With the controversy about whether Jesus’ resurrection was bodily last week, it seems appropriate to continue to reflect on the meaning of the resurrection in Luke’s account of the early church in Acts. This is the second instalment of my notes written for BRF Guidelines Bible reading notes which have just come out and lead up to the Easter season. If you are not encouraging those in your congregation to use Guidelines, what Bible reading notes are you encouraging?
5. Resurrection as the fulfilment of the story of Israel Acts 5:27–32, 7:35–38
If this message about Jesus and the resurrection is bringing in a whole new order of things, then there is a serious theological question. Is this ‘new order’ really something of God, or is it leading people astray? Is this new community displacing the ‘congregation of Israel’ that God led through the wilderness into the promised land? If these apostles have a new message, is it contradicting what God has taught them? Moses himself warned against new teaching—even if the messenger was able to do ‘signs and wonders’ (Deuteronomy 13:1–3). The problem of ‘another teaching’ is one that Paul had to face early on (Galatians 1:6–9), and it is one that faces every generation of Christians.
In Acts 5, Peter and the other apostles are once again before the authorities, following the healing of many and their own miraculous release from prison. Peter’s defence has a triple emphasis on the story of Israel. First, it is ‘the God of our ancestors’ who has ‘raised Jesus from the dead’; it is the living God, worshipped by his living people, who has brought life where there was death. This is characteristic of God from the beginning, when he breathed into the ‘earth creature’ (adam) the ‘breath of life’ (Genesis 2:7). And it marks his relationship with his people, who find renewal in exile when the Spirit of God breathes new life into them (Ezekiel 37:10). Secondly, Peter is clear that the purpose of the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus relates to Israel—to bring them to repentance and forgiveness (Acts 5:31), the hope expressed at the start of Luke’s whole account (Luke 1:77). Thirdly, the signs and wonders of the Spirit are given to those ‘who obey God’ (Acts 5:32)—so the miracles are actually confirmation of the message as coming from God.
The accusation against Stephen is similar—that he is leading people away from the teaching of Moses. In response, Stephen rehearses the history of Israel, and the turning point of his speech centres on Moses himself. He was rejected as leader by the people; God vindicated him; and the signs and wonders he did confirmed this. Jesus was rejected in the same way, but God vindicated him (in the resurrection) and the signs and wonders done by Stephen confirm that this message is from God.
6. Resurrection as boundary breaking Acts 10:34–46
The first part of Acts has focussed on the message in Jerusalem and to the Jews there, and has begun to see the ripples spread out as predicted by Jesus in 1:8. The persecution of the fledgling community has resulted in them ‘preaching the word wherever they went’ (8:4), which has already led to some surprising results—the message being received by the despised Samaritans, and the Ethiopian eunuch coming to faith and being baptised. We have been introduced to Saul, who will proclaim God’s name to the Gentiles (9:15) but he has yet to take centre stage.
In fact, the ministry to the Gentiles begins with Peter’s change of understanding through the vision of the sheet with unclean animals, representing the ‘unclean’ Gentiles whom God now wants to reach. Peter’s address is unapologetically particular, focussing on the events of Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection, and specifically mentioning Nazareth, Galilee, the ‘land of the Jews’ and Jerusalem, all in fulfilment of the ‘prophets’ who (together with ‘the law’) form the Jewish scriptures. And he gives a special prominence to the ‘witnesses…who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.’ The resurrection forms a community of witness, and in doing so forms a boundary distinguishing between those on the inside and those on the outside, just as Jesus’ own teaching had done (see Mark 4:11).
And yet at every stage, Peter then moves across into universal language. The message from God to the people of Israel is that Jesus is ‘lord of all’ (v. 36). His ministry involved delivering ‘allwho were under the power of the devil’ (v. 38). And in his resurrection God appointed him as ‘judge of the living and the dead’, not just the judge of Israel. This then means that ‘everyonewho believes in him’, Jew and Gentile alike, will ‘receive forgiveness of sins’ (v. 43). The resurrection addresses not simply the hopes of Israel for a renewed national life, but the hope of all humanity that, in the words of David ‘I will see God in the land of the living’ (Psalm 27:13). The resurrection is not just boundary making, but boundary breaking, creating a community that straddles divisions of race, nationality and ethnicity, centred on the testimony to the power of the God of Israel.
7. Reflection: the paradoxes of resurrection
We noted in Acts 1 that the resurrection offers continuity, forms community, and gives confidence. But it is already clear that it does these things in ways that we probably did not expect.
Peter and the apostles are emphatic that Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection are in complete continuity with God’s plan for Israel and the world—and it could hardly be understood as anything else. From Matthew, through Paul, to the Book of Revelation, Jesus is the fulfilment of all that God has done beforehand, the crowning and completion of his action, and the last Word of all the words of God. Yet it looks like a new and unexpected thing both to the Jewish leaders and to us—and perhaps even to the apostles themselves. Peter confidently claims that ‘all the prophets [of the OT] testify about him’ (Acts 10:43), but you have to read the prophets in a particular way, and with the benefit of hindsight, to see that.
The resurrection also forms a community centred on those who spent the 40 days with Jesus prior to the ascension, and bounded by belief in Jesus as God’s anointed judge through whom we have forgiveness. There is a very clear sense of division between those who join this new movement and those who resist it—just as Jesus had said he would (Luke 12:51–52). And yet the boundaries of this community do not follow expected lines; it already includes many, like the Samaritans and the Ethiopian eunuch, whom many would have excluded, but excludes many, like the Sadducees and other Jewish leaders, whom many would have assumed included. This not about a sloppy ‘anything goes’ inclusion, since these people receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and are incorporated into the distinct and holy people of God.
And the resurrection gives this new community a sense of confidence—but a confidence that looks very vulnerable. They are persecuted and scattered, and God uses this communal fragility as a way of taking the message about new life in Jesus to unexpected places where it takes root and flourishes.
The resurrection not only challenges our expectations of what God is doing, but the way in which he is doing it. It is a work of God that we cannot replicate by our own efforts.
8. Resurrection showing the successor to David Acts 13:16–41
The ministries of Peter and Paul have dovetailed in the last few chapters, with Paul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus coming between episodes in Peter’s ministry. But the commissioning of Paul and Barnabas by the Christians in Antioch (13:3), shifts the focus decisively to Paul. After the encounter with Elymas the sorcerer on the island of Cyprus, Paul and his companions land in Pamphylia, now the south coast of Turkey, and continue to preach the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.
Ananias was told that Paul would ‘proclaim my [Jesus’] name to the Gentiles’ (Acts 9:15) and Paul himself confirms this in Galatians 2:7–8, contrasting his ministry with that of Peter to the Jews. But here Paul follows his consistent practice on his travels—to go first to the synagogue and tell his message to Jews and ‘God-fearing’ Gentiles (vv. 16, 26) before then preaching to whole population of the city (v. 44) and seeing many Gentiles joining this Jewish renewal movement (v. 48). This expresses Paul’s belief that the good news is ‘first to the Jew, then to the Gentile’ (Romans 1:16). Like Peter, Paul ‘motions with his hand’ to gain attention (v. 16, Acts 12:17) and like Peter at Pentecost makes his appeal in a speech which has two halves (vv.16–31 and vv. 32–41). And Paul agrees with Peter’s emphasis on Jesus as the one pointed to by the prophets (v. 27).
But in a move of extraordinary irony, Paul’s speech rehearses the history of Israel just the way that Stephen had done before his murder, which Paul witnessed and of which (at the time) he approved. Paul shifts the focus from Moses to David, and from similarity to contrast. Jesus’ resurrection is the fulfilment of the ancestral promise (v. 33) because it means that Jesus is the one who receives the promise that David did not see realised. Like the Davidic king in the royal Psalm 2, Jesus is the true Son of God. But unlike him, Jesus has received the promise of transcending death through resurrection (v. 37), a promise that was intended for all the people of God (see Isaiah 55:3 which Paul quotes) and which would spill over to the nations of the world. The resurrection shows Jesus to be ‘great David’s greater son’.
9. The resurrection as challenge to culture (i) Acts 17:14–21
We have jumped on to the middle of the second phase of Paul’s missionary travels, moving beyond Asia (western Turkey) and into Europe. After visiting Philippi, Paul is escaping those pursuing him from Thessaloniki, and he has arrived in Athens, on his way further south to the then more important city of Corinth. A striking aspect of this episode is that Paul is, for the first and last time, ministering alone. In both his teaching and his writing, he habitually works with others, but now awaits his coworkers Silas and Timothy. This does not prevent Paul from preaching, but it is no coincidence that this solo ministry is the least fruitful in Acts.
Luke describes the pantheon of Greek gods in typically Jewish terms—as idols (v. 16). In the Old Testament, the description of other religions as idol worship expressed both the error and the foolishness of non-Jewish belief; the mocking description in Isaiah 44:9–20 contrasts idols with the uniqueness and the power of the God of Israel to rescue his people from exile. Paul’s preaching strategy takes a significant turn here; as well as debating in the synagogue with Jews and the associated God-fearers as he has done before (v. 17), he also now debates in the market-place, engaging with those with whom he shares little in terms of religious and philosophical outlook. The lack of mutual understanding is evident from their reaction, describing Paul as a ‘babbler’. The word derives from the action of birds who peck here and there at seeds, somewhat at random, and was used in mockery of those who did not have a proper philosophical system, but pretentiously threw our disconnected ideas.
The other criticism tells us why they thought this; Paul is ‘advocating foreign gods’. The term for ‘resurrection’ in Greek is the feminine noun anastasis, from which we get the woman’s name Anastasia. Paul was so insistent on talking about Jesus and anastasisthat his listeners understood this as a pair of gods, one male and one female. Despite the incomprehension and apparent irrelevance, Paul remains resolutely committed to the message of the resurrection as central to the good news he brings—offering the liberating truth to a culture ignorant of the reality of Paul’s God.
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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