Saturday 29 January 2011

Is it incredible that God raises the dead? (Acts 26)

A question I got today over dinner had to do with an event recently held in Cambridge where supernatural occurrences were discussed and supposedly demonstrated during a Christian meeting. One of the issues that came up was the raising of the dead. So the question was this: How should we as Christians react to testimonies of individuals claiming that they have been resurrected from the dead?

I answered with the words of the apostle Paul:

Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?
Acts 26:8

Paul was a prisoner appearing before King Agrippa, the great-grandson of Herod the Great. Paul had been in prison for some time now, initially arrested during a riot in Jerusalem then transported to Caesarea to face trial under Governor Felix. Eventually Felix was succeeded by Portius Festus who kept Paul locked up to earn Tesco points with the Jewish leaders.

But here in Chapter 26, Paul has an audience with King Agrippa and his sister, Bernice. Now unlike Festus who was a Gentile official, Agrippa was familiar with the Jewish faith and teachings. So Paul opens by establishing his former credentials as a Pharisee, a member of what he calls “the strictest party” of his religion. Yet says Paul, the reason he is on trial, rejected by his own party and accursed by his own people, is because of his hope in the resurrection of Jesus Christ; Paul then makes the statement in verse 8: Why is this thought incredible – that God should raise the dead?

Now, think about who he is speaking to. Festus had not personally seen Jesus raised from the dead. The Pharisees were not witnesses of the resurrection. Paul is not appealing to a supernatural display of power that they had seen first-hand. Furthermore, he doesn’t yet witness to his own encounter with the risen Lord Jesus – that comes later in verses 12 onwards.

Instead, here Paul is speaking to individuals who know and have read their bibles. And Paul says, based on what you have learned from the Scriptures; from the revelation of God throughout the history of Israel – based on this bible alone, the resurrection of the dead is a hope and promise held out by God. He isn’t talking about some super-spiritual experience where he’s on a hospital table flatlining and encountering visions of bright lights at the end of the tunnel (though in 2 Corinthians 12, Paul himself has experienced extraordinary visions from heaven itself – visions unutterable by man). No, Paul’s argument here is not based on what he has exclusively gone through, but on something that every single person who claims to know God’s word ought to know – that the resurrection is a given in the bible.

Additionally, Paul and the religious leaders meant different things by the word “resurrection”. The Jewish understanding of the Resurrection was the final event of God’s judgment. The clearest reference to this is Daniel Chapter 12.

And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.
Daniel 12:2

But Paul was talking specifically about the resurrection of just one man – the resurrection of Jesus. To be sure, he does have in mind the final resurrection of the dead. God will one day raise the dead to face him as their God and Judge of the universe. So when speaking to the men of the Areopagus, Paul says, “(God) has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” In other words, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is God’s proof to the world that there will be a final judgement –the whole world will face God on this day of judgement – but also that God had appointed Jesus to carry out this judgement. The whole world will one day have to face Jesus as their Judge.

This is to say: Paul isn’t satisfied to merely prove that God can raise the dead. He wants to show that Jesus has been raised from the dead; that God did this to demonstrate that he is, indeed, God’s chosen King and Judge.

So on one hand, we should not be too surprised to hear that someone has received miraculous healing. Or indeed, if God has so done such a miracle as to raise the dead. Jesus himself raised people from the dead, the son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7), Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5), and most famously, Lazarus who had been in the tomb so long his body would have begun to decompose (John 11). When Jesus breathed his last on the cross, Matthew records how tombs were broken and “the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.” (Matthew 27:51). The apostles themselves performed similar miracles in their ministry – Peter raising Tabitha in Joppa, for instance in Acts 9.

Still, every single one of these individuals died. You sometimes hear bible teachers using the term “resuscitation” to differentiate these events. These individuals were resuscitated to life, but only to face death yet again. Otherwise you wouldn’t need John to record the events of chapter 11 in his gospel, Lazarus could simply give his testimony in person. But Lazarus is dead and so are all of these other individuals, as remarkable the miracle done by God in their lives. Theirs was not the resurrection of Jesus – the resurrection to an indestructible and everlasting life.

The bible never gives us the expectation of resuscitation. Rather it is brutally honest about death – Hebrews 9:27 says we are all destined to die once. Yet as Christians, we have the promise of something infinitely better than life after death. When the bible talks about eternal life, it means much more than simply living again – or receiving life after death. Author and theologian Tom Wright describe the promise of eternal as “life after life after death”. There is a resurrection life that is more glorious than simply the extension of this life. It is a renewed life – body and soul – lived out in a renewed creation – the new Heavens and the new Earth.

Paul isn’t talking about resuscitation. Neither is Paul talking about resurrection per se. He is talking about Jesus Christ, who fulfils the expectations of the Old Testament promises of God through his own death and resurrection. Paul goes on to say:

To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.
Acts 26:22-23

Paul is preaching the gospel. It is the good news that Jesus Christ suffered death in order to take our punishment of death. And by rising from the dead, Jesus is now able to proclaim this good news to Paul and his people, the Jews; but also to us, the Gentiles – “(Jesus) by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.”

How should Christians react to reports of individuals claiming resuscitation?

By all means, praise God for his power and grace. But actually, that question isn’t nearly as important as the following one:

How should I respond to the resurrection of Jesus Christ?

That is the question you need to consider. For it is proof of God’s power to judge by this man, Jesus Christ (Acts 17:31). But it is also proof of God’s power to save through his Son, Jesus Christ (Acts 26:23).

Some will respond like King Agrippa, who said to Paul, “You are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind. In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” (Acts 26:24, 28)

And yet, Paul will appeal to what Agrippa has heard in the gospel and what he knows to be true from God’s word.

For the king knows about these things, and to him I speak boldly. For I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this has not been done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.
Acts 26:26-27

You may have questions about Jesus and the resurrection. There are books you can read that testify to the historicity and reliability of the eye-witness accounts. You should talk to a Christian friend about the questions you have.

But in the end, Paul’s question to Agrippa is my question to you. Do you believe the bible? Not your friend, or even that expert historian, or that world-renowned theologian. But the bible – as God’s revealed will and word. Do you believe the prophets – what the Scriptures say about Jesus as our Lord and our Christ testified by God himself through his death and resurrection on the cross?

In other words, do you believe the gospel?

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.

1 Corinthians 15:1-4

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