Note: I wrote this in preparation for teaching about the book of Acts in my Sunday School class. I’m not a Bible scholar, but this is my best take at explaining the text. I’ve written a commentary on Acts 2, and that follows in a later post.
Old characters, new roles
Commentary by Andrew Shinn
1 – 3 In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.
Previously, in Luke
Luke is setting the scene here. He’s very efficiently summing up what has happened before and bringing the reader (the now-familiar Theophilus, or “Lover of God”) up to date. He references the people who will be the main characters of the book (the Apostles Jesus had chosen), and drives home the point that Jesus’ friends believed him to be alive. He also gives a timeline, 40 days. The number 40 is often used in Hebrew culture symbolically to mean A Long Time. As in, “Gary, I haven’t seen you in 40 days!” Luke makes clear that the kingdom of God was their main topic of conversation. Watch for that – the 120 disciples (including the 12 apostles) will be primed to think about this matter of the Kingdom of God.
4 – 8 On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with (or in) water, but in a few days you will be baptized with (or in) the Holy Spirit.” Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Jesus outlines Acts
Luke relates the most important teaching that Jesus gave after his resurrection. He’s beginning the hand-off from the leadership of Jesus to the leadership of the Holy Spirit. In doing so, he references all three members of the Godhead. Note that the doctrine of the Trinity is never explicitly taught in the Bible. We infer it from passages like this, and from the co-appearing of the Triune Three at the baptism of Jesus. (Luke 3:21-22) In this way, the co-appearing kicks off both the earthly ministry of Jesus and the earthly ministry of the Holy Spirit.
The disciples are asking about the restoration of the Kingdom. Remember, this had been the chief topic of conversation, in Luke’s re-telling (though John makes it clear that Jesus did and talked about so many things that any re-telling is a necessary distillation). Jesus steers the conversation to marching orders for the apostles, and Luke puts the outline for the rest of the book in Jesus’s mouth.
9 – 11 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
Again we see Luke’s economy of words. In two sentences, he gives an entire Christ-ian eschatology (from the Greek meaning “last” and “study of”). This scene is almost humorous in its pithiness. These men, presumably angels or other heavenly messengers, break the apostles’ sacred reverie with a kick in the pants toward Jerusalem and a message about the Second Coming of Christ. This is almost the exact same scenario that played out after Jesus’ death in Luke 24:4-7.
12 – 14 Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk (That is, about 5/8 mile or about 1 kilometer from the city.) When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.
For now, the apostles are being tracked minute by minute. The church is being born, and Luke passes us all the details. This includes exactly who was in the room. The eleven apostles were explicitly named. Peter and Andrew were brothers, fishermen from Bethsaida. Philip grew up with them, and was probably also a fisherman. James and John were brothers, also fisherman from Bethsaida. The younger James (son of Alphaeus) and Judas were probably Jesus’s biological brothers. Note that there were two Jameses, two Simons (Simon Peter and Simon the Zealot), and two Judases (one who betrayed Jesus and one who was his brother). Luke doesn’t name the women, but he refers to Jesus’s mother and, presumably, an unspecified number of Jesus’s other brothers.
Interestingly, Luke finishes the book of Luke with Jesus referring to this group as disciples, and starts the book of Acts referring to them as apostles. This is just one of the many shifts we’ll see at the beginning of Acts.
15 – 26 In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) and said, “Brothers and sisters (or believers), the Scripture had to be fulfilled in which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus. He was one of our number and shared in our ministry.” (With the payment he received for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) “For,” said Peter, “it is written in the Book of Psalms (Psalm 69:25): “ ‘May his place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in it,’ and (Psalm 109:8), “ ‘May another take his place of leadership.’ Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.” So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. Then they prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.” Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles.
A new apostle
Peter takes on a new role here. He goes from enthusiastic (if bumbling) to being a serious leader and Biblical scholar. Luke records someone, probably Peter, lopping off a guy’s ear when Jesus was arrested, and claiming that he’ll go to prison and die for Jesus (Luke 22). Later in the same chapter, Peter denies Jesus. What explains the change from denier to leader/scholar? In Luke 24:45, we’re told that Jesus opened the minds of his disciples so they could understand the scriptures.
The believers here are numbered at 120 total. This means that there are about 10 times as many in the community as there were in the inner circle of disciples (who became apostles).
There’s a rather gross section wherein Judas (the betrayer) buys a field. Scholars think that this matter of bursting intestines was because Judas hung himself and everyone left the body alone. In this scenario, his body burst open when it fell down after rotting enough to slip out of the rope.
Peter explicitly mentions the Holy Spirit, indicating that he had some understanding of the Holy Spirit’s role in the church and in history. Peter references two scriptures from the Psalms and seems to cherry-pick two phrases out of their original context. This is the same way that Jesus often quoted scripture.
He says that another person is needed to bear witness to Jesus’s resurrection. This makes clear what Peter and friends understand the role of apostles to be: bearing witness to the resurrection. The Greek word for witness here is martyroi, from which we also get the word for martyr. They pick two men who were apparently around for the entirety of Jesus’s ministry, from his baptism until his death. Then they pray about it and draw straws (or roll dice, or the equivalent).
These apostles will be significant. In Revelation 21:14, John writes that the names of the 12 apostles will be written on the very foundations of the new city of Jerusalem. In Ephesians 2:19-22, Paul says that we as Christians are members of the house of God, which is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.
Interestingly, we’ll add a 13th (or, if you count Judas, a 14th) apostle in the figure of Saul/Paul. He calls himself an Apostle in Romans 1, though he’s the only apostle who didn’t know Jesus before his death. But that’s later in the story of Acts.