The christological narrative of Acts

The book of Acts tends to get overlooked when we try to explain who Jesus was and why. We go to the Gospels for an account of Jesus earthly existence and to Paul and Hebrews for an account of his heavenly existence—an approach that reflects the fact that we have been conditioned by later christological developments to think of Jesus as a split human-divine personality. Acts, however, gives us an apocalyptic narrative of the exalted Jesus arising directly out of the Gospel story that challenges the bifurcated ontology of traditional representations. In fact, I would argue that Paul and Hebrews mostly presuppose this apocalyptic-narrative framework—that most of what needs to be said about Jesus, as far as the New Testament is concerned, can be found in Luke-Acts.

The central point that is made about Jesus in Acts is that he has been raised from the dead and seated at the right hand of God. The rulers of Israel and the nations had conspired to have Jesus, the Holy and Righteous One, put to death (Acts 2:23; 3:13-15; 4:27; 5:30; 13:27-29). God, however, raised him from the dead and made his servant Lord and Christ. Four passages from the Psalms are deployed to account for this remarkable turn of events.

  • The kings of the earth plot against the Lord and his anointed king, but YHWH has established his king on mount Zion, he has “begotten” his Son in this day of crisis, he will give him the nations as his heritage, and the Son will shepherd them with a rod of iron (Ps. 2:1-9 LXX; cf. Acts 4:25-27; 13:33).
  • David affirms that the Lord is at his right hand “that I might not be shaken”; he knows that “you will not abandon my soul to Hades or give your devout to see corruption”; God makes know to him the ways of life (Ps. 15:8-11). This is a mainstay of the disciples’ argument that it was not possible for Jesus to be held by the pains of death (Acts 2:24-31; 13:35-37). Since David died and was buried, he must have had in mind the “resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption” (Acts 2:29-31).
  • David also speaks of a “Lord” who is told to sit at the right hand of God “until I make your enemies your footstool”. He will rule in the midst of his enemies, and YHWH will execute judgment among the nations (Ps. 109 LXX = 110). On this basis it is proclaimed to Israel that the resurrected Jesus has been made “both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:24-36; cf. 5:31).
  • David speaks of himself as a stone rejected by the builders, which has become the chief cornerstone (Ps. 117:22 LXX = 118:22). Surrounded by hostile nations, he was close to falling, but the Lord delivered him. The “Lord’s right hand” produced power and exalted him; David, therefore, will not die but live; the Lord did not surrender him to death (Ps. 117:10-18 LXX).

The consistent story is told, therefore, of a Davidic king who is assailed by hostile powers, who is rescued by God, who is not allowed to be overcome by death, and who is established at the right hand of God to judge and rule over the nations. The apostles apply this story to the resurrected Jesus, and the impact of this focus can be seen in four different areas.

1. Death and resurrection: injustice and vindication

Jesus’ death at the hands of his enemies is the necessary prelude to resurrection, but it is barely attributed soteriological significance. The description of Jesus as the “Holy and Righteous One” who is a “servant” (Acts 3:13-14) perhaps alludes to Isaiah 53:11: “by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.” But what Peter highlights is that the Jews had chosen a murderer over the “Author of life”, not that Jesus bore their iniquities. The passage read by the Ethiopian eunuch speaks only of the injustice of the servant’s death (Acts 8:33; Is. 53:7-8). The argument about Jesus’ death in Acts is that he was treated unjustly by the rulers of Israel but vindicated by God.

2. Mission control

The risen Lord actively directs and supports the mission of the apostles and the movement that has come about “in his name”. He gives the Spirit to his disciples (Acts 1:4-5, 8; 2:33). He is closely identified with his persecuted followers. At his death Stephen sees the “Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56). Jesus confronts Paul as the representation of the churches which he was persecuting (Acts 9:4-5; 22:7-8; 26:14-15); he chooses him not only to carry his name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel (Acts 9:14; 20:24; 26:16-18) but also to suffer for his sake (Acts 9:16). He demonstrates his power by healing the sick (Acts 14:3). People have very practical conversations with the risen Jesus in visions (Acts 9:10-16; 10:14; 18:9-10; 22:17-21; 23:11). In other words, there is interaction between the apostles and risen Lord insofar as it serves the overarching eschatological intention that Jesus should be proclaimed as God’s anointed king at this moment in history.

3. Israel and the resurrection

Throughout Acts the disciples are witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 1:8; 2:32; 3:15; 4:33; 5:32; 10:41-42; 13:31). But the argument is not simply that Jesus has been raised; it is that his resurrection is in some way evidence for, or an anticipation of, the resurrection of the dead: they proclaimed “in Jesus the resurrection of the dead” (Acts 4:2).

The resurrection of the dead, of the just and the unjust, in Acts was the goal to which the twelve tribes of Israel hoped to attain, though it was not a hope shared by all (Acts 23:6-8; 24:14-15; 26:6-8). The fulfilment of the hope is to be associated with the restoration of the kingdom to Israel (Acts 1:6), the coming of the Christ at a time of national catastrophe (Acts 3:21; cf. Lk. 17:30; 18:8; 21:27, 36), the restoring of all things (Acts 3:21), and the “coming judgment” of the living and the dead (Acts 10:42; 24:25). It is specifically, therefore, a hope for Israel, within the historical purview of first century Israel. The Old Testament precursor is Daniel 12:1-3: at a time of unprecedented national crisis those among the living whose names are written in the book will be delivered; at the same time, many of Israel’s dead will be raised, the just to everlasting life, the unjust to everlasting contempt. This is not a final resurrection of all humanity. In Acts resurrection is relevant for the Gentiles only in that God will judge the ancient world by Jesus, whom he raised from the dead, which is the final point….

4. Judgment of the pagan world

The resurrection is taken as evidence that Israel’s God is no longer willing to overlook pagan idolatry but is about the judge the oikoumenē “in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31). This is no less a historical judgment than the judgment of Egypt at the time of the exodus (Acts 7:7). It is an extension of the argument from Psalms 2 and 110 that YHWH will overthrow the powers that oppose his king and make him judge and ruler of the nations.

So to sum up…

The man Jesus, who “went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil” (Acts 10:38), was unjustly killed by the rulers of Israel and the Gentiles. God raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in heaven, making him Lord and Christ. This is accounted for almost entirely by reference to narratives found in the Psalms, in which Israel’s king is delivered by God and given authority to judge and rule over the nations, so there is little scope here for a “high christology”. Two major prospects are in view: the judgment and restoration of Israel and the overthrow of the pagan oikoumenē, to be ruled subsequently by Israel’s king. In the meantime, through the Spirit the risen Lord is actively involved in the mission of the apostles to proclaim the good news of the coming reign of God and of the lordship of Jesus to Israel and to the nations.

Comments

I really enjoyed reading this. It speaks directly to something that has been on my mind lately.

It seems to me that we tend to downplay the significance of the resurrection and (perhaps) overemphasize the significance of the crucifixion. I recently re-read the NT in a Bible that doesn’t have “numbers” (the chapter and verse designations) or headings. It seemed to me that there the resurrection is given far more significance than we usually give it. Your post sums it up nicely (with respect to Luke-Acts).

Thanks, Bill. I suspect that the mechanics of reading the New Testament have a lot to do with what we learn from it—almost, what we make it teach us. The versification of the text is one factor, certainly. We are also conditioned to read in fragments, discontinuously, thematically. Even Bible reading plans break scripture down into portions that can be digested on a daily basis. I strongly advocate reading whole books at a time, in a hurry.

One of the consistent themes of the proclamation of the risen Jesus in Acts, which you don’t mention, is forgiveness of sins in his name or through him - Acts 2:38, 3:19, 5:31, 10:43, 13:38.

The sins were both immediate and of a more longstanding nature. Peter and Paul are sweeping in their accusation of the guilt of Jerusalem, which includes the crowds as well as the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, in handing Jesus over to be crucified. Stephen focuses on the Sanhedrin’s guilt, but his presentation of the history of Israel makes it a national and collective guilt in rejecting YHWH and his representatives from the time of Moses onwards.

In Acts 3, having said the same to the onlookers at the healing of the man at the temple gate (“You handed him over to be killed”, “You killed the author of life” / “but God raised him from the dead” - 3:13, 15), Peter then mitigates the offence by saying that both crowds and their leaders acted in ignorance - 3:17, and that this would fulfil a broader prophetic purpose, eg 3:24-25, and that their sins would be wiped out on repentance and turning to God - 3:19. Part of this prophetic purpose was the fulfilment of the promise to Abraham, that “through your offspring all peoples on earth will be blessed” - 3:25.

Forgiveness of sins was more than the sin of handing Jesus over to death, although that was the outstanding offence. It was also the climax of all the other sins, which had consisted in opposing God’s plans throughout the history of Israel.

It’s a short step from here to ask how it was that sins could be forgiven through Jesus, or in his name, and what was the significance of his death, and how it could be explained.

It’s inadequate to say that Jesus simply fulfilled OT prediction that a king in David’s line would be killed and raised to rule over the nations. He was also “the Author of life” - giving life to all who turned and believed in him, despite his death at their hands.

There is soteriological significance in Jesus’s death and resurrection in Acts, in respect of forgiveness of sins. It is forgiveness of sins which comes through Jesus, not simply survival through catastrophe, or even vindication through survival and defeat of pagan empire. Forgiveness of sins is the deeper issue, and then not for Israel alone, but for Gentiles also, as the conversion of Cornelius in response to Peter’s message, eg 10:36 and 10:43 especially, and the proclamation of the gospel to the Gentiles, eg Acts13:46 especially, demonstrate.

The story within the story in Acts is about life and death, sin and forgiveness, and provides a soteriological framework which is inclusive of, but extending before and beyond, immediate 1st century events and concerns.

I thought about mentioning forgiveness of sins—yes, it is an important theme. But I decided to keep the focus on what is said about Jesus, and I have discussed the forgiveness of sins in Acts in a previous post, where I pointed out that it is not connected to an atonement theology.

I have enjoyed this. Thanks for highlighting the thematic parallels between David and Jesus. I admittedly have stayed away from Acts for some time, spending most of my days in the Gospels, Paul, or Revelation. But this was a friendly reminder that there is much Christology to uncover in a much forgotten book.