The doctrine of the resurrection was Paul’s preeminent tool for effecting change in the mission field of the Roman Empire. Paul majored in preaching the Christ who was “declared to be the Son of God with power…by His resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4). Every Sunday school child probably knows that in each sermon in the Book of Acts, the neon light is upon the resurrection. Even the “amateur” sermon by the deacon Stephen in Acts 7, which many have assumed does not emphasize the resurrection and seems to validate the idea that deacons must never preach (!), does precisely the opposite. The reason is that the conclusion of Stephen’s sermon he sees Christ standing at God’s right hand and then relays his sensory vision to the rabble before him (Ac. 7:56). When he looked at the mob, he saw murderous carnivores. But when he peered into the throne room of God in heaven, he was stunned by the blaze of Christ’s resurrected glory. The outlook was bad, but the uplook was glorious!
This resurrection-bias that earmarked Paul’s preaching was much more than an animating inspiration. We must focus upon Paul’s conversion to appreciate the resurrection heart of his cosmopolitan sermons. What was Paul before the Lord met him on the Damascus road? He was a corpse, a cadaver. Had we placed a mirror before Paul’s spiritual breath it would have instantly frosted over with arctic ice. It is significant that the Pharisees were depicted by Christ Himself in Matthew 23 in terms most unflattering. Jesus believed in calling people names; He labeled them not only whited sepulchers, but sepulchers containing “dead men’s bones” (Mt. 23:27). Since Saul of Tarsus was “a Pharisee of the Pharisees” (Phil. 3:8), we can deduce that he was “a dead man of a dead man,” or “a corpse of a corpse,” which means very, very dead. This is probably the meaning of Jude 18, too, where Jude depicts certain personalities as “twice dead,” that is, really dead (spiritually). Therefore men who are “dead in their sins and trespasses” need to be quickened (Eph. 2:1).
Now, we all know the story of Saul as he traveled to Damascus. He was confronted by the resurrected Christ, knocked off his stallion, and a hole was put into his Pharisaical drum. Then, the Lord’s foeman begged God for mercy, “Lord Jesus, what would you have me to do?” (Ac. 9:6). After this the blind Saul was led like a lamb to Damascus where he received his sight at the hands of Ananias, who had one of the toughest jobs imaginable. Ananias, debriefed about Paul’s previous fulminations against the church, was commanded to go to Saul and (endearingly) say, “Brother Saul.” That required not only faith, but faith in the resurrection! In short, Saul became a new man on that road, a resurrected man. No wonder we find such resurrection fanfare in Paul’s evangelism and preaching. Indeed, it sounds mechanistic to even talk about how Paul used the resurrection; a more accurate descriptor is how the resurrected Paul was energized to bear witness to the gospel of resurrection.
Let us summarize Paul’s resurrection theology, especially as it is demonstrated in the Book of Acts. Our first task is to offer an alternative title for this book. One alternative is The Acts of Jesus Christ through the Apostles. This is based on Acts 1:1-2 where Luke compares Jesus’ earthly ministry with His post-earthly, resurrection ministry. The former treatise (Luke’s Gospel) recorded only what “Jesus began to teach and do.” Now, in Acts we see the continuation of Jesus’ teaching and doing. Thus the Acts of the Apostles are really the acts of the resurrected Jesus through the Apostles. Or, perhaps more accurately in terms of Paul’s other writings, the Acts of the Spirit of the Resurrected Christ. On the Day of Pentecost the Spirit of the resurrected Christ was poured out on the church (Jn. 7:37ff.). This was not only the birthday of the new covenant church, but the birthday of the “new heavens and the new earth,” a spiritual concept. In our time the choices invariably are reduced to either change by revolution or change by resurrection. We must not confuse these. For example, when the French Revolution occurred, S. T. Coleridge stated that a new golden age had arrived, “seeming born again.” But the golden age had not arrived. The French Revolution was not the hour of gold, but the hour of lead. The resurrection alone is the hour of gold for the cosmos.
A second nuance of the resurrection pertains to how Paul presented the gospel. Paul never presented the gospel by asking the pietistic question, “If you were to die today, would your soul go to heaven?” Instead, he preached the “hope of the resurrection” (Ac. 23:1ff.; Ac. 26). Salvation is not an insurance policy, or a method that God uses to rapture His people from their responsibilities in this world (helicopter Christianity!). Salvation is remaining in this world as salt and light; it is about subduing all things spiritual and physical to Christ resurrected. Whenever Paul gave his testimony (as he did to Agrippa and Festus), he testified to the resurrected Christ. Thus, in our witness to the world today we must do the same. We preach the resurrection because the gospel is irreducibly incarnational. Therefore the world is important to God. This includes kings and body politics, too (Ps. 2:10-12; Ac. 9:15).
A third feature of Paul’s ministry pertains to his own new character. He was a new creature in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). More pointedly, he was a resurrected man. The early church had a popular name for it: The Christians were called anastasians. This is from the Greek word anastasia, our word for resurrection. This means we are not just people who have placed our faith in the resurrection of Christ; rather, we are resurrected men who have trusted in Christ. Salvation is not mascara on rotting corpses, or gouty legs “cured” by silk stockings. Nor is it about dead men believing in Jesus; it is about resurrected men trusting Christ’s blood. In fact, the resurrection is so central that it is theologically incorrect to allow the “born again” metaphor to become kingpin in our thinking. In the Bible the term “born again” is a metaphor for the resurrection. Because the resurrection is the central salvific theme of the Word of God, all the other metaphors describing conversion are symbolic of it. For example, the terms “born again,” “new birth,” “new creation,” “circumcision made without hands,” “second genesis,” etc., are descriptive of the great change that the Bible calls “the first resurrection” (Jn. 5:24). (Had Billy Graham realized this, he would have not beggared one of his books with the self-help title, How to Be Born Again).
The Resurrection Branded as an Apologetical Weapon
A fourth feature of Paul’s resurrection theology pertains to apologetics. Many in the church today argue that Paul attempted to prove the resurrection in two ways. First, he appealed to the Scriptures as his authority. This was his so-called “religious” argument of the Apostle that requires faith. But his second approach, it is claimed, appealed to history; it is said that he presented the resurrection of Christ as a neutered history that is verifiable just as any other historical occurrence is verifiable. Thus, on the basis of the second of these methods, many evangelicals argue the likelihood of the resurrection from raw, historical data. Instead of challenging the worldling’s unbelief and autonomy, an attempt is made to “win” him by plausible historical arguments that culminate in the hypothesis that Christ really did rise on the third day. This method is considered less confrontational and academically respectable. It is a strategy championed by such men as Josh McDowell and his disciples, who speak of the evidence of the resurrection as demanding “a verdict.” But this is not how the resurrection is presented in Scripture. In the New Testament, the verdict is already in! The best that the evangelical apologist can do is theorize that in all likelihood Christ rose from the dead. For example, Christian socialist Ronald Sider argues the “the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection” is “…surprisingly strong” so that “Jesus was probably alive on the third day.” This is as ludicrous as making Paul preach that Christ was “probably buried,” that He probably rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was “probably seen by Cephas,” then “probably by the twelve,” “probably seen by over five hundred brethren at once,” and “last of all probably seen by me also” (that is, Paul)!
Another fallacy about the evangelical approach pertains to exactly what would be proved to the unbeliever, even if Jesus’ resurrection could be demonstrated. If the resurrection is mainly an historical question instead of a question of faith, then what would we really prove? Dr. Cornelius Van Til has handled this brilliantly by reminding us that even if we validated Christ’s resurrection on purely historical considerations, what would we accomplish? Did Christ rise from the dead? If yes, then who raised Him? Jupiter? Zeus? Jannes and Jambres? Harry Houdini? And, what would it all mean anyway? Even pagans acknowledge monstrosities in this world. There are many things that occur in the cosmos that are so bizarre that there has yet to be an adequate scientific or philosophical explanation. Such monstrosities need not surprise us since our knowledge of the terrestrial is always finite, resulting inevitably in mystery. Did Christ arise? Maybe. Perhaps even “probably.” But if He did arise, according to this method there would be no infallible reason to conclude that He was attested to be the Son of God with power or that He was raised to justify us. Let us underscore that the resurrection, from cellar-to-dome, is a theological issue. This is so because the Bible does not sever historical facts from their meanings. God tells us that a fact and its meaning are identical. To say that a fact is brute or “just there,” without meaning, is to assert nonsense. Thus the resurrection would be nonsense apart from its meaning. This is why the resurrection is not merely a brute, historical question. While is it true that Christianity is doctrine, life, and history, this does not mean that these three are not intertwined.
This leads to another self-destructive effect of sandpapering the dogmatic edges of the resurrection. If Paul had argued that the resurrection probably happened, then we may deduce that it possibly did not happen. And if it possibly did not happen, we are no longer left with “the hope of the resurrection” (Ac. 23:6; 26:6; 28:20). Let us be clear as to the meaning of the word hope in Paul’s preaching. Hope is never presented as iffy proposition or uncertain expectation. The Second Coming of Christ is not the “Blessed Hope-so,” but the “Blessed Hope” (Tit. 2:14). The message of the gospel is not that sinners should cross their fingers, close their eyes, and then hope that Christianity is true. On the contrary, the word hope conjures absolute certainty and confidence. Hope is a confident expectation that is founded upon the bedrock of the promises of God (Rom. 5:20-21). For a Christian to argue for the resurrection of Christ on the basis of historical probabilities is to undermine the certainty of the resurrection. We would be guilty of fighting Goliath in Saul’s armor, or abandoning Scripture in order to fight from a styrofoam “fortress.”
The Resurrection Preached to the Athenian Snobs
Paul’s use of the doctrine of the resurrection was also prominent when he preached to the Athenian intellectuals on Mars Hill. His emphasis on the resurrection was so pronounced that the Athenians wrongly deduced that Paul was a polytheist, that is, that he preached two gods, “Jesus and the Anastasia” (Ac. 17:18). It is not difficult to understand such a misunderstanding, especially in the light of Jesus’ own self-defining words, “I am the resurrection and the life” (Jn. 11:24). On Mars Hill, Paul’s doctrine challenged two pet ideas of the Greeks. First, that God (or the gods) does not care about matter. The Greeks were anti-materialists, believing that the soul or spirit of man is the essence of a man’s being. The body was viewed as merely “the prison of the soul.” A more colloquial way of stating it was that the Greeks thought the body was a dispensable appendage to man, or a piece of trash. Death was coveted because when the body was dead, the soul was finally emancipated from this dumpster or human Leavenworth. But the resurrection challenges the anti-creational views of pagans. It tells us that matter matters. It also explains why the Greeks mocked Paul’s preaching (Ac. 17:32). It was not so much that it was impossible for God to raise the dead, but why would He want to? The Greek view is very similar to many today who discount the importance of a bodily resurrection. They may argue that at death our spirits go to heaven where they immediately receive a new body, or that at the last day that God will leave our skeletons in the grave and clothe us with entirely new bodies. This type of thinking is “evangelical” gnosticism. If these sentiments are true, we would be without a resurrection! All we have to do is ask, “What is a resurrection?” By definition a resurrection means that our old bodies are quickened so that we are raised up.
The second area where the Greeks needed instruction concerned the eschatology of the resurrection. The resurrection must not be limited to eschatology! The resurrection is suffused with a judicial meaning and was appropriately preached in the Areopagus setting. Its judicial features are two-fold: The first is that Christ was raised up to justify us (Rom. 4:23). The purpose of the resurrection was to clothe us guilty sinners with the judicial wardrobe of the Lord Jesus Christ. This means that the resurrection is most fittingly preached when we emphasize that man is a criminal in God’s universe and that to escape God’s wrath he must be judicially clothed with Christ’s perfect righteousness. The purpose of the resurrection is not to justify us in our sins; it is to justify us from our sins. Thus the resurrection viewed only as an eschatological event does not per se guarantee a suite in the heavenly Hilton for criminal vermin and moral monsters.
The second judicial feature of the resurrection pertains to our assurance. We know that Christ was crucified because the Jews concluded that He was a blasphemous lawbreaker. Yet Paul assured the Athenians that this Jesus will one day sit as Judge of the whole cosmos. The ground of his confidence was Christ’s resurrection. He preached, “Because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead” (Ac. 17:31). What makes the Judgment inevitable is not an abstract decree or a blind belief in poetic justice, but Christ’s resurrection on the third day. The resurrection vindicated His ministry; it was God’s reward for a job well done (Phil. 2:8-11). The resurrection guarantees “a payday, someday.”
The Resurrection and Your Work
Finally, a most telling implication about the impact of the resurrection pertains to work. Not only does Paul’s teaching about the resurrection reassure us that matter matters, but that our daily work matters! Work itself matters because what is work but the output of energy in order to gain property (matter) for God’s glory?
At the conclusion of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul applies the resurrection to our work. He says, “Therefore, be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (verse 58). The verse begins with “therefore.” An old principle of Bible interpretation goes something like this, “Whenever you see a ‘therefore,’ you know there is a reason it is there for.” What might the “therefore” be there for? Although Paul wants us to take comfort from the future resurrection of our bodies, he does not want us to lose sight of our callings. After we bury our dead and meditate on the resurrection, we must return to our work. Therefore, verse 58 is God’s trumpet of work! Because of Christ’s resurrection (and ours), our work not only has meaning, but it shall not be in vain!
For many years Christians have spoken about the Protestant work ethic. The term is famous and distinguishes the Protestant view of work from the Roman Catholic, in which holy work is restricted (just as the term “saints” is restricted to those who are canonized) to the priests and hierarchy of the Church. Thus, while the priests do holy work, all others do secular work. But for Protestants work is itself an ethic. Work is not something that we have to do, or something that is extraneous to our being. As an ethic that God calls us to obey, instead of a necessary evil, we are motivated to be productive for God.
A number of years ago I was teaching through 1 Corinthians 15 and argued for all work as an ethic. A visitor in the congregation raised his hand and argued that when Paul enjoined work on the Corinthians and us, he was talking about missions, evangelism, and witnessing. He rejected my explanation, just as I rejected his as being pietistic and anti-Dominion. It astounded him that I would apply 1 Corinthians 15:58 to all the work of all Christians. Over the years I have rehearsed our little donnybrook in my mind and have not budged one whit from my original interpretation. Paul is not just speaking to the missionaries in Corinth, or to the preachers and deacons: He tells the whole church that its work (whatever it might be) is not in vain because its work is “the work of the Lord!”
How then can our work not be in vain? The answer is that because Christ is raised-up, we shall be raised-up. This guarantees that all our labor will be rewarded. Our work is not only the Protestant work ethic, but also the resurrection work ethic.
The Apostle Paul was the personification of work. We not only see him preaching about the resurrection, but about resurrecting people and about himself being resurrected (Ac. 14:20, 20:9ff.). Christ’s resurrection power is evidenced in Paul’s preaching, teaching, and mending tents. Paul was so wired that he reported that he outworked all the other apostles put together (1 Cor. 15:10)! Only the resurrection energy of Jesus Christ in him explains his incredible productivity.
All in all, God’s people are galvanized only when the resurrection is presented in its true, Pauline wrappings. If it is not, the church may grow toadstools and dandelions, but it will never grow the “trees of the Lord.” Every true Christian is a “lively stone” in the edifice of Christ’s church because of the resurrection (1 Pet. 2:4). Every Christian should long “to know the power of His resurrection” (Phil. 3:10). The only hope of a world that loves death and lives in death is resurrected men and women who obey “the heavenly vision” of Christ’s resurrection (Ac. 26:19).
- Jim West
Jim West has pastored Covenant Reformed Church in Sacramento for the last 18 years. He is currently Associate Professor of Pastoral and Systematic Theology at City Seminary in Sacramento. He has authored The Missing Clincher Argument in the Tongues Debate, The Art of Choosing Your Love, The Covenant Baptism of Infants, and Christian Courtship Versus Dating. His latest book is Drinking with Calvin and Luther!