The Resurrection of the Christ (Patterns in Acts)

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When Luke wrote his first narrative to Theophilus, he was concerned with the accuracy and validity of the “things which are most surely believed among us” (Lk.1.1). He wanted his friend to have “an orderly account” so that he might “know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed” (Lk.1.3-4). The good doctor thus proceeds to offer a summation of the life of the Good Shepherd as it pertained to His identity as the Christ, emphasizing His teaching, miracles, crucifixion, and resurrection. He completes his account with the apostles gathered at Bethany, witnessing the ascension of Jesus (Lk.24.50f).

In Luke’s second treatise, The Acts of the Apostles, he begins where he left off – with the apostles gathered to see Jesus ascend back into heaven. Yet in this initial account, he introduces what will be the overriding emphasis of this later narrative – the role of the apostles as witnesses to the life, death, and especially the resurrection of Jesus. The book of Acts provides great insight into the earliest years of the spread of the gospel, and there is much to be learned about God’s pattern by examining the patterns established by the apostles (thus the theme of our Fall Focus). But the foundational truth behind every event in Acts – every event – is the reality of the risen Christ. Luke underscores this in the first verses, noting that Jesus had offered commandments to the apostles “to whom He also presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God” (Acts 1.3). Those men were to be “witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Their responsibility was not to introduce a new theological system, nor to prompt philosophical speculation. They were not scholars and academicians charged with the formulation and explanation of a nuevo-pedantic religion. They were common men tasked with a simple challenge – go tell the world what you saw and what it means. Tell mankind that God came to earth, lived as a man, proved Himself by miracle and teaching the prophesied Christ, died as a sacrifice for sin, and rose from the dead. And it is the rising from the dead that was the crucial fact upon which all of their claims rested. Paul affirms such in Rom.1.4, “…declared to be the Son of God…by the resurrection from the dead”, and again in 1Cor.15.1-4f, noting the death, burial, and resurrection to be issues “of first importance.” And the apostles understood this as the fundamental task before them, evidenced by their initial concern for replacing Judas with “one of these (who) must become a witness with us of His resurrection” (Acts 1.22). With that mission clearly set out in the first chapter, Luke goes on to offer an overview of their work of testimony. And he never loses sight of the great fact of their testimony – Jesus of Nazareth is alive, and thus is the Christ.

There are any number of ways to trace this theme through Acts. In almost every chapter, the events recorded are centered upon the resurrection and identity of Jesus, whether Luke is noting the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and original proclamation (chapter 2), the rising opposition and persecution (chapters 4-8), the conversion of the Gentiles and resulting conflicts (chapters 10-15f) or the missionary journeys of Paul (chapters 13-28). The affirmation of Jesus of Nazareth as risen from the dead, and the implications growing out of such, are at the heart of the narrative. Jesus is continually portrayed as the Christ, as a Savior, as a King, as the Judge, as God. And it is always His resurrection that stands as proof of such affirmations. Thus the significance of the witnesses. Obviously, the scope of the resurrection theme is beyond the limits of this present discussion. But having introduced the risen Christ as the lynchpin of Luke’s account, please notice a few more prominent ways in which it is presented.

The resurrected Christ was always the subject of apostolic preaching. Luke records the thrust of several sermons which the apostles presented through the years, and each testimony centers in some way upon the fact of the resurrection. In chapter two, Peter speaks in the temple upon Pentecost and offers Jesus as raised up by God (Acts 2.24) in fulfillment of David’s prophecy in Ps.16.8-11 and of God’s promise to David in 2 Sam.7.12f. In fact, Peter goes on to tie the resurrection of Jesus to His ascension (Acts 2.32-35) in a final affirmation that Jesus is thus “Lord and Christ,” seated at the right hand of God and directing the affairs of that very day (“He poured out this which you now see and hear” v.33). In chapter three, Peter addresses the multitude which had gathered in response to the healing of the lame man (v.1-11) and begins his speech to them by noting that God had “glorified His servant Jesus” (v.13) after raising Him from the dead, “of which we are all witnesses” (v.15). Peter affirms that the power behind the healing was “His name, through faith in His name” (v.16) and that the same power could provide forgiveness of sins (v.19). Moreover, Jesus is described as ruling in heaven (v.21), the Prophet foretold by Moses (v.22f), the fulfillment of the seed promise to Abraham (v.25), and the source of spiritual blessings to the Jews first, “having raised up His Servant Jesus…in turning away every one of you from your iniquities” (v.26). In chapter four, the apostles are arrested for preaching “in Jesus the resurrection from the dead” (v.2). They defend their actions before the captain of the temple and the Sadducees by appealing to the power found in “Jesus Christ whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead” and thus “the stone which was rejected by you builders” (Acts 4.10-11). Again, in chapter five, they justify their continued preaching with the defense, “We ought to obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you murdered by hanging on a tree. Him God has exalted to His right hand…and we are His witnesses” (Acts 5.29-32).

It is interesting to note that Luke does not offer many expanded records of sermons after those found in the first five chapters. Instead, he begins to summarize the message of the apostles. “With great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (4.33). “…they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (5.42). “…those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word” (8.4). “Philip went down…and preached Christ to them” (8.5). “…they preached the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews” (13.5). “…he preached to them Jesus and the resurrection” (17.18). “…so that all who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus” (19.10). While Luke does offer an expanded record of a few of Paul’s sermons/defenses (Acts 13.15f in Antioch; Acts 17.22f in Athens; Acts 22.1f in Jerusalem and 26.2f before Agrippa), the pattern and content of apostolic preaching is clearly offered in the early chapters of Acts, and that content centered upon a resurrected Christ, exalted by God to be Savior, King, and Judge. Thus, when we read that the apostles preached Jesus or preached the word of God or proclaimed the gospel, it was their testimony of the death, burial, and resurrection upon which they focused. They had seen it all unfold. And they told everyone who would listen that the resurrection from the dead affirmed Jesus as Lord, Christ, and King.

The evidence for the resurrection of Jesus was well attested. As noted above, the fundamental task of the apostles was to testify as witnesses of all they that had seen and heard. Jesus had assigned this job to them before His death, as recorded by John in Jn.14-16. Furthermore, Luke informs us that Jesus reminded them of this task after His resurrection (Lk.24.45-49; Acts 1.4-8). And they did not fail of the obligation placed upon them, for it is this “eyewitness testimony” that dominates their messages. “This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses” (2.32). “(you) killed the Prince of life, whom God raised from the dead, of which we are witnesses” (3.15). “…we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (4.21). “…we are His witnesses to these things” (5.32). “…we are witnesses of all things which He did…Him God raised up on the third day, and showed him openly, not to all the people, but to witnesses chosen before by God, even to us who ate and drank with Him after he arose from the dead…” (10.39-42). “He was seen for many days by those who came up with Him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are His witnesses to the people” (13.31). “The God of our fathers has chosen you that you should…see the Just One…for you will be His witness to all men of what you have seen and heard” (22.14-15). “…to this day I stand, witnessing both to small and great…that the Christ would suffer, that He would be the first to rise from the dead, and would proclaim light…” (26.22-23). Those men were unafraid to tell others what they saw.

However, the apostles were not the sole witnesses to the resurrection. They called upon other testimony as well. They repeatedly looked to the crowds in Jerusalem to affirm the truths of their messages (2.22f; 3.13-17f). They called upon the general reputation of Jesus as witness to their validity (10.36-39f), and challenged even kings with the public record of these events (26.26I am convinced that none of these things escapes his attention, since this thing was not done in a corner”). They also noted that the Old Testament bore witness to the truth of the resurrection, appealing again and again to the words of the prophets. In Acts 2.25f, Peter calls to witness Ps.16, 2 Sam.7, and Ps.110. In Acts 3.22f he looks to Deu.18.15 and Gen.12. Before the Jewish leaders he calls upon the witness of Ps.118 and Isa.28. And to Cornelius, Peter affirmed that “To Him all the prophets witness…” (10.43). Paul as well looked to the testimony of God’s prophetic word as he spoke in synagogues across the Roman empire (13.33f; 14.1; 17.2f,11; 18.19; 28.23). And, perhaps most impressively, Jesus Himself, through God the Spirit, repeatedly lent His testimony to the work of the apostles, performing signs and miracles in confirmation of their message throughout their ministry (2.1f,33 “He poured out this which you now see and hear”; 3.6f,16; 4.16, 29-30f; 5.1-16; 8.6f; 9.34f; 10.44f; 12.7f; 13.11f; 14.3“…the Lord, who was bearing witness to their word of His grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands”; 14.8f; 15.12; 16.16f; 19.11f; etc.). The affirmation of a risen Savior was not limited to a few Galilean loyalists. God provided for much more testimony than theirs – testimony that was powerful, authoritative, and indisputable.

Jesus is presented as alive and active throughout Luke’s narrative. One of the more remarkable evidences of the risen Savior in the book of Acts is the frequent activity of Jesus Himself. Had He not risen from the tomb, He could not be reigning in heaven with all authority, and He certainly could not be active in the spread of the gospel. Yet Luke repeatedly notes that Jesus Himself is exercising His power on behalf of His messengers. He had promised to do so (Mt.28.20; Mk.16.20; Jn.14.16f) and the narrative confirms the fulfilment of that promise. Peter affirms that Jesus was behind the outpouring of the Spirit in 2.1-21 (“He poured out this which you now see and hear”). The lame man is healed “in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth” (3.6) and Peter claims that Jesus was the power behind the miracle. In 4.30 the disciples pray “that signs and wonders may be done through the name of Your holy Servant Jesus,” after which the room is shaken and “with great power” the apostles go on to do their work. In 5.12f those signs and wonders are an important part of the apostolic success in Jerusalem, and in 5.19 it is “an angel of the Lord” who releases the apostles from prison. Stephen sees Jesus standing at the right hand of God as he offers his life in defense of the resurrection (7.56). Jesus appears to and speaks with Saul on the road to Damascus (9.3f), a truth which the new convert would go on to publicize repeatedly in Luke’s account (22.4f; 23.6f; 24.14f; 26.6f). In the city of Lydda, Peter tells Aeneas that “Jesus the Christ heals you” (9.34). In 10.44f Jesus again pours out the Holy Spirit upon the Gentiles to whom Peter was preaching. Peter is once again released from prison by “an angel of the Lord” in 12.7. Paul calls upon “the hand of the Lord” when striking Elymas the sorcerer blind in 13.11, and Luke clearly states that the Lord “was bearing witness to the word of His grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands” in 14.3. Jesus speaks to Paul in 18.9-10, encouraging him in the city of Corinth, and in 19.13f the evil spirit challenged by Sceva’s sons affirms his knowledge of Jesus. Jesus again appears to Paul in 23.11 and sent His angel to the apostle in 27.23f. While it is easy to become consumed with the earthly events which Luke records in Acts, a closer examination reveals that Jesus is not some silent observer of the work of His messengers. Rather, He is engaged with them, manifesting His power, exercising His rule, and supporting His disciples as they offer His salvation to all mankind. He is very much alive, and His activity stands as testimony to His resurrection.

Without a doubt, the theme of resurrection could be traced through Luke’s accounts in any number of ways. But Luke makes evident the import of the risen Savior in the obvious ways which we have indicated. The resurrection was at the heart of the gospel message. The testimony of the risen Christ was not limited to the apostles themselves. And Jesus is presented as very much alive and active throughout the narrative. And for disciples living two thousand years removed from those events, the pattern which Luke establishes should be appreciated, embraced, and proclaimed. The death, burial, and resurrection still stand at the foundation of our faith and should be the heart of our message. The witnesses are as valid today as they were in the first century. And the resurrected Jesus still sits upon the throne of God, reigning as King, exercising all authority, anticipating judgment, and interceding for His followers. Praise be to God, that the tomb remains empty.

Russ Bowman