“He Is Risen”: Types of Christ’s Resurrection in the Gospel Narratives

Alison Stone Roberg, “‘He Is Risen’: Types of Christ’s Resurrection in the Gospel Narratives,” Selections from the Religious Education Student Symposium 2007 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2007), 99–108.

“He Is Risen”: Types of Christ’s Resurrection in the Gospel Narratives

Alison Stone Roberg

For many Christians, the Resurrection of Christ is the central event of history. It also represents a test of faith for those who consider themselves true believers. To be a true Christian, one must be willing to accept that a seemingly impossible event occurred: after Jesus Christ was crucified, had died, and was buried, He remarkably rose from the dead. But the Christian’s conviction goes beyond even that statement of one man’s miraculous resurrection. A Christian believes that because Christ died and rose again, so too will every human being—”even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). A testimony of Christ’s Resurrection (and the subsequent promise of resurrection for all mankind) has a transforming effect on believers’ perceptions and interpretations of the world. Believers find that everything in the world around them bears witness of this extraordinary truth, from the sun that rises in the morning after a long night of darkness to the flowers growing up from the dead ground to bloom each spring. Every natural event, every human action, is colored by the realization that our lives continue after death.

Unlike modern Christians, Christ’s earliest disciples did not have the benefit of viewing the Lord’s life and death in hindsight. They followed Christ because of His profound teachings and extraordinary miracles, but they had little understanding of how the story would end. According to all four Gospel accounts, Christ did not explicitly tell of His death and Resurrection until He neared the end of His mortal ministry. He eventually spoke openly on the subject, using terms that are familiar to today’s Christians: “He must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day” (Matthew 16:21), but the disciples were slow to comprehend and accept his statements. Apparently, they found them quite unbelievable, even offensive, as shown by Peter’s rebuke, “Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee” (Matthew 16:22). This reluctance to accept Jesus’s prophecy is understandable, given that the disciples to this point had believed, like many Jews of their day, their Messiah would bring tangible, temporal salvation, not die ignominiously. Additionally, Jewish beliefs about bodily resurrection were ambiguous. Some sects believed that the soul perished at death, some believed in the immortality of the soul but not the body, and others believed that the soul would be reunited with the body at some point after death. However, the extent to which the concept of bodily resurrection was understood and believed among the general population is unknown.[1] Even for those who believed in resurrection, the concept of resurrection occurring just a few days after death must have seemed rather outlandish. Peter’s inability to comprehend the miracle of Christ’s Resurrection before it happened is probably typical of most disciples at the time—they could not envision this utterly original, groundbreaking event.

However, once the disciples witnessed Christ’s death and resurrected body, they began to understand that His entire life and ministry had been oriented toward that great event. Christ knew that His followers would not be able to comprehend the miracle of His Resurrection until after it occurred, so He refrained from giving doctrine on resurrection until it was absolutely necessary. Throughout his life, however, He performed actions and taught concepts that foreshadowed the events to come. Although the disciples did not realize the meaning behind these symbols at the time, they certainly recognized it later and were able to see examples of Christ’s divine destiny throughout His life. For the Gospel writers, once they understood the full import of Christ’s Resurrection miracle, it changed their lives and the way they saw the world. They realized that Christ’s Resurrection was the central event in the gospel they would preach. According to theologian Arthur Michael Ramsey, “For them (the first disciples) the Gospel without the Resurrection was not merely a Gospel without its final chapter: it was not a Gospel at all. . . . Christian theism is Resurrection-theism.”[2] In all their preaching and writing, the glorious fact of Christ’s Resurrection had to shine through.

When they composed their accounts of Christ’s life and ministry, the Gospel writers had a purpose in mind that was more than historical. Even more significant than the chronological details of His earthly existence was the message that His entire life was focused toward His Resurrection. They wanted to convey this essential unity of purpose as they wrote. To accomplish this task, the Gospel writers filled their narratives with stories that serve as types of Christ’s Resurrection and show His followers that the literal event of the Resurrection was the purpose and completion of His mission on earth.

A Word for Resurrection

One way the Gospel writers associated the foreshadowing events of Christ’s ministry with the Resurrection was their choice of specific words. The Gospels use two Greek verbs with similar meanings to express the concept of Christ rising from the dead: egeiro and anistemi. Scholars have debated the significance of the particular verb choice—especially in terms of what tenses are used for each—to each author’s Christology.[3] For purposes of brevity, this paper will focus only on egeiro, which appears more frequently in the Gospels as a whole.

In referring to Christ’s Resurrection, the Gospel writers chose words not limited strictly to the concept of coming back from the dead, as we use the word resurrection today; instead, they used forms of egeiro, which appear in the Resurrection narratives in phrases such as “He is not here: for he is risen (Matthew 28:6; emphasis added). Egeiro carries many meanings related to the concept of rising, such as “to arouse from sleep, to awake,” “to cause to rise from a seat or bed,” “to recall the dead to life,” and “to raise up, produce.”[4] Each of these meanings invites comparison to the doctrine of Christ’s Resurrection, drawing the reader’s mind forward to the glorious events to come.

To Awaken: Rising to Save

One of the primary meanings of egeiro, “to awaken,” appears early in the Gospel narrative. In Matthew 2, an angel awakened Joseph from sleep and instructed him to leave the land of Israel: “The angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt” (Matthew 2:13–14). Egeiro is also used when Christ Himself is awoken from sleep, roused by His fearful disciples as a storm threatens their ship: “And they came to him, and awoke him, saying, Master, master, we perish. Then he arose, and rebuked the wind and the raging of the water” (Luke 8:24).

In both examples a sleeper was awakened to save others from peril and imminent death—Joseph was called upon to save the baby Jesus from Herod’s attempts to murder Him, and Christ rescued His disciples from the raging storm. According to C. F. Evans, the expression “to fall asleep” is commonly used in the New Testament as a euphemism meaning “to die.” For example, Stephen’s death in Acts 7:60 is expressed with the phrase, “And when he had said this, he fell asleep.” The Gospels’ use of egeiro could draw on the connotations of this expression, indicating the comparison that resurrection is like awakening from the sleep of death.[5] Even more important, these stories share the common theme of rescue: the sleeper must be awakened with urgency to save others from death. Christ’s Resurrection was likewise an urgent awakening, for if He did not rise from His sleep in the grave, all men would be doomed to permanent death. These two events involving the concept of egeiro invite comparison to two aspects of the Resurrection: its similarity to awakening from sleep and its effect of saving mankind from death.

To Cause to Rise Up: Being Restored to Health

Another meaning of egeiro used in the Gospels is “to cause to rise up from a seat or bed.” This usage occurs frequently when Christ heals the sick or lame, allowing them to rise from their sickbeds. Upon encountering Peter’s ill mother-in-law, Christ “touched her hand, and the fever left her: and she arose, and ministered unto them” (Matthew 8:15). In another pericope, Jesus became aware that some onlookers opposed His claim that a sick man’s sins were forgiven. To show His power, He not only promised forgiveness but also commanded the man to “arise, take up thy bed, and go unto thine house” (Matthew 9:6).

The details of these healings illustrate several comparisons to the Resurrection of Christ and the subsequent resurrection of all people. Just as Christ cured sicknesses and afflictions during His mortal ministry, the resurrection process heals the body of infirmities and restores wholeness once again.[6] In the story recounted in Matthew 9:6, the conjunction of the concepts of forgiving sins and healing the sick is also significant. Christ explained that He had the power to heal both bodies and souls. Seen in light of Christ’s divine mission, this statement implies that the Resurrection does more than restore the physical body to perfection. The Atonement and the Resurrection, which are integral parts of Christ’s miracle, together provide the opportunity for individuals to have both their bodies and souls purified and made whole again. The healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, if taken as a symbol of the Resurrection, reveals yet another truth about the role of the resurrected Christ. After being raised from her bed, she immediately began to minister to Jesus and the other guests. Likewise, after His Resurrection, Christ came to His disciples and continued to teach and serve them. After His Ascension, the immortal Christ visited and preached to the souls in spirit prison (see 1 Peter 3:19–20), and He continues to watch over and guide His Church and His people today. Christ’s healings, seen countless times throughout the Gospel narratives, symbolize His Resurrection and the various types of healing and service it will bring.

To Recall the Dead to Life: Returning from the Grave

The Gospel accounts of Jesus’s ministry also include instances of raising the dead. In these stories, the meaning of egeiro is “to recall the dead to life,” since each person raised is acknowledged to have died before Christ’s arrival. In the pericope of Jairus’s daughter, Jesus told the dead girl to arise, “and her spirit came again, and she arose straightway” (Luke 8:55). Under similar circumstances, He restored the dead son of the widow of Nain (see Luke 7:11–15). In an even more dramatic episode, Jesus arrived at the home of Mary and Martha to find that their brother Lazarus had died. After proclaiming, “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live,” He called Lazarus forth from the grave (John 11:25). Jesus’s fame spread as many witnesses testified that He had indeed raised Lazarus from the dead (see John 12:17).

Jesus’s raising of the dead bears the most obvious similitude to His own Resurrection because it involves the dead literally being restored to life. These stories shed more light on the nature of the Resurrection. First, the risen person, whether mortal or immortal, retains physical abilities of action and speech. After raising Jairus’s daughter, Jesus commanded that she be given meat, showing that she was capable of eating. This incident also has a connection with the several instances in which the resurrected Christ ate with His disciples “to symbolize the reality of the resurrection body.”[7] The widow of Nain’s son likewise regained all faculties, beginning to speak once he was restored to life. Second, God’s power to bring the dead back to life is limitless. When Jesus raised Lazarus, he had been dead four days and, according to Martha, “by this time he stinketh” (John 11:39). Nevertheless, Christ restored him to life. Similarly, Christ’s Resurrection occurred after some time had passed, specifically on the third day after His death. This instance shows God’s power to restore the dead to life, no matter what circumstances surround the death.

To Produce, to Lift, to Rebuild: Figurative Representations of Resurrection

Not only do Christ’s actions foreshadow His Resurrection, but His teachings also include instances where He purposely incorporates that concept. Again, the text uses the verb egeiro to emphasize the comparison. In each case, Christ’s words have a literal meaning relating to the context at hand as well as a figurative meaning that points to His Resurrection. At the time, listeners understood only His literal words, which were often quite controversial in themselves. Had they been able to comprehend the resurrection symbolism He was presenting, they would have been much more offended (in the case of Christ’s detractors) or even more amazed and astounded (in the case of His followers).

The first figurative use of egeiro occurs before Christ’s ministry even begins, but, coming from John the Baptist, it foreshadows Jesus’s life and teachings. When confronted by the Pharisees and Sadducees, who were confident they were the only chosen descendants of Abraham, John warned them against such prideful beliefs. They were living unworthily of the calling they professed, and he told them that “God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham” (Matthew 3:9). When applying this teaching to the idea of resurrection, it shows that God has the power, through Christ’s Atonement and Resurrection, to raise up all who are dead, making them His children and heirs to the Abrahamic covenant as long as they follow Christ’s command to “bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance” (Matthew 3:8). No particular group has exclusive claims to the blessing of resurrection.

At another time, when Christ was accused of breaking the Sabbath by healing, He defended himself and gave an example of another instance in which “it is lawful to do well on the sabbath days” (Matthew 12:12). Jesus claimed that if a sheep fell into a pit on the Sabbath, the owner would naturally “lay hold on it, and lift it out” (Matthew 12:11). Here, the use of egeiro prompts comparisons to Christ’s Resurrection that may not have been obvious without the connection the word brings. First, the symbol of the sheep relates to Christ’s role as the Lamb of God, as prophesied in scriptures such as Isaiah 53:7. Second, the sheep falling into and being lifted out of the pit symbolize Christ’s dying, being buried in the grave, and then rising from it. Believers can also see their own situation in that of the helpless sheep: only Christ’s power can lift them out of the pit of sin and death that traps every mortal soul. What might have simply been interpreted as a lesson on appropriate Sabbath behavior becomes much more than that when the resurrection verb egeiro is introduced: it becomes a type of Christ, given subtly but in such a way that believers can see and understand.

Christ’s most obvious symbolic reference to His Resurrection came quite early in His ministry. Some sign seekers asked him to prove His power and divine calling, so Jesus told them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). His listeners were confused as to His meaning, and some called Him a blasphemer based on this statement (Matthew 26:61); but John specifically notes that believers came to understand that “he spake of the temple of His body. When therefore he was risen from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this unto them; and they believed” (John 2:21–22). Christ’s promise to raise up the temple directly implies the destruction of the body through death and its restoration to life in the Resurrection. While even the faithful disciples were unable to comprehend the analogy at the time it was spoken, they could clearly see its significance in the context of the Resurrection once it had occurred.

Limitations of Resurrection Symbolism

Of course, no symbol bears an exact resemblance to the actual concept it represents. If that were the case, it would cease to be a symbol and would become a direct reference. The limitations of resurrection symbols in the Gospel narratives—that is, the ways in which they cannot fully measure up to the real event—illuminate yet another aspect of Christ’s Resurrection: its singularity and ability to exceed any other human event in scope and significance.

The story in which Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead bears perhaps the closest resemblance to the actual events of Jesus’s Resurrection. Its limitations as a symbol offer the most telling indications of the supremacy of Christ’s Resurrection. The most striking difference between the two events is that Lazarus was restored to a mortal existence and would therefore eventually die again. The chief priests attempted to hasten this occurrence through a plot to kill Lazarus (see John 12:10). Because Lazarus was susceptible to such an occurrence emphasizes that Christ, on the other hand, was raised to immortality and could never again be killed. The Resurrection that all people will receive as a result of Christ’s actions follows this model. That the magnitude and permanence of Christ’s Resurrection exceeds even the miraculous story of Lazarus shows just how significant and powerful that glorious event is.

A second difference between the Lazarus narrative and Jesus’s Resurrection is that Lazarus’s raising is described directly as the result of Jesus’s command, whereas the Resurrection of Christ takes place offstage and is not described. According to Dorothy A. Lee, Christ’s Resurrection “occurs as the result of Jesus’ authoritative power over his own life given him by God, to which no other human being can lay claim.”[8] According to the Gospel narratives, when people miraculously rise from the dead, they are acted upon by an outside power (Christ’s), whereas Jesus Christ is able to enact His own Resurrection through the power granted to Him by the Father. The exact details of such an event are incomprehensible to us in mortality, but the fact that Christ’s Resurrection is accomplished in a manner very different from Lazarus’s raising shows that His Resurrection is unlike any other event that has ever taken place.

Conclusion

After having witnessed the extraordinary events of Christ’s life and ministry, the disciples found that their lives could never be the same again. Their knowledge of Christ’s divine mission, especially His Atonement and Resurrection, compelled them to preach the gospel and share what they knew with all who would listen. They infused the Gospel narratives they wrote with their personal testimonies, using symbolism and foreshadowing to communicate the central importance and uniqueness of Christ’s Resurrection. Surely they would have been disappointed at the way their focus on the resurrection has been lost to many modern readers who view Christ as a wise teacher and philosopher but discount His divine mission and miracles.

If we as believers wish to deepen our understanding of Jesus Christ’s life and ministry, we would do well to consider the Gospel writers’ perspective on the central theme of His story. By studying their insights, we can come to more fully understand the significance of the Resurrection and its impact on our lives. As we gain our own personal testimony of Christ’s divine mission, we will find that it changes the way we see. We will notice the rich symbols that abound in the natural world and in human events, reminding us that the Resurrection miracle is a vital part of God’s plan for the world.

Notes


[1] See Stanley E. Porter, “Resurrection, the Greeks, and the New Testament,” in Resurrection, ed. Stanley E. Porter, Michael A. Hayes, and David Tombs (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 52–81.

[2] Quoted in C. F. Evans, Resurrection and the New Testament (London: SCM Press, 1970), 1.

[3] See Matthew Brook O’Donnell, “Some New Testament Words for Resurrection and the Company They Keep,” in Resurrection, 136–63; and Daniel Kendall and Gerald O’Collins, “Christ’s Resurrection and the Aorist Passive of έγείρω,” Gregorianum 74 (1993): 725–35.

[4] “Lexicon Results for egeiro,” Blue Letter Bible; http://www.blueletterbible.org/cgi–bin /words.pl?word=1453&page=3 (accessed April 27, 2007).

[5] Evans, Resurrection and the New Testament, 22–23.

[6] This concept is expressed more explicitly in modern revelation and in scriptures such as Alma 11:43, which states that “the spirit and the body shall be united again in its perfect form; both limb and joint shall be restored to its proper frame, even as we now are at this time.”

[7] Donald F. Robinson, Jesus Son of Joseph (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), 56.

[8] Dorothy A. Lee, The Symbolic Narratives of the Fourth Gospel: The Interplay of Form and Meaning (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994), 215.