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What I need to unlearn: Resuscitation is not resurrection

By June 5, 2023 12 Comments

A few months ago, I attended a gathering of pastors and denominational leaders in my regional synod (the Synod of the Heartland). We worshipped together. We ate together. We lamented together. And we peered into the future with hope together. While many churches have left each of our classes*, a committed remnant remains that is ready to move forward into a new day.

We engaged this key question: When it comes to how we’re doing ministry in our local churches and in our classes, what do we need to unlearn?

Many vulnerable insights were shared, such as how we measure “success,” suspicion and mistrust between churches, and falsely assuming the classis is an external entity (“them” instead of “us”). When it was my turn to share, I was surprised by the sudden clarity that came simply by daring to speak it out loud.

“I need to unlearn that resuscitation is the same thing as resurrection,” I said slowly, talking it out. “The truth is, I’d rather stand outside the tomb of Lazarus and ask God to bring back to life what once was than enter the tomb of Jesus and be astonished by the new thing God is doing.”

I’ve been reflecting on this a lot since that gathering, through the season of Eastertide and into Pentecost. I wonder how many of us do tend to confuse resurrection with resuscitation. We do this in our personal lives. We do this in our churches. We do this with our denominations. I think this has especially been the case in our post-Covid world.

Resuscitation is about asking God to bring back to life what was. We place the dead body of our beloved Lazarus in the tomb, and we weep over what has been lost. We may even feel angry with Jesus that, had he been here, this wouldn’t have happened. The hope is that Jesus will then breathe life again into what was lost. Call Lazarus out of the tomb. Make things like they were before this painful tragedy and loss.

God, make my life what it was like before the diagnosis. God, get me back to who I was before the divorce. God, help us recover the momentum we had in our church before the pandemic. God, take this old Dutch Reformed denomination, shaken by loss, and breathe new life into it.

We prefer lingering outside the tomb of Lazarus, waiting for God to call out the old thing now alive again, because with fingers crossed, we hope to go back the to way things were. God can work his magic, and we just need to carefully unwrap the cloth that covers the dead and then we can get back to the life we knew.

Julia Stankova (Bulgarian, 1954–), Resurrection of Lazarus, 2006.

But that’s not resurrection. Resurrection is not about God bringing back to life what once was; resurrection is God tearing the curtain of the temple, the ground shaking, a stone being rolled away, and something entirely new and unexpected and even terrifying emerging!

Yes, Jesus’ resurrected body was continuous with his old body. But it was also discontinuous with that old body—a new, glorious body drastically different—so different that Jesus could walk through doors and he wasn’t immediately recognizable to his friends who had spent every day with him for three years.

Resurrection is confusing and disorienting. It’s disruptive to what we thought we knew. We are forced to let go of the illusion that we’re in control—that we’ve ever been in control. No wonder Mark’s Gospel ends with the women running out of the cemetery, robes hiked up to their knees, scared out of their wits.

But resurrection is also invigorating, bewildering, and breathtakingly hopeful. We find ourselves feeling more fully alive—not in the sense of getting that old life back but in the sense of something new, beyond what we could ask or imagine, bursting into the present.

To experience this new thing requires that we die. And this right here may be the biggest reason we resist resurrection and settle for getting the old thing back. This may be why it feels safer and more comfortable to stay at the tomb of Lazarus. We don’t want to take up the cross and die. We don’t want to truly let go of what once was, who we once were, and bury it in the ground. What if that’s the end of it? This life. That dream. The things we thought we knew.

And that’s precisely the point. It is the end of it. But it’s not the end of the story. “Behold,” says Jesus. “I make all things new.”

N.T. Wright has said that the stone was rolled away from the tomb not so Jesus could get out but so that we could get in. So that we could be ushered into the death of Christ in order that we might also be raised to new life in Christ.

Maybe you need to unlearn this with me. Our Christian hope is not about getting the old thing back or God making a better version of what was. It is about a God who disrupts and surprises us with something entirely new—something we didn’t see coming, something we couldn’t have ever expected or imagined. Resurrection!

What do you need to let go of in your own life and ministry?

What do you need to let go of in terms of your expectations for your church?

What do we need to let go of as we stumble forward in hope as a denomination?

*A classis is a group of churches, mostly local and regional, in covenant relationship together. More officially defined, the classis is “an assembly and judicatory consisting of all enrolled ministers of that body, commissioned pastors serving under a commission approved by the classis, and the elder delegates who represent all the local and organizing churches within its bounds” (The Book of Church Order, Part 2, Article 2).

Brian Keepers

Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa.


  • Marlyn Visser says:

    Thank you for a very thought provoking post. I can not refrain myself from asking “Did that group of leaders confer among themselves ‘what caused the death of the RCA’?” I struggle with your premise that something has to die before complete resurrection can take place. I see a caterpillar that through the process of metamorphosis rids itself of decaying, prohibiting tissue that permits the beautiful butterfly to mature and to be able to pollinate plants.
    I pray that the CRC will be able to verify my hypothesis as it conducts its synot this week.

    • Rodney Haveman says:

      There is not resurrection without death. We can make changes in life, like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly, but that’s not resurrection.

  • Terry DeYoung says:

    So well said, Brian. At Western Theological Seminary in the 1980s, Dr. Jim Cook drilled home the biblical-theological distinction you’re making—that resuscitation (Lazarus) is NOT the same as resurrection (Jesus)—but you’ve brought the application to a new, challenging level.

    Slowly I’m learning to let God do a new thing rather than simply restoring the old thing to the way I liked it (and maybe brought into being), but that’s easier said than done. Sometimes it’s hard to trust what I’m seeing from the new thing will be better than what was, because that hasn’t always been the case.

  • Nolan Palsma says:

    Brian, this was wonderfully written!

  • Nancy Boote says:

    Amen, Brian! What a wonderful, timely, pre-synod post. May those of us at Synod listen carefully as we discern what is trying to be resuscitated or what is moving us into resurrection. God is at work! I see it! May we all have discerning ears, eyes, and hearts and move forward without fear!

  • Mark S. Hiskes says:

    Thank you for this wise, insightful distinction. You’re exactly right, it seems to me: we want the old brought back to life because it’s what’s familiar, but something new, something alive in a way we’ve never experienced, is scary. It takes faith to follow this Holy Spirit, but I’m with you–and with Wendell Berry, who reminds me to “practice resurrection.”

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    Very suggestive, Brian, juxtaposing wanting the old back, and being open to the new things God is wanting to do in and among and for us.
    What gets me is the matter of continuity and discontinuity. It was the same Jesus, but they had trouble identifying him, seeing him in his new state. Similarly to us. He is resurrecting his body the church, but we don’t “see” it like we should and celebrate it, joining those aspects of newness that are evident.
    There is fear of the new (and of offending those who want Lazarus back). Bless you, in your family, at Trinity and in association with those who co-labor in a resurrected RCA, CRC, UCC, RCC, UM, etc, etc

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Brian, so much here that is so right. I’m not completely convinced, however, that the witnesses to Lazarus’s “Coming out” would not have regarded it as a “resurrection.” Jairus’s daughter, the son of the widow of Nain, neither one of them yet rott8ng, resuscitation, maybe, but what happened to Lazarus was was the “resurrection” that all pious Jews, including Martha, were expecting at The Day. Different, yes, it turns out, from the Resurrection that is in the Lord Jesus, but similar enough for St. Paul, in his defense at trial, appeals to the sympathies of the Pharisees for his proclamation of the Resurrection. And then I’m wondering about your possible implications for us, and for our denominations. The Pauline reality of Old Nature / New Nature, with “old man” still living on in us till we die, and must be rightly managed, so to speak, is one of the chief purposes of Church Order. If we thi k of the Pauline reality in terms of Heidelberg 88-91, the “dying away of the old self” is part of the dynamic of the “coming to life of the new self.” Further, isn’t the Holy Spirit God’s idea of the reality of the Resurrection in our lives today, until Our Lord returns?

  • Kathy Davelaar VanRees says:

    So much good here, Brian. Thank you for this reflection.

  • Kathryn Vilela says:

    I appreciated this insight so much – thank you for putting this into words. Unlearning is an even more difficult process than learning, and yet the best learning can’t be done without it happening. May I have the courage and the humility to do that wherever I need to!

  • Gary says:

    No two Gospels describe the same resurrection appearance. Therefore, there is no corroboration of any specific sighting of a walking, talking resurrected corpse. As a believer, doesn’t that bother you? If three book authors today each claim that the deceased Elvis Presley appeared to different individuals and groups of people 30 years ago, but never describe the same Elvis appearance, wouldn’t you be dubious? There is no corroboration of any specific appearance claim. (That means these claims could all be made up/fiction.)

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