You might be recoiling in horror at sight of Easter eggs already in the shop, knowing as you do that the Christmas season does not cease until Candlemas on February 3rd—and you might be shocked that, in apparently similar vein, I am already looking forward to Easter. The theological justification is that Easter is actually not far from sight in the nativity narratives, but the practical reason for mentioning this is that BRF have published their excellent Guidelines Bible reading notes, and I have contributed a series on the Resurrection in Acts, from which I offer an extract here. If you are not encouraging those in your congregation to use Guidelines, what Bible reading notes are you encouraging?
There are a number of inter-related themes in the Acts of the Apostles, and different commentators give these themes different prominence. As the title suggests, there is an important focus on the ministry of the apostles, both the 11 (expanded again to 12) who were called by Jesus, but also a wider ministry of apostles beyond the 12. At the heart of the narrative are the key leaders Peter (apostle primarily to the Jews) and Paul (apostle primarily to the Gentiles). Luke makes sure that his account gives equal importance to both, with each of them preaching, experiencing opposition, performing remarkable miracles, being imprisoned and miraculously released, and being instrumental in the spread of the message about Jesus.
A second focus is the work of the Spirit—and some might argue that the book should be called The Acts of the Spirit rather than the Acts of the Apostles! It is the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost which sets the context for the whole narrative; it is the Spirit who enables the ‘signs and wonders’ that marked the apostolic ministry; and it is the Spirit who equips his people for their courageous testimony. The Spirit is at times the stage-manager of the drama, as the ministry and testimony spreads out in widening circles, like ripples in a pond, so that the story that begins in a marginal province of the Roman Empire ends with the message being taken to that Empire’s centre, and proclaimed unhindered.
Yet undergirding all this action is a core message, which is less often the focus of commentary but which holds all the other things together: the message of Jesus’ resurrection. It is the resurrection (followed by Jesus’ ascension) which makes possible the outpouring of the Spirit; by the resurrection God vindicates Jesus and proves that he was the promised Messiah; the resurrection both fulfils the promises of the past and holds out hope for the future; and the resurrection puts all beliefs and philosophies under scrutiny. Through the many and varied episodes of Acts, the resurrection features with remarkable consistency—as we will discover in the coming days.
1. The Resurrection Forms a New Community Acts 1:1–22
The opening chapter of Acts is key in setting the scene for all that follows. Luke points us to three particular themes in his brief description of the ‘in-between’ time of ‘40 days’ (verse 3), recalling both the 40 years of desert wandering in Exodus and Jesus’ preparation time of 40 days in the desert on the same pattern.
The first theme is that of continuity. Luke has already written to Theophilus of all that Jesus ‘began to do and to teach’ and is now going to describe Jesus’ continuing ministry through his followers in the power of the Spirit. Jesus continues to teach ‘through the Holy Spirit’ (verse 2) and Luke draws some detailed parallels to the work of the Spirit from his gospel. Just as the Spirit ‘came upon’ Mary in Luke 1:35, enabling Mary to testify to God’s goodness and bringing to birth the Messiah, so the Spirit will ‘come upon’ the disciples (verse 8), enabling them to testify and bringing to birth a new community of followers of Jesus.
This continuity is also expressed in the repeated emphasis on community. They listened to Jesus’ teaching and asked him questions ‘when they met together’ (v. 5), and this community included the remaining 11 of the 12 (compare Luke 6:12–16) as well as the women who accompanied Jesus (Luke 8:1–3) and now Jesus’ own family, who had previously been at a distance from his ministry. As they consider the need to appoint a successor to Judas Iscariot, it becomes clear what defines this community. They are seeking someone who has had continuous experience with them of this Jewish renewal movement starting with John the Baptist (v. 22)—but the defining feature is that this person must be ‘a witness with us of the resurrection’. This renewal of God’s people focusses on a resurrection community—as Paul confirms in his account in 1 Cor 15:3–8.
This is what makes the third theme so important—that of confidence in their resurrection message. Why does Jesus spend so much time with them prior to the ascension? So that he could ‘present himself alive to them with many convincing proofs’ (v. 3). This deep confidence will allow the resurrection community to testify and ministry in continuity with Jesus’ own ministry in the face of serious opposition.
2. The Resurrection calls for Repentance Acts 2:14–39
Pentecost is sometimes called ‘The birthday of the church’, and, as we have seen, Luke has drawn a parallel between the birth of Jesus and the birth of this new movement. But the word translated ‘church’, ekklesia, was used in the Greek Old Testament for the ‘congregation’ of Israel, the people of God. Luke does not see ‘the church’ as replacing ‘Israel’ but depicts this new movement as a fulfilment of God’s promises and the people’s hopes.
Luke’s version of Peter’s speech explaining the dramatic events of the Spirit’s outpouring falls into two halves of equal length—verses 14b to 24, and 25 to 36—and some scholars argue that the text has 444 syllables in each half, making 888 in total, the number of Jesus’ name in Greek. The speech clearly focusses on Jesus, and ends with the rousing climax. ‘God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah (or ‘Christ’)’ (v. 36). Peter reaches this conclusion in each half, moving from Old Testament texts, seeing them fulfilled in Jesus, and finding full expression in his resurrection.
First, the outpouring of the Spirit, which the crowd have witnessed in the sound of wind, the tongues of fire and the multilingual praise of God, fulfils Joel’s prophecy of the ‘last days’ (v. 17). The ‘signs and wonders’ Joel had anticipated already began in Jesus’ ministry, and Peter assumes that many in the crowd were already aware of this. These reached their fullest expression when ‘God raised [Jesus] from the dead’, an event for Peter’s hearers of both national and cosmic significance, since resurrection meant both the renewal of Israel (from Ezekiel 37) and the end of the age (from Daniel 12:2). Secondly, Jesus’ victory over death fulfilled king David’s hope for life with God, which David did not himself experience. David ‘saw what was to come’ not in a wooden, literalist sense—but in the sense that he knew that God was faithful and would triumph over death, and this was now achieved in Jesus’ resurrection.
The resurrection changed everything, and demonstrated God’s vindication of Jesus which completely overturned his rejected and condemnation by the Jewish authorities. Just as at the start of Jesus’ ministry (Mark 1:15) a new reality has broken in—and the only appropriate response is to repent and believe.
3. Resurrection Overturns the Old Order Acts 4:1–14
The signs and wonders that are the hallmark of the presence of the Spirit, in fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy, have continued as Peter and John heal the lame man by the Beautiful Gate in chapter 3. Just as Mary had proclaimed in the Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55), God’s presence in power means that the ‘humble are lifted up’. But it also means that the ‘rulers are brought down’, and this explains the sudden shift in focus as the two disciples are held (‘jail’ was a place of holding for trial, rather than punishment) and then quizzed by the leaders.
The size of this new movement is not yet the concern of the authorities; what they are worried about is the content of its teaching. Luke notes that the Sadducees ‘who say there is no resurrection’ (Luke 20:27) are the first to be concerned, along with others whose influence comes from their link with the temple and the sacrificial system. Luke has already linked his whole story with Annas and Caiaphas (Luke 3:2) and the other gospels writers note their role in Jesus’ trial (Matthew 26:57, John 18:24). Peter and John are facing the same challenges that Jesus did, and cite the same prophetic psalm, 118, as explanation for what God is now doing. Jesus is ‘the stone the builders rejected’ who is now ‘the cornerstone’ (compare Luke 20:17), and this language of stones and buildings offers a direct challenge to the importance of the temple.
Peter makes a direct link between the resurrection and the power to heal; just as Jesus was raised up from death to stand before God, so this man has been raised up from his lameness to stand, and both are a demonstration of God’s action. But he goes further; if God really is rebuilding his people on the foundation of Jesus (1 Corinthians 3:11), then the world has changed. Joel’s prophecy makes it clear that those who ‘call on the name of the Lord’, that is, Israel’s God, ‘will be saved’ (Joel 2:32), but Peter now claims that this Lord is none other than Jesus (compare Romans 10:6). The resurrection not only offers the forgiveness of sins, and releases the power for healing by the Spirit—it signals the end of the old age and the new age of the longed-for kingdom breaking in. No wonder the authorities were worried!
4. The Resurrection as the Centre of Testimony Acts 4:23–37
In this next part of Acts 4, the themes of continuity, community and confidence (that we saw from chapter 1) are once again prominent. Just as Jesus’ rejection by the leaders continued the experience of prophets of the Old Testament (Luke 13:34), so the opposition that Peter and John are experiencing continues the rebellion of the leaders of the nations against God’s just rule in Psalm 2. In the face of this, their knowledge of Jesus’ resurrection gives them ever more confidence; instead of praying for protection (as many of us might), they ask for greater boldness!
This is all in the context of a radical commitment to community, extending not just to common practices of worship and teaching, but to shared financial resources too. In the summary statement of verse 32, Luke seems deliberately to be echoing his earlier summary in 2:42, but expands on what that means in more detail, as individuals sell their possessions and share the proceeds. This leads to the positive example of Joseph Barnabas, who becomes key in the beginnings of the Gentile mission with Paul, and the negative example of Ananias and Sapphira in the next chapter. It seems that this new communal life of the Spirit, centred on the resurrection, brings the division of judgement as well as the unity of a shared life.
But at the centre of all this lies the word of testimony. Testimony (or witness) is the thread running right through the narrative of Acts. At the beginning, Jesus promises the gift of the Spirit ‘so that you will be my witnesses’(1:8) in ever-increasing circles from Jerusalem outwards, and at the end Paul is continuing to bear witness as he preaches about Jesus unhindered (28:31). (This is one of several ways that Luke and Acts are surprisingly connected with the Book of Revelation, where faithful testimony is also a central theme.) As the believers prayed for boldness and were filled with the Spirit, they ‘spoke the word of God’—the message about the resurrection (compare 4:4 and 8:25). Similarly, the power of the Spirit enables the apostles (here meaning The Twelve) to ‘testify to the resurrection of Jesus’. The resurrection gives them a new communal life, a new committed purpose, and a new central message.
I would heartily recommend Guidelines as a way of enabling personal Bible reading. They have a great slate of writers (as you can see from the cover of the current edition here) and are arranged into weekly blocks. But the days are not individually dated, which helps to assuage any guilt for missed days, and there is a summary reflection at the end of the week to draw themes together. So they aim to stimulate understanding, reflection and application. You can order online from the BRF website here. Do also check out the resources available from Scripture Union.
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