The Resurrection and vindication of the Messiah

Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay (Psalm 16:9-10).

During periods of oppression the messianic hope became closely identified with the national aspirations of the people. The Son of David would vindicate Israel by destroying their enemies and restoring the kingdom to its former glory as in the days of Solomon. With such a frame of mind the death of the Messiah would seem to be wholly inconsistent with the hope of a victorious Redeemer. If a person claiming to be the Messiah was killed, especially at the hands of Israel’s enemies, they would be considered by most people to have failed in their mission.

Numerous false messiahs arose in Israel, particularly between the period 100BC to 135AD when messianic anticipation reached a peak due to certain prophetic writings (especially the book of Daniel) as well as to the popular longing for the national liberation of Israel from gentile oppression. More recently some from the Chabad – Lubavitch movement proclaimed “Rebbe” Schneerson to be the messiah. A tradition developed within Rabbinical Judaism that suggests there is a potential messiah in every generation.

Jewish people have been told that when the Messiah comes there will be no doubt as to his identity because it will be plainly evident to all, but the Prophets warned that the leaders would reject the Messiah (the cornerstone as prophesied in Psalm 118:22) and that he would be despised and rejected by the majority of the people of Israel (cf. Isaiah 53:2-3). Can we identify the Messiah with absolute certainty? To do so it is vital that our messianic hopes are based solely upon the Word of God, and not upon erroneous expectations and human traditions.

The Word of God confirms that the true Messiah (the Anointed One) would indeed be killed and bodily raised again from the dead before his lifeless body decomposed. Being raised from the dead, by itself, does not prove someone to be the Messiah. Both testaments contain accounts of people who were raised from the dead without any one suggesting that they must therefore have been the Messiah.

There are many other messianic prophecies that also have to be fulfilled for someone to qualify as the Messiah. These include descent from the tribe of Judah and the line of David, the nature, place and time of his birth, the healing of the sick, lame and blind, rejection by his own people which would culminate in suffering and death for their sake, and as the final validation of his messianic calling, the resurrection from the dead. But most importantly, the Messiah is the one whom God has anointed – it has nothing to do with man’s choice. The LORD said of the Messiah, “I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill” (Psalm 2:6). His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation (Daniel 4:34).

The true Messiah is the one anointed by God. He would be fully conscious of his anointing and his mission. Right at the beginning of his public ministry Jesus stood up in the Synagogue and read from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me . . .” (Isaiah 61:1).

It is clear that the Jews of Jesus’ day, including his own disciples, failed to understand the real nature of the Messiah’s mission. His teaching appealed neither to the nationalistic aspirations of the zealots, nor to the Jewish pride of the Pharisees. Even the Apostle Peter, having just made that great confession to Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” had to be rebuked by Jesus for having in mind his own human agenda rather than God’s purposes:

From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men” (Matthew 16:21-23).

It is evident from the gospel narratives that despite the fact that he had told his disciples that the Messiah had to suffer, to die and be raised again, whatever they understood him to mean, they were not expecting a bodily resurrection. Perhaps they thought he was referring to the widespread Jewish belief in the resurrection at the end of the age, but on the first day of the week, following the crucifixion, they went to the garden tomb expecting to embalm his lifeless body. Yet shortly thereafter the fact of the crucifixion and the resurrection had become the basis and substance of the gospel they were preaching in Jerusalem:

Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said, “The Lord said to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.’” Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah (Acts 2:29-36).

Considering that even his own disciples had failed to really understand the purpose of his mission until after the resurrection it is not surprising that most of the people would assume, by his death, that he could not have been the Messiah. The many strands of messianic prophecy come together in a crystal clear revelation of God’s unfolding purpose when we view the complete story of Jesus’ ministry – including his shameful death and resurrection – in hindsight, but given the popular messianic expectations of the time we can understand the scepticism with which many of the Jews viewed Jesus during his public ministry. That is why Jesus directed them to the sign of Jonah as the final proof and vindication that he was God’s Anointed (Messiah). When the religious leaders asked Jesus for a miraculous sign which would prove his authority and messianic claims, he rebuked them saying,

“A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here” (Matthew 12:39-41).

The sign from God by which the Jews would know that he was who he claimed to be was the resurrection. God would vindicate him by raising him from the dead before his body saw decay. Even the disciples only fully understood after the resurrection that this was the ultimate sign to the unbelieving Jews. The sign of Jonah probably also alludes to the fact that many Gentiles would come to faith to provoke unbelieving Israel to jealousy. Jonah is described as having cried to the Lord from the depths of the grave (literally sheol) and the Lord answered him and delivered him from the grave to proclaim repentance to the Gentiles.

The resurrection on the third day is very significant in Jewish thought. It was on the third day that Abraham came to Mt. Moriah, the place where God tested his willingness to offer up Isaac in sacrifice, and where he figuratively received Isaac back from the dead (cf. Hebrews 11:19). Edersheim comments, “The Rabbis insist on the importance of ‘the third day’ in various events connected with Israel, and especially speak of it in connection with the resurrection of the dead, referring in proof to Hosea 6:2.”1  He also mentions, as a curious coincidence, that the relatives and friends of the deceased were in the habit of going to the grave up to the third day (when presumably corruption was supposed to begin), so as to make sure that those laid there were really dead. We can surmise from the account of Lazarus that by the fourth day decay would definitely have set in and therefore, in order to fulfil the prophecy in Psalm 16, the Messiah would be raised on the third day before his body saw decay.

The rise of Christianity cannot be adequately explained apart from the historical fact of the resurrection. Without the resurrection Jesus may have been fondly remembered as a wonderful teacher and miracle worker and some of his sayings may even have been preserved by those who loved him, but it is clear from the earliest documents that the church was founded upon the historical reality of a risen Messiah whose death had secured eternal life for all men. It was the realisation that the crucifixion, far from representing the triumph of evil, represented the final triumph over evil that transformed his fearful little band of disciples into the brave martyrs who were prepared to face persecution and death for the sake of their testimony. The teaching of the resurrection formed the basis and substance of the preaching of the Apostles from the earliest days of the church.

The apostle Paul wrote: For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ (Messiah) died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures (1 Cor.15:3-4). If it was to be expected, according to the Scriptures, that the Messiah would be killed and raised again from the dead, then the death of one claiming to be the Messiah would not indicate failure of his messianic mission. On the contrary, the success of his mission would be confirmed by God raising him from the dead before his body could decay. We may therefore ask, “Where in the Scriptures is it prophesied that the Messiah would be killed and raised again from the dead?”

After the sixty-two ‘sevens,’ the Anointed One will be cut off…(Daniel 9:26)
He was pierced for our transgressions…
He was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken.
He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death….
He poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors…
though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days…he will see the light of life…(Isaiah 53:5,8,9;12;10;11)
They will look to me, the one they have pierced… (Zechariah 12:10)
You will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay. (Psalm 16:10).

The Messiah would not be cut off as a helpless victim of wicked men in some tragic unexpected event. He would willingly offer his life as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of his people (Isaiah 53:7-8). Jesus said, “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life– only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again” (John 10:17-18). This was the real mission of the Messiah. He came to save his people from their real enemy, which is death, i.e. eternal separation from God. Jesus prophesied his own death, associating it with the bronze serpent that Moses had lifted up in the desert so that all who looked to it in faith would be healed of the serpents’ deadly venom (cf. John 3:14). In the same way all who look to him who was lifted up on the cross and pierced for our transgressions will be cleansed from sin (Psalm 22 gives a detailed prophesy of the suffering and death on the cross and also speaks of the vindication of the afflicted one). It is evident that the people could not accept that their King and Redeemer would ever die, let alone in such a disgraceful manner on account of their sins (see Deuteronomy 21:22-23 …anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse):

The crowd spoke up, “We have heard from the Torah that the Messiah will remain forever, so how can you say, ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up’? Who is this ‘Son of Man’?” Then Jesus told them, “You are going to have the light just a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you. The man who walks in the dark does not know where he is going. Put your trust in the light while you have it, so that you may become sons of light.” (John 12:34-36).

Though his disciples, in the fog and gloom of their own fear, anguish and despair appear to have had little faith in their masters assurance that he would be raised, the religious leaders were fully aware of Jesus’ claim that God would raise him from the dead as the final vindication of his Messiahship:

…the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. “Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.” (Matthew 27:62-64).

Once the empty tomb was discovered they were more concerned about protecting their positions than with the veracity of the evidence. Rather than acknowledge that they had played the leading role in crucifying the Messiah they proceeded to circulate the lie that the disciples had stolen the body, in spite of the Roman guard that had been posted at their request.

The fact that his disciples were initially, by all accounts, amazed and perplexed by the resurrection of Jesus refutes the hoax theory. Anyone planning to perpetrate such a grand fraud on the world would have had to be brilliant strategists who had constructed their plan well in advance and with the collaboration of many witnesses. This could hardly describe the motley group of fishermen and tax collectors that Jesus had chosen as his Apostles. Frederic Farrar gives an apt description of the state of the church immediately after the crucifixion: “At the moment when Christ died, nothing could have seemed more abjectly weak, more pitifully hopeless, more absolutely doomed to scorn, and extinction, and despair, than the Church which He had founded. It numbered but a handful of weak followers, of which the boldest had denied his Lord with blasphemy, and the most devoted had forsaken Him and fled. They were poor, they were ignorant, they were hopeless.”2

The only thing that can account for the remarkable phenomenon that this dejected and hopeless little band of disciples founded the church that won the known world to obedience and faith in their Jewish Messiah within the space of a few centuries is the resurrection. They were so thoroughly convinced of and transformed by the reality of the resurrection that they were prepared to suffer cruel tortures and even death for what they knew to be true. The testimony of those who were witnesses of the resurrected Messiah could not be silenced. The good news of the resurrected Messiah spread rapidly and within a few years there were thousands of believers in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas, including a large number of priests (cf. Acts 6:7).

A period of forty years was given for the preaching of the gospel. This was followed by judgment upon those of that generation who stubbornly refused to believe the testimony of God. In the parable that Jesus had told concerning the rich man and Lazarus he ends with these words: “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31). The reason that they had failed to recognise the Messiah and even rejected the final proof and validation of his calling through the resurrection is that their expectations were not in line with Moses and the prophets.

To counter the messianic claims of Jesus following the rapid spread of Christianity some rabbis have deliberately ignored the Scriptures that speak of the suffering and death of the Messiah, thus continuing to foster an unscriptural or distorted expectation of the Messiah’s mission. Some Rabbis identified the suffering messiah as a mythical figure, Messiah Ben Yosef, who is described as a second messiah, because they could not reconcile the suffering and death of the Messiah with that the Son of David who is expected to save his people from their enemies and to reign upon David’s throne forever. But those who study the Scriptures cannot deny that there are passages that speak of the suffering, death and resurrection of the Messiah.

Belief in the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah is the very essence of the messianic faith. The Apostle Paul states that it is of first importance and goes on to say that if Messiah was not raised then our faith is futile and we are to be pitied more than all men. The theological and eschatological import of the resurrection for the disciples cannot be overemphasized. It was not just elation that the one whom they loved had been restored to them. The resurrection of the dead was expected to occur at the end of the age. Jesus was resurrected bodily, but it was with the imperishable, immortal body that signified the breakthrough of the kingdom of God, the firstfruits of the future resurrection of all the saints. Others who were raised to life either before or after the time of Jesus were not raised imperishable, i.e. they were still subject to death, but the historical reality of the resurrection of Jesus is the basis of our hope in the resurrection and eternal life:

This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Saviour, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel (2 Tim. 1:10).

The resurrection of Jesus revealed the way to eternal life. The passage we have focused much of our attention on, “You will not let Your Holy One see decay,” continues, “You have made known to me the path of life.” Jesus is the resurrection and the life! The response of Thomas, the last Apostle to be fully convinced that Jesus had actually been physically raised from the dead, shows the impact of that realisation on him – “My Lord and my God!” Jesus answered, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).

Have millions of Jesus’ disciples throughout the ages and from every corner of the world been hoping for their redemption through a false messiah and one last great hoax which the religious leaders tried so hard to avert or have the Jewish religious leaders rejected the very Cornerstone of the true faith of Israel because they despised and rejected the King Messiah whom God raised from the dead?

On the first day of the week when a few of the women went to the tomb the angel said, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! (Luke 24:6) This has been the hope and comfort of the church for two thousand years:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead … (1 Peter1:3).





1.  Edersheim: The life and times of Jesus the Messiah ch. XVII p. 622

2.  The life of Christ by F.W. Farrar p.452