Dr. J. Faber EASTER AND HISTORY - Dr. J. Faber


When, in the light of God's Word, we reflect upon the significance of the glorious fact of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, the theme of "Easter and History" presents itself as a matter of course. It is a good idea, in this connection, to pay attention first of all to the value of the resurrection of our Savior Himself, as a historical Person. The letter to the Hebrews speaks about our existence as that of people who, during their entire life, were doomed to slavery because of their fear of death. At the same time the letter says: "Since, therefore, the children share in flesh and blood, he [Christ] himself likewise partook of the same nature" (2:14). Flesh and blood denote man in his weakness, as a creature, and at the same time man as subject to death because of sin. Death accompanies him during his existence here on earth. The Lord Jesus wanted to partake of life as it was defined by death, in the same manner as we experience it.

This implies that He knew this life which, as the Form for Baptism expresses it, "is no more than a constant death."[2] This applied to Him as Mediator and Surety in a most particular sense; as, for instance, that "hour"--of which He repeatedly spoke even when it had not yet arrived -was the unique hour of darkness in the history of the world. In His living toward that hour and in His ministerially and consciously preparing Himself for that hour, the Christ experienced His life as a constant death; also in that respect His death was His deed. His impending death as a total destruction of His life, as well as His burial, circumscribed everyday of His life here on earth. Moreover, of the most somber-toned of all psalms, Psalm 88- that is, the prayer of "Heman-in-extremis"- He was the primary Author, Who in the course of His life fulfilled His own psalms: I am afflicted and close to death from my youth up (Ps. 88:15a).

The leaders of Israel, in their own fashion, considered His existence, after it appeared to have permanently run out, as that of a has-been. To be sure, the seal on the grave and the watchmen in front of the sepulcher testified to the power of Christ's word foretelling His exaltation. But the truth was maliciously suppressed: they spoke about what "that impostor" had said "while he was still alive." In speaking thus, they vented their unbelief and voiced their firm confidence in the definitive termination of His life. Should He per chance still exert some power in history, it would in a strict sense no longer be the power of Himself as a living Person in history, but at most the power of the lie that was spread around by His disciples. Both the seal and the guard proclaimed to the high priests and Pharisees that the period of Israel's existence during which Jesus of Nazareth-vilified and cursed by them-had acted out His role, would now be ended for evermore.

But the faith of the Lord Jesus was not put to shame. David says of Him: "I keep the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved" (Ps. 16:8). God raised up Jesus, the Nazarene, since He loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for Him to be held captive by it. He arose from the assembly of the dead. God had shown Him the ways of life, and Jesus Christ walked on that pathway of life. He returned to the land of life-under-the-sun. He walked again among the living. His name did not pass into oblivion, and His work continued. He returned to life here on earth, and His return again brought back the fulness of His entire life in the history of mankind.

By virtue of His resurrection, Christ conquered death. Through His death He dethroned him who had the power over death, the devil, and set us free. The author of the letter to the Hebrews, speaking about His death in this connection, points to Christ's high priestly role before God in making propitiation for the sins of the people: propitiation by making complete satisfaction. God's justice has been fully satisfied.

Yet, the Christ as the Resurrected One continued as a living and active Person in the history of the world. The Lord is King for ever and ever! The significance of the forty days between His resurrection and the ascension into heaven is, among other things, that we, through faith, may experience His powerful presence, as well as His work in our own history. It was for that purpose that the Savior appeared to His disciples; indeed, He revealed Himself so that they might know that He continues in history and might also know the significance He has therein for those who are His own.

Cross and Resurrection: A Contrast?

When Hendrikus Berkhof in his book, Christ the Meaning of History, speaks of the Resurrected One in history, he makes-notwithstanding certain Scriptural and, as such, stimulating observations-too much of a contrast between cross and resurrection. Says Berkhof,

Cross and resurrection are not active in the same history-making manner. This is connected with their different place and function in salvation history. The cross is central to the history of our old guilty world which died with the erection of the cross. For that reason the suffering and death of Jesus are vividly described in the Gospels, in much detail and in concrete terms. It is different with the resurrection. It is the breakthrough of God's new world which is radically different from the old. What really happened is not told, cannot be told. And the outstanding reaction of the first witnesses is fear and alarm. After his resurrection Christ is entirely different from what he was before, he is hardly or with difficulty recognized. The result of all this is that the Gospel narratives about the resurrection are much shorter than those about the passion. This is not because the first was considered of less importance. On the contrary, the opposite is true. But in our terms nothing more can be said. There are no words to describe this unique event. The resurrected Christ is the firstfruit. Those who are Christ's come after him, namely, in his future. His passion immediately continues in the world, but the natural conclusion of the resurrection is future. The difference between the cross and the resurrection is the difference between present and future. This is clear in Paul's thinking about these facts of salvation. 'For if we have been united with him in death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. . . . But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him' (Rom. 6.5,8). 'Provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him' (Rom. 8. 17). 'Becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead' (Phil. 3.10f.). The cross continues to the present; the fruit of the resurrection is waiting for us in God's future.[3]

It is questionable whether we can Scripturally speak of cross and resurrection in the manner that Berkhof does. Is the danger not evident that we categorize both of them, whereas God's Word speaks of Jesus Christ the (once) Crucified, and speaks of Him as Lord? Moreover, we may definitely not characterize the distinction between "cross and resurrection" as one of "present and future." Such speaking shows the influence of certain modern views, especially that of Karl Barth. Is it not so that Berkhof, notwithstanding his attempt to distance himself from Karl Barth, is nonetheless influenced by Barth's eschatological conceptualism and his heresy that Christ's resurrection does not belong to our own history?

Scripture certainly speaks about a natural and a spiritual body, about the first man as a living being, and about the last Adam as a life-giving spirit. But the emphasis given to the tidings about the appearances of the Savior lies at least as much in the fact that He is the very same One as the One with Whom the disciples used to walk about in Palestine, as it lies in the fact that He in our own history is the Exalted and the Glorified One. Of Him Peter testifies: "God raised him on the third day and made him manifest . . . to us who . . . ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead" (Acts 10:40,41). Is it justifiable to say that Christ after His resurrection is entirely different from what He was before, so that He is hardly, or with difficulty, recognized? We read about the disciples who went to Emmaus that their eyes were kept from recognizing him (Luke 24:16). They did not recognize Him, not because of His condition but theirs.

Newness of Life

Berkhof also speaks too boldly when he writes that while Christ's suffering immediately continues itself in our world, the resurrection in its actual effect belongs the future. He corrects this notion himself by stating immediately after the cited passage:

Yet, this is only a half-truth. In the first and third passages cited above the other half of the truth is already clearly expressed. 'We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life' (Rom. 6.4). 'That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings' (Phil. 3.10a).[4]

Furthermore, one can say with a view to what Berkhof initially asserts, that what he declares to be a half-truth is not rendered entirely accurately. When Paul writes that "we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his," then the use of the future tense, "shall," is not merely intended as temporal but is also meant as a logical designation: the apostle is drawing a conclusion. "That similarity exists already at the present time in the spiritual quickening, renewal, and sanctification; but it encompasses also the complete glorification at the end of the ages, and is encompasses also the complete glorification at the end of the ages, and is thus still tarrying as to its fulness until that time."[5] With a view to Berkhof one may also invert this exegesis and emphasize, in this connection, the first part: that similarity is indeed still tarrying as to its fulness until the end of this dispensation, but it exists now already. The Heidelberg Catechism, therefore, speaks quite rightly in Lord's Day 17 about the present: "By His power we too are raised up to a new life." Besides, by using the words "we too," the Heidelberg Catechism reminds us anew of what is first and foremost: "By His resurrection He has overcome death, so that He could make us share in the righteousness which He had obtained for us by His death" (Lord's Day 17).

In accordance with God's justice, Christ through His resurrection has returned to life-under-the-sun, and His work in history is continuing: after His resurrection He appeared again as the blessed Person in the unity of His divine and human natures, in order that He as the Mediator between God and man could proceed with His work in history and bring it to its completion. Certainly with this in mind, it is a good thing that we do not have to say: "The fruit of the resurrection is waiting for us in God's future."[6]

Who He is, in our own history, for those who are His, He clearly proclaimed when He promised to be with us always, to the close of the age. Inasmuch as the Gospel of Matthew ends with this promise of the Resurrected One about His presence and work in history, Mark's version ends with the testimony that the Lord "was taken up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God." This already in itself gives evidence of the power of the Resurrected One in and over the continuation of history. The conclusion of the Gospel according to Luke adds, furthermore, that He departed from His disciples "while He blessed them." He continues to be united with them by His permanent priestly blessing. But, one may counter, the distance remains. Indeed, this is also apparent in the last words of the Gospel according to Mark: He "was taken up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went forth and preached everywhere. . . ." Yet, the distance is not of crucial importance here. Christ continues as the Resurrected One in history with His active power. For the disciples preached everywhere, "while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it."
Resurrection and Proclamation

The entire New Testament is now replete with the historical power of the Prince of life. He has received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit and has poured out what the Jews in Jerusalem saw and heard on Pentecost. Thus the entire house of Israel, too, had to know that God had made Him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus Whom the Jews had crucified. Pentecost is also the proclamation of the Resurrected One and His work in the past, present, and future. Yes, it is precisely through the preaching that the continuing work of the Resurrected One manifests itself. It is noteworthy that Peter, after the healing of the paralyzed man in Acts 3, closes his speech with the following proclamation to Israel: "God, having raised up his servant, sent him to you first, to bless you in turning every one of you from your wickedness." In His apostles the living Christ is active Himself, and in Christ the One Who sent Him.

It is Christ Who appeared to Paul and appointed him as a servant and a witness. He chose him from the Jewish people and the gentiles, and He sent to them the apostle He had called, to open their eyes that they might turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, all this that they might receive forgiveness of sins as well as an inheritance among those who are sanctified, through faith in Him. As the first of the resurrection of the dead, He Himself, as the Living and Active One, proclaims the light both to the people of Israel and to the gentiles (Acts 26:16-23). The entire history of mission (does mission itself not control history?) is, to our faith, proof of the historic power of our living Savior.

Europe with its culture and civilization, by virtue of which it has for centuries formed the center of the world, received its mark from Him, the Christ, Who legitimately staged a coup d' état to seize that continent, which even now has its calendar and division of the week testify to His victory over death. "Faith sees resurrection everywhere, even there where somebody else sees nothing but the power of death. Through faith we experience every day anew the resurrection of Christ in its very consequences."[7]

Christ the "Synopsis of History"

    It is in particular the final book of the Bible, correctly called the synopsis of history," which proclaims the power of the Resurrected One in history. It is with good reason that precisely at the very beginning of this Revelation of Jesus Christ-granted to Him by God to show to His servants what soon must take place-is found the benediction of Jesus Christ, Who is the faithful witness, the first-born of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. He bears witness: Fear not; I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and, behold, I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered-also conquered death-so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals. He is God's supreme Co-worker in the completion of history.

We do not hold to Berkhof's view: "Cross and resurrection are not active in the same history-making capacity. . . . The cross stands firmly and concretely in the centre of our history. The resurrection stands vaguely at its periphery."[8] We do not speak about cross and resurrection as if they represented ideas or categories. We have, however, heard the testimony about Jesus Christ, Who was dead and He lives. He stands in the midst of our frequently dark history. That, too, is the comfort of Easter. Who would not be jubilant?


I ] <RETURN> This article was first published in Dutch under the title Pasen en de geschiedenis, in De Reformatie 38 (April 13, 1963), 213-214, and has been translated by R. Koat.

2 ] <RETURN>" Form for the Baptism of Infants," Book of Praise: Anglo-Genevan Psalter, 2nd ed. (Winnipeg: Premier Printing, 1984), 584.

3 ] <RETURN> Hendrikus Berkhof, Christ the Meaning of History, trans. Lambertus Buurman (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1966), 122-123.

4 ] <RETURN> Ibid., 123.

5 ] <RETURN> S. Greijdanus, De brief van den apostel Paulus aan de gemeente le Rome (Amsterdam: Van Bottenburg, 1933), 1:298.

6 ] <RETURN> Berkhof, 123.

7 ] <RETURN> S.G. de Graf, Het ware geloof (Kampen: Kok, 1954), 333.

8 ] <RETURN> Berkhof, 175.