Acts of the Apostles Online Commentary (2)

This is the second entry in the Bible Junkies Online Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. The first entry covered some of the major critical, technical and background issues that will concern us as we read through and comment on the Acts. In this, the second post, we start to consider the text of Acts.

 

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3.  Contents:

A) Prolog and Account of Jesus Ascension (1:1-11):

1 In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2 until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3 After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4 While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. "This," he said, "is what you have heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now." 6 So when they had come together, they asked him, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" 7 He replied, "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." 9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven." (NRSV)

The opening verses make the first connection to the Gospel of Luke, initially with the mention of Theophilus, to whom the Gospel is dedicated (Luke 1:3). The name means “friend of God” or “lover of God” and some people believe the name points to a literary character, an “every Christian” ideal type whom Luke is addressing, though I suspect that this is the actual patron who underwrote Luke’s literary work. Luke sees Acts as the second book, since he cites Luke’s Gospel as “the first book.” In that first book (logon in Greek), “I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen” (Acts 1:1-2).

These verses point to the whole purpose of the Gospel of Luke from the infancy of Jesus until the ascension described in Luke 24: 50-53. The ascension becomes the hinge between the two books as it will be mentioned again in a few verses in more detail than in the Gospel. But it is even more significant than that. Luke Timothy Johnson convincingly writes that “the best way to make sense of this opening section of Acts, therefore, is to grasp that not only the first five but the first eleven verses in their entirety function as a transition to a new stage in the story, a transition wherein the author does not provide new material but rather reworks and elaborates part of the story already told. The reader, I think, is meant to imagine the gestures and words in Acts 1:1-11 as an elaborate variant of those in Luke 24:36-53” (Acts: Sacra Pagina, 28).

This seems correct, for the last half of Acts 1:2 focuses on Jesus’ ascension taking place only “after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.”  This places emphasis on Luke 24:44-49, a central description of Jesus’ interactions with his apostles, but it is also the very period Luke is describing as taking place in Acts right now. Luke recapitulates Luke 24 when he places the encounter of Jesus with the apostles “after his suffering” and that “he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). This creates overlap with Luke, but more significantly a deepening of the encounter of Jesus with his apostles, his instructions and the promise of the Holy Spirit.  It is similar to the technique used by television dramas when they recap the last episode before diving into the new episode.

Jesus “while staying with them… ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now’” (Acts 1:4-5).  Compare this to Luke 24: 49, when Jesus speaks to the Apostles, saying “and see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” There is a building out of Luke 24:49, but the core of the verse, the promise and the city, remain intact. They are told to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit, a key element of Luke from the beginning of the Gospel, and a driving force in this book for all of the action.

In verse 6, though, we get a sense of what the apostles do not yet understand and still need to be taught: “So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’” It is clear that the kingdom to them indicates a physical kingdom, but since Jesus has been talking to them about the kingdom (see Acts 1:3) it is obvious it would be on their minds. Yet, Jesus’ whole ministry has focused on the kingdom and it seems that even in light of his death and resurrection their focus is still on a geographic political reality and not a spiritual reality.

Yet, Jesus does not exactly dissuade them of the possibility of  a coming kingdom when he says, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority” (1:7), but he redirects their attention to their mission: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Their task as witnesses (martyres) under the power of the Holy Spirit seems to be an essential stage in the coming of the kingdom, whenever that will be and whether it will ever be as they imagined it.

Acts 1:8 actually sets up the structure of Acts, and repeats in more detail Luke 24:47-48, as a mission of ever widening concentric geographic circles. The Gospel will emerge from Jerusalem, go to Judea and Samaria and then to Rome, if we, as I do, imagine Luke is considering the capitol of the Empire as the ends of the earth. Acts itself ripples out in this way and it is another way, I think, of organizing the whole of Acts as you read it.

Only after completing his instructions for them does Jesus leave the physical presence of the apostles. “When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9). This is not a second ascension, but a recapitulation and expansion of the Lucan ascension in Luke 24: 51. Luke presents Jesus ascent as literal, with Jesus floating upwards to the heavens, a view which correlates with ancient cosmology and the understanding of the location of God’s dwelling place. It also allows for us to see Jesus as physical and real, as Luke has stressed throughout Luke 24, and now enthroned with God (see Luke 22:69).

 

In the last verses of this section, two figures from Luke 24:4, the two men who greeted the women at the tomb, reappear. “While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven’” (Acts 1:10-11). The apostles are told, in a sense, to get on with their work because Jesus will return at some point just as they saw him leave. It points, of course, to the promise of Jesus’ physical return, which was inspired by the vision in Daniel 7:13 and more directly by Luke 21:27, and the establishment of the kingdom in the future. But now the apostles have a job to do.

Next entry, a twelfth apostle is needed.

John W. Martens

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