The book of Acts is one of the longest and most wide-ranging books in the New Testament. It covers a span of about 30 years, from Jesus’s ascension to Paul’s imprisonment in Rome. Readers are taken on a journey from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, all the way to the center of the Roman empire. We meet an Ethiopian eunuch, a council at Mars Hill in Athens, Roman governors, two king Herods, Paul of Tarsus (and his teacher), Jewish factions, and a Roman centurion. There are councils, stonings, healings, resuscitations, a shipwreck, a snakebite, and a girl possessed by a python spirit (16:16).
It can be tough to know how all the events in this wonderfully wide-ranging book fit together.
Thankfully Luke, the author of Acts, provides some helpful landmarks to help us identify some of the most important points, while also helping us to keep our eyes on Jesus himself.
The Resurrection and the Unity of Acts
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is one of the key emphases of Acts, and this helps us appreciate the theological unity of the entire book. Click To Tweet One of the key landmarks Luke provides is the persistent emphasis on the resurrection of Christ. The resurrection plays a crucial role in the longest speech of Peter (at Pentecost), the two longest speeches of Paul (at Pisidian Antioch and before Herod Agrippa II), and the speech of James at the Jerusalem Council. It’s also key to understanding Paul’s conversion, for it is the risen Christ Paul meets on the road to Damascus—and Paul retells this story twice after it is narrated in Acts 9. It pops up in many shorter speeches besides.
In sum, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is one of the key emphases of Acts, and this helps us appreciate the theological unity of the entire book.
A few examples will illustrate this. In Peter’s Pentecost sermon the resurrection of Christ fulfills Psalm 16. Because Christ has risen, he is the ultimate Davidic king, and because he lives, the proper response is faith and repentance. Similarly, in Acts 13 Paul points out that Christ by his resurrection is the true Son of God who reigns over all the nations. Later, when Paul states that he is on trial because of the resurrection of the dead (23:6), this is not merely a rhetorical ploy. This is a faithful summary of his message: for Jesus is the living Lord of all (see Acts 10:36).
Once we start looking, we’ll find the resurrection is highlighted throughout Acts. The apostles’ preaching in Jerusalem is summarized as resurrection preaching (4:33), Stephen saw the glorified Jesus (7:56), James spoke of the rebuilt Davidic dynasty realized through the resurrection (15:16), and Paul proclaims even to the Areopagus council that Jesus is the risen judge of all people (17:30–31).
What is the point of the resurrection? The resurrection demonstrates the righteousness of Christ—it was wrong to put him to death, for he is the fully righteous Son of God (Luke 23:47). By means of the resurrection he has been installed as both Lord and Christ, and he reigns over an everlasting kingdom (Acts 2:36). The resurrection is not alien to the Scriptures, but fulfills them. In this way, the resurrection legitimates the early Christian movement, and demonstrates the veracity of Scripture. God had not abandoned his promises, but the resurrection is the hope of Israel (28:20).
The Resurrection and the Unity of the New Testament
Speaking of Scripture–Acts also provides a glimpse into the unity of the New Testament. If the resurrection helps show the coherence of the book of Acts, the book of Acts itself is an important facet of the overall unity of the New Testament.
The resurrection is not alien to the Scriptures, but fulfills them. In this way, the resurrection legitimates the early Christian movement, and demonstrates the veracity of Scripture. Click To Tweet Put simply, the resurrection is not an ancillary doctrine, but is central to all the books of the New Testament. The resurrection is necessary to understand the Gospels, Paul’s letters (and Hebrews), the Catholic Epistles (James through Jude), and Revelation.
It’s interesting that in the ordering of early Christian manuscripts, Acts proved to be quite flexible: it was sometimes grouped with the Gospels, sometimes with Paul’s letters, and quite frequently, with the Catholic Epistles. There are surely a number of reasons for this, but one of the key takeaways is how Acts serves as a lens for interpreting various portions of the New Testament. In fact, it may be that the resurrection emphasis of Acts, read alongside other New Testament books, helps us see the resurrection emphasis elsewhere in the New Testament as well.
For example, while the Gospels mention the resurrection in a more limited way, Acts supplements these accounts by filling in more details—including specific Old Testament texts that Jesus’s suffering, death, and resurrection fulfill (see Luke 24:44–47). Similarly, the New Testament epistles say relatively little about Jesus’s resurrection. Instead, they assume it. It may be that Acts was often grouped with the letters to provide the proper narrative framework for understanding the teaching of the letters, including how to contextualize their authors: especially Peter, James, John, and Paul. Reading Acts alongside New Testament letters helps provide the christological context for the calls to Christian living, and the importance of the resurrection for understanding this Christology.
There is much more to Acts than only the resurrection of Christ. But the resurrection is indeed one of Luke’s key emphases, and we do well to reflect on its wide-ranging significance. By tracing this theme throughout this wide-ranging book, we’re able profitably to keep our eyes on Jesus and what he has done for us—including how he reigns even now.
Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared at the blog for Credo Magazine. Brandon covers these themes in more detail in The Hope of Israel: The Resurrection of Christ in the Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020).