The Resurrection as Jesus' Climactic Miracle

Robert M. Bowman, Jr.

Jehovah's Witnesses believe that Jesus was raised as a spirit and not in a physical or human body, as orthodox Christians believe. Discussions of the merits of this controversial claim usually focus on a battery of prooftexts, such as 1 Corinthians 15:50b (a favorite Jehovah's Witness prooftext) or Luke 24:39 (a favorite orthodox prooftext).1  However, since God gave the Bible to us in books, not in isolated prooftexts, we ought to make an effort to read the debated verses in the context of the whole book of the Bible in which they appear.

In this two-part article we will examine the teaching of the Gospel of John as a whole in relation to the question of the nature of the resurrection body of Jesus Christ. In Part One, we examine the Prologue to the Gospel and review the narrative of the entire Gospel as it relates to the Resurrection. In Part Two, to be published in the next issue of the Watchman Expositor, we will examine key sayings of Jesus throughout the Gospel that bear on the question.

The Prologue: Jesus as God's Glory in the Flesh (John 1:1-18)

The Gospel of John opens with a Prologue (1:1-18) revealing who Jesus really is. He is the "Word" (Greek, logos) through whom God spoke all things into existence (cf. Gen. 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26, 29; Ps. 33:6, 9). This Word turns out to be a person who was with God and yet was himself God (John 1:1-3).2  As the divine Word, he was the life-giving bearer of the divine Light, the Shekinah, or glorious presence of God revealed in so many different ways to Israel (John 1:4-5). Heralded by John the Baptist (1:6-8), the Word came into the world to bestow on all who believe in him the privilege of becoming God's children (1:9-13).

How did he do this? John explains, "And the Word became flesh and dwelt [eskênôsen] among us, and we beheld his glory" (1:14). The verb eskênôsen is related to the word for "tent," as even the Watchtower recognizes in its interlinear rendering, "tented."3  The use of this term in connection with the divine "glory" manifested in Jesus shows that John is speaking of Jesus as the new tabernacle (the wilderness precursor to the Temple) in which God's Shekinah glory is revealed. Thus, it is Jesus' human nature as "flesh" (sarx), a term emphasizing his physical embodiment, that functions as the tabernacle in which God's glory is revealed.

This divine glory as it is revealed in Jesus does not, as it did in the Old Testament, take the form of a fearfully bright or fiery light such as was seen when God gave the Law to Israel through Moses (Ex. 19:18; 20:18-21).  Instead, it is the glory of God's "grace and truth," declared and shown obliquely to Moses (Ex. 34:6) but now "realized through Jesus Christ" (John 1:14, 17). God himself had told Moses that no human being could see God and live (Ex. 33:20); but now, in God's "only-begotten," God is in effect seen in Jesus, who perfectly reveals and fully bestows the Father's glorious grace to all who believe in him (John 1:14, 16, 18). Thus, it is in his human existence that Jesus fully embodies God's glory.

The Signs: Jesus' Miracles and the Miracle of the Resurrection

The Gospel of John is structured around a series of miracles that Jesus performed and that John describes as "signs" that "manifested his glory" (John 2:11). John's purpose in selecting and telling about these miracles, out of the many that could have been described, is to foster faith in Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God, in whom those who believe will have life (John 20:30-31). The Gospel divides neatly into two major sections. The first (John 1:19-11:45) presents seven miraculous signs from Jesus' ministry, culminating in the resurrection of Lazarus from the dead. The second section (John 11:46-21:23) presents the events of the Passion Week culminating in Jesus' death and resurrection from the dead, the final and climactic sign of his glory. Thus, the two halves of the Gospel both end with a dramatic resurrection from the dead.

The seven signs of Jesus' ministry all illustrate his purpose in coming into the world, which was "that they might have life, and might have it abundantly" (John 10:10b). So, Jesus changes water into wine (John 2:1-11), restores a sick boy's health (John 4:46-54), makes a lame man walk (John 5:1-18), feeds thousands with almost nothing (John 6:1-14), walks on the life-threatening sea (John 6:16-21), gives sight to a blind man (John 9:1-41), and finally raises Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-45).

All of these signs are physical miracles in which Jesus performs divine life-giving acts in the physical, material realm. The resurrection of Jesus fits comfortably and climactically into the story as the most stupendous miracle of all. In fact, the last of these signs of Jesus' ministry anticipate Jesus' own resurrection. The fact that both accounts occupy a climactic place in the Gospel proves that the considerable parallels between the two accounts are neither accidental nor incidental (see table below). Thus, Lazarus's resurrection is an anticipation of Jesus' resurrection, which in turn is the basis of Lazarus's resurrection (John 11:25-26). 

 

Lazarus' Resurrection (John 11)Jesus' Resurrection (John 20-21)
Lazarus' death will result in the glorifying of God and His Son (John 11:4, 40).Jesus' death will result in the glorifying of God and His Son (John 13:31-32; 17:1-5).
Lazarus was buried in a rock tomb sealed with a stone (John 11:17, 38).Jesus' body was buried in a rock tomb sealed with a stone (John 19:41; 20:1).
The stone was removed from the entrance before anyone saw Lazarus (John 11:39-41).The women discovered the stone had been removed (supernaturally) from Jesus' tomb before anyone saw Jesus (John 20:1).
Lazarus' body had been bound with burial cloths and a separate head wrapping (John 11:44).Jesus' body had been bound with burial cloths and a separate head wrapping (John 19:40; 20:5-7).
Jesus ordered Lazarus' burial wrappings removed (John 11:44).Jesus' burial wrappings were neatly left behind in his tomb (John 20:5-7).
Jesus comforts a woman friend named Mary who is weeping (John 11:31-33).Jesus comforts a woman friend named Mary who is weeping (John 20:11-13).
Jesus "raised from the dead" (egeiren ek nekron) Lazarus (John 12:1).Jesus "was raised from the dead" (egertheis ek nekron) (John 21:14).

The Resurrection: Jesus' Glory is Fully Revealed

In comparing the climactic narrative of Jesus' resurrection appearances with the account of Lazarus's resurrection, we have already seen clear evidence that Jesus rose physically from the grave. A more direct review of the narrative of Jesus' resurrection will confirm this understanding.

Jesus' body was buried in a tomb, but on the first day of the week the tomb was discovered empty (John 19:38-20:4). The burial clothes were left behind and the head wrapping rolled up separately, showing that Jesus' physical body was neither stolen nor destroyed, but was alive (John 20:5-8). This is a crucial point, since the standard view among Jehovah's Witnesses is that Jehovah dissolved Jesus' physical body into gases!

When Mary saw Jesus and recognized him, she embraced his body in such a way that Jesus had to ask her to stop clinging to him (20:11-17). Later that evening Jesus appeared to the men disciples and showed them his hands and side where the nails and spear had left marks (20:19-20, cf. 19:34). When Thomas, who was not there at the time, heard about it, he stated that he would not believe unless he also saw the marks in Jesus' body (20:24-25). A week later, Jesus appeared again, and showed Thomas his hands and side, inviting Thomas to touch the marks (20:26-27). All of these elements confirm the physical nature of Jesus' resurrection body, and it requires an unusually creative, forced reading of the passage to conclude otherwise.

Jehovah's Witnesses do, however, claim to find some evidence in the passage to support their view that Jesus had been resurrected as a spirit rather than as a human being. They point out that Mary Magdalene failed to recognize Jesus at first (John 20:14-16), and that likewise the men disciples on one occasion failed to recognize Jesus at first (John 21:4-7). The Witnesses infer from this fact that Jesus' body did not look the same as it had before he died. They also note that Jesus appeared twice to the disciples in the unlocked upper room (John 20:19, 26). The Witnesses conclude that the body in which he appeared on these occasions was a temporary body materialized for the purpose of communicating with human beings.

These inferences from the narrative are unwarranted. John tells us nothing that would suggest that Jesus was appearing to the disciples in anything other than his own resurrection body. The presence of marks where his mortal body had been wounded by the nails and spear certainly is especially difficult to explain on the Watchtower view. Why would Jesus temporarily manifest himself in a physical body that did not look like him when he was human, and yet bore the marks of his suffering?

In both instances where Jesus' disciples failed to recognize him at first, John carefully tells us factors that can account for their confusion without resorting to the theory that his body looked like someone else. Mary Magdalene was standing outside the tomb in the early morning, probably before full light (John 20:1, 11). She was distraught with grief and crying (John 20:11, 13, 15). When she first saw Jesus, she was not looking directly at him; only when he said her name did she turn to face him directly (John 20:14, 16). Given all the physical and psychological factors, it would have been surprising if she had recognized Jesus immediately! In the other occurrence, the disciples were in a fishing boat at dawn and saw Jesus standing on the shore about one hundred yards away, or the length of a football field (John 21:4, 8). Again, it is quite understandable that they would not have recognized him at first in such a situation.

The point here is not that Jesus necessarily looked exactly as he had looked before his death. To understate the matter, presumably immortality agreed with Jesus and he never looked better! But there is nothing in John's Gospel to support the claim that he no longer looked like the man Jesus that the disciples had known for three years.

As for Jesus suddenly appearing in the upper room when the doors were locked, such an act is obviously miraculous but hardly proof that Jesus was assuming physical form only for the moment. Recall that one of the miracles that John reports Jesus doing in his ministry was walking out to the disciples' boat on the sea (John 6:16-21). If Jesus could transcend physical limitations in such a way before his death and resurrection, surely he could do so after his resurrection in that and other ways.

The entire narrative of John's Gospel, then, supports the conclusion that Jesus rose physically from the grave. Unlike Lazarus, Jesus rose to immortal life; like Lazarus, though, Jesus' resurrection involved the bringing back to life of his physical body. In Part Two, we will see that this conclusion is also strongly supported by Jesus' teaching in the Gospel of John. 
  
1 On these and other prooftexts, see Robert M. Bowman, Jr., Jehovah's Witnesses, Zondervan Guide to Cults and Religious Movements (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), pp.  39-48. 
 2 On John 1:1, see Robert M. Bowman, Jr., Jehovah's Witnesses, Jesus Christ, and the Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), pp. 17-84. 
 3 See The Kingdom Interlinear Translation of the Greek Scriptures, rev. ed. (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1985), at John 1:14.

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