Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Ordinance of Jesus Christ's Resurrection

The subject of Jesus Christ’s resurrection is one that has often caused me to wonder, especially at Easter time as I am reminded of his victory over the grave. It’s not that I wonder whether he was resurrected—I know he lives with a divine surety. Rather, I wonder about the process of that first resurrection.

My mind (as previously noted with regards to the issues of sanctification and justification) likes order, and the scriptures that describe Jesus Christ’s victory over the grave are not orderly; they seem to disagree with each other as to how the resurrection was accomplished. Take, for instance, the words of Paul: “And God hath both raised up the Lord, and will also raise up us by his own power” (1 Cor. 6:14). Elsewhere he writes, “But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Cor. 15:57). The agency here is clear: Heavenly Father (God) resurrected Jesus Christ.

But the gospel of John presents an apparent contradiction; Christ teaches that “no man taketh [my life] from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again” (John 10:18). Here Jesus Christ is an autonomous agent who brings about his own resurrection.

And just to muddle things up, let’s look at Lehi’s statement regarding the Christ’s death and resurrection: “[the Holy Messiah] layeth down his life according to the flesh, and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit, that he may bring to pass the resurrection of the dead, being the first that should rise” (2 Ne. 2:8). Agency here is not nearly so clear as in the first two examples, but seems to involve two different members of the Godhead: the Son (who acts) and the Holy Ghost (who makes that act efficacious).

So which is it? The Father, Son, or Holy Ghost? Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, in his excellent book, Christ and the New Covenant, attributes this miracle to the Son: “The message [of Christianity] is that a man who was dead did, by his own power, infuse life back into his own body, never again to experience the separation of his spirit from that body in time or eternity. In so doing, he magnificently and magnanimously provided, by that same power, a similar experience for every other man, woman, and child who would ever live in this world” (238). So too, Elder Russell M. Nelson, who said of the Christ that “He brought about his own resurrection” (“Life after Life,” Ensign 5/87).

So if modern apostles are so clear on this point—that Jesus Christ resurrected himself—what are we to make of the numerous scriptural verses (and not all in the Bible, either) that suggest otherwise? These are only a few of the problematic verses:

“And thus God breaketh the bands of death, having gained the victory over death; giving the Son power to make intercession for the children of men” (Mosiah 15:8).

“This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses” (Acts 2:32).

“Him God raised up the third day, and shewed him openly” (Acts 10:40).

“...believe in Jesus Christ, that he is the Son of God, and that he was slain by the Jews, and by the power of the Father he hath risen again, whereby he hath gained the victory over the grave.” (Mormon 7:5)

“The God of our fathers raised up Jesus” (Acts 5:30).

These verses—scriptures that attest to the Father’s role in Jesus Christ’s resurrection—make sense and can be reconciled with scriptures that attribute Christ’s resurrection solely to his own power if we recognize the resurrection as an ordinance. The prophet Joseph Smith, describing the resurrection, said that,

“...the spirit is a substance; that it is material, but that it is more pure, elastic and refined matter than the body; that it existed before the body, can exist in the body; and will exist separate from the body, when the body will be mouldering in the dust; and will in the resurrection be again united with it.

“Without attempting to describe this mysterious connection, and the laws that govern the body and the spirit of man, their relationship to each other, and the design of God in relation to the human body and spirit, I would just remark that the spirits of men are eternal, that they are governed by the same Priesthood that Abraham, Melchizedek, and the Apostles were: that they are organized according to that Priesthood which is everlasting, ‘without beginning of days or end of years,’—that they all move in their respective spheres, and are governed by the law of God” (TPJS 163).

To summarize: the “mysterious connection” that binds matter and spirit together “in the resurrection” is “governed by the same Priesthood” that makes every other aspect of our salvation and exaltation possible. Brigham Young later confirmed what Joseph here intimates—that resurrection is a priesthood ordinance. He explains to the Saints that “[w]e have not, neither can we receive here [on earth], the ordinance and the keys of the resurrection” (JD 15:137).

And how does understanding that resurrection is an ordinance reconcile conflicting scriptures that alternately attribute Christ’s resurrection to his own agency, to that of the Father, to the power of the Spirit—or, as Brigham Young posits, to an angel? (BY: “Jesus Christ’s body was called from the tomb by the angel” [JD 8:260].) Recognizing that resurrection is an ordinance clarifies this conundrum because every ordinance presupposes the existence of a priesthood administrator and a patron who actively participates in the ordinance. In this case, Christ was the patron—or recipient—of the ordinance; he “received” resurrection in the same way that you or I “receive” baptism.

Brigham Young explained that the power to resurrect can only be held by those that themselves possess an immortal body of flesh and bone. Speaking of Joseph Smith, President Young said, “His spirit is waiting for the resurrection of the body, which will soon be. But has he the power to resurrect that body? He has not. Who has this power? Those that have already passed through the resurrection—who have been resurrected in their time and season by some person else, and have been appointed to that authority just as you Elders have with regard to your authority to baptize. You have not the power to baptize yourselves, neither have you power to resurrect yourselves; and you could not legally baptize a second person until some person first baptized you and ordained you to this authority. So with those that hold the keys of the resurrection” (JD 6.275). Thus “we cannot finish our work, while we live here” and resurrect ourselves, “no more than Jesus did while he was in the flesh” (JD 15.137). Even if Christ possessed the power to resurrect himself, he could not have held the keys as a spirit (remember that Moses and others had to be translated so that they could hold and pass keys on through the physical laying on of hands).

But if Jesus was the patron in the ordinance of resurrection—if he was resurrected by an immortal Father who then conferred the keys of resurrection on him—then how are we to understand the statements of Elders Holland and Nelson, of scriptures that attribute the resurrection to Christ’s own power and divine inheritance? Those scriptures make sense if we think of the resurrection as an ordinance analogous to the healing of the sick. President Spencer W. Kimball said that when priesthood holders anoint the sick with consecrated oil, “the major element is the faith of the individual when that person is conscious and accountable” (“Kimball Speaks Out,” New Era 10/81). In other words, the power of healing rests primarily with the individual being healed, with the patron and not the priesthood administrator. This is the same point made by Elder Dallin H. Oaks in his recent talk on priesthood blessings: blessings draw their power from the faith of the individual receiving the ordinance and are efficacious only when there is sufficient faith.

This, then, is the understanding of Christ’s resurrection that I now embrace (until I receive further light and knowledge): He received the ordinance of resurrection at the hands of the Father, as he received the ordinance of baptism at the hands of John the Baptist, in order to “fulfill all righteousness . . . humbleth himself before the Father . . . [and] set the example before [the children of men]” (2 Ne. 31:6-9). He received the ordinance as a patron and so could not be said to have resurrected himself—but his faith provided the power that made the ordinance efficacious. Perhaps, because of his divine nature and sinless life, he could have had the power to resurrect himself and conquer death without the Father’s intervention—but it seems consistent with gospel principles that the priesthood be used only to “bless others” (Eyring, “God Helps…” Ensign 11/07) and not to perfect his own salvation.

This is a hard thing for me to wrap my head around … insights welcome.


Jenny said...

me thinks I can't hold my breath long enough to reach the depth at which you swim.

Alana said...

Good thoughts my friend, have you run it by your BOM professor? It seems quite clear when you search the words of the prophets and the scriptures.

Anonymous said...

Very insightful. It is evident you have pondered and searched much on the subject. I think your openness to more revelation ("until I receive further light and knowledge") will be the key to knowing for yourself truth on the matter. I have similar feelings and ideas that continue to ponder in my heart.

Anonymous said...

Just a thought u might want to add to your research: "Touch me not, for I have not yet ascended to my Father". This verse does not say that the father din't resurrect the Son, but could add some more thoughts on the topic.

Anonymous said...

This is an ordinance that can be performed by a spirit. Even to ones self. Prayerfully ponder section 138. Particularly verse 51.

Anonymous said...

The apocryphal book name the gospel of niccodemus enlightens us more on christs visit to the spirit world. He gives Adam before his resurrection the keys of resurrection.