This passage is part of the first kerygmatic speech in Acts, put into the mouth of Peter on the day of Pentecost. It prefaces the central events of the death and resurrection of Jesus with a brief summary of his earthly ministry and concludes with a proof text for the resurrection.
As the caption to the reading suggests, it is on this proof text that the emphasis should lie. It was not possible for Christ to be held by the powers of death.
Why not? Did his divinity give him an unfair advantage over us?
That is to ask the question the wrong way around. The divinity of Christ is rather a confession of faith that we make after being confronted with the story of his fate.
Christ could not be held by the power of death because in his cross he had overcome it.
Death, understood at the theological rather than the biological level, means a person’s ultimate separation from God as the result of rebellion and consequent alienation.
Jesus had faced final separation from God in full obedience to his will right up to the end, and thereby he overcame separation from God. He could not be held by the pangs of death because he was what he was—but what he was did not involve some abstract quality of divinity that gave him unfair advantages over us, but his complete obedience to the will of God, which none of us has ever achieved.
The Resurrection did not snatch victory from the jaws of defeat or reverse the tragedy of the Cross like a deus ex machina. The Resurrection made manifest what was true of the Cross itself—that it was in fact the victory over human alienation and separation from God, over all that the New Testament means when it speaks of sin, the wrath of God, and death.
Quite fittingly, the responsorial psalm is the psalm from which the proof text in Peter’s sermon in the first reading was taken.
Originally this psalm probably contained no hope of life after death, but was a thanksgiving for delivery from a plight near death. But as it passed into Christian usage, it acquired a much deeper meaning in the light of Christ’s death and resurrection.
It is not really a proof text, for it does not prove the resurrection of Christ, but it does show that the God of the Old Testament is the same God who is finally revealed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, a God who rescues people from the power of death and opens up the path of life.
In this passage the paschal-baptismal associations of 1Peter again come out clearly. In the Christ-event we were “ransomed … with the blood of the Lamb.” This primitive Christian language interprets the death of Christ in terms of the Passover.
The Passover lamb was not originally interpreted as a ransom for sin or a means of expiation, but it did acquire that meaning in later Judaism. It was this later interpretation of the Passover that gave the early Christians some of the language with which to speak of the significance of the death of Christ.
The language may be crude and cultic, but “ransom” does speak of the liberation that Christian experience has always known to be the consequence of Christ’s death (though we must not press it and ask to whom the ransom was paid; it must be left at the level of poetry and liturgy).
Again, “blood” speaks of the event of the cross, of Jesus’ total surrender of his will and life to the Father that was the means of that liberation.
Two consequences of this faith are spelled out for present behavior. At the beginning of the passage, the readers are told, “... live in reverent fear during the time of your exile.”
By shifting the metaphor from redemption from Egyptian bondage to a present existence in Babylonian exile, the writer damps down overenthusiastic claims about the consequences of our participation in Christ’s resurrection and insists on the “not yet” aspect of it.
We do belong to heaven, but we still have to live on earth meanwhile. Therefore “fear”—circumspection—must characterize the Christian life.
But there is a positive side of this “not-yet-ness,” too, which is picked up in the final verse of our reading: it is an existence characterized by confidence and hope—not hope that everything will turn out all right (the readers were due for the fiery trial of persecution anyhow), but the hope of final participation in the glory of Christ.
This is the most beautiful of all the appearance stories, and it seems almost blasphemy for the critical scholar to lay hands upon it. Nevertheless, modern New Testament study shows that this story grew up through the years from an original nucleus and became the repository for theological ideas at various stages of development. Finally, Luke, with consummate literary skill, made it into a vivid narrative.
In its present form, the story reflects the pattern of early Christian worship. The self-manifestation of the risen One takes place through the two events of the exposition of the Scriptures and the breaking of the bread. These two events take place in every liturgy; word and sacrament are integral parts of a single coming of Christ to his own.
Over sixty years ago now, Karl Barth wrote in his Gifford Lectures the following words:
Barth would have to revise his words about Roman Catholicism today, but I wonder parenthetically whether many Protestants have paid sufficient heed to his words!
What we know today as the church service in Roman Catholicism and in Protestantism is a torso. The Roman Catholic Church has a sacramental service without preaching. But I wish to speak at the moment not for or against her, but about our own Protestant Church. We have a service with a sermon but without sacraments. Both types of service are impossible.