In the beginning there was life—and so shall the end be. The power of God and his faithfulness to every promise ensure the triumph of life over death. This is the Christian hope of resurrection, or the raising and glorifying of our bodies.
The Bible has much to teach us about this glorious hope. In the following sections, we will meditate on bodily resurrection in several ways. We will see how the Old Testament authors taught God’s death-defeating power. We will notice how the defeat of death will establish what God designed for his image-bearers: immortal physical life. And we will rejoice in the gospel news that Jesus has been raised from the dead, inaugurating bodily life without end—a life that will belong to all who are united to him.
Martha’s Words About Resurrection
Near the end of Jesus’s public ministry, his friend Lazarus died (John 11:14). Even though Jesus learned earlier that Lazarus was ill, he did not make a trip to see him. He waited, but not because of callousness or busyness or misunderstanding. As we can infer from John 11:3–4, Jesus planned to show the glory of God in what happened next. For that reason, Lazarus would spend four days in the tomb when Jesus finally showed (John 11:17).
Martha met with Jesus and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21). Jesus’s reputation as a miracle-worker preceded wherever he traveled those days. Martha knew that Jesus could have healed Lazarus’s illness. Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again” (11:23).
Faithful Jews had a concept of bodily resurrection because of what the Old Testament authors taught. This understanding is why Martha said, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (John 11:24). There she referred to her brother’s future bodily resurrection. The dead would one day rise, and Lazarus would be among them. This she believed, as she had been taught.
Waking from the Dust
A conviction in the Four Gospels that the dead would rise was based on God’s revelation in the Old Testament. In the clearest expression of resurrection hope in the Old Testament, Daniel 12:2 says, “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” Pictured as waking from bodily sleep, the dead will awake from the dust and live.
The language of dust takes us back to Genesis 2–3. The Lord pronounced judgments and consequences to the serpent and to the human couple, and Adam heard these words: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19).
Being “taken” from the dust recalls the creation of Adam, where the very first instance of “dust” is used. The Lord “formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Gen. 2:7). Because of the words in Genesis 3:19, however, the dust signifies not just Adam’s life; he “shall return” to the dust, which means death. Like Adam, going to the dust is our earthly end. But as Daniel 12:2 reminds us, life will once again come from the dust. In Genesis 2, the granting of life was creation. In Daniel 12, the granting of life will be resurrection. At death, we go to the dust, but we do not go there to stay.
Made for Embodied Life
Bodily resurrection is what will accomplish God’s design for his image-bearers: embodied life with him. When God made Adam, the man was not a disembodied spirit who was later given a body. God created Adam as an embodied creature, so the only kind of life Adam knew was embodied. Death disrupts bodily life because the body dies even as the soul lives. Resurrection is the recovery of God’s design because the body is raised and re-united to the soul.
We were made for unending bodily life. Consider, as evidence, the tree of life in the Garden of Eden. God put the tree of life in the midst of the garden (Gen. 2:9). And when God exiled Adam from Eden, he was barring Adam from the tree of life, “lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever” (3:22). The tree of life represented immortal physicality. The question for God’s image-bearers, then, is whether we will ever experience what the tree of life held out. The answer is yes: through bodily resurrection, we will, as Daniel 12 puts it, “awake” from the dust unto embodied immortality.
As we affirm the kind of life God created us for and will raise us to receive, we can discern more of what our Christian hope entails. Our ultimate hope is not to die and leave this world as mere souls. Paul says that at death, believers are absent from the body and present with the Lord in heaven (2 Cor. 5:6–8). To die is gain indeed (Phil. 1:21). But if our future was only disembodied life with God, then death would hold our bodies in its cords forever.
Paul, speaking about our earthly bodies, told the Corinthians, “For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling” (2 Cor. 5:2). Our earthly tent—marked with moans and groans—will be surpassed by our heavenly dwelling, our risen body. God is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory (4:17). And if we knew the glorious future of embodied life that will be ours, we would long for it like Paul did. The body’s “light momentary affliction” can’t compare to the body’s future glory (4:17–18).
Proving a Staggering Claim
When Martha told Jesus that Lazarus “will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (John 11:24), she was correctly understanding the Old Testament hope of God’s power delivering the bodies of his people from the cords of death. But she probably wasn’t prepared for Jesus’s response. He said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25).
In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus makes seven claims prefaced with the words “I am.” He claims to be the bread of life (John 6:35), the light of the world (John 8:12), the door of the sheep (John 10:7), the good shepherd (John 10:11), the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6), the true vine (John 15:1), and the resurrection and the life (John 11:25). The claim in John 11:25 is about source: resurrection and life flow to his people from him. Because of who Jesus is, Lazarus will live. In fact, Christ will bring life to all the dead. In John 5:28–29, he referred to himself as the Son of Man and said “an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.”
To show what he would do on the Last Day for all the tombs, and to demonstrate the claim he made to Martha in John 11:25, Jesus went to the tomb of Lazarus. He cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out” (John 11:43). At Jesus’s words, lepers are restored, demons are driven out, blind people see, deaf people hear, and lame people walk. What would we expect, then, when Jesus addresses the dead? They live. Lazarus came out of the tomb on his own two feet (John 11:44).
But in John 11:43–44, Lazarus wasn’t raised in a glorified and immortal body, for that blessing would only come at the future resurrection of all God’s people. Jesus restored Lazarus’s temporal and earthly life, though, and this was a signpost of the resurrection hope that Jesus would fulfill. “I am the resurrection and the life,” he had told Martha (John 11:25). And Jesus doesn’t make empty claims. He makes empty tombs.
A Promise About the Third Day
While Jesus affirmed the future resurrection of the dead, he taught some things about his own imminent future that the disciples didn’t fully grasp. He spoke of dying and rising.
In Mark 8, Jesus “began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31). In Mark 9 he taught the same lesson: “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise” (9:31). Furthermore, in Mark 10, he said, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise” (10:33–34).
Jesus predicted his own death and third-day resurrection. What was significant about the third day? Paul said that Christ “was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:4). There is a pattern of third-day activity in the Old Testament, and such a pattern is probably what Paul meant. Jonah was delivered from the fish after three days (Jonah 1:17). Hezekiah was delivered from illness on the third day (2 Kings 20:5). Isaac was delivered from death on the third day (Gen. 22:4). Esther was spared from death on the third day when she approached the king (Esther 5:1). From Hosea 6:2: “After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him.”
Over and over again, there are third-day deliverances in the Old Testament. Jesus’s third-day resurrection fulfills this pattern. He was raised from the dead “in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:4). The deliverances in the Old Testament foreshadowed his resurrection from death. In Hebrews 11, the writer tells us that Isaac was figuratively raised from the dead (Heb. 11:19). The threat and reality of death loomed large over God’s creation ever since Genesis 3, and the Old Testament narrates God’s prevailing and intervening power. Remarkably, in the middle of human history (so to speak), God raises his Son from the dead. Jesus is delivered from death not apart from it but through it. His bodily resurrection means he defeated death from the inside.
Firstfruits and the Future
Regarding Christ’s resurrection, Paul gives us a picture to ponder. Christ is the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20). Remember, sleep is a metaphor for the body’s death, and resurrection is the body “waking” to an embodied immortality. Jesus’s resurrection is the inauguration, the launching, of embodied immortality.
Firstfruits are an installment of what’s coming. Just as the firstfruits of a crop lead us to anticipate the rest of what will come from the ground, Jesus’s resurrection leads us to hope for what the Old Testament already prophesied: our future bodily resurrection of the dead. Jesus’s risen body makes our resurrection sure!
The New Testament connects Jesus’s resurrection to ours. We await the return of Christ, “who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Phil. 3:21, emphasis added). When Christ appears, “we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
In a tomb outside Jerusalem two-thousand years ago, the Lord Jesus inaugurated the embodied glory and life we were made for. And because of our faith and union with Christ, we will be made like him. We can trust that “he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus” (2 Cor. 4:14). Jesus is the last Adam who has come from the dust never to die again. He has pioneered immortal physical life, and his sheep will be raised like their shepherd. After all, the sheep follow the Good Shepherd, who is also the Resurrection and the Life.
The Death of Death
The biblical authors, with one voice and across both Testaments, say to death, “You shall surely die.” And the Lord Jesus is the victor. Because he lives, we shall live. His third-day resurrection advances and sustains the hope that the covering of death will be removed from us. Or, in the words of Isaiah’s prophecy, “And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken” (Isa. 25:7–8).
Our bodies descend to the dust because death swallows up life. But Isaiah foretells that there is a coming day when God will swallow up death with life. “Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead” (Isa. 26:19).
Think of death as an enemy that needs to be subdued. For the time being, tombs exercise dominion over our bodies—that is, except for one tomb in particular that stands empty in Jerusalem. The emptiness of that tomb is where the echoes of conquest have sounded for two millennia. The Divine Warrior trampled death, and he’s not done.
Paul said that the risen Jesus “must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:25–26). The apostle knew the right word for death: death is an enemy. And the Lord has risen to reign and to subdue his enemies. Our future resurrection will be the consummation of the Divine Warrior’s conquest, for then the last enemy will be defeated. “When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’” (1 Cor. 15:54; cf. Isa. 25:8).
The future resurrection is when our bodies awake from the dust to get dressed for everlasting embodied glory. Because Jesus lives, death doesn’t stand a chance. The Son of Man has all authority in heaven and on earth, and the tombs answer to him. When the Lord returns, death shall be no more. We have this hope because we are united to Christ by faith. In Christ we will rise to experience what the tree of life held out for us: glorified bodily life.
This glorified immortality is not found outside Christ. Rather, as the source of resurrection and life, he has inaugurated its reality. “I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus told Martha (John 11:25). His empty tomb bears witness to his claim. The risen Christ will return to receive a risen people. We can have full confidence that the work of God’s Spirit will make us like his Son. This imitation is integral to the process of sanctification, and ultimately Christlikeness will lead to our resurrection. One day our tombs will become like his—gloriously empty, echoing the sound of the death of Death.