Dead men do not keep working —but Jesus does. Dead men do not add anything to their list of accomplishments, but Jesus has extended his. The gospels end, and Jesus goes right on working. Choosing the apostles was something Jesus did very early in his ministry, but in Acts 26 we see him laying hold of a new apostle, Saul/Paul, and teaching him a lesson.
But the entire book of Acts has been one long series of actions and teachings of the risen Jesus, just as the story of any Christian church is a series of things Jesus has done and things Jesus has taught. Each Christian life is a triumph of God’s grace in the work of the risen Savior: an accomplishment of Jesus.
There was a great Christian thinker in the fourth century AD named Athanasius. He made this point, looking around him at the works of power which Jesus had done in his own time, and concluding that these works proved Jesus lives on:
Dead men cannot take effective action; their power of influence on others lasts only till the grave.
Well, then, look at the facts in this case.
The Savior is working mightily among men, every day He is invisibly persuading people all over the world to accept His faith and be obedient to His teaching. Can anyone, in face of this, still doubt that He has risen and lives, or rather that He is Himself the Life?
Does a dead man prick the consciences of men, so that they throw all the traditions of their fathers to the winds and bow down before the teaching of Christ?
If He is no longer active in the world (as must be the case if He is dead) how is it that He makes the living to cease their activities, the adulterer from his adultery, the murderer from murdering, the unjust from greed, while the profane and godless man becomes religious?
If He did not rise, but is still dead, how is it that He routs and persecutes and overthrows the false gods? For where Christ is named, idolatry is destroyed and the fraud of evil spirits is exposed.
This is the work of One Who lives, not of one dead; and, more than that, it is the work of God.
— Athanasius, On the Incarnation, Ch. 5
In our own century, G. Campbell Morgan put it this way:
When we gather in worship to-day, we do not do so in memory of a dead leader; but in the real presence of a living Lord. We do not merely think of One Who did and taught … We are not following One of Whom we have read in the records. That is not the truth concerning Christianity. We gather about the living Christ…
— G. Campbell Morgan, The Acts of the Apostles (1924), p. 10.
Because Jesus lives, he continues his work of saving souls as prophet, priest, and king. It is because he lives that the things he did during his ministry have saving power for us: not because we hear about them and remember them, but because he is alive and powerful to apply them to us. The crucifixion happened two thousand years ago and half a world away from here, but the crucified one is alive, seated at the right hand of God now, and has access to every place.
Let me make this point with a picture. During a church service recently, my six-year old son sat between my wife and me making drawings. As readers of this blog know, he normally draws knights and castles. But perhaps inspired by the communion service, he produced a remarkable series of powerful theological drawings. He started by drawing a simple cross with a crucified figure on it, which made a strong impression on me. But then he put a big red X through it and whispered, “not that one.” To my relief, he went on to draw the empty tomb, and my theologian-dad heart filled with satisfaction that he had such insight into a well-rounded gospel story. But then he crossed out the tomb, whispering “not that one.” The last thing he drew was one like the son of man, standing in mid-air (actually with one foot on the line that crosses out the cross), and he circled that last figure to show that this was final, not to be crossed out, but remaining forever. He obviously intended the whole series to illustrate the teaching that the accomplishment of the crucfixion and the power of the resurrection are not autonomous forces but reach us through the christus praesens, the Christ who personally applies his own work. I really need to do something nice for the folks who work in the children’s ministry section at our church, because they are apparently doing some powerful theological instruction over there.
Paul came face to face with this person, and was pressed into service as his apostle. It was not a report about a historical event that he needed to be told about, like a newspaper story: “Man dies on cross, rises again.” It was the man himself. None of us get the dramatic, blinding, immediate experience that Paul got, but for every believer there is a personal encounter with Jesus Christ which takes place as we learn about him. He lives and continues his work.