Studies in the Book of Acts
Most of this series was written by Paul Kroll, a journalist working for Grace Communion International. Copyright Grace Communion International. The research was done in the mid 1990s, but all articles were edited in 2012 by Michael Morrison, PhD, professor of Biblical Studies at Grace Communion Seminary.
Jesus ascends to heaven (1:6-11)
The disciples had much to learn! Although Jesus had taught them about God’s kingdom, their final question to Jesus was about the kingdom — but they asked from a Jewish perspective, leaving the Gentiles out of the picture (verse 6). The disciples’ choice of words indicates that they had forgotten about preaching forgiveness to all nations. Instead, they wanted the Messiah to bring glory and power to the Jewish people living in the land of Israel. This had been the Jewish hope for centuries. But the Jewish nation was not yet ready for the leader God had chosen. They rejected him and killed him, and, as Acts shows, most Jews continued to reject him even after his resurrection.
Moreover, a national kingdom was not the kind of kingdom that Jesus wanted his disciples to preach about. So Jesus did not answer their question. Instead, Jesus reminded them of the promise and the prophecy (verse 8), and told them to wait. He states it clearly: The power from God is the Holy Spirit, and the disciples, who were witnesses of Jesus’ ministry, were to carry the message throughout the world.
Jesus had given them a mission, just as he had done twice before (Luke 9:1; 10:1). They were to be a witness for Jesus — to preach about him, his resurrection, and the fact that repentance and forgiveness can be obtained through him.
But the gospel could not go to all the world while Jesus was physically on earth. As long as he remained, he would be the primary preacher and he would be a geographical focus. Jesus wanted to delegate more responsibility to the disciples. He wanted to enable them to be the teachers. He wanted not just for God to be with them, but in them. After God began to live in the disciples, they would be able to go into all the world with the knowledge that God would always be with them, helping them understand the Scriptures and the mission, helping them through physical difficulties, energizing them in their work.
And, to the astonishment of the disciples, Jesus ascended into heaven. Two angels appeared and informed the disciples that Jesus would return. The angels did not say when he would return. The disciples were simply left with the command to stay in Jerusalem until they received the Holy Spirit.
Christ’s answer focuses our thoughts on other people. Instead of dwelling on the physical things we want, we should focus on the spiritual blessings we have already been given, and we should share them with others. We who have been given the Holy Spirit should share the good news of salvation — that people of all nations can become part of the people of God through faith, repentance, forgiveness and the Holy Spirit. We do not need to worry about when Christ will return. We simply need to be doing the mission he has given his people in the meantime.The disciples’ question and Jesus’ answer continue to be relevant today. Many Christians want physical blessings from God’s kingdom. They eagerly pray for Christ to return in their lifetime so he will solve their problems. However, the spiritual blessings that Christ will bring are much more important than the physical blessings. Despite that, it is easy for us physical beings to focus on our physical needs.-----------------------------
Restore the kingdom now? (1:6)
The apostles still thought that Jesus was soon “going to restore the kingdom to Israel” (1:6). They seemed to be viewing the kingdom of God as a restored national Israel. This idea of Israel as the people of God was deeply imbedded in the Hebrew Scriptures. They spoke, for example, of a people God had chosen “out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession” (Deuteronomy 7:6).
There was a Jewish expectation that when Israel was restored to national glory, the Holy Spirit would again become active (Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 11:19). After all, the prophets of old had promised that in the last days the fortunes of Israel would be restored and God would pour out his Spirit on all people (Joel 2:28-3:1). In Acts 2, Peter quotes Joel’s prophecy and says it is being fulfilled at the time (2:16-17).
The disciples thought that Jesus would restore the glory of Israel. They “had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). They had left everything to follow Jesus, thinking he would give them positions of great authority in that kingdom (Mark 10:35-37; Luke 22:24-30). Naturally, they were profoundly shocked and discouraged when Jesus was executed, but they had then been energized by his resurrection. Now, in his post-resurrection appearances he was speaking of the disciples being baptized with the Holy Spirit of power (1:5, 8). Since this was a sign of the new age, it must have awakened in them the hope that the messianic age had come.
We can see something of the disciples’ sense of agitated excitement in the way they ask Jesus about the restoration of Israel. They don’t ask whether this restoration will occur. Rather, they wonder, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (1:6).
Not for you to know (1:7)
Jesus gave the disciples an indefinite answer to the question. He told them it wasn’t for them to know “the times or dates” of any restoration in a national or political sense (1:7). That had been his teaching earlier when the disciples asked about the sign of the end of the age (Matthew 24:3). He stated that no one could know when this would happen. Neither the angels nor Jesus knew the answer to the question! (verse 36, with Mark 13:32).
Interestingly, Luke did not include Jesus’ answer to the “when” question in his Gospel accounts (17:22-37 or 21:5-36). Rather, he held off describing what was apparently Jesus’ teaching until this place in Acts. Jesus’ reply to the “when” question underscores a great lesson for all Christians. We should not be concerned about when “the end” might come, for there is no way for us to know. We cannot search the Scriptures to find the answer because God is keeping that knowledge to himself.
On the other hand, Jesus was not denying that some day there would be a restoration of Israel. In fact, the entire world is to be renewed. But God’s purpose for Israel and the world in a political sense is not our concern. The apostles and evangelists were simply to proclaim the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. Whether the news was accepted was not their concern.
There is probably a reason why Luke discussed the question of the Messiah’s return. By the time he wrote Acts, it must have been clear that the most of the Jews were not responding to the gospel message. (Neither was the Gentile world to any spectacular degree.) The Jews were the chief and continuing opponents of the Christians. The government of Rome had also become the enemy of the church. Terrible tragedies had struck the Jews, perhaps including the destruction of Jerusalem. But “the end” had not come. The church may have been wondering when it would occur. Was it upon the world now?
Luke was saying to the church: Don’t concern yourself with the “when” of it, but continue to live your Christian lives and do the work of God. The church should not speculate about prophecies — we should simply preach the power of the risen Christ to bring salvation to the world.
You are my witnesses (1:8)
The disciples’ task was to witness to Jesus from Jerusalem “to the ends of the earth” (1:8). This mandate to witness is another theme of Acts. [Acts 1:22; 2:32; 3:15; 5:32; 7:58; 10:39, 41; 13:31; 22:15, 22; 26:16.] It becomes the programmatic statement for the book as a whole.
The concept of “witness” is so prominent in Acts (the word in its various forms appears some thirty-nine times) that everything else in the book should probably be seen as subsumed under it. [Richard N. Longenecker, “Acts,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 9 (ed. Frank E. Gaebelein; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981), 256.]
Luke announced this theme (“you will be my witnesses”) at the beginning of Acts as a mandate of the risen Jesus. By doing this, he revealed this to be his main interest in writing the book. Luke tied this programmatic prophecy to his statement in Luke 24:48: “You are witnesses of these things” to all nations. “These things” refers to the preaching of repentance and forgiveness of sins in the name of Jesus (verse 47).
To the ends of the earth (1:8)
The message of salvation offered through Christ to all people was to be declared first in Jerusalem. Then it would go throughout Judea and then to Samaria, which was a “near-Jewish” state. Finally, the witness would go throughout the Roman world. F.F. Bruce says,
The geographical terms of verse 8 provide a sort of “Index of Contents” for Acts,…. “In Jerusalem” covers the first seven chapters, “in all Judaea and Samaria” covers 8:1 to 11:18, and the remainder of the book traces the progress of the gospel outside the frontiers of the Holy Land until at last it reaches Rome. [Bruce, 37.]
The expression “to the ends of the earth” needs some clarification (1:8). First, when Jesus gave the apostles this mandate, they probably took it to mean they should witness to the Jews of the Diaspora, scattered throughout the Roman Empire. It’s clear from Acts that it did not occur to them to preach directly to the Gentiles. Not until later, and with some difficulty, did they understand the full extent of Jesus’ international program of salvation.
Second, there is no indication that the apostles preached the word in China, or West Africa, or in the New World. Their work, so far as we know, seems to have been generally limited to the Roman Empire, and perhaps areas adjacent to it (such as Mesopotamia). Then, in what sense did they witness “to the ends of the earth”? It has been suggested that the phrase refers to the city of Rome. That is where Luke ends his book, so there may be something to the idea.
In the Psalms of Solomon, a writing possibly composed by devout Jews in the first century b.c., the expression refers to Rome. [Ps. Sol. 8:15.] The circumstance described there was the Roman general Pompey attacking the disobedient people of Jerusalem “from the end of the earth,” that is from Rome. To an ancient Jew, Rome seemed to be at the ends of the earth. But to a Greek-speaking person, after a hundred years of being governed by Rome, it would not seem so far away.
The expression “ends of the earth” can also mean “everywhere.” The Greek rhetorician Dio Chrysostom (c. a.d. 40-c.112) was told to go “to the uttermost parts of the earth.” [Dio Chrysostom, Oration 13:9.] In context, this refers to all places. The phrase “the ends of the earth” occurs in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, in Isaiah 49:6. Paul quoted this verse to demonstrate that his mission was to carry the message of “salvation to the ends of the earth” (13:46-47).
In whatever way the term is defined, it’s clear that Jesus’ mandate had universal scope. The gospel was to be spread far and wide. This is something the band of missionaries learned about only in stages.
Jesus’ ascension (1:9)
After giving his mandate to the apostles to be his witnesses, Jesus ascended from the earth and disappeared into a cloud. The sight of Jesus being enveloped in the cloud is reminiscent of the Shekinah of God. This was the symbol of the glorious divine presence among God’s people in the Old Testament, particularly in the tabernacle. [Exodus 13:21; 16:10; 24:16; 25:8; 40:34-38.]
Luke here gives the fullest New Testament account of Jesus’ ascension. It is mentioned briefly in only two other places (Mark 16:19 [Mark 16:19 is believed by most textual experts to be a later addition. It is not included in the oldest manuscripts.] ; Luke 24:51). Of course, the factof the ascension is implied throughout the New Testament. Christ is frequently described as being at the right hand of God. [Acts 2:33; 3:21; John 6:62; Ephesians 4:8-10; 1 Thessalonians 1:10; 1 Peter 3:23; Hebrews 4:14; 9:24; Revelation 5:6.]
The point is that the witnesses and the church knew that Jesus had been exalted as Savior and ruler over the affairs of humanity. He was also the guide of the apostles’ missionary program (Ephesians 1:19-22; Philippians 2:9-10).
The activity of preaching rested not on a dead man but on the living presence of an exalted Savior. In short, writes Richard Longenecker, “Luke insists that Christian mission must be based on the ascended and living Lord who directs his church from heaven and who will return to consummate what he has begun.” [Longenecker, 258.]
While Jesus was lifted up and the disciples observed this as a fact, we must remember that God and Christ are not “up there” somewhere. God is “everywhere.” The idea of heaven as the place of God’s abode “above” the earth is a metaphor to describe his transcendent reality. Christ ascending in a cloud showed the disciples that he was being exalted to be in the presence of God in glory.
Jesus to return with clouds (1:10-11)
The disciples were astonished at the sight of Jesus’ rising — “looking intently up into the sky” (1:10). Suddenly, two angelic figures appeared in human form. (See Luke 24:4 for a comparable appearance of angels.) They chided the disciples for standing there, gaping at the sight of their rising Savior. (We no doubt would have been gaping as well!) They informed the disciples that Jesus would “come back in the same way” that they had seen him go up.
This is one of several scattered New Testament references to what is called the Parousia, after the Greek word that means the arrival or presence of someone. The word is used as a technical term for the coming of Christ in glory. Most commonly, the Parousia is known as the Second Coming of Christ at the end of this age. The circumstances of Jesus’ return are most completely described in Matthew’s Gospel (24:3-25:46). [See also Mark 13:3-37; Luke 21:7-36; 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17; 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10.]
A Sabbath day’s walk (1:12)
After this extraordinary experience of watching Jesus’ ascension, the apostolic band returned to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. Luke described the distance between the two places as a “Sabbath’s day walk from the city” (1:12). This was the extent to which a pious Jew was allowed to travel on the Sabbath. The Mishnah, an early 3rd-century compendium of rabbinic regulations, tells us that Sabbath travel was limited to 2,000 cubits. [Mishnah, Sotah 5:3.] This is about a kilometer, or two-thirds of a mile, although there is some question on the exact measurement of a cubit. Estimates from one half to three quarters of a mile are given for the length of a “Sabbath’s day walk.”
Luke’s use of this strictly Jewish idiom shows his intimate knowledge of local customs. It suggests that Luke received his information about Jesus’ ascension from Jerusalem-area sources. His information could have come from one of the apostles, or from someone who wrote down what the apostles had said about the ascension.
The upstairs room (1:13)
Upon returning to Jerusalem the disciples entered a house and “went upstairs to the room where they were staying” (1:13). This upper room [In ancient architecture, where interior walls were often made of stones, the largest room in a building was almost always on the top floor. If it were on the bottom floor, the interior walls on the floor above would place too much weight on the ceiling timbers.] may have been a well-known place to early Christians. Perhaps it was the place where Jesus and his disciples kept the Passover before his crucifixion (Mark 14:12-16). (Mark uses a different Greek word for “room.”) Some commentators speculate this could also have been the same room where Jesus appeared to some of his disciples after his resurrection (Luke 24:33-43; John 20:19, 26). Others infer that this room was in the home of Mary, the mother of John Mark. A house church was later located in the home of Mark’s mother (12:12).
Of course, none of these ideas can be proven. However, it is interesting to note that this is one of several times in Acts that Luke mentions specific locations in which the social life of the church was centered. Not only is it interesting local color, it is again evidence that Luke had done some solid research before writing Acts.
The apostolic group (1:13-15)
Luke next describes the people who met or stayed in the upper room. This was the primary nucleus of people who had been witnesses to Jesus’ death and resurrection. Luke had already listed the names of the Twelve in his Gospel (Luke 6:14-16), whom he said Jesus designated as apostles (verse 13). He lists their names again (Acts 1:13), but omits Judas Iscariot, who had died. Luke moved John from fourth position to second, perhaps because only he and Peter have any active role in Acts.
The Eleven were central witnesses to Jesus’ death and resurrection. In both his Gospel and Acts, Luke limited the title “apostle” to Twelve disciples. On only one occasion did he call anyone else an apostle (Barnabas and Paul), and in an indirect way (see 14:4, 14).
Luke also mentioned the names of several others besides the Eleven who were meeting together. The group included some women, one of whom was Mary the mother of Jesus. “The women” (1:14) were those who followed Jesus during his ministry and death (Luke 8:2-3; 23:49; and 23:55-24:10). No doubt Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James were part of the female contingent, whom Luke mentioned in his Gospel (24:10). But this is the last time that Luke mentioned the women or the mother of Jesus, who presumably lived with the apostle John and his family (John 19:26-27).
The brothers of Jesus were also part of the apostolic group. The reference to Jesus’ brothers is interesting because of their apparently abrupt change in attitude toward Jesus. During his ministry they thought he was crazy, or even demon-possessed (Mark 3:21-35; John 7:2-10). What changed their minds? The answer may be found in Paul’s writings. Paul recounted an appearance of the risen Christ to James (1 Corinthians 15:7) that Luke doesn’t mention. This would have happened soon after the resurrection, most probably during the 40 days of Jesus’ appearances. Presumably, the other brothers, Joses (or Joseph), Judas (or Jude), and Simon (Matthew 13:55-56; Mark 6:3) came to believe in Jesus through similar circumstances.
James is important to Luke’s story, as this half-brother of Jesus would soon occupy a position of leadership in the Jerusalem church (12:17; 15:13-21; 21:18). It appears that the other half-brothers continued to have influence in the apostolic church as well (1 Corinthians 9:5). The Jude who wrote the epistle identified himself as the brother of James. He is traditionally understood to be the half-brother of Jesus called Judas, or Jude.