The Easter weekend has been and gone and with it, in the UK at least, the first public holidays since Christmas. The Hot Cross Buns and Easter Eggs are less than half price in your local supermarket and most likely the kids are now back in the classroom. Exams for those in high school and university are on the horizon and, with the scent of spring in the air, summer holidays don’t seem that far away. The church calendar looks forward to Pentecost (now less than six weeks away), while society at large awaits not one, not two, but three Bank Holiday Mondays in the month of May. Easter is the perfect definition of the moveable feast: not a date set in the calendar like Christmas, but a celebration on the first Sunday after the full moon that occurs on or after the spring equinox. In the early weeks of the new year, how often do we find ourselves asking someone we know or searching online, “when is Easter this year?” This movement gives Easter a unique feel. Easter in mid March seems somehow different from Easter in mid April. And, yet, it’s exactly the same festival.
I like the fact that the date we celebrate Easter changes every year. For one thing, it reminds us that the celebration itself commemorates the single most significant change in all of human history. For at Easter we remember and rejoice in the fact that Jesus Christ was crucified, died and raised from the dead. His death and resurrection changed everything. That’s not to diminish the significance or wonder of Christmas where we revel in the fact that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, that Jesus is Emmanuel – God with us. Without Christmas there’s no Easter. But without his death and resurrection at Easter, the coming of Jesus we commemorate at Christmas would be a partial and incomplete mission.
The early church didn’t celebrate Easter the way we do, but they lived every day of their lives in the good of its message. The pages of Acts are filled with believers proclaiming the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection to the pagan world around them. The message that Jesus had been raised from the dead was the central theme of all the sermons preached to unbelievers recorded in Acts. Peter says on the day of Pentecost, for example, ‘let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah’ (Acts 2:38). The fact that Jesus had been raised from the dead was remembered every time the church took the Lord’s Table together, something they did so regularly that Luke describes them being devoted to it (see Acts 2:42). The realities of his resurrection were on display as relationships were forged between people previously at odds with one another – slaves and master, Jews and Gentiles, and, perhaps most amazingly, persecutors and the persecuted. No one encapsulates this better than Paul. Many men stand out in Acts: Peter, James, Stephen, Philip, Barnabas. But none occupy as much space as Paul. As we have said in previous articles, the Holy Spirit is the central character of Acts, but no human figure bestrides the pages of the book quite like Paul.
The resurrection of the Lord Jesus changed everything for Paul. And the story of his conversion is told three times in Acts – making it one of, if not the most important accounts in the whole book. It’s told to us, by Luke, in Acts 9. Then Paul recounts the story himself – first before a crowd in Jerusalem in Acts 22 and then before King Agrippa in Acts 26. Have you noticed how often the Bible repeats itself? After all, it begins with not one but two accounts of creation – each one shedding light on different aspects of how God made mankind. We’re not much further into the Scriptures before we read the book of Deuteronomy, a recapitulation of some key moments in the wilderness wanderings of the Israelites. Then we have 1&2 Samuel, 1&2 Kings, 1&2 Chronicles: all telling us some of the same stories from different vantage points. Lest we forget, we have not one, not two but four accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus; three of them – Matthew, Mark and Luke – considered so similar in outlook that they’ve come to be known as the Synoptics (meaning ‘seen together’). Why, then, does the Bible repeat itself so much? (I just remembered a little challenge for you – see if you can find which psalm actually turns up twice.) I think there are a number of reasons; for the time being, I’ll give you two. First of all, the Bible repeats itself because we are prone to forget things. We need help remembering the important things in life and the Bible helps us remember them by repeating them. Secondly, the Bible repeats itself to emphasise the importance and significance of certain events. Significant moments like the Passover, the building of the Temple, Jesus’ death and resurrection are repeated and replayed in order to underscore our need to pay particular attention to them. Although why the Bible repeats three times the instruction in the law not to boil a goat in its mother’s milk is one mystery I’m still trying to unravel (see Exodus 23:19, 34:26 and Deuteronomy 14:21).
We first meet Paul as Saul of Tarsus: a young man holding the coats of those killing Stephen. (He is referred to as Paul from Acts 13:9 onwards.) Luke, the author of Acts, notes how Saul ‘approved of their killing him’ (Acts 8:1). The rest of the New Testament paints a vivid picture of the life and character of this Saul of Tarsus. He was a Roman citizen by birth and a member of the Pharisees. Able to trace his lineage back to the tribe of Benjamin, Saul studied at the feet of Gamaliel in Jerusalem (we meet Gamaliel briefly in Acts 5) and distinguished himself from his contemporaries with his zeal for the law. This zeal led him in direct opposition to the followers of Jesus of Nazareth and Saul set upon a mission to destroy this group. He himself testifies that he went from place to place taking prisoner any believers he could find. He would force people to blaspheme and approved of their execution. When we meet him in Acts 9, Luke describes Saul ‘breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord’. Consider that word breathing: what an image that conjures up in our minds. This is a man obsessed, driven, completely consumed with a passion to bring an end to the church of Jesus Christ. For someone so passionate about the law, Saul seems to have neglected to keep one of the Ten Commandments – thou shalt not murder. His zeal for the law was producing hatred in his heart towards the very people who were following the God who first gave the law.
Everything changed for Saul of Tarsus that day he travelled along the road to Damascus. It’s such a significant story that people still talk today of life-changing moments in their own lives being a ‘Damascus Road’ experience. And while the three accounts of his conversion emphasise different aspects of the story each time, what each of them focus on is that Paul had an encounter with the risen Lord Jesus Christ and that his life changed from that moment on. How did his life change? And how ought our lives change as we recognise and embrace the fact that Jesus is alive? First, the realisation of the resurrection meant that, for Paul, some things in his own life would have to come to an end. No more persecuting the church, for one thing. As he would learn over time, too, it meant no more living by the law or striving to maintain his own right standing before God. Secondly, the resurrection meant that for Paul, something new had begun. He had a new purpose in life and the accounts of his encounter with the Lord Jesus in Acts spell out clearly what that was. From the moment Paul met the Lord Jesus on the Damascus Road, Paul’s life was totally given over to serving the Lord. His priority was preaching the good news of Jesus’ resurrection to everyone he met and to work with all his energy to lead and look after the communities of faith that emerged as a result. Thirdly, the resurrection gave Paul a new hope; or, rather, it redirected the hope he already had. Paul lived his life on earth knowing that his future was secure – simply because Jesus’ own resurrection guaranteed for Paul that he would one day be resurrected too.
Now for you and I, it’s possible that we didn’t have the same Damascus Road conversion that Paul had (although I do know a few believers whose story of salvation involves similar supernatural happenings). Perhaps you became convinced of the resurrection over a period of time, maybe after attending an Alpha Course or by examining the claims of Christianity for yourself. Perhaps the clincher for you was the changed life of a friend or family member after their own conversion. Either way, the reality for us today is that we can experience the same life changing power of the resurrection that Paul did. You and I can truly leave the past in the past. Whether it was difficulty or depression or disappointment, you can leave it behind, just as Paul left his old life behind. Similarly, you and I can orient all our endeavours to extend and establish God’s kingdom where we live and work and travel. And, finally, we can have the same hope for our future that Paul had – that just as Jesus was raised, we can be raised too.
On the one hand, Easter celebrations are over for another year. But on the other, Easter celebrations go on in us each and every day. He is risen!