Wednesday, April 26, 2006

What About Lazarus?

Serious Bible study is not easy. As a matter of fact, serious study of the Bible is hard work and is not always fun, but it is always rewarding. It was pointed out to me just a few days ago that without in-depth study and understanding we will never correctly understand the author’s intended meaning to his original hearers. Simply looking for what the Bible means to me is never enough, we must always seek to understand the intended meaning of any passage and that understanding requires work and diligence.

As I discuss below the intended meaning of Colossians 1:18, please know that it was only through study and the teaching of others who have put in the time to understand the mindset of the first century Jewish community that I was able to come to this understanding and conclusion. I thank those who are willing to correct me and do the work of training me that have helped me to value the work of true, in-depth biblical scholarship.

A few weeks ago I caused some questions to be raised in preaching Colossians chapter one. In verse 18, Paul says that Christ is the “firstborn from the dead.” “How”, it was asked, “could Christ be the first since we know of others who were raised from the dead by Christ?” This is a very good question that requires a slightly in-depth answer. After all, we are aware of several instances of Christ raising people from the dead. Lazarus, for example, was raised after being in the tomb for four days just prior to Jesus’ final Passover and crucifixion. How then, could the Apostle Paul speak of Christ as being “firstborn from the dead?”

The answer lies in a proper understanding of Christ’s resurrection and in the resuscitation of others from the dead and in distinguishing between the events. This understanding can only be found in a proper definition of resurrection as understood by the first century Jewish community. According to N.T. Wright, resurrection for the first century Jew carried with it more than just raising from the dead. Resurrection was a sign of the welcoming of God’s messiah and the ending of the Jewish exile by the Roman government. The person who was truly resurrected was not resurrected to die, but was indeed resurrected to life everlasting. In other words, after tasting death once, resurrection would give assurance that death would never be experienced again.

In the case of Lazarus and the others that were raised from the dead in the New Testament by Christ or by the disciples, death would be experienced again. We know that Lazarus, though having been raised from the dead, did die again. The same is true of Jairus’ daughter and all others. In essence, the “raising” was very similar to resuscitation. Any man or woman brought back to life through CPR will die and be laid in the grave some day, so too were Lazarus and the others, all would taste death again.

Christ, on the other hand, was not merely raised from the dead. Christ was resurrected. The term resurrection is qualitatively different than that of raising or resuscitating from the dead. Christ was resurrected never to die again. In that sense, Christ was absolutely the firstborn from the dead. Christ was not merely raised to life; he was born into a different kind of life.

Having been conceived by the virgin, Christ’s first birth was out of the womb of his mother Mary. Having been crucified and laid in the grave, however, Christ’s new birth was to a new, glorified life. Christ was born this time not of the womb of his mother, but was born out of the womb of the grave. The grave gave birth to Christ who, having experienced death once will never die again. Christ’s resurrection was into eternity, not merely into a few more years on this earth.

Christ was the first born from the dead because he was the first to be birthed through the labor and contractions of the grave. The womb simply will not hold the infant past a certain point. Once the child has reached its proper state, the contractions begin and the baby must be released from the mother. A fully developed child is out of place in the womb. The mother simply cannot continue to carry the child past a certain point.

Similarly, only more gloriously, the grave could only contain Christ to a certain point. Christ’s death brought about the forgiveness of sins and broke the curse of sin. “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned,” is the message of Romans 5:12. However, the curse of sin that was brought through one man has been broken by one man who bore the sins of the world in his sinless death. The curse of death was simply not applicable to the one man who had never sinned. The grave could not hold the sinless one because he was not under the curse. Death could never spread to the one who had never sinned.

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