Article Apr 3, 2015

The empty tomb and the public square

On Easter Sunday, we celebrate Jesus’ victory over sin and death. We do this, rightly, in song and sermon, in prayer and personal devotion, thinking though the events that transpired in Jesus’ final week prior to his crucifixion and standing astonished at the love of God who entered into history, took on flesh, and gave himself over for the rescue of sinners.

It can be easy to think of the resurrection as if it were simply a sort of exclamation point at the end of redemption. And while the resurrection is indeed a surprise ending, to speak in literary terms, especially to the Satanic powers whose dominion has just been vanquished, it is still more than that.

In fact, the resurrection is the act of God in history designed to animate and reframe the Christian life. It touches on every aspect of the Christian hope and Christian life and should be central in our minds, not just at Easter, but as part of our very identity. For we, as Christians, are those who “have been raised up with Christ” (Col. 3:1).

What, though, does the empty tomb have to do with ethics and public policy? How does Golgotha relate to Washington? At its core, the resurrection is the driving force behind any Christian engagement in the public square. Here are a few reasons why:

1. The resurrection establishes a Christian form of engagement. The crucifixion, Scripture tells us in no uncertain terms, is the pronouncement of judgment on Jesus: “cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree” (Gal. 3:13). But the resurrection of Jesus is the counter-proclamation in which God declares in miraculous act the same thing he previously declared in word at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17). The resurrection, in other words, is the vindication of Jesus’ entire life and ministry.

In turn, Jesus’ life and ministry forms the backdrop for the way we are to engage within the world. Throughout his ministry, Jesus addressed sin with boldness and grace, dealing with issues of both personal morality and public justice and speaking truth to power in the public square—but always with the goal of the kingdom of God in mind.

Jesus isn’t interested primarily in the ascendency of a political regime, at least not in the immediate sense (much to the discontent of those who keep trying to make him king) He has in mind—always and in every place—the purposes of his Father in bringing about an eternal kingdom. This purpose frequently intersects with public concerns—from temple taxes to public morality to the authority of government officials and elsewhere. And when it does, Jesus is insistent, prophetic, persuasive, and full of truth and grace, but with cross and kingdom everywhere in view.

2. The resurrection ushers in a new humanity with a public mission. The newness of life we see in Jesus’ resurrection is an image of the eternal life we will possess in the new creation (and that which we now experience a foretaste of in the new birth) and is designed to completely reframe the way we live in this age. It is central to the Christian life in the eschatological hope it offers, but also in the way it signals Jesus’ authority over sin and death and his victory over Satan. This victory leads, successively, to the gifts Jesus gives to his church as spoils of war and the sending of the Holy Spirit who indwells and renews humanity in Christ in the midst of its kingdom mission.  

The meaning of this for humanity and our engagement with the world is multifaceted. On the one hand, the newness of humanity wrought through the resurrection will result in love for one another and in communities that look different than what the world would expect. Driven by a vision of a kingdom made up of every tribe, tongue and nation, we seek racial reconciliation and we care for immigrants. Understanding the image of God vested in humanity—one seen preeminently in the perfect union of God and man on display in the resurrected and glorified Jesus—we labor to protect and care for the vulnerable, whether they are unborn, near death or anywhere in between.

On the other hand, having received newness of life and being driven along by the power of the Holy Spirit in the Great Commission, our lives are marked, not by divisiveness and strife, but by a purposeful mission carried out with convictional kindness that seeks to serve, love and persuade—both because we seek the common good for all those who bear God’s image, and we want to persuade them to repent and believe the gospel of our resurrected king.

3. The resurrection helps promote a public morality. Government is instituted by God and vested with the authority to wield the sword for the protection of the innocent and the promotion of justice. That said, government works downstream from culture, and legislation does not have the power to awaken or change hearts. In other words, formed consciences are a prerequisite for public morality, but the state cannot create or provide them.

That said, at the resurrection and with the sending of the Spirit and the expansion of the church, there exists a body—the church—that is grounded in biblical revelation, empowered by the Spirit of Christ, and called to bear witness to the gospel, form consciences, and cultivate virtue in discipleship and life together. The church, within itself, demonstrates morality and images in this age what the kingdom of God will look like in the age to come. At the same time, it bears witness outside the church to the consciences of others. On mission together, the church is able to demonstrate and cultivate intact societies and promote justice within its own walls and bear witness to these social goods to a larger culture, contributing to a public morality within a secular society, all the while carrying with it a gospel of the kingdom that points beyond the common good to the ultimate good—reconciliation with God in Christ.

Our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness, a righteousness declared in the raising of the Son of God. As we go through this high week on the Christian calendar, let’s rest in the full hope promised by our Christ who is risen indeed. And as we engage the culture with the gospel, let’s remember how the emptiness of Jesus’ tomb leads to the fullness of Jesus’ gospel in the public square.