What did Jesus mean when He said, “I am the resurrection and the life”? Jesus’ teaching and events following this statement reveal much about the resurrection of the dead.
Just days before His crucifixion, Jesus performed one of His most well-known miracles—the raising of His friend, Lazarus, from the dead.
Recorded only in the 11th chapter of John, Jesus tells Martha, Lazarus’ sister, “Your brother will rise again. … I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die” (verses 23, 25-26, emphasis added throughout).
The resurrection of Lazarus and Jesus’ own resurrection, which would occur not long after, were examples of the types of resurrection that will take place in the future. These examples, coupled with Jesus’ instruction, provide important insight into the biblical teaching regarding the resurrection from the dead—the awe-inspiring hope for Christians and all mankind.
Jesus’ teaching on this subject was rejected by the authorities who presided over the Jewish religion, even as these amazing miraculous events occurred. And, sadly, the biblical teaching on this subject is largely misunderstood today.
Before focusing on Jesus’ words to Martha, let’s consider what transpired after Jesus’ conversation with her.
The resurrection of Lazarus
Before Lazarus died, Jesus had learned of his illness and told His disciples, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11:4). Then after Lazarus had died, He said, “Our friend Lazarus sleeps [is dead, see verse 14], but I go that I may wake him up” (verse 11).
After conversing with Martha and then her sister, Mary (verses 28-29), Jesus came to the tomb and asked that the stone sealing the tomb be taken away. He then prayed: “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. And I know that You always hear Me, but because of the people who are standing by I said this, that they may believe that You sent Me” (verses 41-42).
Jesus’ next words were directed toward His friend who had died. “He cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come forth!’” (verse 43). And Lazarus did! He shuffled out of the grave still “bound hand and foot with graveclothes” (verse 44). Lazarus was soon set free, and just as Jesus had predicted, many of the Jews who saw this “believed in Him” (verse 45).
The resurrection of Lazarus to physical life was an astounding miracle. Though the resurrection of the dead is addressed in the Old Testament (Job 14:14-15; Isaiah 26:19; Daniel 12:2), there had only been a few recorded resurrections of the dead back to physical life in the centuries leading up to Christ (1 Kings 17:22; 2 Kings 4:34-35; 13:20-21).
The Bible reveals that what happened to Lazarus is going to occur again, only on a much larger scale after Christ returns and reigns on earth for 1,000 years (Revelation 20:5). Addressing this time, Ezekiel speaks of Israelites coming back to life and being given the opportunity to have God’s Holy Spirit reside within them (Ezekiel 37:1-14).
The resurrection of Lazarus was indeed a notable event in history. But those who opposed Jesus were not swayed. See the sidebar “Jewish Leaders’ Response to the Resurrections” for further explanation.
The resurrection of Jesus
Christ’s resurrection back to life after being crucified is perhaps one of the most universally agreed upon truths within Christianity. The evidence is overwhelming. See “Resurrection of Jesus: Can We Prove It?” for explanation of the biblical proof.
But while Jesus’ resurrection is widely agreed upon, the type of resurrection He experienced has created much confusion within mainstream Christianity. Perhaps this is why so many churches today refrain from addressing the future resurrections spoken of in the Bible and the comprehensive meaning of Jesus’ statement that He is “the resurrection and the life.”
The unbiblical beliefs that humans have an immortal soul and that God is a Trinity have led to much error and misunderstanding about Jesus’ resurrection and what happens to humans after they die. To learn what the Bible actually teaches on these subjects, see “Do Humans Have an Immortal Soul?” and “The Trinity: What Is It?”
Because of the mistaken belief that humans have an immortal soul, many incorrectly believe that only part of Jesus died at His crucifixion. They erroneously believe that Jesus had a soul that continued to live and that only His physical body died.
This mistaken belief raises critically important questions. If Jesus had still been alive as a spirit being, what would have been the point in resurrecting His physical body? And if Jesus already had a spirit body, what was the composition of His physical body after it was resurrected? Furthermore, did Jesus really die for our sins? Or was His crucifixion just a show, an example to influence people?
The simple truth is that Jesus—all of Him—truly died for our sins. He did not continue to exist after His crucifixion. He was completely dead, and this is why God the Father had to raise Him “from the dead” (Galatians 1:1; Colossians 2:12; Acts 4:10; compare Acts 10:40; Romans 8:11).
It couldn’t be plainer. Jesus was dead—not just partially or mostly dead. Again, if Jesus had still been alive as a spirit being, He could have resurrected His own physical body. But He didn’t and couldn’t because He was dead.
When Jesus was resurrected, the Bible says that He came back as “a life-giving spirit” (1 Corinthians 15:45). Now composed of spirit after His resurrection, Jesus on two occasions simply appeared to His disciples who were together behind closed doors (John 20:19, 26). And when He desired, He could appear as a human, eat a meal and then vanish (Luke 24:30-31; John 21:1-14).
The meaning of Christ’s statement: “I am the resurrection and the life”
Now that we have seen the two types of resurrections that occurred within days of Jesus’ crucifixion—the resurrection of Lazarus to physical life and the resurrection of Christ as a spirit being—let’s focus on Jesus’ statement to Martha. What did Jesus mean when He said, “I am the resurrection and the life”?
The point Jesus was making was that He was the Author or One responsible for the resurrection of humans back to life. Embellishing this point with a focus on the resurrection to spirit that believers can receive, Paul referred to Jesus as the One who had become “the firstfruits of those [believers] who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). It is through this type of resurrection that Christians can receive immortality (verses 40-49).
It is through this resurrection—which will occur at Christ’s return—that humans can become immortal spirit beings and members of God’s family.Jesus was the first to be resurrected to spirit, and faithful believers will likewise receive this same type of resurrection when Christ returns. As Paul further explained, “Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality” (verses 51-53; compare 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).
It is through this resurrection—which will occur at Christ’s return—that humans can become immortal spirit beings and members of God’s family. As humans, we do not currently have immortality via an immortal soul.
This process is possible because of Jesus Christ. As John 1:3-4 explains, the Word, the member of the Godhead who became human, made all things and “in Him was life” (compare 1 Corinthians 15:45).
When faithful Christians observe the Passover, they are reminded that Christ is the source of resurrection and eternal life. Speaking of the bread and wine, which represents His beaten body and shed blood in the Passover service, Jesus said, “Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:54).
Our salvation (which includes being given immortality) and our opportunity to be reconciled to God the Father come through Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 5:9; 2 Timothy 1:10; 2 Corinthians 5:18). Jesus is clearly the Author of our salvation and the One through whom we can receive eternal life by being resurrected from the dead or—if we are alive at His return—changed into spirit (Hebrews 5:9; 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).
The resurrections are an important part of God’s plan for humanity. This article has focused on Christ’s role in bringing people back to life and identified the two types of resurrections spoken of in the Bible: resurrection back to physical life and resurrection to a spiritual body. For further study, see “Resurrections: What Are They?”
Sidebar: Jewish Leaders’ Response to the Resurrections
One of the great theological divisions between the Jewish religious authorities of the first century was over whether or not there is a resurrection. The Pharisees believed in the resurrection, while the Sadducees did not (Acts 23:8).
When Jesus resurrected Lazarus from the grave, you might have expected that these Jewish leaders—or at least the Pharisees—would have been pleased that this event answered this question. Unfortunately, this was not their response.
Instead of rejoicing over this miracle, they began plotting to put Jesus to death because this supernatural event was causing people to believe in Him (John 11:47-53). And only a few days later, when people began arriving in Jerusalem to keep the Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread, the Jewish religious authorities discussed ways they might also put Lazarus to death (John 12:9-11).
While the Jewish leaders did manage to orchestrate Jesus’ crucifixion, they were no doubt upset when they heard people saying that Jesus had been resurrected as He had previously said (Matthew 12:38-40; 17:22-23) and that more saints had been resurrected back to physical life (Matthew 27:52-53). And consistent with their attitude toward these resurrections, they were “greatly disturbed that they [the apostles] taught the people and preached in Jesus the resurrection from dead” (Acts 4:2, compare verse 33).
Instead of having joy that people had come back to life and that through Jesus this could happen to all, the religious leaders were angry at the people who were eyewitnesses of these events. They tried to suppress their stories.
Sidebar: Three Future Resurrections
The Bible teaches that there are three major future resurrections that will occur, each at its own time.
The first resurrection will be for the faithful saints. They will be resurrected as immortal spirit beings at Christ’s return and will reign with Him on earth for 1,000 years (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17; 1 Corinthians 15:51-52; Revelation 5:10).
After the 1,000 years, another resurrection will occur in which all who have lived and died without having had a full opportunity to know and live by God’s truth will be resurrected back to physical life and given this opportunity (Revelation 20:5, 11-12; Ezekiel 37:1-14; Matthew 12:41-42).
A third category of people has not yet been accounted for—those who with full knowledge and understanding rejected God’s instructions. These people will briefly be brought back to physical life to be condemned for their ungodly conduct and quickly destroyed in “the lake of fire,” which is “the second death” (Revelation 20:13-15; Daniel 12:2).