As our Forty Day series on the Resurrection continues, I will need to apologize for moving quite beyond the narratives of that particular period. Although I find this period of time incredibly interesting, the focus of this series is on the significance of Christ's resurrection, not a particular stretch of time. The Forty Days when the risen Jesus walked and talked with his disciples is thus the occasion, not the subject-matter, of our series. Thus last week we jumped back to the raising of Lazarus. This week we will jump forward to the content of apostolic preaching in Acts.
The Book of Acts is full of sermons. This is part of what makes Acts notoriously difficult to preach through: it's hard to preach a sermon on a sermon. One is tempted to just read (or better yet memorize) Peter's dense yet convicting Pentecost sermon (Acts 2), Simon's retelling of the whole Old Testament before the Sanhedrin (Acts 7), or Paul's erudite engagement with the intellectuals on Mars Hill (Acts 17).
But instead of treating these as isolated sermons, one could also read them synoptically in order to identify common patterns of preaching in early Christianity as portrayed by Luke. One of the most striking parallels between the vast majority of these sermons is their shared climactic phrase: you/they put Jesus to death, but God raised him from the dead.
Here are a few examples:
"... you put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead ..." (Acts 2:23-24)
"You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead." (Acts 3:15)
"... Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead ..." (Acts 4:10)
"The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead—whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree." (Acts 5:30)
"They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day..." (Acts 10:39-40)
"When they had carried out all that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead." (Acts 13:29-30)
As my italics indicate, the key word here is "but." This little words sets in contrast the false ending of Good Friday and points to the surprise ending of Easter Sunday. According to the sermons in Acts, the move from crucifixion to resurrection is a move from a human act to a divine act. It is a climactic reversal, a twist in the story. What we humans have done, God himself has undone. The tension is not released but heightened by the death of Jesus. The resolution of the story comes with God's resurrection of Jesus. The gospel story does not end with the sigh of the cross. The gospel story ends with God breathing life in the dead Jesus. Only after the story reaches its climax in the resurrection of Christ do the apostolic preachers offer a word of repentance, forgiveness and hope.
What implications does this "but" have for our preaching and teaching of the gospel?
(1) Beware of premature alleviation. Early apostolic preaching calls into question our practice of moving straight from talk of Christ's death to talk of repentance, forgiveness and hope. This kind of Easter-hopping is a bad habit. We certainly must not neglect the cross in favor of a shallow overcomer spirit. But such shallowness would not be the good news of Easter, for a resurrection story requires a death story. The surprise ending of the story of Jesus must not be forgotten.
(2) The importance of witnesses. As these sermons show, the resurrection is a discreet act of God in time. This act was witnessed by God's chosen apostles, who have passed this message to the world. The passing on of this witness is the continuing mission of the church. This means that the content of our message is not first and foremost what God is like, but what God has done. The center of our message is that God did such and such a thing at such and such a time and at such and such a place. We have heard about these events. We should never stop speaking about these events.
(3) Who's the boss? Why is the resurrection so significant? Why do the apostles move straight from "but God raised him from the dead" to "repent and be baptized"? Because by raising Jesus from the dead, God has put him in the position as judge over the whole world. We can no longer relegate God's authority to the Jews. Nor can we pretend to reckon with some general concept of God. We must reckon with the God of Israel through his Son Jesus Christ, for this particular God and this God alone has entered time to overcome the most universal problem of all: death. The one who has overcome death is thus the one we must face upon our death. He is seated at the right hand of the Father and will come again to judge the living and the dead. This is good news, because it will be one of us who will judge us. This is good news, because he has invited us to become his brothers and thereby become adopted sons and daughters of God. This is good news, because the one who will judge us is the one who prays for our forgiveness, including our murder of him.
Are there other interesting patterns you've observed in the sermons from Acts?
Am I right to emphasize the contrast within this climactic statement?
What other implications can be drawn from the emphasis on resurrection in these sermons?