September 16, 2018

The Acts of the Apostles - Chapter 1

I'm writing a book, a commentary on the bible book The Acts of the Apostles and will be putting the content here first so that I can ask for feedback on it. The content will also be gathered together into an e-book, which will eventually be made available for free and after that as a printed book which will be available for a reasonable price.

This follows on from the previously published Introduction.

Chapter 1

1 The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, 2 Until the day in which he was taken up, after that he through the Holy Ghost had given commandments unto the apostles whom he had chosen: 3 To whom also he shewed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God:

There seems to be near universal agreement that Acts was written by Luke and even that this is the same Luke who wrote the eponymous gospel. Seeing how easily biblical scholars can disagree on even the smallest details, we should enjoy and relish this small miracle.

Beyond their author, the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts have strong internal connection (Luke 1:3 and Acts 1:1). They were both addressed to one named Theophilus. In the gospel, Luke uses the endearment 'most excellent', while in the Acts account he does not. Several writers observe that Acts was more of a continuation, so it is possible that the endearment was understood to have continued across the writing of both documents.

We know from the writings of Paul that Luke was a physician (Colossians 4:14) and that he was a faithful companion of Paul, even staying with and ministering to him when others could not be there (2 Timothy 4:11).

While the scriptures do not specifically give Luke's heritage, his claim (Luke 1:3) to have "had perfect understanding of all things from the very first" leads to a strong likelihood that Luke was one of the early disciples, perhaps even in the seventy.

The identity of Theophilus is an interesting mystery. Some believe that Theophilus was a student of Luke's, based on the form of address used. Others take note of the literal meaning of Theophilus as friend of God and suggest that it thereby addresses all who consider themselves a friend of God rather than any particular individual. Given Luke's very detail oriented approach to documenting both the ministry of Jesus and the growth of the early church, it does not seem to me likely that Luke would use clever word play to indicate that his writings were written to a general audience. I am inclined to believe that Theophilus was a person who Luke highly esteemed and wished to share his accounts with.

After his greeting to Theophilus, Luke commences a brief reminder of the core narrative from his gospel, here referred to as the former treatise. The majority of this reminder addressed the post-resurrection portion of the earthly ministry of Jesus and especially the interactions shortly before the ascension of Jesus.

4 And, being assembled together with them, commanded them that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father, which, saith he, ye have heard of me. 5 For John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence. 6 When they therefore were come together, they asked of him, saying, Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel? 7 And he said unto them, It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power. 8 But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.

The gospel of Luke does cover the ascension of Jesus, but here in Acts, Luke gives extra details.

Jesus, at the site of his ascension (Bethany, a few miles East of Jerusalem, Luke 24:50), delivered some final directions for his disciples. He commanded them to wait in Jerusalem. They were to wait for the promise of the Father. This promise was one that would have been well known to all Jews, the Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 12:1-3). The main challenge was that not many people had connected all of the prophetic dots sufficiently yet to understand that the promise and the outpouring of the Spirit of God were the same thing. To aid in their comprehension, he explained that they would be baptized with the Holy Ghost soon.

At this point, the disciples asked whether Jesus was now going to restore the kingdom (basically the geographical area of Israel) back to Israel. Would he now take on Roman rule and physically fight for Israel's right to the promised land? With hindsight the question is foolish, but the disciples had been amazingly patient while Jesus conducted his earthly ministry. The predominant Jewish belief at the time, wrongly, taught that the Messiah would arrive in triumph and physically cast out the oppressors of Israel. The humble arrival and steadfast ignoring of the Romans confused many Jews, especially the leadership. The disciples had understood that Jesus was preparing his spiritual kingdom, but now after his physical resurrection they wondered if the time had come for reclamation of the physical kingdom also.

Jesus did not rebuke their question, but reminded them that it was not for them to know the time schedules of kingdom activity. The Lord shares many things with his followers through the scriptures, but there are things he retains to himself and exact timings is usually one of those things.

After not answering their question, he did remind them that they were going to receive power through the Holy Ghost. Further elaborating that they would be witnesses of him and his ministry to an ever widening audience, starting with the city of Jerusalem.

9 And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight. 10 And while they looked stedfastly toward heaven as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel; 11 Which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven.

Some biblical events are strangely named (looking at you rapture), but the ascension is more accurately descriptive than many. Jesus literally floated up from the ground and lifted bodily into the air, continuing to rise up until he was so high up in the air that he was hidden by the clouds. That sounds like ascending to me.

The disciples were so totally absorbed by this sight that they were still staring at the sky for a time after they could no longer see Jesus. Two angels then addressed the disciples and asked them why they were still staring at the sky. After this gentle ribbing, the angels shared a prophetic reminder that Jesus would return in exactly the same way that he left, descending from the sky and landing on the Mount of Olives (Zechariah 14:4).

12 Then returned they unto Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is from Jerusalem a sabbath day's journey. 13 And when they were come in, they went up into an upper room, where abode both Peter, and James, and John, and Andrew, Philip, and Thomas, Bartholomew, and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon Zelotes, and Judas the brother of James. 14 These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren.

The conversation with the two angels brought the disciples back to earth and they began to obey the final commands of Jesus by returning to Jerusalem. They went to an upper room and stayed there.

There are many theories about what exactly the upper room was. Some have said that it was the same room that the last supper was taken in, but the scriptures make no special association to the room beyond stating that a number of the disciples abode there. Others claim that it was built into the wall of the temple itself, but the scriptures give no indication that this room was connected to the temple or that the temple had living accommodations within the walls.

From a plain reading of the scriptures, it sounds like the upper room was a good-sized, rentable place of accommodation, suitable for groups of out of town visitors, situated above street level, perhaps built over shops. This seems quite reasonable considering that there were three primary Jewish feasts that required all Jews who could make it, to be present in Jerusalem for a week. These people would need somewhere to stay and it would need to be large enough to accommodate large groups because traveling was typically done in groups for security.

While the upper room was the primary accommodation of eleven named disciples, we see that it became the regular meeting and prayer location for others of Jesus' followers, including a number of the female followers. Interestingly, Mary the mother of Jesus is separately listed as one of those who was a regular visitor to the upper room. The disciples are described as being in one accord in prayer. There was powerful unity at work in that upper room.

15 And in those days Peter stood up in the midst of the disciples, and said, (the number of names together were about an hundred and twenty,) 16 Men and brethren, this scripture must needs have been fulfilled, which the Holy Ghost by the mouth of David spake before concerning Judas, which was guide to them that took Jesus. 17 For he was numbered with us, and had obtained part of this ministry. 18 Now this man purchased a field with the reward of iniquity; and falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out. 19 And it was known unto all the dwellers at Jerusalem; insomuch as that field is called in their proper tongue, Aceldama, that is to say, The field of blood. 20 For it is written in the book of Psalms, Let his habitation be desolate, and let no man dwell therein: and his bishoprick let another take. 21 Wherefore of these men which have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22 Beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection. 23 And they appointed two, Joseph called Barsabas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias. 24 And they prayed, and said, Thou, Lord, which knowest the hearts of all men, shew whether of these two thou hast chosen, 25 That he may take part of this ministry and apostleship, from which Judas by transgression fell, that he might go to his own place. 26 And they gave forth their lots; and the lot fell upon Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.

While James, the brother of Jesus, went on to be leader of the church, Peter was held in high regard by the disciples and filled the earliest leadership needs of the disciples and early church. Realizing that the twelve was now only eleven, Peter addressed the gathered disciples (who numbered one hundred and twenty) and expounded the scriptural case for voting in a replacement member of the twelve disciples.

Judas, for all of the many sermons about what a bad person he was, was selected by Jesus to walk with him and was counted among Jesus' disciples. Peter quoted David's prophecy about the betrayer (Psalm 41:9) that would be counted among them. He observed the fulfillment of the prophecy of Zechariah (Zechariah 11:12-13), whereby Judas was paid 30 pieces of silver to betray Jesus. Continuing, Peter observes that the end of Judas will be desolate (Psalm 69:25) and that another should take his place (Psalm 109:8).

The disciples selected two disciples who had been with Jesus and the twelve from the very beginning. They prayed and cast lots to see who would take over the now vacant position of Judas. Luke records that Matthias was selected. Unfortunately, we never see a direct reference to Matthias again. While it is almost certain that Matthias was a fine and upstanding fellow, we will later see that the Lord chose Judas' replacement when he called Saul of Tarsus to be the twelfth apostle.

Tags: Church Writings Apostolic Commentary on Acts