Yesterday, we saw in Acts 1:1-11 how the disciples were commissioned to continue Jesus’ work, being his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth – announcing the reign of God in his world. But they weren’t going to do this by their own power. (After all, they were just “men of Galilee” as the angel reminded them.) They were to wait for the Holy Spirit to give them the power to fulfil their incredible calling. But what to do while you wait?
Acts 1:12-15 Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk 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. In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty)…
Told to wait, they wait. And while they wait, they pray. A good example for those of us who see waiting as a nuisance – a waste of time. Or an opportunity to get some more planning done. Instead, they remember that this is God’s work, not ours, so time waiting in prayer is never time wasted. Perhaps they remembered the order of things from back in Luke 10:Luke 10:2 He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”
Because the workers were few. Take a look at how many were there: only 120 believers. This movement that was going to go to the ends of the earth was starting pretty small. Almost, like a mustard seed?
Also interesting is not just how many were there, but also who was there: Jesus’ mother and brothers. The brothers in particular have gone from sceptical unbelievers (see e.g. Mark 3:21; John 7:5) to being part of the gang. In fact, James goes on to be the head of the Jerusalem church before being martyred for his beliefs. What had changed? What makes a person go from being (understandably) sceptical about his brother’s claim to be God incarnate, to being the leader of his followers? This is one of the most fundamental pieces of evidence for Jesus’ resurrection: the radical change in his family’s stance.
Speaking of how many, Judas’s treachery had left a bit of a problem. There were now only eleven disciples and there really needed to be twelve. After all, they were representing the twelve tribes of Israel, so you can’t not have twelve! Even in the OT, when there were in effect thirteen tribes (Joseph having split into Ephraim and Manasseh) the lists of tribes still are edited to add up to twelve by omitting one tribe: sometimes Simeon (it effectively got swallowed up in Judah), sometimes Levi (who didn’t have their own land) – even Dan gets left out in Revelation, perhaps because of its association with idolatry… But I digress. At any rate, the point is, there must be twelve! Peter even points this out in verse 21 using the phrase “It is necessary to choose one of the men … to become a witness with us.” And the word translated “it is necessary” is used every time in Luke to refer to something essential to God’s plan of salvation. They need another one. Let’s see how they solve that.
Firstly, we get a recap on what went on with Judas:Acts 1:15-19 In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) and said, “Brothers and sisters,4 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 the pedants, this differs a bit in the detail from Matt 27:1-10 in which it says Judas hanged himself and the priests bought the field as a place to bury foreigners. There are various way people attempt to harmonise the two accounts, but it’s probable that Matthew and Luke heard slightly different reports – a pointer to authenticity, as if you were fabricating Scripture you wouldn’t allow for such obvious discrepancies in detail.
Peter then goes on to quote a couple of Psalms and make the point that Judas needs replacing:Acts 1:20 “For,” said Peter, “it is written in the Book of Psalms: “‘May his place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in it,’ and, “‘May another take his place of leadership.’
The quotes seem like a tenuous connection. But Peter is simply working from the premise that David was a pattern of a righteous, godly person who suffered – a pattern that Jesus fulfilled. The two Psalms quotes are David talking about his enemies – the second one in particular asking God to remove him from leadership and replace him with another. Peter takes this as an indication that they should do the same to Jesus’ enemy, and replace him.1:21-26 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.
Lots. Like drawing straws. Is this the way to select apostles?
It has Old Testament precedent. People would pray and then cast lots, expecting God to answer. Proverbs 16:33 says “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” Yet few – even those seeing Acts as prescriptive for what we do today – would advocate casting lots as a way of choosing leaders in the church. Like Gideon’s fleece setting, we seem to acknowledge that although God did work that way in that particular situation, it’s not necessarily a model for all-time.
We also notice that there seems to be a variety of methods of discerning God’s will in Acts:
- Acts 6 – a group choice (method unspecified) to choose seven deacons
- Acts 13 – “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.'”
- Acts 15 – “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (after much debate)
- Acts 16 – Paul receives a vision of a man from Macedonia asking him to come over and help
This tells us there’s no one way of discerning God’s will in the story of Acts. But most of the time it seems to involve a group (not just an individual), and a foundation of prayer that actively seeks God’s will. Which is exactly what we find (v24) before the lot-casting here in chapter 1. So perhaps what we take away from this historical account in Acts is that God works in a variety of different ways to communicate his will, but they all seem to happen when people are seeking it.
At any rate, Matthias isn’t mentioned for the rest of Acts (although neither are most of the other apostles), and even in the next chapter they are still referred to as “the eleven.” In church tradition he becomes a missionary to Ethiopia, before turning up in the eastern suburbs of Sydney a couple of thousand years later.