I argued last time that the early Christians placed more significance on the exaltation of Christ to heaven than on his resurrection from the dead. Two observations pointed me in this direction.
- Some early confessional material managed to tell the story of Christ without an explicit reference to bodily resurrection (Philippians 2:5-6, Hebrews 1:1-4, 1 Timothy 3:16). The death and exaltation, however, were usually not neglected in this way.
- In their attempt to explain what happened to Christ after his death, the early Christians appealed most often to Psalm 110. Examined as a whole, this scripture places emphasis squarely on the Lord’s newfound authority to judge, save, and make war from God’s right hand. So although Psalm 110 never mentions resurrection from the dead, the early Christians were adamant that this psalm of exaltation was fulfilled by means of Christ’s resurrection.
The argument found only limited success. Christ’s bodily resurrection, I now admit, is pervasive both within and without early confessional material. I no longer think there is sufficient evidence to judge the exaltation as an event as more significant than the resurrection as an event. But I am also not sure that this was the argument I meant to make.
While I still believe there is merit in comparing the relative importance of the exaltation and the resurrection as events, I think such exercises are ultimately misleading. They provide little value because the resurrection and exaltation mattered to the early Christians not as events but as signs. They mattered because they indicated something about reality. What this means is that we need to be able to determine the rhetorical and symbolic significance of these signs within a given passage. We need to ask What function does the resurrection serve in this text? What does the exaltation mean here?
Below I have attempted to answer such questions in the context of the apostolic preaching in the book of Acts. This thoroughly resurrection-centric material seems an appropriate addition to the confessional material I looked at last time—both represent the thought-patterns of the earliest Christians.
Through this exercise I have determined two things: 1) the resurrection was likely just as important as the exaltation for early Christians, and 2) the resurrection served almost exclusively as a sign of Christ’s impending public vindication and exaltation.
Rhetorical functions of Christ’s resurrection in Acts
Acts 2—The overarching goal of Peter’s sermon is to explain the strange behavior on display among believers on Pentecost. While some determine that alcohol is the source of such behavior, Peter maintains that the activity derives from the spirit which Christ poured out after he was raised from the dead and exalted to heaven. Peter concludes that since God has given Christ authority to dispense of divine spirit, Christ is also able to forgive sins and save a person from “this corrupt generation” (Acts 2:37-40). The resurrection and charismata therefore both function as signs of Christ’s eschatological authority.
Acts 3/4—Christ’s resurrection is part of a story that explains how Peter has authority to heal the crippled beggar. Peter claims that Christ was given a name by which men can be healed and saved from the consequences of sin (Acts 3:11-26, 4:8-10). Just as Christ was given a name by which men can be healed physically, he was also given a name by which men can be saved at the eschaton. So in raising Christ from the dead God has made him the cornerstone; “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:11-12).
Acts 10:34-43—Peter’s brief sermon offers the resurrection as proof that Jesus was ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead; news which must be announced to the nations.
Acts 13—Paul sees in the resurrection the fulfillment of Psalm 2. God’s son has been given the promises of David and is now at work bringing the nations into subjection (Acts 13:32-34, Psalm 2:7-11). As the newly-installed Davidic king Jesus has power to save the faithful and destroy the scoffers (Acts 13:38-41).
Acts 17:22-31—Most of Paul’s critique against idolatry in Athens could have been composed by a non-Christian Jew. Only at the very end does Paul mention Jesus and his resurrection. For Paul, God’s action to save Jesus from death provides a newfound sense of urgency; the nations must now abandon their idols because God has “fixed a day on which he will have the world judged by a man whom he has appointed” (Acts 17:30-31). The resurrection serves as “assurance” that this eschatological day is coming.
The data presented here is somewhat puzzling in light of our modern theological expectations. Why is Christ’s ability to forgive sins associated with his postmortem authorization and not with his death on the cross? Where is Christ’s triumphant trampling of death by death? Where is the inauguration of new creation through resurrection? Why the rhetorical coupling of resurrection and judgement?
In my view the answer to these questions lies in understanding early Christians priorities. The first Christians were more concerned with their communal, earthly, and political existence than they were with their individual, otherworldly, and spiritual existence. What was of immediate importance to these believers was that Christ could and would save them from their enemies, publicly vindicate their message, and exalt them over the corrupt rulers of the age. Christ’s resurrection was at the most fundamental level a sign meant to legitimize these eschatological expectations.