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Resurrection: From Fuzzy Hope to Living Reality

*Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from a book by Dr. Scott Sager called Jesus in Isolation: Lazarus, Viruses, and Us. In the book, Sager delves into the story of Jesus and the raising of Lazarus. One of the moments in the story is when Martha, whose brother Lazarus has died, speaks candidly about her disappointment that Jesus had not been there to heal her brother. “If you had been here my brother would not have died,” even amid a fuzzy hope in a general resurrection to come. Have you ever felt like speaking your disappointment to God? How might he respond to your pain? 

Martha’s assessment was true: “If you had been here my brother would not have died, but even now God will grant you whatever you ask.” No truer words had ever been spoken.

There was no time in the ministry of Jesus where a person was dying and Jesus did not reverse the curse. There was never a time when Jesus threw up his hands, or claimed to be too tired for a healing that day.

Thousands of years later, the words of Martha are no less true. If Jesus were physically present, death would have no hold on its victim. Death was no match for the Messiah, and Martha stated a fact she knew was more certain than death itself. If Jesus had been there, the end result would have been radically different. And even now, Martha was relying upon Jesus to take care of her and her sister.

Yet, Jesus then spoke a reply appreciated only later, and never to be forgotten: “Your brother will rise again.”

But hadn’t she heard those same words Jesus just spoke, “Your brother will rise again,” as a platitude already that day? Might a mourner not have said the same? In modern times the phrase of choice is, “I’m sorry for your loss.” You hear it over and over throughout a modern-day visitation, and again after the internment. C. S. Lewis once exclaimed,

“Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.[1]

There is a time when words meant to console simply do not provide consolation—the grief is too great. For Martha too, we can doubt it was the first time someone had tried to console her over these four long days with the words “Your brother will rise again.” Every time the sisters went to synagogue, the faith community would recite the same eighteen prayers. And the second prayer spoken said, “You, O Lord, are mighty forever for you give life to the dead.” It was the Pharisees who taught there would be a resurrection, and Martha knew the teaching well.

She even believed it. Martha was just walking in dance step with Jesus when she answered in the polite and proper way, “Yes, I know he will rise again at the resurrection on the last day.” Martha believed resurrection would come one far and distant day. Hers was not yet a “sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead,” but more a fuzzy, nebulous, and hazy optimism that somehow things will work out in the end.

She had read and claimed the passage in Psalm 23 where David closes, “And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

She knew that resurrection and eternal life stood faithfully in the far distance. Martha reasoned aloud, “I know he’ll rise again on the last day. I know when everyone else who has been faithful rises, then my brother will rise too.”

Jesus then looked into her soul and spoke these all-powerful words:

Martha, I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Let the audacity of the claim of those words sink in a moment: I am the resurrection and the life. . . .

The word for “resurrection” in the Greek is anastasis: a standing up, a raising up from death to life again, a bodily rising.

This word was never used to merely mean “life after death.” Resurrection was used

“to denote new bodily life after whatever sort of life after death there might be. . . . Referring to a two-step narrative in which resurrection, meaning new bodily life, would be proceeded by an interim period of bodily death. Resurrection wasn’t, then, a dramatic or vivid way of talking about the state people went into immediately after death. It denoted something that might happen sometime after that.”[2] 

Apart from occasional mentions like 2 Maccabees 7, resurrection was a peripheral topic for the people of the intertestamental period (the four hundred years between the Old Testament and New Testament—the gap before Jesus arrived). By the time of Jesus and the early church, “resurrection language” had moved from the periphery to the center.

In the time of Jesus, there were some Jews who agreed with pagan philosophers and denied any kind of future life—especially one that involved being reembodied. Socrates and Plato had presented the possibility of mortals becoming disembodied spirits detached from a bodily existence with an immortal soul. The Jewish group called the Sadducees were famous for denying a reembodiment after death—denying a bodily resurrection in the future.

But most Jews of Jesus’ day believed in some type of eventual resurrection—“that is that God would look after the soul after death until, at the last day, God would give his people new bodies when he judged and remade the world. . . . That is what resurrection meant.”[3]

This is what Paul meant when he wrote, “And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.”[4]

N.T. Wright explains that when Jesus claimed to be the resurrection he was thus saying, “I am Life after life after death.”[5]

He who believes in me will live, even though he dies.

But Jesus’ claim to Martha is even more than this. Jesus is Resurrection and he is Life. The one who trusts in Jesus will live the life that is really living. Not only will Lazarus, through his believing faith, receive a reembodied presence in the days to come (after death and the eternal existence he is living beyond the grave), but the best life (zoe in the Greek) awaits him even now as well.

Though Martha and Mary saw Lazarus as dead, just a corpse, the eternal truth of the matter was that he was closer to God, and more alive in God, than ever before. The grave had no claim upon Lazarus’s life with God; the zoe-life continued beyond the grave and would do so even into the reembodied life to come. Lazarus, as a believer in Jesus, would never experience more of the best life (zoe) than he was experiencing at that moment.

Death of the physical body in no way terminates the real person, nor does it break or harm the relationship between God and his people.

In Jesus, Lazarus was experiencing (even then) the life he had always dreamed of, the one for which he was created. Lazarus was living the good life, the best life, the one Jesus painted for his followers in the Beatitudes at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. Lazarus was experiencing life beyond the grave as zoe, the blessed life, his beatification.

Being alive to God is really living.

And whoever lives and believes in me will never die.

The dream of never dying is a longing placed in each person by God before the garden of Eden. Most of humankind longs to live forever and to never die (in a body that doesn’t wear out by the way!).[6]

Recall that there were two trees in the center of the garden, one giving a knowledge of good and evil, the other the promise of life eternal. Through the ages, this quest for eternal life led some to try and trick the gods into granting it, and others to search uninhabited spaces for the famed Fountain of Youth.

But Jesus announced that being eternally alive is a sure and certain promise for all who live trusting in him. There will be no time when the believer ceases to be “living on” and vibrantly alive in God.

Death of the physical body in no way terminates the real person, nor does it break or harm the relationship between God and his people.

“Precious in the sight of God is the death of his saints.”[7] Later the apostle Paul explained Jesus’ words this way: “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all of creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Jesus Christ our Lord.”[8]

Once a person is alive in Jesus, nothing separates that relationship.


[1] C.S. Lewis, Grief Observed, 25.

[2] N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, 36; see also 168–69.

[3] Wright, Surprised by Hope, 37.

[4] See Rom 8:9–11.

[5] Wright, Surprised by Hope, 36; see discussion on 35–40, 169–70.

[6] The Hindu religion has as its “highest state” the dissolution of a person back into the cosmos, a giving up of self to be united with creation. This is called moksha, or liberation.

[7] See Ps 116:15.

[8] See Rom 8:38–39.

From Scott Sager, Jesus in Isolation: Lazarus, Viruses, and Us (Wipf and Stock, 2021).

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