Several years ago, I spent my morning devotional time studying through the book of Acts. Each week I dug into one chapter, recording my observations, insights, and questions. I gained a great deal from the study; my mind was stretched and my heart challenged. In Acts we see the Church in Action bringing the gospel of Jesus to the world.
As we are called to continue this grand work of spreading the gospel, I decided to review and post the notes I made in my study of Acts. Each week, I’ll post my written reflections on one chapter. I’d encourage you to read through or refer to the chapter in Acts on which I’m commenting. My prayer is that your mind and heart will be challenged and shaped by a deeper study of God’s Word.
The opening two verses in the book link the book of Acts to Luke’s first work—the gospel of Luke. The gospel told “all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven.” This second book, by implication, will tell all Jesus “continued to do and teach” by the Spirit’s working in the lives of the apostles and other believers. The teaching (and theology) in the book of Acts is a continuation of Jesus’ ministry (not a departure from it). Continuity, not discontinuity, is what we should expect.
Verse 3 summarizes Jesus’ message to the apostles in the 40 days of his post-resurrection appearances as revolving around “the kingdom of God.” Jesus begins the book teaching his followers about the “kingdom of God.” As the book closes, we hear Paul teaching on the same theme: “Boldly and without hindrance, he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ” (28:31).
So the “kingdom of God” is a key theme of the book. Its meaning must be found in Jesus’ teaching in Luke’s gospel. It somehow relates to the Church as the book of Acts is about the expansion and extension of the Church from Jerusalem to Judea, Samaria and the “ends of the earth” (1:8).
A survey of the occurrences of the word “kingdom” in Luke/Acts reveals that the word shows up about 50 times, most of them in Luke, and most of them by Jesus. Jesus pictured the kingdom of God as both present (17:21) and still future (19:11, 31). The kingdom of God was not “visible” in a way that earthly kingdoms were (17:20) but it was a reality. It could be entered now, by adults and children, who responded in faith to Jesus (18:17). It is hard for the rich to enter the kingdom (18:24) and easy for the poor (6:20). At the same time, it was a future reality where Old Testament believers would be present with followers of Jesus (13:28-29). The kingdom is to be prayed for (11:2) and proclaimed (9:2). Those who don’t enter the kingdom will wind up eternally outside of it (13:28). The twelve apostles will be rulers in the coming kingdom (22:30).
In the book of Acts, the kingdom is mentioned eight times. Jesus begins the book by talking about it, so the implication is that Acts will continue his understanding of the kingdom. Philip and Paul both proclaim the kingdom and the name of Jesus (8:12; 28:31). So the kingdom and the Church are merged together. Those who believe and follow Jesus (the Way) become part of the Church and part of the kingdom of God. This doesn’t exclude the future dimensions of the kingdom that will fulfill the promises of God to Israel (restoring the kingdom to Israel—1:6). However, it means that until Jesus returns, the kingdom and the Church are functionally synonymous.
Related to the extension of God’s kingdom are three intersecting themes that are introduced in chapter 1 and continue to appear throughout the book: prayer, the empowering of the Holy Spirit, and witness.
Jesus instructs his followers not to leave Jerusalem but to “wait for the gift my Father promised” (4). He clarifies this gift is the promised Holy Spirit (5). Once they are “baptized with the Holy Spirit” (5), they are to be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (8). In other words, they are not to leave Jerusalem without the gift of the Spirit, but once they receive the gift they are to go to the ends of the earth!
Until the Father gives them the gift of the Spirit, they are to wait. However, their waiting is not passive or inactive; they are to pray. At least that is how these first followers of Jesus understood it. As soon as Jesus is “taken up” (9), they return to the upper room and “all joined together constantly in prayer” (14). Luke’s language emphasizes their ongoing devotion to prayer (προσκαρτεροῦντες – present participle carrying the meaning of staying devoted to something). They prayed with great unity (ὁμοθυμαδὸν – with one mind, united) as a group—the apostles, the women, Jesus’ mother and brothers (presumably other men were there as well—like Matthias and Barsabbas). In total, there were about 120 followers of Jesus, waiting in prayer for the Spirit to be given so they could be witnesses. And witnessing about Jesus is focused on being witnesses “of his resurrection” (1:22).
In chapter 1 the Spirit is mentioned four times (2, 5, 8,16). The Spirit is said to be involved in communicating God’s message: Jesus gave instructions “through the Holy Spirit to the apostles” (2). Later, Peter says “the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through the mouth of David concerning Judas” (16). The other two references to the Holy Spirit come in verses 5 and 8. Here Jesus refers to the disciples being “baptized with the Spirit.” Three verses later Jesus links this baptism to providing power to be witnesses for him. It would seem that being baptized in the Spirit is a prerequisite (don’t leave Jerusalem without this) to being faithful witnesses for Jesus. This is a key concept for the entire book and a key verse for my own ability to be a witness for Jesus.
One interpretive issue that surfaces in chapter 1 is the use of the Old Testament by New Testament preachers (Peter) and writers (Luke). Twice in chapter 1 we hear Peter citing an Old Testament passage and applying it to a contemporary situation. He alludes to Psalm 69:25 and 109:8 and applies both to Judas.
How can Peter say these verses were “concerning Judas”? The best answer is that Peter sees both psalms as containing Messianic themes. One theme is of the Messiah having enemies who are denounced. Since Judas attacked Jesus through his deal with the religious leaders, Peter can see a reference to him in both passages
One last observation I’ll comment on is the selection of Matthias to replace Judas. He is chosen after Peter contends they need a full complement of twelve apostles to carry out their calling of being witnesses to the resurrection (22). In this case, two men are considered: both had been associated with the apostles and Jesus from “John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up form us”(22). After praying and asking God, who knows every heart, to guide the selection, they cast lots. Matthias is chosen by lot and “added to the eleven apostles” (25).
Proverbs 16:33 says, “The lot is cast into the lap but it’s every decision is from the Lord.” They trusted the Lord to guide through what seemed to be a “random” procedure (flipping a coin). We do not see lots used again in the book of acts to select leaders or make decisions. After chapter 2, the Holy Spirit is actively guiding their decisions and directions.