Exploring the Book of Acts Chapter 1
The Dedications of Luke and Acts (Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1-2)
Luke began his book, which we call the “Acts of the Apostles” or simply “Acts,” by continuing his story where he ended it in the Gospel. Luke’s Gospel had described Jesus’ work in Galilee, Judea and especially Jerusalem. It ended, as did the other three Gospels, with Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Acts continues the story. It describes the growth of the church and the spread of the gospel from Jerusalem to important cities of the Roman Empire, and then Rome itself.
Luke was one of the few writers to explain why he wrote his works, and this helps us to know what his purposes were. Knowing his aims makes us better able to understand Acts. To perceive Luke’s aims and what he hoped to accomplish in Acts, we must go back to his dedication at the beginning of his Gospel (Luke 1:1-4). There Luke told us that during his research and gathering of material for Acts he personally and “carefully investigated everything from the beginning” (verse 3).
Thus, he could “write an orderly account” of what he knew about the Christian movement. What Luke wrote was not made up out of his own imagination nor based on his personal opinion. Acts was based on information “handed down” to him from “those who from the first were eyewitnesses” (verse 2). This means we can have confidence that what Luke wrote in his Gospel and Acts was correct. However, he felt free to omit information that did not support his purpose.
Luke-Acts was written as a two-part work. This is implied in the first verse of Acts when Luke again addresses Theophilus and speaks of his “former book,” that is, his Gospel (1:1). Luke-Acts is dedicated to an individual, whom Luke calls “most excellent Theophilus” (Luke 1:3). The phrase means “your excellency,” and could refer to a prominent official in government service. Luke uses the same Greek word to refer to the Roman governors Felix and Festus (23:26; 24:3; 26:25). However, the title was also used as a form of polite address, as a courtesy. It would be something like our “Dear Sir” or “Dear Madam,” with which letters are sometimes opened.
Some commentators have also suggested that “Theophilus,” which means “Friend of God” or “Loved of God,” is a symbolic name, meant to represent a class of people, the church perhaps. In this view, Luke would be addressing his work to the “Honored Christian Reader.” More likely, however, Theophilus was a real person, with a name that others also had in ancient times.
It was not uncommon for writers to dedicate their books to distinguished persons. We have the example of the Jewish historian Josephus (a.d. 37-c.100), who dedicated his two-part work, Against Apion, to an individual named Epaphroditus. Josephus introduced his first volume by addressing him as: “Epaphroditus, most excellent of men” (1:1). [In citations from Josephus, the first number will refer to his book number and the second to the numbers used in the Greek text, which also appear in some English translations.] The second book of Against Apion begins with these words: “By means of the former volume, my most honored Epaphroditus, I have demonstrated our antiquity…” (2:1). Here we see opening words that are strikingly similar to Luke’s dedication.
It would help us to know some things about Theophilus in order to better grasp what Acts is about. We might want to know some of the following: What was the relationship of Theophilus to the church? Was Theophilus new in the faith, or was he interested in becoming a Christian? Did Theophilus live in Rome or in some other city?
Luke’s dedication to his Gospel implies that Theophilus may have been interested in discipleship, or was already a Christian. There, Luke told Theophilus that he wrote Luke-Acts for him, “so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:4). F.F. Bruce painted the following fairly reasonable portrait of Theophilus:
It is quite probable that Theophilus was a representative member of the intelligent middle-class public at Rome whom Luke wished to win over to a less prejudiced and more favorable opinion of Christianity than that which was current among them….Theophilus had already learned something about the rise and progress of Christianity, and Luke’s aim was to put him in possession of more accurate information than he already had. [F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Rev. ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 29.]
We would like to know who Theophilus was and the specific questions in his mind. This would help us better understand Luke’s purposes for writing, and how we are to understand the book. We can infer some things about Theophilus, as the above shows, but unfortunately only in a general way. Judging by the content of Acts, Luke wrote to give Theophilus a reliable account of the beginning and growth of Christianity around the Empire. That’s why he chose to describe only limited aspects of the gospel’s progress and the Christian movement’s growth.
However, Luke probably had a much wider readership in view than just Theophilus. The fact that both the Gospel and Acts have survived indicates that the two volumes were copied, widely distributed in the churches, and publicly read. Luke’s approach of writing to a single individual but having a broad reading audience in view was common during the times. We saw that Josephus, for example, wrote his work Against Apion to one individual. Yet, clearly he expected that his defense of the Jewish religion would be widely circulated. Luke must have also expected that his two-volume work would be used to instruct Christians throughout the Roman Empire about the growth of the church.
What was Luke trying to get across to his readers in Acts? At the beginning of Acts, Luke tells us that the purpose of his first book was to write “about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven” (1:1-2). While not explicitly stated, Luke’s purpose in Acts seems to be to show the continuing work of Jesus, carried out by the power of the Holy Spirit through the church. In short, Luke is saying that Jesus is alive, and his life and work proceed in the church — and in greater power.
In the words of David Williams, “Luke’s thesis is this: Jesus remains active, though the manner of his working has changed. Now, no longer in the flesh, he continues ‘to do and to teach’ through his ‘body’ the church….This is the story of Acts.” [David J. Williams, Acts, New International Bible Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1990), 19.] Luke’s general purpose would have been to confirm what Theophilus knew about this continuing work, and to instruct him in an organized manner about the details he did not know. The objective would have been to confirm the faith of Theophilus in the work of Christ.
But what was Luke’s specific purpose? Commentators have put forth many proposals. Almost certainly, Luke had more than one purpose in writing. Thus it would not be wise to lock onto one aim, and claim that this was the purpose. By a careful study of the contents of Luke-Acts, we can fix fairly well what information Luke wanted to convey to his readers. This will become clear as we make our way through the book. For the moment, we can briefly look at some broad strokes Luke painted for us in Acts:
- He described the spread of the gospel message in certain areas of the Roman Empire.
- Luke paid particular attention to explaining how the ministry of Paul related to that of Peter and the church at Jerusalem.
- He also dealt with the relationship of the Christian church and its mission to the work of Jesus.
- At the same time, Luke discussed the connection between Judaism and the church, as well as the church’s relations with the government of Rome.
By the time Luke wrote (conservative estimates vary between a.d. 62 and 85) the apostles Peter and Paul had been martyred by the Roman government. Christians may have been accused of being bad citizens, whose beliefs worked against the best interests of the state. Perhaps they were even accused of being enemies of the Empire. We know that Christians were often accused of anti-government behavior by the Jews, most of whom had rejected the gospel.
When Luke wrote, Christians were being spoken against as both government subversives and perverters of the Jewish religion. Questions may have arisen in people’s minds about whether Christianity was a legitimate religion or a dangerous sect. A recent convert or one interested in becoming a disciple — such as Theophilus — would have been challenged by such questions. He needed to know the truth about such accusations, to have the record set straight. In fact, all recent converts (or interested parties) may have wondered why Christians were so despised.
Luke’s work would have helped Christians answer these questions for themselves — and to have answers for “outsiders” as well. Acts may have even served the church as an apologetic document that set the record straight about the major accusations it faced.
Preparation for the Gospel (Acts 1:3-26)
Jesus lives (1:3)
In Acts, Luke emphasizes the living Christ. He is the one who guides the growth of the church and directs the spread of the gospel across the Roman Empire. The resurrection was the hope of Israel, something that Peter and Paul stressed in their sermons to the Jews. (And, of course, it is also the hope of the church.) For these reasons, the resurrection of Jesus, and his exaltation, take center stage in Acts.
Jesus gave “many convincing proofs” that he was alive — he appeared to the disciples over a period of 40 days (1:3). (This occurred within the seven weeks between Passover, when Jesus was crucified, and Pentecost, when the Spirit came with power.) The number 40 recalls the 40 days during which Moses received instruction on Mount Sinai. But here it is Jesus who gives the instructions, this time from the Mount of Olives (1:12).
Moses had been given the first covenant for ancient Israel to have. Now, the apostles are given the program for the renewal of Israel — to preach the gospel of salvation to the world and to teach disciples. Both aims are to be accomplished through the Holy Spirit.
During the 40 days of appearances, the apostles saw a Jesus who was alive, but who had been dead. They were left with an unshakable faith in Jesus as one who could deliver the goods of salvation, so to speak. He was their Savior, and the Savior of the world. Of this they were fully and irrevocably convinced.
Luke does not ignore the meaning of Jesus’ death, but he does not stress it in the way Paul does in his letters. Luke was more interested in showing that the work of the church was empowered by the living Christ through the Holy Spirit. Its missionary work was not a human-directed movement. It was based on a divine commission, and divinely empowered.
The kingdom of God (1:3)
During the 40 days during which Jesus appeared to the disciples, he “spoke about the kingdom of God.” We know from the Gospels that this was the substance of his message throughout his ministry. [Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:14-15; Luke 4:43; John 3:5.] During his appearances to his disciples, he clarified the meaning of the kingdom in the light of his ministry of salvation. The kingdom message now had a different thrust, a different emphasis. The witnesses preached Jesus as the resurrected and living Savior (2:24, 31-33). He was the representative of God’s kingdom doing a “kingdom work” through his church.
The apostles and evangelists continued to preach the revitalized theme of the kingdom. [See Acts 8:12; 14:22; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23, 31.] It was a convenient way to summarize, particularly to Jews, that all the promises to the patriarchs had been fulfilled. The kingdom of God had come with power in the person of the resurrected Son of God (Romans 1:1-4). It came not to save the Jews from the heel of the Roman Empire, but to save them from a far worse oppression: sin and death.
In Acts, Luke also stressed that Jesus’ rule (hence, his kingdom) was coming in the life of the church — and in the preaching of the gospel. When Jesus preached those messages described in the Gospel of Luke, he was proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom of God. The book of Acts is simply an extension of Jesus’ work. It details the spreading of the good news by the witnesses.
Wait for the promised gift (1:4-5)
The first task of the disciples is to “wait for the gift my Father promised” (1:4). The apostles are not to leave Jerusalem. They are not to preach anything, nor undertake any missionary program for the moment. They are to wait for the Holy Spirit to begin the work. This command in Acts is repeated by Luke from his Gospel (24:49). This underscores the importance of the Holy Spirit to the success of the New Testament gospel mission. Luke is telling us the Spirit is essential to the advance of the good news.
As we proceed through the book of Acts, we will notice that the Holy Spirit plays an important role in every advance of the gospel. Luke’s point is that the success of the Christian mission is not due to the efforts of charismatic men and women. The gospel will be proclaimed and the church will develop because God willed it, Jesus Christ directed it and the Holy Spirit carried it out. It is a Trinitarian mission.
Throughout Luke’s narrative, the Holy Spirit is the impelling force behind the mission program of the church. The agenda for disseminating the message of salvation — from Jerusalem to Rome — is orchestrated by the Holy Spirit. So important is the Spirit in the life of the church, that Luke’s work has sometimes been called the “Acts of the Holy Spirit.” William Barclay wrote:
The Holy Spirit was the source of all guidance. The Spirit moves Philip to make contact with the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:29); prepares Peter for the coming of the emissaries of Cornelius (Acts 10:19); orders Peter to go without hesitation with these emissaries (Acts 11:12); orders the setting apart of Paul and Barnabas for the momentous step of taking the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 13:2,4); guides the decisions of the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:28); guides Paul past Asia, Mysia and Bithynia, down into Troas and thence to Europe (Acts 16:6); tells Paul what awaits him in Jerusalem (Acts 20:23). [William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, revised edition, The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), 19.]
Five circumstances are described in Acts during which a dramatic outpouring of the Holy Spirit on believers occurs. [Acts 2:1-4; 4:28-31; 8:15-17; 10:44; 19:6.] In fact, the first 13 chapters of Acts contain more that 40 references to the Holy Spirit. In the entire book, the Holy Spirit is mentioned over 60 times. The leaders of the church are people of the Spirit (6:3; 7:55; 11:24). The Spirit helps and guides the entire church on a daily basis (1:8; 4:31; 13:9).
Here in the first chapter, the Spirit is mentioned four times (verses 2, 5, 8, 16). The point is clear. The story Luke is about to tell regarding the church and its mission is under the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit. The message is that the same Holy Spirit who came upon Jesus at his baptism also empowers the church so it can continue Jesus’ work on earth.
The book is about the continuing work of Jesus Christ through his church, through the Holy Spirit. Luke’s Gospel tells us about “all that Jesus began to do and teach”; this implies that Acts is about the continuing work of Jesus (1:1). After all, it is the risen Jesus who instructs the disciples to wait for the Spirit.
Jesus does not disappear from the pages of Acts — his name appears 86 times in Luke and 68 times in Acts. In large portions of Acts, the Holy Spirit is not mentioned at all, or only in passing. It is the Lord Jesus (not the Spirit) who stood near Paul to tell him he would testify in Rome (23:11). Jesus also appeared to Paul in Corinth, to assure him that he should not be afraid but keep on speaking (18:9). Sometimes angels delivered messages to the missionaries or instructions were mediated by prophets. [Acts 5:19; 8:26; 27:23; 11:28; 20:11.]
In Luke’s theology, God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are easily interchangeable. In one place, the Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of Jesus (16:7).
Restore the kingdom now? (1:6)
The apostles still thought that Jesus was soon “going to restore the kingdom to Israel” (1:6). They seemed to be viewing the kingdom of God as a restored national Israel. This idea of Israel as the people of God was deeply imbedded in the Hebrew Scriptures. They spoke, for example, of a people God had chosen “out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession” (Deuteronomy 7:6).
There was a Jewish expectation that when Israel was restored to national glory, the Holy Spirit would again become active (Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 11:19). After all, the prophets of old had promised that in the last days the fortunes of Israel would be restored and God would pour out his Spirit on all people (Joel 2:28-3:1). In Acts 2, Peter quotes Joel’s prophecy and says it is being fulfilled at the time (2:16-17).
The disciples thought that Jesus would restore the glory of Israel. They “had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). They had left everything to follow Jesus, thinking he would give them positions of great authority in that kingdom (Mark 10:35-37; Luke 22:24-30). Naturally, they were profoundly shocked and discouraged when Jesus was executed, but they had then been energized by his resurrection. Now, in his post-resurrection appearances he was speaking of the disciples being baptized with the Holy Spirit of power (1:5, 8). Since this was a sign of the new age, it must have awakened in them the hope that the messianic age had come.
We can see something of the disciples’ sense of agitated excitement in the way they ask Jesus about the restoration of Israel. They don’t ask whether this restoration will occur. Rather, they wonder, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (1:6).
Not for you to know (1:7)
Jesus gave the disciples an indefinite answer to the question. He told them it wasn’t for them to know “the times or dates” of any restoration in a national or political sense (1:7). That had been his teaching earlier when the disciples asked about the sign of the end of the age (Matthew 24:3). He stated that no one could know when this would happen. Neither the angels nor Jesus knew the answer to the question! (verse 36, with Mark 13:32).
Interestingly, Luke did not include Jesus’ answer to the “when” question in his Gospel accounts (17:22-37 or 21:5-36). Rather, he held off describing what was apparently Jesus’ teaching until this place in Acts. Jesus’ reply to the “when” question underscores a great lesson for all Christians. We should not be concerned about when “the end” might come, for there is no way for us to know. We cannot search the Scriptures to find the answer because God is keeping that knowledge to himself.
On the other hand, Jesus was not denying that some day there would be a restoration of Israel. In fact, the entire world is to be renewed. But God’s purpose for Israel and the world in a political sense is not our concern. The apostles and evangelists were simply to proclaim the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. Whether the news was accepted was not their concern.
There is probably a reason why Luke discussed the question of the Messiah’s return. By the time he wrote Acts, it must have been clear that the most of the Jews were not responding to the gospel message. (Neither was the Gentile world to any spectacular degree.) The Jews were the chief and continuing opponents of the Christians. The government of Rome had also become the enemy of the church. Terrible tragedies had struck the Jews, perhaps including the destruction of Jerusalem. But “the end” had not come. The church may have been wondering when it would occur. Was it upon the world now?
Luke was saying to the church: Don’t concern yourself with the “when” of it, but continue to live your Christian lives and do the work of God. The church should not speculate about prophecies — we should simply preach the power of the risen Christ to bring salvation to the world.
You are my witnesses (1:8)
The disciples’ task was to witness to Jesus from Jerusalem “to the ends of the earth” (1:8). This mandate to witness is another theme of Acts. [Acts 1:22; 2:32; 3:15; 5:32; 7:58; 10:39, 41; 13:31; 22:15, 22; 26:16.] It becomes the programmatic statement for the book as a whole.
The concept of “witness” is so prominent in Acts (the word in its various forms appears some thirty-nine times) that everything else in the book should probably be seen as subsumed under it. [Richard N. Longenecker, “Acts,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 9 (ed. Frank E. Gaebelein; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981), 256.]
Luke announced this theme (“you will be my witnesses”) at the beginning of Acts as a mandate of the risen Jesus. By doing this, he revealed this to be his main interest in writing the book. Luke tied this programmatic prophecy to his statement in Luke 24:48: “You are witnesses of these things” to all nations. “These things” refers to the preaching of repentance and forgiveness of sins in the name of Jesus (verse 47).
To the ends of the earth (1:8)
The message of salvation offered through Christ to all people was to be declared first in Jerusalem. Then it would go throughout Judea and then to Samaria, which was a “near-Jewish” state. Finally, the witness would go throughout the Roman world. F.F. Bruce says,
The geographical terms of verse 8 provide a sort of “Index of Contents” for Acts,…. “In Jerusalem” covers the first seven chapters, “in all Judaea and Samaria” covers 8:1 to 11:18, and the remainder of the book traces the progress of the gospel outside the frontiers of the Holy Land until at last it reaches Rome. [Bruce, 37.]
The expression “to the ends of the earth” needs some clarification (1:8). First, when Jesus gave the apostles this mandate, they probably took it to mean they should witness to the Jews of the Diaspora, scattered throughout the Roman Empire. It’s clear from Acts that it did not occur to them to preach directly to the Gentiles. Not until later, and with some difficulty, did they understand the full extent of Jesus’ international program of salvation.
Second, there is no indication that the apostles preached the word in China, or West Africa, or in the New World. Their work, so far as we know, seems to have been generally limited to the Roman Empire, and perhaps areas adjacent to it (such as Mesopotamia). Then, in what sense did they witness “to the ends of the earth”? It has been suggested that the phrase refers to the city of Rome. That is where Luke ends his book, so there may be something to the idea.
In the Psalms of Solomon, a writing possibly composed by devout Jews in the first century b.c., the expression refers to Rome. [Ps. Sol. 8:15.] The circumstance described there was the Roman general Pompey attacking the disobedient people of Jerusalem “from the end of the earth,” that is from Rome. To an ancient Jew, Rome seemed to be at the ends of the earth. But to a Greek-speaking person, after a hundred years of being governed by Rome, it would not seem so far away.
The expression “ends of the earth” can also mean “everywhere.” The Greek rhetorician Dio Chrysostom (c. a.d. 40-c.112) was told to go “to the uttermost parts of the earth.” [Dio Chrysostom, Oration 13:9.] In context, this refers to all places. The phrase “the ends of the earth” occurs in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, in Isaiah 49:6. Paul quoted this verse to demonstrate that his mission was to carry the message of “salvation to the ends of the earth” (13:46-47).
In whatever way the term is defined, it’s clear that Jesus’ mandate had universal scope. The gospel was to be spread far and wide. This is something the band of missionaries learned about only in stages.
Jesus’ ascension (1:9)
After giving his mandate to the apostles to be his witnesses, Jesus ascended from the earth and disappeared into a cloud. The sight of Jesus being enveloped in the cloud is reminiscent of the Shekinah of God. This was the symbol of the glorious divine presence among God’s people in the Old Testament, particularly in the tabernacle. [Exodus 13:21; 16:10; 24:16; 25:8; 40:34-38.]
Luke here gives the fullest New Testament account of Jesus’ ascension. It is mentioned briefly in only two other places (Mark 16:19 [Mark 16:19 is believed by most textual experts to be a later addition. It is not included in the oldest manuscripts.] ; Luke 24:51). Of course, the fact of the ascension is implied throughout the New Testament. Christ is frequently described as being at the right hand of God. [Acts 2:33; 3:21; John 6:62; Ephesians 4:8-10; 1 Thessalonians 1:10; 1 Peter 3:23; Hebrews 4:14; 9:24; Revelation 5:6.]
The point is that the witnesses and the church knew that Jesus had been exalted as Savior and ruler over the affairs of humanity. He was also the guide of the apostles’ missionary program (Ephesians 1:19-22; Philippians 2:9-10).
The activity of preaching rested not on a dead man but on the living presence of an exalted Savior. In short, writes Richard Longenecker, “Luke insists that Christian mission must be based on the ascended and living Lord who directs his church from heaven and who will return to consummate what he has begun.” [Longenecker, 258.]
While Jesus was lifted up and the disciples observed this as a fact, we must remember that God and Christ are not “up there” somewhere. God is “everywhere.” The idea of heaven as the place of God’s abode “above” the earth is a metaphor to describe his transcendent reality. Christ ascending in a cloud showed the disciples that he was being exalted to be in the presence of God in glory.
Jesus to return with clouds (1:10-11)
The disciples were astonished at the sight of Jesus’ rising — “looking intently up into the sky” (1:10). Suddenly, two angelic figures appeared in human form. (See Luke 24:4 for a comparable appearance of angels.) They chided the disciples for standing there, gaping at the sight of their rising Savior. (We no doubt would have been gaping as well!) They informed the disciples that Jesus would “come back in the same way” that they had seen him go up.
This is one of several scattered New Testament references to what is called the Parousia, after the Greek word that means the arrival or presence of someone. The word is used as a technical term for the coming of Christ in glory. Most commonly, the Parousia is known as the Second Coming of Christ at the end of this age. The circumstances of Jesus’ return are most completely described in Matthew’s Gospel (24:3-25:46). [See also Mark 13:3-37; Luke 21:7-36; 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17; 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10.]
A Sabbath day’s walk (1:12)
After this extraordinary experience of watching Jesus’ ascension, the apostolic band returned to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. Luke described the distance between the two places as a “Sabbath’s day walk from the city” (1:12). This was the extent to which a pious Jew was allowed to travel on the Sabbath. The Mishnah, an early 3rd-century compendium of rabbinic regulations, tells us that Sabbath travel was limited to 2,000 cubits. [Mishnah, Sotah 5:3.] This is about a kilometer, or two-thirds of a mile, although there is some question on the exact measurement of a cubit. Estimates from one half to three quarters of a mile are given for the length of a “Sabbath’s day walk.”
Luke’s use of this strictly Jewish idiom shows his intimate knowledge of local customs. It suggests that Luke received his information about Jesus’ ascension from Jerusalem-area sources. His information could have come from one of the apostles, or from someone who wrote down what the apostles had said about the ascension.
The upstairs room (1:13)
Upon returning to Jerusalem the disciples entered a house and “went upstairs to the room where they were staying” (1:13). This upper room [In ancient architecture, where interior walls were often made of stones, the largest room in a building was almost always on the top floor. If it were on the bottom floor, the interior walls on the floor above would place too much weight on the ceiling timbers.] may have been a well-known place to early Christians. Perhaps it was the place where Jesus and his disciples kept the Passover before his crucifixion (Mark 14:12-16). (Mark uses a different Greek word for “room.”) Some commentators speculate this could also have been the same room where Jesus appeared to some of his disciples after his resurrection (Luke 24:33-43; John 20:19, 26). Others infer that this room was in the home of Mary, the mother of John Mark. A house church was later located in the home of Mark’s mother (12:12).
Of course, none of these ideas can be proven. However, it is interesting to note that this is one of several times in Acts that Luke mentions specific locations in which the social life of the church was centered. Not only is it interesting local color, it is again evidence that Luke had done some solid research before writing Acts.
The apostolic group (1:13-15)
Luke next describes the people who met or stayed in the upper room. This was the primary nucleus of people who had been witnesses to Jesus’ death and resurrection. Luke had already listed the names of the Twelve in his Gospel (Luke 6:14-16), whom he said Jesus designated as apostles (verse 13). He lists their names again (Acts 1:13), but omits Judas Iscariot, who had died. Luke moved John from fourth position to second, perhaps because only he and Peter have any active role in Acts.
The Eleven were central witnesses to Jesus’ death and resurrection. In both his Gospel and Acts, Luke limited the title “apostle” to Twelve disciples. On only one occasion did he call anyone else an apostle (Barnabas and Paul), and in an indirect way (see 14:4, 14).
Luke also mentioned the names of several others besides the Eleven who were meeting together. The group included some women, one of whom was Mary the mother of Jesus. “The women” (1:14) were those who followed Jesus during his ministry and death (Luke 8:2-3; 23:49; and 23:55-24:10). No doubt Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James were part of the female contingent, whom Luke mentioned in his Gospel (24:10). But this is the last time that Luke mentioned the women or the mother of Jesus, who presumably lived with the apostle John and his family (John 19:26-27).
The brothers of Jesus were also part of the apostolic group. The reference to Jesus’ brothers is interesting because of their apparently abrupt change in attitude toward Jesus. During his ministry they thought he was crazy, or even demon-possessed (Mark 3:21-35; John 7:2-10). What changed their minds? The answer may be found in Paul’s writings. Paul recounted an appearance of the risen Christ to James (1 Corinthians 15:7) that Luke doesn’t mention. This would have happened soon after the resurrection, most probably during the 40 days of Jesus’ appearances. Presumably, the other brothers, Joses (or Joseph), Judas (or Jude), and Simon (Matthew 13:55-56; Mark 6:3) came to believe in Jesus through similar circumstances.
James is important to Luke’s story, as this half-brother of Jesus would soon occupy a position of leadership in the Jerusalem church (12:17; 15:13-21; 21:18). It appears that the other half-brothers continued to have influence in the apostolic church as well (1 Corinthians 9:5). The Jude who wrote the epistle identified himself as the brother of James. He is traditionally understood to be the half-brother of Jesus called Judas, or Jude.
According to Luke, there were about 120 believers who met together in Jerusalem before the day of Pentecost (1:15). [His use of “about” here and elsewhere in Acts tells us he was dealing with real numbers, not symbolic numbers. See Acts 2:41; 4:4; 5:7, 36; 10:3; 13:18, 20; 19:7, 34.] Among the 120 must have been the disciple Cleopas and his companion, to whom Christ appeared on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). Luke also mentioned two other disciples, Justus and Matthias (1:23). They must have been members of the group of 120 as well.
Jewish law required that there be 120 males before a synagogue could have its own council. Only then could a congregation elect members to its own ruling body. This may have been Luke’s implied claim that the Christian disciples formed a legitimate and legal community within Judaism. (The importance of this will become clear as we study Acts.)
There was an exception to the Jewish stipulation. In the church, women were counted as part of the legal community, and Luke later mentioned additional women in the church (5:14; 8:3, 12; 9:2; 12:12; 16:33; 17:4, 12; 22:4). At its very beginning, the community of believers was one that broke restrictive social barriers. It exemplified what Paul said: In Christ there is neither male nor female (Galatians 3:28).
This group of 120 was only part of a still larger contingent of believers. Paul wrote that on one occasion after his resurrection, Jesus appeared to “more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time” (1 Corinthians 15:6), and most of them were still alive when Paul wrote, some two decades later. This suggests a larger pre-Pentecost nucleus in the church than the 120 people meeting in Jerusalem. Commentators speculate that most of these other believers were in Galilee, with the number “about a hundred and twenty” (1:15) referring only to those in Jerusalem.
Since Luke was not concerned with the church or evangelism in Galilee, it is easy to forget that there were also many disciples in that area. Luke mentions that there were churches in Galilee, but he does not give us any details, and he doesn’t describe any missionary activity in the area (9:31).
Constantly in prayer (1:14)
The group of 120 in Galilee was said to be “joined together constantly in prayer” (1:14). Besides waiting for spiritual empowerment, the only other activity the witnesses undertook until Pentecost was to worship God.
In Acts, Luke often mentioned prayer as one of his sub-themes. His point was that the people of God do not rush out in frantic human activity — they look to the leading of the Holy Spirit, and they seek that leadership through prayer. Often, such prayer results in a powerful response from God. [Acts 1:24-26; 4:31; 9:40; 10:19, 31; 12:5, 12; 22:10; 27:23-25.] Prayer is a key to the forward motion of God’s purpose.
The death of Judas (1:16-19)
Luke next recounts a situation in which the disciples sought Christ’s leadership through prayer. It had to do with an important matter for the church and its gospel-preaching initiatives. The situation that the disciples felt needed to be resolved was finding a replacement for Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus. Luke took considerable space to tell the story. It was also the only incident he described between Jesus’ ascension and the events of Pentecost day. He apparently thought the episode was important.
Peter described Judas’ betrayal of Christ and his gruesome death. Such details remind us that the church is never perfect. From the beginning, there was a traitor in the ranks of the disciples. But even more ironic was that Peter, the leader of the church who rose to condemn Judas, was himself tainted. William Willimon reminds us that the first speech given after Jesus’ resurrection
is made by the one who also fled in the darkness and loudly denied his Lord when confronted by the maid (Luke 22:56-62). Infidelity first occurs among those who presume to lead…. No scorn for later despisers of the gospel, no judgment upon later infidels, can match the sober, gruesomely detailed picture of the end of Judas or the irony that the one who speaks of Judas did himself deny and curse his own Master. The church meets no failure or deceit in the world that it has not first encountered in itself — even among those who founded and led the very first congregation. [William Willimon, Acts (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1988), 25.]
We should also understand that what Peter said here was only a summary, as are all the speeches in Acts. We are not reading word-for-word accounts of the speeches. They were not taken down in short-hand or recorded for posterity. And at least some of the speeches were probably spoken in Aramaic, the common tongue of this region. Luke wrote in Greek to a later community of believers in other areas, to people who did not know Aramaic.
In Acts 1, for example, Peter spoke as though he were quoting from the Greek version of the Old Testament. He even translated the Aramaic “Akeldama,” explaining it meant Field of Blood (1:19). Presumably, the original disciples were quite aware of the meaning of the word “Akeldama” and the circumstances surrounding the death of Judas. They needed no explanation or translation. Luke added these for the benefit of his Greek readers, who did not know the original circumstances.
The point is we shouldn’t particularly concern ourselves with whether Peter, or the other speakers in Acts, spoke their lines in the exact words Luke put in their mouths. Luke is giving us the main idea of each speech in a paraphrased form.
We should also explain that Acts contains many unresolved questions of a historical and technical nature. There is, for example, the question of how Judas died. Did he hang himself as Matthew indicated (27:5)? Or did he die as Acts described it — because “he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out” (1:18)? This difference has intrigued commentators for centuries. It is considered, as one commentary expresses it, to be “the most intractable contradiction in the New Testament.” [Longenecker, 263.]
It is possible that both Matthew and Acts are correct. Judas may have tried to hang himself, but the rope broke, the knot slipped or the branch may have broken. He then could have fallen, perhaps onto jagged rocks below, which punctured his body. Or Judas died by hanging himself. But later his decomposing and swollen body fell (due to one of the factors mentioned above). The “bursting open” would have occurred when he hit the ground. We may never know. The differences in the accounts may be explained by each author’s intent. Matthew may have been content to simply report Judas’ death. Luke wanted to stress the gruesome and tragic end of someone who had sold out his Savior, and his own opportunity to be among the Twelve.
The point is that Luke’s account is terse at many points. We do not have enough information to resolve what appear to be a number of difficulties. We should not assume, however, that Luke was wrong or that he had contradicted himself or others. We do not have enough information to conclude that.
Why Judas was replaced (1:20)
The disciples felt it was important that the number of apostles be restored to its original number of twelve. Thus, a replacement had to be found for Judas. This became the first official action of the embryonic Christian community. Peter’s speech is set off by two forms of the Greek word dei, which means “it is necessary” (1:16, 21). It was necessary for someone like Judas to be a betrayer in order to fulfill prophecy (1:16) and it was necessary to choose a replacement for him (1:21). Thus, both acts — the defection as well as the replacement of Judas — were divine necessities. And both were foretold in what Luke defined as Scripture.
In his speech, Peter cited two verses from the book of Psalms (69:25 and 109:8) to demonstrate this point (1:20). Peter referred to these verses as “the Scripture.” He said they had their origin in “the Holy Spirit” as the Spirit “spoke long ago through David concerning Judas” (1:16). Thus, Peter drew attention to the divine authorship of Scripture. David was merely a mouthpiece for God. Luke showed that both Peter (3:18, 21; 4:25) and Paul believed that the Scriptures were God-breathed (28:25).
Luke also showed that while Scripture was divinely inspired, the apostles had the spiritual wisdom and authority to use it creatively. We can see this in Peter’s handling of the Old Testament. Peter quoted Psalm 69:25 in the following way, saying it referred to Judas: “May his place be deserted…” (1:20). But the reading was an adapted form of the original, and it came from the Greek version, not the Hebrew. In the Hebrew version, David was referring to his enemies (plural), saying: “May their place be deserted, let there be no one to dwell in their tents.” Thus, “their” in the original became “his” in Acts. What originally referred to “tents” became “place” in the sense of office or position.
What had occurred was the following. The disciples had concluded that a replacement for Judas had to be made to preserve the group of the Twelve. Having so understood, they found a confirmation in two texts from the Psalms. But even here, they had to adapt the wording to fit the new circumstance. David Williams anticipates our reaction by saying,
Such adaptation, whether it be Peter’s or Luke’s, may strike us as taking undue liberties with the text. But it was believed that all Scripture pointed to Christ or to the events attending his coming and that it was legitimate, therefore, to draw out the meaning in this way. Thus the psalmist’s imprecation against his enemies became a prophecy of Judas’ desertion. [Williams, 32.]
The apostles freely “proof-texted” Hebrew scriptural material because Jesus had explained that it pointed to him and his work. Luke made an issue of this in the final chapter of his Gospel (24:25-27, 44). Jesus must have explained Psalm 69 as being a block of scripture that referred to his work. Parts of it were regularly applied to Jesus by the New Testament church. We find Psalm 69 used in John’s (John 2:17; 15:25) and Paul’s writings (Romans 15:3; 11:9-10) to refer to Jesus.
We might wonder why the apostles were so sure that a replacement had to be made for Judas. This question arises since the risen Christ did not seem to give them explicit instructions on the matter. Jesus had told the apostles that they would “sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:28; Luke 22:30). Since Judas had defected, it would have seemed necessary that a replacement was needed to bring up the number of apostles to the full complement of 12. This was important because the church saw itself as God’s method of re-forming his people. The church had inherited the mission of ancient Israel to bring the knowledge of God to its own people, as well as to the nations (Deuteronomy 4:5-8). Thus, it needed 12 leaders to take the gospel message to the scattered Jews, constituted as the 12 tribes (Acts 26:7; James 1:1).
There was also a cultural reason for having 12 foundational leaders. It had to do with the fact that the church was born, operated and continued to live within the Jewish community for many decades. The church presented itself to the Jewish nation as the culmination of Israel’s hope. It was the spiritual remnant of Judaism that had recognized and accepted Israel’s Messiah. For any such people there was an organizational and symbolic requirement surrounding the number 12. Richard Longenecker explains it:
The “remnant theology” of Late Judaism made it mandatory that any group that presented itself as “the righteous remnant” of the nation, and had the responsibility of calling the nation to repentance and preparing it for God’s glory, must represent itself as the true Israel, not only in its proclamation, but also in its symbolism. [Longenecker, 264.]
As a parallel to the 12 tribes of Israel, such a group would need to have 12 leaders guiding the community. That this was a pervasive expectation is shown by the fact that the Qumran disciples had a quorum of 12 spiritual leaders.
Qualifications for an apostle (1:21-22)
To head the Jewish Christian community as an apostle, a leader had to have some specific qualifications. He had to have been associated with the band of disciples from the time of John the Baptist to Jesus’ ascension (1:22). This person would have known the details of Jesus’ message because he had heard it personally from him. Secondly, this person must have been a witness to the resurrected Christ, so he could guarantee that it actually happened.
“Apostle” was not an ecclesiastical title to be given freely to anyone who accepted the faith or even spread the message of the gospel. It was based on special qualifications necessary for a unique job — the original preaching of Jesus as resurrected Lord and Savior. In short, says William Willimon, “The apostolic circle is drawn only from eyewitnesses who can give a reliable account of the Jesus-event.” [Willimon, 24.]
Others could preach and teach the gospel message, but they were not part of the special group of apostles called the Twelve. From this, we see that there is no need for an office of apostolic succession. The task of the Twelve was unique, as was their number. The reason Judas had to be replaced was that he defected, not that he died. This is shown by the fact that when James the son of Zebedee was executed some two decades after Jesus’ resurrection, the church did not replace him with another person chosen as apostle.
The apostle Paul was a special case. He was not part of the group of disciples who were with Jesus throughout his ministry. Nor did he see the resurrected Christ in the 40 days after his resurrection. However, Paul did list himself as one to whom Jesus appeared (1 Corinthians 15:8). Though he may have been “the least of the apostles,” he was one of them (verse 9). Paul frequently referred to his apostleship in his letters (Romans 11:13; 1 Corinthians 9:1; 15:9; Galatians 1:1). But Paul came later to the faith and apostleship, as “one abnormally born” (1 Corinthians 15:8). He was an apostle, but not one of the Twelve. His insistence on equality with the Twelve came neither in opposition to them nor on any need to be included within their number.
Matthias chosen by lot (1:23-26)
Paul was not the person who replaced Judas. Two other disciples had the qualifications to be an apostle, Joseph Barsabbas (Justus) and Matthias, and they were proposed by the 120 for the vacated office. Only one could be chosen. It was not enough simply to have the right qualifications. One had to be chosen by the Lord as well. After all, it had been Jesus who had appointed the original Twelve. Thus, the disciples now prayed, asking the Lord to make the selection (1:25). Then they “cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias” (1:26).
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com
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This article was written by Paul Kroll in 1995 and updated in 2012. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved.
The practice of casting lots seems strange to us, more like playing dice or gambling. Nevertheless, the practice of casting lots to determine God’s choice was traditional in Israel. [Some examples where lots were used: Leviticus 16:8; Numbers 26:55; 33:54; Joshua 14:2; 19:1-40; Judges 20:9; Proverbs 18:18; Isaiah 14:41; Micah 2:5; Jonah 1:7-8.] The practice is illustrated by Proverbs 16:33: “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” It was a common practice in that culture to cast lots in order to determine a course of action (John 19:24). Even the priestly duties in the temple were settled in this manner (Luke 1:9). Thus, Peter and the rest were acting like typical Jews of the time.
However, we should note that there is no further New Testament example of the use of lots to determine God’s will or direction. Thereafter, the Holy Spirit directly leads the church to the proper course of action. Also, we should focus on who used lots in this case, and to determine what. First, it was not individual Christians but the apostles who cast the lots. And the lots were used to determine a course for the church. They were not used to determine what individual disciples were to do in their private lives. Acts does not teach Christians to use lots to determine the decisions they need to take in their everyday lives.
The precise method by which lots were cast is unknown. Perhaps two stones with names (or designations of persons or courses of action) were shaken together in a container, until one dropped out. Whatever the method, the disciples cast lots and in this way Matthias was designated as the replacement for Judas (1:26). The church then waited for the day of Pentecost.