[This article is an extract from an upcoming Matthias Media book on the resurrection. We’re excerpting it here as it’s an excellent stand-alone article on a reasonably under-appreciated aspect of the New Testament accounts of the resurrection: Rory investigates why the resurrection of Jesus was unexpected, even to a Jewish audience, why it nevertheless fits the narrative well, and why it leaves us with a significant choice to make.]
In Athens Paul proclaimed the resurrection and a few believed (Acts 17:34). By no means a total waste of time, but not an unmitigated success. But Athens was a tough town. Surely this stuff would have had a better hearing in a place like Jerusalem: good old end-times obsessed, religiously nutty, resurrection-oriented Jerusalem. The stats seem to confirm it: at the end of Peter’s speech on the topic of the resurrection in Jerusalem, about 3,000 were added to their number (Acts 2:41). If we put the number of people responding at the end of Paul’s speech at a generous 20, it would seem that Peter’s speech was 15,000% more effective.
Not bad. Not bad at all.
However, it is extremely unlikely that Luke meant us to run the odds and conclude that we should preach more like Peter and less like Paul—Acts being a book less about ‘How to Make Your Church Grow Big’ and more of a ‘How to Still Sing Songs Whilst in Prison for Jesus’ kind of book. And Peter’s ‘success’ on that day surely had an awful lot to do with the kind of mental furniture already in the minds of his Old Testament soaked audience.
And that is true—but not in the way many of us imagine. It’s true that Peter’s Jerusalem audience were Old Testament soaked, but does that fact alone make the claim ‘Jesus is raised from the dead’ an easy sell? Not exactly. In this article, I want us to think about (1) what exactly it was Peter’s audience believed about the resurrection before he started to speak, and (2) how Peter’s speech might have confirmed, extended and even radically altered their expectations regarding the resurrection. Because the truth is, once a man stands up in Jerusalem and says that his guy has risen from the dead and therefore he’s the Messiah, there is still lot of heavy lifting to do. Jewish people in the first century were expecting a lot of things—but no-one we know of was expecting that.
The Old Testament and the afterlife
Contrary to popular belief, the Old Testament doesn’t have a whole lot to say about life after death. If religion is supposed to be all about death and the afterlife, the Jewish people missed the memo. At a broad level, the Old Testament just isn’t about that topic—
at least not directly. And, what’s more, when the Old Testament does talk about the afterlife, what it does say is often oblique and almost always negative. I was once engaged in a public dialogue with a Jewish Rabbi, who was gently chastising us Gentiles for our sentimental attitudes to death. “Judaism is about life!” he exclaimed. “We hate death.”
Let me show you what I mean. Consider, for example, the many psalms in which the psalmist pleads with God to spare his life, because death is A Really Bad Idea:
For in death there is no remembrance of you;
in Sheol who will give you praise? (Ps 6:5)
“What profit is there in my death,
if I go down to the pit?
Will the dust praise you?
Will it tell of your faithfulness?” (Ps 30:9)
The dead do not praise the LORD,
nor do any who go down into silence. (Ps 115:17)
Notice the way death in these psalms is an entirely negative outcome. It is a state in which nobody wins: the psalmist becomes dust, and God is not praised.
Some Old Testament writers appear to have almost no hope of any conscious existence beyond the grave at all. Consider, for example, Ecclesiastes:
This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all. Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead. But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun…
Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going. (Eccl 9:3-6, 10)
Other Old Testament writers see some sort of consciousness in the place of the dead, in Sheol, but it’s a long way from eternal bliss. Consider for example the words of Isaiah the prophet to the Babylonian rulers about what they can expect at their death:
“Sheol beneath is stirred up
to meet you when you come;
it rouses the shades to greet you,
all who were leaders of the earth;
it raises from their thrones
all who were kings of the nations.
All of them will answer
and say to you:
‘You too have become as weak as we!
You have become like us!’” (Isa 14:9‑10)
Notice how vague and ethereal it all is: these once great kings, now stirred from their sad slumber in Sheol, weak and ghoulish.
There are some intriguing cases in the Old Testament of communication with the dead (something regularly forbidden) and most famously the case of Samuel, whose spirit is disturbed by the witch at Endor (1 Sam 28:3-25). But there is little in the Old Testament on what that state is like, and almost nothing to suggest that Sheol, the place of the dead, is a place of blessing or an object of hope. Sheol is not a hope to long for, but a place to be rescued from. And the Old Testament says virtually nothing about ‘heaven’, at least as we popularly conceive it as the place we go to be with God when we die. Remember the Rabbi? “Judaism is about life! We hate death.” Sounds like the words of someone who knows their Old Testament.
“But what about resurrection in the Old Testament?” I hear you say. And you are right. There are a number of places in the Old Testament that do talk explicitly about the resurrection. Chief among them is Daniel 12:2-3:
“And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.”
Undeniably here you have a statement of resurrection belief. It comes as God’s answer to the cry of the psalmist. To the psalmists’ plea, “Who praises you from the grave?” God’s answer is, “No-one, therefore I will raise you up”. Resurrection, you see, is not a word that means the nice side of the afterlife. It does not re-cast death; it casts off death. Resurrection is a rescue from the grave, not a refurbishment of the grave.
By the time of Jesus, the hope of the resurrection is the orthodox Jewish understanding. But it is not the only option on the table—the Sadducees, for example, did not accept it. And the wider point is that life after death is a minor plot line in the Old Testament, not the major obsession we might assume it is.
The rising Messiah?
In first-century Israel, beliefs about what happened when you died were a live issue. It was something that divided one school of Jewish thought from another, rather than a core thing on which they all agreed.
The second great obstacle for Peter’s message on that day in Jerusalem was that the idea that the Messiah would rise from the dead simply wasn’t, as far as we know, on the table for anyone. There were many messianic claimants around the time of Jesus. If ‘rising from the dead’ was a thing the Messiah was supposed to do, then you can be sure that every man and his dog would be, Weekend at Bernie’s style, working on elaborate schemes for proving that their guy rose. But, apart from the Christians, no-one did that. Why? Because in the first century, if you said “Hey, our guy rose from the dead!”, you would eventually get the reply “And…?” No-one would fill in that blank with “therefore he’s the Messiah”. It was a case you had to argue for,not something you could argue from.
So why does Peter’s speech get such a good reception from the crowd on that day? Why does he get a good hearing against a background where:
- life after death isn’t the major concern of the Old Testament
- a general resurrection of the righteous and the unrighteous is the hope on which the Old Testament eventually lands
- no-one we know of around the time of Jesus expected a resurrection of a single individual in history, and no-one expected that of the Messiah?
What was Peter’s speech drawing on? If they were divided on the ‘what happens when you die?’ question, why was he able to make such sense of a resurrection? And if rising from the dead was on no-one’s job description at the time, how was he able to persuade so many that (a) resurrection is what happened to Jesus, and (b) that meant he was the Messiah?
Well, to attempt an answer, let me have a shot at getting into the head of one of Peter’s listeners on that day. What did they believe? What story did they tell themselves? How did the story Peter was telling plug so readily into to the story they believed they were living? Well, I think if you were to ask for that story, the stream of consciousness might go a little something like this:
Our God is the Lord of Heaven and Earth. He made this world, he made us, and he chose Israel. Our father Abraham was chosen by God so that we, his descendants, could bring the blessings of God to the world and to the Gentiles. God promised to Abraham that through him and through his children, all nations would be blessed. And we would be great.
But our story has been a rocky one. Abraham had Isaac, and Isaac had Jacob, and Jacob had twelve sons. Those sons tried to kill their brother Joseph and they threw him down into a pit. His brothers and his father thought he was dead. But God raised him up. God lifted him out of the pit and brought him into the land of Egypt. He was taken to Egypt as a slave, but he was bought by an Egyptian and God gave him success and lifted him up, and the Lord blessed the household of the Egyptian through Joseph!
But there was a plot against Joseph and he was thrown into prison and languished there. However, God raised him up again and brought him from prison to be the Prime Minister of Egypt. And through his wisdom and power and faithfulness he saw that a famine was coming, and saved grain and was able to feed the world. All nations were blessed through him. But after Pharaoh another arose who didn’t know Joseph, and our people were enslaved in Egypt for 400 years. But God sent us Moses, and through Moses he raised us up out of Egypt and carried us on eagle’s wings to Sinai. And there God made a covenant with us. He gave us the Law, and he made us priests of the whole earth, so that the whole earth could know our God through us.
And God took us into the land, and he gave us a great king, King David. David first suffered—he was chased by his enemies—and then was crowned with glory. God was with him and made him the Anointed One of Israel, the Messiah. And God promised that a Son of David would rule Israel forever and bring blessing to the nations. And Solomon was that great son. He sat on David’s throne. And we were wealthy, and we were wise, and we were at peace, and we had a temple.
And just as God had promised, the nations began to stream into Jerusalem, to hear the son of David’s wisdom and see his splendour. And they could see that God was with us. We were a city on a hill. We were the light of the world. But then it all came unstuck. Solomon and his sons walked away from the Lord. They became corrupt and did not follow the covenant and commands of the Lord. And we were warned, again and again by the prophets, that if we did not return to the covenant, we would be cast out of the land, just as Adam and Eve were cast out of Eden. And we did not listen.
The northern kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians, and two hundred years later the southern kingdom of Judah was taken into exile by the Babylonians. Our king, the son of David, Zedekiah, had his eyes plucked out and he was led blind and chained into Babylon. And for 70 years we were humiliated. The nation that had been rescued from slavery in Egypt had been sent back into slavery in Babylon. Sometimes we were angry, and we sang songs of revenge and vindication. But mostly, we were sad. We wept. The dream was over. And (as the prophets kept telling us) it was all our fault.
But then, in the community in exile, a rumour started to spread. Word started to filter through from the prophets that there was life on the other side of our nation’s death. That even though we had broken the covenant, God was going to do something for us. That God was going to raise us up and do something new with us and through us.
One of our prophets said it was as if Israel was a valley of dry bones. It was as if we had died as a nation. But he saw us, a valley of dry bones, being breathed on by the breath of God, just as Adam had received the breath of God in the garden. And the prophet saw all the bones coming together again, and he saw tissue and muscles begin to form on the bones and he saw skin and bodies coming together. And there they were—a mighty and vast army. And God breathed into them the breath of life, and they stood, and lived.
And it was us! We were that army. Us! Refugees! We were going to stand again.
And we did. God sent Cyrus, and through him we were returned to our land. And we built a new temple. And we began to rule our home again. And we were a nation again.
Sort of. In a way. If you squinted.
Because, to be honest, since returning to the land, it has not been great. We’ve had some high points, but actually, for most of the time we have been under foreign rule. We have been trampled on and taken over and beaten up. To be honest, we thought it was going to be more than this. God seemed to be saying that through us he was going to bring redemption to the world, even a new heaven and a new earth, and the end of conflict, and the Spirit upon all flesh, and forgiveness of sins. And that David’s son would come and make us a nation again. And that hasn’t happened.
That, or something very like it, was the sort of story the people listening to Peter in Jerusalem had in their heads. At least, that is the story faithful Israelites—the sort of people you meet at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel—had in their heads. People like Anna and Simeon, Joseph and Mary. People who longed for the consolation of Israel, the redemption of Jerusalem.
Because, when someone has made you a promise, and the promise hasn’t come through yet, you have a couple of options. You can abandon the promises, deciding that the one who made the promise just hasn’t come through. You can fudge the promise, and decide that whatever has happened now is a rough approximation of the promise and it will have to do.
Or you can wait.
At school I was never very good at sport. It’s a genetic thing. It didn’t particularly trouble me. But I do distinctly remember one day when, at a school sports carnival, I ran the 1,500 metre race and came a predictable second-last. That didn’t worry me. What did worry me was that, as the stickers for first, second and third place were proudly attached to the t-shirts of the winners, the rest of us were given a sticker that said “I did my best”.
Even then, at age seven, I felt the insult. I had come second-last. And the school declared, in effect: “This is as much as we ever expect from this boy. A poor result by any objective measure, but the best he can do.”
And at the time of the New Testament we find a group of people who refuse to say to God, “You did your best”. We meet people like Mary and Joseph and the gang, who remember what God promised the exiles, and who kept saying to themselves and to each other, “This can’t be what God meant. This can’t be God’s best.” That is, they are the people Jesus describes in the sermon on the mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…”
Now, consider Peter’s speech from that angle. What is Peter saying? First, Peter says, “This is it!” (see Acts 2:16). This is that time—the promise that God made to us all those years ago is coming now. That promise that he would come and restore Israel and pour out his Spirit on all people and forgive our sins. This is that.
“Secondly,” Peter continues, “we all made a big mistake with Jesus. Jesus was accredited to us by God through signs and miracles. We handed him over to death, but God raised him up. Remember? God had promised to put one of his descendants on his throne. Which one? Not Solomon, but the one David was prophesying about when he said in the Psalms, ‘you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your holy one see decay’. That was David speaking of the Messiah! God raised up Jesus—and that means that he’s the one. The time of our exile has ended. The Messiah has come. ‘Let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.’”
Understanding this hope
Here’s where I’m trying to take this:
First, there are Old Testament passages that affirm the hope of the resurrection. Not heaps. Not all over the place. But they are there, and like a dry Australian forest in late summer, you only have to put a match to them for them to burst into flame.
Secondly, and more importantly, there is a whole shape of Old Testament story into which the resurrection of Jesus fits. The claims of the New Testament don’t rely on a kind of Where’s Wally? approach to the Old Testament. Raising up Israel, vindicating and restoring Israel, is what God does. The big surprise is not that God can raise people from the dead, but that he did it now. In history. With this guy. With Jesus. Surprising, but once you get over the initial shock, what it must mean can be plugged pretty readily into what you already know about God and the way he operates. NT Wright puts it in these terms:
The world of Judaism had generated, from its rich scriptural origins, a rich variety of beliefs about what happened, and would happen, to the dead. But it was quite unprepared for the new mutation that sprang up, like a totally unexpected plant, within the already well-stocked garden.
Thirdly, notice how simple Peter’s resurrection theology is. There are two verdicts on Jesus:
- We thought he was worthy of crucifixion.
- God thinks he is worthy of resurrection.
On that day in Jerusalem (and through to this day) those two verdicts haunt everyone who has ever considered the claims of Jesus. We thought he deserved to be crucified. God contradicted that verdict. Now, there are two opposite verdicts on Jesus there: ours and God’s. Which are you going to choose?
 More on this in chapter 5 of the book when it comes out.
 Weekend at Bernie’s being a forgettable 1980’s comedy in which the protagonists carry around the body of the recently deceased Bernie, pretending he is still alive so that (I seem to recall) they could keep using his holiday house. The ’80s were a deeply troubled time.
 For discussion on this point of the rising Messiah, see NT Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, SPCK, London, 2003, pp. 204-6.
 ibid., p. 206.