For the last two days, we looked at the genre and purpose of Acts. Now, we’re ready to dive in to the text itself!
In any long-running TV drama – particularly one with a complicated plot – each episode will begin with a brief reminder of what has happened previously. It will show a series of brief scenes to bring to mind the storyline. And those scenes aren’t chosen at random: more often than not, each scene will show an element of the plot that’s about to be progressed in tonight’s episode.
That’s kind of what Luke does here in today’s reading, the opening of Acts chapter 1, recapping the “story so far” from his first book, the Gospel of Luke.
Acts 1:1-2 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.
If you were wanting to summarise the contents of Luke’s Gospel, you’d probably want to mention a few more things than “all that Jesus began to do and to teach” before you get to the bit where he hops on a cloud elevator and heads back into the sky. After all, there were some pretty cool miracles, memorable parables, confronting statements – not to mention an eventful Easter weekend. But instead of running the highlights reel, Luke draws attention to one key fact: that was just the beginning.
Notice how Jesus began to do and teach things – in tonight’s episode, we get the hint that this will continue. Notice how Jesus has left the scene, but he’s left instructions to those he’s chosen to continue his work – in tonight’s episode, maybe it’s time for the supporting cast to shine. And notice the reference to this being through the Holy Spirit – in tonight’s episode, we’re going to see the rise of the Holy Spirit as the key “actor” in this drama.Acts 1:3 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.
Again, the scenes chosen for this recap are significant. The cross is mentioned in passing, but the important scene is the montage of resurrection appearances. This second episode is about the risen Jesus. His authority was established in the previous episode, in which he won all of the verbal battles with his opponents (the Jewish leadership) and then was vindicated by rising from the dead. This is important, as at the start of this episode he’s passing on that authority to his chosen messengers.
And during these appearances, Luke highlights the fact that he spoke about the kingdom of God. This wasn’t a new theme – it was what he’d been on about right from the beginning of his public ministry. But the fact that it’s still the focus of his preaching post-resurrection reminds us that this was the end game: establishing the reign of God on earth. (Matthew reminds us of this in the Great Commission: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…”. This scene is Luke’s way of making the same point.)
Although Jesus has been raised from the dead, there is still one element of the kingdom missing. Luke reminds us of this by replaying a scene from the last chapter of his Gospel (24:49):Acts 1:4-5 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 water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
The kingdom won’t happen – the disciples can’t start out on their mission – until the arrival of the Holy Spirit. This was foreshadowed in a number of places in the Old Testament, most notably Ezekiel:Ezek 36:24-28 “‘For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God…”
Although Israel was back in her own land, she didn’t really own it – the Romans did. And all of the other stuff hadn’t happened. The faithful in Israel were still waiting for the true return from exile when God’s rule – his kingdom – would truly be experienced. So when Jesus mentioned the coming of the Spirit, it makes sense that the disciples would reply thus:Acts 1:6 Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
Possibly they’re still thinking in earthly terms – that this would simply be David and Solomon 2.0 or something. Or they’re simply questioning the timing of this. But Jesus directs them away from speculating about the “when”:Acts 1:7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority…”
Instead, focus on your task:Acts 1:8 “…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.”
This becomes the plotline for tonight’s episode – the theme statement of the book of Acts. It’s the story of Jesus’ chosen witnesses being given the Holy Spirit’s power to testify about what has happened, starting where they are in Jerusalem (the first 7 chapters), moving up through Samaria (chapter 8), and to the ends of the earth (the final scene has Paul in Rome, under house arrest yet freely proclaiming the good news in the heart of the empire, the gateway to the ends of the earth).
It also gives a strong hint about what the kingdom of God would look like. Because the prophecies about the kingdom weren’t only to do with Israel. One of the great expectations of the coming reign of God and the true end of Israel’s exile is that it would encompass all the nations of the world.Acts 1:9-11 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.”
The scene ends with Jesus’ ascension into the sky, and a promise that he would return. In the meantime, the disciples need to get busy with carrying out their commission – to continue what Jesus began to do and say, and to be his witnesses in the world.
To think about
Do you think of the apostles’ calling – and your own – as a continuation of what Jesus began to say and do? How might that impact the way you go about life?
Given the background of the kingdom of God (v3) and the disciples’ question (v6), how would you describe the content of what the disciples were to bear witness to? (That is, what is the content of the gospel message?)