Saturday, May 22, 2021

Acts 1 Explanatory Notes

In honor of Pentecost Sunday, I thought I would write up my Explanatory Notes on Acts 1 and 2 in my current format.
Preface (1:1-5)
1:1 On the one hand, I made the first account concerning all the things, O Theophilus, that Jesus began both to do and to teach 2. until the day, having commanded to the apostles whom he chose, he was taken up.
Acts has the same recipient as Luke, Theophilus. He is called "most excellent Theophilus" in Luke, possibly suggesting that he is a Roman official or certainly someone of importance. We wonder if he is a patron who commissioned Luke to write this two-volume series. Such works were of course meant for broader consumption and brought honor to the patron.

The Gospel of Luke told about things Jesus began to do and teach, possibly suggesting that Acts will tell us about things that Jesus continued to do and teach through the Holy Spirit.

Those who previously were disciples now become apostles. An apostle is someone who is sent to officially represent someone else. Later in the first chapter, we will hear what Luke understood the criteria for one of these apostles to be. Luke notes that Jesus chose these apostles. Luke sometimes presents events as directed by God. Also noted here is that God the Father plays the active role in taking Jesus up in his ascension.

3 ... to whom also he presented himself by many proofs living after he suffered, being seen by them for forty days, and speaking things concerning the kingdom of God.
Acts tells us about forty days between Jesus' resurrection and ascension, a unique feature in Acts not mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament. Luke 24 virtually gives the impression that Jesus ascended the same day that he rose from the dead. During these days he presented convincing proofs of his resurrection to his followers.

The author of Acts mentions two key aspects of this forty-day period. First, Jesus' appearances were compelling. "Many proofs" were given that Jesus indeed was risen from the dead. The sense is thus that Jesus was not continuously with them, but he appeared often and convincingly enough for it to be proven that he had indeed risen from the dead.

Second, the teaching of Jesus was the same as it had been before his crucifixion. Jesus proclaimed the coming of the kingdom of God. The rule of God was coming to the earth as it is in heaven.

4 And staying, he commanded them not to withdraw from Jerusalem but to "Wait for the promise of the Father that you heard from me, 5. because John baptized with water, but you with [the] Holy Spirit will be baptized after not many of these days."
They are told to stay in Jerusalem. The centrality of Jerusalem to the mission is a key feature of both Luke and Acts. The Gospel of Luke both begins and ends in Jerusalem. The book of Acts certainly begins in Jerusalem as we see in 1:8.

Within the world of Luke-Acts, the Holy Spirit has not yet come. Some have suggested in the past that John 20:22 is a first coming of the Spirit on the disciples, but the world of Luke-Acts says nothing like that. [1] The coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost is thus the only fulfillment of Jesus' promise in Luke 3:16.

Getting Ready for Mission (1:6-26)
1:6 Therefore, after they had come together, they were asking him saying, "Lord, are you at this time restoring the kingdom to Israel?"
1:6-11 tell about the ascension of Jesus to heaven, forty days after his resurrection. These verses make it clear that the disciples had been expecting a political messiah. They did not expect Jesus to die because no one thought the Messiah was supposed to die.

They also did not expect the resurrection. But now that Jesus was resurrected, they returned to their former understanding. Was Jesus now going to restore Israel as a free, political entity?

7 And he said to them, "[It is] not for you to know times and seasons that the Father placed on his own authority...
Jesus does not contradict their expectation, only their timing. Luke-Acts seems to view this current age as the "time of the Gentiles" (cf. Luke 21:24), much as Paul seems to view this current phase of history in Romans 9-11. It is not time for Jerusalem to be free in God's economy.

We must be very careful when assuming that modern politics relating to Israel are the fulfillment of these expectations. In Romans 11, Paul does seem to speak of the ultimate salvation of Israel, but he is picturing an Israel that believes in Christ. No such Israel has yet arisen. From that perspective, modern Israel at least cannot yet be the Israel of promise and remains under the same critique as Paul gives in Romans 9.

8 ... but you will receive power after the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you will be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and unto the end of the land.
This is arguably the key verse of Acts. On the one hand, it gives us a map for the rest of Acts. They witness in Jerusalem in Acts 1-7. They are in Judea and Samaria in Acts 8-12. And Paul takes the message to the ends of the earth in Acts 13-28, remembering that Rome would have been the ends of the earth from their perspective.

The key manifestation of the Holy Spirit in Acts is power, especially power for witness. What they are witnessing to is the person and resurrection of Jesus. We will see the qualifications for an apostle in Acts later in the chapter. Such a person needed to have been with Jesus from the time of John the Baptist. Most importantly, they needed to have been a witness to Jesus' resurrection. Similarly for the apostle Paul, an apostle was someone to whom the risen Christ had appeared bodily and whom Christ had commissioned to go and testify to his risen lordship (cf. 1 Cor. 9:1).

We will see several illustrations of the power they receive. It will manifest itself in boldness. It will manifest itself in the performance of miracles. Three times in Acts it will manifest itself in the ability to speak in other "tongues" or languages at the moment when they receiving the Holy Spirit.

9 And having said these things, while they were watching, he was taken up, and a cloud received him from their eyes. [2]
God meets us where we are so that we can understand. Our understanding is always partial and generally fallen. Accordingly, God's revelation is usually partial and accommodates our understandings. The truth of God is always bigger than our understanding, so revelation tends to the metaphorical and figurative, so it can point beyond itself.

They believed the world was flat and that heaven was straight up through layers of sky. God accommodates this understanding as Jesus ascends straight up from the earth. By contrast, most of us could not make ourselves believe that the world is flat or that heaven is straight up through layers of sky. God takes Jesus straight up and when he is out of their sight, presumably he is transferred to whatever other "dimension" heaven is in.

We note again the passive language. God the Father is the one acting on Jesus. God takes Jesus in the language of Acts rather than Jesus raising himself.

10 And as they were looking intently into the sky, as he was going, even two men had stood by them in white robes, [3] 11. who also said, "Men, Galileans, why have you stood looking into the sky? This Jesus, the one having been taken up from you into the sky, [4] thus will come the way that you beheld him going into the sky."
The two men, presumably angels, predict the second coming of Christ, which we still await. We continue to get the impression that Jesus' followers do not really understand what is going on. They had hopes that the resurrection meant the immediate reinstatement of their previous goal of political revolution. Instead, God wants to save as many people in the world as possible. They wanted victory and an escape. Instead, Jesus has left them with mission.

12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount being called "of Olive," which is near Jerusalem, having the road of a Sabbath.
Acts tells of ten days between Jesus' ascension and the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit will come. Jesus has told them to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit comes (1:4). In the meantime, they will pray and replace Judas with a twelfth apostle.

The disciples return to Jerusalem from Mt. Olives, the location of Jesus' ascension. Luke 24:50 had merely said it was in the vicinity of Bethany. We should not confuse this event with the mount from which Jesus gives the Great Commission in Matthew 28:16, which was in Galilee, a three-day journey to the north.

A sabbath's journey was about a half mile. The Mount of Olives was directly east across the Kidron Valley from the Eastern Gate, with the temple immediately inside the gate.

13. And when they entered, they went up into the upper room, where they were staying: even Peter and John and James and Andrew. Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James [the son] of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas [the son] of James.
Here we have Luke's second listing of the disciples (cf. Luke 6:14-15). It differs from Matthew and Mark's list in having Judas, son of James, instead of Thaddeus (Matt. 10:3; Mark 3:18). They are staying in the upper room where the Holy Spirit will come in ten days. It is also at least possible that this is the place where they had eaten the Last Supper.

14 These all were devoted together in prayer with women and Mary the mother of Jesus and his brothers.
Two of the special emphases of Luke are reflected in this verse. First, Luke pays more attention to the role women played in the Jesus movement and the early church than the other Gospels. Second, Luke emphasizes the role that prayer played in the life of Jesus and the early church.

We have not seen the family of Jesus involved in his mission up to this point in Luke-Acts. Mary features prominently in the birth story of Jesus but is not mentioned in the Gospel of Luke thereafter. In Luke's story-world, we only hear of her re-engagement post-resurrection. The impression we get from Mark is that Jesus' family was not greatly engaged or supportive during his earthly mission (e.g., Mark 3:31-35).

1:15 And in these days, Peter, having arisen in the middle of the brothers [and sisters] said (and the crowd of names in the same [place] was about one hundred twenty),
The canonical New Testament texts remember Peter as the lead apostle. Here he takes the lead on the replacement of Judas. If you visit Jerusalem today, you can visit a place known as the "Cenacle" that is the traditional upper room. However, that part of Jerusalem was thoroughly burnt when Rome burned the city in AD70. It is thus unlikely to be the precise structure, at least not in its current form.

Luke suggests that the kernel of the early church consisted of about 120 people in Jerusalem. A room big enough to hold this many people would need to be the home of a fairly wealthy person. This home could be that of John Mark's parents, Mary and perhaps Cleopas.

16 "Men, brothers [and sisters], it was necessary for the Scripture to be fulfilled that the Holy Spirit spoke through the mouth of David concerning Judas, the one who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus, 17. because he was numbered [5] among us and received the lot of his ministry."
The author of Acts and Peter understood David to have written the psalms. This was the understanding of the time, and God met the early church within this understanding. Internal evidence suggests that David did not write all of the psalms that have that heading, as we will see in 1:20. The headings of the psalms were added at some point after they were collected, not principally when they were written. In Acts, the authorship of the psalm arguably was not the point of the revelation but rather the framework within which the revelation came. Working within that framework, the Holy Spirit revealed to Peter that God wanted them to replace Judas.

The mention and use of "lots" in this passage reminds us that the ancients spoke about the world in a fated way with deterministic language. Luke probably was not making a precise theological or philosophical statement. He was using language that affirmed what all Christians would affirm--that God was involved in the direction of the early church. Some Christians believe that God directs everything that happens in the manner of pre-ordination. The problem there is that God directly becomes the author of evil. It would be better to say that nothing ever happens that God does not allow.

18. (Therefore, this man on the one hand bought a field from the reward of wickedness and, having become headlong, the middle burst and all his guts poured out. 19. And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, with the result that that field was called in their own dialect, "Akeldama," that is, "Field of Blood.")
Luke's account of what happened to Judas and the blood money differs a little from Matthew's. Both agree that Judas received money from betraying Jesus. Both agree that the money was used to purchase a field called Akeldama. Both agree that Judas met a gruesome end.

However, in Matthew 27:3-10, Judas tries to return the blood money and the chief priests buy the field. Then Judas hangs himself. In Acts 1, Judas buys the field, falls headlong, and his bowels gush forth. 

It is possible that these two accounts can be harmonized, but it also is not necessary to harmonize them. There was room for some artistic license in ancient history writing, and we can actually miss the inspired point sometimes if we don't let narratives stand as they are. If varying accounts are easily coordinated, by all means do it. But when it requires going significantly beyond what the texts actually say, it is best to let each stand alone.

20. "For it has been written in [the] book of Psalms, 'Let his dwelling become deserted and do not let the one dwelling be in it and let a different [person] take his office.'
The Lord spoke to Peter, Luke, or someone in the early church through Psalm 69:25 and Psalm 109:8. As is always the case, these psalms had an original meaning in their original context. The New Testament authors then sometimes heard the Holy Spirit give extended or spiritual meanings to the words that went beyond the original meanings.

In the case of Psalm 69, we have a psalm of lament and imprecatory psalm that was widely read by the early Christians in relation to Jesus. However, in Psalm 69:5, the psalmist speaks of the wrongs he did, making it clear that the original meaning was not about Jesus, since Jesus was without sin. Yet several verses from the psalm were applied to Jesus by the early Christians, such as the "zeal for your house" verse (69:9) and the verse mentioning vinegar of 69:21. As the Holy Spirit does to many Christians today, he "quickened" these verses in relation to Christ, even though the original psalm was not about Christ.

Further, the internal evidence of the psalm more likely suggests an original context in the late 500s BC rather than the time of David. The cities of Judah were not destroyed in the time of David (69:35), nor was the house of the Lord built yet (69:9). But we can easily see a Haggai or Zechariah having zeal for God's house and for the rebuilding of Judah around the year 516BC.

In one translation of Psalm 109:8 (NRSV), the person whose place is being called for replacement is not that of the wicked person. Rather, the wicked are calling for the place of the righteous to be replaced. None of these observations should bother us, although they are a needed corrective to the frequent insistence that the Holy Spirit must only speak through the original meaning of biblical texts. The Holy Spirit, it would seem, is far more a holiness or Pentecostal interpreter than a neo-evangelical one!

21. "Therefore, it is necessary, of the men who have accompanied us in the whole time that the Lord Jesus came and went among us, 22. beginning from the baptism of John until the day that he was taken from us, for one of these to become a witness of his resurrection with us."
The qualifications for a replacement for Judas are that the person must have been with Jesus from the time of John's baptism. The apostle Paul thus did not qualify. There was an innermost circle of apostles, the twelve, in which Paul did not fit.

Of course we must also keep in mind the principle that "description is not prescription." That is to say, Acts may be describing what Peter thought--describing what happened--without prescribing this definition for an apostle. It would seem, however, that this is Luke's perspective, the "evaluative point of view" of the book of Acts at this point.

23. And they caused to stand [6] two--Joseph who is called Barsabbas, who was called Justis, and Matthias.
They cast lots to decide on the replacement, and it falls on Matthias. Here is probably a point where we would all agree that description is not prescription. Casting lots may be how they decided such things, but we probably should not use that method, unless Luke means simply to say that they voted.

This is the only place where these two individuals are mentioned, a reminder that we know only the tiniest bit of the life of the early church.

24. And having prayed, they said, "You, Lord, knower of the hearts of all, show the one of these two whom you have chosen [7] 25. to take the place of this ministry and [the] apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go into his own place."
We note again the importance of prayer in Acts. Peter is not clear as to whether he is praying to God the Father or Jesus the Lord. In general, the earliest Christians seem to have prayed to God the Father through the authorization of Jesus' name.

God is a "knower of the hearts of all." This theme goes back to the Old Testament...

26. And they gave lots to them, and the lot fell upon Matthias, and he was added with the twelve apostles.
Although we never hear about Matthias again, we never hear of most of the apostles again. We should assume that they continued to spread the good news throughout the rest of their lifetime. Tradition suggests that all of the original apostles died a martyr's death, except possibly John the son of Zebedee. Even in his case, it is possible that he was martyred. [8]

[1] We should probably think of John 20:22 as John's version of Pentecost, not a separate event.

[2] genitive absolutes in this and the next verse

[3] pluperfect

[4] aorist passive participle

[5] several periphrastics in these verses

[6] causative active

[7] aorist middle second person singular in omega

[8] See my Explanatory Notes on the book of Revelation.