The man in the street probably thinks of the church as an ancient structure on the corner, frequented by a few elderly and harmless people who have nothing better to do than sit in cold, draughty old buildings.
The only press that the church gets is when there are arguments about homosexuality, women priests, or some local scandal with the vicar involved in stealing church funds or running off with the organist’s wife. Not exactly a dynamic community bent on world mission.
How different from the church’s revolutionary beginnings when their arrival in town might well lead to a local riot and very possibly the imprisonment of the visiting preacher. The early believers were not only accused of turning the world upside down but also of saying there was another king called Jesus (Acts 17:7) who was the Saviour of the world and Son of God – a dangerous message to proclaim in an empire where Caesar also rejoiced in the title ‘saviour of the world’ and ‘son of God’ and did not welcome another making a similar claim.
Happily for Caesar, the one that the Christians talked about as world Saviour had already been dealt with in far-off Palestine. Pilate, the Procurator of Judea, had crucified him, so no problems there! Dead pretenders to the throne hardly pose a threat!
The strange thing was that his being dead didn’t seem to bother the Christians since they claimed that he was alive again! The Apostle Paul even argued that it was his resurrection from the dead that designated him ‘Son of God with power’ (Rom. 1:4). They were not claiming that a corpse was strangely resuscitated, or that Jesus of Nazareth somehow survived crucifixion. They were certainly not saying that though he was physically dead his teachings lived on so that we could still follow his dream.
Not resuscitated, but vindicated and exonerated!
Their claim was far greater. They were saying that he had been exonerated by Israel’s God. He wasn’t simply breathing again; he was vindicated as a Saviour and Lord of unique and global power.
Not only was he alive again. His being alive had ushered in a new day – indeed a new age! As Paul later explained, ‘He raised him from the dead and seated him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And He put all things in subjection under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all’ (Eph. 1:20-23 NASB).
As Andrew Lincoln says, ‘Christ’s death and resurrection changed the power structures in history. For believers to have died and been raised with Christ was the equivalent of having been transformed from the old dominion to the new, because in God’s sight they had been included in what happened to Christ’ (Andrew Lincoln, Ephesians Biblical Commentary, Word, 1990).
The Jews had for some time been anticipating a national ‘resurrection’, particularly since Ezekiel had vividly described his vision of a valley full of very dead bones that were breathed upon by the Holy Spirit and suddenly came alive as a mighty army (Ezek. 37). Sadly, their interpretation of the vision had usually been in political terms focused on Israel’s national wellbeing, especially as it related to Rome’s domination of their lives.
A resurrected people
They actually dreamed of having a Messiah like David. His own personal charisma would resurrect Israel and give them famous victories. Just as David had emerged from nowhere, defeated Goliath and become first a national hero, then an invincible king who thrashed the Philistines, so the Jews were anticipating the arrival of a similar figure who would resurrect Israel as a nation enjoying phenomenal success and military conquest. The dead nation would come alive again under its messianic leader, which would have international ramifications.
Indeed, the kingdom of the Messiah would not only extend to the borders of Israel but far beyond them. He would have international authority and all nations would acknowledge Israel’s king. Staggeringly, their hopes went even further. His reign would usher in a new age that would never end. The one who came would sit on David’s throne and reign forever (Isa. 9:7).
So they hoped for a Messiah who would rule like David in power and with justice, whose reign would be international and everlasting. He would initiate a coming of God’s presence in such power that it would be like dead bones coming alive, coming together and making ‘an exceedingly great army’ (Ezek. 37:10 NASB).
Could he be the Messiah?
Sometimes the crowds wondered if Jesus of Nazareth might be the one. He had demonstrated amazing power, especially when he miraculously fed the 5,000. After that extraordinary sign they even tried to force the issue, take him and ‘make him king’ (John 6:15).
Such hopes were, of course, thoroughly dashed when Jesus of Nazareth was taken and crucified. Messiahs don’t get crucified!
Obviously he wasn’t the Messiah after all. Messiahs don’t allow foreign armies such as the Romans to overwhelm and execute them. So they would have to carry on waiting and pray the sort of prayer that is found in one of the Jewish sacred writings from 40BC, the 17th Psalm of Solomon: ‘Raise up O Lord, the king, the son of David and gird him with strength to shatter unrighteous rulers and purge Jerusalem of the Gentiles.’
It seems that they would have to wait for another Messiah who would bring deliverance and extend his rule over the nations. The international kingdom of Israel’s God and his Messiah would have to wait for another generation. The resurrection of the people of God into a great army was still on hold.
Very much alive!
Saul of Tarsus would certainly have thought the same until a historic day on the Damascus road when he discovered to his great surprise that Jesus of Nazareth, the dead impostor, was very much alive and full of power, and that his messianic vision was not on hold after all! He truly was Lord of all and, as an international king, he appointed Paul as his new ambassador to represent him among the nations, stand before kings and bring the Gentiles out of darkness into light and from the power of Satan to God (Acts 26:16-18).
God didn’t want to destroy the Gentiles. He wanted to save them! He didn’t want to crush their darkened lives but bring them into the light.
Paul and his fellow believers were to go and tell the world that Israel’s long-awaited Messiah had indeed come, had died for their sins, but was now truly alive, the Lord of all and the King of the nations. The church was to herald this truth to the ends of the earth. The Scriptures had been fulfilled: God had indeed come in power.
A community on the move!
Given these basic realities, the church is obviously called to be a community on the move. We have a message for the nations. Such good news must be brought to every people group. If the church becomes a static establishment it loses its raison d’être. It ceases to function in line with its God-given calling. We must not forget that we are not only witnesses to his resurrection but are also ourselves resurrected people, co-raised with Christ and seated with him in the heavenlies.
The resurrected and enthroned Christ poured out his Holy Spirit, raising a people from death to life. The dead bones have come alive and come together as a mighty army going to the ends of the earth.
The church, the fulfilment of God’s great plan, is an extraordinary people in the Messiah called from among Jews and Gentiles and going to all the nations. We are the true children of Abraham, a pilgrim people, called to bless all the families of the earth.
We are the successors of the heroes of faith of the Old Testament. Be imitators of David and Gideon. Be the true children of the stars of Hebrews 11.
Jesus is alive and so are we. Let’s go and tell the world about it!