“They have taken the Lord out of the tomb . . . ” These words from a breathless Mary Magdalene were the first breaking of the news that Sunday morning. “. . . and we do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:2).
Just as Mary herself had run to inform Peter and “the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved,” they then ran together to check for themselves. That Jesus’s body was gone, they now believed. But somehow, even with Jesus’s words to them, on multiple occasions, about his coming death and resurrection (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33–34), they, like Mary, “did not understand” (Mark 9:32).
On this world-changing Sunday morning, Jesus’s closest disciples first assumed his body had been taken and laid elsewhere. “As yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead” (John 20:9). Must rise. In Jesus’s mind, and in the courts of heaven, and in the pages of holy Scripture, the suffering and subsequent resurrection of the Messiah were not just possibilities or likelihoods. These were not options. They were musts. Jesus had said it before, and later that day he would explain it again — that it was necessary, that it must have happened this way.
O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory? (Luke 24:25–26)
Everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled. . . . that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead. (Luke 24:44–25)
But when Peter and John first looked into the empty tomb, that necessity had not yet struck them. Fresh off the devastating grief of the previous two days — doubtless the two worst days of their lives — they still were coming to terms with his death, and assumed with Mary that he was still dead and “they” — some undefined group — had moved the body. Having seen the empty tomb, John reports, “the disciples went back to their homes” (John 20:10).
Only Mary stayed behind, and soon found Jesus alive. Then, with his commission, she “went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’” (John 20:18).
Christ Must Rise
However slow his disciples had been to understand the necessity of his suffering and rising, they soon became convinced — not just that he did rise (that was indisputable) but that he had to rise. It was necessary. It must have happened this way.
“Death could not hold him, restrain him, keep him. It was not possible. Christ, the Son, had to rise.”
Just fifty days later, when Pentecost came, Peter would preach this in public — not just the resurrection but its necessity. At the height of his sermon, Peter declares about his Lord — “this Jesus,” who was “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” (Acts 2:23–24). Death could not hold him, restrain him, keep him. It was not possible. Christ, the Son, had to rise.
Why, we might ask on this Resurrection Sunday, was it necessary? Why did Jesus have to rise? Acts 2, together with other New Testament texts, give us at least five reasons why the Son had to rise again.
1. To Make Good on God’s Word
First, the word of the living God was at stake. Through his prophets, God had long promised to send his people a climactically Anointed One, the Messiah, heir to David’s throne and rallying hope of Israel. And essential to that Messianic promise was an eternal reign (2 Samuel 7:13, 16). Not only would David’s line continue one generation after another, but one great heir was coming who would reign without end (Psalm 45:6–7; 102; 25–27; 110:1–4).
Even in his own lifetime, David himself had spoken of God not abandoning his soul to Sheol — and not letting his “holy one see corruption” (Psalm 16:10), which Christians, including Peter, came to see as one of many old-covenant anticipations of the coming Messiah’s resurrection. Which is how Peter argues in that first Spirit-anointed sermon (Acts 2:29–32).
God’s anointed king would fulfill the promise of God’s word. Jesus was, and is, that Christ. Therefore, it was impossible for him to be kept from that eternal reign. Not even the last enemy could keep him from it. Strong as the power of death may seem, it was, and is, no match for the omnipotent God working for his Messiah.
2. To Vindicate His Sinless Life
Jesus’s life was without sin. He was utterly innocent, and rising again vindicated his perfect human life. Death and Satan had no claim on him because Jesus had no “record of debt that stood against [him] with its legal demands” (Colossians 2:14). With respect to Jesus, Satan and his minions never had been armed; they had no hooks in him because he had no sin or guilt. Rather, in dying, Jesus gave himself, nailing to the cross our record of debt, because of our trespasses, and disarming the demons against us (Colossians 2:13, 15).
Luke sounds the note of Christ’s innocence again and again — three times in the mouth of Pilate, then again by the thief crucified next to him, and finally by the centurion who saw him breathe his last (Luke 23:4; 14–15; 22; 41, 47). Jesus’s innocence — that he did “nothing deserving death,” before man and before God — would be, as Paul celebrates, “vindicated by the Spirit” in Christ’s resurrection (1 Timothy 3:16).
3. To Confirm the Work of His Death
The resurrection also confirmed that Jesus’s death on the cross worked. It counted. It was effective. His dying declaration, “It is finished” (John 19:30), was shown to be true by his resurrection. Had he stayed dead, what confidence would we have that his sacrifice worked, that it was sufficient for us and all who believe? What firm hope would we have that he indeed was not only innocent of his own sin but that his death could count for us, in our place?
“The resurrection confirms that his death on the cross worked. It counted. It was effective.”
Paul writes in Romans 4:25 that Jesus “was delivered up” to death “for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” The resurrection shows that his work was effective — not only in covering our sins with his death, but in rising to be our righteousness — our justification — before the holy God. Which leads to another distinct but inseparable reason.
4. To Give Us Access to His Work
Not only did our sins require a reckoning — by Christ, outside of us — but we also needed to have access to his work, to have it applied to us. Potential salvation is not enough. We need actual rescue, which comes through the instrument called faith which unites us to a resurrected, living Lord.
However sufficient his self-sacrifice might have been to cover our sins, we have no access to that rescue if he is not alive that we might be united to him. But he is alive. As he says, “I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Revelation 1:17–18). There is no great salvation for us if we are not united by faith to a living Lord to have the benefits of his work applied to us.
5. To Be Our Living Lord and Treasure
One final must or necessity is the final necessity: Jesus is alive to know and enjoy forever.
There is no final good news if our Treasure and Pearl of Great Price is dead. Even if our sins could be paid for, righteousness provided and applied to us, and heaven secured, but Jesus were still dead, there would be no great salvation in the end — not if our Savior and Groom is dead. At the very center of the Easter triumph is not what he saves us from, but what he saves us to — better, who he saves us to: himself.
Our restless souls will not find eternal, and ever-increasing, rest and joy in a Christ-less new earth, no matter how stunning. Streets of gold, reunions with loved ones, and sinless living may thrill us at first — but they will not ultimately satisfy, not for eternity, not on their own. We were made for Jesus. He is at the center of true life now, and he will be forever. If there is no living Christ, there is no final satisfying eternity. But he is alive indeed — to know and enjoy forever.