Studies in the Book of Acts

Acts 1:15-26

Another apostle is chosen

The apostles returned to Jerusalem and devoted themselves to prayer. The disciples numbered about 120, including Jesus’ mother and brothers. Peter, acting as leader of the group, said that someone should be chosen to replace Judas Iscariot, who was dead. Peter acted as an authoritative interpreter of Scripture, observing that Psalm 69:25 had predicted Judas’ death, and Psalm 109:8 predicted that someone else would be chosen for his position of leadership.

Why was it important that there be 12 apostles rather than 11? The number 12 symbolically represents the people of God. The 12 apostles were leaders of the “nation” God was forming from those who had faith in Jesus.

What were the essential qualities of an apostle? He had to have been a disciple of Jesus throughout his ministry — from the beginning to the end (verses 21-22). Two men matched that description, so the group prayed and cast lots to see which man should be numbered with the apostles and become an appointed witness of Jesus’ resurrection. (Although many people had seen the resurrected Jesus and could be witnesses to his resurrection, it seems that the group of 12 apostles formed a group of official witnesses.)

Choosing a twelfth member of this core group of witnesses implies acceptance of Jesus’ commission to be his witnesses in the new situation following his death and resurrection. This is an act of faith in Jesus and a first step in obedience to his new call. (Robert Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts, part 2: Acts, page 21)

Matthias was chosen — but Luke tells us nothing more about him. He simply disappears from the story as suddenly as he appeared. So why did Luke tell us the story? It was not for Matthias’ sake. Rather, it emphasizes the number 12 and the disciples’ responsibility to witness.

The story also forms an interesting contrast in how to select leaders. In Acts 6, leaders are chosen who are “full of the Spirit and wisdom” and “full of faith” (6:3, 5). But in Acts 1, the apostles look to external characteristics and are unable to make a final decision. They resort to the Old Testament practice of casting lots and asking God to make the decision for them. It is only after they receive the Holy Spirit, the presence of God in them, that they are able to discern who is “full of the Spirit.” Intentionally or not, life in the old covenant is contrasted with life in the Spirit.

See below for a longer study of chapter 1.

Author: Michael Morrison, 1994, 2012


According to Luke, there were about 120 believers who met together in Jerusalem before the day of Pentecost (1:15). [His use of “about” here and elsewhere in Acts tells us he was dealing with real numbers, not symbolic numbers. See Acts 2:414:45:73610:313:18,2019:734.]  Among the 120 must have been the disciple Cleopas and his companion, to whom Christ appeared on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). Luke also mentioned two other disciples, Justus and Matthias (1:23). They must have been members of the group of 120 as well.

Jewish law required that there be 120 males before a synagogue could have its own council. Only then could a congregation elect members to its own ruling body. This may have been Luke’s implied claim that the Christian disciples formed a legitimate and legal community within Judaism. (The importance of this will become clear as we study Acts.)

There was an exception to the Jewish stipulation. In the church, women were counted as part of the legal community, and Luke later mentioned additional women in the church (5:14; 8:3, 12; 9:2; 12:12; 16:33; 17:4, 12; 22:4). At its very beginning, the community of believers was one that broke restrictive social barriers. It exemplified what Paul said: In Christ there is neither male nor female (Galatians 3:28).

This group of 120 was only part of a still larger contingent of believers. Paul wrote that on one occasion after his resurrection, Jesus appeared to “more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time” (1 Corinthians 15:6), and most of them were still alive when Paul wrote, some two decades later. This suggests a larger pre-Pentecost nucleus in the church than the 120 people meeting in Jerusalem. Commentators speculate that most of these other believers were in Galilee, with the number “about a hundred and twenty” (1:15) referring only to those in Jerusalem.

Since Luke was not concerned with the church or evangelism in Galilee, it is easy to forget that there were also many disciples in that area. Luke mentions that there were churches in Galilee, but he does not give us any details, and he doesn’t describe any missionary activity in the area (9:31).

Constantly in prayer (1:14)

The group of 120 in Galilee was said to be “joined together constantly in prayer” (1:14). Besides waiting for spiritual empowerment, the only other activity the witnesses undertook until Pentecost was to worship God.

In Acts, Luke often mentioned prayer as one of his sub-themes. His point was that the people of God do not rush out in frantic human activity — they look to the leading of the Holy Spirit, and they seek that leadership through prayer. Often, such prayer results in a powerful response from God. [Acts 1:24-264:319:4010:193112:51222:1027:23-25.]  Prayer is a key to the forward motion of God’s purpose.

The death of Judas (1:16-19)

Luke next recounts a situation in which the disciples sought Christ’s leadership through prayer. It had to do with an important matter for the church and its gospel-preaching initiatives. The situation that the disciples felt needed to be resolved was finding a replacement for Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus. Luke took considerable space to tell the story. It was also the only incident he described between Jesus’ ascension and the events of Pentecost day. He apparently thought the episode was important.

Peter described Judas’ betrayal of Christ and his gruesome death. Such details remind us that the church is never perfect. From the beginning, there was a traitor in the ranks of the disciples. But even more ironic was that Peter, the leader of the church who rose to condemn Judas, was himself tainted. William Willimon reminds us that the first speech given after Jesus’ resurrection

is made by the one who also fled in the darkness and loudly denied his Lord when confronted by the maid (Luke 22:56-62). Infidelity first occurs among those who presume to lead…. No scorn for later despisers of the gospel, no judgment upon later infidels, can match the sober, gruesomely detailed picture of the end of Judas or the irony that the one who speaks of Judas did himself deny and curse his own Master. The church meets no failure or deceit in the world that it has not first encountered in itself — even among those who founded and led the very first congregation. [William Willimon, Acts (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1988), 25.]

We should also understand that what Peter said here was only a summary, as are all the speeches in Acts. We are not reading word-for-word accounts of the speeches. They were not taken down in short-hand or recorded for posterity. And at least some of the speeches were probably spoken in Aramaic, the common tongue of this region. Luke wrote in Greek to a later community of believers in other areas, to people who did not know Aramaic.

In Acts 1, for example, Peter spoke as though he were quoting from the Greek version of the Old Testament. He even translated the Aramaic “Akeldama,” explaining it meant Field of Blood (1:19). Presumably, the original disciples were quite aware of the meaning of the word “Akeldama” and the circumstances surrounding the death of Judas. They needed no explanation or translation. Luke added these for the benefit of his Greek readers, who did not know the original circumstances.

The point is we shouldn’t particularly concern ourselves with whether Peter, or the other speakers in Acts, spoke their lines in the exact words Luke put in their mouths. Luke is giving us the main idea of each speech in a paraphrased form.

We should also explain that Acts contains many unresolved questions of a historical and technical nature. There is, for example, the question of how Judas died. Did he hang himself as Matthew indicated (27:5)? Or did he die as Acts described it — because “he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out” (1:18)? This difference has intrigued commentators for centuries. It is considered, as one commentary expresses it, to be “the most intractable contradiction in the New Testament.” [Longenecker, 263.]

It is possible that both Matthew and Acts are correct. Judas may have tried to hang himself, but the rope broke, the knot slipped or the branch may have broken. He then could have fallen, perhaps onto jagged rocks below, which punctured his body. Or Judas died by hanging himself. But later his decomposing and swollen body fell (due to one of the factors mentioned above). The “bursting open” would have occurred when he hit the ground. We may never know. The differences in the accounts may be explained by each author’s intent. Matthew may have been content to simply report Judas’ death. Luke wanted to stress the gruesome and tragic end of someone who had sold out his Savior, and his own opportunity to be among the Twelve.

The point is that Luke’s account is terse at many points. We do not have enough information to resolve what appear to be a number of difficulties. We should not assume, however, that Luke was wrong or that he had contradicted himself or others. We do not have enough information to conclude that.

Why Judas was replaced (1:20)

The disciples felt it was important that the number of apostles be restored to its original number of twelve. Thus, a replacement had to be found for Judas. This became the first official action of the embryonic Christian community. Peter’s speech is set off by two forms of the Greek word dei, which means “it is necessary” (1:16, 21). It was necessary for someone like Judas to be a betrayer in order to fulfill prophecy (1:16) and it was necessary to choose a replacement for him (1:21). Thus, both acts — the defection as well as the replacement of Judas — were divine necessities. And both were foretold in what Luke defined as Scripture.

In his speech, Peter cited two verses from the book of Psalms (69:25 and 109:8) to demonstrate this point (1:20). Peter referred to these verses as “the Scripture.” He said they had their origin in “the Holy Spirit” as the Spirit “spoke long ago through David concerning Judas” (1:16). Thus, Peter drew attention to the divine authorship of Scripture. David was merely a mouthpiece for God. Luke showed that both Peter (3:18, 21; 4:25) and Paul believed that the Scriptures were God-breathed (28:25).

Luke also showed that while Scripture was divinely inspired, the apostles had the spiritual wisdom and authority to use it creatively. We can see this in Peter’s handling of the Old Testament. Peter quoted Psalm 69:25 in the following way, saying it referred to Judas: “May his place be deserted…” (1:20). But the reading was an adapted form of the original, and it came from the Greek version, not the Hebrew. In the Hebrew version, David was referring to his enemies (plural), saying: “May their place be deserted, let there be no one to dwell in their tents.” Thus, “their” in the original became “his” in Acts. What originally referred to “tents” became “place” in the sense of office or position.

What had occurred was the following. The disciples had concluded that a replacement for Judas had to be made to preserve the group of the Twelve. Having so understood, they found a confirmation in two texts from the Psalms. But even here, they had to adapt the wording to fit the new circumstance. David Williams anticipates our reaction by saying,

Such adaptation, whether it be Peter’s or Luke’s, may strike us as taking undue liberties with the text. But it was believed that all Scripture pointed to Christ or to the events attending his coming and that it was legitimate, therefore, to draw out the meaning in this way. Thus the psalmist’s imprecation against his enemies became a prophecy of Judas’ desertion. [Williams, 32.]

The apostles freely “proof-texted” Hebrew scriptural material because Jesus had explained that it pointed to him and his work. Luke made an issue of this in the final chapter of his Gospel (24:25-27, 44). Jesus must have explained Psalm 69 as being a block of scripture that referred to his work. Parts of it were regularly applied to Jesus by the New Testament church. We find Psalm 69 used in John’s (John 2:1715:25) and Paul’s writings (Romans 15:311:9-10) to refer to Jesus.

We might wonder why the apostles were so sure that a replacement had to be made for Judas. This question arises since the risen Christ did not seem to give them explicit instructions on the matter. Jesus had told the apostles that they would “sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:28Luke 22:30). Since Judas had defected, it would have seemed necessary that a replacement was needed to bring up the number of apostles to the full complement of 12. This was important because the church saw itself as God’s method of re-forming his people. The church had inherited the mission of ancient Israel to bring the knowledge of God to its own people, as well as to the nations (Deuteronomy 4:5-8). Thus, it needed 12 leaders to take the gospel message to the scattered Jews, constituted as the 12 tribes (Acts 26:7James 1:1).

There was also a cultural reason for having 12 foundational leaders. It had to do with the fact that the church was born, operated and continued to live within the Jewish community for many decades. The church presented itself to the Jewish nation as the culmination of Israel’s hope. It was the spiritual remnant of Judaism that had recognized and accepted Israel’s Messiah. For any such people there was an organizational and symbolic requirement surrounding the number 12. Richard Longenecker explains it:

The “remnant theology” of Late Judaism made it mandatory that any group that presented itself as “the righteous remnant” of the nation, and had the responsibility of calling the nation to repentance and preparing it for God’s glory, must represent itself as the true Israel, not only in its proclamation, but also in its symbolism. [Longenecker, 264.]

As a parallel to the 12 tribes of Israel, such a group would need to have 12 leaders guiding the community. That this was a pervasive expectation is shown by the fact that the Qumran disciples had a quorum of 12 spiritual leaders.

Qualifications for an apostle (1:21-22)

To head the Jewish Christian community as an apostle, a leader had to have some specific qualifications. He had to have been associated with the band of disciples from the time of John the Baptist to Jesus’ ascension (1:22). This person would have known the details of Jesus’ message because he had heard it personally from him. Secondly, this person must have been a witness to the resurrected Christ, so he could guarantee that it actually happened.

“Apostle” was not an ecclesiastical title to be given freely to anyone who accepted the faith or even spread the message of the gospel. It was based on special qualifications necessary for a unique job — the original preaching of Jesus as resurrected Lord and Savior. In short, says William Willimon, “The apostolic circle is drawn only from eyewitnesses who can give a reliable account of the Jesus-event.” [Willimon, 24.]

Others could preach and teach the gospel message, but they were not part of the special group of apostles called the Twelve. From this, we see that there is no need for an office of apostolic succession. The task of the Twelve was unique, as was their number. The reason Judas had to be replaced was that he defected, not that he died. This is shown by the fact that when James the son of Zebedee was executed some two decades after Jesus’ resurrection, the church did not replace him with another person chosen as apostle.

Commentaries on Acts of the Apostles

The apostle Paul was a special case. He was not part of the group of disciples who were with Jesus throughout his ministry. Nor did he see the resurrected Christ in the 40 days after his resurrection. However, Paul did list himself as one to whom Jesus appeared (1 Corinthians 15:8). Though he may have been “the least of the apostles,” he was one of them (verse 9). Paul frequently referred to his apostleship in his letters (Romans 11:131 Corinthians 9:115:9Galatians 1:1). But Paul came later to the faith and apostleship, as “one abnormally born” (1 Corinthians 15:8). He was an apostle, but not one of the Twelve. His insistence on equality with the Twelve came neither in opposition to them nor on any need to be included within their number.

Matthias chosen by lot (1:23-26)

Paul was not the person who replaced Judas. Two other disciples had the qualifications to be an apostle, Joseph Barsabbas (Justus) and Matthias, and they were proposed by the 120 for the vacated office. Only one could be chosen. It was not enough simply to have the right qualifications. One had to be chosen by the Lord as well. After all, it had been Jesus who had appointed the original Twelve. Thus, the disciples now prayed, asking the Lord to make the selection (1:25). Then they “cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias” (1:26).

The practice of casting lots seems strange to us, more like playing dice or gambling. Nevertheless, the practice of casting lots to determine God’s choice was traditional in Israel. [Some examples where lots were used: Leviticus 16:8Numbers 26:5533:54Joshua 14:219:1-40Judges 20:9Proverbs 18:18Isaiah 14:41Micah 2:5Jonah 1:7-8.]  The practice is illustrated by Proverbs 16:33: “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” It was a common practice in that culture to cast lots in order to determine a course of action (John 19:24). Even the priestly duties in the temple were settled in this manner (Luke 1:9). Thus, Peter and the rest were acting like typical Jews of the time.

However, we should note that there is no further New Testament example of the use of lots to determine God’s will or direction. Thereafter, the Holy Spirit directly leads the church to the proper course of action. Also, we should focus on who used lots in this case, and to determine what. First, it was not individual Christians but the apostles who cast the lots. And the lots were used to determine a course for the church. They were not used to determine what individual disciples were to do in their private lives. Acts does not teach Christians to use lots to determine the decisions they need to take in their everyday lives.

The precise method by which lots were cast is unknown. Perhaps two stones with names (or designations of persons or courses of action) were shaken together in a container, until one dropped out. Whatever the method, the disciples cast lots and in this way Matthias was designated as the replacement for Judas (1:26). The church then waited for the day of Pentecost.

Author: Paul Kroll, 1995, 2012