This is the third instalment of my notes written for BRF Guidelines Bible reading notes which have just come out and lead up to the Easter season. You can read the first instalment (…’creates a transformed community’) here and the second instalment (‘…the fulfilment of God’s promises’) here. If you are not encouraging those in your congregation to use Guidelines, what Bible reading notes are you encouraging?
10. Resurrection as a challenge to culture (ii) Acts 17:22–34
Because of his debating in the agora, the main marketplace in the centre of Athens, Paul has been called before the council of the senior men governing Athens. They meet at the Areopagus (‘Ares Rock’), a rocky hill overlooking the marketplace, to the west of the main acropolis on which the Parthenon was built. The implication is that Paul is making an appeal for recognition of his new gods, and the council need to grant approval for new altar to be added in the pantheon—though Paul quickly dismisses this option. The God he proclaims cannot simply be slotted in to the existing patterns of belief.
His speech is often taken as an example of Paul’s accommodation to culture, and Paul certainly engages his listeners in terms they understand. His opening greeting ‘Men of Athens!’ (sometimes translated ‘People of Athens’ or ‘Athenians’—though only men are present) is the formally correct way to address the council, and Paul’s speech, even as edited by Luke, contains numerous rhetorical devices that would have impressed his listeners. And Paul cites writings from two Greek philosophers—the Cretica of Epimenides from Crete (which he also quotes in Titus 1:12), and the Phenomena of Aratus, whom came from Paul’s home region of Cilicia. This confirms what we might suppose from Paul’s own writings, that he was well educated in Greek philosophy and rhetoric as well as being steeped in the Scriptures.
But we also need to note the manner of Paul’s engagement. He begins by highlighting an inconsistency or incoherence in his listeners’ perception of the world—that amongst all the known and named gods, the true God remains unknown to them. This God, who is magisterial in his power, is also (paradoxically) closer than they realise, Paul hinting here at the incarnation of Jesus as God’s presence on earth. Their whole system of statues and temples is an ignorant falsehood, which calls for repentance—and the lynchpin of Paul’s argument is the proof of the resurrection. God’s vindication of Jesus overturns human judgements, establishes Jesus as Lord, and anticipates the end of the world—and in doing so confirms the Jewish view of God, the world and humanity, over against the Greek view. Though expressed in cultural clothing, Paul’s message is uncompromising in its conceptual challenge.
11. The resurrection as a source of theological division Acts 22:30–23:11
Luke is here carefully recording Paul’s time in Jerusalem prior to the journey to Rome and the end of his story. Paul has already caused a stir in the city amongst the Jews, and was about to be flogged by the Roman garrison commander when Paul reveals that he is a Roman citizen. The commander wants to learn more about why Paul is controversial, and so takes him the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin. The deep divisions and animosity between groups in first-century Judaism recorded by Luke match what we know from other sources, and it is now customary to refer to ‘first-century Judaisms’ to reflect this diversity.
The main division here is between the Sadducees—the aristocratic rulers who regulated temple worship, oversaw civil government and regulated relations with the Romans (as successors to the Hasmoneans)—and the Pharisees, who were mostly a lay movement concerned with practical questions of holiness. Although, in the gospels, Jesus’ main disputes appeared to be with the Pharisees, Jesus’ biggest theological differences were actually with the Sadducees. At one point, Jesus even tells both the crowd and his disciples to follow the teaching of the Pharisees (in Matthew 23:3)—but he questions the core belief of the Sadducees that there is no resurrection of the dead (Matthew 22:23).
The differences in belief arise from different views of Scripture. The Sadducees only believed that the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) were scripture, and the idea of resurrection is barely evident there. It is a central notion in the prophetic vision of Ezekiel 37, but only becomes a personal hope in Daniel 12, texts also considered Scripture by the Pharisees. Despite the difference of view, for Paul the resurrection is the key theological hope of Scripture—and is the heart of his message. Belief in Jesus’ bodily resurrection should never be dismissed as a ‘juggling trick with bones’ as some have done. It is the basis of our hope for the future; it says something fundamental about the importance of the body for human existence; and (as Paul expounds in Romans 6:1–5) it is a central metaphor for the new life of the baptised follower of Jesus. It is not something about which we can ‘agree to disagree’.
12. Resurrection as the hope of judgement Acts 24:10–26
Luke continues with his detailed account of Paul’s various trials, demonstrating both the opposition he faced, and his steadfast defence before various authorities. We are now in the coastal settlement of Caesarea, residence of the governor of Judea. Felix was governor from AD 52, and other sources confirm he was violent, unsympathetic to the Jews, and unpredictable—leading to his being recalled by the emperor in AD 58.
The trial follows the usual Roman pattern of face-to-face accusation before the judge, after which the defendant offers his apologia. Both Tertullus, the accusing lawyer, and Paul in his defence, refer to the followers of Jesus (‘Nazarenes’ v. 5, ‘followers of the way’ v. 14) as a ‘sect’. The word hairesis can have a neutral sense of ‘party’ or ‘group’ (as in Acts 5:17), but it more usually has a negative connotation, closer to our derived word ‘heresy’ (Galatians 5:20 and 2 Peter 2:1). Paul refutes the specific accusations of being ritually impure within the temple precincts, and the suggestion of causing a riot (of particular interest to the Roman governor). But he then once again turns to the theme of continuity that we saw in his earlier speeches, as well as those of Peter and Stephen: he worships ‘the God of our ancestors’; he believes everything in ‘the Law and the prophets’; and he shares their hope of resurrection. The claim of ancient belief would be important to Romans, who greeted novelty with suspicion. But he is also arguing against his fellow Jews, claiming that the resurrection of Jesus accords with the Jewish scriptures.
It is particularly interesting that he talks of the ‘resurrection of the righteous and the wicked’. The image of resurrection in Ezekiel 37 is just of God’s people, illustrating God bringing them back to life. The earliest mention of a universal resurrection comes in Daniel 12:2, and the purpose is that people might be judged before God. This theological conviction has a very practical outworking: since Paul knows that God is his judge, and that in the resurrection there is vindication for all those who trust in him, he can face accusers of every sort confidently and with a clear conscience. This hope provides Paul with an anchor in the storm of theological debate, personal corruption (‘he hoped for a bribe’ v. 26) and political turmoil.
13. Resurrection as cosmic fulfilment of history Acts 26:1–23
Two years have passed; the more noble Festus has succeeded Felix as governor (Acts 24:27); and Festus, unsure what to do and needing advice, has invited Herod Agrippa II, client king over territory to the east of Judea, to help him. Agrippa was the great grandson of Herod the Great, and the last of the Herodian dynasty to bear the title ‘king’. He spent large sums beautifying Jerusalem to curry favour with the Jewish leaders, and had power the appoint the high priests—but his capricious decisions in appointment made him unpopular. In focussing on Paul’s appearance before Festus and Agrippa, Luke is doing what he has done from the beginning: describing the Jesus movement not as a local, Jewish issue alone, but locating it on the stage of world history (see Luke 1:5, 2:1 and 3:1). Paul’s testimony is of truly global significance.
Paul is flattering Agrippa by treating him as a respectable Jew, despite both his ancestry and his unpopularity; he talks inclusively of ‘our ancestors’ (v. 6) and makes the assumption of faith explicit at the end of his appeal (v. 27). As he does so, he expounds the resurrection in three ways. First, he sees it as a test of genuine faith in God: why would anyone who believes ‘in the God of the living, not of the dead’ (Luke 20:38) think it impossible for God to have raised Jesus (v. 8)? Secondly, the resurrection is indeed the fulfilment of ‘the promise’ of God which was the hope of the people of God from the beginning (the ‘twelve tribes’, v. 7). In a close parallel to Jesus’ explanation on the Emmaus Road (Luke 24:26–27), Paul reiterates that Moses and the prophets anticipate that the Messiah would ‘suffer and rise from the dead’ (vv. 22–23).
But, in Paul’s account of his meeting with Jesus on the Damascus Road, he goes even further, to a third perspective. The risen Jesus is not simply a completion of what went before, but a cosmic answer to the questions of all humanity—the light in their darkness, release from the power of Satan, and forgiveness of sins (v. 18). In an important sense, this is the end of history, in that God has in Jesus and his resurrection spoken a final word not just to Israel, but to all humanity.
14. Reflection: the centrality of the resurrection
When reading the gospels and Paul’s letters, it is not always evident how central the resurrection of Jesus was to the early proclamation of the first Christian communities. But our survey of Acts shows how consistently important it was in the public communication and defence of the message. The later chapters of Acts are generally less well known than the early and middle sections, but here Luke appears to give us a reliable record of Paul’s apologetic defence of himself and his gospel—and the resurrection continues to feature as of central importance.
Even when in quite a different cultural context, one in which the idea of bodily resurrection made little sense, Paul persists in focussing on ‘Jesus and the resurrection’ as his core message. When given a chance to expand on this, he adapts his style and established points of cultural contact—but he does this in order to present as credible a still challenging message, whose acceptance would have required some significant philosophical rethinking on the part of his listeners. The same is true when Paul is faced with intra-Jewish theological controversy; his commitment to a belief in resurrection remains firm, even when that feeds into existing disputes and differences. Paul is convinced that the risen Jesus is indeed the fulfilment of the promise of God, given to his people in the scriptures of the Old Testament, and that this promise has now spilled out—as prophesied—to be a blessing to those of all nations.
But the resurrection is not merely the content of Paul’s message; it also provides the animating motivation for his mission. If Jesus has indeed been raised, then everything has changed. The role of the temple has been transformed, since forgiveness is now through trust in Jesus. The nature of hope has changed, since the resurrection brings the future into the present. Even the status of God’s people has moved on, since the message is for all nations and God’s people are to be the carriers of that good news. And the resurrection gives Paul his confidence, since he has met the risen Jesus who will be his judge, and who has commissioned him for this task and promised to be with him in it.
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.
Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?