Why is the history of Easter such a big deal to Christians? Even if Jesus did get raised from the dead, so what? How does that have any impact on us two thousand years later? How could the apostle Paul write, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied,” (1 Cor. 15: 17, 19)? To answer these questions, we can look to the history of Easter.
Jesus was not just some random Jewish moral teacher who showed up out of nowhere, said radical things, died, and then came back to life. He existed in a rather unique cultural context. Throughout their history, the Israelites experienced cycles of oppression and redemption. They endured vicious periods of exile and enslavement where they could not meet with God’s presence in the temple. In these times, the people cried out to God that He might save them from their exile so that they could be with Him again. God rescued them from their physical oppression, but they eventually were conquered again. In His infinite lovingkindness, God came up with a plan to allow all people, not just the Israelites, to dwell with Him, the source of all life, forever.
For hundreds of years, God sent prophets to the people of Israel to tell them that He was sending a savior to them who would permanently free them from their endless cycle of oppression and redemption. This promise sat in the background of Jewish culture for centuries upon centuries. Every Jewish man, woman, and child longed for the day God would save them permanently. Fast forward to about 30 A.D., when Jesus began His ministry. The Jewish people were engaged in a bitter conflict with the Roman Empire. Rome, being the world’s greatest super power at the time, was winning that conflict. When Jesus started performing miracles and speaking of God, people began asking Him if He was the promised Messiah. When He responded, “I who speak to you am He,” (John 4:26), the Jewish people understandably assumed He was going to save them from the Roman Empire and reign as their king.
Jesus spoke about the kingdom of God finally arriving on earth. This kingdom would be one of peace and unity, where people of all nations could become one multicultural family, united with God on a restored earth, with Jesus as our king. All of the talk about a new king threatened the existing political and religious structures of the day, and the Jewish leaders set out to have Jesus put to death. They got the Roman governor on board with this plan, and had Jesus unjustly executed through false testimonies and illegitimate legal processes.
With their leader dead, Jesus’ disciples were crushed. How could God’s chosen Messiah, sent to rescue them from the Romans (so they thought), be executed? Had God lied to them? May it never be! God’s plan for salvation went beyond rescuing His people from an oppressive regime (though throughout the Old Testament, He has a lot to say about how He will punish the oppressor). The Kingdom of God does not operate according to the ways of the world. God’s kingdom is one of peace, one that does not advance through conquest. How then would He deliver on His promise of everlasting salvation?
The answer came on the morning of the third day after Jesus’ resurrection: God, through Jesus, is remaking all of creation! Jesus is the first fruits of this new creation (1 Cor. 15:20), a sign for us of what is both happening now and still yet to come. Instead of the temporary salvation offered by political rescue, God invites us to become a part of His heavenly kingdom, where we have the promise of bodily resurrection and eternal peace with God and with each other. This is why the history of Easter Sunday is so important to Christians: it is the day we celebrate the single most important event in human history. If Jesus really did rise from the dead, then the things He said about God’s kingdom coming to earth and inviting us to become a part of the new creation are all true.
Since then, spreading the news that Jesus is alive is the primary task of the church. Missionaries traveled far and wide throughout the world to share the fact that Jesus is alive and explain how God’s kingdom is open to all people. In order to spread this news more effectively, missionaries would communicate the history of Easter to people using their own cultural symbols. We can still see some of the artifacts of these cultural adaptations in the eggs and bunnies we see around Easter time. The message of Jesus’ resurrection is just as relevant today as it was in 33 A.D. The recreation work of God is still happening and the invitation to join God’s kingdom is still open to any who will take it today.