Does the resurrection of Jesus make a difference in our lives here and now? Does it give us a sense of the coming of God’s kingdom? Or does it just point to some future hope, a life forever in heaven when we leave this earth?
For many Christians, the question doesn’t seem that urgent. Many of us have a pretty good life: jobs that put food on the table, holidays by the lake or seashore, enough clothes to keep us warm in the winter, a house or apartment with enough space for us and our toys. And safety. We don’t worry too much about whether we or our families will be alive in the morning.
In such a situation the question of the coming of the kingdom just isn’t that pressing. We have it pretty good right now. Sure, we want to be with Jesus someday, but not just yet. We have a movie or two we want to see and a trip we want to take before Jesus returns. It is no wonder that our lives aren’t that different from those of our secular neighbors. We go to church on Sunday, but the rest of the week we look like everybody else.
For Jesus’ followers who lived in the first century, however, the coming of the kingdom was a burning issue. How will the kingdom come? Will it come in our lifetime? Will God bring the kingdom or do we have a role? And belief in the resurrection was central to these questions.
You see, for Jews at the time of Jesus, the resurrection was a social and political hope. When God returned to establish his kingdom he would strip the rulers and the rich of their power. He would end hunger and violence and bring peace, healing, and forgiveness. Those who had died would not be left out; they would rise to a continued life on the earth. They would be part of God’s kingdom on earth, building houses to live in, growing food for celebration, and bearing children who would live long and healthy lives (Isa. 65:20-23).
Oddly enough, that is why the resurrection was so controversial. The Sadducees, who were the big-shots in Jerusalem with money and power, didn’t believe in the resurrection. They didn’t want God to come and bring healing and justice and peace for all Israelites, past and present. They wanted God to leave things as they were because they had it pretty good, thank you very much.
The Pharisees, on the other hand, lived in the villages with those who had suffered the violence of the Roman army and those who had no way to feed their children. They waited eagerly for God to come and turn everything upside down, to establish the kingdom here on earth and bring back to life all those who deserved to share in God’s good gifts of healing, peace, and justice.
As much as I hate to say it, my life—and the lives of most of my friends—resembles that of the Sadducees. We have it pretty good. We aren’t looking for any kind of radical change, certainly not one that will cause us to lose any of our privileges. As a result, we aren’t waiting for the resurrection to turn our world upside down. We put our hope in continued blessing with God in heaven, after we die (but not too soon, please).
This is tragic. Not just because we miss the radical power of the resurrection, but also because it means we ignore the needs and hopes of the majority of Christians in our world today.
Hope amid Darkness
Before Jesus’ birth, Mary sang a song about the hungry being fed and the mighty being brought down. And Jesus made it clear throughout his ministry that his kingdom was one that would come “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10).
Jesus began his ministry by announcing that “todaythis Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Which Scripture? The one that says Jesus will “proclaim good news to the poor . . . freedom for the prisoners . . . recovery of the sight for the blind . . . and set the oppressed free” (Luke 4:18). Jesus didn’t say, “I’m telling you that these things are coming when you get to heaven.” No, they have begun here, on this earth. And someday the meek shall inherit the earth, along with those blessed peacemakers and those who are persecuted for the sake of justice (Matt. 5:5-10).
Paul continued this emphasis in 1 Corinthians 15, where he argues that our actual physical bodies will be raised when Jesus comes again. Why does this matter? Because there is a new heaven and new earth. In fact, the earth is waiting for the redemption of our bodies, Paul tells us in Romans 8:23. The resurrection of our bodies will be good for all of creation.
According to Paul, we aren’t waiting for a spiritual life in heaven; we are awaiting the redemption of our bodies on a new earth.
In fact, the wonderful vision of Revelation 21 makes this even clearer: we await a new heaven and a new earth, where God will come to dwell with us. The picture is not one of believers being whisked away to heaven; rather, God comes to dwell with us on the new earth (Rev. 21:1-5). And when that happens, the old order will pass away. All those societal structures that caused mourning and crying and pain. All the sickness and frailty. All the violence and despair. All of it gone, when God comes to dwell with us.
That is our resurrection hope. But there are always two sides to that hope: the future coming of the kingdom and the way that we see that kingdom in the present. Because where Jesus is, something amazing happens. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come. The old has gone, the new is here!”
Throughout history, wherever followers of Jesus have gathered to eat his bread and drink his cup, new creation has come. Tears are dried, mourning turns to joy, forgiveness overcomes hatred, the hungry are fed, and God has answers before his name is called. We live into the reality of the resurrection that we await.
For the majority of Christians in the world, this is good news indeed. What is the word of hope that the resurrection brings to the grieving in El Salvador whose brothers and fathers have been taken and killed? Or to the poor in Africa whose children work in the cocoa fields? Or to the single mother in Philadelphia who cannot afford to heat her home? Or to the civilians of Iraq whose hospitals are now rubble?
For Christians in these places, the resurrection promises a kingdom of hope that begins now in their place of darkness and that will be finally fulfilled when Jesus comes again. We see signs of that kingdom whenever food is shared with the hungry and reconciliation is offered to the enemy. We catch a glimpse of that kingdom when Christians demand that the food on their tables not be grown by child labor in Africa and when comfort is offered to the grieving. We know the welcome of that kingdom when we welcome the landless immigrant to our table and eat, like Jesus did, with those whom no one else will welcome.
In a world of suffering, we cannot afford the luxury of waiting for the kingdom to come in some heaven light-years away. Jesus made it clear that where he is, the kingdom brings healing, forgiveness, and hope. Those of us who follow him can only show the truth of that kingdom in our lives as we wait for him to come and make all things new.
About the Author
Sylvia C. Keesmaat teaches biblical studies at the Toronto School of Theology. She is a member of Lindsay (Ontario) Christian Reformed Church.