As Christians gather on Easter Sunday they celebrate a victory with repercussions throughout time and space. Jesus Christ is the “lamb slain from the foundation of the world,” so God had been preparing for His death and resurrection for a long, long time.
As Jesus was preparing Peter for a leadership role among His disciples, he told Peter that the gates of hell would never prevail against His church (Matt. 16:18). Many readers and even some translators take that to mean that Satan’s dominion is attacking, trying to destroy the church. Students of military history, on the other hand, see something very different.
They understand that gates are not an offensive weapon, but rather a defensive fortification. Hell is, as it were, the city that is under siege, not the church.
In other words, Jesus is telling Peter that the church is invading hell, and that the gates of hell cannot withstand the His church. Jesus’ resurrection is the key to understanding this strange saying.
After Jesus’ death and burial His disciples were understandably in shock. According to the gospel-writer John, Mary Magdalene was the first on the scene on Sunday morning before sunrise to discover the grave opened and Jesus’ body missing. She reports the missing body to Peter and “the other disciple” (probably John himself). They enter the tomb, find the burial cloths neatly folded on the slab, and leave. (John 20:1-10)
Mary remains behind, and enters the tomb, where she sees two angels. They ask why she is crying, and she replies that somebody has taken Jesus’ body. She turns around and sees Jesus, but does not recognize Him until He addresses her by name.
He tells her not to cling to Him, because He has not yet ascended to His Father. He tells her to go tell the rest of His disciples the good news that Jesus is alive! John doesn’t resume the story until later in the day, and we will pick up that thread in a moment.
On a side note, it is interesting that Jesus chooses to show Himself first to a woman, and then commissions her to tell the rest of the disciples. What is interesting is that in that society women were not considered to be reliable witnesses. Since at least two male disciples had come and gone, one has to suspect that Jesus is sending His disciples the message that He views women as equal partners in Him.
Meanwhile, in a different section of the outskirts of the city, a group of priests approaches a field that has been set apart for a special purpose. These priests are following instructions that relate to a special Jewish ceremony that was to take place on the Sunday during Passover week each year. (This is according to the reckoning of the Sadducees, not the majority opinion that is currently followed in modern Orthodox Judaism. Since the Sadducees were the priests, I would expect them to have gotten the timing right.)
Leviticus 23:9-14 describes the sacrifice that is to occur on that day. It consists of three elements:
1) A male year-old unblemished lamb as a burnt offering (completely consumed in the fire).
2) An offering of the first-fruits of grain mixed with oil as a meal offering. Note that none of the rest of that year’s grain can be brought in or eaten until this offering is made. As it is being put in the fire, it will look and smell like unleavened bread.
3) An offering of wine.
Notice how closely this national offering looks like the Passover meals that families would have partaken of mere days earlier.
On that day the priests would go to a selected field before dawn to prepare a set quantity of grain for harvest at dawn. They would wave the sheaves toward the sky as a “wave offering” to be accepted by God. They would then grind and sift it for the grain offering mentioned above.
The meaning of the ritual for Christians: Jesus, the Lamb of God is presented, alive, as the first-fruits of the resurrection harvest.
God had been preparing for the resurrection of Jesus Christ for a long, long time. This ceremony was presented to Israel at least a millennium before Jesus was resurrected. According to priestly reckoning, it was always to happen on the Sunday during Passover week. This makes it the actual (non-pagan) origin of the day we have since come to call Easter Sunday.
The theme of harvest and new life continues into the next festival that is directly dependent on it: Pentecost. We find out in Leviticus 23:15 that this is the first day of the countdown to Pentecost (called the Feast of Weeks in the Old Testament). On this day an offering of loaves is waved before God, suggesting a progression from first-fruits of grain to a completed harvest.
We now go back to John’s account (John 20:19-23) at the point where Jesus appears to His disciples in the locked room. He ends that meeting with them by breathing upon them and saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Jesus seems to have planted in them the seeds of the manifestation of the Spirit at Pentecost on the day of the first-fruits offering.
On the day of His resurrection Jesus empowers His disciples with the very Spirit of His resurrection, preparing them to be the church that attacks the powers of the grave. Jesus was dead, but has conquered the powers of death by being alive now.
Jesus has broken down the gates of Hell, and now multitudes are streaming out of certain death into glorious eternal life. The prison of death is locked no more, and every person that is saved by the offer of life in Jesus is one more escapee from hell.
The gospel is preached to the lost, and the kingdom of Satan is rapidly depleting, no matter how it looks on the surface. Christians have no need to fear the powers of darkness because Jesus has defeated the worst that the devil can throw at us. Death reigns no more. King Jesus rules!