Many were looking forward to turning the page from Malachi to Matthew: finally, the New Testament! The world had sure changed in 400 years:
Not only had the Jews survived, they'd increased. The scriptures had actually been written down and disseminated - in Greek, too. Many Jewish people seemed to know the law and the scriptures. Not only that, but they had taken them further and developed a whole body of tradition based on the law (creating, of course some bigger problems!) The whole system of synagogues had appeared on the scene... social structures that hadn't existed before, and were to prove quite significant. Groups like the Pharisees and Sadducees had come along, and the priesthood had obviously gone through some significant transitions (some of which were out of step with what God had instituted, to be sure).
Greeks and Romans had conquered and reshaped almost everything. In years to come the Roman church would have good reason to argue that these changes were instruments of God, and part of what helped Christianity spread and grow as quickly as it did: Indeed, Christ had been born in the "fullness of time."
Yet in flipping the page between Malachi and Matthew I saw many other things that had not changed so much. In some parts of the gospels Jesus seems much like the other prophets, bringing a challenging message that was a threat to many, saying things that must have seemed bizarre. Of course there were all those miracles, not everyday fare for a prophet. He spoke of and seemed to belong to an outbreak of spiritual transformation that was coming on the earth. While Jesus' popularity with the masses made it clear to those in power that something would have to be done about this man, I don't see many of the people around him changed, in essence, at least not as they would be changed in months and years to come.
So if Christ coming into the world is not, quite, yet, the hinge-point of everything, what is it? What made the Christian gospel into the unstoppable force we see in the book of Acts? Is it, as many evangelicals today seem to assume, what happened on the cross?
The latest issue of Christianity Today addresses the question. Fuller Seminary's J.R. Daniel Kirk writes:
"In the spring of my senior year in college, I was deeply immersed in the rhythms of Christian life. I was a leader in InterVarsity, participated regularly in a Bible study with other seminary-bound friends, set my Sundays aside for worship and rest, and read more than my fair share of extracurricular Christian books. As Easter approached, I began rehearsing the importance of Jesus' resurrection. I knew that for Paul and the other New Testament writers, there could be no Christianity without it. Yet one day as I was walking back to my dorm, it dawned on me that the gospel as I understood it had no need for Jesus to be raised from the dead.The transformation of people is a crucial component of God's plans for the world; the good news does not end with "Jesus died for your sins" but goes on meaningful partnership with God as he re-creates the world. Kirk suggests that not only were the disciples different people - confident, inspired, empowered - after the resurrection (as becomes clear in the book of Acts), but that Jesus himself was different :
"The story of salvation as I had learned it was, in its entirety, about the Cross. I would teach other students about the Romans Road to salvation and the Romans 6:23 bridge diagram. What each of these captured beautifully was that we had a sin problem that God overcame with the cross of Christ. But each presentation also omitted the Resurrection entirely. And why not? Once our debt has been paid, what else could we possibly need? What is so important about Easter?"
"Jesus in the Gospels is like David in the Book of 1 Samuel. He has received God's anointing as the chosen king, but another king is currently on the throne. The story of the Gospels is one in which Jesus inaugurates a new reign of God and deals a deathblow to the imposter king through his death on the cross. If the Cross is the defeat of the old king, the Resurrection is the enthronement of the new. Jesus now literally sits in the space that the kings of Israel had figuratively occupied before him: at the right hand of God. Though the preexistent Christ has always been God's agent in the creation and rule of the world, the human Jesus is now joined to that role as Lord and king over all.
"This is the logic behind Jesus' claim in the Great Commission: 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me' (Matt. 28:18-20). At the Resurrection, Jesus has become the Messiah, the Christ, God's anointed ruler of the earth.
"Only after being raised from the dead can Jesus say, 'All authority has been given to me; therefore, go!' From his first appearance to Mary in the garden to his last appearance to Paul on the road to Damascus, when the resurrected Jesus appears, he almost always sends. The vocation and mission of the church as a sent people depends on the resurrected Jesus as our sender."
Happy Resurrection Day. He is risen!
>> Read all of Kirk's article, A Resurrection that Matters.