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Easter [2018]: Jesus is Risen—So What? (Acts 25:23, 26:1-29)

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April 1, 2018

Years ago, Dr. Paul Adkins, one of the nation’s leading lung surgeons, looked at his own chest X-ray and realized that he was looking at his own obituary (Reader’s Digest [11/82]). He was dead four and a half months later, at age 55, from lung cancer, the disease that he had attempted to treat in hundreds of other patients. The ironic fact was that Dr. Adkins himself had smoked up to a pack and a half of cigarettes daily for 40 years. His mother had smoked and lived to an old age, and so Dr. Adkins foolishly concluded that he could do the same. Even after he realized that he had lung cancer he continued to smoke, against the strong warnings of his colleagues.

If anyone knew the dangers of smoking, Dr. Adkins did, but he did not apply that knowledge to himself. Knowledge is worthless if we don’t apply it. The same is true spiritually. We can know the truth, but if we don’t apply it personally, it does us no good.

Polls show that one-third to one-half of Americans claim to be born again Christians, and yet there’s not much difference between how they live and how other Americans live. Professing Christians watch the same TV shows and movies as non-Christians do. They view pornography, engage in sexual immorality, and get divorced at about the same rate as other Americans. The apostle Paul would ask them, “Doesn’t the resurrection of Jesus from the dead mean anything to you?” In other words, Jesus is risen—so what? How should that fact affect your life?

Acts 26 relates Paul’s defense before the Roman governor Festus, King Agrippa II, his sister, Bernice, and many dignitaries at the Roman capital, Caesarea. Agrippa II was the son of Agrippa I (Acts 12). He ruled over Galilee and some other territories to the north. A popular but unproven rumor alleged that Agrippa and Bernice were in an incestuous relationship. She later became the lover of the Roman general and future emperor Titus, whose army destroyed Jerusalem in 70. Agrippa and Bernice had a sister, Drusilla, who was married to the previous governor, Felix (Acts 24). Drusilla later died in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79.

This is the third time in Acts that Luke repeats Paul’s testimony of his conversion, which, along with the witness of the other apostles, is a strong evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Here Paul especially focuses on the commission that the risen Lord Jesus gave to him, to go to the Gentiles so that they might repent and turn to God (Acts 26:18, 20). His message to us is:

Because Jesus was raised bodily from the dead, you should repent and turn to God.

In other words, to say, “I believe in Jesus as my Savior,” but to go on living in the same way as this godless world, does no more good than for a lung surgeon to say, “I believe that smoking causes lung cancer,” but to go on smoking a pack a day. If we truly believe that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, our lives will show it. Repentance is not optional. You can’t separate it from genuine saving faith. It is the mark of genuine conversion.

Paul’s defense makes two main points: (1) The bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ is a fact; (2) Repenting of your sins and turning to God is the only reasonable response to this great fact.

1. Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead is an historical fact.

Paul is speaking here to a skeptical audience, and so he presents his case inductively. He doesn’t state up front, “Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.” He would have been hooted out of the room. Even when he finally states this great truth, Festus interrupts to say that he’s out of his mind (Acts 26:24). So Paul begins with the possibility of resurrection in general. Then he describes his own encounter with the risen Lord Jesus, and the changes that took place in his life as a result. Then he relates the message that the risen Lord told him to proclaim. Finally he comes to the foundation for his message, namely, that according to the Scriptures Jesus died and was raised from the dead. He gives four proofs of the resurrection:

A. Resurrection in general is possible because of God.

Paul begins by telling of his early life in Judaism and identifying himself with the hope of God’s promise to the Jews, namely, the coming of Messiah and His kingdom. That promise would have been worthless to the Jews from past generations if there were no resurrection of the dead. Yet it was for this Jewish hope that Paul’s Jewish kinsmen, the Sadducees, were accusing him. Thus he interjects (Acts 26:8), “Why is it considered incredible among you people if God does raise the dead?”

In other words, if you believe in the God of the Bible, you must necessarily believe that He has the power to raise the dead. And, as Paul will go on to assert, the fact that God raised Jesus bodily proves that He is the Jewish Messiah. Paul’s logic here is solid: If you believe in the God who created all things and who spoke life into existence, you must also agree that He has the inherent power to raise the dead.

B. Jesus’ resurrection is proved by eyewitness testimony.

Paul goes on (Acts 26:12-16) to recount his own dramatic encounter with the risen Lord Jesus on the Damascus Road. Skeptics might say that Paul only saw a vision or hallucination, not the actual risen Lord Jesus. If Paul had been the only one to make such a claim, perhaps we would have to concede the point, or at least not build our case on it. But in 1 Corinthians 15:5-8, Paul states that the risen Lord appeared to Peter and the other apostles, as well as to over 500 followers at one time, most of whom were still alive when Paul wrote. Floyd Hamilton states (in Teacher’s Manual for the Ten Basic Steps Toward Christian Maturity [Campus Crusade for Christ, 1965], p. 104, italics his),

Now it is perfectly possible for one man to have an hallucination, and two men might have the same hallucination by a singular coincidence, but that eleven men of intelligence, whose characters and writings indicate their sanity in other respects, or that five hundred men in a body should have the same hallucination and at the same time, stretches the law of probability to the breaking point!

Concerning Jesus’ resurrection J. N. D. Anderson wrote (“The Resurrection of Jesus Christ,” Christianity Today [3/29/68], pp. 5, 6),

The most drastic way of dismissing the evidence would be to say that these stories were mere fabrications, that they were pure lies. But, so far as we know, not a single critic today would take such an attitude. In fact, it would really be an impossible position. Think of the number of witnesses, over 500. Think of the character of the witnesses, men and women who gave the world the highest ethical teaching it has ever known, and who even on the testimony of their enemies lived it out in their lives. Think of the psychological absurdity of picturing a little band of defeated cowards cowering in an upper room one day and a few days later transformed into a company that no persecution could silence—and then attempting to attribute this dramatic change to nothing more convincing than a miserable fabrication they were trying to foist upon the world. That simply wouldn’t make sense.

Someone may be thinking, “That’s great for those who saw the risen Christ. But I’ve never seen Him. Why should I believe?”

You should believe because there is reasonable evidence to believe. We all believe in things we cannot see and in people we do not know. You trust that the people who package the food you buy at the store did not poison it. You trust that the mechanic who fixed your brakes did a good job. You trust the teller at the bank to deposit your money in your account and not steal it. If you trust the witness of men, the witness of God concerning His Son is greater (1 John 5:9). He will hold you accountable if you reject the eyewitness testimony that He has given regarding the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

C. Jesus’ resurrection is proved by the changed lives of the witnesses.

Paul had been relentless in persecuting Christians. He says (Acts 26:11) that he “punished them often,” “tried to force them to blaspheme” and was “furiously enraged” at them. And yet here he is, a prisoner for the cause of Christ, having endured much persecution himself because of his faith in Christ, but he’s not bitter or hateful toward his enemies. How did this hate-driven terrorist change into a man compelled by the love of Christ, willing to lay down his life to tell others about Jesus? The only explanation is that he had seen the risen Savior. All of the other apostles had also been radically transformed. Would these men have died martyrs’ deaths for what they knew to be a myth or hoax?

D. Jesus’ resurrection is supported by fulfilled prophecy.

Paul affirms (Acts 26:22-23) that he is saying nothing except that which the Prophets and Moses had said would take place, “that the Christ was to suffer, and that by reason of His resurrection from the dead He should be the first to proclaim light both to the Jewish people and to the Gentiles.” Probably Paul went into more detail here, quoting from Genesis 22, Isaiah 53, Psalm 16, and Psalm 22, all of which prophesied of Messiah’s death and resurrection centuries before these things took place.

Thus Paul’s point is that the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ was an historical fact. Such a miracle is possible because God exists. It is proved by eyewitness testimony and by the changed lives of the witnesses. It is supported by the Hebrew Scriptures. But, so what? What difference should this fact make?

2. Repenting of your sins and turning to God is the only reasonable response to Jesus’ resurrection.

Paul shows this both by his own example and by his direct preaching. When Paul believed in Jesus Christ, he did a 180-degree turnaround. From then on he preached (Acts 26:20) that all people “should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance.” Repentance involves a change of mind, but it is more than only a change of mind. It involves a turning of the whole person, including a change of behavior. Repentance is not separate from saving faith; rather, it’s a necessary part of genuine faith. If you truly believe that a prescription medicine will cure you, you don’t just set it on the shelf. You take the pill. If you truly believe that Jesus Christ is the risen Savior, you turn to God from your sins. Paul here says four things about repentance:

A. Repentance involves a change of understanding: from darkness to light.

The risen Christ was the first to proclaim light (Acts 26:23). God sent Paul (Acts 26:18) “to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light.” Apart from Christ, all people, no matter how brilliant, are “darkened in their understanding” (Eph. 4:18). As Jesus said (John 3:19), they “loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.” Paul said (2 Cor. 4:4) that “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.”

People in the darkness cannot see the blazing light of God’s holiness. If you had asked Paul before his conversion whether he believed that God is holy, there’s no doubt that he would have answered, “Of course!” He knew that fact intellectually. But only when the light from heaven brighter than the sun blinded him did Paul realize that God was far more holy than he had ever imagined. Previously, Paul had thought that his own good deeds as a Pharisee would qualify him for heaven (Phil. 3:4-6). But the instant the light of God’s holiness struck him to the ground, Paul, like Isaiah, was undone. He realized that his own good works were like filthy rags in God’s sight (Isa. 6:5; 64:6).

Suddenly, Paul saw that he was far more sinful than he ever had imagined. If you had asked Paul before his conversion if he were a sinner, he would have replied, “Of course, all men are sinners.” But like the Pharisee in Jesus’ story (Luke 18:10-12), he probably would have thought, “I’m glad that I’m not a really bad sinner! I tithe, I pray, I fast.” But when the light from heaven blinded him, Paul instantly realized that he could never qualify for heaven by his good deeds. All of his supposed good deeds could never atone for his many evil deeds.

Years after his conversion, Paul wrote (1 Tim. 1:15), “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost.” He did not say, I was foremost, but I am foremost! As C. S. Lewis pointed out (Mere Christianity [Macmillan], p. 87), “When a man is getting better, he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still in him. When a man is getting worse, he understands his own badness less and less.” Thus repentance is not just a one-time experience at the moment of conversion. It is the ongoing practice of every believer who walks in God’s holy light.

If sin and Satan blind people so that they cannot see the light of God’s truth regarding His holiness and their own sin, how can they change? The biblical answer is, only God can change them. As Paul said (2 Cor. 4:6), “For God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” God brings this change through the preaching of the gospel. Thus the risen Lord told Paul (Acts 26:18) that through his preaching God would “open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me.”

God not only opens the sinner’s eyes to the light of His holiness and to the darkness of the sinner’s sin, but also to the abundance of God’s grace in Christ, who bore the penalty that sinners deserve. Since Paul, the foremost of sinners, found mercy at the cross, that same mercy is available to you if you will repent.

B. Repentance involves a change of masters: from Satan to God.

Everyone by nature is born into this world as a captive in Satan’s evil domain of darkness (Col. 1:13; 2 Tim. 2:26). Both Jesus and Paul describe our condition as being slaves of sin (John 8:34-35; Rom. 6:17, 20).

How can anyone break free from so strong a master? Jesus said (John 8:36), “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” Paul says (Col. 1:13-14) that God “rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” God alone can free us from slavery to sin and make us slaves of righteousness (Rom. 6:17-23).

This means that if you have not experienced a definite change of masters, from Satan to God, from serving sin and self to serving the Lord Jesus in holiness, you need to examine yourself to see whether you have truly repented of your sins. Repentance means turning “from the dominion of Satan to God” (Acts 26:18).

C. Repentance involves a change of relationship: from condemnation to forgiveness and acceptance as heirs.

Paul continues (Acts 26:18), “… that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me.” Before repentance, we were under God’s just condemnation because of our sins (John 3:18, 36). But the instant that we repent and believe in Christ, God sets us apart (“sanctified”) and grants us forgiveness of sins and all of the riches that are in Christ. At that moment, we enter into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ (John 17:3). Rather than being afraid of God because of our sins, now we can come boldly into His presence through Christ’s blood to receive grace to help in our time of need (Heb. 4:16; 9:22-28). Thus if you have turned from your sins and trusted in Christ, you now enjoy God’s forgiveness and every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Eph. 1:3-8).

Thus repentance involves a change of understanding, from darkness to light; a change of masters, from Satan to God; a change of relationship, from condemnation to forgiveness and acceptance as heirs. Finally,

D. Repentance involves a change of behavior: from sin to deeds appropriate to repentance.

In Acts 26:20, Paul reports his obedience to this heavenly vision: He kept declaring both to Jews and Gentiles, “that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance.” Whether you have been a religious person (as Paul and the Jews were) or an unbelieving pagan (as the Gentiles were), the message is the same: Repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance.

The deeds follow repentance. As G. H. Lang put it, “None more firmly than Paul rejected works, before or after conversion, as a ground of salvation; none more firmly demanded good works as a consequence of salvation” (The Gospel of the Kingdom, cited by F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts [Eerdmans], p. 493). Biblical repentance is not just a change of mind or an intellectual decision. It is a turning of the whole person from sin to God, resulting in a life of obedience to God from the heart (Rom. 6:17).

Then Paul personally addressed Agrippa (Acts 26:27), “King Agrippa, do you believe the Prophets?” Before Agrippa could respond, Paul answered his own question, “I know that you do.” Yes, Agrippa believed the prophets intellectually, just as many Americans “believe in Jesus” intellectually. But it made no difference in the way he lived. But Paul was not just preaching for intellectual agreement. He was preaching for repentance.

So am I! Repentance means that you believe in the risen Savior with such conviction that it turns around the way you live. Instead of living in darkness, you now live in the light of God’s holy presence. Instead of living under Satan’s domain, you now live under the Lordship of Jesus in line with His Word. Instead of living for yourself and sinful pleasure, you now live to please Jesus Christ.

Now Paul had Agrippa cornered. If he denied his belief in the Prophets, he would lose face with the Jews. If he agreed with Paul, he could see that the next question would be, “Why don’t you believe in Jesus Christ as the risen Savior?” He wasn’t ready to go there! So he skated out of this embarrassing dilemma with a mildly sarcastic humorous dodge (Acts 26:28), “In a short time you will persuade me to become a Christian”. The ESV translates it as a question, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” And so to save face in front of this pompous crowd, Agrippa threw away his opportunity to receive God’s forgiveness and gift of eternal life! Don’t follow his example!

Conclusion

Probably almost everyone here believes that seat belts save lives. But that belief doesn’t do you any good in a crash unless you actually have your seat belt fastened. Those who buckle up are those who truly believe that seat belts save lives. Your belief is worthless if you don’t personally apply it.

Do you believe that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead? Good for you! You’re right so to believe, because it is true! But if that belief has not led to a life of repentance from sin, it won’t do you any good when you stand before God. Your response to the historical fact of Jesus’ bodily resurrection should be repentance.

Application Questions

  1. Why is it important to assert the factual basis of the Christian faith? In other words, if believing in Christianity gives us a happy life, what difference does it make whether it’s true?
  2. Some evangelicals argue that to require repentance for salvation is to add works to faith alone. Why is this not valid?
  3. If God must grant repentance (Acts 11:18), is it futile to call people to repent? Why/why not?
  4. Can true Christians be enslaved to sin (Rom. 6:17, 22)? Cite biblical evidence to support your answer.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2018, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Easter, Resurrection, Soteriology (Salvation)