April 2008 - Vol. 18

Jesus Down from the Cross - painting by Michael O'Brien

Dying to Defeat Death

The death of Jesus was a victory over death itself

By Steve Clark

At Easter, Christians proclaim that Christ has defeated death. Most commonly if we speak about people defeating death, we mean that they came close to dying but did not, probably because they fought to stay alive. Christ, however, died. He defeated death in a more definitive way than by staying alive when his life was threatened. He defeated death by dying and coming back to life by his own power.

Christ did not just defeat death for himself, but he defeated death for other human beings as well. His death and resurrection make it possible for others to survive their own deaths and as a result of dying come into a life that is better than the one they had before. 

Freedom from a captor like Satan is freedom from an external oppressor. Freedom from death is freedom from an internal weakness. Death may originate from an outside cause like a blow or gunshot or fire. But death does not occur until the human organism loses the power to sustain life.

Defeating death by dying 
Life takes constant effort, as human beings discover when their lives are threatened by disease or injury and they find themselves in a “fight for their life.” Overcoming death, then, involves the strength to sustain life. Defeating death by dying and coming back to life involves a special strength, a more than normally human strength. This strength Christ had.

In the description Paul gives us of Christ's redeeming work in Philippians 2, he tells us that Christ began his attack on death by lowering or humbling himself. “Though he was in the form of God, Christ Jesus did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” This description refers to what we now would call Christ’s incarnation. The first step, then, to defeat death was for Christ to enter into the human condition so that he could change it.

Paul describes Christ's incarnation as a self-emptying or self-lowering, because he wishes to describe how Christ’s death – a further step of self-lowering-led to his exaltation. The fact that the Philippians passage goes on to describe Christ’s resurrection and ascension as an exaltation indicates that the incarnation by itself does not fully constitute his self-lowering, since Christ will still have a human nature, a glorified human nature, after his resurrection and ascension.

Christ’s self-lowering was not simply his taking on the condition of humanity, but his taking on a human condition in which he was deprived of something that would be present once he was raised from the dead and glorified. His self-lowering, in other words, was his willingness to take upon himself humanity in its fallenness. Exactly what he took on of our fallen human nature, when, as Paul says he came “in the likeness of sinful flesh" (Romans 8:3), is a complicated question. He clearly became subject to human weakness (2 Corinthians 13:4), suffering, and death. But at the same time, he was able to remain without sin and in full union with God. How ever these two facts go together, Christ willingly entered into and personally took on something of the fallen, low state of humanity. Before his resurrection, there was something missing in him that could have been there without making him something other than human.

What happened at Christ’s resurrection
To understand fully what was missing, we need, to consider what happened at his exaltation or resurrection. After his resurrection, Christ was “glorified.” As we have seen, the scriptural word “glory” means greatness or power, even more than it does exterior radiance or splendor. Moreover, it can be used to indicate a greatness or power that things have in their own makeup, not just something conferred on them externally. “Glorification” then, can refer to an inner strengthening or empowerment.

When Christ was glorified, he did not cease to be human or become human to a lesser degree. Rather, his human nature was given a new power or capacity. He was capable of acting in ways he could not before. He could appear in rooms without opening doors. He could ascend to heaven by his own power. Even more importantly for our purposes, he was free from the power of death. “Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him” (Romans 6:9). When he was glorified, his human nature became transformed or metamorphosed so that he had a greater or more glorious type of human life, one with fewer limitations. Most especially, his human nature had a greater power over its own life, so it lacked the limitation of intrinsic mortality.

Before his glorification, however, Christ did not lack all glory. He had a glory with his Father before the world was made (John 17:5,24), and therefore a glory that was uncreated. That divine glory is in him now (2 Corinthians 3:18; 46), and it was in him on earth even before his resurrection. Because of the presence of that glory, when we see him we see God in him (2 Corinthians 46; John 149). Even though he took on the weakness of unfallen human nature, Christ had a power inside of himself capable of taking away that weakness. It was hidden or veiled to a certain extent, but it was there. Christ's death and resurrection, then, was a transition from a state of humiliation which involved a divine glory present in a “weak human nature” to a state of exaltation, which involved a human nature transformed by that glory.

When the Scripture describes that transition, it most commonly says that God raised him from the dead (Acts 2:24,32). The change is described as coming from an action from outside of Jesus which rescues him from death.Yet Paul also describes that change as Jesus himself rising (1 Thessalonians 4:14). In the Gospel of John, Jesus asserts that “I have power to lay [my life] down, and I have power to take it again” (John 10:18). As the Son of God, Jesus could not only count on God's power to raise him up. He could also count on that power as something in him, something he could employ even though dead.

These two types of statements are two ways of seeing the same truth. God did raise his Son but did so by acting through the divinity which was “in” Christ, which he and his Son shared. In a similar way, when God raises us from the dead, our resurrection will be due to his Spirit in us which will communicate life to us “from the inside” (Romans 8:11).

How death can be lifegiving
Jesus in the Gospel of John used an image to describe his death which sums up the truth we have been considering. He said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). A seed can be very hard and look much like a little stone, lifeless. But once it falls into the ground, a process of change happens that could be described as a death. The seed dies to its old mode of existence. That death, however, is not the end. Something inside of the seed, something that was there all along, is released and begins to live in a new way. It transforms the seed into something greater, a plant capable not only of growing but of giving rise to other plants like itself. Death can be lifegiving – depending on what is inside when the dying begins.

Inside Christ was divine glory. Once he died, the shell of his “weak” human nature began to crumble. Rather than leading to the complete dissolution of his existence, that crumbling led to freedom for what was inside to “come out” The kernel of the seed – the glorious life inside – began to act not only in his human spirit and soul but also in his body. The bonds of death could not hold him (Acts 2:24). His "indestructible life" (Hebrews 7:16) manifested itself. Or as Melito of Sardis, an early second century writer, put it in his Paschal Discourse: “By his Spirit, which was incapable of dying, he dealt man's destroyer, death, a fatal blow.”

The death of Jesus, then, was a victory over death itself. The very act of dying was itself the way death was overcome. “He destroyed death by death” (Byzantine liturgy). Jesus underwent a human death and proved stronger because of the indestructible glory within.
Steve Clark is President of the Sword of the Spirit. This article is excerpted from his book Redeemer:Understanding the Meaning of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ
copyright © 1992 by Stephen B. Clark, published by Servant Books. It can be purchased online at Tabor House Books

copyright © 2008 The Sword of the Spirit