Acts 26: Raising the Resurrection
Acts 26 finds the Apostle Paul giving yet another defense of his ministry and beliefs before another government official and another retelling of his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. We’ve now had that story told, in detail, three times in the book of Acts. Reading these courtroom scenes side by side, it is remarkable how frequently the issue of resurrection is raised (pun intended). Each time Paul is brought before a council, governor, or king, his defense centers on the fact of Jesus’ resurrection.
To understand why Paul does this we must know something about first-century Judaism. Research on the era shows that many Jews at the time, with the exception of the Sadducees, held resurrection to be a central doctrine of the religion. Jews believed that someday in the future God would physically raise the dead back to life to face judgment and inaugurate a new age of peace where God and his people would reign together on the earth.
Paul’s message, which caused such controversy and landed him in prison, was that the new age had already begun because Jesus was “the first to rise from the dead.” Although he was accused of preaching heresy, Paul defended himself in two ways. First, he said his belief in resurrection was no different than what most Jews, including the Pharisees, also believed. Second, he shared his own encounter with the risen Jesus as proof that the resurrection wasn’t merely some distant hope but had already begun and therefore the new age of God’s reign was already here.
The centrality of the resurrection to Paul’s faith and preaching stands in contrast to much of contemporary Christianity which tends to emphasize the cross and minimize the empty tomb. Don’t misunderstand—the cross is essential and was also part of Paul’s message; he mentions Jesus’ suffering in Acts 26:23 as well. But people were crucified every day in the Roman Empire. That’s wasn’t anything particularly newsworthy. The dead did not rise from the grave every day, and Paul’s insistence that Jesus had was the centerpiece of both his gospel and his defense.
We must not forget the shocking implications of Jesus’ resurrection. More than just a verification of Jesus’ divine identity, and more than a sign that we too have defeated death through Christ, it also means that the new creation, the new age, has already begun and we can be a part of it right now.