Volume 13, Issue 6: Recipio
When Paul cried out in his trial before the Sanhedrin, "Concerning the hope and resurrection of the dead I am being judged," many assume that his reference to the resurrection was meant merely as a diversion. Paul referred to the resurrection because of the division between the Pharisees and the Saducees on this topic, and not because the doctrine of the resurrection was pertinent to the issue at hand. While it is obvious that Paul was being clever in pitting the two warring factions against one another by his comments (and Luke seems to indicate that this was one of his motives in the reference), we are perhaps underestimating Paul and the prompting of the Spirit to assume that the doctrine of the resurrection was being used quite so ham-handedly.
Paul only makes one other substantial statement during his trial before the Sanhedrin. He begins his testimony asserting that he has lived in good conscience before God (Acts 23:1). Already he has offended Ananias, the High Priest, who orders him slapped. After his exchange with Ananias, he makes his claim that the central thing that is at stake is the resurrection. But why would he connect the doctrine of the resurrection to his claim of having a good conscience before God? It seems like a jump at first, which is probably why we tend to think that his comments about the resurrection were merely drug in to cause a ruckus, but looking a little further we see this is not the only time Paul makes this connection. The Roman commander,Lysias, "steals" Paul away from the Jews and delivers him to Felix where he must testify once more. Again he proclaims the centrality of the doctrine of the resurrection and then immediately asserts the necessity of a good conscience. "I have hope in God, which theythemselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and the unjust. This being so, I myself always strive to have a good conscience without offense
toward God and men" (Acts 24:15_16).
It is fairly obvious why Paul would be asserting his good conscience in both of these situations. He is, after all, on trial and the reader is expecting him to testify to his innocence. What's odd is how easily his innocence is proved, particularly before Felix (the witnesses for the prosecution don't even bother to show up). But Paul seems far more interested in pinning the whole dispute to the doctrine of the resurrection, rather than the missing witnesses. Paul acts as if his innocence depends primarily on the resurrection.
If we take a moment to see what Paul teaches about the resurrection, we see why it is so crucial to his innocence. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul makes the whole thing quite clear. "For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, your faith
is futile; you are still in your sins!" (1 Cor. 15:16_17). Here he teaches that forgiveness of sins and a right conscience before God depend on the resurrection of Christ. And the resurrection of Christ depends on the existence of the entire category of resurrection. This isn't one small doctrinal point that he is harping on. It is an entire worldview, upon which the gospel rests.
In both his letter to Corinth and in his trial before the Sanhedrin, this worldview is at stake. In Acts 23 we are told that the Saducees denied the existence of resurrections, angels, spirits (23:8). In essence the Saducees were asserting this world holds no mystery. They are painted as arch-materialists, and Paul identifies that way of thinking as antithetical to the gospel, the forgiveness of sins. In his letter to Corinth, Paul is confronting the same error. Christians in Corinth were denying the existence of a resurrection, not just Christ's resurrection, but the entire category of resurrection (1 Cor. 15:12).
But for Paul, a denial of mystery, as a category, was a denial of The Mystery: the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul is attacking an entire worldview in both instances. The Sadducees and the Corinthians were attacking the nature of God's creation. Is this world the kind of world that spirits and angels sometimes visit? Is this world the kind of world where dead men sometimes come back to life? Are we governed by simple laws of physics that will never surprise us, or is there something greater and wilder above us? Paul insists that the hope
of a good conscience demands that we assert the latter.
And so we find ourselves back where we were with our previous issue on C.S. Lewis. Either this world is the world of Fairy Tales, a crazy creation where dragons and giants have actually walked (or flown), and there is more truth to Beowulf than there is in Darwin; or we have a soulless existence, and we are dead in our sins. Paul presents a powerful apologetic that we moderns must learn. In a world of materialists, the apologetic of mystery ought to be potent. The message is simpleif there is no mystery and only calculus, then what will you do with your
guilt? Either dead men come back to life or you must remain dead in your sins. If Paul was merely getting off on a tangent, he managed to do so in a way that cut to the most central issue of lifethe resurrection.