Acts of the Apostles Online Commentary (3)

This is the third entry in the Bible Junkies Online Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. The first entrycovered some of the major critical, technical and background issues that will concern us as we read through and comment on the Acts. The second post, found here, considered the prologue to the Acts of the Apostles. In the third column, found below, we begin to examine the founding of the Jerusalem Church.

3. Contents:

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B)  Founding of the Jerusalem Church (1:12-2:47): i) Choosing the Replacement for Judas (1:12-26):

12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day's journey away. 13 When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14 All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. 15 In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, 16 "Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus— 17 for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry." 18 (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. 19 This became known to all the residents of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) 20 "For it is written in the book of Psalms, "Let his homestead become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it'; and "Let another take his position of overseer.' 21 So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22 beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection." 23 So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. 24 Then they prayed and said, "Lord, you know everyone's heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen 25 to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place." 26 And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.

Luke’s notice of the apostles’ return to the city in 1:12 is simple, “then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day's journey away,” but packs a lot of significant information. The apostles returned from Olivet, the Mount of Olives, but Jesus is also said to have ascended in Luke 24:49 from Bethany. The Mount of Olives and Bethany are directly linked geographically, however, in Luke 19:29 (and 19:37). More than that Jesus’ messianic entry into Jerusalem is from the Mount of Olives (19:36-38) and is now linked geographically to his departure to his enthronement with God the father.

There is still more significance to the location of the Mount of Olives and that is its eschatological/apocalyptic overtones. Just as Jesus entered Jerusalem to be greeted as King, and just as he ascended to the Father here, so Zechariah 14:4 prophecies this as the location of the coming Messiah:

4 On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives, which lies before Jerusalem on the east; and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley; so that one half of the Mount shall withdraw northward, and the other half southward.

Luke also stresses, however, that Olivet/Bethany are in the area of Jerusalem, so all of these events which have been a part of Jesus’ Passion, resurrection and ascension have taken place within the orbit of the city of Jerusalem.  The mention that it is only “a sabbath day's journey away” serves not only to reinforce how close the apostles and Jesus have been to Jerusalem but also to place Jesus’ apostles in the category of observant Jews who follow Sabbath guidelines on walking (Exodus 16:29). The Mishnah tractate Erubin 4:5 (and all of chapter 4) sets the limit for walking on the Sabbath at 200 cubits, about ½ mile. Whether these exact guidelines were in place at the time of Jesus is not clear, but limits for travel were certainly set during his life.

The eleven apostles return to the city and “when they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James” (1:13). These are the same list of apostles, minus Judas, from Luke 6:13-16. Are they (still?) staying in the upper room from Luke 22:12? In Luke the room is called anagaion, while here it is called hyperôon, but my suspicion is that Luke intends the same room as where the Last Supper is held.

They are not alone. The apostles are “constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers” (1:14). The phrase “constantly devoting themselves to prayer” does not capture the meaning of the adverb homothymadon which has a meaning more like “unity” than “constantly.” The verb, though, proskartereô, does mean to be devoted to or to persevere in something. What is the best way to render the sense of “unity” in this phrase? The KJV version has “continued with one accord in prayer and supplication” and the Douay-Rheims has “persevering with one mind in prayer.” Either of these translations gets at the sense of persevering in prayer with unity of those praying together.

It is not just that these eleven are present, but also “certain women,” including Mary, Jesus’ mother, and “his brothers,” relatives or kinsmen or brothers. We are given the number of 120 in the following verse as the total number of people present. This round number, of which Luke is so fond in Acts, is significant for its division by twelve and must represent the emerging Church as the twelve tribes of Israel. The choosing of the twelfth apostle to replace Judas which occupies the end of this section makes this assumption even more obvious. This passage also focuses, as Luke did in Luke 8:2-3, on the many women among Jesus’ disciples and in the early Church and Jesus’ family members.  

Peter is then presented as taking the lead in the next essential step for the emergence of the Church: the replacement of Judas among the apostles, interspersed with an account of the end of Judas’s life. Peter “stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, ‘Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus—for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry’” (1:15-17). Luke then adds a source about the death of Judas, an account separate from that in Matthew 27:3-10, prior to getting to the scripture which “had to be fulfilled” in the betrayal and death of Judas. The NJBC says that Luke “combines the Greek sense of fated necessity with the biblical conviction of a personal God’s irresistible and unconditional control of events” (729). “Had to be fulfilled” has a sense of necessity, but the Greek is actually dei, “it was necessary to be fulfilled,” perhaps an even stronger formulation of the fulfillment.  

Judas’s death was necessary and fulfilled Psalm 69:26, found below in 1:20, for he had “acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. This became known to all the residents of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood” (1:18-19).  The name of the field of blood is one detail actually shared with Matthew’s account (27:8), though the origin or etiology of the name differs. Luke presents Judas’ death as a necessary result of his wickedness and the field is named after that wicked result.

Once Peter has described Judas’s death, the Scripture is cited which prophesied his demise: “for it is written in the book of Psalms, ‘Let his homestead become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it’” (1:20). Luke then takes up the source concerning the replacement of Judas by the apostles, also from the Psalms, Psalm 109:8: “Let another take his position of overseer.” The word for “overseer” is episkopos, which will later refer to the office of bishop, but at this point I would suggest refers only to the role of apostle.

Psalm 109:8 is the transition to the replacement of Judas, for without him the completeness of the twelve is missing, plus Luke is arguing it too was prophesied. The position of apostle is more than symbolic, but, on the other hand, after the choosing of the twelfth apostle to replace Judas, we will hear no more either of the one who fills the position or the one who was not chosen. Peter sets the criterion as to who is eligible to become an apostle:

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 must become a witness with us to his resurrection. Acts 1:21-22

The qualifications are clear: someone who was a disciple throughout Jesus’s ministry; the task is also clear: “a witness with us to his resurrection.” The job of the apostle is to be able to recount Jesus’ earthly ministry and witness to his resurrection. This witness might also be essential to verify or testify to the continuity between the earthly Jesus and the one who was resurrected as Lord.  

The two disciples proposed are nowhere else noted in the entire New Testament. They have a structured role to play, they play it, and then they exit from the scene and from the whole narrative.

So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, "Lord, you know everyone's heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place." And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles. (Acts 1:23-26)

Two were proposed and they chose Matthias or, rather, Matthias was chosen by lot. The casting of lots is attested to throughout the Old Testament (see Leviticus 16:8; Joshua 19:1-40) and is seen as the act of God not of chance, though it fits with the citation above in that it “combines the Greek sense of fated necessity with the biblical conviction of a personal God’s irresistible and unconditional control of events.”  Matthias was bound to be chosen because God chose him. But now that the twelfth apostle is chosen?  It is time to leave Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus and Matthias to the mists of history. Luke wants to tell the story of the emerging Church. The twelfth apostle is only needed it seems to get us there.

Next week: The Holy Spirit is given to the Church on Pentecost

John W. Martens

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