1) The story continues (1:1–5)
The early Christians had all seen Jesus in the flesh, but they needed his power to do his work. We still need that power two thousand years later.
Luke wrote his Gospel and then turned his attention to writing a sequel – The Acts of the Apostles. Having told Theophilus (meaning ‘friend of God’) all about the life of Jesus, he now wants to update him on all the exciting developments that have taken place since he wrote last. Theophilus was probably not a Christian, but someone Luke knew who was fascinated by all he had heard about Jesus. He may have been a senior Roman official: Theophilus may even have been a code name to disguise his true identity. What we do know is that, having whetted his appetite by telling Theophilus about Jesus, Luke now goes on to tell him about the impact of Jesus’ followers. Acts is their exciting story!
Luke is at pains to point out the link between volume I (Luke) and volume II (Acts). The link is Jesus. He does not just leave his disciples in the lurch; he gives clear instructions about what they are to do when he has gone. Not only that, but for over a month he keeps turning up just to reassure them. The resurrection is no flash-in-the-pan experience, a glimpse of Jesus in an unexpected moment: Jesus is alive! This is no phantom or figment of the imagination:
- the disciples see him (verse 3)
- he teaches them (verse 2)
- he eats with them (verse 4)
This is not ‘normal’ behaviour for a ghost or hallucination!
On top of all this, Jesus makes sure that they are aware of the resources that are available to them. ‘Don’t go charging off into ministry before you are equipped,’ he says. He reminds them that John the Baptist knew that his baptism was only half the story (Mark 1:8). He sends them home to receive the best half!
So these anxious followers are meant to be reassured by the teaching of Jesus, the presence of Jesus and the power of Jesus. Christians today have these same three resources available to them. Those first disciples faced losing their leader and friend. When we face ‘loss’, of whatever kind, we can draw strength from the teaching, presence and power of Jesus. We can receive these blessings through personal prayer, the support of a home group and in the regular services of the church.
- ‘Many convincing proofs’ (verse 3). What evidence is there for the resurrection of Jesus?
- Do I know the power of the Holy Spirit in my life? How can I experience him?
- Think of a lonely or sad person in your church. How can you help them to draw on the resources which this passage describes?
Background to Acts
The book of Acts seems to be the second part of a two-volume work by Dr Luke. The style, grammar and approach of both parts are similar, and the dedication is to the same person: Theophilus (Luke 1:3; cf. Acts 1:1).
It was written over a number of months (or years?), becoming available to the church between AD 65 and AD 70. The story of Acts begins with the ascension, around AD 30, and covers the next thirty-two years of early church history until AD 62, ending with Paul spending two years under house arrest.
The first half of the book is dominated by Peter, the second half by Paul. With its twenty-eight chapters and 1,007 verses, Acts is one of the longest books in the New Testament.
Luke appears three times in the New Testament. From these references we learn that he was a medical doctor and a close friend of Paul (Colossians 4:14). Paul obviously saw Luke as an important part of his ministry team, a Christian worker as well as a friend (Philemon 24) and a valued colleague who remained faithful even when others left (2 Timothy 4:11).
Luke was a Gentile Christian who seems to have been a well-educated man with a real heart for mission. Probably first called in when Paul needed medical help, he became much more than a personal physician – perhaps the first missionary doctor. His modesty is such that he avoids mentioning himself in either his Gospel or in Acts.
We have very few details about the life of Luke apart from the brief references already mentioned. There is some evidence to suggest that he died, aged seventy-four, in the region to the south of the Black Sea. What we do know is that without him we would be almost totally ignorant about the early church and its mission.
2) Power to tell others (1:6–11)
The disciples needed their focus to be changed and their lives to be renewed. This was a key to mission then – and it still is today.
The disciples were asking the wrong question. Jesus did not have a narrow nationalistic agenda. He was not about to boot out the Romans and establish his followers as the ruling government of the day. Some of his followers were still wanting positions of influence in an earthly kingdom (Mark 10:35–44). Was this when Jesus was planning his coup? Even after all this time with Jesus, they are still missing the point. He keeps explaining to them about the kingdom, trying to get it into their heads that his kingdom is bigger than all their political, religious and cultural expectations. Their relatively small concerns would be handled by God the Father, in his own time and way. They were not to worry about the timetable.
Jesus tries to shift their focus back to the business of life in his kingdom. When the promised power arrives, they will be able to spread the news of this kingdom all over the world. In his typically direct manner, Jesus challenges and envisions in the same sentence. They are to tell their friends and family in the locality, but not be limited to this. They and their fellow believers will go all over the planet, telling what they know about Jesus and his kingdom.
Jesus then leaves them. This remarkable scene ensures that these early followers did not think that Jesus had just wandered off somewhere and died in obscurity. No, the miracle of the resurrection is followed by the miracle of the ascension. No doubt the disciples were completely mesmerized by this amazing sight and were glad of the angelic words of reassurance: ‘Do not stand about staring into space. Jesus is in heaven and will come back to earth some time in the future.’ This message from the angels confirms the reality of heaven and the amazing truth that their friend and Master is not finished with the earth. Another trip is planned!
This passage promises power for their missionary task. It reminds us – in the very last words of Jesus – what our focus as Christians is meant to be: to tell the world about Jesus. Other concerns may be important; this concern is vital. These verses also remind us of where Jesus is now: with his Father in heaven. Heaven is our final destination also, and Jesus is one day coming back to take us to heaven with him (John 14:1–4).
- Do you get excited about heaven? What are you most looking forward to?
- In the light of this passage, how would you assess your church’s priorities? Where does evangelism come in the list?
- ‘...ends of the earth’ (verse 8). Do you support an overseas missionary? How can you encourage your church to give more money/prayer to foreign mission?
The resurrection of Jesus is a major emphasis in the book of Acts. Acts opens with an appearance of the risen Jesus (1:3–9), and the rest of the book is peppered with references to his resurrection. Peter finds it difficult to preach a sermon without mentioning it (e.g. 2:24; 3:15), and Paul’s preaching is similarly influenced by this fact (e.g. 13:30; 17:31; 26:23). For both men, the resurrection demonstrates the reliability of the messenger (Jesus) and the message (the gospel).
Peter and Paul follow this up in their letters, where they see the resurrection of Jesus as central to the Christian faith and its outworking in Christian discipleship (1 Corinthians 15:14; 1 Peter 1:3).
Acts does not present arguments in order to prove the resurrection; it simply accepts it as a fact. For those who had seen, touched and spoken with Jesus, the issue was beyond doubt.
The first Christians saw evangelism as a natural response to their own conversion, based on a command from Jesus (1:8; cf. Matthew 28:18–20). Only Philip is actually described as an evangelist (21:8), and this is to distinguish him from Philip the apostle (1:13), rather than to indicate a formal title.
Sharing the good news was seen as the responsibility and privilege of everyone. Apostles evangelized (Peter and John), prophets evangelized (Barnabas), teachers evangelized (Paul) and even deacons evangelized (Stephen and Philip)! Telling others about Jesus seems to have been a very high priority; it is the focus of almost every chapter in Acts.
This is even more remarkable when you consider the pressure they were under to be silent. Faced with this kind of opposition, most of us would be content to let evangelism slip down our list of priorities.
3) Waiting for God to act (1:12–26)
Obedience to God often involves waiting, and waiting involves prayer.
Down from the mountain top (verses 12–14)
The disciples took the one-kilometre journey back to base in Jerusalem. It was a relatively short walk, though perhaps over rocky or steep terrain. It was a very long journey emotionally, however, back from the mountain-top experience of the ascension into the valley of city life. They congregated in an upper room, perhaps the room in which they had celebrated Passover (Mark 14:12–16), to assess the situation.
Luke then tells who was in this initial group. Basically, it is the original twelve (minus Judas Iscariot) and some of the women who so loyally supported Jesus throughout his life and even in his death (John 19:25). In addition to this group, Luke also mentions members of Jesus’ family. This last group comes as something of a shock. The family of Jesus did not seem to be amongst his greatest supporters while he was alive, some of them even accusing him of madness (Mark 3:21). Perhaps the death and resurrection of Jesus had caused them to think (and act) differently. Mary seems to have been the only family member to be consistently loyal towards her son.
These three groups form the nucleus of the group which was going to have such a profound impact in the ancient world. It is hard to imagine a less successful bunch of people! Some frightened fishermen and the odd tax collector, supported by a few uneducated women with some only-recently-loyal family members thrown in. Not the best material for launching a new enterprise in a hostile world. Luke lists this unlikely crowd to emphasize that what follows in his book is not the product of human intellect and planning, but is the activity of the risen Jesus, operating by his Spirit. The ‘Acts of the Apostles’ is the title of the book in the Authorized (King James) translation; another title might be the ‘Acts of the Holy Spirit’! There is no mere human explanation for what follows in Luke’s story of the early church.
Luke closes this section with a reference to two key principles of success for the first Christians: they were together and in prayer. United prayer remains an incredibly potent force in any church. Many Christians (and their churches) often substitute activity for prayer, when God wants activity as a result of prayer and empowered by prayer. Prayer is the work of the church. It should never be an excuse for idleness or avoiding costly action, but it must precede, accompany and follow all our activity as the people of God.
Replacing a leader (verses 15–26)
Peter, always a man of action, begins a speech designed to encourage the early Christians to choose a successor to Judas Iscariot. It seems that in the days and weeks after the ascension the upper room became a regular meeting place for the committed believers – 120 of them. Peter is emerging as one of the key leaders and immediately points the group back to Scripture as their authority and guide. Judas, whose name is mentioned with anger and disappointment, comes to a gruesome end. He is a traitor, both to Jesus personally and to the first-century believers generally. With the ‘blood money’ he is given by the Jewish leaders he buys a field in which his own blood is spilled. Peter seems to imply that he gets what he deserves!
If Judas is to be replaced (and Peter quotes Psalms 69:25 and 109:8 to show that he ought to be), then they need to establish the personal qualifications required for such a significant task. Peter summarizes the main qualification as being part of the group since Jesus began his ministry – a period of about three years. Their central task would be to act as a witness to the truth of the resurrection. Two candidates emerge. After prayer, they ‘cast lots’ to see which candidate is successful. Matthias is chosen. In Jewish history, and throughout the ancient world, the throwing of various objects on the ground – dice, stones, bones – was a common way of discovering the will of God. This was no mere superstition or reliance on ‘fate’, however. Proverbs 16:33 shows that they believed God was the one who ultimately decided what happened.
This passage identifies three steps in the process of leader selection:
- an assessment of personal qualification
- commitment of the issue to God in prayer
- allowing God to make the appointment
The first two steps must be undertaken with care and seriousness. There are no short cuts to getting these things right. Individuals who are potential leaders must have their relationship with Jesus examined, and every member of the church family must commit the matter to God in prayer. How the leader is appointed will vary from church to church (for example by vote, appointment by other leaders, unanimous affirmation, etc.), depending on our denominational practice or cultural background. Whatever the mechanism for the decision, it must allow God’s will to be revealed and acted on.
- Make a list of the different ways in which you pray. (You will have to decide ‘what is prayer?’) How could you be more involved in the prayer life of your local fellowship?
- How does your church appoint its leaders? Is it a better or worse system than casting lots (verse 26)? Why?
- Why doesn’t everyone who ‘betrays’ God end up like Judas – dead and discredited (verse 18)?
Acts records the first leaders of the early church as the apostles. Because Judas is dead, a replacement is needed to keep the leadership team up to strength (1:20–26). Peter soon emerges as the dominant personality, although the ‘chairman’ of the apostolic team seems to be James (15:13; 21:18).
As time goes by, elders are appointed (14:23; 15:22) with responsibility for spiritual oversight for a particular local church (cf. 20:17). Deacons are appointed in Jerusalem (6:1–6) and eventually more widely in the local church (cf. Philippians 1:1). Their role appears to be more specific than that of the elders, though not necessarily lower in status. Both groups have high qualification guidelines (1 Timothy 3:8–13; Titus 1:5–9), but little is known about their method of appoin...