This summer I have been reading through the Book of Acts. I should be done this week (and I hope to post some thoughts on the blog). Toward the end of this narrative the Apostle Paul is depicted as giving several speeches in his own defense. He is accused of many things. In 17.16-34 some Athenians claim he is introducing “new deities.” In 19.23-41 a silversmith named Demetrius rallies the Ephesian crowd to accuse Paul of blaspheming the goddess Artimes. In 21.27-36 his fellow Jews accuse him betraying them and the Law of Moses. In every occasion Luke doesn’t deny that Paul’s preaching has “turned the world upside down,” but he does defend Paul against lawlessness. Paul has done nothing against Caesar, or Rome, or other governing authorities, or the Jews.
For Luke the opposition may think this or that is the reason for their animosity against Paul, but it isn’t. Paul is presented as saying so in his speeches. In 22.1-21 Paul’s fellow Jews listen to the defense he gives after his arrest in the temple until he mentions going to the Gentiles with his gospel. This throws the Jews into a fit. Yet Paul does not change argument. It seems that he is convinced that the heart of the matter is his proclamation that God raised Jesus from the dead.
In 23.1-11 Paul splits the Sanhedrin by causing the Pharisees to sympathize with him against the Sadducees because Paul affirmed the resurrection. The Pharisees believed in a final resurrection; the Sadducees did not. Of course, Paul’s main concern is the resurrection of Jesus. In 24.21 Paul defends himself before Felix the Roman governor saying that his opponents are upset because he affirms the resurrection. This is what perplexes the next governor Festus as well. He tells King Agrippa in 25.19, “…they simply had some points of disagreement with him about their own religion and about a dead man, Jesus, whom Paul asserted to be alive (NASB).” When Paul gives his defense before Agrippa asks those present, “Why is it considered incredible among you people if God does raise the dead (26.8, NASB)?” After recounting his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus he presses his point before Agrippa and Felix: This is what Moses foresaw, this is what the prophets foresaw, I (Paul) am not saying anything out of line with the hope of Israel.
Luke’s Paul has a straightforward message: It’s about the resurrection! Paul did not believe that the accusations against him addressed the real problem. It wasn’t about the polity of Athens, or the economics of Ephesus, or the customs of the temple in Jerusalem. It was about the resurrection. The resurrection has changed everything. As Paul told the Athenians, “God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead (17.30b-31, NASB).” The resurrection means Athenian philosophers, and Ephesians idol makers, and pious Jews must reckon with God’s apocalyptic action as revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. This is what it is really about at the end of the day: Did God raise Jesus from the dead? If so, what do you do with that?