Acts 1: The Promise of the Holy Spirit, The Ascension, Matthias Chosen to Replace Judas
The book of Acts is written by a man named Luke, the same author as the Gospel of Luke, and it continues on from where the Gospel of Luke left off:
In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.
And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
As mentioned here, Luke wrote both of his books to a man named Theophilus, though we’re not really sure who Theophilus was or if “Theophilus” even refers to a person or is a symbolic name for all seekers1.
Regardless, the point is that Jesus had promised his disciples that the Father would send the Spirit to them, but as Acts opens that hasn’t yet happened.
Luke wrote about Jesus’ ascension in Luke 24:36–53, but he retells the event here in verses 6–11. The disciples come to Jesus and ask him if he’s now going to restore the kingdom to Israel, and, as is so often the case when Jesus is presented with this type of question, he doesn’t really answer. He just tells them that it’s not for them to know “times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.” But then, as is also Jesus’ way, he focuses on what’s really important:
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
After he’s done speaking to them, Jesus is taken up until he’s out of sight behind a cloud—at which point, while the disciples are still looking up in the sky, two men in white robes appear (clearly angels), and ask, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
They then return to the “upper room” where they’re staying in Jerusalem—verse 15 tells us there are about 120 people in all, men and women—and devote themselves to prayer.
At some point during this time of prayer Peter addresses them and indicates that it’s time to choose a new Apostle to replace Judas:
In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) and said, “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” (Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness, and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their own language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) “For it is written in the Book of Psalms,
“‘May his camp become desolate,
and let there be no one to dwell in it’;
“‘Let another take his office.’
So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.”
Peter is quoting Psalm 69 when he says this.
So they put forward two names of men who meet these qualifications, pray to God about it, and then cast lots, at which point a man named Matthias is chosen to be added to the Apostles.
To me, this is an interesting behind the scenes look at people in the early Church starting to figure out how they’re going to organize themselves now that Jesus is no longer physically with them giving instructions. In other places in Acts we’ll see similar views into the early Church trying to figure some things out (such as whether and how much they should burden Gentile believers with Jewish rules and regulations, which, at the time, would have been important for the Church to wrestle with).
In the next chapter the Holy Spirit will come, and that will be an extremely important event for the nascent Church and the early Christians who are forming it. However, even with the Holy Spirit there is still going to be a bunch of “boring” work that needs to be done in figuring out what the structure of the Church is going to look like, what leadership will look like, what rules need to be created (and what rules need to be discarded), and a ton of other questions, big and small. The Holy Spirit will help the early Church leaders in making these decisions, but the Holy Spirit will not make the decisions for them. The early Church is going to discuss things, and wrestle with them, and work them out. There will be times when some of the people will think the Church should proceed one way and others will think it should proceed in another, and people on both sides of that debate will have the same Holy Spirit guiding them!
And a couple of millenia later, the same still applies. In the Protestant world to which I belong there are numerous denominations, where Christians agree or disagree on things like infant baptism, what church services should look like, how passages of the Bible should be interpreted, various questions of rules and etiquette and leadership, and a ton of other things. Genuine, Bible-believing Christians—led by the Holy Spirit—disagree on these points. Within my particular local church there are Spirit-filled, Bible-believe, saved Christians who disagree on how some things should be done.
What’s my point? Well, there are lots of Christians in the 21st Century who feel that we should be going “back” to the way things were in Acts, when there wasn’t so much rigid structure in the Church and people just… like… worshipped, you know? Like… really believed, and were led by the Spirit, and didn’t fight about trivialities! And it’s tempting to fall into that mindset, except that,
- It’s not true, because, as mentioned, there are times in Acts when people are trying to figure things out (even though we now take them for granted), and
- If we’re honest, some of the reason there is less rigid structure in the early Church in Acts is because they simply hadn’t figured it out yet.
Am I saying that all rigid structure in a church body is a good thing? No—but I am saying that a good amount of rigid structure in a church is a good thing, even if we do sometimes take it too far.
As I say, it’s tempting to read the book of Acts in a very sentimental, “things were much better then than they are now” type of mindset, but that’s naive. The structures we’ve come up with over the centuries didn’t come from nowhere, they were put in place for reasons. Yes, there have been times when the Church has put things in place because leaders wanted to cement their power, but I’d argue that more of the structure has been put in place because issues have been encountered over time, the Church had to figure out how to handle them, and then some kind of rules and regulations were put in place to say that, “the next time this happens, here’s how we’ll handle it.”
And, as I say, real believers, led by the Holy Spirit, can disagree on those rules, and try to work to make them better (side by side with other real believers, led by the same Holy Spirit, who disagree), and things will evolve over time—hopefully in the right direction, becoming more godly!
But if we were to throw out all of the structure and formalities that the Church has created over the centuries, going “back” to the way things were in Acts, we’d also be back to figuring out a lot of stuff from scratch, too. My biggest fear is that we’d end up with lots of little house churches (which is what a lot of people are thinking of when they speak this way), where it would be too easy for little fiefdoms to be created, it would be too easy for people to abuse their power, and it would be difficult to deal with abuses of power because there’s no structure in place to do so.
The vast majority of the time when I hear about some local church that went astray, becoming a cult or coming up with some strange belief around a misreading of the Bible or not rooting out an abuse of power, it seems to me that more structure would have been a good thing, not less.
Restoring the Kingdom to Israel
It kind of is and kind of isn’t surprising that the disciples would ask Jesus if he’s going to restore the kingdom to Israel. That is, they’re asking if Jesus is going to make Israel into a great nation again, and throw off the yoke of the Romans.
It kind of is surprising because Jesus had spent so much of his ministry with the disciples trying to get them to understand that His kingdom isn’t an earthly one, it’s a heavenly one; that the new “kingdom of God” is spread across His believers—both Jews and Gentiles—as opposed to being a “nation,” the way Israel was in the Old Testament.
But it’s also not surprising at all because these would be long-held beliefs by the disciples, and one doesn’t just change one’s entire mindset about how the world works in an instant. It’s not that they weren’t listening to Jesus (I don’t think), or ignoring what He said about kingdoms, but I think the idea of God restoring His nation of Israel was so ingrained in their consciences that they were just stuck in that mindset.
… but also the Gentiles
Along those same lines, I especially have sympathy for them for the part about the Gentiles not being on their minds, because it hadn’t been a strong focal point for Jesus’ ministry either. While He was on the earth He focused on the Jews, with only the occasional mentions of His kingdom extending to the Gentiles. It was enough that we can clearly see it in the Gospels (in retrospect), but I’m not surprised if it wasn’t something that particularly stuck with the disciples at the time.
But it won’t be long before Christianity (which isn’t even called that yet) stops being regarded as some kind of Jewish sect and starts being regarded as a full-blown religion on its own. Jesus’ last words to them recorded in this passage are about witnessing about Him not just in Judah and Samaria (which are kind of the current land of the Jews), but to the end of the earth. At the time the disciples heard that, “the ends of the earth” really just meant the Middle East; there was no conception for most people of a place called “China” for example2, and “Europe” (where Christianity would take a very strong hold) didn’t yet exist. The idea of North/South America wasn’t even a dream to anyone in the Middle East. And yet, despite the fact that “the ends of the earth” didn’t mean to them what it now means to us, the Gospel was taken to “the ends of the earth” in both meanings of the phrase! Nobody in the Middle East in Jesus’ day had any notion of North/South America, but in the 21st Century there are Christians in North/South America.
Of course, one main missing ingredient was the thing this passage is anticipating: God sending the Holy Spirit to the disciples. Ever since Acts 2, God’s people have had the Holy Spirit; it’s hard to put myself into the shoes of the disciples before Acts 2, because they didn’t have the Holy Spirit. But for the most part, for the rest of the book of Acts, we’re going to see the disciples/Apostles fully on board with the mission of spreading the Gospel to everyone, Jew and Gentile alike.
It’s hard to miss Peter in the Gospels, he’s an ever-present force. Having not really studied it from this perspective, I’m pretty sure that we could say Peter is the main person being mentioned in the Gospels after Jesus himself (though I could easily be corrected by someone who has studied it). He’s the type who always blurts out what he wants to say, sometimes instinctively getting things exactly right and showing a boldness the other disciples don’t, and sometimes getting things very wrong and having to be rebuked by Jesus.
But in all of this, Jesus clearly had a plan for Peter to take a leadership position after His ascension, and we see Peter starting to stand up and meet that obligation here. He hasn’t even received the Holy Spirit yet, but Peter already seems like a new man: this isn’t an off-the-cuff, hasty idea that he’s blurting out, this is a well-reasoned speech as to why they should choose someone, why Judas betrayed them, and how they should choose a replacement.
Knowing the Scriptures
As a side note, Peter was a fisherman when Jesus called him. I sometimes see people mentioning what they’d expect a “simple fisherman” to know or not know about the Scriptures—the Jewish religious leaders will have a similar reaction in a future passage—but in this passage Peter clearly demonstrates knowledge of the Word of God. And, as I keep pointing out, this is before the Holy Spirit descends on the disciples. Should that surprise us?
It doesn’t surprise me. I’ve been going to church long enough to know that there are Christians who know their Bibles and there are Christians who don’t, but the level of a person’s education or even their reading proficiency isn’t the determining factor, it’s desire. If a person wants to study the Scriptures they’re going to, even if they need help to do it, even if it takes them longer than others to get through a passage because they’re not a strong reader. If a person is not interested in studying the Scriptures they’re not going to, even if their education and reading skills would make it relatively “easy” to get through it.
So I’m not surprised at all that Peter, having spent a few years in the company of his Lord and Saviour Jesus the Christ, knows his Scriptures!
On this point of who Theophilus was, and whether “Theophilus” was a person or a general term, the ESV Study Bible can’t really make up its mind. In the introduction to the Gospel of Luke (which I quoted when I wrote about Luke 1), they say, “there is no reason to deny that he was a real person, although attempts to identify him have been unsuccessful,” whereas in the note for Acts it’s a little softer when they say that Theophilus was, “either an actual person or a symbolic name for any Christian seeker or convert.” ↩︎
Technically I don’t think “China” existed yet, when I look at a map of the world in 30AD I see two big regions called Xiongnu and Eastern Han, along with a few smaller nations/peoples in what will eventually become Korea. ↩︎