evil deeds.” It had not needed to rot away before he was ready for resurrection. He had been falsely executed. All that he had said and done was true. All that he stood for was trustworthy.

Contrary to all the evidence that Rome’s power was the only game in town, Jesus’ teaching and living the non-violent justice of God’s love for the world was real and true, and Rome’s violent unjust exploitation of the world was real but a lie.

We have lost the ancient understanding that our words and deeds embed themselves in our flesh. And so we have lost part of the impact of Easter morning. Our modern minds think the resurrection is only about how a dead body could be brought back to life after three days. But the resurrected body of Jesus makes it plain for all to see that the embodied words and deeds of Jesus have been vindicated by God. It is Jesus — not Rome — that is the way, the truth and the life. Hallelujah!

Rev. David Ewart is a minister in Vancouver.

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