Christ’s Resurrection and the Old Testament? (Pt. 1)

Next week I’ll have the opportunity to attend the Ignite Training Conference and help train a small group of Christian brothers and sisters in the area of Systematic Theology. The topic we typically use for a “practice run” of how to approach Systematic Theology is the resurrection of Jesus. This topic is familiar enough and important enough to help people get a taste for how significant an effective approach to Systematic Theology can be.

But as I did my preparation for the week, it got me thinking about a question that has sometimes troubled or puzzled me. If the resurrection is so important and occurred “in accordance with the Scriptures” – where are the references to the resurrection in the Old Testament? Christians are often a little unsure of how to address the lack of explicit predictions of the Messiah rising from the dead and Christianity’s critics sometimes point this out as a problem with biblical authenticity.

This puzzle can be solved by considering a few things. 1) How do the NT writers and apostles see the resurrection as a fulfilment of OT Scriptures? 2) Can the events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection “fulfil Scripture” in a broader, big picture kind of way – independent of explicit predictions? 3) Are there hints in the Old Testament that the Messiah might rise from the dead that can be understood as such in light of the historical reality of Jesus’s resurrection from the dead?

NT perspective on Resurrection and the OT

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I bless the LORD who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. I have set the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure. For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption. You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psalms 16:7-11, ESV)

Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know– this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. For David says concerning him, “‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; my flesh also will dwell in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’ “Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, “‘The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’ Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:22-36, ESV)

Two of the central truths that the church has proclaimed about Jesus since its earliest days at Pentecost in 33 A.D. are His Messiahship (He was the King God promised to establish as David’s true and permanent successor) and the fact that after being crucified and entombed for three days, He rose again to life and appeared to many of His followers. In Acts 2, Peter demonstrates how the leaders of the early church (illuminated by the Holy Spirit by this stage) used Jesus’s messiahship as an interpretative key for discerning where the Old Testament might have spoken of His resurrection.

Everything promised to David was (or will be) fulfilled by Jesus and much of what David said, did and experienced during his life in fact pointed forward to his much greater successor. Peter concludes that Psalm 16:7-11 was in fact a prophetic utterance that pointed more to Jesus than David himself, since David evidently died, was buried, saw physical corruption and awaits his own resurrection.

Acts 2:33-36 shows that Peter and the apostles took this further, seeing a proper fulfillment of Psalm 110 as requiring God to enthrone the Messiah in heaven – something that He did not do for David personally and something that would require the resurrection life anticipated by many Jews to come early for the Messiah.

Saul/Paul demonstrates for us that Psalm 16 was probably the primary text considered to refer to the Messiah’s resurrection by the early church, when he echoes Peter in Acts 13 (with a slight remix): “Therefore he says also in another psalm, “‘You will not let your Holy One see corruption.’ For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption, but He whom God raised up [i.e. Jesus] did not see corruption.” (Acts 13:35-37, ESV). Saul also cites Isaiah 55:3 and seems to argue that the Messiah needed to be alive to receive the things God had promised to David (a theme we’ll explore in part 2).

There are few other explicit claims by NT writers or apostles about certain Old Testament passages that might point to the resurrection. Paul is happy to say Jesus’ resurrection on the “third day” was in accordance with the Scriptures, but we cannot be certain he had a particular passage in mind. Typologically, he may have been thinking of a text like Hosea 6:2 or Jesus’s own references to Jonah’s three days and three nights in the belly of the fish (which He linked to His own death and resurrection, see Matt 12:40), but this fits more with what we’ll look at next time:  “Can the events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection “fulfil Scripture” in a broader, big picture kind of way – independent of explicit predictions?”

[1] Picture: Donut_Diva “Easter Empty Tomb” CC BY-NC 2.0 flickr.com

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