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Turning Point of World History: The Resurrection According to Acts

People often read the book of Acts to find out about the early church, but if that’s all we focus on, we miss Luke’s most important emphasis: Jesus himself. Though he ascends into heaven in the opening verses, this doesn’t mean he’s absent. Acts presents Jesus as the resurrected, ascended, and glorious King of Kings who is guiding his church, pouring out his Spirit, and granting forgiveness. Jesus is the focus of the apostolic preaching throughout Acts.

As messengers of the mission, the apostles must be eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 1:21–22). The apostles cover many aspects of Christ’s work, but if we had to identify the main fulcrum on which their arguments hinge, it would be the resurrection.

Luke also teases out the resurrection’s implications. On one hand, everything changes when Christ is raised from the dead. At the same time, the Scriptures are fulfilled, which means the resurrection isn’t fundamentally new, but a goal anticipated for thousands of years.

Let’s look now at five implications of the resurrection in Acts.

1. Resurrection and Age of the Spirit

Acts shows us how the resurrection is the key turning point in the history of redemption. More than 100 ago, biblical theologian Geerhardus Vos said the age of the resurrection is the age of the Spirit; the two go hand in hand. This means that the age of the resurrection—which begins with Christ’s own resurrection—corresponds to the age of the outpouring of the Spirit. Acts narrates this transition to the age of the Spirit more fully than any other biblical book. Though we await its final fulfillment, the resurrection age has broken into history in Christ himself, the first to get up from the dead.

Acts shows us how the resurrection is the key turning point in the history of redemption.

At the same time, though we now live in the age of the Spirit’s outpouring, the Spirit was active before Jesus was raised. The Spirit was active among God’s people before Jesus was born (e.g., Mary, Elizabeth, Zechariah, Simeon), in the days of the prophets (cf. Acts 7:51), in the days of Moses (Num. 11:17, 25; cf. Deut. 32:11), and even from the beginning of the world (Gen. 1:2). But something different came with the resurrection: the Spirit is now poured out more fully, and he is now experienced more fully by all peoples.

2. Resurrection and a Worldwide Movement

The age of the resurrection is also the age of the ingathering of the nations into the people of God. Christ is the risen and ascended Lord of all peoples (Acts 10:36).

God’s covenantal blessings aren’t only for the Jewish people, but for all who believe in Christ. This is first evident in Acts with the Roman centurion Cornelius (Acts 10–11; cf. Gal. 3.13–14), though the influx of the Gentiles among God’s people raised many questions for the first generation of Christians.

For example, what was to be done about circumcision, which for thousands of years had been a defining mark of God’s covenant people? This is addressed at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. Here the early church wrestles with how Jewish and Gentile believers are to coexist and thrive in the same community. Must Gentiles be circumcised? Must they follow traditional food laws?

Key for the Jerusalem Council is the realization that Christ has poured out his Spirit on Jews and Gentiles alike; there’s no distinction in that regard (Acts 15:8–9). Therefore, circumcision is no longer necessary—the apostolic letter that flowed out of the Jerusalem Council doesn’t even mention circumcision! There’s some debate about the best way to understand the prohibitions against certain foods in the council’s letter, but any ambiguity is cleared up by Paul’s letters, which make clear there’s no distinction in foods or in people who eat certain foods. This was Peter’s conclusion as well (Acts 10:34–35; 15:9–11).

That said, it’s not as though everything changes when the Gentiles are enfolded into the early community. The apostles confirm that the Old Testament law is still binding with respect to sexual immorality, which remains unacceptable for any of God’s people. The apostles don’t reject the Old Testament law altogether, but they do help us recalibrate how the Old Testament law applies in light of Christ’s work—especially in light of his resurrection.

3. Resurrection and Justification

Though Christ’s resurrection is often the logical key to the apostolic speeches, their speeches typically end with a call to repentance. But such calls aren’t merely tacked on; they are closely tied to the resurrection. All people should repent because Jesus of Nazareth, who had been crucified, lives now as the risen one, and he has been appointed judge over all people (cf. 2:36–39; 13:38–41; 17:30–31).

Indeed, in Acts the resurrection is closely related to justification and the forgiveness of sins. Jesus is the righteous one who has overcome sin and death (cf. 3:14–15, 20–23, 26; 5:30–31; 13:38–39). Justification is offered because Christ has risen.

Justification is offered because Christ has risen.

But as with these other themes, justification isn’t entirely new; justification and forgiveness of sins were already realities in the Old Testament. This is why Paul can use David and Abraham as models of justification by faith (Rom. 4). Even so, the justification of all believers—whether Old Testament or New Testament—is based on the work of Christ.

4. Resurrection and the Scriptures

One of the most intriguing passages in the Bible is the road to Emmaus, where the risen Christ opens up the Scriptures to his disciples. Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, Jesus explains to how the Scriptures in their entirety point to him (Luke 24:25–27). Later he explains that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer, die, rise, and for the message to go forth in his name (Luke 24:44–47). Who wouldn’t have wanted to hear these expositions?! We often lament that we simply don’t know what Jesus covered with his disciples. Luke seems to leave us hanging.

But what if Luke doesn’t leave us hanging? What if he fills in the details of these Scriptures that had to be fulfilled in his second volume (i.e., Acts)? This is indeed what we find. The early apostolic sermons show us in more detail some of the ways Jesus fulfills the Old Testament, especially with respect to his resurrection. Though the accounts of the apostolic preaching in Acts aren’t exhaustive, they’re sufficient to show how the Scriptures point to Jesus—and his resurrection.

To understand Acts, we must grasp the centrality of Christ, particularly his resurrection.

There’s something else to consider here: I’ve argued that one of Luke’s reasons for writing Acts is to provide a defense not simply of the early Christians, or of Paul, but specifically a defense of the Scriptures. When Paul is on trial, he consistently denies doing anything to contravene his ancestral traditions or the Scriptures (24:14; 26:6). He even tells King Agrippa that if his majesty believed the Scriptures, he ought to believe in the resurrection of the dead (26:22, 27).

In Acts the apostles consistently appeal to the resurrection to demonstrate that the Scriptures are true. And to believe in the scriptural contours of the resurrection is to interpret the Bible rightly.

5. Resurrection and Early Christian Theology

Early Christian theology was distinctive for its belief in Jesus’s bodily resurrection. Jesus wasn’t an apparition, nor did he only appear to suffer. He truly suffered in the flesh, and likewise was raised in the flesh.

The practical implications of the resurrection were also crucial for the early church. The church father Cyril of Jerusalem said that the resurrection is the root of every good work. In light of the resurrection, what we do in and with our bodies really matters.

Christianity is a public message about a public person: Jesus of Nazareth who was dead and now lives.

The resurrection also underscores the public nature of Christianity. The resurrection was a public event, not a private revelation given to a few people. Christianity isn’t first of all a set of philosophical ideas that one can hold to in private via specialized knowledge. It’s a public message about a public person: Jesus of Nazareth who was dead and now lives.

If the resurrection is central in Acts, and if it’s central in the apostolic preaching in Acts, then the resurrection ought also to be central when we articulate the Christian message.

Distinctive Message

The centrality of Christ’s resurrection was pressed home to me years ago when a stranger challenged a friend and me about what ultimately makes Christianity distinct from all other religions. His answer? The resurrection of Christ. One might reach this conclusion from a close reading of Acts.

In Acts, the resurrection isn’t simply a message about the past; it’s freighted with relevance for today. It’s not a message unforeseen; it’s the fulfillment of the Scriptures with relevance for all people, everywhere.

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