'Rise, heart; thy Lord is risen'
March 26, 2016
The Christian confession of the resurrection encompasses two great matters: first, that Jesus Christ is the living one who died and is alive for evermore (Rev. 1.18), and, second, that together with him 'God made us alive' (Eph. 2.5). These two elements of the confession - its Christology and its soteriology - belong together, but stand in a strict and irreversible sequence. It is only because God raised Christ from the dead that we also have newness of life; what we experience and confess of our own resurrection is wholly derivative from the principal reality: 'Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father' (Rom. 6.4). Yet we would not know Christ's resurrection in its full range if we did not also consider its extension into the realm of creatures, its generative power and effect.
What is to be said of the one who is risen from the dead?
He lives. He is 'the first and the last, and the living one' (Rev. 1.17f.). The life of the risen one is not merely a resumption of his existence before Good Friday. It is, rather, a life which displays his eternal deity: he is life. The risen Christ possesses infinite, uncreated life, the life of God himself. Created life is contingent and limited; it does not arise from itself but is the gift of God, it cannot of itself maintain itself, and it has beginning and end. The life of the risen one is divine life. It has its ground wholly in God, repeating the eternal relation of Father and Son: 'as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself' (Jn. 5.26). The resurrection makes manifest that the life of the Son of God is perfect, without beginning or end, beyond augmentation or diminishment, subject to no corruption, infinitely full and realised. 'I am the resurrection and the life' (Jn. 11.25).
He is present. 'I am with you always' (Mt. 28.20). By his resurrection and its completion in his ascension, Christ is exalted to the domain of reality which is proper to him, to the heavenly places, and to the Father's right hand (Eph. 1.20). This domain is 'far above' (Eph. 1.21), the spatial metaphor indicating the utter difference of this uncreated realm from created places and occasions. Yet his infinite exaltation does not entail his remoteness. Precisely because he is not constrained by created space and time, he is present without restriction. The exalted one is omnipresent. His heavenly 'place' is not a restriction or inhibition ('there' and so 'not here'), but the ground of his presence to all times and places.
He is present at his own initiative, by his own limitless capacity. He is not present because summoned by creaturely longing or entreaty or imagination. He is present in divine freedom and goodness, that is, in grace, by his own loving provision and self-bestowal. Nor is his presence such that he puts himself at the disposal of creatures. His presence is always gift, not given. This may be seen in the strangely fleeting character of his resurrection appearances: 'their eyes were opened and they recognised him; and he vanished out of their sight' (Lk. 24.31). The evanescent character of his risen presence indicates, not the tenuousness of his reality, but his transcendent spontaneity, his sheer fullness of uncreated life which cannot be contained.
He is radiant. 'His face was like the sun shining in full strength' (Rev. 1.16). The risen Christ shares in the glory and splendour of God. God is in himself light and glory, and therefore radiant, for his glory is resplendent, not self-contained. God's radiance, which accompanies and illuminates his creatures, has its supremely concentrated instance in the incarnation of the Son; in him, 'the true light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world' (Jn. 1.9). Yet, because this luminous reality 'shines in the darkness' (Jn. 1.4), its radiance goes unrecognised in some measure by creatures who remain locked in darkness. There is a measure of ambiguity about the incarnate glory: the light which is shed abroad by the Son's prophecy and passion is disputed, or evaded, or dismissed. 'This is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and men love darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come into the light, lest his deeds should be exposed' (Jn. 3.19f.). The resurrection indicates that an end has been set to this ambiguity. It does not yet erase all darkness, but it does set in motion the work of dispelling it, and promises its coming entire eradication. In himself compellingly and wholly radiant, the risen Christ sheds abroad the divine light, inaugurating and all the time expanding its domain, calling creatures 'out of darkness into his marvellous light' (1 Pet. 2.9), and summoning to himself the 'children of light' who are 'light in the Lord' (Eph. 5.8). 'It is the God who said "let light shine out of darkness," who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ' (2 Cor. 4.6).
He is eloquent. 'I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet ... his voice was like the sound of many waters' (Rev. 1.10, 15). Alive, present and radiant, the risen Christ speaks, addresses himself to us. His word is not one more competing voice struggling to be heard. It is, rather, infinitely authoritative, incomparable, the voice which takes precedence over all others. He is the first speaker, the divine Word. He speaks not directly but indirectly, through his ambassadors, the prophets and apostles whom he appoints, sanctifies, inspires and authorises to be his heralds and to bring his word to bear on their fellows. By calling them into his service, he does not resign his office as prophet, but enacts it instrumentally and mediately, so that the world is not devoid of divine instruction. As he speaks in this way, he declares himself: 'I am the first and the last' (Rev. 1.17). He comforts and blesses creatures: 'Do not be afraid' (Mt. 28.10); 'Peace be with you' (Jn. 20.21). And he commissions and directs those who hear his voice: 'Go ...' (Mt. 28.19).
What of the second matter of the confession of the resurrection, its extension into the life of creatures, its effectiveness ad extra? Alive with divine life, radiantly and eloquently present, the risen Christ sets himself in a two-fold relation to creatures: he governs them, and he bestows upon them a share in his life.
He rules. 'He is before all things, and in him all things hold together' (Col. 1.17). His rule has a double aspect: his lordship, and its exercise in the government of creatures, by which their good is secured.
The risen Christ is 'the head of all rule and authority' (Col. 2.10). His lordship is incommensurable. He is not merely one of a number of lords, not even the most potent. His rule is 'far above all rule and authority and power and dominion' (Eph. 1.21); he is the Lord, to whom all others are relative but who is himself relative to none. The resurrection does not bestow this lordship upon him, causing him to acquire and exercise a new sovereignty not so far possessed. Easter Day manifests that which he is and has by virtue of his eternal deity: an eminence of rank and dignity, and a supreme authority, which are antecedent and intrinsic. Further, his lordship is both legitimate (because it arises from and is enacted in accordance with the righteous divine nature and purpose), and infinite in range: 'all things' are 'under his feet' (Eph. 1.22).
This lordship of his is exercised in his good government of all created things. As governor of creation, the risen Christ establishes and orders all creatures, confirming their natures, maintaining them and bringing them to fulfilment. In this way, his rule is wholly benevolent and beneficent, preserving, protecting and perfecting its subjects. By the exercise of his good lordship, the entire created order, 'subjected to futility' and 'groaning in travail' (Rom. 8.20, 22) is being 'set free from its bondage to decay' (Rom. 8.21), and set on the way to completion. His resurrection both effects and anticipates 'new heavens and a new earth' (2 Pet. 3.13).
He is giver of life. 'You he made alive' (Eph. 2.1). The risen Christ communicates the life which he possesses in himself in his relation to the Father. He grants a creaturely share in his aliveness to his body, to that company of human creatures whom he unites to himself in fellowship. This sharing of life is the outer enactment of God's goodness. It is the property of divine goodness to will and to bring into being life beyond itself, to cause other reality to be. The first external performance of this is the work of creation out of nothing. The second is the work of reconciliation and regeneration, in which God makes dead creatures to be 'alive together with Christ' (Eph. 2.5). To be 'in' Christ - to be in receipt of this limitlessly generous distribution of life - is to be part of the new creation. There is also a striking purposiveness here, a concentration and directedness to which the apostle testifies in Ephesians: 'you he made alive'. To the cosmic renewal which the resurrection sets in motion, there corresponds also an inescapably particular operation and application: you.
Two matters by way of conclusion ...
First: How do we come to know that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, and we with him? We know by virtue of divine instruction and the exercise of faithful and regenerate reason.
The resurrection of the Son of God is a mystery, which takes place as a secret, unobserved and unobservable divine act. We know nothing of what took place in the tomb; the Son's passage from death to life is entirely hidden. His resurrection is not one more episode in the history of the world. It is an act like God's first act of creation, an act which brings a world into being, not an event in the world but the condition for there being a world. Moreover, when the risen one presents himself to be known, he does not do so as one who occupies a place in the world in the manner that we ourselves do, and as he himself chose to do in some measure before his death. As the risen one, he 'puts in an appearance' - real, tangible, articulate, commanding, but nevertheless free and unattached. He is unexpectedly present, he draws near - comes from infinite distance - and, just as unexpectedly, vanishes out of sight.
Because the risen Christ is this one, Lord of his own self-manifestation, he is not an object of knowledge like any other. We do not know him as we might know some inert reality of which we can take stock, nor even as we know other persons who occupy a place in the world. In both cases, we exercise a certain cognitive initiative, drawing those realities into our field of knowledge. Not so with him: he presents himself, and retains the upper hand in our knowing. Our knowledge is not and cannot be comprehension, 'grasping' him with the mind; it is, rather, knowledge whose object is inexhaustible, one who cannot be encircled and held by created intelligence.
Certainly, he 'presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs' (Acts 1.3). But what kind of proofs? Not evidences or warrants which are the raw material for omnicompetent reason, but, rather, signs which draw the mind towards a reality which is known in faith and faith's confession: 'my Lord and my God' (Jn. 20.28). As knowledge of faith, knowledge of the risen Christ has as its objective element divine revelation ('he presented himself'). Its corresponding subject development is teachableness, which arises in the course of the conversion of the affections and the will to God. Moreover, docility (and with it knowledge) increases as we come to enact newness of life, leaving behind disordered passions and estrangement of mind, and settling into the good order, clarity and peace of the regenerate.
Second: How is this teaching about the resurrection to be 'used'? What dispositions and acts are required of us if its beauty and goodness are to profit us?
'Rise, heart; thy Lord is risen' - so George Herbert. Profiting from the resurrection requires a certain objectivity, a self-forgetful attentiveness to the sheer reality that he is risen and that he is 'thy Lord'. To contemplate - gaze upon - this (his) reality is to give regard to his aliveness and to our inclusion in its scope and effect. It is to stretch mind, desire and will to the new order of reality which he has instituted and which embraces and governs our lives. Such contemplation is at present imperfect, often broken, because our regeneration is not yet fully resolved, and the realities of sin and death continue to perplex, frustrate and sometimes overwhelm us. But here we are helped by the Holy Spirit whom the risen one sends in his name. At his prompting, we may begin to know, love and praise the one who in his repleteness of life and goodness goes ahead of us. And so: rise, heart.
John Webster is Professor of Divinity at the University of St Andrews. His books include Holiness and Domain of the Word and God Without Measure