He wasn’t the first man to die that way and he certainly wasn’t the last. Dying slowly was almost popular – at least with spectators. It was the cruelest of deaths, but that was not the point. The point was the utter degradation. Hanging there, naked, leaking from bowls, bladder and wounds. It was a statement writ large: outside of humanity, utterly rejected. It was the punishment of slaves and rebels, those who threatened civilisation and the social order of the Roman Empire. Those crucified ceased to be human, ceased to be a threat. With them died everything they stood for. It was truly the end. Odd then, that it should be seen as Jesus crowning moment.
It was the resurrection that made the difference. Now, in Jesus day, the idea of the resurrection was not new. It was part of the normal Jewish view of the world. You died, went to the shadow world of Sheol, and then, on the last day, resurrected: some to life and others to punishment. It was a great day for some (mostly Jews) and terrible for others (mostly those who oppressed the Jews, like the Romans). There was nothing revolutionary about this idea. It was what most people just assumed. Of course, some people did come back from Sheol, as in the boy raised by Elijah for the widow, or when Jesus raised Lazarus, but this was more a restoring life. You still died and ended up in Sheol in the end. The resurrection was not quite like that. It was the start of a new order. So, when Jesus was raised from the dead, it was both important, and surprising. The future had arrived – but not quite as expected.
God was inaugurating the new thing that had been promised. His Kingdom had come: his new order. But it was coming quietly, not with the cataclysm that the people had expected. The great and terrible ‘Day of the Lord’, was still to come – just nobody quite knew when. Even, apparently, Jesus. However, even if there was still some waiting to do, it was nevertheless good news. The resurrection was no longer just a mere hope. It was now in evidence. Death had been given its marching orders and new life to be had.
The fact is, that while the cross brought forgiveness of sins and reconciliation to God, this remains pretty moot if we are all going to die anyway. That is why the resurrection is such a big deal. It is our hope. It is both the evidence that the cross was not in vain and also the place to which the cross points. The promised heavenly banquet has been announced and the invites issued. The resurrection has become the source of our faith, the evidence of things hoped for the reality of things not yet seen. The cross brought the old to an end. The resurrection inaugurates the new.
As Paul points out, if Christ did not rise from the dead, then we are of all people the most miserable. Without the resurrection, the cross means nothing, a means of removing a threat to the Roman Empire. That is all. But that was not how it ended and we are now a people of the resurrection.