Easter—Yesterday, Today, and Forever!

March 26, 2013

by Peter Amsterdam

As Easter approaches, I have been reflecting on Jesus’ resurrection and its significance. What did it mean to His original disciples—all of those who believed in Him during His lifetime on earth? And what does it mean to us today?

By the time Jesus ate the last Passover meal with His disciples, just hours before He was arrested, tried, and killed, they had come to understand that Jesus was the Messiah spoken of throughout the Scriptures (the Old Testament). Their understanding of His Messiahship, however, was different from our understanding today. We look at Jesus through the understanding that He is the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, that He died for our sins, took our punishment upon Himself through His crucifixion, and that He rose from the dead.

At the time of the Last Supper, Jesus hadn’t yet died and risen from the dead, and the disciples’ understanding of Jesus as the Messiah was rooted in the Jewish people’s interpretation of the Scriptures at the time.

The Jewish people in first-century Palestine believed and expected that God would send a Messiah, as was spoken about throughout the Old Testament. According to their interpretation of Scripture, this Messiah, the anointed one, was going to be an earthly king of Israel. This king would win decisive victories over the pagan oppressors of the Jewish people—whoduring Jesus’ lifetime were the Romans—and would bring true, God-given justice and peace to the whole world.[1] The expectation was that the king of the Jews would free the nation of Israel from oppression and domination by various other kingdoms, from which it had suffered for centuries. As they saw it, the kingdom to come was going to be an earthly one.

The disciples’ understanding of Jesus as the Messiah up until the time of His death was still based on this interpretation. They were expecting that Jesus would be the anointed king of physical Israel. This would have been the motivation behind the request of the brothers James and John (the sons of Zebedee) to be allowed to sit on Jesus’ right and left hand once He came into power. In other words, they wanted prominent positions when He came to rule Israel.

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to Him and said to Him, “Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask of You.” And He said to them, “What do you want Me to do for you?” And they said to Him, “Grant us to sit, one at Your right hand and one at Your left, in Your glory.” Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John.[2]

Even when Jesus was together with His disciples after His resurrection, they still asked when He was going to free Israel and restore the physical kingdom:

“Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”[3]

When Jesus told His disciples about His upcoming death, it was difficult for them to accept this, because there was no conception in the popular Jewish understanding of the role of the Messiah that the Messiah would be killed. We see Peter’s negative reaction—and presumably others felt similarly—in Matthew’s description:

[Jesus] strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that He was the Christ. From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “Far be it from You, Lord! This shall never happen to You.” But He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a hindrance to Me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”[4]

The Greek word Christos, from which the term Christ is derived, means anointed, or anointed one, which is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew term mashiyach, meaning anointed, which the word messiah comes from. Jesus didn’t want to spread the news that He was the Messiah, at least not at that point, possibly because it would have brought Him into political conflict with the Roman government. The Romans were quick to stamp out any challenges to their authority, and undoubtedly would move against anyone who was advocating the overthrow of Roman rule or proclaiming himself to be king of a nation the Romans ruled.

While Jesus didn’t want the disciples to spread the news of who He was, He did inform them. Peter’s reaction to Jesus’ statement that He was going to go to Jerusalem to die was basically to tell Him that He was wrong. Why would a disciple tell Jesus that? Because, according to the Jewish perception, the Messiah was not going to die in Jerusalem—he was going to take over the physical kingdom of Israel and would rule and reign in righteousness, which in some way would affect the whole world.

Jesus’ response to Peter was, You are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man. He’s saying, “Peter, you are seeing it only in the physical realm, with the traditional expectations. You’re not seeing it the way God does. You don’t get it.”

Before Jesus’ time, as well as since, there have been individuals who either claimed to be or whose followers believed that they were the messiah spoken about in the (Old Testament) Scriptures. However, these people—who led rebellions against the foreign rulers of Israel—were killed, and nothing became of their so-called messiahship. They were, rightly, considered failed messiahs.

So, from the natural point of view, Peter’s response is understandable, as is James and John asking Jesus to let them hold positions of power in Jesus’ earthly kingdom. Their expectation was an earthly kingdom with an anointed king, the messiah.

The events of the days before the Passover added to this anticipation. Seeing the large crowd of those who had come to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover taking branches of palm trees and going to meet Jesus, crying out, Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel,[5] would have been exhilarating for the disciples! Jesus arrived in the capital city (as the Messiah was expected to do), and many were proclaiming Him as king. And why wouldn’t they? People had heard that He had recently raised His friend Lazarus from the dead. Throughout His ministry He had healed multitudes of sick people, He had fed thousands of people miraculously, He had spoken God’s word with authority. His arrival caused those who didn’t know who He was or what was going on to ask about it, and the crowds who were following Him said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.”[6]

The expectation of many that Jesus was likely the Messiah was high.

However, to all appearances, everything soon went wrong. Within days Jesus was dead—unfairly accused and savagely killed in the most degrading manner, a manner which the Jews understood to mean that the person dying was cursed by God.[7] The Messiah was expected to bring the pagans to justice, not to suffer unjust violence at their hands. The hopes of those looking to Jesus as Messiah were crushed—Another failed messiah in their eyes.

You can imagine how devastating this shocking turn of events must have been for the disciples. The teacher they followed, their beloved Master, whom they were sure was the Messiah, was dead. They were confused and discouraged, as seen in the account of two of them who were walking to the village of Emmaus on the day of the resurrection. The risen Jesus drew near and started walking with them. When He asked about their conversation, they stood still and looked sad. In the course of telling their story, they said:

But we had hoped that He was the one to redeem Israel.[8]

Their hopes of Jesus being the Messiah had been dashed, and they were deeply saddened by His death.[9]

But then, the resurrection changed everything! God raised the so-called “failed” Messiah from the dead. There had been no Jewish expectation that the Messiah would be raised from the dead, so it wasn’t as if the disciples, or the Jewish people in general, were waiting to see whether Jesus would fulfill some biblical promise in that respect.

A short time before this, upon hearing that Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead, the chief priests came to the conclusion that Jesus must die, saying:

“If we let Him go on like this, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” … Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them … “It is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.”[10]

During Jesus’ trial the high priest had asked Him if he was the Christ, the Messiah, and upon hearing Jesus’ affirmative answer, which included quotations from the book of Daniel about the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of God, the high priest and those with him decided that Jesus must die.[11] They accused Him of blasphemy, which by their law was punishable by death. The Jewish leaders rejected Him, did not believe He was the promised Messiah, and feared that if He lived, the Romans would take away their place in the temple and the nation as a whole.

Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator, condemned Jesus to death on the basis of His claim of being a king. It seems he didn’t consider Jesus a threat, but due to the insistence of the crowd and the Jewish authorities, he chose to apply the law.[12] There could be no kings without the sanction of Rome, so under the Roman anti-sedition laws He was crucified. The plaque which Pilate hung on the cross said, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”[13]

Jesus was executed because the Jewish leaders rejected Him as the Messiah, and because the Romans said no unauthorized king could live. Yet the extraordinary and unexpected event of His resurrection reversed the verdicts of both the Jewish and the Roman courts.[14]

Despite Rome’s rules that would-be kings must die, and the Jewish leaders’ belief that Jesus was not the Messiah, God Himself overturned their judgments, validating Jesus as both King and Messiah by raising Him from the dead. God gave His stamp of approval.

This in turn validated all that Jesus taught about Himself and about God the Father, about the kingdom of God and salvation. The resurrection, which proved that Jesus was in fact the Messiah, coupled with the coming of the Holy Spirit, established a new understanding about God. The significance of the resurrection in Jesus’ day was that it validated that Jesus was who He said He was.

Before the resurrection, the disciples didn’t fully understand the things Jesus had told them about His death and resurrection. However, after He rose, during the forty days before He ascended into heaven, He explained the Scriptures to them and they then understood.

He presented Himself alive to them after His suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.[15]

Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself … They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while He talked to us on the road, while He opened to us the Scriptures?”[16]

The realization that through Jesus’ Incarnation, death, and resurrection, salvation was available to all, was the reason the apostles preached about the resurrected Christ throughout the book of Acts. It’s why the New Testament writers wrote about the significance of the resurrection, stating that it proved He was the Son of God, that we are born again, that we have assurance of our salvation and that without it our faith would be in vain.

[Jesus is] declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by His resurrection from the dead.[17]

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to His great mercy, He has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.[18]

He has fixed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom He has appointed; and of this He has given assurance to all by raising Him from the dead.[19]

If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.[20]

If Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.[21]

The resurrection was proof that God had indeed entered into the world in a new way, through His Incarnate Son. Fifty days later, after Jesus had ascended, the Holy Spirit also entered the world in a new way by dwelling within believers. These events motivated the disciples and the early church to spread that news throughout the world of their day. They shared the news that through Jesus and His sacrifice on the cross, humanity could become reconciled with God.

For the disciples then, and for us now, Easter is the bedrock of Christian faith and hope. The early disciples, while initially faced with crushed hopes due to their expectations, soon came to see that because Jesus arose, what He did, said, and promised are true. That carries down through history to us today. The risen Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, gave proof of His divinity, and proof that we can trust Him, by dying for our sins and by doing the impossible and rising from the dead.

Because He died for our sins and then rose from the dead, we know that all He said is true: that we have salvation, that we have eternal life, that the Holy Spirit dwells within us, that we have the promise of answered prayer, that He will lead and guide us when we ask Him to. The separation between us and God has been bridged. We are His children, who will live with Him forever, and we can bring others to Him through our witness.

Because He rose, as the firstfruits,[22] we too will be resurrected in due season. Because of the resurrection, we have the assurance of salvation, the ability to lead a Christ-infused life today, and the honor to live with God forever.

Let’s rejoice in the significance of Easter—yesterday, today, and forever. Happy Easter!


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[1] N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 557.

[2] Mark 10:35–38, 41.

[3] Acts 1:6.

[4] Matthew 16:20–23.

[5] John 12:13.

[6] John 12:12–18, Matthew 21:6–11.

[7] Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith (Galatians 3:13–14).

[8] Luke 24:19–23.

[9] That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus Himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing Him.

      And He said to them, “What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad.

      Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered Him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” And He said to them, “What things?” And they said to Him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered Him up to be condemned to death, and crucified Him. But we had hoped that He was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened” (Luke 24:13–21).

[10] John 11:48–50.

[11] The high priest said to [Jesus], “I adjure You by the living God, tell us if You are the Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need? You have now heard His blasphemy. What is your judgment?” They answered, “He deserves death” (Matthew 26:63–66).

[12] Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar's friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar” (John 19:12).

[13] Matthew 27:37.

[14] N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 576.

[15] Acts 1:3.

[16] Luke 24:27,32.

[17] Romans 1:4.

[18] 1 Peter 1:3.

[19] Acts 17:30–31.

[20] Romans 10:9.

[21] 1 Corinthians 15:14 KJV.

[22] 1 Corinthians 15:20.